The Grace of Christ in the Growth of His Church
Passage: Ephesians 4:13–16
The Grace of Christ in the Growth of His Church
What does it mean for a church to grow? Considering the mission mandate of the Lord Jesus, there is hardly a more pressing question for a church to consider. Think of the Great Commission. To be a disciple is, in some sense, to make more disciples. And therefore, the question of growth is inescapable. As Christians, we want the church to grow.
And yet, by and large, Christians, at least in America, seem thoroughly confused on this vital question. Take, for example, what is possibly the most puzzling exercise in American church life – the annual publication of the fastest growing churches list. The list does just what it says – it tracks the 100 congregations that have increased at the highest rate over the last year. It’s a fascinating list, but think about that phrase – fast growth. Is fast even the right measure? Does fast growth translate to stability, to endurance, or to clarity? It’s such an odd criteria to prioritize – fast growth. Weeds grow faster than redwoods, but wouldn’t you rather have a redwood-strong church, even if it takes more time? That list proves my point. When it comes to this vital question of growth, Christians seem thoroughly confused.
But our passage this morning, brothers and sisters, is like a light that cuts through the fog of our confusion. Here in Ephesians 4, the apostle Paul clearly expects the church to grow. He even uses the word grow in v16. But significantly, Paul’s discussion of growth does not subject us to the tyranny of numerical pursuits, and neither does it discourage the small congregation like ours. Rather, Paul’s vision of growth is one that applies to all churches – both large and small, both the numerically thriving and the statistically steady. It’s a vision of growth that centers on an unexpected reality – the reality of truth. This is the key to the passage, brothers and sisters. Notice how the language of truth is woven throughout Paul’s teaching. V13, the church is striving after the knowledge, that is, the truth concerning the Son of God. Then v14, the church is vigilant against false doctrine, that is, anything that deviates from the truth. And then v15, the church grows by speaking the truth in love. Do you see the emphasis? Paul clearly wants the church to grow – it’s vital! But the apostle defines that growth not necessarily in terms of numbers, but rather in a deepening embrace of the truth.
That deepening embrace of the truth is growth in the most important sense. For some of us, that statement is simply a reminder of what we already have clearly in view. But for others, that statement might be a needed course correction. I know how it easy it is to get focused on the visible, track-able stats of a church. The most common question I get from other church leaders is the numbers question – “How many people you got now?” I know how easy it is to get out of balance on this. And when that happens, it’s natural to be discouraged and perhaps even to start thinking in worldly terms about success and progress and return on investment. But that kind of thinking loses sight of what Paul defines for us in Ephesians 4. That kind of thinking misses the centrality of truth when it comes to the church’s growth. Perhaps the sermon this morning will be a course correction for some of us. Regardless of how we’re thinking, I pray we’re encouraged today as a church body.
In terms of an outline, then, I want to draw your attention to three marks of a growing church. Importantly, each mark applies to any type of church, large or small. And I do want to emphasize that point. Please do not hear me today as saying numbers are bad. They’re not. I pray we see an increase in baptisms and membership this year. I pray we see our budget increase so we can do more ministry. Those things aren’t bad. My point isn’t to argue against numbers. Rather, my point is that numerical increase is not the only measure of growth, or even the most important measure. What Paul lays out in these verses is a vision of growth that transcends numbers. Let’s notice together three marks of an Ephesians 4 growing church.
Mark #1: A Growing Church is Increasingly Shaped by the Truth
The first mark comes in v13 – a Growing Church is Increasingly Shaped by the Truth. You’ll remember from last week that Paul has so far been making the case that every Christian is essential in the work of ministry. Look back, just briefly, at how the passage has progressed. V7, Christ gave gifts of grace to his church, which means every believer is equipped by the Lord. V11, Christ’s grace is uniquely manifested in the work of pastors, who are called to minister the Word within the body. And then v12, the grand purpose in all of this is that the saints would be equipped to do the work of ministry. That has been Paul’s emphasis up to this point. When it comes to building up the body of Christ, every believer has an essential role to play.
As we come to v13, Paul now begins to flesh out in more detail what it means to build up the Body. He uses three phrases here in v13 to describe one essential reality, and that reality is spiritual maturity. In fact, you can see this essential point in the middle of the verse. What are we aiming at when we minister to one another? We’re aiming at mature manhood, which Paul then says is measured by the fullness of Christ. That is the purpose of building one another up. That is the mark of growth Paul gives here in v13. It is spiritual maturity in Christ. Instead of remaining in spiritual infancy, Paul urges us to grow up in Christ. That’s how a church grows – as every member is shaped, strengthened, and matured by the truth revealed in Jesus Christ.
Now, this still leaves an important question we need to answer. We want be shaped by the truth, but what does that look like in practice? How do we know mature manhood when we see it? That’s where Paul’s first phrase in v13 helps us. Mature manhood, Paul says, comes about as the truth shapes in us an increasing gospel unity. Notice the first phrase in v13 – “until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God.” Now, the faith in view here is not our experience or expression of faith. Rather, the faith in view is the very content of the gospel. Notice how Paul adds the phrase the knowledge of the Son of God. He’s immediately defining the faith. This is key. The faith here in v13 is the truth that exists outside of us, the truth that is revealed in the Son of God, the truth in which we trust. The idea is similar to what Jude says in his letter – the faith once for all delivered to the saints.
And as a church, we grow as we go deeper in this gospel truth. That’s spiritual maturity. Remember the beginning of the chapter, where Paul urged us to see our unity as a church. There is one Body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all. That’s the unity of the faith that Paul has in view here in v13. Spiritual maturity means we are increasingly shaped to see our identity as rooted in this one truth – the faith once for all delivered to the saints.
And therefore, to mature as a church, we must put aside every other competing claim on our unity, every other competing claim on our identity. We must put aside ethnicity and social status. We must put aside personality preferences and political commitments. We must put aside cultural background and family history. Each of those realities has the potential to compete with the faith as the defining mark of the church. And brothers and sisters, we must be vigilant to ensure that never happens. The deeper we grow in the unity of this one faith, the more we mature as a church.
Let me state it plainly. What unites us as a church is only the gospel of Jesus Christ. What makes us brothers and sisters is the truth we confess in Jesus – that Jesus is the eternal Son of God, uncreated and equal to the Father in nature and glory; that this eternal Son laid aside his glory to take on flesh in Jesus of Nazareth; that he fulfilled the Law of God through a life a perfect obedience; that he was condemned to die a sinner’s death, even though he was innocent and righteous before God; that he died and was buried; that after three days, he rose again in victory for his people; that he ascended again to the Father’s right hand, where he has received all authority to rule and from whence he is coming again to judge that the living and the dead; and that salvation is found only in him and is received only by sovereign grace through faith alone in Christ alone. That’s our unity, brothers and sisters. That’s our identity as a church – that faith revealed in Christ. And Paul’s point is that we mature by embracing more deeply that gospel unity.
And listen, brothers and sisters, this actually does make a massive practical difference in the life of the church. The fruit of this gospel unity is more mature Christian character. Let me give you an example. The Bible calls us to forebear with one another. The old word for that command is to be longsuffering. Rather than impatiently writing someone off, I bear with him. I endure what grates on my nerves. I refuse to backbite or ignore or be dismissive toward him. That’s the biblical command of forbearance.
But that’s hard to do, isn’t it? Some personalities just rub us the wrong way. Sometimes, we’re just fed up with a situation. Or, sometimes, a person is so different than me, I can’t fathom how or why he does what he does. In those situations, how do I forebear? I remember that my brother and I share the same Lord, that this same Lord died for both of ours sins, and that this same Lord is infinitely longsuffering with me, to a measure that I cannot possibly imagine. Whatever differentiates us as believers, this truth overcomes and then unites us – we are both saved by the Lord Jesus Christ.
And therefore, if the Lord of glory has forborn with me and with my brother, then surely I can forebear with him as well. In fact, since we are part of the same Body, part of the way Christ demonstrates his longsuffering mercy is through my forbearing with my brother. That is striving after the unity of the faith. It’s when the reality of the one gospel strengthens us to display the character of Christ with one another. And as that happens over and over in the life of a church, we grow. We mature, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.
Brothers and sisters, that vision for church life is compelling to me. I hope it is to you. But I also hope you hear how essential it is for the gospel to be sweet and central to your life. I hope you hear how vital it is that you are growing in your embrace of the faith once for all delivered to the saints. We need the gospel, brothers and sisters, not simply to save us from hell, but also to unite us and then mature us in the image of Christ.
Mark #2: A Growing Church is Actively Anchored in the Truth
Now, that exhortation actually leads us into the second mark of a growing church, this time from v14 – a Growing Church is Actively Anchored in the Truth. As we’re thinking about spiritual maturity, v14 spells out why this maturity is so important in the Christian life. And it has to do with discernment. Notice how Paul picks up the image of spiritual infancy in v14 – “so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine.” Now, Paul mixes his metaphors a bit here. He starts with the image of childhood, which contrasts with the mature manhood of v13. But then he shifts to the image of a ship that is being tossed about in a storm and driven dangerously off course. Even if you haven’t spent time sailing, you still appreciate the danger of this situation. A ship driven by the wind is at the mercy of the elements. At any moment, the ship could run aground and sink. And so it is with the Christian who is not maturing in the faith. Such a person is adrift, driven off course and in need of an anchor.
But here is Paul’s point. Here’s the connection that gives us that anchor. Look again at v14, and ask yourself, “What exactly is carrying immature Christians off course?” What does Paul say? He says it is every wind of doctrine. That’s striking, brothers and sisters. Paul doesn’t say we’re carried off by immoral behavior or wicked lifestyles. To be sure, those things are absolutely dangerous to our faith, but that’s not what gets Paul’s attention. Instead, Paul warns us against the winds of false doctrine.
This is another example of Paul’s foundational teaching on the Christian life. What enters our minds shapes our hearts, and what shapes our hearts ultimately flows out in how we live. Is Paul concerned about immoral behavior in the church? Absolutely. But where do those dangerous drifts begin? In the life of the mind, as every wind of doctrine carries us off course, into habits of life that then shape our hearts to live in opposition to God.
Brothers and sisters, what I’m urging us to see here is the powerful role truth – doctrinal truth – plays in the Christian life. A growing church is one where her members are actively growing deeper in the truth, so that the truth anchors them in the storm of life. Listen, the world is not neutral. There are ideas at work in the world that seek to erode faith. There are philosophies that function like acids – they corrode trust in God until the Christian life is left to crumble. It has been this way in every age, but perhaps the challenge is unique for us in the Digital Age. We have so much information available at our fingertips, more than we can handle. Previous generations were concerned about having the truth kept from them. Perhaps we should be concerned about having the truth obscured by a flood of triviality and falsehood. We have so much information at our fingertips, and yet, the church in our day seems to lack the discernment necessary to navigate the times.
And then you combine that with the fact that we’re increasingly trained to think in sound bites, to ignore context, to flit from one thing to the next in shorts burst of disconnected stimulation – it’s no wonder, as one writer has said, that we seem content to amuse ourselves to death. Paul wrote these words centuries ago, but they could hardly be more relevant. We are like ships adrift in the storm.
But a growing church pushes back against that drift. That’s my point here, and I believe it is urgent. A growing church looks to the truth as revealed in Christ, and that church finds an anchor that keeps us steady. We need discernment, brothers and sisters. We need to recognize that the world is also in the business of making disciples. In fact, that’s a good way to think about life. When I say the world is not neutral, what I mean is that you and I are always being discipled. We’re either being discipled by God’s truth or by the world’s so-called truth. And therefore, a growing church takes seriously this call to be anchored in the truth as revealed in Jesus Christ.
Now, even as I say this, there may be some who think I’m overstating the case. But I don’t think so, and here’s why. Notice the end of v14. This is the reason why the world is not neutral. Notice the source behind these winds of doctrine – “By human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.” Did you catch that word crafty, this idea of cunning? Paul uses very similar language in 2 Corinthians 11 to describe the Evil One. From the very beginning, this has been the serpent’s scheme. He whispers false doctrine – “Did God really say?” – in order to lead people astray.
And that’s why I say the world is not neutral. Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not pining for the good old days when life was supposedly more simple. Life, on some level, has always been this way. Please don’t hear me as the old man ranting for the kids to get off his front yard. But I do hope to wake you up this morning. Christians in 2020 are asleep in the storm, and we need to wake up. We need to answer the unique challenges of our day. And one of those unique challenges is that the serpent’s whispers can come through so many more channels than before. The world is not neutral, and therefore, if we want to grow as a church, we need discernment to remain anchored in the truth.
How do cultivate discernment? We can’t retreat to the wilderness. We’ve got to be in the world to fulfill our mission, but we’re called to not be of the world. The answer isn’t retreat, but we do need discernment. How we do cultivate it? That’s a huge topic, one that we could spend a good bit of time on. I could talk about the necessity of remaining closely connected to the community of saints in the church, where other believers provide discernment in areas that we lack. Or, I could talk about the need to strengthen the life of the mind, through Scripture reading and other pursuits of truth that deepen our grasp of theology, history, culture, etc. There are all sorts of directions we could go here.
But I want to direct your attention back to v13, where Paul talks about the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ. This is a key, perhaps the key, to developing discernment. Spiritual maturity is defined in relationship to Jesus. The character of a maturing Christian looks more like Jesus, day by day, over the long haul. If Christlikeness is the measure of spiritual maturity, then a key piece of discernment is learning to hold everything up to the measure of Christ. Do you see the connection? Discernment is, in one sense, simply the practice of measuring what we encounter against the standard of Jesus Christ.
We learn to ask questions as we interact with the world around us. Does this practice lead me toward Christlikeness, or away from it? Does this habit increase my appetite for Christ’s truth, or does it make me hungrier for the world? Would this opportunity strengthen my relationship to Christ’s Body, the church, or would it weaken it? Does this idea make the truths of the gospel clearer and more compelling, or does it obscure them? Christ is the measure, and his character, which defines maturity, becomes the standard that helps us live with discernment.
Listen, we could make a list of things to avoid and ideas to reject. But that would actually be too narrow to be helpful. We need a measure that applies in a myriad of situations across a multitude of spheres, and that measure is Christ. As Paul says in Colossians, Christ holds all things together, so to be anchored in truth, we need to learn this practice of measuring what we encounter in the world against the fullness of Jesus Christ. A growing church is actively anchored in the truth, specifically the truth as revealed in Jesus.
Mark #3: A Growing Church is Faithfully Ministering the Truth
That brings us to our final mark of a growing church, in v15 – a Growing Church is Faithfully Ministering the Truth. V15 is the counterbalance to v14. It reminds us that being anchored in the truth is not solely an individual pursuit. It involves the Body. Notice v15 – “Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor, once wrote, “Every Christian needs another Christian who speaks God’s Word to him.” And that is Paul’s point here in v15. When Paul says speak the truth, he’s not merely telling us to be honest with one another. No, Paul intends for us to speak the truth of Christ to another, to minister the gospel to one another.
Notice again how the unity of the Body informs our ministry to one another. Because we belong to the one Lord, Jesus Christ and are united in the one faith, marked by the one baptism, belonging to the one God and Father – because we are one body, brothers and sisters, our interest is for one another. That’s what Paul means by love here in v15. You and I are connected in Christ, and therefore, I love you by encouraging, exhorting, and yes even admonishing you with the truth. And when that kind of ministry is happening throughout the Body, the church grows. The church matures and takes on, more and more, the character of Christ.
And essential to this growth is the Body’s ministry of the truth. Speak the truth in love, Paul tells us. That’s how we grow. It could be as simple as a text message or an email that includes a verse from your daily Bible reading. It could be a casual conversation at the park, where you share how the Scriptures have convicted you and where you are seeking to grow. It could involve going to a brother or sister and, in love, calling them to live more in step with the Bible. Or it could be reminding a fellow believer of what is true about them in the gospel of Christ – that their sins are forgiven, that they’ve been adopted into God’s family, that there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christi Jesus. You know that most Christians are massively under-encouraged, right? So be the means of grace that speaks the gospel truth some weary heart needs to hear. Remember, the vast majority of issues in the Christian life can be solved with more encouragement from God’s Word. Ask the Spirit to give you eyes to see the needs, and then take the initiative to speak the truth in love.
When the church lives this way, the result is astounding. V16 is a fitting summary because it captures so much of what we’ve talked about the last two weeks. Look at v16, and as I read this, prayerfully imagine this kind growth happening more and more in our church. I’ll pick up in v15 – “we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.” Oh, what a picture Paul gives us of the growing church. United in Christ, who is the Head; every member gifted and essential for the work; all members working together, holding each other up and binding each other more deeply to Christ; so that in the end, the Body builds itself up in love. That is church growth.
You know, sociologists and pollsters tell us that we are living in a post-Christian America, where the common language of Christian faith and virtue has pretty much died out. That’s probably true. And one of the effects of this post-Christian landscape is that churches will now struggle to grow. As people increasingly embrace fragmented lives of personalized spirituality, there will be no compulsion for folks to connect with a church. And so, the experts tell us, the days of church growth in America, at least numerical growth, are probably over.
Who knows if that analysis is accurate? But I am convinced that the vision of a growing church we see here in Ephesians 4 – where every member is engaged, where love is worked out among people from all sorts of backgrounds, where the rock-solid reality of truth anchors us against the storm. I’m convinced that vision of growth can and will be a light in the darkness of this world.
Consider the mission mandate given to us by the Lord Jesus. To be a disciple is, in some sense, to make more disciples. We want the church to grow. But that growth doesn’t have to wait for numerical increase, brothers and sisters. That growth begins right now in the life of the Body together. And as we live this way, the Lord Jesus will draw his people to himself, the mission will advance, and God willing, the lost will join us by grace through faith to be united in the one Lord, one faith, and one baptism of the gospel. That’s church growth.
Let’s grow together, brothers and sisters, by speaking the truth in love, here in the church and out there in the world. Amen.