Focus on the Family

How Can I Be Saved?

byRobert Velarde

The Wonder of God's Plan

Do you sometimes wonder whether or not things are right in the world? In observing all the evil and suffering around us, do you sometimes ask if there is something wrong with the human condition? For centuries various philosophies and religions have attempted to answer these and other questions, often coming to very different conclusions.

While we don't have the space to explore every worldview or belief system in detail , a summary of some key perspectives will help us set the stage for the message of Christianity, God's plan and its personal relevance to everyone.

What Other Worldviews Offer

Atheism claims that there is no God. Everything is a product of chance and time--even people. Only the material world exists. Good and evil are subjective and, in the end, there is no overarching purpose or design to life or history.

Pantheism holds that everything is divine. "God" is an impersonal force that permeates everything, even rocks.  In this view, good and evil are really the same, human beings are divine and our problem has to do with enlightenment not sin.

Deism states that God exists, but is removed from the day-to-day activities of His creation. Like a watchmaker, He made and wound up the universe but has now left it on its own. The god of deism has no interest in performing miracles, intervening in human affairs or in offering love or redemption.

There are other worldviews, too, including variations of each of the above, but atheism, pantheism and deism will suffice as brief examples of key differences in worldviews and the approach to the situation we find ourselves in.

Theism and Christianity

In contrast to atheism, pantheism and deism, theism holds that a personal God exists. He created the universe and is not part of it, but is active in it. Christian theism adds a key component of belief in the person of Christ (Jesus).

The central message of Christianity is in one sense quite simple. It is the straightforward story of a world gone wrong and set right by God. But in another sense the message is complex, touching many topics including origins, human nature, the existence of God, suffering, redemption and more.

Our Situation

Christianity outlines God's plan for His world. It is the story of creation, fall, redemption and restoration. Creation refers to God as Creator. He made the universe and all that is in it. The first words of the Bible echo this reality: "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth" (Genesis 1:1, NIV).

Originally, all that God made was good, including human beings. Our relationship with God functioned as He intended it to function – in harmony. But after what Christians term the Fall, some things went very wrong, breaking our relationship with God and resulting in a threefold strife between us and God, between one another and within ourselves.

Our primary problem, then, is separation from God. This separation and what it has done to our nature results in the other two problems – our relationships with others and our internal struggles.

But there's more to the situation. Not only are we separated from God, resulting in strife with others and within ourselves, in a significant sense our very nature is polluted, causing us to behave in ways that go against God's standards of holiness. This does not mean that everything we do is filled with evil and depravity, but that our nature is now corrupted – a fallen and broken shadow of what it once was. In a sense, it is as though we were meant to be kings and queens, but are now deposed royalty, kicked out of our true kingdom.

We still bear some marks of our former selves including retaining some of the glory God made us with, imagination, creativity, intelligence and more. But something significant is missing. An emptiness is in everyone. Blaise Pascal remarked that "this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself,"  while Augustine wrote, "our hearts find no peace until they rest" in God..  This brings us to God's solution to our predicament.

God's Solution

What is the solution to our problems? Christianity argues that it is personal transformation. To use more technical terminology, we are in need of redemption and regeneration that can come about only through conversion through a relationship with Christ based on an understanding of what He has done for us. But what does all this mean?

Redemption has to do with restoring our relationship with God, not by our efforts, but by our faith in what Christ has done for us. Regeneration is the new birth Christians experience as a result of repentance – turning away from wrong behavior in our lives and instead turning to Christ in sincere humility. Conversion encompasses repentance, resulting in our new birth and the restoration of our relationship with God.

Our "relationship with Christ" is key in that it is relational and personal, but it has a basis in the reality of what Christ has done for us via His death and resurrection (the Atonement).

The Wonder of God's Plan

The wonder of God's plan is that He has reached out to us in love, offering everyone an opportunity to personally respond through Christ. He offers His unmerited favor, or grace, if we will only accept it. We can't earn it ourselves or find some loophole that will allow us to restore our relationship with God on our own or through other means. The only way is through the cross of Christ (John 14:6).

Other worldviews fail to correctly address our primary problem – our broken relationship with God – and the solution. Atheism denies God's existence, leaving us with an ultimately meaningless existence without moral standards. Pantheism denies the reality of good and evil, arguing that we are really god and all we truly need is enlightenment. Deism leaves us with the despair of atheism in that God may as well be dead or nonexistent because he is not involved personally in his creation. None of these worldviews solve our primary problems and needs. Christianity, on the other hand, offers an accurate diagnosis and remedy to our condition.

As you can see, the message of Christianity is in one sense simple – the straightforward story of a world gone wrong and set right by God – but in another sense complex.

The remainder of this series of articles will explore in more detail our condition and need, what Christ has done for us, first steps in the Christian life and helpful suggestions for finding the "right" church.

For more information or reading materials, call 1-800-A-FAMILY (232-6459).

Robert Velarde is author of Conversations with C.S. Lewis (InterVarsity Press), The Heart of Narnia (NavPress), and Inside The Screwtape Letters (Baker Books). He studied philosophy of religion and apologetics at Denver Seminary and is pursuing graduate studies in philosophy at Southern Evangelical Seminary.

Restoring Our Relationship With God

Before we can begin to restore our relationship with God, we need to understand that this relationship is broken to begin with and why that is the case.

Robert Velarde

Someone once asked the great philosopher Plato, "What is man?" He replied, "Man is a featherless biped," (an animal with two feet) demonstrating that the renowned Greek thinker had a sense of humor. The answer doesn't really tell us what man is in any substantial sense, leading one of his rivals at the time to show up at lectures holding a plucked chicken in order to make fun of Plato's definition.

But the question is important. It is only through understanding who we are that we can come to understand what we may become through God's plan. Are human beings basically good or is there something wrong with us? Do we naturally seek after God and His moral goodness or do we tend to desire to do our own thing on our own terms? The first article in this series provided an overview of God's outline of history in creation, fall, redemption and restoration. This article will emphasize the human condition and need.

Defining Sin and its Extent

Before we can begin to restore our relationship with God, we need to understand that this relationship is broken to begin with and why that is the case. The relationship is broken not because of anything God has done, but because of what we have done. We have turned away from God's standards and made our own path.

Sin is a key concept in Christianity, but it's also that negative word no one likes to talk about. We prefer to be positive, to think that people are basically good. But Christianity claims that sin has a hold on everyone. Before we get ahead of ourselves, though, let's take a moment to define sin.

Sin involves any deviation from God's perfect standard of holiness. This can be the result of our thoughts, our behavior or in what we say. Christ emphasized the importance of being internally moral, not just externally moral. That's why he provided His listeners with examples such as, "But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart" (Matthew 5:28). [1]

Our sinful behavior harms others, harms us and, more importantly, is an affront to a holy God. This is not God's way of taking all the fun out of life. Rather, if we were designed to function best a certain way – living in harmony with God – then the best thing for us is to restore our broken relationship with God and enjoy life within the parameters He has established.

As a result of sin, we reject God and instead put ourselves in His place. This means that sin is not only the fact of our separation from God, but also involves our willful disobedience.

But what is the extent of sin? According to the Bible, sin is universal. As a whole we are fallen and sinful, but we are also fallen and sinful individually. As Paul explained, "As it is written: 'There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one'" (Romans 3:10-12).

The Word Became Flesh

If human nature is so corrupt, then how can any of us restore our relationship with God? The truth is, on our own we can't (Ephesians 2:8-9). While God has revealed Himself to us in a general sense in nature and moral conscience (Psalm 19:1; Romans 1:20; 2:14-15), this is not enough to restore our relationship. That's why God provided the Bible for us – His special revelation – and did something else amazing: "The Word [Christ] became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood" (John 1:14, The Message). This is the story of God the Son – Jesus Christ – being born as a human, fully God yet fully man, in order to grow up and suffer and die for us on a cross, but miraculously come to life again, forming one of the cornerstones of Christian belief – the Resurrection. It is only through God's grace that any of us can restore our relationship with our Creator.

Christ and the Good News

But Christ's death and resurrection do not automatically accomplish a restored relationship between us and God. We must respond personally, sincerely and with a commitment to turn away from our sin (repent), acknowledging that only Christ can save us from our fallen condition.

The gospel or "good news" is that Christ has died for us, meaning that we can ask for His forgiveness and receive it. There is no magic in this request or exact ritual we must follow. It is simply a matter of turning to God through Christ and, through prayer, confessing that we have fallen short of His standards, expressing our desire to have Christ direct our lives for His glory, not ours. [2]

What About Faith and Reason?

But how do faith and reason relate to being a Christian? What if you have a hard time accepting the claims of Christ and Christianity? Fortunately, Christianity has a history, rooted in the Bible, for thinking through tough questions.

It's not true that Christians must abandon reason in order to embrace faith. Christianity encourages the life of the mind (see, for instance, Matthew 22:37), with Paul noting that Christian beliefs are "true and reasonable" (Acts 26:25). Faith and reason complement one another rather than compete with one another. Christians are not called to blind faith or a leap of faith. Instead, our faith has a firm foundation in a variety of evidences such as the historical evidence for the Resurrection, the reliability of the New Testament documents, validity in historical findings, logical consistency and more.

When compared with other worldviews, Christianity offers the best explanation of reality. Atheism and secular humanism deny the existence of God, meaning that there is nothing essentially wrong with our condition as it is – we're merely the product of chance and time, anyway, so we can just do the best we can as the reasoning animals we are. Pantheism, the view that everything is divine, generally claims that human beings are basically good. Our problem in pantheism is that we need spiritual liberation through enlightenment. Once we realize we are divine, then we will understand that there really is no distinction between good and evil. In deism, God has created and wound up the universe like a watch, but is now gone, leaving us on our own.

But in Christianity it is God who reaches out to us, seeking to throw us a lifeline if we will only respond to His help.

Featherless Bipeds or Glorious Creatures?

Fortunately, human beings are much more than featherless bipeds, as Plato quipped. We are glorious creatures, made in God's image, but we are also fallen, broken and in need of salvation. If you are ready to receive Christ and follow Him, we encourage you to do so. Maybe you are uncertain or have further questions. If so, please feel free to contact Focus on the Family or a reputable evangelism ministry such as the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association ( ).

In the next article we'll focus on "What Christ Did for Us," further exploring God's plan, specifically in relation to the work of Christ, the meaning of his death and resurrection, and more.

For more information or reading materials, call 1-800-A-FAMILY (232-6459).

Robert Velarde is author of Conversations with C.S. Lewis (InterVarsity Press), The Heart of Narnia (NavPress), and Inside The Screwtape Letters (Baker Books). He studied philosophy of religion and apologetics at Denver Seminary and is pursuing graduate studies in philosophy at Southern Evangelical Seminary.

[1] Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are from the New International Version of the Bible.

[2] "Steps to Peace with God," by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, presents the gospel message clearly and simply, outlining "God's Purpose," "The Problem," "God's Bridge," and "Our Response."

What Christ Did for Us

While there are several Christian approaches to the finer details of exactly how the Atonement restores our broken relationship with God, all agree that the Atonement involves God providing us with an opportunity to restore our broken relationship with Him through Christ.

byRobert Velarde

The story of Christianity is naturally connected to the story of Christ. God's plan of redemption is revealed in what Christ did for us. Known as the atonement, what Christ did for us provides the only way to resolve our broken relationship with God.

But before we get to that, let's spend some time looking at who Christ is, His unique claims, and the reliability of the New Testament.

Who is Christ?

Christ is not actually a name, but a title. The Old Testament set the groundwork for a coming Messiah and "Christ" is the Greek translation of this word, meaning, "anointed one." The Hebrews looked forward to the coming of the Messiah. Jesus Christ is a name combined with a title. He is Jesus the Messiah – the fulfillment of Old Testament expectations and the key to God's plan to restore our broken relationship with Him.

The Claims of Christ

The question, "Who is Christ?" is significant. Even Christ asked his followers, "Who do you say I am?" (Matthew 16:15, Mark 8:29, Luke 9:20). [1] This question is still relevant to day, especially in light of the claims of Jesus.

Jesus made many extraordinary claims, leaving His listeners with very few options regarding His nature. For instance, He equated Himself with God – something even His contemporary critics understood. In John 10:32-33, we read the following: "Jesus said to them, 'I have shown you many great miracles from the Father. For which of these do you stone me?' 'We are not stoning you for any of these,' replied the Jews, 'but for blasphemy, because you, a mere man, claim to be God.'"

Earlier, in John 8:58, Jesus equated Himself with God, the "I AM" of the Old Testament (Exodus 3:14) when He said, "I tell you the truth … before Abraham was born, I am!" Again, His contemporaries understood what Jesus was suggesting and in the very next verse "they picked up stones to stone him."

Jesus also claimed the ability to forgive sins. In Mark 2:5, for example, Christ says, "Your sins are forgiven." In Mark 2:7 His critics said, "Why does this fellow talk like that? He's blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?"

Christ also accepted worship – something reserved for God alone, particularly considering His Jewish background and cultural setting. Examples of Jesus accepting worship are found in Matthew 28:9, John 9:38, and more.

Was Jesus merely a man? Was He insane? C.S. Lewis answered these questions best when he wrote, "I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people say about Him: 'I'm ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don't accept His claim to be God.' That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic … or else He would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse …" [2]

The New Testament

The New Testament records that Jesus equated Himself with God, that His critics understood this, that He claimed to forgive sins, and that He received worship. He also said, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14:6).

These are impressive claims. But how do we know that the New Testament record of Jesus is accurate?

As has often been stated, the New Testament documents are the most well attested of ancient history. These documents contain the four Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – that provide the most information about Christ, His life, His ministry and so forth. There are more than 5,000 copies of the New Testament in existence and multiple thousands of fragments or portions of the New Testament.

Claims that the New Testament documents have been changed over time and with translation are simply not true, especially when one compares existing documents over the course of history (a field of study known as textual criticism). While there is room for slight variations in wording and minor copyist errors known as variants, none of these impact essential areas of Christian belief and are, in fact, inconsequential when it comes to Christ and His claims. [3]

In short, the New Testament documents are accurate. In addition, the period of time between the time of Christ and the writing of some early New Testament documents is short by historical standards. For instance, 1 Corinthians was written by the Apostle Paul in 55 A.D., about 22 years or so after the events recorded in the Gospels. This means that there was no time for legends to develop about Christ. It also means that many people who were alive at the time of Christ were still alive when much of the New Testament was written.

Moreover, 1 Corinthians contains passages that present the basic principles of the Gospel such as 1 Corinthians 15:1-8: "Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living …"

Paul goes on to write about the cornerstone of Christianity – belief in the resurrection of Christ (1 Corinthians 15:12-20).

The Atonement

The Atonement is what Christ did for us through His death and resurrection. While there are several Christian approaches to the finer details of exactly how the Atonement restores our broken relationship with God, all agree that the Atonement involves God providing us with an opportunity to restore our broken relationship with Him through Christ as a result of the death and resurrection of Jesus.

John 3:16 is often quoted, but this does not diminish the fact that it contains the essential elements of God's plan and the atonement: "For God so loved the world that he gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life."

God has reached out to us. Christ has died for us. Christ lives again for us. We need only accept God's grace humbly through Christ, turn away from the wrongs we have done, and receive Christ as our Lord and Savior. Then we are ready for the first steps in the Christian life.

The next in this series deals wit the the first steps in living for Christ.

For more information or reading materials, call 1-800-A-FAMILY (232-6459).

Robert Velarde is author of Conversations with C.S. Lewis (InterVarsity Press), The Heart of Narnia (NavPress), and Inside The Screwtape Letters (Baker Books). He studied philosophy of religion and apologetics at Denver Seminary and is pursuing graduate studies in philosophy at Southern Evangelical Seminary.

[1] Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are from the New International Version of the Bible.

[2] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (Macmillan, 1952), Book II, Chapter 3, pp. 55-56. For a fine contemporary explanation and defense of this line of reasoning see Kenneth Samples, Without a Doubt (Baker, 2004), chapter 8. Further evidence for Christ is provided in Lee Strobel's The Case for Christ (Zondervan, 1998).

[3] See, for instance, F.F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? (InterVarsity Press) and Craig Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels (InterVarsity Press, 2nd edition).

First Steps in the Christian Life

As a new Christian you may find yourself somewhat confused as to what your next steps should be.

byRobert Velarde

The life of a new Christian is both exciting and daunting. As a former atheist, my early experiences as a Christian were filled with opportunities and challenges. What do I do now? I wondered. Should I attend church? Where should I go? Who should I tell? What if I have doubts? How often should I pray and read the Bible?

This article will offer guidance to help new believers navigate their first steps in the Christian life, but the insights offered here are also helpful to established Christians as reminders of what the Christian life is about.

Where did you come from and where are you going?

If you are new to Christianity, there's a good chance you're an adult or young adult. This means you obviously came from somewhere in reference to your ideas, background, beliefs, and habits. Maybe you have come to Christ after involvement in another religion or philosophy. Or perhaps you were raised in a Christian home, drifted away from beliefs you were brought up with and have now committed your life to Christ.

Of course, there's no way for this article to anticipate every aspect of your background and what brought you to Christ and Christianity. But it's important for you to keep in mind where you have come from because your past may influence your present life in Christ.

As a new Christian you may find yourself somewhat confused as to what your next steps should be. While there is a general route you may follow, such as gathering regularly with fellow Christians, there is no exact plan spelled out in the Bible regarding your next steps. God does have a plan for you and your life, but it is something you will discover as you grow as a Christian and mature in your relationship with Christ.

Emotion: Too Much or Not Enough?

One area where you may be confused is in reference to emotions in relation to Christianity. Maybe when you became a Christian you went through a very emotional experience. But now that your life has settled down you're wondering where this emotional experience has gone. Or perhaps you are experiencing the opposite – your commitment to Christ may not have been emotional at all, or at least not very much so.

Don't worry. Christians come to Christ in all sorts of ways. Some are highly emotional experiences, others are not. C.S. Lewis, for instance, one of the great Christian thinkers of the 20th century, described his conversion more like someone who had been asleep realizing he is awake, but not in any extraordinary emotional sense.

In fact, as a Christian you will have your ups and downs. It's important that you do not base the reality of your relationship with Christ or what He has done for you on your feelings. Your feelings will fluctuate from day to day, but the foundation of your beliefs should not. If you have a solid foundation in Christ and Christianity, that foundation rooted in a real relationship with Christ is what will support your Christian life.

Always Learning

Some people are "always learning but never able to acknowledge the truth" (2 Timothy 3:7, NIV).[1] Being a Christian is in many respects a lifelong education, but unlike some who are always learning but unable to acknowledge the truth, you have a foundation in truth (Christ). There will be much to learn throughout your Christian life, just be careful not to try and absorb too much information at once.

One area you will want to learn more about has to do with the Bible. You may have heard many myths about the Bible and maybe you're not all that familiar with it. This article can only provide you with brief information about the Bible and what it teaches, but if you want to learn more you can try a few helpful resources.

First, the book From God to Us by Norman Geisler and William Nix (Moody Publishers) will provide you with some helpful general information about the Bible. Second, the book The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? by F.F. Bruce (InterVarsity Press) offers a short and helpful summary of the evidence for the reliability of the New Testament, where the story of Jesus and the early Church is recorded. Third, Basic Christianity by John Stott (InterVarsity Press) provides a brief overview of essential Christian beliefs.

The Holy Bible

The Holy Bible is actually a collection of many books written by several authors inspired by God over a period spanning some 1,500 years or so. The Old Testament contains books written before the time of Christ, while the New Testament contains documents about the life of Christ and the early Church. The Gospels include Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. These four books contain accounts of the life, death and resurrection of Christ. John is a good place for a new Christian to become introduced to Christ and His message.

Next you will find the book of Acts, which records many exciting and challenging events in the life of the early Christians and the early Church. It introduces a key individual known as Paul, who went on to become one of the most important Christians in the early church.

Following Acts you will encounter a number of epistles, or letters, from various individuals writing to other Christians. These are highly practical letters, emphasizing the Christian life. James is a good epistle to read for practical insights into the Christian life.

The last book in the New Testament is Revelation, a work of apocalyptic literature that contains many images and predictions (prophecies). Although it tends to get a lot of attention in popular books and discussions, Revelation is generally not the best place for a new Christian to begin studies. This is not because it is not useful or helpful, but because approaching it and being able to make helpful sense out of it requires a fairly broad background in Bible history and other passages that it references. Revelation also provides wonderful imagery of a future time when Christ will return and evil will ultimately be overcome.

Doubts and Challenges

Most likely you will have a number of questions about Christianity. Don't be discouraged if you do, but do your best to get your questions answered. There are a number of resources available addressing questions about the Bible, other religions, other philosophies or worldviews.. The field of defending Christianity is called apologetics, so you might want to learn more in that area, especially if you have many questions.

Christianity is not a belief system that discourages questions or the life of the mind. All truth is God's truth, as has been said, and if Christianity is true as we believe it to be, then any reasonable question should have reasonable answers.

In fact, 1 Peter 3:15 calls every Christian to, "Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have." As a new Christian you can't be expected to have answers to everything about Christianity, but you can begin to learn more about the faith so you know why you believe what you believe.

What Now?

It's important that you begin to gather with other Christians regularly. You'll want to find a solid Christian church that you can attend regularly, as well as a stable small group where you can meet with other Christians. You'll also want to make sure you take time to pray and read the Bible regularly. Once you find a good church, a pastor will offer guidance as to how you can go about maturing in your faith.

As was said at the beginning of this article, the Christian life is both exciting and daunting. Growing in your faith is important, but you can't do it alone. Read the next article in this series for suggestions on finding the "right" church for you.

For more information or reading materials, call 1-800-A-FAMILY (232-6459).

Robert Velarde is author of Conversations with C.S. Lewis (InterVarsity Press), The Heart of Narnia (NavPress), and Inside The Screwtape Letters (Baker Books). He studied philosophy of religion and apologetics at Denver Seminary and is pursuing graduate studies in philosophy at Southern Evangelical Seminary.

[1] All Scripture quotations are from the New International Version of the Bible.

Looking for the 'Right' Church?

What church should you attend? Sometimes Christians spend a lot of time trying to find just the "right" church. Unfortunately, this method is rarely successful.

byRobert Velarde

Hebrews 10:24-25 reads, "And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another …" (NIV) [1] Although the word "church" is not in the verses quoted, the context of the passage indicates the writer is indeed making a reference to church.

In the early days of Christianity, believers met in homes. The Greek word used to describe these meetings is ekklesia, which, when used of the church, simply means to assemble, meet, gather together or congregate (from which we get the word congregation).

Today the landscape of Christian churches has changed dramatically. For Christians in the United States, for instance, there are literally hundreds of Christian denominations and traditions to choose from, with some cities home to numerous Christian churches.

While the Hebrews passage above reminds Christians to make sure they gather together regularly, new Christians and even longtime believers may find themselves confused about finding the "right" church. This article will offer some helpful suggestions for choosing a Christian church.

What is the Church?

Before we get into specific suggestions for finding a church, it will help to look at two common Christian distinctions of the word. The Christian church is both visible (local) and invisible (universal). The visible church consists of physical gatherings, usually in church buildings, while the invisible church consists of Christians throughout the ages. The invisible or universal church is one, while visible local churches are many.

Every Christian is a member of the universal church because by definition Christians are believers in Christ. Therefore, they are members of His body – the church. The Bible, in fact, offers a number of images of the church such as calling it the "body of Christ": "Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it" (1 Corinthians 12:27). The church is also called "the people of God" (Hebrews 4:9; 1 Peter 2:10). Christ is the head of the church (Ephesians 4:15; 5:23).

While the visible and local church consists of organizations or institutions, the invisible and universal church consists of all Christians united under Christ.

The Purposes of the Church

God's church has many purposes such as evangelism, edification, worship and social concern. [2] To evangelize means to tell others the Good News (Gospel) of Jesus Christ and what He has done. Matthew 28:19 provides the mandate to spread the gospel. This means that every church needs to be involved in some form of evangelism, reaching out to non-Christians with the truth of Christ.

The church is also to edify Christians. To edify means to build up, equip, improve, encourage or support. Gathering together with other believers, as in attending church, is one important way to be edified as a Christian. We can also be edified by teachings in a sermon, Bible study or small group. There are other ways the church provides edification, but the point is that another purpose or role of the church is to edify.

Worship is also a key function of the church. It is where we gather with other Christians and worship God. This does not mean that a church building is the only place we can worship (it's not), but it is something the church is to do regularly. Although different Christian churches have different forms of worship styles or music, the purpose is to worship God, not to entertain or amuse the congregation.

Another purpose of the church is social concern. This means we are not just to gather together on an intellectual level, spend all our time in worship or evangelize without humanitarian concern. While evangelism, edification, and worship are important in the life of any church, it's also important to go out into the world and do something positive to help others just as Christ called us to do (see, for instance, Matthew 25:35-36). Social concern was a key part of the early Christian church and has continued to be a central component of Christianity.

Can You Find the "Right" Church?

Keeping in mind the purposes of the church, we're now ready to get into some specifics about finding a church. What church should you attend? Sometimes Christians spend a lot of time trying to find just the "right" church. Unfortunately, this method is rarely successful. Instead of concentrating on finding the "right" church for you, concentrate on finding a church that honors God's truths as expressed in the Bible and throughout the history of the church.

One thing to keep in mind is what a particular church believes and teaches. We might call this "doctrine." While Christian traditions have room for a variety of expressions of church and worship, for instance, all Christian churches throughout the centuries adhere to a core of essential beliefs about God, Christ, humanity, salvation, etc.[3]

Robert M. Bowman, Jr., offers five helpful tips for, "Checking Out a Church's Teaching" [4]:

1. Have a clear idea of what kind of teaching you want. Christianity consists of numerous denominations and some primary traditions. Knowing what you are looking for is important.

Although Christians are united on essentials such as the deity of Christ and His bodily resurrection, there is a lot of room for diversity on secondary issues, meaning differing approaches and interpretations of Bible prophecy, varying means of baptism, differences regarding the details of the observation of communion, etc. There are also varying forms of church government such as episcopal, presbyterian and congregational.

2. Inquire about religious affiliations. Is the church you are considering part of a denomination? Is it independent and self-governing? Is it associated with any particular organizations? Asking these kinds of questions may help you learn more about the church you are considering.

3. Ask for a doctrinal statement. This may also be called a statement of faith. In short, a doctrinal statement should list essentials that the church believes.

4. Find out who founded the church or denomination, and who its leaders are today. Again, learning this information may help you better understand where the church you are considering is coming from, as well as where they are.

5. Consult standard reference works. If you are considering a particular denomination, you should check out their Web site, both for the denomination and, if they have one, the specific church you have in mind. You can also try books such as Handbook of Denominations in the United States by Frank Mead (Abingdon) and Pocket Dictionary of North American Denominations (InterVarsity Press).

The Perfect Church?

Haven't you found the perfect church? You won't. Every visible and local church consists of a mixture of members, all of whom are flawed to one extent or another. Even though you will not find a perfect church, do your best to find a solid church that honors the Bible and the essential beliefs of Christianity. As you search for a church, remember to pray for God's guidance, too.

For more information or reading materials, call 1-800-A-FAMILY (232-6459).

Robert Velarde is author of Conversations with C.S. Lewis (InterVarsity Press), The Heart of Narnia (NavPress), and Inside The Screwtape Letters (Baker Books). He studied philosophy of religion and apologetics at Denver Seminary and is pursuing graduate studies in philosophy at Southern Evangelical Seminary.

[1] All Scripture quotations are form the New International Version of the Bible.

[2] These four points are based on Millard Erickson's helpful insights in Christian Theology (Baker, 1998, 2nd edition), chapter 51.

[3] See Basic Christianity by John Stott (InterVarsity Press) if you need a refresher on the essentials of Christianity, or read through some creeds of Christianity such as the Apostles' Creed, Nicene Creed, and Athanasian Creed.

[4] These five points are made by Robert M. Bowman, Jr., Orthodoxy and Heresy: A Biblical Guide to Doctrinal Discernment (Baker, 1992), Appendix A. See chapter 10 for an excellent summary of essential Christian beliefs.

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