What is a Genuine Church? Part 1: Soli Deo Gloria

I have a very introverted personality. This does not mean that I hate being around people. It doesn’t mean that I’m socially awkward. It doesn’t mean that I am afraid of human interaction. It does mean that I am usually quiet. It means that I find solitude and reflection energizing. It means that being around people is exhausting for me. I love being around people, but after two or three hours my energy is drained and I, again, have to return to solitude to regain my energy. My personality has its strengths, but in the context of a sinful world it is also a great hindrance much of the time. Just being around people makes me tired (and I don’t even have to do anything). Imagine, for a second, what it might like standing in front of people to present the weighty word of a holy God! When I visit people or have people over for dinner, I am always exhausted afterwards. It is so ironic that God has called a personality like me to serve Him in the sort of capacity that He has called me to serve on this earth. I am unable to boast because I have so many weaknesses.

As I continue to reflect, I realize that God has designed me with a specific personality. Because of my imperfection, I find some level of weakness in that personality. God, as He knit me together in my mother’s womb, designed me the way that He did because He is working all things together to accomplish His purpose and for His own glory. It is not something I chose. When most other people see an introverted personality, they see that personality as weaker for some reason. Sometimes, I wonder why God made me the way that He did. Do I understand that God built me so that He might be glorified by me? What of the church? Do we understand that God builds the church so that He might be glorified by her?

Deuteronomy 29:1-15 HCSB

These are the words of the covenant the Lord commanded Moses to make with the Israelites in the land of Moab, in addition to the covenant He had made with them at Horeb. Moses summoned all Israel and said to them, “You have seen with your own eyes everything the Lord did in Egypt to Pharaoh, to all his officials, and to his entire land. You saw with your own eyes the great trials and those great signs and wonders. Yet to this day the Lord has not given you a mind to understand, eyes to see, or ears to hear. I led you 40 years in the wilderness; your clothes and the sandals on your feet did not wear out; you did not eat bread or drink wine or beer — so that you might know that I am Yahweh your God. When you reached this place, Sihon king of Heshbon and Og king of Bashan came out against us in battle, but we defeated them. We took their land and gave it as an inheritance to the Reubenites, the Gadites, and half the tribe of Manasseh. Therefore, observe the words of this covenant and follow them, so that you will succeed in everything you do.

“All of you are standing today before the Lord your God — your leaders, tribes, elders, officials, all the men of Israel, your children, your wives, and the foreigners in your camps who cut your wood and draw your water — so that you may enter into the covenant of the Lord your God, which He is making with you today, so that you may enter into His oath and so that He may establish you today as His people and He may be your God as He promised you and as He swore to your fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. I am making this covenant and this oath not only with you, but also with those who are standing here with us today in the presence of the Lord our God and with those who are not here today.

God’s covenant faithfulness

In the book of Numbers, we witnessed the first generation of Israelites out of Egypt reject God’s direction. We saw that God is the God of mercy and that He is the God of justice. The first generation did not trust God and, as a result of their own mistrust in God, were sentenced by God to wander in the wilderness for forty years. In Numbers 14, we discovered that God would use the bad witness of the first generation to raise up a generation that would follow Him. God is working all things together. Just to see the scope of God’s workmanship through time, leading up to this point in Israel’s history, I want to take a journey through Scripture.

    1. In Genesis 1, God created the first people. He gave them the purpose of multiplying and filling the earth with His image. From the beginning, God was concerned with bringing glory to His own name and abiding with His people who bring glory to His name.
    2. In Genesis 3, God stated that the seed of the woman (singular) would crush the head of the serpent.
    3. In Genesis 5 and following, the people of the earth were wicked. God chose Noah and his family to be rescued from destruction and reestablished the purpose that He gave Adam and Eve.
    4. In Genesis 15, God established a covenant with Abraham (who descended from Shem, the child of promise) that depended only on God. The promise meant that God would bless all nations through Abraham’s true descendants.
    5. Four hundred years later, God was still faithful to Abraham’s descendants. He delivered them from Egypt and gave them the law to stand as a witness against them (Deuteronomy 31:26) and to increase the trespass until the seed of promise came (Romans 5:20-21, Galatians 3:19).
    6. The first generation of Israelites out of Egypt chose to be rebellious children and God, who is faithful to His own promise, purpose, and work, brought up a new generation in whom He would accomplish what He had set forth from the beginning.

God may have officially established His covenant with Abraham and His descendants, but God has been working everything together to accomplish His purpose from the beginning. He even used the rebellious spirit of the first generation of Israelites out of Egypt to raise up a generation of Israelites to inherit the promised land. In the first nine verses here in Deuteronomy 29, we see Moses speak to the second generation that the Lord had raised up for His own glory. They had seen everything that the Lord did over the previous forty years and coming out of Egypt. Yet, Moses declared, God had not given them a mind to understand, eyes to see, or ears to hear. Through the instruction of Moses, God gives the new generation a spirit that is different than that of the first (a spirit like Caleb’s in Numbers 14). He gives them minds to understand, eyes to see, and ears to hear. He draws together everything that He had done for the purpose of bringing glory to His own name. Verse six tells us that God did this so that the Israelites would know that He is Yahweh their God. Without a new spirit, this new generation would have been just as lost as the previous. This new spirit could only be given by God. God was faithful to give it according to His own purpose and plan as He works everything together.

I am absolutely in awe regarding God’s covenant faithfulness. Where people falter, where we lose sight of the goal, and where we lose interest: God has been working all things together to accomplish the same purpose throughout all of time. This is why we can be absolutely sure that God will complete His work. He will see to it that His people persevere to the end. The very first thing that we have to realize about the genuine church is that God reveals Himself as the faithful one and the only one who gives people a new spirit, mind, eyes, and ears.

We see this clear distinction between the generation of wrath (the first generation out of Egypt) and the generation of promise (the second generation in whom God gave a new spirit). God promised the generation of wrath that He would give Canaan to the nation of Israel. The generation of wrath, as we see in Numbers 13, was concerned with their own inability to conquer the Canaanites. In Joshua 1, we see that the generation of promise was concerned with obedience to God’s own word as proclaimed and taught by first Moses, and then Joshua after him. Every consequence was worth following God’s direction and abiding in God’s word, trusting God to fulfill His own promise.

The genuine church, then, and every genuine local church begins with God’s faithfulness. In far too many local ‘churches’ we try to produce the faith in ourselves by works or by winning the lost or by building a church building or by standing strong for what we think is right. A genuine church, though, does not begin with our faith. It begins with God’s faithfulness. We cannot make church life about our faith. It must be concerned, first and foremost, with the faithfulness of God. For, God never required any person of his or her own volition to just have enough faith. Instead, despite human sin, God was, and is, ever-faithful to the people that He has selected for Himself. He is so faithful to His people that He works all things together and gives His people a new spirit, mind, eyes, and ears. To be a genuine local church is to begin in a vastly different place than a great majority of human organizations on this earth. They begin with the perceived sufficiency of people. We remember that the generation of wrath wanted to select a leader for themselves to, by human power, take them back to Egypt where they perceived a better life for themselves. The genuine church begins by recognizing that we are entirely insufficient to grasp the promises of God, but God is ever-faithful to deliver on the promises He makes for the glory of His own name.

So, we have those churches where someone gets angry at a decision that is made. He or she spreads gossip and slanders the leaders of the church (sound like the generation of wrath?). This slander leads to a church split and those people go and plant a new church because they have everything figured out. This is not a genuine local church because they started with human faith, with religiosity, and with human politics. Another scenario. There is a young guy who finishes seminary and plants his own church because other churches have too much baggage. He can build a new organization the way that he wants and will see more numerical growth as a result. Again, this cannot be a genuine local church starting out because the inception is found in human faith, strategy, and organization rather than the faithfulness of God. Sadly, this means that there is a danger (though I think missions organizations are both good and necessary in our day) for many missions organizations that have, as their priority, planting a number of churches. It becomes mechanical and reliant on human ability rather than the faithfulness of God.

A genuine local church, as we will see, has the faithfulness of God as her starting point and as her sustenance. There is no human boasting whatsoever. We are never able to say, “Look at what we’ve accomplished or built!” Saints are not venerated because of their miracles. Mary is not glorified alongside Christ. Luther, Calvin, and Spurgeon are not worshipped. The pastors of our churches cannot become celebrities (though in every genuine church there are weeds who will make their pastors so). God gets all the glory. Soli Deo Gloria (Glory to God alone). This is the message of the preacher and the overall sentiment of the church body in a genuine local church; not by any power of our own but because God has given us a new spirit.

God’s covenant people

When thinking on this, we might ask how God chooses people be His people and to fulfill His promise on this earth. If the church begins with God’s faithfulness, who is to be God’s covenant people? Why? Can a people simply gather themselves together, call themselves by God’s name, and all of the sudden be a genuine local church? If we begin with God’s faithfulness and are to be concerned, by the regenerate heart that God has given, with God’s glory alone, then the answer must be no. God makes a covenant with His people. God places together the local church by His working together of all things. This has implication deep and wide for those churches who hope to be genuine local churches in our day and for those who hope to be used by God to plant a genuine local church in any age.

As I think about this, I think about God’s choosing of the Israelites. We can look all the way back to Genesis and see that God chose the nation because of His own purpose, plan, and promise. According to Deuteronomy 7:7-8, God chose Israel (particularly this generation of promise) even though they were few. They were not anything to be praised. God chose them because He is faithful and wanted to show Himself as faithful to all of Israel, and especially this generation of promise. In chapter 9:5-6, God clarifies also that He is not bringing the Israelites into the promised land because of their righteousness, but in order to fulfill His own covenant promise. God is the initiator and the sustainer of His people and of His own covenant promise. In the passage above, God is reestablishing His covenant again with this generation of promise. Today, it is God who, through Christ because Christ has fulfilled the Law (Matthew 5:17-20), establishes His covenant with His people.

This is astounding. God gave the law to stand as a witness against humanity and to increase humanity’s trespass (which existed, even from Adam, before the Law was given). Christ fulfills the Law by keeping it entirely and by taking upon Himself the penalty of the trespass. Because Christ fulfilled the Law, we might take on the righteousness of Christ. This is, according to John 1 in the complexity of the Greek language which can be translated something like ‘Christ coming into the world enlightens all men who come into the world,’ the way in which all of the elect throughout all time have received a regenerate heart. Wow!

God establishes a regenerate local church by His own covenant promise, the same covenant promise by which He worked all things together to raise up this generation of promise, by which He raised up Moses, by which He raised up Abraham, by which He blessed Shem, by which He rescued Noah, and by which He alone covered the shame of Adam after his rebellion. This covenant was written in the Law and fulfilled in Christ alone; not by our power and not by some righteousness that we think we have.

So we observe the local church. I was recently In a place where I brought up the idea of evaluating what we were doing as a church (and how we were doing it) in light of Scripture. Before the conversation went any further than that, the leadership of the ‘church,’ the same leadership that had been in place for forty years stopped the conversation. It didn’t go any farther. We didn’t even get to begin the evaluation together. I find myself, even as I am writing this, just weeping over the idea that there are people who consider themselves to be Christians, but who want nothing to do with following Christ. They are like the wrathful generation of Israelites. There are actually ‘churches’ that want to rely on their own faith and where the people believe themselves to be righteous. God is so clear throughout the text of His word. He does not choose His people based on their power or their perceived righteousness. In this church, I discovered that the core leaders were concerned with making themselves look better than everyone else. Their words were supreme. They were full of much gossip and slander. When someone didn’t look perfect, believe perfectly, or have the perfect family according to their standards, that person was condemned.

I, personally, think it is time that local churches begin to have a serious discussion about whether or not they are in this for God’s glory or for the glory of some person. It seems to me that in a local church where Christ is recognized as the only truly righteous one and the only one who can regenerate hearts, that people would be free to admit mistakes, free to disagree and reason, free to show their imperfection, and free to ask question and experience a genuine maturing in the faith. When we presume to have all the answers, to always do things the right way, to have the perfect conduct, and when we presume that others are inferior to us, then we have, ourselves, claimed to be the standard for righteousness. What a dangerous place for anyone to be. God, who establishes His own covenant with His people because of His own faithfulness is the only sustainer of the local church. What a beautiful and rare thing a genuine local church is in our time. God is faithful. God’s imputes His righteousness within HIs people. God is glorified. God’s people, thus, are free. We are subjects of restoration, not of wrath. We are no longer bound in the chains of our sin. We are no longer restricted to the wilderness of God’s wrath. God’s church, and all genuine local churches, are a people of promise like this new generation of Israelites! All this, remember, is for God’s glory alone.

God’s covenant glory

When we arrive in the New Testament, as Jesus is fulfilling the covenant that God is reestablishing in the above passage, we witness Jesus describing the building of the genuine church:

“‘But you,” He asked them, “who do you say that I am?’

Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God!’

And Jesus responded, ‘Simon son of Jonah, you are blessed because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father in heaven. And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the forces of Hades will not overpower it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth is already bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth is already loosed in heaven.’

And He gave the disciples orders to tell no one that He was the Messiah” (Matthew 16:15-20).

Notice, God implanted His word (He gave Peter a new spirit, a new mind, new eyes and new ears). Christ builds His church. God had already prepared the reward in heaven for the work Peter would do on earth. The only thing Peter was, was a stone that God would use to build His church. Peter did not regenerate his own heart. He did not yet earn the reward that was already reserved for him in heaven. He could not build Christ’s church whatsoever. Christ does this, and those in whom God plants His word are the stones. Peter also understood that God’s elect people are living stones who are being built into a spiritual house (1 Peter 2:5). We see this illustration again in Revelation 21, where the apostles’ names are listed on the foundations of the New Jerusalem and the city itself is adorned as a bride prepared for her husband (the city is representative of Christ’s church). We do ourselves a great injustice when we convince ourselves that Jesus was referring to Himself as the rock in Matthew 16. Jesus is the builder and the cornerstone! We should not make little of our Lord by assuming that He is anything other than the builder! What a beautiful thing it is for God’s regenerate people to be built by Christ into a church, a bride that is adorned for her husband. Soli Deo Gloria means that God receives all glory. God is in the business of building up His people, restoring His people, and adorning His people despite all of their insufficiencies and despite all of their sin. What good news this is for us! What a great privilege that any genuine local church gets to live this truth daily!

If we are a people called by God’s name who live for the glory of God alone, we make the recognition that God alone is praiseworthy. If it is God alone who is praiseworthy, then I cannot require others to a performance standard that I believe to be praiseworthy. Because God alone receives all glory, a genuine church looks vastly different from the world. The world judges people based on their performance. The generation of wrath wanted to go back to a land where they were measured by their performance. Ungodly local churches are constantly judging the performance of their pastors, teachers, and members. If you don’t perform, you are left out to dry. If God alone receives glory, then God is the only one in the local church who can possibly be praised for His merits. There is no pressure for people to be perfect or to do all the right things because God’s strength is made evident in our weakness and He is glorified for that! Even as we read through Scripture, specifically the pastoral epistles (1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus), we notice that the qualifications given to elders and deacons are not performance qualifications. They are character qualifications that are produced from a regenerate heart. Whereas the world operates on the basis of human performance, a genuine local church operates on the basis of grace because God alone is to be glorified. How refreshing this is! How freeing this is! How beautiful it is when we make this realization. Soli Deo Gloria.

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