We of the Grace Evangelical Society—the national board, the boards of the Journal and of the GES Newsletter, as well as members in general—believe in the Church.
GES is what is popularly known as a “parachurch” organization, that is, we parallel the Church in interest and activity and work alongside her, trying to build her up.1 Some parachurch societies seem to be almost “contrachurch” in their attitude, rather than loving and striving to help her to be what the NT says she is meant to be. Perhaps, if the Church was united, sound in doctrine on all fronts, and fervently active to promote both evangelism and local church life, there might be no need for parachurch organizations. But the truth is, Christianity today is not in very good shape. Even evangelicalism, the wing of professing Christendom that is supposed to be clear on the Gospel, contains large forces teaching, writing, and preaching “a different gospel which is not another” (Gal 1:6-7 NKJV, emphasis supplied).2
II. The Importance of the Church
Some Christians who are active in evangelism do not seem to feel that the Church is important.3 This Was not the Apostle Paul’s approach. People who are keen on Eph 2:8-9 should also consider the twofold thrust of Eph 3:8-9. Here we clearly see the twofold thrust of the Apostle Paul’s ministry:
- “To preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ” (the Gospel).
- “To make all see what is the fellowship [“stewardship” in most manuscripts] of the mystery.” (The “mystery” in this context is the truth of the Christian Church in its unique role in God’s current dealings with humanity.)
Our English word church, unfortunately, is neither a translation of the Greek word ekklesia, nor a modified transliteration.4 If it were the former, we would probably use assembly, congregation,5 or meeting. If the latter, ecclesia or ekklesia, both of which occasionally do appear, would have caught on.
The Greek word comes from the verb ekkaleo, “call out” or simply “call” in Koine usage.6
In the famous text in Matt 16:18 our Lord promises to build His Church, suggesting that it is a departure from things as they were in the nation of Israel. This is strengthened by Eph 3:4-5, where Paul calls the Church a “mystery (…of Christ), which in other ages was not made known to the sons of men, as it has now been revealed by the Spirit.”
In Acts 5:11 it is clear that the Church has already begun. The major event signalling the fulfillment of Christ’s promise that lies between Matthew 16 and Acts 5 is the disciples’ being filled with the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4). Most Christians see Pentecost, at least in some sense, as the birthday of the Christian Church.
IV. Pictures of the Church
A mere verbal definition of important words seldom satisfies most people. God has graciously given His people illustrations of what the Church is as well:
The Body of Christ (Eph 1:22-23).
Christ is the Head, the Church is His body. The term “the Christ” (with the definite article) can speak of both together. Amazing thought! Believers complete the Christ! Just as our physical bodies are the means by which we express ourselves to others—how we dress, speak, walk, act—so Christ expresses His will through the Church, His people.
The Bride of Christ (2 Cor 11:2; Eph 5:25-27).
This picture stresses love, intimacy, and the need for the Church to be holy in order to be a suitable bride.
A Flock (John 10:16).
The fold in this verse is Israel, which will one day join the flock, the sheep who have accepted Christ, and live under His pastoral guidance.
The Temple of God (1 Cor 3:16).
It is amazing that the word for temple here is naos, not the outer temple complex (hieron), but the inner shrine where the Deity dwells. This picture of the Church stresses worship.
God’s Building (1 Cor 3:9).
This image pictures a construction job in progress. Christ is building His Church.
God’s Field (1 Cor 3:9).
The Church is a garden in which God is cultivating fruits for His own purposes and glory.
God’s Household (1 Tim 3:15).
This is an image similar to that of a building, but stresses the Church’s organization, order, and discipline (1 Pet 4:17).
The Pillar and Ground of the Truth (1 Tim 3:15).
Another building motif, this metaphor stresses that the Church supports and proclaims God’s truth. (Pillars were used as ancient noticeboards, much as some people use telephone poles to advertise garage sales and neighborhood events and services.)
A Dwelling Place of God (Eph 2:22).
In the OT a literal, physical building was the dwelling place of God; in the NT it is people, living saints, that He indwells.
A New Man (Eph 2:15).
The old enmity between Jew and Gentile is broken down when sinners from both camps are saved and merged into one “new man.”7
V. Christianity and Christendom
In spite of all the outward divisions among the wheat and tares of Christendom,8 there is an “inner church” of born-again men, women, boys, and girls who constitute His body. This is the Church that shall prevail, even though it often seems that the elements of Christendom most dedicated to a works-oriented salvation are the biggest, richest, and most visible in the world’s media. It’s not easy to be a “minority group, especially when you know that what you have is superior to what the masses are touting as the truth.
To those friends who fear aligning themselves with a local congregation, movement, society, fellowship, or denomination that is not in the so-called “mainstream,” the words of our Lord in Luke 12:32 should be encouraging: “Do not fear, little flock, for it is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (emphasis added).
VI. The Churches on Main Street
If the whole Church can be pictured as one large “pearl” of great price “(Matt 13:45-46), each local church can be seen as a miniature pearl. Each little pearl should try to be all that the NT teaches that the Church as a whole should be: united, holy, obedient to her Head, growing in both size and spiritual stature, and concerned for others who are outside the fold.
VII. The Gospel and the Church
As we have seen, the two most important thrusts of the NT that Christians should be concerned with are the Gospel and the Church. The NT gives great leeway in presenting the Gospel so that by all means we may win some. Preaching, teaching, writing (the NT itself is written ministry), singing, and personal witness, are all techniques or means used by the earliest believers. Modern means such as printed books, tracts, records, radio, films, television, videotapes, cassette tapes, schools, and societies carry on the tradition into our electronic age. However, none of these can ever replace the living, spoken word, whether from a pulpit, school desk, or personal encounter.
The leaders of the Grace Evangelical Society fervently desire to see all churches that believe the Gospel growing more and more like the ideal Church portrayed in the NT. Not that the churches of the first century ever achieved it either! The notion that “the NT Church” went around in white robes, carrying palm fronds, and living perfect Christian lives is easy to explode. Read 1 Corinthians or Revelation 2-3 for a start!
VIII. The Gospel in the Churches
Regarding the Gospel it seems to the writer that there are three main approaches in contemporary congregations in Christendom.
Faith Plus Works Churches
Sadly, much of organized Christianity is officially and dogmatically dedicated to teaching salvation by faith PLUS. Whether that “plus” is baptism, the sacraments,10 good works, perseverance, or character-building, something is always added to the finished work of Christ.
Free Grace Churches
On the other side of the spectrum are those congregations11 completely (or at least in leadership and informed membership) dedicated to proclaiming a free Gospel of salvation by grace through faith plus nothing. These are the churches which GES salutes as brothers and sisters in a special way.
But there is a third fairly large group which, speaking colloquially, many would call “a mixed bag.” These are churches, usually with a grace-oriented background in membership, and/or leadership that sometimes teach or preach a less-than-clear presentation of grace. Some Sunday school teachers will be teaching a clear Gospel, others not. The pulpit may—or may not—be responsive to grace alone. Often denominational politics will determine what is emphasized. Many who are themselves sound are afraid to “rock the boat” by coming out for a clear-cut grace message when it is currently so controversial.
Well, it was controversial in the sixteenth century too! When Luther preached that the just shall live by faith (Rom 1:17)12 and Calvin taught that assurance of salvation is of the essence of believing the Gospel (1 John 5:13),13 the works-oriented state religion was furious.
IX. GES in the Real Church World
We of the Grace Evangelical Society not only believe in the Church—we love her! MacDonald starts his book on the Church with this exhortation:
“Christ also loved the church, and gave Himself for her” (Eph 5:25). We, too, should love the Church and, in a sense, should give ourselves in loving, glad service—sacrificially and devotedly—in order that the Church on earth might progress and prosper and triumph.14
We of GES want to do all we can to encourage the biblical truths that bring salvation to individual sinners and build up local congregations.
GES and the Works-Oriented Churches
The primary ministry of GES to these churches and their leaders is one of witness. The Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society is found in seminaries and libraries all over the country. New Testament Abstracts and other scholarly works give brief but accurate abstracts of our leading articles. Many of these articles, or at least the abstracts, are read by scholars and students of Roman Catholic, Orthodox, liturgical, evangelical, and even liberal Protestant camps. They can investigate the grace teaching in the privacy of their favorite library or their home. Also our Newsletter—which is free of charge—reaches not only supporters, but some opponents of Free Grace (an estimated 5-10% of our readership). Cassette-taped sermons and studies are also available to these people. In the future, Deo volente, the Grace New Testament Commentary, now in early stages of preparation, will be used as a tool by thousands of Bible students, ministers, and others.
Free Grace Churches
Probably the greatest value of GES as an organization is building up those church leaders and congregations that are already sound and clear (and giving a clear sound!) on the Gospel. Through the Newsletter, the Journal, tapes, seminars, and placement service for pastors, GES goes forward in faith. It also provides general encouragement that there are people who are willing to take the flack with which the enemies of Free Grace constantly bombard us. We are not large, endowed with money or goods, or prestigious in the eyes of the world or the world church; but we do love the Lord, we love His Church, and we love the Gospel of grace.
Some believe that our greatest ministry is to those congregations that are mixed. Which way should they turn—to the Lordship Salvation so widely taught today, or to the old path of grace which many of our spiritual ancestors trod?
If many professing Christians are confused in the “mixed” churches (not to say mixed-up!), who can blame them? These are difficult issues, and sincere and dedicated preachers, teachers, missionaries, and informed church members line up on both sides of the grace issue. This makes it difficult for average Christians to know what the truth is. Our spiritual ancestors faced the same decisions at the time of the Reformation. A main argument against the Gospel then (as now) was that it was a “new” teaching, that it had not been widely taught during long periods and in most places of Christendom. Sadly true, but truth is truth, no matter how few believe it. And error is error no matter how many believe it!
That’s what GES is all about: To see that fewer and fewer people and places have been left out when the simple Gospel of Grace is presented:
“Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31).
The well-known Gospel verse quoted above goes on to add “and your household.” Indeed the household, that is, the family, is the very germ of the Church. The early churches15 were house-churches, overgrown families—the household of faith. In the West we have freedom to have large, medium, or small public places of worship. These are not “churches,” but church buildings. We, the people, are the Church. And we love it—and her!
I love Your Church, O God,
The house of Your abode,
The Church our blest Redeemer saved
With His own precious blood.
I love Your Church, O God;
Her walls before You stand,
Dear as the apple of Your eye,
And graven on Your hand.16
1Since the NT itself presents Christ’s Church under the figure of a bride and uses feminine pronouns to refer to her (see Greek or NKJV of Eph 5:25-27), we trust no one will take exception to all the feminine pronouns in our article.
2The apostle uses two near synonyms to show that if it’s not the same as the Gospel of Grace that he and the other apostles taught, it’s a heterodox “gospel”: “heteron euangelion [a different gospel] which is not allon [another of the same kind].”
Though in the outward Church below
Both wheat and tares together grow,
Ere long shall Jesus reap the crop,
And pluck the tares in anger up!
9The parallels between how a pearl is formed (through the oyster’s “suffering” from a grain of sand and constantly “building it up” by accretion) and the Church are at the very least interesting, if not planned by God.
10We at GES also believe in the ordinances instituted by our Lord, of course. See previous articles in this series: “We Believe in: Water Baptism,” JOTGES 3 (Spring 1990), 3-9; and “We Believe in: The Lord’s Supper,” JOTGES 4 (Spring 1991), 3-12.
13For an important discussion of this aspect of Calvin’s theology, see R. T. Kendall, Calvin and English Calvinism to 1649 (Oxford: University Press, 1979), 13-21. See also M. Charles Bell, Calvin and Scottish Theology: The Doctrine of Assurance (Edinburgh: The Handsel Press, 1985), 22-26, 28-29. The references in Calvin himself may be tracked through these two sources.
15Special buildings for church meetings didn’t begin until the end of the third century. An apartment in a building complex in Rome was set aside exclusively for church services, and as far as we know, this was the first church building.