The Doctrine of the Church

 

“The church is the community of all true believers for all time.”[1]

 

“Since, however, in our ignorance and sloth (to which I add fickleness of disposition) we need outward helps to beget and increase faith within us, and advance it to its goal, God has also added these aids that he may provide for our weakness. And in order that the preaching of the gospel might flourish, he deposited this treasure in the church.”[2]

 

What is the Church?

The church is the baptized body of believers over whom Christ reigns and in whom the Holy Spirit dwells. The church is part of God’s eternal plan which is brought about by Christ and sealed by the Holy Spirit. The church is composed of all God’s people. The all encompassing nature of the church is seen in the fact that “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph. 5:25). Anyone who has been saved is automatically a member of the church.  The church is that institution “into whose bosom God is pleased to gather his sons, not only that they may be nourished by her help and ministry as long as they are infants and children, but also that they may be guided by her motherly care until they mature and at last reach the goal of faith”[3]

The church is described as a family and the church functions as a large family (1 Tim. 5:1-2; 2 Cor. 6:18; Eph. 5:32). The church is God’s house (Heb. 3:6) which Jesus built (Heb. 3:3). The church is described as the branches on the vine which is Jesus (Jn. 15:5). The church is described as a building (1 cor. 3:9). The church is the temple composed of “living stones” (1 Pet. 2:5). The church is “the pillar and bulwark of truth” (1 Tim. 3:15). The church is the kingdom of God which has Jesus as King. The church is described as the kingdom (Rom 14:17; 1 Cor. 4:20; 1 Cor. 6:9; 1 Cor. 15:24, 50; Eph. 5:5; Col. 4:11). Jesus is King and reigns with righteousness (Heb. 1:8). Christians are part of the priestly kingdom (Rev. 1:9).  Salvation was described by Paul as an individual being “delivered from the domain of darkness and transferred to the kingdom of his beloved Son” (Col. 1:13 cf. 1 Thess. 2:12; 2 Thess. 1:5).[4]

 

How To Recognize the Church

To recognize the church, one must understand how to become a member of the church. This important question begins with the eternal plan of God and the work of God. God adds to his church those who are being saved (Acts 2:41, 47). Jesus is the founder (Matt. 16:18 and head of the church (Eph. 1:22; 5:22). God works through his Word to bring about faith (Rom. 10:17). True faith is couple with obedience (Js. 2:24). So those who truly believe repent of their sins and are baptized (Acts 2:38). Paul described this incorporation of individuals into the body of Christ, the church, in passages like Galatians 3:26-27 and Romans 6:3. Their position in the church is marked by the sealing of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 3:19: 6:19). The church is also “the body of Christ” (1 Cor. 12:12-27).

Theologians also speak of the “marks of the church.” The Roman Catholic Church marks a church by the presence of a church official and the group’s allegiance to the Pope and the doctrine of the RCC. These marks of the church are typically grouped under two headings: the right teaching of the Word and proper administration of the sacraments. Article 7 of the Lutheran Augsburg Confession (1530), defined the church as “the congregation of saints in which the gospel is rightly taught and the Sacraments rightly administered.” John Calvin said, “we recognize as members of the church those who, by confession of faith, by example of life, and by partaking of the sacraments, profess the same God and Christ with us.”[5]

There are differences concerning what the preaching of the Word and proper administration of the sacraments should look like, but these two categories are helpful. The preaching of the Word and admiration help to demarcate the true church from apostate churches, false churches, and other groups. Grudem noted, “Baptism and the Lord’s Supper also serve as “membership controls” for the church. Baptism is the means for admitting people into the church, and the Lord’s Supper is the means for allowing people to give a sign of continuing in the membership of the church—the church signifies that it considers those who receive baptism and the Lord’s Supper to be saved.”[6]

 

The Church Visible and Invisible

The church is the saved people of God. Calvin wrote, “the church universal is a multitude gathered from all nations; it is divided and dispersed in separate places, but agrees on the one truth of divine doctrine, and is bound by the bond of the same religion. Under it are thus included individual churches, disposed in towns and villages according to human need, so that each rightly has the name and authority of the church.’[7] The church invisible refers to the redeemed of all time in all places whether they are assembled or not. The church visible refers to the saved on earth and usually refers to them as they are assembled. The invisible church or universal church refers to those of all time, although at times we may speak simply of all the redeemed currently on earth, who have been saved. “The Lord knows those who are his” (2 Tim. 2:19).

The Roman Catholic Church continues to affirm that the church is only made up of those who visibly assemble with the Roman Catholic Church under the Roman Catholic Pope who serves under the direct line of the apostles and their followers. In the Second Vatican Council, the RCC declared that there were saved people outside the RCC, but that those individuals needed to come home. This was, of course, a major point of contention in the Reformation. “Calvin argued that just as Caiaphas (the high priest at the time of Christ) was descended from Aaron but was no true priest, so the Roman Catholic bishops had “descended” from the apostles in a line of succession but they were not true bishops in Christ’s church.”[8]

The visible church is composed of those who are redeemed and living by faith. Grudem noted that “the true church of Christ certainly has a visible aspect as well. We may use the following definition: The visible church is the church as Christians on earth see it. In this sense, the visible church includes all who profess faith in Christ and give evidence of that faith in their lives.”[9] He added in a footnote that “Both Calvin and Luther would add the third qualification that those who are considered part of the visible church must partake of the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Others might consider this as a subcategory of the requirement that people give evidence of faith in their life.”[10] This manifests differences between Grudem and those with a more sacramental theology.

The word “church” is used to refer to multiple congregations and single congregations. “In the New Testament, the word “church” may be applied to a group of believers at any level, ranging from a very small group meeting in a private home all the way to the group of all true believers in the universal church.”[11] Individual congregations and congregations in various regions, as far as they could travel and have awareness, enjoyed warm brotherhood and partnership in God’s service and worship. The same pattern should be continued today. The entire church in any area should be at peace and grow (Acts 9:31).

 

How Does God Relate to the Church?

The Father, Son, and Spirit are all involved in the life of the church. The church is those “who are chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, by the sanctifying work of the Spirit, to obey Jesus Christ and be sprinkled with His blood: May grace and peace be yours in the fullest measure” (1 Pet. 1:1-2).

The church has been planned by God. Isaiah recorded God’s plan to build the church (Isaiah 2:2-4). God promised to build this church in the last days (Acts 2:16-17; cf. Joel 2). God promised to give the church to Jesus in Daniel 2:44 and Daniel 7:13-14).

The church has been built by Jesus. Jesus promised to build his church (Matt. 16:18). Jesus adds people to his church (Acts 2:47). Jesus is head of the church (Col. 1:18). Jesus is the Savior of the church (Eph. 5:23).

The church is guided by the Spirit. The church is thoroughly equipped through the Scriptures inspired by the Spirit (2 Tim. 3:15-4:5). The Spirit is the seal of the church for God (Eph. 1:13; 4:30; 2 Cor. 1:22).

What is the Church to Do?

The church is “His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them” (Eph. 2:10). These works should focus on worship (Col. 3:16; Eph. 5:19; Eph. 1:12). The church is to “preach the Word” (2 Tim. 4:1-2). The church must take the Gospel to the entire world (Matt. 28:19-20). The church is to grow its members in and for ministry (Col. 1:28; Eph. 4:12-13). The church also has a responsibility to care for the poor in the church and outside the church (Gal. 6:10).

The Lord has given his people specific commands which can be carried out in a multitude of ways (as long as the specificity of the commands is not disregarded).  It is important for the church to remember that it must remain active. God does not approve of churches consumed with apathy. Church should be active because God is active and he has commanded his people to follow him in holiness. As we have seen, God is actus purus or “pure act.” This means that God is never inactive. God is eternally perfectly active. The church has also received commands from God to be engaged in his work. No congregation or Christian should be stationary. God’s people are always on alert and on the mission.

 

The Church and Israel

This fulfillment of Israel by the church is seen in the promise of a new covenant made in Jeremiah 31 which was fulfilled in Christ according to Hebrews 8:8-10). Faithful Israel was incorporated into the church as they were saved (Eph. 2:12-13). The idea of the faithful OT saints being included in the church is often difficult to consider because it is almost completely foreign to many Christians.  There is some overlap in the grammar, but that may be coincidental rather than normative. Christ gave himself for the church according to Ephesians 5:25. This sacrifice included both OT saints and NT saints. The New Testament does speak of “the church in the wilderness” (Acts 7:38) and perhaps it could be argued that Hebrews 2:12 could be translated as “in the midst of the church I will praise you” (Ps. 22:22). Christians today are surrounded by “a cloud of witnesses” (Heb. 12:1). When Christians worship, they enter “the assembly of the firstborn enrolled in Heaven.”

It is helpful for us to use the word “church” to describe NT saints while retaining “Israel” or other terminology to refer to OT saints. However, there is some admitted overlap in the descriptors. As Grudem noted, “this present church age, which has brought the salvation of many millions of Christians in the church, is not an interruption or a parenthesis in God’s plan, but a continuation of his plan expressed throughout the Old Testament to call a people to himself.”[12] The word “church” makes this more controversial, but if we think of the word “kingdom,” then the overlap is immediately apparent.[13]

 

[1] Wayne A. Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; Zondervan Pub. House, 2004), 853.

[2] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion & 2, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, vol. 1, The Library of Christian Classics (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 1011–1012.

[3] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion & 2, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, vol. 1, The Library of Christian Classics (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 1012.

[4] That the church is presently the Kingdom of Christ does not eliminate the fact that there is an already-but-not-yet aspect of the Kingdom. Christians are currently in the Kingom, but they are also await the fulness of this reality in Christ.

[5] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion & 2, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, vol. 1, The Library of Christian Classics (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 1022–1023.

[6] Wayne A. Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; Zondervan Pub. House, 2004), 865–866.

[7] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion & 2, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, vol. 1, The Library of Christian Classics (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 1023.

[8] Wayne A. Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, 856.

[9] Wayne A. Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, 856.

[10] Wayne A. Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, 856.

[11] Wayne A. Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine 857.

[12] Wayne A. Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; Zondervan Pub. House, 2004), 861.

[13] It is interesting to note that this discussion focuses on Israel and the church but does not alays include the pre-Israel patriarchs.

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