New Horizons

The Apostles' Creed, Part 4: I Believe in the Church and Things to Come

Sandy Finlayson

In this final study of the Apostles' Creed, we will look at what it has to say about the church, salvation, and things to come. J. I. Packer has rightly pointed out:

It is by strict theological logic, that the Creed confesses faith in the Holy Spirit before proceeding to the church and that it speaks of the church before mentioning personal salvation ... and it is in the church, through its ministry and fellowship, that personal salvation ordinarily comes to be enjoyed.[1]

Belief in the holy catholic church is essential. Cornelis Venema states that Christians confess belief

in God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit and therefore [confess belief] in 'a holy catholic church.'... The church is never the object of our faith ... but no one can believe in the Triune God without confessing a holy, catholic church.[2]

There is a lot of confusion about the church in our day. Some think that the church is a social club—somewhere to hang out when we don't have anything else better to do. Others think that the church is a place from which to launch political or social action. Many people don't see the church as important at all. Some go so far as to assert that the life, fellowship, and work of the church are "no longer necessary for the furtherance of God's work in the world,"[3] and all that matters is that individuals have a personal relationship with Jesus.

An examination of what the Creed says at this point will help us to understand the importance of the church. It stresses first, that the church is one. Note that the creed confesses a belief in the church—singular. Many of us are rightly cautious of the ecumenical movement, which stresses the unity of the church more than its purity. But we need to be careful that we do not needlessly divide the church. It is important to recognize that individual local churches or denominations that are "genuinely Christian ... are all part of one church."[4]

The Creed next stresses that the church is catholic. Some Protestants may have difficulty saying this, but they shouldn't. The Creed is not identifying itself with the Roman Catholic Church. Rather, it is saying that the church is universal, that it is not bound to a particular place or location. In fact, the church is to be found everywhere that Christ is worshiped in sincerity and truth.

In saying that the church is catholic or universal, the Creed is also saying that what we confess is still relevant. Alister McGrath has rightly pointed out that the Creed

is saying that [the church's] message is valid and relevant in every age and every situation. It is not as if there were one church with a message suited to the needs of the second century and another with a message suited to [modern times]—it is the same church throughout the ages and across the world, which seeks to apply the same gospel in any situation it may happen to meet.[5]

Next the creed stresses that the church is apostolic. By this we mean that it is founded on the faith and the teaching of the apostles. And it is this apostolic faith that gives the church its task, which is to carry out the Great Commission.

So what should the church look like? Acts 2:42-47 contains a detailed description of the early church. This passage depicts a church that was devoted to apostolic teaching and fellowship. Their basis for existence was what the apostles taught and believed.

They were also a church that was devoted to the worship of God. They spent a lot of time praying together and also celebrating the sacraments. While there has been some disagreement among commentators over how best to understand the phrase "breaking of bread," it seems most natural to take this as a reference to more than an ordinary meal, in fact to the Lord's Supper.

Note also that they met daily. The stated times for worship are important, and God blessed the faithfulness of these people who met so regularly. They knew that being with God's people is a good thing! They were not involved in the life of the church simply out of a sense of duty or obligation. Rather, it was their love for the Lord that brought them together. In our own day, when church attendance and involvement are at record lows, particularly in the Western world, it is helpful to be reminded of our shared need for the fellowship of God's people.

Note also that they were a compassionate church. They were people who were very concerned about meeting the needs of those less fortunate than themselves. There are no grounds for suggesting that the early church practiced an early form of communism. But such wealth as they had was being used for the common good and was distributed to those in need. Helping those who are less fortunate than ourselves is something that should concern all of us, and we need to find ways to be more engaged with the poor and needy.

The early church was also winsome. Through its life together, it won the favor of all the people. The church would soon see persecution, but in these early days it presented an attractive face to the world. We should never compromise our message, but let's be sure that it is the offense of the cross that causes people to stumble, rather than any unpleasantness that we may present in our behavior.

The Creed then goes on to confess "the communion of saints." The Heidelberg Catechism, Question 55, states:

Q. What do you understand by "the communion of saints"?
A. First, that believers one and all, as members of this community, share in Christ and in all his treasures and gifts. Second, that each member should consider it a duty to use these gifts readily and cheerfully for the service and enrichment of the other members.

We live in a society that intensely values personal property and the rights of the individual. However, the creed draws our attention to the fact that in the church we have an obligation, the responsibility, and the privilege to share what we have with others.

It is out of the context of sincere belief in the church of Christ and the communion of the saints that the Creed next goes on to assert a belief in the forgiveness of sins. At first glance, it may seem a little odd that the Creed places the forgiveness of sins at this point. But just as the Creed uses strict theological logic in placing the discussion of the church after it talks about the Holy Spirit, that same logic is at work here. We cannot separate belief in the forgiveness of sins from belief in the church. The Westminster Confession wisely says that "there is no ordinary possibility of salvation" outside of "the visible church" (chap. 25, sect. 2), so as not to limit the way that God can work. But at the same time, the Confession is stressing that a connection to the church is vital for our life in Christ. It isn't an optional extra.

As the creed reaches its conclusion, it has two final important affirmations: belief in "the resurrection of the body" and in "the life everlasting." In the early church, there were some people who felt that their bodies were not all that important. What mattered was the soul. So they placed their trust in the immortality of the soul as the real blessing of Christianity. In response to this, the Creed reminds us that our bodies will be raised from the dead and that we will be "made like Christ's glorious body" (Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 57).

The final affirmation of the Creed is a belief in the life everlasting. Note that it is not just any everlasting life, but the life everlasting. As Packer notes, "This is ... not just endless existence (demons and lost souls have that) but the final joy into which Jesus entered."[6]

The Creed which began with an affirmation of belief in God concludes with the expectant hope that one day soon we will be "made perfectly blessed in the full enjoying of God to all eternity" (Shorter Catechism, Q. 38). In fact, the Creed ends on the same optimistic note that the Bible does (in Rev. 22:20-21):

He who testifies to these things says, "Surely I am coming soon." Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all. Amen.

Endnotes

[1] J. I. Packer, Affirming the Apostles' Creed (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2008), 121.

[2] Cornelis P. Venema, What We Believe: An Exposition of the Apostles' Creed (Grandville, Mich.: Reformed Fellowship, 1996), 111.

[3] George M. Philip, The Apostles' Creed: What Christians Should Always Believe (Fearn, Ross-shire: Christian Focus, 1994), 141.

[4] Alister McGrath, "I Believe": Exploring the Apostles' Creed (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1997), 92.

[5] McGrath, "I Believe," 93.

[6] Packer, Affirming the Apostles' Creed, 146.

The author is director of library services at Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia. He quotes the ESV. Reprinted from New Horizons, June 2010.

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