The Sovereignty of God and the Church

Alan Gamble, Glasgow, Scotland

God’s Purpose

The sovereign authority of Christ is declared in the first mention of the church in the New Testament. The Lord Jesus emphatically declares, ‘I will build my church’, Matt. 16. 18. The church is His assembly, consisting of the people who distinctively belong to Him. They are pictured as a building. Christ is the Master Builder. Faith in Him is the rock-like foundation. His mighty project can never be thwarted. Neither the power, nor the guile, of Satan will prevent its triumphant completion. The assembly of all who confess Christ’s name cannot die.

 

Often the world has been too quick to write a premature obituary of the church. A biblical scholar, with a keen sense of humour, once wittily remarked that Nero little thought the day would dawn when men would call their dogs Nero and their sons Paul! On being informed by a young producer that he was preparing a BBC programme on the end of the church in Britain, Lord Reith, its former Director General, waspishly remarked, ‘Young man, the Christian church will attend the funeral of the BBC!’

 

In Paul’s Epistles, the church is pictured as the body of Christ as well as His building.1 The greatest thing going on in the world today is the gathering and growth of the church. Throughout this age, God is calling out of the nations a people for His name.2 This is a key part of His eternal purpose.3 Believing Gentiles, and believing Jews, share the same spiritual privileges. As fellow heirs, they inherit the same blessings. They are fellow members of Christ’s body, linked to each other through their living union with the risen exalted Saviour, the Head of the church. They are fellow partakers of God’s promise in Christ through the gospel.4 Together saved Jews and Gentiles form ‘one new man’, the new humanity.5 The full inclusion of Gentiles in the people of God on a basis of absolute equality is a New Testament ‘mystery’, a secret hidden in God for long ages but now disclosed by revelation from the Holy Spirit.6 

 

The Church’s ministry

The sovereignty of Christ, the Head of the church, is seen in His continual supply of her ministry. The victorious, ascended Saviour is the source of the Christian ministry. He graciously takes care to provide. through the long pilgrimage of the church on earth. gifted men fitted to serve each succeeding generation. These ministers include the foundational apostles and prophets, and a lavish succession of evangelists and pastor-teachers. Christ endows and provides them, so that by their ministry all the saints are equipped to exercise their individual spiritual gifts for service in the body of Christ. Thus, the church as a whole is built up numerically and spiritually, and brought to increasing spiritual maturity. God’s eventual goal for His people is their full likeness to Christ.7 

 

Human ordination is not envisaged in the New Testament. Ministers are not made by episcopal appointment, or the licence of a presbytery, or even the call of a congregation. Many men are truly gifted servants of Christ who have had one or other of these, but their ministry does not rest on any ecclesiastical procedure but on Christ’s sovereign endowment. Equally, many other men, who have experienced no official recognition, are singularly gifted by the ascended Lord for His service in evangelism or teaching. It was a fundamental insight of Anthony Norris Groves in 1827 that clerical ordination to preach the gospel, or to administer the Lord’s Supper, had no scriptural warrant. From his day until now, many local assemblies of Christians throughout the world have enjoyed the privilege of seeking to follow the simplicity of the New Testament pattern for ministry, untrammelled by formality but recognizing the sovereignty of the Holy Spirit in His gifting of all believers for service.8

 

The Church’s expansion

The book of Acts presents the thrilling story of the gospel being taken from Jerusalem and Judea to Samaria and then to the Gentile world. It describes the expansion of the church’s mission throughout the Mediterranean provinces of the Roman Empire, and ends with Paul in Rome itself. Throughout this gripping history, Luke records the sovereign hand of God at work. 

 

After the apparently tragic and un- timely loss of Stephen by martyrdom, there was a great scattering of believers from Jerusalem because of persecution. This scattering played a crucial part in the fulfilment of God’s plan of worldwide evangelism. Some of the Jewish refugees took the revolutionary step of witnessing to Greeks in Antioch, which led to the planting of the assembly there, the first predominantly Gentile local church.9 Antioch then became the launch pad for the endeavours of Paul and Barnabas, selected by the Holy Spirit for mission.10 In later service, Paul knew God’s definite restraint on further evangelism in Asia Minor, and then His clear positive direction to turn westwards in the vision of the man from Macedonia.11 

 

In providence, God protected Paul in Corinth by the neutrality of Gallio, the Roman proconsul, fulfilling His promise of preservation from danger, and leading to a fruitful ministry in that city.12 Later, as Paul reflected on his situation in Ephesus, he could say that God had opened a great door for effective service there, despite the presence of many adversaries.13 God overruled the circumstances of Paul’s arrest in Jerusalem to ensure that he would find his way to the metropolis of the empire. Then, He sovereignly brought Paul safely through storm and shipwreck so that he could bear witness to Christ in Rome. 

 

These instances illustrate the declaration by the exalted Christ to the church in Philadelphia that He holds the key of David, the Messianic authority by which He opens and shuts doors of opportunity. When He opens no one can shut and when He shuts no one opens.14 

 

Head over all things to the Church

The Lord Jesus is the Head of the church. He is also Head over all things, completely exalted in His risen life and power over all principalities and powers and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in that which is to come.15 He is supreme over all human authority and all unseen dominion, whether good or evil, angelic or demonic.  The sceptre of universal sovereignty has already been placed in the hands of the once crucified Saviour by His Father. Presently, His authority is not generally acknowledged. Nor is its exercise visible. Nonetheless, God has given Christ the supreme place in the universe. Final authority does not rest with the White House in Washington, or the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, nor the Kremlin in Moscow. Rather, it lies with God’s throne in heaven. It has been granted to the risen Man seated at His Father’s right hand.

Paul presents a further dimension, which is often overlooked, when he writes that the Lord Jesus is Head over all things to, or for the benefit of, His church.16 Thus, in exercising His universal authority, the Lord Jesus does so with the interests of His people in mind. 

 

This principle is at work in history. Human history is ultimately His, that is God’s, story. The rise and fall of empires, and the developments of science and technology, alike take place under the sovereign authority of God, and the reign of His exalted Son. All these mighty movements are directed by heaven for the blessing of the church.

 

It was no accident that the invention and development of printing took place soon after the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453. That event led to the flight of many scholars to Western Europe, bringing with them their knowledge of ancient Greek, and many valuable manuscripts. This helped to spark off the Renaissance: the re-discovery of the classical civilization of Greece and Rome, and of the Greek New Testament. These events lie in the background to the Reformation, when God brought to light the long-forgotten truth of the biblical gospel and placed into the hands of the peoples of Northern Europe the scriptures translated directly from the original languages into their own. When Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-five Theses to the door of Wittenberg Cathedral in 1517, his protest rapidly spread with the new technology of printing. Later, his German Bible, completed in 1534, became easily accessible through that same technology. Likewise, William Tyndale was able, at the greatest personal cost culminating in his burning in 1534, to place the New Testament in English in the hands of the people with his translation of 1526. Every English speaking Christian owes an incalculable debt to Tyndale. His God given desire that the boy who followed the plough would come to know more of God’s word than the Roman Catholic clergy of his day was amply fulfilled in succeeding generations.

 

In later centuries the world-wide colonial rule of Western powers, whatever criticisms can be made of some of its effects, permitted, in many cases, the spread of the gospel, and the translation and dissemination of the scriptures. In our own day, the dramatic developments in Eastern Europe in the latter decades of the 20th century, with the collapse of Marxist dictatorships, presented unparalleled opportunities for the gospel. Even Albania, where the regime claimed to have banished God completely, has opened to the Christian message. In Romania, Christians have used their new liberties, with the manifest blessing of God in the expansion and growth of the churches.

 

These are only a few illustrations of the great truth that Christ is Head over all things for the church. In days of growing difficulty and weakness in the churches of the West we need to grasp the sovereignty of God in working out His purpose for the church, until her completion at our Lord’s return. Until then, may we trust Him to fulfil that purpose, and grasp the privilege of playing our part in carrying it out in our day of challenge and opportunity.

 

Endnotes

  1. Eph. 1. 23; Col. 1. 18.
  2. Acts 15. 4.
  3. Eph. 3. 11.
  4. Eph. 3. 6.
  5. Eph. 2. 16.
  6. Eph. 3. 3-5, 9.
  7. Eph. 4. 7-16.
  8. 1 Cor. 12. 11.
  9. Acts 11. 19-26.
  10. Acts 13. 1-3.
  11. Acts 16. 6-10.
  12. Acts 18. 9-10, 12-17.
  13. 1 Cor. 16. 9.
  14. Rev. 3. 7.
  15. Eph. 1. 21.
  16. Eph. 1. 22.