Sometime in early 2013, a Copernican shift began in my mind and that monumental revolution is hardly concluded. I began reading a rather popular book on the church (this book is actually very prominent in the ‘church growth’ sub genre) and I was startled in the end not by the objections themselves, but rather by the nature of my objections. Ever since, I’ve realised that my mind really does need to be shaped by scripture continuously because I had not expected it to be so negatively influenced by modern thought. Someday I’ll write a book review about it and then I won’t need to be so cryptic but till then, you’ll just have to wait.
For some reason I’ve been thinking about the theology of the church and by that I mean all those questions that deal with ‘what the church is and how it should be governed’ i.e. ecclesiology and I’m pretty sure those thoughts will still be streaming through my mind for some years to come. One of those many thoughts seems to have reached its conclusion and that is concerning the gaps/potholes in these sort of books and a rather specific pothole at that. In many of the books in the church growth genre, you will notice that there’ll be a great emphasis on what can be done to ensure numbers without compromising on the message and yet that ‘message’ i.e. the gospel is never defined. Sure you can say your message should be ‘Biblical’ but if say I started a church whose attempt at ‘relevance’ produced a vision statement that actually read: ‘Delivering Blows to the Posterior and Taking an Inventory of Names for the Kingdom’ with a quotation stuck at the bottom from Psalm 3:7 to prove that our penchant for violence is in fact not as a result of a peculiar eisegesis, then who’s to say we’re not being ‘Biblical’?
‘Could have, should have watched out for that pothole,’
Then again, that too is for another blog post. That’s not the one i’m writing about today. It seems to me that the very reason why books in this particular genre have fallen short at least to me, is due to a gaping hole in our ecclesiology; one that I’m surprised has not been noticed, and that hole goes by the name; the church triumphant.
Sadly, to many a modern Christian, pagan infringements on our understanding of what happens to us when we die have crept into the church. Whether it’s a notion of ‘soul sleep’ or the idea that we somehow become vapours akin to ‘Casper the Friendly Ghost’ once we die…..
And yet, it wasn’t’ always this way.
The Westminster Confession of Faith drafted in 1646 says this of what the church is:
“The catholic or universal Church, which is invisible, consists of the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ the Head thereof; and is the spouse, the body, the fullness of Him that fills all in all,”
-Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 25.1
Joel Beeke in his commentary on this section of the Confession rightly points out:
“The word “catholic” comes from a Greek word meaning universal or international, and does not necessarily or exclusively refer to Roman Catholicism. Some of the church’s members are already in glory (the church triumphant). Some still fight the good fight of the faith on earth (the church militant). But all are one people called out of the world into holy union with Christ (1 Cor. 1:2). When we meet in local congregations, we join with saints in heaven and throughout the earth to worship God through Christ as one great assembly (Heb. 12:22-24).”
In the age of the pragmatic, the ‘results based’ and the relevant, we for the most part engage in some form of collective navel gazing on the Lord’s Day and every other day besides it, sadly this hardly crosses our minds when we meet in our congregations to worship God. Sadly, we do not consider that the object of our worship; Yahweh has indeed saved his own, and that his own still do worship him. After all, is it not Jesus Christ who said that Yahweh the God of Jacob, Abraham and Isaac is the God of the living?
It is essential to not only know that the church triumphant IS, but to also know why the church triumphant is relevant for our day. I’ll give at least three reasons why we need an understanding of the church triumphant today:
1. To protect the gospel from heterodoxy and heresy.
As Jesus spoke to his questioners, we see that he is clearly confronting the mistaken notion that there is no resurrection for the dead; no eternal life. He is out rightly combating heresy and heterodoxy. The reason why we need to know the true composition of the church is so that we may realise that the salvation that we are given is a very real one and not a metaphorical one. For all the heresies and heterodoxies that may creep out of the materialist stew, our understanding and defence of the fact that there IS an eternal life that we are called into out of darkness will prove to be a great buttress to our defence of orthodox Christianity.
2. An Answer to the Question of the ‘Vacant’ Apostolic Office.
It seems too many of us, me included sometimes assume that what we produce with our effort, that which can be seen and felt by others immediately around us is what really matters for the church. And yet sadly we seem to forget the achievements of our brothers and sisters now in glory. True, they have been documented in scripture and elsewhere but because of so many worldly influences, we seem to forget that the church is compared by Jesus to a building with foundations. Our brothers the apostles and prophets have built foundations for us and as a result we continue to build upwards. Nowhere else is this seen clearly in scripture than in Ephesians 2:11-22.(N.I.V)
We are saved and united to each other. Not only that, but the foundation; built on the effort of the apostles and prophets is firm. Just as a wise builder works masterfully on the foundation so that the rest of the building may be built up splendidly, so does Jesus Christ build up his church. The fact that the church in all the centuries gone by has not fallen is because HE built the foundation. I exhort us to not commit to futility; trying to rebuild the foundation and all that is unique to it that Christ has built himself through the work of the saints gone by. Saints who now are parts of the church triumphant and a part of us as a complete church. Many a time, you hear of churches and individuals trying to work up miracles and signs to attract people to the message of Jesus Christ. If people could only see ‘wonder and miracles,’ they might say, all would believe. No my friends. It is through the foolishness of preaching that Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit has seen fit to build the church and the Holy Spirit in his wisdom grants us gifts necessary for building up the church appropriately till our Lord’s return. By disregarding the church triumphant, we inadvertently deem insignificant the efforts of our brothers and sisters now deceased and in glory, and we end up spending too much time on non-essentials when we should be preaching, evangelizing, serving and doing all that our Lord requires us; his church militant to do.
“If the temple of God’s truth is ever to be completely built, we must not spend our efforts in digging at the foundations which have been securely laid in the distant past, but must rather give our best efforts to rounding out the arches, carving the capitals, and fitting in the fretted roof. What if it is not ours to lay the foundations? Let us rejoice that that work has been done! Happy are we if our God will permit us to bring a single capstone into place!”
3. Perseverance in Suffering.
This should be a no-brainer. Our light and momentary suffering as Paul puts it, are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs it all. Death is not the end! Hallelujah! And not only is it NOT the end, but what awaits us; eternal communion with God our redeemer and everything that will necessarily result from that communion will make all our anguish, all the terrorism, all the suffering PALE in comparison! Knowing that we will be sentient in heaven and that the saints long gone are now experiencing what we shall experience should be a great comfort to us. And yet, as we see in Revelations 6:10-11 their joy is not complete until we too are joined with them in eternal joy. If they; the church triumphant is waiting to be united to us shouldn’t we too anticipate eagerly to be united with them in the eternal worship of our God? Lord haste the day but let us enjoy you even today through our suffering.
It is my hope and prayer that someday, sooner than later, we may realise who we really are as the universal church and what our mission is so that we may forge ahead in the power of the Holy Spirit in the work assigned to us. To God alone be the glory for all the things he has done and will do for us, in us and through us his complete church now and forever more.