Bishop and Christian*, June 2014

How does the Church grow? What causes people who formerly did not believe to believe and be joined to the Church of Christ? Before we can answer that question, we have to understand the state or nature of people who do not believe that Christ is the Son of God sent into this world for our forgiveness and salvation. Someone who does not believe that (and we were all such at one point or another) cannot be enticed or attracted into the Faith. He or she cannot be argued into the Faith. A sinner without faith in Christ is blind, dead, and an enemy of God (see John 3:18, 36; Romans 3:9ff.; 8:6-8). Dead people cannot raise themselves and sinners do not seek or choose God by themselves. It is the Word of God alone—Jesus crucified for sinners—by which the Holy Spirit gives faith and makes new creatures out of old ones. Luther said it this way in the Small Catechism: “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ my Lord, or come to Him. But the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel…” (see Romans 10:8-17). “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven,” Jesus said (John 3:27). With this in mind, the job of those who belong to Jesus is rather simple (though not always easy): continue to hear this Jesus as He speaks to us and gives us life; and to serve our neighbors in the places God has put us. That’s what happens in Acts 2:42-47: the Christians (only, at this time, 3000+) gathered continually around the Apostles’ doctrine (which Jesus had given them); this Word created union among the forgiven sinners; they received the breaking of the bread (Luke’s shorthand for the Holy Communion); and they gathered to offer their common prayers to their common Father. Out of these four things in which they shared, came the clear fruit of caring for anyone who had need. And as they did these things, as they were strengthened in faith toward God and in fervent love toward one another, God did what He promised: He added to their number day by day (2:47).

The what of the Church’s growth is laid out in Acts; the how often is not. We know that the Apostles preached; we know that the Christians who were scattered by persecution took the Word of Jesus with them and preached it in their new locations. But the specific methods of evangelism are never laid out for us. Peter instructs Christians, honoring Christ the Lord as holy, always to be prepared “to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” and to do it with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15). But when will those opportunities come? What will they look like? In open persecution and suffering, for sure (1 Peter 3:13-14); but in our current culture of open worship and relative comfort, we cannot predict when the opportunity to make a defense will come. But when it does, Peter says we should be ready. How can you be ready? Simply by knowing and considering the hope that is within you: Jesus, and the redemption of our bodies, for “in this hope we were saved” (Romans 8:24). Knowing what the Lord has done for us, hearing it week by week and day by day, the Word of the Lord will dwell in us richly and we cannot help but be ready. The Lord’s own words will prepare us for when those words will need to come out of our mouths.

But on a very practical level, how are people joined to the outward organization we call Faith Lutheran Church? The order is, very generally, something like this: you, the members of the Body of Christ in this place, come into contact with those who do not believe in Christ (family, friends, co-workers, classmates, etc.). In one way or another, your prior relationship with that person will lead to an opportunity for you to give a defense for the hope that is within you. When you have the chance, invite the person to hear the Word of God with you on a Sunday morning. If the Divine Service is foreign to him or her, you have the opportunity to guide them through. Some will continue to hear the Word of God. As the Holy Spirit works, they may want to know more and that is where my inquiry/information class comes in. If you brought the person to hear God’s Word, offer to go with them to the class (essentially, you are their “sponsor” if they move forward in this process). Those in whom the Holy Spirit creates faith will move either toward baptism or a profession of faith, with you as their guides and sponsors. Those who hear, in whom faith is created, who call on the name of the Lord for salvation, are baptized or confirmed, and then they join the congregation of the faithful, whom God continues to feed with His Word and now with His Son’s Body and Blood. Although people come to faith in different circumstances, although they all have different histories and experiences, the decisive moments are always the same: faith and baptism. Usually adults are taught and then baptized, while infants and children are baptized and then taught. But both baptism and teaching (instruction in the Christian Faith) belong together, as Jesus instructs His Apostles in Matthew 28:19-20.

I encourage you to consider this movement and work of the Holy Spirit in your own relationships, and to keep in mind Thursday, September 11 (tentatively) as the day when a new information/inquiry class will begin. All we can do is be faithful, bear witness, and provide for the proclamation of the Word. God will do the work of granting faith and converting. He is faithful and He will surely do it.

 

Pr. Winterstein

 

*St. Augustine (354-430 AD), Bishop of Hippo in North Africa, said, “For you I am a bishop [overseer]; with you I am a Christian.”

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