Covenant Protestant Reformed Church
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The Holiness of the Church

Rev. Angus Stewart


In the Apostles’ Creed, the Christian confesses, "I believe an holy, catholic church." The church’s holiness is taught in Ephesians 5:25-27: "Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ loved the church, and gave himself for it; that he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, that he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish."

The holiness of the church does not refer to its imposing liturgy and ceremonies or its awe-inspiring architecture. Nor is a church holy because of its venerable history or its connection with holy personages of the past.

People are the church: people chosen in Christ "before the foundation of the world" (1:4), redeemed by the blood of the cross (5:25), and called to be "saints" (1:1) or "holy ones." Thus the church is not holy because she has a few holy members, such as ministers or elders or deacons, but because of the holiness of all her believing members: godly office-workers, children, labourers, housewives, pensioners.

The holiness of an individual believer is his spiritual separation from the wicked world and consecration to the Triune God alone. Likewise the holiness of the church (the community of believers) is her real, spiritual purity; her devotion to Christ, her head and husband (5:24), in love. Thus holiness is of the essence of the church: without holiness, no church.

The church’s holiness is attacked. She is under pressure to conform to the world in her thinking and lifestyle (Rom. 12:1-2). Unbiblical ecumenism is forbidden to the true church: "Shouldest thou help the ungodly, and love them that hate the Lord?" (II Chron. 19:2). False doctrine is the enemy of the holiness of the church, for the preaching of "another gospel" of "another Jesus" by "another spirit" corrupts the church (II Cor. 11:3-4).

God has ordained that the church’s holiness is preserved (in part) through official church discipline of those whose doctrine is contrary to the church’s creeds or whose lifestyle is ungodly. Where God’s way of church discipline is rejected the entire church will become corrupted, for "a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump" (I Cor. 5:6).

The church’s holiness is chiefly wrought and maintained through the pure preaching of the gospel of Christ, signified and sealed in the two sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Ephesians 5 presents the church as Christ’s bride and sin as filth, and teaches that Christ sanctifies and cleanses her by "the washing of water by the word" (26). Through pure preaching, Christ not only teaches what true holiness is and calls us to be holy, but in this way He also works holiness in His members by the Holy Spirit.

Christ calls His church to be "subject" unto Him "in every thing" (24). The instituted congregation must obey Christ in faithful preaching, sacramental administration, discipline, worship and government. Without this, the church’s confession of Christ as Lord is hypocrisy. Similarly, the members of the church in their lives in the world—their thoughts, speech and actions—must be subject to Christ "in every thing."

God chose or elected the church "that we should be holy" (1:4), and Christ "gave himself" for the church "that he might sanctify" her (5:25-26). Thus the holiness of the church (progressively in this age and perfectly in heaven) is the goal of both election and redemption. The church’s holiness (including the removal of the filth [26] and spots and wrinkles of sin [27]) is her enrapturing beauty as the bride of Christ, a far greater beauty than all the beauty of the whole creation. The church’s holiness is also her glory (27), a glory that reflects and serves the glory of the Triune God, the Lord of His holy church.