The task or the organized church is to teach and preach the Word of God. Whatever else it may properly do is subordinate and subsidiary to that task. This is the one great task of the organized church.
In the great commission Christ charged the apostles and the church of succeeding ages: “Make disciples of all nations…teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19, 20). Obviously, that can be done only by the declaration of the Word of God.
The creeds or Protestantism are agreed that such is the church’s task. For a few examples, the famous Augsburg Confession, which is Lutheran but was held in high esteem also by John Calvin, defines the church as “the congregation of saints wherein the gospel is rightly taught,” and the no less famous Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England say: “The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in the which the pure Word of God is preached.”
The importance of its task brings out the importance of the organized church.
An Honorable Task
God has honored his church by entrusting his special revelation to it as to no other body of men. That holds of the church of both dispensations. Paul names as the chief advantage of the Jews that unto them were committed the oracles of God (Rom. 3:1, 2), and Christ promised the New Testament church that the Spirit of truth would guide it into all truth (John 16:13). It goes without saying that God has entrusted his truth to the church, not that it might be hoarded, but that it might he declared.
Scripture lauds the church as “the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:5). As a pillar usually upholds some structure or other and as the ground upholds countless objects, so it is the business of the church to uphold the truth. Not only must the church do that; it actually does that. There will always be a church upholding the truth. Beyond dispute, upholding the truth involves its declaration.
The task or the church is indeed glorious. The church delivers a message from God and delivers it to men. Therefore the preachers of the church may repeat the words of the apostle Paul: “Now then we are ambassadors [or Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ’s stead, be ye reconciled to God” (2 Cor. 5:20) .
In a very real sense the church has the distinction of being a mediator between God and men. To be sure, when saying that we must be on our guard against a most serious error. Rome teaches that the church is the conveyor of salvation from God to man. It is no exaggeration to say that Rome identifies the church with the Mediator Christ. The truth of the matter is that the church is no more than the God-ordained preacher of salvation. But even that is an exceedingly great honor. Scripture tells us that Moses in receiving the law from God and transmitting it to God’s people acted as a “mediator” (Gal. 3:19). In much the same sense the church as preacher of the gospel mediates between God and men.
An Urgent Task
It is the specific task of the organized church to declare to men, not the truth of God’s general revelation in nature and history, but the truth of special revelation. In brief, the church must teach and preach the Bible.
Now the Bible is the book of salvation. This is not to say that every detail in the Bible bears directly on the salvation of sinners, but it does mean that the central message of the Bible is what the God of sovereign grace has done and does through his Son and his Spirit for the salvation of sinners. General revelation, valuable though it is, does not tell men how they may be saved from sin and death; special revelation tells them all they need to know on that all-important matter.
We of the Reformed faith are wont to insist that the Bible is God-centered. In doing that we are altogether right, for the Bible is God’s revelation of himself. But it does not follow that it is incorrect to say that the Bible is salvation-centered. The truth of the matter is that the Scriptural doctrine of salvation is itself God-centered. The whole teaching of the Word of God on salvation may be summed up in the phrase salvation by grace. And salvation by grace is nothing else than salvation by God. When we say that salvation is of grace, we mean that the sinner cannot possibly save himself and that, is he is to be saved, God will have to do it.
So the task of the church is to proclaim salvation. That is indeed an urgent task. Every day on every hand men are passing on into eternity without ever having heard that blessed name which is the only one given under heaven by which they must be saved (Acts 4:12) and without the slightest acquaintance with him who said: “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father but by me” (John 14:6). Besides, a host of human beings who have heard the gospel reject the one and only Savior in unbelief; and, if they persist in that course, the wrath of God will abide on them (John 3:36). No wonder that Richard Baxter, that great Puritan preacher, spoke of himself as a dying man preaching to dying men. The church’s task is a matter of life and death, even of eternal life and eternal death. It is difficult to conceive of anything more urgent.
A Comprehensive Task
Once in a long while one meets a person who takes the position that the sale purpose of preaching is to build up believers in the faith. Every once in a while one hears the opinion expressed that the sole purpose of preaching is the conversion of the unsaved.
It hardly needs to be argued that both these views are unbalanced. Scripture teaches unmistakably that the church must direct its preaching, not to one or the other of these ends, but to both. The same apostle who strove to preach the gospel, not where Christ was named, lest he should build upon another man’s foundation (Rom. 15:20) also wrote: “And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; for the perfecting of the saints, for the edifying of the body of Christ” (Eph. 4:11, 12).
The church which stresses missions and evangelism to the neglect of its members resembles a general who leads his armies out for foreign conquest but leaves his own country exposed to attack and is therefore in imminent danger of losing his base of operations. Such a church cannot long continue as a missionary church, or for that matter as any sort of church, for the simple and conclusive reason that it is committing suicide. On the other hand, the church which neglects the great commission of its divine Head is also in process of dying. It will soon resemble the Dead Sea, which only takes and never gives.
Clearly, the church’s task of preaching is a comprehensive one. It must preach the Word both to unconverted sinners and to saints who are still sinners; and it must be Christ’s witness at home and abroad: in Jerusalem, in all Judea, in Samaria, and even unto the uttermost part of the earth (Acts 1:8).
From another viewpoint too the task of preaching is a comprehensive one. Perhaps every church conducts at least one Sunday service in which it preaches—or at least pretends to preach—the Word of God to its adult membership. But few and far between are the churches which take seriously the task of preaching the Word of God to the children of the covenant. To be sure, almost all churches still make an attempt at it in Sunday School, but that attempt at best excels in feebleness. The same description applies to the sermonettes which a growing number of ministers preach to the little tots in the Sunday morning service. Would that the organized church everywhere would restore to its rightful place of honor the good old custom of giving catechetical instruction to its children! Such instruction is not a whit less necessary than is congregational preaching. In manner the two naturally differ, but not in importance.
In still another respect the task of the organized church is comprehensive. In recent decades many Modernist preachers have substituted the so-called social gospel for the gospel of individual salvation. Many Fundamentalist mInIsters, on the other hand, preach only the gospel of individual salvation and insist that social problems have no place in the Christian pulpit. Both these views are in serious error. While they err in opposite directions, both alike detract from the comprehensiveness of the church’s message. The gospel primarily concerns the salvation of individuals, but it undoubtedly has its social implications. The Son of God was manifested that he might destroy, not some, but all the works of the devil (John 3:8). The church must call upon men, not only to receive Christ as Savior, but also to honor him as Lord. And they must be told to honor him as Lord, not only in their private lives, but also in all human relationships, for Christ is indeed “the Head over all things” (Eph. 1:22). And as he is “the prince of the kings of the earth” (Rev. 1: 5), the church must fearlessly denounce wickedness in high places and boldly demand of the rulers of the nations that they obey his laws.
An Exclusive Task
In two senses the preaching of the Word of God is the exclusive task of the organized church. On the one hand, this task has been assigned by God to the church as to none other. On the other hand, the church must beware of undertaking any other task.
In religious circles there exists today a strong tendency to belittle the importance of the organized church and its offices. In consequence, the distinction between teaching by an ordained minister and exalting by a church member not ordained to the mInIstry is often laughed ant of court, and it is not at all unusual for voluntary associations of Christians to take over the church’s task of sending out missionaries. That every believer is in duty bound to witness for Christ is indisputable, and it may even be granted that under very unusual circumstances boards which are independent of ecclesiastical control may conduct missions. But the position must be firmly maintained that normally the preaching of the “\ford is to be regarded as a God-given prerogative of the organized church.
It goes without saying that the church must conduct public worship. But it may never be forgotten that the preaching of the Word is central in public worship. It may not even be supposed that the administration of the sacraments is another task of the church in addition to the preaching of the Word. Least of all may the church, after the manner of ritualism, give so much prominence to the sacraments as virtually to crowd out the Word. Fact is that the sacraments are subsidiary to the Word. They add nothing to the gospel but merely reinforce its message. In a very real sense the administration of the sacraments is a way of declaring the gospel. Scripture teaches in so many words that whenever the members of Christ’s church celebrate the Holy Supper they in so doing “proclaim the Lord’s death” (I Cor. 11:26) .
It cannot be denied that the organized church must care for its poor. Beyond all doubt that is an important function of the church. But this task too is subordinate to the preaching of the Word. That is indicated by what the apostles told the church at Jerusalem when the office of deacon was instituted. Said they: “It is not reason that we should leave the Word of God and serve tables” (Acts 6:2). It may even be said that by caring for the poor the church in some sense preaches the gospel. Francis of Assisi is said to have invited a monk to assist him in bringing the gospel to a certain village. They spent the whole day in works of mercy and never got around to preaching. Toward evening his companion inquired of Francis when they were going to begin to preach. Francis replied that they had been preaching all day. That story is easily misapplied. Let no one think that good deeds may be substituted for the gospel. That simply is not so. The one and only means by which God is pleased to save sinners is his Word. But it is true that works of mercy serve admirably to reinforce the gospel.
Again, it must be granted that the church must discipline its erring members. But also that is inseparable from teaching the Word. It is an important aspect of “teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you.” Significantly, the preaching of the gospel and the exercise of discipline are the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and these two may not be put asunder.
Just because the preaching of the Word is so great a task, the church must devote itself to it alone. For the church to engage in other activities is a colossal blunder because it inevitably results in neglect of its proper task. And yet, how many churches have fallen into that error! Let not the church degenerate into a social club’. Let not the church go into the entertainment business. Let. not the church take sides on economic and political issues concerning which the Word of God does not speak. And let the church be content to teach special, not general, revelation. Let the church be the church.
A Fruitful Task
The faithful preaching of the Word of God is sure to produce far-reaching results. Some of these results may be named in climactic order.
God himself has guaranteed that the proclamation of the gospel will result in the translation of sinners from darkness into light. That is a matter of inestimable importance. It is no less important that believers grow in the grace and knowledge of their Lord. And that too is an assured consequence of faithful preaching.
Not only are individuals benefited by the preaching of the Word, the church of Christ is made to grow and prosper. In these days that matter does not receive anything like the emphasis it deserves. Fundamentalists generally stress the salvation of individuals as a consequence of preaching, but ignore the welfare of the church. Often converts are not even informed that it is their duty to become church members. That is a serious error of omission. The church is Christ’s body, and, as his body is perfected, he is glorified. He himself added to the apostolic church daily such as should be saved (Acts 2:47) .
As the salvation and edification of individuals is a means to the end of the prosperity of the church, so the welfare of the church is a means to a still more inclusive end—the coming of Christ’s kingdom. While the term kingdom may properly be used as a synonym of the term church, the kingdom may also be conceived of in a much broader way. It embraces all domains of human life: not only the church, but also society; for instance, politics and economics, philosophy and education, science and art, labor and industry, the relationship of the citizen to the state and of nation to nation. Christ is as a matter of fact “the head over all things,” and, as the church grows both extensively and intensively, he wiI! more and more be recognized as such. Thus the petition wiI! be granted, “Thy kingdom come” (Matt. 6:10) .
The highest end of the teaching and preaching of the Word of God remains to be named. It is the glory of God. That is the highest of all ends and the ultimate end of all things. “When all things shall be subdued under him, then shall the Son also himself be subject unto him that put all things under him, that God may be all in all” (1 Cor. 15:28). Nothing is even comparable in point of importance with the glory of God. And supremely conducive to that end is the faithful proclamation of the Word of God. That fact, more than any other, makes the church’s task exceedingly glorious.