We have had some fair amount of turmoil at our church here over the last year or so. It’s been painful, and I think that may be one of the reasons I’ve been absent from my blog for so long. But we know of course that God’s hand is in all things, and He is working His will in all things. I’ve seen this doctrine very much fleshed out through these turmoils, as I have seen the good things that God has worked in my life through them.
One of the things I have learned is the value of the visible church. God has put us in this institution, and sometimes people struggle to know what value it has in their lives. We know we’re not saved by works but by faith; we know the sacraments do not work remission of sins; we know the church does not stand between me and God as mediator.
But for all those who understand and value sanctification in the life of the believer, the value of the church soon becomes apparent. In the church, the necessity of sacrificial love simply cannot be overstated. As we form relationships with other believers we are naturally drawn to people with whom we are compatible, and when relationships get to be difficult we often simply pull back for a while or end those relationships entirely. But the church doesn’t allow us to do that. The church keeps us in close proximity with those that sometimes irritate us, sometimes hurt us, sometimes don’t understand us, and sometimes take more work to maintain the relationship than we would really like. It brings us into contact with people that God has chosen for us, rather than just people that we chose ourselves, and God sanctifies us with those people.
It’s like a marriage in a lot of ways. At first everything is lovey-dovey and tons of fun. But inevitably hard times come. Your spouse starts to irritate you, disappoints you and fails to live up to the fantasy version of him or her that you constructed in your mind. This is often a very difficult time to live through, but those who have stuck with it and made it through recognize those times as the growing pains necessary to get to the even better parts of marriage.
There’s a reason why marriage is used in Scripture as an analogy for the church. Because, like marriage, the best times come with those that you’ve stuck with through the hard times, when you’ve laughed and cried together, when you’ve hurt each other and forgiven each other, when you’ve learned the truths of Scripture together and have been sanctified together. Marriage has been a very humbling thing for me. I’ve learned a lot of my own faults that I’m sure I never would have faced had I remained single. And my life in the church has been humbling as well. I’ve learned a lot of painful things about myself, that I wouldn’t likely have faced about myself unless I’d been forced to, like I have this last year. When everything is going well and everyone loves you, it’s easy to fool yourself and only think about your strengths. But to get through the hard times intact, you have to take a hard look at those unpleasant truths about yourself, and that’s how we grow.
God didn’t just send Christ to save us from the penalty of our sins; He sent Christ to save us from the sins themselves. The gospel isn’t just justification by faith alone, but the sanctification and glorification that must inevitably follow justification. So if we believe that sanctification is a necessary part of the good news of our salvation, and we see that the church is a wonderful means of our sanctification, then we’ll see just how much of an essential part of our salvation the church is. And not just when it’s fun and enjoyable; but even more so when it’s painful and difficult.