GERALD COWAN’S PERSONAL PERIODICALS
Number 653 • June 21, 2021
GOD’S PLAN AND DESIRE FOR CHRISTIAN UNITY
Jesus prayed that all believers in him and in God would be one, that they would demonstrate the same unity that existed between himself and the Father, and that the world would believe because of that apparently existing unity (John 17:21). Paul urged a divided church to get together and be undivided by thinking and doing the same thing, being of the same mind and judgment — surely the same actions and activities too. Christ is not divided, so how can his church be divided? (1 Cor. 1:10-13).
Some would say this condition of complete unity of Christians has never existed and that it cannot exist now. They point to the heresies that divided Corinth. They point to various doctrinal differences that plagued many churches, written to and about by Paul, Peter, John, and others. They cite the rise of Catholicism that split professing Christians into divergent camps who followed different leaders in different interpretations and applications of the apostolic writings. But this church became so corrupt and abusive that men like Martin Luther and other “protesters” tried to reform it. But the “reformers” made the serious mistake of not remaking but only trying to make some changes in a “church” that was never right, not even from its inception. Their efforts went in different directions and the result was the proliferation of denominational groups with widely varying concepts, doctrines, practices – churches that were no more “the true church of the Lord” than were the Catholics and other heretics who came before and after them. About five centuries of the Protestant Reformation have not succeeded in bringing all professed Christians together or bringing any of them closer to God. Internecine competition and religious warfare (but never holy and hardly to be called ‘civil’) – even with death and destruction, not only between larger dominant groups, but intra-denominational splits too – did not bring unity or even true dominance of one over the others.
Some few came up with the idea of restoring the church to its original pattern and mandate from the Lord. They were called “restorationists,” and two names – Alexander Campbell and Barton W. Stone – were often used to identify the movement. The idea certainly had merit. But the fruit was the same as with the reformers. Opinions, preferences, and ideological hair-splitting caused the noble enterprise to devolve into splits and splinters, with fragmentation of the “restored church” into several sectarian semi-denominations. Though still referred to as the Campbell-Stone heritage by some, the fact is that these groups cannot live together. Like the Protestants and the Catholics, they refer to themselves as “Christians,” bound together by the Christ they claim to hold in common. Strange that they think Christ will acknowledge them and God will accept them in spite of the fact that they deny His request and refuse to obey the apostolic injunction and commandment about unity.
In our own times there has been some effort toward an ecumenical solution to the problem of Christian division. The word means to be in or of as parts of one house (OIKOS MENOS). But trying to get thousands of denominations – each pridefully assuring itself of being one of the true churches, perhaps the only true church – to live in one house proved not only impractical but impossible It required concessions, compromises, and accommodations none could realistically be expected to make. And if they did, God would not accept it anyway.
Does all of this prove that the Lord’s desire and the plan of God are not valid, that the concept is unworkable? Not at all. It just means that the approaches designed by men will not work. How then does God’s plan differ, and why can it succeed? Read carefully and determine the meaning and application of Ephesians 4:4-6. A faith fragmented is not one faith. A body divided is not one body (church). Many baptisms do not equate to one baptism. One hope and one calling mean they must be the same for all. These things are to be one as surely as God himself is one, as the Lord Jesus Christ is one.
The only way to find and be identified with God: through Jesus Christ the way the truth and the life; nobody finds his way to God except through him (John 14:6). God does not have different ways or different wills, one for Jews another for Gentiles, one for men and another for women, or different ways for different social categories such as slave or free, rich or poor, children and adults, young and old, or even as elders, deacons, preachers in the church. Roles and relationships may be gender-based or age-based, but individually we are all servant members of one universal fellowship and we all approach God the same way. Our national motto could apply to the church as well: e pluribus unum, out of many we have become and are one.
The preacher had just announced his resignation and planned departure from the congregation, and was met at the door by a tearful little lady. “I don’t know what’s going to become of this church,” she said. “I’m really concerned about the way things are going – down, down, down. I worry about what will happen when you leave here.” Trying to reassure her, he said, “Don’t be so upset about my leaving. I’m sure you’ll get a better preacher next time.” “But that’s what they said the last three times,” she replied.
Preachers need to be “set down” once in a while. It is good for the soul that the ego be deflated now and then. But sometimes people need to show a bit more appreciation for what God is able to do with imperfect preachers. Remember, “It pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe” (1 Cor. 1:21). Not by the preaching of foolishness, and not by the foolishness of preachers, but by preaching his truth to those who may count the preacher and his message as foolish. God has to use imperfect preachers because He has no other kind. A few examples:
Isaiah 6:1-8. Isaiah confessed his sinfulness to the Lord. “Woe is me, for I am a man of unclean lips” – an unclean man dwelling among unclean people. But the Lord removed his guilt and his sin, and used him as a great instrument in bringing many others to redemption. God could have used angels (as He did in the case of Isaiah himself) to proclaim cleansing and forgiveness, but He chose instead to use a forgiven sinner to declare the message.
Matthew 16:23, 26:57f, 69-75, Acts 2:14ff. Peter was self-confident, but rash and weak. He sinned in denying the Lord (three times), and his conscience hurt him terribly. But he was forgiven, and it is his words of the new gospel and the eternal kingdom that are recorded from the day of Pentecost. Who can measure the good accomplished by the apostle Peter, a forgiven sinner?
Acts 9:1ff, 22:16; 1 Timothy 1:12-15; Acts 26:18. Was there ever a greater enemy of Christ and the church than Saul of Tarsus? Isn’t it amazing that he could have become Christ’s most energetic apostle, the church’s most ardent defender and its most successful evangelist? Of course that was possible only after the sinner was converted and forgiven.
I myself – probably you too. A puritan preacher named Richard Baxter is famous for saying: “I preach as a dying man to dying men.” All men are subject to the same nature, the same pressures and stresses and the same mistakes. So I can parody Baxter and say that I stand before those to whom I minister as an imperfect man among imperfect people. No doubt every congregation of people who have endured my written and spoken teaching and sermons, my prayers, my conversations, and my advice and counsel have measured my life by the standard of God’s word and found me inadequate and imperfect. Like nearly all preachers and church leaders of my acquaintance I am prone to be critical, but I do try to remember that I am not without flaw in my own eyes or the eyes of others, and certainly not in God’s. I am an imperfect man casting stones at other imperfect people in the hope that all of us will improve, keep stretching toward the mark and the prize to which God directs us.
It should not be thought so remarkable that God uses forgiven sinners to carry out His work in the world. After all, who else can He use? All sin! Everyone becomes a sinner (Romans 3:10,23; 1 John 1:5-9). God certainly cannot use unforgiven sinners to speak for Him – He actually has no positive use for unforgiven sinners. So He uses forgiven sinners. They know the meaning of forgiveness, the relief of redemption, and the joy of salvation by experience. They can be effective ministers and proclaimers of the gospel to others. One who is unforgiven and still in his sins cannot reasonably expect to have much of a positive impact for good upon others. His words may be good but it is his example that carries most weight.
You should never think that, because you are a sinner caught up in sin and unforgiven, you cannot become and be useful to the Lord. You can be, and He wants you to be. But you will have to be forgiven first. And of course, whether or not God can forgive you and will forgive you depends primarily upon you. You must seek and accept His forgiveness, on His terms. Then you can say, “Here am I; send me. Use me. Make me effective in helping others.” You, and many others, may be amazed at what God can do for you, with you, in you and through you. He can do “exceedingly abundantly above what we ask or think” (Ephesians 3:20), once we have yielded the raw material of our personality to His power for remaking and transforming (Romans 12:2).