First Importance: The Church and “The Man” Part Two

I didn’t intend for this to be a series, but enough questions were raised between here and on Facebook that I think this is a topic worth returning to. I’m not sure how many posts I’ll on this topic I’ll wind up making, but it will be at least one or two more. For part one, click here.

As Paul walked across the hills and valleys, through the towns and cities of the known Roman world he no doubt had plenty of time to consider his missional strategy. No man in history has reached as many unreached people groups as Paul. He faced a world that had never heard the name of Jesus Christ and disdained the Jewish roots of his new religion. For all our decadence, the Roman empire makes America look like a nation of pietists. Infanticide by exposure was commonplace (especially for female babies and the deformed). Homosexuality was smiled upon. The people appeased the popular deities by performing sexual rituals with temple prostitutes. The legal system was fraught with corruption. Nearly 1/4 of the population were slaves, and therefore considered not human.

1 Corinthians 15:3-5 describes Paul’s missionary work among the Corinthians:

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according tot he Scriptures and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. (emphasis mine)

The gospel was of first importance to Paul because the gospel was of first importance to Jesus Christ. Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. That was His purpose, that was His mission. Jesus was not primarily concerned with transforming society. He was not primarily concerned with showing compassion to the suffering multitudes. Everything He did was focused upon bringing the hope of the gospel to blind and hateful men. Christ came to die and be a propitiation for our sins.

It has become popular in our culture to focus upon Jesus’ life rather than on Jesus’ death. Of far greater importance is Christ’s weeping over the city of Jerusalem than His weeping before the Father in the Garden of Gethsemane. The pinnacle of Christ’s teaching is found in the Sermon on the Mount rather than in the Upper Room Discourse. And of far greater interest is Christ lifting the temporary burdens of men than bearing their eternal ones in His own body on the tree. Christ did not come to change the culture. Christ came atone for the sins of mankind.

That brings us to the critical question: Is the church to be gospel-focused or issue-focused? Some claim that this is an unfair distinction because the issues are subsets of the gospel. The gospel informs how we think through and interact with every cultural conflict. Yes, that is true. But that’s why I also used the word “focused.” What is to the one thing we must spend our energy and intellect for? It is the same for which Christ spent His own life for. The church exists first and foremost to proclaim the gospel into the darkness.

But what of William Wilberforce, the great British MP who worked tirelessly against the tide of public opinion to abolish slavery in the British Empire? Didn’t he focus his energy and passion on curing a societal evil? Yes, he did. But the movie of Amazing Grace isn’t the whole story. Wilberforce’s greatest grief in life was not the slave trade, but that his sons grew up and renounced the evangelical movement to join the High Anglican Church. Wilberforce was a determined dissenter. In his classic work A Practical View of Real Christianity, he takes the church to task for its lack of passion for the gospel. Written in the middle of his struggle against the slave trade, it never pauses to make a grand appeal for the cause of abolition. Rather, Wilberforce condemns the public for its lack of being converted. As much as he cared about ridding England of the slave trade, Wilberforce’s chief concern was the gospel.

Wilberforce is often held up as the champion of the progressive-conservative missional movement. He was a dissenter, calling out the church. And he worked himself to exhaustion for a great societal cause. But the two are not directly connected. His passionate plea was for the church to return to Christ, not to abolish the slave trade.

I talk about Wilberforce at length because he understood something that those who champion his name often do not: The church does not exist to cure society of its ills. Jesus did not come to heal. Jesus came to save. And while in the process of saving He healed, He never considered that the point of His coming to earth. John goes so far as to say that his entire book (including the compassion miracles) “have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name” (John 20:31)

The church does not exists to address homosexuality. The church does not exist to discuss the Christian’s responsibility as globalism becomes an ever-increasing reality. As the Word is taught through expositorily, those issues will come up. Eventually. But the grand truths of justification, sanctification, glorification, atonement, adoption, etc. are not to be eclipsed by the passions of the moment. The church exists to proclaim the power of the Cross and the greatness of Christ. Everything else was secondary to Paul, was secondary to Christ, and must be secondary to us.

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5 responses to “First Importance: The Church and “The Man” Part Two”

  1. Kara VanderBijl says :

    Hi Nate! I came across your blog a few weeks ago, and I have enjoyed reading some of your insights.

    Like others, I was in disagreement with your consensus of our generation’s approach to church. While I do agree that there are some churches that are weak as far as their theology goes (and which probably won’t last because they are not based on the gospel of Christ), many of us just want to see the church explode out of its comfortable conservatism and get its hands dirty. After all, Jesus didn’t come and cloister Himself up until it was time to die- He came and got His hands dirty. He touched lepers. He involved Himself with twelve very sinful men- & did not shy away from it. My personal prayer for the church is that we will move beyond being so concerned about expanding, building new functional buildings, filling up our pews, and having stellar Sunday Schools and really jump into a dying world that is in dire need of the precious news of Jesus Christ.

    I must admit that I also have a hard time agreeing with this post. I do agree with you that the gospel is of first importance- but the gospel is not simply Christ’s death. Christ’s death would have been utterly useless if He had not lived His life. His upper room discourse would have been meaningless without the Sermon on the Mount. Christ came to save sinners, but saving sinners involved ALL of those things- not just the moment of crucifixion & resurrection. All of those things- His life, as well as His death and resurrection, were aspects of His obedience to the Father. I don’t think that you can say one thing is more important than the other. I think that would be to rob the gospel of its power!

    And just as Christ lived a sinless life in order to die a sinless death, His life, death, and resurrection- His gospel- changes our lives. It completely transforms the way that we live in this world and interact with this world. If the gospel indeed has no bearing on how I live my life or work inside of a sinful world, how can I have any hope? How can I even show the importance and power of the gospel unless it is by “transforming” culture, as you say, or at least interacting with the culture? If I cannot show how Jesus has changed my ability to interact with the hot issues of our culture, then how am I to say He has any power in my life at all!

    The church, by clinging to the gospel as its most precious commodity, cannot HELP but transform culture. It transforms because it meets the culture in every area and causes controversy. Why? Because Christians, emboldened by their faith in Christ, can now stand up to a fallen world and have the discernment to show the world where it has gone wrong. It can prophetically address the current intellectual, political, and societal trends. It can reach out to those in desperate need of hope for the sake of Christ.

    Christ came to die, but He was also born and lived- & if He did not come to change how people live and deal with the issues, then why would he have bothered to address the Pharisees on so many of the hot issues of the day? If He didn’t mean to challenge the status quo, why would He have revolutionized so many “religious” ideas of His day? Perhaps the revolution in itself was not the point- but if His dying is the point, at least we should recognize that it gave us the power to live according to the revolutionary ideas about faith and loving one another that Jesus had.

    As bearers of the gospel, we are called to live as Jesus did. That doesn’t mean we cloister ourselves in a community and just talk about how glad we are we’re saved. That is a huge part of it, but we would be doing Christ’s work on the cross a disservice if His work on the cross did nothing more than just create clanging cymbals. Let us be mouths of the gospel, but let us also be the hands & feet of Christ in a dying world.

  2. brooksnj says :

    I agree with much of what you’ve said here, Kara. The Church and “The Man” Part Three is going to be about how the gospel rightly understood automatically makes us outward looking people. While I’ll save most of what I’m going to say for that post, I will say that the church and the people in the church are not the same thing. The church as an institution is an equipping institution. Everything it does must be entirely gospel-centric, not issue-centric. We as people, on the other hand, are involved in all different aspects of society. To use my previous example of Wilberforce, he called the church to return to a gospel-centric mindset, while personally working tirelessly to overturn the slave trade. Overturning the slave trade was not the church’s responsibility but rather his personal calling before the Lord. More on that next time.

    • Andrew says :

      Hey Nate. Thanks for posting this follow-up to your first post on the church and “the man.” I do largely agree with the points that you have made, particularly in the first article. I appreciate your insightful analysis of this generation’s misguided perception of what the church is and its misplaced expectations of what the church ought to be.

      I am not certain, however, if I agree with your distinction between individual believers and the church as an institution. Do you remember Crawford’s class – I believe it was The Church as a Legal Institution – in which Mr. Crawford said something to the effect of, “That was a well-written paper, Mr. Brooks, but the church is the church is the church!”? I hope you address his comment here.

      In TMC/TMS circles, there is generally a distinction made between the individual Christian and the body of Christ. Furthermore, there is a division between the local body and the universal body. While these distinctions are all well and good, I do not see from Scripture how we can categorically assign all social work to the sphere of the “individual” and assign all equipping work to the sphere of the “institution.” I would like to see you address (from Scripture) the rationale behind this individual/institutional divide. I think that recognizing these two categories greatly simplifies how we think about issues such as the separation of church and state or the Christian’s role in secular society, but I just do not know if it is warranted by Scripture. Perhaps it is. I would like to see you address this in one of your next articles (which, from your comments, it sounds like you were already planning on).

      Keep up the good work, brother!

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