One of the most important responsibilities of the elders of a church is to examine all who come forward for membership. At the Metropolitan Tabernacle, they implemented an interview process where both lay elders and the pastor would have a chance to meet with every candidate coming forward, culminating with a congregational vote. Given the remarkable fruitfulness of that church’s ministry, this was a lot of people to interview! And yet, Spurgeon never relaxed his church’s membership process but maintained his responsibility to discern a credible profession of faith.
But how did the elders discern whether a profession of faith was credible? What guidelines did Spurgeon provide for his leaders, if any? We get a hint of this in one of Spurgeon’s lectures to his students in The Soul Winner, where he gives the following marks of regeneration.
Conviction of Sin
First, regeneration will be shown in conviction of sin. This we believe to be an indispensable mark of the Spirit’s work; the new life as it enters the heart causes intense inward pain as one of its first effects.
One of the first things an elder should look for in a convert is the conviction of sin. Is there any recognition of the reality of sin in their hearts and the sinfulness of that sin? Is there any sorrow over not only the consequences of sin but sin itself and the offense that it is against God? Spurgeon advises, “When you meet with persons in whom there is no trace of conviction of sin, you may be quite sure that they have not been wrought upon by the Holy Spirit.”
However, it’s important that we do not require this conviction of sin to look or sound a certain way. For some people, this conviction may be accompanied by tears and loud weeping. For others, the same conviction may be quiet and reflective. Spurgeon writes,
Do not be astonished if you find this conviction of sin to be very acute and alarming; but, on the other hand, do not condemn those in whom it is less intense, for so long as sin is mourned over, confessed, forsaken, and abhorred, you have an evident fruit of the Spirit.
Here, the pastor must exercise pastoral judgment and labor to discern true conviction of sin rather than simply emotional responses.
A Simple Faith in Jesus Christ
The production of faith is the very centre of the target at which you aim. The proof to you that you have won the man’s soul for Jesus is never before you till he has done with himself and his own merits, and has closed in with Christ.
One important aspect of this faith to discern is whether or not the individual is trusting in Christ for all his salvation, rather than just a part of it. Here the pastor has an opportunity to teach and foster a greater of assurance of faith for the believer.
Numbers of persons think that the Lord Jesus is available for the pardon of past sin, but they cannot trust Him for their preservation in the future. They trust for years past, but not for years to come; whereas no such sub-division of salvation is ever spoken of in Scripture as the work of Christ. Either He bore all our sins, or none; and He either saves us once for all, or not at all. His death can never be repeated, and it must have made expiation for the future sin of believers, or they are lost, since no further atonement can be supposed, and future sin is certain to be committed. Blessed be His name, “by Him all that believe are justified from all things.” Salvation by grace is eternal salvation.
For some membership candidates, this will be a brand-new thought. Though they might have trusted God for past sins, they have never been called to trust God for the whole of salvation. But the gospel is an ongoing reality in the Christian life. Is there evidence of an ongoing trust of Christ since their conversion? Or do they think that the Christian life is to be lived in their own strength?
To be sure, such assurance should not produce complacency, but there should be evidence of good works that accompany genuine faith. Spurgeon writes, “The sense of being saved, completely saved in Christ Jesus, is not, as some suppose, the source of carnal security and the enemy of holy zeal, but the very reverse.” What we are looking for, then, is “clear evidence in your converts of a simple, sincere, and decided faith in the Lord Jesus.”
Repentance of Sin
Repentance is an old-fashioned word, not much used by modern revivalists. “Oh!”‘ said a minister to me, one day, “it only means a change of mind.” This was thought to be a profound observation. “Only a change of mind”; but what a change! A change of mind with regard to everything! Instead of saying, “It is only a change of mind,” it seems to me more truthful to say it is a great and deep change—even a change of the mind itself. But whatever the literal Greek word may mean, repentance is no trifle.
True conversion will be evidenced by not only a holy hatred of sin, but now by a practical turning away from sin. The inward transformation that has taken place will be evidenced by a change in the external life of the believer.
So when hearing the testimony of the candidate, look evidences of repentance. Reject any notion that a person can receive Jesus as Savior, without receiving Him also as Lord. “True belief and true repentance are twins: it would be idle to attempt to say which is born first.” This is not to say that repentance is ever perfected in this life. While we live in this flesh, we will continue to battle against temptation and sin. But what the pastor is looking for is not perfection, but repentance. Is there an ongoing struggle against sin? Is there any evidence of real change?
In the course of pastoral ministry, you may very well encounter those who, like the Rich Young Ruler, make a profession of faith but refuse to follow Jesus in practical obedience. For such candidates, you should not assure them of their salvation by bringing them into membership but should pastorally warn and call to repentance of faith.
If the man does not live differently from what he did before, both at home and abroad, his repentance needs to be repented of, and his conversion is a fiction.
True Prayer and Obedience
Faith is the great gospel grace; but still we cannot forget that true faith always prays, and when a man professes faith in the Lord Jesus, and yet does not cry to the Lord daily, we dare not believe in his faith or his conversion.
But more than just fighting against sin, we must also look for the positive fruit of obedience. One of the best signs of this is a life of prayer. This may include mealtime prayers and prayer at church, but it should also involve private prayer. For the Christian, prayer is like breathing, and breathing is a sign of life.
Beyond prayer, however, we also want to look for evidence of obedience, even when it is costly.
Has not the Lord said, “He that taketh not up his cross, and cometh after Me, cannot be My disciple”? Mistakes as to what the Lord’s will may be are to be tenderly corrected, but anything like wilful disobedience is fatal; to tolerate it would be treason to Him that sent us.
There will be some acts of obedience that will seem very simple to some but excruciatingly difficult for others. For Muslim background believers, the decision to profess their faith publicly through baptism could be life-threatening. For the new convert engaged to a non-Christian, calling off the engagement could be heart-breaking and deeply disappointing. Pastorally, we want to call people to obedience to Christ, but we also do all we can to bring the church around these new believers as they seek to walk in obedience.
Referring to the membership process at the Metropolitan Tabernacle, James Spurgeon (the associate pastor) writes,
We have found this a means of grace and a rich blessing… We have never yet found it tend to keep members out of our midst, while we have known it of service in detecting a mistake or satisfying a doubt previously entertained.
This is the great blessing of elders who take their responsibility seriously to guard the membership of the church. Those who are brought into membership receive the wonderful gift of assurance. And those who are kept out are called to a clearer hope in the gospel.
 Soul Winner, 25.
 Soul Winner, 26.
 Soul Winner, 27.
 Soul Winner, 27-28.
 Soul Winner, 28.
 Soul Winner, 30.
 Soul Winner, 31.
 S&T 1869:53.