The true church of Jesus Christ confessed

I believe an holy, catholic church.

This simple yet profound statement is the confession of countless believers around the world Sunday after Sunday, using the words of the Apostles’ Creed. The churches that use the Nicene Creed fittingly add “…and apostolic…” to their confession. The Heidelberg Catechism beautifully expounds this confession in its fifty-fourth answer as follows:

That the Son of God, from the beginning to the end of the world, gathers, defends, and preserves to Himself by His Spirit and Word, out of the whole human race, a church chosen to everlasting life, agreeing in true faith….

The Catechism does not include that the believer loves this church because the focus is rightly on the work of Christ; it is His church. Yet the words breathe love for the church, as the believer gratefully confesses, “and that I am and for ever shall remain, a living member thereof.” The church is the glorious work of God in and through Jesus Christ.

The church is “the company of the elect,” wrote John Wycliffe 700 years ago, and the Reformation heartily affirmed the same truth a century and a half later. God eternally knew and loved every member of the church, and in that love God chose each one. (Rom. 8:29, “For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate….”) God loved these, and these only, not because they were good, holy, noble, intelligent, or athletic. In fact, God’s choice was not rooted in the individual at all. Rather, the selection is rooted in God Himself, in His sovereign and free good pleasure (Eph. 1:5).

Eternally, God loved His people and predestinated them unto the adoption of children. Accordingly, He chose them in Christ (Eph. 1:4). Himself eternally chosen, Christ is the Mediator, the Word who also is God, and the revelation of the glory of God in whom all fulness dwells (Col. 1:19). In the perfect plan of God, the church is added to Christ as His body in order that the glory of the Head should radiate through each and every member of the body in a unique and personal way. One can compare the glory of the church to a chandelier with so many carefully shaped cuts of glass, perfectly positioned to reveal the dazzling beauty of the light at its center.

Divine election is the explanation for the church. God planned a church, one church. This church would be gathered from the dawn of time to the end. Believers in every period of history are part of the same church. Adam and Paul; Isaiah and Luther; Sarah and Lydia—all members of one church. Old Testament Israel was a type of the church, but she also was the church of God, into which, as a living tree, the believers after Pentecost were graphed, forming one tree (or church, Rom. 11:17-24). Stephen, a man full of the Holy Spirit, called Israel of old “the church in the wilderness” (Acts 7:38).

I believe one church, chosen eternally in love.

That church is holy. The holiness of the church can be understood from three points of view. First, from the point of view of eternity, God’s goal for His church is that she will be holy. Ephesians 1:4 speaks of the pur pose of election, namely, “that we should be holy and without blame before him in love.” God determined that the church will dwell with Him in the sphere of His love. Only a holy church can live in covenant life with the Holy One.

Second, the holiness of the church is real because Jesus Christ, the Head of the church, is holy. As is the Head, so is the body. As I Corinthians 1:30 states, Christ is “of God made unto” the church “sanctification.”

And finally, the Holy Spirit of Christ works sanctification in each believer. This work of the Spirit begins in regeneration when the Spirit makes an elect, though dead, sinner come alive with the holy, resurrection life of Jesus Christ. The Spirit continues to make that life work in the believer, causing him to love God and to produce good works.

I believe one, holy church…

…which church is also catholic. These two attributes (holiness and catholicity) are related in that holiness knows no national or race boundaries. The omnipotent God makes an Italian holy as easily as a Russian; a black woman as easily as an oriental. That is God’s eternal plan, namely, to gather a church catholic—a church with members from every people, nation, tribe, and tongue (Rev. 5:9; 7:9). Currently, we see so little of this beauty of the church—a church made up of members of all races and languages, existing in a variety of cultures all over the world. What a breathtaking sight it will be to behold that church in glory!

I believe one, holy, catholic church…

…which is also apostolic. Apostolicity is important because it follows that the church can trace its “line” back to the apostles—not a line of men, but the line of the truth. The church is founded on the truth of the apostles, as Paul writes of the church in Ephesians 2:20, “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone.”

I believe one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.

Two things more, closely related, Scripture emphasizes about the church. The first is her unity. All the biblical figures emphasize that the church is a unified whole. The church is a tree, a vine with branches, and the temple of God. The church is the body of Christ and the bride of Christ. Though comprised of an uncountable number (as the stars in heaven and as the sand of the seashore), the church is a living, unified whole, not an unorganized mob. Accordingly, each member has a God-ordained place and function in the church.

Second, Christ is the essential unity of the church. He is the Foundation (chief corner stone), the Root of the tree, the Vine supporting the branches, the Head of the body, and the Bridegroom of the church, His bride. Each member is united to Christ by the spiritual bond of faith, through which flow His life and all spiritual blessings. Besides, His Spirit dwells in each member. As Paul writes to the Ephesians (Eph. 4:4-6):

There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; One Lord, one faith, one baptism, One God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.

A most glorious work of God is the church of Jesus Christ.

Because it is His masterpiece, God loves His church.

Do we love this church?

Before we answer, “Yes, of course,” without much thought, let us consider briefly how much God loves His church. It is a profitable exercise to search the Bible to see how often it speaks of God’s love for the church. It will fill pages. We can only quote a few verses. Not only is it true that “the Lord loveth the righteous” (Ps. 146:8), but also “the Lord loveth the gates of Zion more than all the dwellings of Jacob” (Ps. 87:2). God created all things for His glory in heaven and earth. Yet, Moses testified to Israel, “the Lord had a delight in thy fathers to love them, and he chose their seed after them, even you above all people, as it is this day” (Deut. 10:14, 15).

The Song of Songs is a poetic description of the love of Christ for His church, and the church’s loving response. In the Song of Solomon 2:4-5 the bride sings: “He brought me to the banqueting house, and his banner over me was love. Stay me with flagons, comfort me with apples: for I am sick of love.”

The New Testament continues this testimony. John’s first epistle testifies of God’s marvelous love for His own: “In this was manifested the love of God toward us, because that God sent his only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him. Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (Song of Solomon 4:9-10). And who can forget Paul’s soaring declaration that nothing, absolutely nothing “shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:35-39).

I once read that if a human being living on the earth could be lifted up into heaven for a short time, be able to hear and see what is happening in heaven, and there could observe God’s love for His church and tender care for each member on the earth, he would be utterly dumbfounded. Why does God so love this church? It is of no account in the eyes of men. Truly, not many noble, rich, or mighty are found there. Worse, it is made up of members who steal, lie, disobey and dishonor parents and presidents alike, seem prone to continual fighting, and who backbite and slander each other. Why does God love such a miserable lot?

He does. For His own name’s sake. He sees His church according to His own plan. He knows what that church will become, in principle is already, in Jesus Christ: the cleansed bride adorned for her Husband, reflecting the glory, wisdom, power, and majesty of God Himself for an eternity.

I ask again, do we love this church? This may not be the love of a kind of abstraction—“Yes, I love that one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church which I cannot see, but confess that it exists.” For that church is manifest in a local congregation. Do we love that church of Jesus Christ?

True love manifests itself chiefly as the Savior’s did—in giving. Loving the church means giving of self for her good. And the church is not the building, it is the company of the elect, believers and their seed. Love manifests itself in praying for her peace and concretely seeking her peace (Ps. 122). Love is revealed in using our gifts, natural and spiritual, for the advantage and salvation of the members of that church. Love manifests itself in a strong desire to worship with the saints. Love delights in the diversity of the church, and yet in her oneness. Love delights in the church’s foundation, truth. Love for God, love for Christ, is manifest concretely in love for the church. As John put it, “every one that loveth him that begat loveth him also that is begotten of him” (I John 5:1).

For, you see, there is a real relationship between the church of Jesus Christ we confess every week and the local congregation of which we are a member, or ought to be a member. There are discernible marks of God’s church that are present in the local congregation.

Next time we will consider the marks of that true church of Jesus Christ, as set forth in the Belgic Confession Article 29.

[The next article in this brief series will not appear until June 1, since the next editorial will give a summary of the agenda for Synod 2018.]