Richard Baxter was a Puritan pastor in Kidderminster, England, in the mid-1600s. He was a recipient of the great move of God through the Great Reformation of the church led by such great men of God as Martin Luther and John Calvin. He was a dedicated servant of God and believed in a regenerate church membership. Indeed, he held that the true mark of the reformation lay in the centrality of the Gospel. Outward changes of form would not suffice.
He stated, “Alas! Can we think that the reformation is wrought, when we cast out a few ceremonies, and changed some vestures, and gestures, and forms! Oh no, sirs! It is the converting and saving of souls that is our business. That is the chiefest part of the reformation.” Reformation of the church is not about a change of worship style, rearranging of committees or a new building. The church is changed when the members are truly converted. An unregenerate church member is no member at all.
Baxter put feet to his theology. During the 1650s, he set out to visit every parishioner in his church at least once a year. He would spend at least an hour with each family, making plain the claims of the Gospel and the truths of God. The results were amazing. Not only was his church radically changed, but he saw others drawn to Christ and godliness as his members evidenced a living faith and walk with Christ.
His testimony of this practice was powerful. “In a word, when I came thither first, there was about one family in a street that worshipped God and called on His Name, and when I came away there were some Streets where there was not past one Family in the side of a street that did not so.”
I ache over the large church rolls and the small percent of the inhabitants of those rolls who actually walk with God and regularly worship and serve Him. Could it be that we have a host of people on our church rolls who made a “decision,” signed a card and were baptized, but never truly met the transforming person of Christ and received Him as Savior?
Let me be clear. I am well aware that believers can backslide and experience periods when they are not walking with the Lord. This is not my reference point. I am speaking of people who walk away and never return. Is it not time for us to take seriously our responsibility to them and take the time to rehearse with them the claims of the Gospel? Is it not important to call them to authentic discipleship and seek to stir up the faith that lives in them—or call them to genuine faith—no matter whether they have been dipped in the baptistery or been on the church roll for many years?
To be sure, I am not calling on a works-based salvation by confronting the idea that many on the rolls of our churches may be called church members, but have never been truly converted. Unequivocally, I stand on the truth of Scripture and the sure word of the reformers. Our salvation is based on faith in Christ alone. We are saved by His righteousness and not our own.
In a few weeks, Greg Frizzell, our prayer and spiritual awakening specialist, will release a new book, Saved, Certain and Transformed. It is designed for a pastor to take his people on a biblical journey that will serve to affirm their faith or reveal an invalid faith. This book could serve as a catalyst in our churches for pastors to emulate the work of Richard Baxter so as to lay the truth of the Gospel in clear and unvarnished terms before their people.
I believe it would be a valid expenditure of time for the deacons and pastor(s) of a church to visit each member—especially those who are “inactive”—for the express purpose of discussing the Gospel and helping them to examine their salvation. Too many times, we visit for the sole purpose of getting inactive members to come back to church. Instead, we need to sit down with them to rehearse the claims of the Gospel and help them determine whether they are genuine partakers of the heavenly gift in Christ.
I fear we are too cavalier in regard to the people on our church rolls. We have come to expect as normal large church rolls populated by “non-resident” and “inactive.” These words may sound good in the modern church, but I doubt they would have made the cut in the culture of the New Testament church. They don’t fly among Baptists around the world, either. Perhaps it’s time Southern Baptists drop these phrases from our vocabulary, too.