The Marks of A Healthy Church-Part One
January 28, 2007 | Randy Smith
The Marks of A Healthy Church-Part One1 Timothy 3:15
Sunday, January 28, 2007
Pastor Randy Smith
There was a man I once heard about that was experiencing great frustrations with the family cat. One day he reached the point when he could take it no longer. Unknown to his family and doing his best efforts to be humane as possible, he drove the cat to the nearby forest preserve and released him. His joy was short-lived. Thinking that his problems with the cat were over he noticed his unwanted friend on his doorstep as he pulled into the driveway.
Frustrated, the next day he drove across the state line, many miles from his home, and again dropped the cat off in a wooded and very remote area. And once again, the cat somehow found his way back and was waiting for him when he arrived home.
Not being able to take it any longer, the man took a day off of work to fulfill a plan that he thought would finally distance himself from this cat that was driving him nuts. Like other times he put the cat in his car, but this time he drove hundreds of miles to the most isolated place he could find and released the cat.
Soon afterward he found himself on the phone with his wife. He was down and dismayed so his wife immediately interjected, "I know why your calling honey. I'm sorry, but yes, the cat has already returned and is waiting for you on the doorstep." To which the man replied, "That's what I figured. Could you please put him on the line because I need directions home!"
Directions are important. Without them, we are lost. Yet many churches go through their business without any purpose, vision or meaning simply because they are ignorant or unwilling to follow the directions given to them by God in the Scriptures. In 1 Timothy 3:15 the Apostle Paul said, "But in case I am delayed, I write so that you will know how one ought to conduct himself in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and support of the truth."
The church is the household of God. It has been purchased by God. It is owned by God. It is loved by God. It has been created ultimately for God. And its success depends solely on God. Needless to say, God is concerned about the direction of the church. Therefore I believe we would be wise to conduct ourselves in a way that He has directed.
Two weeks ago I shared with you God's purpose for the church. I spent half the sermon saying that we exist to glorify the God of Holy Scripture by exalting His Son Jesus Christ through equipping the Christians within and evangelizing the world without. This is the purpose of the church. Then I spent the second half of the sermon explaining how we specifically plan to flesh out that purpose here at the Grace Tabernacle. If you missed this message, by all means please pick-up a free CD at the back table.
Now as we continue our brief series at the start on the New Year on the role of the church, I would like to present three sermons that disclose in a more specific way the mandates we are expected to follow. Throughout church history these have been referred to as the "marks" of the church. In other words, what is the indication that a church is healthy? What identifies a church as "good" in the eyes of God? What should you be looking for here at the Grace Tabernacle? What does a church do to show that it is Spirit-led?
How would you answer that question? Let's find out! Why don't you take a moment and write down what you believe to be the top nine indispensable marks of a God-honoring church? Possibly it will help if I rephrase the question. Let's say your family moved to the great state of Texas and you begin the process of shopping for a church. What are the top nine non-negotiable traits you would look for when selecting your new place of worship?
Imagine your ten-year-old child saying, "Mom and Dad, I'm leaving the family because I believe both of you are terrible parents. You respond by saying, "What makes you come to that conclusion?" To which the child replies, "Because you don't take me to Disney World five times a year." This is the same immature attitude many church leaders experience because many people do not know the true responsibilities of a church.
It is important that we prioritize what God has called us to do. It is that essential we share His purpose with one mind. Therefore it is incumbent upon us to know and implement these nine marks of a God-honoring church. As the Lord permits we will cover three of them today and the remaining six the next two weeks. And by way of footnote, much of this material was adapted from Mark Dever's excellent book, Nine Marks of a Healthy Church. I recommend that book for your reading and further study on this indispensable subject.
1. COMMITMENT TO TEACH GOD'S WORD
The first mark of a healthy church is a commitment to teach God's Word.
In his book, Dever said, "The first mark of a healthy church is expositional preaching. It is not only the first mark; it is far and away the most important of them all, because if you get this one right, all of the others should follow… If you get the priority of the Word established, then you have in place the single most important aspect of the church's life, and growing health is virtually assured, because God has decided to act by His Spirit through His Word… The congregation's commitment to the centrality of the Word coming from the front, from the preacher, the one specially gifted by God and called to that ministry, is the most important thing you can look for in a church" (p. 25, 38).
My friends, I am not ashamed to say that our commitment here at the Grace Tabernacle is to base our ministry solely on the Word of God.
As a means to loving Christ, knowing Christ and serving Christ faithfully, we desire that the Word of God be proclaimed accurately, clearly and without compromise in every teaching venue - starting with the little ones, up through the youth group, amongst all our adult ministries and culminating with the pulpit. God has called us to be obedient to Scripture and that will only happen if we make it our commitment to teach Scripture and faithfully seek to apply it.
The priority of the Word was seen in the lives of the Apostles. When complaints came from the Hellenistic Jews that their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food, the Apostles found themselves in a dilemma. They understood the genuine need to respond to this situation, but they also knew the time required would pull them away from their ultimate calling. Therefore they concluded, "It is not desirable for us to neglect the word of God in order to serve tables. Therefore, brethren, select from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may put in charge of this task. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word" (Ac. 6:2b-4)
As a pastor of this church, I have always considered it my primary responsibility to shepherd this flock by feeding it the Word of God so that you might be, 1 Timothy 4:6 "nourished on the words of the faith and of the sound doctrine."
I believe God desires spiritual growth in your lives, and I believe there is nothing I can do of my own to accomplish that. My responsibility before God is to teach the Word whereby the Holy Spirit can minister to your hearts through the Word He inspired. Our God is a speaking God and He speaks to His people today through the Holy Scriptures. Therefore as Paul said, "We do not preach ourselves but Christ Jesus as Lord, and ourselves as your bond-servants for Jesus' sake" (2 Cor. 4:5).
Throughout Scripture we see the Bible testifying of the generating power of God's Word. Beginning in Genesis 1 we read that God spoke this world into existence creating life out of darkness. In Ezekiel 37 we have the fabulous vision where the Prophet is called to preach to the dry bones and through the preaching of God's Word, God's Spirit would bring deadness to life. This is how God gives us spiritual life. This is how God takes spiritually dead corpses and regenerates them through the teaching of His Word. 1 Peter 1:23, "For you have been born again not of seed which is perishable but imperishable, that is, through the living and enduring word of God" (cf. Jas. 1:18). In Romans 10 the familiar verse says "faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ" (Rom. 10:17). That is why Paul told the Corinthians, "God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe" (2 Cor. 1:21b; cf. 1 Cor. 1:17; 23; 9:16, 18; 15:11).
In the past God spoke in a variety of forms. Listen to the opening verses from the book of Hebrews. "God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son" (Heb. 1:1-2a). In Jesus Christ, the Word of God became incarnate. His words are God's words. And His words were God's final and most supreme revelation to mankind. On that holy mountain the Father declared, "This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased; listen to Him" (Mt. 17:5). Through Christ, Scripture is complete and sufficient for "everything pertaining to life and godliness" (2 Pet. 1:3). God designed it whereby no other revelation would compete with that of His Son. From Genesis to Revelation, the Scriptures are closed and Christ had the final say.
Therefore we gather together not to hear emotional stories or debate political decisions or be reminded everyday how great we are. We gather to teach and study and then hopefully apply the Word of God to the exaltation of the Lord, Jesus Christ!
Paul made this point super-clear in his second letter to Timothy. In the third chapter he affirmed the authority, reliability and sufficiency of God's Word by saying, "All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work" (2 Tim. 3:16-17). Then immediately following that thought the Apostle concluded, "I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths" (2 Tim. 4:1-4). Summary - because it is the inspired Word of God, preach it!
Asked about his accomplishments as a Reformer, Martin Luther said, "I simply taught (and) preached: otherwise I did nothing… The Word of God did it all" (Luther's Works, 51:77). That too must be our attitude and commitment here at the Grace Tabernacle!
2. CORRECT UNDERSTANDING OF THE GOSPEL
In addition to a commitment to teach God's Word, a second mark of a healthy church is a correct understanding of the Gospel.
I am always amazed at how many professing Christians are unable to articulate the Gospel. Recently I asked that question to a lay-elder at a local church. He struggled and stumbled for words, leaving key components out. Think about it, beloved, if we cannot articulate the Gospel correctly how can we say we understand the call to salvation? If we do not understand the call to salvation how can we say with any assurance we are truly saved?
I find it mind-boggling that children of Christian parents can analyze geometric proofs, diagram complex sentences, memorize large scientific equations, and write extensive book reports, but when pressed have no idea of what they must believe to become a Christian.
I find it mind-boggling that professing Christian adults can remember all the details of their vacation, recite fifteen phone numbers from memory and recall the batting averages of the Yankee's entire starting lineup, but once again, when pressed find difficulty expressing the Gospel in an accurate, understandable and passionate way.
The Gospel, the message of salvation, is the solution to the world's number one problem which is separation from her Creator. This message came at an incredible cost to God, but is offered to us as undeserving sinners on the basis of grace. Through this message we are delivered from guilt and eternal condemnation and brought into a rich fellowship whereby we can address the living God as "Father."
How can we who profess Christ be indifferent, inaccurate, or lacking passion to this message? If we are, what does it say about our relationship with God? What does it say about our love for and commitment to this message? What does it say about what we communicate to others?
Here is what I commonly hear on the street: "You need to be a good person." "You need to believe." "God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life." "You need to invite Jesus into your heart." Brothers and sisters, these are all inaccurate presentations of the Gospel. Commenting on them Mark Dever said, "Too often (our Gospel) becomes a thin veneer spread lightly over our culture's values, being shaped and formed to the contours of our culture rather than to the truth about God" (p. 65).
Are we even giving the unsaved something the Holy Spirit can use to draw sinners to God or are we only filling the pews with more unregenerate individuals, comfortable in a false assurance of their salvation? My friends, this last state is much worse than the first. Oh how better it is to have the unsaved realize they are unsaved, than to have the unsaved believed they are saved when in reality they are not. Immediately I think of those terrifying words from Jesus, spoken to highly religious people who claimed to have identified with Him: "Depart from me…I never knew you" (Mt. 7:23).
I cannot stress enough how much it is my desire that every person who identifies with this church, believer or not, clearly understand and be able to articulate the Gospel. Even if we excel in every other domain of church life, I believe we have failed if we do not achieve this standard. That is why the second mark of a healthy church is a clear understanding of the Gospel.
We take this seriously here at the Grace Tabernacle. Before a person is accepted into Grace Tabernacle membership we ask them to complete a rather extensive application. In addition to including their own testimony, we ask them to explain the Gospel in a few sentences.
Here are a few examples from our most recent applicants:
"A person needs to know they are a sinner and unable to personally get themselves out from under God's wrath concerning their sin. They must believe that Jesus came to rescue them from that situation by bearing their sins in His own body on the cross. They must repent from their past way of life and trust that Christ brings reconciliation between God and the sinner through His death. It is all and act of God's grace."
"You are saved by faith in Jesus Christ alone. You need to believe in Him, repent of your sins and trust the finished work of Christ on the cross."
"That Christ was the sacrifice for my sins in order that I may have salvation, and that God sees me as blameless through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And, that it is by faith believing, not by works, by asking (for) forgiveness and receiving the free gift. By receiving Him our lives should be changed to trust and serve Him wholeheartedly."
"We are separated from God because of our sin. The penalty for sin is death (and) the penalty for our sin was paid by Jesus Christ. If we repent of sin and confess and trust Jesus as our Lord and Savior we are saved from our sin."
I can keep going with all the other excellent responses along these lines. Needless to say as elders, we were greatly encouraged when reading through the applications!
So what is the Gospel? I believe it can best be articulated in four steps. First, we need to understand God is holy. God is unable to look upon sin, much less allow it in His eternal presence. Second, we must understand we are sinners. We have willfully disobeyed His law. We have fallen short of His glory. Because of this we are guilty before God, alienated, unreconciled, and at enmity. We are under His judgment and deserve the penalty for our sin, which is eternal separation in hell. Third, we must understand God in His love and mercy sent Jesus Christ to be our Savior. He died on the cross to remove the sin from all those who will follow Him. Fourth, we must believe that His death was sufficient to pay for our sin. We must repent from our sins, seeking by His grace to live a life pleasing and acceptable to Him as Lord.
This is the message we must understand, love and proclaim!
Archibald G. Brown remarked, "The Gospel is a fact, therefore tell it simply; it is a joyful fact, therefore tell it cheerfully; it is an entrusted fact, therefore tell it faithfully; it is a fact of infinite moment, therefore tell it earnestly; it is a fact about a Person, therefore preach Christ."
Are we surprised when Paul, writing to the Romans, said, "For I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes" (Rom. 1:16).
3. PRACTICE OF CHURCH DISCIPLINE
My time has almost elapsed, but permit me to touch on one more mark of a healthy church. This one may surprise you, but a God-honoring church is a church that practices church discipline. And lest you think I am emphasizing this practice too highly, research the Church Fathers up through the Reformers to the Puritans and you will discover that church discipline, when considering the marks of a church, often made it into the top three. Greg Wills has written that, to many Christians in the past, "A church without discipline would hardly have counted as a church" (Democratic Religion, p. 33).
When considering church discipline we must keep in the forefront of our minds that discipline in God's economy is always a sign of love. In Scripture we read, "For those whom the Lord loves He disciplines" (Heb. 12:6). God disciplines His children.
Likewise, a loving parent will always discipline his or her child. For what parent would allow their child to play in the traffic without discipline? For what parent would allow their child to abuse drugs without discipline? Loving parents should react when their child is in a place of danger.
In the same way, loving churches should react when a fellow believer is in a place of danger. If we can sit by and watch someone continue in willful and unrepentant sin we obviously are not aware of the dreadful consequences of sin nor do we love that person enough to do what it takes to help them overcome a position of grave danger.
Jesus in Matthew 18 (verses 15-20) called us to practice church discipline. So how can we say church discipline is unloving when it was given to us by Christ? How can we call Jesus our Lord and then believe we are wiser than He in what we choose to obey?
From Matthew 18 to 1 Corinthians 5 to Galatians 6 to 2 Thessalonians 3 to 1 Timothy 1 and 5 to Titus 3, the Bible is chalked-full with commands and examples regarding this subject. So do we follow God's Word or do we follow our own emotions?
Please understand church discipline is not punishment. Its goal as it is administered in love and humility is correction. Its goal is to see a fellow believer who has left fellowship with Christ once again return to a position of blessing. It is not about destruction; it is about healing. It is not about revenge; it is all about restoration!
Mark Dever summarized its benefits: "Biblical church discipline is simple obedience to God and a simple confession that we need help. We cannot live the Christian life alone. Our purpose in church discipline is positive for the individual disciplined, for other Christians as they see the real danger of sin, for the health of the church as a whole, and for the corporate witness of the church to those outside. Most of all, our holiness is to reflect the holiness of God. It should mean something to be a member of the church, not for our pride's sake but for God's name's sake." Dever concluded, "Biblical church discipline is a mark of a healthy church" (p. 178).
That is why John Dagg wrote, "When discipline leaves a church, Christ goes with it" (Manuel for Church Order, p. 274).
We covered this morning three of the nine marks of a healthy church. Any assembly that desires to call itself a church, exalt Jesus Christ and expect blessings from the Holy Spirit must be committed to: Teaching God's Word, understanding the Gospel and practicing church discipline.
A little over a week ago I had my shoulder operated on. For the first few days I felt pretty good and was impressed with the quick recovery. All that to say everything changed when I started the rehabilitation exercises. My shoulder reacted to being moved to places it didn't want to go. The pain began to increase, as did the sleepless nights. I thought the exercises were supposed to help, but it seemed due to the increased discomfort they were causing more damage. But after conferring with the doctor, he told me that everything was normal and I needed to continue to stretch the shoulder despite the pain.
So I was left with two choices. Do I have faith to believe what he said or do I follow my own instincts based upon the displeasure? I think you know the correct answer.
It is no different when it comes to implementing these marks of a healthy church. Are we going to have faith in the God of Scripture or are we going to do what seems right in our own eyes because of some apparent discomfort? Should we jettison the sound preaching of Scripture because of conflicting opinions and a desire to talk about other interests? Should we jettison the correct Gospel in favor of a message that is simpler or easier for the world to accept? Should we jettison church discipline because it appears harsh and unloving? Are we going to follow our own instincts or are we going to follow the Word of God? Once again, I think you know the correct answer.