One of the greatest tricks the devil has ever pulled is convincing the church that it needs to become like the world in order to win the world. In the twenty-first century, the church has been seduced by the world rather than turning the world upside down. As such, the greatest threat to the church is not persecution by the world but the church becoming like the world. For when the church adopts the world’s tactics and schemes, the church in essence begins to persecute itself, and it ceases to shine as a light to the world because it looks just like the world. If the first-century church had done things the same way as the twenty-first-century church, it never would have been persecuted. Rather than being countercultural, the church has become counter-ecclesial in order to become culturally acceptable.
The problem is not only that many churches have adopted the world’s tactics in what they do but also that they have adopted the world’s message in what they say. Francis A. Schaeffer quipped, “Tell me what the world is saying today, and I’ll tell you what the church will be saying in seven years.” Schaeffer’s nearly prophetic assessment has proven true time and time again as churches adopt the world’s means and message in order to be liked by the world and influence the world to the end that they might win the world.
Pastors of such churches have apparently bought into the notion that in order to win the souls of the unbelieving world, they must mimic the unbelieving world. In order to be on the cutting edge, they have to turn to what’s new and fresh, to what’s culturally relevant and acceptable, rather than to what’s ancient and trusted and to what’s truly relevant—whether it’s accepted or not. And in order to remain on the cutting edge, these pastors must study the ever-changing fads of culture rather than the unchanging principles of God’s Word.
By the powerful working of the Holy Spirit, the early church turned the world upside down.
For these churches and their pastors, anything goes so long as there is no explicit biblical command against it. They argue that if God can use their means and message to win souls, then why not use them? While I heartily appreciate their ultimate aim, simply because God can use something is not a biblically sound argument for it. For in all of history, we can observe how God has providentially worked around all sorts of sinful means in order to accomplish His sovereign ends. But the ends do not justify the means—unless they are the means that God has ordained.
The reality is that many Christians simply aren’t aware that God has provided the church with particular means for winning souls. In fact, for several years after I became a Christian, I was unaware that God had ordained that the church use such means to rescue souls, disciple souls, nourish souls, and restore souls. I first discovered these means during my freshman year of college. I was at a Ligonier Ministries National Conference and was a poor student, barely able to afford my required course books. I came upon a book on one of the tables in the bookstore that cost only four dollars. It was a white paperback book with a photo of the inside of a cathedral on the cover, and under the photo was the title: the Westminster Confession of Faith. I immediately read the entire confession and its catechisms and quickly realized that I had just discovered one of the greatest documents that had ever been written. My entire world began to change. I was in doctrinal shock, and I have never gotten over it.
The Westminster Shorter Catechism’s question 88 asks, “What are the outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of redemption?” and answers, “The outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of redemption are, his ordinances, especially the Word, sacraments, and prayer; all which are made effectual to the elect for salvation.” That all sounds much too simple, I thought. But I soon realized that if God has sovereignly foreordained the ends of all things, we must trust Him and His ordained means to bring about those ends. We don’t need to invent our own means or borrow the world’s means to fulfill the Great Commission of Jesus Christ. We don’t need to develop our own cleverly devised tactics and schemes to rescue souls, disciple souls, nourish souls, and restore souls; we simply need to trust God to do what He said He will do by the means He has provided. To do otherwise is to suggest that we know better than God and to set ourselves as a higher tribunal over God. To use our own methods, means, and message, or to revise God’s appointed methods, means, and message is akin to playing God.
It is also the reason why many nominal Christians who claim to have been converted to Christ in evangelistic crusades or in churches that employ the world’s means for winning souls fall away from the church in the end. They never genuinely trusted Christ in the first place. Moreover, it is the reason why many Christians who were truly converted in evangelistic crusades or in churches that employ the world’s means for winning souls later move on to churches that are truly concerned with fulfilling the fullness of the Great Commission by making disciples who are learning to observe all that Christ commanded—churches that are committed not only to reaching the lost but also to making disciples of the found.
The early church understood this. She was committed to fulfilling the fullness of the Great Commission through ordinary means of grace ministry, and by the powerful working of the Holy Spirit, the early church turned the world upside down. We read in the book of Acts, following the Apostle Peter’s sermon:
So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved. (Acts 2:41–47)
What makes a church a true church is not simply a crowd of people doing things however they want and saying whatever they want. Rather, a true church is the gathering of believers who are worshiping God according to His Word and according to the means God has ordained. A true church of Jesus Christ is a congregation of those who have professed faith in Jesus Christ and who are committed to the unadulterated preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the whole counsel of God, prayer, and the proper administration of the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, which includes the consistent practice of church discipline. If a church fails to be faithful to these ordinary marks of the church, it fails to be a true church.
If a church fails to be faithful to these ordinary marks of the church, it fails to be a true church.
As such, there are many gatherings of believers throughout the world that cannot be considered true churches. Churches that do not practice church discipline are not truly concerned with sin and unrepentance and are thus not concerned with repentance and restoration. Churches that do not faithfully administer the sacraments are not concerned with the means that God has ordained to point people to Jesus Christ and to the promises of God. Churches that offer quaint, flippant, and perfunctory prayers and do not give themselves to biblically informed prayer have ceased to be houses of prayer for the nations and have instead become dens of thieves. Churches that do not preach the pure gospel of Jesus Christ and the whole counsel of God for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness—that God’s people may be competent and equipped for every good work—are in reality not churches at all.
Such congregations may indeed have many true believers in them, and such congregations may do many things right according to God’s Word. But in the end, they are only true churches if they are committed to the ordinary marks of the church to the end that souls might be rescued for Christ, that they might become faithful disciples of Christ in all of life, that they might receive the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and that they might become more and more humble men, women, and children who are offering their worship, praises, confessions of sin, and prayers to our triune God.
And as the church gathers for worship every Lord’s Day, with unbelievers visiting our gatherings of worship and witnessing what we’re doing, they may at first feel uncomfortable and out of place by our faithful observance of the ordinary means of grace. They indeed might be offended when they hear about God’s righteous standard, their wretched sinful condition, God’s law, God’s wrath, God’s judgment, and God’s eternal condemnation of the unbelieving and unrepentant in hell. However, it’s only when they hear these truths that God’s grace as it shines forth in the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ will have any meaning—all according to God’s sovereign means and ends, and all by the grace of God and for the glory of God, not for our own glory by our own means and ends.
Dr. Burk Parsons (@BurkParsons) is editor of Tabletalk magazine, senior pastor of Saint Andrew’s Chapel in Sanford, Fla., and a Ligonier Ministries teaching fellow. He is cotranslator and coeditor of A Little Book on the Christian Life by John Calvin.