Intro: “Do you think you are the only ones going to heaven?” This is a question that gets a lot of attention. Non-Christians ask Christians; Muslims ask Christians; Protestants ask Catholics; Denominationalists ask Christians. It is a question that generates strong emotion. It has started arguments and closed minds. It could be regarded as a foolish question that might gender strife. I remember one preacher who consistently answered this by saying, “well, the fact is, not even all of us are going to make it. Will only members of the church of Christ be saved? This is a legitimate and important question. Jesus’ disciples asked, “Who then can be saved?” (Mt. 19:25). Jesus also said that the way is narrow, and few find it. But we must put emotions aside and appeal to the scriptures alone. We want God’s answer. Before we begin to give an answer this morning, consider some preliminary thoughts about the question itself:
Many times it is asked in a derogatory context, in which the inquisitive person is not seeking a truthful answer, but simply ridiculing another person’s conviction. It is intended to paint the Christian as narrow and intolerant of others.
Most of the time the question is posed by someone who views the Church of Christ as a denomination (like the Methodist or Presbyterian denomination). They want to know if we believe that one has to a member of a denomination called the Church of Christ in order to be saved. This confusion makes it impossible to give a simple yes or no answer. We risk either giving a biblically wrong answer (no) or perpetuating a false concept of the church by saying yes without confronting their false perception.
We MUST answer this question carefully and properly. Peter tells us we must be ready to give an answer to every person who ask us concerning our hope (1 Peter 3:15). But importantly, this question signals a misunderstanding of the nature of the church and salvation. It is difficult, if not impossible to convert the sinner without addressing this confusion.
I. Begin with some basic truths:
A. God wants all to be saved (1 Timothy 2:4).
B. He does not favor any nation, group, gender, or individual. He loves all equally (John 3:16).
C. Jesus died to pay the price for every person’s sins. (John 3:17; 2 Corinthians 5:14–15).
D. Therefore the grace of God is available to all (Titus 2:11).
E. The Lord knows those who are His (2 Timothy 2:19). Therefore, not a single person who should be saved will be lost.
F. As Savior, Christ is the one to declare who, when, and where He saves (1 Thessalonians 5:9; Titus 2:11). Jesus—not any man or church—will judge on the last day (John 5:22).
G. The inspired scriptures alone, revealed through the apostles, declares the mind of God and is our only source of authority in salvation. (2 Tim. 3:16-17)
H. Jesus is the only head of His body, the church. (Eph. 1:22-23)
II. The Exclusive Nature of Salvation: Sometimes the mention of the word only is this discussion seems pejorative. Is there an “only” in salvation? Is there an exclusive way to God?
A. Jesus Christ declared that he is the exclusive way to God. “I am the way, and the truth, and the life: no one comes unto the Father, except by me” (John 14:6). Jesus words are indisputable and uncompromising. We either believe this or not.
B. Some are lost and some are saved. The Scriptures clearly teach that some belong to Christ, and others do not. In Matthew 25 Jesus distinguishes between the “sheep” and the “goats”.
C. Jesus requires a certain level of understanding and obedience in order to belong to Him. Although one is not required to understand every aspect of Christian teaching (no one does), or be perfectly obedient in all matters (none ever will be), in order to be saved, there are requirements for salvation.
1. John 3:36 – “He who believes in the Son has everlasting life; and he who does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.” Does this sound too exclusive to you?
2. Hebrews 5:9 …He became the author of eternal salvation to all who obey Him. If Christ is “the author of salvation to all those who obey Him” what would be the reverse of this affirmation?
3. Matthew 7:21 – “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven.
D. Jesus is the Savior of the body only: Ephesians 5:23 – For the husband is head of the wife, as also Christ is head of the church; and He is the Savior of the body. Is there any text within the framework of Christian doctrine that provides hope that some will be saved who are not of that “body”? If so, where is the passage?
1. The apostle Paul also identified this body as the church (Eph.1:22-23) and declared that there is only one body (Eph. 4:4) this would necessarily imply that if one is saved he is in that one body, Christ’s one church.
Let’s return to our question: Will only members of the church of Christ be saved? In a real sense we have already biblically answered our question. But again we need to address the confusion that surrounds the question itself.
III. Defining the Question: When a person assigns a meaning to words that the teacher does not intend they can easily draw a wrong conclusion. In John 2:19 Jesus said, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” Some of those who heard Him accused Him of blasphemy because they thought he was referring to the literal temple in Jerusalem. But Jesus was referring to His physical body being raised from the dead. Those who did not have the right definition missed the point. We seek biblical definitions here. We cannot rely on a human definition given in an encyclopedia or dictionary, but God’s inspired word. We are seeking to identify the church that belongs to Christ.
A. “What is the Church of Christ” – What is the biblical definition of the church. Many today view the church of Christ as a denominational religious body (made up of congregations adhering to a common belief or creed), but the Bible never defines the church that belongs to Christ as a denomination. This confusion is our fault to some extent. When we act and talk like a denomination we shouldn’t be surprised when they treat us like one.
1. The first appearance of the word church in the N.T. is Matthew 16:18. Jesus said “…I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it. This prophetic statement was realized in Acts 2 through the apostolic preaching and the appearance of the Holy Spirit.
a. After Peter commanded those present to “repent and be baptized for the remission of their sins” (Acts 2:38), Luke tells us “the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47). This provides at least two important elements in our defining effort.
1) People obeyed God’s commands and He added those who obeyed to the church. Church membership on the universal level was never determined by men.
2) The church is made up of saved people. The church is never defined as anything other than saved people. In 12:23, the author uses the church (ecclesia) to refer to the “spirits of just men made perfect”. This clears up two prevalent misconceptions about the church:
i. “A person can be saved without being in the church” – this thought is nonsensical since the church is nothing but saved people.
ii. “One needs to get in the church to be saved.” The church does not save people, Jesus does. Does standing among a herd of cows make you a cow? You cannot be in the herd unless you are a cow.
2. This process of obedience and adding to the church continued over and over again in cities like Antioch, Corinth, Thessalonica, Rome… (Ft. Myers, FL). These saved people met together in these separate localities and were also referred to as “churches”.
note: There is no Biblical evidence that these separate congregations were tied together through any human organization. In fact, the Bible represents the individual members of the universal body of Christ as Christians, not congregations. Christians are individually responsible to their Head, Jesus Christ.
a. The unity of these congregations was based on their common subjection to Christ, and their common obedience to the word of God. (as the plants that grow from one type of seed are alike.) I like how Sewell Hall describes the congregations in the N.T. “But these local assemblies, or churches of Christ, were all alike. Each assembly, being composed of saved ones, was like every other assembly in composition and loyalty. And as the saved in any given community were the church in that community, so all the saved in all the world were the church in the worldwide sense. “
VI. Inside or Outside? Although our pluralistic society cringes at the thought that God would exclude some, the N.T. teaches the clear distinction of being either “in” or “out”. In fact, the most common description in the N.T. of the acceptable position before God is to be “in Christ”. (the words are used 12 times in Ephesians alone).
- Eph 1:1 – To the saints who are in Ephesus, and faithful in Christ Jesus:
- Eph 1:3 – blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ,
- Eph 2:6 – raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus,
- Eph 2:10 – For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works,
- Eph 2:13 – But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. The language pictures a boundary, determined by God, whereby one is either in or out. Could anyone who is not in (or out of) Christ be saved? –
- 2 Cor. 5:17 – Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.
A. How big is the circle?
1. It is possible for us to draw God’s circle too small. We can exclude from our fellowship those who God approves. Matt 23:13 – “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut up the kingdom of heaven against men; for you neither go in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in. The Pharisees were requiring more than God required- excluding others.
2. It is also possible to draw God’s circle too large. Many view all religions as simply taking a different road to the same place. They put a “coexist” sticker on their bumper and try to avoid any judgments. This is appealing to our pluralistic culture where toleration is a chief virtue. But every belief is not equally true and making something a civil right does not make it morally right. We are told to not go beyond the boundaries of the doctrine of Christ 2 John 1:9–11), not to untie what the apostolic doctrine tied (Matthew 16:19), nor think of men above “what is written” (1 Corinthians 4:6).
3. Paul wrote in Colossians 4:5 – “Walk in wisdom toward those who are outside, redeeming the time.” Who are these who are outside? Dr. Adam Clarke, a noted Methodist commentator, wrote in his comments on Colossians 4:5: The church of Christ was considered an enclosure; a field, or vineyard, well hedged or walled. Those who were not members of it were considered without; i.e. not under that special protection and defense which the true followers of Christ had. . As to be a Christian was essential to the salvation of the soul, so to be in the Church of Christ was essential to being a Christian; therefore it was concluded that “there was no salvation out of the pale of the church.”
a. Was this a narrow-minded attitude? It is neither narrower nor broader than Jesus Himself. It includes all those who have submitted to the authority of Jesus, and excludes those who have not.
b. The conclusions are not difficult here:
1) The church is biblically defined as all those who were saved. They were added together by God. All the saved are “in the church”.
2) All those who are saved are “in Christ”.
3) So those who are “in the church” are also “in Christ.”
4) One who is not “in the church” could not be in Christ”.
4. The Bible clearly teaches that in the 1st century ONLY the members of the church of CHRIST were saved.
a. What about today? Has anything changed? Although there are many counterfeits today, according to God’s design there is still only one Lord, one faith, and one baptism, and one body or church of Christ. God still adds those who believe, repent and are baptized to that one church because they are in Christ.
Conclusion: How does one get in Christ? (again, not everyone is inside, some are outside). Remember as well, I get into Christ the same way I get into the church (Universally speaking).
- Galatians 3:27 – 27 For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.
- Romans 6:3 – 3 Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? NKJV
- 1 Corinthians 12:13 – For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body — whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free — and have all been made to drink into one Spirit.
If you did this would you be in the church of Christ?
If not, what else would you need to do to get into the church of Christ?
If you were in the one church that belongs to Christ would you be saved?
- Mark 16:16 – “he that believes and is baptized will be saved”