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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.
Scripture Reading
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.
Main Idea:
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).
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.[1]
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…”[2]
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.
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.”[3]
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.”[4]
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.
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.
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.” [5]
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
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.”[6]
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.
That “great multitude” will sing with the “sound of mighty peals of thunder… ‘Hallelujah!
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