The ways of God in His workings are beyond our final comprehension (Ro 11:33). Nevertheless, they are founded in wisdom, and each phase has been called into being for a purpose. According to the Scripture, the church as a part of that program has many functions to perform which may be divided into those related to the overall kingdom plan, to the world, to itself as a church, and to God.
TOWARD THE KINGDOM PROGRAM
The provocation of Israel to jealousy. The extension of the blessings of salvation to those outside Israel during the age of the church when Israel is judicially blinded is designed by God to effect the final salvation of Israel and the fulfillment of her covenant promises. This in turn will bring the full Messianic blessing upon all nations (Ro 11:11-15). The apostle explains this intent of God when he says of Israel, “They did not stumble so as to fall, did they? May it never be! But by their transgression salvation has come to the Gentiles, to make them jealous”(v. 11, NASB; cf. 10:10). The apostle magnified his ministry as an apostle to the Gentiles according to his testimony that “somehow I might move to jealousy my fellow-countrymen and save some of them” (11:13-14, NASB).
Through the grafting in of the Gentiles into the root of the Abrahamic blessing which initially belonged to Israel, God purposes by the church to bring a jealousy upon Israel which will cause her to desire to return to the place of blessing through repentance and the acknowledgment of Christ as her true Messiah. Unfortunately, the church has often failed to see itself as the “wild branches” which were grafted into the root which belonged to the natural branches and into which they will again be brought back. History shows, rather, that the church for the most part early turned its back on the Jew, treating him as God’s outcast. Failure to demonstrate the true nature of Christianity as the life of the living Christ with His concern for Israel and to proclaim Christ as the one who came according to the promises (Ro 1:2) and will yet fulfill them, has resulted in few of Israel being stirred to jealousy. Nevertheless, in modern times—due perhaps to an increased interest in Israel on behalf of the church, and dissatisfaction “prevalent almost everywhere among religious circles in Jewry”—there is a steadily growing number of Jews who would be prepared to echo Joseph Jacob’s words, ” ‘If the sons of Israel slew Jesus, Israel is greater than any of his sons, and the day will come when he will know thee (Jesus) as his greatest’” (Ellison, p.83)).
Display of God’s grace and wisdom. God’s forbearance in the face of human sin and His provision of salvation in all ages have been by the grace of God. The full manifestation of this grace, however, awaited the church age (Sir Robert Anderson, The Gospel and Its Ministry, pp. 9-23). For not until God’s final and complete revelation in the person of His Son was rejected could grace be seen in all of its glory. In the crucifixion, man had done his worst; he had killed the Lord of glory. (1 Co 1:8) in whom the fulfillment of all promises depended. He deserved nothing but wrath and death. Instead, because of the cross, God extended salvation which not only makes the sinner alive, but raises him to sit with Christ in heavenly places, a son in the family of God “that in the ages to come he might shew the exceeding riches of his grace, in his kindness toward us, through Christ Jesus” (Eph 2:7). The church as the assembly of undeserving sinners redeemed in Christ is therefore the crowning display of God’s grace for all eternity.
The church is also the display of God’s wisdom in bringing Jew and Gentile together in one body in Christ. Writing to the Ephesians, Paul states that the revelation of the mystery “that the Gentiles should be fellow heirs, and of the same body [with Jews] and partakers of his promise in Christ by the gospel” is “to the intent that now unto the principalities and powers in heavenly places might be known by the church the manifold wisdom of God”(Eph 3:6, 10). The manifold wisdom is literally the “very-varied” wisdom displayed in the untraceable ways of the divine program of redemption. In the church God has worked the reconciliation of Jew and Gentile through the cross, which to the Jew was a stumbling block, and to the Gentile, foolishness (1 Co 1:22-25). Angelic beings had seen the wisdom of God displayed in the creation of the material universe, but God’s work in the church is the masterpiece by which He instructs the inhabitants of the heavenlies concerning His incomprehensible wisdom.
Preparation of rulers for the kingdom. The church age is, finally, the time when “sons of the kingdom” are prepared so that when it is established they might “shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father”(Mt 13:43). These, as we have already seen, are to rule in that kingdom with Christ. During this age, through suffering in a hostile world (Ro 8:17; 2 Ti 2:12), and learning the lordship of Christ in this life, the members of the church are fitted to reign with Him in the coming age.
TOWARD THE WORLD
The primary purpose of the church in relation to the world is evangelization. The confusion of the present church concerning her purpose is difficult to understand in light of the unequivocal command of the Lord of the church: “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you” (Mt 28:19-20, NASB). This same exhortation was repeated just prior to the ascension. The church is to witness to her Lord “both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth” (Ac 1:8; cf. Lk 24:46-48). As Christ was sent to the world by the Father, so He sent His disciples (Jn 20:21). If the debatable ending of Mark’s gospel is included (Mk 16:15), the Great Commission is repeated five times in Scripture. That it is given to the church at large and not only to the first apostles is seen in the promise of Christ to be with His witnesses “to the end of the age” (Mt 28:20, NASB). According to the instruction of the Scriptures and the example of the early church in Acts, the witness of the church is accomplished through the total life of the members of the church, both in word and act, as a community and as individuals.
The witness of the Word is prominent in the commission itself. Christ instructed His disciples “that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations”(Lk 24:47). In the original Greek the word for preaching stands in the prominent position at the beginning of the verse, indicative of the place of preaching seen in the ministry of the apostles. From Peter’s initial proclamation at Pentecost, the record shows that the good news of Christ went verbally into all areas of the then-known world so that they “heard … the word of the truth of the gospel”(Col 1:5-6). The spread of the gospel was accomplished not only through special ministers and evangelists but, even with the apostles absent, having remained in Jerusalem in the persecution, the church “went every where preaching the word” (Ac 8:4; cf. v. 1).
The attitude of the early Christians is demonstrated in the words of Peter, who when ordered to stop talking about Christ, replied, “Whether it be right in the sight of God to hearken unto you more than unto God, judge ye. For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard”(Ac 4:19-20). Their witness was characterized by “boldness”(parrēsia), a spirit described by Moule as “no timid beating about the bush, but an ‘uninhibited’ freedom of speech—a literal reckless attitude, which does not stop to reckon what the consequences may be” (C.F.D. Moule, Christ’s Messengers, Part I, World Christian Books No. 19, p.26). The early believers made no secret of their loyalty to Christ (Ac 4:13, 29, 31; 9:27, 29; 14:3; 18:26).
The content of the early witness was the great acts of God’s grace in Christ. There were no exhortations to be good or any moral homilies but, rather, the proclamation of the facts of the gospel and the evidence for their truthfulness, together with a challenge to act accordingly (Bo Reicke, “A Synopsis of Early Christian Preaching” in The Root of the Vine by Anton Johnson Fridricksen et al., pp. 134-43).
Since the Word cannot be separated from the person speaking, witness is also borne through the lives of those in whom the Word manifests itself in Christian action. The joint impact of word and deed is seen in Peter’s counsel to wives of husbands who are disobedient to the Word to be submissive to them that “they may be won without a word by the behavior of their wives, as they observe your chaste and respectful behavior”(1 Pe 3:1-2, NASB). It should be stated, however, that action alone does not fulfill the Great Commission and cannot be used as a substitute for preaching the gospel.
The witness of Acts is accomplished both within the corporate church life and outward in the world. The church is the place where the new life of Christ in the Spirit is manifest. The gospel reconciles man to God but also reconciles man to man. The evidence of this reality in the church is a witness to the world. Jesus told His disciples that all would know them for what they were if they “have love one to another” (Jn 13:35). This love is expressed not only in kindly words but in beneficent action in meeting the needs of fellow believers (See 1 Jn 5:16-18 – The command for love among believers is incessant throughout the New Testament. Cf. John 15:12, 17; Romans 12:10; 1 Thessalonians 4:9; Hebrews 13:1; 1 Peter 1:22; 2:17; 1 John 2:10; 3:11, 14, 18, 23; 4:7, 8, 11, 12, 20, 21; 5:1-2).
The sharing of goods in the church at Jerusalem was undoubtedly an expression of this love, as the Scripture says, “The multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul” (Ac 4:32). Not that this act was to be a pattern for all history, for genuine brotherly love will express itself in different ways, depending upon the circumstances. But it will always manifest the reconciliation of men in the tearing down of barriers and concern for others, no matter of what race or status in life. Stott rightly points out that “a truly inter-racial, inter-social Christian fellowship, whose members evidently care for one another and bear one another’s burdens, is in itself an eloquent witness to the reconciling power of Jesus Christ” (John R.W. Stott, Our Guilty Silence, p. 71). The church has often sought to witness to the world in attempting to heal the breaches of mankind before it has demonstrated a genuine love in its midst. Only as the latter is first manifest will the world be attracted to receive the healing message of the gospel.
The church also witnesses corporately to the world when it meets to worship. The primary end of coming together as a body of believers is Godward in praise and adoration and then toward itself in edification as the various ministries of the Spirit are manifest, especially the preaching and teaching of the Word. Nevertheless, the congregational meeting also serves as a witness to the world. The true manifestation of God’s presence in the church cannot be avoided by the unbelievers who are present, with the result that at least some will worship God (1 Co 14:23-25).
The witness of the church toward the world is accomplished first through the proclamation of the Word. History reveals that the church can fail in its ministry to the world in one of two ways. It may attempt to rule the world through deliberately entering secular forms, or it may withdraw to individual monastic piety. Both result in a faulting of responsibility toward the world. The error of the latter method is obvious, for no witness can be had in isolation. Nevertheless, the church is continually in danger of withdrawing from the world in excessive inward attitudes and so losing contact with the world. Witness can only be effective as the church penetrates the world, not in conformity but in holy worldliness.
The other extreme of leaving the ministry of the Word in an attempt to witness through the more direct secular power has always tempted the church and is again prominent in our time. However, by casting aside its influence through the Word in favor of secular forms such as politics and business, the church loses its function as the servant of God, for only as it proclaims His Word is it His witness to the world. Before the world can experience renewal, the old man which is lord of the world must be judged and put to death by the challenge and judgment of the Word. If the church fails to witness by challenging the world with the Word and instead yields to the world, taking secular forms of power, it loses its holiness and no longer stands separate from the world as God’s minister to it (Regin Prenter, Creation and Redemption, pp. 538-42).
While the church as church refrains from entering secular forms, its influence is felt in these forms through the influence of individuals who have been transformed by the Word. The member of the church lives not only in the church but in the secular forms of the world. In these structures of human society he is called to a supernatural life, witnessing to the world the reality of the power of the gospel to change the characteristics of this fallen life into those of the life to come. Through every member’s attitudes and actions in the world, so different from those of the world that the supernatural is required for their explanation, the church bears witness to her Lord. The effect of this witness is described as being-light to the world and salt to the earth (Mt 5:13-16; Phil 2:15). As such, it will most certainly have a beneficial effect upon society. But the transformation of the world is not the ultimate goal. Neither the Lord in His ministry nor the apostles in theirs set about to reform society as an end in itself. As a matter of fact, if the reformation of the world was envisioned, the injunctions to be separate from it would be pointless. The final end of the church’s witness of good works is revealed everywhere in Scripture as that of causing others to acknowledge God and glorify Him (Mt 5:16; 1 Pe 2:12; 3:1). In this function good works are linked to evangelism in the fulfillment of the Great Commission. Thus the total church witness is born when the Word is proclaimed in all its fullness and application to all areas of men’s lives, and then lived by each believer in the contacts with the world in which the Lord of the church has stationed him for a witness.
In going to the world, the church is sent forth according to the pattern and with the love of Christ. As He was sent, so we are sent (Jn 20:21). As He loved the world enough to leave heaven’s riches and go into the world, so the church cannot fulfill its purpose without the same compassion for a world outside of God’s salvation. Jesus, moreover, was willing to live in the world, mixing freely with men and sharing their experiences, even being criticized for fraternizing with publicans and sinners. Finally, He gave His life for a world which, for the most part, did not respond to His love but repaid it with hatred. The church cannot die for the world in the unique atoning sense of Christ, and yet, it can only truly witness with the love of Christ for the world as it dies to self, sharing the sufferings of Christ (Col 1:24) in bearing the sins of the world and the reproaches directed toward God (cf. Ro 15:3).
Edification. The edification of the church, while related to outward growth by the addition of new members, is concerned primarily with the building and developing of the community itself in the life of faith (Eph 4:16; Jude 20; 1 Co 14:26). The goal of the edification is that each member might grow to maturity in all things in Christ (Eph 4:13-16; cf. 2 Pe 3:18). The work of edification is ultimately accomplished by the Lord of the church through the Spirit, first through the special ministries of the leaders (Eph 4:11-12; 1 Co 14:3), but ultimately through every individual (cf. Eph 4:12, 16; 1 Th 5:11). As each member receives edification through the pastoral ministry, he in turn passes it on to his fellow believer. Thus, every member “maketh increase of the body unto the edifying of itself in love”(Eph 4:16b).
The ministry of edification is associated in Scripture with the mutual exhortation and comfort of believer to believer. The apostle encouraged the church at Thessalonica to “comfort yourselves together, and edify one another, even as also ye do”(1 Th 5:11; cf. v. 14). The term “comfort” is used both in the sense of exhortation or admonishing, and comfort or consolation. Sometimes it blends the two together, depending upon the circumstance. While there is an urgency and seriousness in exhortation spoken in the power of the Spirit, there can be no thought of a critical polemic spirit. For this, as well as the comfort, is based upon the saving work of God and His mercies (Otto Schmitz, “parakaleo. paraklesis” in TDNT, 5:794-99). Genuine edification can only be accomplished in love (Eph 4:16) and peace (Ro 14:19).
Purification. Even as edification is possible ultimately by the supply of the Head, so the cleansing of the church is likewise the work of Christ who “gave himself for it; that he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, that he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish”(Eph 5:25-27). Although the sanctification of the church is complete and perfect in its positional standing in Christ, it is also a process in the life of the church as the meaning and significance of that complete salvation are continually applied through the operation of the Holy Spirit by means of the Word (The fact that the verb, “sanctify” and the participle “cleansing” are both in the aorist tense does not indicate the length of time involved in the action. It simply looks at the total acts).
So Christ prayed the Father to sanctify His disciples “through thy truth: thy word is truth”(Jn 17:17). This divine cleansing is seen in the work of the husbandman who “purges” (katharidzō, “cleanses”) the branches in the vine (Jn 15:2) and the heavenly Father who disciplines His sons whom He loves (Heb 12:5-12; 1 Co 11:32). The responsibility of the church is to allow the divine purification to work in its midst. This demands not only submission to the discipline of the Father (Heb 12:5-7), but self-discipline in obedience to the numerous commands for purity in the Word (cf. 2 Co 7:1; 1 Jn 3:3; 1 Co 11:31). When the health of the body is endangered by the failure of members to discipline themselves, the church as a community is responsible to exercise the needed correction. The importance of purification cannot be overestimated, for only a church which allows the Spirit of God to cleanse it can be used by Him in any service.
The church’s final goal in all of its responsibilities, whether to the world or itself, is the ascription of glory to the one who has created it through redemption in Christ. The predestination of believers in the church to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ and the obtaining of an inheritance in Him all redounds “to the praise of the glory of his grace” (Eph 1:5-6, 11-14). So amazing is the display of God’s attributes in creating the church and bestowing upon it all blessings in Christ Jesus that the apostle exults in a doxology of praise: “to Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever. Amen”(Eph 3:21).
Glory is first brought to God in the church through a thankful response to His grace: “Whoso offereth the sacrifice of thanksgiving glorifieth me”(Ps 50:23, ASV; cf. Heb 13:15-16). He is further glorified through the lives of believers as they advertise His mighty acts (1 Pe 2:9), yield fruits of righteousness in their lives (Phil 1:10-11), and wholeheartedly devote themselves to the ministry committed to them (1 Pe 4:11). Good works and the presentation of new converts are also sacrifices well pleasing to God and redounding to His glory (Heb 13:16; Phil 4:18). The church as the habitation of God through the Spirit is the temple in which His glory now resides on earth. As this glory shines forth through the transformation of each member into the glorious image of Christ from glory to glory, the church will fulfill it highest purpose.
SOURCE: Saucy, Robert L. (1974-08-21). The Church in Gods Program (Handbook of Bible Doctrine) (Kindle Locations 1950-1961). Moody Publishers. Kindle Edition.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
ROBERT LLOYD SAUCY (B.A., Westmont College; Th. D., Th. M., Dallas Theological Seminary) is a distinguished professor of systematic theology at Talbot Theological Seminary. He previously served as president of the Evangelical Theological Society and addresses that group frequently. He is author of numerous books, including The Church in God’s Program, The Bible: Breathed from God and The Case for Progressive Dispensationalism, and is the editor of Women and Men in Ministry: A Complementary Perspective. He also wrote the “Open But Cautious View” in Are Miraculous Gifts for Today? Four Views, edited by Dr. Wayne Grudem. His shorter works have appeared in many journals including Bibliotheca Sacra, Grace Theological Journal, andJournal of the Evangelical Theological Society. He also was one of only three scholars who worked both on the original 1971 translation of the New American Standard Bible as well as the 1995 update. Dr. Saucy resides in Anaheim, California.