Dear Church Family,
In our sermon this coming Sunday from John 20:19-31, we will learn of how the resurrected Christ appeared to the disciples (once on the day of His resurrection, and then again a week later). In that closed and locked room, standing amongst His disciples, Jesus breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained” (John 20:22-23).
This is an astounding statement and an amazing event in the very early life of the New Testament church. On the day of His resurrection, in His first post-resurrection appearance to His disciples, Jesus “breathes out” the Holy Spirit upon them, giving His church the authority to forgive or not forgive sins. As we will see in the sermon, this authority is not to be wielded based upon whim and imagination – it is based upon the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and His speaking in the Scriptures.
Nonetheless, the authority that Jesus grants to His church to forgive or retain (to forgive or not forgive) the sins of any speaks to the Lord’s view concerning the importance and centrality of the church in His work of redemption. Simply put, for the believer in Christ, membership and participation in the church is not optional, it is indispensable.
David B. Garner, associate professor of systematic theology at Westminster Theological Seminary, makes this very point in a recent article entitled, “Church is Not a Volunteer Organization.” I recommend reading the entire article, but let me just highlight two things that stuck out from what Garner wrote.
The Church Surpasses the Family
One point that Garner makes is that the union and connection that Christ’s people have with Him and with one another is greater than the bonds that exist in every other relationship – even one’s blood relationships in the family:
The glorious Spirit-genetic connection enjoyed by the people of God—united to their Savior, in communion with him and others of his people—literally surpasses every other institution, including the human family. The work of Christ creates irrevocable bonds and an indissoluble identity for his newly created people. Stunning in every respect, the beauty and bounty of Christ’s church should captivate us. [emphasis added]
Certainly, the family is one of the critical institutions of any well-functioning society. And, the Scriptures contain much instruction concerning the importance of families and the various roles of individuals in families (e.g., Ephesians 5:22-6:4). At the same time, familial bonds are not eternal (Matthew 22:30; Luke 20:34-36) and Jesus foretold of persecution against His followers by their blood relatives (Matthew 10:21; Mark 13:12).
This church’s greater importance is a helpful corrective for many Christians who idolize the family. As a pastor, I have heard people defend their absence from worship by giving the excuse that they needed some “family time.” This sort of thing is usually stated as if it were generally acceptable. While we should praise people’s desire to cultivate good family relationships, we should also question their priorities. My response is: The best way to care for your family is by prioritizing the church, cultivating and growing those relationships that are eternal.
The Church Is Not Optional
This is really the whole point of Garner’s article: when we treat the church as a volunteer organization, we trivialize those for whom Christ died and rose again and we trivialize the work of Christ. Garner writes:
Here then is the point. To situate church membership in our thinking as one welcome facet of our lives or a compelling option among a myriad of others, makes a mockery of the elective love of God, the redeeming work of Christ, and the gospel’s hegemonic scope. The gospel does not add the church to our priority list; it subjects every one of our endeavors to our new identity in God’s family. The gospel does not snuggle with our prior existence and religion-ize our thinking; it captures us in the glory of Christ forever. The gospel swallows us whole; it does not nibble around the edges.
May we all be swallowed whole by the gospel and be captured in the glory of Christ, as we prioritize the eternal, enduring community of the church in our lives.
The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch