The Untimely Church

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It has become abundantly clear that the contemporary church is fully convinced that the effective church (and the effective Christian) is “timely” (That is, in step with the times). Obviously, this is true to a certain degree. Acts 13:36 declares, “David … served the purpose of God in his own generation.” Clearly, David’s life and ministry were “timely,” as they landed “in his own generation.” Our ministries should likewise be “timely” and land in our own generation. But it is equally true that the effective church (and Christian) must be “untimely” in two ways if we are to be faithful to “the purpose of God.” First, we are to be “untimely” because we are always “behind the times.” Second, we are always “ahead of the times.” Effectiveness is not in just being “timely” but also in being “untimely.”

We must be timely, addressing the day’s needs and challenges in the day’s language and with the day’s technology. Yet, we must also be untimely, because the answer to the issues of the day was given yesterday — at Calvary. The answer is the gospel of grace “delivered to us” in the past.

We must also be untimely for another reason. The same gospel delivered in the past, putting us “behind the times,” declares that we are “now” redeemed but have “not yet” received the fullness of our redemption. The gospel of the past points us to the future for our ultimate victory. Therefore, the effective Christian is also “ahead of the times.” We, today, anticipate a future day of glorious gospel fulfillment when Christ returns and brings an end to time, ushering us into eternity, where our joy will be complete. To be effective, we must land in our generation with timeliness while embracing the untimeliness of salvation secured in Christ historically, and with the anticipation of fulfillment in Christ, eschatologically, when our returning victorious Savior will bring us into a new heaven and new earth to be joyously sinless with Him forever.

Until that glorious day of His return, we will suffer, succeed, falter, run, fail, triumph, confess, repent, obey, trust, and, at times, be untrustworthy. In a word, we will live as sinners, saved by grace yet “growing in grace” until Christ returns to consummate His grace. At that moment, we will be delivered into the unalterable glory of the perfections of Christ and, together, we will be with Christ forever.

Therefore, the church and believers must neither dismiss the past nor live in the past. We must learn from the past yet avoid becoming a museum of the past. We are called to live in the present, not to accommodate the present by seeking to be “trendy.” Moreover, we are called by God’s grace to impact the future while anticipating the future but never passively waiting for the future. Peter affirms this dynamic with his call to live in a way that hastens “the coming of the day of God” (2 Peter 3:12). He means that in God’s sovereign plan, believers impact the future through our gospel faithfulness as we live the gospel in our own generation.

Os Guinness, addressing this issue, made some comments that could be rephrased this way: “Harry, you are in danger of ‘setting the church back fifty years.’” The reply should be, “If that is true, I have failed.” Actually, we need to set the church back two thousand years to effectively meet the challenges of this year and impact the coming years. Let me rephrase yet another author’s commentary on the untimeliness of the effective Christian life. To sing “Onward, Christian Soldiers,” we first need to go “backward as Christian soldiers” — back to the gospel and the cross, the authority of God’s Word, the power of prevailing prayer, the priority of preaching and teaching, and the ever-present call “to make disciples of all the nations.”

At the risk of being untimely, let’s look to the future and land in the present from the heights of the past — the heights of Calvary’s hill declaring Christ’s victory over sin, death, hell, and the grave. The timeliness of living in the present thoughtfully must be joined with the untimeliness of living in the present boldly by declaring the glorious truths of the past because our Savior is “the same yesterday, today and forever” (Heb. 13:8). From the untimeliness of the past, exalting Jesus our Redeemer, and the untimeliness of the future, anticipating eagerly the return of Jesus our King, we impact the present and future so that God may say, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matt. 25:21).

We want to be faithful servants, effectively and consistently serving our Lord from the untimely past while insistently pointing to the untimely future, thereby creating a timely ministry of the present. Our Savior is before time, above time, outside of time, beyond time, and is invading time, all the time, by the power of His Spirit through His children. The answer to relevance is not so much timeliness but Christ who delights in making us both timely and untimely. 

First published in Tabletalk Magazine, an outreach of Ligonier. For permissions, view our Copyright Policy.