The Five Questions of Membership: What It Means to Be a Member of FPC – The Five Questions of Membership (1)

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on September 17, 2006

Romans 3:23

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The Lord’s Day Morning
September 17, 2006

Romans 3:23
“Church Membership (1):
Do you acknowledge yourselves to be sinners in the sight of God, justly
deserving His displeasure, and without hope save in His sovereign mercy?

Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III

If you have your Bibles, I’d invite you to turn with me to Romans–first in
chapter three, then we’re going to go back to chapter two, and then forward to
chapter five as we look at three short passages which are really simply texts
that capture in summary form teaching that is found not simply all through
Paul’s writings or all through the New Testament, but all through the
This morning we’re beginning a series the five questions of
church membership. And church membership matters. The Lord Jesus has promised in
Matthew 18 that He would be there where two or three are gathered in His name.
It’s a promise given especially to the gathered church, the local church, in its
specific expression. When the Apostle Paul in I Timothy 3:15,16 says that the
church is the household, or family, of God, the assembly of the living God, the
pillar and support of the truth, it’s especially the local church, the gathered
church, which he has in mind as he says those things.
And so membership really does matter, because when we are
saved, we are not only united to Christ, we are united to all who are united to
Christ. And we’re not just united to all in some generic abstract way…that we
are in some emotional or sentimental way connected with Christians around the
world. We are especially settled into local congregations where God wants us to
be discipled, even as we heard from Matthew 28 today. When Jesus says, “Go,
therefore, and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them…” Jesus is
telling His disciples that the place where He wants discipleship done is the
place where baptism is done, and that’s the local church. And so God doesn’t
save us as Lone Rangers, He saves us into a family where we’re nurtured and
built up in the faith.
And just like in our homes we have to live out the gospel, so
also in the church we have to live out the gospel. In our homes we have to live
out the gospel because we’re still sinners, and husbands sin against wives and
wives sin against husbands, and children sin against parents and parents against
their children, and what do we have to do? We have to forgive and be forgiven,
and you can’t do that the way God intends it to be done apart from the gospel,
apart from the local church. We break one another’s hearts. We disappoint one
I have a drawer full of letters and communications over the
last ten years. These have been ten blessed years for me, but let me tell you I
keep every letter that I’ve received where I’ve blown it, and somebody has loved
me enough to tell me that I’ve blown it. I keep it, and every once in a while I
go back and I remind myself, “Ligon, you blew it. And that brother, that sister,
loved you enough to say, ‘Ligon, you blew it!’ and by God’s grace you repented
of it.” And I want to remind myself of that, because we let one another down. We
sin against one another, and that requires the gospel to be at work both so that
we recognize that we need to be forgiven and so that we can forgive when we need
to forgive. And God wants the gospel lived out in the home and in the church,
and that’s why these five questions of membership are so important.
The very first question of membership, which all of you who are communing
members (that is, members who participate in coming to the Lord’s Table) all of
you have answered this question, and it goes like this:

“Do you acknowledge yourselves to be sinners in the sight of God, justly
deserving His displeasure and without hope save in His sovereign mercy?”

Now that question is a very biblical question. In fact, one of my goals today is
to show you that all it is is a summary of truth that you can find all
throughout the Bible, but I can’t think of better summaries than those the
Apostle Paul gives us here, first in Romans 3:23, then in Romans 2:1,2; and then
in Romans 5:6, 8. So let’s pray and then read God’s word.
Heavenly Father, thank You for Your word. Teach us to behold wonderful truth
from Your Law. This we ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Hear the word of God in Romans 3:23:
“…For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

Then turn back with me to Romans 2:1,2:
“Therefore you are without excuse, every man of you who passes judgment, for in
that you judge another, you condemn yourself; for you who judge practice the
same things. And we know that the judgment of God rightly falls upon those who
practice such things.”

And then forward to Romans 5:6, 8:
“…For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the
ungodly…But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet
sinners, Christ died for us.”
Amen. And thus ends this reading of God’s holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May
He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.

The Apostle Paul in these brief verses has set before us
three truths: We are sinners; we are justly condemned by God for our sins; and,
we are without hope apart from God’s mercy. And it is those three truths which
are said to us in capsule form in the first question of membership:
“Do you acknowledge yourself to be a sinner in the sight of God, justly
deserving His displeasure and without hope, save in His sovereign mercy?”

And I’d like to look at those three things with you very
briefly this morning because it is vital to understand. All true Christians
acknowledge these three things. The very beginning of our journey with Christ is
in the acknowledgement of these things. The very beginning of our understanding
and embrace of the gospel is found in these things. There are many things that
are unnecessary in life: these things are not unnecessary. They are necessary
and essential; they are vital for life here and hereafter, and so it behooves us
to spend some time reflecting on them.

I. All true Christians acknowledge that they are

First, if you’ll look in Romans 3:23, you’ll see this truth:
We are sinners. The first truth that is encapsulated in the first question of
membership, “Do you acknowledge yourselves to be sinners in the sight of God?”
is this very truth, and all true Christians acknowledge that they are sinners.
Now, this is an unpopular teaching. Do you know it is one of
the few truths of Scriptures that can be empirically verified? People don’t like
this truth, but there is no mistaking this truth. People are sinners. We sin. I
sin. You sin. And we see the consequences of sin everywhere. It is absolutely
undeniable. You have to go into reality break in order to deny the reality of
our sin, but it’s never been a popular doctrine. In the Bible, when the prophets
preached to Israel that they were sinful and they needed to turn to Christ, did
Israel like that message? Wouldn’t they have liked something a little more
upbeat, positive and encouraging? Yes! They killed prophets for preaching that
message. When John the Baptist went to Herod and called him a sinner, do you
think that Herod liked that sermon? No! He hated it! And he eventually took
John’s head. When Jesus called the scribes and the Pharisees – the spiritual
leaders of His day – sinners, do you think they liked that message? No. They
hung Him on a cross. This message has never ever been a popular message, but
it’s true. It’s inescapably true, and the rest of the gospel doesn’t make sense
until you understand this point.
Now, this doctrine has been denied from time to time over the
course of history. About 125 years ago, the liberal branch of Christianity began
to attack vehemently this doctrine in the church. In fact, one of the great
defenders of the faith, Benjamin Breckenridge Warfield, a professor of theology
at Princeton Theological Seminary, wrote a series of three articles called
Miserable Sinner Christianity in the Hands of the Rationalists. Now, you see,
it’s a play on words from Jonathan Edwards’ sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an
Angry God. But he was saying that the very idea that we are sinners who need to
be forgiven was an idea that was being radically pilloried and mocked and denied
and rejected by liberal rationalistic Christianity, and Warfield put on a
brilliant defense of this as biblical truth.
But of course it’s not just liberal Christianity that doesn’t like this truth.
Many people who call themselves evangelicals today don’t like this truth. The
most popular TV preacher today…the most popular TV preacher today makes a
point of saying that he doesn’t like to talk about sin, because he would rather
talk about something positive. He’d rather talk about something encouraging.1
When the president of the National Association of Evangelicals was interviewed
by a mainstream media person who is in a liberal mainline denomination, even
that TV interviewer who was a member of a liberal mainline denomination said to
this evangelical, “You know, I’ve been here for a week and I haven’t heard sin
mentioned. Do you guys believe in sin?” And here was the response: “Oh, yeah, we
believe in sin, but we don’t talk about it much around here. We want to talk
about how people can make their lives better and realize their potential. We
don’t like to talk about sin much.”2
So it’s not just one branch of Christianity that doesn’t like
this particular message. Nobody likes this message. But it’s true. Have you ever
been in a room where there was a great truth there hovering like an elephant,
and nobody wanted to admit it, but it was controlling everything in the room?
Well, that’s just like this message. Nobody wants to hear this message, but it’s
true, and it’s essential that we grasp it in order to embrace the gospel.
It’s so funny…for 125 years we’ve been attacking sin, and
then a very famous scholar writes a book called Whatever Happened to Sin?3
What do you think happened to sin? We’ve been protesting against it for 100
years! We finally got rid of it! (At least, we thought we had.) And we see it
all around us. And until this truth about ourselves is admitted, the gospel does
not make sense.
Think of it, friends: What was the very first word that Jesus
ever spoke in His public ministry? “Repent.” What was the very first word that
John the Baptist ever spoke in his public ministry? “Repent.” When Peter was
asked by the gathered multitude at Pentecost after he had preached that
barnburner of a sermon, “Brothers, what shall we do?” what was the first word
that came out of his mouth? “Repent.” You see, the gateway into the embrace of
the fullness of God’s mercy in the gospel is the recognition that we have a
problem, and we are the problem. We’re sinners.
You remember the famous essay in which people were asked to
write into the Times London to give their own statement about what was wrong
with the world today. Various people pontificated on different matters about
what was wrong with the world today, and the famous English writer, G. K.
Chesterton, wrote in what is still, I think, reputed to be the shortest letter
to the editor ever submitted to the Times London for the editorial pages, and it
simply said this:

“Dear Sir:
I am.
Yours truly,
G.K. Chesterton.”

He got it. Sin is the problem.

Now let me very quickly say that Christians are not saying to
non-Christians, “You’re bad, we’re not. You’ve got a problem; we’d like to help
you fix it.” This is not like “Hey, I’m from the government and I’m here to help
you.” You know – “I see you’ve got a problem over there and I’d like to come
help you fix your problem.” No. Christians are saying, “Look, we are beggars who
have found bread, because we have been and are in the same situation that you
are. We have this enormous struggle, and the struggle is sin. And we love you so
much that we want to tell you the One who saved us from our sin, but we’re not
people who have ‘arrived’…who have our act together…and now we’re here to
help. We’re sinners in need of grace, telling other sinners who need grace where
they can find that grace.”
But let me say also that this is not just a truth that we learn at the beginning
of the Christian life, and then we move on. You never move on from the reality
of sin and the need for grace. You never move on from that reality until the day
that God perfects you in glory, because Christians continue to sin.
What does John say? When the TV preacher tells you “I didn’t
stop sinning until I learned that I wasn’t a sinner, and if somebody is telling
you, Christian, that you’re a sinner, that’s a lie”… well, what does I John
1:8 say to that particular teaching if you hear it from a TV preacher?
It says that:“Those who say that they have no sin are deceived, and the truth is
not in them.”
Now those words were spoken not to non-Christians, but to
Christians. Sin continues to be an important reality that we deal with in the
life of the local church; and I want to say this very loudly and clearly,
because this is a transformingly important truth.
First of all, this is important because so often I see the
spectacle of Christians that are surprised by the power and impact of other
professing Christians’ sins against them, and they think this couldn’t be
happening in the Christian church. ‘It couldn’t be happening in my family and my
church, that someone could sin like this.’ My friends! Have you read the New
Testament lately? Name me a church in which the powerful extraordinary
manifestation of the Holy Spirit was seen in full. The church in Corinth–they
spoke in tongues, they prophesied, they had words of knowledge, dreams, visions,
they had miraculous healings, and what else was going on in Corinth? Well, the
Apostle Paul says, for instance, there were people in the church that were suing
one another. And there was one man who was a church member who was having an
affair with his step-mother, and the church wasn’t doing anything about it. In
other words, that church was a pluperfect mess! And yet, Christians are
surprised when they find out that other Christians are big sinners.
Now, of course, sometimes, my friends, what we’re finding out
is that a person is not a true Christian. It will all depend on how they respond
to their sin. If they attempt to evade their sin and belittle their sin, there
is a sign that we’re dealing with a false believer, someone who professes to be
a believer in Christ and yet who does not possess the reality of the new birth.

And yet, there can be true Christians who grievously sin.
Think of David, called a man after God’s own heart. My friends, if any Christian
in our church were to do this…it would certainly be on the front pages if they
did what David did. Serious sin…and so, my friends, it’s so important for us
to recognize that in this church we will have the opportunity to forgive one
another not for just tiny little itty bitty mistakes of judgment, but for big
sins; and that shouldn’t surprise us, because sin continues to be a haunting
problem for the Christian throughout his life. But the flip side of that is
this: that this church then becomes the place in which we can exercise the grace
of forgiveness, because we realize we’re sinners who’ve been forgiven, and not
for itty bitty little petty discretions, no…Paul says it how? We’ve fallen
short of the glory of God.
Now don’t think of fallen short as “oh, we just missed it by
that much!” That’s not what Paul is saying. The Apostle Paul, when he says that
you’ve fallen short of the glory of God, you realize what Paul is saying. Paul
is saying that you have missed the point of life. It’s not “just by that
much….” You’ve missed the point of life. There are going to be men and women
created in the image of God who stand before Him at the Last Day and they’re
going to hear the words: ‘You have missed the point for which I made you.’ So my
friends, sin is not just a trifling little problem, but it is in the context of
those huge sins that we still commit even as redeemed believers that we have an
opportunity as redeemed believers to forgive, because we’ve been forgiven; and
the more we see God’s mercy and grace to us, the more we are able to forgive
even those big sins, and so the church becomes an arena in which we display the
gospel in action as we forgive and as we have to receive forgiveness.
So here’s Paul’s message. Here’s the message of that first question: ‘Cheer up!
You’re worse than you think you are! Cheer up! Things are worse than you think
they are!’ Now all of us do everything we can to avoid the impact of realizing
the consequences of what we have done.
I am public enemy number one in this area. I hate to repent!
I hate it. It is emotionally and psychologically jarring to me to be face to
face in the mirror with what I’ve done and said, and its consequences.

But I know that I cannot deal with that sin by trying to pretend it away. I have
to face it and recognize that I am sinful, and that I can’t look somewhere else
for somebody else to be the problem, or the cause, or the reason for what I’ve
done. I’m responsible for what I do.
And that’s where this question begins: Christians acknowledge
themselves to be sinners. They don’t deal with it by denial. They embrace that
truth. As hard as it is to embrace that truth about themselves, they know that
the way to the cross is not around sin, it’s through sin. The way to the cross
is not around sin. The way to salvation is not by saying OK, I’m just going to
forget about that for a little while, and I’m going to think about something
positive. No. The way to salvation, the way to the cross is through sin,
realizing our sin. That’s why the first announcements of the gospel from Jesus
and John and Peter come with “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

II. All true Christians acknowledge that they are rightly condemned
Now the second thing we’ll need to see, you’ll see
it in Romans 2:1, 2, and that’s simply this: Not only do Christians acknowledge
that they’re sinners, they acknowledge that God’s judgment against them is just.
In other words, they acknowledge that they are rightly condemned by God. It’s a
fascinating passage here. For those of you who are attorneys, you would love to
study these two verses, because Paul is drawing on typical Roman jurisprudence
when he speaks in this passage. Look at what he says.
“Therefore, you have no excuse, every
one of you who passes judgment, for in that which you judge another, you condemn
yourself; for you who judge practice the same things. And we know that the
judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such things.”

The picture is of somebody standing in the courtroom and
saying before the judge, “But…but…they did it! They sinned!” and then the
judge looking down and saying, “As for your case, sir, you have no case.”
Paul uses a specific term in this passage. It’s translated in
your Bibles probably with the words without excuse or no excuse, and it’s a term
that comes out of a Roman court of law. It’s a term when a defendant is standing
before the judge, in the dock, and the judge says, “You know what? You have no
case. You have no argument. You have nothing to say for yourself. You are flat
wrong, and there is no mitigating circumstance, and there is no way that you can
get out from under this just judgment.”
Many of you perhaps followed the case of Claude Allen. Claude
Allen was the Chief Domestic Policy Advisor to our President, George W. Bush,
and he is an evangelical Christian and a member of a dear friend’s congregation
in Gaithersburg, Maryland. Claude, about a year ago, began to steal things from
the local Target store. He stole several thousand dollars worth of things.
Eventually he was deeply convicted by this, and he resigned from his position
without telling President Bush or the staff the reason for his resignation. He
stated “personal reasons.” A few weeks later he was indicted by a jury, and he
had to stand before the judge in light of his action. He counseled for many
months with his pastor and with some godly lawyers, some lawyers in Washington,
D.C…..some lawyers in Washington, D.C., who know many lawyers here in this
church, in fact…and they talked with him about how he was going to approach
this before the judge. You can imagine the tremendous embarrassment to him, to
the President, to the administration. And very frankly, some of his lawyers did
not want him to go in and fully admit everything that he did. Claude Allen,
after many months of counseling, determined that he was ready to admit
everything that he had done and enter a plea of guilty. He stood before the
judge, he admitted everything that he did, he offered no mitigating
circumstances…and the courtroom was breathless. Absolutely breathless. The
judge said to him, “Sir, in all my years on the bench, I have never heard a
confession like this.” The judge was exceedingly merciful to Claude in rendering
the judgment which he made against him, but Claude stood before that judge and
said, “I do not have an argument. I do not have an excuse for what I’ve done.”
Although friends would have been quick to make excuses for Claude, Claude
refused to make an excuse for himself.
And that is precisely where the Christian is before God. The
Christian says, “Lord God, I don’t have an excuse for my sin. I don’t have an
argument; I don’t have a mitigating circumstance. There’s nobody else that I can
blame. I am guilty.” You see, my friends, Christians understand that the problem
is not “out there”–the problem is “in here.” The problem is not what somebody
has done to us, the problem is us.
You see, that’s the difference between Christianity and all
other religions. All other religions say the problem is out there, and the
solution is in here; but Christians know that the problem is not out there, it’s
in here, and therefore the solution can’t be in me. It’s got to be outside of
Who better could understand that but David, who did exactly
what the Apostle Paul describes in Romans 2:1,2? You remember the great story in
II Samuel 12. David sees a beautiful woman naked, on the rooftop bathing. He
lusts for her. He finds out who she is. He sends for her. He begins an
adulterous affair with her. He finds out subsequently that she is married to one
of his most loyal men. He then has that man killed to cover up his sin. And his
friend, the prophet Nathan, comes to him and he says ‘David, let me tell you a
story. There was a very, very rich man, and there was a man who was traveling,
who came to receive hospitality in that rich man’s house. Now, there was also a
poor man who had only one lamb; but the rich man had everything. And when that
visitor came and lodged in the rich man’s house, you know what that rich man
did? He took the poor man’s one lamb, he slaughtered it, and he served it as
food at the feast to his guest. What do you think that rich man deserves?’ And
you remember what David said: ‘That man deserves to die!’ (Do you see David
doing exactly what God says in Romans 2:1,2? “You who judge practice the same
things yourself.”) And you remember what Nathan says: “David, you are the man.”
And thank God, by the mercy of Christ, David does not attempt to avoid it, to
evade it anymore. He says ‘Nathan, you’re right. I am that man. I deserve to
That is exactly what the question of membership is asking: Do you acknowledge
yourself to justly deserve God’s displeasure? To say, ‘Lord, I don’t have an
argument. If You condemn me, I don’t have an argument.’

III. All true Christians acknowledge that their only
hope is in God’s mercy

And that leads us to the last place, and you see it there in
Romans 5:6,8, and you see it there in the final words of the question of
membership: that we acknowledge ourselves to be without hope, except in God’s
sovereign mercy. Because you see, my friends, all Christians acknowledge
themselves to be sinners; all Christians acknowledge themselves to be rightly
condemned; but all true Christians also acknowledge that our only hope is in
God’s mercy.
If you had been David and you had just been approached, you
had just been confronted by Nathan and you were trying to figure out a prayer to
pray, what would you have prayed? You know what David prayed? “Lord God, forgive
me, have mercy on me, because of Your lovingkindness.” In other words, David
knew that there was no solution that he could offer for his sin. He couldn’t fix
his sin by turning over a new leaf. He had committed adultery with a woman. He
could not take that back. He had had a child out of wedlock with that woman. He
could not take that back. He had killed a man. He could not fix that! So the
solution was not going to be in him, it was going to have to be outside of him;
and that solution, the only solution that he could think of, was the mercy of
God. (Right, David! Right! Exactly right!)
My friends, Paul says you’re helpless…you’re hopeless.
You’re done for…except at the right time, while you were helpless, while you
were done for, while you were a sinner under the just condemnation of God,
stunningly…stunningly!…God gave His own Son to die for you, because He loved
you that much….so that you wouldn’t have to die for your sin.
You see, that’s the word of the gospel. Here’s the good word: ‘Cheer up, you’re
worse than you thought. But God is more merciful than you ever dreamt, and He
holds out a hope for you that isn’t in you, it’s outside of you. It comes from
Him.’ And every Christian begins his journey with Christ and in the church right
there: ‘Lord God, in me there is no hope; but outside of me in something that
You have provided, there’s more hope for my life than I’ve thought there was for
years. There’s a hope that can overwhelm everything that I have done, and give
me new life. It doesn’t come from me. It doesn’t come from my trying, and it
doesn’t come from my deeds, and it doesn’t come from my efforts, and it doesn’t
come from my turning over a new leaf. It comes from You. Because in me, apart
from Christ there is no hope…but in You, there’s all the hope I need.’

Let’s pray.
Lord God, grant that no one would leave this place today without seeing
themselves and also seeing their only hope. We ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Let’s sing the first three stanzas of Amazing Grace! And listen to the
words…you know them by heart. Listen to the words you’re singing to God.
[Congregational hymn]
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.



3. Whatever Became of Sin? Karl Menninger, Hawthorn Books, 1973

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