Savage demonstrates that the church is the locus of God’s plan of redemption and that it is here that the larger dimensions of his plan for creation receive breathtaking definition. A Gospel Coalition booklet.
About the Author
Tim Savage(PhD, University of Cambridge; ThM, Dallas Theological Seminary) is a pastor, author, international conference speaker, and founding council member of the Gospel Coalition. He has served in churches in Arizona, Great Britain, and Texas. He is married to Lesli and they have two adult sons, Matthew and Jonathan. Tim is the author ofNo Ordinary Marriage.
D. A. Carson (PhD, Cambridge University) is research professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, where he has taught since 1978. He is a cofounder of the Gospel Coalition and has written or edited nearly 120 books. He and his wife, Joy, have two children and live in the north suburbs of Chicago.
Timothy J. Kelleris the founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York. He is the best-selling author of The Prodigal God and The Reason for God.
Read an Excerpt
t is the most strategic body of people on the face of the planet. Through its ministries, vast tracts of humanity are rescued from evil and lifted from despair. And by its voice, new life is proclaimed to entire civilizations. It is an association of people that pulsates with the glory of God. What human gathering could possibly warrant such accolades? Only one qualifies: the church of Jesus Christ.
Few Christians are aware of the explosive nature of the church to which they belong. Several years ago when transporting the English churchman John Stott to the place where he was preaching, I asked him what he thought was the most neglected doctrine among contemporary Christians. Supposing he would say, "theology" (our view of God is too small), or possibly, "soteriology" (our methods of salvation are too self- reliant), I was surprised to hear him reply without hesitation "ecclesiology." To me, the doctrine of the church seemed peripheral to other more weighty doctrines and certainly not worthy of the stature my interlocutor ascribed to it. But in the years since, after reflection on the biblical teaching of the church, I have come to see otherwise. The church of Jesus Christ is the locus of God's plan for creation.
The Church and God's Agenda
According to the Bible, God is executing a plan of cosmic dimensions. He is in the process of reclaiming all things for his glory. Writing to believers in Ephesus, the apostle Paul makes a stunning observation: God is "summing up all things — things in the heavens and things on earth — under one head, namely, Christ" (Eph. 1:10). Precisely where this comprehensive "summation" is taking place Paul makes clear a few verses later: "God has given Christ as head over all things to the church" (Eph. 1: 22).
Remarkably, the church is ground zero in God's ambitious reclamation project. It is home base for the execution of God's work in the world, the place where "all things" are being drawn together under Christ. If we want to see what God is doing on this planet — and who would want to miss something so spectacular? — we must look to the church. Here, and only here, we find a people drawn together and filled with all the fullness of God (Eph. 1:23; 3:19).
The link between Christ and the church is nearly seamless. The church is the body of Christ, and Christ is its head (Col. 1:18). The church reverberates with the resurrection power of Christ himself (Eph. 1:19–20). It personifies his love (Eph. 5:2). It manifests his fullness (Col. 2:9–10). It is a "new man" measuring up to the full stature of Christ himself (Eph. 4:13). And yet the church is also distinguished from Christ. It is his bride (Eph. 5:25–27). It is the one he nurtures and cherishes as his own flesh (Eph. 5:29). It is the repository of the Father's wisdom (Eph. 3:10). It is where God receives all glory (Eph. 3:21). It is a beacon of divine light, a foretaste of heavenly glory (Eph. 1:18).
God's People as a Family
Perhaps the best way to envisage the church — accounting for both its organic link to Christ and its distinctiveness from Christ — is as a family related by blood. Members of the church are "blood relatives." They share the same Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth receives its name (Eph. 3:14). They share the same elder brother, Christ (Heb. 2:17), whose blood shed on the cross has reconciled them to the heavenly Father (Col. 1:20). And they share a fraternity with their spiritual siblings, brothers and sisters in Christ (Col. 1:2), who are reconciled to each other by the same blood of the cross (Eph. 2:13).
It is especially as a family that the church forms the centerpiece of God's work in creation. This should not be surprising, because God has always worked through families. Right from the beginning he formulated his agenda in terms of a family. It will be enormously helpful as we seek to understand the unique and powerful role of the church to venture back into primordial history and look at the very first family, the family of Adam and Eve, and to notice how their union serves as a picture of what would later become the church of Jesus Christ.
The Inaugural Family
The drama of the sixth day of creation never ceases to amaze us. It was then that God fashioned his magnum opus, a human being, and bequeathed to him a magnificent garden paradise. The new creature apparently lacked for nothing. He was the beneficiary of a priceless bounty from the hand of a loving Creator. Yet, surprisingly, there was a deficiency. Something was "not good." The solitary man lacked a "helper," someone who corresponded to him (Gen. 2:18). By himself he was but one piece of a two-piece puzzle, and the adjoining piece was nowhere in sight. Not only was he bereft of the comforts of companionship, but far more importantly he was unable to fulfill his purpose in creation.
Man was created to bear the image of God, to manifest the likeness of his Maker (Gen. 1:26). Such a tall order could not be accomplished in isolation. So when God fashioned man, he created him "male and female" (Gen. 1:27). In other words, he constructed man as a family, subject to the interpersonal relations inherent within every family. The relational component of the divine likeness is hardly surprising given the fact that God himself is a family of triune relations — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. To manifest the divine image thus requires at least a duality of persons. Man needs help for his lofty calling. He needs a family.
The first family was given an exalted mandate. No sooner had God invested Adam and Eve with his image than he issued the following injunction: "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it" (Gen. 1:28). What sounds like a recipe for overpopulation is actually a prescription for ecological blessing. By calling for the multiplication of families, God intends to saturate the planet with relational units manifesting his image, so that every nook and cranny of creation will be subdued by the presence of his likeness. Under the sovereign decree of an all-wise God, the family is the vehicle by which his triune likeness will be disseminated to the four corners of the earth.
God's People, God's Image, and Christ
But this begs the question, "What aspect of the divine likeness are families meant to disseminate?" Or more to the point, "What is the actual nature of God's image?" Down through the ages questions like these have prompted much speculation, because in the near context of Genesis (as well as in the more distant context of the entire Old Testament) little light is shed on the nature of God's image. For this reason, the rabbis who labored between the Testaments came up with their own ideas and proceeded to link the divine image to the glory of God. To manifest God's image is to reflect his glory. Since the interpretation was not divinely inspired, it may seem irrelevant to us today, except for the fact that one of those rabbis, a Pharisee who converted to Christianity, authored epistles in which he reiterated the link between God's image and God's glory. And those epistles, the letters of the apostle Paul, were inspired! In them Paul breaks new ground and identifies an even more strategic link: a connection between God's image and the glory of Jesus Christ.
According to Paul, we see perfectly in Christ the image and the glory of God (2 Cor. 4:4; Col. 1:15). The nature of the divine image is thus no longer a matter of speculation: we need only look at the divine glory in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 4:6). The paragraph in Paul's writings where the image probably receives its sharpest definition is found in the famous hymn of Philippians 2. Here, in an expanded translation, we read:
Because Christ existed in the form of God [a term nearly synonymous with the image of God], he did not regard his lofty status as an opportunity for self-aggrandizement but rather as a calling to do just the opposite: to empty himself, to humble himself, to take on the form of a slave, and to submit to a slave's death, even the unthinkably repellent death of a cross! (Phil. 2:6–8)
From the unspeakable riches of equality with God to the most impoverished death in antiquity, from heights unsearchable to depths unimaginable, from one polar extreme to another, this is the measure of the self-emptying death of Christ. It is history's most perfect expression of sacrificial love. And, according to Paul, it is also the clearest revelation of what it means to manifest the image of God. In Jesus we see the likeness of the heavenly Father. On the cross we behold a picture of what God is like, and hence of what families created in his image are meant to be like. It is a picture of infinite love.
God's People, God's Image, and Love
The portrait is consonant with what we know of God elsewhere in Scripture. "God is love," says the apostle John (1 John 4:8, 16). And his love is unlike anything on earth, far above the superficial, conditional, sentimental love that reigns among postmodern devotees of the term. Divine love is supernatural love, the kind of love of which only the Lord and those who bear his image are capable. It is a "greater" love (John 15:13), a love that is prepared to lay down its life (1 John 3:16), to absorb into its very constitution the life of another (Luke 10:25–37), and to give up everything to redeem the existence of others (Mark 10:45). Moreover, it is precisely the love passed back and forth among members of the Godhead. The Father loves the Son (John 17:26), the Son loves the Father (John 15:9), and the Holy Spirit glorifies the Father and the Son (John 14:26).
Many writers have identified this other-directed love as the distinguishing feature of the Godhead. "God's very being is love, which subsists eternally and necessarily between the several persons in the Godhead." The "tri-personal" God manifests "infinite love in relationship." "Self-giving love is the dynamic currency of the Trinitarian life of God." The "picture of God" is of one "whose love, even before creation of anything, is other-oriented."
What is perhaps most striking about God's love, and what is certainly most pertinent to our understanding of the church, is that the Lord wants to share his love with us, not only by making us the objects of that love but also by equipping us to share that love with others. By creating us in his image, he has fitted us to reproduce the inter-relational love of the Trinitarian family, passing back and forth among members of our families the love that reverberates within the holy Godhead.
When we fulfill our vocation, when love-dispensing families fan out across the globe, we subdue the planet by a kind of husbandry that prospers the world and all it contains. By the far-flung migrations of families reflecting the self-giving image of God, creation erupts in a song of impassioned thanksgiving to its Maker.
God's People, God's Image, and Sin
But there is a problem. The people of God have not been faithful to the mandate they have been given. Rather than manifest self-giving love, they are self-grasping. "The woman saw ... the tree ... and took of its fruit ... and she also gave some to her husband" (Gen. 3:6). And tragically the first family's sin has become every family's downfall. "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Rom. 3:23). Far from spreading the glory of his image throughout the entire earth, families have pursued their own glory and inflicted a terrible darkness upon the planet. Indeed, every earthly ill can be traced to this single Adamic defect. All relational division — whether interpersonal abuse, racial strife, or international discord — stems from the failure to embody the glory of God's love.
Our examination of the people of God would grind to an abrupt halt were it not for the fact that God's love for sinners is stronger than his condemnation of sin. To be sure, the heavenly Father abominates sin. It represents a personal affront. It diminishes his glory in the world and effaces the radiance of men and women created in his image. What good father would not be enraged by the degradation of his children? And who could blame such a father if, in his wrath, he simply abandoned his offspring to the consequences of their rebellion — indeed, relinquished families to the cancer of their self-centeredness?
Rescue of God's People
Yet, astonishingly, our heavenly Father conceives a rescue-plan for humanity. He elects one family out of a multitude of families and enjoins this chosen people to shine once again the glory of his image into the world. First, it is the family of Noah that, preserved from the flood, is called to multiply and to fill the whole earth (Gen. 9:1). Sadly, Noah and his progeny fall into the very sin that ruined Adam and Eve.
So God chooses another family, this time headed by the patriarch Abraham, and commissions his offspring to be the ones through whom "all the families of the earth shall be blessed" (Gen. 12:3). But this family, too, falls into sin, reducing the glory and the image of God to a mere flicker of their original intent. Time and again God graciously rejuvenates his people, raising up new versions of the nation of Israel and calling them to fidelity to his covenant and the manifestation of his character throughout the world. But repeatedly — albeit with rare instances of success — Israel fails to live up to its calling.
Clearly, the family of God is incapable of fulfilling the divine mandate. It is defective at the core of its being. At root, it is not God- glorifying. At heart, it is self-promoting. Because of its internal hardness, Israel is the opposite of what God intended his people to be.
The failure of his chosen people did not take God by surprise, nor did it undermine his plan for creation. By far the biggest part of the plan was still to come, and the Old Testament provides tantalizing clues of its ultimate unveiling. God will make "a new covenant with the family of Israel" in which the defect of sin is eradicated. "I will put my law with them, writing it on their hearts" (Jer. 31:31–33). "I will give you a new heart ... my Spirit I will put within you" (Ezek. 36:26–27).
By his Spirit, God will perform cardio surgery, implanting a new impulse within human hearts, an internal law that the apostle Paul identifies as the law of love: "For the whole law is fulfilled in one word, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself'" (Gal. 5:14). It is an astonishing promise. From time immemorial it was God's intention to carve out a new family whose hearts would be purged of the defect of sin and filled with the law of love, an impulse empowered by the indwelling Spirit of God himself. Creation eagerly awaits the emergence of this family!
A New People Foretold
The prophet Isaiah anticipates this re-created family. He identifies the new "Israel" as the servant of the Lord, who (in words reminiscent of Genesis) will be "a light to the nations so that my salvation reaches to the ends of the earth" (Isa. 42:6; 49:6). Exactly when this family will arrive Isaiah never fully reveals, but he does offer important clues. A child will be born (Isa. 9:6–7), and this child will become a servant who will endure unspeakable suffering (Isa. 52:13–53:12).
At this point, the clues become more difficult to decipher. Sometimes the servant is identified with the family of God (Isa. 41:8) and sometimes with an individual (Isa. 49:6–7). How the servant (out of whose suffering a new humanity presumably will arrive) can be both a collection of people and an individual is left to the reader to ponder. But with the passing of centuries all becomes clear: in a tiny town in a backwater province at the eastern edge of the Mediterranean, a child is born. "In the fullness of time, God sent forth his son" (Gal. 4:4).
Christ and the People of God
This son — whose name is Jesus, whose calling is messiah, whose title is Lord — would fulfill the eternal plan prophesied by Isaiah. The apostle Paul exults to give definition to the plan: "The mystery hidden for ages has now been revealed — namely, Christ in you, the hope of glory" (Col. 1:26–27). Here at last is the arrival of the indwelling presence of God signaled by the prophets, the glory of God's image inscribed on human hearts, the displacement of sin by the internal law of love. Christ, whose own self-emptying death on the cross represented the quintessential expression of divine love, now comes to reside in us. The supernatural love of God can, because of the indwelling presence of Christ, be perfected in our hearts (1 John 4:12).
The Body of Christ: Personal and Corporate
Because of our focus on the nature and role of the church, it is absolutely essential to acknowledge that the indwelling love of Christ is bestowed within a plurality of human hearts. When the apostle Paul etches the definitive words on parchment — "Christ in you, the hope of glory" — he signals (using the plural pronoun "you") that it is a blessing conferred on a collection of people.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Church: God's New People"
Copyright © 2011 The Gospel Coalition.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
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Table of Contents
The Church and God's Agenda, 7,
Rescue of God's People, 12,
Unity in the Church, 15,
The Church and Outreach, 20,
A Short Bibliography, 27,
The Gospel Coalition, 31,