Is Your Congregation An Oasis Or A Mirage?

When I was boy we made frequent pilgrimages to my grandparent’s farm in Southwestern Kansas. That is where I learned to drive, put up fence, buck bales of hay, and chew tobacco. I do not recommend the latter. On the trip, on a really hot day, a mirage would appear in the distance. The road seemed to melt ahead of us as heat waves rose from the asphalt.

Travelers in the desert long for two things: water and shade, two things offered by an oasis. An oasis is desirable because traveling in the desert, where temperatures can reach 120F can be dangerous. To see an oasis in the distance offers hope. An oasis turn out to be a mirage is a bitter disappointment.

So it is in the Christian life. The Scriptures picture the Christian life as a journey, a pilgrimage and believers as sojourners or pilgrims. In Leviticus 25:23 the Lord called us “sojourners.” In Psalm 39:12 David described himself as a sojourner. Hebrews 11:13 says, “All these died in faith, without receiving the promises, but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance, and having confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the earth” (NASB). In 1 Peter 2:11, the Apostle exhorts believers, “Beloved, I urge you as aliens and strangers to abstain from fleshly lusts which wage war against the soul” (NASB).

It is not fashionable now to confess that this world is not our home, it is still true. The Apostle Paul reminded the Philippians that their citizenship is in heaven (Phil 3:20). Our Lord Jesus confessed to Pilate that his kingdom is “not of this world” (John 18:36). He said that were his kingdom of this world he would call down legions of angels and fight for it, but it is not. To be sure, our triune God created this world and made it essentially good. We confess this against the Gnostics. Against the Manichaeans we confess that there are not two dueling principles in the world, good and evil. Karma is a lie. This world belongs to God and he has loaned it to us to manage, as it were, in the interim. So, mine is not the counsel of world flight but one of setting priorities and recognizing our twofold citizenship. We Christians are creation affirming and world (in the Johannine sense of word) denying. We are not transforming the world but neither are we “just a passin’ through.” We pilgrims are establishing kingdom embassies in a rebellious world. Every square inch does belong to Christ but he governs those inches in a twofold way and will only consummate his dominion in the new heavens and the new earth.

Pilgrims and sojourners need a place to rest. They need an oasis. Anyone who has ever taken a long road trip knows how pleasant it is to get out of the car for a bit to stretch one’s legs and to refresh one’s self. Where would the traveler be without truck stops and cafes? So it is for Christians, who need an oasis in a desert. By calling us pilgrims, the Scriptures are placing us, as it were, in the Exodus. We have come through the Red Sea, which our Belgic Confession says is Christ (Art. 34), on dry ground, identified with Christ in our baptism (1 Cor 10:1–4; Rom 6 [all]; Col 2:11–12).

Too often, however, what pilgrims find is not the needed and desired oasis of refreshment but a mirage, something that looked like a place of rest and renewal but turned out to be more of the same. What I mean is that Christ has commissioned his church to do a few things faithfully and chief among them is to preach the law and the gospel. Through the law we learn the greatness of our sin and misery (Heidelberg Catechism 2 and 3) and through the third use of the law the redeemed learn their duty to God and neighbor but only through the gospel do we find an oasis. The gospel is a unique word. We confess that it is the only word through which the God the Spirit operates to bring new life (regeneration) and true faith. In Heidelberg 65 we confess:

 Since then we are made partakers of Christ and all his benefits by faith only, whence does this faith proceed?

From the Holy Spirit, who works faith in our hearts by the preaching of the gospel, and confirms it by the use of the sacraments.

It is through the preaching of the gospel that the Spirit works faith in our hearts and it is through the use of the holy sacraments (baptism and the Lord’s Supper), which are nothing but the gospel made visible (Calvin) that the promises of the gospel are confirmed.

As my friend, teacher, and colleague Bob Godfrey has often said, if we do not feed the poor, someone else will do it. If we do not educate the ignorant, someone else will do it but if we, the church, do not preach the gospel, no one else will do it. The visible, institutional church is the only entity to which Christ entrusted the official proclamation of the gospel (Matt 28:18—20). The preaching of the gospel is so central to the mission and identity of the visible church that the Reformed Churches confess that where the “pure preaching” of the gospel is absent, there is not a true church. They say the same about the “pure administration” of the sacraments and the use of church discipline for correcting the saints.

Without the pure preaching of the gospel a congregation is not an oasis. It is only a mirage, which has nothing to offer the pilgrim but more heat and sand when what the sojourner needs is relief from the heat and the water of life. This is a basic point and obvious but it bears repeating because throughout the history of the church she has often lost sight of her prime mission. In our age congregations busily make themselves attractive in a dozen different ways but forget the one thing that makes them a true church: the gospel. A place in the desert without shade and water, however attractive, is no real help.

As a pilgrim writing in behalf of needy Christians, I am asking pastors, elders, and members to make sure that their congregations are not mirages, places  that look like churches but that lack the relief and life that only the gospel gives. Please be sure that yours are real oases of hope, help, and life for pilgrims. Christian, does your congregation pass this basic test? Does your congregation may  have flashing lights and whirling sights but does it have the gospel, the weekly announcement from God’s Word that God the Son became incarnate for sinners, that he obeyed on their behalf, suffered for them, died, was buried, and was raised for their justification and no mediates for them at the right hand of the Father. Is that the staple of the ministry of your congregation or is the gospel assumed but rarely, if ever, articulated? If you brought a non-Christian friend to church would he be pointed clearly and graciously to Jesus the Savior or would he only hear a therapeutic message about how to feel better about himself? Is he likely to hear about who Christ is and what Christ has done or a lecture about the evils of society? Your non-Christian friend needs to hear the law but it is essential that he hear the gospel, the clear, plain, glorious sound of the gospel, in his ears. May our churches be gospel oases today and every Lord’s Day.



Thanks to Bob McDowell for his editorial help with this any many HB essays.

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