I think some of my Barth posts, of late, might make it appear that I am anti-church; this would be far from the case though. I am afraid this post might make it seem as if I am anti-church; but this wouldn’t reflect the reality. What I am for is a proper understanding of the church vis-à-vis the church’s being: Jesus Christ. With this noted, in this post we will proceed to engage with Mark Dever’s little book: What Is A Healthy Church?
We just returned to a church in Portland, OR that has deep roots for my family (my grandparents were members here for years), and has some rootage for me personally (I attended this church for the first couple years of my time in Bible College). It is a Conservative Baptist Church, I grew up as the son of a Conservative Baptist pastor; and so it is fitting for me, and my family to attend a Conservative Baptist church. We really enjoyed our time there this last week, and plan on attending again this week (and most likely the many weeks that follow). As part of the visitor’s packet that we received there was included with that Dever’s book, just mentioned. So nerd that I am, I started reading his book[let]. Mind you, I have a history with Dever, in a very indirect way. My former professor in seminary, Ron Frost, and mentor of mine (I still hold him in this view) wrote his PhD dissertation on the same Puritan that Mark Dever did (and at the same time, and in the same country: England). They both wrote on Richard Sibbes, and ended up reading Sibbes’ theology from completely different universes one from the other. Dever essentially read Sibbes from the broader more mainline classically Reformed perspective, and simply locates Sibbes’ theology in line within the broader spectrum of Puritan and Westminster theology. Frost rejects this reading, and sees Sibbes as offering an alternative affective and free grace theology that emphasizes God’s winsome love for humanity, rather than thinking of God as the Divine Lawgiver who relates to humanity that way (to oversimplify things a bit). So I approach the following book, and its contents, with this kind of in-formed and critical eye; it hasn’t let me down.
Mark Dever, to open his first chapter Your Christianity and Your Church writes this:
Sometimes college campus ministries will ask me to speak to their students. I’ve been known, on several occasions, to begin my remarks this way: “If you call yourself a Christian but you are not a member of the church you regularly attend, I worry that you might be going to hell.”
You could say that it gets their attention.
Now, am I just going for shock value? I don’t think so. Am I trying to scare them into church membership? Not really. Am I saying that joining a church makes someone a Christian? Certainly not! Throw any book (or speaker) out the window that says as much.
So why would I begin with this kind of warning? It’s because I want them to see something of the urgency of the need for a healthy local church in the Christian’s life and to being sharing the passion for the church that characterizes both Christ and his followers.
So he elaborates a bit further about the importance of the local church, but then doubles down on the aforementioned sentiment further. He writes:
When a person becomes a Christian, he doesn’t just join a local church because it’s a good habit for growing in spiritual maturity. He joins a local church because it’s the expression of what Christ has made him—a member of the body of Christ. Being united to Christ means being united to every Christian. But that universal union must be given a living, breathing existence in a local church.
Sometimes theologians refer to a distinction between the universal church (all Christians everywhere throughout history) and the local church (those people who meet down the street from you to hear the Word preached and to practice baptism and the Lord’s Supper). Other than a few references to the universal church (such as Matt. 16:18 and the bulk of Ephesians), most references to the church in the New Testament are to local churches, as when Paul writes, “To the church of God in Corinth” or “To the churches in Galatia.”
Now what follows is a little intense, but it’s important. The relationship between our membership in the universal church and our membership in the local church is a lot like the relationship between the righteousness God gives us through faith and the actual practice of righteousness in our daily lives. When we become Christians by faith, God declares us righteous. Yet we are still called to actively be righteous. A person who happily goes on living in unrighteousness calls into question whether he ever possessed Christ’s righteousness in the first place (see Rom. 6:1-18; 8:5-14; James 2:14-15). So, too, it is with those who refuse to commit themselves to a local church. Committing to a local body is the natural outcome—it confirms what Christ has done. If you have no interest in actually committing yourself to an actual group of gospel-believing, Bible-teaching Christians, you might question whether you belong to the body of Christ at all! Listen to the author of Hebrews carefully:
23 Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, 25 not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.26 If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, 27 but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God. (Heb. 10:23-27)
Our state before God, if authentic, will translate into our daily decisions, even if the process is slow and full of missteps. God really does change his people. Isn’t that good news? So please, friend, don’t grow complacent through some vague idea that you possess the righteousness of Christ if you’re not pursuing a life of righteousness. Likewise, please do not be deceived by a vague conception of the universal church to which you belong if you’re not pursuing that life together with an actual church.
Dever notes some important things about the pertinence of the local church for the growing Christian, but there is something I would suggest more concerning underwriting what he is really getting at. There is a theology, more pointed, soteriology (or theory of salvation) funding the kind of points and emphases Dever is laying out in what he writes about being part of the local church.
We could flesh out many details here, but for purposes of space let me focus on the most glaring stand-out among the various points Dever is making. He cannot really be blamed, per se, for the emphasis that frames what he is writing; it is a function of his prior commitment to a particular conception of classical Calvinism, and more pointedly how that is given expression in the style of Puritan theology that he is a proponent of. What stands out, as I read this, is this constant obsession with PROOF. You can see it in various sections I quote from him; in particular the very last I have emboldened.
In the classical Calvinist, Federal (Covenantal) theology framing of things, and with more specificity, because of the idea of particular redemption, or more popularly, Unconditional Election and Limited Atonement, there is this constant need to experiment and see if indeed a person is one of the genuinely elect for whom Christ died. In Puritan England this way of thinking was known as experimental predestinarianism; most recently I summarized what that entails in my personal chapter in our second volume Evangelical Calvinism book (2017):
The basic idea, is as we just described: i.e. 1) if Christ died for the elect; 2) but the elect did not know who they were, objectively; 3) then the “elect” throughout their lives engaged in “experiments” to determine, subjectively, if they were truly one of the elect; 4) these experiments involved observing one’s good works and inferring from those that Christ must indeed be present in the elect’s life because Christ’s works are apparently present in the elect’s life; 5) although the “experimental” or subjective aspect of this always remained because it was possible to look like one of the elect, but after all only have a “temporary faith” or an “ineffectual faith.”
So even though we haven’t elaborated this too much here, as the quote alerts us to is that within the Purtian/Westminster and classically Reformed teaching on predestination, it was possible to have a ‘temporal faith’ such that someone could look like a Christian but not actually be one in the final analysis. We can see all of these entailments in Dever’s admonition for people to be involved in the local church; more, to be full-fledge members. If people are not actively involved in the church in such ways, instead of questioning someone’s maybe disobedience, or maybe looking for alternative reasons for lack of involvement, Dever would have us immediately question whether or not such a person is actually saved to begin with.
What Dever is offering in his little booklet is nothing more than the old tried and true Puritan notion of experimental predestinarianism. Many contemporary classically Reformed people don’t frame things this tersely, nevertheless, at a theological and ideational level all of this and more is indeed informing their theologies all the way down (and I mean in regard to soteriology, ecclesiology, theory of authority, so on and so forth). Mark Dever serves as an excellent example of how someone’s theology informs what most people would simply consider to be the practical stuff of church body life and pastoral consideration. Some people have no problem with this way of thinking theologically, and so they will welcome this type of teaching from Dever; but many of us see holes in it running all the way back up to the way we see God (i.e. doctrine of God/Theology Proper).
Do I think involvement in the local church is important? Absolutely! Do I use church membership as PROOF that someone is genuinely one of the elect, one of the justified before God? Absolutely not! There are a variety of reasons why someone might not be able to be a member or active in the local body of Christ (take me for example: I work for the railroad, currently, and have no real schedule [until just recently]. I haven’t been able to regularly attend church for the last three plus years … which has been a dread to me). But even if someone isn’t a member in the local body, and even if we should encourage a brother or sister of the importance of this, we should not hang their souls over hell in order to give them motivation to attend church. I agree that it is most organic for someone who is a Christian to want to be a participant in the local church; but that’s not the concern here. The concern is how Dever is using church membership as a kind of practical syllogism to prove whether or not someone might or might not be genuinely justified before God.
 Mark Dever, What Is A Healthy Church? (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2007), 21.
 Ibid., 26-8. [emboldening mine]
 Bobby Grow, “’Assurance is of the Essence of Saving Faith’ Calvin, Barth, Torrance, and the ‘Faith of Christ,’” in Myk Habets and Bobby Grow, eds., Evangelical Calvinism: Volume 2: Dogmatics&Devotion (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2017), 40-1.