Recognizing the importance of the church in God’s plan for His creation, the authors of the Nicene Creed summarize the biblical teaching on the Lord’s body, confessing belief in “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.” So far, our look at the church has considered its unity — its oneness in the Lord Jesus Christ — which is enjoyed by all those who affirm the faith delivered to God’s people via the prophetic and apostolic testimony of Holy Scripture (John 17; Gal. 3:28; Jude 3). Despite the regrettable disunity we see in the visible church, all who believe the gospel are one in Christ Jesus the Lord.
The Nicene Creed also emphasizes the biblical truth that the church is holy. Given that the visible church has sometimes tolerated gross sin and that many believe one can be a “carnal Christian” and receive Jesus as Savior without bowing to Him as Lord, the notion of the church’s holiness may sound strange to us. Yet we cannot let the behavior of certain professing Christians make us question the holiness of Jesus’ body. Not every member of the visible church is actually a believer, and those who sin impenitently are not Christians at all (Matt. 7:21–23; James 2:26). Regenerate people may fall into heinous sin (Mark 14:66–72), but this does not nullify the church’s sanctity. The regenerate person who sins, either in “minor” ways or in a “gross” manner, always comes to repentance eventually. A repentant life, not sinless perfection, sets the Christian apart from the world.
Our English term church translates the Greek word ekklesia, which literally means “the called out ones.” The church’s holiness is grounded in the fact that we have been called out from the world and given the vocation of service to the Lord (1 Peter 2:9—10). We are an uncommon people, set apart to live differently than the world, and our regular failures to live righteously do not invalidate this calling. In Christ, the church is set apart as holy and seen by God as holy, positionally speaking. But the church is always striving to make this positional holiness a reality in its experience. God has declared us holy in His Son (1 Cor. 1:2, among other passages, calls us “saints”), and now, by the power of His Spirit, He is making us holy in word and deed.