By Elder John Bender
I once was presented with the opinion that church attendance was not necessary to be a Christian and was asked to show where the Bible said that we need to attend church. In addition, regular church attendance has been on the decline as the years have gone by. I once had a conversation with a man who said “Whether we want to admit it or not each generation compromises the Christian life just a little bit.” I think this is true and this contributes to the decline in regular church attendance. Therefore to address the above challenge and the above concern, I initiated a study of God’s Word to attempt to show the necessity of regular church attendance. For the purpose of this article, “church” does not mean a church building, but rather it means a church where the Word of God is faithfully proclaimed and taught and God and His Word are the ultimate authority for doctrine and life. The Word of God is Scripture. As 2 Timothy 3:16 says, All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness. Although there are many churches which do not faithfully proclaim and teach the Word of God, I also want to make it clear that faithful churches are not limited to only one denomination.
Before I address the matter of church attendance, I want us to consider what it is to be a Christian. The Heidelberg Catechism #1 asks this very important question: “What is your only comfort in life and in death? That I with body and soul, both in life and in death, am not my own, but belong to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ, who with His precious blood has fully satisfied for all my sins, and redeemed me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me that without the will of my Father in heaven not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, that all things must work together for my salvation. Wherefore, by His Holy Spirit, He also assures me of eternal life, and makes be heartily willing and ready from now on to live unto Him.” To have this only comfort in life and in death we need to be a Christian. Heidelberg Catechism #2 tells us that to be a Christian and have this precious comfort we need to know three things: 1) the greatness of our sin and misery, 2) how we are redeemed from all our sins and misery, and 3) how we are to be thankful to God for such redemption.
Let us first consider how great our sin and misery is. For the most part we generally think pretty well of ourselves. We think we are a decent person, we work hard to take care of our families, we have never killed anyone, we don’t steal, we go to church most of the time unless something comes up that is more important. We think that our sinfulness is not really that great, but now let us consider what God says about that in His Word. The Bible in numerous places tells us the extent of man’s sinfulness. Then the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. (Genesis 6:5) The Bible also tells us how many people sin. The LORD looked down from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there were any that did understand, and seek God. They are all gone aside, they are all together become filthy: there is none that doeth good, no, not one. (Psalm 14:2-3) Again in Romans 3:10-12, we read As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one: There is none that understands, there is none that seeks after God. They have all gone out of the way, they have together become unprofitable; there is none that does good, no, not one. Jeremiah 17:9 says, The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it? Isaiah 53:6 says, All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all. Heidelberg Catechism #8 describes the extent of our sinfulness by saying that we are so depraved that we are wholly incapable of any good and prone to all evil unless we are born again by the Spirit of God. To become a Christian we first need to recognize and actually comprehend the extent of our sinfulness.
The second thing that we need to know to be a Christian is how we are redeemed from our sin and misery. Redemption from our sin and misery requires two things, true repentance and true faith. Acts 3:19 says, Repent therefore and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord. Jesus said in Luke 13:3, I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish. Acts 2:38 says, Then Peter said to them, repent, and let everyone of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins. Jesus told Nicodemus in John 3:3, Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. Heidelberg Catechism #88-90 set forth that there are two parts to true repentance. The first part is a heartfelt sorrow for sin, causing us to hate and turn from it always more and more. The second part is a heartfelt joy in God through Christ causing us to take delight in living according to the will of God in all good works. True faith also has two parts to it. To paraphrase Heidelberg Catechism #21, the first part of true faith is to know for sure that everything in God’s Word is true. The second part of true faith is to truly believe and trust that our sins are forgiven and that we are saved only because of Christ’s death on the cross. Ephesians 2:8-9 says, For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. Galatians 3:16 says, knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified.
The Biblical doctrine of how we are redeemed from our sin and misery is not a difficult matter to understand. In a 1995 Mission Festival sermon by Pastor David Fagrey in Leola, South Dakota, an example was given where a seven year old child’s simple statement of the Gospel lead to the conversion of Norma McCorvey. Norma McCorvey was the plaintiff “Jane Roe” in the Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade which legalized abortion in the United States. A simple statement of the Gospel is that if you repent of your sins and believe and trust that your sins are forgiven because of Jesus Christ’s death on the cross, you do not have to spend eternity in hell. Without true repentance and true faith in Jesus Christ, there is no forgiveness of sins and there is no salvation. When a person repents of their sins and trusts in Christ for the forgiveness of their sins, they are born again and have a new life in Jesus Christ. In this new life they will turn from sin more and more and make God the center of their lives and truly strive to obey His commandments.
The third thing that we need to know to be a Christian is how we are to be thankful to God for such redemption. When someone does something good for us we rightly should be thankful. God’s gift of forgiveness of sins, salvation, and eternal life in heaven is the greatest and most valuable gift that any person could ever receive. It is more valuable than all the riches in the world. For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul? (Matthew 16:26) So how do we thank God for the most precious gift of the forgiveness of our sins, salvation and eternal life in Jesus Christ? The Word of God tells us in Titus 3:8, This is a faithful saying, and these things I want you to affirm constantly, that those who have believed in God should be careful to maintain good works. Ephesians 2:10 says, For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them. These things are good and profitable to men. The Word of God is very clear that we are not saved by good works (see Galatians 3:16 above) but we are saved in order to do good works. Heidelberg Catechism #86 asks, “Since then we are redeemed from our misery by grace through Christ, without any merit of ours, why should we do good works?” The answer is, “Because Christ, having redeemed us by His blood, also renews us by His Holy Spirit after His own image, that with our whole life we show ourselves thankful to God for His blessing, and that He be glorified through us; then also, that we ourselves may be assured of our faith by the fruits thereof; and by our godly walk win also others to Christ.” Good works are defined in Heidelberg Catechism #91 as “Those only which proceed from true faith, and are done according to the law of God, unto His glory, and not such as rest on our own opinion or the commandments of men.” Heidelberg Catechism #64 teaches us that if we really are implanted into Christ by true faith it is impossible for us not to bring forth fruits of thankfulness.
What are “fruits of thankfulness?” A good place to start is by considering Heidelberg Catechism #116. “Why is prayer necessary for Christians? Because it is the chief part of thankfulness which God requires of us; and because God will give His grace and Holy Spirit only to those who earnestly and without ceasing beg them of Him and render thanks unto Him, for them.” Philippians 4:6 says, Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God. 1 Thessalonians 5:17-18 says, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Prayer is a very good way to tell God thank you for salvation.
Another fruit of thankfulness is obedience to the Law of God. Jesus tells us in John 14:15, If you love Me, keep My commandments. 1 John 2:3-4 says, Now by this we know that we know Him, if we keep His commandments. He who says, “I know Him,” and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him.
In addition, the Constitution of the Reformed Church in the United States lists a number of very good examples of fruits of thankfulness when it tells us our duties as church members. I will list a few of them: to live a sober, righteous and godly life; to labor faithfully to bring others to Christ; to contribute financially to the support of the Gospel and the extension of the Kingdom of Christ; to faithfully attend the public services of the Church; to engage diligently in private devotions; to regularly partake of the Lord’s Supper after you have been confirmed; and if we are parents we are to give attention to the Christian training of the members of our household. There is certainly a Biblical basis for each of these duties in the Word of God, and a Christian willingly seeks to do these things to be thankful for the wonderful gift of salvation in Jesus Christ. Although we can never keep all of God’s commandments perfectly, we must earnestly and sincerely desire and strive to do so.
In order to connect the duty of regular church attendance to Christianity, we need to consider three of the major things that take place in a proper church service. The church service in a Biblical church involves the worship of God, the preaching of the Word of God, and the administration of the Holy Sacraments. The Word of God is filled with many passages which direct us to worship God. The Ten Commandments are recorded in Exodus 20:1-17. The fourth commandment starts out by saying “Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy…” What does it mean to keep the Sabbath Day holy? By interpreting Scripture with Scripture I believe that keeping the Sabbath Day holy means worshiping the one true God who made the heavens and earth. If we look at Leviticus 23:3, it indicates that keeping the Sabbath involves a holy “convocation.” A convocation is a gathering or group of people. Exodus 31:16-17 says that observing the Sabbath was to continue throughout the generations of Israel. Psalm 95:6 says, Oh come, let us worship and bow down; Let us kneel before the LORD our Maker. Psalm 96:9 says, Oh, worship the LORD in the beauty of holiness! Psalms 98, 99, and 100, instruct the people to sing and praise God. Psalm 68:26 says, Bless God in the congregations.
Now let us consider some New Testament verses when Christ and His disciples started the New Testament church. Acts 2:41-42 sets forth the activities of an early church service. Then those who gladly received his word were baptized; and that day about three thousand souls were added to them. And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers. (I believe the breaking of bread here refers to the Lord’s Supper) Matthew 18:20 says, For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them. 1 Corinthians 16:2 says, On the first day of the week let each one of you lay something aside, storing up as he may prosper, that there be no collections when I come. 1 Timothy 3:15 says, the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth. John 4:23-24 says, But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him. God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth. 1 Corinthians 1:21 says, For since, in the wisdom of God, the world through wisdom did not know God, it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. Romans 10:17 says, So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.
In consideration of these scripture verses, it clear that the worship of God is absolutely necessary, and true faith comes as result of the preaching and hearing the Word of God. Further, we are told in Hebrews 10:23-25, Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful. And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching [emphasis added]. Heidelberg Catechism #103 asks, “What does God require in the fourth Commandment?” The answer is, “In the first place, God wills that the ministry of the Gospel and schools be maintained, and that I, especially on the day of rest, diligently attend church, to learn the Word of God, to use the Holy Sacraments, to call publicly upon the Lord, and to give Christian alms. In the second place, that all the days of my life I rest from my evil works, allow the Lord to work in me by His Spirit, and thus begin in this life the everlasting Sabbath.” If a person does not attend the Sunday worship services, most likely they will not worship God that day, they likely will not hear the preaching of the Word that day, and they cannot follow Christ’s instruction to take the Lord’s Supper in remembrance of His death on the cross.
Sometimes we use the term “a true Christian.” I am not sure that is a good way to say it. The reality is we are either a Christian or we are not a Christian. We are either a believer or we are an unbeliever. We are either saved or we are not saved. We are either going to spend eternity in heaven or we are going to spend eternity in hell. Both of these places are real, because the Word of God says they are real. Let us consider some Bible verses about heaven. Jesus told the thief on the cross in Luke 23:43, Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise. Romans 6:23 says, For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. John 5:24 says, Most assuredly, I say to you, he who hears My word and believes in Him who sent Me has everlasting life, and shall not come into judgment, but has passed from death into life. 1 Corinthians 2:9 says, But as it is written: Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, Nor have entered into the heart of man The things which God has prepared for those who love Him.
There are also verses that tell us about hell. John 3:36 says, He who believes in the Son has everlasting life; and he who does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him. Matthew 13:49-50 says, So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come forth, separate the wicked from among the just, and cast them into the furnace of fire. There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth. Mark 9:47-48 says, “…to be cast into hell fire– where ‘Their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.’ Matthew 7: 21-23 says, Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’ The Word of God’s description of hell is very frightening to me. (For someone reading this article, please pause reading now for a moment to just picture in your mind what hell would be like. Please meditate on this for a minute or two.) There is another thing that I think is even more frightening and that is to have one of my kids or grandkids suffering in this terrible place. (For someone reading this article, please pause reading for a moment to picture in your mind what that would be like. Please meditate on this also for a minute or two.) There is still another thing that is also very frightening. Think about the day when Christ shall return to the earth and He is separating the believers from the unbelievers. Think about what it would be like if we found ourselves being sorted into the unbelievers group. When we would recognize what is happening, how our hearts would race and how we would cry out and say “Jesus, there is a mistake!” and Jesus would say, Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels. (Matthew 25:41) (For someone reading this article, again please pause reading for a moment and picture in your mind what that would be like. Please meditate on this for a minute or two.)
We really do need to take our religion seriously. It is extremely important for ourselves and our family that we are going down the right road. We need to be very diligent to teach the Word of God to our children, to teach them to pray, to pray for them, and to be a good example to them in godly living, and yes, also in regular church attendance. We must be very careful that the Christian life is not compromised on our watch. Matthew 7:14 says, Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it.
Is there anything that can assure us that we are on the right road? We must be careful that we do not fool ourselves by thinking we are a Christian if we are not. However, I think God does want Christians to have assurance of salvation. 1 John 5:11-13 says, And this is the testimony: that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has life: he who does not have the Son of God does not have life. These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life, and that you may continue to believe in the name of the Son of God [emphasis added]. 2 Peter 1:10 says, Therefore, brethren, be even more diligent to make your call and election sure, for if you do these things you will never stumble; for so an entrance will be supplied to you abundantly into the everlasting kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. The Bible commentaries explain this verse means that the more diligent we are in serving the Lord the more assurance we will have that we are a Christian. If we do a sincere and honest examination of our hearts and lives we can recognize if we are truly striving to keep God’s commandments and we are doing the things that God requires of us. We can recognize if we truly are bringing forth fruits of thankfulness. If our lives demonstrate fruits of thankfulness for salvation and obedience to God’s commandments, we can be assured that we are on the right road that leads to everlasting life. Heidelberg Catechism #86 tells us that by our good works we are “assured of our faith by the fruits thereof.” Because of our sinful nature we continue to struggle against sin all our lives and always need God’s grace and Holy Spirit. We need to pray daily for God’s grace and Holy Spirit to help us in this struggle. Luke 11:13 says, If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him! Heidelberg Catechism #116 tells us that “God will give His grace and Holy Spirit only to those who earnestly and without ceasing beg them of Him, and render thanks unto him for them.” By God’s grace and Holy Spirit a Christian’s faith increases and he/she is able to bring forth fruits of thankfulness to be thankful for the precious gift of salvation through Jesus Christ.
It is certainly true that church attendance does not save us, but if we really are saved by the blood and Spirit of Christ we will attend the worship services of the church on a regular basis. It is a matter of obedience, reverence, and thankfulness to God. A Christian is someone who understands and actually comprehends the reality that because of his sinfulness he deserves eternal condemnation in hell. He also understands and actually comprehends that he has instead been given forgiveness of sins and eternal life in heaven. This precious gift is undeserved and a free gift from God. For the person who comprehends these realities and has been given forgiveness of sins and eternal life in Jesus Christ, it is impossible not to bring forth fruits of thankfulness.
Elder John Bender
First RCUS, Aberdeen, SD