“The dearest place on earth” is the church.
We all have dear places we visit either in person or in memory. For me, one of those was the farm where my grandparents lived: I loved running through freshly ploughed fields, climbing gigantic oaks that fuelled a little boy’s imagination, and sitting at the table of my grandmother’s country cooking. This was indeed a dear place to me—a place that evoked joy, comfort, and love that I can now visit only in memory.
What are some of your dear places?
Now, let’s think about the church. When we think of the “church,” does it arouse similar deep affections? Can we truly say it is “the dearest place on earth”? God can. This beautiful description, expressed by legendary nineteenth- century preacher Charles Haddon Spurgeon, properly captures the affection all true believers should have regarding the church. Chosen by God the Father, purchased by Christ the Son, and empowered by God the Spirit, the church should be treasured by all who know and love him. Spurgeon continued, “Nothing in the world is dearer to God’s heart than his church; therefore, being his, let us also belong to it, that by our prayers, our gifts, and our labours, we may support and strengthen it.”
It’s quite easy to let our affection toward the church grow cold and indifferent. Disgruntled because decisions were made that we didn’t agree with. Discouraged because we were hurt by those we thought loved us. The church can be a difficult place to think of as “dear.” However, when we shift our point of view from a puny, human one to the eternal, divine perspective of God, the church not only becomes dear to us, but it also becomes a treasure of unending joy, beauty, and love.
Defining and Redefining
What is the object of our observation and affection? What do we mean by “the church”? Every generation faces the challenge of properly discerning the true nature of the body of Christ. The twentieth century witnessed an attempt to redefine the church and exchange its supposedly outdated ecclesiastical garments for more trendy clothes.
With post-modern revulsion for organised institutions continually on the rise, there are some that approach the church only with questions about its relevance and purpose. Many offer multiple reasons why someone may be ambivalent toward such institutional structure. In recent years, for example, the hesitancy to grant authority to any institution has made many cautious of the church and what it may or may not have to offer society as a whole. In response to this call for cultural relevance, many often revisit the definition of the church and tweak words to adhere to modern sensibilities.
In some circles, the church has become merely an epicentre of discussions about structure— how structures of authority and accountability are to be expressed, how sacraments are to be celebrated, and how much distance should exist between old and new forms.
In other circles, discussion on the role of the church in the wider sphere of society and the public square dominate the conversation, and the church is defined as merely an earthly institution with a divine mandate to meet the needs of all people. Still others seek to define the church based on adherence to or departure from certain types of liturgies or methodologies.
For those called—in every generation—to be “stewards of the mysteries of God,” it is vital that we point to Scripture as the final authority from which we derive our definition of this divine organism (1 Cor. 4:1). Throughout the New Testament, the church is primarily designated by the Greek word ekklesia. The word comes from ek, meaning “out from” and kaleō, meaning “to call.” In the ancient world, the ekklesia referred to a gathering of citizens called from their homeland into an assembly. This signifies that a true church is not a location or a building in which people gather, but a group of people—“called-out ones.”
You might ask: Called out of what? The church is a community of those who have been called out by God from the slavery of sin through faith in Jesus Christ (Rom. 1:7; 1 Cor. 1:2; Eph. 4:1). Peter vividly defines the called-out church in 1 Peter 2:9–10:
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
Specifically, these “called-out ones” are defined as a chosen, royal people, predestined in eternity past, called and justified in this present life, and promised glory in the future to come (Rom. 8:30).
Therefore, the church is not properly defined by its building, its sociopolitical association, its organisational structure, or its methodological practices.
Rather, the church is the assembly of the redeemed—those who have been called by God the Father to salvation as a gift to his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ (John 6:37). Peter described this redeemed assembly as being those who have been called “out of darkness into his marvellous light” (1 Pet. 2:9). The church is the corporate gathering of the redeemed citizens of heaven who have been transferred from the domain of darkness into the kingdom of Christ through his shed blood, glorious resurrection, exalted ascension, and present intercession (Col. 1:13).
This biblical understanding sets the trajectory of our Christian lives, our calling and service in ministry, and our relationships with the whole world. While the church has a clear command, purpose, and mission, that is not who the church is. The church certainly fulfils that command, purpose, and mission in the world, but there’s a deeper and more meaningful reality that, once revealed, will fuel such service and mission. The church must be defined not by what we do, but by who we are, in Christ.
A Spouse for Christ
In a more exalted theological sense, the church is the bride of Jesus Christ and is divinely connected with the inter-Trinitarian fellowship of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. There is no more robust and doxological fountain from which we can draw our understanding of the church than to anchor our understanding to the safe, eternal harbour of the work of the Father, Son, and Spirit.
In the words of eighteenth-century New England theologian and pastor Jonathan Edwards, the whole world was created so that “the eternal Son of God might obtain a spouse.” In other words, the church is not a Trinitarian afterthought in response to man’s eternal fall in the Garden of Eden. Quite the contrary, the church is the focused domain where God’s presence, promises, and purposes are to be discovered and eternally realised.
The essential nature of the church is personified in Scripture’s vivid description of her as the “bride of Christ.” Paul instructs husbands to “love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph. 5:25). In Revelation 19:7, a great multitude cried out, “The marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready.” An angel told John, “Come, I will show you the Bride, the wife of the Lamb” (Rev. 21:9). Scripture is replete with this stunning imagery of the church as the bride of the Lamb adorned in snow white garments washed in his redeeming blood (Rev. 7:14).
For Edwards, this representation culminates in the work of Christ, whom he describes as “the face of God” or “the brightness, effulgence or shining forth of God’s glory.” Edwards viewed Christ as the end for which God created the world and the constrained means by which God’s extravagant love is expressed:
Christ is divine wisdom, so that the world is made to gratify divine love as expressed by Christ, or to gratify the love that is in Christ’s heart, or to provide a spouse for Christ—those creatures which wisdom chooses for the object of divine love as Christ’s elect spouse.
The church is created by God to delight in Christ and be the object of his eternal love and happiness. God gives the church to Christ as his bride, “so that the mutual joys between this bride and bridegroom are the end of the creation.” The life of the church is beautifully framed by the church’s position as the reward to Christ for his suffering on the cross, thus making Christ the head of the body and worthy groom for the bride. This glorious union between Christ and the church will never be severed, and they will, for eternity, delight one another in glorious splendour and joy.
The Body of Christ
The church is also illustrated in Scripture as the “body of Christ.” In Paul’s letter to Rome, he states, “For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another” (Rom. 12:4–5). This metaphor portrays Christ in spiritual union with his people, the church, placing himself not simply with his church, but in his church (John 17:23).
God created the human body after his own image, and therefore its interdependence is marvellously complex. The body cannot function in part, separated from its whole. Likewise, the spiritual union that exists between Christ and “his body”—the church—is a unified whole. There may be many different organisations and structures, but there’s only one church, only one body of Christ, of which every called-out, redeemed person is a part. As a head cannot be separated from the physical body while the body properly functions, so Christ cannot be detached from his body while the church properly functions.
Here again, we employ the words of Jonathan Edwards, who describes this “mystical body of Christ” as follows:
Their hearts are united to the people of Jesus Christ as their people, to cleave to them and love them as their brethren, and worship and serve God and follow Christ in union and fellowship with them, being willing and resolved to perform all those duties that belong to them, as members of the same family of God and mystical body of Christ.
The church is the body of Christ, where mutual interdependence is exercised between members, where selfishness has no place, and where love reigns. Edwards writes:
Every saint is as a flower in the garden of God, and holy love is the fragrancy and sweet odour which they all send forth, and with which they fill that paradise. Every saint there is as a note in a concert of music which sweetly harmonises with every other note, and all together employed wholly in praising God and the Lamb.
The body of Christ is so unified in him that we all, in the same garden, are filled with sweet, harmonious worship that rises to the Father as one single note of praise. This is who we are—the bride and body of Christ. Chosen by the Father, in union with the Son, united in the Spirit.
Since the time of Jonathan Edwards in the eighteenth century and Charles H. Spurgeon in the nineteenth century, we seem to have lost a vital element in shaping a biblical perspective of the church—its loveliness and beauty. The church derives its life from the sweet fellowship of the Father, Son, and Spirit, creating a people of worship, fellowship, and mission who are animated by the gospel and empowered by the Word of God. Our affections for Christ’s bride should drive us to prepare ourselves to serve her all the days of our life in order to finally present her to Christ “without spot or wrinkle” (Eph. 5:27). Until then, let us cry forth “she is, indeed, the dearest place on earth.”
For more on the church as the dearest place on earth, see Dustin’s book, The Loveliest Place: The Beauty and Glory of the Church
This article was originally published in Reformation Fellowship Magazine 1 (July 2021): 14–19.
 Charles Spurgeon, “The Best Donation,” an exposition of 2 Corinthians 8:5 delivered on April 5, 1891, at the Metropolitan Tabernacle in London, England, in The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit: Containing Sermons Preached and Revised (Pasadena, TX: Pilgrim, 1975), 37:633.Pilgrim, 1975), 37:633.
 Spurgeon, “The Best Donation,” in Metropolitan Tabernacle, 37:633, 635.
 Jonathan Edwards, “The Church’s Marriage To Her Sons, And To Her God,” in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 25, Sermons and Discourses, 1743–1758, ed. Wilson H. Kimnach (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006), 187.
 Jonathan Edwards, “Trinity,” in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 21, Writings on the Trinity, Grace, and Faith, ed. Sang Hyun Lee (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2002), 118, 119.
 Edwards, “Trinity,” The Works of Jonathan Edwards, 21:142.
 Edwards, “Trinity,” The Works of Jonathan Edwards, 21:142.
 Jonathan Edwards, “Religious Affections,” in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 2, Religious Affections, ed. Paul Ramsey (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009), 416–417.
 Edwards, “Charity and Its Fruits,” in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 8, Ethical Writings, ed. Paul Ramsey (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989), 359, 386