'Jesus loved and loves forever; Zion on His heart does dwell'
Ultimate Realities 7: Christ's People and Christ's Return
- Bob Horn (1933-2005) was General Secretary of UCCF. View all resources by Bob Horn
What God does for any individual is part of his corporate plan. He is not just in business to redeem individuals and change them. He is out to form a people from every nation, tribe, people and language (Revelation 7:9). Peter wrote to the early Christians, ‘Once you were not a people’, once you did not belong, you lived as an assortment of individuals, without cohesion or common purpose. But when God called you out of darkness into his wonderful light, God could say that ‘now you are the people of God’ (1 Peter 2:10).
When we come to God, we come to others as well; we find that we belong to Christ’s people. The church of Christ is called by various corporate titles - a people, a priesthood, a nation, a household, a family, a colony. So no confession of Christianity is complete without an affirmation of the one worldwide church:
(j) The one holy universal church is the Body of Christ, to which all true believers belong.
The church is of paramount importance to every Christian, since it matters so much to God and since all true believers belong to it. No-one can be a Christian before God without being incorporated into his church; and that necessarily means involvement with a local church. The clause in the Basis is explicit about the overall nature of the whole people of God, leaving to one side questions about the exact local expressions of the church. There is wisdom in this, for at least two reasons.
Local and universal
One is the obvious fact that people who equally believe the Bible and fully accept all the truths set out in this Basis differ in their understanding of how the local and universal aspects of the church should relate. Each denomination has its own slant, and few among evangelicals would insist that their views on church issues should have the same rank as our common views, say, on the atonement. So there is a proper reserve among Bible believers about riding their particular views of the church too hard. The issues may be important for Christian witness - after all, in order to function in practice a church must decide whether or not to have bishops or elders, infant or believers’ baptism, and so on. But these issues do not come within the ‘fundamental truths’ of Christianity.
This is why the Basis does not speak about the local church. That is not a sign that it is thought unimportant. Rather, it is an invitation to evangelicals to work out their views, as they are persuaded in their own minds, and also in harmony with those who differ on matters such as baptism, church order or practice.
Different from New Testament times
A second reason for concentrating on the overall concept of the church is that, in most places, we face a situation quite unlike that of the New Testament. Take first-century Ephesus as an example. We do not know exactly how the church was structured there. Was there a building where they could all meet publicly? Almost certainly not. Were the elders there actually over the various houses (house churches?) where believers met (Acts 20.20)? Probably. Whatever the structure, there was a unified people of God in Ephesus, with no denominations holding separate or rival services. Today, look at any town: all the congregations wear a denominational label (even the newer ‘undenominational’ ones). None of them can properly claim to be in the same position in their town as the congregation or house churches in Ephesus - or, if they do they unchurch all the others. All are marked by some additional, other-than-gospel label.
Churches and Christian Unions
The church at Ephesus did not need any other body to help it reach students; it could have sent its appropriate members to the local university campus genuinely to represent Christianity. Any congregation today that attempts the same is liable to be seen as representing the Presbyterians or Anglicans, the Baptists or Methodists, the Pentecostals or charismatics. Hence the appropriateness of Christian Unions or interdenominational student groups on campus, since they can set aside these differences and seek to represent plain, non-sectional Bible Christianity and its core truths. The same principle applies in other areas of Christian work, where societies or agencies with limited objectives are sent by the churches for particular tasks.
Christian Unions are not churches and are not to function as substitute churches; they lack many of the normal marks of the church. They have more limited goals than a local church. They do not usually have regular biblical ministry from their own membership; they do not initiate people into the church through baptism, or feed people regularly at the Lord’s Table. They seldom exercise discipline, and obviously do not have the range of ages and backgrounds that a local church would. But they are a missionary force of the whole church on campus. They can certainly be called ‘God’s people’ there.
Their members are members of the universal church and of local churches. Christian Unions receive their members from the churches and send them back into the churches. Christian students are simply the people best placed to reach their peers. They study live, eat, think, talk and mix with other students in a way that is totally natural and not open to non-students. They relate to other students as friends and Christians, not as people wearing outside labels, denominational or other.
The interdenominational nature of a student group is a strong biblical plus in its witness; it does not have to defend or put in front of non-Christians a set of lesser distinctive; it can simply be there for the gospel, no more and no less. Many churches, of course, are gospel-centred rather than primarily expressing a denominational ethos.
There is therefore no conflict between the roles of church and CU; rather the reverse. A wise church will encourage student groups to get on with their on-campus witness without control or interference; a wise CU will value the counsel and support of understanding local churches.
The best working relationship
Relationships vary from time to time, but the best relationship probably includes these two factors:
1. CU members regularly attending a local church and being welcomed there, both to its Sunday services and into the homes of church members. Churches can have a great influence for good, in pastoral and evangelistic ways, with the wisdom God has given them.
2. Churches encouraging students to make their mark for God on campus, rather than drawing them away from the student scene into the round of church activities. It is a great temptation to churches to use the enthusiasm of students, but the opportunities of student years can never be recaptured and need to be taken at the time.
The clause highlights the basic truths about the church that are not in dispute. The church is one: not a collection of separate ‘churches’, but one body of those who have been redeemed by the blood of Christ. This oneness should transcend all sectional loyalties.
The church is holy though not in the sense of being perfect. The New Testament had to call on Christians frequently to leave their sins, gossip, slander and feuds. But the church is holy in the sense that its members are called to holiness and have been set apart to live for God.
The church is universal or worldwide, reaching to and including people from every social, economic educational, cultural and ethnic background. It brings its message into the culture of every people, wanting them each (as we see from Acts 2:6,8 and 11) to hear of God and express their response in their own local dialect. The church across the globe does not have to conform to one ritual or pattern, but can express the same basic love to God in its own local way - indeed, it is imperative that it does so. A church that exhibits an imported culture is a liability to God. Paul wrote to the Christians at Rome, among other things, to steer them away from being either dominated by Jewishness or set against Jews. The one way would have alienated Gentiles, the other would have offended Jews, and Paul wanted a church where Jews and Gentiles all accepted each other as Christ had accepted them (Romans 15:7). The church at the heart of the empire needed to exhibit Christ, not factions, only in that way could it be seen as the ‘dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit’ (Ephesians 2:22).
The church belongs to its head
The church is the body of Christ, meaning that it belongs to him, that he is its head (Ephesians 4:15), and that it is to take final instructions only from him. No human can rule the church, since that is for Christ alone, through his authoritative word. Christ is not merely the theoretical or titular head of the church, but its active and actual head. It is the gifts, openings and challenges that he has given to any congregation or assembly that should in practice determine what that church does, rather than the slots that people think need to be filled.
Being a body means that all its members have complementary functions, and the gifts to fulfill them, by which they contribute to building each other up. This sense of belonging to and needing each other is foreign to rugged, western individualism, but very much part of God’s plan and a foretaste of heaven.
To build others up
Interestingly, the chief reason the New Testament gives for Christians to meet together is not to worship in the ‘music and singing’ sense, though we will naturally want to do that when we meet and when we are on our own. The explicit reason given is that we should ‘encourage one another’ and ‘spur one another on towards love and good deeds’ (Hebrews 10:24-25). ‘When you come together ... All ... must be done for the strengthening of the church’ (1 Corinthians 14:26). The aim is that we build each other up. That is why we need each other and why we must meet others, not merely be in the same building with them for a service.
The church is bigger
These truths explain that God’s church is bigger than our perspective and experience of it. They imply that all Christians should be committed to the church and its local expression, working in it and through it for God. Students who win students for Christ, as the CU fulfils its particular mission role, will want them to be integrated quickly with a congregation. CUs are part of the whole church’s ministry not vice versa.
These truths liberate us from getting hung up too much about denominations or divisions, in order to focus on expressing our God-given oneness with all who honour his Son and make his gospel known. These truths put disputed church matters into perspective.
These truths protect us from falling for any claims to have the exclusive truth about the church, or from any who may try to take over a student group for a church’s teaching that does not keep the central truths central. The church needs to be preserved from secondary squabbles, since its main battle is for the minds and hearts of people who are at the moment outside its membership and in darkness. And the thought of the church sends us out to bring more people in, as Christ builds his church by continually adding new converts to it.
The thrust of God’s truth in general, and of the purpose of the church in particular, is to enthuse us about and give us vision for winning the world for Christ. World mission beckons. The church is a going-out body, always following Christ as he seeks and saves the lost.
The last things
And so to the last things:
(k) The Lord Jesus will return in person, to judge everyone, to execute God’s just condemnation on those who have not repented and to receive the redeemed to eternal glory.
The final clause of the confession brings us to the end, the conclusion of what will happen in time and the start of what we will experience in eternity. This puts Christians in a uniquely favoured position. We know where we are coming from - God’s creation. We know where we are going and how it will all end. This gives us a confident hope that puts our present life into perspective.
The chief fact that this highlights is that God has a plan for all history that he is working it out as year succeeds year, and that he will personally bring his plan to his conclusion. Curiosity about the end rises in all of us. What lies beyond death? Now that we have the capacity to destroy this world (a scenario that no previous generation has had to face), many people are anxious to know how it will all finish.
This present age will end
This clause underlines the Bible’s consistent teaching that the present stage of history, between the two comings of Christ will end. The universe will not run on in a steadily evolving way, getting ever better and better. It is now ‘groaning ... as we wait for ... the redemption of our bodies’ (Romans 8:22-23). It will finish, both because it is so riddled with the effects of sin, and because God has something better - the new heaven and the new earth (Revelation 21:1-2).
This present ‘order of things’ (Revelation 21:4) will finish on the day long ago decreed by God. Even the incarnate Son of God while on earth did not know the date, but his Father does (Mark 13:32). The end of time is in his timing. God’s Son will return in person in great power and glory. He will return as he went (Acts 1:11), dramatically and visibly.
Some Christians down the years have speculated about the details of Christ’s return or offered their interpretations to explain the order of events. On the whole, the more details these predictions have provided, the less conviction they have carried. Scripture concentrates on the main fact and on its spiritual and moral implications for our lives.
The end of all opportunity
Christ’s return will be the end of any opportunity for people to respond to the gospel, because the return will usher in the final judgment, where all must appear before the judge (2 Corinthians 5:10). The parable of the ten virgins has a solemn phrase: ‘And the door was shut’ to the latecomers (Matthew 25:10-12).
The fact that Christ will judge everyone, every man and woman, is entirely fitting in relation to who Christ is (the Lord of the universe), though entirely unpalatable to contemporary thought. Judgment is a redundant and repugnant category in a relativistic age but the Bible teaches it - and it makes sense. The Christian worldview recognizes that this life has plenty of injustice, but that one day justice will prevail, wrongs will be righted, good will triumph and evil will be destroyed. Many people spend their lives demanding justice from God: they will get it, because it is God’s nature to act justly.
The basis of judgment was brought out in the earlier clause on human nature: it will be according to a person’s light. Every person has access to some awareness of God from the created order - to the fact that God exists and that he has eternal power. ‘What may be known about God is plain to them ... so that they are without excuse’ (Romans 1:19-20). Those who have rejected the light available to them will be accountable for that.
In fact, faced with this ‘general revelation’ of God, Paul says that people actually suppress the truth and are culpable for doing so. It is wickedness rather than ignorance that leads them to do this. Far from all routes leading to God, that passage in Romans 1 suggests that it is more a case of all routes leading away from God. These truths have aspects that are sobering, but they are as clear in the Bible as all the other basic truths.
Those who refuse to come to a right attitude to God will suffer God’s just condemnation. The judge of all the earth will do right (Genesis 18:25). ‘He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord’ (2 Thessalonians 1:8-9).
The redeemed will have another destiny: they will be received into eternal glory. Heaven waits! They will be welcomed into the eternal home, to keep company with their God - Father, Son and Spirit - and all their brothers and sisters. They will know him as all the while he has known them (1 Corinthians 13:12). They will see, whereas previously they had to trust (1 John 3:2). They will be satisfied, whereas before they had to hope. The new order of things will be ushered in, with an end to death, mourning, crying and pain (Revelation 21:4). That verse implies that now, in this life, we are in the ‘old order of things’, where these sad experiences occur. There is no promise of their final removal here - but they will not be present in glory. No wonder that we want to cry with John ‘Amen [so be it] Come, Lord Jesus’ (Revelation 22:20).
This final clause of the Basis, awesome but uplifting, explains what God’s final curtain will reveal. The world will not end with a human finger on the button. Jesus will return; the Master who went on his journey will come back (John 14:3). We will meet him and be with him for ever, in the company of the redeemed (1 Thessalonians 4:17).
This truth liberates us to lift up our heads to the coming king. We are released from anxious care about the future. All will end well; the last scene will put everything right. If death should come before then, it cannot separate us from the love of God (Romans 8:38-39).
This truth protects us from all kinds of fears; our hearts do not need to be troubled, for we trust in God (John 14:1). This truth also preserves us from apathy about those who do not know Christ, the lost. They are lost, as we were. They need to hear, now, in this time of opportunity before it is too late.
Finally therefore, this truth sends us out for Christ, so that we may meet him not with shame, but with pure joy ‘You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming ... since you are looking forward to this, make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him’ (2 Peter 3:11-14).
1. How does God reveal the value he sets on his church?
2. Churches, composed of the likes of us, are never perfect. How can we contribute to their growth?
3. What is the most important Christian response to the certainty of Christ’s return?
4. What sense of hope is there in society around us? How can we speak of true hope?
5. Then, ‘There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away’ (Revelation 21:4). Then, not yet. What can we expect while the old order is still with us?