Apostles' Creed: I Believe in the Holy Catholic Church

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on April 27, 2003

Ephesians 2:11-22

Holy Catholic
Ephesians 2

As we work through the Apostles’ Creed, we now come to the
confession, “I believe in the holy catholic church.” We’ll begin our study of
that particular affirmation from the Scripture in Paul’s letter to the

There are some challenges in explaining this
particular part of the confession of the Apostles’ Creed, “I believe in the holy
catholic church.” The first challenge is that this is the first clause of the
creed that divides Christians. When you get to this clause of the creed, Roman
Catholics and Protestants part ways as to what we mean when we say, “I believe
in the holy catholic Church.” Our Roman Catholic friends, when they profess
this clause, mean that the Roman Catholic Church is the one true church, it is
holy because it produces saintly people, and is preserved from radical sin; it
is catholic because it is world wide in its spread; and it is the only place
where the full faith is held in trust for all men. Now, obviously that’s not
what we are professing when we say the Apostles’ Creed on Sunday mornings here
at First Presbyterian Church. Protestants mean something a little bit different
when we say, “I believe in the holy catholic Church.” We mean that we believe
in the worldwide fellowship of believers and their children, whose head is Jesus
Christ. We believe that that world wide fellowship is holy, because it’s
consecrated to God, it’s set apart by His Spirit, even though it is imperfect in
every manifestation. And we believe it is a catholic Church because it embraces
all true believers everywhere apart from specific denominational affiliations.
So, obviously we mean something quite different when we say this particular

But it’s also a challenge for a more significant
reason. Here at First Presbyterian Church, we are evangelicals; that is, we are
gospel-believing, Bible-believing Christians, often called evangelicals as a
subset of the larger main stream Protestant churches of the last 100 years or
so. And evangelicals, by and large, have not had a very high view of the
Church. Evangelicals have been suspicious of the Church, because of its
liberalism. Evangelicals often are either a subset of a larger liberal
denomination, about which they are a bit skeptical, or they have actually joined
a congregation or a church that has separated itself from a larger liberal
denomination. So evangelicals can be a bit skeptical about the Church.

Evangelicals are often suspicious of heavy-handed
denominational beurocracies. They’ve seen them in the hand of the liberals, and
so they’re very careful about committing themselves to a particular
denomination. Evangelicals have often, especially in the last 50 years or so,
seen ministry, as far as they are concerned, more effectively done through para-ministries
than through the Church. Everything from youth work, men’s discipleship,
cultivation of home evangelism and world missions, they have seen done through
para- ministries, and they don’t sense a particular significance for the Church.

Furthermore, evangelicals tend to focus more on
personal salvation than they do on the corporate body, which is created through
personal salvation. Many of you may know, as an example of this, that a
Protestant minister, Harold Camping, who owns a number of radio stations around
the United states, especially in the western United States. He was the man who
wrote the book, 1994. This book predicted that Jesus Christ would come
again in 1994. He didn’t. Well, he’s written another book now, and this book
is basically saying that Christians need to leave the organized Church. They
need to leave all organized churches because the Church has now come to the need
of its time. We’re in the age of apostasy and all of the churches are
apostate. So Christians need to simply go into fellowship groups with no
organized ministry and no longer affiliate themselves with local churches. He
comes from a Dutch Reformed background, a Calvinistic background, out of the
Christian Reformed Church, but he has come to this conclusion. And
unfortunately, it’s a conclusion consistent with what a lot of people in
evangelicalism think of the Church–which is, not much. So against the backdrop
of those two challenges, we’re going to study what it means, as Christians, to
confess, “I believe in the holy catholic church.” Let’s turn our attention to
God’s word in Ephesians 2:11.

“Therefore, remember that formerly you, the Gentiles in the
flesh, who are called ‘Uncircumcision’ by the so-called ‘Circumcision,’ which
performed in the flesh by human hands–remember that you were at
that time separate from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and
strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the
world. But now in Christ Jesus you who were formerly far off have been brought
near by the blood of Christ. For He Himself is our peace, who made both
groups into
one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, by
abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments
in ordinances, so that in Himself He might make the two into one
new man, thus establishing peace, and might reconcile them both in one
body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity. And He came
and preached peace to you who were far away, and peace to those who were near;
for through Him, we both have our access in one Spirit to the Father. So then
you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the
saints, and are of God’s household, having been built upon the foundation of the
apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone, in
whom the whole building, being fitted together, is growing into a holy temple in
the Lord, in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in
the Spirit.” Amen.

And thus ends this reading of God’s holy and inspired word.
May He add His blessing to it. Let’s pray.

Our heavenly Father, we ask that You would enable us
to see the truth about Your body, Your people, Your assembly, Your Church; and
from Your word, believe it, embrace it, and live it for Jesus’ sake, Amen.

Matthew Henry once said that “when we take God for
our God, we take His people for our people.” Do you believe that? If you do
then, you can confess that “I believe in the holy catholic Church.” It is that
same spirit that caused Timothy Dwight to sing, “I love Thy kingdom, Lord.” Do
we truly love God’s people because we love God? Augustine put it even more
forcefully. He said, “He cannot have God for his Father, who refuses to have the
Church for his mother.” Both of those statements are true. The Church is the
vehicle that the Lord Jesus Christ has established for discipleship and witness
in this world. He often uses other means; His kingdom is as wide as the world as
well as the means that He uses, but the ordinary means whereby He builds up His
Church begins with the local church. And yet, evangelicals have been ambivalent
about the Church. Evangelicals can be ambivalent about church membership and its
importance, and they often see the Church as peripheral to Christian life.

I want to look with you at the three components of
this part of the Apostles’ Creed. “I believe in the holy catholic Church,” but I
want to do it a little bit out of order. I want to start with the Church, and I
want to look very quickly at what the Bible says about the Church, and then I
want to look at what it means for us to say that we believe that the Church is
holy and catholic. So let’s begin by looking at this passage that is right here
before us in Ephesians 2:11&12.

I. God’s corporate, churchly plan
of salvation.
Here Paul tells us a lot about the Church; so much that we
don’t have time to look at all of it, but I want you to zero in on this one
truth which comes through loud and clear. Here in Ephesians 2, Paul is teaching
us about God’s corporate, churchly plan of salvation. In other words, he’s
speaking to us here about the significance of the Church in the plan of God. In
essence, Paul is saying to a group of Gentile Christians, who along with Jewish
Christians are not only part of his universal Church but also part of his local
church in Ephesus. He’s saying to those Gentile Christians, “You are not
second-class citizens.” It has been God’s plan since the beginning to create a
Church which was not simply Jewish but contained both Jews and Gentiles, indeed,
people from both every tribe and tongue and people and nation would be gathered
into this church and two groups which were once in opposition, once hopelessly
and helplessly divided would now be made into one body.

And you, my Gentile Christian friends, are part of
that body. In other words, Paul is saying that the corporate dimension of God’s
plan of salvation is inescapable; it is not simply that God desires to bring
individual Christians into saving relationship with himself through Jesus Christ
and the work of the Holy Spirit, it is that God intends to bring Christians into
relationship with one another especially expressed within the context of the
local church through His plan of salvation, even Christians as different as Jews
and Gentiles. It will be the glory of God to the world to show people who are
different from one another in various and dramatic way living together in
harmony loving one another, caring for one another, serving one another,
witnessing together, building up the same kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ
together. It will be the glory of God to witness by that kind of display in the

The church then is a display of God’s glory, and Paul
is saying that it has been, my Gentile friends, God’s plan from the beginning
not only to save you but also to bring you into one body. Look at the language
that he uses in verses 21 and 22. “In whom the whole building being fitted
together is growing into a holy temple in the Lord in whom you also are being
built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit.” In other words, my Gentile
Christian friends, you together with your Jewish Christian brothers and sisters
are being brought into one body, one building, one people, one temple, one
house, one family and together you will magnify the Lord. The old wall of the
ceremonial code and the mosaic code has been broken down fulfilled by Jesus
Christ and now you are on the same standing with your Jewish Christian brothers
and sisters.

Paul is saying that this plan of God to bring
together in the Church these two at enmity peoples, the Jewish people and the
Gentile people, is part of God’s central plan of redemption. In fact, it is a
focal result of that plan of redemption. Again, he plans not only to save
individual Gentiles but also to incorporate them into the body of Christ, the
Church, the temple of the living God.

Now, that’s one purpose, but Paul didn’t invent it.
This is not a new teaching that the Apostle Paul pulled out of the hat somewhere
that no one had ever heard of before, because the fact of the matter is, when
you study the Scriptures, God’s corporate plan of salvation has been the same in
the Old and the New Testaments. Let me give you just a few examples of that.
Turn first to Genesis 15, verses 1-5. There you will see God reiterate His
promise to Abram, and Abraham’s response is very interesting. God tells Abraham
that he will be His great blessing. “Do not fear Abram, I am a shield to you and
your reward will be very great.” And look at Abram’s response. “O, Lord God,
what will you give me since I am childless and the heir of my house is Eleazar
of Damascus?” Of course, there is a context there; the context of God’s promise
to give Abram a seed who will carry on his line, his spiritual as well as his
physical lineage, but isn’t it interesting that when Abram is assured by God
that God will give him every spiritual blessing, Abram’s response is, “What does
that matter if I can’t pass it on?” In other words, he is thinking distinctly,
not only familial, but also in corporate categories, and that shouldn’t be
surprising. Turn back to Genesis 12:2, because when God first called him out of
the Ur of the Chaldees, He told Abram this, “I will bless you and make your
name great and you shall be a blessing, and in you all the families of the earth
shall be blessed.” In other words, God’s agenda was not just for Abraham and a
tiny little group to find and to know His blessing, but also through Abraham for
all the families of the earth to be blessed. In other words, there was a
corporate component to God’s plan of salvation. He was in the business of
creating a gigantic people, a multitude which no man can number that would
receive his heavenly salvific blessing. And it would be through Abraham that He
would do this.

This plan is carried out throughout the Old
Testament, and time after time, you find the gospel, as it were, going to the
Gentiles, whether it’s Namaan the Syrian, or whether it’s Jonah being sent to
the Ninevites, much against his own inclination, I might add, to share the word
of salvation to them. And the Ninevites repented and came to faith in the God
of Israel.

And this continues in the New Testament. Turn to
Matthew 1:21, where, for the very first time the work of the Lord Jesus Chris is
described in the New Testament, and notice what is said. Matthew tells us that
Jesus was given His name, “Because He will save people.” No. That’s not what
it says. “He will save His people.” In other words, the people of
God would be saved through Jesus Christ. All those who trusted on God through
Jesus Christ, all who place their trust in Jesus Christ as He is offered in the
gospel, are the people of God. Jesus came to save His people. Not just
“people individually,” not just “individuals in personal relationship with Him,”
but “A people, the people of God.” That’s who He came to save.

And the author Hebrews puts this more strikingly in
Hebrews 11:39-40, after listing those amazing heroes of the faith in the Old
Testament, we read “And all these, having gained approval through their faith,
did not receive what was promised.” In other words, all of these old covenant
saints, so faithful to God, did not receive the final blessing that God had
promised, “that city that has foundations whose architect and builder is God,”
and all the blessings that go along with it. They didn’t receive it. Now he’s
going to explain to you why in verse 40, “because God had provided something
better for us, so that apart from us, they should not be made perfect.” That is
absolutely staggering. Do you realize what the author of Hebrews is saying? He
is assuring us that the reason why the old covenant saints did not receive the
fullness of the promise in their time is that God wants all of His people to
enjoy those promises at the same time together. In the great resurrection, the
living and the dead in Christ will be raised to glory, in body and soul, to
experience all the fullness of the benefits of Christ together. We see again
the corporate plan of God, to bring together all the people of God into one

Now, the New Testament celebrates that truth in a
variety of ways. The New Testament reminds us, for instance, that the
relationships that we have in the body of Christ are meant to mirror the
relationships that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit manifest in the one true
God, the Holy Trinity. So, the New Testament makes it clear that we are the
family of God the Father, and we are the body of the Lord Jesus Christ, and we
are the temple of the Holy Spirit. But the New Testament also makes it clear to
us that to be the Church is to be the body of the risen and reigning Christ.
When you’re united to Jesus Christ, you’re united to all who are united to Jesus
Christ. That is, you are a member of His body, and you can’t really love Him if
you don’t love His body. John will say, “Don’t say you love God if you don’t
love the brethren.” You can’t do it. You can’t love God and hate the brethren,
or ignore the brethren, and so in the New Testament there is both a vertical and
horizontal dimension to our Christian discipleship. We love God and we love His
people, and we love His people because His people are God’s people and thus our
brothers and sisters in Christ.

The New Testament also makes it clear that the Church
is the covenant community, a people that has been called into gracious covenant
relationship with God. Paul is celebrating that for the Gentiles here in
Ephesians 2, where he says there was a time when you were strangers and aliens
to the covenant promises, but now God has brought you in. He’s made you a new
community now, of Jews and Gentiles, that are all the people of God. So when
you study the Church, you can’t just look at isolated verses which use the word
Church , you have to go to these passages and these great themes throughout the
Scripture that highlight for us the importance of the doctrine of the Church.
The main point here is that God’s saving purposes in the Bible have always had a
corporate dimension. God is out to save a people, a family, and a body, a
Church. Not lone rangers, not isolated individuals, for we are not saved by
being in the Church visible, but we are saved into the Church invisible. We are
saved by grace through faith in Christ alone, but having been saved by grace
through faith in Christ alone, we are saved into a body. We have an indivisible
connection with our brothers and sisters in Christ who have been saved by grace
through faith in Christ alone. We are saved into a body as Christians.

II. God calls His people to
What do we believe about that body? We believe that body is
holy and catholic, and now we’re back to the Apostles’ Creed again. What does
it mean when we say, “We believe the Church is holy?” Now some of you may be
saying, “I don’t want to join that church because they’re a bunch of hypocrites
there.” And I know the response is, “Come on, one more won’t hurt.” But let’s
take that seriously for a moment. There are lots of people who can point their
finger at the failings of the Church, and when we say we believe the Church is
holy, we are reminding ourselves that God calls His people to holiness. Turn
with me to 1 Peter 1:13-16, where Peter says to the Christians, “Prepare your
minds for action. Keep sober in the Spirit. Fix your hope completely on the
grace to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. As obedient
children, do no be conformed to the former lusts which were yours in your
ignorance, but like the holy One who called you, be holy yourselves in all your
behavior, because it is written, ‘You shall be holy for I am holy.’”

Peter is describing to us what the Church is and what
the Church is called to. The Church has been made holy, set apart form the
world by the Holy Spirit, but the church is called to holiness. We’re called to
pursue holiness, to be different from the world.

But isn’t that our great challenge? Isn’t the great
challenge to the evangelical Church in America today precisely that we are
worldly? We are so much like the world. We think like the world, we love the
things of the world, we act like the world, but you know what friends? The test
of what you believe is what you choose and what you do. Do you want to know
what a person believes? Watch what they choose and what they do. And Peter is
saying, “Choose and do what God would have you do, not what the world would have
you do. Show yourselves to be different.” Every Christian is called to
holiness, because the Church is called to holiness, and a lack of holiness, my
friends, is the single greatest barrier to our corporate witness.

Recently I spoke with a friend whose daughter is
undergoing a tremendous struggle in the faith. In talking with her, she said to
him, “You know, nobody in this church (speaking of their local church) is a
hypocrite, and their lives are all focused on God. And I’m just not there.”
You can imagine that would be heart breaking for my Christian, God-fearing,
gospel-preaching friend to hear his daughter say, “that that’s not where her
heart is.” But do you see that by the testimony of that local congregation,
however imperfect it might be, that child at least perceives that they are
different, and she’s coming under conviction because she knows that’s what a
Christian ought to be like. Christians ought not to be hypocritical, and
Christians should have lives focused on God.

I want to tell you, my friends, that if that could be
said about First Presbyterian Church, we would have real space problem. Folks
from the community would be knocking the doors down in order to be a part of
this fellowship, if it could be said, “These people are holy, they are not
hypocrites, their lives are consumed with God.” Wouldn’t it be a wonderful thing
for someone to say about First Presbyterian Church? And my friends, we’re
called to reject worldliness and embrace the holiness of God, and that ought to
show in your conduct in school, it ought to show in your treatment of the
opposite sex, in your honesty, in your respectfulness, in your willingness to
think and talk and act like a Christian when you feel the pressure to do
otherwise. When you make a profession of faith and you’re in high school, your
sexual purity, the purity of what you do with your body, reflects upon the
reality of that profession of faith, and it reflects upon the whole body. One
sin, Aachan’s, almost brought the whole nation under condemnation. Don’t think
that your individual sins can be hidden in their impact upon the totality of
this local body. The Church is called to holiness.

III. God calls all His people to
love and care for all His people.
The Church is called to catholicity–to be catholic. In other
words, God calls all His people to love and care for all His people. There is a
problem of individualism and self-centeredness, isn’t there. The Christian who
is catholic in his outlook is a Christian who has a love for the kingdom, the
Church, and all of God’s people, even if they’re not in your own local
congregation, even if they’re not in your denomination. If they’re true
believers in the Lord Jesus Christ, you have a love for them no matter how
different they are from you. You have a love that transcends your other
differences, and you want to express that love practically, tangibly. Here’s
what Jesus says to the apostles in John 13:34-35, “A new commandment I give to
you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you love one
another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love
for one another.”

Isn’t it interesting that one of the last things that
Jesus had to tell His disciples, before He went to cross, was, “Guys, love one
another, please.” Think about it. This is a very disparate group of people.
On the one hand, there’s Simon the Zealot; he’s part of a nationalist movement
that wants to forcibly kick the Romans out of Palestine. And then there’s
Matthew who works for the Romans collecting taxes. Now you think that Democrats
and Republicans have a hard time getting along in a local congregation? Try
Hamas and the Israeli cabinet living together in a local congregation. There it
is–Simon the zealot and Matthew. No wonder Jesus has to say to them, “Brothers,
love one another.” It’s not surprising is it, that Luke tells us that on the way
to and after the upper room, do you know what the disciples were talking about?
They were talking about which one of them was the greatest. That’s what they
were talking about; the gospels tell us that. And Jesus says, “Brothers, love
one another.”

Now, I want to tell you that’s actually very
encouraging for a preacher because about half of what a preacher does in
pastoral care is saying to members of his congregation, “Brothers, love one
another.” Friends, we have enormous differences in this room. There are
different political opinions, there are different social standings, there are
sometimes job occupations that pit us against one another in the community;
sometimes we’re competitors; sometimes we’re the suer and the suee. But all of
these things can pit us against one another, and Jesus is saying the way that
the world knows that people are My disciples is that they tangibly care and love
for one another; they put one another before themselves, and they love one
another no matter what their differences are.

Friends, is that your kind of spirit within this
congregation? Let’s go back to Packer’s quote. “The acid test of what you
believe about the Church is expressed in the life of the local church.” What
does my life say then about what I believe about the Church. My friends, we are
called to a holy catholic Church. That will show in the way we relate to friends
who don’t go to the high school that we go to. It will show in the way we relate
to friends that didn’t go to the state university that we went to. It will show
when we relate to friends who are from different racial backgrounds than ours.
We’re all friends in Christ with enormous differences, but we love one another
in spite of those differences and in fact, because of those differences because
those differences gloriously show the unity of the body of Christ as God brings
us together apart from and in spite of and because of those differences.

One last thing. You may be sitting here saying, “Yea,
but at First Presbyterian Church you’re a bunch of hypocrites.” And you may be
rejecting the gospel message because you see our weaknesses, our hypocrisy, and
our failings in holiness. Let me say one thing to you. Jesus and His apostles in
the New Testament told the Church that we would struggle with that. In fact, it
is a standing Christian doctrine that there will be no perfect church on earth.
So, my friends, when you see hypocrisy in the Church, all you’re seeing is the
proof that Jesus spoke the truth. Don’t use that as an excuse because the church
is not the place where perfect saints gather; it is a hospital for sick sinners
to get well. Come join us and get well with us in Christ. Let’s pray.

Heavenly Father, we thank you for the foundation of the
Church, Jesus Christ. We glory in the fact that the foundation of the Church is
not us else the Church would have fallen and the gates of hell would have
prevailed. But because He is the foundation, the head and cornerstone, the
Church will never perish. Help us then to love her with all her blemishes, with
all her failings, with all her weaknesses because she is the family of God on
earth and grant that we would be part of that family. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

A Guide to the
Morning Service

The Worship of God
“We worship God because God created us to worship him. Worship is at the
center of our existence, at the heart of our reason for being. God created us to
be his image–an image that would reflect his glory.” (Hughes Old)

The Hymns

Christ Is Made the Sure Foundation

This hymn is set to Henry Purcell’s glorious and joyful tune “Westminster Abbey”
(and even if you don’t know that tune by name, you’ll feel like you’ve known it
all your life when you hear it!). The hymn text itself comes from a very ancient
Latin hymn translated by the famous John Mason Neale, and is focused on praise
to God for His divine creation: the Church.

The first stanza rivets our attention on the foundation of our
salvation, of our inclusion in the Church: “Christ is made the sure foundation”
– the Lord Jesus himself! The rest of the stanza piles up accolades for the
Captain of our salvation: He is the head of the Church, He is the cornerstone,
He is chosen of the Lord, He is precious to the Father, He binds the Church
together, He is our eternal helper and our only confidence. Now that’s something
to sing about!

In the second stanza, our focus of praise shifts to consideration of the
glorious task of the church: the eternal worship of our triune God. “All that
dedicated city” (what a beautiful phrase), the hymnist says, is dearly loved of
God on high and pours our perpetual songs to God the Trinity. The praise is
still to God here, but the praise is thanking God for loving us as He does and
for giving us the privilege of participating in eternally worshiping Him.

The third stanza of the hymn is a petition. It pleads with God to come
“to this temple” (the Church) and to bring with Him His needed lovingkindness –
in order to graciously hear and answer our prayers, and to pour out His
undeserved blessings on us. The phrase, the plea “thy fullest benediction shed
within its walls alway” grips the heart even as we think of it.

The fourth stanza continues this petition, asking the Lord to
“vouchsafe” (that is, to be gracious enough to grant) the prayers of His people
as well as the blessed eternal promises which He has made to us for here and the
hereafter. The final stanza breaks into an unrestrained doxology to the Father,
Son, and Holy Spirit (which manages, impressively, in about sixteen words to
stress in an orthodox manner the massive theological concepts of the
simultaneous threeness and oneness of God, the equal power of the persons of the
Trinity, the identical glory of the persons of the Trinity, and their shared

Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken

This hymn speaks of the glory of God’s Church (spoken of as “Zion”). Though the
Church may seem weak and despised by the world, yet she is the apple of God’s

I Love Thy Kingdom, Lord

Written by the famous Timothy Dwight, for many years president of Yale; this is
thought to be the oldest hymn still in common use written by an American. Its
theme, the kingdom of God, fits well with the theme of today’s message: the
kingdom of God as it finds expression in the universal and local church.

The Church’s One Foundation

Yet another hymn on the subject of the Church. One of the reasons for singing it
is because of the appropriateness of the words. The first stanza focuses on the
foundation of the Church, Jesus Christ. The second stanza glories in the fact
that though she is gathered from every tribe, tongue, people and nation, she is
one – one church, one body, one family. The third stanza reminds us that the
Church is indestructible and will never end, no matter how dire the trial – a
truth we truly need to hear. The fourth stanza tells us that even though plagued
by divisions (“schisms” — properly pronounced “sih-zums,” by the way), the
Church will go on and prevail. The fifth stanza assures that the Church militant
will one day be the Church triumphant. The sixth stanza, after reminding us of
the communion we already enjoy here with the Triune God and the saints above,
ends with a prayer that we would truly be part of “the invisible church” — that
is, God’s true people.

This guide
to worship is written by the minister and provided to the congregation and our
visitors in order (1) to assist them in their worship by explaining why we do
what we do in worship and (2) to provide them background on the various elements
of the service.

© 2019 First Presbyterian Church.

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