Salvation and “the Church of Christ”
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Friday, October 1, 2010 at 10:12am
QUESTION: Is it true that only members of the Church of Christ will be saved?
ANSWER: The answer to this question depends on what is meant by “the Church of Christ.” To clarify what I mean, I will first distinguish between the “church universal” and local congregations. The church universal is the worldwide body of Christ, the total number of people who are under the saving blood of Jesus. Paul often uses the word “church” in this sense, especially in Ephesians 5:22-32. Here he says that Christ is “the head of the church” and “the Savior of the body” (v. 23), and that “the church is subject to Christ” (v. 24). He says that “Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her” (v. 25). Christ’s goal is “to present to Himself the church in all her glory” (v. 27). Christ “nourishes and cherishes” the church (v. 29), His own body, of which we are members (v. 30). “I am speaking with reference to Christ and the church,” says Paul (v. 32).
In this beautiful description of Christ’s relation to the church, it should be clear that Paul is not talking about any one local congregation or any one visible church group that has a post office address or membership roll. He is talking about the “one body” (Eph. 4:4), “the household of God, which is the church of the living God” (1Tim. 3:15). This universal body of Christ is composed not of groups of people but of individuals—indeed, all individuals who have surrendered to the Lordship of Christ and have accepted his offer of salvation. This is “the Church of Christ” in its purest and most specific form. So in answer to the question above, YES, only members of the Church of Christ in this sense will be saved.
It is true, though, that sometimes the group known as the Restoration Movement refers to itself as “the Church of Christ” (and sometimes “the churches of Christ,” and sometimes “the Christian Church”). Many individual congregations within this group are called “churches of Christ.” This is what the questioner was probably referring to, namely, must an individual be a member of such a “Church of Christ” in order to be saved? The answer to this question is NO. By saying this, though, I am not putting any kind of “stamp of approval” on denomination churches and congregations, as I will now explain.
Here is where another distinction becomes very important. Many are aware that I often refer to what is called the “double cure” of grace, i.e., the two distinct aspects of salvation which the Redeemer bestows upon the willing sinner in the very moment when that sinner becomes saved. The first aspect of this double cure is justification or forgiveness of sins, which means that the sinner’s entire debt of eternal punishment has been canceled through the application of the blood of Christ, and he or she is now officially in a saved state. Being justified (100 percent forgiven) is like having a ticket to heaven in your possession.
But in that saving moment God also bestows a second aspect of salvation upon the sinner, namely, the inward change worked by the Holy Spirit upon the soul called regeneration, resurrection from spiritual death, spiritual circumcision, the new creation, and being born again. This is accomplished through the “gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38), which is the Holy Spirit Himself coming to dwell within our lives and bodies to empower us for the lifelong sanctification process.
Here is a crucial point: receiving the first part of the double cure means that we are 100 percent forgiven of all our sins as long as we continue to trust in Jesus’ atoning death for our sins. Thus we are continually in a saved state. However, receiving the second part of the double cure does NOT make us 100 percent GOOD. It simply means that we now have the power for growing in grace and knowledge (2 Peter 3:18), i.e., becoming more and more holy throughout our lives (1 Peter 1:15-16). We may begin our Christian lives being 35 percent holy, and after a couple of years we may have become 48 percent holy. In our mature years we may achieve 82 percent holiness! (Only God knows the real numbers.) The point is that we should be growing more and more day by day, year by year.
The crucial point, though, is this: whether an individual is “saved” or not, in the sense of being sure of going to heaven if death or the second coming should occur, depends on the FIRST part of the double cure—being 100 percent forgiven by the blood of Christ. Being “saved” in this sense does NOT depend on what percent good or holy one may be. We are all still sinners, and are all still growing.
How does this apply to the original question above? Like this: Everyone who is JUSTIFIED (100 percent forgiven) by the blood of Christ by that very fact is a member of the universal “Church of Christ.” How does one become thus justified? By “obeying the gospel” (Rom. 10:16; 2 Thess. 1:8). The gospel imperatives that must be obeyed in order to be saved are these simple conditions for salvation: believe in Jesus, repent of your sins, confess your commitment to Jesus as Lord and Savior, and be baptized into the saving union with Him. EVERYONE who has done these things is a member of the universal church or body of Christ, no matter what their denominational or local church affiliation may be.
Does that mean that the latter point is irrelevant, i.e., that it does not matter what one’s denomination or local church affiliation is? NO. I am convinced for many reasons that every saved person, as a matter of his or her sanctification, MUST be a member of a local congregation that is following the NT instructions for what such a congregation should be like. And as I understand it, at the present time, Restoration Movement churches—“churches of Christ” and Christian churches—are the local congregations that are closest to the NT pattern for such a group. This means that members of other groups (e.g., Catholic, Methodist, Baptist) may be JUSTIFIED (saved in this sense) IF they have obeyed the gospel (as explained above). But their continuing membership in a denominational church is a flaw in their SANCTIFICATION. If they want to grow in grace and knowledge, and become more pleasing to Jesus Christ, they should unite with a local congregation that is following the NT pattern.