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There are times when I am asked to write an article and I know that God has ordained it with a smile. This is one of those times. I want to exhort us in the glorious truth that the church, the local church, is a refuge for the people of God. I write this in a moment of upheaval when many Christians, including pastors, would claim that the church is falling apart, letting in the wind and rain rather than protecting us from it. At this moment, several historic churches that have a rich history of faithful biblical proclamation, doctrinal fidelity, and rich discipleship are in great conflict over the moral failure of their pastors, change dynamics, political fractiousness, and church conflict animated by the power of social media. Members feel hurt, deceived, vulnerable, and skeptical—not protected. These bodies have years of healing and restabilizing ahead of them. Can these churches really claim that they have been a refuge?

I have some good news. The church is what the Word of God says it is. The identity of a church is extrinsically bestowed, not by us or by the events of a church but by the King of the church, Jesus. Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him:

“Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock [the confession of Peter] I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” (Matt. 16:16–18)

What follows from this truth is the foundation of the church as refuge.

The church is our refuge because it is the covenant community of God’s Spirit.

So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit. (Eph. 2:19–22)

Because the Spirit is the animating and unifying presence of God in the church, the presence of Christ, the Son of God, is established. The rock of the gospel is the church’s foundation by the power of the Spirit.

The church is our refuge because it is the covenant community of God’s Spirit.

The church is our refuge because the truth of the gospel is proclaimed in it. The church is the gathering of the covenant community under the preaching of the gospel. The church is the pillar and buttress of the truth (1 Tim. 3:15). The gospel nourishes, and it is the means by which Jesus safeguards His people. The Scripture safeguards our minds, our emotions, and our very lives. Every week, and through the week, the members of a local church find refuge in the Word, finding their identity, calling, and solid truth after being pummeled by the world and its values. The Word of God is our refuge in the church.

The church is a refuge because the sacraments are administered. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are gifts of signifying grace. These two sacraments shape the heart and mind of God’s people in proclaiming the truths of the gospel—the person and work of Christ. The world has its own sacraments, not least technology. This worldly pseudo-sacrament tempts us to the artificial and to the self. The true sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper bring us to reality, to Jesus Himself. We find our refuge in the cross and resurrection as the Lord joins our hearts to His people in these physical and visual signs and seals. How often have we come disoriented into the Lord’s Day gathering, only to be vested again with the grace of God lavished on us as we take the bread and cup or witness a baptism?

Finally, the church is a refuge because it is the community of love. “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law” (Rom. 13:10). The love of the covenant community is first and foremost the love of the Lord Himself, dispensed through His people. Our love will be imperfect but should be very real. Based on the Spirit, the Word preached, the sacraments offered, the people of God fulfill the law of God by love. Love is the gospel on display. Our world has its pseudo-loves as it does its pseudo-sacraments. And how quickly that veneer fails. The church is a symphony of Christ’s love known in Christ-centered bearing of burdens, service, prayerfulness, encouragement, godly discipline, and mutual mission to love the world in Jesus’ name. This perhaps is the great outcome—a place of love. That is what our world seeks. The church is that place, according to the Word and work of God.

I have written this to myself by way of reminder, and I hope it was helpful for any of you who struggle with the church as a refuge. In John 6, Peter is standing with Jesus after a confusing sermon that sent people away. Jesus asks the disciples if they would like to join the retreat. Peter speaks up: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68). Like you, I see pain and vulnerability in the covenant community. But where else can we go? The church is the body of Christ. It is His presence and refuge. May I, then, encourage you to opt back in, or stay the course, for the refuge that you so desperately want?

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