[Read Romans 3:19-28]
The One and Only…
There are roughly 8 billion people on earth today, about half of which are men and half woman. Which means a man may see upwards of 4 billion women all around him, but his wife is his one and only.
Likewise, in the Church, there are countless denominations. Countless names to choose from: Catholic, Lutheran, Orthodox, Baptist, Methodist, Episcopalian. There’s even a denomination that calls itself non-denominational.
There are countless churches, but is there a one-and-only? Does the Lord have a one-and-only Bride? The One-and-Only Church. We confess in the Creed that we believe in “one holy Christian (catholic) and apostolic church.” And Scripture says there is “one body and one Spirit… one Lord, one faith, one baptism…” [Ephesians 4:4-6]. Who is the Lord’s ‘One and Only’?
The Lutheran Reformation, which took place in the 1500’s, centered in and around Germany, led to some of these various names of churches – yet also gives us a uniquely Biblical and satisfactory answer to this question. And it’s not a self-serving answer.
What makes the Church the Church? What makes it one, holy, catholic, and apostolic?
First, what doesn’t make the Church the Church? What doesn’t make it His ‘One and Only’? Is the Church the Church because it has the right kind of building? Is it the Church because it has a cathedral? Is the Church the Church because it is decorated best or has the best kind of music?
Does language make the Church Christ’s One and Only? German? Latin? English? Does national identity make the Church the Church of Christ? Does your ethnicity make it the Church?
Is the Church the Church because it has a Holy City in the world? Or a Holy Land?
Does the true Church have a certain way of dress or a certain kind of hat? Or a certain diet?
Does history make the Church? Is that Church Christ’s ‘One-and-Only’ which has the right linkages to the past? Does a certain authority structure make the Church, or lack of it?
Does a family name make the church?
None of these make the Church the Church. And, the lack of one or more of these things doesn’t make the Church. There are many things – good or bad – which don’t make the Church the Church.
The church is neither a historic nor a modern institution of human society but is directly the institution of the risen, living, present Jesus Christ who is the same yesterday, today, and forever – and whose kingdom is not part of this world but is something entirely different.
What the Church isn’t is easy: It’s not the frail, breakable, or corruptible outward structures and authorities. Not in Lutheran synods nor in other church bodies. In each, clearly there is much that cannot be called “holy” or “apostolic” (i.e.“from the apostles”). Much that isn’t of the Lord.
Instead, just as Adam’s ‘One-and-Only’ Eve came from his rib and flesh, Jesus Christ’s One-and-Only comes from those things which are of Him – “One faith, one baptism” – His one-and-only Gospel.
Before Christ comes to us, we are all found drifting astray, unanchored, in the same sinking ship. We are all racked through with sin. We cling to ourselves to float, but we are the sinkers.
God’s commandments – His law – show us what is right but do not give us the ability to do it. “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin” – “so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God” – so that we come to know our need for a salvation not depending on us.
“But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets (the Old Testament Scriptures) bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified – reckoned righteous, counted righteous – by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation – a sacrifice that puts away God’s anger – by his blood, to be received by faith.”
Jesus Christ has carried the sins of the world – all your sins and your sinfulness – in Himself, counted them as His own, and stood before God. Though innocent, He hung condemned and forsaken on the cross in your stead for your sins.
“For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God” [1 Peter 3:18]. Jesus died for your sin to bring you to God.
This Gospel is “to be received by faith.” His ‘One-and-Only’ is that body – which will always exist in the world until the end of time, and which rests from its labors in heaven – which hears and believes this Gospel which proclaims that we are counted righteous (“justified”) apart from our own work and by faith alone in the work of Jesus Christ.
“For what does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.’ Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works: ‘Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.’” [Romans 4:3-8]
“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” [Ephesians 2:8-9].
And it is this salvation through faith alone that, alone, remakes us into those who do God’s work, by God’s craftsmanship: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” [Ephesians 2:10].
This Gospel is His one-and-only Gospel: “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed” [Galatians 1:8].
This one-and-only Gospel is the truth that sets us free [John 8:31-32].
Christ’s ‘One-and-Only’ is not His because of the name “Roman” or “Lutheran” or “non-Denominational” or because of any other name. She is His because she bears His name by Baptism - baptized “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Like a bride, His Church is that people which bears His name.
And His Church loves Him and therefore holds fast to all of His word, all Scripture, the Bible.
His Church is not anchored to any city except to the “Jerusalem above.” “The Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother” [Galatians 4:26]. “For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come”[Hebrews 13:14]. Neither Rome, nor Jerusalem, nor Wittenberg, but the true faith.
Jesus’ One-and-Only is where Jesus is. Jesus is where His word is preached [2 Timothy 3:16; Romans 10:17]. Jesus is where His name is used in Baptism [Galatians 3:27]. Jesus is where His body and blood is present in His Supper [Matthew 26:26-28]. Jesus is where His forgiveness is spoken to the penitent [Matthew 18:18; John 20:21-23]. Jesus is where two or three are gathered in His name [Matthew 18:20].
In the Lutheran Reformation, we therefore give this answer to the question, Who is the Lord’s One-and-Only? Who is His Church?: “It is also taught that at all times there must be and remain one holy, Christian church. It is the assembly of all believers among whom the gospel is purely preached and the holy sacraments are administered according to the gospel…” [Augsburg Confession, Article VII, Concerning the Church]
“God be praised, a seven-year-old child knows what the Church is: holy believers and “the little sheep who hear the voice of their Shepherd.” [Smalcald Articles, Part III, Article XII, Of the Church]
There are countless institutions of man, but the Lord has His One-and-Only. Where the preaching and confession of faith is in accord with His Word of Scripture, where Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are administered according to His command, that is where His Church is, His One-and-Only, which will always stand to the last day. Amen.
Pastor Curtis Stephens was born in Flint, MI. He completed his M.Div. at Concordia Theological Seminary, Ft. Wayne, IN and has served congregations in Ohio and Pennsylvania. Pastor Stephens began serving at Trinity in July of 2023.