The Church and Her Catholicity

From time to time over the past years we have come to experience in the halls of the seminary something of what it means to be part of a catholic church. That was true again this past year. It seemed to me, therefore, that “The Church and Her Catholicity” would be an eminently suitable topic on which to meditate for a little while this evening.

There are other reasons, however, why I wish to speak on this topic. Those of our Protestant Reformed churches who confess together every Lord’s day the Apostles Creed confess our faith as including this truth: “We believe in one catholic church.” While we confess this truth, we do not always understand and appreciate what it means. In our thinking and in our actual life, however, that confession of a faith in a catholic church becomes a bit abstract. We tend to have the notion that the denomination of which we are a part happens to be the most important denomination on the face of the earth and that, although God has his people in every land and gathers his church from every tribe and tongue and nation, nevertheless the rest of the church in the world somehow revolves around us. It is almost as if we think to ourselves that God would be hard pressed to do the work of the church if it were not for our diligent labors and for the crucially important place which we occupy in the unity of the entire church of Christ. That is a serious and sad mistake. It is because I see this in myself and in others, that it is not without profit to address ourselves to this question tonight.

There is one more reason why I chose to speak on this (this may be, after all, the most important reason of all). Over the years I have come to appreciate the doctrine of the catholicity of the church more and more. As a matter of fact, personally, I consider it to be one of the most beautiful doctrines in the whole of Scripture. Perhaps you will not agree with that; that makes no difference. It grows on me—the truth of the catholicity of the church. It is amazingly beautiful. It has innumerable implications for doctrine and life. But its beauty especially is to be found in the fact that the Scriptures point us to one rather startling and, in my mind, extraordinarily significant truth: the fullness of the riches of the grace of almighty God cannot be revealed in all their beauty except through a catholic church. That especially is the point of view which I wish to emphasize.

What Catholicity Is

The eternal purpose of God as he determined it in his counsel from before the foundations of the world is this: to glorify himself and his own great name through a church redeemed in Christ. That is the one purpose of God. That is the reason why he does all things and has done all things. He created heaven and earth and all that they contain for the church. He created angels and devils for the church. He created man for the church. He created Paradise in Eden for the church. All things are only to serve the purpose of the church. All that he did, all that he does, is centered in his purpose to reveal himself in all his glory in the church.

From the very beginning, in a certain sense of the word, that church was a catholic church. Although that did not become immediately evident before the Flood, it was only a very short time after the Flood that one crucial event in the history of the world pointed with unmistakable clarity to God’s purpose to save a catholic church. I refer to the catastrophe, the fiasco, of Babel. The immediate purpose of God at Babel was to prevent the Antichrist from revealing himself prematurely and from establishing a universal kingdom before the time was ripe for that. If Antichrist had established such a kingdom at Babel, the church would never have been saved. The existence of the church in the world would have been impossible.

Nevertheless, that was secondary. That deadly wound with which the beast was wounded cannot eventually be healed except in the blood of Christ. And it is healed in the blood of Christ in such a way that Babel is reversed and the curse of Babel is lifted. The fiasco of Babel becomes the triumphant victory of a catholic church. It was at Babel that God created the nations, the races, the tongues, and the peoples that inhabit the earth. Babel serves a catholic church.

In the days of the patriarchs that church was, in a certain sense of the word, catholic, although gradually the church became limited to Abraham and his descendants. One could also find the church in Jerusalem, of all places, where a people were being ruled by Melchisedek, priest of the most high God. You could find it at Sinai, where Jethro instructed his family in the ways of Jehovah and took care of his sheep. You could find it in Haran, where Abraham sent his servant to find a wife for Isaac. Nevertheless, God narrowed the line to the descendants of Abraham until Israel became his chosen people.

We often like to think of the fact that the nation of Israel was composed of Jews. As a matter of fact, it was not. It had more foreign blood, more heathen blood, more Gentile blood than Jewish blood. It was a catholic church in the making, even in the days of Israel’s history. All the sons of Jacob, without exception, married either Canaanitish or Egyptian women. Israelite blood, therefore, at the very outset, was fifty percent non-Jewish.

God continued to bring heathen into the nation of Israel in strange and startling ways, almost as if to remind Israel, “The church is catholic. You are a chosen people, set aside from all the nations of the earth. You, above all the nations of the earth, are favored by God. But don’t ever forget: The catholic church is in embryo form in you.” He brought Rahab out of the smashed city of Jericho. He brought Ruth out of Moab to be a mother of Christ. He brought Egyptians out of Egypt to journey with Israel on the long way to Canaan. He brought the Gibeonites to Israel and incorporated them into the nation so that they became part and parcel of the nation of Israel. He even brought the daughters of Moab into the nation when the unmarried daughters of Moab were saved at the time Israel visited its fury upon the nation after the sin of Baalpeor.

So it was. Uriah, the husband of Bathsheba, was a Hittite. Araunah, on whose threshing floor David offered his sacrifices to stay the plague, was a Jebusite. Even some of David’s chief men and fiercest warriors were from other lands.

There was one thing, however, about the nation that persisted in the old dispensation simply because Christ had not yet come. That is, although in a certain sense of the word and from a particular point of view the nation of was the catholic church, it was not quite that. It was not quite that because anyone who was joined to the church of Christ in the old dispensation had to become a Jew. He became a Jew through the rite of circumcision. He was incorporated into the Israelitish nation. He adopted the culture of the Jews and he was a part of the nation that went to Jerusalem to worship God in the temple. He was, to all intents and purposes, no longer a Hittite, or a Jebusite, or a Gibeonite, but a Jew—all because Christ had not come.

There is something about the Old Testament, though, that is always looking beyond this dispensation of shadows. When one reads the psalms and the prophets, he cannot miss that tone of eager anticipation of a better day to come. Think, for example, of Psalm 68, that beautiful psalm that David wrote at the time when the Ark was brought up to Jerusalem as a picture of the exaltation of Christ. David sings: “Princes shall come out of Egypt (the house of bondage from which God had delivered his people!), Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God.” That was the psalmist. That was at the time when the Ark was brought to Jerusalem. And then, “Sing unto God ye kingdoms of the earth; sing praises unto the Lord” (vv. 31, 32). It is no wonder that that verse ends with the word “Selah,” which means, “pause for a moment, take a breath, meditate on this, this is staggering.” Egypt, Ethiopia? Yes, another day is coming.

So it was with the prophets—Isaiah in particular. “Arise, shine; for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee. For, behold, the darkness shall cover the earth, and gross darkness the people: but the Lord shall arise upon thee, and his glory shall be seen upon thee. And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising” (60:1-3).

When the Lord Jesus Christ came to this earth, he came as a Jew. So much was he a Jew that he could trace his genealogy all the way to Abraham. He was so much a Jew that he had to undergo the rites and rituals of the Jewish nation that had been given to Israel at Sinai. He was conscious of his Jewishness. He was conscious that all the life of his earthly ministry he remained a Jew. He would not stray outside the boundaries of the promised land. His ministry was to the Jews.

When the Syro-Phoenician woman pleaded with him to heal her daughter, he turned a cold shoulder to her and told her it was none of her business. She prevailed upon him to make an exception because she anticipated the faith of Gentiles (Matt. 15:21-31). When the Greeks asked to see Jesus, and asked Thomas in particular on the eve of his crucifixion to make arrangements with the Lord to see him, the Lord told Thomas in no uncertain terms, “Tell them, No.” And the reason which he gave was this, that he had not yet ascended. So he began to speak of his cross, of his death, of his resurrection, and of his ascension. He was a Jewish Christ (John 12:20-33).

He was a Jewish Christ when he hung on the cross. The superscription on the cross said that: “This is Jesus of Nazareth, the king of the Jews.” Nevertheless, if you watched closely, there was an almost perceptible change in the Lord as he hung there suffering. The change was reflected even in the fact that Pilate, God’s instrument, directed that the words of the superscription of the cross be written not only in Hebrew, but also in Latin and in Greek. It’s as if the Lord is saying, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews indeed, but take note, you Greeks, and observe, you Romans, that presently he will be the King of (what Paul calls in the last chapter of Galatians) the true Israel of God—the church gathered from every nation, tribe, and tongue.”

He arose, no longer a Jew, but a catholic Christ. That was why Mary was not permitted to touch him—“I have not yet ascended. You want to touch me in the wrong way. I am not a Jew any longer. You may not treat Me as one of your nation. I presently will ascend.” He ascended, not as a Jewish Christ, but as a catholic Christ. He did that because his death was the shedding of his blood for a universal church. John, in his marvelous gospel, wants us always to recognize that. Already when he describes the ministry of John the Baptist he describes John the Baptist as preaching this gospel: “Behold, the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).

Jesus reminded Nicodemus of the same thing: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up; that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:14). Lest there be any doubt about the implications and meaning of that expression of the Lord to Nicodemus, he goes on to make it unmistakably clear: “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son” (John 3:16). It is almost a jubilant shout concerning the universality of the work of Christ that echoes again and again in the Gospel according to John.

The climax was in the exaltation of Christ. Read Daniel 7. There one sees with Daniel, in a stirring and extremely beautiful vision, the exalted Christ being brought before the throne of the Ancient of Days, and one discovers that all the nations of the earth were given to him as his possession.

So Christ poured out upon the church a catholic Spirit. The catholic Christ poured out upon the church a catholic Spirit. The Spirit is not parochial. The Spirit is not narrow. The Spirit is not the possession of one people. He is catholic in the truest sense of the word. That is the meaning of the sign of speaking in other tongues. We must not be mistaken about that sign. That speaking in other tongues does not simply mean that, now that the Spirit is poured out, things are going to be different from the old dispensation. It means that the church will now burst forth from her national boundaries of Jewry and spread over the length and breadth of the earth. God saves every nation as a distinct nation.

This is important. Everyone who was gathered together in Jerusalem on Pentecost; everyone who came together at the sound of the rushing mighty wind; everyone who heard the 120 speak could understand the Aramaic. There was no need for the miracle of tongues in order to make people from other nations understand. They all knew Aramaic. They all knew the spoken language of Jerusalem—even though they were from the dispersion. It was not in order to make the speech of the 120 intelligible and understandable that the Spirit gave to them this remarkable gift. When one of the 120 came to an Egyptian and spoke to an Egyptian in the language of Egypt, the Holy Spirit was saying to that man, “What in the world are you doing here in Jerusalem celebrating a feast of the Jews? Go back home. Stay there. You don’t have to come to Jerusalem to be saved. You don’t have to speak Hebrew in order to be incorporated into the church of Christ. Stay at home. Live your life as an Egyptian. Don’t change anything in your life as far as the country in which you live is concerned. God will save you there. And God will save you as an Egyptian, with all your national and racial characteristics. The need to become a Jew in order to be saved is forever gone.”

That was, after all, the great battle in Galatia. That was the reason for Paul’s writing of the epistle to the Galatians. There is no need for circumcision. There is no requirement of it, because no one has any longer to become a Jew to be saved.

So the Holy Spirit, as a catholic Holy Spirit, sent by a catholic Christ, gathers a catholic church. He goes into all the nooks and crannies of the globe. He travels into all the by-ways and alleys of the world. There is not one corner of the globe where the Holy Spirit does not go to collect and to gather those for whom Christ died, those who have been chosen by God from all eternity to be a part of the catholic church.

The wonderful part of it all is that they must be saved as their nationality and racial characteristics require. There is an almost infinite diversity in the church of Jesus Christ. I can only mention some of it. Fundamental to it all is the reversal of Babel, the healing of the wound of the beast, a real and true healing—by the blood of reconciliation in the cross of Jesus Christ. But the wonderful thing, the altogether astounding thing, is that not Egypt-becoming-Jewish will be saved, but Egypt will be saved. Not Ethiopia by coming to the temple will be saved, but Ethiopia will stretch out its hands to God as Ethiopia.

Nations have personalities. Races have personalities. Families have personalities. Individuals have personalities. God wants those racial, national, family personalities saved and preserved. A German is saved as a German. A Dutchman is saved as a Dutchman. He is not made Polish. A Chinaman is saved as a Chinaman. He is not made an Occidental. It has to be that way. Any effort to make it different is contrary to the will of God, who has a greater purpose in mind than that of creating a church which is composed of racial or national clones. His purpose is to reveal the riches of his grace.

There is an infinite variety in the church. This variety is of race, of nation, of family, of individual. That is what is so important about the marvelous work of salvation. As a pastor, I have often had the feeling in my soul when dealing with a particular recalcitrant sheep, I wish he were not so stubborn! If only God would make him less stubborn, maybe we could get somewhere with him. He is like a billy goat.

Well, God is not going to make him any different. God gives to every man his personality. Whether that is stubbornness or weakness; whether that is spinelessness or foolhardiness; whether that is a tendency to be happy in one’s life or forever down in the dumps—God gives to each man his personal characteristics. Those characteristics are never going to be changed. Those characteristics are not going to be changed by grace.

Grace does not make a stubborn man less stubborn. What grace does do is make him stubborn about the right things, which Scripture happens to call “steadfastness.” Grace does not make the mild character bold as a lion. But grace puts the mildness of an individual in the service of a church. Grace does not make a tactless person tactful. But grace does put tactlessness under the subjection of grace in order that it may serve the purpose of the church.

So it is. What a variety of characteristics. Even the attributes of old age—the glory of the hoary head—or the attributes of children are preserved in the catholicity of the church. The glories, the beauties, of every age of life are preserved by God through death into his everlasting kingdom of heaven.

All these things become a part of that infinite variety that goes to make up the church. In fact, even sin comes in the service of the catholicity of the church. It takes a different kind of a grace (I don’t profess to understand the mysterious ways of God) to save a prostitute than to save a smug, self-righteous hypocrite. The same grace will not do. It takes a different kind of a grace (all unmerited favor; all God’s amazing irresistible power to save) to save a Dutchman than to save an African. The same kind of grace will not do.

Each sinner, saved by grace, has his own unique, personal, individual, spiritual pilgrimage, which is in the most marvelous way tied to the particular and unique place which that same individual will occupy in the church in glory. How the Lord delivers this one sinner from the depths of depravity and fits him as a sinner saved by grace for his place in glory is the grace unique to him.

That is what the Bible means, for example, when in the letter of the Lord to the church of Pergamus the Lord promises to those who overcome that he will give them a white stone, in which there will be written their name, which no other man can know. It is their name. It is their name because it fits them. It fits them because it precisely defines how that one sinner saved by grace was brought by the power of grace, in distinction from all the others, into the unity of the one church of Jesus Christ (Rev. 2:17).

In the church, therefore, we find the infinite variety that we confess when we confess one catholic church.

Why the Church’s Catholicity Is Important

It is important that the church be catholic. It is important because that is the only way God can reveal the fullness of the riches of his grace. In the last verses of Ephesians 2 the apostle Paul describes how the middle wall of partition was broken down through the blood of Christ and reconciliation was accomplished, so that Jew and Gentile alike could become one body in Christ. Together they form that one glorious temple built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets of which Christ is the chief cornerstone, and in which God dwells.

That is possible because we are saved by grace. That is why this entire section is introduced with the words, “For by grace are ye saved, through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not of works” (Eph. 2:8). It is grace alone.

Why? The apostle explains that in verse 7 when he says, “That in the ages to come he might shew the exceeding riches of his grace in his kindness toward us through Christ Jesus.” The riches of God’s grace are infinite. Every time we confess the Apostles’ Creed, including that one article of which I am speaking tonight, we say, “I believe.” Then the thought passes inevitably through my mind, “I believe it. I can’t demonstrate it. I can’t prove it. I can’t understand it. I can’t make it clear to you. But I believe it. It’s an object of faith.” The riches of God’s grace are so infinitely great that they can be revealed only in a church composed of a multitude which no man can number, of individuals saved by grace in different ways. That is, all are saved in full connection with the kind of people they are, the place where they were born, the nature of their upbringing, their racial and national characteristics, the personalities with which they were endowed, the spiritual pilgrimage which led them out of the bondage of sin into the fellowship of the church—their own grace in each one.

When I look at you, I see a different grace, a different kind of grace, than is manifest in me. It takes a catholic church. Diamonds alone will not do it. You need sapphires and rubies and emeralds and all the precious stones known to man to reveal the beauties and riches of God’s grace in this life and in the life to come. The riches of God’s grace cannot be sung by a soloist. They have to be sung by a choir, by a choir composed of a large number of different voices singing different parts, but harmonizing and all singing one song, the song of Moses and the Lamb. The riches of God’s grace cannot be revealed by a piano solo or a violin solo. It takes an orchestra. You have to look for the trumpets and the violas, and the cellos and the base viols, the clarinets and the flutes, and all the rest. One instrument cannot do it. The riches of the grace of God are too great. How can one individual, how can even a million individuals, each one of them in his own way, contain the riches of the infinite grace of almighty God? And, if I may say so, it ought to be obvious that this is why the doctrine of salvation by grace is fundamental to the whole of the Christian faith—the doctrine one can sacrifice only at the cost of destroying the church.

What Are Its Implications for Us?

That is the catholicity of the church. What a marvelous doctrine! What a profound purpose. Into all eternity we shall marvel at the riches of God’s grace only because we see each other and dwell together as the body of Christ. Yes, as the body of Christ—one body. “I believe one holy catholic church.” Catholicity is impossible, absolutely impossible, without unity. It is a strange doctrine, so strange that the Scriptures say we ought to look at some figures in order to appreciate what this is.

A human body is one organism, one unity. But if you did not know anything about a human body, or if you had never seen a human body, and you looked at a toe lying on a table and alongside of it an ear, you would say to yourself, “It’s utterly impossible that these belong to the same entity. How can two such diverse things belong to the same organism?” Paul alludes to that in I Corinthians 12. Strange members, totally different from each other, go to compose the unity of one body. So much is this true that not one single member of the body has any meaning or any significance or any importance, and, as a matter of fact, cannot even be saved apart from the unity of the whole.

That means that the unity of the church is a complete and perfect unity because not one additional member can be added to that unity. From that unity cannot be subtracted even one member. Somehow, in some mysterious way, it is a perfect unity because all of God’s grace is revealed right here in this unity. Take one away, you subtract from the grace of God. Add one, the grace of God becomes a monstrosity. Add a third ear to a person’s head—what kind of unity do you have? None. Catholicity rests on unity because all the attributes of the church are true of the church only in Christ.

It is with a few remarks about this that I conclude.

The unity of the church is what we are urged, compelled, by Scripture to seek. The unity of the Spirit, Paul calls it in Ephesians 4. And he calls it the unity of the Spirit because he wants us to be sure that we understand that this unity and diversity is God’s creation, not ours. We are called diligently to seek to preserve the unity of the church. But it is not a unity which we, by our labors, create. It is a unity of such infinite diversity that it would be impossible for us to do it.

However that may be, it is that unity of the church that is sometimes so difficult to define. Each denomination draws a kind of a circle by which it defines what it means by the unity of the church. Some draw a great big circle — a circle that is so big that it embraces not only Christianity in a broad, general way but also those who are still committed to the idolatry of heathenism and to pagan ritual and idol worship. They are willing to do that. But that is not the true unity of the church. When they draw that kind of a circle, they are not drawing a circle that defines the limitations and boundaries of the church.

The unity of the church is in Christ. And Christ, in his own person and natures, as the head of the church, is the fullness of the revelation of God who is truth in himself and in his own divine being. Because the unity of the church is a unity which she has in Christ, that unity must be defined in terms of the truth as it is revealed in God and as it is contained on the pages of the infallible Scriptures.

In a way, the Spirit helps the church draw that circle and has been helping the church draw that circle throughout the centuries by the confessions of the church. Our own churches have said that we seek contact with the church of Christ which confesses the truth of the Scriptures as expressed in the three forms of unity and the Westminster standards. That is the circle we draw. It is a proper circle because really the Holy Spirit drew it. The Holy Spirit drew it because the confessions are the fruit of the work of the Spirit in the church in the past.

Within that circle we stand. Within that circle we stand with the church of Christ. We are called to stand there and we are called to live together within that circle with all the churches throughout the world insofar as God makes that possible for us in the unity of the Spirit. In that way, here on earth, something of the catholicity of the church is experienced. You cannot go to Singapore or to Myanmar without pondering the mystery of the catholicity of the church. It is impossible.

There are many in every nation, tribe, and tongue who are working in the great task of building the house of God. Once in a while we hear far away the sound of hammers pounding nails and we pause to listen and we say, “Ah, there are others building the house.” Sometimes we hear the whir of saws and we say, “There are others elsewhere working on the house that God is building. We don’t know where. We can’t quite tell where. And we don’t know who they are. But we can hear it if we will listen.”

But sometimes there are some of God’s people working in another room right next to the one in which we are working. It pays for us to walk over to that room once in a while and talk to them. That is what, God willing, we are going to continue to do with our sister churches and others with whom we have contact. We are going to go over to another room as they have come to this room. We are going to talk to them about building the house. The conversation we will have about building the house is going to be crafted, under God’s blessing, according to our faith in the catholicity of the church. We are not going to be telling each other, “You are not really working on the house.” We are not going to say, “It looks to us as if you are building a shack or a shanty and you ought to quit and come into the house and get to work on the house.” No. We are going to say, “You’re working on the house. Thank God we know you.” And we are going to talk about what a joy it is.

Synod just said that, did it not? When we talk together, we must talk together not only about those things on which we disagree, but about those things on which we do agree. That means talking about those things that are involved in being busy with the same house.

It will happen sometimes that others are going to say to us, when they come to our room where we are working, “It looks to us, brethren, as if you are using bent nails. You ought to straighten your nails. You can do a better job.” Or, “You ought to sharpen your saw. The lines that you are cutting with your saw are crooked.” And what we ought to say when you tell us that is, “Thanks! We didn’t notice that we were using bent nails.”

But sometimes we may have something similar to say to them. We will look at the corner of the wall and ceiling where you are building and we will say, “Is that quite square? Will you check it again with the architect’s drawing, the holy Scriptures?” In that way we will help each other to build the house and be able to cooperate in the work more and more.

But we are not going to go to another church, and they may not come over here, and say, “Quit working in your room and come into our room and help us,” because God has called them to work in their room, whether it be Australia or Singapore or Northern Ireland. We are working in our room which is called the United States.

And we are not going to ask them to wear the same kind of clothes we do because we think our coveralls hold the hammer better. No, they have found that the clothes they are wearing are suitable for the work that God gives them to do.

In that way we talk about the same house on which we are laboring, but appreciate and rejoice in the diversity of laborers and the size of the house. And we remember that God saves Australians as Australians, and Welsh as Welsh; and he does not save them by making them Dutchman. Thank God.

So we rejoice in the riches of grace. That is our calling: to rejoice in the riches of sovereign grace revealed in that wonderful work of saving a church catholic. Once in a while, I hope that when we visit another room in this great house, we can sit down with the laborers there and take a break from the work and have a cup of coffee together. Then we can talk about what a privilege it is to be busy in the same work and how thankful we can be that God builds the house and that we are only laborers. I think if we do that, then we will probably set our cups down for a moment and sing together: “Except the Lord the house shall build, the weary builders toil in vain.”

In that way we will look together to the day when God will have completed that glorious temple that Paul describes in Ephesians 2. Then God himself will dwell in it and all the riches of his grace will be revealed perfectly and completely. And we will revel in the riches of the grace of almighty God revealed in that which we confess: one holy catholic church.