Should Christians preach Christ without mentioning the church? Not a few insist that we should. The church does not save, they say, and they are correct, in a very true, primary sense.
But neither does baptism save, in that same primary sense. Christ alone saves. Christ alone as sacrifice for sin is able to extend forgiveness to man and restore him to God’s presence. So perhaps we shouldn’t preach baptism, or faith, or any other subject except the facts of the crucifixion?
In another sense, however, the church does save. (Just as baptism does, too, 1 Pet. 3.21.) Through the church God’s salvation in Christ is made known. People are reached with the message through the church.
Paul praised one congregation by saying that “from you the message of the Lord has echoed forth” (1 Thes. 1.8 NET). To another he said they were “offering to [pagans] the message of life” (Php. 2.16 OEB). He told Timothy that “the church of the living God [is] the support and bulwark of the truth” (1 Tim. 3.15), meaning, in part, that the church is the carrier of the gospel truth.
Even the term “to save” is used in that secondary sense of being responsible for the salvation of others.
- Jude tells us to “save others by snatching them out of the fire” (Jude 23).
- James wants us to “know that the one who turns a sinner back from his wandering path will save that person’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins” (James 5.20). (This is the same word “to save” that James uses in 1.21 for the implanted word which saves our souls.)
- Paul tells Timothy to persevere in the right life and teaching, “because by doing so you will save both yourself and those who listen to you” (1 Tim. 4.16). (Again, this is the same word he uses in the letter earlier, in 1.15, to quote that trustworthy saying, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”)
- And the same Paul who said in 1 Corinthians 1.21 that ” God was pleased to save those who believe by the foolishness of preaching,” also declared his famous statement, “I have become all things to all people, so that by all means I may save some” (1 Cor. 9.22).
Christians save non-Christians. The church saves people. If that is true, if their presence in the world is essential to the salvation of sinners, why is the church never to be mentioned as a part of God’s eternal plan to redeem mankind? Strange, is it not?
It should be noted that much of the noise and not a little influence on this point comes from denominational teaching. Since most admit that it is not necessary to be a part of a denomination to be saved, membership in a denomination is considered a non-essential and is not mentioned much if at all in evangelism done by Protestants. At the end, they will often say afterwards, as Max Lucado now does, to “go find a biblical church near you.”
Is it possible to give such space to the church in preaching the gospel (i.e., evangelizing) that the Savior of the body is obscured? Most certainly. Have brethren in some places been guilty of giving too much attention to the church, to the detriment of God’s redemptive plan, the sacrifice of Christ, and the work of the Holy Spirit? Very likely. But such an abuse does not militate against putting the church in its proper place in the process of evangelism.
Obviously, as well, we must recognize that each situation calls for wisdom in terms of how evangelism is to be approached. But let us not make the mistake of thinking that we may teach everything to people up to the point of baptism and then all of a sudden stop there, without giving a single clue of what their responsibilities are afterwards. Discipleship is part of the message. Baptism makes disciples. Teaching people to be disciples — up front — means telling them that there is a body of people, God’s family, Christ’s church, the Spirit’s gathered body, to which they must belong and in and through which they must serve with all their being.
And if people don’t know how to distinguish the one true church from the thousands of cheap imitations invented by men, we have done them a dire disservice that will possibly result in their perdition.
The church is not a liability in evangelism. On the contrary, nothing is as attractive as the loving family which God has brought together for a lonely and estranged world.