There is no greater challenge in all the earth than living the Christian life. There is no challenge more difficult, no pursuit that demands more of us. Of course there is also no better pursuit and no greater joy than this—to seek the Lord. In the midst of this all-consuming task, it is wise to ask, at least occasionally, “How are we doing?” What is the state of the Christian church at this time?
It can be difficult to answer a question like this. We tend to look at Christianity from a too-earthly perspective. We know what the Lord has called us to be, we know what the Lord has called us to do, and so often all we can see is our own shortcomings and failures. The Lord has called us to take the gospel into all the world and to do so with boldness. Yet we are terrified to even whisper that good news to our neighbor. The Lord has called us to live righteous lives, to live lives that are marked by the gospel. Yet our lives are marked and stained by worldly values and worldly desires. We know that Jesus has told us not to worry about what we will eat and drink but always to trust in the Lord’s provision. And yet we worry, we save, we horde, we hold tightly to the things we know we should hold loosely. We feel the weight of all of this; we feel the shame of all of this, the guilt of it.
But let’s pause for a moment to ask whether we are thinking about it from the right perspective.
Let me tell you about my son. He is an utter failure and a terrible disappointment. Though he professes Christ, he is too often rude to his mother and to me; though he says that he is a Christian, he refuses to get along with his sisters, he refuses to do his job to the best of his ability, he gets grades that are so much less than they ought to be. And we won’t even speak of his personal hygiene! He is a grave, grave disappointment to me.
But hang on. What kind of a father would I be if I looked at my son in this way? What kind of a Father would have such a narrow view and such a negative view? When I look at my son from the perspective of a father, I see the sin and I see the things I wish he would do better, but that is not who he is to me. I am proud of my boy. I love my son and am thrilled at the way he is growing and learning and developing. I see him growing in his knowledge of the Word of God and growing in his ability to live as if it is true. Sure, he and his sisters fight too often, but I know that he sees his sin (eventually) and that he seeks their forgiveness. Yes, he can complain about having to do his job, but if he allows himself to sin for a time, he later repents and asks the Lord to give him a cheerful heart the next time. He is my son; I love him and I am proud of him.
Do you see the difference it makes when we look from the perspective of a father instead of the perspective of a son? It makes all the difference in the world.
This brings us back to the question: What, then, is the state of Christianity? What is the state of the church, the people who have turned to Christ? These are people who are sinful, people whose lives are stained by sin. But they are people who have already been forgiven, people whom the Lord has declared to be just. When we seek the perspective of a Father, we know that God is proud of his people. He is proud of his church. Yes, we sin. Yes, we rebel. Yes, we are selfish and prideful. We are so much less than we want to be and so much less than we ought to be. And yet, primarily, we are his. The Lord does not look at us with anger and disappointment; he looks on us with love and with pride. We are his people and we are more and more being conformed to the image of his Son.
So I am going to borrow from the Father and say that the state of the church is good. Great. God is proud of us. He loves what he sees in us. When he looks on us, he sees grace. Here is some of what I see of the Lord’s grace in his church today, just 3 evidences that he is working in and through us.
The Pursuit of God. We love theology, not as an empty pursuit and not as an end in itself, but the pursuit of theology as the pursuit of God. At its most simple and at its best, theology is a means to know God more, the means to know who he is and how we can serve him. In the church today I see a genuine hunger for God, a desire to know God. Not too long ago many of our churches were marked by a dedication to music or programs or all kinds of other good things. Yet even these good things, in the wrong context, could detract from the best thing of all. Today I see a renewed dedication to the Word of God as foundational to the church. The preaching of the Word is central to our services–so much so that we love to share them with all the world. Christian publishers are turning out more and more books that draw our hearts and minds to the Bible and we love to go to conferences where the Bible is preached. In all these ways we are pursuing God. That is a sure sign of God’s grace to us, that he has given us this good and noble desire.
The Pursuit of One Another. The Bible tells us that the Christian faith is a faith for all nations and tribes and tongues. It does not belong to any one race or nation or language, but belongs equally to all. There have been times—too many times—in the history of the church that diversity has been lost, that we’ve believed the gospel is just for us or for people just like us. But when I visit churches today I see rich and poor and black and white and English and Spanish and young and old. I see us crossing all of those safe boundaries, all of those easy boundaries, so we can be a reflection of all that the Lord seeks to do. This, too, is grace.
The Centrality of the Gospel. As we pursue God and as we pursue one another, we are seeking to keep the gospel central, not as a mantra or a cliche (though we will need to guard against that) but as the very source of the Christian life. When faced with crisis or when faced with great joy, we are increasingly challenging ourselves with questions like, “How does the gospel speak to this?” or “How does the gospel inform my understanding of this?” We are learning that the gospel is not just the good news that saves us, but the good news that sustains us. It is good news for all of life—good news that informs every area of life. And so we preach the gospel to unbelievers and to believers and to ourselves. We write songs that celebrate the gospel. We preach to explain the gospel and to call people to it. We live as if it is true and as if it makes all the difference.
Those are just 3; far, far more could be said. And, now, as we see these things, these evidences of God’s favor to us, we ought to react not with pride but with humility and gratitude, encouraged to know that he is fulfilling his purposes in us and through us and all to his glory.