Dear Church Family,
How does a person become a member of the universal church? Upon each person’s being united with Christ by grace through faith, he or she instantaneously becomes a member of the universal church. In other words, every Christian is a member of the universal church. And only Christians are members of the universal church. Membership in the universal church depends on faith in Jesus Christ. There is no exception to this rule.
Now, let’s pause to think about that statement. We have defined the universal church as the true people of God throughout time—which would include several millennia before Christ came to earth as a man. So, how can the people of God who lived before Christ properly be called “Christians”? Great question.
From the inception of the world’s need for a Savior after the Fall, God promised to send a Deliver, born of a woman, who would crush the head of the devil (Genesis 3:15). Adam and Eve were cast out of God’s place, but God promised He would restore His fellowship with them. This declaration is immediately followed by the practice of offering sacrifices to the Lord, signifying the people’s eager anticipation of the deliverance from sin and death as promised (Genesis 4:4). Even after the purifying judgment of the flood, the world still needed a Savior, because it was still inhabited by sinners. Therefore, God’s people continued offering sacrifices to God (Genesis 8:20).
At the call of Abram, God promised to bless all the families of the earth through him and to give the land to his Offspring—which prompts Abram to build an altar (Genesis 12:3, 7). We could walk through the entire Old Testament this way, but Hebrews 11 does the legwork for us by weaving the people of God prior to Christ together with one phrase: “by faith.” The last two verses of that chapter explain, “And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.” What was promised has now been fulfilled by the life, death, and resurrection of Who was promised—namely, Jesus Christ (Galatians 3:15-29; Romans 4:16-25).
Before the first coming of Christ, the true people of God believed their God would make good on His promises—that He would keep His Word. It was as if they were looking far off into the distance. They could make out the shape of a figure, but they couldn’t see that figure with the same clarity as if they were standing face to face. They had faith in a Warrior, Deliverer, Prophet, Priest, King, and Provider coming from God; who we know to be Jesus Christ. This explains why Jesus is able to say Abraham saw His day and was glad (John 8:56).
The Spirit of Christ was working in God’s people before the coming of Christ in order to stir up faith in our Savior (1 Peter 1:10-12). As it was with Samuel, the Lord revealed Himself to His people by the word of the Lord (1 Samuel 3:21). Those who truly saw the Father, saw the Son—even though only dimly. Now, in a fuller and more glorious way, we see the Father through the Son by hearing the Word of Christ (2 Corinthians 3:7-11; John 14:8-11; Romans 10:17).
So, every member of the universal church has saving faith in Jesus Christ. The faith of those before Christ’s first coming was not as clear as the faith of those living after Christ, but the Object of all of our faith is Christ. Therefore, “there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).