Gospel Foundations: The True Purpose of the Church
A Tame View of God’s Purpose for the World
Tame: God’s Ultimate Purpose Is Relationship with You
Many of us have been taught a tame view of God’s purpose for the world. By ‘tame’ I mean it is limited, unobtrusive, and confined to a small area of life. Part of the reason for this is the spirit of individualism, autonomy, self-actualization, and ‘lone-rangerism’ that characterizes our culture. As a result, the most popular sentiment among American Christians today is that God’s ultimate goal in the world is for individual people to have relationship with him. This view says God’s primary purpose in creating Adam and Eve was for relationship with Himself, sin blocked that relationship, and the Bible is about restoring that relationship through the cross of Jesus Christ.
This is a severely tamed understanding of God’s ultimate purpose. It makes the gospel a way to improve our individual existence rather than the good news of cosmic redemption. It is true that God desires to have relationship with human beings, but God’s will for his creation is much bigger than that. The difficulty with this notion is not that it is entirely wrong, but that it is incomplete. Mike Goheen notes on this point, “There is nothing untrue about this formulation, but when the cross is dealt with only or even primarily in this context, its significance beyond the life of the individual believer is obscured.” To say that God’s ultimate purpose in the world is human relationship with Himself is to miss the big picture. God’s design for the world includes human relationship with Him, but that is not the end of it.
The idea that God’s ultimate aim is purely for people to have relationship with Him has a variety of troubles, but they can be summarized in two core problems. First, this understanding of God’s ultimate purpose in the world springs from and produces a tame view of God’s worth. This view emphasizes the worth of people over the worth of God. Secondly, this view generates a tame view of God’s creation by severing humans from the rest of creation and consequently diminishing the value of everything else God made. It is natural that an approach to understanding the world which tames God’s worth simultaneously tames the value of everything He has made. This view of God’s purpose in the world places humanity at the center of God’s purpose for all of creation, and sees the rest of creation as of minimal significance. It’s as though all of God’s creation other than humanity is merely a necessary setting for the real drama to play out. The consequence of these two problems is not only a narcissistic Christianity that indulges a self-focused idolatry, but a view that misunderstands the magnitude and scope of the redemption accomplished by Jesus.
Problem #1: A Tame View of God’s Worth
The first problem with the idea that God’s ultimate purpose for the world is human relationship with Himself is that it is based on a tame view of God’s worth. It emphasizes the worth of sinful humanity rather than emphasizing the worth of God. It has a sinner-focus instead of a God-focus. It places the highest priority on people rather than on God. It turns the gospel on its head by placing ultimate importance on individual relationship with Christ while missing the entire point of that relationship. This view sees the cross of Christ as the ultimate expression of the worth of human beings who have rebelled against God, rather than seeing it as the ultimate expression of God’s glory.
There was a song just a few years ago that was very popular in mainstream Christian music. It went like this:
You might be the wife,
Waiting up at night
You might be the man,
Struggling to provide
Feeling like it’s hopeless
Maybe you’re the son
Who chose a broken road
Maybe you’re the girl
Thinking you’ll end up alone
Praying God can you hear me?
Oh, God are you listening?
You are more than flesh and bone
Can’t you see your something beautiful
Yeah, you gotta believe, you gotta believe
He wants you to see,
He wants you to see that
You’re not just some wandering soul
That can’t be seen and can’t be known
You gotta believe, you gotta believe
That you are someone worth dying for
You’re someone worth dying for
Someone worth dying for
This song is a perfect example of how a tame view of God’s purpose creates a tame view of God’s worth by making the gospel about our worth instead of God’s worth.
But the cross is more about the glory of God than it is about the worth of people. To be sure, people have worth; but their truest worth is found in the fact that they are made by God and bear His image, and when people bear God’s image in the world, they are reflecting His worth, not their own.
The crucifixion of Jesus on a cross was not an expression of how much sinners are worth, it was an expression of how glorious God is in the salvation of sinners. It was an expression of his love, his holiness, his righteousness, and his unsearchable wisdom. God’s ultimate purpose in the world is not merely for us to have relationship with Him; God wants us to have relationship with him in order to achieve his ultimate purpose—filling the earth with his glory. It is not to say that having a relationship with God isn’t part of His purpose; it most certainly is. But that’s the thing, it’s just part of it.
When churches hold the view that God’s ultimate purpose for the world is for people to have relationship with Him they end up prioritizing the desires and sensibilities of unbelieving people instead of the glory of God. The result is ministries and worship practices that center around appealing to unsaved people instead of centering around faithfulness to the demands of the gospel. A tame view of God’s worth results in tame churches.
Problem #2: A Tame View of God’s Creation
The second problem with the belief that God’s ultimate purpose for the world is for people to have relationship with him is it engenders a tame view of God’s creation. It creates an artificial disparity between humans and the rest of God’s handiwork. In this view, humans are acknowledged as recipients of God’s redemption while the rest of creation is ignored or simply forgotten. This devalues God’s creation, results in a distorted view of reality, and minimizes the redemptive scope of the gospel. As Al Wolters has said, “the redemption achieved by Jesus Christ is cosmic in the sense that it restores the whole creation. …this restoration affects the whole of creational life and not merely some limited area within it.”
By creation I do not just mean ‘oceans, trees, skies, and seas.’ They are included, but creation also means all of human work and culture; cities and structures, animals and art, technology and institutions. Christopher Wright says,
The final vision of the whole Bible is not of our escaping from the world to some ethereal paradise, but rather of God coming down to live with us once again in a purged and restored creation, in which all the fruit of human civilization will be brought into the city of God (Rev. 21:24-27, building on Isa. 60). …In other words, what will be brought into the great city of God in the new creation will be the vast accumulated output of human work through the ages. All this will be purged, redeemed, and laid at the feet of Christ for the enhancement of the life of eternity in the new creation.
This means that it is not just human souls that matter, but everything else in creation as well. Colossians 1 tells us, “For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him” (Col. 1:16). As one of my former professors used to say, ‘God doesn’t make junk, and He doesn’t junk what he makes.’ The redemption that Jesus achieved on the cross was not just the redemption of immaterial human souls, but, “all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross” (Col. 1:20). Paul says, “all things,” gives a comprehensive list of those things, and then declares that Jesus has accomplished the redemption, not just of men, but of all of it.
The notion that God’s ultimate purpose exclusively centers on individual salvation (i.e. restored relationship with God) cheapens the virtue of every other part of God’s creation. Any notion that what God made is ‘good’ is tamed. Consider the implications of this view: if God’s ultimate purpose in the world is solely for people to have relationship with him, then what would be the point of painting a picture? Why would anyone read a novel, let alone write one? Why take care of animals or the environment? Why work in any vocation other than something purely ministerial? Why even get married or have children? If God’s ultimate purpose is strictly for people to have relationship with him, then aren’t we wasting our time in worldly endeavors with many of things? If God’s ultimate purpose is merely for people to have a relationship with him, then why would you ever go to the beach? Why would any Christian attempt to develop new technology? Wouldn’t that just be sinful waste of time? Wouldn’t one’s time be better utilized in constant conversation with unbelievers about the death and resurrection of Jesus?
This view of God’s purpose in the world necessitates a utilitarian argument for every human endeavor that is not strictly evangelistic. Missionary endeavors are important and necessary, but they are not why the church exists. John Piper puts it well in the first sentence of his book on missions, “Missions (evangelistic efforts) is not the ultimate goal of the church. Worship is.” The church exists to worship God, and part of the way we are to fill the earth with God’s glory is through the worship that results from evangelism. Evangelism, however, is a means to an end. Evangelism is not the goal; Worship is the goal, and worship is rejoicing in the glory of God.
Certainly God’s purpose in the world includes evangelism as an integral part, but evangelism is just a component to God’s purpose, not synonymous with God’s purpose itself. Missiologist David J. Bosch puts it another way, “Mission (God’s purpose) includes evangelism as one of its essential dimensions.” Evangelism is not God’s mission; God’s mission is to fill the earth with his glory, and evangelism is simply an essential dimension of that.
Tragically, a large number of Christians in America hold the position that God’s only goal in the world is evangelistic success (however one might define ‘success’). This leads to a brand of Christianity that panders to the consumeristic whims of society and simultaneously causes many Christians to feel dejected in their vocations and think their work is a futile waste of time. Christopher Wright posits the question felt by many believers: “Does such routine ordinary life have any purpose other than to give us opportunities to bear witness to our faith and to earn enough money to have some to spare to give to missionaries and ‘real mission?’” Many Christians can’t understand how developing software, working in finance, sales, culinary arts, accounting, acting, computer programming, or even as stay at home parents can fulfill God’s purpose for the world. And truth be told, if God’s ultimate purpose was solely human relationship with himself, then all of these vocations are severely limited in what they could contribute to that purpose. It is heartbreaking to consider how many Christians have felt this way about their own lives and vocations. The belief that God’s ultimate purpose is exclusively for people to have relationship with Him is not only biblically misinformed, it is toxic. It limits the scope of the gospel and leaves Christians feeling either incredibly anxious, hopeless, or both. God’s purpose is grander than that, and much more beautiful. We need our view of God’s purpose for the world to be untamed.
An Untamed View of God’s Purpose for the World
Untamed: God’s Ultimate Purpose Is to Fill the Earth with His Glory
A tame view of God’s purpose for the world misses the comprehensiveness of the redemption achieved by Jesus and keeps us from freely rejoicing in and reflecting the glory of God. When our view of God’s purpose for the world is untamed—liberated from American individualism and autonomy—this changes. The Bible shows us that God’s ultimate purpose for the world is to fill the earth with his glory. This is God’s mission. This was God’s plan in Genesis, and it is his plan in Revelation. God did not create with plan A and then after Adam and Eve’s sin decide to shift to plan B. There is no plan B. God’s will is to fill the earth with his glory, and He will bring it to pass. The entire story of the Bible is about God’s work in human history to fulfill this aim. This has always been God’s purpose, and it always will be.
Glory vs. Worship
The reason I say God will fill the earth with his ‘glory’ here instead of ‘worship’ is because the concept of God’s glory encompasses a broader range than the concept of worship. We glorify God by worshipping Him, but we do not make Him more glorious by worshipping Him. God’s glory, then, includes much more than just worship. Worship is simply the proper response to seeing God’s glory. To worship God is to rejoice in His glory. When we rejoice in God’s glory, we reflect His glory. This is the process: when God reveals his glory to us, we rejoice in it, and that reflects His glory; that is worship. You can’t rejoice in God’s glory if it hasn’t been revealed to you, and you can’t reflect it as you ought if you don’t rejoice in it. Paul communicates this to us in 2 Corinthians 3:18, “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord (God’s glory revealed to us), are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another (reflecting that glory).”
In order to truly understand God’s purpose, we must have a clear understanding of what glory is. God’s glory is everything that shows his worth. Put another way, God’s glory is everything that makes him appear great; everything that makes Him beautiful. That means His ultimate purpose is to fill the earth with everything that shows His worth. This idea is central to absolutely everything in the Christian life. The ultimate purpose of our lives is to show God’s worth in every aspect of our being. This is commanded in the New Testament: “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31). “As it is my eager expectation and hope that…Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death” (Phil. 1:20). “…present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Rom. 12:1). Everything we do in our lives—big or small, in life or in death—has one purpose: to show God’s worth.
This raises the question: what shows God’s worth? How can we see his worth? How can we see his glory? The answer is this: God’s worth is most clearly shown by his absolute otherness. His worth is displayed by his better-ness. His worth is exhibited by his distinctiveness. God’s worth is seen in the fact that he is far superior to every other being in every imaginable way.
He is more powerful than idols, He is more loving than any person, He is wiser than any philosopher, He has more knowledge than every human mind put together, He is more transcendent than the noblest thoughts. His glory is displayed by the beautiful complexity of his creation, His mighty acts in history, His unfailing love for humanity, and His unsearchable wisdom in the cross. God’s ultimate purpose for the world is to fill the earth with His glory—to fill the earth with everything that shows his worth.
God’s Glory Revealed in His Creation
In biblical terms, God’s otherness, better-ness, and distinctiveness are called his holiness. When the Bible says God is holy it means he is other, better, distinct. God’s holiness and God’s glory are inextricably linked; we cannot understand God’s glory apart from understanding his holiness. God’s glory is his holiness on display. One way we see God’s holiness on display is in His creation. Romans 1:20 says, “For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.” Creation shows God’s otherness-better-ness-distinctiveness. Nature is one exhibit of God’s holiness on display. That means creation shows God’s glory. In fact, Scripture says creation declares God’s glory. “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (Psalm 19:1). God puts his holiness on display in the things He has made.
God’s Glory Revealed in His Mighty Acts
Another way we see God’s holiness even more imminently is in God’s mighty acts in history. One of the best examples of this from the Old Testament is God’s triumph over the false gods of Egypt with His ten plagues. God’s intention with the ten plagues was not just to annoy Pharaoh enough to free the Israelites, but to put His holiness on display and get glory for Himself. Each plague that God dispatched on the Egyptians was intended to reveal the Egyptian gods’ inferiority and impotence, while simultaneously highlighting God’s superiority and omnipotence. God’s holiness (otherness-better-ness-distinctiveness) was displayed in the fact that He was more powerful than the false gods of Egypt. The result was God’s glory seen by both the Egyptians and the Israelites. In Exodus 14:4 God says, “’I will get glory over Pharaoh and all his host, and the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord.’ And they did so.” God’s glory is his holiness on display. God’s glory is His otherness-better-ness-distinctiveness revealed and seen. In this case, it was seen by the Egyptians.
God Will Ensure that His Purpose Is Fulfilled
Since God’s ultimate purpose is to fill the earth with his glory, He is the one who ensures His purpose will come to pass. Habakkuk 2:14 contains this promise from God: “For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” That means that God’s holiness will extend over all things. Filling the earth with His glory is so central to God’s purpose that He even included it in an oath based on the essence of who He is in Numbers 14:20-23. God said, “But truly, as I live, and as all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the Lord, none of the men who have seen my glory and my signs that I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and yet have put me to the test these ten times and have not obeyed my voice, shall see the land that I swore to give to their fathers. And none of those who despised me shall see it.” In the first verse of this passage God equates the certainty of His plan to fill the earth with His glory with the certainty of His existence. This is a stunning comparison. God is making it remarkably clear that His purpose to fill the earth with His glory is indicative of who He is. His very existence as God ensures that all of creation will know His glory. Everything that God has done throughout the history of the world has had this one goal: to fill the earth with the glory of God, and He invites us into that purpose.
Made in God’s Image for God’s Purpose
Part of the problem with the tame idea that God’s ultimate purpose is solely for us to have relationship with Him is that it overlooks the supremely important fact that humans are made in the image of God. The point of being made in God’s image is so we might reflect God’s glory throughout the world in everything we do (while also rejoicing in that glory). Since God’s ultimate purpose is to fill the earth with His glory, we can fulfill God’s purpose not just through evangelism, but by bearing God’s image in our relationships, our work, our creativity, and every aspect of life as a human being on the planet earth. We can glorify God not just by singing in church or sharing the gospel with our neighbors, but in every way that we exhibit holy dominion over God’s creation and rejoice in His worth. We can bear God’s image in the way we treat animals, in the way we intentionally bring life into the world through procreation, in the way we trim weeds back in a garden, in the way we care for hurting people, and even in the way we carefully arrange place settings on a dinner table. Since we can reflect and rejoice in God’s otherness-better-ness-distinctiveness in all these things, we can glorify God with them, and our purpose as humans made in God’s image is to fill the earth with God’s glory.
God’s Purpose for the Church
This brings us back around to our original design: knowing our purpose. In order to know who we are called to be as God’s people—the church—we must know why we exist; we must know our purpose. In order to know our purpose, we must know God’s purpose for the whole world. It is clear that God’s purpose for the world is to fill the earth with his glory, but what does that mean for the church? This means the church exists to contribute to God’s original purpose—to fill the earth with the glory of God through rejoicing in and reflecting God’s worth. The primary implication from this is that the church must be holy. The church must exhibit the otherness, better-ness, distinctiveness of God. This exact line of thinking is found in 1 Peter 1:15-16 where Peter exhorts the first century church to this very thing: “but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy.’” The church’s holiness is what makes her stand out; it is her wedding gown. Revelation 19:8 says, “It was granted her to clothe herself with fine linen, bright and pure’—for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints.’” Just as a bride’s dazzling white wedding dress makes her distinct from all others at the wedding, the church’s holiness must make her distinct from the world around her. The church’s holiness shows who she is and whose she is. This otherness-better-ness-distinctiveness not only makes the church stand out, but it makes her beautiful.
The church cannot be a participant in filling the earth with God’s glory if she is not holy. If the church cannot be distinguished from the world then she has lost her otherness-better-ness-distinctiveness. She is no longer holy. She is salt that has lost its saltiness. She is a light that has been extinguished. Instead of displaying God’s worth she detracts from it because of sin. Sin is the enemy of holiness—it is the enemy of God’s glory. The reason for this is sin always seeks to diminish God’s worth. Sin promises to provide what can only come from God and tries to devalue Him. The untamed church is serious about her purpose in the world, which inevitably means she is serious about dealing with sin. Her aim is that she might be, “without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Eph. 5:27). Brian Hedges put it succinctly, “Our purpose in life is to display the worth and value of the God who designed and created us.”
As Michael Goheen has said to the church, “You are not just a voluntary community of people who believe in Jesus. You are the new humanity.” The church is comprised of people who have been transformed by the power of the gospel to be the new humanity—to fulfill God’s purpose for the world: to fill the earth with his glory. 1 Peter 2:9-12 says, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.” We do not glorify God by blending in with the world, but by standing out from it and illustrating the holiness of God. We are meant to reveal his otherness-better-ness-distinctiveness through our way of life as a community.
All of creation exists for the glory of God. All of creation will be filled with His glory. No being exists that is worth as much as God. No one is like Him. He is unsurpassed in His otherness-better-ness-distinctiveness. Revelation 4:8-11 tells us day and night in heaven a cry goes up declaring, “’Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!’ And whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to him who is seated on the throne, who lives forever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall down before whom who is seated on the throne and worship him who lives forever and ever. They cast their crowns before the throne, saying, ‘Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.’” When God’s glory is truly seen, the result is always worship. When God reveals his glory to His people, they respond by rejoicing in it, and as a result, reflecting it to the world. The church is called to display God’s glory so every nation might worship Him—so that the whole earth would be filled with the glory of God. The untamed church knows it’s purpose, and thus prays with the psalmist, “Blessed be his glorious name forever; may the whole earth be filled with his glory! Amen and Amen!” (Psalm 72:10).
God calls the church to be holy not for her own sake, but for the sake of the world. The untamed church is a church who knows it’s purpose, and her purpose is to fill the earth with the glory of God.