Martyn Lloyd-Jones once notably explained, “When the church is absolutely different from the world, she invariably attracts it. It is then that the world is made to listen to her message, though it may hate it at first.” Nothing is more important for Christian leaders to come to terms with in our day than this truth. History teaches us that when the church has sought to be most like the world, it, in fact, had the least impact on the world. As Sinclair Ferguson has observed, “If all the Christian church has to offer is a different version of what the world has to offer, then the Christian church––as it has done in the Western world in the last fifty years––falls into decrepitude.”1 Nevertheless, the question remains, “In what ways should the Christian church be different from the world?” Certainly no biblically faithful, gospel-focused church would ever insist on putting up unbiblical standards of separation in order to distinguish the church from the world. What, then, distinguishes the Christian church from the world? Consider the following:
1. An abiding commitment to the word of God.
The revelation of God in Scripture gives shape to everything that believers are to be and to do in the local church. God’s written word is our only rule of faith and practice. If we loosen our hold on the teaching of Scripture, anything and everything else will creep into our lives and assemblies. This means that the church is to be marked chiefly by a commitment to the sound teaching and preaching of Scripture. If there is anything that our churches are to be known for in the world it is this––that God’s people hold fast to the word of truth. After all, the church is “the pillar and ground of truth” (1 Tim. 3:15). Whenever Israel experienced reformation in the days of the kings, it was when God’s word was rediscovered and read among the people of God (2 Chronicles 29:1–31:21; 34:8–35:19). When the Apostle Paul wrote to the fledgling church in Thessalonica––in order to encourage them to continue to the faith–he took special note of the fact that God’s word was evident in their congregation. He said, “For…the word of the Lord sounded forth from you” (1 Thess. 1:8). When Jesus commended the church in Ephesus, He said, “you…have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false” (Rev. 2:2). Nothing is more essential to church being distinct from the word than that the church holds fast to the whole counsel of God–in our personal lives, worship, and witness.
In his book We Become What We Worship, G.K. Beale explains how this ought to work itself out from the church into the life of believers. He writes,
“Paul says in 2 Corinthians 10:5, “Bring every thought captive to the obedience [thinking] of Jesus Christ.” What part of our lives is unrelated to Christ? A friendship or dating relationship? Our marriage? Our relationship to our children? As families, are there regular times that we gather together to hear God’s Word and to pray together? Do we meet together with fellow Christians at weekly worship and sincerely participate? Negative answers to these questions can be indicators of whether or not we have an idolatrous stance.”2
Of course, the church’s commitment to Scripture must be in proportion to the truth of the gospel. Many, under pretense of principled zeal, have embraced a pharisaic reading of God’s word. All of God’s word leads to the Lord Jesus Christ and the grace of God in the gospel of Christ (John 5:46-47; Luke 24:27, 32, 45–47).
2. An increasing conformity to the image of Christ.
The gospel produces conformity to the image of Christ. As the Apostle Paul puts it, “we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:18). This means that the church is to reflect the holiness, character, and beauty of Christlikeness. Sadly, many who affirm this principle have truncated views of Christ. Some mistakenly reduce Jesus down to a soft, tolerant, community organizer. Others erroneously represent Jesus as a hard, intolerant law-enforcement officer. Biblical revelation teaches that Jesus is himself holy, harmless, undefiled, and separate from sinners. At the same time, the gospels reveal that Jesus is gentle and lowly, full of love and compassion for sinners–one who ate and drank with tax collectors and sinners. He never abandoned a zeal for holiness in the name of mission. Neither did he set aside His meek and gentle character under a pretense for holiness. In the same way the church is to be increasingly marked by holiness and compassion, not by compromise and harshness. If the church faithfully lives out the Christian life in the word, it’s leaders and members will pursue holiness and resist compromise while expressing compassion without exhibiting harshness.
Conformity to the image of Christ fundamentally means thinking Christ’s thoughts after Him in order to become like Him. G.K. Beale writes, “When we are too committed to the world and its way of thinking, then it molds and forms us according to its image and likeness, so that we reflect it and its way of thinking even more…All of us are imitators, and there is no neutrality. We should disabuse ourselves of the notion that we can be spiritually neutral. We are either being conformed to an idol of the world or to God Some might think that it is possible to exist in a mode of spiritual neutrality in their Christian lives.”3
When the church is conformed to the image of Christ, the world––though she mocks and derides the people of God––will inevitably be attracted to the message of the church. Sinners came to the feet of the Savior–not because He encouraged them in their sin, or because He made them feel accepted as they were. Sinners came to the Savior because there was something profoundly different about His life and His words. So it will be as the people of God are conformed more the image of Christ.
3. An unwavering rejection of evil.
Of course, the pursuit of holiness involves the rejection of evil. When the prophets rebuked OT Israel, they often charge the church with embracing evil and rejecting good. The Lord confronted His people through Isaiah, saying, “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter” (Is. 5:20). And in Jeremiah, the Lord says, “They have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace” (Jer. 6:14). Jesus personally confronted evil that was being tolerated by some in the church in Thyatira, when He said,
“I have this against you, that you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess and is teaching and seducing my servants to practice sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols. I gave her time to repent, but she refuses to repent of her sexual immorality. Behold, I will throw her onto a sickbed, and those who commit adultery with her I will throw into great tribulation, unless they repent of her works, and I will strike her children dead. And all the churches will know that I am he who searches mind and heart, and I will give to each of you according to your works” (Rev. 2:19–23).
The church will necessarily be different from the world when she denunciates–in word and practices–the evil that the world tolerates. This does not mean that the church is called by God to self-righteously rail against the evil around it. Isaiah confessed, “Woe is me, for I am a man of unclean lips and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips” (Is. 6:5). When the Apostle Paul set out the depraved condition of humanity, he included himself, saying, “we all once lived in the passions of our flesh…” (Eph. 2:3).
The world will hate the church for its rejection of evil, as Jesus told His disciples, “The world…hates Me because I testify about it that its works are evil (John 7:7). In like manner, He taught them, “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you” (John 15:18). Still, the church will be most effective in the world when she rejects evil because God is calling men and women, boys and girls away from evil and into the forgiving and loving arms of the Savior.
4. An untiring promotion of good.
The Scriptures are replete with admonitions to do good. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “let your good deeds shine out for all to see, so that everyone will praise your heavenly Father” (Matt. 5:16) and “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you ((Matt. 5:45). The Apostle Paul exhorted the members of the church in Galatia with the following admonition, “as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to the family of faith” (Gal. 6:10). Likewise, he charged members of the church in Thessalonica with the following words: “See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone” (1 Thess. 5:15). The church should be zealous to promote good to those within her assemblies and to those outside. The church will be most attractive to the world when she embodies what the world is unable to embody. The Spirit of God produces the good fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” in the lives of believers (Gal. 5:22–23). Though the world may have its feeble attempts at temporal philanthropic and humanitarian improvements; the people of God ought to embody true and lasting good from the One who is Himself goodness.
The church has always existed in a volatile state. Whether it is the fear of persecution, the insatiable desire for acceptance, the quest for affluence and comfort, the censoriousness of self-righteousness, or the general complacency of distraction, the church is constantly threatened to move away from a sincere devotion to Christ and the ministry He has entrusted to her in the world. The church will only truly be attractive to the world when she is different from the world–namely, when she is what she is supposed to be in the world for the glory of Christ.
1 An except from Sinclair Ferguson’s sermon on 1 Thessalonians 5:12–28.
2. G.K. Beale We Become What We Worship (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008) p. 310
3. Ibid., p 309