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Every pastor must answer two questions, both in his own conscience and before God and man.  The urgency of these questions is readily felt in a church plant, but these questions are equally important in an established church.  Time and social momentum do not make these questions go away.

The first question is that of legitimacy.  What legitimates this church?  What right does this church have to exist?  By what logic or claim can a church take its place here in God’s world and call for people’s loyalty?  The only satisfying answer is the gospel.  Paul wrote to the Galatians, “Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise” (Galatians 4:28).  They had deep roots.  They had an honorable lineage, despite the unsettling insinuations of the legalists who demanded more.  The word of divine approval came down to them via God’s ancient promises, purchased by the blood of Christ, proclaimed through the gospel, received with the empty hands of faith.  It was all the legitimacy they needed to hold their heads high.

The second question is that of reality.  The first question has to do with theological authenticity.  This second question has to do with personal helpfulness.  What makes this church real as a spiritual force, a remedy for real sin and real suffering?  How is it more than human bluff, a spiritual placebo?  Why should anyone regard this church as more than strings and mirrors and so much hoopla?  The only compelling answer is the power of the risen Christ himself, his felt nearness and presence and immediacy.  We read of the disciples, in the time of their defeat, “Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you'” (John 20:26).  The risen Jesus, manifesting himself among his people, is unanswerable.

It doesn’t matter how much legitimacy and reality we might heap up in our own ways, whether through a historic denomination or through human showmanship or by any other self-invented means.  All such things will eventually be seen for what they are.

The gospel is our only legitimacy.  The power of Christ is our only reality.  Let us boldly plant new churches in this conscientious way.  Let us humbly re-plant older churches the same way.  The gospel and the living Jesus are enough, and wonderfully so.

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2 thoughts on “Legitimacy, reality”

  1. Scott Bewick says:

    Hi Ray, hope you are doing well and thanks for welcoming me. I hope you’re not offended by why I joined the site. basically I believe in a creator but am more interested in your beliefs from an academic stand point. I don’t want mean-spirited arguments, I just like polite, civil conversations. So, below is a link to a video with Sam Harris speaking. I would love to know your thoughts or reactions to the video. there is a place for comments below the video. Nice to meet you and again, my purpose is not to offend but rather keep an open mind and hear both sides of a topic.


    Best regards,

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Ray Ortlund

Ray Ortlund is senior pastor of Immanuel Church in Nashville, Tennessee, and serves as a Council member with The Gospel Coalition. You can follow him on Twitter.

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