Good morning, friends. Our topic this morning is "The Marks of a Renewed Church." In the New Testament, church means "people," not "buildings." The church lies at the very heart of God's eternal purpose. God's purpose is not merely to save isolated individuals and so perpetuate our loneliness. God's purpose is to build a church, to build a redeemed people for his own glory. We're very concerned about the renewal of the church, and we're concerned about the biblical vision of what the church is intended to be.
So I want to ask this question this morning: What are the chief distinguishing marks of the church? It would be interesting, if we had time, to sit down alongside one another and answer that question. What are the chief distinguishing marks of the Christian community?
One of the best ways to answer the question is to take a fresh look at the first Christian community as it came into being in Jerusalem on and after the day of Pentecost. Mind you, as we do that this morning it's important to be realistic. There is a tendency to idealize or romanticize the early church, to look back through tinted spectacles, to speak of it with bated breath as if it had no blemishes. Then we miss the heresies and the hypocrisies and the rivalries and the immoralities that troubled the early church, just as they trouble the church today. Nevertheless, one thing is certain: the early church was radically moved and renewed by the Holy Spirit.
So let me rephrase my question. What does a Spirit-filled church look like? What evidence did that first century church give of the presence and power of the Holy Spirit in its midst? If we can answer that question we're well on the way to asking what the marks of a renewed church should be today.
Acts 2:42 says, "They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching, and the fellowship, and the breaking of the bread, and the prayers" and so on.
A learning church
In this passage from Acts 2 the first mark that Luke gives us of that early renewed and Spirit-filled church is that it was a learning church. It was a studying church. They devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles. That's exceedingly significant. One might say that the Holy Spirit opened a school in Jerusalem that day. Jesus had appointed the apostles as the teachers in the school, and there were no fewer than 3,000 pupils in kindergarten. It was a remarkable situation. 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.
We read in verse 42 about the teaching of the apostles and in verse 43 about the signs and wonders of the apostles. The major purpose of miracles throughout the pages of Scripture is to authenticate fresh stages of revelation. That's why they cluster around Moses, the giver of the law, around Elijah, Elisha, and the prophets, around our Lord Jesus Christ, and around the apostles. We rightly call the Book of Acts "the Acts of the Apostles," and the apostle Paul refers to his miracles in 2 Corinthians 12:12 as "the signs of a true apostle were performed among you."
That's the reason why we have no biblical liberty to expect miracles today with the same frequency with which they occurred in those epochs of revelation. I don't deny they may take place. God is the Sovereign. He is the Creator. He is at liberty to break into his creation with creative intrusions into the universe. And we certainly may not put God in a straightjacket. But we have no biblical authority to expect miracles with the same frequency because they authenticated stages of revelation, and we're not in one today. God has completed his revelation in Christ, in the biblical witness to Christ.
What is the application of this to us today? How is it possible for us to devote ourselves to the apostles' teaching and to submit to their authority? We must insist that there are no apostles today. There may be apostolic ministries. There are bishops and superintendents and church leaders and church planters and pioneer missionaries, and you could say that they're engaged in apostolic labors or apostolic ministries. I would be prepared to give them the adjective, but I won't give them the noun "apostles." The apostles were Peter and Paul and John and so on. If there were apostles like them today we would have to add their teaching to the New Testament and the whole church would have to believe and obey. But there is nobody in the church with the teaching authority comparable to that of the apostles.
So I ask again, How can we submit to the apostles' authority if there aren't any today? Well, we submit to the authority of the apostles as their teaching comes to us in the pages of the New Testament. When the church convened to settle on the New Testament canon about the middle of the third century, the test of canonicity was apostolicity. Was each book written by an apostle? But Mark wasn't an apostle. Luke wasn't an apostle. These books come from the circle of the apostle. They contain the teaching of the apostles. If they could say a book was apostolic in those ways, then the church added it to the canon of the New Testament. So the teaching of the apostles has come to us in its definitive form in the pages of the New Testament. That's the only apostolic succession we believe in. It's a succession of apostolic doctrine from the New Testament until now.
So the first mark of a Spirit-filled church is that it's a studying church, an apostolic church, a church that takes seriously the authority of the New Testament and seeks to submit to it today. Its ministers will expound the Bible from the pulpit. Its parents will teach their children out of the Scriptures. Its members will read and reflect upon the Scriptures every day in order to grow into maturity in Christ. The Spirit of God leads the people of God to submit to the Word of God.
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 … the fellowship." That's the Greek word koinonia. It comes from the adjective koinos that means "common." Koinonia bears witness to what we have in common and what we share as Christian men and women and young people. It bears witness to two complementary truths.
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.
But koinonia also bears witness to what we share outward together—not only what we receive together, but what we give together. Koinonia is the word that Paul uses of the collection that he was organizing from the Greek churches for the benefit of the poverty-stricken churches in Judea. And koinonikos, the adjective, means "generous." So it is on this that Luke lays his emphasis in our text.
Acts 2:44 says, "All the believers were together and they had all things in common [koina]. Selling their possessions and goods they gave to anyone as he had need." That's a very disturbing verse. It's the kind of verse we jump over rather quickly in our hurry to get to the next verse, avoiding its challenge. But we need to look at it together. What does it mean? 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? Some Christians throughout church history have believed so, and some have done so. The rich young ruler was called by Jesus to do that: "Go. Sell all your possessions. Give to the poor. Come and follow me." Francis of Assisi in the Middle Ages followed this call, as did Mother Teresa and her sisters of charity. Some are called to a vocation of total voluntary poverty. This is meant to bear witness to the rest of us, as Jesus put it, "that a human life does not consist in the abundance of our possessions." There are more important things in life than what we own.
Nevertheless, the absolute prohibition of private property is a Marxist and not a Christian doctrine. So when we come to the story of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5, 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 Acts 5:4, "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.
Not everybody in Jerusalem sold and gave away everything. We read in verse 46 that they met in one another's homes. But I thought they'd all sold their homes and their furniture and their possessions! Apparently not. The giving and selling were voluntary—as it should be today. I think I hear sighs of relief in the church. You were afraid I was going to tell you to go and sell everything. No, that's not the vocation of every Christian. Nevertheless, we should not avoid the challenge of these verses. Those early Christians loved one another—hardly surprising, since the fruit of the Spirit is love. They cared for their poor sisters and brothers who were less fortunate than themselves. They shared their goods. They shared their homes.
That principle of voluntary and generous sharing with one another is permanent and universal. I believe the church was the first community in which poverty was actually abolished. The number of people who are destitute in the world today, who lack the necessities for survival, is about 100 million. The average number of people who die from starvation every day is 10,000. How can we live with these statistics? Surely the Holy Spirit gives his people a tender social conscience. Surely those of us who live in affluent circumstances, as you and I do, must simplify our economic lifestyle. Not because we think that it will solve the macroeconomic problems of the world, but as a solidarity with the poor and because the New Testament calls us to simplicity, contentment, and generosity.
We mustn't make rules and regulations for one another about simplicity and generosity. We mustn't lay down where we should set our economic lifestyle. But we are called to simplify in order to be more generous in our care for poorer people and in our giving to Christian causes. That is all of our vocation, because our God is a generous God. Grace is another word for generosity. And if our God is a generous God we must be generous, too. I would like to see more generosity, more simplicity, and more contentment in the Christian community. It would be a great witness to the rest of the world.
A worshiping church
Third, a renewed church worships together. Continuing in verse 42: "They devoted themselves to the breaking of the bread and the prayers." Luke uses the definite article in both cases. The breaking of the bread is evidently the Lord's Supper, though with a fellowship meal thrown in as well. "The prayers" means prayer meetings and prayer services. Both phrases refer to Christian worship. What impresses me about the worship of the early church is its balance in two respects.
Formal and informal Firstly, it was both formal and informal; it took place in the temple and in their homes. They continued to attend the prayer services of the temple. I'm sure they wanted to reform them according to the gospel. I'm convinced they didn't continue in the sacrifices of the temple, because they knew they'd been fulfilled in the sacrifice of Christ. But they did continue in the prayer services of the temple, which had a degree of formality. So they didn't immediately abandon the institutional church. There is an important lesson here: they supplemented the services in the temple with their own simple, informal, unstructured, spontaneous meetings at home.
We need to keep those two things together. I know you do in your church, as we do in London. We have the dignified service in the church, and we have meetings in one another's homes. We call them fellowship groups, but people give them different names in other places. Why must we always polarize? Old fogies like me prefer the dignity of the church service. But we need the experience of exuberant worship that young people prefer in the home, when they let down their hair and get out their guitars. But they also need the experience of the dignity of the church service. Don't polarize. There's no need to choose. We can have them both, just as they did in the early church.
Joyful and reverent There's a second aspect of their balance: it was joyful and reverent at the same time. There's no doubt of their joy. The end of verse 46 uses a word that means exaltation, an exalted form of joy. God sent his Son into the world. He'd sent his Spirit into their hearts. How could they not be joyful over the mighty acts of God in Christ and by the Spirit? And the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace. Where the Holy Spirit is, joy should be, too—a more uninhibited joy than our ecclesiastical traditions and courage.
When I go to some churches, I think I've gone to a funeral by mistake. Everybody is dressed in black. Nobody smiles. Nobody laughs. Nobody talks. The hymns are played at a snail's pace, and the whole atmosphere is lugubrious. And if I could overcome my English or Anglo-Saxon reserve, I would want to shout out, "Cheer up!" Christianity is a joyful religion, and we need to have a note of joy in our worship.
But it also should be reverent. We read in verse 43 that fear—awe and wonder—came upon every soul. Although some services are too funereal-like, other services are too flippant. In some church circles there seems to be no sense of the greatness and the glory and the majesty of Almighty God, before whom we should bow down in that combination of awe and wonder and humility which we call worship. We must worship in joy and reverence together, not one without the other.
An evangelizing church
Fourth, a renewed church is an evangelizing church. So far we've covered the domestic life of the congregation: study, worship, and fellowship. If that's all a church possesses, it's like an ingrown toenail—self regarding. What about the world outside? Are we not concerned about the outside world, in its pain and its grief and its lostness and its loneliness? Are Christians so absorbed with themselves that they have no mission to the outside world? No, of course not. But this is a good example of the danger of textual preaching. Millions of sermons have been preached on Acts 2:42, and if they stayed in Acts 2:42, they're unbalanced. Verse 42 speaks only of the church's worship, fellowship, and study. The church's mission isn't addressed until we come to verse 47. In verse 47 we read, "The Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved." There are three very important lessons about evangelism we can learn from verse 47.
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. And only he can. He delegates to pastors the responsibility of adding people to the visible church by baptism. But only one Person can add people to the invisible church: the head of the church, Jesus Christ. Through the Holy Spirit, he can give sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, life to the spiritually dead, adding them to his church.
I wish we could humbly put our trust and confidence for evangelistic success in him and not in ourselves. There's so much self-confidence today. I read books about evangelism and I get really upset. Some people write about evangelism and world mission as if it's going to be the final triumph of human technology. It's going to be computerized. It isn't. Although it's very important to use the technology that God has given us, our ultimate confidence for evangelism is in Christ.
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. There are some churches that regard evangelism as an occasional and sporadic enterprise. They enthusiastically organize a mission once every five years. And when the mission is over, they sink back into their respectable bourgeois mediocrity for another five years. Missions are fine as long as they're only episodes in the ongoing evangelistic outreach of the church. I know some churches that haven't had a convert for a decade, and they wouldn't know what to do with one if they got one. Don't be like those churches. Expect converts. Expect growth.
These four marks of a renewed church all concern our relationships. Some years ago I visited a large Latin American city where I came across a group of university students. They told me they had visited every church in their large city but had not been able to find a church that met their needs or satisfied or demands, so they dropped out. They called themselves Cristianos Desenganchado, or Unhooked Christians. They'd detached themselves from the church. They had dropped out.
I was curious to discover what they were looking for but had been unable to find. And you will be as astonished as I was that they went right through these four things without realizing what they were doing. They said, "We were looking for a biblical preaching ministry that relates the Word of God to the modern world. Second, we're looking for a loving, supportive, caring fellowship. Third, we're looking for worship with the living God, where the people bow down before him. Fourth, we're looking for compassionate outreach into the community." They didn't know those were the marks of a renewed church in Acts 2. But that's what young people are looking for in the church today. May God enable our churches to approximate much more closely this beautiful biblical ideal.
We don't need to wait for the Holy Spirit to come. The Holy Spirit did come on the day of Pentecost, and he's never left the church. Pentecost was one of those unique events, the final event in the saving career of Jesus. He was born once, died once, rose once, ascended once, and sent the Holy Spirit once. 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.
I'll lead you in a closing prayer:
Lord Jesus Christ, head of the church, we bow down in humility before you. We thank you that it is your loving purpose to build a church, a people. We thank you that you've given us the great privilege of being members of it. We thank you that it's a worldwide, multicultural, multiracial, multinational community. We thank you that one day we shall stand before the throne of God in heaven, a great company that nobody can number from every nation, people, tribe, and language, and will worship you throughout eternity. Meanwhile, 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. Bless our study. Bless our fellowship. Bless our worship. Bless our evangelism. We humbly pray not only for the good of the church and the world, but for the glory of your great and worthy name. Amen.
John R. W. Stott (1921 – 2011) is known worldwide as a preacher, evangelist, author, and theologian. For 66 years he served All Souls Church, Langham Place, in London, England, where he pioneered effective urban evangelistic and pastoral ministry. During these years he authored more than 50 books, and served as one of the original Contributing Editors for Christianity Today. Stott had a global vision and built strong relationships with church leaders outside the West in the Majority World. A hallmark of Stott's ministry was his vision for expository biblical preaching that addresses the hearts and minds of contemporary men and women. In 1969 he founded a trust that eventually became Langham Partnership International (www.langham.org), a ministry that continues his vision of partnership with the Majority World Church. Stott was honored by Time magazine in 2005 as one of the "100 Most Influential People in the World."