Pr James Tan

For a church to grow, there must be a beginning, a starting point where souls are saved as they receive the Gospel truth. If the church is not biblically founded, it is impossible for her to have any true biblical growth. The church must spiritually begin with the work of the Spirit and Word.

The Work of the Spirit
The church’s work is spiritual; thus, it can only be through the enabling of the Holy Spirit that souls are saved and sanctified. In Peter’s sermon at Pentecost, he responded to the audience’s question of “what shall we do?” (Acts 2:37b). This question came from their hearts (Acts 2:37a), where the unique word “pricked” is used to describe a painful and deep moving of remorse (BDAG). This is in response to God’s Word ex[1]pounded in Peter’s sermon, and the causes here would be sorrow, guilt, fear of God’s wrath, and helplessness out of an inability to atone for their sins (Barnes). This was not from Peter’s passion in the sermon, but the work of the Spirit given to us (2 Cor 1:22) and the piercing Word (Heb 4:12).

Peter’s response to them was to call them to repentance (Acts 2:38) and to be baptised. This proof of their faith, both internally and proven externally/physically, can only happen when they “receive the gift of the Holy Ghost”. The context of this statement points to their salvation, which is the end point of Peter’s sermon. The word “receive” written in the middle points to their personal salvation from the Lord, where they would receive the indwelling of the Holy Ghost as a “gift” (ref: Eph 1:13, 4:30). As the Spirit worked to convict and cause them to repent, and to be added to the church, this same Spirit would sanctify them, and move these same believers to grow rapidly in the faith, to obey and be baptised, and serve (2:41-47). This rapid growth of the early church with thousands baptised on “the same day” (2:41), can only be so by the work of the Spirit. The same principle remains today, whether it be one soul or thousands, the growth of the church can only happen when God sends the Spirit into the heart and soul of any sinner.

The Work of the Word
The Great Commission (Matt 28:18-20) presents to us this pattern that was evidenced by the Apostles’ faithful following. The Commission features a double emphasis on the giving forth of the Word starting from teaching followed by their obedience in baptism (Matt 28:19), and further instruction in the Word now as part of the church’s sanctification (Matt 28:20). This is the exact pattern that occurs after Peter’s first sermon, where he starts by preaching the Word (Acts 2:14-36), followed by their obedience in baptism and the sacraments (Acts 2:41-42), and their continuation “steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine”. The Word of God must be present and emphasised in the life of the individual believer and the church, from salvation to sanctification. While the acts of the Apostles were recorded in the book of Acts, it is no surprise that their sermons and testimonies are recorded in almost every chapter, from Peter, Stephen, Philip, and James, to Paul, forming a large portion of the book. Their sermons would often feature expository preaching from the prophets of the coming of Christ the Messiah.

Another common pattern in the Apostle Paul’s ministry was to start at the synagogues whenever he entered a city (Acts 13:14; 14:1; 17:1,10,17; 18:4; 19:8). Though he was called to be an Apostle to the Gentiles (Rom 11:13), he understood that the starting point of the Gospel must be from God’s Word, preserved and kept by God’s chosen people containing God’s given Truth. Any genuine believing Jew or gentile proselyte that looks to the Messiah will surely be convinced by the work of the Spirit that Christ is indeed the Saviour prophesied of from the infallible promises in the Old Testament. Any genuine faith must come from the Word of God (Rom 10:17).


Any growth will surely produce some form of result. While the early New Testament church saw thousands converted in a matter of days, this must not be merely measured by numbers, but by the spiritual works and evidence accompanying their salvation. These marks found in the early church would form a set of spiritual standards to measure the spiritual growth of the church.

Church Growth and Membership
The converts in the early NT church were “added” to the church (Acts 2:41). Firstly, while the believer might exercise human responsibility in the joining of a sound and biblical local, visible church, the spiritual perspective of it is the divine work of salvation, where a believer is joined to the greater invisible, universal church. This word “added” is written in the aorist passive, to show that these souls were added by God, and this joining to the church eternal is a one-time occurrence. Just as we are baptised once, this entry into the membership of God’s universal, invisible church is permanent and eternal (2 Tim 4:18).

Their membership in joining the local visible church is not a human exercise of choice. No glory is given to man in any way, as God is the active agent (Acts 2:47, same word in the original written in the active) in the saving of souls. No man can add a single soul to the universal church headed by Christ the Shepherd and Bishop of our souls (1 Pet 2:25).

Membership and Missions
While these converts joined this first local church at Jerusalem, their local church membership would “change”, when some of them were “scattered abroad” (Acts 8:1, 4). This phrase “scattered abroad” (of which “diaspora” is derived), is first found as a verb in Acts 8:1, likewise as an aorist passive. While the context might give the cause as persecution, especially through Saul, it is the higher hand of God that permitted these believers to be scattered for a good cause in fulfilment of Acts 1:8. The higher cause, the directive will of God, forced them into the larger region of Judea, and even to Samaria, a place which the Jews would loathe to enter.

In God’s sovereignty, the Apostles were allowed to remain for a continued witness there (Acts 8:1). God determines where each believer should be to serve as a witness. Ironically, the foremost persecutor, Saul who was sent out on a mission to destroy the Christians scattered abroad, would be the one who would go even further to bring the Gospel to the uttermost.

God ultimately determines the membership of both the universal and local church, and not man. It is up to the Lord to direct His believers to go where He wants them to and be a witness for Him. God allowed their circumstances to be determined, such that they had no choice but to be scattered, and it is unlikely that they would return to the Jerusalem church. However, they were active wherever they were scattered in “preaching the word”. This is the biblical pattern of church growth –believers are led to a place by God where they can be a witness and testimony of the Word of God. What might seem to be a dreadful situation in Jerusalem is part of the Lord’s plan for the Gospel to go forth, and for churches to be planted.

This provides the right biblical principles for church membership that we may understand the individual believer’s role and purpose in the congregation that the Lord has placed one in. Some professing Christians would liberally claim that it is the will of God in leading them to change congregations or churches, but their claims may often be based on their misguided or selfish motives, justifications, and gain. It would not be for the witness of Christ or true spiritual growth of the church where the misguided one may land in. He may find himself becoming just another pew-warmer, an additional burden or even a stumbling block. This is an affront to the early church which saw a painful diaspora amidst persecution yet carrying out the great commission unwaveringly.

The membership of the believer in the local church is intrinsically tied to the evangelistic witness of the church. There cannot be true spiritual growth individually, or as a church if professing believers do not follow God’s pattern for the witness of Christ.

(to be continued)