Any true reformation is a work of Christ, and must begin, continue and end with him. There is no real gospel advance, only re-arranging deck-chairs, if Jesus does not have the proper place.
His place is first, last, beginning, end, everything. At the heart of all spiritual problems, as Paul’s approach with problems in the apostolic churches shows, is a failure to appreciate the true glory of the Son of God.
The basic and necessary step is to think and act rightly about the Lord Jesus. We should fix our eyes on Jesus, be humbled in his presence, see his glory, and put him back where he belongs in our individual and church lives.
How should Reformed believers define themselves? There is only one possible answer; it must be in terms of Jesus Christ. The early believers at Antioch were called ‘Christians’ because Jesus Christ was clearly at the heart of who they were and what they did (Acts 11:26).
The Son of God came from heaven to redeem us and rose from the dead to give us his Spirit so we might turn from sin to him. Our whole vision now is to live for him, please and enjoy him, and at last be with him. That is who we are, if we are anything like what the Bible says the people of God should be.
Once I had a few weeks with a church planting project in the UK’s Midlands. The project displayed a sandwich board outside the hall where we met on Sundays that explained who we were. Its statement had four parts: ‘God-honouring, Christ-centred, Bible-based and Gospel-preaching’.
I appreciated that simple summary, a manifesto of who we were and what we did, in just nine words! Those four points hung together. We cannot honour God without giving the central place to the Beloved One whom he sent and whom he has lifted up to the highest place (John 5:23).
We cannot be Bible-based without continually preaching the good news about this glorious Saviour. True biblical Christianity is obsessed with the splendour of the Redeemer.
It is a strange paradox and a tragic reality that true Christians, who retain a profession of being Bible-based, can somehow lose a true, biblical Christ-centredness.
For example, those who insist (as everyone should) on a high standard of correct teaching can somehow, over time, allow this insistence to obscure the lifting up of Jesus Christ. Sound doctrine, in itself, can become our pride and glory, in which we boast and distinguish ourselves from others.
Charles Spurgeon made a wonderful statement about the place of doctrines. He said they are very necessary to us, just as the shovels, pans and flesh hooks were needed for the ministry of the priests in the tabernacle.
But the place of those shovels, pans and flesh hooks was that they might serve the sacrifices made on the altar. Jesus Christ is the great altar and great sacrifice upon it, and all our doctrines find their rightful place in serving him.
Spurgeon’s statement was true. What, after all, is doctrine? It is the truth. And Jesus Christ is not only the truth, but the way and life too (John 14:6). He is the Word of God (John 1:1). All God’s revelation leads us to Christ; and through him to the Father.
The Bible teaches us about our Maker and the work of Christ to bring us back to him and enable us to live for him. It teaches us what God has done for us and what he now demands of us; and how he equips us to do it and rewards us in the end with himself.
There is no doctrine which is not ultimately Christ-centred. Doctrine is an essential means, but the end is Jesus.
This is why the religion of the Pharisees was not simply a set of errors of misguided Bible students. The heart of the problem, as explained in the parable of the tenants (Mark 12:1-12), was that Jesus himself was the Son and the whole duty of those in places of responsibility in Israel was to give way to him (John 3:29-30).
By rejecting and crucifying Jesus, they rejected and threw away everything. They were not just left with a ‘passing grade’ on the law of Moses and a ‘poor performance’ on the prophets; they had missed the whole meaning and purpose of the Scriptures.
Jesus said, ‘You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life’ (John 5:39-40).
It is, however, possible to have a false, destructive Christ-centredness. The Pharisees were Christ-centred in a certain way. They looked, prayed and worked for the coming of the ‘Messiah’. But theirs was not the biblical Messiah; he was one of their earthly, carnal imaginations.
When the real Messiah came, they despised, rejected and killed him. They believed themselves to be zealous for God’s anointed one, but were no such thing. This is a deadly snare, which it is so easy for doctrinally serious, truth-minded people to fall into.
We can have a much reduced, subtly altered Christ of our imaginations and miss the reality. We can do this even while telling ourselves, as the Pharisees did, that we are the faithful remnant.
Ultimately we fall into this trap when Christ is to us more a matter of theory than personal knowledge and real experience. There is no substitute for reality.
About a year ago, a course tutor in computer networking, whom I knew, had a need to build a network himself.
He came to me to ask how it was done, because he now realised he did not know! I had built several computer networks, so he came to me for the practical knowledge. He had the ‘qualifications’ but had not internalised the matters he had been teaching in his class day by day.
Christ is not a set of teachings. He is a living, personal Saviour. He is an awesome, holy King who reigns over the universe and fills all things in every way. He is a living Redeemer, who personally interacts with sinful humans.
He is a person who has fellowship with those he loves and who trust in him. That is the reality. The doctrine can describe to us how it happens. But, unless it actually happens, we are in a very bad position. It is of such people that Jesus said, ‘Then will I declare to them, “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness”’ (Matthew 7:23).
Sadly, we can indeed have true experience of Christ and yet it can decline. We can feast on him and yet then live off the memory of that feast instead of coming to dine again and again.
Through the difficulty of the spiritual warfare, the deceitfulness of sin and dullness of our own hearts, we can confuse our activity and perhaps success in ministry with inward Christian experience and progress.
Terrifyingly, God can actually ‘bless’ us with outward success, to test if that was actually the thing our hearts desired. Would we still be content to say in apparent failure, ‘Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord.
‘I will take joy in the God of my salvation. God, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the deer’s; he makes me tread on my high places’ (Habakkuk 3:17-19)?
The first of all steps, then, in trying to improve our church life is to return to Jesus Christ in repentance and faith.
All the doctrinal faithfulness in the world cannot compensate for a lack of this. If we do this and seek afresh to give Jesus the fundamental place in our church life, what kind of people will we be? We will be people of love!
‘God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him’ (1 John 4:16). People who are full of wonder at Jesus Christ are people who will love each other. He laid down his life for his brethren. How can we then fail to love these people whom he died for?
Article 2 in this series is here