Three Cheers for the Church

At a time when many Christians seem to have become disillusioned with the church and receive most, if any at all, of their spiritual instruction from a podcast pastor, and their fellowship and sense of community from Facebook and the like, let me make a renewed pitch for the necessity of local church attendance, membership, and participation. The imperative of Hebrews 10:25 cannot be ignored, nor is it obsolete. “Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another and so much the more as you see the Day approaching”. The regular public gathering together of believers is not an option. The reason is that the local church is God’s appointed means of making and maturing disciples. Only the church has the divine means to do so through the systematic teaching and preaching of the Word of God, corporate prayer, the administration of the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s table, and the discipline of believers (Mat. 28:19-20; 16:18-19; and Mat. 18:15-20).

The church is a living, breathing, dynamic organism in vital union with its risen and reigning Head, the Lord Jesus Christ through faith in Him, and it is a structured organization, ordering its worship and witness according to the Holy Scriptures. When professing Christians claim that they want nothing more to do with the organized church, they ought to ask, “What other Bible-sanctioned church is there?” There is a word for any organism that is unorganized and all the parts unintegrated – DEAD! It could not function or survive. Thus Paul writes that all things in the church are to be done decently and in order (1 Cor. 14:40), and he writes to Timothy carefully laying out how he should conduct himself, as pastor, and the affairs of the church in a godly fashion (1 Tim. 3:15).

In this latter text, Paul says 3 important things about the church. One, it is “the house of God”. The church is a place indwelt by the presence of God. God, in His infinite being, is everywhere present but when believers gather for public praise, prayer, and proclamation, God’s special presence comes to greet us and to bless us and to transform us. That’s what makes “church” special – God is there like He is nowhere else (Matt. 18:20). Two, the church is “the church of the living God” – it is a people animated with the life of God, the ecclesia, regenerate people born again by the sovereign work of the Spirit and called out from the world to be set apart unto God’s worship and service. Three, it is “the pillar and support of the truth”, upholding the truth of Scripture by maintaining it against false doctrine and by proclaiming it to believers unto edification and to the lost unto salvation. There is no place, people, or pillar like the church.

I join with Paul in offering 3 cheers to the church. No, it is not perfect, not yet. But if we love Christ, we will love His church that He loves. For the person who knows the imperative to be in a Bible-believing, Christ-centred church but persists in ignoring it and remains aloof and outside, one can rightly question whether that person is truly a Christian.

A Tribute to a Departed Saint

A few days ago, Emmanuel Baptist Church lost one of its most cherished and admired members. Lorna Steele was very petite physically, but she was a pillar of the church in her faithfulness to God and in her deep love for Christ that was evident to all who knew her. She was a sterling example of what Christian womanhood should be. Her joy was infectious and she loved to be with God’s people. One of my fondest anecdotes concerning Lorna was the day she asked, “Where would you like to be when Jesus comes again”? I knew from the twinkle in her eye that whatever I said, she had something much better. She said, “I would like to be standing by my late husband’s grave, and to hear the trumpet sound, and to see him rise from the dead, and to be caught up together to meet the Lord in the air. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?” Wonderful indeed! But in God’s wise providence, she didn’t have to wait for Christ to come. She is now in the presence of her Saviour, reunited with her husband and other loved ones who have died in Christ, in that place where there is no more parting, sorrow, pain, tears, or death and all is well.

The verse she wanted emphasized and considered by us who have been left behind in this vale of tears was Romans 8:28. “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose”. This is a great promise, a great promise about a great God. If God causes all things to work together for good to those who love Him, what kind of God must He be? This promise thunders out that God is absolutely sovereign, that He rules and reigns over all things according to His good pleasure (see Isaiah 46:9-11; Daniel 4:34,35). He is not a deist God who like the proverbial watchmaker, wound the universe up and then sat back disinterested and disengaged, never interfering in the course of history again. He is not an open theist God who is unable to see the future and is taken by surprise, as we are, by the unexpected twists and turns of life. No, our God reigns, He reigns over the biggest galaxies and the smallest atoms, over good people and bad people, over good things and bad things, over the past, present, and future, over life and death, heaven and hell, time and eternity, over every event, encounter, and circumstance. Things don’t just happen as if by blind fate, but it is God who ordains, initiates, orchestrates, governs, and consummates His plan. Lorna wanted us to know that the God she knew and served is a great God.

This is also a great promise with a great guarantee – ALL things work together for good to those who love Him. This is an iron-clad promise from the God who cannot lie that all things, good and bad are being harmonized and relentlessly directed toward our good. Not one thing is working out badly, not just some of the time, but all of the time. The context makes it clear that what Paul primarily had in mind when he said all things was human suffering (Rom. 8:14-18, 23, 35-39). Where is God when people suffer? God never moves. He is occupying His eternal throne and for those who love Him, He is never absent in our suffering. He is taking all the suffering and the trials and the heartaches to which we are not immune, and He is working it all out for our good. The greatest demonstration of this was the cross of Jesus Christ when wicked and envious men murdered the Son of God but what they intended for evil, God worked it out for good, for the salvation of sinners. Lorna was persuaded of this great guarantee and enjoyed the wonderful serenity of life that issues from it.

This is a great promise unto a great goal, namely the good of those who love Him. And we are not left to guess what this good is. Physical good? Material good? It is greater than temporal things. The next verse identifies this good as the conformity of the believer to the image of Christ that He (Christ) might be the firstborn among many brethren. This great good is worked out progressively in our sanctification, but ultimately achieved in heaven when every brother and sister whom He died to save is made perfectly and permanently like Him. That is our eternal destiny and Christ’s eternal glory and reward. Every time a saint passes from earth to heaven, it is the crowning proof that God has accomplished exactly what He set out to do, to work all things together for good to those who love Him. Lorna would have us know as she stands perfected in the glories of heaven that God is true to His promises.

The question is then, do you love God? Do you dismiss Him or desire Him? Ignore Him or embrace Him? Give Him no thought or bow your knee to Him as Saviour and Lord? Have you obeyed that effectual call of the Spirit to come to Christ and be saved? Lorna loved her Saviour and so must we if this God, this guarantee, and this goal is to be ours.

Born Again

 

Just a few days ago, I had lunch with a man who during our conversation asked what it meant to be born again. He admitted that he had little idea as to its meaning and we might suspect that he is not alone in his confusion. Pollsters and the general public use the term as a label to describe a certain kind of Christian. There is the larger Christian world and within that world, a certain segment who are “born again” Christians. But I ask you, is there any other kind of Christian? For Jesus said, “Unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3).

Jesus addressed these words to Nicodemus, a highly respected and influential man in Jewish society, a religious leader who had come to Jesus saying some nice things about Him. But Jesus, knowing this man’s heart and need, told Nicodemus that he needed to go back and start all over again. He needed a new beginning effected by God, a spiritual birth, a supernatural birth. We all do, because in our natural birth, we were born in Adam and in sin, sin that has defiled us and disabled us and deadened us spiritually. In our fallen condition, we can do many things – we can outwardly reform our ways, we can make ourselves more moral and respectable, even more religious but one thing we cannot give ourselves is a new heart that is spiritually alive unto God and that embraces the salvation freely offered in Christ, and thus be converted. The new birth is God making us what we could never make ourselves to be, a new creation. “If any man be in Christ, he is a new creation; old things are passed away, behold all things are become new” (2 Cor. 5:17). Being born again or regeneration is a once-for-all irreversible spiritual transformation. God changes what we are on the inside, not just temporarily, but eternally.

Jesus said, “You MUST be born again” (John 3:7). It is a universal necessity. What Jesus said to Nicodemus, he says to everyone, everywhere. It is an indispensable necessity. Without it we can neither see (John 3:3) nor enter (John 3:5) the kingdom of God. Everyone in God’s kingdom has been born again. It is an unchanging necessity. Despite all the advances in technology and mankind’s accumulated knowledge, time has not made us better. Society is just as corrupted and dead in sin as it was in the year 2000, in 1000, or in 100.

Christ likened the act of regeneration to the wind in John 3:8. Just as we cannot create the wind or control the wind or contain the wind – it blows where it wants, from what direction it wants, as strong or as soft as it wants and is completely out of our hands, so is the work of God in regeneration. It is God’s work alone. He effects it to whom He wills, where He wills, when he wills. James 1:18 says that “of His own will He brought us forth by the word of truth”. That means that no lost person is beyond God’s renewing power. No heart is inaccessible to His sovereign work. He can enter the innermost being of any person that He wishes. The new birth is designed that way, to be entirely the work of God in order to drive us to God, to despair of any power in ourselves, and to look to God alone to give us a new heart and a new nature, to make us a new person in Christ.

The sure evidence of the new birth is conversion. “Old things are passed away, all things have become new”. Sinful pleasures and habits that we once loved now have no interest to us. What we once avoided like the plague, now that is what we love, God’s will, God’s word, and God’s people. Being born again is not an add-on, it’s not a luxury item for a special group of Christians. It’s what makes you a Christian! “Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again’” (John 3:7).

Three Crosses in my Heart

 

     When our Lord Jesus Christ was crucified on a hill outside the walls of Jerusalem, He died as a voluntary substitutionary sacrifice for sinners. By His death once and for all He accomplished eternal salvation for those who would believe in Him. But He not only died FOR sinners, He died WITH sinners in fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy (Isa. 53:12). He was numbered with the transgressors in the persons of the two criminals who were crucified on either side.

     As there were three crosses on the hill that day, we discover in Galatians 5:24 that there are three crosses in the hearts of those who belong to Christ by faith. Paul writes that “those who are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires”. The tense of the verb he employs strongly emphasizes that this crucifixion is a fact. It is a gospel indicative that takes the crucifixion of the flesh out of the realm of conjecture, dispute, and mere possibility and establishes it as a “fait accompli”, an irreversible accomplished fact. Christ accomplished it for His people on that central cross on the hill. The Spirit applied it to our hearts the moment we believed. The flesh has been crucified with its passions and desires on either side.

     It is vital that Paul’s use of the term flesh is rightly understood. Flesh can have different nuances in Scripture but generally there are three main meanings. One, it can refer to material human nature, our flesh and bones bodies that we inhabit, for example, the circumcision of the flesh that he speaks of in Gal. 6:12,13. Second, it can mean mortal human nature, this frail and fleeting existence under the curse of sin that will inevitably end in death. For example, Isaiah reminds us, “All flesh is grass and all its loveliness is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades” (Isa. 40:6,7). And third, the use that is before us, namely malignant human nature, the flesh which is thoroughly evil, the factory of sin in our hearts.

     The flesh is a dangerous and relentless foe. Galatians 5:17 declares that “the flesh lusts against the Spirit and the Spirit against the flesh and these are contrary (opposed) to one another”. The flesh cannot be cleaned up or improved. It cannot be reformed. It cannot be fenced in by legalism or beaten into submission by asceticism. It is an internal rebel enemy that seeks to dominate and control our lives. And it does not operate alone. It has partners in crime. On the one hand, the flesh has passions that aid and abet it. These are carnal feelings such as pride, envy, anger, bitterness, hatred, and so forth that our natural self loves to coddle and pamper and to dwell on. These are feelings that are never satisfied but constantly cry out from within, “Feed me. Flatter me. Fulfil me”. Then the flesh has another accomplice, its desires, those lusts that draw us into sin. James tells us that “each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed, that when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and sin when it is full grown, brings forth death (James 1:14, 15). The things that the flesh desires to conceive are adultery, uncleanness, idolatry, murders, drunkenness, and so on, sinful practices that are marks of a life untouched by the Spirit of God. Consequently, the enemy within is a three-headed monster , the flesh with its passions and its pursuits.

     The only answer to such a monster is to slay it, and the good news is that the flesh has already been crucified in the hearts of those who belong to Christ. Romans 6:6 says, “Knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin”. Paul adds, “I am crucified with Christ” (Gal. 2:20). In other words, the answer to the flesh and the foundation for growth in holiness is our union with Christ in His death. He died not only to save us initially but to drive us on in the process of sanctification, that process of becoming less and less like our sinful selves and more and more like Christ. The message of Galatians is that Jesus is not only our righteousness, He is our sanctification.

   Does this mean that the believer can just slip his or her life into cruise control, passively sit back and assume because one’s flesh has been crucified, growth and victory is automatic? Not at all! This is why Paul underlines our part. “Those who are Christ’s have crucified the flesh”. As we keep our eyes fixed on Jesus as crucified (Gal. 3:1), we then by the Spirit live out what we know to be true (Gal.5:25). Jonathan Edwards wrote that we act out what Christ has authored. * If we attempt to mortify the deeds of the flesh apart from the cross of Christ, we are in fact seeking to be our own saviours, we are disregarding our union with Him, and are heading for despair and defeat. But knowing that the flesh has been crucified thanks to Christ, the Spirit energizes us to act it out, to thrust the monster through with the weapons of the Word and fervent prayer. The promise is, “Walk in the Spirit and you will not fulfil the lust of the flesh” (Gal. 5:16). Instead of the ugly fleshly passions and desires dominating us, there will be the attractive fruit of Christlikeness (Gal. 5:22,23). Our union with Christ in His death does not contradict nor negate our necessary crucifixion of the flesh. Rather it creates it. It enables it. It guarantees its success.

 

*p.131  Acting the Miracle  –  Edited by John Piper and David Mathis