WHAT IS THE CHURCH FOR?
by Timothy Cross
Mocking and caricaturing the church seem to have always been in fashion. Perhaps this is one way in which unbelievers seek to distance themselves from the church’s message and justify their unbelief. The first century Christians were dismissed as being drunk – ‘others mockingly said ‘They are filled with new wine’’(Acts 2:15), whilst twenty-first century Christians are not helped by popular TV comedies which feature ‘silly vicars’ and radio programmes which give prominence to ‘Christian leaders’ so-called, who cast doubt on the fundamentals of the Christian Faith. These latter are as different from a true Christian minister as chalk is from cheese.
A true Christian will no more mock the church of God than blaspheme the name of God. A true Christian knows that the church is no ordinary society but ‘the church of God which He obtained with the blood of His own Son’ (Acts 20:28). We would never mock that which is infinitely dear to our Saviour, and the church is infinitely dear to our Saviour, for ‘Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her, that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word’ (Ephesians 5:25,26).
The question is begged though: What exactly is the church for? The answer, according to the Bible, is that the church exists for three reasons: 1. The Praise of God 2. The People of God and 3. The Purpose of God.
1. The Church Exists for the Praise of God
In a ‘man-centred’ world, it may come as a shock to some to realise that the chief purpose of the church is the glory of God, not the benefit of man. The blessing of those truly redeemed by Christ, is, of course, truly immense. Yet ultimately, redemption is not for the benefit of the redeemed but ‘For the praise of His glory’ (Ephesians 1:12,14).
The true church of God, says the Westminster Confession of Faith ‘consists of the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ the Head thereof; and is the spouse, the body, the fullness of Him that filleth all in all’ (ch. XXV).
The members of the true church of God then have been ‘chosen in Him (Christ) before the foundation of the world’ (Ephesians 1:3). At Calvary, Christ shed His blood to procure their eternal salvation, and in God’s time, they have come to believe in Him and trust Him as their own personal Saviour. Those chosen by God in eternity past, and those for whom Christ came into the world to save, will most surely trust in Christ in time. The Holy Spirit will convict them of their sin and lost condition, and draw them irresistibly to the foot of the cross and bestow on them saving faith in the crucified One. They will then be ‘sealed with the promised Holy Spirit’ (Ephesians 1:13) and ‘by God’s power … guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time (1 Peter 1:5). Knowing the joy of sins forgiven, peace with God and the sure hope of eternal life as they do, it is small wonder that these people – those who constitute the church of God – are characterised by overflowing and reverent praise and thanksgiving to God, both individually and corporately. Here the church on earth is at one with the church in heaven in extolling the praise ‘To Him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by His blood and made us a kingdom, priests to His God and Father (Revelation 1:5,6).
The worship of God then is the chief occupation and preoccupation of the church of God. The church is a living monument to God’s praise, glory and saving grace. The late HA Carson gave a wonderful definition of divine worship when he suggested:-
Worship is the declaration by the creature of the greatness of his Creator. It is the glad affirmation by the forgiven sinner of the mercy of his Redeemer. It is the united testimony of an adoring congregation to the perfection of their common Lord. It is the summit of the service of the angels and the climax of the eternal purpose of God for His people. It is man’s supreme goal here and the consummation of his life in heaven (italics mine).
The chief purpose of the church then is to minister to Almighty God by worshipping Him. Secondly though, the church also ministers to its members, for:-
2. The Church Exists for the People of God
Peter’s desire was that God’s people should not stagnate but ‘grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ’ (2 Peter 3:18). Paul’s desire was a similar one, namely ‘to present every man mature in Christ’ (Colossians 1:28). Pilgrims should make progress! The question is: How is this growth to maturity in God’s people achieved? The answer is that this is a work of God in His people, and that God uses various means to achieve this – the providential trials of life being one of these. Yet according to the New Testament, the chief instrument which God employs for the spiritual growth of His people is the church – through her teaching and encouragement, through her ‘means of grace.’
The early Christians ‘devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers’ (Acts 2:42) and the principle and practice underlying this still applies today, and will do until the church militant on earth and the church triumphant in heaven are one. It is by exposure to the systematic, expository preaching and teaching of the Word of God, by those called, equipped and ordained by God, that the people of God grow in their knowledge of God and their understanding of the Faith is deepened. The Spirit of God uses the Word of God for the enlightenment and growth of the people of God to the eternal glory of God.
The ministry of the church then is indispensable for our spiritual well-being. When we gather with the Lord’s people – our brothers and sisters in Christ – we can expect a blessing, and we can expect to know the presence of the Lord Jesus in a special way, for He has promised that ‘where two or three are gathered in my Name, there am I in the midst of them’ (Matthew 18:20). As Thomas absented himself from gathering with the other disciples on the evening of the first Easter Sunday, and so missed out on meeting up with the risen Saviour, we too will miss out badly if we absent ourselves from gathering with God’s people on the Lord’s Day. ‘Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another …’ (Hebrews 10:24,25). According to the Bible then, Christian experience is inseparable from ecclesiastical experience.
John Calvin – one of our Reformed ‘fathers in the faith’ was adamant as to the church’s indispensability to the believer. He wrote:-
We have shown that Christ becomes ours through faith in His Gospel, so that we share in the salvation and eternal joy secured by Him. Our ignorance, laziness and vanity are such that we need a great deal of help to bring us to living faith. We also need to grow in that faith. So God has made sure we have enough encouragement by entrusting His Gospel to the church. He has appointed pastors to build up His people (Ephesians 4:11).
I will begin with the church, the gathering of God’s children, where they can be helped and fed like babies and guided by her motherly care, grow up to manhood in maturity of faith … For those to whom God is Father, the church must also be a mother …
The title, Mother, underlies how essential it is to know about the visible church. There is no other way of entering into life unless we are conceived in her womb, brought to birth and then given her milk … Our frailty ensures that we do not leave this school until we have spent our whole lives as pupils … abandoning the church is always fatal. (Institutes, Book Four, Ch. 1).
3. The Church Exists for the Purpose of God
It’s a paradox, but the church exists both for its members and its non-members as well. Jesus declared ‘I will build my church and the powers of death shall not prevail against it’ (Matthew 16:18). The reference here is ultimately to the drawing in of God’s elect through the preaching of the Gospel. Whilst - as we have seen - the quality of church members’ faith is increased through teaching, the quantity of church members is increased through evangelism. ‘Faith comes from what is heard and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ’ (Romans 10:17). It is through the preached Gospel that sinners are saved, and so added to the true church of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is through the proclamation of ‘Christ crucified’ (1 Corinthians 1:23) that those outside the church are saved by grace, and become the ‘living stones’ (1 Peter 2:5) which constitute the church and of which it is built. When the very last living stone is put into place by God, that is, when the last one of God’s elect is called to Christ, God’s eternal purpose of grace to save a people for Himself will be complete, and Christ will come again in power and great glory and usher in His promised new heavens and new earth.
The evangelism of the church’s non-members then is as equally important for the church’s health and growth as the nurture of her current members. Christ’s final mandate to His disciples was ‘Go into all the world and preach the Gospel …’ (Mark 16:15) and to ‘make disciples of all nations’ (Matthew 28:19). Whilst the sovereign God does not confine the work of evangelism to the church pulpit, history reveals and eternity will surely reveal that God’s primary means of evangelism is through the ministry of the local church - through the faithful, steadfast, uncompromising, preaching of the Gospel in the power of the Holy Spirit, week in week out. God’s eternal purpose is actually fulfilled through preaching. ‘It pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe’ (1 Corinthians 1:21). ‘The Spirit of God maketh the reading but especially the preaching of the Word an effectual means of convincing and converting sinners and of building them up in holiness and comfort, through faith unto salvation’ (Shorter Catechism).
So beware of the spirit of the age, and never mock the church. For all her human faults, frailty and foibles, the church is no mere human organisation, but ‘the church of the living God’ (1 Timothy 3:15). It has a divine function in this fallen world. It exists for the worship of God – for God’s glory and praise. It exists for the nurture, education and edification of God’s own people. And it exists for the evangelism of the unsaved. Good news is for proclaiming, and the Gospel of Christ is still ‘the power of God for salvation to every one who has faith’ (Romans 1:16). Nothing on earth then compares with the church of God. Those who love Christ will surely love Christ’s church.
We love the place, O God
Wherein Thine honour dwells
The joy of Thine abode
All earthly joy excels
It is the house of prayer
Wherein Thy servants meet
And Thou O Lord art there
Thy chosen flock to greet
We love the Word of life
The Word that tells of peace
Of comfort in the strife
And joys that never cease.
Last Update: 2013-08-12 16:41