This is good news for the church because ecclesiology depends on the ascension. A proper ecclesiology will acknowledge the ascended Savior as the dispenser of all good gifts, by His Spirit, for the sake of building His church and bringing her to completion. The exalted Christ is head of the church, seated “at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (Heb. 1:3). Charles Hodge affirms, “It was for the church, for the consummation of the work of redemption that as the God-man He has been thus exalted over all created being.” Christ’s ascension and session at God’s right hand are thus key to understanding the work of the church, for it is from God’s right hand that He has sent His Spirit to empower the church in its work. Christ has not left us as orphans but has sent His Spirit to dwell within us. By His Spirit, He is gathering and perfecting the saints, and He accomplishes this through the ministry of His church. This is His vision—gathering and perfecting. But how does He do this?
Christ’s Means: Word and Sacrament
The vision of Christ is carried out by the appointed means of Christ, known as the means of grace. These are the means by which He gathers and perfects His saints. The Westminster Confession defines them as “the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God.” These means of grace are the Word of God and the sacraments—both of which have been committed to divinely-instituted ecclesiastical offices whence they are administered.
First, the Word, especially the preached Word, retains pride of place in the Reformed tradition. God has given His Word for the encouragement, instruction, and edification of His people. Paul says in 2 Timothy 3:16–17, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” The Word tells us all things necessary for faith and life and tells us how God would have us worship Him.
Second, the sacraments have been given the church as external signs that seal God’s covenant promises. The Heidelberg Catechism defines the sacraments as “holy, visible signs and seals. They were instituted by God so that by their use He might the more fully declare and seal to us the promise of the gospel. And this is the promise: that God graciously grants us forgiveness of sins and everlasting life because of the one sacrifice of Christ accomplished on the cross” (Q/A 66). The Reformers rejected many of the ecclesiastical practices of the Roman church. This included a proper affirmation of baptism and the Lord’s Supper as the only sacraments instituted by Christ and therefore the only sacraments. Rome wrongly insists that Christ instituted other sacraments as well. Luther and the Reformers did not take this error lightly. The Reformers understood the sacraments as being commanded by Christ to sustain faith within His church, thus they are to be guarded and properly utilized throughout subsequent generations. Through the Word and its accompanying sacraments, the Spirit joins the body with the Head and strengthens their union. This gathering and perfecting is accomplished by the Spirit’s making the ascended Head present to the church through the Word and sacraments. Union with Christ produces communion with Christ, both of which occur by the Spirit in the covenant assembly of God’s people by means of the Word and sacraments.
As the ascended and exalted Lord, Christ remains head of the church. He will build His church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it (Matt. 16:18). And He has revealed the means by which He is building His church. Let us not be anxious, then, at the Lord’s tarrying. Let us neither add nor subtract from His blueprint. He knows what He is doing, and He is able to carry out His vision for His people perfectly and to completion. Christ is gathering and perfecting His church, and He is doing this by communicating His covenant promises and demands through the simple forms of Word and sacrament. To these we attend, and in Him we trust.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on November 10, 2017.