John Leith on the nature of the church

A gospel based on our achievements is not only false; it makes dooms us to a life of futility


James Goodloe, Executive Director of the Foundation for Reformed Theology, shares the following insight in a recent newsletter:

Pastoral care is the application of gospel of Jesus Christ to the lives of the members of the church of Jesus Christ. It is exercised primarily through preaching and teaching. It also includes visitation, calling, caring, and praying with and for the people, especially the sick, the bereaved, and those who are suffering or in distress in any way. Thus pastoral care helps build up the church.

Consider the importance of a proper understanding of the human problem which the church addresses with pastoral care:

“The doctrine of sin bears on pastoral care. Human beings, made good by a good God, are broken by sin. This theological conviction tells us something not only about human beings but also about the nature of the church. Peter Brown, in his remarkable biography of Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, contends that the Pelagian-Augustinian controversy was, in the final analysis, a debate about the nature of the church, and therefore about pastoral care. . . .

“Augustine thought of the church as an inn for convalescents, not as an aristocratic elite, certainly not as an elite corps for social reform. Augustine knew, as few in the history of the human race have ever known, the significance of the human will. He defined a person in terms of the human will. A person is not as he or she thinks, but as he or she wills. More specifically, a person is as the person loves. But Augustine knew that many achievements in life are beyond the power of the human will. Augustine made the case not so much for the power of the human will but for the power of grace. ‘No subject gives me greater pleasure. For what ought to be more attractive to us sick men, than grace, grace by which we are healed; for us lazy men, than grace, grace by which we are stirred up; for us men longing to act, than grace, grace by which we are helped.’ For such declarations as this, the church called Augustine the Doctor of Grace. . . .

“Augustine’s case was more difficult to present than Pelagius’s, but far truer to the facts. The difficulty of Augustine’s case can be easily demonstrated. Sermons that denounce evil and sermons that emphasize the general religious quality of life are easily understood by American congregations. Sermons that proclaim God’s forgiveness and mercy are more difficult for audiences that do not know that they need forgiveness. Yet a sermon that emphasizes the gospel, that we are all sinners saved by grace, that our security is not in our own achievements but in the grace of God, always touches a few hearts very deeply in any congregation. . . .

“It is very interesting to observe that the church has always been tempted to Pelagianism. This is a human perversity rather than first of all a theological perversity. The evidence is that today the Pelagians are found on both the left and the right wing of the church. The right wing and the left wing alike define the church in terms of human righteousness and achievement, though their definitions of righteousness are obviously different. It is difficult for the crusader and the advocate of a cause or an orthodoxy to show mercy. Sinners need an Augustinian, not a Pelagian of the right or the left, for a pastor.

John Haddon Leith, From Generation to Generation: The Renewal of the Church According to Its Own Faith and Practice (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1990) pp. 144, 145-146, 147, 149, emphasis added.

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