I have often wondered why so many people are so quick to speak with great pessimism about the church. Perhaps some of you have just read this first sentence and thought to yourself that I must be blind and deaf. Is it possible that I have not seen once famous, conservative, evangelical pastors now denying the faith? Did I miss the television evangelists robbing thousands from unsuspecting viewers who need a miracle? Have I not considered churches that call themselves Christian denominations while they deny fundamental doctrines essential for salvation? No, I haven’t missed any of it. How can I possibly be confident about the church?
As is always my plea, I am careful to define the church. The church which is otherwise known as the Bride of Christ is the regenerate people of God who have come to faith in Christ alone through his all-sufficient work on the cross. Once we start defining the church on the basis of regeneration and the one true narrow way of salvation, the use of this word disqualifies some of those already mentioned. Of course, we would eliminate those already rejecting the essentials of the biblical gospel. When we see a church or believer toying with dangerous ideas that could take them into apostacy, how do we act? I think we can take the same approach as Paul. We can warn with confidence.
The Galatians were toying with the idea of a works-based salvation by adding law to grace. They were being led astray by the Jewish ideologies of the day. When we see this happening today, we often witness two extremes. On the one hand we witness a pointed finger of condemnation from those who are outraged that a Christian might detour. On the other hand, we witness a complacency from those who think that worldly ideas ultimately do no harm. Neither is right and neither is a tactic we see from the Apostle Paul. Paul may have been alarmed that the Galatians were moving in the wrong direction, but he was by no means condemning them as if non-believers. Nor Was Paul complacent about a teaching that had potential to destroy the church. Contrary to both positions, Paul was diligent to warn his brothers and sisters in confidence that Christians would be corrected and stay the course of the gospel in Christ.
In Galatians 5 Paul gave the Galatians a serious warning not to put their confidence in anything other than Christ because in doing so they would lose Christ. “Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you.” (Galatians 5:2). Paul also follows this statement up with the reason he is confident that they will heed the truth of the gospel. “I have confidence in the Lord that you will take no other view, and the one who is troubling you will bear the penalty, whoever he is.” (Galatians 5:10). If we don’t put these two statements together, it seems like Paul is a pessimist about the church, but Paul’s confidence is high. Paul had already stated in his letter that they had received the Spirit and the inheritance of Christ as sons and daughters of Abraham. He had seen them come to Christ and believe solely upon Jesus Christ for their salvation. These fallible humans were now being persuaded by false teachers and needed a recalibration to the one true gospel of Christ. If what Paul had once seen in them was true, he had every reason to be confident.
Notice, however, that Paul’s confidence in the church is not simply in the church. He is confident of them not ultimately taking the view of the Judaizers because his confidence is in the Lord. We may say that this is indication that Paul had no confidence whatsoever in the church but only in the Lord and in a sense this is true. The reason, however, that Paul has confidence in the Lord that they will not take another view is because they are in the Lord. Paul is confident in warning rather than condemning this church because Paul believes they are regenerate believers who will desire to align to the teaching of Christ above others. Paul knows how to define the church and he speaks accordingly. When we define the church as regenerate believers (this vastly decreases the population associated with that definition), you can speak optimistically “in the Lord.” They will stay the course on the apostolic gospel because Paul is confident that they are the church and the church is indwelt by Christ.
When we see sin and error in others, we are sometimes quick to immediately point fingers, accuse them of compromising, and even question their salvation. This is not Paul’s “go to.” Paul warns in confidence to help the erring believer know the consequence of where he is headed. He even communicates his confidence in them because of Christ and believes that they will heed the truth of the gospel. The question is, are we like that? Do we warn with confidence or are we self-appointed accusers and judges? Warning with confidence is gentle, kind, and thinks the best. Warning with confidence is living out love and this is one of the main characteristics of love.
1 Corinthians 13:7 Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.