The Young People of Trinity have picked for this year’s convention the theme “A Church From All Nations.” This is a good subject for young people, firstly, because the church should be the most important thing in your lives and as you learn about the church, you can grow in this area of your life. Second, when you talk about the universal church, you must talk about missions which is very practical for every one of us as we seek to leave a witness. Third, this is a beautiful truth. There are 400 of you, and a body of believers all over the world, and we are all one in Christ.
As we approach this subject, there are two dangers we must be aware of and avoid. One is that you use this truth as an excuse to leave the PRC and say, “See, there are other true churches.” God in his providence has given you a home in a denomination that is faithful, and your love for truth and godliness is the reason you must not leave the PRC. However, by your remaining in the PRC, you are not saying, “This is the only true church and there are no other true denominations or Christians.” That is the other danger, to say that we are the only ones.
What is the universality or catholicity of the church? This: God gathers his church from all parts of the earth, through all phases of history, from all sorts of people. We confess this every Sunday in the Apostle’s Creed when we say that we believe the church is “catholic.” This truth is best summarized by the Heidelberg Catechism in Lord’s Day 21:
Question 54. What believest thou concerning the “holy catholic church” of Christ?
Answer. That the Son of God from the beginning to the end of the world, gathers, defends, and preserves to himself by his Spirit and word, out of the whole human race, a church chosen to everlasting life, agreeing in true faith; and that I am and for ever shall remain, a living member thereof.
The church is not limited to a particular time or era in the history of this world, to the apostolic age, or to the time of the reformation, but all through the history of the world the church exists. At every moment of history there have been and will be believers on the earth. The catholicity of the church refers to a continuity of the church through all ages. This is not a continuity of persons or an institution, but of belief in the truth revealed in the Scriptures. Today, we should not say that the church age or the time to do missions has ended. The world continues to exist today, and Christ has not come yet, because till the end of the world he is gathering his church. To limit the time that the church exists is to deny the catholicity of the church.
The church is not limited to the future or to heaven. This is a very common teaching in Baptist and dispensational circles, to say, “Yes the church is universal, but we won’t see that here in the earth and we don’t need to worry about that now. God will show the universality of the church in heaven.” This leads to an individualistic and narrow view of the church. To limit the catholicity of the church to the future is to deny the catholicity of the church.
The church is not limited to a race of people, to a particular ethnic group, or to one nation. Most of you are white and of Dutch origin and there’s a tendency—if not expressed, at least in our minds—to think that the ideal church is made up of white Dutch people, or at least to think this is preferable. Racism can come into the church. How do you respond to the presence of a person of different color or nationality in your church? Are we letting the stereotypes of our society influence our thinking? One particular race of people is not superior to another in God’s eyes. The arrogance of a church or people who think that they are superior leads to God taking the gospel from them and giving it to others. To limit the church by race or color is to deny the catholicity of the church.
The church is not limited to a location but is worldwide. If you look at a globe, God has sent or is sending his Word into every continent of the world, and in every different language. The church is not limited to the English speaking world. The church is not limited to only those places where we know there are Christians. Here in the USA, the church is not limited to West Michigan or some other location. To limit the church to a location is to deny the catholicity of the church.
The church is not limited to a denomination or a church. The church is broader than any one institute or organization. While it is important to be in a church that is faithful to the Scripture and displays the marks of a true church most clearly, no one denomination is the one true church, and no church will have everything in order. Every church has its weaknesses and faults. We as PRC have our weaknesses and we have to be willing to see them and be willing to learn from others who are strong where we are weak. This is part of recognizing the universality of the church. To limit the church by denomination is to deny the catholicity of the church.
We believe that the church is universal because Christ our Savior is a universal Savior, that is, one who saves people from every nation, tongue and tribe. This Savior, in Matthew 28:19 commissioned his disciples to go and “teach all nations.” The maturing of the church at Pentecost included this, that the church became a church made up of all nations. This was the meaning of the sign of speaking in tongues at Pentecost. Essential to the New Testament gospel is the truth that Christ saves from all nations. In 1 Timothy 2:1-4 Paul exhorts that prayers be made for all kinds of men because Christ “will have all men to be saved,” that is, all sorts of men and women. Christ is a universal Savior, not in the sense that he intends to save every human being, but human beings of every nation and tongue. The church is universal because it is the will of God that it be universal and that the gospel go to all nations. To deny that the church is universal is to deny an essential element of the gospel and to resist the will of God.
From the point of view of a young person, why is this doctrine important? What are some implications for your lives? First, this doctrine should humble us. Our problem is always pride. We want to be right, and when we think we are right, pride overtakes us. I’ve read some of the most un-Christian and unkind defenses of the faith from people who are trying to be biblically right. I’ve seen people defend what our churches believe, and then live in a way that blatantly dishonors God and undermines their words. This truth ought to humble us. God’s church is so vast, and extends so far back into history, and includes so many, many thousands of people, and I also am a member of that church. That is humbling.
Because the church is universal, we should also be understanding of some differences that we run into in our relationships to people from other churches. So often we take for granted what we have, and once we have taken it for granted we become committed to the wrong things for the wrong reasons. We need to put our heart on the right things for the right reasons, so that we can be saved from pride and pettiness. Others are not going to come to see and understand the things we hold to suddenly and in a moment. We need to be patient with other Christians and churches. This year our synod decided to establish a corresponding relationship with the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Australia. By doing this synod recognized that, though there are differences in some more practical areas, this denomination is a true church. In this, we have recognized, officially, the catholicity of the church.
Understanding that the church is universal also helps us to pray for believers in other places and lands. In our prayers we can often be selfish and pray for ourselves, and our churches and their work only. But Hebrews 13:3 reminds us to “remember them that are in bonds,” that is, to pray for persecuted Christians. Prayer is knowledge based, and so we will want to learn more about the church in other places and lands, and then pray for them in their situations.
Finally, the catholicity of the church will stir us up to be witnesses of the gospel to others as we have opportunity. We will not prejudge who is/is not a suitable candidate for missions and the gospel. An alcoholic and a homosexual needs to hear the gospel as much as any other. Paul, in 1 Corinthians 6:11, after speaking of fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, homosexuals, drunkards, thieves, revilers, etc., says, “And such were some of you (thieves, homosexuals, etc.) but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God.” This is the power of grace and the gospel, and in humility we say, “But for grace, that is me.”
What a truth, beautiful, humbling, bringing us to Christ and the powerful gospel of grace.