the holy, catholic Church
Since Article 3 of the Apostles’ Creed is dedicated to the study of the Person and work of God the Spirit, we might be surprised, therefore, to find that the remainder of the creed no longer directly references the Holy Spirit. Yet, as we discussed last week, the Holy Spirit is given to God’s people as our Helper; therefore, the rest of the creed fittingly describes some of the critical ways that He performs this function. Indeed, one of the most important roles of the Spirit is in creating and sustaining the people of God, Jesus’ church. For the next two studies, we will address the doctrine of the church as both holy and catholic and the communion of the saints.
Many studies over the Apostles’ Creed address the holy, catholic church and communion of the saints together, which is a very fitting thing to do. These are two essential statements regarding the church, and they cannot be divorced from one another. I am, therefore, only separating them for the sake of time and attention. This sermon, thus, should be viewed as part one of two and as incomplete until also paired with the communion of the saints. Why is this?
When discussing the doctrine of the church, theologians have long distinguished between two biblical conceptions. The language used has often varied (Church vs. church, invisible vs. visible, universal vs. local, etc.), but the ideas continue to be invaluable.
By the Church (aka invisible or universal church), we mean the actual number of followers of Jesus Christ throughout all ages and places. Old Testament saints are included in this number as well as future Christians who have yet to be born. John’s vision in Revelation 7:9-10 glimpses the day when this Church will be gathered together before the throne of God: “After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’”
The local or visible church refers to the myriad of individual congregations of believers who gather regularly for worship. Unlike the universal church, these local churches are composed of both true and false Christians. Nevertheless, local churches are the present, visible expression of that great gathering of all believers still to come.
We will discuss the necessity and nature of local churches next week with the communion of saints. For exploring the holy, catholic church, our focus will be upon the church universal. Expect, therefore, for this sermon to present the 30,000-foot view of God’s plan for His people throughout history. Here we will remember that Jesus’ church is triumphant and victorious, that the gates of hell will never prevail against it. Here let us stand amazed at how Jesus has transformed damned rebels against God into His beautiful bride and unstoppable body. These truths are essential for maintaining a steadfast hope especially when we find local churches displaying them poorly.
WHAT IS THE CATHOLIC CHURCH?
Do we really believe in the holy, catholic church?
You may be confused by the word catholic, wondering whether the creed is demanding that we affirm Roman Catholicism. The short answer is no. The word catholic simply means universal, so by affirming that we believe in the holy, catholic church, we are declaring our belief in the universal church.
To continue drawing the distinction between the universal and local church, we rightfully should declare that Roman Catholic churches are not true churches. In too many ways, they have departed from the truth of the gospel in their official teachings to be affirmed as sister congregations. However, this does not mean that there are no true Christians within Roman Catholicism. Individual members of a Catholic church may be members of the Church without that local gathering being a true church.
Yet before we continue, we should also define the word church. The Greek word for church, ekklesia, means an assembly, gathering, or congregation. Naturally, then, the word is used throughout the New Testament mostly in references to local congregations. Even still, we find plenty of texts to warrant the doctrine of the universal church.
Consider a few.
1 Corinthians 12:13 states, “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.” Here Paul is referencing a body larger than the church of Corinth. He is describing the collective people of God, who are united together by baptism and the Holy Spirit.
Ephesians 1:22-23: “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.” The Father gave Jesus, who has all things under His feet, to be the head of the church, which is His body. Paul is clearly not speaking of individual congregations here but rather the entirety of Jesus’ followers.
Ephesians 5:25: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” The church here is not presented as a single local gathering but as one body and bride of Jesus.
Matthew 16:18: “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Again, Jesus’ church here is singular.
And yet, if ekklesia means an assembly or a gathering, how can it refer to a people throughout time and space who cannot be gathered with one another? The reality is that the universal church is not physically gathered together… yet. Recall again Revelation 7:9-10. One day, local churches as we know them will pass away as we each stand together with the great multitude of God’s people throughout the world and throughout history to worship the Triune God who rescued and redeemed us.
Therefore, whenever we affirm the catholic or universal church, we declare ourselves to be a member of God’s people, His assembled worshipers. This is our eternal family, our brothers and sisters within the household of God.
We should, therefore, possess a deep love and longing for our fellow believers in Christ, and such love should lift our eyes above our current time and place. Paul had the catholic church in mind whenever he commanded us to make “supplication for all saints” (Ephesians 6:18). Practically, this means regularly praying for our brothers and sisters around the world, particularly those facing persecution. Yet it also means praying for future believers, as Jesus did in John 17:20. Praying for global and future believers helps to keep our sights set on God’s grand plan of redemption. It keeps us from buying the lie that we, or even our local churches, are the main protagonists of God’s story. We are, instead, reminded that we are simply one thread in the tapestry that God is weaving.
But this love for God’s people should also cause our eyes to look backward into history. Tim Challies offers the follow commentary on our current view of church history:
One of the great weaknesses of the contemporary church is its detachment from its own history. Few of today’s Christians have a clear sense of how the church came to be. They know of Acts and Reformation and Billy Graham, but the rest is a blur. They do not know their forebears, the ones who faithfully proclaimed and finally handed down the faith. They have no grounding in history—their own history… There are many reasons we ought to teach believers their history. History gives us purpose. History gives us hope. History gives us theological grounding. But as much as anything, history reminds us that we live in the shadow of those who have come before and that those who follow will, in turn, look back to us.
I give Challies a digital amen. Contemporary Christianity, in general, is virtually ignorant of the church’s history. This likely stems from a combination of failing to value history altogether and of failing to grasp our connectivity to those who lived before us.
N. D. Wilson makes the following reflection upon considering the ancient Jewish practice of burying family in the same tomb, forcing them revisit and recollect the bones of the dead with each new death:
Oddly, there is a poetry there. For those of us who live in the young West, it is hard (or impossible) to remember our ancestors’ names just four generations back, let alone where they are buried. We are nomads, still traveling and populating the open spaces, playing Johnny Appleseed with our people, rolling back the sod and saying good-bye. Or, more commonly now, burning them up and scattering the dust. It could be healthy to stare at a row of skulls that march back through the past, to remember that you are, in fact, a sequel and not a standalone.
Amen to that too. I love church history because it reminds me that I am not a standalone. I am a sequel. And until the Lord returns to the judge the living and the dead, more sequels will follow me. Like praying for Christians across the globe, learning about Christians who are now in the presence of Christ shrinks our view of self and gives a glimpse of God’s design unfolding before our eyes. Knowledge of church history deepens our love of the universal church, while also helping us to understand our place within this glorious and redeemed people of God.
HOW IS THE CHURCH HOLY?
Now that we have defined our belief in the catholic church, we will turn our attention toward the second description given to us: holy. What does it mean to believe that the universal church of God is holy?
Holiness, of course, is an essential attribute of God, since in its truest sense, only God is holy. The holiness of God means that no other being is like Him. He entirely and utterly unique. As we discussed in our study of God the Father, God’s holiness is intrinsically linked to His status as Creator. If He is the Creator of all things, then He alone is uncreated. Although we as humans were made in His image, to display His likeness, we must never forget that He is the Creator and we are but one of His creations.
Holiness, however, is also used in the Scriptures to refer to people and things that God reserves exclusively for His purposes. The ground beneath Moses’ feet in Exodus 3 was holy because God used it as His place for calling Moses to deliver the Israelites. The Levitical priests were called holy since their vocation was to offer prayers and sacrifices on Israel’s behalf to God. Indeed, all of Israel was intended to be a holy nation before God (Exodus 19:6). Similarly, Peter calls the church God’s “holy nation, a people for his own possession” (1 Peter 2:9).
Throughout the Bible, the evidence of the holiness of God’s people is the presence of God. The holy beauty of Eden was fixed upon the presence of God within the garden. The implicit understanding behind Abraham’s faith to leave Ur and go to Canaan was God’s presence with him. How would God show him the land of promise without also being with him? Following the Exodus, God’s presence is given a physical home in the Tabernacle, which is then replaced by Temple under the reign of Solomon. As Moses rightly concluded, the only true marker of holiness, of being distinguished from any other people, is the presence of God (Exodus 33:15-16).
In the New Testament, this holiness is manifested by God’s presence no longer being with us but in us. Beginning with the day of Pentecost in Acts 2, the Holy Spirit has now been poured out upon God’s people. The Helper has been sent, and He is actively building Jesus’ church. Indeed, Paul emphasizes the magnitude of this newfound holiness by pointing out that our bodies are now temples of the Holy Spirit.
Consider two texts.
1 Corinthians 3:16-17 | Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.
1 Corinthians 6:19-20 | Or do you not know that you body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were brought with a price. So glorify God in your body.
Paul provides for us the proper response to such a massive truth: glorify God in your body. If my body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, I have no choice but to treat it as such. It should have a direct effect on everything that I do, say, see, hear, taste, and touch.
But I am not impacted alone. The same Spirit unites me to a people, a community. Ephesians 4 states that we must be “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (v. 3). Paul then roots that unity in a series of ones of the faith: “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, who is over all and through all and in all” (vv. 4-7). The Spirit forms us into one body, one people, one gathering, one church. The indwelling Spirit makes the church both holy and universal by uniting us together as members of one body under Christ as our head.
WHAT IS THE PURPOSE OF THE CHURCH?
Since we’ve now addressed the basics of what the church is, let us conclude by asking why. Why is God building and using the church? What is its purpose and mission?
1 Peter 2:9-10 is where we will begin our investigation:
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 marvelous 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.
Peter piles on the descriptions of being God’s people and ends with the emphasis that we were scattered as individuals but have now been gathered together as one people, as the people of God. Yet in middle of describing our status as the holy, catholic church, Peter also establishes our purpose as the people of God: that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. We were chosen, recreated, coronated, sanctified, and gathered together for us the goal of proclaiming God’s excellencies to world.
What excellencies are we to proclaim? The excellencies of the God who loved us enough to bring us out of darkness and into His very light. The excellencies of the God who continues to shower mercy upon us even when deserve His wrath instead. The excellencies of the good Shepherd who laid down His life for His sheep. It is a message of God’s reconciliation.
2 Corinthians 5:17-21 | Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
Adam and Eve did not simply sever their communion with God; sin’s eruption into the world fractured the created order. The earth itself was cursed by their rebellion. Creation, therefore, is groaning for redemption, for re-creation, for reconciliation with God. Jesus, the second Adam, began that work. By His death, He has canceled in His body our debt of sin before God. By His resurrection, He has liberated us from our sin and the death that it produces. By His ascension, He sits at the Father’s right hand as our mediator to reconcile us to God. By the work of Christ, we are reconciled to the Father and made into God’s people, His church.
As the church, we have now been given the message of reconciliation. God appeals to the world through us as ambassadors for Christ. The message we proclaim to everyone is “we implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who know no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” We extend that message of salvation, that good news, to everyone around us who has not yet been reconciled to God.
Interestingly, a significant portion of how we are called to proclaim this reconciliation with God is through the display of how the gospel reconciles us to one another. Jesus told His disciples, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). In Ephesians 2, Paul shows how this natural fruit of the gospel unites Jews and Gentiles together into one people. Jesus’ death not only reconciles us to God; it also causes us to die to our previous divisions and be formed into one body for our Lord and Savior. The gospel turns us from enemies into family.
Michael Jinkins says it like this:
The New Testament does not describe a church as a voluntary society. It certainly does not assume the kind of ‘like-mindedness’ necessary for the banding together of a voluntary society. Instead, in the New Testament, one finds very contrary people summoned together by the Word who overrides, but ultimately does not minimize, their differences. (97)
Indeed, the gospel does not make us each into clones of one another. Instead, God’s manifold wisdom is displayed to the world whenever our submission to Christ and to one another triumphs over all our differences. The church is where the scattering of Babel is being undone as the Holy Spirit forms us into one people, a people for God’s own possession. In this way, we join the cosmic work of God who is reconciling “to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross” (Colossians 1:20).
If all of this sounds like an impossible task, rest assured that it is utterly impossible. If you also feel tremendously unqualified for the mission, take solace in knowing that you are more unqualified than you presently realize. Thankfully, nothing is impossible for God. Furthermore, we are not building the church; Jesus is. He is building His beautiful temple with plain and ordinary blocks like us. His church will be built, its mission will be fulfilled, and the gates of hell cannot stand against it. And we have a history’s worth of evidence to prove it.
We believe in the holy, catholic church, the body and bride of Jesus Christ, the redeemed people of God throughout all time and place, who are ambassadors for Christ and His ministry of reconciliation in this world and will be one gathered body of worshipers in the one to come.
Do you believe?
 From this verse, we can also glean the importance of the church. Jesus is both the owner and builder of His church. If we properly believe that Jesus is the God incarnate, these words lend immense weight to the church’s significance. To quote Propaganda: “But worth, value, and beauty is not determined by some innate quality / But by the length for which the owner would go to possess them.” The church is important because Jesus is its builder and owner. Jesus died to redeem His people, the church, from their sins; therefore, the church bears the value of Christ’s blood. We, as the church, are not innately valuable, but the Supremely Valuable One, Christ, has imparted value upon us. In short, the church is important because it belongs to Jesus.