I want to ask you a question, and please feel free to answer in your own mind. What are you looking for in a church? Keep your answer to yourself for now. Second question, do you think church attendance is important and why or why not? There are two possible ways to answer these questions. One way is self-promoting while the other is God-glorifying. We can’t have it both ways.
In 2018, 59% of professing Christians said they agreed that worshiping alone or with one’s family is a valid replacement for regularly attending church. Only 14% strongly disagree. In the same year, 38% of professing Christians said they believe churches must provide entertaining worship services if they want to be effective (stateoftheology.com).
It is evident that, in our society, even professing Christians are staying away from the organized church. I think it is easy for us to condemn and to judge and to point at the Bible, claiming that it is a sin to not go to church. There is something deeper going on, here, than merely a refusal to go to church. Instead of teaching some sort of works-based righteousness by which people must attend church or be guilty of somehow disappointing the God of the universe, I want to do something simpler, more biblical, and much more beneficial. This morning, I merely want to preach the word of God concerning the purpose of the local church meeting. I think this is appropriate to do on my first Sunday as your pastor. I hope desperately that you will hear (or see) my plea.
Therefore, brothers, since we have boldness to enter the sanctuary through the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way He has opened for us through the curtain (that is, His flesh), and since we have a great high priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed in pure water. Let us hold on to the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful. And let us be concerned about one another in order to promote love and good works, not staying away from our worship meetings, as some habitually do, but encouraging each other, and all the more as you see the day drawing near.
Boldness from Christ (v. 19-21)
The book of Hebrews was written in the format of an early sermon, though we often refer to it as a letter. It is a sermon of about 5,300 words, probably taking about two hours to deliver, and would have been preached to the Jewish Christians before A.D. 70. Not many westerners would have been willing to sit through such a sermon. This particular passage in the sermon begins with the word, therefore, which means that the author is about to make some application regarding certain truths that have already been established in the previous part of the sermon. We get our sermon format from the sermons in Scripture. We first have the declaration of some theological truth, which is evident in the Scriptures, by expositing God’s word (as this Hebraic sermon does with the Old Testament Scriptures). Then we make specific and sound application to our lives on this earth as we anticipate and hope for the earth to come (as we see exemplified in this passage of Scripture). So, very briefly, I want to summarize the argument of the first 10 chapters of this Jewish sermon:
- Jesus is the one who has all authority and all things were created by Him and through Him.
- Jesus condescended to us in order to make propitiation for the sins of people.
- Jesus is the builder of His house and receives all glory.
- Our rest is found in Christ, as we are exposed by Christ’s word and as we draw near to the throne of grace.
- Jesus is the great high priest, the only source of eternal salvation.
- Human religiosity cannot accomplish eternal salvation because salvation is found in Christ alone.
- Jesus holds the priesthood permanently.
- Showing that the works of men could not accomplish the things of God, Christ was the fulfillment of the Law for the purpose of grace.
- Christ will appear for salvation without reference to sin to those who eagerly await Him.
- Christ paid for our sin, so we have confidence in His blood, not in our religiosity.
When the author of this sermon to the Hebrews writes, “therefore,” he is about to make specific application regarding this amazing truth: We could not accomplish the things of God, so God brings His people in by grace. This is the core tenant of the Gospel and the single truth that makes what Christ did such good news. So many times we fail to understand this. I was filthy. Christ washes me. We use religion to try to wash ourselves and it never seems to work. Christ is the one who must do the washing.
We have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus (not by anything of our ourselves), by this new and living way (not by the Law or religiosity), which Jesus inaugurated through His own flesh, and since we have a great high priest (who is Christ) over the house of God forever. This is the great theological truth. We are saved by grace alone through faith alone. Though we see many other theological truths through the first ten chapters, this basic truth suffices for our current purpose and for this current passage. Our religiosity has no bearing on our salvation. Since our salvation is 100% a work of Christ, we can have confidence despite our many failures and despite the fact that no one, including us, was able to keep God’s Law.
Faith from Christ (v. 22-23)
Because Christ is the one who does this great work of salvation and by grace we can have confidence, the application in verses 22 and 23 is made. I want to break this down phrase by phrase so that we can expose precisely what this preacher was getting at and understand it exactly.
Let us draw near with a sincere heart…
We look at this in context. What does it really mean for us to draw near to God? It is not something that we can do by our religiosity. Most people assume that religion gets us closer to God. The Scriptures are clear, human religiosity cannot achieve the things of God. Our keeping of the Law does not get us closer to our Lord. Instead, if we believe the Scriptures, our drawing near to God happens in spite of our failure, our insufficiencies, and our depravity. We have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus Christ. We are able to draw near to God even though we are unable to fulfill the Law because Jesus Christ made propitiation for the sins of people. He is our high priest.
In Hebrews 4:16, the preacher told us precisely what he meant when he said that we should draw near to the throne of grace. He stated that this good news had been proclaimed, works that were finished from the foundation of the world (4:3), but was not beneficial because it was not united by faith in those who heard (4:2). Religious people were trying to, by works, fulfill the Law even though that was never the point of the Law. To draw near to the throne of grace is to recognize our sin, our wretchedness, and our depravity, and then to approach in this time of need because of our depravity so that we might receive mercy. So, we don’t draw near by our works. We draw near by the blood of Christ with faith and the result is God’s gift of mercy upon us sinners.
What does it mean, then, to approach the throne of grace, of God, with a sincere heart? I am not yet referring to church attendance. I am considering, at this time, the very nature of our relationship with the God of the universe. What does it mean for us to draw in to Him with a sincere heart? It is simply that we recognize that we can’t do anything to achieve the things of God. God has mercy on His people. I don’t have to pretend to be religious. I don’t have to pretend to be perfect. I don’t have to beat myself up because I am unable to keep God’s perfect Law. I can approach the throne of grace by the blood of Christ alone begging God for mercy with the confidence that it will be given freely. Oh, the depth of the good news concerning Christ, Jesus!
…in full assurance of faith…
The preacher continues to apply the truth of Christ’s work. When we draw near to God with a sincere heart, we do so in full assurance of faith. This sermon in the book of Hebrews has gone to great lengths in order to debunk the myth that human religiosity accomplishes anything meaningful. Many times we will rely on our religious goodness to determine how close of a relationship we have with God. Virtually every human religion measures a person’s closeness with God by looking at how closely that person adheres to some religious law or how often they practice certain religious disciplines.
It has already been established for us that no one can draw near to God by his or her religiosity. We do not draw near in the full assurance of our works or of our religious practice. We draw near in the full assurance of faith, which comes only by the blood of Christ. Because Christ is the great high priest permanently, we have assurance that His mercy is also permanent and something that He accomplishes- not by any work of our own.
Have you ever sinned or feared that somehow your sin could keep you from the God of the universe? Have you ever had a desire, read in Scripture that this desire or this action is despicable to God and thought that you couldn’t be saved because of this desire? Have you ever thought that a relationship with Christ wasn’t for you because you have the desires that you have? Have you ever thought that someone else could not be saved because they refused to give up a certain habit or preference or desire? Have we not understood what grace is? God, through human sin, is working out His own mercy for His people. No matter our sin, we can approach the throne of grace sincerely and confidently and in full assurance of faith. Our works, our religiosity, and our sinful desires on this earth have no bearing on God’s pursuit of His own people. Our assurance is not of our works or religiosity or desires. Our assurance is of faith by the blood of Christ. He made propitiation for the sins of people.
…having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience, and our bodies washed with pure water.
People will often skip church or leave the body when they feel shame of any kind, or when churchy people shame them for any number of reasons. In reality, God offers mercy from the throne of grace through the shame of our sin. In our sin, we realize that we need to come before the throne of grace so that we might receive mercy as a gift. When we come before the throne of grace with a sincere heart, we come having our hearts sprinkled clean from our evil consciences.
The Scriptures are so clear about this. We have evil consciences, and we come before God so that by the blood of Christ we are cleansed. That is the truth of the Gospel. Here, at the throne, we have people who were murderers, who gave in to youthful lusts, who practiced homosexuality, who gave control of their bodies over to alcohol, who were prone to unrighteous anger and covetousness and envy and malice and gluttony and theft and selfishness and pride. Because of nothing within us, we came by the blood of Christ before the throne of grace confidently and sincerely, receiving mercy. It’s not only our actions that are evil, but it is also our consciences. In our depravity, we convince ourselves that we are somehow justified in our sin. Yet, the God of grace cleanses our hearts and washes our bodies even though our consciences are evil. The Gospel is so good! God’s throne is a place where the worst sinners draw in and receive mercy. We are not condemned because of our shame. Because of our shame, we have reason to approach the throne of God. Our sin and our shame do not incapacitate us, they are meant to draw us in to the throne of grace so that we might receive God’s amazing mercy. It is because of our sin that we even get to know the righteousness of God, the good, good Father!
Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering…
What is the confession of our hope? The preacher who was delivering this two-hour sermon to the Hebrews has covered this. Our confession is that even though our sin is great and we are unable to keep God’s Law, God’s grace and mercy overcome the sins of His people and overwhelm us. That is the confession of our hope. The preacher is imploring the Jewish churches to keep this confession secure, not giving in to the temptation of human religiosity. Do we realize that the dangers of religiosity have always been present in the midst church on this earth? This is not a new problem. Even Adam and Eve tried to work for their own knowledge. The preacher urged the churches to hold fast the confession of hope we have by grace and by mercy. This means rejecting any confession that promotes human religiosity (works-based religion).
…for He who promised is faithful.
Why do we hold fast to the confession of our hope (salvation by grace alone through faith alone)? It is not because we are faithful or able or sufficient. We are not. We hold fast to this confession because Christ, who promised mercy to depraved sinners, is faithful. What good news!
One-anothering in Christ (v. 24-25)
After these first applications, which deal with our drawing in to the throne of grace, the preacher then instructs concerning what the truth of God’s mercy to sinners means regarding our relationships with other believers- other sinners who receive mercy unto salvation. So, we look to verses 24-25:
…and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds…
Remember, this is an application of this basic theological truth that we can draw into the holy place with boldness by the blood of Jesus. Therefore, let us stimulate one another to love and good deeds. The preacher delivering this message to the Hebrews has already stated that the consciences of people are evil. We are unable to achieve the things of God or fulfill God’s perfect Law. Our consciences tell us that we are right in pursuing our own desires. We, therefore, must be saved by grace alone as Christ shows abundant mercy to sinners. This means that godly love and good deeds do not come naturally for us. We can’t achieve that on our own apart from genuine Christian community. So, we are instructed to stimulate one another on to Christ-likeness, that we might become faithful to one another as Christ is faithful and work for one another’s good as Christ works for the good of those who love Him. Our love is to be growing deeper and our service to God and to one another is to become greater. We are not necessarily doing more and more, but we are becoming greater servants.
This week as we were getting ready to move, one of our elders at TCATS called me. During part of our conversation, he said he was ready for us to arrive, and he followed that by encouraging me, “I hope you’ve studied, we are going to hold your feet to the fire.” Good. We are to stimulate one another to love and good works according to Christ’s grace as described in the Scriptures.
…not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some…
This application of God’s work in our boldly drawing in to the throne of grace has a second part. How are we to stimulate one another sincerely if we forsake our own assembling together? This is where we find the sheer beauty of the local church meeting. It isn’t in the programming. The beauty of the local church meeting is not in the beauty of a building. The beauty of the local church meeting is not the laughter and niceness that we get to experience. The beauty of the local church meeting is not in the age-specific ministries or child care that may be available. The beauty of the church meeting is not in the skill of the musicians or the preacher. The beauty of the church meeting is not in any of our preferences being met. The beauty of the local church meeting is that we, in response to the great mercy of God and faithfulness of Christ, get to stimulate one another to love and good works. That is the reason we meet together according to Scripture. It is a direct response to God’s amazing grace.
The preacher points out a habit in the early church. Some had already formed the habit of staying away from the assembly of believers. There was this, “I can love Christ and not go to church,” sort of mentality. Let me ask this, how can we be stimulated to continue denying our own depraved and wretched dispositions if we stay away from the very people who would love us enough to encourage us in the faith?
…but encouraging one another…
The preacher continues. Do not forsake the assembly, but encourage one another. On this earth, we try to substitute many things in place of our active involvement in a genuine local church. We have quiet times, we do our devotionals, we read spiritual books, we have family worship time, we can tell others about Jesus, we can post spiritual pictures on our social media accounts, we can have theological conversations with friends and family. We can be religious without going to church.
I once had a guy ask, “What is the point of church when I can do all of that churchy stuff on my own?” He was referring primarily to evangelism and singing. The preacher of this message to the Hebrews indicates that it is impossible for one to both forsake the assembly and participate in the genuine encouraging of other believers (stimulating one another to love and good deeds).
If gathering together is seen as merely a religious practice, then we have forgotten what the local church meeting was designed to do for us. As we have seen in this passage and through the book of Hebrews, we are not called to promote religiosity, but to sincerely draw in to the throne of grace. We gather together to stimulate one another in the very mercy we have received from God. We can’t experience this anywhere else on this earth. The church meeting is designed to perform this specific function in the lives of God’s people, and more churches are neglecting this specific function in favor of entertainment or religiosity or something else.
…and all the more as you see the day drawing near.
As time moves forward, Scripture implores us to be more committed to the gathering, not less. It seems to be toil and perhaps a burden as we perceive it. Assembling together, actively participating in a healthy local church body, is the most beneficial thing for us as we draw in to the throne of grace.
There are two reasons I think that, in our day, we have forgotten the beauty of the local church gathering. First, many local churches have neglected to serve their actual purpose. They are social clubs or houses of human religiosity. Even in event centered youth and children’s ministries, we have, as the organized church, forsaken the purpose of the church. So, people feel like the church isn’t anything special because many local organized church bodies do not actually exist with the purpose for which God designed the local church. Second, many professing Christians don’t actually want to be stimulated on to Christ-likeness or grow in the faith. They want to feel religious or earn some sort of prosperity or be entertained or participate in events without actually benefitting.
In 2016, 37% of professing Christians indicated that churches that do not preach from the Bible should still be considered Christian churches. 17% were unsure. Only 24% indicated that they strongly believed a church is only a church if it preaches from the Bible (stateoftheology.com).
Not only have we lost a sense of the beauty of the local church meeting, we have lost a sense of the beauty of Christ’s word. Not only have we lost a sense of the beauty of Christ’s word, we have lost a sense of the beauty of what it means to genuinely live in relationship with Christ. There is a correlation. Our neglect of the church body is evidence of our neglect of the genuine pursuit of Christ. It is merely a symptom of a greater problem- we don’t love Jesus and we don’t care to hear those things that Jesus would teach us. Too many local churches have loved numbers instead of Jesus, so they become event and program centered in order to accomplish that purpose, which is contrary to God’s perfect instruction for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose.
So, what are you looking for in a church? Did you answer by saying, “A community of believers that will stimulate me to love and good works”? Is church attendance important? Did you answer by saying, “It’s the only way I can live free from my own unrighteousness and in the righteousness of Christ”? Our dedicated involvement in a healthy local church and our commitment to one another despite our sinfulness is a necessary part of our walk with Christ as we draw in to the throne of grace with a sincere heart. We need the right preaching of Scripture as we hold fast to the confession of our hope. We need this stimulation as we strive to live in Christ’s righteousness rather than our unrighteousness. If you don’t have a church home, where you are sincerely drawing in to God with others, I can only implore you to find a healthy church home- healthy meaning rightly teaching the word of God and holding fast to this confession that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone.