That returning evil for evil looks like rough and ready justice, I have confessed, but then is any man prepared to follow out for himself and in his own case this rule of justice? Is he prepared to stand before God and receive evil for his evil? “He shall have justice without mercy that shows no mercy.”
Is he willing to stand before God on the same terms as he would have the offending one stand before himself? No, our best and, indeed, our only hope must lie in the mercy of God who freely forgives offenses!
We’ve come quite a ways in the last few months, as I have worked my way towards this goal. I want to again thank my good brother Ed Romine for helping me to select the sermons that made up the bulk of this series. I started this series after I felt a conviction that the subject of unity in the church was a crucial one to discuss. My conviction has not changed since I began, though my reasons and my thoughts have broadened considerably since then.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how I wanted to conclude this series. For a while I thought that it would wind up in a long conclusion of my own where I would take each point and tie them all together in painstaking detail, driving home a final grand point about the need for unity and the foundation of that unity in Christ and in His gospel. But it seems to me that the book of Romans as a whole, and especially chapter 12, serve as a marvelous display of what I’m trying to say.
So I won’t belabor this with long paragraphs, but I want simply to point to what Paul accomplishes in his text. He begins in chapter one by pointing to man’s need for God’s grace. He demonstrates man’s innate sinfulness and the fact that everyone, whether gentile or Jew, needs to trust to the sacrifice of Christ alone as the basis of their salvation and of their relationship with God as a beloved child.
Christians will sometimes lose the realization of Jesus. The connection between themselves and Christ will be, at times, severed as to their own conscious enjoyment of it, but they will always groan and cry when they lose that Presence. What? Is Christ your Brother and does He live in your house and yet you have not spoken to Him for a month? I hear there is little love between you and your Brother if you have had no conversation with Him for so long.
Charles Spurgeon, sermon 2598, “Spiritual Revival, the Need of the Church”
Just one more episode after this and our series on unity in Christ for the church will be finished. Certainly, this sermon of Spurgeon’s has perhaps more…directness to it. In our day and age, a preacher going up and basically putting a finger directly in the face of his audience and delivering a message a la the prophet Nathan saying to David, “You are the man!” is not going to win that preacher very many friends.
But that points, in many ways, directly to the issue of our day that this century-old sermon still speaks to. The title itself draws out the comparison between a faithful pursuit of Christ and what is seen in many churches–after all, what is a “revival” in many places but a period, however long, where the faith is turned into a grand entertainment and distraction? How often is the concept of “revival” equated, not with life given by the Holy Spirit to live life in Christ, but with brief seasons of great emotion?
But what Charles Spurgeon points to in his sermon is a reminder that the kind of spiritual revival needed in all of us, the kind that God’s people need to call for, is not emotional excitement, though it may and often can contain that. It should end with that though. The kind of revival he is calling us to seek after is the kind that requires everything that we’ve talked about in the previous episodes. The revival is not an upswelling of feeling, but a trusting of our day to day life to a strength that is not our own. And it requires a unity in the body that is not static or intellectual by any means, but is constantly moving even as it rests fully in Christ. I am talking about unity in striving after holiness.
Do you want to join a perfect Church? You must die. You will not do it otherwise. And if you were to join a perfect Church, I am sure it would not be perfect after you had been admitted into it. You had better give up that idea and just believe what God says about His own Church, “You are my flock, the flock of my pasture, you are men.” Come, then, with us, and we will do you good.
I’ve talked about the unity the church has in the most central issue of the gospel of Jesus. I’ve talked about the unity we have in crucial areas of love, humility, and suffering. This time my desire is to talk to you all about the unity we have in the central and primary practice of the church, as a group and individually: unity in worship.
Now, I want to set the boundaries of this idea first: this is not about music, though music and singing are inexorably part of the church’s worship of God. Likewise, this isn’t going to be a rant about musical styles or certain groups and churches, though inevitably that will be a point to discuss later on as a fruit of this. I invite that discussion, in fact, either here in the comments, on Facebook or Twitter, or through email if you’d prefer to discuss your thoughts privately. There are practices that even my own church uses, like instruments, that Spurgeon himself would not have approved of.
What I want to do is define worship, its purpose, and its ends in the body of Christ. As one body and as individual churches, we join together weekly to bare our hearts before our Lord. We cry out praises to Him for who He is, and our need for Him to strengthen us to obey His Word, to die to ourselves and to live to Christ.
When the church worships together, it declares its confidence that God will fulfill His promises and remembers how He has already done exactly that. We confess our faith that lies in the cross, we instruct the weaker brother to pursue God boldly, and we correct the erring brother who may fear that the Lord’s mercies are not sufficient to cover him. We confess our sins and weaknesses to God and we embrace His great and glorious grace, and remember that His love and patience will long outlast our sin.
Worship is not just music. To be honest, I’ve never liked the phrases “worship team” or “worship minister” to refer to those who are involved in music for a worship service. That’s just it: all of a service is worship. We worship through raising our voices in song; we worship through hearing the Word preached faithfully; we worship through sacrificial giving to strengthen our own body and for the needs of others; and we worship through observing the ordinances of the church. When a brother or sister is baptized, we rejoice and cry out in worship of God for the faith demonstrated both in the finished work of Christ and in the promise of the day when we will see Jesus face to face, free from sinful weights and made totally new. And I cannot think of a more worshipful time than for a church to take communion together, to take part in a physical remembrance of the sacrifice of Christ.
The psalms display so many facets of what the worshiping believer’s heart cries out. We join our voices with David in Psalm 27 when we declare our complete confidence and faith in God’s work for our salvation:
The Lord is my light and my salvation— whom should I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life— whom should I dread? When evildoers came against me to devour my flesh, my foes and my enemies stumbled and fell. Though an army deploys against me, my heart will not be afraid; though a war breaks out against me, I will still be confident.
Psalm 27:1-3, CSB
When our hearts ache for intimacy for God, when He feels far and when fear presses in, we can let the light of the Word drive back the darkness alongside the sons of Korah:
I will say to God, my rock, “Why have you forgotten me? Why must I go about in sorrow because of the enemy’s oppression?” My adversaries taunt me, as if crushing my bones, while all day long they say to me, “Where is your God?” Why, my soul, are you so dejected? Why are you in such turmoil? Put your hope in God, for I will still praise him, my Savior and my God.
Psalm 42:9-11 CSB
And when sin wounds, when we stumble and fall and need His restoring hands to heal us, David again comes to aid us:
God, create a clean heart for me and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not banish me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me. Restore the joy of your salvation to me, and sustain me by giving me a willing spirit. Then I will teach the rebellious your ways, and sinners will return to you. Save me from the guilt of bloodshed, God— God of my salvation— and my tongue will sing of your righteousness. Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise. You do not want a sacrifice, or I would give it; you are not pleased with a burnt offering. The sacrifice pleasing to God is a broken spirit. You will not despise a broken and humbled heart, God.
Psalm 51:10-17 CSB
While worship serves to bring our hearts before God, and seeks His ministry (as it should!), worship is not about us. So often worship becomes a thing where men seek to bring glory to themselves. I won’t belabor this with many examples, except to say, this is an area where we all must guard our own hearts. We are going before the holy God who made you and who bought you for the price of His Son’s precious blood. It should not be a light and easy thing, nor should worship be simply an emotional high. That is not to say that it should be emotionally dead; I think a lot of times this becomes something of a false dichotomy for churches, where we feel we either have to be this over-the-top rock concert for Jesus, or a dour congregation that goes through the motions with Vulcan-like self-control.
Overwhelming joy in Christ is a wonderful thing! I can think of many beautiful times where joining in the body of Christ brought me to joyful tears or overflowing happiness. But we need to be careful that worship does not simply become the method by which we seek our next “hit” of an emotional high. If worship is designed simply to seek this over and over, I think it is wise to ask the question: is this worship about Jesus, or about me?
I am looking forward to joining the body again and again to seek the Lord’s face, and I hope that the same desire is in you. Above all, I want the unity in worship that the church shares to drive us to greater heights of unity in the areas I mentioned in previous episodes: in love, in humility, and serving and suffering. Worship should never terminate on ourselves, and it should never conclude with the final chord or the benediction. It should be a refreshing draught that lets us rejoin the outside world ready to display the love of Jesus to those around us, full of faith and peace.
Our first consideration should not be, “Now I am here, how can I be comfortable?” but “I am here, how can I please others for their good? How can I relieve the distressed, help the weary, or cheer the sad?” It is a grand thing to do good in little ways. It is a glory to be the sweetener of life at home, the self-forgetting friend of all around. The world before long confesses that Christ is in such a man. The true Christian is Jesus Personified.
This sermon was honestly one of my favorite ones to read so far, and especially so because it’s rooted in such an important passage in my favorite book of the Bible, the gospel of John. Likewise, it has also been a tremendously convicting one in many positive ways, and I would echo my good brother’s words in that I “confess that I have not yet attained all that I have said to you.” Indeed, I feel that I am a lot farther from that than Charles Spurgeon would have been at this time in his life. But it is in pursuit of that, that we all continue to run towards the cross as we do.
And it is of that unified goal and unified struggle that I want to continue speaking on in this podcast. I want to look at two passages that sit heavily on my own heart. As Charles Spurgeon said in this sermon, I as much as anyone else am very sensitive to the ways in which I have fallen short, and must trust to the transforming work of the Holy Spirit for my desire to grow more in step with these words of Scripture. The first passage, like our sermon text, is from John, the words of Jesus:
“I give you a new command: Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you are also to love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
John 13:34-35 CSB
The second is from Romans 12, where Paul talks about the outworkings of this, what it really looks like for the disciples of Jesus to love one another:
Let love be without hypocrisy. Detest evil; cling to what is good. Love one another deeply as brothers and sisters. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lack diligence in zeal; be fervent in the Spirit; serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope; be patient in affliction; be persistent in prayer. Share with the saints in their needs; pursue hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud; instead, associate with the humble. Do not be wise in your own estimation. Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Give careful thought to do what is honorable in everyone’s eyes. If possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Friends, do not avenge yourselves; instead, leave room for God’s wrath, because it is written, Vengeance belongs to me; I will repay, says the Lord. But If your enemy is hungry, feed him. If he is thirsty, give him something to drink. For in so doing you will be heaping fiery coals on his head. Do not be conquered by evil, but conquer evil with good.
Romans 12:9-21 CSB
Unity in grace
This is why unity has to begin with the gospel and therefore work out into our lives; our works must bear the fruit of our faith. So how is it that we can live in such a way that we may reflect that need, in such a way that we can carry out the words of Paul, while engaging with each other over issues that bring deep divides, in calling for repentance from sin?
We must realize that it is entirely God’s grace that we have what we are able to enjoy in this life. And, we must look to showing that grace out in how we use what we have in light of the human divisions that we still have. I think that it’s important to lay a foundation of love and service. And I have to press myself most of all on this: where am I seeking to directly serve and share with those whom I disagree with, to display our brotherhood that runs deeper than an opinion? Where am I hiding from either my own sin or from speaking to a brother to encourage him to repent of his own? Where am I failing to love a brother or sister? Where am I being lazy in seeking to root out the hypocrisy of my life? Where am I not hating what is evil and not loving what is good?
Unified in abundance and in suffering
The struggle is real to remember the unifying factor of the cross between believers. What’s the difference between engaging error or heresy, and being a divider of the brethren? It seems to be a fine line, and all the harder to discern when the primary mode of engagement is 280 characters a pop rather than seeking to truly know someone. It won’t be my place to try to establish that in full here (though there will be future episodes of King’s Highway Radio to discuss some of the issues that bring that division). But let’s look at a few of the things from those passages just to get an idea of what I think it should look like:
Just as I have loved you, you are also to love one another. These words of Jesus lay the standard from the beginning: Himself, and His love. What greater example of the self-sacrificial love is there than Jesus giving Himself up to the horrors of death by crucifixion? And after that, His loving forgiveness and restoration of Peter for his betrayal, displaying the depths of His mercy not as simply an impersonal setting aside of wrong, but of a personal act that transforms the hearts of His people in ways that we can scarcely consider.
Let love be without hypocrisy. Detest evil; cling to what is good. This is truly a challenge in our modern world, where the idea of something being evil or good is convoluted beyond belief. Indeed, the words of Isaiah in “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil” echo throughout the world today. But let’s take a moment to think about, how do we apply these words to a situation where sin has entered into the life of a member of our church?
What is evil? This sin is evil, and its destructive power is clearly seen in the impact it’s having on the life of this person and those around them. I don’t think I need to be more specific than that to have anyone listening to me be able to instantly bring to mind an example they’ve personally experienced. We are to detest it, to abhor that sin, to hate it and desire its destruction. Yet we are also to cling to the good, to hold fast to it and not let it go. What is good? It’s what we remind that struggling saint of in calling them to repentance. It’s the foundation that we as believers have to call out sin in the world as a whole: we are made by God, in His image, and it is that image that shines through and demands to be seen in the light of His glory. Sin dims that glory, it takes what is beautiful and turns it into an evil mockery of God’s goodness. We are to hate that evil, but to love the good and call for repentance on that foundation: let your lives be made not on twisted sinful distortions of God, but truly in His image, seen perfectly in the person and work of Jesus.
Rejoice in hope; be patient in affliction; be persistent in prayer. Finally, let’s truly rely upon God in all circumstances. The pain of persecution was fully upon the early church often, yet they endured it in the hope that was rooted in Christ and poured out in them through the Holy Spirit. Their rejoicing was in the finished work of Jesus, but also in knowing that they had a hope that was stronger than any meager temporary reprieve from discomfort the world might offer them. And this is the conviction that rests on my heart, that I’m going to share with you all now: am I truly being patient when affliction comes, or am I griping and groaning under it until it passes? Am I persistently seeking the Lord in prayer, or am I being lazy in exercising this amazing right I have as a child of the Living God to enter His throne room and seek His face?
Brothers and sisters, I think we all need to wrestle with these questions, yet in hope, not in despair. Do we fall short? Then trust Jesus. Cry out with the words of the father of the possessed boy, “I believe, help my unbelief!” God is happy to hear our cries and always gives good gifts to His children.
So here’s my challenge to my brothers and sisters in Christ: let’s apply these words to our walk, to our conversation, to our thoughts. I hope we will all put ourselves into positions to be accountable to our brothers and sisters of our local church in seeking holiness and obedience in showing this love. We cannot separate God’s love from holiness, or vice versa. Let’s encourage one another in showing gracious love through enduring the suffering of this present life, knowing that we have a hope that shines far beyond anything we could ever have in this world.
The Church is not a number of unregenerate people coming together entirely of their own notion to defend such-and-such dogmas. Such persons may form a club, but they cannot make a Church! There must be a coming together of renewed men, in the name of Jesus, by the power of the Holy Spirit–and these must meet for purposes which God Himself ordains–and be joined together after His own fashion.
Charles Spurgeon, sermon 1436: What The Church Should Be
We are returning to the Unity in Christ series with today’s episode. The preceding two episodes on this point I have focused on particular aspects of unity: what it is founded on and what its fruit is to be, and I want to continue in that today. I’ve talked about the foundation of unity, which is the gospel, and the law of love which guides that unity, for God above all and for neighbor as for ourselves. Today I want to talk about another component of unity, one that builds upon and refines the idea of what love looks like in the church: we are unified in our humility.
Right away I know a lot of folks will scoff at this, and certainly I don’t blame them. In the West, in the United States, sadly it’s rare to find a more arrogant and self-important person than one who is outwardly-identifying as a Christian. Years ago when I worked in food service, whenever I encountered someone with a fish on their bumper and terrible Christian t-shirts (think “ABreadcrumb and Fish” or some such other quasi-parody of an established trademark), I knew two things were almost sure to be true: I was probably not going to get a tip, and there was a very high likelihood that this person was going to complain in attempts to get discounts. Sadly, my suspicions were often found to be true.
But this is why it’s important to talk about this, and hopefully to begin to push us all, myself included, towards greater humility and, by extension, greater love and holiness. Remember back to the Beatitudes series: blessed are…who? The meek, the humble, for they shall inherit the earth. So often we believe that we have to win ground by our own doings and wisdom, and then hold it by any means necessary, when what we ought to be doing is trusting our ways and thoughts to the means God has ordained for us.
What does that mean? It means that if you see someone being wrong on the Internet, pulling out the proverbial sword and running them through is probably not the best way to handle it, but rather to remember that “a gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” (Prov. 15:1) That even includes situations where we may sincerely believe the other person is deeply wrong and misguided. Certainly we see the way that Jesus responded to the Pharisees. He was never arrogant towards them. He was firm, founded on the truth of the Scriptures, and direct, but he never spoke to them without the end goal being the proclamation of the truth or without their own need in mind.
Yes, even for the Pharisees, what Jesus said was to point to their need first: they believed themselves holy by the nature of their birth and then by their adherence to rules above and beyond the law. That is the starting point of the gospel for everyone: our need in the face of the truth of God’s holiness. Jesus pointed to the truth of their wicked and lusting hearts, their selfishness and arrogance that led them to take what was meant to lead the people of Israel to repentance and hope, and instead turn it into a crushing burden and misery.
The image of Christ: the humble servant
It was humility that led the Son of God to come to live among us as a man. Look to Paul’s words in Philippians 2:
If then there is any encouragement in Christ, if any consolation of love,if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any affection and mercy, make my joy complete by thinking the same way, having the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility consider others as more important than yourselves. Everyone should look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others. Adopt the same attitude as that of Christ Jesus,
who, existing in the form of God, did not consider equality with God as something to be exploited. Instead he emptied himself by assuming the form of a servant, taking on the likeness of humanity. And when he had come as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death— even to death on a cross. For this reason God highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow— in heaven and on earth and under the earth— and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Philippians 2:1-11, CSB
We are not to act out of selfishness…yet how often have our thoughts, words, and deeds been marked by them? I know mine have far more often than I would ever care to admit. We are to put conceit to death, yet how often do we prize our own judgments over God’s, and over others’? Again, the weight of conviction presses on my own heart here as much as it may against any other. Our hope lies in the truth that, as His beloved children, we have the right to drag these sins into the light again and again, nailing them to the cross, and trusting to the truth that, in Christ, we have truly died to them in God’s eyes even if in this moment we still feel their scars on us.
Submission to truth
Will we dare to believe that the truth of Christ, then, is not sufficient to serve as the rock upon which the church can be built? I saw recently online an individual proclaiming essentially that, that because those who insufficiently opposed or even supported certain evils of the past also proclaimed the truth of Jesus’ vicarious atonement of our sins, that this is not enough, that we need some kind of further conviction and action in the church. How can we as those who stand in God’s grace dare to find His means insufficient?
Do we know more than our God who sees fit to bring to nothing a man’s mighty work, only to replace it with His own, founded on the work of the cross? Do we know more about the heart of a man for God than God Himself? And dare we forget that each of us in Christ has had the same insurmountable debt paid by the Son? There can be no other standard for us than God’s holiness.
I’ve also encountered the argument, mainly from those in the secular mindset, that to believe in the concept of a set and firm truth at all, let alone to proclaim that truth to the world, is itself arrogant. I’ve been told essentially, “You have your truth, but that doesn’t affect my truth,” as though “truth” is something that can oppose itself. But at its root, this too is a deeply arrogant position. It says that God is unable to make Himself known to His creation, and that revealed truth is the product of men rather than God. But in making that argument, they deny their own claims, because to say such a thing itself demands a sort of foundation of universal truth, albeit a twisted and confused one.
As Christians we don’t simply live with information in our heads. It must transform our hearts, inform our words and deeds, and lead us to become more like the image of Christ each day. “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble,” so let us seek that humble path. This is a hard thing to consider, because it includes things like making peace where enmity reigns, serving a person who shows no love in return, and even giving up our own pursuits for the good of another–all things that are echoes of the life and work of Christ. It is to Him that we look for the image of humility, Him that deserves all glory and worship, and yet chose to become a man and suffer a life of ignominy, and a death of treachery and horror, for the sake of destroying the hold of sin and death over man.
The Lord said to His disciples that the one who would be greatest in the kingdom of heaven must be the servant of all. The path to this humility is one that the we must model as the church, and our leaders most of all. Charles Spurgeon said of the path by which we grow in this quality, “God comes into our heart—He finds it full—He begins to break our comforts and make it empty; then there is more room for grace. The humbler a man lies, the more comfort he will always have because he will be more fitted to receive it.” As we still walk in what we consider wise, God’s wisdom overrides and leads us through what we must, so that we can come to find ourselves before Him with holy hearts that long to love and serve our Lord and our brethren.
We can’t pretend. We can’t hide from that breaking, and if we could we would only miss what would lead us closer to Him–what Romans 8:28 promises will work together for our good, no matter how painful it may be. Obey the apostle Paul when he commends the church of Philippi, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility consider others as more important than yourselves.” Let’s embrace this truth with all seriousness, and look for the ways we can best reflect Christ in our words and deeds.
The one Church of God, of what is it composed then? Is it composed of the Church of England, the Congregational Union, the Wesleyan Conference, and the Baptist body? No, it is not. Is not then the Church of England a part of the Church of Christ, and the Baptist denomination a part? No; I deny that these bodies, as such, unrefined and in the gross, are a part of the great unity for which Jesus prayed; but there are believers united with the Church of England who are a part of the body of Christ, and there are believers in all denominations of Christians, ay! and many in no visible Church at all, who are in Christ Jesus, and consequently in the great unity. The Church of England is not a part of Christ’s true body, nor any other denomination as such; the spiritual unity is made up of spiritual men, separated, picked out, cleared away from all the mass with which they happen to be united.
Charles H. Spurgeon
The main idea I am hoping to drive home in the course of this series is clear by now, I hope: the church, the body of Christ, is unified in and by Jesus, and therefore is moved to act by that union. As a result, the gospel is to be preached clearly and constantly, and that which brings disunity and dissension is to be rejected.
But what is the difference between “bringing dissension” and “geniune disagreement?” What is the guiding factor that leads us to determining the way we ought to serve and sacrifice and suffer? That word, that key that unlocks the great gate to the King’s Highway, is love.
The superior way
Love is the key to the greatest commandment, as well as the second. When Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment is, He didn’t just provide an answer like someone in a trivia contest. He said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and most important command. The second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands.” (Matthew 22:37-40)
When the church is looking to understand the direction they are being led in the Scriptures by the Holy Spirit, they can see clearly when they apply the truth of this fundamental commandment: they are to pursue ultimate love for God, which involves true worship, humility in all things, and trust to His goodness and provision. It involves a desire to serve one another and to minister to the need for godliness as much as for any physical need. And loving God with every aspect of your being is itself a sacrifice, putting the selfish sinful desires of your humanity to death as the Holy Spirit refreshes you with new, holy desires.
The fruit of love for God
And just as much, loving your neighbor as yourself is an outgrowth of that sacrifice. It is not normal to a human to love another person the same as he loves himself–especially given the definition of neighbor Jesus gives later in the parable of the good Samaritan. Certainly it isn’t normal for a man to sacrifice his time, his money, and, under the levitical laws, his cleanliness, to help someone who under normal circumstances would despise him, as the man in the story did.
This love, furthermore, is informed and driven forward by our preeminent love for God. In the parable of the unforgiving servant, Jesus uses the example of a servant forgiven a massive debt by his master immediately turning on another servant who owes him, essentially, fifty bucks, and mercilessly demands payment. He heard his master’s forgiving words–but what effect did they have on him? Did he really love his master if his own love for another over a trifling sum is so easily quashed? Love for neighbor and everything entailed in that–mercy, forgiveness, generosity, and more–descends from a deep and abiding love for God above all.
Take our churches at large—there is no lack of names, but there is a lack of life. Else, how is it that our prayer-meetings are so badly attended? Where is the zeal or the energy shown by the apostles? Where is the Spirit of the living God? Is he not departed? Might not “Ichabod” be written on the walls of many a sanctuary? They have a name to live, but are dead.
I worked through a series of episodes on the Beatitudes for the bulk of the last year, and as I began to work into the latter half of it, a new issue began to press on my heart. I was watching people that I respected deeply begin to clash over all manner of issues, though certainly one of the biggest was that of “social justice” as defined within a particular scope. I don’t intend to address those issues directly at this time, though once I have worked through everything I want to talk about in the course of the next few episodes, I may turn to those issues.
But my desire, in this new six-part series, is to air both Charles Spurgeon’s and my own voice on the most critical issue of unity in Christ for the church. I spent time over the holidays in 1 Corinthians, and Paul has unity as a central part of his thesis for the book. He does not call for a notion of unity that simply means “don’t fight over stuff.” Paul spends a lot of time both defining that around which Christians are to unify–namely, the gospel of Jesus Christ–and what disrupts that unity–such as sin, making another man central in place of Christ, arrogant unteachability, and a lack of love.
Cornerstone of faith
So I want to begin at the beginning, at the central and most unmovable point: unity in the church must be around Christ, and must be rooted in the truth of His gospel. This is one of Charles Spurgeon’s earlier sermons and certainly he minces no words in calling out the church of his day for “defiling their garments” by not both preaching the gospel clearly and boldly, and calling Christians within them to pursue Christ’s holiness as a result. But why is he so vociferous and direct in his criticism? It’s because he sees the church in his day abandoning their role as ministers of reconciliation with God, through the preaching of the gospel of Jesus. Churches were building out their own kingdom and focused on their own comfort, and were not giving themselves over to serving the kingdom of God.
And while he speaks of it as though such a thing is unique to his time or worse than in previous times, I would say that this is one of those areas where the words of Ecclesiastes ring true: “There is nothing new under the sun.” Certainly in the West today, we have no shortage of churches with no gospel, no clear understanding of who God is and who we are, and no hope. I recall some years ago being in a church where the pastor stated that he absolutely believed that Jesus had been born of a virgin, that He had died on a cross and risen again on Easter…and he had no application to make. The sermon, if I recall, was something along the lines of “hope is good, and Jesus rose again so that we can have hope.” But there was zero understanding of why Jesus had to die, or what He accomplished in His death and resurrection.
But why did Jesus have to die?
Think back to the levitical priesthood, and to the sacrifices made first in the tabernacle and then in the temple. It was constant, and it consumed a great deal of the livestock raised by the Israelites. After all, they had multiple sacrifices that each had their own requirements and purposes that God intended them for, and the priests worked constantly in leading worshipers through them. Think about the burnt sacrifice in particular, which you can read about in Leviticus 1: the worshiper would lay his hands on the animal he had brought. He wasn’t just touching it, but the terms used in the Hebrew imply that he is pressing into the animal. (As a side note, I highly recommend Gordon Wenham’s excellent commentary on Leviticus to help clarify this book that seems obscure to many Christians today.)
Then the worshiper would slaughter the animal and, in the case of livestock, drains the animal’s blood and the priest would sprinkle it over the sides of the altar. Then the animal would be completely burned up. The other sacrifices are described in great detail as well. Why am I bringing this up? Think back to what I mentioned about pressing into the animal. The priests aren’t involved in this constant rotation of animal slaughter, blood sprinkling, and burning because they believe that God is hungry. They aren’t doing it because the priests enjoy watching livestock burn. The worshiper is pressing his hands into this animal because by doing so he is saying, “This animal stands in my place. All that I am guilty of before the Lord, let it take my place in death.” But because no bull or goat, as Hebrews says, can truly atone for sin, all it served to do was to be a constant reminder of their sin and of the hope that was coming in the work of the Messiah.
So when Jesus came and gave Himself up to death in the place of His people, He wasn’t coming because “Well, this will make things more convenient for believers. No more sacrifices over and over, Jesus is a one-stop shop for sin atonement!” Jesus gave Himself up because in His sacrifice, He completely and perfectly fulfilled the purpose of each of those sacrifices: He paid the price for sin, an immense and unpayable price by any mortal man stained with sin; He gave His righteousness to all who are in Him, who follow after Him; and He has brought us near to Him. Us, we who are sinful and evil in ways that ought to guarantee our destruction and eternal punishment, instead have a seat at the wedding supper of the Lamb. We have the right and joy to come into the throne room of God and speak with Him not as prisoners begging mercy, but as sons and daughters speaking with their beloved Father who bought them with the greatest possible price.
So when Paul asks rhetorically in Romans 6, “How can we who died to sin still live in it?” his meaning is clear, steeped in the long history of what it really meant for sin to be atoned for by blood and in Jesus’ completed work of that atonement. When Jesus died on the cross, all of us who believe died with Him. Though we still walk and breathe and work and do what we do in life, our death is finished in Him and because it is finished, sin has no claim to us and no power over us.
No other gospel
If a church is a church, this is understood to be central. Whether a church has lots of high church liturgy and order or consists of twenty people in a house, the centrality of the gospel and the immutability of the truth that Jesus’ complete and finished work on the cross is what gives us the ability to know and love God rightly is not up for debate. Jesus is the Christ, and that truth is the Rock upon which the church rests as it proclaims the truth of the gospel to anyone and everyone.
But it doesn’t stop there: this must be the foundation from which what the church does must flow. We must love our neighbors as ourselves because of how God has faithfully and sacrificially loved us far beyond what we could ever deserve. We must be generous and free with what God has given us, because in doing so we show that we trust in God’s promise to give us all things, and most importantly to provide what we need each day. And, again looking back at Romans 6, we do not make peace with our sin, but we strive for holiness. Because we have been crucified with Christ and are dead to sin before God, we do not rest but we strive and fight to kill sin in our lives.
So no matter the differences two specific churches or denominations may have, if they are living together rooted in that truth and bearing that fruit, they have unity in the gospel. But if there is denial of that–whether it is denial of who Jesus is or of His work on the cross, if there is refusal to let the truth of the cross drive you to action in loving others, there cannot be unity.
You might say “Well isn’t that just disunity?” But how can you be in unity with those who deny the fundamentals of the faith? How can Christ and sin be one? They can’t. “No man can serve two masters” is certainly true here, and the church can’t any more than a man can.
I hope you will stay with me here as we walk through the next five sermons on this subject. I also want to give big thanks to my friend Ed Romine who attends Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and who works with the Spurgeon Library there for helping me to select these sermons.