The church’s primary mission is not to engage in social justice or to help the poor or to fight for the rights of particular groups. The purpose of the church is not to be a place where unbelievers can feel welcomed or at home; the church is not a club. Rather, the church’s purpose is to strengthen the souls of believers. Of course, a church ought to be civil to unbelievers among them, but they should never be okay with unrepentant sin. In the book of Acts, during Paul’s return to Antioch at the end of his first missionary journey, we see what should make up the foundation of a church and what it means to strengthen souls. The Scripture, in Acts 14:21-23, says (my translation):
Having proclaimed the good news to that city, and having made many disciples, they returned unto Lystra and unto Iconium and unto Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples, exhorting them to go on in the faith, and that through many sufferings we must enter into in the kingdom of God. And they, having appointed in every church pastors, having prayed with a fast, they entrusted them to the Lord on whom they had believed.
The first manner in which a church is to strengthen the souls of believers is through constant exhortation to continue in the faith. Although a great number of translations render the word παρακαλέω, parakaleo, in this verse as “encourage,” the word carries with it an urgency or conviction that something be done. In the case of this passage, the church is to constantly exhort each other to go on in the faith, to not abandon our convictions as the people of God no matter what may be the consequences.
The words of Scripture in this passage are startling and yet, most translations, probably in an effort to maintain readability, give the wrong impression of what the text says. The King James Version (KJV) says, “we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God.” The New American Standard Bible (NASB) and the English Standard Version (ESV) both say, “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.” The New International Version (NIV) says, “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.” The Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB) says, “It is necessary to pass through many troubles on our way into the kingdom of God.” The International Standard Version (ISV) says, “We must endure many hardships to get into the kingdom of God.” The New Living Translation (NLT) says, “we must suffer many hardships to enter the Kingdom of God.” The New Century Version (NCV) says, “We must suffer many things to enter God’s kingdom.” The impression given is that part of salvation is accomplished through our suffering as believers.
Yet, the text says, “through many sufferings we must εἰσελθεῖν εἰς the kingdom of God.” The Greek word εἰσελθεῖν, eiselthein, means “to move into, to come into, to go into, to enter.”1 Yet, the word is coupled with the related, seemingly superfluous word εἰς, eis, which also means “in” or “into.” Therefore, the verse literally says, “through many sufferings we must enter into in the kingdom of God.” That is, as believers in the Lord Jesus, we are already in the kingdom of God and, having citizenship outside this world-system, we will necessarily enter into tribulations while in this world (John 18:36; 2 Corinthians 5:20). Persecution by the world, therefore, is evidence that we are in the kingdom of God, our Lord Himself saying (John 15:19):
If ye were of the world, the world would love his own: but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you.
Therefore, the first manner in which the church strengthens souls is by exhorting believers to continue pressing down the road of faith, knowing that tribulations will necessarily come as a result. The second manner in which the church strengthens believers is seen in the latter half of Acts 14:23, “they entrusted them to the Lord on whom they had believed.” This is subtle, but the word translated “had believed” in this verse is πεπιστεύκεισαν, pepisteukeisan, which is in the pluperfect tense. The pluperfect is similar to the perfect, the perfect describing past action with present results, but the pluperfect throws the perfect entirely in the past. Therefore, it speaks of a process in the past which has been completed.
While Scripture does teach in a sense that we are being saved everyday, such is not the focus in this passage. The focus in this passage is that we have been saved, our justification finished. It is not my purpose in this article to lay out the entire ordo salutis, such being a discussion for another time, having been debated on all sides by competent teachers of the Word for centuries. The main idea which Scripture teaches in its use of this pluperfect verb is that Christians ought to continually remind themselves of the specific time in their lives that they surrendered to Jesus as their Lord. A Christian ought to be able to recall the moment that he or she gave their life to Christ; he or she may not remember what the date was, but the day should be emblazoned in their minds. We must constantly recall to our minds that day that we first surrendered to the Lord and where He has heretofore brought us. Such will get us through any tribulation that we may face.
- Johannes P. Louw and Eugene Albert Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains (New York: United Bible Societies, 1996), 194.