WHERE IN THE WORLD IS GOD?
He is found where His Word is found – and that is where the true church is found.
What does the church look like – the church of Christ? You may have several images flash through your mind: A church building. People sitting in pews. Men dressed in liturgical garb like a cassock and surplice. Choirs. Congregational singing.
Part of the reason for the varying images is the word that we use, “church.” It can have several meanings, but what we translate as “church” in English, though is ἐκκλησία – EKKLESIA in the Greek. As Scripture uses the word, it means “assembly,” specifically a “called out assembly” as you would call people together out of the general population into a group for a particular purpose.
Now, with that information, think about the “children’s creed,” as Luther calls the Apostles’ Creed. In the creed we confess, “I believe in the Holy Christian Church.” Now substitute and think, “I believe in the Holy Christian assembly” or “I believe in the Holy Christian people.” Of course, you probably learned this in confirmation class, including the parallel phrase, “I believe in … the communion of saints,” which is to say, “the assembly of holy people.”
Now contrast this with other ideas, starting with the Roman church, especially in Luther’s day. The church, to them, was made up of priests and bishops and archbishops and other functionaries with headquarters in Rome. So they would look for the church in a church establishment. By that reckoning, our church is at 6 Brown’s Court in Mankato, MN.
When Lutherans first came from Europe, they had a hard time imagining how to call pastors, because the church was in Germany or Norway or Sweden.
In Communist China, the government has decreed that the church is the registered organization that the state regulates. Among secularist progressives in our country, it is a worship group, which has some rights, but only in that setting.
But Christ’s church is the assembly of all people who have been gathered together out of this world, by being made holy and righteous by God’s grace, through faith. This is a comforting truth for the Chinese Christians meeting secretly in somebody’s kitchen, or the Ethiopian Christians meeting in a clearing in the forest because the church building is a target. It is comforting for us to know that we are part of the church in all our life, not just in church.
And it is important for individual Christians to know what the church is for several reasons.
- The means of grace, the word and sacrament, are found in the church.
- Jesus places the active forgiving and retaining of sins ultimately within the assembly.
- The Lord’s Supper is administered in the community of believers.
- Pastors stay up late nights concerned for the church, people “purchased with [Christ’s] own blood.”
- Indeed, the course of history is directed for the sake of the church: Ephesians 1:22–23 (CSB) 22 And he subjected everything under his feet, and appointed him as head over everything for the church, 23 which is his body, the fullness of the one who fills all things in every way.
So, how do we find this church? How do we assemble together with others in this assembly as Christ would have us do? To answer this question, on the basis of Scripture Luther pointed to seven “Marks of the Church,” visible indicators which are found where the church is found. We will consider these Marks of the Church over the next few weeks, and today we consider the first.
The First Mark – The Holy Word of God
Luther writes, “First, the holy Christian people are recognized by their possession of the holy Word of God. To be sure, not all have it in equal measure as St. Paul says [1 Cor. 3:12-14]. Some possess the word in its complete purity, others do not. Those who have the pure word are called those who ‘build on the foundation with gold, silver, and precious stones’; those who do not have it in its purity are the ones who ‘build on the foundation with wood, hay, and straw,’ and yet will be saved through fire. More than enough was said about this above. This is the principal item, and the holiest of holy possessions, by reason of which the Christian people are called holy; for God’s word is holy and sanctifies everything it touches; it is indeed the very holiness of God, Romans 1[:16], ‘It is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith,’ and 1 Timothy 4 [:5], ‘Everything is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.’” (AE41, 148)