The apostle Paul taught that believers are “the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life.” We leave the scent of Christ wherever we go, and with whomever we come into contact. Those who have never met Christ can do so by meeting us. Those who find a friend in Christ find a friend in us. Those who reject Christ will probably despise or choose to ignore us.
Believers have a symbiotic link to the person of Christ. Every metaphor which describes his person and role has a corresponding implication for the identity and role of his disciples. The best way to get a grasp on the biblical view of the church is to know clearly who Christ is and what he did, and then extrapolate our place and work based on his.
He is the Savior; we are the saved
The New Testament proclaims that Jesus is a Savior, Israel’s Savior, the church’s Savior and the world’s Savior. Believers are delivered from the penalty of their sins as a result of what Christ did for them on the cross, so it is appropriate for us to identify ourselves as the people who were saved. We are also in the process of being delivered from the present power and consequences of our past sinful life, so it is appropriate to refer to ourselves as being saved. We also expect and anticipate a culmination of Christ’s saving work in our lives – a glorification at his return. This means that it is also still appropriate to say that we will be saved. Jesus has saved us, is saving us and will save us.
This relationship the church has with Jesus as her Savior helps answer one of the sticky questions that have emerged about us: “Can a believer sin all he wants to and still be saved?” If salvation is seen as some kind of spiritual/mechanical event in a person’s life, we would expect the answer to that question to be “No.” We would expect that once a person had been zapped by the salvation wand, he would no longer be under the influence of the flesh, but would be totally under the Spirit’s power. He would find himself no longer wanting to sin and no longer capable of sinning even if he had the desire to do so.
The reality is that Christians struggle with sins, sinning and the desire to commit sins all their lives. This is not to deny that a miracle takes place inside us when we come to Jesus. It merely concedes that the initial miracle of regeneration is just the beginning of a process that will not be complete until our Savior returns. Our salvation is secure – not because it has made us sinless, but because our Savior is.
The connection between the church and its Savior is seen clearly in Paul’s use of “a number of Greek prepositions to stress the close identification between Christ and his followers that bonds them together in union as a distinct community.” The saved have been immersed into the person of Christ, and are now growing up into him. Their lives are no longer destined to be what they were because their spiritual DNA has changed to reflect his. Their destiny is now the destiny of their Savior. The saved are said to be “in Christ.” Their identities are somehow fused with his. They have experienced all of the crucial events of Christ’s life, along with him, having been crucified, buried and spiritually raised with him.
These realities certainly affect how believers act, but they also affect how others act around and react to them. The saved are expected to influence the world as the Savior did. He is the light of the world, and now, so are his disciples. The saved are not saviors themselves, but they are infected with and carriers of the salvation virus. Anyone coming in contact with believers in the church is exposed to potential salvation.
He is the King; we are his subjects
The Bible describes both the present reality of salvation and the destiny of ultimate salvation using the metaphor of a king and his kingdom. One of the most important implications of this metaphor is that of authority and submission. A king is only as powerful as his subjects let him be. If a king has to deal with constant rebellion and ignorance of his commands, he cannot reign effectively. Jesus’ teachings in the Gospels relating to the kingdom of God constantly encouraged his followers to stay true to him, to commit themselves to obeying his words. Jesus’ sharpest criticisms were to those who only pretended to follow God’s Word, but were secretly only interested in building their own kingdoms.
The king/kingdom metaphor also reminds the church who the boss is. A king is sovereign over his domain. He is king regardless of whether his domain has accepted that fact or not. The subjects of the king do not make the rules, and they do not have veto power when the king commands them to do something. His commands are their business.
King Solomon reigned for decades and was constantly building in Jerusalem and in other cities as well. It was impossible to be a subject of Solomon’s reign and not be involved in some way in Solomon’s work. The majestic temple and the royal palace could be seen from anywhere in the city and were constant reminders of what it meant to be in the kingdom of Solomon. In the same way, it is impossible to be in Jesus’ kingdom without being constantly reminded of the gospel and the church’s role in spreading it.
Jesus is building a kingdom. We will either be involved in his work, or not. The extent to which we are involved in his work determines our identity as his subjects. Obedience is the more important way to profess that we are part of Christ’s kingdom.
He is the Head; we are his body
Many of the implications of the metaphor of Christ as the head and the church as his body will be examined more closely in another chapter. What is important to see at this point is the symbiotic relationship which is communicated by this and the previous metaphors as well. The Savior came to save. The saved exist for the Savior. The kingdom needs a king. We have not only been delivered from the penalty of our past sins, but also into the kingdom of our Savior. The head and body exist as a unit. Our many bodies are now being assimilated into his one body.
Before coming to Christ, we were fairly comfortable with our own bodies and found ways of utilizing them to meet our needs, bring us pleasure and accommodate our interests. Now, things are different. Now the many have to become one. Now the many wills have to become subservient to the one will.
He is the Bridegroom; we are the espoused bride
The Bible uses the bridegroom/bride metaphor in a number of places. It speaks of preparation for and anticipation of the event of a wedding, and for the joy that both parties have in each other. The church is seen in the book of Revelation crying out, “Come, Lord Jesus!” This is partly a cry for relief from all the suffering and battle she has endured. But it is also the cry of a fiancée who has endured too long without her beloved. To say that the church is a bride is to admit the longing in our hearts to see our Savior again – for the first time.
Once accepting the proposal, the bride begins preparing herself for the day when she will no longer be single. She has to orient her life around the anticipated new reality. She begins to scribble her new name on table napkins. Although she has had a lifetime of seeing the world from her perspective, she now has to ask what her future husband thinks. Though she has limited her associations according to her own standards for friendships and companionships, she now has to adjust to her future husband’s associates and friends.
The church of Jesus Christ exists in this life as a preparation for the next. Our life now matters precisely because eternity matters. Jesus is returning to this earth to claim us for his own. That makes it very important for us to use this time before his return wisely. We find that in every place we look there are preparations to be made. As we get older, those preparations become more significant – more urgent. We begin to realize how little we have accomplished and how little time we have left.
To be an Advent Christian is to embrace the preparation process because of the joy anticipated when our Savior comes for us. We cannot help but evaluate all the possibilities that are around us on the basis of the reality that awaits us. We will puzzle the watching world as we turn down this promotion (because it will take us away from our family) or accept this volunteer position (because it will help us spread the gospel to a group we could not reach otherwise). We realize that the experiences we have, and the choices we make, are significant because we are being groomed for the Groom.
Before we were saved, we tended to spend our lives looking out for number one. Now, we do the same thing – except that number one is now our Savior. He deserves to be first place because he rescued us from dead last place. He has also given us a taste of the divine presence when he sent his Holy Spirit to reside within us. That taste can make us hungry for more.
Sanctification changes us. At first, we hope for Christ to come because we expect him to fix all of our problems. As the maturation process continues, we begin to see that although his coming will solve our problems, it is not about us. His coming will reboot the world to its original agenda – his agenda. The more we stay stuck on ourselves, the less we enjoy the idea of being interrupted by his glory. The more we concentrate on being like him, the more we anticipate our glorification at his return. Most of our lives are spent in a kind of spiritual adolescence. We are changing, but we do not always like it, and we do not always show it.
As we all go through this process, the best thing we can do for each other is to encourage each other to give in to the transformation. We need to be careful not to expect too much of our brothers and sisters in Christ. Growth is a slow process, and it is not easy to adjust to the changes. We know how often we fail ourselves, so it should make us that more forgiving to those around us.
The commands of the King are of utmost importance, and they should not be trivialized. It is not a coincidence that our Savior, while giving us his Great Commission to “make disciples,” used an explanatory participle phrase: “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” It is impossible to be a disciple without both learning and obeying Christ’s commands. Our King expects us to be about his business, doing what he commanded.
The Lord’s commands are messy. They will not allow us to stay comfortable in our social circles, our schools, our political parties or our jobs. They demand too much. They cry out for justice for those whom we would rather neglect. They cry out for work when we would rather rest. They cry out for us to stay connected to this suffering world when we would rather zone out and be entertained by fantasy. It is just this messiness that reminds us that Christ’s kingdom is not yet fully realized. We cannot seem to get it right. That does not stop us from trying, but knowing that the King is not here yet does help console us when we blow it.
The body analogy can also be helpful. Knowing that our Savior is separated from us physically, it is hard for us. Remembering that he is the Head of the whole body, the church, reminds us that there is still a connection. We are his body, not his corpse. He is just as alive today as he was when his feet walked the shores of the Sea of Galilee. In fact, his feet are still walking the shores of that sea, and the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. His hands still heal, because he uses our hands. His presence still does miracles, and he allows some of us to experience them. Whatever he is doing, he wants to use us to do it.
The saved, not the system
Jesus empowers people through the indwelling Holy Spirit to minister to the world in his name. He has not ordained a particular system of government or ministry along with the church. Too often, believers, thinking that they are backing the “biblical” system, become defensive and divisive over issues relating to the various systems, and the unity of the Holy Spirit becomes an illusory thing. All systems are humanly contrived and humanly run. Some may be more practical in some situations than others, but none have any kind of divine stamp of approval.
The vast number of Advent Christian churches and conferences follow a congregational form of government. Most are led by pastors in cooperation with a church board, or perhaps a board of elders. This works for most of our churches because most of them were planted in countries with democratic governments, and our churches are more familiar with this kind of check-and-balance leadership. Some of our mission fields adapted this structure wholesale, and in some it has worked well. In others, not so much. The structure of the organization is not the important thing. It is the spirit of the people that matters. Structures should reflect the people who are doing the ministry. The people should not be slaves to the structures. Most of our ecclesiastical structures are antiquated – including those that are called “congregational.”
How we organize ourselves should be reevaluated every few years. Making changes in our structure might free the people in our churches to be who they are called to be. It might enable more of the saved to introduce their communities to the Savior. Churches and conferences should not be afraid of making those changes.
Of course, change simply for change’s sake might be just as counterproductive. Some churches are constantly fighting battles having to do with their own self-identity. The ministry of the gospel loses out, because the controversies distract. Often that happens because both sides tend to think that there can only be one “biblical” solution. But when it comes to structure, the Bible describes many multi-level ministries going on and thriving at the same time: apostles, prophets, elders, evangelists, teachers, etc. Our systems tend to simplify those structures, but the Bible does not. It just throws them out there and says, “This is the way it was.”
Old Testament history was like that too. Most of the time, it was not clear who had jurisdiction over a matter: the king, the prophets, the priests, the elders … It was usually clear when the Holy Spirit was acting, but it could not be easily mapped out according to the human political and social structures. The people who usually got into the most trouble were those who assumed that they understood how God wanted to work, as well as what he wanted to do. The Old Testament is filled with irony because the Holy Spirit refused to act according to human expectations.
It is this same gloriously unpredictable Holy Spirit who resides within each believer in the church of Jesus Christ. He ministers through anyone he chooses within the body, regardless of their status in the community or their experience in ministry. He surprises us constantly, and intends to do so. There is no hierarchy in his sight. He looks on a saved soul and says “I choose to use her in this ministry” without stopping to ask our permission or to check her credentials.
Most of us who have been in ministry for decades are really frustrated by this. We see people who are new in the Lord getting involved in ministry regularly, and it is unsettling to us. We are afraid. We find it hard to trust people who did not come up through the school of ecclesiastical hard knocks that we did. We are tempted to assume that their zeal will not last, and sometimes it does not. Yet, the reality is, the ministry of Jesus Christ is now being orchestrated by the omnipresent Holy Spirit. He does not need our structures as much as we think he does.
Being the aroma of Christ is simply a matter of being authentically Christian. Anyone who dares to have a personal relationship with Christ, follow his commands in Scripture and live what he believes is going to have that accompanying influence. It does not mean that we always know the right thing to say or do to fix every problem. It means we have decided to stop allowing the worldliness of our old self to block the scent of our new self. We invest ourselves in that authenticity, and the investment pays off. People see the Savior when they look our way.
By Rev. Jefferson Vann
(Rev. Jefferson Vann is a graduate of Berkshire Christian College, Columbia International University and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He and his wife Penny have been involved in Advent Christian ministry since 1984, serving as missionaries in the Philippines and New Zealand. Jeff is the author of “An Advent Christian Systematic Theology” and “Another Bible Commentary” and is a contributing editor to “Henceforth …”)
 2 Corinthians 2:15-16.
 Luke 2:11; Philippians 3:20.
 Acts 5:31; 13:23.
 Ephesians 5:23; 2 Timothy 1:10; Titus 1:4; 2:13; 3:6; 2 Peter 1:1, 11; 2:20; 3:2, 18.
 John 4:42; 1 John 4:14.
 Romans 8:24; 10:10.
 1 Corinthians 1:18; 15:2; 2 Corinthians 2:15.
 1 Corinthians 3:15.
 Kevin Giles, What on Earth Is the Church? (Eugene, Ore.: Wipf & Stock, 2005), 101.
 Romans 6:3; Galatians 3:27; Ephesians 4:15.
 Romans 6:11; 8:1f; 9:1; 12:5; 15:17; 16:3, 7, 9f; 1 Corinthians 1:2, 30; 3:1; 4:10, 15, 17; 15:18f, 22, 31; 16:24; 2 Corinthians 1:21; 2:14, 17; 5:17, 19; 12:2; Galatians 1:22; 3:26, 28; 5:6; Ephesians 2:6f, 10, 13; 3:6, 11, 21; Philippians 1:1, 26; 2:1, 5; 4:21; Colossians 1:2; 1 Thessalonians 2:14; 4:16; 5:18; 1 Timothy 1:14; Philemon 1:23; Hebrews 3:14; 1 Peter 3:16; 5:10, 14.
 Romans 6:8; 8:17; 15:5; 1 Corinthians 12:12; Galatians 2:20; Ephesians 2:5; Philippians 1:23; Colossians 2:20; 3:1, 3.
 Matthew 5:14; John 8:12; 9:5.
 Matthew 6:33; 12:28; 19:24; 21:31, 43; Mark 1:15; 4:11, 26, 30; 9:1, 47; 10:14f, 23f; 12:34; 14:25; 15:43; Luke 4:43; 6:20; 7:28; 8:1, 10; 9:2, 11, 27, 60, 62; 10:9, 11; 11:20; 13:18, 20, 28f; 14:15; 16:16; 17:20f; 18:16f, 24f, 29; 19:11; 21:31; 22:16, 18; 23:51; John 3:3, 5; Acts 1:3; 8:12; 14:22; 19:8; 28:23, 31; Romans 14:17; 1 Corinthians 4:20; 6:9f; 15:50; Galatians 5:21; Colossians 4:11; 2 Thessalonians 1:5.
 Isaiah 61:10; 62:5; Jeremiah 7:34; 16:9; 25:10; 33:11; Joel 2:16; John 3:29; Revelation 18:23.
 Revelation 22:20.
 David A. Dean, Resurrection Hope (Charlotte, N.C.: Advent Christian General Conference, 1992), 46. “The church is the body – but not the corpse – of Christ. Through it he continues to minister to the world’s needs. Because he lives, the church survives all attacks and advances its crusade for truth.”