Do you ever wonder why the church operates the way she does? Perhaps the operations of the church strike you as odd practices that are based solely on historical tradition. And why do churches often look so different from one another in their vision, mission, and programs? Oftentimes, such differences can be traced back to a different understanding of (1) Christ’s vision for His church and (2) His method of fulfilling that vision. In other words, what does Christ want for His church, and how is He getting her there?
Christ’s Vision: Gathering and Perfecting
In a key moment in Matthew’s gospel, Peter, prompted by Jesus, confesses on behalf of the disciples that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:16). Jesus then reveals His blueprint for the church: “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (v. 18). To borrow Aristotle’s causality terminology, Jesus is the efficient cause (the agent that makes something happen) of the church. He builds the church. The purpose or end for which the church was created is the final cause of the church. Jesus performs His work in building the church through the church itself as it carries out His vision, by the means that He has appointed, in order to achieve His final end or goal for the church.
As the head of the church, Christ has been set over all things (Eph. 1:22). It was for this reason that the Reformers denied the authority and infallibility of the papal office. They saw that the doctrine not only lacked biblical warrant but also denigrated Christ’s rule over the church. Christ’s headship has consequences for church practice—it implies that “the church is not a democracy but a Christocracy.”1 Therefore, the church—and every denomination and each individual congregation—is to follow the plan of Christ for the church as the body is to carry out the plans of the Head. A church that acts otherwise is sinning because it is repudiating Christ’s authority by attempting to operate autonomously. Because Christ is head of the church, His vision for the church must guide the church.
What is Christ’s vision for His church? There are many answers to that question. The church is His bride (Mark 2:19; Eph. 5:25; Rev. 21:9) and His treasured possession (Deut. 7:6; 26:18; Isa. 53:11; Zech. 2:8). But we are concerned here with a more historically narrow vision—what is the trajectory that Jesus sets His church on? As her head, how does He intend for the church to function in the period between His ascension and return? His vision must define church paradigms. The Westminster Confession of Faith succinctly states Christ’s vision as “the gathering and perfecting of the saints, in this life, to the end of the world” (25.3).
If this vision should drive the vision of the church, it is imperative that we rightly understand the tension between Jesus’ vision and His earthly departure. Jesus’ departure is often seen as an obstacle for the church to overcome rather than a good and necessary aspect of God’s redemptive story. Even the disciples did not understand the purpose and necessity of Christ’s ascending to the Father (John 16:7). The ascension has often been underappreciated ever since in discussions relating to ecclesiology. The resurrection, for instance, has largely become the ground on which we bicker with skeptics about the historically accurate components of Christianity. We want to prove that the tomb is empty. And though this is true, why is the tomb empty? It’s empty because the One who was laid in the tomb is no longer dead. Even further, He isn’t even just not dead. Rather, He is alive and active.
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.”2 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. 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.
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. Therefore, the Word, especially the preached Word, retains pride of place in the Reformed tradition.
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 Word and sacraments as being commanded by Christ for the church to guard and use throughout subsequent generations. The church preaches the Word and administers the sacraments because Christ has commanded her to do so for the edification of His people. Through the Word and 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.