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  • Stephen Wiebe

The Role of the Church in Sanctification

And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. Matthew 16:18

Church, Greek Ekklesia: ek; out of, kaleo; to call. Called out ones.

Matthew 16:18 is the first time this word church appears in the New Testament (NT); and in all the NT appearances of this word, it does not refer to a building, but to people. In the Old Testament (OT), a similar Aramaic word is used to describe the Israelite's assembling together to hear from God. While in the NT, it is sometimes used in this OT sense, as in Acts 19:32, it usually means something new and specifically refers to Christians.

There are two ways, or senses, that church is used in the Bible. The first sense, as seen in the above verse, refers to the church wholly or universally, and identifies the church as all believers from all ages and places. The church universal includes both Jews and Gentiles and is made up of those that bear the name of Christ. Interestingly, the church universal will meet for the first time in the air during the rapture, according to 1 Thessalonians 4.

The second sense is identified by a physical or geographical location, such as the churches of Galatia, or to the church of God in Corinth. This is an important distinction to make when discussing the role of the church in the life of a believer.

Jesus takes complete ownership of the church and declares that it is His, and He will build it. His intention for the church is that it will continue eternally, and prevail over the gates of hell, which is a reference to death and the power of Satan. The church is a spiritual house, and all believers are called living stones, being built up to be a holy priesthood according to 1 Peter 2:4. Jesus refers to Himself as a living stone again! This is the same stone that he will build his church upon. In this, we see that the believer has a role in Jesus building his church, both locally and universally. It is in each individual, labouring for Christ, with the gifts that each one receives, that the church fulfills the plan that Jesus has for his church, such as evangelism, discipleship, etc.

The Church as a Community

1 Corinthians 12 is a treatise on the make-up of the church as a body and the role each individual has in the body of Christ. He is the head, and the church is the body—though made up of many persons. The point of this picture is seen when reading Ephesians 5 in light of Matthew 16:18. We see an emphasis placed on the union the head has with the body, an emphasis that extends to the spiritual unity each member is to have one to another. "Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!" Each individual member is given gifts and talents to benefit the body and glorify the head. The gift(s) each member receives is useful and important for the common good of the body, and none should withhold their gift because it seems less valuable or less necessary than another individual’s gift. This shared work for the cause of Jesus should be done selflessly, for the service of others and for the glory of God (1 Peter 4).

There is truth to the poem written by John Donne from which we have the adage "No man is an island." In Hebrews 10:23-25, there is a sober warning against neglecting to meet together, and urgency is added when considering where we fall on the eschatological timeline. We are nearer to the end than when we first believed (Romans 13:11), and there are many occasions to stumble for which we need the community of believers to encourage us to good works, and to sharpen us as iron sharpens iron (Proverbs 27:17).

Within the church, there is also the need for chastening and discipline. For the church to function as a united body under the headship of Christ, the members must submit to the authority of Scripture, and to the pastoral care of the undershepherds. Sin within the church must therefore be uprooted and forbidden to cripple and corrupt the body. The covering up of sin is not favourable to any person, and the longer it is ignored, the more damage it will cause! God, in His grace, has allowed the church body to mete out punishment for the transgressor. The punishment prescribed in Matthew 18:15-17 is to be administered soberly, and not hastily, with the hope that the transgressor will return like the youngest son in Jesus' parable of the prodigal son. Putting an unrepentant person out of the congregation removes the influence of that sin, and though God may deal harshly with them, the hope is that they will be saved spiritually (1 Corinthians 5:5). This is done for the benefit of the body believers and for the restoration of the individual.

The Church as an Outreach

We, as the body, are to have the same goals and aims as Christ has. We are to seek and save the lost. We are his hands and feet, reaching the lost and delivering the Good News of the Gospel of Jesus. In Matthew 28:19-20, Jesus issues the Great Commission where all the world is our territory and "all nations" is our focus group and "all power" is with us always, even unto the end.

We are to teach them to observe "all things" that we were commanded to observe. The word observe as translated in English means to fix your eye upon or guard in the original Greek text. It is more than a casual musing or meditation, but rather intentional focus. It may seem obvious but the application is demanding. We are to teach them to behave in the way that we ought to live, and we ought to live the way that we are trying to teach them, so that we can say with Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:1, "Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ." Jesus is the only way to the Father (John 14:6); faith comes by hearing the word preached (Romans 10:17), and they will not hear unless it is preached to them (Romans 10:13-15).

The church has been tried and tested in ways she should have surely fallen but for Jesus' sustaining and purifying power. Jesus loved and gave Himself up for his church, "That he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendour, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish" (Ephesians 5:26-27). What a declaration! Jesus not only seeks to build His church, but He seeks to claim her as His pure bride! Ephesians 4:1: "Walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called..."

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