Outside the church (i.e., outside the visible, organized Christ-confessing covenant community, where the gospel is preached purely, the sacraments of Holy Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are administered purely, and where church discipline is used), the church often looks very different than it does to members. Those outside the church quite often assume that only those who have achieved a state of perfection are welcome in church. Let’s put that to rest immediately: the church most assuredly is not for the perfect. Were that the case, the church would be entirely empty as there are no perfected Christians this side of heaven. The only congregation of perfect people is what Reformed theologians call “the church triumphant” (i.e., that gathering of glorified believers in heaven). We get a picture of that congregation in the Revelation (e.g., chapter 4). The church as it exists in this world, in this life (called the “church militant”) is full of nothing but sinners, who manifest the effects of sin in every conceivable way. It has been that way from the moment sin entered the world.
The church, as it were, was sinless before the fall. Adam and Eve were created righteous and holy. There were two symbolic trees, one that pointed to life (the tree of life) and one that pointed to death (the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; Genesis 2:9,17). We were free to eat from the tree of life but forbidden to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. We freely chose to disobey God and plunged ourselves into sin and death (Genesis 3:6,7). The effects (and affects) of sin were felt immediately (Genesis 3:16-17). The firstborn son murdered the second born (Genesis 4:1–16) and things declined from there. We could trace out the story of sin and corruption in the visible church from the beginning of the Scripture to the end. Even after the resurrection of Jesus, after the Holy Spirit was poured out upon the church, it remained full of sinners. Two people died because they lied to the Holy Spirit (Acts 5). The Apostle Paul had to address gross sexual immorality (see 1 Corinthians 5–6) and internal division in the Corinthian congregation (see most of 2 Corinthians). Our Lord himself addressed all manner of sin in his letters to the seven churches in the Revelation (chapters 2–3).
There has never been a time when the church, in this life, on this earth, was pure and without sin. There have been times, however, when the church has given the impression to her members and to others that only the perfect are welcome. She did that in the Middle Ages when many of their theologians concluded that we are right with God (justified) only to the degree we are holy (sanctified). The Eastern (Greek-speaking) churches in the same period came to speak of salvation as more in terms of gaining divinity rather than being justified and then, as a consequence, progressively sanctified.
In the Protestant Reformation the story was clarified to a great degree. Martin Luther (1483–1546) helped us see that Scripture teaches that all believers are at the same time sinful and declared righteous (simul iustus et peccator) by God, that, as Paul says, Christ justifies the ungodly (Romans 4:5).
After the Reformation much of the Protestant church lost that insight. It happened for a variety of reasons. There were movements that were dissatisfied with the Reformation understanding of Scripture but did not want to return to Rome. They imported some of the medieval ideas back into Protestant theology, piety, and practice. One of those was the doctrine of “entire perfection,” the notion that Christians can and should become entirely (perfectly) sanctified in this life. This idea was widely adopted in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Those outside the church entirely tend to assume, because they know by nature that God is righteous and that they are not, that we need to become righteous before we enter the church. They either despair of ever becoming sufficiently righteous—as well they should—or have no interest in righteousness. Either way they completely misunderstand the church.
The church is not a collection of those who “have it all together” or who are entirely sanctified or who are, in themselves, entirely righteous. It is a collection of people who are exploring the Christian faith, who merely profess the Christian faith, and who actually believe the Christian faith. So, it is a mixed assembly. Further, all those who profess and believe the faith remain sinners all their lives. All Christians confess their sinfulness and their particular sins daily. The Apostle John says, “If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). He wrote those words to Christians.
The church is not like a department store window display, where everything is perfectly and attractively arranged. It is much more like the Island of Misfit Toys (in the 1964 animated television show broadcast annually about this time). On the Island of Misfit Toys, all the toys were broken and needy. So it is with the church. Jesus said, “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick; I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17).
Those who think that all is well simply are not admitting the truth to themselves or to others. They are in denial. In their conscience, however, they know that they are sinful. One of the jobs of God the Holy Spirit is to show sinners, in their hearts, minds, and consciences, that they are so and that they need a Savior. Those who feel too sinful for church are not far from the Kingdom, which is for those who are poor in spirit (Matthew 5:3-4). If the idea that the church is for the perfect is keeping you from attending, stop thinking that way. It is not true. The church is for sinners, who know their need, who are trusting in Jesus their Savior, who are struggling with sin, confessing it, repenting of it, and turning again to Jesus. The church is for misfit toys like you and me.