Providence and the Church
Before we begin to talk about God's providence and the Church, I think it is important that we be clear about what we mean by the word 'Church'.
The biblical word for church (ekklesia) always refers to people, and never to a place or a building. According to the New Testament, the Church is a group of people called and assembled by God.
A further distinction is necessary. Theologians throughout the ages have been careful to distinguish between what they call, the 'visible church' and the 'invisible church'. The visible church refers to all of you here today, it refers to the Anglicans gathered next door, it refers to every person that gathers for Christian worship.
And the reason we need this distinction is because what we regard as the Church, and what God regards as the Church is different. Remember our definition of the Church: a group of people called and assembled by God.
Right now, all over the world, millions of people are assembled for Christian worship. The reality is, however, that not everyone who is gathered for worship has been called by God. Some are gathered because their spouse has convinced them to go. Some are gathered because their parents said they didn't have a choice in the matter. Some are gathered for self-serving purposes. And so distinguishing between the visible church and the invisible church allows us to account for the fact that not everyone who gathers with the Church on Sunday belongs to the Church that is assembled by God.
Where did we get this notion, that when people gather as the church, there are wolves in sheep's clothing? Who gave us this notion of imposter Christians that has forced theologians to distinguish between the visible and the invisible church? This 'notion' comes from our Lord Jesus Christ.
In Matthew 7:15, Jesus says, "Beware of the false prophets who come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves." And a bit further on in that passage, Jesus tells us plainly, "Not everyone who says to me 'Lord, Lord' will enter the kingdom of heaven . . . Many will say to Me on that day, 'Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?' And then I will declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from Me'"(Mt. 7:22,23). The sobering truth, we learn from Jesus, is that not everyone who belongs to the visible church belongs to the invisible church.
Why is this important to note? The distinction is important because of a promise Jesus gives regarding the Church. In Matthew 16:18, Jesus promises, "I will build My church; and the gates of hell shall not overpower it"(16:18).
If Christ promises to build His church, we had better be clear about which church He is talking about. It is no secret that many congregations throughout our country are experiencing dwindling membership. In the last 5 years, our own Presbytery was forced to close one congregation, and there remains another congregation in our Presbytery facing the same threat. How can the promise of Christ be true-"I will build My church"?
Perhaps the key word here is the word, "My". Jesus promises to build church congregations that belong to Him. This is the critical point as we discuss God's providence and the Church. In the same way that God causes everything to work together for good to those who love God and are called according to His purpose (Rom. 8:28), Christ promises to build congregations that love Him and are called according to His purpose.
If you want to know the reason why I am so confident that our church will continue to grow, this is it. I am not trusting in any formula for church growth that I read in a book or learned in seminary, I am trusting in the promise of Christ, "I will build My church".
Our challenge then, is not to grow (that's Christ's job!), but to do the things that allow for growth. Our challenge is to be faithful followers of our Lord Jesus Christ. Our challenge is not to be too possessive when talking about "our church". This is not your church. This is not my church. This is Christ's church. So before we pass motions at our Board or Session meeting we had better be sure that the same motion would pass if it were on the floor of the General Assembly in Heaven.
Nevertheless, it is not our motions or our strategies that will lead to growth, but our faithfulness. If we are faithful followers of Jesus Christ, He will grow this church.
Of course, faithfulness is easier said than done. When Jesus promises to build His church, He does so even though we are fighting against "the gates of hell". The reference to gates in this passage means the entrances to strongholds. In the ancient world the city gates were often mammoth in size and weight, built to withstand assault by battering rams. In this sense the gates were defensive structures (Sproul, The Invisible Hand, 136).
To say then, that "the gates of hell will not prevail against (the church)" is to imply that the church is an offensive force. The powers of hell appear to have a stronghold on this world, but Jesus assures us that there is a power that can defeat the stronghold-and that power is the Church.
Remembering this should keep us from incessant pessimism. If unfaithfulness doesn't cripple a church, pessimism will. Do you know what the last seven words of a dying church are? 'We've never done it that way before'.
Or have you ever heard someone say, 'We tried that a number of years ago and it didn't work'? When it comes to ministry, we should never judge an action by whether it works. We must judge an action by whether it is biblical.
Imagine a young Christian who learns that he must share the gospel message with those who don't know Christ. The young Christian then begins to share the salvation message with friends and family in the most delicate manner. They, however, do not accept the message. Should the young Christian give up his practice of sharing his faith? If spreading the gospel is not working, should he stop trying? Of course not! As a church, Christ does not demand that we be successful, He demands that we be faithful. And if we are faithful to Christ, we will ultimately succeed because Christ has promised, "I will build My Church".
Recognizing that Christ causes the growth should encourage us to serve Him faithfully. Whether you are giving your time or whether you are giving your money, whether you are leading a Sunday school class or whether you are leading in prayer; you efforts are never in vain.
God promises to use our efforts to build His church. I am thankful for the promise of God, through the prophet Isaiah, "My word which goes forth from My mouth; it shall not return to Me empty, without accomplishing what I desire, and without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it"(Isa. 55:10, 11).
As a pastor, and as a Christian, I am comforted by the truth that church growth is guaranteed by God's providence. Church growth is guaranteed by God's providence in congregations where the will of Christ is obeyed, and the message of Christ is preached.
There are other assurances of this truth in Scripture. The well being of the church is implied in Acts 20:28, where it talks about "the Church of God which He purchased with His own blood". We most often think about Christ dying for us-for me. But here, we read that God had the Church, the entire assembly of His people, in view when Christ died on the cross.
We typically assess the value of something by considering what it cost us to obtain that item. And the things that are valuable and precious, we put in special cupboards and containers. I often lose track of where I placed a pen or a book, but I can always tell you where I put my wedding ring when it is not on my finger. We protect things that are valuable. In the same way, God, who purchased the Church with His own blood, is certain to protect and to care for His church.
A beautiful picture of God's care is painted for us in the book of Hebrews, chapter 12, verses 18 through 24. In this passage, the author contrasts what corporate worship used to be like in the Old Covenant with what it is like now. When Moses was on Mount Sinai, no one could approach the mountain or they would die. In those days, corporate worship was often a terrifying experience because the Mediator-Jesus Christ-had not yet come.
But now, everything has changed. Christ has come to earth, He has died, is risen, and now sits at the right hand of God-promising to build His Church. This new setting is described in verses 22 and following, "But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to the company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the Judge of all, and to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant"(Heb. 12:22-24).
Our gathering this morning is not some insignificant gathering of (X number of people) trying their best to keep a church afloat. Whenever the people of God gather for corporate worship, they are joined by the myriad of heavenly angels, they are joined by those saints who have died and have been made perfect, and they are joined by God.
And as we approach the Lord's Table this morning, let us be mindful of the fact that our communion is with God and with the entire company of heaven.
Perhaps you are feeling now, the way Jacob felt when he had a vision of the Supernatural on earth, when Jacob exclaimed, "Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it" (Gen. 28:16).
The Lord is indeed in this place, and the Lord promises to build His church! Thanks be to God.