God’s self-determinative act in the Word Jesus Christ entails the coordinate determination of human being. As He elects to be this God, Immanuel, and to exist as Creator, Reconciler, and Redeemer, so also He elects to bring creatures into existence before Him and to place them in dependent relationship upon Him.
As we undertake to think and speak theologically of human being, then, we do not leap to categories of knowing or being, to reason, substance, language, or existential persistence, but turn again to the Word of God as participants in it. The first and most basic thing that must be said about humankind is that we are the objects of God’s elective will in Christ Jesus.
Our true being is in coming to awareness of this fact and in living in the obedience appropriate to it. It is in the act of discovering ourselves to belong to Jesus, learning the full range and depth of this belonging, and pursuing that relationship with all diligence and secondary self-determination. We cannot begin our discussion of anthropology or general humankind—including the number and makeup of those who live outside conscious acceptance of Christ as Lord, whether by choice or some other factor—without first discussing those who are counted as Christ’s own. We cannot understand humanity without first understanding the church.
The Word of God does not return empty, as we have seen, but falls like rain from heaven and brings forth living respondents. It populates the world with children born not of human descent, but of God. The total count of those children at any point in history is hidden in the mystery of the Word’s power to generate offspring.
“Night and day, whether [the sower] sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows,” Jesus says, “though he does not know how. All by itself the soil produces grain” (Mark 4:27-28). Who the Word has made to be His own, is making to be, and will make to be is not disclosed to us.
The crop yielded by the Word will be known at the harvest yet to come. Thus, when we speak of the church, we must speak first of God’s generative summons. We must not rush to speak of this or that collection of people who call themselves the church, this or that feature of their faith. We also must not rush to speak of this or that collection of attributes by which the church has been identified historically. We must rather speak of the determinative nature of God’s speech.
The call of Abram in Genesis 12 and the covenant that God makes with him in Genesis 15–17 form the foundation of God’s covenantal design for humankind in Christ Jesus. The comprehensiveness of God’s summons in Genesis 12:1 is significant. The Lord tells Abram to “leave your country, your people, and your father’s household.” We notice that these are ever narrowing, increasingly intimate spheres. They traverse the full range of relationships that constitute Abram’s identity, and the order of their decreeing punctuates the sense of dislocation that the author no doubt expects us to feel with Abram, culminating as it does with Abram’s blood kin.
God cuts every mooring loose to which Abram might affix his existence. In this, the Lord makes Himself the final and exclusive recourse by which Abram may now orient his living. Indeed, the comprehensiveness of the summons presupposes that faith in this God who has come to him is the single modality left to Abram by which he may carry on his being and doing.
The text gives no indication that Abram is called because of some qualifying characteristic that he possesses or some set of assets over which he exercises custodial control, which suit him for the journey ahead. It is rather the promise of the Lord alone on which Abram can rely for strength, endurance, and hope.
The significance of faith to Abram’s calling over and against natural traits, skills, or possessions is made clear in the covenant of chapters 15–17. Here, God promises Abram that all he gave up in following the Lord will be restored. He will have his own offspring, who will become a great people, and will possess the land of Canaan. Once again, the text does not even hint that this will be done because of some natural merit.
It is Abram’s belief, which God credits as righteousness, says Genesis 15:6. God will restore to Abram the identity that he forfeited in faith, but also in faith. That is, Abram’s new identity—Abraham, the father of many nations—is constituted in and defined by trust in God’s promise.
He will be known by his active obedience to God, willfully having no other bases for distinction. Abraham’s home, ethnicity, and father is finally YHWH, the Lord. He is finally a child of God whose offspring are the people of God living within the space opened up by God and governed by His will. Hence, Sarai’s name is also changed to Sarah to indicate her new identity as the Lord’s in and through her active faithfulness to God’s calling and covenant. Her being too is differentiated strictly by her role in the covenant that God makes with Abraham.
Paul builds from this foundation in Romans 4. There he counts as offspring of Abraham all those who participate in Abraham’s faithfulness. “He is the father of all who believe but have not been circumcised,” Paul writes in verses 11b-12, “in order that righteousness might be credited to them. And he is also the father of the circumcised who not only are circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.”
Paul recognized that faith is at the heart of the relationship God establishes with humankind, not ethnicity or the sign of circumcision. Circumcision, that defining symbol of Jewish identity, is itself an expression of faith. Paul calls it a “sign” and “seal of the righteousness that [Abraham] had by faith while he was still uncircumcised” (v. 11a).
It is a marker of his new identity as the Lord’s, not the condition or means of that identity. Therefore, Paul concludes that the uncircumcised, the Gentiles, might also be counted among the offspring of Abraham because of their faith. Being merely a sign of righteousness and not its condition, circumcision is unnecessary for the non-Jew to be counted among God’s people. Their identity as God’s children is marked by a different sign, namely, obedience to Christ.
Paul makes this clear in chapters 6–8. He uses the language of servitude or slavery. Whereas once we were slaves to sin, he writes, we now are slaves to Christ. We offer our bodies not in service to wickedness, but in service to the righteousness accredited to us, that is, to the Spirit’s work of redemption. We are not able to do this on our own, Paul makes clear in chapter 7, but by the power of the Spirit who sets us free from bondage to self-gratifying desires. By this Spirit, we eagerly pursue freedom in Christ to think, speak, and act in a manner consistent with His thinking, speaking, and acting, to be heirs of God with Him, Paul says in 8:17, sharing “in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.”
We gladly repeat Jesus’ humility, not pursuing equality with God as Adam did, but taking on the form of a servant as God Himself did, in Christ, the second Adam. In so doing, we have our differentiated existence in Christ and not in ourselves.
In sum, God calls humankind to Him in the event of faith. He brings forth His own children in this event, giving them a new identity determined not by geography, vocation, or human heritage, but by His life-determining covenant. He draws them into meaningful relationship with Him by His Spirit. They are His own in the obedience of faith, which is to say, in the holistic sacrifice of their lives to His will revealed in Jesus Christ.
The church is the assembly of those called out by God in Christ by the Holy Spirit. It is a dynamic collection, not static, taking place in the event of faith. The church happens with every reiteration of the faith of Abraham. It is identified by the obedience that is part and parcel of that faith to Jesus’ sacrificial life, ministry, death, and resurrection.
This obedience takes place not by human effort or ritualistic mastery, but by the power of Christ’s Spirit to make disciples, or better, to make Christ Jesus Lord. We remember from our discussion of the biblical basis of the doctrine of election that Paul uses the word ekkaleo to describe God’s life-defining call. Once again, this word means something like “to call out” or “summon.” Its cognate noun form is ekklesia.
Ecclesia is usually translated “assembly,” or just “church,” but I highlight its etymological connection to ekkaleo in order to help make the point that the church is a dynamic and not static assembly. It is simply those who are summoned by God and identified by their hearing of His summons, which is to say, by their receiving and acting upon it in a manner coordinate with the sacrificial love of God in Christ.
The church is the human counterpart to God’s self-election in the Word. It comes to being moment-by-moment in correspondence to the living, self-determinative activity of God as Immanuel. The event-character of the church entails three significant elements.
One, the church has no internal basis for its existence. It is constituted in the external act of God coming to chaos, darkness, and death and bringing forth order, light, and life. One, the church has no internal basis for its existence. It is constituted in the external act of God coming to chaos, darkness, and death and bringing forth order, light, and life. It is not constituted in any internal order, light or life of its own. No behavior code or special set of rituals which may harken reflect and beat in some kind of faintly familiar way with God’s external coming. No, the church just is the actualized repetition of God’s order, light, and life.
The church is the order of God actualized among humankind. It is above all a way of being animated by the power of the Spirit. It is a characteristic orientation, the state of living obediently to the command of God. The power of its living is given moment-by-moment by God in and with this command and is not a possession or attribute over which those commanded, the church, at any point or in any place claim control. God does not deed the church, in any instance, special authority to live and enforce His will, but He remains Lord in each instant that His will is lived out among humankind.
The church is therefore not God on earth, as it sometimes acts. But the reiteration of God’s will in Christ by proclamation of His teaching in words and actions under the power of the Holy Spirit. Living as such and only as such the church exists as light among the darkness, which should not be covered (Matt. 5:15). It is a city on the hillside and, in fact, the light of the world (Matt. 5:14). The church is not ashamed of God’s presence among humankind in the event of faith, as it also sometimes acts. The church boldly proclaims the love of God in Christ to the world as nothing less than the world’s condition of being, its means of subsisting, its eternal hope which boldness comes from firsthand experience with the singularity of God’s love for his own.
It is precisely in the church’s frailty and dependency that God is made known as Lord. He is not Lord in any kind of mastery over humanity that the church assumes, but in its service to humanity, rooted in humble receipt of God’s services. The church is a light only in repetition of God’s self-sacrificial love. Exactly in the way of being a servant, the church draws people to its Lord. It becomes for them life in the midst of death. It becomes a place of sanctuary from the life-denying realities everywhere about us, a secure tower rising on the horizon. This too it does in receipt of sanctuary and security, in finding itself in the life-sustaining protection of its shepherd and not in the strength or threat of its own rod. Only in the defense and sustenance of life made possible and real by Christ Jesus.
Only in His victory over every force of darkness and his sure pledge never to leave or forsake His children, can the church pledge to defend and promote life in the world. The church obeys that command it is given, reflects the light that shines among it, and retreats into the life that it offers. Only in such dynamic need does is it become the church of Jesus Christ.
Secondly, existing “in correspondence to the living, self-determinative activity of God as Immanuel” means being in conformity with this reality. The church is a “living after” in the twofold sense of sequentially following and repetitiously embodying the grace of God in Christ Jesus. It exists as God’s own, in the faith of Abraham, only to the degree that it continually finds itself in God’s act and seeks to reverberate that act in its thinking, speaking, and doing. Perhaps the most well-known metaphor for the church in Scripture is the “body of Christ.” Paul uses this metaphor in Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12, and Ephesians 5.
In each case, he gives the same admonition: not to live in the self-serving ways of the world, but to perpetrate the self-sacrificial love of God among each other. The body functions by way of unique contributions made by individual members, thus each member should be treated as being of equal value, and should operate as “belonging” to all of the others (e.g., Rom. 12:5). Just as it would be senseless for the foot to pursue a relation of dominance over the hand, so also is it senseless—out of step with the very nature of Christ’s obedience—to seek dominance over a brother or sister.
On the contrary, the disciple of Christ strives to use her gifts for the flourishing of the whole, in service to them, as if what she has been given is simply for the edification and fulfillment of her brothers and sisters. In this respect, Paul’s admonition parallels a point introduced last lecture: to be a child of God is to live out the mutuality inherent in His triune being. It is to have one’s identity exactly in the pursuit of reciprocal identification, not wishing to be known in contrast to the other but in face-to-face relationship.
The church exists in conformity with the triune reality of God when it affirms the diversity of its body, yet as a body, as a unity with “one Lord, one faith, one birth,” as the hymnist says.
Three, the church’s event character entails that it is at once visible and invisible. This was a major point of contention during the Reformation era. Recognizing that at-times-extreme level of corruption in the medieval Roman Catholic curia, Luther concluded that the true church has to be more than its visible manifestation.
It has to be more than clerics and cathedrals, if you will. In fact, it is entirely possible that however wise the clerics or beautiful the cathedrals, the church could be nothing more than a “bag of maggots.” Luther conceded that the medieval church was a body but a lifeless corpse being eaten from within.
The true church, Luther taught, was invisible. But if we connect Luther’s understanding of the church up with his understanding of the sacrament, or more exactly, if we read his ecclesiology in light of his sacramentology, it is probably more accurate to say that the true church is both visible and invisible.
In and as God’s active summons, the Word partners with us, calling forth and engaging our whole being in the act of obedience. Protestantism introduces a unique mode of operation in this regard.
The teaching emerged in medieval theology that the sacraments were effective ex opere operato, which means “out of the work worked” or “by virtue of the work itself.” Grace is conferred not because of the worthiness of the recipient or of the priest performing the sacrament, but simply by the sacrament itself.
Luther and his colleagues agreed with this in a sense. They did not wish to make the effectiveness of grace to be conditioned by the faithfulness of the priest.
But they did wish to indicate that grace is effective in concert with faith in the recipient. That one is saved by grace through faith meant that in its proclamation the Word cultivates a receptive heart and mind, and this receptivity is simply part and parcel of salvation. One cannot mindlessly and heartlessly receive the sacraments and expect grace to be operative. One is not saved in and through a spirit maliciousness and fear or indignation, but charity and trust.
There is no salvation apart from an active spirit of faith. For this reason, the Reformers upheld the expression ex opere operantis, “by virtue of the work of the worker,” to indicate that the obedience of faith is simply part of the Word’s true operation. Thus in light of what we noted above concerning obedience replacing circumcision as the sign of righteousness, we must conclude that the church becomes visible in the event of obedience to Christ Jesus. Luther was right about refusing to confuse the church with any static office or edifice. It is not affixed to any symbol that stands ready-to-hand, such that we can say, “See, the church!”
But we also avoid construing the churches a mystical collection of discrete members. This is problematic because it can become too fixed. The church is the event of corporate faith, neither more nor less which as such becomes visible in the exercise of obedience. It is seen in the moment of obedience in confessing faith and allegiance to Christ by words, and by putting His love into action, doing as He commanded, caring for the orphan and widow, tending to the outcast, seeing to the needs of each other.
By this love, Christ’s disciples are known. One can see the event in which Christ is Lord over the lives of His own, not in a petrified way as if the event of the Word could be made into a statue. Rather, one catches glimpses of the church in the happening of proclamation.
As Christ’s own are taken up in the biorhythms of His love for the Father, speaking it and acting it to each other, for each other and in the world, reflecting that love externally, there is the church.