Governing Principles for Building Up the Body of Christ

by Thomas W. Finley

Lesson 6

BUILDING UP THROUGH THE CROSS

This final principle is of the utmost importance and may be the most difficult principle for believers to comprehend and practice consistently. Yet, this principle is interwoven with all of the other principles noted and is foundational to their practice. We must be those, therefore, who know how to build up the body of Christ by means of our subjective experience of the cross of Christ.

Jesus Himself laid down the principle of building up by means of the cross: "Most assuredly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain” (Jn. 12:24). In this verse Jesus was prophesying how His death on the cross would produce life in countless believers. All true building up of the body of Christ will be in line with this principle. It is only as we experience the death of Christ in us that the ministry of His life will flow out to others. It is in this way that our prayers, our service, our love and our care towards others will have the essence of Christ Himself in them. Let us look at a passage to see this clearly.

But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us. We are hard-pressed on every side, yet not crushed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed – always carrying about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. For we who live are always delivered to death for Jesus’ sake, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So then death is working in us, but life in you. (2 Cor. 4:7-12)

In these verses Paul indicated that he, and those with him, had many difficult outward experiences. Yet, they experienced an inner power that was of God, not of themselves. They also carried within them the “dying of the Lord Jesus”, or literally, “the putting to death of the Lord Jesus.” This means that Paul experienced the cross of Christ in his service. We should see that the difficult outward experiences that Paul and his co-workers experienced cannot be separated from their inward experience. They first had to die to self, to what would have naturally been pleasing to them, in order to endure such hardships. This inner self-denial matches the self-denial of Christ in the garden of Gethsemane when He prayed, “Nevertheless, not My will, but Yours, be done” (Lk. 22:42b). After Jesus agreed to die to His will in prayer, then He was able to rise up and carry out the outward suffering of the cross. As Paul yielded to the will of God, agreeing to die to his will, his way and even his power, then God’s power was manifested in him. As Paul continually agreed to die to self in the experience of the cross, then the life of Jesus was manifested in him. By this resurrection life he was strengthened to endure suffering and to minister the life of Christ into the Corinthian believers (2 Cor. 3:2, 3; 4:12).

Paul’s great desire was to know Christ, to actually experience Christ, in his life. The true experience of Christ cannot be separated from the experience of His death on the cross. Note Paul’s great aspiration in Philippians: “that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death” (Phil. 3:10). Paul’s desire was to know the fellowship - the spiritual participation with Christ - of His sufferings, with the result of being conformed to Christ’s death. Conformity to His death here could not mean simply outward death, a literal crucifixion. But, conformity to His death could only mean a total death to the self-life in order to carry out God’s will. Paul indicated Christ patterned such a life for us in the great passage of Philippians chapter two, where Christ made Himself of no reputation, taking the form a bondservant and humbling Himself to be obedient to death, even the death of a cross.

To experience the cross is to allow the cross of Christ to put all that we are in our natural life to death, so that Christ may live in us (Gal. 2:20). When Christ lives in us, He lives to God and His will, which surely is focused upon the building up of the body of Christ, His supreme work in this age. We can see this living in Paul as he suffered to build up the body of Christ: “I now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up in my flesh what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ, for the sake of His body, which is the church” (Col. 1:24). The afflictions of Christ here are the sufferings of the cross applied to the self-life in the experience of believers for the building up of the body of Christ, not the unique sufferings of Christ on the cross for redemption.

Let us now briefly look at how this principle works in a foundational way with the other principles. Concerning “Christ is All”, Christ can only be the building element of the church when we agree to the cross in our lives. This means that we believe and agree with the truth expressed in Col. 3:3-4: “For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life...” We must agree to die to our abilities, our initiative and our strength to “do things for God” in order to let Him live in us with His power and His ability. This may sound very strange to those who have been taught that they are to “use their abilities and talents for the Lord.” The revelation of Scripture, however, shows that when we serve the Lord with our natural abilities and energy we actually do damage to God’s work. Review again all the cases cited in Scripture regarding this point in Chapter One. God does give spiritual gifts “to each according to his own ability,” but the exercise of our gifts must be according to the power and leading of the Spirit (Matt. 25:15). We must live by faith in the truth of our co-crucifixion with Christ and our co-resurrection with Him in order to “walk in newness of life” and “serve in the newness of the Spirit” (Rom. 6:4; 7:6). This exercise of faith needs to be in full inward dependence upon Him, placing “no confidence in the flesh” (Phil. 3:3).

As respects the principle “Christ is the Head,” the lesson of the cross is again needed. Men have many ideas of how to “live for Christ” and “serve the Lord,” but all too often the word of God is negated by these ideas. If we are to be under the headship of Christ, then we must agree to the cross putting to death our natural ideas and traditions of how to serve the Lord. We must be willing to abandon all tradition that conflicts with God’s word, even at a personal cost. Otherwise, we are not letting Christ be the Head. We also must not serve by routine, especially in our gatherings. It is too easy for the self-life to carry out a routine on “auto pilot” in our gatherings or other service. This is especially true if we have some measure of experience and knowledge. Instead, we must practice looking to the Lord in a prayerful spirit at all times, agreeing for the self-life to be put to death and seeking for the fresh leading of the Lord.

The experience of the cross is also critical in the matter of maintaining unity within the body of Christ (the principle of “Oneness”). The natural tendency to pull back from others due to their minor doctrines, their Christian practices or their culture or background is very strong in our lives. We like to be around others who are just like us in every way. To embrace diversity (within fundamental orthodoxy) calls for a deep dependence upon the Lord. To do this, we must be impressed by God of the priority of keeping the unity with others in the body of Christ (Eph. 4:1-3). That priority should lead us to a humble willingness to let the cross put to death the self-life that is so divisive due to its own preferences.

Further, if we see the truth that “The Body Builds Up Itself,” we will be on guard against any thoughts and tendencies towards a special class of believers. We will also allow the cross to deal with any pride we may have that we are a special member of the body. Romans chapter twelve is a chapter on the body life. Verse three shows the particular danger of pride that downplays the function of the other members of the body: “For I say, through the grace given to me, to everyone who is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think soberly, as God has dealt to each one a measure of faith” (Rom. 12:3). If we truly see that every member is needed to build up the body of Christ, then we will seek to practice our Christian life in such a way as to encourage the function of every member. This practice will include dealing with our natural dispositions. For example, some believers have a natural disposition that causes them to “take charge” and be very active and dominant, particularly in a group setting. These believers very much need to agree to the cross in their lives so that they will not operate in this manner, but rather wait upon the Spirit’s leading to function. This way of “holding back” by the cross will leave room for others to function. There is also the timid disposition that fails to rise up to function in the Lord. Believers with a natural timidity or a reserved disposition need to apply the death of the cross to their natural life and respond in faith to the urging of the Spirit to function. Those saints who have a seemingly smaller gift need to be particularly aware of the tendency to bury their gift from the Lord and apply the cross to this tendency (Matt. 25:25).

“Building Up in Love” can only happen through the cross, where our natural life with all of its self-interests is put away. Agape love does not seek its own interests, but seeks the benefit of others. Love bears all things and endures all things, so it is only as we die to the self-life that can we can be patient with others. True humility and willingness to be wronged, all aspects of God’s love in us, can only be realized when we agree to die to the self-life through the acceptance of the cross of Christ. God’s agape love is the full expression of selflessness.

CONCLUSION

We have looked at these six basic governing principles for building up the body of Christ. These principles are full of challenges, aren't they? They measure us. They may expose how much we have been off the mark or how foolishly complacent we have been in our church experience.

The church is integral to God’s eternal purpose (Eph. 3:4-11). We cannot afford to treat it lightly. Christ will not treat it lightly at the Judgment Seat (1 Cor. 3:9-17). What shall we do? Shall we do what is right in our own eyes? Shall we do what is comfortable, what is expedient, what is traditional, what is accepted? Or, shall we take the way of the cross – the way that gives up pleasing the self and chooses to please God?

Some may say that to have a church which practices these principles is really impractical and impossible today. Yet, I would answer that we should never seek to do anything less than God’s will. As we humbly seek to do His will, we should expect Him to empower us to carry out that will. I leave you with this encouraging word from the Scriptures: “Now to Him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us, to Him be glory in the church” (Eph. 3:20, 21a).

Seekers of Christ Seekers of Christ Seekers of Christ Seekers of Christ Seekers of Christ

And you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart" (Jer. 29:13, NASB)