We Believe in One Holy Christian and Apostolic Church
Nicene Creed Sermon Series #11
August 26, 2007
We believe in one holy Christian and apostolic church. (Nicene Creed)
Twice a month we confess those words, while on the other Sundays we confess something very similar. On those Sundays we say, “I believe in the holy Christian church, the communion of saints.”
And not only do you confess that you believe that there is such a creature as the “one holy Christian and apostolic church”, but you are also confessing that you firmly believe yourself to be part of it.
So how would go about proving it? Could you say, “Well, I’m a member of Peace Evangelical Lutheran Church—Look! My name’s right here in the directory!—and that’s pretty much the same as the holy Christian and apostolic church”? Or maybe you’d go with, “I’ve been a member of the WELS for all my life, and the WELS is the right church.”
If so, your approach towards and your view of the holy Christian and apostolic church is much the same as that of the Pope, who recently created something of a stir when he signed off on a document that essentially defined the holy Christian Church as being one and the same as the Catholic Church.
All such statements betray a serious lack of understanding of what the holy Christian and apostolic church is, and it especially betrays a serious lack of understanding of the word “holy.”
Holiness cannot be acquired as easily as signing membership forms at the right congregation or in the right synod or church body—as the Pope seems to suggest and as the Devil tempts us also to think. No, there’s far more to holiness than “joining the right club.”
Many people would agree, saying that there is indeed far more involved in holiness. But neither does holiness consist of what so many of them believe it does. If people say that someone is a really holy person, they usually mean that the person lives a very moral life. They don’t mean to claim that the person is absolutely perfect, but simply that they are better than most others. If that were the proper definition of “holy” then I suppose we might simply look at the lives of people to determine who is a member of the holy Christian church. Those who live pretty good lives must be members.
But that’s not the Bible’s definition of “holy.” Over and over, when the Bible uses the word “holy” it is referring to something that is without any blemish, without even one defect, something that is perfect.
And this is where I start to get more than a little bit concerned. And you should too. Because if attaining membership in the holy Christian church is simply a matter of choosing the right earthly church, I have a chance. If attaining membership in the holy Christian church is simply a matter of straightening up and living a little cleaner in the future than you have in the past, you have a chance. But if attaining membership in the holy Christian church is a matter of being absolutely blameless and spotless before and in the eyes of the one true—and holy—God, then it would appear that you can believe in the existence of the holy Christian church all you want, but there’s just no way that you can actually be a part of it. For there is far too much unholy sin on your record, and there is far too few instances of holy living on your record.
Holiness becomes nothing more than a dream, and confessing the existence of a holy Christian church becomes nothing more than meaningless words—a confession which—if true at all—has no real impact and holds out no real hope for you.
And yet when Paul opens his letters to the various churches, he addresses the readers of those letters as either “holy” or “saints.” (Romans 1:7; 1 Corinthians 1:2; 2 Corinthians 1:1; Ephesians 1:1; Philippians 1:1; Colossians 1:2) Remember that in the Apostles Creed we confess that we believe in the holy Christian church and then immediately follow it up with “the communion of saints.” Those four words are an appositive, a description of, another way of saying, “the holy Christian church.”
Was Paul participating in a spiritual deflation of sorts—deflating the value of the words “holy” and “saints” by broadening their application in a way that wasn’t really scriptural? Was he abandoning God’s definition of “holy” for a definition that was more palatable to his readers, a definition that allowed just about everyone to feel like a winner?
Not at all. When Paul addressed those people as “saints”, he meant that they were holy, perfect in the eyes of God. How does that happen? Well, there’s a reason that the church is described as “holy Christian.” Those two are inseparable. To put it negatively, the church cannot be holy without Christ. To put it positively, if the church is Christian, it is most certainly—yes, it must be—holy.
Paul explains when he writes, ”Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.” (Ephesians 5:25-27)
No stain. Not even one wrinkle! How did Jesus take our unholy, horribly wrinkled, entirely stained lives and make us spotless, blameless, holy? Simply put, he was holy in our place. He lived a life that was so unblemished by sin that his enemies had to resort to making up lies about him. Then, what’s even more amazing, he loved the church—that is, he loved you and he loved me—enough that he gave himself up for her to make her holy. And you can understand “gave himself up” in every and in the severest sense of that phrase. He gave himself up to unjust arrest. He gave himself up to kangaroo courts. He gave himself up to mockings, spitting, beatings. He gave himself up to 3 nails and 1 cross. And once there, he gave himself up to the just wrath of his holy Father, who punished him for your sins.
When it was finished, he held up the church and took a look at it. What he saw was nearly blinding. The dirt, the grime, the scum—gone. What replaced it? A brilliant (or to use Paul’s word, “radiant”) perfection.
This perfection—and along with it, membership in the holy Christian church—is yours through faith in Christ. Therefore you are part of the holy Christian Church. You are part of that group Peter wrote about. You are part of that “chosen people”, that “royal priesthood”, that “holy nation.” (1 Peter 2:9)
Now there are two reasons that we appear to have digressed from our discussion about who exactly and where exactly is the holy Christian church. One is that it’s so good to hear the good news of salvation—even if it doesn’t have much to do with the question at hand. But the second reason is that it reminds us of who makes up the holy Christian church, of how membership in the holy Christian church is gained—through faith in Jesus as Savior.
To state it simply, the holy Christian church is made up of all people who believe in Jesus as their Savior—no matter who they are, no matter where they are.
(At this point perhaps we ought to take a moment to state the other side of that statement: Those who do not believe in Jesus as their Savior are not members of the holy Christian church—and therefore are not saved—no matter who they are, no matter how nice they are, no matter how “good” they are, no matter how sincere they are in whatever beliefs they might have. When the Pharisees and leaders of the Jewish church tried to stop Peter from preaching Christ who was risen as the Savior of all he replied: "Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved." (Acts 4:12). In essence he was saying, “If I don’t preach Christ, then I have nothing to preach. There’s no other way of gaining salvation besides through Jesus.”)
St. Paul, writing to the Christians at Corinth on building the church, reminded them: "For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ." (I Cor. 3:11). (See also Eph. 2:20; Eph. 5:23.)
What we’ve said in the last few minutes is neatly summed up by the first verse of hymn 538. We sing hymn 538, verse 1. (The church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord. She is his new creation, by water and the word. From heaven he came and sought her, to be his holy bride. With his own blood he bought her, and for her life he died.” [Christian Worship: 538, verse 1])
Now if membership in the holy Christian church is a matter of faith, then we might say that the church is invisible, for faith is something that exists in the heart. (It is true that faith will reveal itself visibly in actions, but it’s also true that those actions may be faked by someone with an unbelieving heart.)
And how does this faith come about? “Faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ.” (Romans 10:17) That means that wherever the Word of God is, there also is the Holy Spirit working and creating faith in people’s hearts, there also is the Holy Spirit creating and strengthening members of the holy Christian church.
Therefore when the Word of God is read in an Anglican church, the Holy Spirit is active. When the words, “O Christ, Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world” are sung in a Catholic church, the Holy Spirit is using those words to create and strengthen faith.
And now you know where the holy Christian church is. It is wherever the Word of God is preached, spoken, or sung. It is not limited to one earthly church body, not limited to one particular denomination.
I’m not sure how that makes you feel. But how it ought to make you feel is glad. Be glad that the reach of the holy Christian church is not limited to the reach of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod. Be glad that the saving Word of God is being preached beyond the bounds of our synod. Be overjoyed at the fact that somewhere in the pews at St. Stanislaus of the Blessed Vision of the Virgin Mary is someone who in the midst of all the talk about the power of the Virgin Mary and all the talk of the need for making ourselves righteous before God has somehow managed to grab hold of the words, “A Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord”—and is as a result a member along with you of the Holy Christian Church. Look forward to the day in heaven when you will see not just 400,000 members of the WELS, but the countless thousands of members of the holy Christian church.
(We might at this point also remind ourselves of how the holy Christian church is built and grows. It grows only through the preaching of the Word. We might be able to get Peace Lutheran Church to grow in any number of ways—puppet shows, a dynamic and entertaining preacher, free beer for all who join the church—but the holy Christian church will only grow by the preaching of the Word. When Paul was about to die by execution he wrote a young pastor by the name of Timothy: "I give you this charge: Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage--with great patience and careful instruction." (2 Tim. 4:1-2) Paul offered Timothy no Plan B. We also have no Plan B. Nor do we need one. Plan A—Preach the Word—is more than sufficient, for it comes with the promise of God: “As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: it will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.” [Isaiah 55:10-11])
So what should we think of when we confess “I believe in one holy Christian and apostolic church”? We should think of and thank God for the fact that there is a group of believers throughout the world who has been made holy through faith in Christ as their Savior—a faith that has been taught by the apostles (and the prophets). (Incidentally, this is why we confess that the holy Christian church is also apostolic–not because we can trace some family tree of the apostles through to today, but because the faith which the apostles preached is the faith on which our sure hope rests. And what is that faith? Christ as Savior. Paul sums it up by saying that we are “fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone.” [Ephesians 2:20] That’s an apostolic church–one whose teaching is centered on the apostolic teaching of Christ as Savior.) When you confess that you believe in one holy Christian and apostolic church, may you also give thanks that the Holy Spirit has been and continues to be active in creating and strengthening that church. May we look forward to seeing—and being amazed by the size of—that church one day in heaven. May we even now be comforted by the size—and especially by the unity—unseen though it might be—of that one holy Christian and apostolic church–a unity described by Paul when he said, “There is one body and one Spirit–just as you were called to one hope when you were called–one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all” (Ephesians 4:4-6) We continue with hymn 538, verse 2.
There is one loose end we need to tie up, one question that almost seems to flow naturally from the teaching that there is just one holy Christian and apostolic church and that members of that church are found wherever the Word of God still is heard. The question(s) is(are): “So if the holy Christian church exists in all the various churches in which the saving Word of God is read, preached, or sung, then why are there so many churches? Why are we in the WELS so isolationist? Why do we insist on pointing out the errors in those churches? Can’t we instead focus on the fact that the Holy Spirit is able to, and can’t we rejoice in the fact that he is creating and strengthening believers in those churches?”
We can indeed focus on and rejoice in what the Holy Spirit is doing in those churches. In fact, I believe that we just did. And perhaps there are some of us who ought to do that a bit more than we do, lest we give the impression—or even ourselves fall into Satan’s trap of believing—that salvation comes through something other than the hearing and believing of the word of Christ.
And yet the fact that we confess a faith in one holy Christian and apostolic church does not mean that we may not also recognize and point out vitally important differences in earthly churches.
Yes, wherever the Word of God is, some will be saved. But wherever that Word of God exists alongside of false teaching, some will also be misled and spend eternity in Hell as a result. Those who suggest that we are being isolationist and that we ought only to focus on the good things that the Holy Spirit is accomplishing through the Word in other church bodies, while at the same time ignoring the false teachings in those churches greatly underestimate the power of false teaching and ignore what the Bible has to say about false teaching.
About false teachers–even false teachers who also preached some of God’s Word–Paul wrote, “Their teaching will spread like gangrene” (2 Timothy 2:17). And elsewhere, “Even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned.” (Galatians 1:8). Still elsewhere, “I urge you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them.” (Romans 16:17)
Don’t let the power of the Holy Spirit—the power that he has to accomplish his work even in churches with false teachings, even in churches with teachings that are completely antithetical to the saving gospel (and there are plenty of such churches!)–don’t let that power mislead you into forgetting the power of the Devil and the power of false teaching.
Yes, there are the “happy inconsistencies”—the people who, in spite of the false and even antichristian teachings within their churches, believe in Jesus as their Savior. And we do rejoice at those happy inconsistencies. But let us not forget the “unhappy consistencies.” That is, let us not forget that there are many people who hear, are misled by, and believe the false teachings in those churches and end up in Hell as a result.