Love the Church Like Christ Does

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Professor, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary

In an age when so many pastoral failures, missteps, and sins are posted for public exhibition, it’s easy to allow our warmth toward the church to grow cold. Through a scrutinizing lens, many scowl at the church with suspicion and sheer amazement that anyone would want to be part of such a seemingly dysfunctional family. Sometimes, the church can seem to be anything but beautiful.

Does Jesus look at the church with the same scowl?

‘You Are Beautiful’

John Gill, an eighteenth-century English Baptist pastor, helps us answer this question by drawing our attention away from our introspection to the words of the bridegroom in Song of Solomon 1:15: “You are beautiful, my love; behold, you are beautiful.” Interpreting Song of Solomon as an allegorical portrayal of an exchange between Christ and his bride, the church, Gill writes, “These are the words of Christ, commending the beauty of the church, expressing his great affection for her; of her fairness and beauty” (An Exposition of the Book of Solomon’s Song, 57). Jesus sees his bride through a lens of love, not disdain; beauty, not disgust.

“Jesus sees his bride through a lens of love, not disdain; beauty, not disgust.”

How can beautiful be the adjective Jesus uses to describe the church? After all, she’s composed of sinners — forgiven sinners, yet still sinners. She’s plagued by division, is besieged with scandal, and sometimes appears to have lost her first love. Even the apostle Paul reminds us that only at the end of the age will she be found “without spot or wrinkle or any such thing” (Ephesians 5:27). What does Jesus see in his bride that would cause him to exclaim, “You are beautiful, my love”?

1. The Beauty of His Father

God’s beauty is most radiantly displayed through the biblical concept of glory. Moses experienced this glory when God passed by him, revealing only the afterglow of his splendor (Exodus 33:12–23). When God’s glory engulfed the temple, the priests were unable to perform their service of worship (2 Chronicles 5:14). The prophet Isaiah was prostrate in the dirt when he witnessed God’s glory radiating from his eternal throne (Isaiah 6:1–5). Jonathan Edwards, eighteenth-century pastor-theologian, identified God’s beauty as the differentiating feature of God himself: “God is God, and is distinguished from all other beings, and exalted above ’em, chiefly by his divine beauty, which is infinitely diverse from all other beauty” (The Works of Jonathan Edwards, 2:298). God’s beauty isn’t derived from external sources but emanates directly from the perfection and holiness of his being.

The supreme expression of God’s beauty is his Son, Jesus Christ, who himself is the image and radiance of his Father (2 Corinthians 4:4; Colossians 1:15; Hebrews 1:3). The incarnate Christ is how God most vividly expresses his beautiful love to sinful creatures. The culmination of that love is selecting a bride for Christ that she too might reflect the same beauty. Edwards believed that this bride, the church,

is the great end of all the great things that have been done from the beginning of the world; it was that the Son of God might obtain his chosen spouse that the world was created . . . and that he came into the world . . . and when this end shall be fully obtained, the world will come to an end. (Unpublished sermon on Revelation 22:16–17)

The church is a gift from God to his Son as a beautiful expression of divine love “so that the mutual joys between this bride and bridegroom are the end of creation” (Works, 13:374). Therefore, as the Son reflects his Father, the church, as his eternal bride, reflects the Son.

When Christ regards his bride and exclaims that she is beautiful, he beholds the reflection of his Father’s everlasting beauty and infinite love, who chose and saves this bride and gives her as a gift to his Son. Since Christ’s ascension to the right hand of God, there is now no more brilliant exemplification of God’s perfect beauty in the world than his church.

2. The Sufficiency of His Cross

Jesus doesn’t see any intrinsic beauty emitted by the church, for she has no beauty apart from him. He looks at the church through blood, his blood. As if looking through the varied luminous colors of a stained-glass window, Jesus beholds the church through the multifaceted wonder of redemption — blood, election, righteousness, forgiveness, regeneration, justification, union, and grace. Only in union with his perfect substitutionary sacrifice on the cross and glorious triumphant resurrection are filthy sinners washed white as snow (Psalm 51:7). Because of our sin, what God requires of us is paid in full by our bridegroom on the cross.

“Because of our union with Christ, God’s love of his Son now includes love of his Son’s bride.”

With all of its flowing blood, lacerated flesh, and stench of death, the cross becomes the epicenter of cleansing for sinners, where Christ looks lovingly upon his darling bride and declares, “My love, you are beautiful.” Reflecting on the sufficiency of the cross, Edwards writes, “Christ loves the elect with so great and strong a love, they are so near to him, that God looks upon them as it were as parts of him” (Works, 14:403). Because of our union with Christ, God’s love of his Son now includes love of his Son’s bride. When Christ exclaims that his bride is beautiful, he does so through the lens of the sufficiency of his cross and makes the church the sole recipient of the love that ceaselessly flows between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

3. The Fulfillment of His Mission

The New Testament is unmistakably clear that God has commissioned his church as the principal agency for heralding the gospel of Christ. This commission in Matthew 28:18–20 stands as the summit of the church’s mission for all subsequent generations. Beginning in Jerusalem, the disciples understood this assignment with vital urgency and launched the beautiful good news of Christ into all the earth (Acts 1:8). No church has the freedom to tamper with, tweak, add to, or subtract from the good news of Jesus Christ — we are called to herald it to the nations, for there is nothing more beautiful and lovely in the sight of Christ than the Holy Spirit regenerating, calling, and transferring sinners from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light.

All evangelistic and missionary endeavors are fueled by the assurance that Christ is enthroned as the head of his church and has promised to ransom men and women from “every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:8–9).

This assurance fueled the Genevan Reformer John Calvin to write to the king when evangelistic efforts were harshly suppressed in his homeland of France:

Our doctrine must tower unvanquished above all the glory and above all the might of the world, for it is not of us, but of the living God and his Christ whom the Father has appointed to “rule from sea to sea, and from the rivers even to the ends of the earth (Psalm 72:8).” (Prefatory address to Institutes of the Christian Religion)

Calvin reminds the church that the gospel “is not of us,” but originates from God. Entrusting his church with the task of heralding the gospel, God has chosen her to be an honored vessel to house and disseminate his glorious treasure (2 Corinthians 4:7). When Christ beholds the church, he sees the voice, hands, feet, and heart of the gospel message in rescuing sinners.

The Bride Is Welcome

Jesus doesn’t lament the church he has rescued or look for another to capture his attention. Christ welcomes the church as his beautiful treasure and joy. The church isn’t just about organization, leadership, function, and vision. Jesus sees more. His gaze reveals the beauty of our Father, the sufficiency of his cross, and the fulfillment of his mission in the world. He sees sinners being rescued, redeemed, and renewed.

The bride is now waiting and watching for our bridegroom’s appearance, when he will bid us “Welcome” for all eternity to bask in the glory of his eternal presence (2 Timothy 4:8). Until then, Jesus bids us to join him in gazing upon his bride and exclaiming of her, “Behold, you are beautiful!” (Song of Solomon 1:15).

(PhD, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is currently an associate professor of biblical spirituality and historical theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. He is the author of The Loveliest Place (Crossway). Dustin and his wife, Molli, live in Louisville, Kentucky.