The Holy Catholic Church
When you talk with your friends and family about what it means to be a Christian, do you refer to the church? Or do you think and talk about Christianity as something different than participation in a church?
If someone says they believe in Jesus, do you assume they are an active member of a local church? Or, in your mind, does belief in Jesus have little or nothing to do with a church?
Why has Christ instituted or established the Church? What is God’s purpose or goal for Christians gathered together as a church?
This morning, we are continuing our study through the Apostles’ Creed, and we have arrived at the early Christian affirmation of the “holy catholic [or “universal”] church.” Just as a quick reminder, this will be a topical message, so I won’t be trying to exposit or explain our main passage in detail. Rather, my aim with this sermon is to explain what this short affirmation means (“I/We believe in… the holy catholic church”).
I expect that I will leave many questions unanswered, but I do hope to make a strong case for the church-centered nature of what God is doing in the world. With God’s help, I do hope that we will think more highly of the Church today, and I hope that we will better understand God’s wonderful purpose in creating the Church… for His glory and for our good.
Ephesians 4:1–16 (ESV)
Ephesians 4:1–16 (ESV)
1 I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2 with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3 eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
4 There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
7 But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. 8 Therefore it says, “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.” 9 (In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth?
10 He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.) 11 And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, 14 so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.
15 Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.
We believe in the holy catholic church; that is, that God creates and saves a church (not merely individuals), that the church is universal (though presently visible in local assemblies or churches), and that God has made and will make her holy (He has set the church apart in and for Christ, and He will perfect her).
1. We believe in the Church
1. We believe in the Church
The Creed says, “I/We believe in… the holy catholic church.” Let’s start with the affirmation here of “the Church,” and let’s note three things: first, God creates the Church, second, the Church creates Christians, and third, the emphasis of the Creed is the on the community of believers (i.e., not the individual) which is the same as the biblical emphasis.
A. God creates the Church.
These first two subpoints are an observation of the order of the Apostles’ Creed itself. Note that the Creed begins with God the Father as Creator, it then affirms God the Son as Redeemer, and then it affirms the person of the Holy Spirit. And it is the Holy Spirit who applies the redeeming work of the Son (who was sent by the Father), thus creating a united body or assembly or church of saved sinners.
J.I. Packer made this very observation when he wrote, “It is by strict theological logic that the Creed confesses faith in the Holy Spirit before proceeding to the church… For though the Father and the Son have loved the church and the Son has redeemed it, it is the Holy Spirit who actually creates it…”
This is in perfect keeping with the Scriptures. For example, Acts 20:28 says that “the church” is “God’s” and that He “obtained” or “acquired” or “took possession of” the church with or by “his own blood.” And Ephesians 5 speaks similarly, but there we read about God’s motive in Christ for doing what He did. We see that “Christ loved the church,” and He demonstrated that love by “giving himself up for her” and even “nourishing and cherishing” her (Eph. 5:25, 29). And all of this is applied or worked in real time by the power of God’s Spirit.
1 Corinthians 12:13 says that all Christians have been “baptized into” or immersed or plunged into the “one body” or assembly or church of Jesus Christ by the “Spirit” of God. We see this same language in Ephesians 4, in v3-4. The Bible teaches us that there is “unity” among those who are indwelt by God… a unity which is “of the Spirit” (v3). In other words, the Holy Spirit is the one who brings Christians into true unity, and He is the one in whom such unity is maintained.
We’ve seen this very reality on beautiful display as we’ve been studying through the book of Acts for the last year or so. Every time the gospel goes out and sinners are converted, it is an act or work of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of God empowers the gospel witness (ex: Acts 2:1-13, 4:8-12, 4:31), and every conversion (when sinners are brought into the New Covenant of God) includes (either implicitly or explicitly) repentance, faith, and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38-39, 8:12-17, 9:17-19, 10:44-47).
Brothers and sisters, it is the Holy Spirit of God who brings dead hearts to life through the preaching and teaching of the Word of God, especially focused on the work of God through His Son, Jesus Christ. And it is the Holy Spirit of God who joins those converted believers to Christ and to one another as a new “temple,” a church or assembly of saints, which is a new “dwelling place” for God Himself (Eph. 2:19-22).
God creates the Church! …And the Church creates Christians…
B. The Church creates Christians.
As I said already, this is what the Apostles’ Creed affirms by the way the substance of the Creed is laid out. It’s only after the Creed affirms the work of the Spirit (in creating the Church) that the Creed then affirms the “communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins,” and the rest. J.I. Packer said it this way, “the Holy Spirit… actually creates [the church]… and it is in the church, through its ministry and fellowship, that personal salvation ordinarily comes to be enjoyed.”
Now, if those of us in this room reflect in any way the common mind of American Evangelicalism, then what I’ve just said is probably a bit of a shock. We’re used to thinking and acting individualistically, and any notion of dependence upon others is hard for us to acknowledge… especially when we think about our relationship with Christ. But come along with me for just a bit, and I think it’ll become clear that Christians do not create the Church. No, the Church is something that individual Christians are brought into… The Church predates you and me, it will exist with or without us, and its vitality and health is not dependent upon us at all.
A great church history professor (named Timothy George) used to begin his entry-level classes by saying, “My task is to inform you [i.e., his students] that there was someone between Jesus and your grandmother and then to convince you that it matters.” Friends, Christianity is older… the Church is older than you. The Church is older than your grandmother, and there were a whole bunch of Christians who lived between the time when Jesus ascended and when you were born. They preached and baptized and observed the Lord’s Supper… they built church buildings and sang songs and elected deacons and elders… they gathered on the Lord’s day and met for small group Bible study and saw members come in and go out of their local churches… they evangelized and made disciples and defended the true gospel against heretics and apostates… and they did all of this imperfectly, but they did it for hundreds of years before you came on the scene.
What sinners have today is an opportunity to join something, not to create something. Jesus Christ is the founder of His Church, and He has promised to build it Himself with right confessors who make the good confession about who Christ is – “He is the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:15-20; cf. Matt. 18:15-20). When we live as Christians, as members of Christ’s Church, we carry on the mission and join in the heritage of all those Christians who have gone before us. And, as the author of Hebrews says, “since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith…” (Heb. 12:1-2).
Brother and sisters, let’s be Christians who know our heritage, let’s be Christians who embrace our heritage, and let’s be Christians who do our part in carrying on the mission – the mission of making disciples, followers of Jesus Christ – that mission which has been handed off to us by those who’ve gone before and that mission which we will hand to those who are coming along after us.
For those who teenagers and young adults among us… if you want something really big to live for, this is it!
C. The Church is we, not me.
Before we move on to point number 2, let’s just acknowledge here the emphasis that the Creed places on the on the community of believers, and not on individual converts. Now, I… we… this church confesses and teaches that the gospel calls individual sinners to repent and believe. We believe that every person must decide for himself or herself, “Will you turn from your sin and trust in the Lord Jesus Christ? Or will you remain in your sin?”
Friend, if you are here this morning, and you are not personally trusting and following Jesus in an observable and meaningful way, then I urge you to talk with me or some other Christian after the service this morning. Let’s make sure you understand the gospel, and let’s make sure that you are personally trusting in Jesus.
But we also see that the Bible emphasizes a Christianity that is communal (i.e., it’s shared and public), not individualistic(i.e., private, or isolated, or self-reliant). In fact, the Bible doesn’t seem to know of any such animal as an individualistic Christian. So too, the Apostles’ Creed affirms, not “Christians” or “believers,” but “the church” and “the fellowship” or “communion of saints.” Al Mohler said, “The creed dispels any notion of individualistic Christianity. The creed… places an emphasis not on me but we. Not on I but us.” 
Oh, I would like to say so much more on this topic, but let me at least ask you to think about this for the rest of the day… In what specific ways is your Christianity distinctly communal? How are you forcing yourself to think and speak and act like your relationship with Christ is not just about “you and Jesus”? How are you cultivating and benefitting from meaningful relationships with other Christians, who love you and who know you and who are committed to following Christ beside you?
2. We believe in the Catholic Church
2. We believe in the Catholic Church
I want to admit at least a little bit of personal preference in referring to the “catholic” church in this last bit of the Apostles’ Creed. It is the oldest historical wording, and there are many Protestants who happily affirm their belief in “the holy catholic church.” However, at least since the time of the Protestant Reformation, the word “catholic” is usually so closely tied to the Roman Catholic Church that many Protestants have been more allergic or even hostile to the word. So, some would rather say, “I believe in… the holy universal church,” which is the basic meaning of the word “catholic.”
Let me explain why good Protestants can affirm the “catholic” church without necessarily affirming Rome or any pope, and then let me also argue that (whatever we call it) we must affirm something called catholicity.
A. Catholic?! I thought we were Baptist?!
To say that I or we believe in the “holy catholic church” is to affirm our belief in a universal body of true Christians from all time and space. The word “catholic” is a transliteration of a Greek word and a Latin word, which both mean “universal” or “whole” or “general.” So, there is nothing in the word itself that necessarily refers to the Roman Church. Instead, the word “catholic” was originally meant to distinguish between the local church and the universal Church.
Some of you have probably already noticed, but up to this point, I’ve almost entirely been talking about the universal Church. For example, Christ has not promised to build or to sustain any particular local church, but He has promised to build and sustain His Church – all those believers from every location, and from the furthest past all the way to that moment when Christ shall return in the end. This universal Church is sometimes also called the “invisible” Church because it is an assembly that we cannot see… yet.
One day, soon, there shall be gathered “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all the tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb,” and they shall be dressed with purity and righteousness, and they shall sing the glorious song of God’s salvation (Rev. 7:9). That “great multitude” will sing with the “sound of mighty peals of thunder… ‘Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready; it was granted her to clothe herself with fine linen, bright and pure’” (Rev. 19:6-8).
Brothers and sisters, the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ is His Bride, and those who turn from their sin and trust in Christ, those who enter into fellowship with all the saints who’ve gone before them and those who live beside them now, they shall one day see the risen Lord face-to-face, and they shall enter into union with Him like never before… But that day is still to come, and in the meantime, Christ Himself has instituted local churches as little foretastes of that glorious day.
I think D.A. Carson’s description of local churches is a good one on this point. He writes, “Each local church is not seen primarily as one member parallel to a lot of other member churches, together constituting one body, [or] one church; nor is each local church seen as the body of Christ parallel to other earthly churches that are also the body of Christ – as if Christ had many bodies. Rather, each church is the full manifestation in space and time of the one, true, heavenly, eschatological, new covenant church. Local churches should see themselves as outcroppings of heaven, analogies of the new Jerusalem that is above.”  Indeed, local churches are little embassies of the kingdom of Christ, providing visible expression of the universal or catholic Church that is both already and not yet.
So, I do believe in the holy catholic church, and I think good Protestants can affirm that right along with me, but I should be clear this morning about why there is at least hesitation on the part of some Protestants to affirm anything “catholic.”
B. Let’s do a little history.
Let me take eight minutes to try to summarize the historical development of the Roman Catholic Church and the reason why there is such a thing as a Protestant. I know some in this room grew up in the Roman Catholic Church, and I think some may still think of themselves as Catholics. My purpose is explaining what I’m about to is not to throw negative light on anyone who claims to be Catholic or anyone who is a member of the Roman Catholic Church. Not all Catholics believe the same things, just like not all Baptists believe the same things, and there are many members of churches (of all sorts) who have no idea what their church actually teaches on a given subject (God, salvation, the church). So, I hope this will be heard as a history lesson and an invite to further conversation, not as a condemnation of any particular person here or someone you might know.
First, the Roman Catholic Church as it is today, in its doctrines and in its administration, did not exist until (at the earliest) the year 1215 AD. The Fourth Lateran Council ratified (that year) some of the teachings and most of the organizational forms that are distinctive of and essential to Roman Catholicism today. But it wasn’t until the Council of Trent, which met sporadically from 1545 to 1563 (and served as a Roman response to Protestantism), it wasn’t until then that the main doctrines which separate Rome from Protestants were clearly articulated and ratified.Therefore, regardless of what my Roman Catholic friends might say, the Roman Church is not the oldest and most united church. It has a complicated past, and it has no unique claim on the Apostles or early Christians.
Second, the Roman Catholic Church has formally set itself against Protestants, and it has never pulled back from that clear and official statement. Before and during the 1500s, there were many Christians within the Roman Church who were calling for reform. At least as early as the 1300s, with John Wycliffe in England in and Jan Hus in Bohemia (as well as many others), good Roman Catholics were writing and preaching and working for reforms within the Roman Catholic Church. By all observers, including Roman Catholics, Western Christianity had become so abusive and scandalous that something had to change.
Many historians look back and see that the leadership of the Roman Church was unwilling to change, so Catholic priests, local friars, and Church theologians started protesting. The quintessential moment which seems to capture the scene in the early 1500s was that evening of October 31, 1517, when Martin Luther (a German monk, Catholic priest, and promising theologian) nailed his invitation to scholarly debate on the castle-church door in Wittenberg. The nailing of the 95 theses was a historic moment, but there were others like it happening all over Europe. Zwingli, in Zurich, encouraged his congregation to eat meat during a Roman fasting day. English men and women were sharing copies of Wycliffe’s translation of the Latin Bible, and they were illegally memorizing passages to recite to one another so that they might all hear the Bible in their own language. Spain and France were killing and exiling those who taught against Rome, and that’s how John Calvin (a Frenchmen) ended up in Geneva, where he wrote the first comprehensive systematic theology textbook for instructing new Christians.
All of this came to a head when Rome called a council to deal once-and-for-all with the reformers. At the Council of Trent, Rome condemned to hell anyone who believes that the Bible is the chief authority over all tradition and papal decrees, and they also condemned anyone who believes that sinners are justified by grace alone through faith alone in the person and work of Christ. These statements are clear, they are recorded for anyone to see in the canons or decrees of that council, and they are repeated in the catechism that’s still used by Rome today.
Friends, I’m not saying that Protestants and Roman Catholics can’t be friends, but I am saying that the official teaching of the Roman Church is at odds with what I believe is the true gospel. The official statement from Rome is that all Protestants (Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans, and the like) are condemned before God. As I said before, though, it is likely that most Roman Catholics don’t know the official teaching of Rome, just the same as most people who claim to be Baptist don’t know what Baptists have historically taught. Rather than using labels and throwing grenades, I think we all might do well to simply have good conversations about the biblical gospel… which leads me to catholicity.
C. We want to affirm catholicity.
Catholicity is the idea and the practice of recognizing and celebrating the fact that what our local church has in common with all other true churches is far more important and far more numerous than those areas in which we disagree. Let me say it this way: the most important stuff we believe and do as a church is that stuff we share in common with all other true churches. This is not to minimize what makes us distinct, but it is to elevate that stuff that unites us will all other Christians… those in East Texas and those in Ohio, in Alabama and in California, in Australia and in China… those in the 21st century and those from every other century before and after.
Brothers and sisters, I am a convictional Baptist. And I want to teach and encourage you all to be convictional Baptists. But I am also so very glad to know good Presbyterians and good Assemblies of God folk and good non-denominational churches. The churches in East Texas and beyond are sometimes healthy and sometimes not-so-much, but I’m glad to know of many true churches… who each make visible, in real time, that universal gathering of the saints, which shall one day show us all just how united we truly are.
3. We believe in the Holy Church
3. We believe in the Holy Church
All this talk of universality and unity can make one wonder… United by what? United for what? With this third point, I’m going to refer back to that passage we read together from Ephesians 4, and I’m going to make what I intend to be a brief and also (Lord willing) profound call to do and to believe something. The Apostles’ Creed affirms not only a united Church, but also a holy Church.
A. God’s goal for the Church is holiness.
Ephesians 4 is all about love and unity. God calls Christians to “bear with one another in love” (v2), to “maintain the unity of the Spirit” (v3), to do “the work of ministry [or “service”] for building up the [united] body of Christ” (v12), to “attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God” (v13), to “speak the truth in love” (v15), and to “build” one another “up in love” (v16). But to what end?
Well, verses 13 and 15 both tell us the end or the goal of this unity and love. It is to arrive at “mature manhood… to [attain] the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (v13). And it is “to grow up in every way into him who is the head [of the church]… Christ” (v15). Romans 8 says it like this, “For those whom [God] foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he [i.e., the Son] might be the firstborn among many brothers” (Rom. 8:29). Friends, God’s goal for the Church… God’s goal for the members of every local church is to be like Christ… to be holy, to be accurate image-bearers of God.
Brothers and sisters, more than anything else, God intends for you… for us… to be holy. He is not primarily aimed at our happiness, our comfort, our prestige in the community, or our long life. God is working in and through us to make His people, His Church, holy… Christ-like. And He has done and will do it!
B. Positional holiness, justified in Christ.
First, God has made His people positionally holy. This reality is implicit in Ephesians 4, but it’s explicit in Ephesians 2. Starting in v1… “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins 2 in which you ones walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience – 3 among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. 4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved – 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus…” (Eph. 2:1-6).
If you are believing or trusting in Jesus Christ, then His death has paid the price for your practical unholiness, and His resurrection has guaranteed your positional holiness before God. If you are a Christian, then you are holy!
C. Personal holiness, sanctified by the Spirit.
Second, God is working in His people, by the power of His Spirit, to make them personally holy. Back to Ephesians 4… the Scripture calls Christians to “walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called” (v1). God has called Christians into Christ… that is into holiness… and He urges us to live in light of that calling! This is what is commonly called sanctification.
Brothers and sisters, our chief goal as church members is to personally strive for greater holiness… and to lovingly and honestly – with “all humility and gentleness… [and] patience” (v2) – help each other strive for holiness. As church members, there is never nothing for us to do in the church. We always have room to grow in our own holiness, and there are numerous church members beside us who desperately need our help to grow in their holiness. This is what it means for us all to be striving for spiritual maturity and Christ-likeness. This is what it means for the “body [to] grow… [and] build itself up in love” (v16). May God help us.
D. Practical holiness, glorified in the end.
Third, and finally, God will do it! He will make His people holy… practically holy… really holy. But this will only happen in the end. God has indeed made His people positionally holy in Christ, and He works in us (through our meaningful and structured relationships in the church) to be personally holy, and when we stand before Him in glory… we shall truly be what He has called us – holy.
On that last day, when Christ gives a shout like the sound of a trumpet blast, all those who are in Christ Jesus will meet him as His bride, His body, His church, and we shall be visibly the holy catholic or universal church of the Lord Jesus Christ. We shall all sing that song of God’s salvation “Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready; it was granted her to clothe herself with fine linen, bright and pure’” (Rev. 19:6-8).
We believe in the holy catholic church… that God creates and saves a church, that the church is universal, and that God has made and will make her holy. May God help us believe this, and may He help us to live like we believe it’s true.
 It will become clear in point number 2, but it should be noted up front that “the church” in focus under point number one is the universal church, not the local church. This is usually connoted by using a capital “C” for the word Church, though there may be times in this sermon when this designation is not so easily made. A statement may include both the local and the universal church, there may be times when I have simply mistyped the word Church or church, and there are occasions when a the concepts of the universal and the local church overlap. Packer, 121. Packer, 121. Mohler, 150.  Mohler, 149. The Greek word καθολικος and the Latin word catholicus can both be transliterated into the English word catholic. The first record of using this word to refer to the universal church is by Ignatius of Antioch who died circa 110 AD. Polycarp of Smyrna (c. 69-155) also wrote of the “Catholic Church,” referring to the “whole” or “all-encompassing” body of believers in Christ. Mohler, 160. The Roman Catholic Church today shares many common doctrines with Protestants. These are not the doctrines that make Rome distinct as a Church. As time moved on, Rome increasingly articulated and demanded adherence to doctrines and organizational structures that are clearly absent from Scripture. This article by Joe Carter does a good job of summarizing some of the main points of the Council of Trent as a historical moment that continues to impact Protestants and Roman Catholics today. https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/9-things-you-should-know-about-the-council-of-trent/
Holcomb, Justin S. Know the Creeds and Councils. Know Series. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014.
Mohler Jr., R. Albert. The Apostles’ Creed: Discovering Authentic Christianity in an Age of Counterfeits. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2019.
Packer, J. I. Affirming the Apostles’ Creed. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2008.
Sproul, R. C., ed. The Reformation Study Bible: English Standard Version. 2015 Edition. Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust, 2015.
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016.