June 16, 2019
Lord’s Day Worship
The sermon starts at 16:30 in the audio file.
Or, Looking at an Assembly Living in Light and Liberty
Series: The Marks of a Maturing Church – Redux (Part 2)
I taught a series on The Marks of a Maturing Church in the first summer of our existence as a local body, so that means it’s been almost eight years since considering what makes for a healthy, growing flock. While I am not embarrassed by those marks, I do think that we’ve been growing as a church, and even my understanding of the characteristics of a maturing church have matured. Whereas there were nine marks then, I’ve summarized them into seven for this Redux series. Since seven is the number of perfection, it must be the ideal list (or something like that). Today we’ll consider the 2nd-4th marks and then finish, Lord willing, the final three marks next Sunday.
You can tell if a church is maturing by looking at how they look at different things. First, you can tell a church is maturing by how they look at leaders. Leaders go first, leaders are examples of consistent godliness and also in making progress. Leaders don’t “arrive,” and they shouldn’t be or build a ceiling for growth.
It may seem, especially when we consider the second mark, like the order is wrong. Maybe leaders should come second, or maybe even third. But I think godly and growing leaders takes the top spot for a couple reasons. When God wants to lead and serve and teach and bless others, He sends people. The work of the ministry contains propositional content, but even in the original context God revealed truth through apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastors and teachers. The “faith once for all delivered to the saints” is a thing, but men delivered it. “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” We have our own written copies of God’s Word now, and that is a blessing, but it doesn’t change that God gives the gifts of men, and they protect and feed and lead the sheep. How a church looks at her leaders, with high expectations for their godliness and their visible progress is the first mark.
“New creations who enjoy corporate and transforming worship God” was the sixth mark in my list eight years ago. Though we were following the five capital Cs in our liturgy (Call, Confession, Consecration, Communion, and Commissioning), I hadn’t yet taught through it. Every January since we’ve taken two or more messages of reminders about the priority and power of worship, and that’s why it moves up in my redux list.
In order for a church to mature she must be worshipping God together, every week, with intention and expectation.
And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit. (2 Corinthians 3:18)
The only principle more important than this in the universe may be: love bestows loveliness (which is most visible in the gospel of grace). Right after that is: we become like who (or what) we worship. God made us to reflect Him as image-bearers. This is our identity, and He made it so that we learn about our identity and grow in glory as we look at Him.
This beholding doesn’t happen only when the church assembles, but it starts here.
He is great and greatly to be praised (Psalm 145:3). He is sovereign and good, His steadfast love endures forever (Psalm 136:1). He is our life (Colossians 3:4). And we need reminding all the time. It is very tempting to forget the forest for the trees. There are a lot of trees: health, family, bills, work, food, cleaning, et cetera. Any relationship and any responsibility can become an idol; we can start to act like that person or that duty is our life. It’s one of the things I say frequently about school, for students and especially for teachers. School is part of life, it can be a big part, but it cannot be someone’s entire life. Worship of God reminds us to get up at the higher level and see our lives from His perspective.
Worship of God as an assembly each week also reminds us that we do not make the world go around. We stop from our normal labors and trust Him to bless us and bless the work of our hands.
We fear Him, submitting to His sovereignty and His holiness. We rejoice in His forgiveness and learn to extend it to others, boasting in the good news of His mercy. We grasp that He wants fellowship with us; this is the goal of the Trinity. He shares His fullness with us of both love and joy. He lavishes us with His favor, full of grace and blessing as we return to work. So our worship ought to be with rejoicing reverence, and reverent rejoicing. Worship reminds us about reality and how to respond to it in God’s ways. God has many responses in His arsenal, and we learn how to response by beholding Him.
“Believers who crave and live God’s Word” was the second mark in the previous list. We cannot grow without food and God’s Word is the food. We must do so much more than merely read it. We must receive it as God’s Word (1 Thessalonians 2:13; James 1:21), we must crave it (1 Peter 2:2), and then we must do it (John 13:17).
The Bible is the ultimate authority. God reveals in the Bible that He has established various authorities, but none of them outrank His Word. We cannot be a maturing church without a firm foundation. The Scriptures are not the word of men, but the inspired words of God (2 Timothy 3:16; 2 Peter 1:19-21).
And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers. (1 Thessalonians 2:13)
His Word is without error, and it is therefore the final authority. This is part of why we are Reformed; we do not trust the Pope, we do not take the word of Councils or confessions (even if we benefit from their help as they are faithful in pointing to the Word). The State is not the boss. Even the pulpit itself, and things said from it, do not automatically have authority apart from Scripture. And, as is perhaps the premier danger in our day, we also do not take our feelings as the arbiter of truth.
So we are to crave the Word. “Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation” (1 Peter 2:2). We are to delight in it. As for the blessed man:
his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he mediates day and night. (Psalm 1:2)
The word is like water that causes the tree to “yield fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither” (Psalm 1:3); this is the growth and maturation of the tree. We know that the Word revives the soul, it makes wise the simple, it rejoices the heart and enlightens the eyes. His revelation is more to be desired than gold and sweeter than honey (Psalm 19:7-10).
We must look at the Word as divine, as desirable, and then we must obey it.
But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing. (James 1:22-25)
Our Life to Life groups are not what Christians typically call “Bible Studies,” they are Bible Doings support groups. Hearing (Scripture in sermons or personal time in the Word) without obeying is dangerous. Observation and interpretation of God’s Word without application is not blessed (James 1:25; John 13:17).
Paul said to the Ephesians, “Now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified” (Acts 20:32). Scripture opens and closes and directs our corporate service, and Scripture must dwell in us richly as God’s chosen ones (Colossians 3:16).
This is similar to a mark that I mentioned in the first series, “saints who pursue maturity and purity,” but it is a little more specific, and it is also bumped up higher in the list (from fifth). A church will not be maturing unless each member (each believer) is doing her or her own part. This is not necessarily about spiritual giftedness in and for the body; that will be a later point. What I mean is that a church won’t be maturing if any part of the church refuses to take responsibility for confessing the truth and confessing sin.
Any person who does not confess that Jesus is Lord cannot be saved (Romans 10:9). This is an individual responsibility, even if a church is made up of all the individuals who make the confession. And any person who does not confess that he is a sinner makes God a liar, which could get to such a serious point that he demonstrates that he isn’t saved.
This is 1 John. We must walk in the light if we’re going to have fellowship (1 John 1:7). Each part affects the assembly, the particulars make up the whole. We confess that we sin, we confess that God forgives, we confess that Jesus is our advocate (1 John 1:9-10).
Walking in the light is not necessarily walking in perfection, though we do see to walk in Christ’s ways (1 John 2:6), it is walking in honesty and humility, which includes confessing and trusting our advocate with the Father (1 John 2:1). In John’s Gospel he compares walking in darkness to doing what is true. “Whoever does want is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God” (John 3:21).
This has consequences for the church, and then by extension the other units we belong to. It means that we cannot blame others for our sin. It means that hiding from our sin doesn’t work, even if you keep the person next to you from knowing about it, you are still affecting that person. You are affecting all of us.
There are very few conditional commands given by God. When has He said, “Only if the other person obeys, then you must obey.” He does not provide many qualifications. “Someone may sin against you, so at that point you are fully excused to sin, either anger or bitterness or slander back, but you may only choose two of the three.” Any time that we are with other people, especially with people that we are around a lot, we are tempted to think that it is their fault. They may have their own fault, but sin comes from within, not from without. Jesus is the example of committing no sin when He was sinned against, and this is “an example, so that you might follow in his steps” (1 Peter 2:21-22).
A maturing church is made up of disciples who are independently dependent on Christ. Such focus on oneself is not narcissistic; I’m not encouraging a focus on self that causes us to admire ourselves or think of ourselves as more important than others. Yet when Paul told the Philippians to do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, he didn’t mean don’t think about yourself. It belongs with “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12). This is the anti-victim, anti-therapy, virtually-impossible-to-offend approach.
Getting help if necessary is a part of it. Grumbling that no one is helping is not a mark of maturity.
You can tell a church is maturing by how they:
We are being transformed from one degree of glory to another, this is the glory of growth, the Lord’s own glory settling on His people. Walking in the light and is the way of true liberty, and fellowship, and maturity. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.
Walking in the light doesn’t mean that we can walk wherever we want, it means that we can see where it’s no good to walk. Walking in the light is true liberty; it is freedom not to run into obstacles or fall off the way. God is light, in Him is no darkness, and so walk in the light as He is in the light.
[May you be] strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy, giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. (Colossians 1:11–12, ESV)