Dustin Benge, The Loveliest Place: The Beauty and Glory of the Church (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2022), 208 pages.
The past twelve months, in a lot of ways, have been most discouraging. Perhaps you feel it too. Name-calling. Factions. Slander. The binding of consciences. Grumbling. Disunity. All of this may have you tempted to think that the church is just plain ugly. Providentially, Dustin Benge has penned his new work, The Loveliest Place: The Beauty and Glory of the Church, at this precise moment. This book is a breath of fresh air amid the suffocating squabbles of social media. Benge desires to awaken our affections for the church: “not affections for form, methodology, structure, organization, or programs, but affections for who she is and why she exists” (14). He does this by setting forth a “biblical portrait of the church that derives its life from the sweet fellowship of the Father, Son, and Spirit” (16).
Despite her many sins and obvious flaws, Christ does not see his bride as odious or filthy, but he sets his eyes upon her in deep love and admiration. His love, shown most clearly in his death on her behalf, actually makes her lovely, because it cleanses her from her sins and washes her clean: “She is Christ’s delight, having been redeemed, washed in his blood, and sanctified by his Spirit … he calls her (us) ‘my love’” (21). He has made his home among his people, making us his own.
We are not saved to ourselves, but into a body of fellow redeemed, washed, and sealed brothers and sisters. She is the household and family of God, and finds her origin, beauty, and perfection in the triune God who has called us out of darkness, saved us, and sealed us for his possession. It is a family made of every tongue, tribe, and nation. Those who were not blood relations are now as close to us as anyone who is—closer, even.
God is both Father and friend to the church. Though this affectionate relationship is seen in the Old Testament, it is seen most clearly emphasised in the New. The relationship has nothing to do with the church’s inward loveliness, but the church “is lovely because the Father loves her through Christ, who is her mediator” (43). He is devoted to us despite our faithlessness. Unlike fickle earthly friends, “God holds his friends beatifically close to his heart from everlasting to everlasting” (47).
Jesus is the church’s worthy Saviour and Head. As Saviour, he has provided redemption and salvation, which “freely flows from that never-ending fountain of divine love” (49) seen in the cross and resurrection. He alone is the church’s life; he alone sustains and governs her. He alone guards and protects her through the instrument of godly leaders, his Word, and the Holy Spirit. Benge rightly notes that “without the ministry of the Holy Spirit, there is no church” (61). Here he points out the role of the Spirit as the beautifier of Christ’s church: “Every aspect of the Spirit’s ministry to, in, and through the church is to make her holier and consequently more beautiful” (64). The Spirit’s work in the believer’s life, from new birth until death, is to change her from glory to glory—more into the image and likeness of Christ. The Spirit bears fruit in the church, which “satisfies the taste bud of our Lord” (67).
The church is also a pillar and buttress of the truth. God’s divine truth found in Scripture is her mission, her message, and “her reason for existence in the world” (78). It is the very breath of God that brings life to, moulds, shapes, matures, and transforms believers into the image of Christ, “making them gloriously beautiful dwellings” (83). Therefore, the church must proclaim this truth against “earthly ideological fires [that] threaten to destroy all she holds dear” (85). The church worships in Spirit and in truth (cf. John 4:24), which “consists of thinking, believing, and living for God’s glory and honour” (89) as the church recognises the beauty and greatness of the sovereign, triune God. True worship only occurs in response to Christ and what he has done, and it engages our hearts and our minds.
Another way in which the Lord beautifies his church is by providing qualified, faithful, and godly men to shepherd her. “To be a biblically faithful pastor, and faithfully beautify the church,” according to Benge, “one’s heart must beat in rhythm with the heart of Christ, both privately and publicly” (102). Shepherds are called to feed the flock with the proclamation of Christ aimed at the heart. As Christ is proclaimed, and his Word goes forth, “men and women are saved and sanctified, and the church is made beautiful” (119).
The church has been entrusted with this gospel. No message is more beautiful, more relevant, or more essential. This message must be held fast and proclaimed. As it belongs to God, the message must not be changed. Since it is God’s gospel, and he is on his throne, it can be proclaimed boldly and without apology for the salvation of sinners. With a mind saturated with the Word of God, and a life empowered by the Holy Spirit, the believer will love God and neighbour and seek to glorify in him in all things. Thus, believers walk in a way that is worthy of the gospel (cf. Phil. 1:27), and the church shines forth with beauty.
Though easily overlooked, God uses the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper to enrich and sanctify the church. These are the “visible manifestations that God, in Christ, desires to commune with his people by imaging forth his gospel through these means of grace” (132). The Lord also uses persecution as a means of beautifying his church. All followers of Christ will face persecution to some level (cf. 2 Tim. 3:12). The world does not know or love believers because it does not know or love Christ. The more we love Christ and reflect him in our character, the more the world despises us. Persecution is how Christ strengthens and grows his bride.
Because the church belongs to Christ, the church is one. Unity among believers is of paramount importance and “a defining characteristic of the church” (169) because it is a witness to the gospel of Christ. This unity is only possible in Christ, as we count others more significant than ourselves and hold fast to the gospel.
In penning this portrait of the church, Benge has served her well. After reading, one cannot help but confess, “Indeed, the church is the loveliest place on earth”!