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Reproclaiming the Everlasting Gospel

The Nature of the True Church: part one

The christians were called a "city set on a hill, the light of the world, and the salt of the earth;" but when they forsook the power of God, and their faith stood in words and men, and not in the power; then their walls fell down, though the power in itself stood; and they lost their hill, their saltness, and their shining. (Works of Fox, Vol. II, p.172)
...[Jesus] began asking His disciples, saying, "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?" And they said, "Some say John the Baptist; some, Elijah; and others, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets." He said to them, "But who do you say that I am?" And Simon Peter answered and said, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." And Jesus answered and said to him, "Blessed are you, Simon Barjonas, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven. And I also say to you that you are Peter and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hell shall not overpower it. (Matt. 16:13-18)

Much of the material of this post comes from a comment I left on James Tower's blog post, Stretch Marks. Please read the original post if you want the full context. In that post James raises the question of the nature of the Church: Is it fraught with the frailties of fallen humans? Is it to be a body of holiness? or Is it a mixture of both? It is somewhat ironic that the council at Nicaea, A.D. 325, composed of a group of bickering and power-struggling people, pronounced the church to be one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.

In this post, part 1 of 2, I want to look at the building blocks of a vision of the church that does not rest upon a foundation built by man's effort. In the Matthew text, quoted above, Jesus told Simon "you are a rock" because he had received revelation from the Father in heaven. He continued to say "Upon this bedrock I will build my church." My contention, and that of others, is that the bedrock, the foundation of the church, is revelation from the heavenly Father.

The church that Jesus builds has certain characteristics that distinguishes it from man made churches. Jesus' church is liberated from the gates of death and darkness. His church is a city set on a hill, the light of the world, and the salt of the earth. Jesus admonished his disciples to be perfect as "your Father which is in Heaven is perfect." These, and other characteristics, demonstrate to the world that this church is made up of children of the heavenly Father. (See Matt. chapter 5.) The man-made church is not a defensible city but is captivated by every passing fear and terror. It has neither light nor salt nor promise of liberation for this dark, unsavory, captivated world.

These distinctions indicate differences in the foundation. It makes a tremendous difference if the church is built upon the bedrock of revelation or upon the small rock of Peter. All Christendom are putting forth some effort to display the characteristics of Christ's church. But if achieving these characteristics were possible by human effort, they would be commonplace. Instead we see statements like:

The main challenge to this vision of a holy church is the church’s own sinfulness...that is demonstrably real and must be accounted for. Luther’s understanding of the church as simul justus et peccatore, or “simultaneously justified and a sinner,” is helpful for describing the paradox of the church’s “now and not yet” struggle with sin... (Excerpted from James Tower's blog post, Stretch Marks. See the link above.)

My definition of "sin" may not match James Tower's usage, but here is how I am using the term throughout this post. Look at John the Baptist's statement, "Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world." I find it useful to see sin as a state of death within where God rightfully expects to find life. This condition is odious to him, a stench in his nostrils more offending than the smell of rotting flesh to us. This death came about and comes about when we listen to the voice of the serpent, the teacher of disobedience, rather than hearing the voice of God who would teach us to live. This inward death, i.e. turning away from the voice of God, is the overarching reason for all that we call "sins."

Given this understanding, it makes sense that God's primary condition to the covenant people in Exodus is:

Now therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people: for all the earth is mine: And ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation." (Exodus 19:5-6)

The question, then, is "How are we to hear the voice of God?"

The answer to that question, and the antidote to this sin, is the subject of Jesus' statement to the Samaritan woman at Jacob's well,

If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, "Give me to drink," you would have asked him and he would have given you living water. (John 4:10)

This gift of God is the antidote to that uneraseable-by-man's-efforts, inward death. On various occasions, God has outlined this gift:

  • I will raise up for them a prophet like [Moses] from among their brethren; and I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him. And whoever will not give heed to my words which he shall speak in my name, I myself will require it of him. (Deut. 18:18-19)

    The Samaritan woman refers to this in John 4:25, "I know that Messiah is coming...when he comes he will tell us all things." Jesus identifies himself as that one.
  • On the mount of transfiguration, God speaks saying, "This is my Son, my Chosen, listen to him!" (Luke 9:35) again referring to Deut. 18:18-19.
  • In Deuteronomy 8:3, Moses reminds the children of Israel how they were humbled and made to be hungry and were fed with manna so that they should know first hand that "man does not live by bread alone. But by every word proceeding from the mouth of God shall man live."
  • Isaiah wrote of sins like crimson and scarlet becoming like wool and white as snow. By what mechanism is this accomplished? "Come, let us reason together," says the Lord..."If you are willing and obedient..." (Isaiah 1:18-19)
  • Then there is Ezekiel 37 and the valley of dry bones. The vision ends on this note: "Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. Behold, they say, Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are clean cut off. Therefore prophesy and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: Behold, I will open your graves, and raise you from your graves...And you shall know that I am the Lord when I open your graves and raise you from your graves...And I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live...then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken, and I have done it says the Lord." (Ezekiel 37:11-14)
  • Jesus picked up this prophecy and reissued it in John 5:24-25 "Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life; he does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life. Truly, truly, I say to you, the hour is coming, and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live."
  • John 6:63, "The flesh profits nothing, it is the spirit that gives life. The words I have spoken/am speaking to you, these are spirit and these are life."

The antidote to death within is to hear the Word, Jesus Christ, as he speaks to us. Therefore, the mark of the church is the presence of the risen Lord in its midst speaking life to it, ordering it in the kingdom of life, feeding it with life, washing it in life, empowering it to live in life. Members of this church are those who will hear together (instead of stopping their ears), obey together, and together suffer the consequences of dwelling in life amidst the kingdom of the dead. This church is not sinful for it lives in the virtue of the life and power of the one who has taken away their death, bringing them to the state beyond that of Adam and Eve before the fall to sit down in Christ Jesus who never fell.

It is this fellowship of the living that makes an effective witness for God's power rather than those who profess words that they can't live up to.

In Part Two, I will look some examples from the historical record that demonstrate the nature of the true church.

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