THE ONE TRUE CHURCH
Dr. W. A. Criswell
4-7-68 10:30 a.m.
Now the sermon this morning concerns the true ecumenicity. No one who reads but is aware of the tremendous ecumenical movement in the world today. And since these sermons for some time have been following the nature and the province and the ministry of the church, this one concerns the true ecumenicity, The One True Church, the sevenfold unity of the church. And if you will turn in your Bible to the fourth chapter of Ephesians, you can easily follow the message of this morning’s hour. Ephesians 4:
I therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you that ye walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called,
With all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love;
Endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling;
One Lord, one faith, one baptism,
One God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.
As is most plain from the passage, Paul is pleading for and talking about the unity of the church: verse 3, "Endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace." Then he names seven unities of the church, which I have called this morning the true ecumenicity.
That word "ecumenical," "ecumenicity," "ecumenism," it sounds big and theological; it comes from a Greek word oikoumena, which is the Greek word for "the whole inhabited earth." So "ecumenical" refers to something that includes all the people of the earth. And almost without exception it is applied in the world of theology and used with reference to the church in getting all of the churches together. So an ecumenical movement is an endeavor, a marching, a thrust, a hope of getting all of the denominations of the churches together.
There is a true ecumenicity. Jesus prayed for it; and Paul, in the passage I have just read, outlined it. But it’s not the kind of an ecumenicity that we are introduced today. For this effort to get all of the people together today is somewhat based upon the hope that we will forget the oracles of God and the revelations found in the Holy Scriptures, and the great fundamental tenets of God’s revelation. Give them up, they are baggage, they are expendable; throw them overboard. And whatever divides us, forget it; whether God says it or not, whether the Holy Scriptures reveal it or not. What we want to do is to sacrifice everything and anything in behalf of this all of us getting together.
Well, through the centuries and through the ages there have been countless numbers who have been most willing to do that. In the days of Antiochus Epiphanes, about 160 BC, he sought to make all of the citizens of his Syrian empire conform to one Greek religion. And he happened to have in his empire a tiny little province called Judea. So by all of the force at the king’s command, he sought to make that little province of Jewish people conform to his Greek religion. And you remember in those days the story of the aged priest Mattathias; and when there came to his little town of Modein, in Judea, the officer of the king to make all the people there conform to Greek religion and to sacrifice to a Greek god, there was an apostate Jew, there was an apostate Jew who came before the heathen altar to offer sacrifice to that ecumenical movement. And Mattathias arose and slew the apostate Jew, and slew the king’s officer. And because one of his sons, Judas, called "The Hammer," "Maccabeus," the movement of revolt and rebellion became known as the Maccabean Revolt. And out of the dedication of Mattathias, there came the survival of the religion of the old faith and the old covenant.
What would the martyrs say to the subversion and to the giving up and to the denial of the faith of God? What would the martyrs say today? Ignatius, who was the pastor of the church at Antioch, doubtless the first of the martyrs to be fed to the lions in the Roman Coliseum, what would he say? How easy it would have been to compromise the faith. What would Polycarp say, who was the pastor of the church at Smyrna? All he had to do was to say, "Kurios Kaisar, Caesar is Lord," and his life be spared. What would John Bunyan say? All John Bunyan had to do to be liberated from his prison was to promise he wouldn’t preach the Baptist faith any longer, but that he would conform to the conventicals and the codes, and the decrees, and the theology of the Church of England. But for twelve years John Bunyan languished in jail because he refused to denounce or compromise his Baptist faith. What would Roger Williams say, who because of his conscience became an exile in the dead of winter, wandering where no white man’s steps had ever gone before? What is the true ecumenicity? Paul says so we’re going to follow it this morning: the seven true unities of the faith, of the church. All right, let’s begin.
"Endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace" [Ephesians 4:3]: first, there is one body. However it may appear to one who casually looks at the Christian world, there is one body, just one. There is one true church, just one. Now that word "one body," that word "church," one church, is used here in a generic sense, in a general sense; like you refer to "the law" or "the state" or "the government" or "the school" or "the family" or "the home," the idea of the home, or the law, or the school, or the state; a generic generalization. So it is used here; and once in a while in the New Testament you will find that word "church" and "body of Christ" used generically.
For example, in the twelfth chapter of the Book of Hebrews: "Ye are come unto the general assembly and church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven" [Hebrews 12:23]. This is the great inclusion of all of God’s people in His church through all time. Now there is a church and a body of Christ, and it shares the life of God and is permeated by the love and governed by the will of God.
The great author of that one body is God the Father. The head of that one body is God the Son. And the permeating Spirit of that one body is God the Holy Ghost. The members of that body have one great, ultimate country toward which they are travelling: the heavenly home. And they have one guide and faith and creed and instruction, and that is the Holy Book, God’s Bible. And those people who belong to that one body of Christ are held together by one common love and one common devotion: that to our living Lord. The unity of the body of Christ, the real body of Christ, is not found in man, but it is found in the unity of God. And the golden chains that bind us together to our Lord reach upward; therefore they cannot be severed by man or trampled by the heel of man, but they are held in the hands of Almighty God. And the members of that fellowship find a comradeship in soul and heart and spirit wherever in the earth they are, bound to the heart of God.
In two years after the war, 1947, and again in 1950, I preached in Munich, Germany. I preached to what remained of our Baptist faith and witness in that torn and destroyed city. The service first was held at night. There was no electric power: I preached by the light of a lantern. I preached in a saw-toothed remains of a building, with debris everywhere. I preached to the refugees that had come out of the Ukraine, and out of Russia, and out of Eastern Germany. When I spoke, every sentence I said was translated following into three different languages, a little group of huddled refugees bound together there in a common love and a common devotion.
The last time that I preached there, no, the last time that I visited there was in 1955; and at that time the congregation had rebuilt a part of their building, and were worshiping in it. And the pastor who delivered the message that morning was crippled: he had been a soldier in the German army, and it was an American bomb that had left him so prostrate. And after he had delivered his message, they observed the Lord’s Supper that morning. And it was there for the first time in my life I saw them do something and heard them do something that I had never seen before, and I brought it back here to our church, and we’ve been following the custom ever since. After the delivery of the message and after the service of preaching, they observed the Lord’s Supper, and after the Lord’s Supper, they all stood up and joined hands, and sang:
Blest be the tie that binds
Our hearts in Christian love;
The fellowship of Christian minds
Is like to that above.
We bear our mutual woes,
Our mutual burdens share;
And often for each other flows
The sympathizing tear.
["Blest Be the Tie that Binds"; John Fawcett]
And I stood there with that band of God’s people, joining hands, singing that song of love and devotion, and I belonged to them, and they belonged to me, as all of us belong to God. That is the true ecumenicity: there is one body.
We have seven of these; and that means we must speak far more rapidly. There is one Spirit, one Spirit. Whenever you see people and some of them going this way and some of them going that way and some of them going this way, they do not possess the mind of the Spirit. There is one Spirit; one infinite, all-wise mind and moving and quickening power that lives in this true church. And He doesn’t have half a dozen things nor half a dozen ways: He has one thing and one way, the true Spirit. And we are taught by that one Spirit, and we are quickened by that one Spirit, and we live by that one Spirit, and we have no ableness or power for spiritual motion except as that one Spirit shall quicken us. Just as a corpse cannot do the functions of life dead; if the corpse moves, it must be moved by the quickening Spirit of life, and it remains dead until that Spirit shall breathe upon it. So we are incapable of spiritual motion, and spiritual ableness, and spiritual capacity, and spiritual things except as we are quickened and moved by that one Spirit.
One of the most powerful of all of the parables, symbols, to be found in the Word of God is here in the thirty-seventh chapter of the Book of Ezekiel: that great valley of dry bones, and at the command of the prophet every bone in its place, and the sinews over the bone, and finally the flesh; a great valley, but they were dead! And the Lord said to the prophet, stand and call to the breath of God to breathe upon this great valley. And they stood up living men before heaven. The church had all of its assembly and its ordinances and its discipline and its commission: but at Pentecost it was breathed upon and became a living organism – one Spirit, the Holy Spirit of God.
One hope, one body, one Spirit, one hope. And that hope, that hope has entered into the veil: "A hope we have, sure and steadfast, that entereth within the veil; whither even Jesus our forerunner hath entered" [Hebrews 6:19-20]; the eloquent author of Hebrews in the sixth chapter of his book. Our hope, our one hope is Jesus. And if we have an inheritance undefiled and that fadeth not away, it lies in the hope we have in Jesus; one hope. There are many other things that falsely lay before us illusions; but they all turn to dust and ashes ultimately, finally. There is one enduring, abiding hope, and that is Jesus. Beyond death, beyond this earth, beyond this life, what remains: the hope we have in Jesus.
I heard a missionary from northern India one time say that as his caravan went along, he saw a man left behind by a previous caravan on the side of the road to die. Evidently the man had become grievously ill, and life is cheap – they had no inclination to carry him along, so they left him on the side of the trail to die. And the missionary said he dismounted from his camel, and got down to see that man on the side of the road, and saw that he was dying. And he said, "Do you have any hope? Do you have any hope?" And to his amazement, the missionary said, "The man replied, ‘The blood of Jesus Christ, God’s Son, cleanseth us from all sin.’" And the man expired with that breath, died in that saying. And the missionary said, "It was then that I noticed that in his fist there was clutched a leaf of paper." He said, "I undid the closed fist, and I took out of it a page from God’s Book. And it happened to be 1 John: ‘The blood of Jesus Christ, God’s Son, cleanseth us from all sin’" [1 John 1:7]. Our hope has entered within the veil for expiation and for intercession. And if we have any hope, it’s in Jesus – one body, one Spirit, one hope.
One Lord, one Lord, just one, one Lord: He purchased the church with His own blood, and He presides over the church as its only Lord, and someday as Judge we shall stand before Him, each member. And He is the Lord of the church, not by the suffrage of man, not by the ballots of man, but by the will of God! "Having humbled Himself and became obedient, even to the death of the cross; therefore God hath highly exalted Him, and given Him the name that is above every name: that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, every tongue should confess the Lord" [Philippians 2:6-11]; one Lord. In the fifth chapter of the Revelation:
And I saw in the right hand of Him that sat on the throne a book, and the great angel said with a loud voice, Who is worthy to open the book, and to loose the seals thereof?
And I wept, because there was no one found in heaven, or in earth, or under the earth, in the netherworld, worthy to open the book, the book of redemption.
Our names are in it, sealed with seven seals.
Then one of the elders came unto me and said, Weep not, weep not: for the Lion of the tribe of Judah hath prevailed to open the book, and to loose the seals thereof.
And I looked, and behold a Lamb as it had been slain.
And He took the book out of the right hand of Him that sat on the throne.
And when He took the book, and when He took the book, the four cherubim and the myriads of angels and the four and twenty elders bowed down and worshiped Him, saying,
Thou art worthy to take the book, and to loose the seals thereof: for Thou wast slain, and hast redeemed us unto God by Thy blood out of every nation and language and tribe under the sun;
And hath made us kings and priests unto God: and we shall reign upon the earth.
One Lord by the fiat of Almighty God!
If the church is a household, He is the Master. If the church is a school of faith and holiness, He is the Teacher. If the church is a host, He is the Captain. If the church is a bride, He is the Husband and the Lord.
And that’s why the early Christians fell into trouble and persecution. What an amazing thing, that the Roman Empire, so tolerant of religion, so very tolerant of religion, as they conquered any province, any section, they gave the people the right of their own gods. And what an amazing thing in the Roman Empire, that the Roman Empire should have so cruelly persecuted the children of Jesus. But the answer was very plain: the Roman Empire followed the religion of a pantheon; pan, "all," theos, "God," pantheon, "all the gods."
If you ever visit Rome, the most famous of all of the buildings of antiquity in that city and the most perfectly preserved of all of the ancient buildings of the world is the Pantheon, built by Agrippa, the friend of Julius Caesar, in about 45 BC, the Pantheon. Here, as you go in the Pantheon, here is a place for a god, and there is a place for a god, and here is a place for a god, and there is a place for a god, and it’s round; and all around that great circle under that beautiful dome are places for the gods. And as they conquered Egypt, here was a god from Egypt. And as they conquered Greece, here was a god from Greece. And as they conquered Armenia, here was a god from Armenia. And as they conquered Iberia, here was a god from Iberia. And as they conquered Gaul, here was a god from Gaul. And so all of the gods were worshiped by the Roman people. So when the Christians began to preach Iēsous, Jesus, the Romans gladly accepted this new god, "And we will place Him here in this niche in the Pantheon." But the Christians said, "Not so. Not so. There is one Lord, and His name is Jesus." And that’s why the persecution of the early church: one Lord, Jesus.
"Hear O Israel," the famous shema, "the Lord our God is one Lord" [Deuteronomy 6:4]. In the Old Testament, known as Jehovah; in the New Testament Incarnate known as Jesus; and in the world that is to come, our reigning King: one Lord.
One faith, one faith: there is an objective body of truth that the Christian is to receive by faith. And I hold that revelation here in my hands; one faith!
One man’s idea of smallpox is not as good as another man’s idea. When I was in Africa, the people that I visited in one of those tribes believed that smallpox was caused by a demon; and the demon was cast out in a wave of incantations, and by throwing an old broom in the yard, and by throwing another old broom on the thatched roof of the hut. But that idea of smallpox is not as true and not as good as Pasteur’s, that smallpox is caused by bacteria, and can be prevented by vaccination. There is objective truth, a body of it, in the Christian faith, just as there is in physics, or in chemistry, or in astronomy, or in any other thing by which God reveals Himself to us. And I am to accept that body of truth. I may not be able to understand where all these stars came from, but the certain facts of astronomy I accept. I may not be able to understand all about bacteria, but there are things that I accept. And I may not be able to understand all that God has done in the spiritual world, but I accept those things proved by the centuries and the centuries. And I commit myself to that faith – that one faith – bound up in the revelation of Jesus my Lord. Just like I trust the surgeon, just like I would trust the pilot getting in an airplane, just as I would trust the bank when I make a deposit, so I trust Jesus with my soul. There is one faith, one commitment.
And that is the most astonishing thing to me that I find in the life of our college students. They go to school, and there is somebody there and he knows something about physics, and another one he knows something about chemistry, and another one he knows something about geology, and another one he knows something about anatomy, and another one he knows something about anthropology. And the student comes back and he says, "I have given up the faith." That is the most inexplicable of all of the things that my mind could ever seek to enter into. I don’t understand it.
These things God hath done in astronomy, glory to His marvelous and omnipotent name. These things God hath done in the world of physics, glory to His omnipotent name. These things God hath done in chemistry, glory to His omnipotent name. But is that all God hath done? Is not a man more than a physical animal? Is not a man more than a body of chemical reactions? Is not a man more than a piece of material placed in a material universe? Isn’t there more?
God says, "Infinitely more." For the man is a living soul; and these are the things of the faith that pertain to the living soul, just as these are the things that God hath wrought that pertain to chemistry, or astronomy, or physics, or anatomy.
Oh, I hate to quit! One baptism – and I had a whole sermon on that – one baptism; and one God and Father of all. And yet I got the service this morning earlier and never had it in my life. I just quit. If we were here all day long, I guess I’d wish, "Well I wish we had the night, too."
Now, to sum up, these are the true unifying factors of the church of our blessed Lord: one true body, of which we are all members; one Holy Spirit that permeates our life, one precious and blessed hope in heaven; one Lord, our precious Savior; one faith to whom, to which we commit our whole souls. And then what I didn’t have [time] to finish: one baptism – and we’ll just speak of that again – one baptism; and one God and Father of all. Oh, these are the things that bind us together and forever!
Now while we sing our hymn of appeal, somebody you give himself to Jesus, somebody you put his life in the fellowship of the church, while we sing the song and while we make appeal, you come and stand by me, "Pastor, today I give my heart to God"; or, "Today I put my life in the fellowship of the church." As the Spirit shall lead, as God shall open the door, make it this morning, make it now, while we stand and while we sing.