Soon after arriving at my first full-time ministry in a small town in Kentucky, our church received a generous inheritance earmarked for building improvements. We used the funds to sand blast our stained brick exterior, replace missing mortar, re-shingle and paint. This was a big deal in a small town, and our congregation was proud of the image upgrade.
I don’t have any depressing stories to tell about the impact this project had on the spiritual character of our members. We didn’t fight about how the money should be used. There was no ironic contrast between an attractive exterior and a disgraceful church within. I can honestly say we felt humbly blessed by God, and the enthusiasm generated by our restoration provided an opportunity to renew our sense of purpose in the community.
Yet, what we knew back then hasn’t changed: spiritual restoration is made possible by Christ, and the beauty of His Bride is not the work of any man. Please don’t misunderstand. We should do everything possible to make sure what our community sees on the outside reflects a high level of devotion to our mission. Just as Paul encouraged slaves to serve their masters as if they were serving the Lord, we must recognize everything we do is a testimony of our faith (Ephesians 6:5-7). The difference between physical and spiritual restoration, however, is that one is temporary and the other is eternal. The things we restore fade with time, but God’s spirit renews us daily.
Two important processes of restoration take place in the church. The first is what we often refer to as “sanctification.” After Jesus washes us clean with His blood we begin a life-long journey that calls us to crucify our old person of sin and adorn ourselves with righteousness. The apostle Paul challenges us to “put to death” whatever belongs to our earthly nature and “clothe ourselves” with the traits one would expect to find among God’s chosen people (Colossians 3:5-14). In his letter to the Romans Paul gives us this passionate description of his own inward transformation: “Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:23). This same process is probably what Jesus had in mind when He asked His disciples to take up their cross daily (Luke 9:23).
Sanctification is not dependent on fine physical exteriors or creatively crafted ministry. In fact, if the growth of the kingdom in places where Christians are persecuted is any indication, hardship and physical limitations produce greater purity and commitment. Believers who have everything they need, from a worldly perspective, must be intentional in personal sacrifice and purposeful in their stewardship of the blessings God has given them.
Nothing validates God’s grace like a sinner whose life is being renewed as a crowd of witnesses watches on. Even those who don’t know the love of Christ admire what they see. Families are restored, relationships are healed, addictions are brought into submission and spiritual gifts are unleashed. Collectively, the radiant countenance of Christ’s Bride tells the world something otherworldly is going on inside her. Others may not understand the meaning of “sanctification” or the work of the Holy Spirit, but they know someone is different, and the transformation is stunning.
There is an old gospel song about a little boy who confronted two men he overheard questioning Christ. He said, “Please don’t tell my daddy Jesus isn’t real. Since he met Jesus, he doesn’t drink, and he doesn’t beat up mommy anymore.” I’ll admit gospel ballads are difficult to authenticate, but I have seen enough to concur with this little boy, even if he never existed.