RPM, Volume 16, Number 22, May 25 to May 31, 2014

Covenant Theology

The Doctrine of the Church
Sermon Number Twenty-Two

By Jim Bordwine, Th.D.


This sermon marks the beginning of a new section in our study of Covenant Theology. The next topic for our examination will be: The Doctrine of the Church. When I talk about the doctrine of the Church, I am dealing with a subject that is fundamental to the Christian faith. The doctrine of the Church touches every aspect of our experience as the redeemed of God. The doctrine of the Church is related to such important issues as the worship of God, the administration and meaning of the sacraments, salvation, sanctification, evangelism, marriage, family life, vocation, economics, and sociology.

And beyond these issues, the doctrine of the Church is related to the meaning and interpretation of history itself. It is no exaggeration to declare that history has no meaning and cannot be rightly interpreted apart from the doctrine of the Church. In fact, we may say, with Biblical support, that history is nothing less than the record of the Church's construction and development. There really is no such thing as "secular" and "sacred" history.

We have the inappropriately named "Enlightenment" to thank for this false dichotomy; this is not a Biblical view, however. History is the record of God's restoration of the fallen human race and that restoration takes place in and through the Church. The advancement of the Church is not just one historical vein among many running through the centuries, it is history and everything else that happens is, in one way or another, related to the Church.

The reason we have difficulty conceiving of the Church and history in this manner is because the doctrine of the Church is a neglected area of study among contemporary Christians. This particular area of systematic theology is virtually untouched by modern theologians, not to mention the dozens of "pop" writers who hold the attention of many evangelicals. The truth is, however, that some of the greatest and most beneficial works in history have been produced on this topic of the doctrine of the Church.

It is my conviction that the Church must understand Herself and Her mission before She can hope to have any kind of lasting and saving influence in this world. Covenant Theology, being a systematic and precise arrangement of the doctrines found in the Word of God, provides us with a proper view of the Church.

In this sermon, I will be presenting an overview of the doctrine of the Church under three points: 1) The Foundation of the Church, which will be a study of Christ's words in Matt. 16; 2) The Character of the Church, which will be concerned with the Church's holiness; and 3) The Mission of the Church, which will deal with the Great Commission and the relationship between the Church and salvation.

01. The Foundation of the Church

When I use the term, "Foundation of the Church," I am, of course, referring to a truth that serves as the theological ground upon which the Church rests. What is it that forms the doctrinal "base" of the Church? If we picture the Church as a building, as Scripture itself does, what do we see supporting the weight of the edifice? What truth is of such magnitude that it alone deserves the title of "foundation"?

To answer these questions, I will begin in Matt. 16 where we read these words:

13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, He began asking His disciples, saying, "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?" 14 And they said, "Some say John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; but still others, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets." 15 He said to them, "But who do you say that I am?" 16 And Simon Peter answered and said, "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God." 17 And Jesus answered and said to him, "Blessed are you, Simon Barjona, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven. 18 And I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades shall not overpower it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven."

This passage begins with a simple and natural question from Jesus. By this time in His ministry, the disciples had witnessed much; they were aware of Jesus' claims and also aware of what others were saying about Him. Just prior to these verses, Matthew records an incident that underscores the theological dullness of the disciples. The exchange that we just read, therefore, is an encouraging contrast.

In preparation for a most essential teaching, Jesus asks this question: "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?" (v. 13) As this brief episode unfolds, it becomes clear that Jesus had one purpose in mind when asking this question. His chief concern was not, of course, how others identified Him; His aim was to instruct the disciples regarding His identity and teach them a major and essential theological truth in the process. The identity of Jesus Christ, as we will see, is directly related to the character and mission of the Church. To put it another way, to know the identity of Jesus Christ is to know the nature of His Church and the calling of His Church.

After listening to the disciples report on the various theories that were circulating regarding His identity, the Lord focuses their attention more definitively by asking a second question: "But who do you say that I am?" (v. 15) Once again, let me emphasize that the purpose of these questions was not to determine the opinion of those outside the circle of the disciples; the purpose was to call the attention of the disciples to what they already believed implicitly and to show them the central significance of that belief to the mission they would undertake.

The arrangement of words in the Greek emphasizes that Jesus' intention was to reveal the convictions of the disciples. The phrase could be read: "But you, who do you say that I am?" Some thought that Jesus was John the Baptist, some thought He was Elisha and others thought He was Jeremiah. These opinions were interesting, but not nearly as important as the opinion of Jesus' disciples. The disciples would soon begin the task of establishing and nurturing the Church after the Lord departed this world. Now was the time, in Jesus' estimation, for them to come to grips with what they had previously claimed to believe (cf. 14:33 "You are certainly God's Son!").

In response to the second, more direct and personal question, the Scripture says that Simon Peter answered: "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God." This confession of Peter is most significant for it identifies Jesus as the Messiah, the Anointed One. Bound up in Peter's statement is the truth that Jesus is the One sent by God the Father to redeem fallen man; He is the One who would bring salvation to the world, He is the One who would call out a people to Himself, intercede for them and rule over them.

Peter confesses that Jesus is the God-Man, the Mediator promised by God in the Garden of Eden so many centuries before; Peter identifies Jesus as the Savior, the One who soon would bear the sins of His people on the cross, would die for them and would be raised triumphantly to commence the gathering of the elect from across the earth. In short, Peter declares that Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us.

Before going further, I want to emphasize the covenantal nature of this confession by Simon Peter. To declare Jesus to be "the Christ," is to declare God's faithfulness in keeping His promise to Adam and Eve, to Abraham and the other patriarchs, to the prophets of the Old Testament and through them, to His people in Israel. God promised to send One to restore fallen man; He elaborated on this promise, first made in Eden, in a series of covenants.

For Peter to stand before Jesus and declare, "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God," is the same as saying, "God has kept His covenant promises and the long-awaited Savior is here in our midst!" Outside the framework of Covenant Theology, this perspective on Peter's confession would be less obvious; we would be less likely to see the connecting thread running from Eden, through the patriarchal covenants, through the Levitical covenants, through the words of the prophets to this incident recorded by Matthew.

Let us now consider Jesus' response to Peter's confession. He says to him: "Blessed are you, Simon Barjona, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven." There are two things to note in this statement. First, knowing and understanding the identity of Jesus Christ is not a matter of exercising unaided human reasoning. Second, knowing and understanding the identity of Jesus Christ is a matter of revelation; that is, it is a truth of supernatural origin and comprehension.

Notice the name that Jesus uses to address Peter: "Simon Barjona," which means, "Simon, son of Jona." Why does Jesus use this language? He does so to emphasize Simon Peter's humanity and further to emphasize that mere human calculations cannot lead to the knowledge of who and what Jesus Christ is. Moreover, Jesus adds, "flesh and blood did not reveal this to you."

This response to Peter sets the stage for the second half of Jesus' announcement, which is that His Father in heaven had revealed the identity of Jesus to Peter and the others. Jesus means that God had so worked in the hearts of the disciples, had so used the words and works of Jesus, that they had been led to a point of understanding and conviction regarding the identity of the Lord. Jesus' statement to Peter leads to the unmistakable conclusion that what Peter knew and had just confessed was a result of God's supernatural activity in his heart.

This brief exchange teaches that there is a connection between a right comprehension of Jesus Christ's identity and salvation. Coming to a knowledge, a saving knowledge, of Jesus Christ is beyond human capabilities. Therefore, this exchange also underscores the importance of doctrinal correctness. What I mean is that it is not acceptable for a human being to believe just anything he pleases about Jesus Christ; God requires us to believe the truth as He has revealed it to us.

Jesus continues speaking and uses the confession just uttered by Peter to explain that the truth contained in that confession would serve as the theological and spiritual foundation for an institution that He intended to bring into being. Addressing Peter again, Jesus says: "You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church..." In the Greek, this phrase reads: "You are Petros ("Rock") and upon this petra ("rocky ledge" or "bedrock") I will build My church..."

Much has been written about this statement; some have insisted that Jesus is bestowing upon Peter a unique status among the others. The correct interpretation, however, allows no room for such a position. Jesus is using a play on words to draw the connection between Peter's recent confession and the nature of the Church that soon would be formed. The truth represented in Peter's confession of Jesus as "the Christ, the Son of the living God," would serve as the solid doctrinal foundation upon which Jesus would erect a spiritual house. That spiritual house, consisting of the redeemed, would bear the characteristics of the foundation.

In other words, Jesus Himself, His teaching and what is taught about Him, would determine the nature of the Church; only those who embraced the truth represented in Peter's confession would be or could be part of Christ's institution.

Jesus is teaching that He intends to gather a people, a Church, to Himself and the basis for their gathering will be the truth that Jesus Christ is the God-Man, the Savior sent from heaven to redeem and restore fallen humanity. Christology, then, that is, the doctrine of and about Jesus Christ, would be the organizing principle for this redeemed and restored body; Christology, the doctrine of and about Jesus Christ, would be the sole determining factor in regard to the nature of this Church that the Savior promises to build.

The Church would be built upon a Christological foundation and Her doctrine would be, therefore, Christo-centric. Everything about the Church would bear the marks of Christ; She would look like Him, talk like Him, do His will, and exist to serve Him. This is what the Bible teaches about the Church and this passage is where the seed of this truth is to be found. The Church is a fascinating and beautiful "elaboration" of Peter's confession; the Church is the embodiment of the truth represented in Peter's words.

The last phrase in v. 18 is interesting: "...and the gates of Hades shall not overpower it." There are two interpretations of this statement that I would offer. First, this phrase might be a reference to the death of Christ. He would, indeed, die for His people, but, as He promises here, death would not hold Him and would not, therefore, restrain the development of that Church which would be identified with Him; that is, the bars of death would not succeed in holding Christ in the grave, but would give way at His triumphant resurrection at which time the Savior would commence the gathering of His people into the Church.

Second, and I think this is the preferred interpretation; this statement might be understood as applying primarily to the Church. In this case, "hades" represents the domain of Satan. Jesus teaches that His Church, founded on, revolving around and permeated with the truth represented in Peter's confession, would overcome this demonic kingdom. The Scripture says: "The Son of God appeared for this purpose, that He might destroy the works of the devil." (1 John 3:8) Following this interpretation, we could say that long before the apostle John wrote those words, Jesus, Himself, predicted this triumph through His Church.

Additionally, in this interpretation, the Church of Christ is represented as being on the offensive: "the gates of Hades shall not overpower it." Gates are defensive barriers intended to keep intruders outside. Jesus promises that the institution bearing His name and characteristics will not only stand strong, She will advance against the kingdom of Satan and overcome it.

Finally, Jesus indicates that those who would serve as the founders of the Church would exercise delegated authority. Christ would give them "the keys of the kingdom of heaven." Following the words of Jesus, we note that whoever has the "keys of the kingdom of heaven" obviously is in a position to determine who is admitted and who is denied admission. These "keys," therefore, represent the authority of Christ that He would delegate to the disciples; having the "keys," they would operate in His stead.

By faithfully preaching the gospel of Christ, the disciples would declare the terms by which a sinner is received into the Church and, subsequently, into heaven; at the same time, the faithful preaching of the gospel of Christ would serve as a barrier to sinners who rejected God's gift of salvation. The power of the keys, then, would be manifested in the declaration of the gospel, which would be in the hands of these same men within a short time.

The authority represented by the keys carries with it a corresponding responsibility. The disciples would represent Christ in the Church and would, by Christ's appointment, exercise the Savior's authority; accordingly, however, this definition of their authority implies a certain responsibility to "behave," we might say, as Christ would behave.

The disciples were to rule and nurture the Church as Christ Himself would; in fact, their activity in the Church would be His activity since He had chosen this means of caring for His people after His departure. Therefore, only as and only when the disciples faithfully proclaimed the words of Christ would they properly be exercising the authority represented by the words "the keys of the kingdom of heaven."

This perspective helps us understand the phrase, "whatever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." The terms "bind" and "loose" mean "forbid" and "permit" in this context. Jesus is teaching that there should be and will be a "one to one" correspondence between the acts of the disciples and His will; as the disciples exercise their delegated authority in the Church, Christ would be ruling in and through them.

The preaching and, of course, the discipline of the Church are in view here. What this statement implies is harmony between the beliefs and actions of the Church on earth, on the one hand, and the will of Christ who is in heaven, on the other.

Consequently, the Church cannot say or demand anything more than what Christ says and demands; and, to put it in a different way, the Church must say and demand what Christ says and demands. For this "one to one" correspondence to exist between the beliefs and actions of the Church on earth and the will of Christ who is in heaven, the Church must faithfully and diligently declare the words of the Savior and She must faithfully and diligently require compliance with the words of the Savior.

The Church may not add to the Lord's teaching and She may not fail to proclaim all of the Lord's teaching. Only in this way can it be true that what the Church forbids or permits on earth will be forbidden or permitted in heaven.

Before offering some application, I want to mention that the apostles used this theme of Christ as the foundation for the Church in their writings. In 1 Cor. 3, for example, Paul writes: "10 According to the grace of God which was given to me, as a wise master builder I laid a foundation, and another is building upon it. But let each man be careful how he builds upon it. 11 For no man can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ." Paul indicates that he clearly understood the Christological nature of the Church.

The apostle knew that it was not his task to conceive of and then establish a doctrinal foundation for the institution known as the Church. That work had been done by the Savior when, in response to Peter's confession, He said: "...upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades shall not overpower it."

Doctrine about Christ and doctrine from Christ formed the foundation for the spiritual entity known as the Church of Jesus Christ and Paul understood this. Moreover, having understood this, he also understood the absolutely essential nature of the Church's Christological basis. The institution brought into being by the Savior had no identity apart from Him.

The Church is Christologically oriented or She ceases to be the Church. So Paul rightly believed that his job as an apostle was to see that the Christological foundation for the Church was in place, well-founded, guarded, and kept intact for the next generation.

Therefore, he warns those who labored with him and those who would labor after him: "But let each man be careful how he builds upon [this foundation]." This warning from Paul and the basis for this warning, which is given in v. 11, rule out theological innovation; they rule out theological independence. It is not the place of a theologian, a minister, an elder or a seminary to originate a definition for the nature of the Church or the mission of the Church.

The task of those who labor for Christ is to keep calling attention to the foundation, to keep correcting error by referring to the foundation, to judge, discipline, and teach with reference to the foundation. The Church has a theological foundation, which determines Her theological identity, and that foundation is the Christ, the Son of the living God. The Church is the manifestation of God's covenant faithfulness in Christ; the Church is the result of God keeping that promise He made to Adam and Eve, to the Patriarch and to His people through the prophets.


I've talked a lot about the Christological foundation of the Church of Jesus Christ. If the Church, as a spiritual entity, rests upon doctrine about Christ and doctrine from Christ, how does this affect the local manifestations of the Church known as congregations? In the application, I want to explain just what this means in terms of the local church and our efforts at ministry.

One place where a Christological orientation will manifest itself is in the local church's handling of the gospel message. The local church that is dedicated to a Christological orientation will, of course, emphasize the core truth of the faith, which is God's restoration of fallen man in Christ. The Christologically oriented church will, therefore, adopt Paul's ministry motto: "We preach Christ, and Him crucified."

In a Christologically oriented church, the gospel of salvation will be preached consistently?that is, the gospel message that is heard in the pulpit of such a church will not change over time, regardless of various factors, such as the desires of culture or the theological instability of other parts of the Church.

In a Christologically oriented church, the gospel of salvation will be preached clearly?that is, the gospel message that is heard in the pulpit of such a church will be no more complicated, on the one hand, and no less complicated, on the other, than the Bible itself; no attempt will be made to simplify what God has said and no effort will be made to make what God has said more intellectually acceptable to the human mind.

Beyond this emphasis on the gospel message itself, a Christologically oriented church will spend time studying and applying all the implications of that message. A Christologically oriented church, then, will have a decided interest in systematic theology and the relation of systematic theology to life. With the gospel message serving as the core of her doctrinal convictions, such a congregation will, in time, be marked by maturity and stability.

Another area where a Christological orientation will manifest itself is in the expansion of the Church. A Christologically oriented church is going to use resources to establish like-minded congregations. Such a congregation is going to be discriminating when it comes to the use of God's tithes and gifts; she is not going to support just any project or just any group that claims to be Christian, but will evaluate opportunities for support and put her limited moneys where they are likely to produce another Biblical ministry.

A third way in which a Christological orientation is demonstrated in the local church is in the matter of accountability. If a local congregation takes seriously the idea that the gospel message and its implications are to be the leading marks of any church, then she also will take seriously the adoption of this conviction by her members.

A Christologically oriented church will make sure that her members know well what God expects of His people who have been redeemed in His Son; she will make sure that her members receive instruction in responsibility as well as liberty. A church that proclaims Christ and Him crucified in her ministry can hardly endorse anything less in the lives of her members.

So, in a Christologically oriented church, there will be an emphasis on the practical side of doctrine. The members of such a congregation will understand that there is more to Christianity than simply knowing a set of doctrinal propositions; they will understand that those doctrinal propositions are not grasped fully until they show up in one's day to day routine, until they can be observed in the home and on the job.

A person who attends a Christologically oriented church should find himself frequently wrestling with the implications of something he has heard from the pulpit; he should be able to observe growth in his life and growth in his family.

I do what to make clear, however, that a Christologically oriented church will teach you the principles by which you are to live, but she will not live your life for you. Here, again, we are touching upon a problem in contemporary evangelicalism. Modern Christians are all too accustomed to letting their church fulfill those responsibilities that God has assigned to them as husbands, fathers, wives, mothers and adults. Many modern Christian families are wards of some local church. That church seeks to fill the husband's needs, it seeks to fill the wife's needs and it seeks to become a parent to the children. All kinds of programs are developed to keep families together while those very programs run counter to a Christological emphasis and are, in reality, destructive to the family.

The Biblical norm is that your church teaches you how to meet your responsibilities, but does not attempt to take your place. In a properly grounded church, you will learn what God requires of parents, as part of the overall emphasis on the gospel and its implications, but you will not be relieved of those duties. When you come to worship, your children will not be taken from you so that you don't have to teach them how to behave in the presence of God. The business of a church is to equip you so you can honor God with your life; the business of a church is not to live your life for you.

A final way in which a Christological orientation in the local church is going to find expression is in the effect of such a ministry upon the members. A congregation is which the chief activity is the declaration of the doctrine from Christ and the doctrine about Christ, is going to produce a Christological orientation in her members. This, I would say, is inevitable. Church members will take on the characteristics of the church; and this is the way it should be.

Regrettably, we see the opposite in contemporary Christianity. Today, we see local churches taking on the characteristics of the members. This explains why there is so much confusion over the role of the Church and why the modern Church, consequently, is largely ineffective in our culture. The modern Church is reactionary and must be, therefore, unstable.

Our identity is to be found in Christ, not in ourselves and certainly not from society at large. As a result, those who attend a Christologically oriented church are, over time, conformed to the image of Christ and better able to articulate and practice what God has revealed to us in His Word.

As a church's orientation is reproduced in church members, it is reproduced in church families. Those families, in turn, raise children with the same Biblical orientation. These children grow up and become a Christologically oriented generation. It's not difficult to see how important the emphasis upon Christ is to the well-being of the Church today and for the years ahead.

All of this comes from Peter's confession in response to the Lord's question: "Who do you say that I am."


Hymn for Communion


It hardly needs to be said that the sacrament of the Lord's Supper fits perfectly into the Christologically oriented church that I have described. This sacrament assures that our attention is on Christ as we conclude our worship and prepare to return to our various duties this week. It reminds us that we live in and through Him and that He lives in and through us; it reminds us, in other words, that our whole life is oriented in and around the Savior.

Matthew says:

And while they were eating, Jesus took some bread, and after a blessing, He broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, "Take, eat; this is My body." And when He had taken a cup and given thanks, He gave it to them, saying, "Drink from it, all of you; for this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins. But I say to you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in My Father's kingdom."

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