THE CHURCH OF THE LIVING GOD
Sermon preached by Pastor P. M. Rowell
at Forest Fold, Crowborough, Sussex, on June 17, 1987,
at the chapel Anniversary Services
`But if 1 tarry long, that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.’ 1 Timothy 3.15
The subject on my mind is expressed in the last words of verse 15. `The church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.’
It was 155 years ago that believers were meeting here around the word of God. It was on June 23rd 1844, a hundred and forty three years ago that the church here at Forest Fold was first constituted. I have reminded my own people on many occasions about their history and I want to do the same again and it may be that our visiting friends will be interested and will understand why I do this. It is our chapel anniversary, it is the anniversary of the formation of the church here at Forest Fold. It is our day of thanksgiving and we are remembering what God has done for so long in this place. Let me just read from the records that we still have in the original Church Book here at Forest Fold. ‘In the evening Mr. Dickerson having assembled the brethren and sisters who had been baptized, he stated the nature of a gospel church and asked them if it was their desire to be joined into a church to which they replied by the holding up of a hand.’ I shall not ask you to do that at the moment, but I wonder how many hands would go up here this evening if I were to ask you a similar question and say. Do you desire to be part of a truly Christian church? Have you a desire to be a member of the church of Christ? Even if I don’t ask you to put your hand up I will ask you to go home and pray about it. Having done that, Mr. Dickerson `publicly associated us together,’ as the record reads, ‘giving us the right hand of fellowship and recognised us as a distinct church. After this he gave a most suitable solemn address and broke bread with us. In recording these events we would lift up our hearts in devout thankfulness to God, the God of all grace for the hallowed influence of His Holy Spirit which He was so graciously pleased to pour out upon us on that solemn occasion and, we would most earnestly pray that the union thus formed may be strengthened by the addition of many of the Lord’s blood-bought and grace-redeemed souls from time to time and, by sweetly influencing us who are thus united by His spirit as we have received Christ, so also to walk in Him.
That was the very simple way in which these believers here at Forest Fold expressed their convictions and their desires, and they became a true Christian church. They were believers in Jesus Christ, called by God’s grace, blessed with spiritual life, obedient to the commands of the
Saviour, baptized in the name of the glorious Trinity, feeling a desire to unite together in this truly gospel way. That was a true. Christian church and down through the years I believe their prayers have been answered and they are still being answered. That is one of the wonderful things that we can see in looking back, that their prayers are still being answered. There are still those who are being sweetly influenced to come amongst us and be united with us. And it is our prayer not just for today and the immediate future, but for the years ahead, as long as the Lord tarries, that there will be those who will be willing, made willing, made willing by God’s grace, to come and be part of this church. So there will be a continuing and living testimony.
Let me turn to the words that I have read and just make a few remarks about the description which the Apostle Paul here gives to the church. You will remember that he is exhorting Timothy, a younger man, a man bearing increasing responsibilities in the church and it is to Timothy he writes this letter with his heart full of love to that dear young man and longing to see God’s blessing upon the church and the churches through the ministry of men like Timothy, through the preaching of the word. He is deeply concerned about the way the members of the church will behave, how they will live especially in their connection with the church. It was their life together as church members that he was very concerned about. ‘That thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God.’ Let me remind you that he was not talking there about a literal building and when I use this expression I am not talking about this building that we meet in tonight. Paul was talking about those in whose hearts God was dwelling, those who knew what it was to receive Christ Jesus the Lord. There you have the house of God and that is, he says, ‘The church of the living God,’ to emphasize the fact that it is not a matter of bricks and mortar but living souls constituting a living church belonging to the living God. Now, friends, that is what we need to pray about, isn’t it? That is what we need to pray for, that there will be not only here but in many, many parts of the world, people gathering together like this who will be concerned about the true church and about their behaviour in that church; their relationship to that church and all that goes on in the life of that church. This is Paul’s concern and of course he has charged Timothy to see to it, that the church is directed in an orderly way, that there are elders and deacons appointed to guide the church, and that the church members should live lives which are worthy of their holy calling. ‘The church of the living God.’ Now that is our high calling. Those of us who are church members, that is what we are called to be, together, yes, we have been reminded earlier in the day of the need for that personal individual work of the spirit of God in our souls quickening us, giving us that new spiritual life. There can be no church relationship without that. It has been long the contention of believers here and in many other similar
churches, that those who are received into the fellowship of the church, should give evidence of being alive, spiritually. There cannot be any union, communion, relationship, nor can there be any real spiritual order in the church unless there is spiritual life, and spiritual responsiveness to the spiritual principles that are to govern the church. The church then is the church of the living God and it is called to be the representative on earth of the living God. It is called rightly the church of Christ. It is the church that belongs to Jesus. It is the church that bears His name. It is the church that holds His honour close to its heart. It is the church then of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth. Now the ground has reference to the foundation, the pillar has reference to the way in which the building is constructed. The foundation is hidden, the pillar which supports the roof and the structure of the building is something visible, and I like to think of this description that Paul gives here in that way. There is the hidden part. We were reminded of that this afternoon. ‘You hath he quickened.’ There is a hidden part, the work of the Spirit in our souls, God’s work, that sovereign work that quickens a dead sinner and gives him spiritual concern. There is a secret part and that secret part is in the life of every real church member and there is the secret work of God going on in the lives of these church members. Is there? I ask the question again tonight, is there anything that is going on? My own dear people here know that I have reminded them recently about things like this. We must not take things for granted. It is a very dangerous thing to drift on as though everything was alright in a careless way or as Scripture puts it, to settle down upon our lees. No, there needs to be something going on in our souls. There needs to be spiritual movement, spiritual advancement, spiritual growth, that we grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Because it is the church of the living God, and the church of the living God is not a dead church, and the members of the living church must be living members, so there must be something going on. And there is the secret work of the Spirit of God. Yes, I am only repeating what you have heard already today but repetition is often important and significant. We don’t repent once, repentance is a life-long spiritual necessity. Constant repentance. Faith is not something that happens just at the beginning of our spiritual lives. We must continue by God’s grace, believing, trusting, obeying. Faith then, is something that goes on and this secret work of God is going on in the hearts of those who constitute such a church. There is the foundation and it is because that in the hearts of these people there is such a deep and spiritual love to the truth, that the church can be called the pillar and ground of the truth. The truth has been put into the deep and secret recesses of their hearts. The truth has been put deep down as it were, into their affections. They love the truth. Consequently the church can be referred to as a body of people, who have the truth deep down within their heart in that secret place.
But then it is a pillar. It is the pillar and ground of the truth. It is to show forth by its life and in its testimony the truth of God.
I want to lead your thoughts in this direction by this suggestion. Ask a question. What is God’s purpose through the church, or why does the church exist? Paul is obviously deeply concerned about the church. He sees it as a constituted body of people who are highly honoured, who have a most honoured and dignified position. They are the special care and under the special attention of God. Why does the church exist then? What is God’s purpose in and through the life of the church? Well, you may be surprised that I shall say this first, but I believe that first and foremost, the church exists as the church of the living God for the glory of God. That is the first answer I would give to the question tonight. Why does the church exist? It exists as the church of the living God for the glory of God. Look in Revelation chapter 19 verse 5. ‘A voice came out of the throne, saying, Praise our God, all ye his servants, and ye that fear him, both small and great. And I heard as it were the voice of a great multitude, and as the voice of many waters, and as the voice of mighty thunderings, saying, Alleluia: for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth. Let us be glad and rejoice, and give honour to him: for the marriage of the Lamb is come, and his wife bath made herself ready.’ There is the voice then, of the church. The voice of the church redeemed. The voice of the church glorified, and the voice of the church redeemed and glorified, is the voice of the church as we hear it here in this life. It is to be a similar voice that we hear in the life of the church on earth as will be heard in the church in heaven. If you understand my language, life in the church here is to be a rehearsal for life in the church above. This is a prelude. This is a time of preparation. What is the Lord teaching us to do while we are here? Surely, the Lord is teaching us to do here what we shall do perfectly hereafter. And we shall praise Him perfectly. Our hearts then will be utterly filled with His glory. That will be the great continuing, burning ambition of all eternity, to praise God from whom all blessings flow. You sing it here, don’t you? You sometimes sing it with dry barren hearts; I know I do. Shame to me and shame to you that it should be, but it is like that, but it won’t be then. It won’t be then. You will sing a doxology in glory, friends, with a heart that is not like the dry barren, unmoved spirit that you know now. Because a voice came out of the throne. God’s own voice is speaking to God’s own church and is saying this is what He would have the church do. ‘Praise our God all ye his servants, and all ye that fear him, both small and great.’ Verse 17 of 1 Timothy chapter 1 is one of those typical expressions of the Apostle Paul. He sometimes in his writing simply bursts out because his heart is full of praise and he says, ‘Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honour and glory for ever and ever. Amen.’ What has he been saying? What is the prelude to that sudden outburst of praise and thankfulness? Why? It’s just the gospel, isn’t it?
The gospel as he had known it and as he had loved it. The gospel as it had so deeply affected him and that produced praise. Friends, that is what God is doing when He saves you by His grace. When He quickens you by the power of His spirit. He is causing you to have in your own soul the ability to glorify God. Oh, you know there is a danger, and we need to be reminded of this, there is a danger that we become unbalanced in our Christian teaching, and in our Christian experience. There is a danger that we become too subjective. Now don’t misunderstand me. There is need, vital need of a personal experience of God’s grace. I’ve just said all that. I have repeated what you have heard before. But, friends, that is not all, and I believe we need to remember that the reason, the great glorious pre-eminent reason, why God saves sinners, is for His own glory. Blessed be God, He saves sinners and, blessed be God, those sinners are going to enjoy the blessings of heaven for ever, but, His reason, His great overarching reason is His own glory. Because He is God He seeks His own glory. He seeks His own glory with divine determination. He seeks His own glory in the outworking of human history and He will have glory from all creatures in the end. For every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father. The church exists then, not for its own comfort, not for the individual blessing of each of its members alone, but pre-eminently and first because He will be glorified, honoured to all eternity.
Secondly, I answer the question. Why does the church exist in this way? It exists for the eternal joy of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Again, we are prone to think of the joy of those who are taken from this life into the immediate presence of their Saviour. ‘To be with Christ,’ says the Apostle ‘Is far better.’ Far better. All tears wiped away, all the pains and sorrows and weaknesses of this life done away with forever. We are prone to think of our joy, but our joy in glory, in heaven, is His joy and we shall only know joy because there is joy in His heart. You remember there is joy amongst the angels of heaven. There is joy in heaven itself over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons that need no repentance. Joy. What is the joy of heaven? Why, it is the joy of God himself. All things are for His pleasure.
Look back in John chapter 17. Let me read to you from verse 20. This is the prayer of the Lord Jesus to his Father. Speaking particularly of His disciples he says. ‘Neither pray I for these alone,’ and the wonderful view that Jesus has of His own church and people down through the centuries is expressed here. ‘Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word; That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. And the glory which thou gayest me I have given them; that they may be one, even as
we are one: I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one.’ God’s delight is in what He Himself has made perfect. God’s delight is in what the dear Son of God has made perfect and God’s delight is in that perfect relationship between the church and Himself. Blessed be God, the eternal joy of the Son of God is seeing this vast number out of all nations under heaven gathered together at last to what is called in Revelation, ‘the marriage supper of the Lamb.’
Listen to what Paul says about the husband and the wife. ‘Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it; …that he might present it to himself.’ Notice the words, that He might present it to Himself. Why would He do that? Why would He want to present it to Himself? Why does a husband want to take his wife in his own arms? Why does the absent husband long to be at home with his own wife and family? Because he knows that there is a peculiar joy in that relationship. A peculiar joy, and here is the peculiar joy of the Son of God, to present to Himself ‘a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish.’ This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the church.’ Yes, the church exists for the eternal joy of the Trinity. They will eternally rejoice in the union that they have with the church as the church will eternally rejoice in the union that the church has with God the Father and God the
Son and God the Holy Spirit. Amazing grace!, amazing grace! There is nothing in all the history of mankind like that, is there? Nothing. You look into the human philosophies and erroneous religions all around us, in this country and abroad, and what is it? Man-centred, man-centred! Friends, our glorious faith is God-centred and Christ glorifying.
Why does the church on earth exist? I believe to proclaim His truth and His glory whilst they are on earth. Mysteriously and wondrously God has chosen men like Paul, Timothy, Peter, and many others since, to proclaim the gospel, to preach the word, but they are not alone. They have a unique place in God’s order of things within the church. Yes, that is true. You can see that in Ephesians chapter 4 very clearly. ‘And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ.’ But, in the first two chapters of the first epistle to the Thessalonians, the church as a whole was occupied in a particular way. ‘For from you sounded out the word of the Lord not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but also in every place your faith to Godward is spread abroad; so that we need not to speak any thing.’ Paul was encouraging Timothy to see to it that within the church there would be order, God-given order, and in that God-given order there were places of responsibility, special burdens to be carried, and then the whole church was to be united in their great concern for the honour and glory of God. And the way in which that honour and glory would be seen was through the sounding out of the word of the Lord. Elsewhere it is referred to as ‘holding forth the word of life.’ I was looking back over these occasions in the past and it was two or three years ago that I preached from that same text, didn’t I? ‘Holding forth the word of life.’
Let me go back to our church records, and show you how our forefathers were concerned about the holding forth of truth. They spoke of ‘this day of degeneracy from the truth as it is in Jesus.’ I just don’t know what they would say today. They would certainly be lost for words if they could see what we see. But they said in their day, a day of degeneracy from the truth as it is in Jesus, ‘We think it right to record our views of divine truth which are the fundamental principles of our union and to which we subscribe our hands and pray that the vital savour of these truths may rest upon our souls. That we may hold them, not as sentiments only, but really know their truthfulness. And at all times and in all places, by grace we are determined to stand fast by the truth, that we may not be of them who deny the faith, but who contend earnestly for the truth as it was once delivered to the saints, in all its glorious doctrines, experimental knowledge, and becoming (that is, suitable) practice. Resting on the glorious hope that we shall one day arrive at that glorious consummation so desired by the Apostle.’ Colossians 1 verse 28. ‘That we may present every man perfect in Christ Jesus.’ So, by word, by life, by consistent example, the church exists to proclaim God’s truth and to honour the Lord on earth, and the church falls from its high calling when it fails to do that. And, friends, if we as a church here, shall fail to do that, we shall come under God’s reproof, and we shall suffer the inevitable consequences and I believe one of the inevitable consequences that you can see in so many cases today, is that when a church has fallen from the high calling, gradually it has ceased to exist, and God has taken away the candlestick out of his place. You remember the letters to the seven churches of Asia in Revelation. Read them again. See that solemn warning and it was a warning to churches who were in danger of doing just what I said. Failing to proclaim his truth and to honour their Lord on earth.
The church also exists, I believe for the help, comfort, and encouragement of its members. You know, when people are first concerned, as we were thinking this afternoon, about their own souls’ condition, their need as sinners before the Lord, when they are first quickened by that conviction, and made to realise how much they need a saviour, the thoughts and concerns of their heart are intensely personal, and they will say with the hymn-writer, ‘How stands the case my soul with thee?’ And that is a great and pressing question that needs an answer. Friends, that is not all. That is not all, and I believe one of
the great weaknesses of many of the churches that I am familiar with over recent years has been this excessive individualism. People have been so concerned about how ‘I feel’ and how ‘things affect me’ Now that is a very great sin and a very great danger. The New Testament and the teaching of Christ and teaching of the Apostles is very clear in this respect. The church exists that members may together encourage and exhort one another. ‘Exhort one another while it is called today.’ Be instant in this concern one for the other. Verse 15, chapter 4 in Ephesians. ‘But speaking the truth in love, may grow up into him in all things which is the head, even Christ: from whom the whole body, (the whole body, not scattered, individual, disjointed, disrupted parts, of a dead body, but a living church belonging to a living God, joined to a living head) fitly, (suitably, exactly right) joined together and compacted by that which every joint supplieth, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part, maketh increase of the body unto the edifying of itself in love.’ Now, friends, that is to be one of the great concerns of church members. How may I minister to other church members? How can I be a help and an encouragement to other members? It is not to be this selfish attitude, ‘What can I get out of church membership? What will it mean to me?’ Bless God, it will mean wonderful things for you but only if there is a right attitude toward the church. Only if there is a right attitude to your place within a united living body. Every joint, then, in that body, is to supply something for the health and strength and prosperity of that body. Let me read a little more from our church statement, because it seems to me to express so many of the things that I am trying to say this evening. ‘We are sensible that our conversation, (that is our way of life) both in the world and in the church, might be, as becometh, (as is suitable to) the Gospel of Christ. We judge it our incumbent duty to walk in wisdom towards them that are without, to exercise a conscience void of offence towards God and man by living soberly, righteously, and godly, in the present world’ See, there is a concern about how each individual behaves in his every day life, about how he lives, goes about his business and so on in this present world. Then they go on to say, ‘And as to conduct to each other in our church communion, we esteem it our duty to walk with each other in all humility and brotherly love. To watch over each others’ conversation, to stir up one another to love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together as we have opportunity. To worship God according to His revealed will and when the case requires it, to warn, rebuke, and admonish one another according to the rule of the Gospel. Likewise, we think ourselves obliged to sympathise with each other in all conditions both inward and outward which God in His providence may bring us into. As also, we bear with each others’ weaknesses, failings, and infirmities, and particularly to pray for one another. And, that the Gospel and the ordinances thereof might be
blessed to the edification and comfort of each others’ souls.’
Now I think that is a very lovely expression of biblical truth. It is not an exact quotation from the word of God, but I am certain that it expresses the spirit of the Gospel. Now friends, that is what every church member here has signed their name to. Everybody who joins this church, signs their name in the old original church book and this is what is written at the beginning. This is what you are saying you are obliging yourself to do. You are saying I feel under a real obligation, a divine obligation, to live like this in contact with other members of the church. You may say, ‘Well, how can we live like that?’ Again, let me quote, ‘All which duties we desire to be found in the performance of, through the gracious aid and influence of the Holy Spirit. Whilst we bless, admire, and adore, the grace which has given us a place and a name in God’s house better than that of sons and daughters.’ There is one thing you must say about our forefathers, and that is they clearly saw the truth about the church. They clearly saw the responsibilities and obligations of church membership. They did not go into this kind of relationship blindfold. They knew what, as we say, they were letting themselves in for when they joined such a church. And this, I believe, is how a body fitly joined together grows, prospers, increases, is edified. Another note that they strike in this statement is this. Not only that they want to be blessed for the edification and comfort of each others’ souls, but also for the gathering in of others to Christ beside those that are already called.
I have recently been speaking from those words of the Lord Jesus, ‘If ye love me, keep my commandments.’ Now the Lord goes on to repeat that same truth three times very clearly, and joins many blessings to the keeping of His commandments. We have reached that part in our study of the Gospel of John, and the Lord is very emphatic. Now, friends, if we have the mind of Christ, if we really are moved by the Spirit of Christ, shall we not be concerned like this? We want to see the gathering in of others, to Christ. A very significant way of putting it. Yes, I am sure that they were glad when others were gathered in to be part of the church with them, but they saw the gathering of believers into the church as a gathering of believers to Christ, to Christ. It is not my church or your church or anybody else’s church on earth, it’s Christ’s church and they are gathered as they come into the church to Christ. That is our joy. That is our great joy. That is our deep privilege to be in any way concerned in the gathering of souls to Christ. I could hardly speak like this without going back with you to the end of the Gospel recorded by Matthew. The eleven disciples went away into Galilee into a mountain where Jesus had appointed them and when they saw Him they worshipped Him but some doubted and Jesus came and spake unto them saying, ‘All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore and teach all nations.’ And you know the meaning there, don’t you? ‘Disciple,’ or make disciples of all nations. ‘Baptizing them in the
name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you Galway, even unto the end of the world’ So you see, there are two ways in which those people were joined to Christ.
They were joined to Christ by an obedient faith when they were baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and they were joined to Christ when they were joined to His people because He has promised to be with His people. Christ and His church are one. When you are joined to Christ, you are joined to His body. You become part of His body and I believe it is right, and indeed I believe it is a very important consideration, that you should have always before you, that if you are in Christ by a living faith, it is inconsistent for you to be out of relationship with Christ’s body on earth. Do you understand that? It is very simple but very important. If there is a living faith that God in His grace has given you, so that in your heart there is that which goes out to the only Saviour of sinners with hope, and need, and dependence, you turn your back on the world, and the ways of the world and the sins of the world, and you look to Jesus. With that faith that looks so to Jesus there is a union and relationship begun, that is to be expressed in an open visible way by this relationship to His body, His Church, His Bride on earth. There is a strange, sad and sinful, inconsistency in not being part of His body on earth if you are spiritually part of His true body in that right way, a strange and sinful inconsistency, completely in contradiction to the principle laid down at the end of Matthew chapter 28. Remember the command, ‘Go ye therefore and teach all nations, baptizing them.’ And the Lord does not envisage that amongst those nations who are taught and made disciples, there would be some who will be saying, ‘But this disciple is going to be different. This disciple is not going to be baptized. This disciple is part of that spiritual body of Christ but this disciple is not going to be part of His body on earth’ The Lord does not envisage any such thing. That is utterly foreign to all that He says, all He teaches, and all that His disciples taught. ‘Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world.’
Lastly, the church exists on earth, to continue to praise him. As I was thinking about this last point I picked up a copy that I have in my study of the Church of England Prayer Book, and in the Church of England service for the Lord’s day you have this, and I am sure anyone who has been to the Church of England will recognise the words. ‘Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost, as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be world without end, Amen.’ Friends, that is a Biblical, as well as an Anglican testimony. It is a testimony that is worthy of each of our hearts if we are true believers, surely. ‘Glory be
to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost’ When did you last say anything like that, secretly in your heart before God? When did you last hear anybody at a prayer meeting try to express their desire to glorify the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost? I am sure there are desires. I am sure there are those who want to, but, friends, we should want to more, and do so more often. ‘Glory be to the Father, to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost, as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be’ It is now you see. Heaven is full of His praise and His glory. The earth is to be one day full of His glory. ‘The church of the living God’ Friends, it is a high honour, that God in His graciousness has determined that multitudes shall have that high honour, of being part of the church of the living God.
If you are saying tonight, ‘Well, all that you say is far far beyond me, I am never going to be a person fit to be in that church’ Let me just close with this thought that there is not a single one who has ever been part of that church, part of that body of Christ on earth who could say that he deserved the position. There is not one who could appeal to God upon the ground of his own merit, effort, labour, tears, words, actions and say, `I deserve a place.’ Friends, the way in which this church gives glory to God is out of a heart that is convicted of its own utter worthlessne