Who or What Is the Church?
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Who or What Is the Church?

Ephesians 2:19  (ID: 2180)

Does the church have any relevance for the twenty-first century? By explaining the divine origins of the church, the truth about membership in the church, and how the Bible defines the church, Alistair Begg helps us answer this question. Jesus Christ is the foundation of the church, and this one truth forms the cornerstone for all we believe about it.

Series Containing This Sermon

What Is the Church?

Selected Scriptures Series ID: 23901

The Basics of the Christian Faith

A 13-Lesson Survey Selected Scriptures Series ID: 28701

Sermon Transcript: Print

Father, we are glad of the privilege of singing your praise, and now we’re expectant as we take our Bibles and open them, that in these precious moments, we will hear your voice. This is the end to which we pray, and this is our earnest expectation, that far beyond the voice of a mere man, we may know ourselves to be under the sound of your truth, by your Spirit, through the pages of your holy Scriptures. For Jesus’ sake.Amen.

Can I invite you, then, to turn with me once more to Ephesians chapter 2, and for those of you who are waiting for us to recommence our studies in the Gospel of Luke, I plan to do that in the evenings rather than in the mornings at the moment, and the reason being that I feel it is purposeful and necessary for the next few Sunday mornings at least to address with you a matter of some significant import, and that is this whole issue of the church. And, if you like, the title of our study this morning is simply, “Who or What is the Church?” Who or what is the church? Men and women may say, of course, that that is a rather esoteric area of study, something that we can perhaps leave well alone, there are more practical and pressing issues, given the nature of each of our lives today. But I think we’ll discover as we go along that no matter whether we begin from that mindset, we will discover just how vitally relevant and crucial it is at this point on the edge of the twenty-first century. There is no question that the very word “church” conjures up all kinds of things in the minds of men and women. It is a word, a phrase, “the church,” that is very often misunderstood. People will immediately think or talk in terms of buildings that are configured in a certain way. They may speak in terms of denominational structures they have known or out of which they have come. They may speak in terms of individuals that they see in the street, who seem to be dressed rather quaintly, identifying themselves as members of the clergy, distinct from the laity that attends these buildings. And the extent to which misunderstanding is represented by a consideration of the church is almost limitless. Other people view the church as an object of mistrust. If you talk with them for any length of time, they will speak of the hypocrisy that they’ve encountered, and they may also speak of the harm that they have experienced. “I don’t like those people,” they may say. “I don’t want to go there ever again. After all, the place is full of hypocrites, and there is never a place I’ve been more harmed than in Mr. So-and-So’s establishment,” or whatever it might be.

At the same time the church is increasingly marginalized in the minds of men and women. Let us not allow the numbers that presently wander into church buildings to confuse this issue. The church in the West is increasingly pushed to the periphery of public life and thought. The very way in which it is difficult for buildings to find a place now anywhere close to the center, as it were, of a town or village or city, any opportunity of them being placed in the very heart of the public square, is almost nonexistent in America. Instead, they’re being pushed out to outlying areas and in often, in many cases actually, into industrial sites, some people seeing this is a cause for encouragement, others of us, I think, a cause of alarm. And the marginalized way in which the church is regarded by the secular mind is only followed two steps behind by the way in which the church is marginalized in the experience of those who would regard themselves as the faithful. I don’t want to be unkind to any of you in any way, but I think this makes the point as clearly as I can, namely that when you think that some 2,500 or 3,000 will have been present in worship this morning, there won’t be a third of that here this evening. Now the answer of course is not in every instance that it is being marginalized, but the answer is in part that it is being marginalized. And even those who would regard it as an issue of concern are themselves saying, “Once I’ve done my duty within whatever time frame it is, then I can disperse any other considerations of that and get on with the main business of life.” “After all,” say some, “the church is really benign. It’s really for old women who need blankets over their legs. It’s for the kind of people that like singing in choirs and doing weird things like that. It deserves to be dwindling to a halt. It really is a completely useless institution.”

Last Sunday, a friend and I attended worship at a place where the regular congregation is five members. That includes the one who is the minister. We added to the congregation by two, and six other visitors came, bringing it up to the ripe total of thirteen. If I had time I would describe it to you, but I won’t. At one point the minister in a plea, in a burst of exhortation said, “… and I want to remind you that Christianity is not just about church attendance.” And I said to myself, “Well, the congregation clearly got that point.” He must have been making it regularly. It wasn’t even about church attendance as the five of them gathered. It made me think of the observation in a book by Rita Snowden, written some years ago, when she and a friend made journeys through the villages of England, a walking tour of the south of England, and in the little book entitled When We Walked, she talks of coming to a small church, a village church, on a Sunday morning, and having attended worship, this is what she wrote: “Hymn and Psalm and prayer, and the quiet murmuring voice of the Vicar tended to take my thoughts out of the windows into the morning sunlight and over the fields and far away. The pity is, it was all so harmless, so gentle, so proper.”[1] “So harmless, so gentle, so proper”— so benign.

Many of the younger generation regard it not as benign, but frankly as bizarre. That anybody would ever want to give any consideration to these things, they regard as something quite outlandish. After all, who are these people and what are they doing, and why do they speak in all of those strange words? And why does the man behind the box always seem to have a funny voice? Why is it that if you meet him in the street he says, “Hello, how are you?” And if you meet him in the pulpit, he says, “Good morning and how are you all today?” You say, “Well, I don’t want to deal with a man like that. I don’t want to deal with that kind of thing.” One of my friends, Peter Cotterell, wrote a book years ago called Church Alive!, and in the course of that he was writing about this distinction between the way in which the average member of the populous goes about their day and talks, and then they come into an establishment that is represented by Christianity, and they have to cross a bridge into another subculture all together. And he wrote a little poem that he thought might have been on the lips of a bus driver who had attended one of their services. This is written as an Englishman in England. And it goes like this: “I drive a bus, yes that’s my job at sixty quid a week.” (That’s sixty pounds a week, which at the moment is … work it out for yourselves.):

I drive a bus, yes that’s my job at sixty quid a week,
I’m a sinner, so they tell me, one what Jesus came to seek;
So the parson says and ‘e’s the bloke what really ought to know
With ‘is everlasting sermons. ‘e’s the bloke what runs the show
At the church down in the ‘igh Street, Zion Chapel, that’s the name,
Methodist, or maybe Baptist, I don’t know, they’re all the same:
“Services at ten and six, and wear a suit, men, if you please;
If you’ve got a cold don’t come, or if you do, don’t dare to sneeze,”
‘cos the Vicar doesn’t like it, and ‘e makes an awful fuss.
But you ‘ave to treat folks different when you’re driver of a bus.
I’ve often thought I’d like to be a Christian, just like you,
With a hymnbook in me ‘and, and maybe learn a prayer or two.
‘Course I’d ‘ave to learn the language, all them “thees and “thous” and “thuses,”
And the “shalts” and “shouldsts” and “mayests”, we don’t use them on the buses.
Yes, I’d like to be a Christian, if the Christians spoke like us.
But you ‘have to talk like humans when you’re driver of the bus.”[2]

Are we really going to invite people into the establishment of the church and then make them learn a completely new vocabulary? We’re not talking about theological terminology, we’re just talking about the way you talk to people. People say, “That’s bizarre.” And yet young families feeling a sense of burden, feeling that now with their garage door opener and their mortgage, they really ought to do something with these kids that are wandering around in the yard, they hasten to bring them along and put them in establishments that they themselves really care very little about. And into this archaic language of shibboleths and platitudes, the families still come, pressing upon their youngsters the importance of being in the church, while all the time doubting the significance of it themselves.

Doonesbury, months ago, years ago probably, judging by the color of this paper here from my files, has a quite significant cartoon in this regard. If I was a high-tech minister, it would be up there on the screen. I am a no-tech minister, therefore it is here in front of me on a piece of paper. But it’s a mother and father with their boy, and they’re sitting down with their son, and they’re saying to him,

“Alex, honey, Mom and I have been talking, and we’ve decided it’s time for us to start attending church as a family.”

“Church? Church is boring.”

“Well, we thought you might say that. All kids think that.”

“Didn’t you think church was boring when you were a kid?”

“Well, sure, I hated going, but church was good for me, so my parents made me stick it out. You may end up hating church, too, but you have to come by that feeling honestly. You have to put in the pew time like Mom and I did.”

“Oh. What if I like it?”

“Like it? What do you mean?”

And then says Mum, “We’ll cross that bridge when we get there, honey.”[3]

In other words, there is no possibility of you liking it. Who would ever like this benign, bizarre experience that is encapsulated in our culture, offered up in a certain way, pre-packaged? Is this church? Who, or what, is the church? That’s the question. And you know if I gave that as an essay assignment to this congregation, the reason that I need to address it is because I honestly think that 90 percent of you would be unable to get anything above a C minus in answering. You shouldn’t feel bad about that for a moment. I should feel horrible, and so should my colleagues, because to us has been entrusted the privilege and the responsibility of teaching you so that you then may be able to work these things out for yourselves, so that we would encourage you to read your Bibles and to ask, “Is this what the Bible says, or is that just what he is telling me? Is this the instruction of the Bible, or are they just trying to jam me in a certain direction?”

So in the face of misunderstanding, in the face of misgiving, at a time, as I say, when religion is being pushed to the corners of the public square, what I want to do is address with you some of the certain, basic truths regarding the nature of the church. I do want to let those of you who come from a Roman Catholic tradition know, and you should just get ready for this, that I’m about to quote from a most recent Roman Catholic piece that is about to make you feel distinctly uncomfortable. I hasten to say in preparation for it that I have no interest in making you feel uncomfortable. Nor would I ever seek to allege anything concerning these things, but I feel free to quote what the church itself is saying. So for those of you who need to just sit a little more comfortably in your seat, then do be prepared.

First of all, this is what we want to say: the church is not a human invention; it is a divine institution. When you listen to people talk, you have the impression that the church is simply a human society that owes its origin and its establishment to some kind of voluntary agreement among its members. In other words, it’s a kind of Christian Rotary Club, if you like. Everybody gets together, they’re from a similar background, and they all sit down, and they like doing the same sort of things, and so somebody along the journey of time said, “You know, why don’t we establish this as a kind of institution?” Those of you who remember Paul Simon’s songs may remember the line in the song where he’s talking to this girl, and he says, “Hey senorita, that’s astute. Why don’t we get together and call ourselves an institute?”[4] And the impression that is given by some is that these folks along the journey of time, said, “Hey you know what? I think it’d be a nice idea if we just got together. Why don’t we get together, sing a few things. You like to sing? I like to sing.” In the same way that you find people in your neighborhood saying, “Do you like to bowl? I like to bowl. Why don’t we have a bowling club? Why don’t we have a religious club?” And so you have the church. Nobody really knows where it came from or why it should have emerged, but it has been perpetuated down through the years as a result of somebody having the bright idea, why don’t everybody that likes this kind of thing, why don’t we all just get together and have a society?

The Bible says that the church owes its origin not to man, but to God.

Well, we read the Bible, and what does the Bible say? The Bible says that the church owes its origin not to man, but to God. There is no such thing as “the church” were it not for the fact that God from all of eternity planned to have a people that are his very own, and the solidarity and the corporate distinctiveness of the people of God, as distinct from all other communities, can be tied to only one thing, namely to the call of God. That’s why when you read the Old Testament, you find that Abraham is going about his day, and God comes to him, and he calls to him, and he says, “Hey Abraham!” And Abraham says, “Yes?” And he says, “Abraham, this is what I want you to do, and this is where I want you to go.” Now was it that Abraham said, “You know, I’d like to be involved in a religious society”? No. He was just going about his day, and God said, “Hello!” and suddenly he established a relationship. Now that same call then came down through the line of the prophets, in order that, as he promised to Abraham, through his descendants, all the nations of the earth would be blessed. That, I suggest to you, is a strange thing to say to anybody, not least of all to one of the patriarchs. “Abraham, here you are and you’re living at this moment in time. Time is about to come all out in front of you, extend for thousands of years, and I want you to know that through your descendants, all the nations of the earth will be blessed.” What could that possibly mean? What does it possibly mean? How is such a blessing brought about in all the nations of the world? And what is the blessing?

Well, that’s why we read from Ephesians 2. You thought I was never going to refer to it, but let me turn you back to it just now: Ephesians 2:13. What we discover is this: that through the death and resurrection of Jesus, God’s purpose from all eternity finds fulfillment as he establishes what he refers to as this new man, which is nothing other than the church. Now he’s writing to these Gentile believers and he says, “Now in Christ Jesus …” Notice the phrase “in Christ Jesus”—we’ll come back to that—“you who were once far away have been brought near” and how has this happened? “…Through the blood of Christ.” Why? Well, “He himself is our peace. He has made the two, one. He has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing this flesh, the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace.”[5] And what he is referring to here is the way that the promises of God to the nation of Israel, ultimately find their fulfillment as he calls the Gentiles to faith in himself. And so we have a community now that is not distinguishable by ethnic origin, but is identifiable as a result of God’s grace, in terms of his initiative throughout all of time. And that’s why as you come to the end of the chapter, verse 22, it says, “In him,” verse 21, sorry, “in him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.”[6] Now let’s just leave that there and move on. The first point is this: the Bible makes it clear that the church is not a human invention, it is a divine institution.

For the community that God has been putting together from eternity to eternity is this community, the church.

The second point to notice is this: that membership in that church is not a matter of external attachment but of spiritual union. It is not a matter of external attachment but of spiritual union. We’ll say more about this in a moment, but we daren’t go any further without recognizing that right alongside the question, “The church—what is it?” is the question, and it’s a crux question, “Who’s in it?” and the correlative question, “By what means?” If there is a church that not everyone is in, who’s in? And how do you get in? I think it would become immediately apparent to each one of us that we’re not talking here about how you become a member of Parkside Church as a local gathering of the church. We’re talking about a much bigger, cosmic, more significant question. How do I, as someone who by virtue of my birth is not a member of the church, is not part of the community of God, how is it that I would ever be in it? And I suggest to you that the answer to that question and the disagreements over the answer to that question are absolutely crucial. Because clearly not every answer that is given is the right answer. And if there is a right answer that the Bible gives, then we need to discover it, because it’s going to have an impact, not only on the immediacy of our lives and the way in which we rear our children, and the things that we say to our friends and neighbors, but it matters for all of eternity. For the community that God has been putting together from eternity to eternity is this community, the church. And that’s why his focus is not on America. That’s why his focus is not on Britain. That’s why God in heaven is not somehow or another preoccupied even with Jerusalem at the moment, or with Peking, because his focus is on his people, a people that he has determined to call out from all of time.

If we’re going to be made spiritually alive, it’s going to have to happen as a result of a power outside of ourselves.

Now Paul addresses this in Ephesians 2. He reminds these Ephesian Christians first of all, of what they were. “Consider,” he says, “what you were.” Now I can’t expound all of this. I don’t have time. But I don’t want you to miss it. What does he say they were? “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins.”[7] In other words, you were spiritually dead. That’s not difficult to understand. There was no life, spiritually in us at all. We are depraved. That doesn’t mean that we’re as bad as we could possibly be, but it does mean that there is no part of our human nature that is not touched and tainted by sin, and we have no ability to disassociate ourselves from that trap in which we’re born. Spiritually dead, disobedient, pleasing ourselves, and at the end of verse 3, the “objects of wrath.” This, if you like, my friends, is the plight of man. This you will not find in the average newspaper, indeed, in hardly any newspaper. This you will not find in the history books as an explanation for the sad and sorry predicament in which we find ourselves. People are trying desperately to explain it in terms of the responses to various factors in life, whether they’re economic factors or environmental factors, or whatever they might be. We are better equipped in analyzing that than we have ever been in the history of humanity, and yet even the leaders of our country are unable to extricate themselves from the sorriness and the rottenness and the fallenness and the sinfulness of it all, and these are the people to whom we would look in order to provide the solution for our predicament? No. Our predicament is so deep that there is no human agency that is going to be able to extricate ourselves. And yet the message comes, “Try and fix yourself. Try and find yourself. Try and reform yourself. Try and embrace religion. Try and be a little better,” and all of these apparent stepping stones are nothing other than stumbling blocks. My dear friends, if we’re going to be made spiritually alive, it’s going to have to happen as a result of a power outside of ourselves, and not as a result of our being able to look into ourselves and find the “God part” in ourselves or find the spiritual part in ourselves, which is of course so much contemporary thought. “Why don’t you just go away for the afternoon and find yourself? And you’ll find that you have a lovely self in there, and if you can just cultivate that like a large sunflower then you will just be a lovely sunflower just sitting in your car at the traffic lights.” Well, I encourage you to try it, and you’ll see how quickly a sunflower can wither as a result of self-help. Consider what you were. Consider, secondly, what Christ did, verse 13. He “shed his blood.” Why? Because without the shedding of blood there is no way for sin to be remitted.[8] If there is any other way, then there is no need for a crucified Christ. He shed his blood. He brought us near. He made us alive. He saved us.

That’s why he’s then able to go on say, consider what you are, verse 6. You’re “seated in the heavenly realms.” You are ready, verse 10, to do good. Verse 7, you are being prepared for a quite incredible show-and-tell. I remember in school in Scotland, if you got new shoes or something, you were able to … first of all you went and you told the teacher in my school. You went to the teacher and you said, “Miss, I have something I want to show the class.” As an act of extreme Scottish caution, she would then take you around behind the blackboard and ask you to show her before you showed anybody else. And I remember going behind the blackboard, said, “I want to show them my shoes.” “Fine, that’s o.k.,” she said. “Now you come around and you show them your shoes.” And then say, “Now class, Alistair got some new shoes,” and everybody said, “Who cares?” Which was fine, because that’s exactly what I said when somebody got a new dress. “Who cares?” But the show-and-tell that’s being prepared is quite incredible. He’s “seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus” in order that in the coming ages, he might have a show-and-tell of “the incomparable riches of his grace expressed in his kindness to us in Jesus.”[9] In other words, he’s going to have this amazing event, and he’s going to bring people along, and he’ll say, “There she is. Look at her. Do you know what she once was?” It’s going to be fantastic. I mean, isn’t it going to be marvelous when the lady at the well comes up in that thing, you know, and he says, “There, you see? She had five husbands and a live-in lover, but look at her! Look at how beautiful she is. Here he is, Zacchaeus, now in the fullness of his stature. Look at him.” What, as a result of the lady’s desire to turn over a new leaf? To become a better person? To get plugged into religion? As a result of his endeavors no longer to be a cheat and to be done with those kind of things? To turn over a new leaf and to go on his way? No, as a result of the invasion of a power from outside of themselves that made them brand new and placed them in a whole new community. A divine institution, not a human invention. A spiritual union, not an external commitment. Oh, there is external dimensions to it, as we shall see in the coming weeks, but without the spiritual union, any external element, albeit baptism, be it subscriptions of membership, be it all those things, none of those things as an amalgamation can take the place of a divine transaction in the soul of man, whereby we are made new: made alive, saved, transformed. This is the church.

Now you notice that all of this came about in the lives of the Ephesian believers, and it’s stated very clearly in verse 13 of chapter 1. “And you also were included in Christ …” You notice that phrase, “included in Christ?” When were they included in Christ? “When you heard the word of truth.” What was this word of truth? It was “the gospel of salvation.” What was this good news? The good news was that although you’re in a dire predicament and cannot get yourself out, that another has come and taken your place, and as a result of all that he has done, as you trust unreservedly in him, all of his benefits will accrue to your account, and all of your debit will be taken into his. People say, “Well I can’t understand that.” No, it is an amazing mystery, isn’t it?

’Tis mystery all, the Immortal dies,
who can explore this strange design?
In vain, the firstborn seraph tries
 to sound the depths of love divine.
Amazing love, how can it be,
that thou my God should’st die for me?[10]
I want to say to you, dear friend, there is no more urgent issue in your life than to ask yourself in the soul and core of your being, “Am I included in Christ?”

You see why I say to you that you may think, “Oh, who cares about the church? We don’t need to be worried about the church this morning. There are many pressing issues in my life, you know.” I want to say to you, dear friend, there is no more urgent issue in your life than to ask yourself in the soul and core of your being, “Am I included in Christ?” That’s the first question before, “Am I a terrific dad?” ’Cause the answer to that, I can tell you right now, without checking with your kids, is no. You may be a good one, but you’re not the best. Or “Am I the best of this or the best of that?” These are marginal matters. When were they included in Christ? When they “heard the word of the truth—the gospel of their salvation.” When they believed in him, they “were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit.” They were given a down payment so that as they walked around they would say, “This is a mystery, and I know there’s more to come.”

Now I think you’re able to understand that this is not something that for these Ephesian believers took place apart from their minds being instructed, their hearts being opened, and their wills being changed, nor will it ever happen in any of our lives absent these elements. That is why we seek to teach the Bible in a way that is clear and understandable, in order that the message of truth may not be something that comes to grab you in the pit of your stomach and make you feel emotional, but may be something that comes and embraces your mind and causes you to think things out. And then in the process of thinking things out, you discover that God comes to turn the key in the very core of your being in your heart and to open your heart to truth that before, you never paid any attention to at all, and then to incline your will into the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake—so much so that you and others are saying, “It’s amazing to me that I am even here at all. I can hardly explain what has happened to me, except that having heard the word of truth, the gospel of salvation, and having believed it, I was sealed with the Holy Spirit.”

Now here is the point: that the emphasis of the Bible—when it comes to the issues of sin and judgment and grace and salvation—the emphasis of Scripture drives all of us to it individually. It is right for us to ask the question, “Where do I stand in relationship to this? What about me as an individual, given all of my background and where I am today, where am I in relationship to this essential question?” We also find, though, that having addressed that question, although we come to Christ individually, we don’t live in Christ solitarily, and that’s why in verse 19 and following to the end of chapter 2, you have all of these plural references. You’re no longer foreigners and aliens, you’re “fellow citizens” with God’s people. You’re not living on your own, you’re members of God’s household. You’re in a family now. You’re being built together into a house, into a holy temple. You are, in a unique way—and this is a corporate reference here, verse 22—“a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.” And without this corporate, plural dimension, it’s hard for us to make sense of much of what we find in the Bible. Indeed, without the existence of this church which God has established, many of the passages of the Bible just trail off into oblivion. How are we to understand all of the exhortations to care for one another, except for the existence of the body of believers? So I must always be asking not simply, “What does this mean to me?” but we must also train ourselves in the study of the Bible to ask the question, “What is the lesson for us?”

Now I hope you’re still with me, and I want to ask just one further and final question: how is the church defined in the Bible? How is the church defined in the Bible? Because clearly the answer to that question is also crucial. We know that down through history, men and women using the same Bible have arrived at a variety of conclusions regarding the origin and the essential principles and nature of the church. So if you read history, you recognize that you have the emergence of the church, you have Peter, and you have the apostles, you have the establishment of the community. They’re moving forward without mass evangelism. They’re moving forward without church buildings. They’re moving forward without any significant hierarchical structure at all. They are establishing elders in every community. There is no indication in the early centuries of any elder arising as a peculiar elder above all the other elders. The constitution of the church is marked by parity and by plurality. And then Constantine is converted, and for the first time, church is no longer marginalized, but to be a Christian is somehow or another caught up with the Roman government and with the Roman State. That begins a change in the thinking of men and women, and out of that emerges structures that had never ever been in place before. And on down through there into the Medieval Period and the Dark Ages, and Constantinople, and the issues there in Greece, and the Greek Orthodox and Russian Orthodox Church, and the establishment of the Roman See, and the papacy, and all of those other things are now going on down through history. If at any point in the process, anybody would take their Bible and say, “Excuse me. Do you think we may just have got off the road ever so slightly?” the answer was “Yes, I think so,” however it happens sparingly. And so by the time of the Reformation, it is going to take a major upheaval to go back to the essential truths that were represented in the fledging church in the Acts of the Apostles.

And here we are today, and we go and drive through Cleveland, and we can see one for this, and one for that, and one for the next thing. If you want a bewildering exercise get a copy of the Yellow Pages this afternoon and just sit and run your way all the way through it and say to yourself, “If I was just the average secular person looking for a Christian church or whatever it was, what would I do here with this motley selection in here in the Yellow Pages, all advertising their wares and suggesting one thing or another, and all able to give a definition of the church that differs from each other?” Why is it Parkside Church? Why is it not Parkside Presbyterian Church? Why is it not Parkside Orthodox Church, or Parkside Baptist Church, or Parkside Pentecostal Church, or whatever it is? Why is it just Parkside Church? Did we run out of adjectives? No. We were bombarded by adjectives. If you knew some of the suggested titles of this church when we decided to change the name, it would make your hair curl, even if you’re bald. No, it’s called Parkside Church for a very essential reason: because of our convictions as to the nature of the church as it is defined in the Bible. Because what we discover when we read the Bible is that the church is referred to in such a way that the real church ultimately is clearly invisible, comprising all of every age who have been included in Christ, scattered throughout all of the world in all kinds of places. This is the church to which Jesus refers when he says, “… and the gates of hell will not prevail against her.”[11] Because if you think about church history at all you say, “Well, the gates of hell have been prevailing very well against the church. After all, this one fell down. This one had three of those guys. This one did this. The other one did this. The whole thing is total chaos. What do you mean the gates of hell will not prevail against the church?” He is referring to “the church” church, to the invisible church, comprising the elect in every age. “Oh,” you say—especially the thinking young person’s nudging his mother now and says, “I’d like to become a member of the invisible church, mom. Especially if it means we don’t have to go back for another one of these sermons. Put me in the invisible church now.” We have a significant invisible church that is present in the larger congregation at Parkside, but we’ll leave that aside for the time being.

Now the only way that I can make this contrast with clarity is to quote to you now from a document called “Dominus Jesus” sixteenth of June, out of the Vatican from the Pope and his pontiffs.[12] And I do this, not out of a sense of controversy, and I do this recognizing that some from this tradition don’t even understand this themselves. But I do it because this, my dear friends, is an absolutely defining, crucial issue. What does it mean to be included in Christ? What is the church? Who is the church? Now this is page eleven of twenty-one pages. The last six pages are all bibliography. You can get it on the Internet, if you click on “Dominus” or search the web, “Dominus Jesus,” you’ll find it for yourself. Let me read you just a little bit.

“The Catholic faithful… ” My friends always tell me, “You know you keep quoting the Catholics, and you say things, and it’s all, you know, you don’t even understand the Council of Trent. You’re always reading old stuff. Everybody’s changed, you know. Start reading the new stuff.” OK, here I am. Here’s the new stuff. This is the most up-to-date stuff I can find. “The Catholic faithful are required to profess that there is an historical continuity—rooted in the apostolic succession — between the Church founded by Christ and the Catholic Church.”[13] This is Catholic with a large “C,” This is not Catholic with a small “c,” i.e., “universal.” They are referring to the Roman Catholic Church. “‘This is the single Church of Christ … which our Saviour, after his resurrection, entrusted to Peter’s pastoral care, commissioning him and the other Apostles to extend and rule her, erected for all ages as ‘the pillar and mainstay of the truth.’ This Church, constituted and organized as a society in the present world, subsists in … the Catholic Church, governed by the Successor of Peter, and by the bishops in communion with him.”[14]

Now I could read on but I don’t want to bore you, and I’m not skipping things to take it out of context. “The churches, which while not existing in perfect communion with the Catholic Church,” this is a reference to the Orthodox Church, to the Greek and the Russian Orthodox Church.

The Churches, which while not existing in perfect communion with the Catholic Church, remain united to her by means of the closest bonds, that is, by apostolic succession and a valid Eucharist, are true particular Churches. Therefore, the Church of Christ is present and operative also in these Churches, even though they lack full communion with the Catholic Church, since they do not accept the Catholic doctrine of the Primacy, which according to the will of God, the Bishop of Rome objectively has and exercises over the entire Church.[15]

So I’m reading and I’m looking for us in it. I’m looking. “Parkside Church however is …” but we are in here. We are an “ecclesial community.” “On the other hand, the ecclesial communities, which have not preserved the valid Episcopate and the genuine and integral substance of the Eucharistic mystery, are not Churches in the proper sense; however, those who are baptized in these communities are, by Baptism incorporated into Christ.”[16] Now stop for a moment and ask what we just read in Ephesians 1:13: “And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel, and believed.” Now loved ones, I say to you again, this—heaven depends on this! They “are in a certain communion, albeit imperfect, with the Church. Baptism in fact tends per se toward the full development of life in Christ, through the integral profession of faith, the Eucharist, and full communion in the Church. “‘The Christian faithful,’” which is a reference to the Roman Catholic faithful, “‘are therefore not permitted to imagine that the Church of Christ is nothing more than a collection —divided yet in some way one ...”[17] See? An invisible church “‘… divided, yet in some way one ...’” by the mysterious union. “But she herself hath union with God the three in one, and mystic sweet communion with those whose rest is won.”[18] This is “The Church’s One Foundation” I’m quoting to you now. They say the faithful are not allowed to pay any attention to that at all, “‘nor are they free to hold that today the Church of Christ nowhere really exists, and must be considered only as a goal which all Churches and ecclesial communities must strive to reach.’ In fact ‘the elements of this already-given Church exist, joined together in their fullness in the Catholic Church, and without this fullness, in the other communities.’”[19]

Now let me finish. “‘Therefore, these separated churches and communities as such, though we believe they suffer from defects, have by no means been deprived of significance and importance in a mystery of salvation.” Hey, thank you very much! “‘For the Spirit of Christ has not refrained from using them as means of salvation …’”[20] Now here’s the kicker and listen carefully. “‘… has not refrained from using them as means of salvation which derive their efficacy from the very fullness of grace and truth entrusted to the Catholic Church.’”[21] Now I say I don’t use this as a means of division or controversy. Some of my dearest friends and some who sit in front of me now have been brought up in this. Why would I ever mention it? Because this is the question: What does it mean to be included in Christ? Loved ones, do you understand that if this is right, we are nothing more than “an ecclesial community”? We have wandered and strayed from our ways like lost sheep. We do need to return to the mother church and confess the mistake of the Reformation, and embrace all of this, if this is right. But if it is wrong, will we then simply form an alliance on the basis of the moral predicaments of our time? Can we? Dare we?

See, the question this morning, and we’ll come back to this at another time … In the Old Testament, the community is described in two words. One word is edah, the transliteration of the Hebrew, and this refers to the community of God as a result of heritage and external union. The second word is qahal, which describes those who are united to God within the edah, who are united as a result of hearing the call of God to them. It is that qahal word which is then translated ecclesia in the New Testament translation of the Old Testament, and it is the word ecclesia which is used throughout the New Testament as a description of the nature of the church, thereby reminding us that it is clearly possible to be part of a visible, identifiable church entity as a result of external assignation, religious interest, focus, heritage, baptism, family tradition. It is distinctly possible to be part of that edah, without being part of the qahal, without having heard the call of God into our spirits, saying, “I want to include you in my Son. I know that you have benefited from all of these external elements. I know that this is important to you. I know that you are trying to work all of that out. But listen, don’t let all of that prevent you from hearing the word of truth, as it is proclaimed in the gospel, believing it and being included in Christ.” You see, this is the great issue. Is a person a Christian as a result of something that is done to them by a religious professional? Is a person a Christian as a result simply of them determining that they will now include Christ and Christianity in their portfolio? Or is a person a Christian only when they have been brought to see the utter end of themselves and the hopelessness of all of their attempts at acceptance with God, and they have cried out to him, “Lord Jesus Christ, I cast myself upon your mercy, and I am amazed that you would include me in your company.”

Well, we’ll come back to these things in later days, but for now, let us pray together.
The Church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord.
She is His new communion by water and the word.
From heaven He came and sought her to be His holy bride.
With His own blood He bought her, and for her life He died.[22]

God grant that we may be completely unsettled and unresting as individuals until you pursue us into a corner in which we cry out that we might be included in Christ, by grace, through faith, and that not of ourselves. We commit one another into your care. We pray that nothing that has been said would rob us of a serious consideration of the Lord Jesus Christ. And may his grace and his mercy and his peace, from the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, rest upon and remain with each one who believes, today and forevermore. Amen.


[1] Rita Snowden, When We Two Walked: A Pilgrimage in Spring, quoted in William Barclay, The Promise of the Spirit (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), 112.

[2] Peter Cotterell, Church Alive! A Fresh Look at Church Growth (Leicester: InterVarsity, 1981), 69–70.

[3] Gary Trudeau, “Doonesbury.” March 20, 1994. http://www.gocomics.com/doonesbury/1994/03/20 Paraphrased. Accessed 2 May, 2017.

[4] Paul Simon. Gumboots. Graceland. Warner Brothers Records 9 25447-2, 1986, compact disc (paraphrased).

[5] Ephesians 2:14 (NIV 1984).

[6] Ephesians 2:21–22 (NIV 1984).

[7] Ephesians 2:1 (NIV 1984).

[8] Hebrews 9:22 (paraphrased).

[9] Ephesians 2:6–7 (paraphrased).

[10] Charles Wesley, “And Can It Be?” (1738).

[11] Matthew 16:18 (NIV 1984, paraphrased).

[12] Declaration “Dominus Jesus” on the Unicity and Salvific Universality of Jesus Christ and the Church, Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (June 16, 2000), http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_20000806_dominus-iesus_en.html (accessed January 1, 2016).

[13] Ibid., at IV.16.

[14] Ibid. (emphasis in original; internal references omitted).

[15] Ibid., at IV.17.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Samuel J. Stone, “The Church’s One Foundation” (1866).

[19] Declaration “Dominus Jesus” on the Unicity and Salvific Universality of Jesus Christ and the Church, Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, IV.17 (June 16, 2000), http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_20000806_dominus-iesus_en.html accessed January 1, 2016).

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Samuel J. Stone, “The Church’s One Foundation” (1866).

Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.