David Powlison is a biblical counselor and an author of some important books and journal articles, resources that perhaps could lead some to see as promoting Christian growth apart from the local church. But that would be misleading, he explained to me a few years back when I sat down with him at the Christian Counseling & Educational Foundation offices near Philadelphia. I asked him to explain the vital role the local church plays in growing in sanctification — in our growth in holiness. Here’s what he said:
Local church is integral to sanctification from all sorts of different directions. There is an obvious direction I will come at and there is a less obvious one. Every single fruit of sanctification gets expressed within the context of the Church. To quote 1 Timothy 1:5, the goal of our instruction is love that comes from a pure heart, a good conscience, and a sincere faith, and that love gets expressed in the Church. It gets expressed towards brothers and sisters. The apostle John’s first letter says things like, “If you love the Son, if you love the brethren, if you love the Father, if you love the children, if you are in Christ, then you are in some intrinsic way wedded to the welfare of others.”
So I am going to get to, second, the way the church blesses us in sanctification, but the very goal of sanctification involves the Church. There is a sense where I am not perfected until you are perfected. We are not perfected until every single one of us, the children of the living God, is perfected, which means I have a stake in another person’s struggle as part of my own sanctification. Sanctification is not a private endeavor. It is not a moral self-improvement project. It is not less than that, but it is so much more than that, because the actual things that are improved about us actually tie us to the welfare of other people.
I think this is part of why you see Paul say, “Who does not stumble and I do not burn?” (2 Corinthians 11:29). In other words, “I am so grieved. I am so concerned. You are on my heart. I wrestle for you. There is tears on the piece of paper.” Is it just because Paul is a particularly passionate Mediterranean personality or is it that Paul knows that our glory, which is the ultimate goal of sanctification, is when all of us arrive together and all of us together have grown up into the image of Jesus Christ?
So where else will I express the fruits of growth, but with my brothers and sisters? Where else will the gifts that God has given me to be the vehicle in which my sanctification is most fruitful? Where else will they be expressed if the body of Christ, Christ’s own beloved people, is not part of it? We are called to do good to all, but especially to the household of faith (Galatians 6:10). There is something about the nature even of God’s election that it is an elect people, a holy priesthood, and a nation called to be a light to the Gentiles, a light to the world (1 Peter 2:9). The whole world will know that we are his disciples if we love each other (John 13:35).
From a certain point of view, my ability to contribute to evangelism and world missions hinges on whether I love the brethren, whether we as Christian people resolve our differences, treat each whether with forbearance, patience, humility, and constructive love, whether we are candid to reprove in a constructive and loving way, and so forth. Am I about the business of a kingdom that is not my own? And to the degree I am, it will involve being with other people.
That is the less talked about side. The more obvious side is that I need my brothers and sisters. We can’t say it is impossible to grow without fellowship, because there are people in solitary confinement who have grown deep and rich and wise in the ways of the Lord. But it is the normal way that we grow, barring extreme circumstances — like being the only Christian in a Muslim village in Algeria or being in prison or being elderly and extremely frail and disabled and, for whatever reason, there aren’t people around you that can support your faith.
From whom else will I receive all of the one-anothering that the Bible says we need to give each other? Where else will I hear the Word preached but in the context of corporate worship? Where else will I be reminded through the Lord’s supper and baptism that this King stoops to meet us? He is not just a head trip. He says, “Here is my body. Here is my blood. These are the waters of life. Your sins are washed away. Partake of the feast. Repent of your sins. You really are forgiven. You really are washed.”
Where else do I get the incalculable thing that happens in public worship where I can sing a hymn? Not when I am by myself. I am glad that joyful noise counts unto the Lord, but there is nothing like singing with a passel of other believers who mean it. And I am sure most of us have had that experience where you can’t even sing because it is so awesome. We are singing to each other and to the Lord and it is so awesome. What we are saying to the Lord and to each other — and how profound corporate worship is — is vital for our sanctification.
So, do we need the body of Christ? Yes, at both ends of the process. We need it at the input end to help us grow. And how could I forget? When I was being interviewed for church membership, the final question my pastor asked was, “If you stray from my fidelity to Jesus Christ or my wife, what will we do?” And it was a huge comfort to me for the pastor to say, “I will pursue you. I will call you to repentance. And if you don’t repent, we will excommunicate you.” I said, “I am signing on.” There are shepherds who are looking out for my soul.
Does that mean you can’t be a solo Christian? Well, of course not. God can sustain people in tough times. But, boy, the norm and the goal is the body of Christ living and active.