John Stott was well known for his perspicuity and always practical teaching ministry. I’m seeking in this post to summarise some of the salient point that I’m taking away from reading a transcript of his excellent sermon on The Marks of a Renewed Church (brought to my attention via Jason Clarke).
Stott attempts to address the question: What are the chief distinguishing marks of the Christian community? To put that another way, what does a Spirit-filled church look like? I’m choosing to not pick bones about the continuing role of the Holy Spirit that Stott presents in this article, choosing to affirm some of the really helpful teaching and perspicuity that John Stott always brings.
Stott draws upon four key markers of a renewed church from Acts 2:
“They devoted themselves to the apostles teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2).
These four markers are:
- A learning church
- A caring church
- A worshiping church
- An evangelizing church
1. A learning church
They devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles.
These Spirit-filled converts were not enjoying some mystical experience which led them to neglect their intellect or to despise theology or to stop thinking. On the contrary, they devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles. Moreover they didn’t imagine that the Holy Spirit was the only teacher they needed and could dispense with human teachers. Not at all. They sat at the apostles’ feet. They acknowledged that Jesus had appointed the apostles as the teachers of the church, and they submitted to their authority, authenticated to them by miracles.
When we look at our local churches, we should see more than just the Word of God being preached ‘from the pulpit’. We should see parents teaching their children to sit under the Word. We should see every Christian demonstrating a deep commitment to reflecting upon the Scriptures daily and applying what we are learning to our lives that we might think and behave differently, becoming more and more like Jesus.
The Spirit of God leads the people of God to submit to the Word of God.
2. A caring church
Second, a renewed church is a caring church, a loving church, a supportive church. Its members love and care for one another. If the first mark of a renewed church is study, the second is fellowship. “They devoted themselves to … fellowship.”
Koinonia – fellowship – comes from the adjective koinos that means “common.” Our Koinonia bears witness to what we have in common. What we share as followers of Jesus. There are two complementary truths contained within this:
First, koinonia expresses what we share in together, what we have received together, what we participate in together. That is the grace of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. So the apostle John, at the beginning of his first letter, says, “Our fellowship [koinonia] is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.” The apostle Paul adds the phrase “the fellowship of the Spirit.” So authentic fellowship is Trinitarian fellowship. It is our common participation in the grace and the life and the mercy of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. We come from different nations, denominations, and cultures, but we are unified by our common share in the grace of God.
What we commonly experience in our hearts must also find outward expression in how we live, and in what we share outward together:
… not only what we receive together, but what we give together.
Authentic fellowship is Trinitarian fellowship.
As I have pointed to before, κοινωνία is the noun that Paul uses of the collection that he was organising from the Greek churches for the benefit of the poor churches in Judea. It was this kind of generosity that Paul was so keen demonstrate and to expend so much time and effort on. The collection featured prominently in Paul’s strategy to demonstrate, in immensely practical ways, the rule of ἀγάπη and the unity of Christian κοινωνία amongst the early Christ movement. It must have been intended to be far more than a token gesture.
The Holy Spirit at work in the hearts of these early believer led to loving and generous action. The exceptions to this rule prove the point:
… when we come to the story of Ananias and Sapphira in , the sin of Ananias and Sapphira was not that they kept back part of the proceeds of the sale of their property, but that they kept back part while pretending to give the lot. Their sin was hypocrisy, deceit. It was not meanness or avarice. The apostle Peter said to them in , “Before you sold your property was it not your own? And after you sold it was it not at your disposal?” In other words, your property is your own to make a conscientious decision before God for its purposes.
Does it mean that every Spirit-filled believer will follow their example literally? Does it mean that we should all sell everything we own and give the proceeds to the poor? Clearly not everyone in Jerusalem sold their house, because we know that the early church in Jerusalem met in one another’s homes. But what we do see is that these early Christians loved one another. They cared for those in their number who were less fortunate than themselves. They shared their goods. They shared their homes. We should do no less.
That principle of voluntary and generous sharing with one another is permanent and universal… the New Testament calls us to simplicity, contentment, and generosity.
3. A worshiping church
Stott points to the worship of the early church being formal and informal; it took place in the temple and in their homes. They supplemented the services in the temple with their own simple, informal, unstructured, spontaneous meetings at home. It was also joyful and reverent. Our worship should be neither lugubrious nor licentious. A worshiping church should experience fear, awe and wonder in its gathered worship.
4. An evangelizing church
We learn three important lessons from vs. 47: “The Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.”
First, the Lord Jesus did it himself: “The Lord added to their number.”
He did it through the preaching of the apostles and through the witness of the ordinary members and through their common life of love, but he did it.
Second, he did two things together: “He added to their number those who were being saved.” He didn’t save them without adding them to the church, and he didn’t add them to the church without saving them. He did the two together, because salvation and church membership always belong together.
Third, he did it every day. Day by day he added to their number those who are being saved.
I wish we could get back to that expectation. Evangelism is continuous outreach into the community seeking to bring people into Christ and his community.
No more hit and run. Expect Jesus to be at work. Expect growth.
These four markers of a renewed church are all about relationships. It’s God’s loving purpose to build his church. The local church is the hope of the world – it’s God’s idea.
Our responsibility is to seek the power, the direction, and the fullness of the Holy Spirit. And when the Holy Spirit is given his rightful place of freedom in the Christian community, then our churches will approximate this ideal—biblical faith, loving fellowship, living worship, ongoing evangelism. God, make our churches like that today… we pray for our churches on earth, that they may approximate ever more closely this beautiful ideal that you have given us in your Word.