Reading Time: 5 mins

Be the Church - Law or Gospel?

Reading Time: 5 mins

We can interpret "be the Church" as either law or gospel.

Philip Yancey once said, "I rejected the church for a time because I found so little grace there. I returned because I found grace nowhere else."

Those who have placed faith in Christ are made members of Christ's church. We are baptized into one body and given one Spirit and made to be one body with many members (1 Cor. 12:12-14). In this sense, if you are a Christian, then you are a member of Christ's church.

This identity as a member of the Body of Christ is something that is rightfully given a lot of priority within the local church. There are countless books written on the subject, and an immense amount of time and energy is spent by the church in encouraging people to understand their position as members of Christ's body. Church leaders rightfully desire their people to understand their gifts and use them for the good of neighbor and the growth of the church's work in the world. 

The concept of "being the church" has become a prevalent theme in churches of all sizes and denominations. Pastors and Christian leaders are eager to witness congregants become active participants in the Kingdom of Christ. Christians are encouraged to take their gifts and callings as members of Christ's church seriously rather than merely attend church anonymously. A common refrain within this argument is that Christians do not simply "go to church" because "we are the church!" This is true, of course, and while initially commendable, it is very easy for the emphasis of the church's message to become the activity of "being the church" rather than delivering Christ to the church.

The Church isn't built or expanded by human efforts but by Christ himself, the chief cornerstone of our faith.

At its core, the church is not primarily a community for belonging, a training ground for evangelism, or a platform for serving the underprivileged, in fact, it's not even primarily a place for learning information about the Bible; it is a sanctuary where believers encounter the gospel's proclamation of the forgiveness of sins in Christ. Unfortunately, amidst discussions of evangelism, outreach, serving the poor, and yes, sometimes even Bible studies, the essential message of the gospel (for the Christian) within church gatherings is often overlooked. In fact, many churches declare that they believe in keeping their mission simple: "We just love God and love people." While such a message may be simple in theory, it is actually quite difficult when you realize that you have just succinctly summed up the entire law (Mark 12:28-31). Therefore, such mission statements are vacuous of the very thing the people in church need the most: the message of the forgiveness of sins. The reality is that we do not love God or people very well, and it's this failure that must not be ignored - the mission of the church is to preach the law to diagnose our disease and to preach the gospel to deliver the cure. Yes, forgiven sinners should invite their fellow sinners to church and be commanded to love and serve their neighbor. However, in the church's quest to reach the lost, it cannot forsake the sinner who already believes and who desperately needs a word of hope rather than a to-do list.

This isn't to diminish the importance of good works or community engagement but rather to emphasize their subordinate role to the gospel. Ephesians 2:10 underscores this perspective. Paul makes it clear that the good works the Christian is called to walk in were created by Christ apart from ourselves and our efforts.

Martin Luther's doctrine of vocation further elucidates this concept, emphasizing the significance of daily tasks as the very ways in which God is actively working in the world. We are God's masks; God purposely hides behind the vocations of his people. "Being the Church" isn't confined to overtly religious activities done within the four walls of the church but encompasses the faithful stewardship of one's vocation. In this sense, the idea of "being the Church" should not draw people away from their daily vocations. Ministry should not be seen as only those things done at and for the church.

As a young pastor with two young children at home, I often found it easier to escape to the office to do "God's work" than to stay home and help my wife. I would work long days, neglecting to take any time off, all in the name of "ministry." I could easily justify my actions by convincing myself that I was doing so much good for the kingdom. However, it wasn't until years later that God confronted me with my selfishness and revealed how I had failed to love my closest neighbors at home. I had wrongly prioritized my gifts and callings at the Church over my responsibilities as a husband and father, neglecting the vocations that should have been my first priority.

We can interpret "be the Church" as either law or gospel. If viewed as an imperative, it becomes a task to accomplish through our efforts. However, when understood as a promise already fulfilled in Christ, it offers a sense of belonging and passive membership in the household of faith. In other words, the idea of "being the Church" as gospel is not really about you getting busy with kingdom work. Your identity as a member of Christ's Church is something you receive as a gift. Every other endeavor in life is a law-based scheme. The Aristotelian notion of habits leading to virtues and virtues shaping your identity is true everywhere except in the body of Christ. Our position as children of God and the sons and daughters of the King subverts the law and gives you a promise that is quite scandalous. It's scandalous because the very people we think should be let in due to their stellar resumes are left out, clothed in only their own righteousness. While those who seemingly have no business being granted access to the royal family are thrust into the very throne room and clothed with a righteous robe from the King himself.

To "be the Church" is to be a member of Christ's body. 

Ultimately, the Church isn't built or expanded by human efforts but by Christ himself, the chief cornerstone of our faith. As recipients of his grace, we participate in his work not through our own striving but by resting in his finished work on the cross. While community service and evangelism are valuable, they mustn't overshadow the gospel's centrality. The Christian life isn't a checklist of good deeds but a response to the grace received in Christ. We are free to be the Church because in Christ, we no longer have to struggle and strive for acceptance. Our identity is secure because it is not achieved through disciplined habits but is received by faith. When something is earned, there is no freedom because the earner knows that if she fails to keep achieving, she will lose her identity. Therefore, she is not free; she is bound, and in this state, one cannot love one's neighbor. They can only use their neighbor to achieve what they must constantly strive to attain.

Like many, I have been hurt deeply by the church, and yes, as a member of Christ's church, I have hurt others, too. Despite my attempts to distance myself from the church, I resonate with Yancey's sentiment, which is expressed in the quote above. I recognize that the church is the only place where the gospel exists, albeit not always preached as clearly or distinguished from the law as effectively as I would prefer, and not always handed over to believers without conditions with the consistency I deem necessary. Nevertheless, it remains the sole place where the gospel is present. In an era where many Christians are abandoning the Church, I urge you to seek out a local church where Christ is proclaimed for sinners. Then go as regularly as you can to hear the forgiveness of sins spoken for you. Not preached at someone else or some hypothetical person not even in attendance. The gospel is for you. To "be the Church" is to be a member of Christ's body. A membership that calls you to lose your own identity and take on the identity of Christ. Christ took on your identity as a sinner (2 Cor. 5:21) and gives you his identity as a perfectly righteous child of God (1 Cor. 1:30). When you have lost yourself and your insistence on finding a righteousness in yourself then you have become a member of the Church. Apart from anything you have done or have failed to do, despite your failure to be more involved in your church and community, the fact remains that on account of Christ and his work for you, you are the Church and in a million small ways every day you are being the Church to those in your life.