“I will receive you.” 2 Corinthians 6:17
What is the relation between your confession and being received into the church? About the time you contemplate making your confession, perhaps you are frequently asked, “When will you be received?” We hear it said on a certain day that next week occasion will be given for receiving members into the church. Sometimes the attitude prevails that the important thing has happened when the receiving has taken place, and that except for the formal incidental of confession, all is done and passed. It was the receiving that caused you all the anxiety; for it you studied especially hard during the last few weeks. When that has been successfully survived, the worst is passed. Some have become so absorbed in this attitude that they neglected to participate in the public confession, and neglected also to partake of the holy supper.
That attitude represents a lie in the church, and a lie that results always and only in fatality. There should be no receiving. Formerly it did not exist. He who desired to confess his Lord and Savior arose in the presence of the congregation and made his confession in clear, audible tones. In those days the confession of Jesus involved sure sacrifice, self-denial, and suffering. Consequently he who was courageous enough to face so much opposition could certainly be trusted. The congregation would welcome such a person with grateful joy.
The time came, however, when the scourge of persecution was lifted and when it was esteemed an honor to be counted a Christian. Many then came forward who could in no sense be trusted. To protect herself, the church had to set up standards, had to examine those who would confess, and had to demand that instruction be given. In that way the custom gradually originated of granting permission to individuals to make their confession.
These steps had to be taken in order to safeguard the church against spiritual decay, and in order to spare certain individuals the sin of making a merely verbal, insincere confession. That preliminary examination in faith has now evolved into the practice of receiving. Upon this occasion the consistory delegates the minister of the word and an elder to examine the persons who desire to make their confession.* If these find that the persons in question possess enough knowledge of the word of God to know what they are doing, and if they manifest evidences of the fact that they have turned away from the world and unto their Savior, they grant them the permission to make their public confession in the presence of the congregation. As such the practice of “receiving” is legitimate and necessary. But it must be insisted that confession itself remain the important event. The receiving, which should never have been so designated, is and should be merely a preliminary examination. It is the public confession and not the receiving that qualifies one to approach the Lord’s supper.
The notion suggested by the word receiving is unsound: it confuses the issues and results in spiritual havoc. It obscures the significance of baptism. If it were a Jew or a Turk or a pagan who desired to make a confession, the matter would be quite different. We could appropriately speak of receiving him into the church. But a baptized child of the congregation, a child sanctified in Christ even before its baptism, cannot be received into the church as though he were a foundling. But he is not. A baptized child is a member of the family. He has been reared in the household of faith. “But,” you reply, “the visible church has not yet extended to him the rights and privileges of membership.” That is true, but it is also true that these rights are not extended to him at the time of receiving by the minister and elder. They are his only after his public confession of faith.
*The fact that the procedure now differs from that which obtained when this description was written does not affect the argument. – Translator
If a term is necessary, we could name the receiving the “admission to making public confession.” This preliminary examination may never represent anything more than the vestibule through which one passes to public confession. Not the being received, but the public confession represents the holy and decisive moment for the great decision of your life. It is at the public confession that you vow to be forever faithful to your Jesus. Never break that vow!
But there are those who would not agree. These wanted the event of receiving to represent a touching and exciting ceremony. Hence this event was converted into what the Lutherans had long made of it. The pastor and the elder took the confession. Later the church confirmed it.
This fallacious conception of the matter must be uprooted. Doubtless an examination must precede the public confession. It must, however, retain the characteristics of an examination. Its sole purpose must be to determine, to the extent that is humanly possible, whether or not the person who desires to confess knows and means what he wishes to do. That examination should inquire into one’s conduct, into the attitude of one’s heart, and into the extent of one’s knowledge of the full counsel of God for the salvation of sinners. To recite the books of the Bible, to know the names of all the patriarchs, to name all the kings of Israel in order – these attainments merit praise but have no place in this preliminary examination. This examination should determine only whether one has a knowledge of the plan of God for the salvation of sinners, and whether one is earnest, is sincere in his intention, i.e., whether one means for time and for eternity what one is about to do.
How different that is from what frequently occurred when some forty individuals came to make their confession at one time. One of them, for example, would be asked: “How many children did Isaac have?” He would answer, “Two,” and with that be received into church. That is a mockery of holy things, a mockery of the spiritual life of the soul. In this the spirituality of the Roman Catholics puts us to shame, for these find time to consult often with each person individually in the confessional. It may be that a minister or an instructor knows his pupils personally, and that a single answer from them at the examination suggests more to him than a single answer would indicate to another. But that examination should prove to the attendant elder also that every individual who desires to confess appreciates God’s plan. (That plan of God would be better appreciated if the catechetical booklets were abandoned, and if the Heidelberg Catechism itself were employed to serve as an outline of study for a number of successive years.)
Must the receiving, as it is called—the examination in faith, as it should be called—then be a purely academic affair? Is the announcement, “You are admitted to public confession,” all that may appropriately be said? Is there no room for touching, emotionally exciting words, no room for solemnity? The answer can be given comparatively easily. Tears may never be the objective; the kingdom of God does not consist of an emotional upheaval, but of the workings of the heart. The attempt may not be made to add significance to the event of receiving by robbing it from that of public confession. But it is appropriate, and it is necessary that earnest words be spoken after the examination concerning the confession that is to follow. These words should inspire personal introspection and should plead for loyalty and for integrity. If the minister wishes to touch upon his personal relation to those present, now that they are no longer to be his catechumens, why should he not do so at this time? Not to do so would represent a cold and unnatural attitude. The important thing to be guarded against is confusing the receiving with the public confession. The former may never deny the essence and validity of baptism.
Is there then no being received? Yes, there is an acceptance of God. He confirms it with the words: “Wherefore come ye out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you, and will be a father unto you, and ye shall be my sons and daughters, saith the Lord Almighty.” This being received does most certainly have significance for public confession. Your appearance before the assembly of believers is a public acknowledgment of the fact that you have heard the commands of your God, that you wish to separate yourself form the world, from association with evil things, and from sin, and that you believe the promise that the Lord, as your Father who is in heaven, has received you as one of His own. This being received is spiritual, is holy, is true, and it is the only one that may be thought of in connection with your confession. Only because he has received you may you confess his name.
The conception that you can be received by a minister and an elder obscures the fact that there is an acceptance with the Almighty God. Hence it cannot be too strongly insisted upon that that false receiving be forever banned from the church. You and your church must always affirm that there is acceptance for you and your children only with the Lord God.