1961 Synod Convention Essay
Every Sunday we confess: “I believe in the Holy Christian Church, the Communion of Saints.” As an article of faith the doctrine of the Church was included in the oldest formal confession of Christianity.
But it can be safely said that in years gone by this doctrine has not received among us the attention and study that it merits. We have been concerned about certain aspects of the doctrine, such as religious unionism, the character of a local congregation, etc., but in the main, we have at our church conventions centered our thoughts and discussion in other areas of Christian doctrine.
All will agree, it is a timely doctrine for us to study today, first of all, because the doctrine of the Church is being discussed throughout all Christendom. The ecumenical movement makes much of what it thinks is the doctrine of the Church, asserting to the point of weariness that its great goal is “unity,” even if there is not agreement as to what is the unity which they seek. The WCC, pointing to its New Delhi meeting this year, is pushing for an outward union of the church on the basis of a confession which is so vague and understood in so many different ways that it can only hinder the building of God’s Holy Christian Church, the Una Sancta.
The doctrine of the Church, I am happy to note, has in recent years also been the subject of study on the part of Bible-believing Christians. Last year Lutherans within our own fellowship conducted a ten-day theological conclave at the Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary, Thiensville, the subject of which was the Doctrine of the Church. Some excellent papers have come out of this Conference.
All Christians are today as a matter of fact concerned about the doctrine of the Church. We can certainly agree with Dr. Carl F.H. Henry, editor of Christianity Today, that we are all confronted with “three great concerns — the problem of religious authority, the mission of the Church, and the nature of the Church” (see Christianity Today, April 24, 1961, p. 29).
But, more important still why we should devote time at our convention to the study of the doctrine of the Holy Christian Church is that Scripture has much to say about it. When you pull together everything in the Old Testament and the New Testament of what God has revealed about the Church, the people of God, you have an impressive total. And let me hasten to add that it is a total of revelation which is of great practical value to the Christian, for what God has taught us concerning His Church comes under Paul’s inclusive words: “Whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning that we through patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope” (Rom. 15:4).
In setting forth the Biblical concept of “Church” one finds it difficult to know just where to begin. Kittel’s “Theological Dictionary of the New Testament” has in its English translation 69 pages on the one word Ekklesia, “Church.” I could have set forth several theses summarizing what the various parts of Scripture teach concerning this doctrine, but this has been done so well by many others, notably Dr. Walther, that this would be carrying coals to Newcastle. In my judgment, the most constructive way for us to be edified is to read and study together a portion of Scripture which deals in considerable detail with the doctrine of the Church. And since all Scripture is a unit, and God’s revelation is one, our study will lead to an understanding of how the word is used and applied throughout the entire Bible. So we shall go through several sections of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians, where Paul sets forth the glory of Christ in the Church. All expositors are unanimous in stating that one of the chief concepts in Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians is that of the Church. Dr. Stoeckhardt declares that this epistle sets forth especially “the hidden honor, worth, and glory of the Holy Christian Church.” (Lehre und Wehre, 1901, p. 97).
The chief passages we shall study in this Letter will be 1:10; 20.23; 2:19–22; 3:9.10; 20.21; 4:1–6; 16; 5:22–33.
Since Paul’s prayer, not only for the Ephesian Christians but also for us, is that our spiritual knowledge may grow (1:15–19) this suggests our own need and prompts us to pray as we begin this study with Paul “that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give unto us a spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him” (17).
The Epistle opens with a grand doxology, praising God for what He has done for us Christians (1–14): “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ Who hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ!” Paul says “us” — ”who hath blessed us” — and so he unites himself with his Christian readers and all believing Christians and requests them to join him in magnifying and praising God who has blessed us with every possible spiritual blessing. For consider what He has done: before the foundation of the world, out of pure grace, He chose us in Christ to be adopted as His own children, to be holy and without blame before Him in love. He did this in Christ, through the shedding of whose blood we have the forgiveness of sins, — all this revealing the richness of God’s grace which He lavished upon us. God has even made known to us His hidden purpose, made according to His good pleasure and grace, that in the fulness of time He would collect and bring together in Christ all the elect so that He would have one single, united family in Christ both in heaven and in earth: “that in the dispensation of the fulness of time He might gather together in one all things in Christ both which are in heaven and which are in earth, even in Him” (10). Dr. Stoeckhardt says: “Thus we here for the first time in our Epistle meet the idea of the Una Sancta, one Holy Christian Church, to which Christ had even before in very similar words, pointed when He prayed His heavenly Father that all who were given Him, in Him, in Christ, might become one. Thus the Church at once and truly appears as an eternal Church, planned by an eternal counsel of God, just as our confession of faith names her, the coetus electorum” (Commentary, p. 67, see also L. u. W. 1901, p. 99).
But the apostle does not end his catalog of blessings even here. Through faith we have been promised a share in this inheritance to which we had already been predestinated so that through us, and in us, God was to be glorified (John 17,10). Through the preaching of faith we have received the Holy Spirit. He has become our own possession (Gal. 3,2). We have been sealed by this Holy Spirit who dwells within us so that we are assured that we belong to God. And all this is an earnest, a guarantee of purchase, of the eternal inheritance, and a first-fruits of the good things to come. “All this, and heaven too” runs the popular phrase which has almost acquired a cynical connotation from its wide application to everything in this life, but it is literally true for the Christian, and rightly does the apostle ask the Christian to give thanks to God for his membership in the Christian Church and for the fact that he, together with all the children of God, are the elect of the Lord.
Because, continues the apostle (15–23), this blessing which his readers share is so great, and because they through their faith have become partakers of this blessing, he thanks God for them, and prays that God may bestow upon them spiritual illumination, growth and understanding so that they may more abundantly recognize what God has done for them and in them. More specifically, Paul desires that we might understand that the work of divine power which converted us was the same power by which Jesus was raised from the dead.
And this Jesus, which was raised from the dead, and Whom God has seated on His own right hand, far above all principalities, powers and might, this Jesus (note the Greek, where Paul emphasizes this by placing the word “him” at the beginning of the sentence) God “has given as a present, as it were, to the Christian Church which is His body” (Stoeckhardt, Commentary, p. 110). The believers (v. 13), the elect (v. 4), the saints (v. 1) whom Paul has been addressing in his letter, are now expressly called ekklesia, “The Church.”
Before we go any further in studying Ephesians to learn more about the attributes of the Church, we must pause briefly to examine the word ekklesia. The ekklesia is, as Dr. Stoeckhardt states, “the communion of believers of all the elect children of God upon earth” (Commentary page 110). Certainly this first chapter has already set forth the concept of a single, united people of God composed of Christians and which is called Christ’s body. In Colossians 1,24, the ekklesia is the body of Christ, and in Col. 1,18, Christ is the Head of this body. These two passages correspond exactly with Eph. 1,22.23. If anything is clear so far in this chapter of Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians, it is this, that God alone has made us believers, members of His body according to the good pleasure of His will.
Let us briefly look at the word ekklesia as it is used in other parts of the New Testament. Its basic meaning is “that which is called out,” “an assembly.” The word is used twice in Matthew, but is not found in Mark, Luke, John. It is found frequently in the Book of Acts, and of course in the Epistles, although I Peter does not have it, but as we shall see later, it has the equivalent in other words. In Matt. 16,18 Christ tells Peter that He will build His Church (ekklesia) upon the confession Peter had made, that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the living God. In Matt. 18,17, “tell it to the Church,” our Savior does not define it in any way. The next time we meet the word is in Acts 2,47, where the concept that it is the Lord who creates the Church is distinctly stated, “And the Lord added to the Church daily such as should be saved.” In Acts 20,28, Paul calls the Church “the Church of God which He hath purchased with His own blood.”
Looking more closely at the use of ekklesia, we note that practically the only attribute Paul applies to the word by way of definition is the genitive “of God” and it occurs both in the singular and in the plural. Since this, I believe, is an important point, let me quote several examples. I Cor. 1,2: “Unto the Church of God which is at Corinth”; I Cor. 2,32: “Give none offense, neither to the Jews, nor to the Gentiles, nor to the Church of God”; Galatians 1,13: “How that beyond measure I persecuted the Church of God.” Now some examples of the plural. I Cor. 11,16: “We have no such custom, neither the Churches of God”; I Thess. 2,14: “For ye, brethren, became followers of the Churches of God which in Judea are in Christ Jesus”; II Thess. 1,4: “So that we ourselves glory in you in the Churches of God for your patience and faith in all your persecutions.” Surely this single modifier, “of God,” fortifies the direct statements of Scripture as we have already learned them from the first chapter of Ephesians, that Almighty God creates and sustains the Church. Kittel states: “ornamental epithets are never employed; the only attribute, so to speak, is the genitive ‘of God,’ which comes from the Old Testament. It is generally omitted, but always to be understood in order to give ekklesia its full weight. The ekklesia of God is always regarded as being distinguished from or opposed to other forms of society, as is made clear in Acts 2,47, where the Christians are distinguished from ‘all the people’” (Kittel, p. 7). This dictionary, after noting that sometimes the article is used, sometimes it is omitted with both the singular and the plural, also draws the conclusion “obviously ekklesia has almost become a proper noun” (p. 10).
Very correctly, therefore, the confessions define the Church as “the congregation of saints” (The Augsburg Confession, Art. VII & VIII, Trig, p. 47); The Apology, that “The Church is the congregation of saints” (Trig., p. 227); The Smalcald Articles “thank God, (today) a child seven years old knows what the Church is, namely, the holy believers and lambs who hear the voice of the Shepherd” (Trig., p. 499.)
But as we continue our study of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians we shall hear more of this. Returning again to the first chapter, we read of Christ: “and hath put all things under His feet, and gave Him to be the head over all things to the Church, which is His body, the fulness of Him that filleth all in all.” (vv. 22,23).
Our Savior, the God-Man, Jesus Christ, whom God has given to be the head of the Church, fills the Church with the full measure of His gifts and powers. John testifies of Him “and of His fullness have all we received, and grace for grace” (John 1,16). All the spiritual heavenly blessings which Paul has described in the first half of this chapter — redemption through the blood of Christ, the forgiveness of sins, the gifts of the spirit flow from Christ into the Christian Church, and Christ is ruler, not only over all creation (v. 22: “and hath put all things under His feet”), but particularly over His faithful believers, His Church, His Body which He fills with the treasures of His grace. Not only the grace of God, but also His omnipotence, is a guarantee for the preservation and the final deliverance of His Church. And now the apostle prays that we, who name the name of Christ in true faith, may recognize this and be firmly established in this faith. That is the burden of his prayer.
I do not know what Dr. Stoeckhardt’s favorite hymn was, but several times in his commentary on the Epistle to the Ephesians he quotes from Paul Gerhardt’s hymn, “If God Himself be for Me,” and he ends his commentary on this first chapter of Ephesians by saying, “Christians may confidently and fearlessly enter the battle against all the enemies of their faith and of their salvation. They are conscious of the fact that the Lord is fighting for them, that Lord who has all power in heaven and earth.
If God Himself be for me,
I may a host defy,
For when I pray, before me
My foes confounded fly;
If Christ, the Head, befriend me,
If God be my support,
The mischief they intend me
Shall quickly come to naught.”
(Commentary, p. 114)
But let us move on to the second chapter of Ephesians where Paul further describes the glories of the Holy Christian Church. First he reminds his Gentile readers how gloriously the power of God worked in them. When they were dead in trespasses and sins, He brought them to life in Christ, and this act of regeneration was by grace alone, “lest any man should boast” (v. 9).
Then the apostle becomes even more specific with regard to all of us who are classified as Gentiles. The Ephesian Christians were outside the covenant made with the Jews, aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, but now they have been “made nigh by the blood of Christ” (v. 13) and have been incorporated as part of the people of God. Now they are the legitimate members of the Church of God. “Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellow-citizens with the saints, and of the household of God; and are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief corner-stone; in whom all the building, fitly framed together, groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord: in Whom ye also are builded together for an habitation of God through the Spirit” (vv. 19–22).
In the Holy Christian Church we are all fellow-citizens with the saints, and members of God’s household (v. 19). In the Church of God we are all equally fellow-citizens. Here there are no class distinctions, no differentiation of rank or honor “for ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female; for ye are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3,26–28).
In verse 20 the apostle shifts the image of the house somewhat, when he says “And are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief corner-stone.” In verse 19 the believing Christians were members of the household of God; they comprised a family in which all members enjoy equal privileges. But here in verse 20 they themselves are the temple, the living stones, a magnificent holy building, the Church. St. Peter employs this picture when he says “Ye also as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house, an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ” (I Pet. 2,5).
This picture has become familiar to us through Grundtvig’s great hymn, “Built on the Rock the Church Doth Stand”:
We are God’s House of Living Stones,
Builded for His habitation;
He through baptismal grace us owns
Heirs of His wondrous salvation;
Were we but two His name to tell
Yet He would deign with us to dwell,
With all His grace and His favor.
The apostle next directs our attention to the foundation of this spiritual house, namely the foundation of the apostle and the prophets. Dr. Stoeckhardt points out that the genitive of “the apostles and the prophets is one of apposition” (Commentary, p. 132; L. u. W., 1901, p. 296; see also I.C.C.). The apostles and the prophets themselves are the foundation, not that they laid the foundation which would not harmonize with the rest of the picture of the apostle, namely, that Jesus Christ is the cornerstone. The cornerstone is a person, the stones built upon the foundation are persons, and so that the image1y be consistent the foundation also consists of persons, namely “the apostles and prophets.” The apostles and prophets constitute a unit since in the Greek they are both governed by the same definite article. These Gentile Christians whom Paul is addressing, first heard the word of truth, the Gospel of salvation, through the apostles (see Eph. 1,13). But these Christians were also strengthened and comforted by the fact that the apostles directed them to prophets of the Old Testament by which the apostles proved the truth of their doctrine. The apostles and the prophets are the foundation of the building, the Holy Christian Church, which continues to grow until the end of time. Through the apostolic–prophetic word faith is kindled and thus the Church is gathered. The apostles and the prophets were the holy men of God who spoke as they were moved by the Holy Ghost. Though they have long since died, they still live in their writings, because their word was God’s Word.
We have a sure prophetic Word
By inspiration of the Lord;
And though assailed on every hand,
Jehovah’s Word shall ever stand.
Abiding steadfast, firm and sure
The teachings of the Word endure
Blest he who trusts this steadfast Word;
His anchor holds in Christ the Lord.
But the apostle here in particular reminds us, as he speaks of the foundation of the Church, that the chief content of the writings of the apostles and prophets is Jesus Christ, even as He is the chief corner-stone of the house of God (I Tim. 3,15), the Holy Christian Church.
The Orientals regarded the corner-stone as of greater importance than the foundation of a building because they considered it as connecting and concentrating on itself, the weight of the building. And so here, Christ Jesus, the Savior of Whom the Word testifies, is the foundation of faith and of the communion of saints who are being gathered from the world of sinners. He is the precious corner-stone Whom God from eternity chose to be the Savior of sinners. It is as Peter says before Annas and Caiaphas and the other members of the Jewish council: “Be it known unto you all and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth whom ye crucified, whom God raised from the dead, even by Him doth this man stand here before you whole. This was the stone which was set at naught of you builders, which has become the Head of the corner. Neither is there salvation in any other, for there is none other name under heaven, given among men, whereby we must be saved” (Acts 4,10–12).
Christ through His Word supports, strengthens, and preserves His Church so that no power, not even the gates of Hell, can prevail against it. As St. Peter wrote in his epistle: “He that believeth on Him shall not be confounded” (I Pet. 2,6). In his Commentary, Dr. Stoeekhardt here simply quotes the third stanza of “If God Himself be for Me”:
I build on this foundation, —
That Jesus and His blood
Alone are my salvation,
The true, eternal good;
Without Him, all that pleases
Is valueless on earth;
The gifts I owe to Jesus
Alone my love are worth.
(Commentary, p. 154)
The apostle then proceeds to describe the wonderful building itself. “In whom all the building, fitly framed together, groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord in whom ye are also builded together for an habitation of God through the Spirit” vv. 21, 22). When the apostle says “in whom” that is, in Christ, he again changes the imagery somewhat, dropping the picture of the corner-stone, and simply stating the relation between Christ and the Christian. Christians are in, and live in Christ, and enjoy communion with Him. Our confessions call the Church the Una Sancta (The One Holy Church) because its members are holy through the imputation of Christ’s blood and merit, and because all believers are one in Christ. The close relation between Christ and all the believers brings about also the close and intimate union between the Christians themselves: “In whom all the building fitly framed together.” More exactly: “In whom the whole building is welded, cemented, together.”
It is of great practical importance for us not to forget that this building is still in the process of construction and will continue so until the last syllable of recorded time, when all the elect have been gathered, and so “it groweth unto a holy temple of the Lord” or as verse 22 puts it, “unto an habitation of God through the Spirit.”
We cannot help thinking of Paul’s words in I Cor. 3,16: “Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and the Spirit of God dwelleth in you.” Grundtvig translates this concept into these poetical words:
Surely in temples made with hands,
God the Most High is not dwelling,
High above earth His temple stands,
All earthly temples excelling;
Yet He whom heavens cannot contain
Chose to abide on earth with men
Built in our bodies His temple.
This mighty temple of living stones is growing in its dimensions every day. Day by day, through water and the Word, the Spirit adds new stones to the temple wall. This is not a visible temple, although at times its growth may reveal some visible signs through the confession and life of people. Each particular stone, going into the temple wall, is being transformed by the Master Builder. The work of the Spirit is to cut, carve, chisel, cleanse and bring to life, so that the stones of which the building is composed fit together, support one another, accommodate themselves to one another, to make a perfect whole. John Donne prayed;
“Batter my heart, three-personed God: for You
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.”
Paul tells his readers that the members of the Church have been bonded together in the unity of the faith. This unity in the faith is apparent in their life and in their walk, because Christians are also sanctified by their faith in Christ. Through the power of the Spirit there is ceaseless stir and growth in the hearts of God’s children, for they are living stones “builded together for an habitation of God through the Spirit.”
During this building process, it should be noted, the glory of the Church is veiled, and hidden. There is a great deal of scaffolding around it, and we human beings tend to look at the wrong things, when judging its beauty and strength. Too often. when the Psalmist tells us to “walk about Zion, and go round about her; tell the towers thereof. Mark ye well her bulwarks, consider her palaces; that ye may tell it to the generation following” (Ps. 48, 12,13), too often we look at the wrong things. It has always been that way. The Jews attached too much significance to the Temple, and to the external nation of the Isrealites. The whole ecumenical movement of today, of which we shall speak more later, is afflicted with the same myopic, and we may also add, astigmatic vision. Only the Holy Spirit, working through words such as those we have been studying together in Ephesians, can clear our eyes so that we remember that we have no continuing city here, and that our confession is: I believe in the Holy Christian Church.
The apostle has been unobtrusively but steadily unfolding for us the concept of the Church. He has been operating as the painter operates, putting in a detail here, and a detail there, after he has sketched the main outline of the picture. So, as he continues into the third chapter of Ephesians, he will paint in more detail, sharply etching some things we might overlook. The third chapter, verses 9,10,20 and 21 have references to the doctrine of the Church.
This truth, that the Gentiles are equally with the Jews heirs of the inheritance, and members of the body of Christ, was hidden from former generations. Even though the Old Testament proclaimed that the Gentiles would come to the brightness of the Messiah’s rising, yet the universal character of God’s grace was not understood. And so to Paul, unworthy though he was (“less than the least of all saints,” v. 8), was given the special privilege of proclaiming to the Gentiles the universal grace of God in Christ Jesus. And so glorious, says the apostle, is this universal plan of salvation as it becomes revealed in the Church that even the angels rejoice to see Gentiles added to the Church through the preaching of the unsearchable riches of Christ (v. 10).
And so Paul offers another prayer on behalf of the members of the Church of God (v. 14–21) that they may be given inward spiritual strength; that Christ may dwell in them through faith; and being themselves well-grounded in love, they may learn to know the love of Christ which, properly speaking, surpasses knowledge. It is the wish of the apostle that the members of the Christian Church may advance till they are filled with all the fullness of the grace and the gifts of God.
The object of Paul’s prayer was indeed a lofty one, but not too lofty, because God is able to give more than we can ask or understand. We Christians are weak in our prayers because we do not fully recognize our need nor our blessings. Nevertheless God can, by the power which has already worked within us by creating spiritual life, do infinitely more. Surely He can perfect the work He has begun in us. Therefore to Him be glory in the Church through Jesus Christ forever and ever.
And so in this third chapter Paul teaches us that the Church will endure to the end of time, and the Church thanks God for the great things He has done in and for her, and still continues to do out of pure grace.
In the second part of the Epistle, chapters 4–6, Paul now passes, as he usually does, from the doctrinal exposition to the practical exhortation, but the idea of the Church also remains foremost in this part of the letter. When he says, in the first >verse of the fourth chapter “I therefore, a prisoner of the Lord beseech you that ye walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called,” it is a reminder that these Christians were called to Christ, and to Christ’s Church, and therefore they ought to show themselves to be true members of the Holy Christian Church by walking worthy of this calling. It is a call to harmonious living together in the Church of Christ, and to treating each other as members of the same body of Christ.
And the first condition is lowliness, “with all lowliness and meekness.” Lowliness, humility, is the opposite of pride. A lowly-minded person is one who, though he may know himself greater in relation to others, yet is satisfied to be treated as if he were less. “Meekness,” that quality which gladly serves and gives rather than demands from others. The meek man is willing to give place to others where higher interests will not suffer. He is content to take “the lowest room” (Luke 14,9). “Long-suffering” is that gift of grace which is reluctant to condemn his fellow-Christian for the defects he may still have. It is forbearance, slowness to resentment. “Charity suffereth long and is kind,” declares the apostle in the thirteenth chapter of First Corinthians. “Forbearing one another in love,” that is, making allowances for each other because they love each other.
“Endeavoring to keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace” (v. 3). The full force of Paul’s words do not quite come out in the King James translation. More accurately it is translated “Giving diligence to preserve the unity which the Spirit has given us in the bonds of peace.” Peace is the bond which binds together the members of the Church. The Christians will be at peace among themselves if in their dealing with one another they practice humility, meekness, longsuffering, and patience.
This unity, it should be noted, is not something which the Christians create, by practicing Christian virtues, but it is created by the Holy Ghost and is therefore a spiritual unity, a unity in spirit and in truth. It is a unity which already exists, but if pride, short tempers, self-glorification, and self-justification dominate, such unchristian attitudes and practices will cause dis-union and strife.
Verses 1–3 show us the spirit in which the unity we have is to be maintained. Verses 4–6 set forth in greater detail the unity which we already have in the Holy Christian Church. These verses are not a continuation of the admonition of the first three verses: “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.”
We have here a sedes doctrina for the doctrine of the Church, a further elaboration of what Paul has already said about the oneness of the Church (Chap. 1, v. 10), and the foundation of the apostles and prophets (2,20), and that membership comes only through faith in Christ (8,17).
The apostle describes the seven-fold elements of Christian unity. He says “There is one body.” The unity of the Church is a matter of historical fact already given with Christianity; it is not a dream, nor an ideal to be achieved, much less something that exists only in the mind of the Christian. There is one body. Since all Christians have one Head, Jesus Christ, through faith they are closely joined as members of one Body. There is one Spirit, the Holy Spirit, who lives in them, gives them spiritual life, rules and controls them. There is one hope, the hope of eternal life, to which the Holy Spirit has effectively called them and Who is the earnest, the down-payment of the final inheritance (1,14). There is one Lord, the Lord Jesus, Who has redeemed them with His own blood, to Whom they belong and Whom they serve. There is one faith, the faith which places its confidence on the atoning death of Christ, on account of which they are justified. There is one baptism, the washing of regeneration by which all Christians enter into spiritual union with Christ and with one another. And there is one God, Father of all, Who is above all, and through all, and in them all. Through Christ, the Christians have God as their Father. He is above them all, possessing all authority. His power supports them (“through all”) and He lives in them all, for they are the temple of God.
Let me quote Luther’s comments on these words in his Church Postil. He writes, “St. Paul here declares and explains the nature of the true Christian Church, and how it is to be recognized, namely, that this Church is one single Church or people of God upon this earth who have one and the same faith, baptism and confession of God the Father and of the Lord Jesus Christ, etc., and who live together in peace and harmony among themselves. Whoever wishes to be saved and come to God must belong to this one Christian Church and be a member of it, for its members alone will be saved, and none besides. Wherefore this unity of the Church does not consist in unified, external law or order, and ecclesiastical customs as the Pope, with his adherents, pretends, who wishes to exclude from the Church all those who do not wish to obey him, but it consists in the one true faith, baptism, etc. Therefore it is called One Holy Catholica, or Christian Church.”
Art. V of the Augsburg Confession, which tells us how justifying faith is obtained, states “that we may obtain this faith, the ministry of teaching the Gospel and administering the sacraments was instituted, for through the Word and Sacraments as through instruments the Holy Ghost is given, Who works faith where and when it pleases God in them that hear the Gospel, to wit, that God, not for our own merits, but for Christ’s sake, justifies those who believe that they are received into grace for Christ’s sake” (Trig., page 45).
Within the unity of the Holy Christian Church there is also a diversity of gifts and offices, but every gift is to be traced back to Christ, “according to the measure of the of Christ” (v. 8). After his humiliation Christ was exalted so that He fills the universe. Yet after His exaltation and ascension His great concern and love is still for His Church, his Body, to which He gave gifts: “And He gave some (to be) apostles, and some prophets, and some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ” (vv. 11,12). First the apostle mentions the various functions which pertained only to the early Christian ministry, and then in verse 12 (pastors and teachers) he mentions the Holy Ministry Dr. Stoeckhardt says: “by the term ‘pastors and teachers’ Paul designates the regular ministerium verbi (ministry of the Word), which at all times was and is today the same, the public office of the ministry of the Word” (Commentary, p. 200). This Office of the Ministry is for “the building up of the body of Christ.” The proclamation of the divine Word is the only means through which the Church of Christ is built. The Word and Sacraments are the visible, audible gift of God which the Church receives and by which it is created, and by which it lives.
In Ephesians 5,22–33 Paul once more sets forth the concept of the relation of Christ to the Church, which he has done so many times throughout the Epistle. This time it is included in an exhortation to wives, and husbands, a passage familiar to us because we have all often heard it read in the wedding service, “Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the Church; and He is the savior of the body. Therefore as the Church is subject to Christ, so let the wives be to their husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the Church, and gave Himself for it; That He might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the Word. That He might present it to Himself a glorious Church, not having spot or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish. So ought men to love their wives as their own bodies. He that loveth his wife loveth himself. For no man ever yet hated his own flesh; but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as the Lord the Church: For we are members of His body, of His flesh, and of His bones. For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall be joined unto his wife, and they two shall be one flesh. This is a great mystery, but I speak concerning Christ and the Church. Nevertheless let everyone of you in particular so love his wife even as himself; and the wife see that she reverence her husband.” God wants man to be the head of the household, the wife being subordinate to him just as the Church is subject to Christ the Head. But there is this difference in the analogy, of course, Christ is the Saviour of the Church (v. 23). “This is true of Him alone, and nothing of this pertains to the husband” (Commentary, p. 241).
But the other side of the coin is also presented, the husband is to love the wife who is part of himself. On the one side there is obedience; on the other, love. Consider what Christ has done for His Church which is obedient unto Him. He demonstrated His love for her while she was still an enemy by giving Himself unto death for her. He purchased her with His own blood (Acts 20,28). As a further demonstration of the love of Christ for His Church the apostle reminds us that He sanctifies and cleanses it by the water and the Word — a washing of regeneration and a renewing of the Holy Ghost (See Titus 3,5ff.). We see again Paul’s reference to the notai purae, the Means of Grace as the constitutive marks of the Church.
But just as Christ gave Himself to sanctify the Church, He also presents the Church to Himself, all glorious, with no stain or wrinkle, that it should be holy, and without blemish. The sanctification of the Church finally develops into its glorification when in heaven it becomes “a host arrayed in white, like thousand snow-clad mountains bright.” The Holy Christian Church here on earth ultimately, when our Savior has gathered all in one, becomes the New Jerusalem, the Church Triumphant.
And so the apostle has painted for the Ephesian congregation a complete and detailed picture of the Holy Christian Church, the Una Sancta. It is a picture that has come to us only by divine revelation, because “eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither hath entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love Him.” (I Cor. 2,9).
Martin Luther has left us a legacy in his writings on the Holy Christian Church. He had to work his way also through this Scriptural doctrine, because he had been born into a church which had completely perverted the doctrine of the apostles and the prophets. Dr. Herman Preus declares that “Luther had to struggle through half a life-time trying to clarify this concept of the body of Christ” (More About Luther, p. 127). Luther had to throw over-board the accretion of centuries of false doctrine regarding the Church, namely, that Rome had identified the Holy Christian Church with an organized human machine. “God’s Word and Luther’s doctrine pure,” have been set forth in the confessions of the Lutheran Church, particularly the Augsburg Confession, Art. VII and VIII, and the Apology, Art. VII and VIII. All of us, both lay and learned, ought to carefully study what is set forth in the Confessions regarding the doctrine of the Church.
Walther and the Church
This is the 150th anniversary of the birth of Dr. C.F.W. Walther. Just as Martin Luther did, he too had to work his way through the Scriptural doctrine of the Church, and he too has left us a legacy in his writings on the Holy Christian Church. In the Altenburg Debates in Perry County he had to destroy the false idea that the visible Church gathered around Martin Stephan was the only true church existing at that time. And a little later he had to expose Pastor Grabau of the Buffalo Synod, who viewed the church as “a visible aggregate composed of ministers whose function was to instruct their parishioners and direct all church affairs, and of laymen, whose duty it was to hear and obey” (Walther and the Church, p. 48). The result of these struggles was published in 1852, when Dr. Walther’s great work The Voice of our Church, On the Question Concerning the Church and the Ministry appeared.
As a summary and conclusion, let me quote and comment on the first five theses of Walther on the Church and Ministry.
Thesis I. “The Church, in the proper sense of the term, is the Communion of Saints, that is, the sum total of all those who have been called by the Holy Ghost through the Gospel, from out of the lost and condemned human race, who truly believe in Christ, and have been sanctified by this faith and incorporated into Christ.”
Walther is simply putting together what Paul has said in Ephesians 1:22,23, and in Ephesians 5:23–27. All who have the true Christian faith, who, moved by the Holy Spirit, call Jesus Lord and worship the Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Ghost, are true members of the Christian Church. All believing Christians together here upon earth constitute One Body. Each one is truly united with all the others by the of Christian faith through the Holy Spirit. Their hearts are united and bound together in a real unity. The Church as described in the first chapter of Ephesians is simply the Elect.
Thesis II. “To the Church, in the proper sense of the term, belongs no godless person, no hypocrite, no one who has not been regenerated, no heretic.”
Paul declares: “If any man have not the spirit of Christ, he is none of His” (Rom. 8,9). Where there is no true Christian faith, one is outside the Church, because there is only this one justifying faith which clings to the Savior’s merits. This fact, of course, not only excludes manifest unbelievers but also all those who make a Christian confession with the mouth only. In such the Spirit of God does not dwell.
But this thesis does not exclude from Christ’s mystical body those whose faith is weak The Lord does not break a bruised reed; the very fact that in Ephesians 4 Paul exhorts the members of the Church to walk in lowliness gentleness and patience and to dwell together in love and forbearance, pre-supposes that true Christians are subject to sins of weakness. Where there is a longing for the Savior and a desire to live with the brethren, there is true faith and such a one is a true member of the Holy Christian Church.
Thesis III. “The Church in the proper sense of the term is invisible.”
Luther in his “The Bondage of the Will” says, “The Church is hidden away, the saints are out of sight” (The Bondage of the Will, translated by Packer and Johnston, Revell, 1957, p. 123). Often Luther emphasized the fact that we say in the Creed, “I believe in the Holy Christian Church,” for example, “All Christians in the world pray ‘I believe in the Holy Ghost; the Holy Christian Church, the Communion of Saints.’ If that article is true then it follows that no one can see or feel the Holy Christian Church. No one can say, Lo here; lo there. For what one believes one does not see nor find, as St. Paul teaches in Hebrews 11. Further, what one sees or feels one does not believe” (Quoted by Dr. Herman Preus, The Communion of Saints, p. 85).
The kingdom of God cometh not with observation (Luke 17,20) and the Lord knoweth them that are His (II Tim. 2,19). The faith and the operations of the Spirit of God in the hearts of men, are invisible. The house of God is a “spiritual house” (I Pet. 2,5). The one Lord, the one God and Father to Whom faith clings, is hid from our eyes.
But all this is not to say that the Church is a platonic state, which exists only in the mind of Christians. The Apology is very clear on this, “Neither indeed are we dreaming of a platonic state as some wickedly charge. But we say that this Church exists, namely the truly believing and righteous men scattered throughout the world. We are speaking not of an imaginary Church, which is to be found nowhere, but we say and know certainly that this Church wherein saints live is and abides truly upon earth; namely, that some of God’s children are here and there in all the world, in various kingdoms, islands, lands and cities, from the rising of the sun to its setting, who have truly learned to know Christ and His Gospel” (Trig., p. 233). The Una Sancta is a great reality in this world, even though it is hidden to our eyes. It is far more real than all other societies which are created by man. The Holy Christian Church was created by God and will last unto all eternity.
From the beginning of time there has always been a burning passion to try to make visible God’s Una Sancta. Israel wanted to do it before and during Christ’s time; the Roman Catholic Church has always wanted it that way; and it is the same today. This desire is found, for example, in the High Church movement. Invisibility is not one of the attributes of the Church, according to liturgical movement literature. A prayer quoted in the magazine Una Sancta for Trinity, 1946, states “We confess before Thee our sin in the division of Thy Church, whereby the body of Christ has been divided … We beseech Thee that Thou wouldst graciously forgive us that we have divided Thy Holy Church, the Body of Christ” (pp. 6,7).
We have this heresy, of course, in the entire ecumenical movement with which the High Church movement ultimately blends. Dr. Wm. Oesch quotes Leicester C. Lewis from Dr. R. Newton Flews’ book, The Nature of the Church, London, 1952: “Anglicans feel that the Church is today, and has been through the centuries a Pentecost, a visible society with institutionalized officers, regulations (for instance Canon Law) and powers” (See Oesch’s References, 1961, p. 16). Note Dr. Oesch’s warning against Dr. Pelikan’s doctrine of the church, “Let Synodical Conference Lutherans right now study the concepts of the Church, underlying the fascinating book, The Riddle of Roman Catholicism, by Jaroslav Pelikan (Abingdon Press, 1959). The author proceeds in the manner of most historians, taking the phenomenal side of church bodies, particularly the facade of Home, more or less at face value. This becomes especially evident from page 177 onward. He nowhere states that only believers — since they alone are joined to Christ — constitute the one church … The whole book is frankly ecumenical in the liberal sense” (Memorandum Inter Nos, pp. 49,50).
Thesis IV. “This true Church of believers and saints it is to which Christ has given the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Therefore this Church is the real and sole holder and bearer of the spiritual, divine, and heavenly blessings, rights, powers, offices etc., which Christ has gained and which are available in His Church.”
Christ gave to His Church God’s Word by which men are sanctified and brought to faith (John 17, vv. 8,14,20). The Ephesian Christians were reminded that they were brought to faith through the Gospel of Salvation (Ephesians 1,13), and as the body of Christ they have baptism and the Spirit (Eph. 4,4–6). They were also priests before God as St. Peter reminds the Asian Christians, “But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people, that ye should show forth the praises of Him who hath called you out of darkness into His marvelous light” (I Pet. 2,9). In Matt. 16,19 our Savior gives to Peter on the basis of his confession that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the living God, the keys of the kingdom of heaven, “And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Luther comments on this passage in this way, “All Christians are Peters, because they make the profession here made by Peter, which profession is the rock on which Peter, and all Peters, are built” (Quoted by F. Pieper, Christian Dogmatics, Vol. III, p. 413). In Matt. 18,18 and John 20,20–23, Christ testifies that what He has given to Peter He has given to all disciples, to all believers.
The classic Lutheran statement of this doctrine is found in the Smalcald Articles treating of the “power and the primacy of the pope”: “It is necessary to acknowledge that the keys belong not to the person of one particular man but to the Church, as many most clear and firm arguments testify. For Christ, speaking concerning the keys (Matt. 18,19) adds ‘if two or three of you shall agree on earth’ etc., therefore He grants the keys principally and immediately to the Church, just as also for this reason the Church has principally the right of calling. For just as the promise of the Gospel belongs certainly and immediately to the entire Church, so the keys belong immediately to the entire Church, because the keys are nothing else than the office whereby this promise is communicated to every one who desires it, just as it is actually manifest that the Church has the power to ordain ministers of the Church. And Christ speaks in these words, ‘whatsoever ye shall bind’ etc., and indicates to whom he has given the keys, namely, to the Church: ‘where two or three are gathered together in My Name’; likewise Christ gives supreme and final jurisdiction to the Church when He says, ‘tell it unto the Church’” (Trig. p. 511).
In a sermon on Matt. 16,13–19, delivered at the opening of the seventh convention of the Missouri Synod, Dr. Walther commented on these words just quoted from the Smalcald Articles by saying, “they confess:
1. What the keys are, namely, nothing else than the office or the power to communicate the promises of the Gospel to all those who desire it;
2. To whom these keys are given, namely, the whole Church; and finally
3. How they are given to the whole Church, namely, in the same way as the whole Church has the promise o the Gospel directly and originally, so that therefore also two or three gathered together in Christ’s name — in short every believing Christian has those keys” (Brosarnen, p. 463).
Thesis V. “Although the true Church in the proper sense of the term is invisible as to its essence, yet its presence is perceivable, its marks being the pure teaching of the Word of God and the administration of the Holy Sacraments in accordance with their institution by Christ.”
The invisible Church exhibits certain visible and well-known and recognized marks. In Ephesians 4 Paul writes of one baptism, and in Ephesians 5,26 he states that Christ cleanses the Church with the washing of water by the Word. He also declares that we are called in one hope of our calling, but it is through the preaching of the Gospel that we are called, as Paul pointed out in Ephesians 1,13, and 2,17. And in Ephesians 2,20 the writings of the apostles and prophets are called the foundation of the Church. Scripture is the seed from which the Church grows (Mark 4, 26,27). And this Word does not return unto the Lord empty: “So shall My Word be, that goeth forth out of My mouth. It shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it” (Is. 55,11).
The Word and Sacraments are the external marks of recognition which indicate positively whether at a certain place the true Church exists, as the Apology states, “The Christian Church consists not alone in fellowship of outward signs but it consists especially in inward communion of eternal blessings in the heart, as of the Holy Ghost, of faith, of the fear and love of God. Which fellowship nevertheless has outward marks so that it can be recognized, namely the pure doctrine of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments in accordance with the Gospel of Christ, namely, where God’s Word is pure and the Sacraments are administered in conformity with the same, there certainly is the Church and there are Christians. And this Church alone is called the body of Christ which Christ renews, sanctifies and governs by His Spirit” (Trig., p. 227).
The Word of the living God is alive, dynamic, because it is an effectual Word, being the power of God unto salvation. It changes people, turns them and converts them. The Church consists of people who live in daily contrition and repentance, who believe that Jesus has saved them for which they gladly serve and obey Him. Christ the Bridegroom wins and holds His bride, the Church, only through the Word of God of which the Psalmist says, “This is my comfort in my affliction; for Thy Word hath quickened me” (Ps. 119,50).
Dr. Koren in his essay, “The Right Principles of Church Government,” delivered in 1899, (see Faith of our Fathers, pp. 115–138) insists that “everything that pertains to Christianity is practical; for Christianity and Christian faith are life (p. 120). Then he demonstrates how members of the Christian Church fare in this life by citing examples of such members of the invisible Church as are found in the congregations in which we live. Let me quote: “We will here or there in the congregation find a whole family which has long held fast to the Word of God in true faith, and with whom this blessed faith has become like an inheritance in the family. The grandmother held to the Word of God, the mother likewise, and now it lights the son on his way.
“Or we find a married couple, ordinary laborers, who have become servants of God by hearing and believing the Gospel. They do not neglect their work, but they have used the Word of God so diligently that they can also, if necessary, help others to the right Way. They are the pastors’ best support in the congregation” (p. 121). Dr. Koren gives other examples in the same vein, so that we can identify Christians we have actually known and we become so carried along with Dr. Koren in making identification with contemporary people that it comes with a real shock of surprise when Dr. Koren says, “Those I had in mind were Lois, Eunice, Timothy, Aquila and Priscilla, Martha, Mary, Lazarus,” etc. (p. 122). And so we are again reminded how up-to-date and universal the Bible is.
But we must always remember what it was that made these Christians what they were: the incorruptible seed, “the Word of God which liveth and abideth forever” (I Pet. 1,23). We shall also call to mind that Ananias and Sapphira, before they were exposed by Peter, were outwardly models of Christian piety, a couple any church or college would like to have supporting it (Acts 5,1–11). Such an example should, as Luke says, cause a great fear to come upon all the Church, and upon as many as heard those things (Acts 5,11). Such an example will lead to daily repentance and renewal, and a sincere prayer to the Holy Spirit that He keep us from the sin of hypocrisy.
And so rightly does the Augsburg Confession in defining the Holy Christian Church, the Una Sancta, connect with this definition the Means of Grace: “The Church is the congregation of saints in which the Gospel is rightly taught, and the Sacraments are rightly administered” (Trig., p. 47). The old Lutheran dogmatician, John Gerhard (1582–1637) elaborates on this confessional statement by saying, “The Church is established, brought together, nourished and preserved by the Word of God and the use of the Sacraments. Therefore the Word of God and the use of the Sacraments are the proper, genuine and infallible marks of the Church and consequently, where these are pure, the Church is pure” (See Schmid, Doctrinal Theology of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, APH, 1961, p. 598).
This is not to say, however, that the Means of Grace, though inseparably joined to the Church, are to be looked upon as being a part of the Church, nor are they to be substituted for the Church. For the bride of Christ’s choosing are the people, the men, women and children, whom God has already called and cleansed by these instruments, as well as those whom He will reach by the Means of Grace in the future.
Today there is a tendency to down-grade the Means of Grace as the constitutive marks of the Church and to limit the scope of the Augsburg Confession’s declaration: “For it is sufficient for the true unity of the Christian Church that the Gospel be preached unanimously according to its pure (hue) meaning and the Sacraments be administered according to the Word of God” (German text). Neo-orthodoxy, for example, which has a nebulous view of the Word of God as being some kind of “response of our spirit to the Spirit that utters itself in the Scriptures” (See C.H. Dodd, The Authority of the Bible, Harper Torch Books, 1958, p. 296) does not care for Art. VII of the Augsburg Confession or for Thesis V. of Dr. Walther. Emil Brunner, for example, says some fine things about the Holy Christian Church (“The Church is the body of Christ (Rom. 2,5) whose individual members are the believers, whose cohesive unity (Eph. 4,4ff.) is Christ, the Lord Himself (I Cor. 10,16; 12,27)”) (The Letter to the Romans, A Commentary, Westminster Press, Philadelphia, 1959, p. 150). But he declares in flat contradiction to Art. VII of the Augsburg Confession: “The Church, moreover, must never be understood on the basis of the proclaimed Word or the Sacraments. … To define the nature of the Church by saying, as has become customary since the Reformation, that the Church is there wherever the Word of God is rightly proclaimed and the Sacraments rightly administered is far from being the intention of the Apostle Paul, the missionary of the Gentiles” (p. 151).
Nor is it enough when Dr. Conrad Bergendoff states in his essay “A Lutheran Study of Church Unity”: “When the Augsburg Confession speaks of the Gospel being preached in conformity with a pure understanding of it, it refers primarily to the teaching of justification, and secondarily to the teachings of sanctification. Thus are the nations to be taught to observe all things Christ has commanded” (Essays on the Lutheran Confessions Basic to Lutheran Cooperation, published jointly by the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod and the National Lutheran Council, 1961, p. 10).
Dr. H. Sasse in his theses on Article VII of the Augsburg Confession strikes the true note when he says: “Not any consensus will do, but the consensus in the pure Gospel and the right administration of the sacraments. As in the New Testament (comp. the petitions of Christ, John 17, “sanctify them in the truth” and “that they all may be one” and the apostolic injunctions concerning heretics) so in the Augsburg Confession the quest for unity is the quest for truth. … Even if two Lutheran churches reach an agreement in matters of doctrine this does not necessarily mean hue church union. For it could be that they agree to disagree in such doctrines as the doctrine of Holy Scripture as the Word of God (is it the Word? or is the Word contained in it?), or the Real Presence. Only such agreement reached in the Church as the association of external ties and rites serves the true unity of the Church which preserves the Means of Grace in their purity. For Means of Grace create and preserve the Church as the association of faith and the Holy Spirit in men’s hearts, the true Church that always is one, the Una Sancta. Ubi veritas, ibi unitas. For only through the means of the One Lord builds His Church, the Una sancta Which His Body” (“Theses on the Seventh Article of the Augsburg Confession,” mimeographed, page 2).
The Purae-Notae, the pure marks of the Church, are the foundation of the Church. Undermine them, and the Church will fall. “If the foundations be destroyed, what can the righteous do?” (Ps. 11,3). When our risen Savior gave us His Gospel to preach to all people, He safe-guarded the purity of that Gospel with this injunction to us “Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you” (Matt. 28,20). Surely we shall render a happy and free obedience to the sacred Scriptures, for if we are members of the Holy Christian Church we will say with the Psalmist “I will never forget Thy precepts; for with them Thou hast quickened me” (Ps. 119,93).
This concludes our discussion of the theme, “I Believe in the Holy Christian Church, the Communion of Saints.” May this study of this great and comforting doctrine of the Holy Scripture lead all of us to that “inheritance incorruptible and undefiled, and that fadeth not away, reserved in heaven for you” (I Pet. 1,4). To that end we pray, as we do every Sunday in the Collect for the Word, “Lord God, our heavenly Father, we thank Thee that of Thy great mercy Thou hast given us Thy Holy and blessed Word, by which Thou dost also among us gather Thy Christian Church. We humbly entreat Thee, grant us Thy Holy Spirit that we may receive Thy Word with thankful hearts, and live according thereto, and ever increase in Christian faith and hope and charity, and at last obtain eternal salvation; through Jesus Christ Thy beloved Son, who liveth and reigneth with Thee and the Holy Ghost, ever one God, world without end. Amen.”