It was the godly, Richard Baxter who once so wisely said that ‘in essential things unity, in doubtful things liberty, but in all things charity.’ Here I want to focus on essential things. And I want to ask why it is that so many Reformed churches and denominations are, generally speaking, failing so miserably in focusing on the essentials?
While I hesitate to use the expression, given what happened to John Major and his government in the 1990s, I believe that we need to get back to basics – the biblical basics! We need to focus on the essentials, which sadly appear to have been obscured and subordinated to traditions and other concerns at the present time.
Many who would call themselves Reformed would have no difficulty in reciting the ‘solas – scriptura, gratia, fides, Christos’, but are we applying these great truths in our individual and collective lives? We have the head knowledge but are these things truly written on our hearts? Moreover where are the fruits of the Spirit? God’s word says: “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith. Meekness, temperance…” (Gal 5:18-23).
We all know of particular churches that are as warm and inviting as a mortuary slab. Where are the grace, love and joy? If a stranger were to come into our congregations would these fruits be clearly manifest? We are to reach out in love and to love one another. And this is a necessity if we are to be obedient to Christ our Lord and do the first things well.
In a somewhat crude and simplistic fashion I want to suggest to you that Christ’s church has an external and an internal function. And these are the very essentials I want to focus upon in this article.
Firstly the church has an external function. We read at the very end of the gospel according to Matthew:
“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 always, even unto the end of the world. Amen”. Matthew 28:16-20
Note who it is that is addressing the church! It is the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. He is not merely inviting or suggesting that if His church is mindful and has some spare time on its hands that it might on occasion engage in missionary and evangelistic work but instead He issues a direct command. He doesn’t say that some or a little power or authority (NKJV) has been given unto Me but instead He says ALL power is given unto Me, in heaven and in earth.
Do you submit to His rule and seek to obey His commands? He demands our whole-hearted allegiance. We must contend earnestly for Christ’s crown and covenant!
Now what is it that Christ commands his church to do? Verse 19 is clear. We are to GO. This takes resolve, determination, action and commitment. We are not invited to wait, as if men, women and children will automatically come along to our services once they hear that there is a witness in their locale because they are not coming. Instead we are to “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost”.
I prefer the NKJV translation which is more accurate “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations”. Sounds dreadfully Arminian does it not! But we must never forget that the Lord uses means in the calling of His elect out of the world. We know that God is sovereign in the salvation of His people but also from a human perspective there are three basic steps in the salvation and spiritual development of each and every Christian.
Firstly there is a turning to the Lord, which is conversion. We must repent of our sins and turn away from self, sin and Satan and turn to Christ as our Lord and only Saviour. Now we know that this is God’s doing but this can only be known with hindsight.
Then there is following after the Lord, which is discipleship. All Christians need to grow in knowledge and grace. God not only justifies but He sanctifies and will glorify His adopted children. And finally there is testifying for the Lord which is witnessing. This is not the preserve of the minister or pastor or elder but each and every Christian should be able to tell others of the reason for the hope that is in them.
We are to be salt and light in an unsavoury and darkened world. We have good news to share with all indiscriminately!
And how are we to teach the nations or make disciples? Well quite simply by preaching, teaching, proclaiming and sharing the gospel. Christ says, “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mar 16:15). Not all are called to preach and teach in Christ’s church but surely all can point men and women to the Lamb which takes away the sin of the world! Surely most are capable of handing a Bible, book or tract to someone! Surely all can invite someone along to church!
Like Andrew or Philip in John’s gospel we must all be ready to say to the unconverted, ‘Come and see’! Taste and see that the Lord is gracious! Surely church leaders should be encouraging their congregations to share their faith with family, friends, neighbours, work colleagues and the like. Why then is it that in so many churches these things are almost alien concepts today?
Why is it that there are a growing number of Reformed people against the ‘free offer of the gospel’? There are too many, who tortoise like, keep their heads well inside their shells fearing contamination from the world. Or maybe some are like hedgehogs who when confronted with the unknown roll themselves into a ball. Many churches are like rolled-up hedgehogs – inward looking and parochial and just as prickly when confronted by the Truth.
Where have the pharisaic, hyper-separatistic and exclusivistic practices that are an altogether common feature in parts of the Reformed constituency come from? They were certainly unknown to Luther and Calvin and the sixteenth century reformers and are unknown to all those who have been true to the Reformed and Biblical Faith.
We need to look to and follow the example of men like George Wishart, John Knox, Robert Murray McCheyne, George Whitefield, Charles Haddon Spurgeon and so many others who looked to their Lord in the administration of grace and truth in equal measure. We need to remind ourselves that our Lord says that the fields are white unto harvest.
How often we pray for revival without acting on our prayers. We need to remind ourselves that God puts His treasure in earthen vessels. He uses the weak and beggarly thing like you and me, so that all the glory might redound to Him alone. We need to remind ourselves of the word that our Lord spoke to Gideon:
“Go in this thy might, and thou shalt save Israel from the hand of the Midianites: have not I sent thee”. Judges 6:13-14
We must obey the Great Commission acknowledging and trusting in the sovereign authority and power of the One who sends His church into the world with that glorious message of reconciliation. We preach not ourselves but Christ and Him crucified! Verse 20 in Matthew 28, says that we are to baptise in the name of the triune God and teach all things. I ask that you fix your eyes and hearts on the promise given by our Lord that if we are true to Him then He is with us always even unto the end of the world.
Christ is our Emmanuel – God with us for now and all eternity. Nevertheless we must take heed of the warning given to the church in Ephesus:
“Nevertheless I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love. Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy candlestick out of his place, except thou repent”. Revelation 2:4-5
Let us obey our Lord and His Great Commission. The church that does not evangelise must surely fossilize! Let us boldly proclaim and share the Gospel to the praise and glory of God alone.