I have written much lately about the church being the church in today’s world. It has been my contention that the local church of Jesus Christ needs to be about doing the Father’s business and not the world’s or the government’s or the devil’s business. The local church of Jesus Christ is God’s instrument on earth in this age of grace to be the disseminator of the gospel, the revealed mystery once hid but now made manifest to the whole world.
Historically, God’s institutions have operated successfully when they have not strayed from their divine constitution. God established the family in the Garden of Eden but it has often strayed from its moorings. Our day is witnessing a struggle for the very existence of the family as God designed it. Human Government was given by God after the Noahic flood as a means of rule, replacing the immediate intervention of the Holy Spirit during the dispensation of conscience. Governments have come and gone, due primarily to the selfish and often evil bent of their rulers. Both the family and human government exist today as God’s instruments on the earth. They are sometimes good and sometimes bad but they are God’s institutions nonetheless. Israel was and is God’s chosen people. To them belong the promises and covenants yet to be fulfilled at the return of Jesus Christ. Due to Israel’s rejection of the true Messiah, Jesus Christ, God has set them aside until the time of the gentiles is fulfilled and they are again restored to their intended purpose as the world-leading nation in the Kingdom of God.
The Church is God’s program for God’s people who live in this dispensation of grace. The people of God are to assemble themselves into local churches where they live and carry out God’s Word in life and worship. They will still uphold the traditional (provided that remains “Biblical”) family, obey the civil government, and recognize God’s future for Israel. Yet, without violating any of those, they will live as the people of God, strangers and pilgrims though they be, communicating God’s Word to a lost and dying world, and walking in the light of that Word by covenant and conviction.
Can the church do this? Will the church do this? Both questions are connected. The answer to the first is definitely “yes” but the answer to the second remains unknown. The seven churches in Revelation all had the same advantages, all lived in the same time and place, and each faced unique challenges. Some of them failed and some of them succeeded. This has been true in every age and yet it has never been more challenging and critical as it is today. The church has all it needs for both success and for failure.
The church has all it needs for success
Edward Hiscox, the well-known writer of Baptist polity, wrote, “A Christian Church is the most perfectly constructed society known to men, and its system of government the most simple and complete. As each member on entering it, solemnly covenants to maintain, defend and abide by these regulations, so he should consider himself bound by the most sacred considerations to honor and keep his covenant inviolate.”1 Peter said that God “hath given unto us all things that pertain unto life and godliness, through the knowledge of him that hath called us to glory and virtue” (2 Pet. 1:3).
The Holy Spirit. Since every believer has received the Holy Spirit from the moment he/she was saved, the local church may be said to possess the Holy Spirit. “For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body” (1 Cor. 12:13). This Holy Spirit immersion enables us to understand God’s Word, to enjoy Christian fellowship, and to bring before God spiritual sacrifices that are well-pleasing to Him (Heb. 13:15-16). This is not some charismatic-generated source of new revelation. In that case there would be no permanent and comprehensive ground for truth in Christianity. We have been placed into Christ and have been made to hear and understand the Word of God “once for all delivered unto the saints” (Jude 3). The Holy Spirit is God’s gift to each believer in that He regenerates, seals, baptizes, indwells, fills, illuminates, and leads us. Through Him we have success.
The Word of God. The church of Jesus Christ knows that God has revealed Himself. But we also know that such “revelation” came “at sundry times and in divers manners . . . Unto the fathers by the prophets” (Heb. 1:1). We also know that “in these last days [He has] spoken unto us by his Son” (Heb. 1:2). We further know that the only revelation available for us today is the Bible, the written, inspired, infallible, Word of God. Peter assures us that this Scripture is “a more sure word of prophecy” (2 Pet. 1:19) than those that had passed away. Further, Paul says that “all scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works” (2 Tim. 3:16-17). All that the church needs can and must be found in the written word of God. This IS God’s prophecy for today; this IS God’s incarnation for today; this IS God’s sure Word for today.
We don’t ask for God to reveal Himself to us today. He HAS revealed Himself and ONLY reveals Himself in His Word. We don’t ask God to show us His Word for this church and then His Word for that church. He HAS shown us His Word for all churches in the Scripture. Any other searching for a new word or a further word is a plain lack of faith and only causes confusion among the churches and an insecurity as to what God’s Word really is.
The gospel of Jesus Christ. Will the church ever lack for a message to give in this age of grace? No! It will not. All the various commissions to the church (Matt. 28:19-20; Mk. 16:15-16; Lk. 24:46-49; Jn. 20:21-23; Ac. 1:4-8) contain the gospel of Jesus Christ. Paul made the gospel the opening subject in the great book of Romans, “Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, separated unto the gospel of God, (which he had promised afore by his prophets in the holy Scriptures,) concerning his Son Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom. 1:1-3).
The church’s job is not political or social (except within the confines of the order and service of the local assembly) but is spiritual and exclamatory. We truly believe that this world will come to an end and eternity awaits every human being. Heaven and hell are the only alternatives and the gospel of Jesus Christ is the only hope for any soul that will miss hell and gain heaven. Though we are not calloused to the plight of people on this earth, the high-calling of the church is to prepare people for eternity. When that day comes, nothing else will matter.
The field. Jesus said that our field is the world (Matt. 13:38). This world (kosmos) is the totality of people living at any given time. Every local church has had a field within which it must work. Jesus saw the field in His day white unto harvest. Paul explained that we are workers together with God in our field and that our job is to plant the seed and water it until the time of harvest (1 Cor. 3:6-9). Our field will have both wheat and tares growing in it (Matt. 13:24-32). They will be separated by the angels of God at the harvest.
The church is not to use civil force to separate the tares from the wheat but is to let both grow together until the time of harvest. This is not a mixed multitude in the church but in the world. It is the way the field is and must be until Jesus returns but it is our field nonetheless. The field doesn’t have to love us or care that we have this ministry, but it does have to receive seed when it is cast. We remember that Jesus said that only a fourth of the soil will actually produce fruit (Matt. 13:10-23). That is not discouraging but encouraging because it matches with the reality we find. It is not our job to convert the world but rather to give seed to the world, and to let God give the increase.
The Blessed Hope. Among many other ingredients for success that the church has is the imminent return of Jesus Christ in the rapture. This is called a “catching up” by Paul (1 Thes. 4:17) and a “blessed hope” (Tit. 3:13). Though only the last generation of the church will experience it, every member of the church has the responsibility to look for it and to “wait for his Son from heaven” (1 Thes. 1:10).
This looking for our Savior at any moment is a great motivation to service and a deterrent from sin. Some have ridiculed the doctrine for these very reasons, but let the moment come and all things will be made manifest, even the hidden things of darkness and the counsels of the heart (1 Cor. 4:5).
The church has all it needs for failure
Again, the question is not whether the church can succeed, but whether it will succeed. The church has the ingredients it needs for success but also for failure.
The old environment. Ironically, our field in which we work is also the very thing we are not to love—the world (1 Jn. 2:15). In preaching peace to those in the world, we are at the same time in danger of falling back into the old life ourselves. Peter warned that “the time past of our life may suffice us to have wrought the will of the Gentiles” (1 Pet. 4:3), as Paul also says, “In the which ye also walked sometime, when ye lived in them” (Col. 3:7). We must work in it but not be part of it lest we become disqualified ourselves (1 Cor. 9:27).
The old nature. The church is made up of people who are regenerate but also who retain their flesh which they inherited from Adam. This flesh fights against the Spirit and the Spirit against this flesh (Gal. 5:17). This flesh must be put to death daily or it will rule in our hearts to the detriment of God’s work (Col. 3:5, Rom. 8:13). Many today mistake our inordinate affections for positive cultural acuteness, and destroy the church of God through the human nature.
The old enemy. The church faces the world, the flesh, and also the devil. He is the adversary to the work of the church (1 Pet. 5:8) whom we must resist. His demons have complete doctrines ready for the church’s destruction (1 Tim. 4:1) and false apostles who appear as angels of light (2 Cor. 11:13-15). We spend too much time belittling him and not enough time learning to resist him. We allow his work among unbelievers to creep into our own fellowships and feast with it without fear (Jude 12). Only discouragement and defeat can come of such carelessness.
The old question. The serpent asked Eve, “yea, hath God said?” (Gen. 3:1) and he has been asking the people of God the same question ever since. The Word of God, when properly treated, can be the very source of strength and success. But when the Word is doubted and twisted to fit our own purposes, it becomes our own excuse rather than God’s revelation. John Newton wrote, “Now as God only thus reveals himself by the medium of Scripture truth, the light received this way leads the soul to the Scripture from whence it springs, and all the leading truths of the word of God soon begin to be perceived and assented to.”2
And So . . .
The church will be the church if we will follow the Lord in all things and not allow the wilderness of the world and the old life to encroach upon God’s work.
Notes: 1. Edward Hiscox, The New Directory For Baptist Churches (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1970) 164. 2. John Newton, The Letters of John Newton (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2000) 15.