The theme of the Bible is Jesus Christ. It speaks of his church, but the church never competes with Jesus for attention. The Old Testament anticipates and prefigures the coming of the Son of God (Lk. 24:44-45). Its (noral laws anticipate his sinless life. Its ceremonies and rituals prefigure his sacrificial death and priesthood (Matt. 5:18; Hebrews). The New Testament describes Christ’s saving work as it transpired (the Gospels). It relates his ongoing work by the Spirit as the gospel marched in triumph across the first-century world (Acts). It tells Christians how to live in view of what Jesus has done and will do (the Epistles). It assures them that he rules already and will come again in open victory (Revelation).
The church in the New Testament is simply the people of God. By God’s grace, they can only receive salvation. They are not its authors, guardians or dispensers (Eph. 5:23).
Like John the Baptist, the church should always point to Jesus, never to itself (John 3:30). As a body, it depends on Christ its head for life and for direction (Col. 2:17-19). As citizenry of the kingdom, it owes allegiance to Jesus Christ (Col. 1:13-14; Phil. 2:10-11). If citizens ever create their own flag and write their own slogans, they become rebels and not loyal subjects (Luke 19:14, 27). The true church must never compete with Jesus Christ. Whenever it does so, it immediately ceases to be “true.”
According to Jesus’ promise in Matthew 16:18ff, the church will never be destroyed. In that sense, it can never need restoring, for Jesus guarantees its constant and perpetual existence in spite of all the forces of hell.
But that does not protect the church from problems or insulate it from ills. According to the entire New Testament from the Day of Pentecost onward, the first-century churches suffered from practically every problem, error and sin we can imagine today. The Book of Acts opens almost with major corruption and division in the Jerusalem church (Acts 5, 6). The Book of Revelation closes the story with several churches of Asia equally distraught and off the path (Rev. 1-3). The church’s only hope is Jesus Christ – not its own “purity” or “knowledge.” This was as true in the first century as it is in the twentieth, and it is certainly as true today as it was then.
God calls us to trust Jesus now for right standing with himself, the only way to real peace (Rom. 5:1: 8:1). He calls us to give ourselves to him in a holy life of thankful obedience and zealous service. He calls us to rise again one day – to be found in him, not having any righteousness of our own but that which comes only from God and only through trusting in Jesus (Phil. 3:8-9). Finally he will call us to enter judgment, but without fear – then to be presented forever to Christ the Lord with exceeding joy (I John 4:17-18; Jude 24-25).
This will cost us the pride of all our supposed “distinctives” – but it will enable us to rejoice in Jesus Christ (Phil. 3:3-11). It will mean sacrificing our own “identity” – but Jesus will confess us as belonging to him (Matt. 10:32). We must throw out forever all dependence on the flesh, whether it be intellectual achievement, moral attainment, doctrinal argument, or our successes at “restoration.” But Jesus has promised never to leave us or forsake us until the end of the age (Matt. 28:20; Heb. 13:5-6).
In short, God calls us to forfeit ourselves, to love not our own lives even to death. But he has promised that all who lose their lives for his sake will find life indeed (Matt. 10:39).
History is an ever-moving stream. We were born into it at a particular point; we will leave it when God sees fit. Over it all, however, stands Jesus Christ, and he alone gives any of it meaning. In the entire history of our race, there is only one short period in the life of one man which God can ever accept. Those are the approximately 12,000 days of the bodily experience of Jesus of Nazareth.
There only can one find the perfect “doing” which can pass unsinged through the fires of judgment. There only can one see the perfect “dying” which exhausts all the curses of a broken covenant and drains the divine wrath to its dregs. No other life or death can stand before God’s holy scrutiny. This alone is “holy history.” This only can enter judgment and receive the acquital of Almighty God.
The gospel tells us that this is what happened in the person of Jesus our representative. It was his obedience, his blood, and his now-risen and glorified life which secured our right standing before God. Jesus obeyed, and we are made righteous (Rom. 5:19). He died and we are reconciled (Rom. 5: 10). He arose and we shall pass safely through the great judgment day (Rom. 5:10).
The work underlying our salvation is finished: the gospel proclaims that news. All we can do is believe it – trust God who is always faithful and who never lies! “Being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5:1). Peace can be had in no other way.
When we grasp this, our “history of the true church” begins to sound like a childish tale. All human history becomes a passing smoke, its achievements vanity, its righteousness filthy rags. The everlasting gospel frees us to die to our own history in order to live to Christ’s. And that history, accomplished outside us and for us, has already reached its goal -in glory at God’s right hand!