Skip to comments.Covenant Theology: The Church (Part 2)
Posted on 02/24/2004 9:48:49 AM PST by sheltonmac
Covenant Theology: The Church
(Part 2 Sermon Number Twenty)
James E. Bordwine, Th.D.
In the last sermon, we began a study on the doctrine of the Church. I mentioned that the doctrine of the Church is a subject that is fundamental to the Christian faith. The doctrine of the Church touches every aspect of our experience as Christians; it is related to issues like the worship of God, the administration and meaning of the sacraments, salvation, sanctification, evangelism, marriage, family life, vocation, politics, economics and sociology. I stated that even history itself has no meaning and cannot be rightly interpreted apart from the doctrine of the Church because history is the record of the Church's construction and development.
As an introduction, I am offering an overview of the Church under three points: The Foundation of the Church, The Character of the Church and The Mission of the Church. I would like briefly to review the first point, which I covered last week.
01. The Foundation of the Church
When I use the term, Foundation of the Church, I am, of course, referring to a truth that serves as the theological ground upon which the Church rests. We looked at Matt. 16 where Jesus questions His disciples regarding His identity. In this passage, Jesus teaches the disciples that His identity as the Christ, the Son of the living God, would serve as the doctrinal foundation for the Church He would build through them. His purpose also was, I believe, to teach the disciples something about the character and mission of the Church. To know the identity of Jesus Christ is to know the nature of His Church and the calling of His Church; it is to know what the Church is supposed to be doing on this earth.
From these verses, I concluded that Christology, that is, the doctrine of and about Jesus Christ, would be the organizing principle for His Church. She would be built upon a Christological foundation and Her doctrine would be, therefore, Christo-centric. Everything about the Church would bear the marks of Christ; She would be a fascinating and beautiful elaboration of Peter's confession that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the living God. The Church is the embodiment of the truth represented in those words.
This brings us to the second point.
02. The Character of the Church
When I speak of the character of the Church, I mean those qualities by which She is distinguished. What traits are to be observed when we look at the Body of Christ? What marks do we see that belong uniquely and unmistakably to the Institution erected and maintained by the Savior? There are three characteristics, in particular, that I want to explore under this point: sanctity or holiness, catholicity and apostolicity.
In the second chapter of 1 Peter, we read these words:
4 And coming to Him as to a living stone, rejected by men, but choice and precious in the sight of God, 5 you also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. 6 For this is contained in Scripture: Behold I lay in Zion a choice stone, a precious corner stone, and he who believer in Him shall not be disappointed. 7 This precious value, then, is for you who believe. But for those who disbelieve, The stone which the builders rejected, this became the very corner stone, 8 and, A stone of stumbling and a rock of offense; for they stumble because they are disobedient to the word, and to this doom they were also appointed. 9 But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God's own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; 10 for you once were not a people, but now you are the people of God; you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
Based upon a prophecy from Psa. 118, Peter describes Jesus Christ as a living stone that would serve as the foundation for a special creation of God, which is, of course, the Church (v. 4). The idea here is not unlike what we discovered in our study of Matt. 16. The teaching of Jesus Christ and teaching about Him serve as the theological bedrock for the Church. The apostle tells us a number of things about this Church. For instance, he says that this Institution will be composed of living stones, by which he means believers; the Church of Jesus Christ is a spiritual entity, or spiritual house, as Peter calls Her, designed to please God through Jesus Christ (v. 5). This spiritual house is the gathering place of a holy priesthood. This latter description of the Church surely means that She functions as a priest in the world, standing between God and fallen man, as it were, preaching the gospel of Her Head and Savior while, at the same time, offering to God the sacrifices of praise, thanksgiving and dedicated service.
While the corner stone, which is Jesus Christ, serves to provide stability and permanence for the Church, that same stone is a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense for all those who reject the gospel preached by the Church (vv. 6-8). Christology is salvation for some and doom for others; it is that which unites and preserves the Church, but that which scatters and destroys those outside the Church. Notice that the apostle leaves no room for neutrality. You are either a living stone and are added to the spiritual house being constructed by the Savior, or you take offense at the Savior and face a very different destiny.
Returning to his description of this spiritual house, Peter adds: You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God's own possession... (v. 9) This passage makes it clear that the Church is set apart from the world to serve God and be used as He sees fit. Peter refers to the Church as a holy nation, which means that the Church is sanctified or set apart for a particular use. Moreover, this description of the Church bears ethical implications. The Church of Jesus Christ, which rests upon the foundation of Christology, is morally pure in the eyes of God. This follows, of course, from the nature of the atonement.
In Jesus Christ, those who become part of this spiritual house have had their sin pardoned and the righteousness of Christ imputed to them. They are, as we learned earlier in this sermon series when we studied the doctrine of sanctification, declared to be holy due to their union with Christ. Holiness is necessitated and accomplished by the nature of redemption. The Church must be a holy institution because She is composed of holy individuals; She must be ethically pure because all those living stones that go into Her composition are cleansed by the blood of the Savior.
As an aside, let me add that the concept of holiness or sanctity that Peter expounds upon in this passage is indicated by the apostle Paul when he addresses the people of Christ in his many epistles. He routinely refers to them as saints. In many of the opening salutations of Paul's letters, for example, he uses this term (cf. Rom. 1:7; 1 Cor. 1:2; 2 Cor. 1:1; Eph. 1:1; Phil. 1:1; Col. 1:2). In fact, on more than three dozen occasions, the apostle refers to Christians as saints. The word translated saints in all these passages refers to the quality of things that can be brought near God or into God's presence. This term applies to that which is separated, that which is sacred, that which is dedicated and consecrated to God. This is the label given to all believers, even the Corinthians who, as we know, had more than a few moral problems. This label is appropriate for all believers, nevertheless, due to the nature of redemption, as I stated earlier. Believers have been set apart by virtue of their union with Christ; they have been sanctified and are ethically pure in the eyes of God. When we observe the Church, therefore, we see a Body that bears this characteristic of separation or holiness, this characteristic of being uniquely established and maintained for the glory of God.
The second characteristic of the Church that I want to explore is Her catholicity. The word catholicity means universality or universal acceptance. This description of the Church has nothing to do with the Roman Catholic Church. The word catholic was applied to the Church very early in Her history as believers came to recognize the universal nature of the Church. Therefore, in the Apostles' Creed, we confess: I believe in... the holy catholic Church. Following the teaching of Scripture, this ancient creed maintains the existence of one true Church of Jesus Christ, a Church that crosses all geographical and chronological borders. The Church of Christ is catholic in the sense that all true believers are found in Her. While there may be numerous organizational manifestations of the Church (such as denominations and individual local churches), there is, spiritually and doctrinally speaking, only one Church of Jesus Christ.
What about Scriptural support for this idea of catholicity? We can begin with God's promise to Abraham in Gen. 17:
1 Now when Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to Abram and said to him, I am God Almighty; Walk before Me, and be blameless. 2 And I will establish My covenant between Me and you, And I will multiply you exceedingly. 3 And Abram fell on his face, and God talked with him, saying, 4 As for Me, behold, My covenant is with you, And you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. 5 No longer shall your name be called Abram, But your name shall be Abraham; For I will make you the father of a multitude of nations. 6 And I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come forth from you. 7 And I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your descendants after you.
God promises that Abraham would be the father of a multitude of nations. As we learned in our study of the covenant of grace, Paul's comments on this promise in Gal. 3 show that what Abraham heard was the gospel. Based upon his own example of faith in the promises of God, Abraham would become the father of all those who would accept and believe what God promised concerning redemption. He is the one to whom God gave the most extensive explanation of the plan of redemption prior to the coming of the Messiah. In these verses, the extent of the blessing that was to come through Abraham includes all the nations of the earth.
God's reference to all the nations of the earth, therefore, demonstrates the universal character of the Church. He does not promise one Church per nation, but one people gathered from among the many nations of the world. The promises made to Abraham would be realized as people from all parts of the earth heard and responded to the gospel. Geographical boundaries would not prevent the unification of the one people of God. Even chronological barriers would not prevent the unification of the one people of Abraham; this is particularly evident when we consider God's promise to be the God of our descendants after us. The gospel that would be preached in one nation would be preached in another; the gospel that would be preached in one time would be preached in another; the gospel that is embraced by parents would be taught to and embraced by their children.
This passage teaches the catholicity of the Church in a unmistakable way. The most obvious indicator that God was, indeed, gathering one people from among the many nations of the earth, however, occurred on the Day of Pentecost as recorded in the book of Acts. When the disciples began speaking in foreign tongues, those gathered around them were amazed. In the second chapter, Luke says:
5 Now there were Jews living in Jerusalem, devout men, from every nation under heaven. 6 And when this sound occurred, the multitude came together, and were bewildered, because they were each one hearing them speak in his own language. 7 And they were amazed and marveled, saying, Why, are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we each hear them in our own language to which we were born? 9 Parthians and Medes and Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya around Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretans and Arabs-we hear them in our own tongues speaking of the mighty deeds of God.
When Peter raised his voice to offer an explanation, he said: Men of Judea, and all you who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and give heed to my words. For these men are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only the third hour of the day; but this is what was spoken of through the prophet Joel: 'And it shall be in the last days,' God says, 'That I will pour forth of My Spirit upon all mankind...' (vv. 14-17) Let me point out that the disciples already had been instructed concerning God's intentions. Just before His ascension, Jesus said to them: ...You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth. (Acts 1:8) Clearly the Church of Jesus Christ was intended to transcend national and temporal borders.
Perhaps the key lesson to be observed on the Day of Pentecost was the fact that God no longer would confine knowledge of Himself and knowledge of His plan of redemption to the nation of Israel. Beginning on that day, the gospel of salvation would be proclaimed to all creatures under heaven and men would be gathered into Christ's kingdom from across the globe. It is important that I emphasize, once again, that the gospel that would bring the one people together from the many nations would be the same gospel in every case. The one people being gathered from the many nations would be united by doctrine; Christology, as I stated before, that is, doctrine about Christ and doctrine from Christ, would be that which bound them together-and, might I add, this is the only thing that can bind people from different cultures and different times. Unity on this scale is a supernatural occurrence.
There is one more passage that we must examine before leaving this matter of the catholicity of the Church and it is my favorite because it describes what the Church truly looks like, as opposed to what we sometimes think it looks like. In Rev. 5, we read:
1 And I saw in the right hand of Him who sat on the throne a book written inside and on the back, sealed up with seven seals. 2 And I saw a strong angel proclaiming with a loud voice, Who is worthy to open the book and to break its seals? 3 And no one in heaven, or on the earth, or under the earth, was able to open the book, or to look into it. 4 And I began to weep greatly, because no one was found worthy to open the book, or to look into it; 5 and one of the elders said to me, Stop weeping; behold, the Lion that is from the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has overcome so as to open the book and its seven seals. 6 And I saw between the throne (with the four living creatures) and the elders a Lamb standing, as if slain, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven Spirits of God, sent out into all the earth. 7 And He came, and He took it out of the right hand of Him who sat on the throne. 8 And when He had taken the book, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, having each one a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. 9 And they sang a new song, saying, Worthy art Thou to take the book, and to break its seals; for Thou wast slain, and didst purchase for God with Thy blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation. 10 And Thou hast made them to be a kingdom and priests to our God; and they will reign upon the earth.
John witnessed a scene in which what God had decreed for mankind is represented as a book written inside and on the back. One who could preside over the nations was needed to open this book and, thus, set in motion what God had determined should come to pass. As the apostle observed, no one came forward to take upon themselves the task of governing the nations according to the decree of God. Then, John was comforted and told that the Lion from the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has overcome so as to open the book and its seven seals. (v. 5) The One referred to is, of course, Jesus Christ, the Savior. He appears in this scene as a bloody Lamb, indicating that His work of atonement entitled Him to assume jurisdiction over all created powers and to begin His reign as King of kings and Lord of lords.
What is most important for our present purpose is the song of celebration that is sung when the Lamb steps forward to receive the book: Worthy art Thou to take the book, and to break its seals; for Thou wast slain, and didst purchase for God with Thy blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation. And Thou hast made them to be a kingdom and priests to our God; and they will reign upon the earth. (vv. 9, 10) In His work of atonement, Jesus Christ purchased men from all the nations of the earth and He made them one kingdom and this one kingdom of priests presently reigns with the resurrected Savior even as they live out their days on the earth. The citizens of Christ's kingdom may be separated from one another geographically and they may be separated from one another temporally, but they are one people forming one kingdom and they are presided over by their common Lord and Savior.
Although I've mentioned this previously, I must emphasize that the catholicity of the Church is based in Her singular gospel, which declares There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all. (Eph. 4:4-6) The Church can be one and She can be universal because Her doctrine is one; the Church can be one and She can be universal because all members of the Church have a common Savior, have believed a common gospel and declare a common doctrine. The Body of Christ is, as John describes it in the Revelation, a beautiful gathering of people from every place and every time under one holy Head.
A third quality of the Church that I want to mention is Her apostolicity. By this term, I mean that the Church of Jesus Christ, doctrinally speaking, is the repository for the teaching of the apostles who, upon the commission of Jesus Christ, founded the Church. In this regard, we can speak of the Church as apostolic; while we would deny that there is apostolic succession in terms of persons, we would affirm apostolic succession in terms of doctrine. This characteristic of the Church is related, of course, to the first point in this sermon, which is the Foundation of the Church. Under that heading, I explained that the theological foundation for the Church is Christology, which is doctrine given by Christ and doctrine about Christ.
The apostles were appointed by Christ to take the gospel that He had given to them, establish His Church and then expound upon that gospel for the edification of the Church. This exposition of the gospel is what we find in the New Testament epistles. The apostolicity of the Church, therefore, is Her adherence to the teaching of Christ's holy apostles. Wherever the true Church of Jesus Christ's exists, She will be distinguished by the manifestation of apostolic doctrine; Her organization and Her teaching will be that of the apostles.
Biblically, we find the teaching on the apostolicity of the Church in Christ's High Priestly Prayer, as recorded in John 17. Speaking of His disciples, Christ says:
12 While I was with them, I was keeping them in Thy name which Thou hast given Me; and I guarded them, and not one of them perished but the son of perdition, that the Scripture might be fulfilled. 13 But now I come to Thee; and these things I speak in the world, that they may have My joy made full in themselves. 14 I have given them Thy word; and the world has hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. 15 I do not ask Thee to take them out of the world, but to keep them from the evil one. 16 They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. 17 Sanctify them in the truth; Thy word is truth. 18 As Thou didst send Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world. 19 And for their sakes I sanctify Myself, that they themselves also may be sanctified in truth. 20 I do not ask in behalf of these alone, but for those also who believe in Me through their word; 21 that they may all be one; even as Thou, Father, art in Me, and I in Thee, that they also may be in Us; that the world may believe that Thou didst send Me.
Jesus says that He had kept the disciples and had given them His Father's Word (vv. 12-14). He asks the Father to continue keeping them now that His death was approaching (v. 15); He prays for the sanctification of the disciples, as well (v. 17). Jesus states that the disciples were being sent out into the world to represent Him even as He had been sent from the Father to represent God (v. 18). Then notice what the Lord says: I do not ask in behalf of these alone, but for those also who believe in Me through their word. (v. 20) How would others come to know Christ? How would others come to salvation? Jesus indicates that the disciples, that is, the apostles, would teach others how to know Him and, therefore, how to come to salvation. Christ establishes a vital link between Himself and the salvation that He brought to the world and that very world that He came to save. That link between the two is the apostles.
This passage, all by itself, makes essential the apostolicity of the Church. If the Church is not apostolic in doctrine, then She cannot know Christ and She cannot have the gospel. Jesus appointed the apostles as the primary teachers in the Church. They would convey His words to the Church and they would expound upon His words for the Church. The Institution that Jesus promised to establish in Matt. 16 is apostolic by its very nature; it cannot be anything else; the Church of Christ can only be apostolic in Her doctrine because this is the way God ordained the founding and development of the Church.
When Paul explains how the Ephesians had come to be counted among the people of God, he says that they are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God's household, having been built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets... (2:20) Paul refers to the apostles and New Testament prophets as the foundation of the Church. He is referring, of course, to their teaching. We saw under point number one that Paul identifies the foundation of the Church as Christ (cf. 1 Cor. 3:11). Therefore, he can only mean that the teaching of the apostles and prophets was Christological in nature. It had to be Christological in nature for him to refer to their teaching as the foundation of the Church. In a unique way, then, the apostles served as Christ's representatives; they spoke for Him with His blessing and with His authority during the formative years of the Church. Throughout history, therefore, the true Church of Christ has identified Herself (and has been identifiable) by Her commitment to apostolic doctrine.
For our application, I want to revisit the three characteristics of the Church of Christ that I have emphasized. As we think again of each of the qualities by which the Church is distinguished, I briefly will point out a few of their practical implications. The characteristics, once again, are sanctity, or holiness, catholicity and apostolicity.
Related to the first characteristic, which is sanctity, there is one leading implication. You will recall that the term sanctity refers to that characteristic of the Church that results from Her being set apart unto God for His praise and service. The implication that I have in mind, then, has to do with the Church's interest in Her holiness. For the Church to maintain and advance Her holiness, She must practice discipline. Church discipline is nothing more than the mechanism that the Body of Christ uses to ensure that She remains faithful to Her Head and Savior. Church discipline is required because the Church has yet to be perfected; it is required because, even though not yet perfected, the duty of holiness remains.
Cooperate discipline, therefore, is a necessity for the Church of Christ. Far too often, of course, the phrase church discipline conjures up all kinds of distasteful images in our minds. Our culture has trained us to bristle against expressions of authority and, by some strange twist of thinking, we have come to believe that discipline in the Church is contrary to the gospel. The truth is, discipline is mandated by the gospel. If the Church truly is to be sanctified, then some method of perfecting Her holiness must be in place. When discipline is rightly practiced in the Church, the good name of Christ is protected, the members of the Body are protected and erring brethren are reclaimed.
Related to cooperate discipline for the sake of holiness is personal discipline. The individual members of the Church must take seriously their responsibility, as those who make-up the Church, to be holy. As we come to understand the sanctity of the Church, we will have an increasing awareness of our personal responsibility; we will become increasingly concerned that we live in a manner worthy of the name of Christ, a manner that enhances the overall sanctity of the Church. Sin should be something that we hate, while righteousness should be something that we love. It's not difficult to see that our level of sanctification is going to be reflected in the Church's level of sanctification.
What about the catholicity of the Church? The catholicity of the Church is that characteristic that comes from the fact that there is only one true Church of Christ throughout history. There are two leading implications of this characteristic. First, there is the implication that we should recognize and appreciate the diversity of the Body of Christ. It is admittedly difficult for us to conceive of the Church of Christ in all Her diverse glory. But the truth is, the Church of Christ includes people from every tongue and every nation. This is one of the most beautiful aspects of the Church. You can get a glimpse of this characteristic in any local congregation where you will find people with various ethnic origins and backgrounds. The problem is that in most local congregations, all the members share a common culture. The Church of Christ is much broader and much richer than what can be observed in any local congregation, however. We need to guard against the idea that the Body of Christ looks like us and talks like us; the plan of redemption is much more glorious than that.
The second implication of the catholicity of the Church is that we should pray and labor for the unity that is ours in Christ. I realize that it is hard to imagine that the Church of Jesus Christ is one as we look around at the numerous denominations all claiming to be Christian. We need to remember that the catholicity of the Church transcends denominational borders and even ecclesiastical governments. Christians of all denominations should desire that we give expression to our unity in Christ. We ought to guard with diligence those distinctives that are Biblical and cannot, therefore, be compromised, but, at the same time, we ought to seek eagerly opportunities for genuine fellowship and common service.
You may think that there is not much you can do to promote the catholicity of the Church, but that's not true. You can promote the catholicity of the Church by getting to know the other families in this congregation. Make it your goal, for example, to visit with one new family per month; choose a family with whom you believe you have little in common. You may be surprised to learn that what you share as believers far outweighs your differences.
Finally, what are the implications of the apostolicity of the Church? By apostolicity we mean that the Church is committed to the doctrine of the apostles. If this is true, then, to begin with, we must affirm a commitment to Scripture. This may sound like an unnecessary affirmation, but, given the climate of our day, this kind of declaration needs to be made often. More and more people are searching for doctrinal stability and they aren't finding it in many local churches because many local churches are relatively unconcerned with this important characteristic of the Church of Christ. We actually have come to the point where a church that emphasizes doctrine is ridiculed within evangelicalism as though such an emphasis is foreign to the nature of the Body of Christ. We can listen to such criticism and be embarrassed about our emphasis or we can keep in mind that the nature of the Church is such that She is a doctrinal institution. There is no way to separate the Church from doctrine. Consequently, local congregations must pay close attention to what they teach; they must be diligent in equipping their members through the Scripture.
A second implication of the Church's apostolicity is that we should be grateful to God for our Protestant heritage. The Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century was in the name of the apostolicity of the Church. The Reformers sought to purify the beliefs and practices of the Church according to the teaching of the apostles of Christ. We ought to be thankful that God raised up the Reformers and we should do our part to preserve the apostolicity of the Church by being quick to defend our Protestant distinctives.
Conclusion (preparation for the Lord's Supper)
As we come to the Lord's Table, we have portrayed for us the essential truths that I've spoken of in this sermon. This sacrament reminds us of the sanctity of the Church as we think upon the death of Christ for our sins; He died to purify a people for God. So this sacrament should challenge us regarding our walks with Christ. This sacrament reminds us of the catholicity of the Church as we all partake of the one bread and wine; like no other time in our week, our unity in Christ is portrayed when we receive these elements. And this sacrament reminds us of the apostolicity of the Church as we are pointed back to our foundation, which is Christ.
I like that term.
Let the blow fall, I await its coming.