Acting the Miracle Together: Corporate Dynamics in Christian Sanctification

Desiring God 2012 National Conference

Act the Miracle: God's Work and Ours in the Mystery of Sanctification

If you see something, say something. That’s what you’ll see on signs everywhere in and around New York City subway stations. These signs are part of a public relations campaign meant to encourage citizens to be on the watch for potential terrorists. If a member of the public observes something suspicious, he or she is encouraged to notify the authorities. This way, so the logic goes, the city of New York will be better equipped to deal with potential terrorists. Since its inception, there’s only been one problem with this campaign.

It doesn’t work.

Not a single terrorist has been caught as a result of this campaign. Why? Well, as one article put it, there’s just too much weird stuff going on in New York. “We have everything,” says sociologist Harvey Molotch. “People lugging their art project around with wires sticking out, people who indeed look Islamic operating machines to count their prayers in Islam as they go” (Dwyer Gunn, “Does ‘See Something, Say Something’ Do Nothing?” New York Magazine, October 1, 2012, 10). All around the New York City subways are people who seem suspicious and out of place, but they aren’t; they’re just part of the bizarre and eclectic group of people that make their home in New York. The problem, then, is that no one can call in and report suspicious activity because they don’t know what qualifies as suspicious. They don’t know what normal is supposed to look like.

Not Knowing What’s Normal

That’s not only true on the subway in New York City. Part of the obstacle that those of us in Christ face when it comes to growing in holiness is that we ourselves don’t know what normal looks like. We’ve lived our entire existence in a fallen universe, as Isaiah tells us, “in the midst of a people of unclean lips” (Isaiah 6:5), even as we ourselves are people of unclean lips. And in the midst of all the fallenness around us, what seems to be perfectly normal can, in fact, be sinful. What seems to be perfectly normal, and in some cases even respectable, can be completely overlooked for the sin that it is, simply because one is living around so many other people who have similar sorts of slaveries and bondage to sin such that it doesn’t even seem abnormal.

What the gospel of Jesus Christ does, though, is break through this bizarre, unnatural kind of life we are living and puts forward a new normal that Jesus defines as the kingdom of God. And this kingdom, Jesus tells his apostles, isn’t just some generic category referring to God’s power, and it isn’t some place we await for another thousand or trillion years. This kingdom shows up in assemblies — and it shows up now.

Where We See the Reign of Christ

At Caesarea Philippi, Jesus speaks of the coming of the kingdom, about its advance. “The gates of hell shall not prevail against it,” Jesus says (Matthew 16:18). The power of Satan will not overcome this kingdom. Not only that, but Jesus shows that the reality of his kingdom will be seen in the fact that he will build it; Jesus will assemble his people together. For there is no kingdom, the Bible tells us, where there is no people. There is no reign where there is no empire over which to reign. Where, though, do we see this kingdom, this assembly of people over which Jesus reigns? We see these people, and this reign, in one place — the church.

The visible sign that Jesus gives in the church, therefore, is a sign of the manifold wisdom of God, a sign to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places where God has appointed Jesus to rule over his church as a head to a body, as a king over a kingdom. While the whole world indeed “lies under the sway of the wicked one” (1 John 5:19 NKJV), and while there yet remains an evil “god of this age” (John 12:31; 2 Corinthians 4:4), in the local assemblies of the church, we see a sign of the reign of Christ.

Sanctification as Corporate

One problem we have today when it comes to the issue of holiness is that we think of sanctification as primarily an individual thing. We ask ourselves, “How often am I reading the Bible and praying? How often am I singing praise to God and meditating upon the things of God?” And while all of these are indeed important, too often we neglect the fact that we are holy and grow in holiness only because we are part of the body of Christ — in a real and vital union with Christ in the body he has knit together. The question of sanctification, then, is not, what are you doing to promote your growth in godliness, but what are we doing.

We see Jesus’s reign in the church.

That’s why Paul’s letter to the Corinthian church is so significant. He is writing to a group of people living at the very earliest stages of the new reality Jesus promised at Caesarea Philippi — the building and gathering of his church. And this gathering has significance not just for the first-century church in Corinth but also for us and our sanctification. First Corinthians 4–6 is particularly helpful in highlighting this corporate nature of sanctification, and below we’ll see a number of different ways the kingdom of Christ leads us to act the miracle of sanctification together.

1) Sanctification and the Church’s Proclamation

Paul writes to a church in Corinth that is troubled and filled with arrogance, with those who act as if they are already kings (1 Corinthians 4:8). Paul, by contrast, has lived his own life as an example to them as the “last of all,” a “spectacle to the world,” and a “[fool] for Christ’s sake” (vv. 9–10). Paul has given them the gospel and exists as their spiritual father (verse 15); he has sent Timothy to remind them of Paul’s instructions, and he has urged the Corinthians to imitate Paul in his other-directedness for the sake of the gospel (vv. 16–17).

And yet they rebel — grasping after power, and prominence, and authority, rejecting the one who is himself the reason they received the gospel in the first place. Paul, therefore, decides that he will go himself to this Corinthian church, to see these arrogant ones and discern whether what they are saying is just talk —“for the kingdom,” Paul declares, “does not consist in talk but in power” (verse 20).

On first blush, such a statement from Paul reads like he’s challenging the Corinthians to a fight. But instead, Paul reveals his arsenal in advance, and his choice may surprise some. Paul tells the Corinthians he will come to them armed — with words. Paul will come to the Corinthians with words bearing a spirit of gentleness and loving discipline, but unlike the empty, meaningless words of the arrogant ones, his words carry the power of the kingdom.

The Power of the Kingdom

What exactly is this power? It is the proclamation Paul brings bearing the authority and the spirit of Christ. It is precisely what Jesus means when he says, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am among them” (Matthew 18:20). When the church gathers in Jesus’s name, and in Jesus’s power, his Spirit is there among them. Accordingly, as the Corinthian church hears the inspired words of the Spirit in the book of 1 Corinthians, there is a power that comes with these words. We see this power at Caesarea Philippi — Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” (Matthew 16:13).

On first reading, this seems to be a nonthreatening question; the disciples can just answer back with the array of opinions people have: “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets” (verse 14). But when Jesus asks Simon Peter, directly, “But who do you say I am?” (verse 15), he replies by the power of the Spirit, declaring, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (verse 16). And then, crucially, Jesus expresses power and authority — by renaming Simon Peter.

Jesus Speaks with Authority

I don’t know about you, but I’ve never been quite so audacious as to give someone a new name, as if I had the authority, upon meeting a stranger, say, in the hardware store, to say, “You know, you say your name is Frank, but you look like a Bob to me. Your new name is Bob.” In the same way, there’s a certain audacity here seen in Jesus’s declaring, “I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church” (verse 18). Jesus’s declaration seems so unreal, beyond that, because it doesn’t seem to be true at all.

The question of sanctification is not, what are you doing to promote your growth in godliness, but rather, what are we doing.

How does Jesus call Peter a rock, when, just a few verses down, he will rebuke him and call him Satan (verse 23)? How does Jesus call Peter a rock when he knows that it is Peter who continually says all sorts of outlandish things at inappropriate times, when he knows that it is Peter who will abandon Jesus upon his arrest? Even still, Jesus insists that Peter himself will be the foundation stone of his church. Why does Jesus say this? He gives Peter this name; he calls him a rock, because Jesus speaks with authority — and his word makes Peter live up to his name. The voice of Jesus gives to Peter a name that seems as ridiculous as an elderly barren man named “father of many nations,” but Jesus makes these names true by the power of his transforming word.

Representative Authority

In the same way, Paul assumes that the apostolic authority he himself carries means that the proclamation of the Spirit-inspired words brings with it the authority of Jesus himself. Paul stands in the place of Christ and brings words with the authority of Christ.

I’m often reminded of the importance of representative authority when I’m around my relatives. Every once in a while I’ll be sitting around with extended family at some holiday or event, and the news will be playing in the background. All of a sudden, I’ll hear an elderly aunt or distant cousin react to something he sees on the news: “You know what we need to do? We need to bomb Canada! Who knows what they’re going to do!”

Now, when I hear that, I don’t argue. The particular conspiracy theory doesn’t really matter. Presumably, it wouldn’t even matter that much if one of my relatives traveled to the doorstep of the United Nations and stood at the doorway with a bullhorn chanting, “Let’s bomb Canada! Let’s bomb Canada!” People would just think it was a crazy person and go about their business.

But imagine if this relative of mine was the US Ambassador to the Untied Nations. If that person says, “Let’s bomb Canada,” then it creates mayhem. Why is that? It’s because the US Ambassador is not speaking on his or her own authority but is coming with the authority of a powerful country that is able to carry out its threats.

Authority in Preaching God’s Word

The same thing is happening with the authority of the preached Word of God. When you and I gather together and hear God’s Word faithfully preached, what we are hearing is an ambassadorial plea that has been sent down from our Lord Jesus himself, such that Paul speaks of preaching as a ministry of reconciliation in which “we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us” (2 Corinthians 5:20). The Word of God preached faithfully, therefore, has a northern Galilean accent; people hearing such a proclamation ought to hear a familiar voice — the same one that first called them out of darkness.

Not only that, but whenever we see Jesus begin to speak in Scripture, we see things start happening. Demons start shrinking as they see their power broken. Men and women are healed at the power of the spoken words of Jesus. The same thing happens when you and I as believers gather to hear his Word preached, or admonish and teach one another and sing to one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. The ministry of the Word is not just an informational download — the proclamation of the Word of God is expository exorcism.

Written to the Entire Church

You see, the power of Jesus’s voice residing in his church under the authority of the proclaimed Word of God breaks through the patterns of destruction that keep us from seeing the glory of the light of God reflected in the face of Christ. When we proclaim the Scripture, whether in sermon, song, or counsel, and when we do so not on the basis of our own authority but on the basis of the Scriptures, there is power — wonder-working pow’r — in the proclamation that creates and brings into existence exactly what Jesus says.

This is precisely why the Bible is written to the entire church and not arranged systematically according to needs for people in particular life situations. That’s why, sometimes, you’ll hear from that single woman, who has never been and feels no calling to be married, balk at a sermon on Ephesians 5, wondering why she has to listen to another sermon on marriage. But the reason why she needs to listen to this sermon is that Ephesians 5 isn’t meant to be received only by married couples at the church in Ephesus. The passage is addressed to the entire church because the single women in that congregation, and in our own congregations, are not only accountable for their own lives but are also called to teach and hold accountable those marriages within the church.

The Word of God preached faithfully has a Galilean accent; an accent of the one who calls men and women out of darkness.

Why does an eighty-eight-year-old man need to hear a sermon series on parenting? Because he is held accountable to teach and encourage and rebuke the rest of those within the church when it comes to parenting. You and I form a kingdom of priests under the proclamation of God’s Word — a Word that creates and brings about sanctification and holiness.

2) Sanctification and the Church’s Discipline

Immediately after Paul speaks of the power behind his words, and the lack of power behind the words of the arrogant ones, he changes the topic to address a scandal: “It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans” (1 Corinthians 5:1). In so doing, Paul connects the authority and power of the kingdom to the responsibility for discipline within the kingdom, echoing Jesus’s declaration that he has given the church the “keys of the kingdom” (Matthew 16:19).

In speaking of discipline, what naturally comes to mind for many is church discipline. And one of the problems in addressing church discipline to a typical evangelical audience is that what many of our minds immediately jump to when we hear “church discipline” is excommunication. We think that someone under church discipline is someone who has been voted out of the fellowship of the church — and in many cases, that is perfectly true. And yet, in reality, we are all under church discipline — because discipline is much more than excommunication. In fact, excommunication is the end of church discipline, the final phase when the church hands the sinner over to Satan, removing him from fellowship for lack of repentance.

At every step, discipline is designed to discern who is and isn’t qualified to be called “brother” and “sister” within the church. Thus, when Paul asserts, “there is sexual immorality among you” (1 Corinthians 5:1), the “you” he speaks of is the church — the church at Corinth that has been called out and sanctified by the Spirit and the blood of Christ. The responsibility given to this church by Jesus — dependent on and deriving from the Word of God — is to mark out and identify those who are qualified to be counted as brothers based upon the criteria of repentance toward God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.

Marking Out Boundaries in Baptism

Thus, in baptism, the church is marking out its boundaries; the church receives one into the baptismal waters and then into its membership upon a profession of faith and repentance and hence receives this one into its structure of accountability before God. Unlike the world, with its chaotic anarchy and satanic rule, the church is the location within the present order where Jesus rules as king, as head over a body. In baptism, then, the church — on the basis of what Jesus has said to us in the Scripture — is declaring the one going into and coming out of the water to be a brother, to be one who has been received by Christ.

"The proclamation of the Word of God is expository exorcism."

No pastor or elder or minister has the personal authority to make this declaration or define these boundaries. Instead, the King of the kingdom has defined the boundaries by which one is or is not received by God. When the church recognizes those within these boundaries and speaks rightly, on the basis of what Jesus has given the church, it is declaring in the voice of Jesus, “You are one of the brothers.” That is a powerful, awe-inspiring responsibility.

A More Important Vote

I’m reminded of the significance of this responsibility every four years during US presidential elections. As I flip through the channels I hear all kinds of conspiracy theories, talking heads fretful or angry about the prospect of the candidate they oppose being elected president, and, without fail, I’ll hear over and over again: “This is the most important election that has happened in our lifetime.” Amazingly, every election in which I’ve ever participated has been “the most important election of our lifetime,” apparently.

Now, there should be no doubt — a presidential election is of great significance. Even still, your vote on receiving a new member into your congregation is far more significant in the long term than is your vote for who will be the next president of the United States. When a congregation receives one into the baptismal waters or onto their membership rolls, they are making a proclamation that has eternal significance.

Conversely, when the congregation refuses to deal with an issue wherein there is a lack of repentance, the congregation — charged with the task of speaking on behalf of the Lord Jesus Christ — is making a false proclamation in its silence, giving the false impression that Jesus sanctions or is unconcerned with unrepentant sin.

Responsible to Speak Faithfully

The mandate for the church to discipline its members is a call to obey what Scripture has clearly commanded. It’s easy, I find, to condemn the empty-suit preacher being interviewed on CNN who balks at the question, “What about well-intentioned Muslims and Hindus? Do they go to hell?” because we find the reluctance to affirm what Scripture so clearly teaches about the way of salvation to be pathetic and cowardly. And yet many of our churches fail at precisely the same point when it comes to discipline.

When we list someone on a membership roll who is continuing in unrepentant sin, or living a life devoid of faith, or refusing to gather with the assembly of the church, we are saying to them, in effect, “Jesus says that you are our brother,” when we actually have no warrant to say that. We might as well go door-to-door and say to everyone who answers, “I’ll see you in heaven.”

Voting on church membership has far more long term significance than your vote for the next president of the United States.

The church has the authority to speak — but also the responsibility to speak faithfully. And the church’s proclamation comes not only from what is said from the pulpit. Even the membership of the church, we’ve seen, is itself a proclamation coming with the ambassadorial authority of Jesus — thus the church is called to faithfulness in its proclamation, and diligence in its discipline.

The Goal of Excommunication

All this being said, the church has authority to discipline only where Jesus himself has given that authority — in his Word. The church doesn’t discipline and disfellowship someone because they disagree, for instance, over the issue of whether their children should be in homeschool or public school, or whether it’s appropriate to celebrate Halloween. Instead, the church disciplines those things about which the Scripture says that those who practice them “will not inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 6:9–10; Gal. 5:21). We discipline clear signs of rebellion and disobedience and refusal to turn away from sin and live in obedience to Christ.

And when that final stage of discipline comes, when one is put out of the fellowship, we need to be clear on what that entails. Church discipline is not just “clearing the membership roll” as if the point were primarily accuracy in bookkeeping. Neither is church discipline designed to be a punishment, as if the church were saying, “We don’t want your kind around here.” Yes, the church speaks of this stage of discipline as the delivering of one to Satan (1 Corinthians 5:5), but the very next phrase in the same verse reveals that such is done precisely for the purpose that “his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.”

Thus, the goal in church discipline is that the one being put out of fellowship will hear the warning in the church’s action as Jesus’s own voice, saying to him, “I am handing you over to Satan,” and in response turn back in repentance and faith. If that happens, Scripture tells us, we will have “gained [a] brother” (Matthew 18:15). The church disciplines in the hope that the one being disciplined will hear Jesus’s warning voice and return — as Jesus says of his flock, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27).

The only difference, then, between Peter’s weeping in repentance in the arms of Jesus, and Judas tangled up in his own intestines in a potter’s field, is the kind of repentance the voice of Jesus brings. The discipline of the congregation spurs us to holiness not only in bringing to light issues of rebellion and unrepentance, and not only because the ambassadorial proclamation from Jesus works in our hearts to bring about repentance, but also because the accountability within the church itself changes us.

Reorienting Our Lives and Affections

Notice what Paul says: “I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people — not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world. . . . I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty” (1 Corinthains 5:9–11). Paul is not trying to set up some sort of rapture in advance, wherein the church hermetically seals itself off from the rest of the outside world. That’s why Paul asks, “What have I to do with judging outsiders?” (verse 12). Instead, he’s demanding that the church not associate with evil within the accountability of the church itself.

At this point is where we tend to get things completely reversed. All too often, we express our outrage at everything going on “out there” in the world and all the while ignore the wickedness in our own midst. And yet the discipline of the church is designed to reorient our lives and affections. The discipline of the church changes our mission, because it changes the way we see people — having empathy instead of judgment on those outside of Christ, knowing they are enslaved by sin and that God himself will judge them; and at the same time being diligent in spurring on toward obedience those who bear the name of brother, knowing that the church is called to love one another and form one another with the Word of truth. In the end, the discipline of the church drives us toward love, because the presence of Jesus is in our midst by his Word and Spirit.

3) Sanctification and the Church’s Economy

Beyond the proclamation and the discipline of the church, the church’s ordering and structure, what is formally called the “economy” of the church, is designed to conform us more into the image of Christ. In the very next chapter of 1 Corinthians, Paul rebukes the church because they are not only tolerating immorality within their midst, but they are also fighting and struggling with one another — some going so far as to take one another to court (1 Corinthians 6:1–8).

Such ought to be humiliating, Paul argues, because “the saints will judge the world” (verse 2), and here are these believers laying down their disputes “before those who have no standing in the church” (verse 4). You see, the gifts Jesus gives the church are not simply designed for personal edification. Jesus gives gifts to the church for the expressed purpose of building up the body (Ephesians 4:12) and for use in spiritual warfare — to show that Jesus has taken captivity captive.

We know the significance of this warfare and of taking the enemy captive. We understand when we see a picture of a US soldier standing in Saddam Hussein’s bathtub that this picture is a celebration, an indication of successful conquest because the enemy is gone and our army has won. At the same time, Jesus gifts his church as preparation; in giving gifts to his church now he is staffing up his church for a future kingdom that is to come.

That’s why much of our focus when it comes to spiritual gifts is off target. So many of us obsess about what our gift is, and we take all sorts of “gift inventories” to try to figure that out. But what the Scripture reveals to us is that your gift is not “your” gift — it is given to the church for the purpose of the upbuilding of the body. So the question is not “What is my gift?” but rather “Is my gift, am I myself, operative and functioning within and for the building up of the body?”

In this light we can understand why Paul asks, “Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to settle a dispute between the brothers?” (1 Corinthians 6:5). Instead, these in the Corinthian church are taking their disputes to the outside world. For you and me, while the outside world can be a public court of law, it can just as easily be a gossip-laden court of public opinion on the Internet or in hushed conversations. In every situation, such rebellion acts as if Jesus was not victorious, as if he did not gift his church with all it needed to promote peace and godliness. In the end, these disputes make it seem like the gospel isn’t true.

An Internship for the Eschaton

Not only that, but Jesus gives gifts to his church because he is training those of us in Christ now in little things, for large areas of responsibility over which we will have authority in the age to come. Our life within the body of Christ now is an internship for the eschaton. The disputes within the Corinthian church, then, are remarkably shortsighted. If you really believe the gospel, that Jesus will return and usher in an eternal kingdom, then you believe that your life now entails long-range planning — as in plotting out your next trillion years. And yet so often we get caught up in disputes; we worry about accomplishing our little agendas, maintaining our little pockets of authority, as if there was nothing beyond our own sphere of influence, nothing beyond our present life.

Imagine a kindergarten child coming home and telling his parents that he won the presidency of his kindergarten class. His parents would be excited, of course. They’d probably decorate a cake, and take some pictures, and celebrate. But if that same child grows up to be fifty years old and is still glorying in the fact that he was elected president of Mrs. Timsley’s kindergarten class, that guy is, well, a loser.

In just the same way, Paul tells the Corinthian church — and us — that we are going to judge angels and rule with Christ over the universe (1 Corinthians 6:2–3). And when the disputants in the Corinthian church go out and tell the outside world that the church needs help to discern what is just and good, they are declaring their own shortsightedness, and they are declaring the incompetence of Jesus to rule over his kingdom within the church.

"Our life within the body of Christ now is an internship for the eschaton."

That is why Paul rebukes the Corinthians, asking, “Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded?” (1 Corinthians 6:7). In light of the mission the church has received, in light of the big picture and the glorious future in store for those in Christ, what real significance does your dispute, your problem, your preference have? Who cares?

The Outward Direction of Corporate Worship

So often we see these kinds of disputes in our midst when it comes to music. Now, I myself have the worship taste of a seventy-five-year-old woman. I feel most at home with Fanny Crosby, hearing “Victory in Jesus” and “Brethren, We Have Met to Worship,” even more if it’s set to fiddle. What I had to learn, though, no matter what the old hymn says, is that when it comes to worship, I don’t “come to the garden alone.”

In a real sense, our worship wars are of one piece with these disputes going on in the Corinthian church. We act as if worship is designed to provide the individual with whatever it takes for him to close his eyes and pretend that he’s having a moment with Jesus, enjoying a little foretaste of heaven. The problem, though, is music is not given to the church primarily so you can have a moment with Jesus.

In Scripture, we see that we are given song to build one another up in faith, to do warfare with one another against the principalities and powers in the heavenly places, and to prepare one another through worship for a new era and a new creation. Worship in Scripture, then, is outward-directed, whether directed toward warfare, one another, or the age to come. We have then, it seems, the wrong kind of worship wars.

There should be disputes about our music, but if we have a biblical understanding of worship, and of sanctification, then our disputes will consist of the elderly woman concerned that there are too many old hymns being played and not enough Lecrae, and twenty-somethings in the college ministry demanding that the church turn down the volume a little and play some “more familiar” songs in worship — each concerned for the others’ well being and edification.

Those within the church are called to count others as more important than themselves, outdoing themselves in showing honor to one another (Romans 12:10). For in worship, and in service with one another within the life of the body, you and I are being shaped and prepared for something that is far deeper and wider and more important than your favorite worship style. We’re being prepared to rule.

4) Sanctification and the Church’s Testimony

In a recent op-ed, columnist David Brooks argued that we live in an arena culture (David Brooks, “The Arena Culture,” New York Times, December 31, 2010, A23). By that he means that the things that tend to give people meaning in today’s culture take place in arenas, like politics and sports. You see this all over the place; people identify with their team, or party, or candidate, such that for many, when you speak a word against “my candidate,” or “my team,” it feels as if you’re speaking a word against me.

On the other hand, there is an appeal to this arena culture because it provides a sense of community. You find yourself in an arena full of people with the same goal, the same shared interest; in turn this shared goal — whether it’s beating the Yankees, or beating the Democrats, or whoever else — provides a larger metanarrative, makes it feel like your life transcends its own little meaning, and is a part of something bigger.

And yet the arena that God calls us to in our sanctification is set on a stage much bigger than any stadium or convention site. The backdrop of this arena is eternity. That’s why Paul is imploring the Corinthians, “Do not be deceived” (1 Corinthians 6:9), and continually reminding them of those who will not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:9–10; 15:50; Galatians 5:21; Ephesians 5:5). In the arena in which we find ourselves, the stakes are high. But the power of Christ in the life of the church breaks through the deception of the satanic powers.

The Power of Community in the Process of Sanctification

The power of the community in the process of sanctification is seen in the way that it’s easy for many of us to identify the sins of others but justify or be blinded to our own. That’s why Paul is listing off these sins the Corinthians are guilty of — “neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 6:9–10). In calling out these brothers he is warning them, revealing the way in which they are in their sin believing the same lie as did the primeval couple: “You will not surely die” (Genesis 3:4). The word of the church breaks the power of the deception of sin.

Beyond that, the word of the church breaks the power of Satan’s accusation. Notice Paul’s crucial distinction. He is not saying that sexually immoral people do not inherit the kingdom but regular people do. He is saying that sexually immoral people do not inherit the kingdom, but sexually immoral people who crucify their sin do inherit the kingdom. That is precisely the point of hope in Paul’s message to the Corinthian church; the sexually immoral and the greedy will not inherit the kingdom, “and such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of God” (1 Corinthians 6:11).

Speaking to Others — and to Ourselves

You see, being together in the fellowship of the church and learning to bear with one another’s sins and point out one another’s blind spots, points us to the reality of our own standing before God — not as some neutral “regular” person, but as a sinner who deserves to hear, “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness” (Matthew 7:23). The truth of the gospel is that, though “such were some of you,” the blood of Jesus cleanses you from sin.

So when a congregation receives into membership the man who says, “I broke up my family; I abandoned my children, and I am haunted every day by their screams when I walked out the door,” and speaks to that repentant soul with the authority of the risen Jesus saying, “Your sins have been forgiven you,” we are speaking also right back to ourselves. The same blood that cleanses the swindler cleanses the idolater. The same blood that cleanses the fornicator cleanses the thief and the self-righteous legalist. Why? Because the gathering of the church together is a sign to the principalities and powers not that the assembly is a group of sinless people but is instead a group of people who will no longer bear accusation — because the reign of Jesus through his crucifixion and resurrection of the dead cancels the power of Satan’s accusations.

Guilty — but Forgiven

Because this is the case, when the woman in our congregation cries when she hears the words of a certain hymn because she remembers having an abortion, what we say to her is not, “It’s okay.” Neither do we say, “Actually, those who practice bloodshed will inherit the kingdom of God.” Instead, we teach her that if she is in Christ, she can sing out these songs, and sing right at the Devil, saying, “You are exactly right in every accusation that you bring against me, but you are accusing the brothers and sisters who conquer you ‘by the blood of the Lamb and the word of their testimony’” (see Revelation 12:11).

As guilty but forgiven sinners, what the powers and principalities of this age say to us is true. But we’ve already been accused; we’ve already been indicted; we’ve been arrested; we’ve been dressed in purple and beaten; we’ve been stapled to a Roman cross; we’ve had the wrath of God poured out upon us; we’ve been left in a tomb as a bloated, abandoned, cursed corpse; and on a Sunday morning in Jerusalem, we were resurrected.

So when the accusations of the Evil One come against us, what he hears in reply is the gospel truth that we can’t be re-executed. What we hear said of us from the Father is, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased,” because we are in union with Christ, and what is true of him is now, by the grace of God, true of us. And that is precisely why “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1).

Heaven’s Satellite Campus

When we gather as a church, then, we don’t come together as former sinners. We don’t come together as regular people. We come as the crucified. And when we join in worship, we are joining with an already existing worship in the heavenly places. We’re just an earthly satellite campus.

Many of us like to go to conferences because it’s encouraging to be around a group of like-minded people. It’s encouraging to hear thousands of believers singing together in worship, when what you typically hear each week are just those few voices in your rural church, in that abandoned part of town where it’s hard to attract visitors. But what we need to remember is that, every single Lord’s Day when we gather together, we are joining — by the eyes and ears of faith — a number no man can count.

We are joining with a global, trans-generational movement, and we stand with the redeemed of all the ages with the confession that we are lost but he was slain, and with his blood he has purchased a church. And this church is a church that corrects, a church that rebukes, a church that transforms — because it speaks not with the voice of self-sufficiency but with the royal, transforming voice of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Jesus Will Build His Church

Jesus is going to build his church, and the gates of hell cannot stop it. Yet we often wonder whether our churches are functioning well enough to produce the next Charles Spurgeon or the next Billy Graham. But the truth of the matter is, the next Billy Graham might be drunk right now. The next Spurgeon might be selling drugs on a street corner right at this moment. Jesus never promised that he would raise up a people from our established ranks.

Believers have been stapled to a Roman cross, have died, and were resurrected on a Sunday morning in Jerusalem.

What he promised is that he would bring out of the world and all of sinful humanity a church, a people in every single generation. He will build it with ex-fisherman and ex–tax collectors. He will build it with ex-terrorists, and ex-fornicators, and ex-adulterers, and ex-murderers. And we will testify that though our power is not enough, Jesus is Lord, and he will build his church.

Over a Reptile’s Skull

When we gather together, we announce in all our little places that the kingdom of God has drawn near to us in Christ. When we gather around the Lord’s Table, we participate in a foretaste of a future banquet at the marriage supper of the Lamb. When we watch that new believer being baptized, we are seeing the kingdom of God uprooting the kingdom of darkness. And when we receive the word of proclamation given in our assembly — whether in sermon, song, spoken encouragement, or gentle rebuke — we participate in the answering of the promise that Jesus would build his church over a reptile’s skull.

As we grow in Christ, we see that the kingdom of God will come in fullness — and this kingdom is not just a manner of eating and drinking, not just a matter of evangelizing and congregating. The kingdom of God does not consist in talk but in power. So in the church, when we see something, we say something — with the commission of Christ our king.

(@drmoore) is Public Theologian at Christianity Today and minister-in-residence at Immanuel Nashville. He served as President of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention from 2013 until 2021. He and his wife, Maria, have five sons.