Recently, I found myself greatly encouraged as I read about some classic distinctions made in the doctrine of the church. While many of us are familiar with biblical images of the church (‘the body of Christ’, ‘the people of God’, ‘the Temple’, etc.) as well as the four marks of the church (unity, holiness, catholicity, apostolicity), Edmund Clowney briefly reminds us of three key contrasts to keep in mind:
The heavenly definition of the church explains the contrasts of its existence in time (militant/triumphant) and space (local/universal), as well as the perspectives of heaven and earth (visible/invisible.)
–The Church, Edmund P. Clowney, pg. 73
Rarely do we see theological refinement as a potentially encouraging exercise. Instead we view theological distinctions in terms of pointless, or necessary but dreary, exercises in logic-chopping to be endured, but never dwelt on with an aim towards spiritual blessing. Of course, that’s completely wrong-headed. If I never considered the classic distinction between justification and sanctification, and was constantly judging my assurance in Christ on the basis of latter, I’d be a miserable wreck.
What’s more, we North American Evangelicals hardly ever look to the doctrine of the Church as a source of consolation or joy. Thinking of the cross, the resurrection, the mystery of the Trinity, eschatology–these things can be a blessing for meditation. The Church? Eh…we having trouble seeing it. Even more difficult for many of us then, is the idea of finding encouragement in historic distinctions made in the doctrine of the church. Logic-chopping about an already uninspiring subject is a doubly-uninspiring prospect.
Properly considered though, these three distinctions in our theology of the church ought to be extremely encouraging to believers, as they teach us about our walk with Christ, the God who saves us, and our hope in God’s promises.
Militant/Triumphant – The distinction between the church triumphant and the church militant reminds us, both of the hope of glory, and the life of struggle to be endured this side of Jesus’ return. On earth, between the times, the Church is still embattled, hard-pressed on all sides, engaged in a battle, not against flesh and blood, but against the principalities and powers of the world.
We should not be dismayed, therefore, when we face opposition here on earth, but ought to be prepared for this sort of thing. And yet, the hope of glory awaits us, In Christ who has already conquered, as the church triumphant is at rest with Christ, enjoying a foretaste awaiting the consummation yet to come.
Local/Universal – The distinction between the local and the universal, encourages to remember that our God is a global one, whose purposes expand beyond the little corner of sky that we can see. In the age to come, we will see people from every tribe, tongue, and nation, seated at the wedding supper of the Lamb, feasting with God, and praising the Son. For those of us discouraged by the state of the church in our country, state, or neighborhood, remember that God is always up to something and that our horizons are much smaller than those of our Lord.
This can also help keep us from the pride that believes our church’s particular, culturally-specific ways of preaching the Gospel and administering the sacraments are the be-all and end-all of God’s works through his people. Realize that the hour and five minute worship service of the community, Bible mega-church you grew up at doesn’t have the corner on Gospel-ministry; there are probably some house-churches in China that could probably teach our pastors a little something about Gospel-community, the ministry of prayer, and preaching with unction. Again, the universal church is far broader that the local congregation we’ve been blessed with.
Visible/Invisible – The distinction between the visible church with its institutions, sacraments, offices, and ordinary congregations and the invisible church comprised of the elect, known only to God is also, when properly-construed, can give us hope in difficult times. This distinction is a helpful eschatological buffer (already/not-yet) that keeps us from too quickly identifying the all-too-human actions of the present-before-us group of sinful, broken, institutional realities we participate as a failure of God’s promises.
While the visible church truly is the body of Christ, it is still a mixed company to some degree, both in terms of individual, as well as corporate holiness. The point is, yes, your local church and the global church, are in many ways, visible failures, and yet, the visible is not all there is to the church. Heaven sees and knows more than our limited vision can capture. God’s faithfulness goes deeper still than all of our faithlessness.
Take comfort and encouragement, then, in remembering that the church we see is not all that there is to the Church.
Soli Deo Gloria