So as we approach the 500th anniversary of the commencement of the Protestant Reformation, it is fitting that we have now come to this phrase in the Creed — why do we, stout Protestants that we are, confess that we believe in the holy catholic Church. Maybe in addition to being stout Protestants, we are also confused Protestants?
I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, his only begotten Son, our Lord. He was conceived by the Holy Ghost, and born of the virgin, Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into Hades. On the third day He rose again from the dead, ascended into Heaven, and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence He will come to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Ghost, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.
Summary of the Text:
“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” (Eph. 5:25–27).
Husbands are told to love their wives in the way that Christ loves His wife. He loved His Church, and a result of that love was that He gave Himself for her. Giving-love is not a special sort of love; giving love is love. Not only did He give Himself, He gave Himself with a particular end in view. He had the future glory of His bride in mind, loving her with the full intention that the end of the process would be altogether lovely. That ragamuffin street girl would marry the Prince of Heaven.
Now the basic truth in all this is not complicated. The Lord Jesus is a monogamist. He has one bride, and He is going to love her throughout all the course of human history, and will love her efficaciously such that every spot, wrinkle, and blemish is removed. So a bride with blemishes need not worry; the blemishes are being removed. A blemish on the bride should worry; the blemishes are being removed.
So that one bride is the holy catholic church. If you want to know where this catholic church is located, simply look for the Spirit of Christ. As Cyprian once put it, where the Spirit is, there is the church.
A Few Comments About Terms:
The word catholic simply means universal. In fact some of you may have been in churches that, when they said the Creed, footnoted this word to make sure you knew that. “Yes, we are a catholic church, but not Catholic catholic.”
Our modern use of Protestant and Catholic is somewhat misleading. When the controversy that resulted in the Reformation began, there were two parties to the conflict. There was the papal party and there was the reforming party, both functioning within the Church. Without injustice, we may think of the terms this way. There was the Roman Catholic faction and there was the Protesting Catholic faction. Both claimed to be representing the one, true, catholic and apostolic faith. Both still claim that. But think for a moment. Roman Catholic is oxymoronic—Rome is a city in Italy and catholic means universal.
But Are Protestants Negative?
It would be easy to think that Protestants are defined by what they are against. We hear the word protest in Protestant, loud and clear. But it would be better to link it to another way of breaking the word down—think of pro-testimony. This is a confession of what we believe—and to the extent we are against something, it is merely that we are against the renewal of lunatic persecutions on the basis of faith. This was the origin of the term Protestant (at the second Diet of Speyer). They weren’t picketing; they were testifying.
Far better, and far more positive, would be Philip Schaff’s take on this, which was that the Protestant Reformation was the greatest achievement of the medieval church.
But isn’t this testimony to how any party or faction can interpret the data in a way that comes out favorable to their party? What happened to the Protestant insistence that our view of everything, church history included, should be grounded in Scripture? Actually, that insistence is right and proper, and it hasn’t gone anywhere.
The church catholic is supposed to exhibit two kinds of unity, one in the present and the other in the future. The present unity is to be spiritual, attitudinal, and exhibited through a godly demeanor. “With all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love; endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:2–3). This is a mandate for all times and places. This unity is a given, and we are required to preserve it.
Later in the same chapter, another kind of unity, an institutional unity, is set before us, and we are summoned over the course of history, to attain to it. God gave us various gifts, and we are to pursue the exercise of all these gifts “till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ” (Eph. 4:13).
The first kind of unity is foundational, and the second kind of unity is the capstone. We are not supposed to have the second kind of unity yet.
The Church through History:
But what would you say if an intelligent Roman Catholic asked you this (quite reasonable) question? “Where was your church before the Reformation?” There are two faithful Protestant ways to answer this question, and both have a great deal of merit. The baptistic answer points to what is called the “trail of blood.” “Where were we before the Reformation? Hiding from you guys, mostly. In mountainous valleys, caves, and deep forests.” The other answer, equally correct, comes from what are called the magisterial Protestants, and it runs like this: “Well, where was your face before you washed it?”
What we do not want to do is pretend that our church came into existence in 1517 in Germany, or in 1799 on the Kentucky frontier. We are not restorationists. If your church cannot be traced back to the faith and martyrdom of Abel, then it is far too young. But for those who want to argue on the basis of antiquity alone, they need to remember that Cain was older than Abel.
But in the meantime, we should not feel ashamed to own, as our brothers in Christ, men like Boniface, Chrysostom, Augustine, or Anselm. The entire history of redemption belongs to us, and this includes the times of declension as well as the times of reformation and revival.
Defined by Word and Sacrament:
We believe that the gospel is prior to the church, and is the foundation for it. We believe that the gospel is prior to apostles, bishops, pastors, evangelists, not to mention mountebanks and frauds. “But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed” (Gal. 1:8). The Church is the plant that grows from the seed, and the seed is the gospel. “Being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God, which liveth and abideth for ever” (1 Pet. 1:23). Wherever the gospel comes, life follows after it. And when life follows, and you have two or three born again by the Spirit of God, there you have the church. If you had five infidels washed up on a desert island, and a Bible with them, could they repent and start worshiping God? Absolutely. Could they do this as a church? Absolutely.
The Boundaries of True Faith:
John Calvin once taught that when you want to recognize someone, you look at their face. You don’t try to define where a man “leaves off” by trying to calculate the precise end of his tie, or the tips of his shoelaces.
You can say confidently that all of Nebraska is in the United States. And you shouldn’t much worry about which atoms of ocean water—twelve nautical miles out from our low water mark—are in our territorial waters and which ones are outside. That’s not how you tell where the United States might be.
Taking it a step further, when you want to find the true church, look for Jesus. Where is He honored and worshiped? Where is He proclaimed? Where is His bread broken, and His wine poured? Look for Jesus and you will find His bride. That is because He never leaves her side.