By Rev. Lance Filio
The story is not mine to tell. But it fits well to illustrate our theme this afternoon so I will use it. Two months ago, I received a message from Deacon Clark Añora asking for help with his car crisis. As you might all know, Clark recently bought a new car and learning his way with it. So one fateful Saturday while Khayte was having her regular check-up, Clark did not notice he left his car keys in the ignition and locked the car while the engine was running. When he realized he locked himself out, they panicked. They called a locksmith and paid a hefty amount. It took an entire day to resolve the problem. And I remember, at the middle of it all, asking Clark, Where is the spare key? Why are you not using the spare key? He answered, “We have a spare key, Pastor but, even the spare key lies safely inside the car.”
Keys are small and considered insignificant. When it served its purpose, we have no use for it. Still, we carry them around because it allows us to get into important places. Without it, we get locked out. Similarly, the church uses the metaphor of keys as methods to grow the kingdom of God. Today, churches obsess itself with growing the church and sought many ways of increasing her membership. Finding any means possible, she determined to adopt pragmatic ways of attracting people to attend worship services. The Church Growth Movement (CGM) popularized a means of growing a church through the use of psychological and sociological strategies. Adopting this mindset, these churches attracted crowds by the thousands. It seems the method succeeded. Several church leaders joined the bandwagon by abandoning ordinary ways of growing the church and embracing wholesale the new and hip way of doing church. Sadly, many forgot the God-appointed ordinary means of a church. They deemed the keys of the kingdom small and insignificant. Through the lens of the modern world, the church grows beyond expectations but in the eyes of faith, she’s locked out. Without the keys of the kingdom, she is not gathering the saints but scattering them.
What are the ordinary means of growing the church? To answer this question of method, we need to answer first the question about the essence of the church. Who owns and builds the church? It is important to determine the nature before the method because nature dictates the method and not vice versa. I remember one time going home late I was trying to open the main gate using one of my keys. In frustration, I was forcing it open. When I was about to break the key, my wife called my attention and pointed out I was using the wrong key – it was our cabinet key. In the same way, growing the church using means not prescribed by Scripture will not yield to any godly result. We cannot use the wrong keys to open the right doors. Therefore, we need to learn about the essence of the church to discover the methods for growing it.
Today, we will hear the preaching of the Word of God based on Matthew 16:13-25. I organized it into two points: (1) The Supernatural Nature of the Church; and (2) The Ordinary Methods of Growing the Church.
The Supernatural Nature of the Church
Who owns and builds the church? The church comes from a supernatural and divine origin and not a product of any human effort nor earthly enterprise. Christ revealed this truth to us in Scripture from Matthew 16 in verses 13-18:
Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one prophet.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
Talking to his disciples in Caesarea Philippi, Jesus asked, ‘Who do people say the Son of Man is? (verse 13)’. They answered, ‘Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one prophet (verse 14)’. Jesus pressed further the question by making personal to his disciples, ‘But what about you? Who do you say I am? (verse 15)’. From here, the most important revelation of the New Testament occurred when Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God (verse 16)’. Jesus commended Peter’s answer, confirmed that this revelation came from his Father and not from man and explained that upon this rock of revelation, Jesus Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, will build his church (verse 17-18)!
Revealing who Jesus is lies at the heart of the nature of his church. The origin of the church connects to the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus is the Christ – the Messiah, the heavenly Son of Man of the Old Testament (Daniel 7). He is a divine person from heaven who went down on earth to rescue his people from sin and death. While he came in history with a human nature, the center of the revelation here was the fact the Jesus who lived, died and resurrected was God himself, of divine origin, a divine person. The title he received, “The Son of the Living God” meant the One, like his Father in heaven, who was, is and who is to come, came in the flesh and revealed himself to his people. Jesus Christ, the second person of the Trinity added to his divine nature, human nature. Jesus is the God-man.
The church establishes its supernatural origin from the special revelation of Christ. They reveal the person and work of Jesus as the doctrine of redemption in Scripture. The apostle’s doctrine of Jesus Christ becomes the foundation upon which the whole church stands. They’re the apostle’s teaching about Christ. Therefore, it is false to believe the apostolic succession, like what the Roman church claims, beginning with Peter up the Pope in Rome, is the once for all foundation of the church. Instead, the church stands upon the divine revelation of the person and work of Christ “delivered once for all to the saints (Jude 3)”. These are the apostolic teaching about Christ written in Scripture. In Peter’s confession (Matthew 16:16), Jesus explained that divine revelation came not from flesh and blood, to point out the prior outworking of God in man. The origin of the church is God and its foundation is Scripture.
The Ordinary Means of Growing the Church
Again, God and His Word are the origin and foundation of the church. What can we say about her methods? The ordinary means of growing the church receives its power from the supernatural nature of the church. The visible keys of the kingdom are so powerful that whatever it binds here on earth gets bound in heaven and whatever it loose here on earth get loosed in heaven (Matthew 18:18-20). So what are these methods?
Heidelberg Catechism explains two methods. In question #83, it wrote, “What are the keys of the kingdom of heaven?” The answer is the preaching of the gospel and church disciple. It expounded, “By these two, they open the kingdom of heaven to believers and closed to unbelievers.”
God not only founded the church but also ordered the whole structure of his house. God’s people take part in the ministry. And yet the origin, foundation, and method all come from Him. Their power and effectiveness do not rely on man but on God. This is the public ministry that every church should engage. They are the ordinary means of gathering the believers and expelling the unbelievers.
But how is the church opened and closed by the preaching of the gospel and church discipline? Heidelberg Catechism dedicated an answer to each method. For the preaching of the gospel it wrote:
“… the kingdom of heaven is opened when it is proclaimed and publicly testified to each and every believer that God has really forgiven all their sins for the sake of Christ’s merits, as often as they by true faith accept the promise of the gospel. The kingdom of heaven is closed when it is proclaimed and testified to all unbelievers and hypocrites that the wrath of God and eternal condemnation rest on them as long as they do not repent …”
And for church discipline it says:
“… people who call themselves Christians but show themselves to be unchristian in doctrine or life are first repeatedly admonished in a brotherly manner. If they do not give up their errors or wickedness, they are reported to the church, that is, to the elders. If they do not heed also their admonitions, they are forbidden the use of the sacraments, and they are excluded by the elders from the Christian congregation, and by God himself from the kingdom of Christ. They are again received as members of Christ and of the church when they promise and show real amendment.”
The opening and closing actions of the preaching of gospel affect its hearers. Believers hear the saving message of God’s work in redemption fulfilled Christ. Regenerated by the Spirit of God, he receives the pardon God provides through the death of Son. It saves him from the misery of sin. By grace alone in Christ alone, faith justifies the sinner. This is the opening action of the preaching of the gospel. The unbeliever, on the other hand, despises the gospel and continues to disobey God. Void of God’s regenerating work, he hardens his heart and considers God’s redeeming work as offensive and foolish. He continues to live in misery because of sin. While he knows God in his heart and the gospel calls him to repent, he relies on own for his salvation. This is the closing action of the preaching of the gospel.
The method provides both opening and closing actions. What does it mean to the growth of a church? The method not only relates to the member’s numerical increase or decrease but also to man’s election and reprobation. Apostle Paul testified, “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God (1 Cor 1:18)”. The message of the gospel divides people, “but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles (1 Cor 1:23)”. The message divides the people so the method separates them as well. When I joined a reformed church and pastored in it, I witnessed the opening and closing work of the gospel in action. By consciously proclaiming the historic Protestant faith, our office-bearers examine the response of inquiring attendees to the great doctrines of grace as explained in the Canons of Dort. Our high confessional standards help ensure those future members of the church understands the saving work of Christ. In contrast, the message of grace dispels unbelievers. The language of Canaan, as explained by John Bunyan, does not interest the reprobate. It sounds foolish to them. They do not have faith so they will avoid joining a church who proclaims the true gospel.
If preaching the gospel is the first key, and it helps with the coming and going of people to the church. Church discipline, on the other hand, is the second key. It helps with the staying and leaving of the people in the church. Leaders of the church are shepherds of their members. They lead them towards holy and godly living and admonish everyone to abandon their prior sinful lives. They labor in correcting, rebuking and reprimanding the congregation. It is their loving duty to ensure the purity of the godly witness of the church. This is perhaps the most difficult task of the church. No one wants to receive discipline and more so no leader wishes to remove anyone from the church roll. However, the two keys work well together. In order for the preaching of the true gospel to effective in bringing in the believers, church discipline ensures no hypocrite stays in the church. For when church discipline fails, the preaching of the false gospel follows. Always remember, false teachers of false gospels come from within the church, not outside. The well-being and longevity of a church depend on them. Let us encourage on another with the proper use of the keys of the kingdom in our church.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, Christ owns and builds his church. He is the church’s origin and foundation. The ordering structure of the church comes from him. He gave them the keys to his kingdom, the preaching of the gospel and church discipline. Taken together, believers enter the church through faith and unbelievers stay away from it. Believers lead godly lives and hypocrites show their true unbelieving nature. The nature and method of the church come from our Triune God. Because of it, “the gates of hell shall not prevail against the church (Matthew 16:18)”. With it, the visible church endures until the second coming of his Master and Savior, our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.