The Garden

Michael S. Horton
Wednesday, July 1st 2015
Jul/Aug 2015

You can become anything you want to be.” I think I may have said that to my own kids before. Happily, upon further reflection, it’s not true. God handcrafts human beings, through nature and nurture, to fulfill a specific role in the web of relationships in society and, above all, in Christ’s body. “There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them,” Paul instructs us in 1 Corinthians 12. “There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in them and in everyone it is the same God at work” (v. 4). All of these gifts of the Spirit are “given for the common good,” not just for private use.

Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ’s body, the church. “Now if the foot should say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ it would not for that reason stop being part of the body.’¦If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be” (1 Cor. 12:15, 17-18).

It may be un-American to tell our youngsters that they can’t become whatever they decide to be, that they have specific propensities; that through their social and ecclesial influences, they will develop some of them for the good of the whole body of Christ, as well as for the neighborhood. But that’s what Paul says, and it’s also something that we see in the natural order, which makes “the body” such a great analogy for the church.

Gifts, Discipleship, and Service

It is a good thing we have limits. It’s not a call to a herd mentality, to simply accept our lot and station with mediocre resignation. Rather, accepting limits means that as we mature, we can invest our time and resources where God has gifted us and made us indispensable to the health of the church and society. It’s no surprise that young people in societies like ours cannot decide on a major until their last year of college. There’s a lot of anxiety about callings. And part of that, I think, is the pressure of being told all of your life that you can be whatever you want to be, that you have unlimited possibilities.

It’s the same with the church as a whole. In fact, more so, because Christ, the Lord of his church, has revealed the message and means by which he will build his church until he returns. But the way many church leaders talk these days (as in past eras), you’d think that Jesus gave a great suggestion instead of a Great Commission. We’re told that the ordinary means of grace’preaching the gospel, administering the sacraments, and teaching disciples to obey everything that Christ commanded’may have been useful in the first century, but it’s time to reboot. What we need is “a new kind of Christian.” The church needs to “reinvent itself.” Or as one leader puts it, “The future of the church will be ‘The Revolutionaries’: the millions of believers who have stopped going to church and have decided to be the church instead.” “The Great Commission just said ‘Go,'” wrote the nineteenth-century revivalist Charles Finney. “He did not give us any particular methods for doing so.” That’s an odd thing to say, since Jesus explicitly revealed the methods mentioned above. There is a naive view in many Christian circles that assumes the message remains the same, regardless of the ever-changing methods.

The Vine in the Garden

The church is not simply an institution with a systematic theology, but an organism with a form of life. In front of a computer, I’m in charge of what I want to learn, do, and become. Or at least I think I am. In the visible church, however, I am not in front of anything. Rather, I’m in the middle of the action. I have some intimations, but I really don’t know what I will become after the church gets through with me. By being assimilated to its faith and practice, I do not lose my identity. On the contrary, I find it “in Christ,” together with his body. The church is not just where disciples go; it’s the place where disciples are made.

Although it is a bit of a caricature, I think that there is some truth in the generalizations that I’m about to make. The tendency in Roman Catholic theology is to view the kingdom of Christ as a cosmic ladder or tower, leading from the lowest strata to the hierarchy led by the pope. Anabaptists have tended to see the kingdom more as a monastery, a community of true saints called out of the world and a worldly church. Lutheran and Reformed churches tend sometimes to see the kingdom as a school, while evangelicals, at least in the United States, lean more toward seeing it as a market.

But God sees his kingdom as a garden. The dominance of organic metaphors for God’s kingdom in Scripture is striking. The first psalm compares the heir of the covenant to “a tree planted by streams of water, that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither.” In contrast, “The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away” (Ps. 1:3-4). In the end, the ungodly will not stand in God’s forest (vv. 5-6). The kingdom is like a sower who scattered seeds that fell in different soils and some, in shallow soil, were withered by the scorching sun. Others, lacking any root, “withered away,” and some fell among thorns and were choked. “Other seeds fell on good soil and produced grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty” (Matt. 13:1-9). The kingdom is like a garden where an enemy sows weeds among the wheat. You can’t tell the two apart until the harvest, so Jesus warns the disciples not to try to weed his garden until he returns (vv. 24-30). “He put another parable before them, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches'” (vv. 31-32). In John 15, Christ identifies himself as the true vine and the Father as the vinedresser:

“Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:1-5)

United to Christ through faith, we are simultaneously united to our fellow branches. We are not the vine but a branch inextricably connected to the Tree of Life.

What are some of the common threads we can draw together from Jesus’ organic analogy of his kingdom? First, it is his kingdom. Second, there is no personal relationship with Christ, the vine, apart from his church, the branches. Third, the growth of this kingdom (and each member of it) is slow. Who would ever have imagined that a tiny mustard seed would become a massive tree with branches filling the earth? Yet it isn’t something you can measure day by day. Fourth, it takes a lot of work. The gardener is always doing something to tend the vine in view of his harvest.

How Does God’s Garden Grow?

To be sure, there are aspects of the church’s life and ministry that are left to godly wisdom. Churches reflect their time and place. And yet, every church should be defined by the “marks” that Christ gave us: preaching, sacraments, and discipline.

Let’s go back to Pentecost, to Church 1.0, and regain our perspective. After all, it’s the same church that Christ promised to build and to be present with in saving grace to the end of the age. Through the prophets God promised that he would pour out his Spirit in the last days. Jesus promised that when he ascended to the Father, he would send his Spirit. Through his word, the Spirit would raise the spiritually dead to life and expand his kingdom to the ends of the earth. Finally, it happened. Jesus ascended to the Father, and they both sent the Spirit for the ground campaign. The Spirit’s anointing of Christ’s followers empowered them to proclaim the gospel, as tongues of fire rested upon each of them. Peter, the one who had denied Christ three times, even to a little girl, was now boldly proclaiming Christ as the fulfillment of the prophetic longing:

“This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it’¦.This Jesus God raised up and of that we all are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing.’¦Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.” (Acts 2:23-24, 32-33, 36)

Nothing could be more important to announce to the world. And through this word, the Spirit began to fulfill the prophecy of Ezekiel 37, as the “dry bones” came together and stood together on their feet:

Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.”‘¦So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. (Acts 2:37-39, 41)

They heard the gospel, were convicted and converted, baptized, and thereby added to the church. And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers (v. 42).

The Focused Vision

The Great Commission was now beginning to be fulfilled. In both instances, the Great Commission and Pentecost, the fuel of the kingdom is the ministry of the word, the sacraments, and church discipline. It is not only the apostles’ teaching but also “the fellowship” of the saints in Christ’s visible body: baptism and the Supper, along with “the prayers” that illustrates for us what the new covenant church looks like, or should look like, today when the Spirit shows up to unite sinners to Christ, to preserve them in that sacred bond to the end, and to expand that end-time sanctuary to the ends of the earth.

Some churches are known for emphasizing the apostolic teaching. More liturgical traditions focus on “the breaking of bread and the prayers,” others on “fellowship” or sharing material things in common, and still others on evangelism. We easily let ourselves off the hook, especially as pastors: “We’ll let evangelicals do the evangelism and then we’ll teach them” or vice versa. We’re so eager to go niche. However, every church needs to do these four things every week. To do that well, you have to keep your focus sharp and limited. The church is not another social institution. It can’t be anything it wants to be. It has to define its vision, mission, message, and methods by attending to everything that Christ commanded for his church.

Photo of Michael S. Horton
Michael S. Horton
Michael Horton is editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation and the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido.
Wednesday, July 1st 2015

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