How To Recognize a True Church, Part 6 by John MacArthur

Well as you know, we’ve been talking about the church. I’ve been more of an instructor than a preacher, I think, and that’s fine. Preaching and teaching are both legitimate uses of the gift and we’ve delighted to be able to share with you some things that sort of fit into theological categories.

We’re talking about the church, and understanding the church is a very foundational and very basic necessity for those of us who make up the body of Christ. I am convinced that most Christians, most professing Christians, don’t really understand the church. There are people in denominations, traditional denominations, that essentially are run or operated the way they’ve been operated for years and years, and people are familiar with the way they operate. But it may not necessarily reflect a clear biblical ecclesiology. And then there all of those little pop-up churches that are all over everywhere all the time that by profession call themselves churches but when you look a little more closely at them, you wonder if those people really understand what a church is. And I’m not so much talking about the size of a church, although I am convinced that the larger the church, at least with some sense of reasonableness, the more likely it is to be able to provide the ministry of the spiritual gifts that God has designed for His people. In fact, I’m not convinced that having a whole lot of little groups and a whole lot of little churches all sort of carving out their own corner really brings together the body of Christ in its strength. And I’m also not convinced that it is the clearest and most powerful testimony of our unity in the Lord Jesus Christ.

When the church gets fragmented into little groups which all have their own pet philosophy, we send a very confused message to the world. A unified church, fully flourishing with manifold gifts of the Holy Spirit and extensive ministry, makes an impact on the world and a declaration of the unity in the body of Christ and its collective power, as all the gifts are operating.

It was Michael Griffiths some years ago who wrote a book called God’s Forgetful Pilgrims who said this: “Christians collectively seem to be suffering from a strange amnesia. They go to church but they’ve forgotten what it’s all about.” And he went on in his book to try to help Christians understand what the church is all about. One writer said, “Church is like a merry-go-round, lots of music, people going up and down, some movement and good feelings but you always get off exactly where you got on.”

And I think churches today struggle with an identity crisis. There was a time when they were struggling with the philosophy, and now the struggle seems to be with this sort of entrepreneurial attitude that anybody, anybody who chooses to, anybody who wants to can just sort of launch a church out of nowhere and stylize that church to whatever preference he has and that’s legitimate. As the professing church struggles to figure itself out, one can only guess that if the picture is unclear to the people who profess to be Christ’s, how unclear must the picture be to the outside world?

I remember doing an interview with NBC locally and I will never forget it. I was sitting on a stool; it was an Easter weekend and they were trying to do a story on local churches and they sat me on a stool and at that time there were lots of scandals in the evangelical world and that was on everybody’s mind. And the reporter looked at me on the air and said, “By the way, who is in charge of your movement?” He was coming from a Roman Catholic background where there is one man who is supposedly in charge of the movement, and I think my answer was something like, “No one, from a human standpoint.”

I love the church. It thrills me to serve the church. It is the commitment of my life to labor for the church, with the church, in the church, on behalf of the church. But I understand what the church is and have endeavored to convey that to you and to many others–to many who come to Shepherds’ Conference every year, and through our missionaries and other media means to communicate the true identity of the church, all around the world.

So we’ve been talking about that, how to recognize a church, a real church, a church with impact, a church that is faith, a church where things are happening that honor the Lord, and in a full and rich way. And I want to just go back a little bit and sort of structure the church for you, picking up the last six weeks and maybe shaping it in a little different manner.

I love the church, first of all, because the church is being built by the Lord Himself. We started there, didn’t we? We started in Matthew 16, “I will build My church and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” And we began with the idea that the immutable, sovereign, faithful, omnipotent Lord of heaven–whose Word can never return void but always accomplishes what He says, whose purposes always come to pass, whose will is always fulfilled ultimately, whose plan is invincible–has spoken, and He has spoken about the ultimate triumph of His church. He knows His sheep. He knows them by name. Their names have been in His book since before the foundation of the world. He chose them. He called them to Himself. He regenerated them. He redeemed them. He transformed them. He’s in the process of sanctifying them, and He will ultimately bring them to glory. The Lord is building His church.

And the goal of all of this is to make His church a visible image of Christ in the world. One way to look at it would be to say that Christ was God incarnate in the world, and the church is Christ incarnate in the world. And so the goal of Christ in His church on earth is to conform us to the image of Christ. That’s the prize of the upward call. And Paul says, “I’m pressing toward that. What I will be in eternity is what I long to be here–to be like Christ, to be shaped into His image.” Not only to look like Him from a moral standpoint, but to teach like Him from a theological standpoint, to love like Him from the standpoint of virtue, and to minister like Him from the standpoint of behavior in the world. Christ is building His church, and He’s building His church to look like Him. Hence, His church has greatly benefited and the world has benefited when the church has the full range of the gifts of the body of Christ functioning together. And we’ll say a little more about that in a moment.

I love the church because Christ is building His church. It’s the only thing He’s building in this world; He’s building His church. His redemptive work goes through His church.

Secondly, I love the church because the church is our Lord’s most precious reality. We got a bit of a glimpse of that today when we looked at the story of the Samaritans and our Lord and He told His disciples, “My food is to do the will of My Father who sent Me,” and what He meant by that is the world of redemption for which He was sent. He was sent to seek and to save the lost. And He says, “That’s what satisfies Me.” They thought He needed to eat the physical food, that He was hungry. And He said, “What satisfies Me is this incredible ministry that the Father has given to Me.” It drove Him all the way to the cross.

In 2 Corinthians 8:9 we read that “though He was rich”–He was infinitely rich as God is rich–“yet for your sakes He became poor that you through His poverty might be made rich.” “He became poor” doesn’t mean that He didn’t have any money. It doesn’t mean that. It doesn’t mean that He was limited in His wardrobe. It doesn’t mean that He didn’t own an estate. It’s not talking about poverty in a temporal sense. It’s talking about poverty in a divine sense. He became poor in the sense that He divested Himself of His eternal riches. He wasn’t poor in this life. He came from a working family. His father had raised Him as a builder, as a carpenter, perhaps stone masonry along with that. He had a small family business in Nazareth. When He became an itinerant preacher, He was dependent on gifts of people. But even then, He was not in abject poverty. That’s not what that means. What it means is, He divested Himself temporarily of His riches as God in heavenly glory and came to earth. The gospel, the incarnation, the condescension of Christ for the purpose of redeeming the Father’s elect was His joy. This is the most precious thing He has on earth.

And as such, His people are to be cared for with consideration of who they belong to. When I understand that I’m shepherding not my sheep but His sheep, when I’m caring for not my children, but His children; not the folks that are who they are because I love them, but the folks who are who they are because He loves them. That raises the responsibility to a very high level.

When it talks about Him becoming poor, it means He took on the form of man, the form of a slave. Went all the way to the cross, died there for us, completely bereft of all His heavenly riches, including even His relationship with the Father, for it was then that He said, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” How precious is the church? It is the most precious thing on earth because it cost Him His life. I love the church because He’s building it. I love the church because it’s the most precious thing on earth as evidenced by the highest price being paid for it.

Thirdly, I love the church, and so should you, because the church is the only earthly expression of heaven. Heaven doesn’t come down anywhere but in the church. And we’ve talked about that many times. When the Lord taught us to pray, He said, “Pray this way, ‘Thy Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.’” That only happens in one place, that’s here. Heaven comes down here. Ask yourself, “What’s going on in heaven?” The worship of God, the exaltation of Christ, and the dominating presence of holiness.

That doesn’t happen anywhere on earth but in the life of the church, and it is in the church that God is glorified, Christ is exalted, and holiness comes to earth. Righteousness comes to earth through us, the church. We are unlike anything in the world.

Fourthly, I love the church because the church is the source of divine truth. And we talked about this in the past. We made a very important point out of it, that the church is the pillar and ground of the truth. What truth? Saving truth, gospel truth. And what is gospel truth? Everything: the Triunity of God, the eternal one, the Creator, all the way through to the establishment of His righteous standard, His judgment on sin which the Old Testament does–it talks of His holiness and talks of His willingness to save. It also talks of His judgment and wrath on those who refuse to acknowledge Him and put their trust in Him. All the way through to the coming of Christ, the incarnation, the sinless life, the substitutionary death, bodily resurrection, ascension, intercession, and return–all of those things are truths related to the gospel, which believed brings salvation.

Timothy was ministering in Ephesus when he was told by Paul in that letter that the church was the pillar and ground of the truth. In that town where he was ministering was the impressive Temple of Diana, one of the seven wonders; it was known for its pillars. Historians tell us the Temple of Diana had 127 of them; each one of them was a gift from a different king. All of them were marble. Each pillar given by a king was then a tribute to the king who gave it, so each king tried to outdo the other kings. They were amazing statements of the majesty and the glory of a king. And they held up the immense roof. And so it is that the Word of God is a magnificent glorious pillar that supports the truth. As the pillars of the Temple of Diana were testimony to the gross errors of false religion, the church is the testimony to the true religion, divine revelation and the true gospel. So it is the solemn duty and responsibility of every church to lift up the truth, hold it high, let people know that it is unshakeable, immovable, unalterable. It cannot be replaced, and it cannot be lowered from its place of priority. The church then is the one institution in the world that has the stewardship of divine truth. This, of course, is all through Scripture, both Old and New.

One final note about why I love the church, just in an introductory form. I love the church because the church is the agency for evangelism. The church, from its inception, was the vehicle, the instrument that the Lord designed to reach the world. Israel failed to be that missionary nation that they were called to be. God carved out a new people, made them Jew and Gentile–the church–gave the Great Commission. We’re to go to the ends of the earth and proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ, to tell the world that God is a saving God who has sent His Son to be the Savior of the world. And we have the responsibility to go to the ends of the earth and proclaim the gospel of salvation.

There are the essential elements of the church. And those are the things that draw me to the church. Now, having said that by way of sort of a recap on the main foundational features of a biblical ecclesiology, next month we will continue our teaching on the key components of a biblical church…

Pulpit Magazine – September 2013

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