“And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47).
Jesus sits by Jacob’s well in the glaring noontide heat. He watches as a lone woman comes through the gate of the nearby village and walks slowly down the path toward the well, her water jar balanced on her head. He wonders what circumstance brings her on her errand at this unusual hour. Shortly she arrives and, pretending not to notice the Man seated nearby, she sets her pot on the stone pavement and begins to fasten the rope to it.
“Give Me a drink,” Jesus says. The woman gives a start, straightens, and looks at Him. “How is it that You, being a Jew, ask a drink from me, a Samaritan woman” (John 4:9)?
The conversation then goes to a discussion of well water and living water and then to the woman’s private life. Becoming more and more uncomfortable, she tries to steer the conversation toward the right place to worship. Pointing to Mt. Gerizim, she says, “Our fathers worshipped on this mountain, but you Jews say that in Jerusalem is the place where one ought to worship” (verse 20).
Jesus replies, “You worship what you do not know; we know what we worship, for salvation is of the Jews” (verse 22). Salvation is of the Jews? Why would He say that? In a few months He will make the startling announcement to the Jewish leaders, “Your house is left to you desolate” (Matt. 23:38). And shortly thereafter they will instigate His crucifixion. Surely, at this point in history, Israel cannot be the place to find salvation!
But Jesus here affirms what the Old Testament has taught throughout its pages: Whatever the spiritual condition of its members in any given time and place, God’s church is still the best place to find one’s way to God. That has always been the meaning and
purpose of “church” as God defines it. When that church was Israel, if a Syrian or Samaritan or Egyptian wanted to have a relationship with the true God and be involved in true worship, he had only one choice: Join himself to Israel.
The Samaritans had tried to start their own church—a mixture of paganism and Judaism. And so Jesus, the Jew, reminds this woman, the Samaritan, that “salvation is of the Jews.” “We have the truth; you are in error. God has chosen Mt. Zion, not Mt. Gerizim. You are worshiping in the wrong place.”
Is that still true today? Can it be said that obtaining salvation involves finding the right church and holding membership in that church, no matter what its spiritual condition might be? I think it might help to put the question this way: “In God’s plan, how does connection with His church contribute to my salvation?” I have listed several ways in which those two work together.
1.Baptism seals my commitment to Jesus and automatically unites me with His Church.
I hear someone saying, “Baptism doesn’t save me; church membership doesn’t save me; Jesus saves me.” My answer: “Baptism into church membership is part of Jesus’ way of saving you.” I find no Bible or Spirit of Prophecy support for the practice of being “baptized into Christ” without uniting with the church. Jesus’ parting words to His disciples were, “He that believes and is baptized will be saved” (Mark 16:16). I have no choice. If I am able to do so, I must be baptized to meet heaven’s entrance requirements.
God’s messenger affirms it: “Christ has made baptism the sign of entrance to His spiritual kingdom. He has made this a positive condition with which all must comply who wish to be acknowledged as under the authority of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
(Testimonies for the Church, vol. 6, p. 91, italics supplied).
2. My identity with the Church helps keep me from being re-assimilated into the world.
To decide in favor of church membership is to make a clear statement about my identity. I am now a “member of the household of God” (Eph. 2:19). Identity is a powerful thing. God intends that His people today stand in the same relationship to the world that His people Israel did in the Old Testament period. Their distinctive differences were to keep them from becoming assimilated with the pagan nations surrounding them. God gave them such strict marriage laws, dress laws, health laws, worship laws, tithe and offering laws, family discipline laws—all to make it very difficult for them to be assimilated into any other society.
Having said all this, we must point out that there is a separateness which protects and an exclusiveness which corrupts. Our position is to be far from the world in spirit and lifestyle, but close to the world in compassion. We are in but not of. Like a boat in the water—that’s where boats are meant to be. Problems develop when water gets into the boat.
3. Connection with the Church helps me grow in my appreciation for sacred things, and to keep the sacred and the common properly separated.
The line that separates the sacred and the common is all too easily crossed. The church is a holy place and my going into its precincts at least once or twice a week should help me reflect on the holiness of God and the true meaning of worship. “The Lord is in His holy temple: let all the earth keep silence before Him” (Hab. 2:20). There I place myself under the pillar of cloud, as it were, and move through my workaday week with an outlook that is a bit less secular and calloused, and a bit more reverent than it might have been otherwise.
“God is high and holy; and to the humble, believing soul, His house on earth, the place where His people meet for worship, is as the gate of heaven. The song of praise, the words spoken by Christ’s ministers, are God’s appointed agencies to prepare a people for the church above” (The Faith I Live By, p. 188).
4. The Church contributes to my salvation by putting me to work for the salvation of others.
“And the Lord gave to every man his work” (Mark 13:34). The church assesses its own needs and those of its community and tries
to match those with the spiritual gifts of its members. Millions of people have become active Christian workers because the church set them to work.
“Every church should be a training school for Christian workers. Its members should be taught how to give Bible readings, how to conduct and teach Sabbath School classes, how best to help the poor and to care for the sick, how to work for the unconverted. . . . There should not only be teaching, but actual work under experienced instructors” (Christian Service, p. 59).
5. Believe it or not, the odds in favor of my salvation are improved because the Church gives me a sense of history.
The Jews loved to remind everyone that they served the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It gave them a strong sense of belonging. We, too, will find that keeping in touch with our spiritual forebears—people like William Miller, Joseph Bates, James and Ellen White, Uriah and Annie Smith, J. N. Andrews, S. N. Haskell, J. N. Loughborough—will strengthen our attachment to the Lord and to His church.
We need to experience, in part at least, the sense of exhilaration that Ellen White felt when she wrote, “As I see what the Lord has wrought, I am filled with astonishment, and with confidence in Christ as leader. We have nothing to fear for the future, except as we shall forget the way the Lord has led us, and His teaching in our past history” (Last Day Events, p. 72). When everything is shaking that can be shaken, who knows, the memory of how God has led His people in the past might be the very thing that gives us that extra bit of courage to hang on.
Our own personal history in the church also creates powerful bonds that help hold us on course. Church school, academy, and college classmates, Sabbath School teachers, camp meeting memories, older members who took us under their wings—all these and more become “accountability partners,” as it were, that keep us headed in the right direction.
6. The Church acts as a “tumbler” where I receive the polish I need for citizenship in heaven.
As an amateur rock hound, I have enjoyed finding rough, unattractive rocks in some mountain or desert location, bringing them home, and putting them in a tumbler where they are changed into beautiful, glossy “gems.” In similar fashion, my association with others in the church can have a refining effect on the roughness in my character.
Outside of the church I can do my own thing and avoid people I would just as soon not gear in with. But in the church, if I’m involved at all, I will experience bumps and scrapes that put the mettle of my character to the test. “By mutual contact minds receive polish and refinement” (The Adventist Home, p. 547).
7. Connection with the Church strengthens my connection with Christ.
Paul says “Christ is the head of the church, and He is the Savior of the body” (Eph. 5:23). The plan of salvation places us in the church under the headship of Christ, the most secure place in all the world for those being saved. Ellen White confirms it: “Very close and sacred is the relation between Christ and His church—He the Bridegroom and the church the bride; He the Head, and the church the body. Connection, then, with Christ, involves connection with His church” (Education, p. 268). The English language could not be plainer.
8. The Church is the only place to be when Jesus comes.
Will God’s people still be found in all churches or outside any church when Jesus comes? No. When the call to come out of Babylon is finished, the days of the scattered church will be over. All the sheep will be in one fold. They have responded to the loud cry of the third angel. They have endured the seven last plagues. They have been tested by persecution and the ridicule of family and former friends. They are sanctified and ready for heaven.
So I hope we can agree that the church is an integral part of God’s plan for saving us. To me, it seems foolish even to consider anything else. To ignore that plan or rebel against it could cost us eternal life. To join God’s true church on earth is to join the church in heaven.