Four Marks of the Healthy Church
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Four Marks of the Healthy Church

Acts 2:42–47  (ID: 2185)

What is a healthy church? Far from focusing on entertainment or felt needs, a biblically vital congregation is characterized by learning and growth. Such a church is grounded in the objective and saving truth of who Jesus is, which leads to fellowship in God’s grace, reverent praise, and evangelism that draws others to Christ. In this message, Alistair Begg shows us how biblical teaching, loving fellowship, and living worship will naturally create a congregation that is engaged and growing.

Series Containing This Sermon

What Is the Church?

Selected Scriptures Series ID: 23901

Sermon Transcript: Print

Father, we come now to these precious moments when, in the mystery of your purposes, we hear your voice, although it is only the voice of a mere man that speaks, because you have pledged that when your word is truly preached, that your voice will be really heard. This turns our focus away from the vehicle, and it turns our attention directly to the Bible. And so we pray that we may lose sight of all and everyone besides that the Lord Jesus himself as he is made known to us in the printed page. For we ask it in Christ’s name. Amen.

At the conclusion of the book, In Search of Excellence, which of course is an old business book now—it’s kind of like one of the grandfathers of these business books, the rash of which there has been ever since—the authors, in identifying the distinctives that were represented in the various companies that they considered, concluded by pointing out a number of factors which each of the companies or organizations shared. There were a number of them, and one which has always stood out to me, and which I’ve never forgotten was this: that although these various companies were different from one another, in that some manufactured and others were sales and various products, etc., each of them shared this one characteristic, namely, that they did the basics well, most of the time.[1] The basics well, most of the time.

Now, I mention that because in our consideration of the church in these mornings as we’re thinking about the nature of the church—what is it, who’s in it, how does it function, etc.—when we consider the church as it unfolds in the pages of the Acts of the Apostles, and then as we read the various letters written to these various geographical congregations, we have to conclude that, under God, the impact that was being made by these churches was at least in some measure directly tied to this truth, that these churches were doing the basics well, most of the time. That they weren’t like many contemporary churches, who think they’re doing fine because they don’t know what they’re doing. These individuals knew what it was they were to do, and then, by God’s enabling, they were seeking to do that wholeheartedly. So, as we continue to think about the nature of the church, not in terms of its universal dimensions, but in terms of its local expression this morning, particularly making reference to our own fellowship here, it’s very important that not only do each of the members of Parkside participate in a shared vision, which we are able to articulate because we understand and embrace it, but also it is very, very important that each of us is being constantly reminded of our core values. Or if you like (to change the metaphor), as a body we need to be constantly checking our vital signs. When somebody falls over and passes out, the cry goes out for a physician. The physician comes and immediately begins to check the vital signs of the individual, thereby determining whether this is a living body or whether it is in fact one that is no longer present, and by means of these signs, of course, the doctor seeks to establish the state of health of the one under examination. To this end, we return to familiar territory for us as a church, in the closing verses of Acts chapter 2, seeking to determine the health of our church by asking ourselves, “What are the four distinctive marks of the healthy church?” What are the four distinguishing marks of the healthy church? Now obviously there are more marks than these, but no church is healthy without these, and they are as follows: (1) that the church is learning; (2) that the church is sharing; (3) that the church is worshipping; and (4) that the church is growing. Learning, sharing, worshipping, growing.

The Church is Learning

Now, we’ll spend probably the longest time on the first, as we routinely do; but let us consider what it means for this church, as we discover it here in Acts, to be a learning church. We’re told in verse 42 that they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching. There is no great surprise in this in as much as Peter’s preaching—that is, his teaching of the Old Testament and who Jesus is, combined with application and exhortation—that preaching by Peter had been the means under God whereby we’re told that some 3,000 people had been added to the believing company. That is written there in verse 41, and remember that Peter—Luke with an eye for detail—would be very, very clear concerning these numbers. So, it is that as a result of his preaching this has taken place. I want you to notice the way in which he addressed them. Let your eye run back up to verse 22, where his sermon begins. “Men of Israel, listen to this,” and then notice that the first word out of his mouth is “Jesus.” “Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus …” Now the fact that he is prepared to stand up and say “listen” is an indication of his authority. The fact that having called them to listen, he immediately leads with “Jesus of Nazareth” is an indication of his priority, and it is quite striking that his approach to things begins in this very, very forceful way.

Every so often, people engage in dialogue concerning preaching. It’s not uncommon for people to say, “Preaching is an outmoded means of operation. People can’t listen for more than seventeen minutes at a time, therefore you shouldn’t preach for more than seventeen minutes. People have no interest in preaching, therefore you shouldn’t preach. You should do other things. Don’t you realize what could happen if you gave up on preaching?” and so on. I’ve been invited to various places around the country now, to essentially argue in defense of biblical expositional preaching, because there is such an absence of conviction concerning it. Now you see, the reason for that is because people don’t understand what it is. If they think that preaching is simply a man getting a few things off his chest, or a man who’s been given an opportunity to talk for a period of time and say whatever strikes his fancy; if they think that in the preacher you have a salesman and in the congregation you have clients, and in the gospel you have a product, then they say, “I understand it.” The salesman comes and tries to convince the potential customers of the validity of the package that he has to offer, and if he’s good, he may be successful. And if he’s poor, of course it will be like the average sales call on a rainy Monday morning, where the person is unable to convince the person, and so off they go down the street and knock on other doors and try their best again. Do you have any sense of that here in Acts chapter 2? “Men of Israel,” he says, “Listen.” Who is he to say “listen”? What does he mean, “listen”? This is Peter, the fisherman, standing up in the Jerusalem streets shouting, “Listen.” But they’re listening! Why? Where does his authority come from? From the fact of his credentials? “I’m Peter, you probably recognize me. I’m Peter. I have a small private business, quite successful. You’ve seen me. We’re on the NASDAQ, actually.” No, he has nothing. His authority comes when he says “Listen,” probably when he said to himself, “Well, here we go. Let me try it: Men of Israel, listen.” And they listened. He said to himself, “This is remarkable.”

The Spirit of God loves to enable those who are prepared to say “Listen” and follow it up immediately with “Jesus.”

But where’s the authority of the preacher? It’s the authority of God, the Holy Spirit, because the Spirit of God loves to enable those who are prepared to say “Listen” and follow it up immediately with “Jesus.” And the teaching, which led to the conversion, which gave the basis for the learning church, was the kind of preaching that did not begin with an appeal to the felt needs of the people in Jerusalem. Will you notice that? He doesn’t begin by saying, “Good morning. How are you all feeling this morning? Oh, I know some of you are lonely, and I have a word for the lonely. I know some of you are trying to get rid of some bad things, and I’ve got a way of helping you. And I know that some of you are looking for peace, and don’t worry because I have a section on peace, you know,” because he’d sent out all of his people around the community, like in these presidential debates, and they went amongst “common people,” and they found out what common people wanted to talk about. Then when they found out what the common people—if that isn’t an elitist posture, we’re talking about—then once they found out what all we “plebs” like to talk about, then they would come on and talk to us so that they would be able to be authentic and talk about the things that “really” matter, as opposed to saying a message, declaring a conviction, standing up and saying, “Listen. Jesus …”

Now pay attention to this: Christianity does not start with us. The gospel does not start with us. Examine the preaching of the apostles, and you will discover that they don’t stand up and say, “Do you want to get rid of this sin in your life? Do you want to get out on your own? Do you want to discover peace? Do you need guidance?” Where does he start? Where is the teaching to start? If a church that is healthy has teaching and learning as one of its vital signs, where does the teaching start? It starts with the objective historical truth about Jesus. He says, “This is who Jesus is. This is what Jesus did. This is where Jesus is presently. And this is why it matters.” And then it says, “They were cut to the heart and they said, ‘What are we supposed to do?’” When they heard the gospel, they weren’t thinking about themselves. They were thinking about Jesus. They attended, if you like, the worship. A friend invited them, said, “Would you like to come?” They said, “Fine.” They proceeded through the early events, not sure what to make of it all, and then as the preaching began they said to themselves, “Well, I suppose I can endure this. I’ve made it through the rest of it. I wonder if there’s anything that relates to me? Probably not,” they said. And then the individual told them about Jesus, that he was an historic figure, not a mythology, that his death on the cross was on account of sin, explained that there was forgiveness, a complete delete key on the computer screen of our lives and a whole new file. There was forgiveness, and there was the power of the Holy Spirit for a brand new life, for those who would inwardly turn away from their sins and turn to Christ in faith and who would outwardly be prepared to let the whole world know by being baptized. And suddenly the listeners said, “I never heard anything like this before. I’m so glad he didn’t talk to me about seven principles for being a better dad. I’m so glad he didn’t just give me a bunch of things.”

The significance is not in the personality of the one who speaks. The significance is not in the gifts, or the background, or in the calling of the one who speaks. The significance is in the word that is spoken.

Listen to how Calvin puts it at the time of the Reformation concerning the nature of preaching. God, he says, “deigns to consecrate the mouths and tongues of men to His service, making His own voice … heard in them … whenever God is pleased to bless their labour, He makes their doctrine efficacious by the power of His Spirit; and the voice which is in itself mortal, is made an instrument to communicate eternal life.”[2] That’s preaching! And that is the kind of preaching that causes learning; and it is the kind of teaching, which understands that God can use any kind of mortal voice to communicate his message. The significance is not in the personality of the one who speaks. The significance is not in the gifts, or the background, or in the calling of the one who speaks. The significance is in the word that is spoken, and the question the congregation needs to ask is, “When I go and listen, and when I go to learn, and when the person says ‘listen,’ do they tell me about Jesus?” Because as you look, that’s exactly what he was doing. Richard Baxter again, who was the vicar in Kidderminster in an earlier generation, says to his congregation—no, says to a group of gathered Anglican clergymen—he says, “It’s no small matter to stand up in the face of the congregation and to deliver a message of salvation or damnation as from the living God in the name of the Redeemer. It is no easy to matter to speak so plain, that the ignorant may understand us; and so seriously, that the deadest heart may feel us; and so convincingly, that those who contradict us may be silenced.”[3] Why? Because of the power of the personality of the one who speaks? No. Because of the authority of the message that is conveyed.

Now, if you take your Bibles—and I hope you will and do your homework—you will discover that what I’m saying is absolutely the case, that the focus of his preaching was on the death and resurrection of Jesus. Later on, Peter puts it, he says, “Christ died.” Historical fact. “For our sins.” Theological implication. Therefore, something needs to be done. Moral application. Christ died. Historical truth. Why did he die? For our sins. Whose sins? Now, this is so very important; in fact, he makes it clear to his readers—and I can’t go through the whole sermon, or this one point will be the totality of our study—but the fact is, if you look carefully, you will discover that speaking to a largely Jewish audience, he does what a Jewish audience would expect, in that he provides the assurance of the truthfulness of the fact he conveys by introducing two witnesses to that truth. In the Jewish court of law, every assertion had to be backed up by two witnesses for it to be valid, and so he says, “Here is the story about Jesus. Call the witnesses. Number one, call the prophets. Isn’t this what the Old Testament prophets said? So, there you have it. Call witness number two, call us as the apostles because as in verse 32, we are all witnesses to this fact.

So, in proclaiming Christ, notice that he is not actually giving his testimony, and may I give to you just a word of exhortation and guidance in relationship to this? The reason that many of us find ourselves all snarled up in our attempts at personal evangelism is because we start from the wrong place. We start to tell people what Jesus means to me, which of course is a lovely thing to be able to say, but that’s not the issue. Because let’s say you’re having coffee, and you say, “You know, and I’d like to tell you what Jesus means to me.” Someone else in the group is waiting for you to finish your last sentence so they can say, “I’d like to tell you what Buddha means to me.” And then someone else inserts and says, “You know, I’d like to tell you what has happened to me since I started to go to that New Age congregation and all that that means to me.” And suddenly, the whole conversation is completely up the left. Nobody knows how to get it back on track at all, because this is all about what it means to me. What are you saying? That he means nothing to us? No. Of course he means everything to us, but that’s not where we start. We’ve got to start and say, “Listen, Jesus of Nazareth …” Now, let me tell you about the historicity of Christianity. Let me tell you about the theological implications of Christianity. Let me tell you about the mission of Christianity and let me tell you about the wonderful truths that will come. And then having said all of that, if you would like, I can tell you at what point along the journey of my history I intersected with this truth, but I’m not arguing for Christ on the strength of my experience. I am declaring Christ on the basis of his historicity and the basis of the theological underpinnings.

And that, you see, is what the apostle did here. That’s where the church was born, and that’s how the church learned, and that’s how the church proceeded. And loved ones, that is, incidentally, why we endeavor to do what we do here in trying to encourage you to be those who are very, very concerned about the Bible. The 3,000 of them immediately took themselves off to kindergarten, that is into biblical kindergarten, and they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching. They said, “That was terrific stuff. What an amazing sermon he preached, and I understood perfectly how the Old Testament fit with the New Testament. The penny dropped. I turned to Christ. I am a new creation. Give me more of that information.”

For a meaningful preaching event you need an expectant praying preacher, and you need an expectant praying congregation.

As opposed to the average preaching, which is pathetic. It’s got all of the passion of somebody reading from the Yellow Pages. The fellow is bumped up against a box. Nobody knows why he’s there. He doesn’t know why he’s there, and everybody wishes he wasn’t there. And the reason that there is so much of a disinterest in preaching is because there is so much lousy preaching. Why do people not listen to preaching? Because most of it is no good! Do you understand that I can preach the same sermons if you would pray harder, and they will be ten times more effective? Just the same sermons! Because for a meaningful preaching event you need an expectant praying preacher, and you need an expectant praying congregation. And when the expectations meet at the throne of grace, whereby both preacher and listeners are looking to God rather than to one another, then suddenly, there’s a divine chemistry that takes place there and everybody’s surprised. The preacher says, “Listen,” and they actually listen! Children pay attention. They don’t get it all, but they get some of it. People are going home, and the children are saying, “I learned this,” and the parents are saying, “I can’t believe you learned that.” They didn’t get the whole sermon, but they got enough, and they knew that God was there, and they knew that the Bible was important, and they knew that their mom and dad were supposed to be learning the Bible so that they could then teach them the Bible. That’s what was happening. That’s where you have a healthy church. And where you go to worship where the Bible is denigrated, where the sermon lasts for six minutes, where there is no concentration on the apostles’ doctrine and teaching, I’m telling you the church is unhealthy. It is not only unhealthy, it is unbiblical. And people say, “Well, why do you make such a pressure of the, the priority of the pulpit at Parkside? Why do you do what you do? Why are we working our way through Luke’s gospel? You’re going to be 110 years old before you finish Luke’s gospel. It’s getting way worse than John was. It’s ten times worse than 1 Corinthians was. We’re stuck in Luke’s gospel for the rest of our lives. Why are you doing that?” Well, I don’t really know any other way to go at it; and also because if I do that, then the Bible sets the agenda, rather than me setting the agenda.

So, we look to the Bible, and the Bible decides what we’re going to preach and what we’re going to teach.

So, we look to the Bible, and the Bible decides what we’re going to preach and what we’re going to teach, ’cause last week was verse 21. This week’s verse 22. You don’t have to be a genius to figure that out. So nobody can come and say, “Oh, I wonder what his hobbyhorse is this Sunday. When people don’t teach the Bible, then they’ll teach their hobbyhorses. Campbell Morgan, years ago describing a circumstance concerning a Baptist preacher in London, who had a hobbyhorse in relationship to baptism, he announced his text one morning from Genesis 3, “And God said, Adam, where are you?” He said, “My first point is the nature of where Adam was. My second point is how Adam came to be there. And my third point is a few thoughts on the subject of baptism.”[4] And for those of you who are still awake and can understand that, what is happening there is, it’s like your screen saver on your computer. If you leave it alone long enough it defaults to its screen saver page. And when a fellow doesn’t teach the Bible, you will discover that along the journey of his attempts, he will default continually to his screen saver. And whatever his gig is, eschatology, rock music, the covenant, whatever it is, you’ll get it three Sundays out of four. What? Because you’re not allowing the Bible to establish the agenda. And this has got to be true at every point in our congregation if we’re going to be a healthy church. That’s why the elders are supposed to be men who are able to teach, and that’s why parents have a responsibility in it.

Coming from Scotland as I did, I have a wonderful heritage in relationship to this. I have a vivid recollection of my father, even when I was a small boy, the age of some of you children here this morning; and although he wasn’t sure that I was paying attention, he would always turn the Bible up for me. And he would always hold it in his shaky hand, and he would always point out exactly where we were. When the minister said verse 32, he pointed to it—verse 32. At that point I may have been looking out the door, but he still pointed to it. And when he said 37, he still pointed to it, and he pointed to it all the way to the bitter end. And many a Sunday I’m sure he must have closed his Bible and said to himself and said to my mother, “You know what? I don’t know why I even open the Bible and point to it. I don’t think that kid pays one bit of attention to anything I’m doing with him.” And here I am this morning, to bless his memory for pointing to it. Pointing to it. Says James Alexander, among the Scottish Presbyterians, “every man and every women, nay, almost every child, carried his pocket-Bible to church, and not only looked out the text, but verified each citation; and as the preaching was in great part of the expository kind, the necessary consequence was, that the whole population became intimately acquainted with the … Bible.”[5] That’s why Scotland was known as the “Land of the Book.”

The Church is Sharing

Ok, I told you I’d spend much longer on that than I should, and I did. In fact, even longer than I thought. Mark one is a teaching context. Learning, I should say. Mark two is sharing. Sharing. They devoted themselves to fellowship. The word there is koinonia. It comes from the noun koinos, which means common. The distinguishing feature of these individuals was that they had a common and a shared understanding and an appreciation for what they shared in. And what they shared in was a fellowship with God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. When John writes to the folks in 1 John, he says to them concerning the joy that he has for them, “We proclaim to you what we’ve seen and heard, so that you may also have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ.”[6] 2 Corinthians 13:14, “… the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit …”

What is the commonality that unites a church? It is a shared experience of God’s grace.

What is it, then, that will make for a healthy church? What is the commonality that unites a church? It is a shared experience of God’s grace. It is that we share in the fellowship, a participation in, which is the significance of communion, incidentally, that we eat into this bread, we drink into this cup. “Is it not a participation …?” The word there is koinonia. Is it not a fellowship in the body and blood of Jesus Christ? Now what is that saying? It’s saying that this represents to us the wonderful transforming grace of God. And when we look along the rows as we share together in the Lord’s Supper, we are looking along at different faces, and we recognize that our commonality is a commonality of grace, so that the structures that we erect, the human barriers that divide us of age and of sex and of race and interest and intellect and status, are all to be torn down in the healthy church. That is why I covet the times when across the age ranges of the church, the church is together in prayer and in praise. It is ultimately not a good thing for the church to constantly break itself up on the basis of age, because what it is saying—it’s understandable—but what it’s saying is that the age affinity is more significant here than the commonality that we share, so that a sixty-eight-year-old man really has got nothing to contribute or to benefit from in the life of the seventeen-year-old boy. That’s bogus! There is more that unites the sixty-eight-year-old man and the seventeen-year-old boy in the fellowship of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, than unites the seventeen-year-old boy with his seventeen-year-old peers. But you’ll never understand that until you understand the Bible. And you’ll never understand the Bible until you learn the Bible, and you’ll never learn the Bible until you’re taught the Bible. “If we walk in the light as he is in the light, we have koinonia with one another.”[7] The value of the Commons that we’ve built through there, and the reason that I wanted to keep the name “Commons,” is because of its link with koinos and because of the whole idea of commonality. So that when we sing, “How deep the Father’s love for us, how vast beyond all measure, that He should give His only Son to make a wretch His treasure,”[8] it is this wonder which unites us, ’cause you don’t feel proud when you read the word “wretch,” do you? And, of course, if I only read the word “wretch” and apply it to people around me and don’t face it for myself, then I’m not taking the matter seriously.

Why is it that wretched people don’t want to come to the average local church? ’Cause they don’t think there are any wretched people there. They think the people that are there are the people who’ve got it all together. “We are the together people. We’ve done it, you know.” And so the person’s frightened to come in and say, “I’m a complete mess. I don’t know what I believe about sexuality, and I’m frightened to mention it to anyone, but I sure-as-goodness couldn’t mention it in a local church. I’m confused about the issue of evolution, but I don’t know who to talk to. I’m confused about what happens to people when they die, but you know, I’m afraid to mention it, because I came in here and it looks like everybody knows everything, and they understand everything.” Well, have them talk to me because I know they don’t understand everything. You see, pride distances us from one another—a preoccupation with my stature or my structure or my status or my advancement or my intellect, or all the kind of things that you’re taught to lead with in the presentation of yourself on a daily basis. “Here, let me give you my card,” and you look at it and it says, “President, CEO, Chairman,” and your wife knows you’re the only person in the company. What the stink are you doing with that card? That is ridiculous! Get rid of that card. That is a stupid card! Anybody with half a brain is not impressed with that. Goodness gracious, why do people do that? They give it to me all the time. I met a guy the other day and I said, “Have your secretary call me.” I wanted to kiss him. He said, “I don’t have a secretary. I’m the whole thing.” I said, “Hey, you’re a first. Welcome!”

If there’s going to be this kind of sharedness in the body of Christ, there has to be first of all humility—humility. Stop all this “Fine, fine, fine” business when people ask how you are. It breaks down fellowship. I was just in Louisville, and there … Everybody’s “fine” in Louisville. They’re all “fine, fine, fine” in Louisville. How are you? “Fine.” But that’s the pressure, isn’t it? Sunday morning, here we are, “How are you?” “Fine.” And the person says, “OK, move on.” But the people are going on, they’re looking for somebody to say, “Rotten. I’m rotten. I swore twenty-seven times last week, and I’ve been asking God to help me with my tongue. I said last Sunday that I would never lose my temper again; and I hadn’t even had my lunch, and I went totally ballistic. My kids are driving me to the point of total insanity. But apart from that, I’m fine.” You say, “Hey, I’m glad to talk to you. Let’s go sit down and have a coffee, ’cause we’ve got a few points of identification here.”

What is our commonality—our success quotient? No. That he “makes a wretch his treasure.” Humility. Honesty. Reality. Authenticity—the ring of truth. The people look in one another’s eyes and say, “This isn’t a bunch of baloney that I’m getting from this character. This is the straight shot.” And that, you see, is one of the distinguishing marks of a healthy church. That sense of commonality, that sense of sharing, which then allows them to regard nothing as their own. This is not communism. The tenses that are used here are imperfect tenses. They were giving, they were selling. There’re not aorist tenses. An aorist tense would be an action that took place at one moment in time with abiding significance for the rest of time. These are imperfect tenses, so when the circumstances arose, they were prepared to sell stuff in order to help somebody else out. When the circumstances arose, they were prepared to give generously in order to help with them. But clearly they were not giving everything away, because otherwise, none of them would have had homes to hold the communion services in, and it says that, “They gathered in their homes …” Because if they all gave their homes away, then they wouldn’t have any homes, then they wouldn’t have any place for the church to gather. So you have to read the Bible and read it carefully.

The Church is Worshipping

Every time the people of God gather for worship, it should be a joyful celebration of the mighty acts of God through Jesus Christ—a joy that does not negate reverence, and a reverence that does not diminish gladness.

Well, our time is almost gone. Someone said, “The time has gone.” Well, let me just give you the last two. Worshipping. Worshipping. Mark one: learning. Mark two: sharing. Mark three: worshipping. You just take this passage and look at it and analyze it carefully when you’re sitting down this afternoon, just before you start watching that Valderrama thing, just have a look at this again. And what do you discover? You discover that everybody was filled with awe. In other words, God’s power was made known; and as his power was made known in the miracles and wonders, which were the signs of the apostles, these foundational marks. There was a sense amongst the people that God was actually present in what was taking place. There was a reverence, but the reverence was not at the expense of gladness, because although it says in verse 43 that everyone was filled with awe, it also says in verse 47 that they were praising God and they were doing so (verse 46) with glad and sincere hearts. The fruit of the Spirit is love and joy. And every time the people of God gather for worship, it should be a joyful celebration of the mighty acts of God through Jesus Christ—a joy that does not negate reverence, and a reverence that does not diminish gladness. The fact of the matter is we find this balance very difficult to affect, don’t we? I know I do. When I read certain books, I’m reading in the Puritans, and I look at some of the pen ink sketches of these men, and I think, “Oh, I’m being very frivolous. I have to, must try and be more serious and reverential.” And then I go and read someone else, and the person says, “You need to lighten up a bit. You know, you’re a gloomy person.” And so you don’t know where you are. One minute you’re over here being very reverential. The other minute you’re over here … And the people don’t know what to do. Well, what do you do? You go to some churches like a crematorium. There’s not a living person in sight. It’s death, even the organist. It’s like, “Hmm.” Nobody sings. Men don’t sing. Nothing happens. You go to another church, and it’s like a carnival. You expect monkeys to come out any time, throwing bags of peanuts to everybody in the group. It’s just a complete fiasco. And so I have friends across the country, they think that we are in the carnival over here, because we’re not going, you know … If you don’t do that, you’re in the carnival. But I’ve got other friends who think I’m in the crematorium. Because we’re not going, “Hey, hey!” you know, charging all around and running around. So where are we? Halfway between the crematorium and the carnival. Just where we want to be. Every so often some of you are going, “Oh, oh …” we’re going in the carnival direction. Get that back. And then others are going, “Oh, we’re going in the crematorium direction this morning.” Reverence and awe. Formal in the temple; informal in the home. Structured in the temple; unstructured in the home. Reverence with an understanding of the majesty and greatness of God, and joy that he should invade our time–space capsule and incarnate himself and live amongst men and show the actuality of his humanity in a way that is just absolutely genuine. And if preaching is truth through personality, then there is no question but that worship is in a very real sense, also truth through personality. And congregations will take on in their worship style, if I may say so, very much the personality of who and what they are. And that is why you can never stamp it out and make it the same from place to place. When David understood this, he established 4,000 Levites who were to do nothing else but to praise the Lord. And they were to stand every morning and every night and make much of God.

The Church is Growing

Lastly, and just a word. Four marks of the healthy church. Mark one: learning. Mark two: sharing. Mark three: worshipping. Remember worship has to be: you’ve got to be spiritually alive to worship. Dead women don’t sing. You’ve got to be spiritually assisted. You need to be full of the Holy Spirit. And you need to be spiritually active. You’ve got to be engaged in the thing. You’ve got to make a commitment to it. It’s rational. It engages your mind. That’s why you have to think. It’s volitional. It demands your will. That’s why you have to participate. It’s emotional. It stirs your heart. That’s why you can’t really simply stand on the sidelines and observe. And when you have that learning, sharing, worshipping community, then you will find that it is growing. And so we’re told—and it ends there—verse 47: “and the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” The congregation that had the gospel preached to them, and the congregation could then go out and preach the gospel to others. They understood that only God can change a heart, as Paul Azinger said so powerfully in the funeral service of Payne Stewart. Don’t you love that when he kept saying that? “Only God can change a life,” he said. Only God can change a life. He said it five or six times. Made me weep when I was watching it. And he’s right.

It is the Lord who adds. He adds. We don’t add. We don’t need to worry. We preach. We worship. We share. We grow.

See, I can ask you to stand up and you can stand up, and you may actually confuse that with being converted. Because I said, “Stand up,” so, you stood up, but standing up only takes guts. So you’ve got enough in you to stand up, but you don’t have enough in you to be saved, ’cause only God can save you. I can encourage you to stand up. So in other words, the danger is, and I received a letter this week from somebody who said, “You know, if you really want to see Parkside grow, then you’ve got to ask everybody to stand up. You’ve got to ask everybody to come forward, because you’ve got the whole thing bottlenecked up.” Sorry, I beg to differ. I, we can do that any day you want, and sometimes we choose to do so, but by and large we don’t, and I’ll tell you why: because I don’t want anybody to confuse the issue, the distinction between what God does in conversion and what a man or a woman may do in response. If I ask people to stand up at the end of the baptismal service tonight, it only takes Dutch courage for them to get up on their feet. And they may think that because they managed to get over the hurdle of staying in their seat, that they were actually converted. But in fact, God never did anything. They just responded to human exhortation. “And the Lord added to their number.” It is the Lord who adds. He adds. We don’t add. We don’t need to worry. We preach. We worship. We share. We grow. And loved ones, people are out there today, and I think quite honestly that those who have any kind of spiritual hunger at all are looking for the kind of context in which there is Biblical teaching, loving fellowship, living worship, and ongoing, outgoing evangelism. You get that? Biblical teaching, loving fellowship, living worship, and ongoing, outgoing evangelism. Four marks of the healthy church.

So Lord Jesus, help us then by your grace to become that kind of healthy church. Let us pray together.

Father, I pray that you will fulfill the promises of your word this morning. Our confidence is in you and in your Spirit. For the Spirit of God brings the word of God to the people of God in order that we might be conformed to the image of the Son of God. I pray for those who are on the outside looking in, thinking that what they need is something to help them just with their felt needs, and all of a sudden, they’re considering this historical Jesus, who died in order that sin might be forgiven, and they’re trying to immediately figure out, how do they fit in this picture. I pray that you will take the plugs from our ears and the blinders from our eyes, and that you will turn the key to our hearts and grant that you will be adding continually those who are being saved. And grant that in your goodness we may become that kind of church that is marked by Biblical teaching and by loving fellowship, by meaningful worship and by ongoing, outgoing evangelism. And may the grace of the Lord Jesus and the love of God our Father and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit rest upon and remain with each one of us today and forevermore. Amen.


[1] Thomas J. Peters and Robert H. Waterman, Jr., In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America’s Best-Run Companies (New York: Harper & Row, 1982) (paraphrased).

[2] Attributed by Nigel M. de S. Cameron and Sinclair B. Ferguson, eds., Pulpit & People: Essays in Honour of William Still (Edinburgh: Rutherford House, 1986), 13.

[3] Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1974 reprint), 117.

[4] Retold by Alistair Begg, Preaching for God’s Glory (Wheaton: Crossway, 1999), 21.

[5] James W. Alexander, Thoughts on Preaching (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1975), 240.

[6] 1 John 1:3 (NIV 1984),(I moved this reof the quotatio

[7] 1 John 1:7 (NIV 1984).

[8] Stuart Townend, “How Deep The Father’s Love For Us” (1995).

Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.