It is not unusual for the world to make this mistake, but I wish it were uncommon to hear pastors, theologians, and church literature assume that because someone goes to church regularly, as a committed member, they are a true Christian. We might talk like that, but do our works, even church attendance, really make us Christian? No, that would be a denial of justification by faith in Jesus, the Lord over sin and death.
This is not to say church attendance is not highly to be praised and necessary. But like breathing, it is not sufficient, by itself, to say that God is pleased with a person in Christ—that he is justified, and therefore righteous before God. That is all we can go by at times, and we should judge those who despise church because they are despising God’s Word, and therefore Christ Himself. Church discipline requires such negative judgments. So despising God’s Word marks one weak in faith, or as one without faith at all, but the reverse is not true. Not even a pastor preaching every week for his paycheck or a pastor’s wife going out of obligation and for the sake of appearance is a sure and certain sign of faith—that one is a genuine Christian.
Going to church, where the Word of God is, as a habit, is not enough to say one is truly a Christian. No external routine we enact in our lives proves we have faith and the Holy Spirit. We must assume that those who hear the Word are Christian, unless they provide evidence to the contrary, but merely occupying some amount of volume in a sanctuary does not mean Christ is in him or he is in Christ (Jn. 15). “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God … unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (Jn. 3). So to assume that being a Christian is simply a collection of habits, duties, or motions is to deny justification through faith, on account of Christ—the central article of Christianity that actually makes Christians holy in Christ, by clothing us in God’s own righteousness.
Can an atheist enter church doors without combusting? Can regular pew-sitters and long-time members commit adultery in between their church-sittings? Can abortion practicers lounge comfortably and confidently in a church pew Sunday morning? Can the person inflamed with lust, hatred, and sinful desire sleep through a sermon or Bible study, secretly seething in satanic thoughts? Yes, and it is especially easy to do these works, under a religious pretense, where the Word of God is not proclaimed in its full extent and power, requiring actual repentance and severely reproving sin under the penalty of hell. “They do all their deeds to be seen by others” (Mt. 23:5) Being present in a church building can be a show—who doesn’t want to look spiritual and holy? Sinners certainty don’t mind.
There are many churches, even in the so-called “orthodox” Lutheran synods, where the sermons are as harmless as story time at the public library—no one is called out for sin or offended by God’s damning law. After all, sin is not an external condition, like a skin rash. Making an appointment at church is not the cure, in itself, for your sin: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence” (Mt. 23:25).
Do not forget about the Pharisees who took the best seats—they were regular front row attenders! I think we can all agree they are not the best examples of Christian faith. But they were great attenders of church. They worshiped (outwardly) the Scriptures and devoted themselves to public prayer. They gave generously. Should you do these things? Yes, but none of them mark you as a Christian. Woe to you, if you assume you are Christian by what you do! Turn from your sin and trust ing in your own works before it is too late. Stop hoping in your dead deeds of the flesh and turn to the living Christ. Do not think Christ on the Last Day will be impressed with perfect church attendance or your tax-deductible giving. If righteousness consists in what you do, you are doomed: “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” You have not done enough for God, even if you have never missed a sermon or a trip to the altar for Communion.
The problem is that Christianity, though it involves outward things (the Word and the sacraments), is not a purely outward thing. God actually changes a person from within by the righteousness of Christ given in the Gospel. Faith is not imaginary. A person cannot follow Satan and his own flesh, and be a disciple of Christ. This distinction is often lost today. But “he or she went to church” it is said, as if that fact alone replaces the righteousness of Christ and our justification before the Father. Regular church attendance does not make self-murder or sexual sin acceptable or Christian—by definition the person who murders himself does not intend to keep hearing the Word gladly. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others” (Mt. 23:23).
Does receiving the holy body and blood of Christ make or mark one as a Christian? “So, on that Sunday morning, Kobe Bryant presented Himself at the altar at his church, freely opened his mouth to receive the wafer and wine, signaling his dependence on Jesus Christ and the absolute justice-mercy of Golgotha” (Wallace Henley, Christian Post). The external action, in itself, says nothing about faith in the heart. Communing is a public confession, certainly, but it is not a certain mark of having Christ’s righteousness and being justified. Can’t a hypocrite parade like a peacock, trying to look spiritual, to the altar, and open his mouth to eat and drink?
If the act of communing means one is definitely in Christ by faith, any dog or pig can be a perfect Christian, since they can eat wafers and lick up wine, as well as any human. If the external motion of receiving communion (just eating and drinking) is portrayed as the cause of making one Christian or a true indicator of Christianity, then faith alone is denied. But that person is truly worthy and well prepared who has faith in these words: “Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” We can see the eating and drinking, but not faith in the heart that the Spirit works. The Corinthians ate and drank very well, but unworthily. The result was that “many of them” were “weak and ill, and some have died” (1 Cor. 11). Mere eating and drinking, without faith or repentant self-examination, is harmful, not helpful. It can actually bring one under God’s condemnation, which is why simply allowing unrepentant and un-instructed people to communion is not a simple way to make more Christians.
Christians are sheep led by Christ who believe and are counted as holy to the Father. The Spirit dwells in them, uniting them together in the body of Christ. The Church is a holy creation of the Spirit, through the powerful Word of God. It is not a mere outward association—like belonging to the rotary club. The Father makes Christians alive in the Son. They are chosen and called by the Gospel. They do not continue to live for the world and their flesh. Christ is their master and head.
But being in the presence of the Word does not denote repentance or faith. It is a doctrinal error to attribute Christian faith solely to being within the proximity of the Word or a church building. Sitting in a pew does not mean one is in Christ, absolved of sins. So also, repentance and good works, are of God—they are not enacted by human efforts. They are not mere human actions, nor does the Word do them automatically—so that we can do, think, or believe according to our sinful nature.
It is a grave mistake to think that just receiving the Lord’s Supper outwardly, or hearing the message of a preacher, is enough for God to be pleased with you. For “without faith it is impossible to please” God (Heb. 11:6). Church attendance, done out of fear, obligation, or tradition is just another sinful, human work—that God must deny as righteous. Have we loved God every moment, even while we sit and try to appear holy in our Sunday best? No. Likewise, the Pharisees were careful and dutiful givers—as every Christian should be—but that was not enough to make them God’s children: “But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and every herb, and neglect justice and the love of God. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others” (Lk. 11:42).
God does not work repentance without our knowledge, participation, or realization. The Gospel actually does something! The Spirit births us to God, new and righteous in Christ. So, yes, the Christian goes to church and does good works. He is generous and giving, abounding in good works, but those things are merely the fruit of the Spirit, flowing from faith in Christ. What we do can never eclipse what Christ has done for us and the Spirit who makes us alive. Go to church, yes, but not as a dead formality or pharisaical show-off time, but to be forgiven and trust in the Word rightly spoken—to receive Christ’s righteousness for yourself and make it yours by faith. We are renewed in the image of Christ, and given a living hope, so we gladly hear the Word and believe in Christ who encourages, forgives, and comforts us with everlasting life. Amen. —ed.