Have you ever met someone who says they love the gospel but not the church? Despite what such people say, loving the gospel but not the church is actually impossible, and I want to help you understand why.
The gospel is a message. That message, when embraced and trusted, creates a people. And those people in turn demonstrate the promises and truth of the message. Call it history’s greatest virtuous cycle. The gospel creates the church, and the church protects and displays the gospel.
What is the gospel? It’s the good news that Jesus loves an unworthy and sinful people by rescuing them from the wrath of God (Rom. 5:8; 1 John 4:10). He saves us individually, but He saves us into a people. We become “members of the same body . . . through the gospel” (Eph. 3:6). Peter observes, “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy” (1 Peter 2:10). Becoming a people and receiving God’s mercy happen together.
What then is the church? Invisibly, it’s the people whom Christ saves. Visibly, it’s where we “put on” all the individual and corporate realities of the gospel. We gather to hear the gospel and to affirm one another’s participation in the gospel through the sacraments (Rom. 6:1–3; 1 Cor. 10:15–17). This protects the gospel. Then we scatter to obey everything Jesus commands. This displays the gospel. Loving one another as Jesus loved us—sacrificially and in the face of sinful unworthiness—demonstrates that we are His disciples (John 13:34–35).
Now, suppose someone says, “I have been declared righteous by Christ!” but never pursues or “puts on” this life of righteousness. We would doubt that person’s profession of faith. In the same way, we should doubt the profession of anyone who claims to be a member of Christ’s body but never “puts on” their membership in a local church.
Those who love the gospel will love a church, while those who forsake every church effectively forsake the gospel.
Peter learned all this through a stern rebuke from Paul. When Peter separated himself from the Gentiles in the church, Paul said he was not acting “in step with the truth of the gospel” (Gal. 2:14). Paul even suggested that Peter’s actions denied the gospel of justification by faith alone: “We know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ” (v. 16).
Had the Apostle John been on the scene, he might have told Peter, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar” (1 John 4:20). Less inspired yet still trenchant, Kevin DeYoung has observed, “For someone to say, ‘I love Jesus, but I can’t stand the church’ is like me telling my wife, ‘I love you, Corina, but I can’t stand your body!’”
The gospel creates the church. The church protects and displays the gospel. You cannot have one without the other.