Tell Me Your Story of Jesus: Testimonies and Church Membership

Southern Baptists have always treasured the doctrine of regenerate church membership. Insofar as it is humanly possible, a church’s membership should be comprised of authentic believers. Of course, there are a million different ways to undermine regenerate church membership, even in a congregation that affirms the doctrine in principle. It’s important that every church have certain policies and procedures in place to help gauge the spiritual state of prospective members, even if we never get it perfectly right on this side of eternity.

Over the years, I have been a part of a couple of churches where prospective members never had to share a conversion testimony as part of the membership process. In one of those churches, you literally just had to walk the aisle and verbalize to a decision counselor that you were a Christian who had been baptized. I eagerly acknowledged I was a baptized Christian, even though at that time I could not even explain a basic gospel summary. I just knew I had grown up in church, believed that God and Jesus were real, and hoped I would go to heaven when I die because I was a pretty moral kid.

In the ensuing years, I came to faith in Christ, was biblically baptized, and became a member of a healthy church that required all prospective members to share their conversion testimony. It wasn’t enough to answer a couple of questions; you had to tell your story of Jesus and summarize the good news. I can remember working as a decision counselor and being a bit embarrassed to be asking a seminary professor who wanted to join our church to share his personal testimony. I told him it felt a little awkward and apologized to him. He told me it wasn’t awkward at all, he loved sharing his testimony, and he was thrilled our church was asking that of him as a potential member. It was a great testimony.

As one of the elders at First Baptist Church of Durham, it is a great privilege to regularly interview prospective members. Part of that membership interview includes hearing personal testimonies. I have heard some great stories of God’s grace in the past few years. One young lady grew up as a pastor’s daughter, was saved as a young child, struggled with a call to missions as a teenager, and is now married to a man who desires to be a pastor. One brother is a converted hippy who was radically saved in his mid-20s and has been teaching men’s Bible classes for many years. His wife, another converted hippy, grew up with terrible parents before she was introduced to a Heavenly Father who adopted her into his family.

One woman grew up in Brazil, was converted in college, but then was part of a quasi-evangelical cult for a couple of years because of poor discipleship; the Lord eventually rescued her from that group. Several brothers are former drug addicts or alcoholics, some of them homeless and living at a rescue mission before the Lord saved them. One husband and wife were both raised in Christian homes and have loved the Lord for the vast majority of their lives. Many folks came to America as international graduate students before they were introduced to the gospel through an ESL class. One young lady was raised in a very strong Christian home, became a teenager, and realized she had to own her parent’s faith as her own.

I have no doubt that some folks who are false believers occasionally join our church—such is life in a fallen world. But I am convinced that requiring prospective members to share their testimony with a pastor (and requiring public testimonies prior to baptism) helps to safeguard the principle of regenerate church membership. It also allows pastors to rejoice with prospective members at how God has manifested in grace in their lives. I would strongly encourage every church to require a full conversion testimony and gospel summary as part of the membership process.

Aspect 5(c): A Mission Driven by Biblical Theology (Salvation, Church, End Times)

(By: Danny Akin & Bruce Ashford)

In the biblical doctrine of salvation, we learn that salvation is the Lord’s. It is God’s work from beginning to end (Ps 3:8; Jonah 2:9; Heb 12:2). As God elects and calls, man repents and places faith in Christ. Man is converted as God regenerates him, renewing his inner man, and imparting eternal life to him. Together, conversion and regeneration shed light upon the fact that a saved man now has union with Christ. This salvation is wrought by Christ’s work on the cross, whereby man may be justified and sanctified. Salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, for the glory of God alone. The doctrine of salvation is full-orbed, and we must work hard to form evangelism and discipleship practices that recognize all of the salvific process. Of the many implications that this doctrine holds for our ministry practice, here are two of the most significant.

One implication is that we must call men to repent and not merely to give mental assent to the gospel. On the international mission field, this means that our testimonies, story-sets, and discipleship material do not excise the notion of repentance out of the gospel (under the guise of contextualization). This means that men must turn their backs on false saviors; they must repudiate tribal gods and witch doctors, reject their belief that the Qur’an is God’s revelation and that Muhammad is his prophet, and cease to worship in spirit temples and ancestral shrines. In our home context, it means that men must turn their back on the worship of sex, money, and power. They must not give ultimate allegiance to things that are not ultimate, whether their idolatry be centered on a nation, a political party, a job, or a hobby.

Another implication is that we must beware of “magical” or “mechanistic” views of salvation. We must make clear that salvation is not mere mental assent, mere verbal profession of faith, or mere repetition of a prayer of salvation. If a person holds to such a reductionist view of salvation, he will have a wrong goal: the maximum number of people who have prayed a prayer or made a verbal profession. Further, he likely will have given false assurance of salvation to men who are not saved, and a false testimony to the church and the broader community. Finally, he will likely create methods of evangelism that are reductionist to the extreme and harmful to the progress of the gospel and the planting of healthy churches.

In the biblical doctrine of the church, we learn that the church is the people of God, the body of Christ, and the temple of the Spirit. It is one, holy, universal, and apostolic. A healthy local church is marked by the right preaching of the gospel, right administration of the ordinances, and a commitment to discipleship and discipline. It is composed of regenerate members who are committed to one another. These members practice their spiritual gifts, and bear fruit together, in spiritual interdependence for the furtherance of the gospel. God’s program for extending his kingdom centers on the local church.

One implication of this doctrine is that our convention will want to be careful not to allow its institutions and agencies to override the primacy of the local church. Seminaries, mission boards, and agencies are not mentioned in the Scriptures. They are man-made, and exist solely for the purpose of furthering the ministry of our churches. Good parachurch organizations exist to serve the local church. Bad parachurch organizations usurp the place of the local church. Another implication is that we should be careful who we count as a church “member.” Southern Baptists count 16 million people as members of their churches, yet millions of them are non-attenders. Some of them cannot even be found. We must restore meaningful membership. Baptist churches have sacrificed the center of their ecclesiology if many (or most?) of the members of their churches do not even evidence certain minimal marks of regeneration (such as a desire to worship with the church of which they are a “member”).[1] A third implication is that we should be careful what we count as a “church.” Our international workers in particular must wrestle with this issue.[2] When giving account to the convention, they must be scrupulous in reporting how many churches they have planted. The convention, in turn, must make clear that their CP and Lottie Moon giving is not premised upon a certain number of churches planted annually.

The doctrine of the end times has personal, national, and cosmic aspects. In the Scriptures, we find a personal aspect, as they teach us that it is appointed to man once to die, and then the judgment. After death, he will receive either reward or condemnation (Lk 16:19-31). We also find a national aspect, as we learn that the end will not come until the Messiah has won for himself worshippers from among every tribe, tongue, people, and nation (Rev 5, 7). This ingathering of the nations is not an appendix tacked on to the main body of Christian doctrine; rather, it is at the heart of God’s redemptive plan. Finally, the Scriptures also tell us of a cosmic aspect of the end times, as Peter tells us to “look for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Pet 3:13). In this new universe, there will be no pain or tears as we live amidst the glory of the Triune God (Rev 21, 22).

Personal eschatology is both comforting and unsettling. It is a comfort, indeed a great joy, to know that we will dwell with our Lord eternally. It is a difficult and unsettling doctrine, however, because we know that there are countless millions who have never heard the gospel and whose destiny apart from Christ is torment. This doctrine is indeed so unsettling that many have either rejected this biblical doctrine or dismissed it from mind in order to ease the conscience. However, we must not reject or dismiss it, but rather take it to heart, allowing it to drive us to build Great Commission churches who will take the gospel to our neighbors, our communities, our nation, and indeed to the nations.


[1] See Paige Patterson’s remarks on ecclesiological renewal in “My Vision of the Twenty-First Century SBC,” Review and Expositor 88 (1991), 37-55, and John Hammett’s argument that regenerate membership is the center of Baptist ecclesiology in Hammett, Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2005), 81-108. Particularly helpful are Mark Dever’s numerous treatments of ecclesiological issues (including meaningful membership) which evidence theological depth and breadth, as well as guidance on handling the practical aspects of those issues. See Mark Dever, Nine Marks of a Healthy Church (Wheaton: Crossway, 2004), and Mark Dever and Paul Alexander, The Deliberate Church (Wheaton: Crossway, 2005). Finally, see “On Regenerate Church Membership and Church Member Restoration,” (June 2008), a resolution from the June 2008 SBC. http://www.sbc.net/resolutions/amResolution.asp?ID=1189.

[2] Multiple challenges present themselves on the mission field. How does one know when a group of believers counts as a church? When does a Bible study become a church? An excellent treatment of these questions is J. Atkinson, “House Church: A Biblical, Historical, and Practical Analysis of Selected Aspects of Wolfgang Simson’s Ecclesiology from a Southern Baptist Perspective,” Th. M. thesis, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, 2006.