What True Presbyterians Believe: Sola Ecclesia
In recent years, many within the Presbyterian Church have begun to devalue and diminish the great beliefs upon which the Presbyterian Church was built. I am not one of them. Therefore, I am choosing to focus upon the core beliefs, the essential tenets of our great Presbyterian/Reformed faith in the hope that you will join me in standing firm for “What True Presbyterians Believe. ” Today I focus upon Sola Ecclesia—Christ’s Church alone.
It is, I believe, the single most important question in all of the Bible.
I refer to the question Jesus put to His disciples at Caesarea Philippi. Understand, please, that Caesarea Philippi was the most religious city of its day. It was not only a seat of government, but also a hotbed of activity for all of the major faith systems of that time. It was a place dotted with colonnades and temples of all varieties; a place filled with practicing priests of every kind and description; a place where every block contained some religious altar or worship center laden in gold. It was there in Caesarea Philippi surrounded by these visible reminders of all the world’s religions—it was there that Jesus put to His disciples this, the single most important question in all of the Bible. Jesus said, “Who do you say that I am?” Now I happen to believe that the answer to the question did not come without first an uncomfortable moment of silence, a gulp of shock at the enormous implications of the question, and the shifting of feet and the darting of eyes on the part of those disciples. But finally Peter—good, old, blustery, impulsive, tell-it-like-it-is Peter—jumped into the silence and said, “I’ll tell You who I think You are. You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus must have smiled. The angels must have celebrated. The devil must have trembled. For Jesus then looked at Peter, and said, “Blessed are you, because my Father in Heaven has revealed this to you.” Jesus then went on to say that Peter had spoken a truth as solid as a rock, and upon that truth, Jesus said that He would build His church. He would create a movement of faith like nothing the world has ever seen before or since. Dear friends, please don’t miss the significance of this moment. This was the coronation day for the Lord’s Messiah. This was the moment when Jesus was crowned King and head of the church forever. And that decisive moment has changed all subsequent human history. Therefore, freeze frame in your mind right now, the picture of what happened at Caesarea Philippi, and then together, let’s draw from it some powerful affirmations.
Affirmation #1: The church is based on Jesus Christ. Jesus said, “On this rock, I will build my church.”
Now when Jesus said to Peter, “… on this rock …,” Jesus was referring not to who Peter was but to what Peter said. Peter had declared, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Peter was declaring his faith in Jesus, and therefore, Jesus responded by saying that it would be upon that kind of rock-solid faith that He would build His church. The church, you see, is not built on the power of Peter but on the power of Peter’s Messiah. The church is based on Jesus Christ—and Jesus Christ alone.
Listen to Paul. He was a brilliant man, the most brilliant of his day, and yet where does Paul focus his life? He says, “For to me to live is Christ. It is not I who lives but Christ who lives in me.” Listen to Peter. He wanted to take the Kingdom of Heaven by storm and build the kingdom on earth at the same time, but does he declare that the answers to the world’s problems are to be found in some social theory or program. No. He says, “There is no other name by which we must be saved except Jesus Christ.” Listen to Martin Luther. He was a great scholar, but did he build his life upon scholarly pursuits? No. Luther said, “I begin my belief, and I base my life upon the wounds of my Jesus.” Listen to Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He was so concerned about the terrible problems of this world that he gave his life in an effort to solve some of them. Yet, listen to what he wrote, “On our coming to grips with Jesus Christ depend life and death, salvation and damnation. This is the principle upon which everything in life rests. There is salvation in no one else.” Listen to our Presbyterian Confession of faith, The Scots Confession: “As we believe in one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, so we firmly believe that from the beginning there has been, now is, and to the end of the world shall be, one church, that is to say one company and multitude of people chosen by God, who rightly worship and embrace Him by true faith in Christ Jesus, who is the only Head of the Church, even as the Church is the body and spouse of Christ Jesus.”
Dear friends, that is the stream of true Presbyterian faith in which the Providence Church has always stood and today we celebrate the 20 years of faithful witness which this Church has waged in the name of Jesus Christ. This Church was blessed with a great founding Pastor, Dr. Gerald Mills. It was his stubborn insistence on preaching Jesus Christ as the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, that enabled this Church to build a strong foundation of faith—and it is in his stead that I am now pleased to stand. Furthermore, this Church was blessed with a remarkable group of Charter Members, people profoundly committed to Christ and to this Church—and the glory of the Providence Church today is largely of their making. However, it is worth remembering, dear friends, that preachers come and go. Church leaders come and go. Church buildings come and go. Even denominations, yes, even denominations, come and go. But the one immutable factor in the life of the church—that which is the same yesterday, today, and forever—is Jesus Christ. The church is based upon Him and upon our belief in Him as the world’s Messiah. For 20 years, this Church has held fast to that belief. We dare not forget that now!
Affirmation #2: The Church is built by Jesus Christ. Jesus said, “On this rock, I will build my church.”
Think about that for a moment, please. Do you realize that this is the only task which Jesus didn’t assign to someone else? You know how sometimes we say, “If you want something done right, do it yourself.” Well, Jesus must have believed that, because Jesus didn’t assign this particular responsibility to anyone else. He didn’t delegate this job. He wanted it done right, and so He said, “This one I handle myself. I will build my church.” That is exactly what has happened. Today the Church is all over the world. It is in every nation on the face of the earth. It is in every state of the Union. It is in every city, every town, and every country village within these golden shores. Slightly more than half the people on this earth belong to the Church of Jesus Christ, and those numbers are increasing dramatically every single day.
However, sad to say many of our denominational leaders in the Presbyterian Church seem to have forgotten that the Church is built by Jesus Christ. Here, in your hearing, let me denounce the claim being made by some of our denominational leaders that the PCUSA is the “true Church.” They are using that phrase quite deliberately in order to intimidate pastors and churches into going along with their agenda which countermands hundreds of years of true Presbyterian belief. To oppose them, they say, is to oppose the true Church. Rubbish! Our great Presbyterian Confessions of Faith have it exactly right. The Scots Confession: “The evidence of the true Church, we believe, confess, and avow to be: first, the true preaching of the Word of God, in which God has revealed himself to us, as the writings of the prophets and apostles declare; secondly, the right administration of the sacraments of Christ Jesus, with which must be associated the word and promise of God to seal and confirm them in our hearts; and lastly, ecclesiastical discipline uprightly ministered as God’s Word prescribes, whereby vice is repressed and virtue is nourished.” The Barmen Declaration: “The Christian Church is the congregation of the brethren in which Jesus Christ acts presently as the Lord in Word and Sacrament through the Holy Spirit. As the Church of pardoned sinners, it has to testify in the midst of a sinful world, with its faith as with its obedience, with its message as with its order, that it is solely His property, and that it lives and wants to live solely from His comfort and from His direction in the expectation of His appearance. We then reject the false doctrine, as though the Church were permitted to abandon the form of its message and order to its own pleasure or to changes in prevailing ideological and political convictions.” Those confessions make it absolutely clear that the PCUSA is but one tiny sliver of a whole hosts of denominations and churches who comprise the true Church of Jesus Christ in this world. Furthermore, I would suggest that those in our denomination who are seeking to undo the rock-solid Biblical beliefs of our Presbyterian Reformed heritage are not only not the “true Church” but they are not even true Presbyterians!
Yet for all of the glaring weaknesses and failures of our own denominational structure, the fact is that in Presbyterian churches all over this world, including this one, Jesus Christ keeps bringing people to Himself. He keeps adding to the number of those who are truly committed to Him. He keeps on building His Church. For 20 years now, He has been building this Church. We dare not forget that now!
Affirmation #3: The Church belongs to Jesus Christ. Jesus says, “On this rock I will build my Church.”
Do you remember when the risen Christ confronted Paul on the Damascus road, and He said to Paul, “Why are you persecuting me?” It seems a strange way to put it, doesn’t it? I mean, after all, Jesus was no longer on the earth in the flesh, and Paul was engaged, at that point in time, in attacks upon people who belonged to the Church—yet, Jesus asked, “Why do you persecute me?” The answer is obvious. Clearly, Jesus equated the Church with Himself. Therefore to depart from the rock-solid Biblical beliefs of our great Presbyterian Reformed heritage, as many in our denomination advocate, is, in essence, to depart from Jesus Christ.
Yet I am here to say to you that the powerful, faithful witness of the Presbyterian Church, seen so clearly throughout history, is worth preserving. I believe that even if our denomination collapses into dust and ashes, as I fear it shall, I believe that out of the ashes there will rise a whole new form of Presbyterian witness set and targeted for the 21st century. Nothing would please me more. You see, I love the Presbyterian Church. For four generations, members of my family have been ministers in the Presbyterian Church. I was born, not in a hospital, but in a Presbyterian manse. I was brought up by Presbyterian parents. I was taught the stories of Scripture and the songs of faith in a Presbyterian Sunday School. I was educated in a Presbyterian college. I was trained in a Presbyterian seminary. The Presbyterian Church introduced me to my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. I have given my entire life to the service of Christ through the ministry of the Presbyterian Church, and God willing, it will be from a Presbyterian Church that my body shall be taken when the last trump shall sound, and I am called to my heavenly home. That is why I cannot stand idly by while the purity of the Presbyterian Church is being diminished, and its Biblical beliefs are being destroyed. The church, you see, belongs to Jesus Christ. It is His, and it is His alone. The church is not perfect, but it is His, and because it is His, it is unconquerable. Certainly that is true of Providence Church. For 20 years, nothing has been able to stop this church, and I can tell you, nothing will ever stop this Church in the future. This Church will be here until the Lord returns. I can say that because this Church belongs to Jesus Christ. Its unswerving 20-year march will continue for years to come, because it is not yours, it is not mine, it is His, and because it is His, it will never die. We dare not forget that!
I come to this pulpit, Sunday after Sunday, with but one motivation. There is but one longing that possesses me and that is to let you know about the love of our Lord Jesus Christ. There is but one passion that consumes me and that is the desire that you would claim Him as your very own. Therefore, on this great celebration Sunday, I call you, anew and afresh, for the first time or the hundredth time, to surrender to Him. Break your sword. Haul down your flag. Give yourself to Jesus Christ. Promise that you will stay close to Him as long as you live. Never let the sun go down on any day in which you do not speak to Him. Glow in His love. Grow in His spirit. Immerse yourself in His Word in the Bible. Look everyday to His cross to see the height, the depth, and the breadth of the love God has for you. Commit yourself to the Church, the Church which is based upon Jesus Christ, which is built by Jesus Christ, and which belongs to Jesus Christ. Like the disciples at Caesarea Philippi, you and I today stand at a decisive crossroads in our lives and in the life of this Church. Like the disciples at Caesarea Philippi, you and I today are confronted by the question of our Lord, “Who do you say that I am?” It is the single most important question in all of the Bible. It is the single most important question you will ever answer in your life. My beloved, in the company of 20 years of Providence Presbyterians who have saluted Jesus Christ in this place, let us today declare with Peter, “Lord Jesus, You are the Messiah; You are the Son of the living God!” And we dare not forget that!
Soli Deo Gloria
To God alone be the glory
Amen and Amen