Theology Thursday: The Holy Catholic Church

Pews and stained glass windows in church

The Holy Catholic Church as Evidence of the Power and Grace of God

The ninth line of the Apostles’ Creed begins with the phrase, “the holy catholic Church.” This line expresses the Christian confession that God, in his power and grace, has created for himself the church, which consists of a people devoted to him (holy) from across all times and places (catholic). This line in the Creed follows the Son’s redemptive work, and the Christian belief in the Holy Spirit undergirds the notion that the church is the product of God’s redemptive work in Christ by the power of the Spirit.

Jesus obtained the church with his own blood (Acts 20:28) and by virtue of his ascension is the head of the church (Ephesians 1:22–23). At conversion, the Spirit creates a new human heart, giving us new desires to please God and joining us to the people of God (Ezekiel 36:26–27; John 3:5). Thus, the church is the product of the Triune God’s work of redemption and new creation. To confess the existence of the church in the Creed, therefore, is to confess one’s faith in the power and grace of God, our Savior.

Is the Church Really “Holy”?

What does it mean that the church is “holy”? And is it really true that the church is holy? To be holy refers to being devoted or consecrated to God. In the Old Testament, God redeemed his people Israel so that they would be a holy nation, his special people that would reflect the character of God to the world (Exodus 19:5–6; Deuteronomy 14:2). Similarly, in the New Testament God’s people are regularly called “saints/holy ones” (e.g., 1 Corinthians 1:2; Ephesians 1:1), who share God’s holiness because they are consecrated to God by the death of Christ (Ephesians 5:25–27; Hebrews 10:10, 14).

The church, therefore, consists of the holy people of God and the church is necessarily holy because the church reflects God’s own holy character (1 Peter 1:15–16). Consequently, the church is a unique institution in the world. The people of God gathered locally is the gathering of the saints, which distinguishes the church from all other institutions on earth.

But is the church really holy? If you have ever participated in the life of a church, you know that the church is comprised of people who still sin against one another! To be sure, the church on earth still sins; it has spots and blemishes. But we should remember two things.

First, it will not always be so, for when Jesus returns God will completely sanctify his people and remove all their spots and blemishes so that they might be holy and blameless in his sight (Ephesians 5:25–27; 1 Thessalonians 5:23–24). Second, even now the church does real and observable acts of holiness, and it already exudes partially and incompletely the holy character of God. The Creed’s confession of the church as holy is to confess the church’s incomplete but real and observable holiness as well as the church’s hope of perfect and complete holiness at Jesus’ return.

Is the Church Really “Catholic”?

What does it mean when the Creed says that the church is “catholic”? This term shouldn’t be confused with the Roman Catholic church, for the term “catholic,” with a lowercase “c,” simply means universal. This is from the Greek katholikos, derived from kath holos, meaning “throughout the whole.”

The Creed’s language thus expresses the universality of the church. It is not confined by ethnicity, geography, culture or eras, but speaks to the worldwide people of God throughout the ages. It doesn’t mean that everyone on earth without exception is a part of the church, but that whoever repents of their sin and trusts in Christ will be saved, no matter who they are, where they come from or what they’ve done (Acts 2:21; Romans 10:9–13). This truth is increasingly evident in that people from all over the world confess Jesus as Lord (Revelation 5:9; 7:9).

That the church is “catholic” in this sense speaks to the church’s unity of doctrine (orthodoxy). While Christians within the church may disagree on any number of secondary or tertiary issues, they share a common confession of God’s redemptive work in Christ and our necessary response to it (Ephesians 4:4–6).

This doctrinal unity the church shares transcends denominational differences. It means that Christians from all over the world share a real and abiding fellowship with one another because their fundamental citizenship is in heaven with God (Philippians 3:20–21; Colossians 3:1–4; Hebrews 12:22–24). This present unity the worldwide church enjoys calls for an increasingly greater unity of the faith as the church is built up into Christ (Ephesians 4:13–16).

May the Lord strengthen us all to confess with the Creed “the holy, catholic church,” and may the church on earth increasingly grow in the beauty of holiness and the unity of the faith.

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