There is no explicit command in the Bible to “go and plant churches”.
But, in his great commission, Jesus said, “go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them…and teaching them…” (Matthew 28 v 19-20). In Acts we read of the Apostles being empowered by the Spirit of Christ to obey this command, in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth (Act 1 v 8) by proclaiming the gospel. For example, Paul travelled into various regions to proclaim the word of God (Acts 13 v 44). People were converted, became disciples, were baptised and joined together in churches. After a time, when Paul moved on, these churches took up this ministry of proclaiming the gospel of Christ to make disciples, baptising and teaching them all that Christ had taught his Apostles. At the end of each mission, Paul would retrace his steps (rather than taking the shortest route home) to make sure that the disciples had been established into churches, appointing elders and encouraging the believers in their evangelistic ministries. It is clear that evangelism gathered the churches, and the churches generated evangelism. Jesus’ great commission was being accomplished primarily by planting evangelistic churches.
Indeed, Tim Keller observes, “Jesus' essential call was to plant churches. Virtually all the great evangelistic challenges of the New Testament are basically calls to plant churches, not simply to share the faith.” So today, we are not trying to plant churches in London in order to boast about having a growing network. And we are not trying to plant churches just to enjoy the encouragements and economies of scale that come from an organic movement like ours. We are planting churches to help reach the lost of London. For the defining activity of a church is Bible-teaching and the primary goal of a church is to glorify God through holy evangelism. For when God took flesh in Jesus, he came as the holy evangelist, the divine cross-cultural missionary from heaven and wise church-planter building his house upon the rock of the gospel.
When he first called his disciples he called them to “fish for people” (Matthew 4 v 19) and when he left them he told them to “make disciples” (Matthew 28 v 19). Evangelism by church-planting is what they primarily did. I don’t question that there are many ways to evangelise and make disciples - street-preaching, one-to-one Bible reading in the workplace, digital media, pamphlet distribution, stadium missions - but they are all resourced by churches and result in churches being planted and strengthened.
So in London today, while there are many additional Biblical ministries that churches may offer in their different seasons of life (contending for the faith, leadership training, Biblical counselling, etc.) the primary thing that Christ’s great commission calls all churches to do is to preach the gospel to make disciples to grow churches in order to plant more churches that will preach the gospel. After all, London is littered with half-empty buildings that were once home to churches planted across our city. London clearly needs a new wave of
church-planting to re-evangelise the 90% of its current population who claim no saving faith in Christ.
Indeed, as our personal experience across Co-Mission testifies, a recently planted or recently planting church is often more effective in outreach for several reasons:
- There is a sense of urgency to carry out evangelism and reach new people
- Those involved in a planting team are often gifted and passionate for evangelism
- Members of a new plant will often accept that the new church must have a focus on evangelism more than addressing their personal needs
- People in a church that has planted are often challenged by those who have gone to re-establish sacrificial evangelistic priorities
- A new church plant can more easily adapt their culture to fit the community they are seeking to reach
- There is little ‘history’ and few traditions in place and so the plant is flexible to make their gatherings more attractional and their outreach more intentional
- Newcomers often feel more welcome than in an established church because ‘everyone’ is new or relatively new in a plant
- A church plant can often look and feel quite different from existing churches and be attractive to those with negative associations of the established churches
Church planting can also rescue and reconnect people who have drifted from church and faith through disillusionment, church splits or false teaching.
We are church-planting because hell will be horrific
The day of judgement is part of the gospel: Paul reminds his readers in Rome of “the day when God judges people’s secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares” (Romans 2 v 16). Indeed, this day of judgement is celebrated in Scripture as the good day when God’s justice will finally be done and sinners will justly be punished, when God’s people will be vindicated and welcomed into the joy of our Lord and when the creation will be destroyed by fire and redeemed as the new creation in everlasting glory. The Bible’s revelation of the wrath of God unleashed in hell reveals both what horror Christ suffered in our place upon the cross out of love for his father and for us, and how urgent evangelism by church-planting now is. For if the benefits of being a Christian are not always obvious to unbelievers in this world, the chasm could not be greater between believers enjoying paradise and unbelievers suffering eternal conscious torment in hell.
Our loving Lord Jesus likened hell to living forever in the furnace of God’s holiness, infested within by maggots forever. Many of us are confused about how our loving Saviour could possibly be so severe. Paul wrote to explain this more fully for the young Thessalonian church in 2 Thessalonians 1 v 3-10. Notice three simple truths:
1. The judge will be Jesus
“God is just: he will pay back trouble to those who trouble you and give relief to you who are troubled, and to us as well. This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels.”
(2 Thessalonians 1 v 6-7)
God is entirely free of any unjust leniency or cruelty. No-one can bribe, threaten or confuse him. He will be absolutely fair. His judgement will not be like a trial where the judge hears arguments and considers evidence to reach a conclusion. God knows all the truth and nothing but the truth with perfect recall. He will judge our thoughts (1 Corinthians 4 v 5), words (Matthew 12 v 36) and deeds (Revelation 20 v 12). God will judge our works: “God will repay each person according to what they have done” (Romans 2 v 6) and “judges each person’s work impartially” (1 Peter 1 v 17). God will take into account mitigating circumstances such as lesser knowledge or difficult circumstances as well as condemning privileges and opportunities for faith.
Those who have never even heard of the gospel of Christ will be condemned by their rejection of God for he is known to them from creation and they know their guilt from the law of their own consciences. But it will be much worse for the people of Bethsaida and Capernaum and London and San Francisco who have heard Jesus’ preaching and rejected him, than for evil pagan cities of Tyre and Sidon and Pyon Yang and Riyadh who have not heard of Christ. And the punishments will fairly fit the crime. The greater the crime, the greater the penalty.
God’s justice is clearly “retributive”: punishing when something is wrong. We welcome remedial justice that improves a criminal and preventative justice that deters a criminal, but God’s justice is simply retributive. The enactment of God’s final justice will not be remedial – no-one improves in hell (and purgatory is an unbiblical myth); it is not a deterrent (for hell is the permanent destiny for the unbeliever and there is no further opportunity).
This will be the great ethical reversal when injustice will be put right. In particular, the malicious cruelty of those who persecute believers will be properly punished and believers who have been mocked, opposed, tortured and even killed will at last be fully vindicated.
God the Father has entrusted his judgement to God the Son. Jesus will appear personally, visibly and gloriously and no-one will miss his arrival. In his first letter, Paul emphasises the overwhelming volume of the loud command, voice and trumpet announcing him. Now Paul concentrates on his overwhelming holiness and power with two familiar Old Testament phrases.
In Exodus, God appeared to Moses, led the Israelites and descended upon Mount Sinai in fire, symbolic of his consuming holiness. The prophet Malachi promised the arrival of the Lord as a “refiner’s fire” on a day that will “burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and the day that is coming will set them on fire” (Malachi 3 v 2, 4 v 1). Hebrews concludes, “Our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12 v 29). This Jesus is that God. He will engulf sinful people in his burning condemnation like a raging bush-fire engulfing dry grass. Indeed, it seems that this fiery purity is the fire of hell itself. Jesus warned, “This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 13 v 49-50). Jesus’ horrible image of the permanent and excruciating agony of burning forever in a furnace is more accurate than we realise. For Jesus was not describing some despicable medieval instrument of torture that he has constructed, but eternity for an unpardoned sinner in the holy presence of God. God will not have to light a fire in a furnace or fill a lake with a fire, for surely he is the fire in the furnace and the lake. And he’ll bring his angels.
In Daniel’s vision of the Son of Man receiving sovereign power to rule and judge the nations, the throne in the courtroom is flaming with fire with a river of fire flowing out from it, and surrounded with ten-thousand times ten-thousand angels attending him (Daniel 9). These angels express both his personal majesty and his power to put into effect his judgements. His angels will gather God’s people from all corners of the earth (1 Thessalonians 4) and harvest the earth of its sinful people, like swinging a sickle to harvest grapes, for them to be crushed in the winepress of God’s wrath (Revelation 14). No-one shall escape his verdict for he has myriads of powerful angels to do his bidding.
2. The crime will be neglect
“He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus”
(2 Thessalonians 1 v 8)
It is striking that the twin description of the crime is not an activity but an inactivity. Not a wicked deed but a wicked neglect - of God and his gospel. Most people think that God will weigh up our good deeds against our bad deeds and that most people will have enough good to outweigh the bad. Only a few awful tyrants like Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot and a few evil murderers like Dennis Nilsen, Harold Shipman and the Yorkshire Ripper will have to go to hell. But the offence for which all mankind will be condemned is what we didn’t do - a neglect of God and his gospel.
THOSE WHO DO NOT KNOW GOD
Many feel that it is unfair for God to punish those born at a time or in a place unable to hear the gospel, e.g. ancient Aborigines or isolated Amazonian jungle-dwellers, or indeed many people living in Muslim nations or urban slums today. But Romans 1 makes clear that everyone is aware that God exists from the grandeur of creation. And people of all nations and times suppress that knowledge of God and redesign him in the more convenient religious ideologies of different cultures (which we call religion and God calls idolatry). We’ve all done this in order to avoid serving the living God and to be free to indulge in immorality. All of us are guilty of suppressing the knowledge of God evident in creation. He hasn’t been hiding. We’ve every day slammed the door in his face. And many are also guilty of a further rejection.
THOSE WHO DO NOT OBEY GOD
This includes all who hear the gospel at school or Christmas but ignore it. They say they don’t hate God. But, as we all once did, they care little for his crucified Son. They don’t know God and don’t obey the gospel. The crime for which unbelievers will be condemned is not just moral, but personal. They don’t just disobey God, but ignore him. Such neglect will be punished, which is
heart-breaking because the guilty will be punished in hell.
3. The guilty will be punished in hell
“They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His might” (2 Thessalonians 1 v 9)
Jesus lovingly warned us of the horrors of hell in many ways. Paul selects two:
Destruction does not mean annihilation or ceasing to exist. It means ruin. It means every good thing granted by God removed. Everyone and everything we love and enjoy stripped away because it comes from God, but unbelievers don’t want him. All the dignity of being made in God’s image stripped away; our personality degrading and rotting to become consumed by all that is foul and degenerate within us, hating and being hated by everyone else in hell. Jesus said that sinners in hell will live in the shriveled isolation of utter despair and loneliness, racked with sobbing and pain - a ruination as dreadful as the torture of existing constantly in flames. And worst of all, it will never, never, ever end. It will be everlasting. Some have tried to suggest that the Biblical descriptions of hell should be placed in an order: exclusion then punishment and then destruction as annihilation.
But these are not different experiences to be placed in an order but different perspectives upon the same dreadful fate. We do need to realise that in Matthew 25, Jesus’ word for “everlasting” or “eternal”, meaning “of the age to come”, is used equally of heaven and hell. That age will be a timeless permanence. This means that hell and heaven do not consist of an endless series of moments in which God makes repeated judgements, but that each is a settled condition. Since the same term is used of both life in heaven and death in hell, hell must be as permanent as heaven.
We naturally protest that an eternity in hell seems much too harsh for one short lifetime of sin because we constantly trivialise our wickedness. But the magnitude of a crime depends partly on the magnitude of the person against whom it is committed. To kick an opponent on the rugby field is no great crime. But the same kick aimed at the Queen can get you a prison sentence at Her Majesty’s pleasure.
Since God is of infinite majesty, any crime against him is infinitely serious. Moreover the time spent in committing a crime does not necessarily indicate its gravity; a murder can be done in a moment of madness and a moment of sin is permanent to God. And there is sadly no indication that unbelievers in hell want to stop sinning and start living for God. No-one in hell will remain an atheist, but all will remain sinful. In truth, my favourite uncle, loved by everyone for his apparent compassion and infectious sense of humour, is not as lovely in himself as he seems. Because he continues to reject God, the Lord will strip from him all the good and lovely character traits that God entrusted to him. And when the kind compassion and infectious humour are gone, the real man is revealed as bitterly proud and rebellious against God, rotten to the core.
SHUT OUT FROM THE PRESENCE OF THE LORD
God is as present in hell to punish the wicked as he is present in heaven to bless the righteous for hell is God’s place where his righteous holiness is revealed. But Paul plainly says verse 9, that unbelievers will be “shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His might” just as elsewhere Jesus describes hell as “outer darkness” separated from the light of God. This is not a contradiction, for God can be present in hell and yet separated from sinners, for geographical distance has little to do with closeness.
We can feel close to someone who’s flown to the other side of the world but a million miles away from someone sitting next to us on a bus. All humanity will spend eternity in the presence of God. Some will be close to Him being flooded with blessing, while others will be separated forever from His goodness. I find it hard to imagine how we’ll ever be able to rejoice, while loved ones are in hell. It’s hard to understand this now, but when we see the true horror of sin and realise the depth of our offences against God, we’ll not marvel at hell but at heaven, more stunned by God’s grace than His justice.
Paul proceeds to compare the horror of hell with the happiness of heaven, “on the day he comes to be glorified in His holy people and to be marveled at among all those who have believed” (v 10). His great glory shall be evident most clearly in us, for we are the trophies of His grace, the living demonstration of His transforming power, infused forever with the glory of God as a light bulb filament is infused with electricity, shining with the brilliance of His holiness.
And Christ will be unceasingly marvellous and delightful to us, forever our most satisfying joy.
We are trying to help evangelise London by planting churches because hell is horrific, heaven is happy and eternity is a very long time. As Paul writes, “since, then, we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade others...” (2 Corinthians 5 v 11).