In Search of the True Church

Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the churches of Christ greet you (Romans 16:16).

Before we get started, I wanted to give a shout-out to WordPress blogger Altruistico. He writes that he is a re-born Christian of non-denominational faith. Serving the one true church, that of Christ Jesus, upon whom the true Church is built.

I believe the Holy Spirit crossed our paths for that has been a theme in my current series of articles — what is the true church of Christ? In this anniversary year of the Reformation I’ve been taking a closer look at the institutional church.

In my last post I asked the question:

If the Pope is the Man of Sin, and Martin Luther an anti-Jewish nationalist then where does the disciple of Christ go to worship? Hint: God must be worshiped in spirit and in truth (John 4:19-24).

The church is the bride of Christ. It is not an institution, but a spiritual body of people like you and me who have been saved by grace through faith.

There was no Baptist church in Ephesus, nor Methodist church in Corinth. There were no Presbyterians in Galatia, nor Catholics in Thessalonica. Christians met in their homes to worship God, break bread and fellowship. You might say that the house church is the true church of God. They weren’t even called Christians, but were disciples of Christ – a sect of the Nazarenes — who followed the Way (Acts 9:1-2, Acts 11:26).

In this series of articles I have been rather kindly towards the Catholic Church, and admittedly critical of the Protestant Church. My charge against the Reformation is that it split the Church in two. It unleashed confusion and division — opening the door to a flood of heresy and false teaching. The shortcomings of Roman Catholicism were only magnified in Protestantism. One might conclude that neither represents the true body of Christ.

The New Testament ecclesia was not an institutional church. I think it interesting that Protestants view the Pope as the Man of Sin while Catholics see Martin Luther as the false prophet. Will Jesus spew them both out of his mouth? Consider our Lord’s warning to the church at Sardis:

I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God. Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent. If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you. Yet you have still a few names in Sardis, people who have not soiled their garments, and they will walk with me in white, for they are worthy. The one who conquers will be clothed thus in white garments, and I will never blot his name out of the book of life. I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches (Revelation 3:1-6).

The Seven Churches in Asia, to whom Jesus speaks in Revelation, are considered to be representative of the various states of the church during this age of grace. However, these were seven literal churches that existed in the first century. To the extent that they are representative of the modern church is that both share the same faults and failures. Notice that Jesus did not condemn all who were in the church at Sardis:

You still have a few who walk with me in white, for they are worthy.

This also answers the question of eternal security. Those who believe in predestination typically hold the doctrine of once saved, always saved. That is false teaching.

Jesus taught:

If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned (John 15:6).

A Calvinist will suggest that the one who is lost was never saved. Judas Iscariot was saved, but he did not abide. If he had repented he would have been forgiven, but he could not live with the heavy burden of unrepentant guilt. A person can be in Christ, but if they don’t remain they will be cut off.

What if I backslide? I would not want to be in a fallen state when Christ returns, but consider the parable of the Prodigal Son. He fell from grace, but recognized his sin and returned to his father. If you have fallen away, as long as you have breath, God will welcome you back.

Sardis might resemble your church. Not everyone who attends will be saved. Some are like spiritual zombies — their faith dead like a tree that bears no fruit. This is the distinction between justification and sanctification. We are justified by faith, but sanctified by the Spirit. Sanctification is manifested by the fruits of the Spirit, and good works which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them (Ephesians 2:10).

This was the stumbling block for Martin Luther. He saw himself as a wretched man, lost and hopeless, vainly seeking solace through the many hours of prayer and meditation. In 1510, he journeyed to Rome and crawled on his hands and knees up the 28 stone stairs that Jesus climbed when he faced Pilate’s judgment. (The stairs were moved there from Jerusalem.)

Luther reached the top with bloodied knees and a yearning spirit. He found no comfort in works of the flesh, and returned to Germany downcast and sullen.

Luther was not a Calvinist — if only for the fact that John Calvin wasn’t born until 1509 — but he framed the theology that would later become Calvinism.

Man is totally wretched and depraved. That’s how Luther viewed himself. He discounted good works (including prayer and study) because they left him feeling unjustified. He wrote that good works were as good as sin. Whatever good deeds we do are stained by our inherently evil state.

Paul rang in his ears:

For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate (Romans 7:14-15).

This set Luther at odds with the Catholic Church and Scripture itself (James 2:24). He couldn’t harmonize Paul with James so he simply dismissed what James wrote. This is not rightly dividing the Word of God.

Pastor David Jeremiah said that Christians have to be careful with the doctrine of justification. “Some just let it fly,” he said. “They go on living in sin thinking there’s no work involved.”

I had to walk away from a recent sermon where the pastor was pounding the theme of salvation by faith alone. Orthodox Christians do not disagree in the sense that Jesus did all the work necessary to redeem us, but this is not what he was talking about when he told the church at Sardis that their works were incomplete. We are told to abide in Christ, to manifest the fruit of good works, and to persevere:

The one who conquers will be clothed thus in white garments …

Well, there’s so much more to say, but I have exceeded my 1000 word limit. In closing, I would like to give the last word to Altruistico. They’ve posted some great articles on church history (click on their Church tab). In this article they discuss what is the true church:

The ability to trace one’s church back to the “first church” through apostolic succession is an argument used by a number of different churches to assert that their church is the “one true church.” The Roman Catholic Church makes this claim. The Greek Orthodox Church makes this claim. Some Protestant denominations make this claim. Some of the “Christian” cults make this claim. How do we know which church is correct? The biblical answer is – it does not matter!

The “first church” is the church that is recorded in the New Testament, especially in the Book of Acts and the Epistles of Paul. The New Testament church is the “original church” and the “one true church.”

Written by Donnie Skaggs, Leann Hart, Don Poythress • Copyright © Capitol Christian Music Group, BMG Rights Management US, LLC

Copyright © 2017 Eternal Christ

Our Christian Walk

Finally, then, brethren, we request and exhort you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us instruction as to how you ought to walk and please God (just as you actually do walk), that you excel still more. [1Th 4:1]

I attended a Friday evening fellowship at the home of a church elder to welcome some newly baptized sailors and marines to the body of Christ. We sat around a piano and listened to some classic gospel music, and it was evident that some of the young men weren’t quite sure about their decision. Petty Officer James said, “This just doesn’t feel right.” I asked him what his buddies were doing that night and he said they were probably at a bar, or some [exotic] club.

On Sunday, I heard the testimony of three young Christian women. Chelsea (22) had gone to church her whole life, but she only walked with God on Sunday morning. The rest of the week she walked in the world. Her social life was so demanding that she had no time for weekly Bible study, or prayer. Her teen years were spent trying to figure out how to have sex and not get caught, or get pregnant.

Jackie (31) was baptized when she was 18, but her habitual partying and drinking continued guiltless for the next 12 years until she heard a sermon about repentance, and she felt convicted in her heart to confess her sins. “Funny,” she said, “I heard that same preaching at church, and from my parents, for ten years before my heart was ready to truly repent and believe.”

Monique (28) was involved with the youth ministry since her teen years, but her secret temptation was sexual immorality. She had been having sex since the age of 16, and never felt any remorse: “I always thought if I loved the person it would be okay.”

Christian, how are we to walk in the Lord in a manner that is pleasing to Him? Being justified by faith is only the beginning of our journey. Jesus Christ did the hard part. He died on the cross for your sins. All you have to do is repent and believe, and take up your cross to follow Him. Some will say, “That sure sounds like work. I thought we were saved by faith.” Indeed, we are saved by faith to do good works (James 2:26), but not by the works themselves lest any man should boast (Ep 2:8-9).

Sin is a heavy burden. Christ said that His yoke is easy and His burden light (Mt 11:30). Living for the weekend is an appealing snare that entangles many. At the Friday evening fellowship our brother James was mournful that he was missing out on a night of fun with his buddies; and Chelsea, Jackie and Monique were fine going to church on Sunday as long as they didn’t have to give up partying during the week.

Were these four young people truly justified in the Lord? Some will question whether they were even saved, but what we can know for sure is that even though they were baptized and attended church they were clearly not sanctified.

For this is the will of God, your sanctification; that is, that you abstain from sexual immorality. [1 Th 4:3]

The Thessalonians, to whom Paul was writing, were justified by faith in Jesus Christ, but like the assembly at Corinth they were in bondage to all sorts of sexual immorality which was rampant in the pagan Greek culture of their day. In fact, the literal meaning of sexual immorality–from the Greek word πορνείας (porneias)–is all manner of sexual sin including fornication, adultery, homosexuality, pedophilia and bestiality. (From porneias we derive the word porn, or pornography.) God hates sexual sin. One cannot justify their behavior like Monique who thought that sex with her boyfriends was an expression of love. It is not. Paul exhorted the Thessalonians to possess their bodies in sanctification and honor, not according to the lustful passions of the Gentiles who know not God (1Th 4:4-5).

The Roman assembly had a similar problem of walking in the flesh. (This is not unique to James, Chelsea, Jackie and Monique.) Paul told the Romans they could either be obedient to sin resulting in death (Ro 6:16), or obedient to righteousness resulting in sanctification (Ro 6:19); and having been freed from sin and enslaved to God, you derive your benefit, resulting in sanctification, and the outcome, eternal life (Ro 6:22).

To the assembly at Corinth Paul wrote that Christ Jesus is our righteousness, sanctification and redemption (1Co 1:30-31). The writer of Hebrews exhorts us to pursue the sanctification (or holiness) without which no one will see the Lord (He 12:14). In the next verse he warns that no one come short of the grace of God (He 12:15-16). We know that all fall short of the glory of God (Ro 3:23), but here the Bible tells us to not fall short of the grace of God. For all of those years of drinking, partying and walking in the flesh Chelsea, Jackie and Monique fell short of God’s grace.

I know many Christian brothers who have a problem with pornography. The church, my friends, is leavened with a whole lot of sin. Paul wrote that God has chosen us for sanctification by the Spirit, and faith in the truth (2Th 2:13). By faith, then, we are justified, and by the Spirit we are sanctified; but if we continue walking in the flesh our minds are still conformed to the spirit that is in the world.

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect. [Ro 12:2]

Our spiritual service of worship, writes Paul, is not going to church every Sunday, or tithing, or singing in the choir, but presenting our bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God (Ro 12:1). Mind you, attending church and doing all those things are well and good, but if you are not walking in obedience, holiness and righteousness; if you are not thinking with the mind of Christ; if you are behaving in a manner that is grieving to the Holy Spirit (Ep 4:30) then you will surely fall short of the saving grace of God.

This is the message we have heard from Him and declare to you: God is light; in Him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with Him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth. But if we walk in the light, as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, His Son, purifies us from all sin. [1Jn 1:5-7]

To our brethren who struggle in the flesh, I pray that you will faithfully seek the light.

Next: The Seasons of Our Lord

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