ByCraig van Echten
August 29, 2018
Brothers and Sisters,
In his introduction to his book called “Why we love the Church” Kevin de Young says the following, These days spirituality is hot; religion is not. Community is hip, but the church is lame. Both inside the church and out, organized religion is seen as oppressive, irrelevant, and a waste of time.” Basically he is saying that more and more people want a churchless Christianity.
I’ve mentioned before the titles of some recent books. “Life after church” “Quitting church” “Pagan Christianity” “They like Jesus but not the church” A recent title at Koorong is: “How to be a Christian without going to church”
No doubt there are many flaws with churches, including our own. We all have our blind spots. However, is this reason to abandon the church? Is this reason to downgrade the churches’ importance? I think not.
The Apostles Creed highlights the important place of the church. And so, every orthodox Christian throughout the ages has confessed that they believe in “the holy catholic church” and “the communion of saints.” And so as Christians we believe in the Church!
That’s of course why you are here this evening! To a certain extent I’m preaching to the converted. Nevertheless, not all of the Christians we know share the same view. And Lord willing this sermon will provide a good framework by which to address others.
The particular point I want to make this evening is: We cannot have Jesus without the Church.
Let me begin with some background before looking at the two phrases we confess.
By way of background to the discussion I’m going to ask three questions. Who, when, and how? These questions are theology 101 with respect to the church. But they do have some important implications.
a. Who creates the church? It is of course God who creates the Church. God the Father chooses a people to be saved. God the Son gives His life for the Church. And God the Son through the Holy Spirit, “gathers, protects, and preserves for Himself a community chosen for eternal life and united in true faith.” In a nutshell, the church is God’s idea, God’s work, and God’s ongoing concern.
So, ultimately, we don’t ‘plant churches,’ God does. Ultimately, we don’t grow churches, God does. As 1Cor. 3:7 points out, “So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only god who gives the growth.” Knowing that it is God who creates the church, keeps us humble.
It also keeps us confident. Sometimes the church may go through times of weakness, and frailty. However, despite that, God’s kingdom will not pass away. The Church will always be there. Christ promised “I will build my church” and He is.
b. The next question is: When did God create the church? The term “Church” comes from the Greek word “ekklesia” which is literally translated the “called out” ones. Basically, it refers to the gathering or public assembly of God’s people (not the building!). Although “church” is commonly a NT expression, both the word and the idea surface in the OT too. It’s very common for the O.T to speak of the “qahal” which is translated as “assembly” (Lev. 4:13; 23:3-8). In Acts 7:38 Stephen speaks of this “assembly” in the wilderness as the ekklesia or church.
Hebrew 12:22-24 is an important verse which highlights the continuity of the Church. It says, “But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the church of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven….” And who does this church of the firstborn include? All the O.T and N.T saints!
And so the church didn’t begin at Pentecost. It began with Adam and Eve. They were the first “called out” ones. It continues with people like Abraham. Galatians 3:7 even says we are “sons of Abraham.”
To be sure, Pentecost brought great change to the church. For the after Pentecost the church enjoys the New Covenant ministry of the Holy Spirit which is deeper and richer. And the gospel goes out with power to the nations. Yes, there was change. But, it was not the beginning of the church. The Church began some 6000years ago! And so, the church is old than many people think.
c. The next question is: How does God build His church? What are the tools in the tool box? The Catechism rightly points us to God’s Word and Spirit.
This is a good reminder too. With all the gimmicks around in the present day, these are the means by which God builds His church. Romans 10:17 “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing thorough the word of Christ.”
The size of your church building, facilities, welcoming atmosphere, instruments, programs, etc. do not have the power to transform lives. They have their place of course. That would be like saying a particular mug makes for a good coffee. A good mug is nice. A clean mug is nice. A decent size mug is nice. A smily face at the bottom of the mug maybe something you appreciate. But, of course, it’s the coffee itself that counts. What I’m trying to covey is: a powerful church, one that can transform lives, is one that has the Word at the centre. For it is through His Word and Spirit that God builds His church.
Okay, let’s now look at two ways of describing the Church.
First: we believe in the Catholic or Universal church.
By Catholic we don’t mean the Roman Catholic Church. ‘Catholic church’ here is simply a reference to the universal Church. We could even say, ‘I believe in the ‘Christian church.’
Essentially, the reference is to Christians ‘in all parts of the world,’ ‘at all times,’ and ‘from all peoples.’ From this angle we are looking at the church of all ages.
The Westminister Confession uses the term ‘invisible church’ to make this same distinction. For as we look at the church from this angle, we are considering the elect people of God from all ages.
Is this distinction Biblical? In many places the Bible views the Church from this angle
Ephesians 1:22 refers Christ having authority over the Church of all ages. It says, “And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.”
Hebrew 12:22 makes the point that we join the churches of all ages in our corporate worship because we worship with the church above.
Mathew 16:18 Jesus says, “I will build my church.” He wasn’t speaking about one particular church. He was talking about building this church from all ages.
So from this angle the Church is viewed in all its completeness, and perfection. And when Christ returns this Church will be revealed to the universe in all its completeness and glory.
Now what are the implications of viewing the church this way?
a. We have unity with all true believers. Ephesians 4:4 says “There is one body and one Spirit – just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call – one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all….”
We can appreciate there are Christians in other Churches. We can work together on social issues with other Christians. Last year many Christians from our local churches were brought together to fight for marriage. Every Saturday night Christians from the Bunbury area are brought together to be Street Chaplains. And so this distinction reminds us of the Spiritual unity every Christian shares.
Now before I move on to our next point. What does this mean for denominations? Are denominations wrong? I believe the answer is yes and no. They are wrong in the sense that there is only one truth around which we should all unite. As Christians we do not believe is a plurality of truth. There is only one truth. However, because of sin, we don’t all arrive at the same truth. You see, sin affects our thinking and reasoning. And so every denomination has their blind spots. The Baptists will either have it right or wrong on the topic of baptism (wrong of course!). The Pentecostals will have it right or wrong with their understanding of how gifts work in the church today (wrong of course!). And we in Reformed Churches are of course perfect! More seriously, we have our blind spots too don’t we? So from this angle denominations are wrong. In heaven, all will be revealed.
So, from another angle, though, denominations will continue to exist. And that is because truth is too important to abandon. God’s truth is to be preserved, even contended for. Jude 3 says, “Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.” You see the unity we have as Christians is based on content and substance. It’s not unity under one roof, but unity in the truth. Faithful Christians value truth. That’s why I love my Baptist friends who differ with me. For I see a fellow Christian, whom I am united to, fighting for truth.
So, in summary, we have unity with all Christians. For we are all united to Christ by the Holy Spirit. We are all part of the Catholic and universal Church. On this side of heaven, it’s an imperfect unity, hence denominations. However, we can look forward to that day when we are perfectly unified around the throne!
Second: we believe in the communion of the saints.
Sadly, more and more people are saying yes to Jesus but no to the visible church. People refer to themselves as ‘Christian in the wilderness.’ However, it’s not enough to only be part of the Catholic/universal church. We also confess and believe in the ‘Communion of the Saints’
What does the communion of the saints mean? The invisible is made visible. It’s the same Church. There is only one body, one temple, one bride. But now the Church is viewed from the angle of the saints who gather on earth. It is the organized church, the gathered church, the visible church. It’s from this angle you see that you can’t have Jesus without His church! The two go together!
Is this distinction biblical? No doubt about it!
Many of the N.T letters are written to local churches. We read of the Church gathered in Ephesus (Rev. 2:1), Thessalonica (1Thess. 1:1), “churches of Galatia” (1Cor. 16:1) etc.
We also read that this gathered Church is to display God’s glory. In Ephesians 3:8-9 God writes through Paul about the grand plan of salvation, including bring together Jews and Gentiles. How does the grand plan come to light? Verse 10 “so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made know to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.” Can you see the important role of the gathered Church in the purposes of God?
The Church also gathers to receive the Word and Sacraments. The Church gathers to submit itself under particular Elders. The Church gathers to use their gifts to bless one another. The church gathers to exercise discipline. And so it goes on!
Now what are the implications of viewing the church this way?
a) There is no such thing as a maverick Christian. Christians are called to belong to a local Church. The Bible doesn’t know of ‘Christians in the wild.’ To remain out in the wild is to put yourself on the endangered list spiritually! It’s that serious. It puts some outside the bounds of orthodoxy because they can’t even confess the Apostles Creed! You cannot have Jesus without the church.
In the 3rd Century, there was a Church leader called Cyprian. To capture the truth we have been speaking about, he said, ‘You cannot have God as your Father unless you have the church for your Mother.’
Now, to clarify, church membership is not a ticket to salvation. Christ is the ticket to salvation. The thief on the cross never had a chance to belong to a visible church. However, the general and normative truth of Scripture remains: Jesus and the local Church go together. Present day Pastor Mark Dever puts it this way, “If you call yourself a Christian but you are not a member of the church you regularly attend, I worry that you might be going to hell.” And he’s not kidding. The local church is that important. And based on Scripture I as a Pastor would share the same concern.
As we read in the book of Acts, “And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.” New disciples were added to the visible, identifiable body of Christ.
b) The local church gives visible expression to the gospel. The Church is not an appendage to the gospel. It is the gospel in action. As Ephesians 3:10 says, “so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made know to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.” The church is an amazing place. Look at all the different people who come together. Different ages, backgrounds, education, tastes, personalities, ethnicities etc. The more diverse, the more reflective of heaven.
For the committed here this evening, you no doubt appreciate your local church. This sermon is an encouragement to keep on doing so. It also provides you with a good framework in which to engage others. In the current day, many are intrigued by a churchless Christianity. Many wonder if checking out of Sunday morning is the way to go. May God use you to warn that such a move is not only unfaithful, but also harmful to the soul.
We believe in the Church!