Any statement of the work of the church will fall short beside what we commonly call the Great Commission. The Lord put it plainly: (1) Make disciples. (2) Baptize them. (3) Teach them to observe (not just teach them, but teach them to observe) all things whatsoever He commanded.
Making disciples in the scriptural sense means bringing lost men to repentance toward God and to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. This is a divine experience wrought by the Holy Spirit in the hearts of those whom God calls. The means which the Spirit uses is the Word of God (Rom. 10:14-17), specifically the gospel of salvation. Since it is the Saviour who saves, since the Holy Spirit is the Divine Agent who brings this experience to reality in the sinner's heart, and since the means He uses is the Word of God, it follows that the church's part in this great transaction is the preaching and teaching of that Word. Since the Word of God must be explained and proclaimed (taught and preached), we declare with all emphasis that
A CHURCH IS A PREACHING INSTITUTION
There is a family relationship with God into which every believer is born. This makes us children of God with Christ our elder Brother (Rom. 8:16-17). There is a kingdom relationship which we have in spirit now and which we shall enter into literally when the kingdom comes to the earth. This makes believers subjects of the King. Then there is a church relationship which literalizes our Heavenly fellowship right here and now in "this present evil world." This unites us in a covenant of growth and works which have to do with the propagation of the gospel to all the world.
It is evident, therefore, that a church must be united, not only in the Spirit of God, but also in the interpretation of that Word which has been committed to us. Thus, a church is not merely a society in which the list of believers are enrolled, but it
is a militant group with a definite work to do in this age, a group whose fellowship is especially in the Spirit with respect to what He is doing with the Word in this day.
It is in this sense that a church becomes the incarnate presence of Christ in the world, a human body indwelt by the Spirit of Christ, with feet on which to walk, hands with which to work, eyes which can see, a tongue which can speak and other parts which can function literally to transmit to other human beings the message of God. As churches with different gifts we give the incarnate expression of Jesus and His call to salvation just as He would be doing it if He were walking in this world. The Spirit of Christ within us gives the divine impact to our human efforts, and thus the incarnation is made visible to the world.
THE WORK OF A CHURCH DEFINED
While a church may be represented generally as a preaching institution, its work may be more specifically defined.
1. It is "the pillar and ground of truth" (I Tim. 3: 15). In this sense it is the depository and keeper of the truth.
The preservation of the truth of God among men is a grave responsibility. A slightly mixed gospel is Satan's best counterfeit. He works at this business with all industry. The varied array of "Christian" creeds and beliefs today is enough to amaze and startle us. Satan will keep the name of Christ as well as a good portion of truth in all creeds, but he will mix with them enough error to keep one out of Heaven. This was his first prescription in the Garden of Eden, and this is his method today. It is therefore necessary for Christ to have in this world an insitution with a discerning eye to preserve the formula of salvation. There must be contention for the truth, the body of faith by which we come to salvation in Jesus. Jude underscores this in the first verse of his letter: "Beloved, when I gave all diligence to write unto you of the common salvation, it was needful for me.to write unto you, and exhort you that ye should earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints" (v. 3). The next verse and much that follows about apostate teachers tells \vhy we must so contend.
Apart from a true church of the Lord Jesus Christ, the message will fall into violent hands. Such a church must be alert to detect false teachers and preachers and to reject them (II John
7-11). Doctrine is the final test of the genuine teacher of truth. Hence, the keeping of the truth depends on those churches which are willing to be ruled by it both in doctrine and in life and which reject false teachers.
In the light of this, one must recognize the possibility of many who have had a saving knowledge of Christ in experience, but who may have been led astray in doctrine. There are also false churches, deceived in doctrinal guidance or in the application of the truth to the lives of their people. There are many saved people who belong to no church at all, and many who belong to false churches. In such a state they cannot be said to be helping in the important work for preserving the truth from error.
2. A true church must be "holding forth the word of life." In the propagation and publishing of the truth a church is bound to the Lord's commands. The Great Commission is loaded down with preaching, baptizing, teaching and developing God's children with a view to their spiritual growth and their active witness for Christ. We are created in Christ Jesus to do good works (Eph.. 2: 10). It is a work of the churches to bring believers to the stature of soldiers of the cross and to direct them in the warfare by which we invade Satan's territory with the gospel. While they are developing young soldiers for battle, they must at the same time be pushing the attack with those who are already able to go to war. This calls for a militant church, a marching band of disciplined soldiers attacking with the message of Christ.
From the very nature of the function of a church of Christ, it is inevitable that many saved people will not be active or even enrolled in one. A true church, as we shall see later, is a disciplined body bound to a doctrine. It is not a place for believers to lounge and casually identify themselves as citizens of Heaven. It is a body of activity with serious responsibilities and a message that lost men need desperately. As the habitation of God here in this world, through the person of the Spirit, a church becomes the place from which and the body through which tlle Most High God speaks His message to this lost world. It is charged with the responsibility of carrying the message of life. As long as there is preaching to be done, the churches have work to do. When the preaching is all done, the mission of the churches is over. A church is first and last a preaching institution.
THE MESSAGE OF THE CHURCHES
If a church has a mission, and that mission is to carry a message, we should now be ready to define its message.
Or, to put it another way, if a church is a preaching institution, it must have a message as well as an experience. It is not enough for a church to be something, it must also preach something. On this proposition we hope to clinch our case.
The message of the churches of Jesus Christ is salvation. God is now engaged in salvage business, and His message is summarized in that one word. The logical divisions are well known: (1) We have been saved from the penalty of sin. (2) We are being saved from the power of sin. (3) We shall be saved from the presence of sin. This encompasses the salvation of the soul, life and body. This is the full gospel.
( 1) The salvation of the soul. The first message of a church is the publishing to sinners the fact of their lost condition and urging upon them the call to repentance toward God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. This is the theme of evangelism and wherever churches have been established they have built upon this foundation. Lost men must first be saved, for out of these alone can we build churches. The missionary or evangelist blazes the trail in Satan's territory. Pentecost was a great evangelistic meeting. Three thousand souls were born again on that day. How happy we are when we can report from our evangelistic efforts the "visible results" of many souls born again!
Little needs to be said about this part of the church's message, for it is the first emphasis of all true church life. But the second phase of the message of a church needs some discussion.
(2) The salvation of life. The salvation of life is a doctrine little known in comparison with what we have, for convenience, called the salvation of the soul. When we say we "are being saved from the power of sin," we do not mean that salvation is merely from something. It is also being saved to something. After we ourselves have heard the call to repentance and faith and have the consciousness of the new birth, the urge to see others saved is a normal emotion. It is in the work of bringing others to salvation that we save our lives.
In the church at Jerusalem those three thousand who were
saved began to grow inwardly and to work outwardly. "They continued steadfastly in tlle apostles' doctrine (teaching) and fellowship, and in tlle breaking of bread, and in prayers" (Acts 2:42). This portrays the progress of the gospel in building up tlle inner life. They met together often, preached, taught, prayed, broke bread from house to house, praised God, gave witness and had favor with the people. But this spiritual fervor reached out to others, and the Lord continued to add daily the saved. This is a vital demonstration of working out the salvation which God works within (Phil. 2:12-13). Their lives are engaged in the business which saved them, that is, saving others. This is normal in a healthy church.
We must take time here for full emphasis upon this great truth. The zeal of evangelism has lost sight of the long, tedious nurture of God's children into grown-up men and women. The "let us go on" of Hebrews 6:1 seems to have little practical application in the modern church, and for the most part our churches have become religious nurseries. By preaching and teaching and spiritual devotion, our Lord intended us to "grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ" (II Pet. 3:18).
The salvation of life is heavily undergirded by Scripture. For instance, in Matt. 16:24-26 Jesus said: "If any man will come alter me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it. For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own life? For what shall a man give in exchange for his life?" Jesus was going to the cross where by His crucifixion He could become the Saviour of men. If we would become useful in this great work, we, too, must follow Him to the cross.
The salvation of life is realized only in connection with the mission of a church. Here we discern the difference between moral goodness and spiritual life. There is much moral goodness in this world, such as almsgiving, welfare work, human uplift, social reform, neighborly kindness, generosity and benevolence, good citizenship, patriotism and such, but any of this can be done by people who do not know the Lord. Heathen countries do such things, and their moral standards are often better than those of so-called Christian nations. This is all good, but not necessarily of God. It is true that spiritual life and impulse may
often be manifest in these acts of goodness, but in such cases they become only the temporal manifestation and not the end and essence of spiritual life. Many people give their whole lives to moral betterment yet never have anything to do with the work of God.
The work which God is doing in this world has to do with some phase of the salvation of lost men. Wherever the efforts of human uplift can make connection with this great purpose, it may fit in the program of God. Otherwise, it all passes with this world. This is the main difference between the moral and the spiritual, the temporal and the eternal. Man's goodness ministers to the temporal needs of his fellow man; God's work has to do with the spiritual and eternal needs of man.
Since by Christ's own choice the work of salvation centers in His churches, it is important that we find our place in the true churches of Jesus Christ. He has made provision in His churches for growth in grace, for contending for the faith and for giving witness to the lost.
The New Testament knows nothing about an evangelism that does not bring a believer into this life of continued growth and witness. We submit to history that when men have left the churches for independent preaching, they have found it necessary to limit their message to the initial calling of men to repentance and faith. Their gospel saves only from the penalty of sin. After that they leave it to the newly-born believer to "join the church of his choice." The evangelism of the New Testament built churches and placed the converts in them where they could grow and witness.
Evangelists of notoriety and acclaim in recent times have set a pattern of evangelism which refuses to come to grips with the salvation of life. They have in many cases ignored the churches except where those churches could be used to increase their following. They seek the help of the churches, regardless of doctrinal agreement, but they are unwilling to take their stand with them when advising a new-born soul where to place his life. They are afraid to stop by one of their converts and show him by the Scriptures where he can find a true, gospel church, for in so doing they would strike that paralyzing unpopularity which they so dread. It is certain that brethren who have attained to such great acclaim by their one-point, watered-down and sometimes reformation "gospel," should they dare to preach the full truth
of Christ concerning the church and the believer's life, they would, like Jesus Himself, be turning to a decimated little congregation and saying, "Will ye also go away?"
Let us repeat, New Testament evangelism results in churches, as the Acts of the Apostles abundantly witnesses, and the growth and development of the believer in these churches results in the right kind of evangelism. Thus, he puts his light upon the candlestick where it can give light to all that are in the house (Matt. 5:16; Rev. 1:20), and, not only by the ordinances but also by a life in line with their teaching, he "continues in the apostles' doctrine" and in the other blessings of church life. It is by this association and expression that he saves his life.
This point is very important. There is a body of truth called "the faith" (Jude 3) which expresses and produces the saving experience. This "faith" is identified with an institution called "my Church," the ekklesia of the New Testament. This faith is not entrusted to any other institution on earth. It belongs exclusively to a church of the Lord Jesus Christ. The institutional connection of a believer with such a church gives him the status of a doctrinal indentification with the faith which saves. His witness is thus prescribed and advertized to the world through Christ's own chosen institution, His body in the earth, and, as in the case of the tabernacle, it places him where the pillar of fire (Holy Spirit) hovers.
It is the institution which preserves and propagates the faith. The believer may come and identify himself with the institution, thus signifying that he has experienced the salvation which this "faith" proclaims, but he will one day close his identity with the institution. The church will continue with other believers. Those who have thus been associated with the church, and this cannot be unless they have been identified with a local, visible body, have thus been identified with Christ in His great saving program. In this capacity they have, to the extent of their faithfulness, saved their lives.
This matter is a bit difficult to see, and, for that reason we shall extend our remarks. There is in this author's acquaintance a few people well known to him who have lived out their lives without any church connection, yet, they all claimed to be saved. They knew the doctrines which constitute that faith that saves, but they refused to be baptized and take membership with the church or even to attend church services. There was no good
reason for this attitude on the part of any of them except the backward environment religiously in which they were reared. Perhaps they were never saved, but if they were, they lost their lives. They had no witness. Likewise, there may be those who have been saved, but have been misled in their interpretaion of salvation, to the point that they have lost their lives.
Now there is a spot in this area where our judgment must yield. There have always been believers, we believe, who were not members of true churches, and surely many of them have been used of the Lord, but the preservation and propagation of the full truth about salvation could not have depended upon them. Somewhere back of these witnesses were churches which had preserved and proclaimed the truth which saves.
This is perhaps the most difficult point in our thesis. The question forces itself upon us: "If God blesses the efforts of those outside the true churches of Christ, what is the value of an orthodoxy?"
The illustration we are about to use hardly conforms to the local church idea, but it does confirm our claim that one's witness should be associated with a tangible institution. The American Medical Association is an organization of licensed physicians and is set for the purpose of preserving from error and propagating true medical science. But I remember a country doctor who was very efficient in practice and was in great demand for service, yet, for some reason which I as a boy did not know, he did not have a license to practice. Of course, other physicians shunned him and fought his practice. I remember also another man who had read "doctor's books" until he was self-taught to a rather efficient degree in the diagnosis and the application of medical remedies, and several people used his services with good results. Most of us, in a limited sense, can diagnose simple illnesses and prescribe remedies which work. But none of us, including those two men which I have mentioned, were authorized to practice medicine. It is the effect of the remedy upon the patient which produces results, not the brilliance or efficiency or the authority of the one who prescribes. Likewise, in the case of the gospel, it is the Word of God which saves and not the authorization of the administrator. Up to this point, logic has gone well.
But there are some important things to remember. The unauthorized practitioner could never qualify in the preservation and propagation of the science which heals, neither could those
who are not associated \vith Christ's own appointed institution which preserves and propagates the gospel that saves be relied upon to perpetuate the truth of God without error.
Furthermore, and this is very important, some of us who are not authorized to practice might have killed our patients. Sometimes a simple remedy given to a patient which has a condition which ourlimited ability could not detect might destroy the one we sought to help. It would require one who had the balance of caution and wisdom to know the patient as well as the remedy. Besides, our bit of knowledge, if wrong in some spot, would continue to collect error.
Now we see the necessity for an institution to which all who practice medicine must conform for interpretations and regulations which guide in the judgment of all diseases and remedies.
So it is in the realm of the gospel. There are thousands of "unauthorized" churches and free-lance "lay doctors" who are going about with remedies for the ills of men. All of them have some truth, and in some instances their remedies are effective. The world is full of religious doctors and institutions. But, with the wide differences that lie between them, it is not possible that all could be right. Many a so-called gospel potion prescribed today by "quack" healers may rather be a death potion. Many a soul has been led into error by those who conscientiously thought they were qualified individually to diagnose and prescribe the gospel remedy. Witness Saul of Tarsus (Acts 26:9).
It remains true, however, that some may be successful to a point, thus giving a witness which works to the saving of the soul. But, as in the world of medical science, one can easily see the end result of promiscuity in preaching the gospel without some institutional supervision.
Some will say that we are taking the position of the Roman Catholic Church, that the Church is the interpreter of the Word. There is not much wrong with Rome's position in this matter; it is Rome that is wrong. The church is God's own chosen agency of interpretation in this earth. Otherwise, there is no good reason for its existence. The Spirit dwells in it, enlightens it, curbs the errors of man by combined counsel in its membership, increases effectiveness by united effort, but He does not ignore it in the interpretation of the Word.
It is true that the gospel itself is "the power of God unto
salvation," yet, if that gospel be left in the hands of those who disdain the churches which Paul calls "the pillar and ground of truth," how can the saving witness be preserved? It is true that all through the centuries churches have apostatized, and long ago the churches of the apostolic day have ceased to exist, yet, somewhere in the world at all times, Christ has had some true churches "holding forth the word of life." However gracious the Lord may be with those whom he uses apart from the churches, there is scriptural evidence that those who stand in the appointed places (His churches) will find a reward not common to all.
(3). The salvation of the body. It may be that the resurrection of the body finds little association with the gospel in the minds of many people, yet, it is the very heart of the gospel. Who wants a salvation that cannot defeat the last enemy? The death problem is the common and final problem with us all. "If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable" (I Cor. 15:19).
Somehow, modern preaching and church life has relegated the subject of the resurrection to Easter and funerals, but the Gospels, the Acts and the letters all are loaded with this great theme. In the experience of repentance we die to sin and the old life; in faith in Jesus we arise to walk in newness of life; in our growth in grace and service with the Lord we give witness of the hope which conquers at last with a completely new life in a body without sin. Paul sums it all up in the first verses of I Corinthians 15: "Moreover, brethren, I declare unto you the gospel which I preached unto you, which also ye have received, and wherein ye stand; by which also ye are saved, if ye keep in memory what I preached unto you, unless we have believed in vain. For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; and that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures. . . ." The gospel which Paul preached centered in the resurrection. He tells us how that "even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body" (Rom. 8:23). From the day that Job cried out of his darkness, "Yet in my flesh shall I see God," men have had their hearts set on that day when the body will be saved. The church which
makes the resurrection a celebration at Easter time instead of the theme of the gospel at all times has lost sight of the message which Paul preached.
The resurrection hope is the most inspiring hope of all believers who sojourn in this world. When death comes to us one by one, it turns our faces from the cold clods of the grave to the brightness of His coming when He shall break asunder the prison house which holds us for a little while. "Death is swallowed up in victory. Death, where is thy victory? Death, where is thy sting?" (Modem translation). * * *
Of course, there are many other themes from which we preach, and many other matters must be taught and explained to aid churches in their growth and witness, but everything will relate directly or indirectly to these three great themes. Prayer, Bible study, church attendance, fellowship, testimony, evangelism, stewardship, personal work among the lost, benevolences and all other matters that combine to make up the work of the Lord will gather around the program of a full gospel and a full salvation. This, then, is the message of the churches. The faithful execution of the commission to carry this message to the uttermost parts of the earth is, obviously, the mission of the churches. =============
[Buell H. Kazee, The Church and the Ordinances, Lexington, KY, 1965, pp. 78-88.]
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