See the Church Differently
“I love Jesus but not the church.”
This is seemingly the increasing cry of our generation.
Many of us can think back to a time in our lives when specific people within the church, and sometimes in the name of the church, hurt us. That hurt can run deep and be as minuscule as being the topic of someone’s gossip, and at other times being as immense as physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. As a result, rather than finding the church to be beautiful and lovely, we view the church as ugly and foul. You confess that you love Jesus and desire to follow him faithfully, but your love for the church has grown cold and distant.
It’s impossible to love Jesus and not love the church. I’m not talking about loving an organizational structure or programs, but the church for who she is as God’s people and the bride of Christ.
To combat your lack of admiration for the church, I want to challenge you to see the church perhaps differently than you ever have before—through the eyes of her bridegroom.
Jesus Loves the Church
Reflecting on Song of Solomon 1:15, “You are beautiful, my love; behold you are beautiful,” John Gill, an eighteenth-century English Baptist pastor, wrote, “These are the words of Christ, commending the beauty of the church, expressing his great affection for her, and his high esteem of her; of her fairness and beauty.”1 Gill interprets Solomon’s words as a powerful allegorical portrayal of the love, union, and communion that exists between Jesus Christ and his bride, the church. In Song of Solomon 1, the bridegroom fixes his eternal attention upon the bride and identifies her as “beautiful.”
What must it be like to be admired by the sinless Son of God? Rather than admire her, we imagine he would identify her failures, shortcomings, and the loathsome sin that so often spoils her garments. He sees all things, right? Doesn’t he know the hurt her people sometimes cause? Doesn’t he know the pain her people sometimes inflict upon others?
Instead, like the eyes of a bridegroom mesmerized by the loveliness of his bride, Christ invites our gaze with the attention-grabbing, “Behold!” Something about her beauty commands awe, wonder, and astonishment. This is even more amazing when considering that the church is composed of sinners. Albeit forgiven, still sinners. In her own eyes, the church is full of spots and blemishes and is, in fact, sometimes disgusting to behold. The apostle Paul says that only at the end of the age will the church be presented to Christ “in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing” (Eph. 5:27). Yet, Christ draws our attention to his bride here and now, not for veneration, but that we may be astonished and lost in the wonder of his love and sacrifice on her behalf.
The lens through which Christ loves the church is his own cross—the focal point of blood, righteousness, forgiveness, union, justification, regeneration, and grace. It isn’t sinners that make the church lovely; it’s the cross of Christ that makes the church lovely. It’s not our good works but his sacrificial, substitutionary, sinless blood that washes her garments as white as snow. The loveliness of the church is fashioned inwardly by justification and outwardly through sanctification. From giving second birth to final glory, it’s not her people that make her lovely but the righteousness of Christ.
Jesus Saves His Church
Christ’s love for his church emerges most vividly from his title as Savior.
The Greek word translated as “Savior” means “one who preserves or rescues from natural dangers and afflictions.” It carries the idea of deliverance from harm in order to preserve. A Savior is both a rescuer and protector. In his prophecy of the Messiah, Zechariah affirms that this anointed one will deliver us from the “hand of our enemies” (Luke 1:74).
Who are our enemies, and why do we need rescuing?
We need rescuing from our sin, God’s wrath upon our sin, and death, which is a consequence of our sin. The prophet said, “Your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you” (Isa. 59:2). God is so holy that he cannot look upon sin, approve of sin, or accept sinful creatures into his presence (Hab. 1:13).
Paul clearly defines the consequence of sin is death (Rom. 6:23). “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). Paul laments: “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Rom. 7:24). He answers his question in 1 Thessalonians 1:10, “Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.”
In Luke 15:1–7, Jesus tells the parable of a shepherd who leaves his flock searching for the one lost sheep. Jesus is the shepherd who rescues his bride from the sinful shackles of death. Jesus is the one who delivers his bride from God’s holy wrath upon sin. He is our Savior, and the stage upon which that glorious rescuing work is accomplished is his cross and empty tomb. The church identifies with the cross and the tomb because they are also her cross and tomb.
Jesus doesn’t just excuse our sin, telling us to never mind its consequences. Christ and his bride are so intimately identified that they become united with one another in death and resurrection. Sinners come to the cross of Christ and receive, by faith, the wages of their sin—death. We don’t die physically, but we die a required death through Christ, for he becomes our substitute and stands in our stead, taking upon himself the unmitigated wrath of his Father. Because of our sin, what God requires of us is paid in full by our beloved, the Lord Jesus Christ.
The cross, with all of its flowing blood, lacerated flesh, and the stench of death, becomes the epicenter of cleansing for sinners, where Christ looks lovingly upon his darling bride and declares, “My love . . . you are beautiful” (Song 1:15).
The tomb, with all its miraculous power, folded grave clothes, and heavenly promises, becomes the same power by which dead sinners emerge from their sin, having been raised to new life through Christ.
When Jesus died on the cross, we died on the cross.
When Jesus rose from the dead, we rose from the dead.
This beautiful union is so fixed and permanent that we are now taken into the eternal love between the Father and the Son through the Spirit. The same love that flows unceasingly between the Father and the Son now directly flows to his bride, the church.
Jesus is a worthy Savior because of his union with the nature and love of his Father and because of union with the nature and love of his bride. He is united to her as she places her faith in him, and thus he becomes the ground of her rescue and redemption. The bridegroom takes death upon himself and offers his meritorious work freely to his bride so that she may be welcomed into his glorious dwelling, the church.
So, you see, to separate Christ from his church would be like telling the body to function without its head. The two are inseparably linked at the cross and in the resurrection. Therefore, to love Jesus is to love the bride he loves. To love Jesus is to recognize we are fellow sinners with those who belong to the church, and Christ—through the presence of the Holy Spirit—is increasingly making us more like Jesus.
Have you given up on the church? Shift your gaze from your hurt and disappointment and behold the church through the eyes of Christ. Behold her through the lens of Christ, who willingly died in her place and rose from the dead to secure her eternal life. When you see the church—not for what she does, but for who she is—perhaps, in time, you too will proclaim, “you are beautiful.”
This is a guest article by Dustin Benge, author of The Loveliest Place: The Beauty and Glory of the Church. This post originally appeared on crossway.org; used with permission.
- John Gill, An Exposition of the Book of Solomon’s Song (London: William Hill Collingridge, 1854), 57.
Dustin Benge (Ph.D., The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, KY) serves as Executive Director for Reformanda Ministries. He is currently lecturer, senior fellow, and administrative research assistant at The Andrew Fuller Center for Baptist Studies. In addition, he is a visiting lecturer at Munster Bible College in Cork, Ireland and serves as the editor of Expositor Magazine. His books include: A Journey Toward Heaven, Lifting Up Our Hearts, Sweetly Set on God: The Spirituality of David Brainerd, and others. He has also served as a pastor in Kentucky and Alabama. He writes for Reformation21, Christward Collective, Tabletalk, and Expositor Magazine. Dr. Benge is married to Molli and they live in Louisville, Kentucky.