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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
 
Preached At:Providence Canadian Reformed Church
 Hamilton, Ontario
 
Title:For whom and what does the church exist?
Text:LD 21 QA 54 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Church Building
 
Preached:2014
Added:2015-12-16
 

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Note:  all songs from the 2014 Book of Praise

Psalm 122

Psalm 87

Hymn 81

Hymn 1

Psalm 48

Scripture readings:  Genesis 28:10-22; 1 Peter 2:1-12

Catechism lesson:  Lord's Day 21, QA 54

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.


Beloved congregation of Christ,

The church is here, it’s always here, and sometimes we take it for granted.  We don’t often stop and think about why we have a church.  I’m not talking about the building.  I’m not speaking about a federation of churches either.  When I say “the church,” here I’m speaking about our local congregation.  What is the purpose of this church right here?  Is your congregation merely a social gathering of like-minded people?  Is being part of this group just something you do when you’re the descendants of Dutch immigrants?  What is the church really about? 

In its essence, the church is a spiritual body and she is all about the gospel and making it known far and wide.  The church wants to tell everyone that Jesus Christ is the great Saviour for great sinners like us.  In a nutshell, that’s the purpose of the church.

But we can tease that out more.  There’s far more that can and must be said.  I want to do that this afternoon by looking at the question:  for whom and what does the church exist?  That question is related to the question of purpose, but it goes further and ties the purpose to persons.  You could say that our question for this afternoon makes it more personal.  With the help of our Catechism, we’ll see that Scripture teaches that the church exists:

  1. For God and his glory – worship!
  2. For God’s people – well-being!
  3. For God’s world – witness! 

The ultimate reason why anyone or anything exists is the glory of God.  Psalm 19:1 reminds us that “the heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.”  Not only the heavens and the sky, but the whole creation is here to show how majestic God is.  Human beings too have been placed on this earth, not for their own praise, but for the praise of an awesome Creator God.  As 1 Corinthians 10:31 teaches us, we are placed here to do everything to the glory of God, whether it’s eating or drinking, anything and everything.

If this is true for humanity in general, it’s even truer for Christians bought with the blood of Christ.  It’s even truer for the body of Christ gathered together in local congregations.  After all, we not only have the Bible, we also have the Holy Spirit who helps us to understand and embrace what the Bible teaches.  The Bible is very clear about the ultimate answer to the question of for whom and what does the church exist.    

It’s clearly found in passages like the one we read from 1 Peter 2.  Peter describes the church with a vivid picture.  He says that the believers are being “built up as a spiritual house.”  Each person is a living stone in that house.  What kind of house is it?  What does it mean that it is a spiritual house?  It’s not a physical building, but a spiritual body.  This body is being compared to the temple.  The comparison is extended with the fact that this spiritual house is a gathering where sacrifices of thanksgiving and praise are offered because of the redemption that’s been received through Christ.  The spiritual house, the church, is a gathering where God is worshipped and glorified.  Further in 1 Peter 2, the Holy Spirit says that this body has a distinct purpose:  “that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”  That’s the first and foremost important thing that the church is here for.  It’s for proclaiming that God is excellent above all, that he is worthy of all praise and adoration.

In that passage, Peter was writing to a diverse group of believers spread over Asia Minor.  When he speaks about the church as a spiritual house, he was not speaking directly about any one local congregation.  You could say that he was writing about the catholic church, the church in its broadest sense.  When we say “catholic” church, we’re not referring to the Roman Catholic Church.  Rather, catholic simply means universal.  The church in its broadest sense has always existed, is found all over the world, and with all kinds of different people.  Yet we can take what Peter writes about the catholic church and we can apply it to local manifestations of that catholic church.  What is true about the catholic church is equally true of local churches:  they all exist for the glory of God, for his worship and praise.  There’s no doubting what Scripture says about that. 

But someone might say, “If Scripture is so clear about it, why isn’t it in our confessions?”  Lord’s Day 21 speaks about the holy catholic Christian church and it doesn’t mention the primary reason why the church exists.  It’s just not there.  The Belgic Confession says a lot more about the doctrine of the church, but again the glory of God is not mentioned as a reason for the church’s existence.  But what about the Canons of Dort?  Normally we think of the Canons as being a confession about the doctrines of grace, defending Calvinism against Arminianism.  We don’t normally associate the doctrine of the church with the Canons of Dort.  However, it is clear that the Synod of Dort regarded the Arminian false teachings as a direct attack on the glory of God in the church.  That the church is to be first about the glory of God is in our confessions, but in an unexpected place.  It’s in the Conclusion to the Canons of Dort.  Ministers are there exhorted to seek the glory of God’s name as they teach about his grace in the church.  According to the Canons of Dort, everything said in the church must tend to the glory of God.

So the first answer to our question this afternoon is not only found in Scripture, it’s also reflected in our confessions.  As a church, we exist for the glory of God, to worship him, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  This is a point which has several weighty practical implications.  Let me mention three.

Since God is to be worshipped by the church, and since the God to be worshipped is sovereign and majestic, since he is exalted in his holiness, only he can determine how he is to be worshipped.  Here we’re thinking in particular about what we do as we gather for public worship on Sundays.  The Second Commandment teaches us that for God to be worshipped properly, he must always be worshipped on his terms, not ours.  He is the one who determines the elements of our worship and he does so with his Word.  His Word must stand supreme in the church.

Moreover, if the church exists for his glory, then that shapes absolutely everything the church does.  From public worship to how we present ourselves as a church to the world, we want to do it all with excellence because of the one for whom we’re doing it.  If the church really is about the glory of God, it will and must show everywhere in the church’s life.  I want you to think for yourself about what that looks like.  In your congregation, are you doing everything to the glory of God, doing it with the excellence that speaks of his great worth to us?

Last of all, we can think back to the Synod of Dort and their concern for the glory of God in relation to the battle against false teachings in the church.  As a church, we must be on our guard against all false teachings, but especially with those that directly and explicitly attack and undermine the glory of God.  According to 1 Timothy 3:15, the church is to be “a pillar and buttress of the truth.”  When God’s glory is being undermined by false teachings, the pillar of the truth has to remain steadfast.  Let’s be clear:  there are false teachings around that do undermine the glory of God.  Arminianism is still around, still claiming that unregenerate man has a free will to choose for Christ.  Arminians are still claiming that God elects on the basis of foreseen faith rather than on his good pleasure.  They are still there with a theology that threatens to steal glory from God in salvation.  Those are obvious doctrinal attacks on the glory of God that the true church of Christ has long resisted.  There are also newer attacks like theistic evolution.  Theistic evolutionists undermine the glory of God by perverting his Word, telling us that God created the world through evolution.  The Word of God is twisted to suit human wisdom.  When God’s Word is treated this way, it is an attack on his glory and majesty.  No, loved ones, here too, as a church we need to remain steadfast and do it because we exist for the glory of God.

The church also exists for God’s people.  The church is there for the spiritual well-being of those with whom God has covenanted, for both believers and their children.  According to QA 54 of the Catechism, the church is where the Son of God creates and preserves a people for himself.  He does that through very particular means:  through the Holy Spirit working together with the Word. 

The church is where we hear the preaching of the gospel.  If the church is being faithful, then Christ is being proclaimed as the Saviour of sinners.  The good news is being announced on a weekly basis.  Yes, you are a great sinner, but you have a hope in Jesus.  He lived perfectly in your place.   He offered up the obedience that God demands from you.  He also suffered and died on the cross in your place, taking your punishment.  He offered up the sacrifice that turns away the wrath of God from you.  Because of Christ, God’s favour is upon you.  You can be sure of all that, because he rose from the dead victorious over sin and death.  His work on your behalf was accepted by God.  Now if you believe in Jesus Christ with a true faith, you’re part of his family.  That’s what a faithful and true church holds out as being of first importance.  That’s the gospel.

Loved ones, the church exists to hold out this gospel message for our well-being as God’s people.  He does not desire that anyone should perish, but that all should repent and believe.  Those words come from 2 Peter 3:9 and they were originally addressed to covenant people in the church.   Listen, God wants you in the church to hear the message of his grace in Jesus Christ and believe it so that you can be saved.  In his love, he wants you to hear the glad tidings and embrace them for your welfare today and always.  God wants this for the older members of the church.  He wants it for those who are raising families, for the singles, for the teenagers.  He wants it for the little children, for everyone.  The church is here so that all of us would be blessed by God with the gift of life in Christ, the life promised in the gospel.

He wants us also to grow in Christ.  The church is there for that as well.  The church does not exist just to bring people to faith, but also to help people grow in grace and knowledge.  The church exists so that Christians will be nourished with the Word.  That nourishment not only pertains to faith and trust in Christ, but also to the fruits of faith, to holy obedience.  Through the church’s ministry we learn the way of living a life of love and thankfulness to God, following his commandments.  Another way of putting this is that the church exists for the discipleship of believers.  The church is here as a sort of discipleship school, teaching us what it looks like to be a disciple of Jesus.

Yes, the church exists for God’s people, for your well-being, for your life in Christ and your growth in Christ.  That leads to one very important practical take-away:  you need the church and what she offers especially in her public ministry of Word and sacrament.  There is that old saying, “He who has God for a Father must have the church for a mother.”  It was said by Calvin, but he was repeating it from some of the early church fathers.  They had all learned it from the same place.  Calvin and the fathers learned it from Scripture, from passages like Galatians 4:26.  Indeed, in spiritual matters we are all like children and the church is like a mother to us.  We need her.  She will feed us and nourish us so that we can grow in faith and holiness.  But if we ignore her, we will be stunted as Christians, perpetually at the lower end of the maturity spectrum.  You want to grow, don’t you?  Then let me encourage to make or keep the church and her ministry as a priority in your life.  She’s there for your well-being.

Last of all, we want to see how the church exists for the world, for the sake of witnessing to a dark world lost in sin.  It’s easy to forget this important part of the original purpose of the church.  If you ever get the chance to go to New York City and find yourself in Central Park, you might just come across a statue of a dog.  This dog became a national hero in January of 1925.  His name was Balto and he led a team of sled dogs.  You see, there was an outbreak of deadly diphtheria among the children in Nome.  The only hope was to get a serum from Anchorage to Nome as soon as possible.  It was a distance of over a thousand miles and it was covered in record time and the diphtheria outbreak was halted.  Lives were saved through this amazing heroic effort.  That one dog Balto was an important part of the story.  Today the annual Iditarod Race follows the same route.  What was once a life-saving mission is now a time of fun and sport in the cold Alaskan wilderness.  Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that. 

Like the Iditarod, the New Testament church’s early history involved a crucial life-saving mission.  Read the book of Acts and see for yourself.  Over and over again, the church is all about bringing people new life in Jesus Christ.  The church is about saving people from death.  Today the Iditarod is no longer a life-saving mission and, like I said, that’s all right.  But it is Christ’s design for his church that she continues her life-saving mission.  What happened in the days of the apostles in terms of mission is supposed to continue today.  We know this because when Christ gave the Great Commission to his church in Matthew 28, he reminded her that he would be with her always to the close of the age.  The Great Commission is Christ’s mandate to the church to make disciples of all nations and that mandate is going to be in effect to the close of this age.

The church is placed on this earth as a beacon of light to a dark world.  It has always been God’s purpose and plan that the church would be a blessing for the nations.  It goes right back to the time of the patriarchs.  In our reading from Genesis 28, God spoke to Jacob and he repeated the same words that he had said to his grandfather Abraham and his father Isaac.  He told Jacob that his descendants would be a blessing to all the families of the earth.  That’s in verse 14.  At that moment, the family of Jacob represented the church of God on earth.  From this passage and others, it’s clear that God’s plan has always been that his church would bless his world.  In the New Testament, what was shadowy becomes far clearer.  It’s God’s plan to bless the world through the gospel. 

Question and Answer 54 says that Christ gathers his church through his Spirit and Word.  When we read that, we need to recognize that this has to be filled out some.  How does the Word go out so that the Spirit can work with it?  It doesn’t go out automatically.  No, the Word of the gospel goes out as the church brings it out in obedience to the Great Commission.  The church of Christ sends out missionaries, men officially appointed to preach the gospel and establish new churches in other places whether at home or overseas.  The church of Christ also lives out a faithful Christian witness to the people around her.  She does that with a consistent Christian lifestyle, but also, where possible, with words.  Through these means, Christ works to gather his church to himself, to bring in all his elect.

Now when this gets brought up, there are sometimes people who resist the idea.  They might not say it out loud, but inwardly they’re thinking, “No, reaching out is too hard.  I’m not good at it, I’m shy.”  You’ll hear all kinds of things.  But if the church exists for the world in an important sense, you need to rethink these objections.  If you believe that the Bible is the Word of God, you must believe that the church exists to give a gospel witness to this sinful world.  It cannot be denied.  Furthermore, what about love?  What about compassion?  Where is your love and compassion for the lost?  Do you care that the guy you’re working with is going to hell?  Do you care that your neighbours are headed for eternal destruction?  Does this even matter to you?  And if it doesn’t, do you have the heart of Christ?  What does it look like to be united to Christ when you ponder the eternal destiny of the unbeliever God has put on your path? 

Then there are those who think, “But I’m not comfortable with people who are different from me.  We don’t want people who are different in our church either, people from different cultures and stuff.  It’s too awkward and difficult.”  But if you think that way, consider this:  Scripture says that your eternal destiny in heaven and the new creation is going to have a lot of different people from all kinds of different cultures.  Why not get ready for that already here on this earth?  No, actually, Scripture tells us that the great cultural diversity of Christ’s church is not a bad thing, but a glorious thing. 

John Piper suggest that we should think here of people singing in harmony, singing in parts.  That always sounds more beautiful than singing in unison, doesn’t it?  Similarly, at the end, when God is praised eternally, it will be by a choir of people from different tribes, tongues and nations.  The singing will be beautiful, in perfect harmony, to the praise of God.  God loves that sort of diversity and so should we.  If the church is catholic, encompassing all sorts of people from all kinds of cultures, why shouldn’t we learn to appreciate diversity even in our local congregation?

How do you put this being a church for the world into practice?  It begins with simply praying for the lost God has already put in your life and your relationships with them.  Maybe you don’t know any lost people.  Then pray and ask God to bring some into your life.  When he does, ask God to break your heart, to turn up your love for them even by one degree, and give you more compassion for them.  Ask God to soften their heart with his Spirit so that they become interested in spiritual matters.  Pray and plead for opportunities to discuss those matters with them.  Pray and ask God to open your eyes to the opportunities that he’ll bring and then also give you the courage and words to speak.   And if conversations develop and more opportunities present themselves, invite them to church to hear the Word of life preached.  Loved ones, it doesn’t have to be complicated.  It might still be challenging, but it is really quite a simple thing for the church to be a witness in this dark world.

As a church, don’t you want to be passionate about the glory of God, eager to grow in faith and holiness, and zealous for seeing others join us in the comfort and joy the gospel gives?   That is the sort of church that we want to be, isn’t it?  With God’s gracious help, let’s strive for that.  AMEN.

Prayer:

Father,

We thank you for your church and the fact that you’ve gathered us to her.  We thank you for a church where the gospel of Christ stands central and we pray that it would continue to.  We pray that you would help us to keep your glory first and foremost in our minds and hearts.  Please lead us so that we never lose sight of the purpose for our existence as individuals and as a people.  As we live in your church, please also work in our lives so that we continue to grow as your children.  Please bless the ministry of your church for each one of us.  And we pray for the lost in our lives.  We ask you to make us more compassionate for those who are destroying themselves and heading for eternal fire.  Please make our hearts soft and tender for them, reflecting Christ.  We pray for the unbelievers we know and ask that you would soften their hearts and make them receptive to spiritual matters.  Please give us opportunities to speak about our hope in Christ with them.  When we have such opportunities, make us see them and give us courage to take them.  With your Spirit, please give us the words we need to speak.  Please use us to gather more people into your church, for your glory.                                                                                                        




* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

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