Our church has benefited from a wave of writings on personal spiritual disciplines. Authors such as Dallas Howard and Richard Foster have helped bring our need for a personal connection to God into relief. However, I fear that the wave has unintentionally eroded our understanding of spirituality. Together with our American obsession with individualism, the call of personal disciplines have fooled us into believing that our relationship with God is merely personal. Yet when we survey the Biblical evidence, we realize that God has something so much more robust and meaningful for His church.
From the very beginning of Scripture, we read that God's design is to create for himself a people. We read in Genesis 17:
7 And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. 8 And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God.”
This is not an individual promise to every Israelite, but a promise to the people of Israel. God, throughout history, has sought to create for himself a people, make them distinct from the surrounding peoples, and dwell with them. We as the church are the people of God, not a collection of the people of God.
In Matthew 16, When Jesus told Peter he will be the foundation of the church, the word Jesus used for church was "ekklesia," a Greek term meaning "those called out from." The people of God are those who are called out from the world and function as a group, not a loose collection of individuals. This truth may lie hidden behind a flaw in the English language. We do not have separate words for "you" in the singular (as in "you look great today") and "you" in the plural ("you all look great today"). Take, for example 1 Peter 2:9:
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.
Many preachers have exploited this flaw to personalize their messages, claiming that the Scriptures had you, individually, in mind. They are not wrong in that this verse applies to you, but it doesn't merely apply to you. The design of God has always been to create for himself a people and each of us get to be a part of that. But restricting the application to just "you" misses the vision which God had in giving us this teaching.
We even read that Jesus came to die on the cross specifically to create for himself a people. Ephesians 5:25-26 commands husbands to "love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word...." Christ sacrificed himself out of love for his church in order to make his people holy. This term "holy" means "set apart" and is parallel to the term "ekklesia." The people of God are to be distinct, having been cleansed by the word. Jesus's purpose in dying on the cross was to create for himself a people.
If we review some of the classic verses on salvation, we now notice something interesting:
- God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8)
- By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us (1 John 3:16)
- For Christ also suffered once for sins...that he might bring us to God (1 Peter 3:18)
Notice what is repeated in these verses--"us," "we," "us."? God's design in salvation is to create for himself a people, a community of believers called out from, set apart, distinct from everyone else. None of this negates the idea that God loves you individually (see Galatians 2:20), but if we don't recognize the corporate intent behind God's plan of redemption then we misunderstand God's plan for our churches.
If any of this seems to challenge your sense of specialness in the kingdom of God, well then maybe it should. You are fearfully and wonderfully made, God knows every hair on your head, but you are not special. You suffer from the same curse of sin as the rest of us; the only way you can have eternal life is through faith in Christ just like the rest of us; you are called to worship the same God through the same Word with the same goal of bringing glory to God. The Bible tells us that you are called out into a life in community with the rest of God's people.
If you believe your faith is merely between you and God, then you do not understand the Biblical plan of Redemption. In the next blog post we will explore the implications such a Biblical truth has for our lives as a church. We will talk, not about personal disciplines, but corporate disciplines--the acts that God expects His people to do together.