Sunday, August 28, 2011

Life Together II: The Foundations

Having, as we trust, been brought by divine grace to repent and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and to give up ourselves to him, and having been baptized upon our profession of faith, in the name of the Father and of the Son and the Holy Spirit, we do now, relying on His gracious aid, solemnly and joyfully renew our covenant with each other.
-Capitol Hill Baptist Church Covenant, Paragraph 1

The opening paragraph of the CHBC covenant acts as a definition of what the church is and a declaration of purpose of what the church is doing.
The church, according to this statement, is a group of Christians who have "been brought by divine grace to repent and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and to give ourselves up to him," and who have "been baptized upon our profession of faith, in the name of the Father, and of the Son and the Holy Spirit." Five characteristics of Christians who form a church stand out in this statement:
  1. Grace: The foundational aspect of any Christian's life is grace. The gratuitous kindness of God must be the starting point of any Christian life. It is the source of the new life, and the fountain from which flows all other characteristics of the Christian, including faith, repentance, obedience, and so on. Grace must always be held as the foundation the church covenant (and indeed, of all of Christian life), because through it alone is the sinner continually turned to Christ as the source of salvation. To forget that salvation is an unmerited gift is to begin to replace the work and kindness of God with our own merits. God warns Israel about this in Deuteronomy, when he says to them, once they have taken the land from the Canaanites,
    "After the Lord your God has driven them out before you, do not say to yourself, 'The Lord has brought be here to take possession of this land because of my righteousness.' No, it is on account of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord is going to drive them out before you. It is not because of your righteousness or your integrity that you are going in to take possession of their land; but on account of the wickedness of these nations, the Lord your God will drive them out before you, to accomplish what he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Understand, then, that it is not because of your righteousness that the Lord your God is giving you this good land to possess, for you are a stiff-necked people." (Deut. 9:4-6)
    To be a Christian is to be the recipient of undeserved Divine favor. Forgetting this individually leads to pride and self-justification. Forgetting this as a church equally leads to pride and self-justification, albeit on a larger scale. When grace is ignored as the source of the life of the church, emphasis must be placed elsewhere. Sacraments, music styles, personality, liturgy, and any of countless other things (often things which in their proper place are quite useful and beneficial) come to define the church, and in doing so become her idol. Instead of being known as "those forgiven sinners", the church becomes "those with rock music in their service" or "those with the good preacher" or even "those who have communion every week." The doctrine of grace must be the beating heart of the church, without it life cannot flow.
  2. Repentance: one of the effects of grace in the heart of a Christian is that the Christian becomes aware not only of the existence of his own sin, but of its deeply personal offensiveness to God. Repentance is the sinner's sorrow over his sin, and his resolve no longer to choose it over God. In a very broad sense, "repentance" is agreeing with God about the true nature of sin and our natural standing as "condemned" in his presence, and our rejection of that sin and of our own nature in favor of God.
    As a church, "repentance" expresses itself by the continual public acknowledgement of error, and continual corporate self-examination for sin among the body of believers. We as a congregation admit that we have rebelled against God and acted in a way displeasing to Him, and we consequently turn to Him and petition for His mercy because of the work of Christ in paying for that sin on the cross.
  3. Faith: A further effect of grace in the heart of a Christian is belief. This is not vague "faith in faith" so commonly talked about amongst modern and postmodern theologians, rather it is a concrete belief in the life and deeds of the historical person Jesus Christ. "Now faith", says the author of Hebrews, "is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen" (Hebrews 11:1, KJV). Such weighty and tangible words as "substance" and "evidence" are by no means inappropriate, as they reveal the certainty and confidence with which Christian faith may look to Christ. "Faith", for the Christian, is the utter and complete certainty that the life and death of Jesus Christ have completed the work of salvation. As Christians, we believe that our sin has been paid for in the death of Christ on the cross, and that our righteousness, the virtuous life which we were supposed to have lived, is not found in our obedience to the law, but rather in Christ's perfect life. this is not a vague abstraction, but a concrete historical reality.
    As a church, we place our faith not in our own corporate actions but in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Our hope of heaven is not built on our life together, our life together is built on our faith in the Gospel. We are bound not by race or gender or social class, but rather by our belief that we have been redeemed by the blood of the Lamb, slain in our place.
  4. Obedience: true repentance and belief will be reflected in obedience, in giving ourselves "up to him." "We know" write John, "that we have come to know him if we keep his commands. Whoever says 'I know him' but does not keep his commands is a liar, and the truth is not in that person." (I John 2:3-4) If we claim to have repented of our sins and to believe that Christ has saved us on the cross and no change is made in our lives, we lie to ourselves, to the church, and to God. Belief is not mere verbal assent, it is a living thing, a pulse that sends change throughout our entire existence just as the heart sends blood through the body. To be a Christian is not mere to hold a new set of doctrines, it is to live a new life.
    And to be a Christian in a church is to gather with others who share this new life. Consequently, the church should be dedicated to reflecting its belief in obedience. Admittedly, this can be difficult. Not only does sin continue to affect (though it may no longer dominate) the Christian and the church, but Scripture is not always clear on what obedience is required from the church as a corporate body. Wise and faithful Christians have for centuries rightly disagreed over interpretations of key passages, sometimes not merely in their meaning, but over whether they apply to the church at all, or are intended for believers individually. Nevertheless, despite theological disagreement, the day-to-day functions of the church remain relatively clear. We are to love each other;  we are to serve each other with kindness; those with means and abilities are to serve those without; above all we are to remind ourselves and each other of the grace of Jesus Christ in saving us from our sins, and to encourage each other to build our obedience on that great act of salvation.
  5. Baptism: one fundamental act of obedience commanded repeatedly through Scripture is being baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Upon becoming a Christian, this is our public declaration of what Jesus has done for us. In this symbolic act, we show the world by being immersed in water that Christ was immersed in God's wrath for us, and by being raised from the water that we will follow Christ in his resurrection into eternal life.
    As a church, we both baptize* and require baptism for those who would commit themselves to join publicly with the body of believers. On the negative side, without having been baptized, one cannot claim to be obedient, and without obedience one cannot give evidence of faith. This is not to say that baptism causes salvation, but it is to say that claiming salvation while continually refusing to obey the direct command of Christ suggests an unrepentant and unbelieving heart.
    On the positive side, baptism is how the members of a church declare ourselves to be set apart from society through the Gospel. It is one of the few acts of obedience which there is no reason for a non-Christian to perform. Acts of charity, public service, love of neighbor may all be justified and recognized as valuable by those who reject Christ, but baptism serves no purpose other than as a delight-filled reflection of what Jesus has done for us and a means of symbolically separating ourselves from the world.
Under these five characteristics, the church declares its purpose as it covenants together "solemnly and joyfully." With great solemnity, for salvation is a serious and weighty matter, the church declares its unshakable unity around the Gospel of Jesus Christ. With great joy, for the Gospel is good news to a dying world, the church joins together in remembrance of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus in our place. The church covenant is a reminder of this good news and a declaration of how, building upon grace, repentance, faith, and obedience (remembering that we have been set apart through baptism) our lives together will reflect what Jesus has done for us.

*Though this may not be an exclusive function of the church. There is certainly Biblical evidence for baptism taking place in a private setting, and the early church clearly taught (see Acts chapter 8 and the Didache).

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