The streets are quiet. The parks are empty. Once bustling shops and stores have closed their doors; some temporarily and some for good. The centers of modern culture – the bars and clubs – sit vacant, and the Friday night worshipers have sought elsewhere for their sacraments. So too, many beautiful church buildings, once filled with activity, also sit empty. However, if we did not know what was happening around us, would we even detect a change? These churches fell ill and abandoned the gospel generations ago. Now, they hang on by a thread to whatever religious capital they have left. Their buildings lost the gospel, and hence, their buildings lost the Church. The true sheep did not hear the Shepherd’s voice and fled to other pastures.
Many other church buildings also sit mostly vacant. Like their counterparts, the Lord’s Day consists of a skeleton crew; not by choice, but by necessity. The souls that they represent desire to be there, but circumstances out of their control keep them away. The true Church in these buildings still meets to co-ordinate how their members can continue to worship God while being apart. Pastors and elders struggle to ensure that those under their leadership are not left to fend for themselves and will receive the fellowship that they cherish so much. Millions of members of the church universal continue to meet in whatever ways they can, searching for the spiritual food that can only come from fellowship with other believers and from submission to the teaching of the Word of God. For those of us who love Christ’s church, this time has been trying. We long for fellowship and for the comfort that we give one another in prayer and encouragement. We long to hear the congregation lift their voices in praise to their King. We know that this time is temporary and that God, in His sovereignty, will not abandon His Church. So, we pray that we would learn to trust Him more, letting go of ourselves and our wills and submitting to His.
In a stark contrast to the isolation and anguish that many of us feel at this time, there are those who cling to a mirage of religion and are not affected by these times in the ways described above. They abandoned church buildings a long time ago. They go through life claiming in their own hearts to be right with God – but their minds are saturated with worldliness. Their claim to following Christ does not recognize His claim on their lives, their time, or their affections. They allow their thoughts to be guided by their own desires instead of God’s unchanging will. They regularly “neglect meeting together” (Hebrews 10:25), and do not “obey their leaders and submit to them” (Hebrews 13:17). They are full of the “love of the world” (1 John 2:15), and they do not fix their minds on “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable” (Philippians 4:8). They do not “bear one another’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2), they refuse to use their gifts to serve one another (1 Peter 3:10), and they do not partake in the Lord’s Supper in remembrance of Him (Luke 22:19-20). Their profession of faith is as empty as the church buildings, and they are a vivid example of the person James describes who has a dead faith.
I am intimately acquainted with the person described here. This person was me. Until I began submitting myself to Christ’s authority over my life I was unable to understand these commands or the benefits that would come from obeying them. Of course, God’s commands are for our good and for the good of those around us. Yet, our motivating factor in obeying should not be selfish gain, but rather to honour our Lord who gave Himself for His Church.
Titus 1:16 says the following: “They profess to know God, but they deny him by their works.” Paul is here speaking about people who claim the name of Christ but whose deeds do not line up with the claim. The group in view was the “circumcision party,” a group of Jewish Christians who were attempting to add the requirement of circumcision for all who would be saved. The key here is that these people professed with their lips that they were following Christ but their actions were contrary to the law of Christ (Galatians 6:2). Over and over again in Scripture we are given the standard by which we are to examine ourselves and others. That standard is conformity to the law of God. In John 6, Jesus responded to the question put to Him: “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” His answer was the penultimate answer, and it is the answer that comes before any other considerations. “Jesus answered them and said ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in him who he has sent.’” First and foremost, we must put our faith in Christ. As Paul writes in Ephesians 2, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” We are clearly not saved by our obedience to God’s law, but nowhere does this mean that we are not to obey God’s law once we have been saved.
Dear professing Christian, ask yourself this. Did Christ save me and adopt me as a son or daughter so that I could live apart from His family? Did Christ save me so that I could continue in the works of the flesh? Did Christ suffer and die at the hands of sinful men and under the wrath of God the Father so that I could continue living in sin? To this I give the answer that Paul gives in Romans 6:1, God forbid! On the other hand, did Christ die to redeem me out of the world and free me from the penalty of sin, while freeing me to obey his law with all my heart? Did he cause us to be born again to a Living Hope and give us a heart of flesh that is capable of truly loving Him? Absolutely!
Very likely, the first creed of the Church was the simple phrase “Jesus is Lord.” This was a contrast to the earthly claims of lordship made by political leaders. A lord is someone who has, and exercises, his authority over his domain. God has put all things under the Lordship of Christ (Matthew 28:18). This means that the only One who has the right to dictate how we think and act is Christ. If we claim Him as Lord but deny Him this authority, we are deceived.
So, what on earth does this have to do with church buildings and church attendance? If our Lord commands us to be in regular fellowship with other believers, to sit under the teaching of His Word by qualified elders, and to partake in the Lord’s Supper, we must submit. Questions like, “What will I get out of it?” are irrelevant and betray our true motives. I truly believe that the benefits of church attendance and membership are manifold; but our motivation should be first and foremost to please our Lord. The benefits come afterwards and they are the fruit of obedience. Dear professor, will you bear fruit?
“For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.” (Titus 2:11-14)