There is no more important message than the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. What is this gospel? The apostle Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 15:1-8:
“Now I make known unto you brethren, the gospel which I preached unto you, which also ye received, wherein also ye stand, by which also ye are saved, if ye hold fast the word which I preached unto you, except ye believed in vain. For I delivered unto you first of all that which also I received: that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; and that he was buried; and that he hath been raised on the third day according to the scriptures; and that he appeared to Cephas; then to the twelve; then he appeared to above five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain until now, but some are fallen asleep; then he appeared to James; then to all the apostles; and last of all, as to the child untimely born, he appeared to me also.”
So, Paul tells us that this is the good news that believers receive, stand in, are saved by, and hold fast to. But what is it? At heart, it is the good news that the divine and human Christ — the supreme Prophet, Priest, and King — died for, or because of, our sins, and that He was raised from the dead. This is that which is “first of all”, or “of first importance”.
Why, then, do some churches say that there is more than the gospel that is of first importance? What churches am I talking about? I’m talking about churches that require people to profess faith in more than just the gospel to become members. You will not find this in the New Testament anywhere. In fact, you will find the exact opposite — that people are added to the church simply because they evidence that they believe the gospel by being baptized, and by showing love for other Christians.
The most noteworthy example I can think of is the account of the first converts to Christianity after the establishment of the New Testament church, which is found in Acts 2:
“37 Now when they [the crowd of pilgrims at Jerusalem] heard this [Peter’s gospel message], they were pricked in their heart, and said unto Peter and the rest of the apostles, Brethren, what shall we do? 38 And Peter said unto them, Repent ye, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ unto [because of] the remission of your sins; and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 For to you is the promise, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call unto him. 40 And with many other words he testified, and exhorted them, saying, Save yourselves from this crooked generation. 41 They then that received his word [the gospel] were baptized: and there were added unto them [the Jerusalem church] in that day about three thousand souls. 42 And they continued stedfastly in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:37-42).
In this passage, we see that all Peter told the crowd to do was to repent and be baptized, and they would receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, or become Christians. And how did they repent? By receiving his word, or message — the gospel. Immediately after they were baptized — in that day — they were added to the church in Jerusalem, becoming full members of that church. How do I know this? Because they continued stedfastly in fellowship, or shared life, with the church, including the breaking of bread, or communion, and corporate prayer. There was no membership class here.
So, what did they do to become members again? They repented and received the gospel, and were baptized — that’s it.
Let me give you another example of how people were marked out as members of local churches in the early church. It’s part of the beginning of Colossians:
“3 We give thanks to God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, praying always for you, 4 having heard of your faith in Christ Jesus, and of the love which ye have toward all the saints, 5 because of the hope which is laid up for you in the heavens, whereof ye heard before in the word of the truth of the gospel, 6 which is come unto you; even as it is also in all the world bearing fruit and increasing, as it doth in you also, since the day ye heard and knew the grace of God in truth; 7 even as ye learned of Epaphras our beloved fellow-servant, who is a faithful minister of Christ on our behalf, 8 who also declared unto us your love in the Spirit” (Colossians 1:3-8).
So, why does the apostle Paul give thanks for the Colossian church? Because he heard of:
1. their faith in Christ Jesus, and
2. the love which they have for all the saints.
Notice also his emphasis on the gospel in his valuation of their profession of faith; he talks about the hope laid up for them in heaven, of which they heard in the word of truth of the gospel, which came to them, and bears fruit, and increases in them, since the day they heard it and knew the grace of God in truth (a.k.a. the gospel). Finally, he again mentions their love in the Spirit.
Now, obviously Paul considers them to all be members in good standing of a local church. And how does he know this? Because of their faith in Christ Jesus and the gospel, and their love for all the saints. He doesn’t say that he knows this because they adhere to a whole statement of faith, and agree to abide by a church covenant and church rules of order. No, he knows this because they have faith in Christ and the gospel, and he knows this because they love other Christians.
My verdict: requiring Christians to hold to more than just the gospel to become members of churches puts on them an unnecessary burden that doesn’t help the church, but hinders it.
So, my question to you is: do you believe the gospel, and are you trusting in Christ alone for God’s forgiveness of your sins? Have you received, are you standing in, have you been saved by, and are you holding fast to the good news of the Lord Jesus Christ? If you are, have you been baptized by immersion by the authority of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit — by a Christian. If you are a baptized believer in the gospel, then you ought to be a member of a local church. And by member, I mean someone who steadfastly devotes themselves to the apostles’ teaching in a local church, loving fellowship in that local church, the Lord’s Supper in that local church, and corporate prayer in that local church.