• The fatal danger of liberalism is benevolent activity apart from the one saving Gospel.

• The danger of evangelical Christians is forgetfulness of the essential outcome of the Gospel.

This is an age, as Albert Einstein once said, of perfect means and confused goals. The remark applies with peculiar force to the Church. God has given it perfect means and has also set before it definite goals, but today the Church again needs to recover its divine purpose.

What is the Church for? The answer is no mystery. Scripture makes plain that the Church is to be a worshiping body, committed to “show forth the praises of him who hath called [it] out of darkness into his marvellous light”; that it is to proclaim the saving Gospel of Jesus Christ to all the world; and that it is to obey all the teaching of Jesus Christ, its great Head and Lord.

The means whereby the Church may attain these goals are access to God through the work of Christ its Mediator, the Holy Spirit as the source of its power, and the inerrant Scriptures as the basis of its instruction.

In this time of uncertainty and confusion about the purpose of the Church, evangelicals as well as liberals need to think clearly. With the zeal for the Gospel reflected in the very word describing them, many evangelicals are saying with deep earnestness, “Let the Church just preach the Gospel, and everything else will be all right.” Yet this assertion is inadequate, because it stresses the Church’s great priority to the neglect of the other obligations which its Lord places upon it. On the other hand, many liberals are saying, “Let the Church devote itself to political and social reform, and society will be saved.” And this is untrue, because it misconceives the jurisdiction of the Church and neglects the Gospel and worship.

Essential to the life and health of the Church is its relationship to God. This depends upon worship, the sacraments or ordinances, and the hearing of the Word as well as upon service. Speaking to those who make up the “spiritual house” that is the Church, Peter said, “Like living stones be yourselves built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 2:5, RSV).

It is a valid criticism of both liberalism and evangelicalism that they are long on activism and short on worship. With all their emphasis on social service, liberals need to remember the essentiality of worship; with all their passion for the Gospel, evangelicals must not forget that to adore and praise God is no take-it-or-leave-it matter. We must worship God because of who he is. To give him only a careless devotion is to cheat him of his rightful due. Great proclamation of the Gospel, powerful witnessing, Spirit-filled service, cannot be dissociated from true worship of the living God.

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But worship does not stand alone. It must be accompanied by obedience to the whole body of Christ’s commands. In his Great Commission, the risen Lord said to the disciples to whom he committed responsibility for the building of his Church: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Matt. 28:19, 20). Therefore, along with the proclamation of the Gospel leading to discipling and baptizing all nations, the Church is bound to teach those who have been baptized to obey all that Christ taught.

At the heart of the Church’s mission stands the proclamation of the good news of salvation. But if it does only this and nothing more, it has not been faithful to the whole of its Lord’s commission. The Church must also teach and nourish its members, so that they will go out and fulfill their function as “the light of the world” and “the salt of the earth.” Christ’s commands are clearly set forth in the Gospels and repeated and interpreted in the Epistles. To feed the sheep the Word of God, to care for those in need, to love one’s neighbor—to do all these things and others like them in Christ’s Name is to obey his teaching. The very structure of the apostolic church provided for Christian humanitarianism; the diaconate (Acts 6:1–6) was begun so that the needy would not be neglected and the apostles would not be diverted from their primary task of preaching and prayer. That this did not mean apostolic indifference is evident from Paul’s great concern about the poor in Jerusalem. As he wrote in Galatians, “So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all men, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (6:10).

If liberalism has failed in proclaiming the saving work of Jesus Christ, the reason is that it has rejected the supernatural nature of that work. Yet apart from salvation through Christ’s atoning blood and bodily resurrection, worship becomes lifeless formalism; and apart from the Gospel, social service dwindles to benevolent humanism. Indeed, such service offered as a means of acceptance with God in place of redemption through the Cross insults the God who so loved the world that he gave his Son for its life. Bishop Lesslie Newbigin has rightly said, “There is a terrible danger that the Church should become a large social service organization with its center in a modern streamlined office rather than God’s family with its center in ‘the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread, and the prayers.’ ” The New Testament knows nothing of a church devoted, to political affairs. The only ecclesiastical proclamation in the New Testament is that of the first-century Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:1–29), and it concerns spiritual matters.

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The Church is not a mere organization. It is a living and breathing body. It is made up of imperfect men and women who by grace are enabled to use God’s perfect means. The Church that is true to its calling is one in which believers do not thwart God’s purpose in saving them. That purpose is set forth by Paul in Ephesians 2:8–10: “By grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God—not because of works, lest any man should boast.” If the Church forgets that, it has no message, no saving word for a lost world. And if the Church stops with that, it lays itself open to the peril of antinomianism. For the apostle goes on to say why God saved us: “We are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” While the fatal danger of liberalism is benevolent activity apart from adequate recognition of the one saving Gospel, the danger of evangelicalism is forgetfulness of the essential outcome of the Gospel.

What, then, is the answer to present-day confusion about the purpose of the Church? It is for the Church to strive to be true to “all the counsel of God.” It is for the Church to be what God has called it to be—a worshiping community of believers, proclaiming the Gospel of redemption, seeking to observe all things its Lord has commanded it. This, and nothing less than this, is what the Church of Jesus Christ is for.

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