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God’s church: Working while waiting for glory

God’s church

Working while waiting for glory

Richard E. Lauersdorf

“We have a deal with the bank,” reads the sign on the pizza parlor wall. “We don’t cash checks, and they don’t make pizzas.” If I want a pizza, I am in the right place. If I want to cash a check, I should go to the bank. Each place has its own purpose, its own role to fill.

THE GREATEST WORK ON EARTH

What is the role of the church on earth? What assignment has God given to believers as they live in this world? We don’t have to guess or speculate. The head of the church outlined our mission very clearly. Shortly before his ascension Jesus told his disciples, “Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation” (Mark 16:15). In what is called the Great Commission, he added more details: “Go and make disciples of all nations . . . teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19,20). The early believers understood Christ’s command. When persecution scattered them from Jerusalem, they, as individuals, “preached the word wherever they went” (Acts 8:4). As a group of believers, like the church at Antioch, they sent out missionaries such as Paul and Barnabas (Acts 13:2,3). Their mission, their role, given to them by Christ, was to preach to needy sinners the good news of salvation through Jesus’ atoning work.

Today there seems to be more confusion than ever about the mission of the church. In some church bodies nurturing the saved and reaching the lost with God’s gospel message has taken a backseat to other concerns. More important to them than preaching the good news is working with the temporal needs of people. For them the church’s heavenly mission has become an earthly one. Some think that clearing up social injustice, dispensing food and water, or bringing the light of education to backward people is more important than proclaiming how God’s holy justice has been satisfied by his love in Christ Jesus. The task Jesus gave his church is to bring the light of salvation to others.

Of course, Christians are to show concern for the poor and needy. We dare not, however, forget that deeds of love to the needy are fruits of the gospel in hearts that have first been touched by God’s love. Nor dare we forget that the church’s primary mission is and always should be preaching the good news of salvation. There is no greater work, no more important message than this. If the church into whose hands Christ has placed this good news fails to share it, who will?

We need to be careful, though, when we say Christ has given this news to the church. A danger for us is thinking that means an organization, an institution like our congregation or our synod, instead of the believers who belong to it. Such thinking reduces individual believers to spectators sitting in the bleachers, cheering for the team on the floor. It can make individuals into “shopping cart” Christians who use their church like a supermarket where they can go down the aisles and take from the shelves with little concern for stocking those shelves. It can reduce believers into only being “takers” instead of also being “workers,” busy in the greatest work on earth.

That is not what Peter saw when he looked at God’s people. He wrote, “You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Peter 2:9). What beautiful terms Peter used to describe us as believers. Note, though, besides the meaningful labels, he also put forward a meaningful task for us. We are to declare God’s praises. That’s what God desires from those whom he has brought out of darkness into the light of salvation.

We can get a pizza from our favorite restaurant and cash a check now even electronically at our bank, but we cannot get the good news of salvation except through God’s saving Word. Doesn’t that make our work with that Word important, so important that we call it the greatest work on earth?

THE GLORY YET TO COME

Even as we work here on earth, we glance toward heaven. The day is coming when the church now invisible on earth will be fully visible in heaven. What will it look like? Who all will be in it? How will it be different? Haven’t we often wondered?

First of all, we might be surprised as to who is in God’s church in heaven. John saw a “great multitude that no one could count from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb” (Revelation 7:9). In heaven we’ll see people we know and people we have never met, people who look and speak like us, and people who are far different. From the east and the west, the north and the south, they will have come to stand before the throne and in front of the Lamb, who shed his blood for them.

We might also be surprised at the complete unity of God’s church in heaven. Here on earth there are differences and divisions. Yes, we want unity even here on earth. We pray for, long for, and work for agreement in teaching and practice. In heaven it will be so. Knowledge and understanding will be complete. Mind and faith will be made perfect. The image of God will be restored fully in each of us. And we will be as Adam and Eve once were, knowing God’s will completely and following it fully. We can throw our list of questions away because we’ll see how God’s love had led us on a straight line to his home even when on earth it seemed to be one detour after another. We can leave behind the imperfect harmony of our earthly praise as we sing forever with the heavenly hosts about his wondrous love. And at the heart of all our praise will be deep appreciation for the good news he proclaimed to us and used us to proclaim to others.

We might ask how God’s church in heaven will be different. John again gives us a hint. He writes, “‘Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away'” (Revelation 21:3,4).

Gone will be all that caused our tears in this world. No more sin means no more temptation. No more troubles that sin once brought into the world. No more death or mourning or crying or pain. The old has passed away. The new has come.

That’s what waits for us in heaven. But while the Lord leaves us here, he has work for us to do.

Richard Lauersdorf is pastor at Good Shepherd, West Bend, Wisconsin.

This is the final article in a four-part series on the holy Christian church.

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Author: Richard E. Lauersdorf
Volume 102, Number 4
Issue: April 2015

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2019
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

 

God’s church: Which church and why

God’s church

Which church and why

Richard E. Lauersdorf

Individuals the Spirit has brought to Christ make up God’s invisible church. In heaven, they will stand together, revealed as his very own. Here on earth, they look for others like them. They form visible churches to enhance their joy and to carry out their work better together. The question, and a very important one at that, is which church should they join.

LOOK FOR THE CHURCH THAT TEACHES THE TRUTH

Several years ago we had to replace the windows in our home. One night when my wife tried to crank the window shut, the mechanism came off in her hand. The bottom frame of that window was full of dry rot. A defect in the vinyl covering let the moisture in, and slowly the wood deteriorated. Over time the rot spread till the window was ruined.

False teaching is something like that dry rot. It may begin with disregard for some portion of God’s Word that doesn’t please. It may spring from the human mind that is conceited enough to think it can judge what is and what isn’t God’s Word. It may allow forces like human reason, public opinion, and scientific theory to add to or subtract from God’s infallible Word. The false teaching may begin small, but like dry rot it spreads, creeping farther and farther into the solid truths of God’s Word. Worst of all, error attacks the central teaching of God’s Word, how God paid for the sins of the world through the atoning work of his Son. Any rotting away of any teaching eventually leads to deterioration of that vital, central truth.

Realizing this danger, concerned Christians look for a visible church that teaches God’s Word in all its truth and purity. They understand that error comes not from Christ, the Lord of the church, but from Satan, its archenemy. They realize that false teaching in any form is never helpful but always harmful to faith. They hear their Savior reminding them, “Teach them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:20). They note he didn’t say “some things” or “the things you think are important” or “the things you like,” but “everything.” They know that the apostle Paul didn’t just say, “I resolved to know nothing when I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2). He also stated, “I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God” (Acts 20:27). With Paul, concerned Christians understand that to preach Christ crucified is to proclaim everything God has entrusted to us in his Word.

Put it this way. When I join a church, I am publicly confessing that I agree with what that church teaches and practices. When I choose a church, I’m joining a group of like-minded Christians with whom I will approach God’s throne in prayer, sing his praises and extol his glory, and receive my Savior’s body and blood. Within that group, God’s saving Word will be proclaimed to me. I’m choosing a church to strengthen me in life, to comfort me in distress, and to prepare me for death and heaven. I want my membership to be in a church that teaches and stands for what I believe and stand for: the whole Word of God.

What church should I join here on earth? One that treasures and preserves the truth. One that teaches “the whole will of God” and administers the sacraments as Christ gave them. One where no dark cloud of error obscures even the tiniest ray of light shining forth from God’s Word.

DEAL IN LOVE WITH THE CHURCHES THAT DON’T

The religious world around us downgrades concern for the pure Word, labeling purity in doctrine as non-essential. We know better. We’ve heard the Lord’s warning about the devil who “is a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44). We’ve been cautioned about Satan’s coworkers, the “false prophets” who “come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves” (Matthew 7:15). Paul’s warning to his coworker Titus also rings in our ears, “There are many rebellious people, mere talkers and deceivers, . . . they are ruining whole households by teaching things they ought not to teach” (Titus 1:10,11).

How can we miss the Lord’s warning? It’s his Word, his truth. He wants no poison mixed into it by Satan and those deceived by him. Furthermore, God wants no harm to come to his own through false teaching of any kind.

Realizing the danger of false teaching’s poison, concerned Christians understand the Lord’s command to “keep away” from those who would proclaim anything “contrary to the teaching you have learned” (Romans 16:17). They realize the importance of John’s words, “If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not take him into your house or welcome him. Anyone who welcomes him shares in his wicked work” (2 John 10,11). We are not to worship, commune, pray, have fellowship, or cooperate with those who teach differently than God’s Word teaches.

Why not? Are we saying that we are better than they are? Not if we know what we are. We’re sinners just like them. We’re children of God purely because of his love for us in Christ Jesus. And his Word is retained in our midst not because of our feeble efforts, but because of his grace.

Why then do we mark and avoid those who teach contrary to God’s Word? Love for God’s Word moves us. It is his Word. He gave it to us in love. He asks us to keep it pure. How can I compromise his gift and approve of teaching that goes against it? Must I not join the psalmist in exclaiming, “How sweet are your words. . . . I hate every wrong path” (Psalm 119:103,104)? God has warned us that error has a corrosive effect on faith. How can I expose myself to error that can dry rot, even destroy, my faith? I want nothing to lead me “astray from . . . sincere and pure devotion to Christ” (2 Corinthians 11:3).

God had worked this love for his Word and truth within us. It’s what he wants from his children, to honor his words. God has a reason. The Word gives life to us, our children, our neighbors, and future generations. He wants all believers to share that Word of life with those who share the journey to life and with those who will follow when they are gone to glory.

I love those neighbors who live with me now, and I want to share the truth with them. But I also want to warn them of the danger of false teaching. How can I in any shape or form give my neighbors the impression that false teaching is not dangerous to their faith? It’s “gangrene,” Paul warned (2 Timothy 2:17), and we all know how that infection spreads and what it does.

Which church and why? Important questions. Thank God he has given us the answers. Pray God we always remember them.

Richard Lauersdorf is pastor at Good Shepherd, West Bend, Wisconsin.

This is the third article in a four-part series on the holy, Christian church.

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Author: Richard E. Lauersdorf
Volume 102, Number 3
Issue: March 2015

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2019
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

 

God’s church: Invisible, yet visible

Invisible, yet visible

Richard E. Lauersdorf

Every weekend I sit among or preach to members of our church. Many of them I know by name, others just by sight. No problem, I can always look them up in my church’s pictorial directory. That handy booklet tells me who all belongs to my congregation. It cannot, however, tell me who of them belongs to God’s church of true believers in Christ. Only God knows that.

The difference

Scripture uses the word church in two different ways. It refers to the invisible church, composed of believers in Christ, known only to God. It also refers to the visible church, composed of people gathered around the Word in congregations, synodical groupings, and other forms. There’s no contradiction here. Visible groupings like my congregation are not church apart from God’s invisible church. We call these earthly gatherings church because of the believers, the members of God’s invisible church, in their midst.

Scripture uses the term church in this way. St. Paul wrote “to the church of God in Corinth” (1 Corinthians 1:2). He calls them God’s church because in their midst were those who were sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy. Because of the believers among them, Paul could call the visible group at Corinth a church.

Yet there is a difference. Simply put, the difference is the invisible church is made up of all who are believers in Christ. Visible churches are made up of all who say they are believers in him.

Sadly, hypocrites can be found in the visible church. Let’s call them make-believers, because for one reason or another they only pretend to believe in Christ. Perhaps they’re members because their parents were. Confirmation certificates may carry their name and a special Bible verse for them, but they’ve long ago left that behind. Maybe their name is on the congregational roster because of their spouse. Love for their spouse, instead of love for the Savior, brought them in. Others may be looking for the respectability and personal advantage that might come from associating with God’s people. Still others might view membership as a form of burial insurance. Though their names are on the roster of a visible church, such make-believers are not in God’s invisible church.

How do we deal with such make-believers? We don’t! Remember, we can’t look into a person’s heart and identify faith. Nor can we look at a person’s life and point out faith from the works we see there. Even the hypocrite and the heathen can pursue good and honorable lives. Instead we wait and let Jesus deal with the weeds in the wheat field of the world (Matthew 13:36-43).

Does this mean we show no concern toward unbelievers who are members of a Christian church? Of course not. Elsewhere Scripture tells us how to deal with openly impenitent sinners in the visible church. But with hypocrites, rather than trying to pull up the weeds and damaging some of the wheat in the process, we follow Paul’s advice and wait till the Lord comes. “He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men’s hearts” (1 Corinthians 4:5).

I can see who belongs to my church or congregation. You can see who belongs to your church too. But only God can see who belongs to his church. Pray that God in his grace keeps us in that blessed number. Pray that God sends his Holy Spirit through the gospel to sanctify and keep us in the one true faith.

The marks

We can’t point out who are members of God’s invisible church, but we can point out where to find them.

One time when traveling across North Dakota, I had forgotten to check the fuel gauge. Sure enough, the needle was hovering in the red. For what seemed endless miles we saw no town or filling station. Finally at an isolated crossroads stood a small convenience store with several gas pumps out in front. Imagine our relief when we saw those pumps.

What should we look for to find believers who are members of God’s invisible church? Do we look at the size of the visible grouping? Its programs?

Its attractive building? Its friendly clergy? Its active members? What about the one that has the best ads or is in the news regularly? Of course, none of this is wrong in and of itself. But such outward signs are not an indication that believers are present.

Just as we looked for those gas pumps to find fuel for the car, so we look for the gospel to find believers. Why? God tells us clearly, “Faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17). Paul summarized it this way for the Thessalonian Christians, “From the beginning God chose to save you through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth. He called you to this through the gospel, that you might share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Thessalonians 2:13,14). These passages tell us that where the good news of salvation in Christ Jesus is proclaimed, we will find faith. And where there is faith, there is God’s church, believers in Christ.

How can we say this so confidently? Because we know what the gospel is. “It is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16). The gospel, as God has given it in Word and sacrament, is the tool, the gas pump, that the Spirit uses to fill the human heart with faith. This powerful tool works, even if we can’t see it, in the human heart. “So is my

word,” God promised, “that goes out from my mouth. It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:11). Where the Word is preached and the sacraments administered, the Spirit is at work, and we can find the church, the ABCs, even if we can’t point them out individually.

Now do you see why we call the gospel in Word and sacrament the mark of the church? It indicates to us where the church can be found. We still cannot look into human hearts and see who truly believes, but we know believers are present because of the gospel. Among those sitting around me on the weekend as I listen to or proclaim the gospel are members of God’s invisible church. All because of the gospel!

Do we have to be told to use and preach the gospel? How foolish I would have been if I had stepped on the accelerator and driven by those gas pumps in North Dakota. Yet some church bodies around us foolishly have abandoned or looked for substitutes for the Spirit’s tools. Lord, help us remember that only through the gospel does the Spirit work to craft us and others into God’s invisible church, the holy Christian church, the communion of saints.

Richard Lauersdorf is pastor at Good Shepherd, West Bend, Wisconsin.

This is the second article in a four-part series on the holy Christian church.

 

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Author:
Richard E. Lauersdorf
Volume 102, Number 2
Issue: February 2015

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2019
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us

 

God’s Church: Built by the Lord and belonging to him

God’s Church

Built by the Lord and belonging to him

Richard E. Lauersdorf

When the Bible speaks about the church, it refers to people like me. But I’m not the only one. There are many, many more like me. Young and old; rich and poor; past, present, and future; Lutheran, Baptist, Catholic—they all make up God’s church.

Who belongs to God’s church?

Who are these people? The word church tells me. In the original Greek it means “called out.” God’s church is composed of all whom he has called out of unbelief to faith. That’s how Peter described it: “You are . . . a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Peter 2:9).

This church belongs to God. In his marvelous grace he calls people to faith—not just generic faith that trusts in almost anything, but specific faith. Though some would claim that it makes no difference what you believe, the Lord speaks otherwise. Very specifically Jesus says, “I am the way. . . . No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Very clearly Peter proclaimed, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). The answer is plain—only those in whose hearts God’s grace has worked faith in Jesus as their Savior belong to his church.

If we want an easy way to remember this important truth, we need only remember ABC. God’s church is composed of All Believers in Christ.

The family of God is another picture Scripture uses for God’s church. Paul writes, “You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:26). God is our heavenly Father, and believers are his dear children. What a warm, comforting picture. We have a Father whose love is out of this world. We belong to a family that includes our loving brother Jesus and more brothers and sisters than we can even imagine. And all because his grace has numbered us among the ABCs.

Are we sure of this blessed truth? How can we know that we are members of God’s church? For the answer, it’s best to look more at God’s heart than at our own. In his Word he has laid open his heart to us. What does he show us in his Word? “I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with loving-kindness,” he assures us (Jeremiah 31:3). When we look into God’s heart, it’s love that we see, not just for the world, but also for us!

What is God’s church like?

Only the Lord knows who belongs to his church. We can look into our own hearts but not into someone else’s to see whether faith exists there. Only God can do that. Paul reminds us, “The Lord knows those who are his” (2 Timothy 2:19). Every time we say the words of the Apostles’ Creed, we remind ourselves of this truth. We don’t say, “I see,” but rather, “I believe in . . . the holy Christian Church, the communion of saints.” Though Scripture does not use the term invisible, the concept is there. We can see who belongs to earthly churches and denominations, but only God can see who the ABCs truly are.

Moreover, his church is one. In the world today there are almost more denominations than we can count. Lutheran, Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopal, Nondenominational, and others swirl around us. But God’s church is one. There is only one body of believers in Christ. “One flock and one shepherd,” Jesus says in John 10:16. “You are all one in Christ Jesus,” Paul reminds us (Galatians 3:28). Though denominations may serve a useful purpose and though we need to be careful which we join, we need to remember that God’s church is one.

Another adjective might give us pause. “I believe in . . . the holy Christian Church,” we confess in the Apostles’ Creed. What does that mean? Looking at myself, I can see more sin than holiness. The devil and I are engaged in a lifelong 15-rounder that often leaves me flattened on the canvas. The sinful world and my sinful heart don’t mind ganging up on me with the devil. They know exactly where my weak spots are and punch away at them. Yet at the end of the day I can pray, “Forgive me, Lord, for thy dear Son the ill that I this day have done” (Christian Worship 592:1), and know it’s true. And when the eternal day approaches, I can stand “faultless . . . before his throne” (CW 382:4). When God looks at us, he sees saints. The church is holy not because it does not sin but because it is clothed in the righteousness of Christ.

The Nicene Creed describes the church as “one holy Christian and apostolic Church.” The word Christian literally means “catholic.” Now before we wrinkle our brow and think that word refers to a church body headquartered in Rome, we need to realize catholic really means “universal.” Of course, God’s church is universal. No one is excluded because of race, gender, or social standing. People I’ve been privileged to meet in mission fields in Africa, Colombia, Brazil, Puerto Rico, Mexico, and elsewhere are numbered in God’s church. The apostle Peter told the Gentiles in the house of Cornelius, “All the prophets testify about [Jesus] that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (Acts 10:43). God’s church is truly catholic because it includes all believers of all times and all places.

Sometimes we wonder how long the church can withstand the buffeting it receives from ungodly foes. The church militant we call it, because it’s under attack and constantly at war. While we wait for the return of the Captain of the church, we can grow weary and worry about the church’s survival. Then we need to hear the Lord of the church tell us that his church is imperishable. “The gates of [hell] will not overcome it,” he promises (Matthew 16:18). “[My sheep] shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand,” he assures us (John 10:28). The church militant will endure and become the church triumphant when it stands in perfect peace at its Savior’s side in heaven.

How come we are included in the ABCs? How come we can stand along with Adam and Eve, Abraham and Aaron, Moses and Elijah, Peter, James, and John in this select grouping? How come we’ll be numbered in the great multitude from every nation, tribe, people, and language before the eternal throne of the Lamb? There’s only one answer. It’s entirely the working of the Lord of the church. In his grace he “calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith” (Explanation of the Third Article of the Apostles’ Creed).

Richard Lauersdorf is pastor at Good Shepherd, West Bend, Wisconsin.

This is the first article in a four-part series on the holy Christian church.

 

SUBMIT YOUR STORY

Do you have a manuscript, idea, or story from your own life you’d like to share for use in Forward in Christ or on wels.net? Use our online form to share it to our editorial office for consideration.

SUBSCRIBE TO FORWARD IN CHRIST

Get inspirational stories, spiritual help, and synod news from  Forward in Christ every month. Print and digital subscriptions are available from Northwestern Publishing House.

 

Author: Richard E. Lauersdorf
Volume 102, Number 1
Issue: January 2015

Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2019
Forward in Christ grants permission for any original article (not a reprint) to be printed for use in a WELS church, school, or organization, provided that it is distributed free and indicate Forward in Christ as the source. Images may not be reproduced except in the context of its article. Contact us