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Author:Dr. Reuben Bredenhof
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Congregation:Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary (CRTS)
 Hamilton, Ontario
Preached At:Free Reformed Church of Mt. Nasura
 Mt. Nasura, Western Australia
Title:Christ Calls His Church to Become What We Are
Text:LD 21 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Church Building

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Ps 133:1,2                                                                                    

Hy 52:1,2  [after Nicene Creed]

Reading – Romans 14:14 - 15:13

Ps 87:1,2,3,4,5

Sermon – Lord’s Day 21

Hy 43:1,2,3,4,5,6

Hy 61:1,2

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved congregation, if I asked you to describe the church, what would you say? First words that come to your mind? You might say that the church is imperfect. Divided. Sinful. Asked about this church in particular, you might use similar adjectives, like inconsistent or perhaps complacent. And you’d be right. The church, in this and every place, doesn’t meet God’s high standard. We’re flawed.

Yet don’t leave it at that. It’s easy to find fault—it’s much harder to do something about it. But that’s what God calls us to do. He calls us to continual growth and progress as his church. For we are the people of the living God. Only we must act like it, increasingly. You could say it like this: God calls us to become what we are!

In Christ, God has granted us every spiritual blessing, and given an entirely new status. And now that we’re redeemed, we’ve got work to do. Now we’re called to a life that demonstrates that we belong to God and his Son.

As an example of this, consider how God declares us righteous. He says that for the sake of Christ’s merits, all our sins are taken away; we are thoroughly and permanently free of guilt in the sight of God. By faith we are righteous. But now for the “becoming” part: God says that we must also live in a righteous way, a way that increasingly conforms to his holy standard. “Pursue righteousness and a godly life,” Paul says to Timothy, and to us (1 Tim 6:11). Every forgiven sinner must act differently than he did before.

And if that’s true personally, then it’s also true for us as church. God had made us into a new nation, created us to be holy, and catholic—the special possession of Christ. These attributes of the church are first a gift, then a calling. It’s who we are, and what we must become. I preach God’s Word to you as summarized in Lord’s Day 21,

Christ calls his church to become what we are:

  1. a holy church
  2. a catholic church
  3. his own possession


1) a holy church: People who are not familiar with the language of Scripture and the confessions might wonder what the church thinks of herself when we say, “I believe a holy church.” That sounds pretentious, like we’re claiming to be without sin, pure, and perfect. No one likes a “holy roller,” and we try to avoid people who seem “holier than thou.”  But the holiness of the church is centered and established on the holiness of God alone. He is holy, so his people are holy.

When we say that God is holy, we mean first that He’s not dependent on anything or anyone, not even on the world that He’s made. He stands above and beyond all things. Secondly, the Lord isn’t stained by sin, but is completely separate from all that corrupts. He’s in a moral category all on his own. And thirdly, God is set apart in his majesty and power. There’s none like him. Our God is unique in who He is and what He does—He alone is holy in and of himself.

Yet God’s holiness multiplies and spreads! God is pleased to make other things holy, too, things that become dedicated to his service. Something can go from being an everyday, ordinary thing into something with a high and noble purpose.

Back in the Old Testament, God made certain things holy. Even though it was only a collection of stones and timbers and gold, the temple was holy. The alter of sacrifice was holy. The incense was holy. The bread of the presence was holy. The ark of the covenant of holy. It was all holy, because God had set these things aside as intended for his worship alone.

And God made holy not only collections of inanimate objects, but He made holy a living people. The priests who served at the temple were holy: they had a special task, ministering in God’s courts. Even the whole nation of Israel was holy! Out of every tribe and people, Israel was God’s treasured possession, his holy family.

They were holy—it was a fact: God made it so! And holiness had to transform how they lived, how they thought and spoke and acted. Being holy meant you were obedient: obedient in how you worshiped, how you did business, and how you treated others. This was maximum devotion to the LORD, comprehensive service. All the commands of the law were meant to focus Israel’s heart on God.

That was the Old Testament, but when we turn that blank page between Old and New, there’s not a sudden change in God’s character. The shining light of his holiness hasn’t dimmed at all—He is still exalted and glorious. And neither have God’s high expectations for his covenant congregation changed. For example, in 1 Peter 2:9 God calls us “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God.” Notice for a moment how each of those phrases signifies “separateness.”

We are “chosen” people—we are those distinguished from others by God’s choice.

We are “royal priests”—we are God’s workforce called to a life of service and worship.

We are a “holy nation”—we are those set apart from impurity and sin.

We “belong to God”—we are not our own possession, but the Lord’s.

You probably couldn’t say it more forcefully, more emphatically: you are holy.

How is this possible? You can’t reach the level of purity that God requires. You can try and try, and never attain it. True holiness doesn’t come through our own efforts in trying harder or praying more. We can only be made holy through faith in Christ. His life is the flawless portrait of someone who lived according to all of God’s commands, and who by his death paid the price for our sins.

So when the Catechism explains the holiness of the church, it is correct to put the spotlight onto Christ: “The Son of God… gathers, defends and preserves for himself… a church chosen to everlasting life” (Q&A 54). It’s through what He does!

And there’s a key truth in that word “chosen,” a great privilege that is implied. Even from ordinary life, we know the honour of being chosen. Say you’re chosen to be on the team, to fill a position, to receive a promotion. It’s an honour as you look around and realize that others haven’t been selected, but you have. Undeservingly, Christ has set us apart. He’s chosen us for something special, to grant redemption and glory through himself!

Yes, in Christ the church is holy—it’s a fact. And now for the becoming part. God wants the church to progress in our holiness, and to make this attribute a living reality. So Christ sends the Spirit to sanctify us, to purify and cleanse and strengthen his church. Do you notice how in our creed the confession about the church follows directly after the article about the Holy Spirit? It’s through the Spirit that the church has her life. Through the Spirit we’re being transformed into a holy nation, not just in name but in reality.

And this pursuit of holiness isn’t an optional activity. Listen to what Hebrews says, “Without holiness, no one will see the Lord” (12:14). We serve a holy God, and He demands a holy people, and that means standing apart in this world we live in. This is what Jesus said about his people in John 17, “They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world” (v 14). Not of the world—it’s not that God will take us out of the world, Christ says, but while we’re here we need serious protection and constant vigilance.

Holiness is hard because our society is prosperous and interesting. There’s so many conveniences to make use of, captivating entertainment and new technologies. Meanwhile, we live on the same streets, work at the same jobs, and go to the same shops as our unbelieving neighbours. We’re familiar with this world, well-acquainted with the things available to us. And you probably can’t pick us out of a crowd, like you can with some of the Muslim people you see at the shopping centre. We blend in well. Yet God says we’re to be holy. So how can we show it?

First, we can put it negatively. Being holy means that we should not find our meaning, or our security, or our joy in any of the stuff that surrounds us. Yet almost without realizing it, we can give worldly things the chief place in our life. These become the goals we strive for, the Netflix shows that we talk about, the shiny things that we need to have.

Sometimes it’s embarrassing—or it’s concerning—just how much we know about things that really shouldn’t mean anything to us. If I say “The Kardashians,” likely almost everyone here knows who I’m talking about. They are only celebrities, with apparently little that is worthwhile to contribute to society, yet we know them—because we’ve chosen to watch their antics on YouTube and elsewhere.

There’s surely many examples of how worldliness encroaches on our life, but let’s just say this: Holiness involves a different set of values, a life shaped by God’s Word. Where our treasure is laid up in heaven, and our purpose is to glorify God. As Jesus prayed to his Father about us, “Sanctify them by your truth” (John 17:16). We need sanctifying, the consecrating of hearts and lives to God’s glory alone.

We’ve been talking about personal holiness. But there’s a communal holiness, where as a church too, we’re called to expel everything that’s impure. Perhaps the impurity of pride, where we think we’re pretty good because we’ve got our doctrine sorted out and we haven’t strayed from the truth like some churches have. Or the infection of complacency, where we’re self-satisfied with how things are at the moment and prefer not to be challenged too much. God want us to be rid of pride and apathy and whatever else afflicts us as church.

More positively, being holy calls us to worship. Which is giving God your best: the best of your gifts, the best of your energies, the best of your time. Is that how it is for us? Are we all about worship? Are we known as a people of prayer? And is everything that you do shaped by who you are in Christ? Know this: becoming holy takes time and God-strengthened effort. Becoming more holy is a process, as we learn about our Holy God and desire to walk closer to him. So pursue holiness!


2) a catholic church: Being truly catholic has little to do with Rome or Pope Francis. That the church is catholic means the church isn’t restricted to one place or people, but it’s universal or worldwide. We belong to a church that Christ is gathering from the four corners of the earth. We see this clearly in Lord’s Day 21, where the Son of God is gathering, defending and preserving his church, and He is doing it “out of the whole human race.”

It wasn’t always this way. God’s Old Testament people knew about holiness, but being catholic they didn’t understand. After all, Israel had been chosen and saved while every other nation on earth was left in their sin. As God reminded Israel, this wasn’t an excuse for pride. They hadn’t set themselves apart—they were set apart by God.

Yet the LORD often hinted that He was working on something bigger. Already when God made the covenant with Abraham, the LORD promised that “all people would be blessed” through him (Gen 12:3). A greater gathering was prophesied by Isaiah and prophesied in Psalm 87. The nations would come to God!

These were hard teachings for the Jews to accept. It’s a deeply engrained trait to erect barriers, to draw lines that include some and exclude others. We see that in Romans 14-15, where Paul is dealing with the tough issue of discord or division in the church. Why was this happening in Rome? It was a diverse city, attracting all kinds of people from all kinds of places. So also the church was made up of people of different backgrounds, Jews and Gentiles. Each member had his own story and brought his own point of view.

But then they started to splinter. They were bickering, fighting about what they were allowed to eat and drink, or what special days they had to observe. The Jewish Christians were anxious to avoid certain foods—but the Gentile Christians didn’t think it was such a big deal. The Jews wanted to maintain certain “holy days”—but the Gentiles disagreed. Right down the middle there emerged an ugly rift.

So Paul urges the different groups to accept one another. These disputes were really about things that didn’t matter, while they had to see the most important thing: they were catholic in Christ! See how Paul recalls many texts which speak of how the church is world-wide, that it’s wider than simply the Jews: “Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people!” (15:10). Again, “Praise the LORD, all you Gentiles! Laud him, all you peoples!” (15:11). In the church, there’s a place for everyone.

How is this possible? What makes the church catholic? The same one who makes us holy: Christ Jesus the Saviour. The death of Jesus wasn’t just a local event, but cosmic in scope: enough to remove the sin of the world! This superabundant gift could never be restricted to a few, but it’s for every family and people. In front of the church’s entryway there are no barriers of gender or age, standing or rank, nationality or language. Christ is for all who believe.

We know to expect then, that Christ’s church won’t look the same in every corner of the world. Within his church, there are different languages, and different colours, and also different practices and traditions. Not every church will be like this particular congregation, but the catholic church will be diverse.

That’s a good thing to reflect on in our conversations with other churches. Sometimes there’s the idea that other churches need to look exactly like us—the notion that ours is really the most preferable identity. But we’re not the first (or only) to confess the faith, to set up church structures, to adopt practices and form traditions.

It is God’s will that the church be unified, despite superficial differences that have arisen because of history and culture. When we look beyond these differences and stand together in the Scriptures, we see how beautiful is the catholicity of the church. From every time and place, Christ’s church is allowed to enjoy “the unity of true faith” (Q&A 54).

As church of Christ, we are catholic—it’s a fact. But we must also become catholic! The universal character of the church should be visible. Here we have another struggle, probably one that is a bit like the Jewish believers had in the first century. We can act sometimes (or think) like the gospel is only for us. We’re used to hearing the gospel in the setting of a white, middle-class, Western church, so it seems strange to share it with someone a bit different. Is the gospel really for the poor? Is it really for people who don’t look like us? For people of different backgrounds?

We’re not just the church for Dutch migrants and their children and grandchildren, but we’re to be the catholic church, one that is formed “out of the whole human race.” So we should strive to become more catholic—to share the gospel of Christ with our neighbours and the people we meet, and with people in other lands. In the church, there’s a place for everyone, from every tribe and nation—for all who repent and believe.

Becoming more catholic means strengthening our own unity too. Because if the church of Christ is from every people, every background, and social standing, then especially we as a local church are required to live in harmony! Christ has called each of us, and He has called us together. “Receive one another then,” Paul urges the Jews and Gentiles, and he urges us in this congregation too, “Receive one another, just as Christ also received you” (15:7).

We show that we’re catholic by overlooking differences of wealth or age or character. Like in Rome these differences can loom large, and we start to see the church fragmented into different groups: conservatives over here, liberals there; people we like, people we like less. But in the unity of true faith each of us belongs to Christ, with our sins washed away in Jesus’ blood. In that catholic spirit, accept one another and serve each other.

As Paul writes to the Romans who were bickering, “Let each of us please his neighbour for his good, leading to edification” (15:2). Or listen to how Q&A 55 explains the communion of saints: “Everyone is duty-bound to use his gifts readily and cheerfully for the benefit and well-being of the other members.”

So give thought to your calling toward each other. Are you enjoying unity with your fellow members in Christ? Are you praying for them, encouraging them? In the congregation who can you help? Don’t ask what you’re receiving, but reflect on what you’re giving. That’s being catholic—that’s becoming catholic.


3) his own possession: Without Christ, the church is nothing. Speaking about the church, Ephesians 2 says that “In Christ, the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord” (v 21). We live and grow because He bought us with his precious blood.

And because we cost so much, Christ also takes good care of us. The three action items in Q&A 54 constantly fill Christ’s time: He gathers his church, He defends his church, and He preserves us. It’s through his saving work on the cross and by his blessing from his throne that we are his possession: that’s what we are.

But once more, that’s also what we must become. We’re a Christian church, but that’s not just a label. True Christians are known by certain features. A Christian trusts in the Lord Jesus with heart, soul and mind. A Christian flees from sin, and he loves the true God and their neighbour.

Every Christian—every church—has a serious assignment. As Jesus once told his disciples, “A student is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for the student to be like his teacher, and the servant to be like his master” (Matt 10:24-25). Our assignment is to be like him, to do the same kind of things as He did. If we’re his possession, then we must come to resemble him more and more!

It’s like Paul wrote to the Romans, encouraging them to please their fellow members by doing good, “For even Christ did not please himself...” (15:3). That’s your example. And again he says to those who were fighting, “Receive one another, just as Christ also received us…” (15:7). If we’re the precious possession of Christ, then we’re called to be like Christ! Called to be like Christ in how we carry out God’s will and love others. If we’re the church of Christ, then Christ should feel right at home among us. He should feel at home with our deeds of love, our spirit of joy, our dedication to the truth.

Beloved congregation, for the sake of his Son, God has made us into something we weren’t before. He has made us holy. He has made us catholic. He has made us his own possession. Understand who you are, and become who God wants you to be!

By keeping in step with his Holy Spirit, strive to become more and more holy.

By reaching in and reaching out, aim to become more and more catholic.

By trusting and imitating your Saviour, live in a way that’s more like Christ, as his holy and catholic church!  Amen.

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2018, Dr. Reuben Bredenhof

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