The Lord's Day Morning
April 15, 2007
I Corinthians 10:31
Qualities of a Healthy Local Church
Glorifying God, Loving Others, Blessing the Nations
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
Amen. If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to open them to I Corinthians 10:31. We’re going to look at five passages this morning, but slightly out of order. Today we are coming to the final message in a series on the qualities of a biblical local church. We've been looking at this over the course, really, of six months now (from time to time with some interruptions in between)…at various biblical descriptions of the qualities, or characteristics, or marks, of a congregation of believers that are living together according to God's word. And we've said a number of different things about that in the course of our study.
Over and over we've been asking ourselves first of all the question, “Is this what First Presbyterian Church is like? Where do we need to grow in terms of what the Bible says a local church ought to be?” We've also been asking ourselves as individual believers, “How do we approach a local church? Do we view a local church–our local church, any local church–like religious consumers who are looking for a goods and services provider to do things the way we like it done? Or, are we thinking in biblical categories about what the local church ought to be like?”
Mark Dever, who has preached for us on other occasions, opened his series on “The Nine Marks of a Healthy Church” (and opened his book on The Nine Marks of a Healthy Church) asking this question: “How do we go about evaluating churches? Do we evaluate those churches from the standpoint of our own preferences and desires, or do we evaluate those churches biblically according to what God says in the Bible a local church is to be like?” And then he says this:
“In my study I have shelf after shelf, stack after stack, of books exactly about that question. What really makes a good church? And you would be amazed at how widely the answers vary. They range from friendliness to financial planning; to pristine bathrooms, to pleasant surroundings, to vibrant music, to being sensitive to visitors, to plentiful parking, to exciting children's programs, to elaborate Sunday School options, to the right computer software package, to clear signage. To homogenous congregations you will find books written and sold that advocate all those things as the key to a good church.
“So what do you think? What makes for a healthy church? You need to know that. If you’re a visitor today looking around for some church where you can come regularly and to which you can commit yourself, you need to consider this question. Even if you’re already a member here, you need to consider this question. You might move, you know! And even if you don't ever move again, you need to know what constitutes a healthy church. If you’re going to stay in the church and be a part of building it and shaping it, don't you need to know what you’re trying to build? What you want it to look like? What you want to aim for? What should be the foundation? Be very careful how you answer those questions. As I said, you’ll find experts who will tell you the answer is everything from how religion-free your language is to how invisible your membership requirements are. So what do you think? Are secure nurseries and sparkling bathrooms, exciting music and look-alike congregations really the way to church growth and health? Is that really what makes a good church?”
And so he begins his study, Nine Marks of a Healthy Church. We've covered some of the same ground in our own study, and today we come to one last consideration of this. It's not that we've said everything that needs to be said about what the Bible says our life and ministry ought to be together as a congregation, it's just time to wrap up! (You've been longsuffering enough as it is!) In the meanwhile, I’ll continue thinking about these things for many months to come, and I’ll continue writing to you about them in the days to come.
Our topic today is “Glorying in God, Loving Others, and Blessing the Nations,” and I'd like you to follow with me through five Bible passages, starting in I Corinthians and then going to Romans 12, then to James 2, then to Genesis 12, then to Matthew 5. As you can see, they’re out of sequence in terms of their order in the Bible, but bear with me. There is some logic to it, and here's the logic: The first two Scriptures have to do with glorying in God; the third Scripture has to do with loving others; and, the fourth and fifth Scriptures have to do with blessing the nations. And each of those are elements that ought to be present in the life of a healthy local congregation…glorying in God, loving others, blessing the nations.
Now before we read God's word, let's pray.
Heavenly Father, this is Your word, so open our eyes to see it, our ears to hear it, our hearts to understand, believe and embrace it, for Your glory. We ask it in Jesus' name. Amen.
This is the word of God, I Corinthians 10:31:
“Whether then you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.”
Now turn back to Romans 12: 1, 2. Notice there Paul is speaking about the mundane daily activities of eating and drinking, and he says in I Corinthians 10 that we're even to do those things to God's glory, and he reiterates that in different language in Romans 12:1, 2:
“Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship.”
In this passage the Apostle Paul is asking you to think of yourself as a living sacrifice to God, so that the whole of who you are is given daily to God as an act of worship. That's just another way of saying that we are to live to glorify God in all of life, or, to put it in the language of The Shorter Catechism, that “the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” And so there's the Scripture that goes with the first point, glorying in God.
Now turn forward in your New Testament to the little book of James, chapter 2, and look especially at verse 8. James says this:
“If, however, you are fulfilling the royal law according to Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing well.”
James exhorts us in James 2:8 to neighbor love. There's the second part to the message: loving others. It's especially hard in a selfish culture, isn't it? We tend to put self first and everybody else second, or last. But here's James saying ‘Love your neighbors.’ Demonstrate tangibly your very concern for your neighbors, even your non-Christian neighbors, as the Old Testament makes clear when this commandment was originally given in Leviticus 19.
Now turn with me to the fourth and fifth passages…first back to the Old Testament all the way back to the first book of the Bible, Genesis 12:1-3. Here's God, Moses tells us, speaking to Abram, who was a citizen of the Ur of the Chaldees (that's modern day Iraq), and He is calling him to be the father of not only the Jewish people, Israel, but to be the father of all believing Gentiles (so the Apostle Paul tells us in Romans 4). What does He say to Abram from Iraq? This is what He says:
“Go forth from your country and from your relatives and from your father's house to the land which I will show you. And I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great.”
So, lots of blessings for Abram! But then listen to what He says:
“And so you shall be a blessing, and I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you, I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.”
So Abram is not only to receive a blessing, but to be a blessing to others; and not only to others, but to all the nations of the earth.
And of course the Lord Jesus reiterates this posture for the Christian in the Sermon on the Mount. Turn to Matthew 5. (Augustine called this sermon “The Sermon on the Mount” about 1600 years ago, and the name has stuck.) Matthew 5:13-16. Jesus is talking to His disciples…what is your posture supposed to be towards the world? In John, the Gospel of John, John tells us that at one point Jesus tells His disciples, “Do not love the world.” Now, does Jesus mean by that that we are to have no concern for the well-being of the world? Absolutely not! He means don't love the pleasures of this world, don't follow the desires of this world, don't buy into the standards of this world, don't get sucked into the life of this world, don't love the things of this passing age. But at the same time, we must love the world in the terms of looking out for its best interest, of serving our neighbor, of tangibly caring for our neighbor. How does Jesus express that? Matthew 5:13-16:
“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt has become tasteless, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men. You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden, nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven.”
Amen. And thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.
As we have been thinking together over these last few months about qualities, the marks, of a healthy local church, we have highlighted a number of things. We have talked about the church being committed to, passionate about, faithful Bible preaching; the church being committed to, passionate about, God-exalting, Christ honoring corporate worship; being serious about discipleship, about evangelism, about missions; about what it means to be a church member; about biblical church leadership. We've thought about all of these things.
Have you made your list of what you think are the most important things in the New Testament that the Lord tells us in His word the church should be like? I have a challenge for you today: Go home and meditate on the things that we've meditated on the last six months, and open up your Scriptures and ask the question, “What does God want us to be and to do and to believe and to think? How does He want us to live and minister together?” and see what answers the Lord gives to you from His word. We've only scratched the surface. There's so much more to say.
Today I want to zero in on just these three things (glorying in God, loving others, and blessing the nations) because these are three more important New Testament components–Old Testament components–about what it means for us to live our lives together as believers. All of us ought to be thinking about this question, ‘What are we to be like as a church together?’
Now very recently we had the privilege of having a group of pastors here in Mississippi, called the Twin Lakes Fellowship. It's a gathering, a ministerial fraternal that's sponsored by First Presbyterian Church, that is held at the Twin Lakes Conference Center. We have pastors from all over North America, and even the world, gathering together. And with them there were a number of African-American pastors. At one point we asked them the question (because most of them are PCA ministers)…we asked them the question, “What was it that helped you as an African-American with no experience of a Presbyterian or a Reformed church to become a part of a PCA church in the first place?” And the answers were really, really interesting. By the way, they boiled down to this: one was they wanted a church where the Bible was taught, and two was when they came to the congregations that they came to because of the good Bible teaching, they found that the people were loving and embracing of them. It's not rocket science, is it?
Well, Thabite Anyabwile, who is the senior pastor of First Baptist Church of the Grand Cayman in the Cayman Islands, there's one to write down for the next time you’re in the Cayman Islands to visit. So Thabite was with us, as well. And someone asked him, “Thabiti, what are the qualities of a healthy local church that helped you, an African-American who had been a Muslim, to join a Reformed, Bible-believing congregation? What made you comfortable in a Reformed, Bible-believing congregation?” And he said, “Well, these eight things.” Let me just share them with you. What were the marks of a healthy church that made Thabite Anyabwile, a converted Muslim, feel comfortable in a Reformed, Bible-believing church?
1. “The gospel of Jesus Christ is faithfully preached each Lord's Day, and consistently
applied to the Christian and the non-Christian. I would love to belong to such a church, or pastor a church, where the teachers bring the word rightly interpreted, in season and out of season, and where the gospel is proclaimed and protected by the elders, and members search the Scriptures.”
[What was he looking for? A church where the word of God and the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ was proclaimed Lord's Day by Lord's Day.]
2. What would a church that Thabite would be attracted to be like?
“A church where people love radically, across class, ethnic, language, political, citizenship status, gender, generational, and every other natural division; a church of deep and wide fellowship between members — and not just on Sundays, but daily from house to house, and in the workplace, rejoicing together, mourning together, bearing with one another, receiving weaker brothers, laying down liberties; a church where the watching world has to say, ‘Yes, those folks must be Jesus followers. Surely God has sent Jesus to save the world. Look at how they love one another.’”
3. What kind of a church would he feel comfortable in, be attracted to? “A church where the saints are called up into heaven, or call heaven down, in prayer. Put me in a church,” he says, “where the people of God call on the God of the people, day and night, with fervency, expectation, and joy in prayer.”
4. What kind of a church is he comfortable in, attracted to? “A church where people are growing and are concerned to help others to grow, the fruit of the Spirit is evident and lasting, the branches are abiding in the true vine, Bible knowledge is increasing, but so too is obedience to what the Bible teaches. And all of this is happening without arrogance or being puffed up.”
5. What kind of a church would he be attracted to, or what would make him comfortable in a Reformed, Bible-believing church? “Clear, healthy, loving distinctions are kept between those professing faith in Christ and those not professing faith. I'd love,” he says, “to belong to a church that owns its responsibility for knowing the spiritual state of its members, and for calling its members to live holy lives, depending upon God's gracious aid.” (Or, as my friend Josh Harris says, “I wouldn't belong to a church that wouldn't kick me out.” It's a striking way of putting it. In other words, he wants to belong to a church where membership is taken seriously, where a profession of faith is taken seriously, and where we're held accountable.)
6. Thabiti says, “What kind of a church would I be attracted to…feel comfortable in? A church where members are zealous in doing good. A church where members are first focused on the needs of the body [ministering to the church]; and secondly, focused on the needs of the community; where there is no limit to their generosity and compassion and commitment to serving others; and, the one good that they do at all times is to spread the good news to every person.”
7. What quality or characteristic does he look for in a healthy, Bible-believing local church where he would feel comfortable? “Family worship is modeled and practiced by all the families. Where Christianity is not a solo sport, and is not a public pay-per-view event, but is practiced in homes when no one is watching but the children and the Lord; where seeds are planted and watered by fathers and mothers, husbands and wives, and God gives abundant increase in the conversion and discipleship of young people.”
8. What quality is he looking for? “Missions is a high priority, budgetarily and in individual personal decisions.”
Isn't that an interesting list? What's your list? What's your list? And is your list based on personal preferences or on what the culture says it ought to be, or is it based on the Bible? I would argue that Thabite's list is a pretty good biblical list, and I would challenge you again, go home and work through your New Testament and ask, “What ought we to be more like as a congregation called First Presbyterian Church, according to the New Testament?”
Well, there are three things that I want to draw your attention to today. There are so many more that we could do, but three things, at least: glorying in God; loving others; and, blessing the nations.
I. Glorying in God.
First of all, in I Corinthians 10:31, Paul says that whatever we do, we're to do all to the glory of God. Here's what I want to say: Yes, we're built to glorify God, but you will not and cannot glorify God unless you glory in Him. You will only glorify what you supremely value.
You know, sometimes when you’re talking to grandmothers (and even grandfathers) you get pictures of the grandchildren shown to you, and enthusiastic descriptions about the latest accomplishments of those grandchildren. They glorify those grandchildren because they glory in those grandchildren. Sometimes you’ll talk to a man who's a sports fanatic, and he can remember his last putt on the green, or the last basket in the NCAA tournament, or the big play at the football game 25 years ago, and he can describe it to you with relish! He glorifies it. Why? Because he glories in it.
You will not be able to glorify God unless you glory in Him, unless you delight in Him, unless you value Him above everything else. And so if we're going to be a healthy local church, we're going to have to be characterized by people who glory in God, who value God more than anything else, and delight in Him more than anything else in this world. Do you value God that way? You won't be able to glorify Him unless He is more valuable to you than anything in this world. And so, we need to be a church that glories in God.
II. Loving Others.
But secondly, we need to be a church that loves others. James 2 says, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” He's quoting Jesus, who quoted Moses in Leviticus 19. The command to love your neighbor is as old as the Bible. It's as old as creation. It's part of God's moral law: Love your neighbor. But we live in a culture that sociologists call individualistic and narcissistic. We look out for Number One… “Me” is first…me, myself, and I…and we are in love with ourselves. We are focused in, turned in on ourselves.
In contrast to that, God says ‘Love your neighbor. Be concerned. Don't be consumed with your own well-being, but love your neighbor.’ And as a congregation we need to be living that out.
Many of us right now are discouraged about our city, our community. We are reaping some decisions and some consequences, some of which happened before some of us were born. And we're discouraged about our city. I want to tell you, I'm not. I see this as a tremendous opportunity for Christians–not organized by the congregation, but as individuals–to go out into our community and say, “Jackson, we're here to serve you. We’re here to love you. We’re going to pick you up off your back and put you on your feet again, and we're going to do it for the glory of God, and we're going to do it for the sake of Christ, and we're going to do it to the honor of the gospel,”–and fifty years from now, God willing, people may well just turn around and say, “You know, it was the Christians of Jackson who said ‘We’re going to turn this situation around, under God, God willing.’ It's a tremendous opportunity we have to love our neighbors right now. Won't you join me in that–showing the love of Christ to our neighbors for the sake of the gospel as Christians in this community? Some of you are working quietly to do that right now. I praise God for that. All of us should have that desire to love our neighbors in that way, in such a way to make a dramatic witness and impact for the gospel.
III. Blessing the Nations.
Thirdly, we are to live in such a way as to be a blessing to the nations. Believers are not put in this world simply to receive God's blessing, but to be a source and a channel of blessing to all of the world, not only our immediate neighbors, but even the nations. And so God said to Abraham, “You will be a blessing, and in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.” And Jesus can say to the disciples ‘You are to be light and salt, salt and light, to a decaying and dark world.’ In other words, believers are to live consciously out of a desire to be a blessing to the unbelieving world around them.
Isn't that strikingly different from Islam, where…what do you do to unbelievers? You kill them! That's what you do to unbelievers. And what does God say to Abraham? What does God say through Jesus to His disciples? What do you do to unbelievers? You bless them. You show concern for them. You share the gospel with them. You help them. You become a source and conduit of blessing, the blessing of God to them so that they will glorify God, too.
My friends, as a congregation these must be three things that are at the very core of our agenda: to glory in God, and thus to glorify Him; to love our neighbors in our community as Christians, as we go out and show them the love of Christ and look out for the well-being of our neighbors; and, living to bless the nations so that they will glorify God, too.
In a few minutes we're coming to the Lord's Table, and when we come, surely we will remember Christ's finished work for us, because Jesus died on the cross in our place, and God imputed our sins to Him and His righteousness to us. We are invited to come, declared right with God, to this table in fellowship with Him.
But do you know what else this table celebrates? It celebrates the body of Christ, the people of God, the family of God. God has made us into a family, and He has given that family certain family characteristics. All of the members of that family are to share in those characteristics. Just as sometimes in your children you see the characteristics of some great-great-aunt, uncle, or grandfather or grandmother from generations before, even in those young people, so also we as a church family are to bear certain characteristics. Those characteristics are listed for us in the New Testament. Why not, as we come to the Lord's Table today, consecrate ourselves afresh as a congregation of being like the Bible describes the family of God, the body of Christ. And let's decide as a people, as a congregation, that we want to be the church that the New Testament describes; because, my friends, God has a strategy for reaching the world for Christ. And do you know what that strategy is? I can sum it up in two words: the church. The church is God's strategy for reaching the world. And when we don't live up to being what God has called us to be, guess what? The one strategy for reaching the world for Christ is compromised. And you know what else? There is no “Plan B.” God doesn't have a “Plan B.” It's the church or nothing. But as Stephen Marshall said to us, “All the glory that God looks for in eternity, He looks for in this one building, this one people, this one body, the church. And the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” So let's determine that we, First Presbyterian Church, are going to be more like the family, the body, the building that God describes as the church in the Bible.
Heavenly Father, thank You for Your word. We want to be the church as You have described her. We want to think and act and live and minister the way You describe in the New Testament, for Your glory. In Jesus' name. Amen.
Now as we prepare to come to the Lord's Table, let's take out our bulletins again and turn to the hymn, O Sacred Head, Now Wounded.
The Sacrament of the Lord's Supper
As we come to the Lord's Table, let's attend to the words of institution of this sacrament as given by the Lord Jesus Christ to the Apostle Paul and recorded for us in I Corinthians 11:
“For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus in the night in which He was betrayed took bread; and when He had given thanks, He broke it, and said, ‘This is My body, which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me.’ In the same way He took the cup also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in My blood; do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.’ For as often as you eat the bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until He comes.”
Amen. This is God's word.
The Lord's Supper is a sacrament. That is, it is a sign of God's promise to us. It confirms God's word of promise to us, and it serves to strengthen our faith. It is appointed by God as a means of grace–and a means of grace is just a technical phrase to refer to one of the principal ways that God grows us up, or disciples us, as believers. So, in the Lord's Supper we feed on Christ by faith, God confirms and strengthens our faith, and we grow in grace in Jesus Christ. So the Lord's Table, the Lord's Supper, is for those who trust in Christ. It's for believers. And so I want to invite to this table — the Lord's Table — all here today who trust in Jesus Christ alone for salvation as He is offered in the gospel, and have joined themselves to the body of Christ, His church.
If you are not a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ today, I would urge you do not come to the Lord's Table; do not partake of these elements. The Apostle Paul says that if we eat and drink without recognizing the body we eat and drink condemnation to ourselves. So if you don't trust in Christ, don't come to the Table. Instead, wait and think, and hear and believe, and repent; and then, come to the Lord's Table the next time we gather–as a brother, as a sister, in Jesus Christ.
So also, parents, your children who have not yet made membership vows should refrain from coming to the Table until such times as the elders have examined them as to their profession of faith and their ability to discern the body, and their capability of self-examination according to Paul's words here in I Corinthians 11:28, 29.
Let's set apart these common elements for a holy use by prayer. Let's pray.
Eternal God, heavenly Father, as we gather at Your Table today at Your own bidding, we acknowledge Your grace to us. Make these common elements to serve as Your means of grace to Your people. Grant that we would receive them by faith, and so taste of heavenly mercies bestowed by Your Spirit. Through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.
Since the Lord's Supper is for professing believers in the Lord Jesus Christ who have discerned the body, it is appropriate that we confess our faith together before we take it.
Christian, what do you believe?
I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth;
And in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord,
Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost,
Born of the virgin Mary,
Suffered under Pontius Pilate; was crucified, dead, and buried.
He descended into hell.
The third day He rose again from the dead.
He ascended into heaven,
And sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty.
From thence He shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Ghost; the holy catholic church;
The communion of the saints; the forgiveness of sins;
The resurrection of the body;
And the life everlasting.
Now if you take your bulletins out and look at the bottom of the back panel, we have an abbreviated version of The Ten Commandments there. We’re going to recite it now. By reciting the Law directly adjacent to this gospel ordinance of the Lord's Supper, we are reminded of three things that every Christian consciously needs to remember:
One, our need of forgiveness of sins, because we have fallen short of the standards of holiness that God requires in these Ten Commandments. But here's the good news: God did not say ‘You can come to My table if you’ll keep these commandments.’ He said, ‘You can come to My Table because My Son kept these commandments.’ That's grace, my friends.
Secondly, we need to be reminded of the rich provision that we have in the perfect obedience and death of Jesus Christ. He obeyed all of God's law, and then suffered the penalty of it as if He had broken all of God's law, so that you could come to this Table.
And then, thirdly, we need to remember the reality that God has saved us so that we would be holy, so that we would be like the Lord Jesus Christ, and so we need to remember His standards. So let's repeat these standards together, these words of God's Law, brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ.
You shall have no other gods before Me.
You shall not make for yourself an idol. You shall not worship them or serve them.
You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.
Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.
Honor your father and your mother.
You shall not murder.
You shall not commit adultery.
You shall not steal.
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
You shall not covet.
It is important if you’re an unbeliever in our midst today that you understand that in this room are believers who have broken every one of these Ten Commandments. We’re God's children not because we've kept these commandments, but because of the amazing grace of Jesus Christ our Lord to us. Yes, it is our desire of heart to be people that live like this, but this is not our hope of salvation. Christ and Christ alone is our sure and certain hope of salvation.
Friends, our Lord Jesus Christ, on the night that He was betrayed, took bread, as I now, ministering in His name, do. And He gave it to His disciples, and He said to them, “This is My body, which is given for you. Take, eat. Do this in remembrance of Me.”
[The Reverend Mr. Brad Mercer:]
And having given thanks, He gave it to His disciples saying, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood, which is shed for many for the remission of sins. Drink from it, all of you.”
Almighty God, loving heavenly Father, glorious Lord Jesus Christ, sovereign Holy Spirit, we give thanks that in Your mercy we've been privileged again to sit at Your Table. We remember that there were many who once sat here with us who are now in mansions of glory, and we bless You. Help us by the grace of Your Holy Spirit, keep us from the snares of Satan, make us to be mindful of the vows we made when we first communed in this Your church. Give us grace to walk with the Savior and His people in peace and unity and truth. And receive our thanks and praise through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.