I would not have expected John MacArthur to begin the conference with a comedic monologue, yet that is what he did. He made jokes about the length of his tenure at Grace and even his age. He asked for how many people this was their first Shepherd’s Conference. When at least half the men in attendance stood up, he asked, “So whose conference have you been at?” He remarked, though, that looking at the number of men in attendance, he has never been more ready to depart this world knowing that the church is in good hands. He thanked us for attending and turned the stage over to the Master’s Seminary Choir, which, when accompanied by the orchestra, led us in several songs.
And then John MacArthur stepped to the pulpit for the first session: a session dealing with some of the challenges to the contemporary church.
There is a landscape of pseudo-churches and the word “church” is terribly overused. It is easy to call a body a church but more difficult to be one. He mentions George Barna who calls for the demise of the church. MacArthur feels that it is time for us to defend the church and who gets to use the word.
He says that the most common call or letter that comes into Grace to You is “I can’t find a church.” People can find a place called a church but have a hard time finding a real church – a biblical church. To discover what the church is, we need to go back to Scripture and, in particular, Matthew 16. In the text, where that statement is given by Jesus, all the foundational aspects of the church are given. Everything else about the church in the New Testament builds upon this verse: “I will build my church.” This is the first mention of the word “church.” It contains the necessary marks of the true church, either explicitly or implicitly. This has the doctrinal foundations for a biblical ecclesiology.
- A true church is known by a great confession. The great confession in this passage is Simon Peter: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Thus the first absolute is a biblical Christology: a biblical view of Jesus Christ. There must be an understanding of the truth of Jesus Christ. It is not built on a wrong or inadequate view of Jesus Christ. Without Christ there is no gospel, no salvation. The church is an assembly of people who make the great and common confession that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. To say Christ is at the center of a church is simply to say that this is a church. To confess Christ is the heart and soul of the church. “I simply cannot understand people for whom Christ is not the main subject of their preaching.”
- That great confession is built on a great communication. God communicated the truth of this confession to Peter. Peter was able to make this confession on behalf of the apostles on the basis of God’s revelation. It did not come from a human source but from God Himself. There is no human source for this saving confession. You cannot know the saving confession without the Divine revelation. It was objective, divine, external revelation. All we know of Christ must come through us by God. “The revealed Word is everything. Absolutely everything.” The foundation of the church is the Word of God because faith comes by hearing that Word. “How can church be church if it is not relentlessly Christ-centered and Bible-saturated?” The church is a gathering of people who are brought together on the foundation of God’s Word. A major attack on the church today is by people within the visible church who attack the certitude of Scripture. “God has spoken plainly; they don’t like what it says.” Jesus never allowed people to feel that the Old Testament was anything less than clear. What was in the Scripture, people were responsible to know and understand.
- The church is marked by a great contrast. Jesus warns the disciples to “tell no one that He was the Christ.” Why would He do this? He perceived that the people were going to make Him king. The people had a warped view of the Messiah and His kingdom, so they were not in a position to deal with the truth of this profession. They were looking for an earthly ruler and Jesus wanted nothing to do with that. His kingdom has no connection to any earthly kingdom. The church has no role in rearranging sinners into more acceptable lifestyles. Our mandate is to proclaim the Word of God. We are to penetrate our culture with the gospel, not to change the culture into a Christian one. “The biggest mission field in America is professed Christianity.”
- The church is marked by a great conquest. It is at the cross that all the issues of sin, righteousness, judgment and imputation are made clear. The cross my be exalted in everything. The cross must prevail in conquest.
- The church is marked by a great conflict. Peter took Jesus aside and began to rebuke Him. Jesus turned to Peter and said, “Get behind me Satan!” The church is engaged in a relentless war for truth. You either set your mind on God’s interests or you capitulate and set your mind on man’s interest. Many who profess to be Christians, even today, are siding with Satan. Many who think they are aiding the gospel are actually in the way. They are hindering the work of God.
- The true church understands the great contradiction: “Whoever wishes to gain his life must lose it.” Of all of the invitation statements Jesus could have said, he says this one. The great contradiction is that going after Jesus will cost a person everything. Church is not about making people feel good about themselves. It is made up of people who want to escape themselves and bring an end to themselves. This clashes so blatantly with what so many churches are offering today (see MacArthur’s book Hard to Believe for more on this subject).
- The church anticipates and understand the great consumation. The church needs to recover an eschatology that looks forward primarily to glorification. The church desperately needs to look forward to this great consumation. “The great wonder of wonders in heaven is that I’ll be there.”
How do you recognize a real church? You’ll find a person whose proclamation is Christ, the cross and resurrection, humility and submission and obedience to God as sinners desperately in need of grace, and who are living in anticipation in the fulness of grace when they see the Savior face-to-face. No wonder that such churches are hard to find.
And with that, we were sent on our way for lunch!