How To Recognize a True Church, Part 5 by John MacArthur

This month we are going to address the topic of unbelievers in a worship service, and then go on to further clarify the distinctions of a true church.

Now what do you want an unbeliever to do when he comes to church? You want him to become a worshiper. So how does he become a worshiper when you’ve got chaos going on, craziness going on? And, of course, then the gift of languages was a legitimate gift; that it was terribly abused by the Corinthians to the degree that some of them were standing up and claiming that they were speaking in a language from the Holy Spirit and cursing Christ. It was bizarre. And it is regulated here even in its apostolic form; it is regulated here. Never more than two or three; never a woman; always with an interpreter; that’s all in this same chapter.

The people come into a kind of a cacophonous, charismatic event such as you see on television. Some of you have come from that experience…there’s a madness about that. When people come, and the Word of God is being proclaimed, and the truth is being proclaimed, there’s a very different reaction. They’re called to account by the Word of God. The secrets of their hearts are disclosed by the Word of God. They will say God is in this place. Maybe they will fall on their faces and worship God.

So if you want an unbeliever to be impacted, be a worshiping community. We worship in spirit and truth. The unbeliever needs to come and be exposed to the Spirit, the singing, the praise, the joy, the love, the heart attitude, but also to be exposed to the truth. You would think in the contemporary church that unbelievers should come and never have to encounter serious worshiping people; they’ll be offended. They’ll be alienated. You would think that a kind of madness, or a kind of a cultural adaptation would be more winsome. But the truth of Scripture is very clear. You want someone to come and fall down in worship, then show them what you are a worshiping people. And you’re worshiping in Spirit and in truth.
So when you think about the life of the church, you have to realize that the church is committed to the absolute authority of Scripture, and it’s committed to being a worshiping group. That’s what we do. We worship with joy and love in the truth, revealed in Scripture concerning the Trinity.

Thirdly–and this is another very important component of life in the church–the church is committed to doctrinal clarity. I’ve got to be careful here ’cause this is one of my favorite subjects. Clarity is good, wouldn’t you agree? Clarity is good. Anybody can be hard to understand. Sometimes you hear somebody say, “Well, I heard such-and-such speak but it was over my head.”

Not really. No. Do you know why you couldn’t understand? Because the speaker didn’t understand. If it’s not clear for you to understand, it is not clear for him. It’s very easy to be hard to understand. If you sort of pride yourself on being so erudite that nobody understands you, the truth is you don’t know what you’re talking about. And one thing is for sure, if you don’t get it, you can’t make somebody else get it. Easy to be hard to understand. Just don’t know what you’re talking about and nobody else will. Very hard to be clear. Very demanding to be clear. That means you’ve got to go to the Word of God and you’ve got to apply the science of hermeneutics, the principles of interpretation to Scripture. You’ve got to work at it. You’ve got to study to be disciplined to show yourself approved to God, a workman needing not to be ashamed. It takes great effort to understand the Word of God. You need to be like the noble Bereans who searched the Scripture to see if certain things true. The church has the obligation to make doctrine clear.

Some years ago we were doing a lot of writing and talking about the emerging church. It emerged and then it went right back away again. Vestiges of it are still around the world, however. But the emerging church featured this idea, the Bible’s not clear. The Bible lacks perspicuity, which is a word that means clarity. The Bible is not perspicuous and throughout the history of theology, theologians have always said that the Bible is clear. They believed in the perspicuity of Scripture, the clarity of Scripture, that Scripture is intended to be revelation, not obfuscation. It’s intended to make things clear, not make things dark and not understandable. But the fantasy about mysticism and the dark things that the emerging church was into, including the way they conducted themselves in dark rooms with candles in the corner, was sort of a metaphor for the fact that they didn’t understand the Bible. And they were very proud to say they thought the Bible was unclear-—an old book, an ancient book. We don’t really know what it means so we wouldn’t want to work on it, we don’t want to become doctrinal, it’s divisive. Nobody really knows what it means so let’s just bask in its obscurity. That was the emerging church movement.

Well, it’s hard to sell a movement like that because you don’t know what you’re selling. We’re committed to the fact that God revealed Himself in His Word in such a way that we can understand it, that He used real language that means exactly what it says–real people, real history, real language. And you can interpret the Bible the exact same way you would interpret the Constitution of the United States or any other thing you read, any other document with the same reasonable approach.

Throughout the ministry here at Grace Church, if you were to pin me down on what kind of Bible exposition that I’m committed to, I would say it’s theological exposition. What I mean by that is sequential exposition that identifies theological truth and crystalizes that truth and passes it on to you. You understand that. It’s not just telling the story in the narrative, it’s pulling out the principle. I used to call it principlizing the Scripture, drawing out the doctrine that is there, crystalizing that doctrine, supporting that doctrine from other passages. You know as I preach that I’ll be in a passage and I’ll go somewhere else, and I’ll get a verse here, and a verse there, and a verse here. This is what theologians, the Reformation, called analogious Scriptura–the Scripture is analogous to itself. That is to say, the Bible is the best source of explaining the Bible. Other passages explain every passage. It is consistent because it has one author. So we go through a passage and we draw out principles and then I show you typically week after week, year after year, how this principle is further clarified and articulated in other places in Scripture. Now you have a doctrine. This is consistent with how the church has always functioned from its earliest days.

In fact, this is what we mean by creed. You’ve heard about a creed–the Apostles’ Creed; or a confession–the Westminster Confession; certain Baptists confessions or other kinds of confessions that have been identified through the centuries by groups of believers. What they have done is identified in Scripture propositional truth, propositional truth–revealed, clear doctrine. And they have crystalized those doctrines and they’ve assembled those doctrines into creeds, and you even find some of them in the New Testament, such as the one we noted last time in Paul’s letter to Timothy. Just after he talks about the church being the pillar and ground of the truth, he then gives the common confession: “He who was revealed in the flesh, vindicated in the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory.” It was probably a hymn but a creedal hymn concerning Christ.

We have a doctrinal statement at Grace Church called “What We Teach,” because we would like to call it “What We Believe,” but not all of you are there yet. But it’s what we believe and it’s what we teach and it clarifies. If you don’t have a copy of that, get a copy of that because this is the doctrinal statement we affirm. It is historic. It’s not just our church. It’s what the true church and those who have been sound in doctrine have always believed and been crystalized and clarified through history.

When all of this comes together we call it systematic theology, systematic theology. That is to say that you can put all the theology of Scripture together in a consistent system that is reasonable and non- contradictory because God is the author of all of it, and God is ultimate reason and cannot contradict Himself.

So, we have a doctrine of God. We have a doctrine of the Trinity. We have a doctrine of Christ. We have a doctrine of man. We have doctrines of salvation, all aspects of it. We have a doctrine of Scripture. We have many doctrines concerning the nature of God. We talk about God as omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent. We talk about God as immutable, meaning He doesn’t change. There’s such a doctrine as the aseity of God, the nature of God. There’s the doctrine of the impassability of God; that is that God doesn’t alter Himself based upon His passions, but is consistent. These are doctrines that have been affirmed, clarified in Scripture, assembled together in a systematic way. Every believer should have a systematic theology. There’s some good basic systematic theologies and you will love that. I read systematic theology all the time. I have a stack by one of the chairs at home. I have books by all the chairs. This particular chair has a stack of big fat theology books, some of them as much as two and a half or three inches thick, and I read theology. I love to read theology, the systematization of everything that the Bible teaches, and we’re committed to that.

Now I don’t need to beg the point any further except to say that when you get in to the pastoral epistles, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, right? Pastoral epistles written from Paul to a pastor telling him about the church. Time after time after time, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, you hear this, “Sound doctrine, sound doctrine, sound doctrine, sound doctrine.” And doctrine is kind of a heady word; simply means teaching. But it speaks off a propositional truth, not about a style. It’s about propositional truth– sound doctrine, sound doctrine. You get to Titus chapter 2, and we’re instructed as those who have been given on the pages of holy Scripture sound doctrine to teach it. Titus 2, “But as for you,” “speak the things which are fitting for sound doctrine.” The chapter ends, “These things speak and exhort and reprove with all authority and let no one disregard you.”

Once you know truth, once you know propositional truth, once you know doctrine, you teach it with authority and you let no one disregard you. What is the word “disregard?” It’s a word that simply means evade, get around you, wiggle out. You have sound doctrine, you teach sound doctrine, and you let no one evade sound doctrine.

The church then is, and this builds on point one from last time, the pillar and ground of the truth in which there is clarity about doctrine. You say, “Well, why does that matter?” I’ll tell you why it matters. Because you will live your life based on doctrinal conviction. Let me tell you what I mean by that.

Many, many Christians throw Bible verses around and they throw Bible verses around. When they get in stress, they pull out a Bible verse. Probably the most commonly used, Romans 8:28, “For all things work together for good to them that love God and are called according to His purpose.” Now a Christian might say, “Well, I have that verse, it’s all going to work together for good.” But a Christian who has that verse and not a doctrine of the sovereignty of God has a weak position. How do you know that that verse is true? How do you know that the outcome is good? If you have a doctrine of the sovereignty of God and all the doctrines that go with His sovereign grace extended to His people and His purpose fulfilled for His people, then that one verse is tied to something that is firm and immovable.

You can say, “Well, John 3:16, ‘God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever believes,’ so forth.” If that’s all you know, you can hope that that’s true. But if you have a doctrine of salvation and a doctrine of regeneration, in other words, every verse is imbedded or related to a doctrine, and when all you know is the verses, they kind of fly around loose. But when you know the doctrine, the verses take on their full meaning.

All right, there’s a fourth thing and this is tied into it, that when you look at the life of the church, this is what you should see– commitment to the absolute authority of Scripture. Every great ministry in the history of the church was founded on sound doctrine, not on experiences, not on feelings, not on emotions, not on sort of floating Bible verses but sound doctrine. And here’s…here’s why. Because the fourth element of life in the church is spiritual discernment. The only people who are really discerning are people who have sound doctrine. The uniqueness of the church is that because we know what the Bible teaches, because we have doctrine that is sound, we can discern. We know how to measure everything. We know how to test everything. This is, of course, a principle that appears in many places, both in the Old Testament and the New Testament. We don’t have time to go back into the Old Testament, but listen, for example, to Colossians 1:9: “For this reason, also, since the day we heard of it, we have not ceased to pray for you and ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding.”

Spiritual wisdom and understanding is discernment. And when you’re filled with the knowledge of sound doctrine, you have discernment. You can sort out the things that are going on in the world. Turn to 1 Thessalonians chapter 5. And we’ll just look at verse 20, “Do not despise prophetic utterances.” And again, this is prophetic, not in the sense of predicting the future, but like a prophet, one who spoke for God. Don’t despise those who speak for God. They’re going to be out there. Don’t despise them. However, verse 21, “But examine everything and hold fast to that which is good”…and literally…“shun evil no matter what form it comes in.” What form, what scheme, what system? That’s a call for discernment. Be able to separate error from truth.

Now we’ve talked about this a lot, 1 John 2, John says, “I write unto you, young men, because you have overcome the wicked one.” How have you overcome the wicked one? Wicked one, Satan, how have you overcome him? “You’re strong in the Word and you’ve overcome the wicked one.” When you’re strong in the world, you overcome the wicked one in this sense. He is disguised as an angel of light. Satan operates in false religion. You will overcome all the deceptions, all the seductions of false religion when you’re strong in the Word. Why? Because you have discernment, you have discernment. When people ask me, “What is the biggest problem in the church today?” I will say that the biggest manifest problem is the utter lack of discernment. And it backs up to not having clear doctrine, which backs up to not submitting to the authoritative Word of God. It’s like spiritual AIDS.

I wrote a book and I was looking at it a little bit today and the subtitle of the book was, “When the Church Loses Its Will to Discern.” The title was Reckless Faith back in 1994, Reckless Faith. “When the Church Loses Its Will To Discern.” I compared it to to having AIDS. People don’t die of AIDS. AIDS is just a deficient immune system, and they die of a thousand diseases. And there is just a general deficiency in the immune system of professing Christians by which they can die from a thousand heresies. The reason false forms of Christianity flourish is because people don’t have discerning mechanisms. And people will say, “Well, you know, we don’t want a lot of doctrine because doctrine divides and people who are strong in doctrine are proud and overbearing and lack tolerance and all of that.”

Well, if you don’t have sound doctrine, you don’t have discernment. If you don’t have discernment, you have spiritual AIDS, and you can be sucked up and seduced in a myriad of ways.
What happens to people without theology? Without discernment? They get caught up in emotion, mysticism, irrationality. They get led astray by false teachers. It is desperately critical for us to have our senses brought to a fine point as Hebrews 5:14 says, so that we can discern good and evil. Don’t despise preaching, but be able to see the truth and the error. Whatever is good, embrace it, cling to it, hold fast. Whatever evil, whatever scheme it might be, shun it, stay away from it.

Spiritual discernment is critical. If you have spiritual discernment, you become a priceless person, you have answers, you understand, you can pass that on to the people you love, to your children, and to many others.

One final comment — the church is known for the pursuit of holiness. We have been called, 2 Corinthians 7:1, to cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh, perfecting holiness in the fear of God. In the language of 1 Thessalonians 4:7, God has called us to sanctification. The New Testament just makes so much of this. First Peter chapter 1, you might turn there, verse 11. Peter in verse 13 says, “Prepare your minds for action. Keep sober, fix your hope completely on the grace to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ as obedient children, do not be conformed to the former lusts which were yours in your ignorance but like the holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior .” And then borrowing from Leviticus, where it says this many times, “You shall be holy for I am holy.”

A couple of years ago I gave a message at a Shepherds’ Conference entitled “Sanctifying Shepherds.” The responsibility of a pastor and a shepherd is to be a sanctifying influence in the life of his people. Not a corrupting influence. This means that you don’t lead them toward the world, you lead them toward the Lord, toward heaven, toward what is pure, what is holy.

In Ephesians 5, again we find familiar instruction along this line. “Therefore, be imitators of God, be Godlike, walk in love as Christ loved you and gave Himself up for us an offering and sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma. Immorality, any impurity, any greed must not even be named among you as is proper among saints.”

This kind of sin shouldn’t even be named among us. And where it appears, Jesus said in Matthew 18, “Go to that person, confront that sin, call that brother to repent. If he doesn’t repent, take two or three witnesses. If he still doesn’t repent, send the church. And if he still doesn’t repent, put him out.” Matthew 18. There should be “no filthiness, no silly talk, coarse jesting, for you know this with certainty that no immoral or impure person or covetous man who is an idolater has an inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.” Why would you want to act like the people who aren’t in the kingdom? “You used to be darkness,” verse 8, “now you’re light.” Everything is changed. He goes on to talk about all of this, all the way down in this wonderful chapter, even into marriage and relationships and families. The pursuit is always holiness.

Maybe just two other passages and then I’ll stop. First Thessalonians 3:11, “Now may our God and Father Himself and Jesus our Lord direct our way to you, and may the Lord cause you to increase and abound in love for one another and for all people just as we also do for you that He may establish your hearts”…Listen to this…“without blame in holiness before our God,” “without blame in holiness before our God and Father when Jesus comes.” When Jesus comes, you want to be found blameless, you want to be found in holiness. Of course.

Back in 1 Corinthians 11, “I’m jealous for you,” verse 2, “with a godly jealousy. I betrothed you to one husband so that to Christ I might present you as a pure virgin, but I’m afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, your minds will be led astray from the simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ.” I want you to be a chaste bride. I want you to be holy.

Now let’s end where we started. Turn to Hebrews chapter 10. We started talking about worship and let’s end there. Hebrews chapter 10 and verse 19, this is how we worship. We worship with confidence; we enter into the holy place, the presence of God who inhabits His people’s praise. He is here. We have confidence. We “enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way [the New Covenant] which He inaugurated for us through the veil, that is, His flesh. And since we have a great priest over the house of God let us draw near.” We’re back to worship. Let us draw near with a sincere heart, in full assurance of faith. And then this, “Having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.” That’s coming with clean hands and a pure heart. To borrow the Old Testament psalm–pursuit of holiness.

Pulpit Magazine – August 2013

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