In a recent book They like Jesus but Not the Church, Dan Kimball addresses some people’s negative view toward the church. Sadly, the book is right about many people’s attitudes toward the church. Before I was a Christian church was one of the last places on earth that I wanted to be. Like many people, I thought church was boring, dry, stuffy, and irrelevant to my life. However, since I have become a Christian, I have grown to love the local church with all of my heart and have come to realize the church is essential to our discipleship. The truth is we need the church more than ever before. In an article “The Church Why Bother?” Tim Stafford says, “A living, breathing congregation is the only place to live in a healthy relationship to God. That is because it is the only place on earth where Jesus has chosen to dwell.”1 The church is God’s plan for spiritual growth—there is no backup plan. Mark Dever says, “I’ve come to see that relationship with a local congregation is central to individual discipleship. The church isn’t an optional extra; it’s the shape of your following Jesus.”2 Therefore, discipleship is one of the primary functions of the local church.
When we look to the Bible and church history, we see there are three things the church alone can provide that are essential to discipleship and spiritual growth. The Reformation distinguished several unique marks of a healthy church including preaching and administration of the sacraments. The Thirty Nine Articles of the Church of England (1563) says, “The visible church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men in which the pure word of God is preached and the sacraments duly administered according to Christ’s ordinance in all those things that necessity are requisite to the same.” In The Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin says, “Wherever we see the Word of God purely preached and heard, and the sacraments administered according to Christ’s institution, there, it is not to be doubted, a church of God exists.”3 The Belgic Confession (1561) adds a third mark of church discipline:
The marks by which the true Christian church is known are these: if the pure doctrine of the gospel is preached therein; if she maintains the pure administration of the sacraments as instituted by Christ; if church discipline is exercised in punishing of sin; in short, if all things are managed according to the pure Word of God, all things contrary thereto rejected, and Jesus Christ acknowledged as the only Head of the Church.
The Word: Biblical Preaching and Discipleship
The first mark that plays an important role in discipleship is Biblical preaching. Mark Dever devotes the first chapter of Nine Marks of a Healthy Church to preaching the Word. He also includes preaching in his chapter on discipleship and says, “A church in which there is expositional preaching will be a church that is encouraging Christian growth.”4 One of the goals, then, of Biblical preaching is Christian growth and maturity in the gospel making it essential for discipleship of believers. Dever goes on to say, “We need God’s word to be saved, but we also need it to continually challenge and shape us. His word not only gives us life; it also gives us direction as it keeps molding and shaping us in the image of the God who is speaking to us.”5
John Stott says, “Preaching is indispensable to Christianity. Without preaching a necessary part of its authenticity has been lost. For Christianity is in its very essence, is a religion of the Word of God.”6 This is based on a conviction of the primacy of preaching in the local church.7 Preaching makes the Word of God central to the entire worship service.
The Water: Baptism and Discipleship
Christian baptism is the immersion of a believer in water in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It is an act of obedience symbolizing the believer's newness of life in Christ Jesus. In the Great Commission, Jesus says to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19). The fact that baptism is included in the Great Commission demonstrates that it plays an important role in discipleship. Stephen Smallman says that baptism is the first phase of being a disciple.8 Baptism is the initiation into the Christian community and the first steps into the life of discipleship. A new believer should be baptized because Jesus did it and taught it (Matt. 3:13-17).
Baptism is a public display and confession of faith of the free gift of salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord (Acts 2:38-39). The New Testament word for baptism is baptizo, which means to dip repeatedly.9 So, the biblical mode of baptism should be total immersion for believers who profess faith in Christ. Mark Driscoll and Gerry Breshears list the following support for this position:
- John the Baptist required that people repent of sin before being baptized.
- Every baptism in the New Testament is preceded by repentance of sin and faith in Jesus.
- Baptism is reserved solely for those people who have put on Christ.
- Baptism shows personal identification with the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
- The Bible does record occurrences where entire households were baptized.
- Both Jesus and His disciples gave the command for disciples to be baptized as an expression of that discipleship.10
Baptism is an amazing way for new Christians to feel accepted and loved by the Christian community. It can be an important celebratory event in believers’ lives, connecting them to the church family. Christians both old and new join together to celebrate the public declaration of faith of new believers. At Church of the Outer Banks, we make baptism a very special celebration. Several times a year we gather at the beach to perform ocean baptisms. After a new believer is baptized, we offer them an olive wood cross to commemorate their experience and entry into the community of faith.
The Wine: Lord’s Supper and Discipleship
In the midst of intimate community, early Christians shared the breaking of bread daily. We read in Acts 2:42, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” The breaking of bread was a continual reminder of what Christ did for them. It was also a reminder of God’s continual presence and activity in the church: past, present, and future.
The Lord’s Supper is also commonly referred to as Communion or the Eucharist. The Lord's Supper is an act of obedience whereby members of the church, through partaking of the bread and the fruit of the vine, memorialize the death of the Redeemer and anticipate his second coming (Matt.26:26-27; Mk. 14:22-23; Lk. 22:17-19; 1 Cor. 11:20-24). While baptism is a one-time initiatory rite, the Lord’s Supper is a continuing rite that churches observe repeatedly.11 Hammett says, “The Lord’s Supper is similar to an anniversary celebration in which wedding vows are renewed.”12 John Wesley believed that the Lord’s Supper was one of the “chief” means of grace. He says:
“The chief of these means are prayer, whether in secret or with the great congregation; searching the scriptures; (which implies reading, hearing, and meditating thereon;) and receiving the Lord’s supper, eating bread and drinking wine in remembrance of Him: And these we believe to be ordained of God, as the ordinary channels of conveying his grace to the souls of men.”13
We are spiritually nourished as we share in the Lord’s Supper. Christ spiritually feeds us with His body and blood. John Wesley says, “Our bodies are strengthened by bread and wine, so are our souls by these tokens of the body and blood of Christ. This is the food of our souls: This gives strength to perform our duty and leads us on to perfection.” God’s grace is given through the presence of the Holy Spirit as believers share in the memorial meal.
Next time you take the Lord’s Supper, reflect on the spiritual reality of what Christ has done for you through His life, death, and resurrection. In a way, the Lord’s Supper is a picture of what heaven will be like when we are all one at Christ’s table. At the table of the Lord, our differences no longer matter. Young, old, black, white, rich, and poor are all welcome at the Supper.
God gave us the gift of the church, which is Christ’s body. The local church is designed to be the context for our discipleship and spiritual growth. The Word, the Water, and the Wine are three discipleship essentials that we cannot do without. Likewise, you cannot have them without the church. They were instituted by our Lord Jesus Christ to remind us of His love and to help us grow in faith.
Dr. Winfield Bevins serves as lead pastor of Church of the Outer Banks, which he founded in 2005. His life’s passion in ministry is discipleship and helping start new churches. He lives in the beautiful beach community of the Outer Banks with his wife Kay and two daughters where he loves to surf and spend time at the beach with his family and friends. Twitter: @winfieldbevins
1. Tim Stafford “The Church Why Bother?”Christianity Today, 49, no.1 (January 2005): 42-49.↩ 2. Mark Dever, Nine Marks of a Healthy Church. 16.↩ 3. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion. 21:1025-6 (4.1.9).↩ 4. Dever, 205.↩ 5. Ibid, 51.↩ 6. John Stott, Between Two Worlds: The Art of Preaching in the Twentieth Century. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1982. 15.↩ 7. Ibid, 125.↩ 8. Stephen Smallman, The Walk, 186.↩ 9. Kenneth S. Wuest, Wuest’s Word Studies. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1945.↩ 10. Mark Driscoll and Gerry Breshears, Vintage Church. 115-116.↩ 11. John S. Hammett, Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches: A Contemporary Ecclesiology. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2005. 278.↩ 12. Ibid, 278.↩ 13. John Wesley, Works, 5:222. ↩