The Decision to Believe and Begin
To begin our look at the Church of God, what it is and what it teaches, it is appropriate to ask you to meet us at the cross, for we believe that the cross is the starting point for each Christian. It is there that we come face-to-face with the overwhelming love of God that prompted the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. As Paul put it, "But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8, NIV).
The path of every believer meets and proceeds from the cross. There the price for our sins was completely, wonderfully paid. For each of us, faith's journey begins at the foot of that rugged, ancient symbol of redemption.
The content and guidelines of that faith are given in the Bible; what God has done and will do is sufficiently stated. The faith, however, is more than knowing what the Bible says and systematically living out its dictums. The faith is also experience. A Christian not only knows Jesus' teachings, for instance, but has by a decision of the will permitted the risen Christ to live in his or her life.
In a miraculous way, that commitment to Christ is rewarded in the believer with a deep feeling of peace that C. S. Lewis has described as "surprised by joy!" The joy of the Lord is not one of temporary hilarity; rather it is the peaceful inner assurance that God is with me and I am with God--because of Christ. The experience of God working in our lives to forgive and redeem us begins as you and I confess our sins and accept Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. The experience is described well by Bill and Gloria Gaither:
He touched me, O He touched me,
The Spirit-Filled Life
For many years, one of our ministers, Charles Weber, challenged people to "live out of the overflow." He spoke of the Spirit-filled life. With similar emphasis, the late Marcus Morgan has stated that for Christians the challenge is to "realize the full influence of His power and presence in our living." John the Baptist proclaimed,
I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.
Jesus himself, at the time of his baptism, "saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove" (Mark 1:10, NIV). Several experiences of the baptism of the Holy Spirit are recorded in the New Testament (Acts 2:1--4; 9:17; 10:44--46; 19:1--7). Jesus sustained the promise just before his ascension, saying, "You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you" (Acts 1:8, NIV).
The events in the New Testament account are sufficient to indicate believers can experience the baptism of the Spirit. We could say one's life is saturated with the Holy Spirit or immersed in the Spirit. The word sanctification is often used to describe the experience of the Spirit-filled life. Whatever the term used, we believe the infilling of the Spirit in the life of the Christian makes a dynamic difference in the individual's receptivity to the Spirit's leadership and the individual's effectiveness as a witness for Christ.
The believer's experience of the baptism of the Holy Spirit may be viewed from at least four perspectives:
Cleansing. The Holy Spirit cleanses the attitudes, mindset, habits, and spirit of the believer. In the Old Testament, we read of utensils that were set aside to be used exclusively in worship. Sanctification is the word used to refer to this cleansing (Ezekiel 42; Daniel 5). The Holy Spirit works in the believer to purify and set aside a person for God's use. (See 1 Peter 1:13--16; 1 Thessalonians 4:3--8; Hebrews 2:11; 10:10.)
Consecration. Consecration (commitment) is the act of the believer. Persons who have accepted forgiveness of sins and the gift of eternal life offer themselves to be fully blessed and used by God. Paul wrote the Christians in Rome,
Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God--this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is--his good, pleasing and perfect will.
Consecration is presenting everything about our personality, including our physical bodies, to God for his use, in a decisive act of worship.
Calling. This is the part of the baptism of the Holy Spirit and the Spirit-filled life on which God and the believer work together. The Spirit cleanses, the believer consecrates himself or herself, and together the Spirit of God and the believer work out the calling. The calling is the task(s) which the believer accepts in the life of the church in order to help evangelize and serve the world. There are many functions in this great task of sharing the gospel, "giving a cup of cold water," and doing it unto "one of the least of these" in Jesus' name (Matthew 10:42; 25:40). As the believer presents his or her total personality for service to both God and humanity, the Holy Spirit considers both the natural abilities of the believer and the need for workers in the church and then gifts that believer.
A gift is a divine enabling of the believer for ministry beyond any natural talents he or she may possess. Often the Holy Spirit challenges the believer to a further study of the Bible and considerable personal preparation and training for the task(s) the Spirit has assigned. Paul gives a list of gifts in 1 Corinthians 12 and Romans 12. Additional lists are found in Ephesians 4 and 1 Peter 4. The lists provided by Paul are not intended to be exclusive or to rule out other ways that the Spirit may peculiarly equip persons for God's work in the church and through his church to the world.
Convincing Evidence. The convincing evidence of the Spirit-filled life is holiness. Holy or righteous living includes a faithful study of the teachings of Jesus and a continual effort to live out the implications of those teachings day by day. The believer is not so spiritually conceited as to think that he or she is a perfect human being. The Holy Spirit is the source of power for holy living (John 16:5--16; Philippians 2:12--13). Paul sets the pattern of the Spirit-filled life in bold relief as he contrasts it with the sinful life. You will want to read about the "fruit of the Spirit" and the "acts of the sinful nature" as Paul compares them in Galatians 5:16--26.
It should be noted, also, that the Pentecostal outpouring in Acts 2 was more mission-centered than person-centered. The purpose was empowerment for the divine mission.
Church of God hymnist Charles W. Naylor expressed both the scriptural teaching and the experience of the Spirit-filled life:
Spirit holy in me dwelling,
O how sweet is thy abiding!
Thou hast cleansed me for thy temple,
In me now reveal Thy glory,
Spirit holy, Spirit holy,
The experience of the Spirit-filled life begins when the believer, the individual Christian, opens his or her life to the full work of God's Spirit in a conscious act of the will. From that point on, there is a growth in the Spirit, called by some "progressive sanctification," which produces an increasing awareness of oneness with God and effectiveness in Christian service.
Three Ways We Speak of the Church of God
We have good reason to use the name Church of God. It is a biblical name. What better source is there from which to get a name for a group who worships God! The name Church of God is used to describe the body of Christ in 1 Corinthians 1:2; 10:32; 11:22; 15:9; 2 Corinthians 1:2; Galatians 1:13; and 1 Timothy 3:5.
Many church groups use the name Church of God. Also, some independent congregations use some form of the name. It is appropriate for Christians to search the Scriptures and discover that descriptive title. The Church of God with North American offices in Anderson, Indiana, makes no claim to the exclusive use of the biblical name and is conscious that such use brings with it the responsibility, even the obligation, to worship, fellowship, and serve in ways that honor God and his church.
We do not consider ourselves to be another denomination, with a prescribed creed and an unbending organizational structure. Neither are we a sect with legalistic statements on, and enforcement of, lifestyles. We do not have any captivating commitment to a human personality.
1. The name Church of God is used in a universal sense to refer to all persons who believe on Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord and are thereby in the Church by God's action as indicated in Acts 2:47. The Church of God is not a particular set of believers so much as it is all believers, whatever other associations to which they may give themselves in the name of Christ. The universal nature of the Church is marvelously communicated by Paul to the Ephesian Christians (Ephesians 2:1--22). His summary is descriptive and explanatory:
You are...fellow citizens with God's people and members of God's household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.
2. The name Church of God is used to identify a particular movement within Protestant Christianity. When the name is used to designate the movement, it is written thus: Church of God (Anderson, Indiana). Since the time of its earliest spokesman, Daniel S. Warner, in the 1880s, the preachers, teachers, poets, and other writers have given emphasis to the message of unity and holiness.
The message of unity is that all God's people are one (John 17) and are called to recognize that unity, to relate to each other as brothers and sisters in Christ, and to coordinate their efforts in mission to the world.
The message of holiness is expressed well by Arlo F. Newell. He says the holy life begins as
divine cleansing purges the attitudes and disposition of the believer until the image of Christ is reflected in him or her. All of our emotions are left fully intact but are cleansed and sensitized by the Holy Spirit. Nothing essentially human is removed in the sanctifying experience. One's ability to love, hate, laugh and cry are now freed from the curse of sin to be experienced rightly as God's child. The believer now demonstrates the graces of the sanctified life as spoken of in Galatians 5:22--23.3
The life of holiness includes both personal piety and disciplined practical service within the church and to all peoples of the world (Galatians 6:7--10).
Dr. John W. V. Smith, the late Church of God historian who taught at Anderson School of Theology until his retirement in the 1980s, has caught the spirit of the Church of God in this statement:
The Church of God reformation movement was more than a series of emphases, however. It was a crusade to open the door of all truth. Some of the specific content of this truth was lifted up and proclaimed, but the limits of truth were never defined. That was left open, for God was still at work among his people and who could say when the boundaries of his revelation had been reached?4
3. The name Church of God is also used to identify congregations. A Church of God congregation is a local community embodiment of the universal church as well as the Church of God reformation movement (Anderson, Indiana). We believe very strongly that genuine Christians identify themselves with a local body of believers and worship, fellowship, and serve with other Christians. Participation in the local church is not an option for Christians; it is an integral part of their salvation experience. (See Acts 2:41--46; Ephesians 5:19--21; Hebrews 10:25; 1 John 3:11--1 5.)
Nearly all congregations (local churches) identify themselves with designations of location such as Northside Church of God or West Fourth Street Church of God. Some use the title First Church of God, but in those instances, they refer only to the fact that theirs was the first congregation of the Church of God in that city or community. First has no biblical or theological meaning.
Some congregations in recent years have wanted to express more visibly the openness of the Church of God to fellowship all believers in Christ. Thus a few congregations have used designations such as Community Church, The People's Church, or simply Northside Church. The theology and practices of the Church of God are consistent with the community concept for the local church.