Be The ChurchDr. Erwin W. Lutzer | April 10, 2016
Selected highlights from this sermon
The Church faces many challenges in our time. The world has entered it through the consumerism and pluralism of our age, and God’s people have failed to speak up. Many are too intimidated by the politically correct culture of the day.
So what exactly is the Church? The Scripture describes the Church as a body, lamp, and temple. We, as both individuals and as a church body, need to be repentant, sacrificing, welcoming, and believing.
The church of Jesus Christ represents the greatest hope for the world. And the reason for that is because the church has both the ability and the resources and the gifting by God to bring kingdom values to a world that has lost its way, values that come to us from another world.
There’s just one verse I’m going to ask you to turn to today, and the rest will be biblical teaching, but I will simply remind you of the passages. In Acts 20, the apostle Paul is saying goodbye to the elders at Ephesus, and he says in verse 28. (This is page 930, if you have a Bible like mine, which I think is the same number [as the Bible] in the seat in front of you.) He says to the elders: “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained (or purchased) with his own blood.”
What a remarkable passage of Scripture. All of us know that God the Father, God in that sense, does not have blood. But the apostle Paul is so convinced—and he knows the deity of Jesus Christ—that Jesus is indeed God, of very God, that because of that he can speak about the church as having been purchased by the blood of God.
Can you imagine how special the church is to God? His Son purchased it at high cost. And when Jesus made the statement that He would build His church and the gates of Hades would not persevere against it, let me, however, warn you and say this does not mean we can take the existence of individual churches for granted. We really can’t. We need to take a hard look at ourselves and realize that the future may hold some great surprises, some very disappointing news.
Let’s be realistic. Come with me to the land of Egypt, where I am told there are about three thousand churches that are mosques today. Let’s go to Europe. We have some friends who are over there and who sent me a text saying the churches are largely museums and mosques. I mean nobody attends church. Very few people attend church in Europe. I always say that in Europe they go to church three times: when they hatch, match, and dispatch. [laughter] We could become Europe. We are on our way, perhaps, of becoming Europe.
Think of the United States of America. According to the statisticians, it appears as if four thousand to seven thousand churches close every year in the United States. Oh, I know there are many new ones beginning, I get that, but imagine. All of the statistics and the indications are that the church is losing its impact. It is losing its effectiveness, and people aren’t listening to us anymore. There are several different forces that are arrayed among the churches, or I should say in the church worldwide, and most of them are internal. They’re not necessarily external at all.
For example, selfism. Selfism is the idea that it’s all about me. I don’t care about anybody else. It’s all about the entertainment industry. Many years ago, Neil Postman wrote a book, entitled Amusing Ourselves to Death. That book is more true today than it was when he published it a number of decades ago. Amusing ourselves to death—iPhones, iPads, all kinds of different stimuli constantly going through our bodies and our minds, and we’re distracted, and we have no real passion to be focused and committed to Jesus Christ and His church.
You have selfism. You have consumerism. You remember Jesus, speaking to the church at Laodicea, said, “[Thou sayest] I am…increased with goods and have need of nothing.” I have no need of anything. I mean, did you know that it is very difficult to develop hearty worshipers in an affluent society? It really is. And in America today, no matter how tough things are, we are, worldwide, considered to be an affluent society, increased with goods.
And then we have things also that are against us such as pluralism, the various different religions, and the various views. Now that is still, so far, external. It is not necessarily among us, but what we do, unfortunately, is we self-censor ourselves and we become ashamed of the gospel.
Now I am going to be sharing a message about engaging culture. That’s in the future, but the point is we oftentimes are so intimidated by pluralism, and we shouldn’t be. We should be willing to put Christianity out there in the marketplace of ideas, and when we do that, we’ll see it comes out very, very well, and it has compelling reasons to commend itself to society. But we’re intimidated by a pluralistic culture.
And then we have “state-ism.” That’s what I’m calling it. State-ism is the idea that now we have the encroachment of laws that are affecting our ability (and certainly will in the future) to exercise the kind of freedoms we have taken for granted. Who could have ever dreamed that the day would come when someone who is biologically born a man, with the DNA of a man, should be able to walk into women’s washrooms and use those washrooms? And the minute you [oppose] that, you are considered to be racist or unkind or intolerant, and on and on it goes. What a society in which we live.
Now, I’m not in any way making the church a victim. We’re going to see today that we aren’t victims at all. God has given us so much, and some of our weakness, there’s no doubt, is our fault. Maybe not all of it, but some of it certainly is. And many people have been hurt by the church. And I would say to you today, if you have been hurt by the church, especially if we the church (and now I’m talking about The Moody Church) are at fault, come and tell us because we believe we should be the first to apologize if it’s our fault you’ve been hurt, or [something was] incorrectly interpreted, or whatever. Because there are what is known as the de-churched. That’s a new term I’m getting used to. The de-churched are those who used to attend church but, for one reason or another, can’t take it anymore.
I think it was Reinhold Niebuhr who said the church reminded him of Noah’s Ark. He said he couldn’t take the stench within if it wasn’t for the storm without. And sometimes the churches have had a stench within.
Well, that much by way of background. Now, what I’m going to do today is to give you a list of images that are used in the New Testament, and I might say there are many more, but I’ve chosen six to help us understand what God thinks about us, what God has done. Remember this now. God shed His own blood, to quote the words of the apostle Paul, that we might have the church. And along with that, He did several things for us that we might be able to represent Him in the world. Let’s go through these images one at a time. We’ll be very fast. I remember the words that Henry VIII said to his fourth wife: “Don’t worry, my dear. I won’t keep you very long.” [laughter] And so we’re going to go through these images and then we’re going to talk about what it means to be the church. In fact, this is not only what God has done for the church, it is what God really says we are. Let’s jump in.
First of all, we are a building, which means we are a redeemed community. Now I want you to think about this in terms of its imagery. Do you remember when Solomon’s Temple was built? The stones were quarried in a quarry a long distance from the temple, and then they were brought to the temple area. They already had been quarried and already had been polished, and already had been chiseled, so it says when the stones were brought to Jerusalem to the temple area, they were put in place and you could not even hear the sound of a hammer because they all fit.
God says, “I’m building a building.” God goes into the quarry of sin and He finds sinners like us. He cleanses us. He forgives us. We become His people, and figuratively speaking, He brings us together so that the apostle Peter could say we are living stones, jostling against one another. God is building a building, and our desire is that there might be more redeemed who become a part of the building. We are a redeemed community.
So let’s go on and say also that we are a body. The Apostle Paul devotes two chapters to this in 1 Corinthians. He says we are a body, and there are some who are hands and there are some who are feet and there are some who are eyes and some who are ears. But we are all working together. We are a unified body. And aren’t we unified in Christ? God is developing this transnational community. We’ve already heard it this morning but it is a delight to me to be able to hear it again that indeed here at The Moody Church, because of our location and because of our vision, it is so wonderful to know we have people from different races and ethnicities and countries and backgrounds and vocations. We differ ethnically. We differ in terms of economics and education, and we are not simply coming together because we have a common interest. That’s true of other groups. You have them meeting together because they have a common interest. We meet together because we share a common life. It is the life of Jesus Christ, given to us. And He is the head of the church, and we are all members. And that’s why you can go all over the world and when you meet believers, instantly, there is this sense of bonding because God says, “I have made you to be a body.”
Let’s go on and say we are also a family. We’re a family. He says in Ephesians again that we are part of the household of God. We should be a caring community. The church should be the most caring place on this planet. People should be able to come with their brokenness and their needs, and when we come to church, we should be looking for opportunities to help others so we don’t simply come in on our own and be concerned about ourselves and then leave. We should say, “How can I encourage somebody today? How can I invest in someone else’s life today in this family?” A caring community.
Also a part of the family is loyalty. Now I don’t use this figure of speech, though I could’ve added it and made it seven, and that is, we are a flock. Jesus talked about the fact that we are sheep and He is the Shepherd. And then there are under-shepherds. Those are called the “elders” of the church. And you know when a flock has its leader leave and a new leader comes in, the flock doesn’t leave, or it shouldn’t leave. I hope you’re putting some dots together here. Just because one senior pastor leaves and another one comes doesn’t mean it’s an opportunity for people to say, “Well, this is a good time for us to shop around for another church.” No, you are loyal because you are part of this family, and when the new shepherd comes you don’t say, “Well, we don’t like him because he isn’t like the previous shepherd.” You learn to like him, and then you discover something. He’s a lot better than the previous shepherd. [laughter] All right? We’re a family, so we’re committed to one another.
Also, we are not only a family, but we are a temple. Paul says again in Ephesians that these stones we talked about before are being built together for a habitation of God.
You’ve heard me say this before, but I must say it again. When people come into The Moody Church, among other things, our friendliness and our welcoming attitude, once they stay, what they should say is, “Surely God is in this place” and we’re committed to worshiping. And we don’t get confused between the kingdom of this world and the kingdom of our Lord and Christ. We believe it is important for people to be involved in the kingdoms of this world, to be involved in politics. We think every Christian should, but we don’t confuse the cross of Jesus Christ with the political system or a political party, or for that matter, even the greatness of America. We don’t entertain that kind of confusion. We want to keep the issues clear.
This is one of the most clear statements that was made by Andrew Melville. This was in 1596 when King James of Scotland wanted to interfere with the church. It was an ancient way, you see, of trying to exercise authority over the church through the political powers that be, and that’s what has happened in Europe, always throughout centuries, actually.
Listen carefully to what Andrew Melville said in keeping the two kingdoms clear so we could worship with focus. He’s speaking truth to power. This is the way, evidently, he spoke to the king. Wow.
I told you before and now again I must tell you there are two kings and two kingdoms in Scotland. There is King James, the head of the Commonwealth, and there is Christ Jesus, the King of the Church, whose subject James is and of whose kingdom he is not a king. He is not a lord nor a head, but a member. We will yield to you [your] place, and give you all due obedience; but again I say to you, you are not the head of the church. You cannot give us that eternal life that we seek, nor can you deprive us of it. Permit us then to meet freely in the name of Christ.
“King James, you stay in your corner. You have your political sphere. We have our spiritual sphere, and we are not under your authority.”
And we can say that today to America or any laws. [applause] We are not under the laws of the state. We are under divine law and we worship but one King, and we will continue to worship Him no matter what the opposition might eventually look like. Jesus is King, and we keep that clear, and others may be applying for the job, but they aren’t going to get it.
We are a temple. We are a worshiping community. When you come to The Moody Church, especially as we think about Sunday morning, you notice all of our songs and all of our worship is God-directed, because we know it’s not about us. And one of the best ways that we can get our minds off ourselves, and even develop faith for ourselves so that we get the benefit, is to give God lots of glory, lots of praise. Do it all the time, not just at church, but also at home. Why? It’s because Jesus said to the woman at the well, who’d had a series of bad marriages—five, living now common law with a man, “The Father is seeking you to be one of His worshipers.” If God can’t find it among the intelligentsia and among the religious crowd, He’ll find a desperate woman and invite her to worship Him. We are a worshiping community.
Let me say we are a bride. We are the bride, Ephesians 5. That means we’re a devoted community. We are the bride of Christ and He died for us. He purchased us with His own blood. And so we know in an earthly marriage how bad adultery is, how it destroys the marriage bond, and you know how all of the catastrophe is strewn all over the landscape, and the children are affected and generations are affected. What you and I need to understand is that God considers Himself, through Christ—Jesus is our husband, and therefore, when we have a double heart, it affects Him and it grieves Him.
We’ve been singing today about repenting and asking God to cleanse us of impurities, and I must emphasize this, we will not do that until our passion for Jesus is greater than our passion to sin.
Do you remember what Jesus said to the church at Sardis? He was saying to that church, “You have a few people who have not soiled their garments.” What’s He talking about? The church at Sardis physically was right next to a pagan temple. Those of us who have been to Sardis have seen that. Now, the structure that is there was third or fourth century, but that’s exactly, perhaps, where the original church was, and [it was] right up against a pagan temple. And you can interpret that in two different ways. Was the church there so they could be a witness in the darkness? I hope so, but I’m not sure. Maybe the church was there because it felt comfortable next to a pagan temple.
And so because Jesus Christ is our husband and we are the bride of Christ, we keep ourselves pure. Our husband died for us and was raised again, and we want to serve Him with that kind of purity and devotion. We are a devoted community.
We’re also a lamp. We’re a witnessing community. Now I’m going to be speaking about witnessing. As a matter of fact, that’s the next message in this series, so I won’t say too much about that, but witnessing simply means we are open and available to God to represent Jesus Christ and to introduce other people to Him. There are people whom God is preparing for our message, namely the message of the cross, and the message of the gospel. And even today as I am preaching, you may be here and you feel so distant. You don’t know whether you’re a part of the church or not because you don’t know whether or not you’ve believed in Jesus or not. Oh, you believe on Him, of course, or you wouldn’t be here, but you’ve never, possibly, received Him as your own. That is the good news of the gospel that we are commanded and privileged to represent.
Now the question is, how do we be the church? God says, “I’ve done all of this for you. This is who you are, and now I am giving you the privilege of representing the invisible God to a skeptical world.” That’s what we’re called to do. It’s to live in such a way that the world begins to believe in God because of our character and because of who we are and the way in which we conduct ourselves.
Let me give you some commands as we think about implementing all that God has done—the images we just described. First of all, we have to be a repentant church. I’ve already referred to that, but if you look at the churches of Revelation (seven of them, to whom Jesus dictated letters), to five of the seven He says, “Repent.” They should repent of their coldness of heart. They should repent of their immorality. Several churches are commanded to do that. They should repent of their worldliness. They should repent of their desire and accumulation of things—consumerism. We really do need to repent.
Do you know [what happens] when God sends a revival? What happens is people begin to take sin so seriously. Because most of us have a very high tolerance of sin. We can put up with an awful lot of sin in our life without getting rid of it and repenting of it. When God begins to work, that’s when repentance begins to happen.
You know, during The Great Awakening here in America under [Jonathan] Edwards (and now we’re talking about the 1700s) it is said that sailors coming across the ocean and landing here in the United States of America, that even as they got into the vicinity of where God was mightily working, they already began to be convicted and fall on their knees and repented.
In Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress the evangelist says to Christian (It’s an allegory you really ought to read.), “Take heed. (And I hope I get this straight.) Let nothing that stands between you and the world to come enter into your heart.” Something between here and the world to come not only often enters into our hearts, but it’s the very thing we live for. We live as if this is the only world there is. God says, “Repent.” We have to be repentant. And it’s not something you do just once. I don’t know about you, but I find I have to repent every day in God’s presence. We have to become known as a repentant church.
Second, we need to become known as a sacrificing church. Now I want to speak plainly at this point. I began this message by talking about the fact that many people would indicate, and I really do believe they are true and right, that the evangelical church in America has lost a lot of its influence, that our numbers seem to be declining and things are, perhaps, going downhill. We become weaker. We become more absorbed with the world. You know, the church is supposed to be in the world like a ship is in the ocean. But when the ocean gets into the ship, the ship begins to go down. And as I’ve indicated, we need to repent because we’re taking on water. But we have to become a sacrificing church.
The older generation is dying off, and according to the statisticians, the older generation—they were more loyal. They contributed during good times, during bad times. They contributed when it cost them something. They were willing to sacrifice and to be there no matter how tough things got. The younger generation [is] also very generous, by the way, but they love to give to projects. “We love to give to this. We’d like to give to this in Africa or this and that, or this is happening over in India, and we give toward that.” And that’s wonderful. But oftentimes they are reluctant to give to the church because, “Who should give to the church?”
I’m here to tell you today, ministry is money and money is ministry. We cannot do what we do without your contribution. But furthermore, you’re the loser if you are not generous. See, there are many people who make progress in the Christian life, but they get to a certain point and they don’t understand why they can’t get beyond that point, and they don’t understand they have never learned the joy of giving. And God says He loves a cheerful giver.
God loves everybody. Yes. Equally? I think so, but especially a cheerful giver, so if you come to The Moody Church and you are blessed by the ministry of The Moody Church and you are encouraged and this is where you are fed spiritually, this is where your children grow up—and if you are not investing in the ministry of The Moody Church, you are the one that is losing the blessing of joy that comes to those who are generous. When you become generous, you have this reciprocal relationship with God, and it is developed through generosity.
Now you know, of course, if you’re here today and you’re visiting, we don’t expect you to give. And furthermore, let it be very clear that if you don’t know Christ as Savior, we would much prefer you not give anything and that you receive the free gift of eternal life that He gives to all those who believe—so we want to make that clear. [applause] But at the same time, once you are a member of the family and God has led you here, you should become a member and indicate your commitment. And you should become a joyful, cheerful giver, and you’ll be surprised at the progress God will enable you to make in your life. The joy of giving.
Many Christians are like a cup that is half full, trying desperately to spill over, but there’s no joy. We need to become a sacrificing church, sacrificing our money, sacrificing our time. We need to become, and we already are, thank God, a very welcoming church.
Years ago, you know, we indicated a promise statement we should be emphasizing more often, that “The Moody Church is a trusted place where anyone can connect with God and others.” Our arms should be open to this city, open to its needs, to become that welcoming church, so people understand we are living out what God has done in our lives.
I’ll tell you the world can out-entertain us, they can out-finance us, and they can outnumber us, but let it never be said that the world can out-love us, “because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who is given unto us.” Let us remember we should be known for our love. [applause]
How did the early church do it? How did they, as such a small band, become such an influential force? And the answer is, actually, through hospitality. Hospitality played a huge part. They had their neighbors in, they ate together, they connected together, and those became the bridges to impact their community and eventually their world. We have to become a very welcoming, compassionate church, as we already are, but we can always make progress. We have to become a courageous community. Courageous.
When I speak about the church in culture, I’ll emphasize this more, but I believe some very dark times are coming to the church in America—dark times politically, dark times morally. And what we need to be able to think through is where we are going to draw a line in the sand.
Some of you are in workplaces where you are being forced to compromise certain issues in order to keep your jobs. At what point are you going to say, “I refuse to compromise; I am not going to be giving in, and no matter what it costs me, I will remain true to God”?
Yesterday, or it was Friday I believe, Rebecca gave me a magazine about martyrdom, and in it I read this story of a woman in Syria. She converted to Jesus Christ. She was brought before the authorities. She was seeking custody of her children, because the home was very difficult with all kinds of abuse. And she said these words that just struck in my heart. She said, “If they expect me to choose between my children and Jesus, I will choose Jesus.” What a mother. What a woman. [applause] Thank God for people who have that kind of courage, and the day is going to come in America (it could come) when you and I are going to need that kind of courage. And what we should be doing is teaching our young people that oftentimes the price to be faithful and true to God is a high one, and what we should do is to help them to see it is a privilege to suffer on behalf of Christ.
And then, of course, we should become a believing church. By that I mean, trust God for great things. You know, [regarding] the future of The Moody Church, we can trust God that even its past days are only a foretaste of greater days to come. Why not? Why not enable us to see beyond the horizon and to recognize that God has given us all of these resources, all of these privileges? He has made us into what we have described today, and therefore the sky is the limit. And we don’t have to look around, feeling sorry for ourselves, but thank God for the privilege of living at this moment of history, of committing ourselves together for the future, for His glory and honor. Take heed for the church of God, which He has purchased with His own blood.
I’m going to ask now that you to stand. Would you please? Would you stand with me? As we conclude today, I want to read the words of Samuel Miller. Samuel Miller lived in the 1800s, and he preached a sermon, entitled “Life in the Church.” And I’m simply reading it to you, and helping us understand the gravity of church attendance, of what happens in church, and the church of Jesus Christ.
Here we stand as an innumerable company before us has stood at the last outpost of human endeavor, seeking God. We have done our utmost in the world, failing or succeeding, and now we stand within the sanctuary before the Eternal. And what we have done or not done is swallowed up in mystery. We have worked, laying our wills against the world, but now we worship God, that God may lay His will against us. We have entered into the making of the world, but that is not enough. We desire God to enter into the making of our life, and we desire that the God who shed His blood will be able to use us as the church of God, going forward no matter what happens, knowing we are on the winning side. Jesus—King of kings, Lord of lords, God of all gods!
At the end of this benediction time, if you wish to come forward, there will be prayer partners up here and we invite you to pray with them, whatever your burden may be as a believer, as an unbeliever. Remember this, The Moody Church exists to help you walk with God.
And so, Father, we ask in Jesus’ name that as [we] look into the future, seeing the little bit that we can see, we pray, O God, that the time may come when we look back upon even this time and say, “Surely we were faithful to be the church as we picked up the broken pieces of a world that has lost its way.” Help us to encourage each other and to always remember that the church was purchased at high cost. We ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Editor’s Note: In this transcript, the verbatim intelligent transcription process simplifies and enhances spoken content by eliminating redundant words, unnecessary sounds, fixing grammar errors, and clarifying meaning while preserving the author's original intent. All Scripture quotes are according to the biblical text, not as they were originally spoken.