Every six months, our family spends a Saturday morning at the church. We gulp down our breakfasts, lace up our sneakers, and tug on worn sweatshirts. We arrive sleepy-eyed and bed-headed. We are not attending a church event. In fact, we are usually the only people in the building. We are there to clean.
After a brief family huddle around a checklist of duties, we grab buckets and rags and spread out over the building, each person taking responsibility for a particular task. Usually, I head for the bathrooms with a spray bottle and a roll of paper towels, and it’s there, under the glare of a fluorescent bulb, that the combined grime of a hundred church members spreads out before me. Fingerprints smear the faucets, dirt rings the sink bowls, crumpled paper towels overflow from the trash cans, and the toilets are far from gleaming. I notice footprints on the linoleum and a gooey trail of soap on the counter. I pull on rubber gloves and get to work.
Cleaning the church is not particularly convenient. No matter which Saturday cleanings fall to our family, we always have something else we could be doing. Grocery shopping, basketball practice, cooking, exercise, even cleaning our own house are all put on hold for the morning. Instead of tending to our own needs or interests, we spend hours at the church picking up after other people.
But this is vital work. If our family didn’t make the effort to clean, the already significant dirt would accumulate for another week. If next week’s assigned cleaners also shrugged it off, we’d begin to notice. Eventually, the overflowing trash would cover the bathroom floors entirely. The sticky soap residue would harden in weekly layers. Our unwiped drips and splatters would multiply and begin to host colonies of mold.
It wouldn’t take too long before the neglected church building would become derelict—entirely unusable for the congregation’s work and worship. From this perspective, an occasional Saturday morning with a mop looks extremely important.
Of course, thoughtlessly discarded candy wrappers are only a small part of our problem as a church. Gossip, unkindness, lust, greed, pride, partiality, anger, idolatry, and selfishness also pollute the covenant community. They spread and multiply like mold, corrupting everything they touch. If we don’t persistently address our personal and corporate sins, they will overwhelm us.
If we don’t persistently address our personal and corporate sins, they will overwhelm the church.
Thankfully, the local church is an essential part of the solution. Throughout Scripture, God calls his gathered people to be holy, and, throughout Scripture, he uses them to promote one another’s holiness.
Let’s look at five ways the local church makes us holy.
1. Sanctification in Truth
In the church, we receive the sanctifying Word. Paul explains: “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Eph. 5:25–27).
When the Word is read and preached in corporate worship, it is for our holiness. The Word exposes our sin, holds up the righteousness of Christ, spurs us to repentance, and directs our conduct. It is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16). It washes us from our uncleanness. As the gathered saints submit to the Word together, the Spirit makes us holy.
2. Help in Temptation
The church is also the place where we pray for one another’s holiness. Our Lord taught us to pray “your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10) and “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil” (Matt. 6:13), in part because holiness is a community project. The prayer he gave his disciples stands as a model for our own.
As we pray together as the church—joining our hearts with the pastoral prayer and in church prayer meetings—and as we pray in private, we take up the cause of the church’s holiness. Praying to our Father, we ask him to grant holiness to us. We pray that we would all be enabled to do God’s will, and we pray that we would all be kept from temptation to sin.
The prayers of the whole church uphold the holiness of all the saints.
When Satan whispers poisonous enticements in your ear, remember that you do not stand alone. In that moment, the prayers of God’s gathered people ascend before his throne and join the prayers of Christ himself, pleading for your perfect holiness. Satan halts, and sin relaxes its grip, because God’s people have prayed for you. The prayers of the whole church uphold the holiness of all the saints.
3. Models of Holiness
In the local church, too, we find examples of holy conduct among our fellow-saints. One teenager resists sexual temptation at a school where seemingly no one else sees the point, but in his church his example encourages everyone who is likewise fleeing sexual immorality. One woman declines a job promotion because the new position would mean she could no longer care for her aging parents. She may be ridiculed in the office, but in the church she encourages all those—old and young—who are also seeking to honor mother and father, whatever it may cost them. One family with children devotes Sundays exclusively to worship, losing out on sports awards and athletic camaraderie, but their example points the whole church to the “one thing necessary” (Luke 10:42).
If we want to see Christlikeness, we have only to look as far as the people in the next pew. As Paul told the Corinthians, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1; cf. Phil. 3:17). We find in the local church a company of saints who are imitating Christ in all the circumstances of life. In the church, the saints live out the truth by grace, and the whole body is encouraged to holiness.
4. Promoting Holiness
Not only is the church the place where we see living examples of holiness, the church is also the place where we actively promote one another’s holiness. Paul repeatedly urged the churches to consider the consciences of others when making choices about their own conduct (Rom. 14:1–23; 1 Cor 8:1–13; 10:23–33). Our actions influence the saints around us, our holiness is connected to the holiness of the whole body, and we desire that every member would be kept from sin.
While our friends and neighbors give little thought to how their choices affect the convictions of others, our fellow saints love us enough to make seemingly personal choices with our holiness in mind. What the people in your church choose to eat, drink, wear, listen to, watch, buy, or recommend is not just about them. It’s also about you.
What the people in your church choose to eat, drink, wear, listen to, watch, buy, or recommend is not just about them. It’s also about you.
In the church, we make it easy for others to be holy, whatever that may cost us.
5. Repentance and Restoration
Finally, we are built up in holiness by the restorative mission of the church. When we sin (and we do!) the church calls us to repentance. Our co-workers, neighbors, fellow students, and friends often have little concern for whether we sin—and sometimes they even lay the snares that entangle us. Only in the church do we find fellow saints who value our holiness enough to call us back when we wander.
This happens in informal, person-to-person exhortation, and it happens in the official, disciplinary sanctions of the church. In the church, God has given us the privilege of restoration: “If anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins” (James 5:19–20). In the church, we have a community of people who are willing to lovingly warn us away from the soul-destroying brink of sin and who will lower a rescue rope if we ever tumble over.
With a final polish of the bathroom mirror, I step back to survey my work. Trash cans emptied? Check. Sink faucets gleaming? Check. Floors spotless? Check. Toilets scrubbed and paper towels replenished? Check and check. For one satisfying moment, the church is perfectly clean.
Of course, it won’t last forever. This evening, members will gather for a game night, and they are sure to leave pizza boxes and greasy fingerprints behind. The trash cans will again fill up, and, one speck at a time, new dust will accumulate.
In this life, keeping the church clean is a never-ending task. But it repeatedly points me to the day when the church’s holiness will be complete, when we will “all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:11–13). Until then, I’ll be right here, mop in hand.