Mega Church. Simple Church. Emergent Church. None. – The Sequel

April 4, 2011

by Lance Johnson

When I wrote the earlier article on the subject of the church I did not intend to make this a series. It was just something I put together at the request of one of my church members. However, it seems the topic has taken on a life of its own, and another article seems necessary to sharpen the point I made in the earlier article. For those of you who haven’t read that article, you can find it here. My point in that article is that the church must be defined by what it is rather than by what it does, and that the church is God’s holy and self-denying people. It is interesting that those who objected to the idea that the church should be defined by what it is rather than what it does, also glossed over the point about holiness and self-denial. They did not deny the point, but simply passed over it as if it were of secondary importance.

The objections tended to center around the fact that we routinely define things by what they do. One brother used the example of a washing machine. While I understand his point, he could not have chosen a better illustration to support my side of this discussion if he had tried. Certainly, we generally think about a washing machine in terms of what it does, but it is vital that we understand what it is separately from what it does. In this case the name of the appliance tells us what it is. It is a machine. Obviously, it is a machine that washes clothes, but it is first and foremost a machine consisting of a motor, a pump, various valves, an inner and outer tub, an agitator, and several other necessary components. If we only define this appliance by what it does — wash clothes, then we equate a household appliance manufactured by Maytag with a human being created by the Almighty God. How is that, you may ask? Surely with a moments reflection you will realize that a washing machine is not the only thing in this world that washes clothes. Both a washing machine and a laundress wash clothes, but they are hardly the same thing and hardly of the same value before the Lord.

I could, and probably should, stop here. I am, however, a preacher and suffer from the common vocational hazard as most preachers and can’t do anything briefly. So, let it be noted that while the laundress is quite versatile and can wash clothes in a variety of effective ways and in almost any place. the machine cannot do that. Furthermore, because she is intelligent and experienced, the laundress can deal with each piece of clothing individually as needed. For example, she can put more effort into removing a stubborn stain. The washing machine, on the other hand, can only carry out its program. Certainly, the human designers of the machine can program into it a variety of cycles for different types of clothes, but ultimately that machine will only do what it is programmed to do if the clothes need that or not. Unlike the laundress, the washing machine knows nothing about clothes, it simply runs in preprogrammed cycles. So, a church that is defined by what it does may accomplish its tasks, but it does so with little understanding of the person of God.

In Titus 2, Paul instructs Titus about how the members of the church should conduct themselves. He ends the chapter by telling him that their actions are a result of who they are. Notice what Paul says.

For the saving grace of God has appeared for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works. (Titus 2:11-14 ESV with a minor revision by the author of this article.)

The first word in this passage is “for.” He is saying that what is to follow is the foundation for what he has already said. Paul makes five points about God’s people, and the order of these points is important.

  1. First, God’s people are saved, or regenerated, by grace. Notice that I changed verse 11 a bit from the common translation. I am certainly not an expert in biblical Greek, but do understand enough to know that the word translated ‘salvation’ by the ESV and most other translations is not a noun as it is translated. It is an adjective which modifies ‘grace’. (Both are nominative, feminine, singular.) This makes ‘grace’ the primary subject of these four verses, which constitute a single sentence. That shifts the entire focus of this passage. The focus is clearly on God and his work rather than on us and our work.
  2. Second, this same saving graces teaches us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions. This is another way of saying that by grace we live lives of self-denial, for our nature is to worship ourselves and live by our worldly passions.
  3. Third, this same saving grace teaches us to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in this present age. This is another way of saying that by grace we live lives that are holy before the Lord. (See Romans 12:1-2 and 1 Peter 1:14-16.)
  4. Fourth, this same grace allows us to live by faith in Christ Jesus, awaiting his coming and our final redemption.
  5. Fifth, this same grace is the foundation for our zealous good works. Notice, however, that in verse 14 Paul repeats the point that service follows holiness.

Each of these characteristics of God’s people builds upon the ones that precede it. The “church” can be very zealous for good works, but unless it is first saved, denying itself, living in a holy manner, and living by faith in Christ Jesus, it is not a church and its works are those of the Scribes and Pharisees rather than the works of God. I will say again, holding fast to the truth, that if we define the church by what it does rather than by what it is, we are practicing a doctrine of salvation by church participation regardless of any stated doctrine to the contrary. As Paul would say, “By no means!”

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