What is the Church? She is a shelter from the storm for sinners who thirst for mercy in Christ. She is the collection of all believers who have been called by the gospel into faith in Christ. She is the bride of her Bridegroom Christ, who has cleansed her from all blame by the washing of water with the Word, where new-born infants are born through baptism, being fed with that pure spiritual milk of the gospel. And she is also a family, that is, the family of God’s children who the Holy Spirit keeps in unity of spirit by working forgiveness and salvation through Jesus’ merit.
But we must be careful not to misunderstand what we mean in saying that the Church is a family. The Church is not a family that consumes and overshadows the natural family. That is, Christian fathers and Christian mothers have no right to absorb their entire day with the “activities” in the “Church family” at the expense of their families at home. Also, the Church is not modeled after the natural family. As a natural family is active, getting the kids to school, getting to work, doing chores around the house, the family of God is also active.
But being active is not what makes and preserves the family of God. I once read a poem in a church-basement talking about how we should be active in the congregation by joining this or that social group or participating in this or that committee. If we are going to talk about ways to be active, how about we talk about confessing Christ before men, inviting our friends to church, bearing each other’s burdens, and caring for the poor. But we cannot be active unless we passively hear and learn God’s Word and receive the sacraments for the forgiveness of sins. It is what we passively receive on which the Church rests, namely Christ and His righteousness. Certainly acts of mercy toward the poor are intimately connected to the activity of the Church. After all, it is safe to say that preaching God’s mercy in Christ would be accompanied with acts of mercy. But these works which proceed from faith do not define the Church. The marks of the Church are the pure preaching of the gospel and the right administration of the sacraments.
If our definition of the Church is determined apart from the doctrine of Justification that God declares the sinner righteous on account of the perfect obedience of Christ through faith in Christ, then the Church has lost her meaning. This is what happens if we follow the teaching of N. T. Wright. He looks at Justification in light of the covenant family of God (or his view of the Church). Concerning Genesis 15:6, he writes:
Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as the badge of his membership in, indeed his foundation status within, the covenant family which God was creating. (Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press. 2009. pg. 134)
He expresses the importance of understanding Paul’s view of Justification “within the larger framework of Paul’s theology of God’s covenant with and through Abraham for the world, now fulfilled in Christ (pg. 235),” arguing that this will help us understand the place of works in Justification. Wright has it all backwards. He says we cannot understand Justification unless we view it in light of the covenant of the Church, the family of God. Actually, it is the other way around. We cannot understand the Church unless we understand Justification.
Paul goes back to Genesis 15 for his proof that Justification is by faith and apart from works. He does this in both Romans 4 and in Galatians 3. Paul is observing the hermeneutical principle by which we go back to the institution. Although God certainly justified even those before Abraham by faith, it is first clearly expressed with Abraham. So Paul goes back to Abraham. He uses the same principle when he explains the Lord’s Supper to the Corinthians (1st Cor 11) by quoting the actual institution of the Lord’s Supper. Jesus does this as well in Matthew 19 when asked about marriage and divorce. He pointed back to the institution of marriage in Genesis 2:24. In his book on the Lord’s Supper, Chemnitz points this out. He writes:
Obviously there is never a time when sharp minds are lacking a pretext for finding Scripture passages which are in conflict with one another; as when the Pharisees in Matt. 19:3 ff. place in opposition to the institution of marriage the passage from Moses regarding the bill of divorcement… Christ answers the Pharisees that the basis of the doctrine of marriage is in the Words of its institution and that therefore the other passages of Scripture must be interpreted according to these Words and not vice versa. (Chemnitz, Martin. The Lord’s Supper. Translated by J.A.O. Preus II. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Pub., 1979. pg. 76.)
This is exactly what Paul does. In Romans 4, he goes back to the covenant with Abraham to prove that “to the one who does not work but trusts in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted to him as righteousness.”
It is true that in his Epistles, Paul expresses the importance of Church unity, but his entire argument for the Church and her unity depends on the doctrine of Justification by faith. Justification is not merely a membership card to get into the Church, because there is no Church unless there are holy people, and there cannot be holy people unless their sins are taken away by Christ’s death and they are credited with that righteousness which is required to stand before God as holy people. So how can Paul even begin to speak to the Ephesians about Church unity? He must first declare that they have redemption in Christ’s blood and that in Christ, God has chosen them to be holy and blameless in His sight (Eph 1:4ff). There is no unity in Christ unless in Christ we are reconciled to God (2 Cor 5:18-19).
There is also no unity in Christ unless the doctrine of Justification by faith alone continues in the life of the Church. Again, Justification is not merely a membership card; rather, it is the very life of the Church. Every time a Christian comes in faith to receive from Jesus His very body and blood, he receives the same declaration of righteousness of that glorious Easter Morning. This reality of Justification wrought by Christ when He suffered for our sins and rose from the grave is delivered to His Church continually through His Word. Sanctification is the constant renewal of Justification; it is the work of the Holy Spirit richly and daily forgiving the sins of all believers (SC, II, 3). This is the only way for the Church to grow, to have fellowship, or to serve the needy. The family of God is not strengthened by making itself relevant. Rather, the family of God is strengthened when Christians confess Christ before men and when families gather around the Word of truth and the altar of mercy. It is strengthened when Christian parents teach their children the gospel of Justification by faith in Christ by reading the Word of God at home, singing Christ-centered hymns, and praying in Jesus’ Name. Because it is not our praying that strengthens us, but the Name in which we pray, the Name by which He shall be called: The Lord our Righteousness (Jer 23:6).