A series of 3 short articles by Dr. John MacArthur: (original source here).
I love the church.
I am an inveterate and incurable lover of the church. It thrills me beyond expression to serve the church. Although I am also involved in some para-church ministries, I would not trade my ministry in the church for all of them combined. The church takes first place in my ministry priorities, and all the para-church ministries I serve are subordinate to, and grow out of, my ministry in the church.
In fact, my whole life has been lived in the church. My father was a pastor, as were my grandfathers for three more generations before him. So a deep love for the church practically runs in my blood.
In a short series of upcoming posts, I’m going to outline some biblical reasons I love the church. Let’s start with the first one today:
1. The Church Is Being Built by the Lord Himself
The church is the New Testament counterpart of the Old Testament Temple. I’m not referring to a church building, but the body of all true believers.
It is a spiritual building (1 Pet. 2:5), the dwelling-place of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 3:16-17; 2 Cor. 6:16), the place where God’s glory is most clearly manifest on earth, and the proper nucleus and focal point of spiritual life and worship for the community of the redeemed.
God Himself is the architect and builder of this temple. In Ephesians 2:19–22, Paul writes:
So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together, is growing into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit.
It is impossible to overstate the importance of the church in the eternal plan of God. The church is His building (1 Cor. 3:9). Moreover, He is the immutable, sovereign, omnipotent Lord of heaven. His Word cannot return void but always accomplishes what He says (Isa. 55:11). He is always faithful and cannot deny Himself (2 Tim. 2:13). His sovereign purposes always comes to pass, and His will is always ultimately fulfilled (Isa. 46:10). His plan is invincible and unshakable, and He will bring to pass all that He has spoken (v. 11). And he has spoken about building the church in the most triumphant words.
For example, in Matthew 16:18 Christ said, “I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.” He who knows His sheep by name (John 10:3)—He who wrote their names down before the foundation of the world (Rev. 13:8)—He personally guarantees that the gates of Hades will not prevail against the church He is building.
“The gates of Hades” was a Jewish expression for death. Hades is the place of the dead, and the gates of Hades represent the portal into that place—death itself. Hades is also the domain of the devil. Hebrews 2:14 refers to Satan as the one “who had the power of death,” and verse 15 says he used that power to keep people in fear and bondage all their lives. But now Christ has broken that power, and liberated His people from Satan’s dominion—in essence, he has broken down the gates of Hades. And therefore even the power of death—the strongest weapon Satan wields—cannot prevent the ultimate triumph of the church He is building.
There is still more significance to the imagery of “the gates of Hades.” Gates are a walled city’s most vital defensive safeguards. Christ’s words therefore portray the church militant, storming the very gates of hell, victoriously delivering people from the power of death. Thus Christ assures the triumph of the church’s evangelistic mission. He is building the church, and the work will not be thwarted.
Christ’s promise in this passage should not be misconstrued. He does not suggest that any particular church will be infallible. He does not teach that any of the bishops of the church will be error-free. He does not guarantee that this or that individual church will not apostatize. He does not promise success and prosperity to every congregation. But He does pledge that the church—that universal body of believers under Christ’s headship—will have a visible being and a testimony in this world as long as the world itself lasts. And that all the enemies of truth combined shall never secure the defeat or destruction of the church.
Notice also that the church is a work in progress. Christ is still building His church. We are still being joined together (Eph. 2:21). The church is still under construction (v. 22). God is not finished yet. The imperfections and blemishes in the visible church are still being refined by the Master Builder.
And here’s something remarkable: The plan for the finished product is a blueprint that was drawn in eternity past.
The Church in God’s Plan
In our last post, we looked at the fact that the church is a divinely-ordained institution. Today, I’d like to consider a second reason why I love the church:
2. The Church Is the Outworking of an Eternal Plan
In Titus 1:2, the apostle Paul writes of the “eternal life which God, who cannot lie, promised before time began.” In this context, the apostle Paul was describing his ministry, a ministry of evangelism and salvation “for the faith of those chosen of God”—namely, the church (v. 1).
As Paul describes his ministry, he outlines God’s redemptive purpose, from election (”those chosen of God,” v. 1), to salvation (”the knowledge of the truth,” v. 1), to sanctification (”which is according to godliness,” v.1), to final glory (”in the hope of eternal life,” v. 2). All of this is God’s work (cf. Rom. 8:29-30), something He “promised before time began.”
In other words, in eternity past, before anything was created — before time began — God determined to begin and to finish His redemptive plan. People were chosen. Their names were written down that they might be brought to faith, to godliness, and to glory. God “promised” this before time began.
To whom did God make the promise? This was before time, and therefore before creation. So there weren’t any people or other creatures around. To whom, then, did God make this promise?
We find the answer in 2 Timothy 1:9. There we read that God “saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was given to us in Christ Jesus before time began.” That verse ends with the same phrase we find in Titus 1:2: “before time began.” And here the apostle says God’s eternal purpose — this same promise that was made before the beginning of time — “was given to us in Christ Jesus.” The eternal pledge of our salvation, the divine covenant of redemption, involved a promise made by the Father to the Son before time began.
This is a staggering reality. In the mystery of the Trinity we see that there is an ineffable and eternal love between the Members of the Trinity. Jesus refers to it in His high priestly prayer: “Father, I desire that they also, whom You have given Me, be with Me where I am, so that they may see My glory which You have given Me, for You loved Me before the foundation of the world” (John 17:24, emphasis added).
That love must find an expression. True love always seeks ways to give. And in a demonstration of His perfect love for His Son, the Father made a pledge to the Son. And what was that pledge? He promised the Son a redeemed people — justified, sanctified, and glorified. He promised to bring the redeemed to ones to glory, that they might dwell in the very place where Father and Son have dwelt since before time began — the very realm of God. And this collective body of called-out ones — a people for His name (Acts 15:14) from every tribe and people and tongue and nation (Rev. 13:7) — would form a living temple for the Holy Spirit (Eph. 2:21-22), becoming the very dwelling-place of God.
That is the eternal promise the Father made to the Son. Why? As an expression of His love. The redeemed of humanity, then, are a gift from the Father to the Son.
With that in mind, consider Jesus’ words in John 6:37: “All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out.” That, again, affirms the utter invincibility of the church. Every individual ever redeemed — everyone ever given the gift of faith, forgiven, and justified before God by grace — is a love-gift from the Father to the Son. And not one of them will fail or be cast out. Would Christ turn down a love-gift from His own Father?
Furthermore, the importance of the doctrine of election emerges from all this. The redeemed are chosen and given to the Son by the Father as a gift. If you are a believer, it is not because you are more clever than your unbelieving neighbors. You did not come to faith through your own ingenuity. You were drawn to Christ by God the Father (John 6:44, 65). And every individual who comes to faith is drawn by God and given as a love gift from the Father to the Son, as part of a redeemed people — the church — promised to the Son before time began.
The full significance of God’s eternal purpose becomes clear as it is unfolded to us in the book of Revelation. There we get a glimpse into heaven, and what do you suppose the triumphant church is doing there? What occupies the glorified saints throughout eternity? They worship and glorify the Lamb, praising Him and serving Him — and even reigning with Him (Rev. 22:3-5). The collective body is pictured as His bride, pure and spotless and clothed in fine linen (19:7-8). They dwell with him eternally where there is no night, no tears, no sorrow, and no pain (21:4). And they glorify and serve the Lamb forever. That is the fullness of God’s purpose; that is the reason the church is His gift to His Son.
Now this eternal promise involved a reciprocal promise from the Son to the Father. Redemption was by no means the Father’s work alone. In order to accomplish the divine plan, the Son would have to go into the world as a member of the human race and pay the penalty for sin. And the Son submitted completely to the Father’s will. That is what Jesus meant in John 6:38–39: “I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me. This is the will of Him who sent Me, that of all that He has given Me I lose nothing, but raise it up on the last day.”
Redemption from sin could not be purchased by animal sacrifices or any other means. Therefore the Son came to earth for the express purpose of dying for sin. His sacrifice on the cross was an act of submission to the Father’s will. Hebrews 10:4–9 makes this very point:
For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. Therefore, when He comes into the world, He says, “Sacrifice and offering You have not desired, but a body You have prepared for Me; in whole burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin You have taken no pleasure. “Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come (in the scroll of the book it is written of Me) to do Your will, O God.’” After saying above, “Sacrifices and offerings and whole burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin You have not desired, nor have You taken pleasure in them” (which are offered according to the Law), then He said, “Behold, I have come to do Your will.”
So the Son submitted to the Father’s will, demonstrating His love for the Father. And the building of the church is therefore not only the Father’s expression of love to the Son, but also the Son’s expression of love to the Father.
All of this means that the church is something so monumental, so vast, so transcendent, that our poor minds can scarcely begin to appreciate its significance in the eternal plan of God. The ultimate aim of God’s plan is not merely to get us to heaven. But the drama of our salvation has an even grander purpose: it is an expression of eternal love within the Trinity. We’re only the gift.
There’s one thing more worth noting about the Father’s eternal plan with regard to the church. Romans 8:29 says that those whom the Father chose to give to the Son He also predestined them to be conformed to the Son’s image. Not only would He would justify them, sanctify them, glorify them, and bring them to heaven so that forever and ever and ever they could say, “Worthy is the Lamb”—but He also determined that they would be made like the Son. This is “so that He would be the firstborn [prototokos] among many brethren” (Rom. 8:29). Prototokos refers not to someone born first in a chronology, but the premier one of a class. In other words, Christ is the supreme one over a whole brotherhood of people who are like Him.
Our glorification will instantly transform us into Christlikeness. John wrote, “When He appears, we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is” (1 John 3:2). Paul told the Galatians, “I am . . . in labor until Christ is formed in you” (Gal. 4:19). We’re being conformed to Christ’s image. And the good news is that this goal will be achieved. The church will emerge from all her trials triumphant, glorious, spotlessly arrayed to meet her Bridegroom.
How can we not rejoice in the prospect of that? How can Christians possibly be apathetic about the church? The church is ultimately invincible. The purposes of God cannot be thwarted.
There is a fascinating conclusion to all this. Paul describes it in 1 Corinthians 15:24-28:
Then comes the end, when He hands over the kingdom to the God and Father, when He has abolished all rule and all authority and power. For He must reign until He has put all His enemies under His feet. The last enemy that will be abolished is death. For He has put all things in subjection under His feet. But when He says, “All things are put in subjection,” it is evident that He is excepted who put all things in subjection to Him. When all things are subjected to Him, then the Son Himself also will be subjected to the One who subjected all things to Him, so that God may be all in all.
Picture the scene. All Christ’s enemies are destroyed and defeated. All things are placed in subjection to the Son. The Father has given Him the great love-gift, the church, to be his bride and to be subject to Him. Christ is on the throne. All things are now subject to Him — except the Father, who put all things in subjection to His Son. “Then the Son Himself also will be subjected to the One who subjected all things to Him, so that God may be all in all” (v. 28).
In other words, when the Son brings the church to glory and the Father gives them to the Son as His eternal love gift, then the Son will turn around and give everything, including Himself, back to the Father.
This is a mind-boggling look at our future. This is God’s plan for the church. We are a people called out for His name, redeemed, conformed to His Son’s image, made to be an immense, incomprehensible, all-surpassing expression of love between the Persons of the Trinity. The church is the gift that is exchanged. This is God’s eternal plan for the church. We ought to be profoundly grateful, and eager, and thrilled to be a part of it.
A Foretaste of Heaven on Earth
In yesterday’s article, we focused on the church as it relates to God’s eternal plan. In today’s post, we will look at two additional reasons why I love the church:
3. The Church Is the Most Precious Reality on Earth
There’s a third biblical reason I love the church: It is the most precious thing on this earth — more precious than silver, or gold, or any other earthly commodity.
How precious is the church? It demanded the highest price ever paid for anything. “You have been bought with a price” (1 Cor. 6:20). What price? “You were not redeemed with perishable things like silver or gold from your futile way of life inherited from your forefathers, but with precious blood, as of a lamb unblemished and spotless, the blood of Christ” (1 Pet, 1:18-19). Acts 20:28 refers to “the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.”
The church is so precious that the Son was willing to suffer the agonies of the cross and die in obedience to the Father so that this eternal love gift could become a reality. The apostle Paul reminded the Corinthians of this great reality: “You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, so that you through His poverty might become rich.” (2 Cor. 8:9). That verse has nothing to do with earthly riches or material things. Christ was rich as God is rich — rich in glory (cf. John 17:5). Neither is the poverty spoken of an earthly poverty. Christ divested Himself of His glory. He went from sovereign supernatural deity, to taking upon Himself the form of a servant — and ultimately to a death on the cross in which all the force of divine wrath was poured out upon Him (Col. 2:6-8).
So the precious value of the church is seen here in the price that was paid, when the One who was as rich as God in fullness of glory, became as poor as someone alienated from God (cf. Matt. 27:46).
And, to return to the point of 2 Corinthians 8:9, Christ did this so that we might become rich. His dying made us heirs of God and joint-heirs with Christ (Rom. 8:17). In other words, in giving up His heavenly riches, Christ made it possible for the church to share in those riches. That makes the church the most precious thing on earth.
4. The Church Is an Earthly Expression of Heaven
Here’s a yet another reason from Scripture why I love the church: It is like heaven on earth. I don’t mean that the church is perfect, or that it offers some kind of utopian escape from the realities of a sinful world. But I mean that the church is the one place where all that occurs in heaven also occurs on earth.
Christ instructed us to pray, “Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10). In what sphere is that most likely to occur? In the United States Congress? Not likely. In the Supreme Court? Probably not. In the university? No. City Hall? Don’t count on it.
Where is God’s will done on earth as it is in heaven? Only in one place, and that is the church.
What goes on in heaven? If all the activities of heaven were to be brought to earth, what activities would predominate?
First of all, worship. In every biblical description where men of God had visions of heaven, the one thing that stands out most is worship. Praise, adoration, and devotion are constantly being offered to God in heaven. We see it, for example, in Isaiah 6:1-3, where the prophet Isaiah wrote,
I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, lofty and exalted, with the train of His robe filling the temple. Seraphim stood above Him, each having six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called out to another and said, “Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord of hosts, the whole earth is full of His glory.”
We see it in Revelation 4:8-11, where the apostle John wrote,
And the four living creatures, each one of them having six wings, are full of eyes around and within; and day and night they do not cease to say, “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God, the Almighty, who was and who is and who is to come.” And when the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to Him who sits on the throne, to Him who lives forever and ever, the twenty-four elders will fall down before Him who sits on the throne, and will worship Him who lives forever and ever, and will cast their crowns before the throne, saying, “Worthy are You, our Lord and our God, to receive glory and honor and power; for You created all things, and because of Your will they existed, and were created.”
In other words, every creature in heaven is perpetually engaged in worship.
Worship is also one of the main activities of the church. In 1 Corinthians 14, where Paul described what took place in a typical meeting in the early church, he wrote, “When you assemble, each one has a psalm, has a teaching, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification” (v. 26). There he describes activities whose design is both to worship God and to edify the worshipers. And if an unbeliever came into the meeting, this was the desired response: “the secrets of his heart are disclosed; and so he will fall on his face and worship God, declaring that God is certainly among you” (v. 25).
A second activity of heaven is the exaltation of Christ. Having finished His earthly work, Christ is now seated at the Father’s right in glory in pure exaltation (Acts 5:31). God Himself has exalted His Son, and given Him a name above every name (Phil. 2:9). Christ is “exalted above the heavens” (Heb. 7:27). And throughout all eternity we will be occupied exalting His name (cf. Rev. 5:11-14). Meanwhile, the church is the one sphere on earth where Christ’s name is truly and genuinely exalted.
A third activity that takes place in heaven is the preservation of purity and holiness. Heaven is a holy place. Revelation 21:8 says “the cowardly and unbelieving and abominable and murderers and immoral persons and sorcerers and idolaters and all liars” are excluded from heaven, consigned instead to the lake of fire.
Revelation 22:14-15 underscores the perfect purity of heaven’s inhabitants: “Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of life, and may enter by the gates into the city. Outside are the dogs and the sorcerers and the immoral persons and the murderers and the idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices lying.” No one is admitted to heaven who is not holy (Heb. 12:14).
Likewise, the church on earth is charged with preserving purity within her own midst. Matthew 18:15-20 lays out a process of discipline by which the church is to keep herself pure, if necessary through excommunication of members. It’s not necessary in this context to outline the whole discipline process, but take note of the promise Christ makes in verse 18: “Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.”
Binding and loosing were rabbinical expressions that spoke of dealing with people’s guilt. An unrepentant person was said to be bound to his sin, and a repentant person was loosed. Here Christ suggests that when a church on earth follows the proper procedure for discipline, they in effect mediate heaven’s verdict in the earthly church. Heaven is in agreement with their decision. When the church on earth excommunicates an unrepentant member, the elders of that church are simply declaring what heaven has already said. Church discipline is therefore an earthly expression of heaven’s holiness.
Another activity of heaven that occurs in the church is the fellowship of the saints. Our fellowship in the church on earth is a foretaste of the perfect communion we will enjoy in heaven.
The church, then, is like an earthly expression of heaven. It is the closest we can get to heaven on earth.
The apostle Paul wrote of “the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and support of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15). More than any other institution on earth, the church is where the truth of God is upheld. The church is called to lift up the truth and hold it high. Employing the truth as a weapon, we are to smash the ideological fortresses of Satan’s lies (2 Cor. 10:3-5). And it is in the pursuit of that goal that the church will ultimately realize her greatest triumph.
All of that is why I love the church. And as long as the Lord gives me breath, I hope to invest my life and energies in the ministry and advancement of the church’s mission.