Being a Two-Testament Church

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I’m taking a class at Reformed Theology Seminary this Spring on the church and sacraments.

One discussion that always comes up when discussing the nature of the church is how the New Testament church relates to the Old Testament. Or put another way, in what way does the Israel of the OT relate to the church of the NT? Is there inherent unity between the testaments, as in, is God making one people throughout the Bible? Or, is there a break, a separation, which distinguishes the people of the OT from the people of the NT?

There is a diverse series of stances on this question, ranging from what is called dispensationalism all the way to common Reformational covenant theology. Dispensationalism answers the question of the church and the OT by essentially explaining that there are two peoples of God, Israel and the church. While they intersect, the church and Israel are two separate redemptive programs in God’s plan for the world.

Reformed theology, in contrast, boasts itself in being a two-testament church; meaning, there is an inherent unity between the Israel of the OT and the church of the NT. And while there are certainly things which distinguish the two testaments (the Christ-event no less), there is in principle one church which bridges the gap of the two testaments.

In attempt to prove the Reformation understanding of the church, professor Scott Swain listed several metaphors that describe the people of God throughout both testaments. In doing so, he hoped to show that the people of God or the church was one organism in both testaments, though brought to new fulness in the NT.

For instance, one metaphor found all throughout the Bible is the picture of God’s people as a building. This metaphor is found in both Ephesians and Corinthians. Also, Jesus himself famously alludes to the church as a building when he promises to Peter in Matthew 16: “I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not overcome it”.

In alluding to the church as a building, Jesus, Paul et al, were not creating a new metaphor, but actually drawing from the prophets, who often referred to Israel as a building, or a temple, which could be broken down or built up depending on covenant faithfulness.

For instance, in Jeremiah 1:10, God threatens to “break down” Israel for their covenant unfaithfulness. In another text, Jeremiah 24:6, God promises that although Israel will been torn down for their sin, he “will build them up” again.

Another metaphor which is found in both testaments is the metaphor of God’s people as a plant, or vineyard, or tree. Both Jesus as Paul refer to the church in botanical terms: Jesus refers to the church as a vineyard, which requires faithful workers. In Mark 12, Jesus warns the Pharisees that he will replace unfaithful vineyard workers with faithful ones (implying a new regime in the apostles). Jesus compares himself to a vine onto which believers are grafted; if any do not bear fruit, the Father will prune them and throw into the fire. Or Paul, for instance, in Romans 11, refers to the church as an olive tree, which God will prune and graft in order to bring forth fruit.

Again, this is not a new metaphor. It is found all throughout the prophets. Isaiah 6 refers to Israel as a dead stump which God will bring to life again. Jeremiah 12 compares Israel’s leaders to unfaithful vineyard workers who will be punished for their sin.

There are other metaphors, but the point here is that the church is not a new program. The metaphors and themes bleed across testaments. And the point the NT writers wanted to make was that Israel found her final fulfillment in the church. The church is not a new program, but a renewed covenant people. Israel was a broken down building, a dead plant, because of their unfaithfulness; and yet God promised to renew covenant with her; to rebuild, to replant, to breathe life into his people. Christ came to do that very thing. He did not come to create a new people, but to assume the covenantal responsibility of Israel, bear her curses, and fulfill God’s purposes for the world he had from the beginning. For this, the church must be thought of as two-testament.

On the Necessity of the Church

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In his Foundations of Christian Faith, Karl Rahner has an interesting section in which he argues that church should not be seen as simply a secondary help in the Christian life (I can’t tell you how many Christians I’ve talked to who make church out to be a sort of “advice column” to their relationship with Christ). Instead, Rahner says, God acts toward his people through the church. The church is God’s action; His objective, concrete, act of grace. For this reason, Rahner says explains that the church is necessary, and not optional. It is primary, not secondary.

Rahner explains,

Christianity is essentially ecclesial, and not just a secondary way or from the viewpoint of the social or pedagogical aspects of religion. The church as such belongs to Christianity, at least when Christianity really becomes conscious of itself and when it intends to maintain continuity of a real history of salvation and has to prolong this continuity. Church is more than merely a practical and humanely unavoidable organization for fulfilling and satisfying religious needs. Christianity as the event of salvation, as God’s act upon us and as man’s response to God’s ultimate self-communication, is ecclesial

Christianity is essentially more than an affair of [man’s] own subjective and pious dispositions and his own religious consciousness, and is more than the objectification of this. From this perspective church means the church which makes a claim on me, the church which is the concreteness of God’s demands upon me. Basically this concreteness is to be expected precisely if Christianity is not a religion which I create, but rather is the event of salvation which God bestows upon me by his own incalculable initiative. And if this salvific event as an act of God is not merely to come to me in the ultimate depths of conscience, but rather in the concreteness of my existence, then the concreteness of this God, who makes demands upon me and who is not my discovery or creation, is Jesus Christ and his concrete church makes demands upon me in the same way. (pg 347)

Rahner makes an astute observation that if Christianity is more than “pious dispositions and… religious consciousness”, which is certainly is (though not less), then there must be something concrete about the way God interacts and disposes himself to his people. And how does God act concretely toward his people? Through the church. Through the church, God condescends and acts savingly, graciously, toward us.

Karl Adams agrees with Rahner. And he goes a step further. He says,

Christ the Lord is the real self of the Church. The Church is the body permeated through and through by the redemptive might of Jesus.

Meaning, it is through the church that we necessarily encounter God in Christ. Why? Because it is in the church, through the church, that Christ communicates his grace

Adams goes so far to say that we should see the church and Christ as indistinguishable:

Christ and the Church: the two are one, one body, one flesh, one and the same person, one Christ, the whole Christ.

So then, it is through the church that we encounter Christ, because the church is Christ. Augustine himself articulated that in the church we encounter not a (only) mass of individuals, but we encounter the whole Christ. Augustine says that “Christ is not simply in the head and not in the body, but Christ whole is in the head and the body”. What he means here is that the church is totus Christus, the “whole Christ”.

So then, through the sacraments, preaching, body life, church discipline, et al, we not only encounter random spiritual disciplines; we encounter the whole Christ. As Rahner says, God acts by way of this objective reality, this thing we call the church. And so, the church herself is the whole Christ, God’s saving activity.

Because of this, church should be something more than just a social club. It should be something more than just a weekly sermon. It should be something more than just consumerism. If Christianity is ecclesial, then we must expect to encounter Christ in his body. We must expect to submit to Christ himself through the local church. Local ecclesiology is therefore no mere option. If we wish to do the will of God in Christ, it is necessary that we be in his body, under his authority, in the local church.

Karl Adams says,

Is not all human exercise of authority tantamount to a usurpation? Yes, if it be merely human, it is. For every merely human governance necessarily rests on might, whether it be the tyranny of an individual or the despotism of a community. Only in theocracy is a man free from men, for he serves not men but God. Therein lies the secret of that child-like obedience, so incomprehensible to the outsider, which the… [believer in Jesus] gives to his Church, an obedience whereby he freely and cheerfully submits his own little notions and wishes to the will of Christ expressed in the action of authority; an obedience whereby his own small and limited self is enlarged to the measure of the great self of the Church. That is no corpse-like obedience or slave mentality, but a profoundly religious act, an absolute devotion to the Will of Christ which rules the Church, a service of God. And so this obedience is not cowardly and weak, but strong and ready for sacrifice, manly and brave even in the presence of kings. It is faithful even to the surrender of earthly possessions, yes, even to the sacrifice of life itself, offering itself to the Christ who lives in the Church.

The Three Conversions: Christ, Church, and Mission

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Jonathon Dodson, in his book, Gospel-Centered Discipleship*, says, “churches today have more in common with shopping malls, fortresses, and cemeteries than they do the church of the New Testament. They have become consumerist, doctrinaire, lifeless institutions, not Jesus-centered missional communities”.

Dodson goes on to correct this approach toward the gospel, saying, “when we are converted, we not converted to Christ alone…It is also important to consider what man is converted to. When we are converted, we are converted [to three things:] to Christ, to church, and to mission”.

What Dodson wishes to communicate here is that often churches preach a gospel that is all about individual conversion rather than Christ, his people, and his mission. Often, churches cater only to the personal experience of salvation. But the gospel is so much more than that. When we are redeemed by Jesus, we are not simply saved from our sin to Christ — we are also saved to Christ’s people and to His mission. 

Dodson calls this a three part of conversion: we are converted to Christ personally, to the church communally, and to Christ’s mission vocationally. And he says, the gospel by nature entails all three of these things; not just to one-third of the gospel. “Failure to convert to the church and to mission is a failure to grasp the [entire] gospel”.

Dodson talks about conversion to Christ’s people: “The gospel reconciles people to God [but also] to one another, creating a single new community comprised of an array of cultures and languages to make one new humanity”. It is important to realize that when we are joined to Christ through faith, that we are also joined to one another. Peter says that the church of Christ is like a temple of “living stones…being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood” (1 Peter 2:4-5). Peter gives the imagery of a temple, being built on Christ as the cornerstone (1 Pet 2:6). And each person placed on the Cornerstone is also placed next to one another. And we cannot be the temple that God has called us to be unless we are converted to one another! We are meant to live for Jesus with each other. 

But also, as we are converted to Jesus and to his people, we are also converted together to his mission. Jesus has a mission, and he has given us the task of accomplishing it. Dodson says that “when anyone becomes a disciple of Christ, the temple expands and a living stone is added. [And] God’s grand plan, from the beginning, was for the garden-temple of Eden to expand throughout the whole world, to be populated with new stones who worship Jesus Christ, the great Cornerstone”. As living stones, we as participants in Christ’s kingdom now go out to continue to populate his glorious temple, made of peoples from all nations. This is indeed the church’s mission: to be ever expanding, ever heralding Christ’s redemptive work on earth, and declaring that He is King.

“When we believe the gospel, we are converted three times”, not just once. We are given to Christ, to his people, and to his mission.

 

*Quotes taken from chapter 6, Communal Discipleship: The Three Conversions