Our devotions based on the early history of the church have largely focused on key figures and teachings from the first five centuries of Christian history. As we begin to wrap up this brief study and return to Romans, we will now take a look at the doctrine of the church as summarized in the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed. Paul views the church as an essential part of God’s plan (Rom. 9–11), so understanding what the Bible teaches about the church is key for fulfilling our high calling as the bride of Christ.
Four biblical characteristics of the church are identified in the creedal phrase one, holy, catholic, and Apostolic church. Today we will consider the church’s holiness.
Sometimes it is hard to believe that the church is a holy body, a communion of saints. That is because we hear so often of scandals in the church that reveal its abiding sin. Ministers commit moral failures. Laypeople squabble over minor issues and church bodies split. The list goes on. Were the Apostles and church fathers being naive when they called the church a holy body?
The answer has to be no. Participants in the early church councils were well aware that sin is an ever-present reality for the church on this side of glory. Yet they also understood that despite the sin that remains, God regards the communion of saints as holy. After all, both the Old Testament and the New Testament refer to the people of the Lord as “saints,” that is, “holy ones” (Pss. 30:4; 97:10; 1 Cor. 1:2). Often, as for example in the case of the Corinthian Christians, these saints were anything but upright in conduct. Yet sinful believers are still called holy, and that is because the basic meaning of the word holy is “set apart unto God.” The Lord has called a people out of this world and set them apart for Himself. They are His special possession even though they still sin (1 John 1:8–9). Consequently, they are holy.
We typically associate holiness with moral purity, and that is appropriate given the ways that Scripture describes the Lord as free from evil. The creed also says that this kind of holiness is characteristic of God’s people—though the church will not be perfectly holy until it is glorified. Such experiential or practical holiness is characteristic of the church because all those who believe in Christ have the Holy Spirit, who is working in them so that they work out their salvation with fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12–13). This work is slow, sometimes even barely perceptible, but it is occurring because the Lord promises to conform us to the image of His Son (Rom. 8:29).