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The Ministry of Reconciliation

Embassy of Grace

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However thin, there is a theology behind Barna's interpretation of Jesus as the paradigmatic "Revolutionary," and it is basically that of the nineteenth-century revivalist Charles Finney.

Wherever tensions flare up in the world between nations, it is usually the embassies of both nations that feel the brunt. For example, the U.S. embassy in any part of the world is actually considered U.S. territory: an island in a foreign country. There citizens under threat find shelter and from it diplomats receive and communicate the policies set by the current U. S. administration. When you're on embassy soil, you are actually in your nation of true citizenship.

It's not surprising that the New Testament draws on similar metaphors for international diplomacy, especially since the whole framework of biblical faith is a covenant in which Yahweh is the Great King (Suzerain) who establishes a relationship with his vassal (servant) on the basis of having liberated the vassal from imminent destruction.

In fact, there is a lot of political language in Scripture. The Great Commission is given within the wider context of the covenant of grace that was initiated with God's promise of a redeemer in Genesis 3:15, reaffirmed in the covenant with Abraham, and fulfilled in the new covenant. In the political treaties of the Ancient Near East, a Great King (emperor) would graciously deliver a smaller kingdom from invaders and then incorporate that kingdom into his empire. In these treaties, there was a clause that gave the lesser king the right to invoke the Great King in the case of future threats. It was referred to as "calling on the name of _____."

This political relationship became the template for the covenant of grace. Quoting Joel 2:32, Paul declares, "For 'everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved'" (Rom. 10:13). We do not have to attempt to ascend to the heavens or descend into the depths to attain salvation; rather, God comes down to us, not only rescuing us but delivering the good news that reconciles us to him. Paul adds the following links in the chain of his argument:

But how are they to call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, "How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!"...So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ. (vv. 14-15, 17)

The word for "Lord" (kyrios) was one of Caesar's titles, and this was not lost on the first Christians or their persecutors who demanded that this title be reserved for the emperor. Israel is called to be "a light to the nations" (Isa. 49:6), a title bestowed on Jesus Christ who brought his heavenly kingdom to earth. In the new covenant, God's missionary people are called to live as "aliens and strangers," knowing that the land to which they are called (namely, "this present evil age," wherever it is) is temporary. The church is called a "colony of heaven," each local assembly an embassy to which men, women, and children flee from the judgment that is coming on the whole earth at the end of the age. The Triune God is Savior and Lord; becoming flesh, the Lord was made a servant even to the point of death on a cross. "Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus, every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father" (Phil. 2:8-11).

As an embassy, the church is not only a safe haven, it is also the center from which the policies of the Great King—Jesus Christ—are announced to the world. The apostles even described themselves as "ambassadors." Paul relates,

All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. Working together with him, then, we appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain. For he says, "In a favorable time I listened to you, and in a day of salvation I have helped you." Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation. (2 Cor. 5:18-6:2)

From this passage (and others) we see a clear distinction between the mission of Jesus Christ and the mission of his apostles. Christ has redeemed and reconciled sinners to God. We are not extending his incarnation or his redeeming and reconciling work. The work of reconciliation is not an ongoing movement or a process unfolding in history. In fact, he says that "in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation." In Romans 5, Paul elaborates: "Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life" (Rom. 5:9-10). This reconciling work is not done by us, but for us. It is not something to complete, but something to rejoice in and to announce to others: "More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation" (v. 11).

What continues—and what Christ's ambassadors are called to participate in as coworkers with God—is the ministry of heralding this good news to the ends of the earth. Through this ministry, strangers and enemies experience and embrace the reconciliation that Christ achieved more than two millennia ago.

Ambassadors are not the head of state; they convey policy but do not create or negotiate it. The King of kings authorized his apostles to speak in his name, to the extent that whoever hears them hears him and whoever receives them receives him (Matt. 10:40; 16:18-19; 18:18-20). The "ministry of reconciliation" that Christ entrusted to his apostles—and then to ordinary ministers in their special office and indeed all believers in the general office of prophet, priest, and king—consists in the worldwide communication of this good news. Ambassadors are not doing the work of redeeming and reconciling, yet they are "working together with him" by proclaiming Christ, "God making his appeal through us."

Like their Lord, the directly appointed ambassadors of Christ were beaten, flogged, imprisoned, and even martyred. Instead of calling on the name of the Lord through his delegated representatives, the kingdoms of this age responded to God's embassy with hostility. And yet, the Great Commission bore and continues to bear fruit among Jews and Gentiles to this day. "For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek" (Rom. 1:16). When we encounter titles such as "ministers" and "heralds," we are drawn into the world of international politics.

After his resurrection, our Lord commissioned his apostles to go throughout the earth, making disciples by preaching the gospel, baptizing, and teaching everything he has delivered for faith and practice. There is a lot of rich substance packed into that mandate. Motivated by a sense of urgency, Christians for two millennia have made enormous sacrifices—including their own lives—in order to bring the saving message of Christ to every person on earth.

With respect to the message and the methods—the policies and their implementation—ambassadors are always servants. It is not their ministry, but Christ's. No matter how important or charismatic a pastor might be, the very idea of a church being "so-and-so's church" or "my ministry" was treasonous in the thoughts of the apostles. Their gospel was Christ's gospel, and they were not authorized to alter his Word or strategies.

Christ gave his Great Commission, and throughout the book of Acts we see it carried out. (This is why we spent several weeks recently on the White Horse Inn going through the highlights of Acts.) In every chapter of Acts we encounter repeated references to the apostles proclaiming Christ, preaching the Word, teaching and persuading Jews and Greeks concerning Christ and his resurrection, announcing the forgiveness of sins. Baptized, new citizens are now annexed by the Great King to his empire of grace, enrolled in the visible church. They are richly cared for with teaching, the Lord's Supper, the prayers, and the fellowship of the saints in both spiritual and temporal welfare. Then living in the world, believers witness to Christ and love and serve their neighbors through their callings. They are made "salt" through the ministry of Christ's ambassadors, and then they too are shaken out into the world.

After the death of the apostles, ordinary ministers carried on this embassy through preaching and sacrament. Embassies of earthly kingdoms are authorized to deliver the judgment or pledges of their rulers, but only this embassy is authorized by the King of kings to forgive sins in his name. The kingdoms of this age have not yet been made the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ (Rev. 11:15). For now, the heavenly embassy is holy ground in the midst of common lands. Although our ultimate citizenship is in heaven, where we are already seated with Christ, we are called to live as strangers and sojourners in the empires of this age (Heb. 11:13-16). Each local church is an embassy of grace in its own right. Yet this embassy proclaims and witnesses to the day when the whole earth will be full of the glory of God, and even now calls everyone everywhere to embrace Jesus Christ as the only Savior and Lord of the world.

The Ground Campaign

This view of the church as the embassy of grace cannot be taken for granted today. As in other periods, the church easily substitutes itself for its ascended Lord. After all, Jesus Christ is not now present bodily on the earth. When Christ ascended, leading captivity captive, he assumed the seat of cosmic power and authority. Sending his Spirit to lead the ground campaign, he is opening hearts and freeing Satan's prisoners from the fear of death. Through the ministry of the Word, the Spirit is uniting sinners to Christ, making them citizens of heaven and coheirs with Christ. This is the mission of the church between Christ's two comings: namely, to call strangers and aliens to the worldwide feast, and to prepare a table in the wilderness where sinners are forgiven. It is the era of repentance and faith, through the proclamation of the gospel. Christ is creating citizens—coheirs of the everlasting inheritance. Only when he returns again bodily will his reign on earth be consummated, wars cease, oppression and violence be vanquished, and the dead raised.

In one sense, of course, we cry out, "Lord, come quickly," because we want to see an end to evil in the world and in our own hearts. Yet in another sense, every day that passes is yet another opportunity for the Spirit to call sinners to Christ through his Word. The door of the ark is still wide open—for now. The delay of Christ's return in judgment reveals his loving patience, enduring the mutiny of the human race—and the ongoing sinfulness of his own church (2 Pet. 3:8-10).

One of the longest errors in church history, "Christendom" was an attempt to seize the thrones of the earth for Jesus Christ before his own return to consummate the kingdom. Instead of receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken (Heb. 12:28), we imagine we can usher in the consummated kingdom through our own agendas. So instead of fulfilling the embassy that Christ has in fact given to the church in this time between his two comings, we often act as if we are writing the final act of the play.

Today, we hear about "living the gospel" versus "proclaiming the gospel," "deeds" over "creeds," transforming cultures through our works rather than preaching, teaching, baptism, Communion, and caring for the flock through elders and deacons. There is a lot of loose talk about our redeeming activity, completing Christ's work of reconciling the world to God. This, however, confuses the unique (and completed) work of the King with the ongoing mission of the church in the power of the Spirit.

Repeatedly in church history—and certainly today—we would rather create kingdom policy rather than merely communicate it. Churches now create their own vision statements, mission statements, and strategic plans. Even when these statements allude to the Great Commission, our Lord's priorities of preaching the gospel, baptizing, and teaching disciples to obey everything Christ has commanded (the three "marks of the church": Word, Sacrament, and discipline) are often marginalized by our own. We have programs, campuses, myriad "ministries" to run. And each Lord's Day easily becomes another opportunity to recruit the sheep for our own enterprises rather than to feed them for their earthly pilgrimage.

Diplomats, ambassadors, official heralds were appointed by the head of state to announce something of great significance—for individuals and for the whole world. Even the term "gospel" was a secular term in Greek that referred to the good news that an ambassador was sent to announce back in the capital: namely, that there had been victory on the battlefield.

Just as ambassadors are not free to create their own policies, they aren't merely private individuals who share their personal beliefs and experiences with others. They do not send themselves, but are officially commissioned and sent. The apostles were sent directly from Christ as "eyewitnesses of his majesty" (2 Pet. 1:16; cf. Luke 1:2), while ordinary ministers such as Timothy were trained and then called and commissioned by Christ through the "laying on of hands by the presbytery" (1 Tim. 4:14). Christ still sends his ambassadors out on his mission, proclaiming the good news, baptizing, and teaching everything that Christ commanded. And he still calls his whole body to witness to God's saving love in Jesus Christ through word and deed. It is a time of exile in Babylon, building houses and planting vineyards, working and praying for the welfare of the city, while we also raise covenant children and reach out to those who are outside of the covenant community with our witness and service (Jer. 29:4-9 with 1 Pet. 1:13-21). So these two cities or kingdoms intersect in the believer, whose heavenly citizenship shapes but is never to be confused with temporal citizenship in the common cities of this age. (1)

The Embassy Isn't the Capital and the Ambassador Isn't the President

In a variety of ways—and for a variety of reasons—the early medieval church became increasingly distracted from its mandate from heaven. Where our Lord assured the disciples that he would send the Holy Spirit to teach them everything concerning his person and work, through his Word, the church became increasingly restless with the simple commission to preach, teach, baptized, commune, and care for the flock. We dare not try to fill up the space/time between the ascended Christ and his suffering and witnessing church. Only the bodily return of Christ will consummate the kingdom. Yet, though absent from the earth in the flesh, Christ himself continues to lead history to the end for which he redeemed it. He does this by his Word and Spirit.

In the early Middle Ages, the church increasingly came to see itself as the visible replacement for its ascended Lord. Filling up the space/time between its glorified Lord and the world, it created a hierarchy of mediators from Mary and the saints to the popes and bishops all the way down to the laity. The church had the power to summon the ascended Christ back to earth in the flesh by the ringing of a bell in the Mass. Symbolizing the church, Mary is represented in medieval art as larger than life, with the baby Jesus securely kept in her lap.

Eventually, the bishop of Rome proclaimed himself the "vicar of Christ on earth" (vicar meaning "substitute" or "stand-in"). In one sense, of course, ministers are vicars—representatives who speak God's Word in his name. For Rome, however, this meant that the absence of Jesus in the flesh could be compensated for by the visible church. Where the Protestant Reformers insisted that the true church is present wherever the Word is properly proclaimed and the sacraments are administered according to Christ's institution, Rome maintains to this day that the true church is visible under "the one vicar of Christ on earth, the Roman pontiff." (2) There is nothing questionable, ambiguous, or precarious about the church's location or identity in this age. It is simply the kingdom of God—the historical replacement for the natural body of Christ. The historical body of Jesus Christ is of no consequence, since the church has replaced his bodily presence.

In fact, Rome speaks often about the church as the ongoing incarnation of Christ on earth, continuing his redeeming work. According to Karl Adam, only now are we at the place where we can envision a return of alienated children to Rome, so that "the great and urgent task of the West is to close at long last the unwholesome breach that has divided us for centuries, to create a new spiritual unity, a religious centre, and so to prepare the only possible foundation for a rebuilding and rebirth of Western civilization" (emphasis added). (3) The Roman Catholic Church is "the realisation on earth of the Kingdom of God." (4) "Christ the Lord is the real self of the Church," and the church and Christ are "one and the same person, one Christ, the whole Christ." (5)

Consistent with its view of the Lord's Supper as the transubstantiation of consecrated bread and wine into the natural body and blood of Christ, the visible church with its papal head simply is Jesus Christ. Why long for the bodily return of Christ when we have the church? As one church father wrote, "He who looks at the church looks directly at Christ." The Roman Catholic Church simply is the kingdom of God. Signs (bread and wine, the visible church and its ministry) simply are the reality signified (Christ's body and blood, the consummated kingdom of God on earth).

At the other end of the spectrum is the "Zwinglian" tendency of radical Protestants. In this case, signs are separated from the reality. At most, they witness to or symbolize Christ and his kingdom. The signs, however, do not convey the reality. Just as bread and wine are merely symbols pointing to Christ's body and blood, and the faith of individual believers makes it effectual, the visible church is not really important. What matters is the personal faith and experience of individuals who create the church by their collective willing and activity. In his defense of Free Church ecclesiology, Miroslav Volf is not uncritical:

Whether they want to or not, Free Churches often function as "homogeneous units" specializing in the specific needs of specific social classes and cultural circles, and then in mutual competition try to sell their commodity at dumping prices to the religious consumer in the supermarket of life projects; the customer is king and the one best suited to evaluate his or her own religious needs and from whom nothing more is required than a bit of loyalty and as much money as possible. If the Free Churches want to contribute to the salvation of Christendom, they themselves must first be healed. (6)
Volf also points out that the privatization of faith that warps ecclesiology also makes Free Church ecclesiologies more effective in contemporary cultures. (7)

Stanley Grenz observes, "The post-Reformation discussion of the vera ecclesia ("true church") formed the historical context for the emergence of the covenant idea as the focal understanding of the nature of the church." With its insistence on the marks of the church, "the Reformers shifted the focus to Word and Sacrament," but the Anabaptists and Baptists "took yet a further step," advocating a congregational ecclesiology. "This view asserts that the true church is essentially people standing in voluntary covenant with God." "No longer did the corporate whole take precedence over the individual as in the medieval model," notes Grenz. Individuals formed the church rather than vice versa. "As a result, in the order of salvation the believer—and not the church—stands first in priority." (8) "Because the coming together of believers in mutual covenant constitutes the church, it is the covenant community of individuals," although it has a history as well. (9) In his widely influential Revisioning Evangelical Theology, Grenz draws on the radical Protestant (Anabaptist-Pietist) heritage to contrast the spontaneous, inward, personal, and experiential dimension of faith with the formal, external, corporate, and sacramental aspects.

So it becomes clear that one's beliefs about the relation between sign and reality affect one's view not only of the sacraments but of the church as well. If Rome maintains that the visible signs (water, bread and wine, church) are simply transformed into the invisible reality (regeneration, body and blood, kingdom of God), radical Protestants believe that the visible signs are relatively unimportant; at most, they merely testify to our personal experience. The reality is not present in or with the signs, but only in the inner realm of the soul. In contrast to both, Scripture places us in the realm of a covenant. In proclaiming his gracious promise, God creates justifying faith in the heart of Abram and his spiritual heirs. In ratifying his promise with circumcision and eventually the Passover (and in the new covenant, with baptism and the Supper), the Triune God creates and secures a redeemed community. The creaturely signs (preaching, baptism, Eucharist) remain creaturely signs, yet they are also means of grace. Through them, God's promise creates the world of which they speak. The visible church, too, remains a "mixed body" of sheep and goats. Even the sheep remain simultaneously justified and sinful. Its reality as the kingdom of God is often ambiguous in this age, yet the visible church participates in that reality because of the Word and Spirit.

Contrasting Ecclesiologies

If the Roman Catholic view of the church is hierarchical, the radical Protestant view is closer to a contractual view. Instead of everything depending on God's promise, as in a covenantal view, everything depends on the faith and piety of individuals who choose to make Jesus Lord and Savior. So the church comes into being not by the Word, but by its own decision and pious activity. Taken to its extreme, contractual thinking easily leads to the view expressed by George Barna, an evangelical pioneer of church marketing: "Think of your church not as a religious meeting place, but as a service agency—an entity that exists to satisfy people's needs." (10) Not surprisingly, Barna has recently suggested that the institutional church is no longer relevant and should be replaced by informal gatherings for fellowship and Internet communities. In fact, he has introduced a new demographic: the "Revolutionaries," the "millions of believers" who "have moved beyond the established church and chosen to be the church instead." (11) Barna explains his use of "church" (small "c") to refer to "the congregation-based faith experience, which involves a formal structure, a hierarchy of leadership, and a specific group of believers"—and "Church" (capital "C") to denote "all believers in Jesus Christ, comprising the population of heaven-bound individuals who are connected by faith in Christ, regardless of their local church connections or involvement." (12) The Revolutionaries have found that in order to pursue an authentic faith they had to abandon the church. (13)

Barna, however, is hardly a dispassionate pollster; he takes his stand with the Revolutionaries, who will have an "unprecedented" effect on the institutional Church. (14) Intimate worship, says Barna, does "not require a 'worship service,'" just a personal commitment to the Bible, prayer, and discipleship. (15) Offering a gloss on Acts 2:42-47, Barna suggests that preaching is simply "faith-based conversation," the means of grace merely "intentional spiritual growth," "love," "resource investment," "spiritual friendships," and "family faith." (16) Notice how all of the emphasis falls on what individuals do. There is no suggestion in this book that the church might be defined by God's work for us. "What matters is not whom you associate with (i.e., a local church), but who you are," says Barna. (17) Given the statistics, churched Christians do not live any differently from the rest of the population, so the usefulness of ecclesiastical involvement is put in question. (18) "Scripture teaches us that devoting your life to loving God with all your heart, mind, strength, and soul is what honors Him. Being part of a local church may facilitate that. Or it might not." (19)

While, according to Barna, the Bible does not establish the idea of the local church, much less its "corporate practices, rituals, or structures, it does, however, offer direction regarding the importance and integration of fundamental spiritual disciplines into one's life." (20) He recognizes that the shift from the institutional church to "alternative faith communities" is largely due to market forces:

Whether you examine the changes in broadcasting, clothing, music, investing, or automobiles, producers of such consumables realize that Americans want control over their lives. The result has been the "niching" of America—creating highly refined categories that serve smaller numbers of people, but can command greater loyalty (and profits). During the past three decades, even the local church has undergone such a niching process, with the advent of churches designed for different generations, those offering divergent styles of worship music, congregations that emphasize ministries of interest to specialized populations, and so forth. The church landscape now offers these boutique churches alongside the something-for-everybody mega-churches. In the religious marketplace, the churches that have suffered most are those who stuck with the one-size-fits-all approach, typically proving that one-size-fits-nobody. (21)
Furthermore, American consumers are demanding "practical faith experiences" over doctrine, "novelty and creativity, rather than predictability in religious experiences; and the need for time-shifting, rather than inflexible scheduling of religious events." (22) Instead, the Revolutionaries are turning to house churches, family churches (i.e., devotions with the immediate family), and what he calls "cyberchurch": "the range of spiritual experiences delivered through the Internet." (23)

However thin, there is a theology behind Barna's interpretation of Jesus as the paradigmatic "Revolutionary," and it is basically that of the nineteenth-century revivalist Charles Finney. According to Finney, conversion is not dependent on a miracle of divine grace, but is the result of individual decision, as any other choice. Nor is it mediated by the regular ministry of Word and Sacrament, but is produced through "excitements sufficient to induce repentance," whatever the methods. Just as rational methods produce results in industry (for Finney), market principles apply equally to the growth of believers, churches, and fast-food chains. The Pelagian tendency of his contractual approach is clearly evident in Barna's exhortation: "So if you are a Revolutionary, it is because you have sensed and responded to God's calling to be such an imitator of Christ. It is not a church's responsibility to make you into this mold....The choice to become a Revolutionary—and it is a choice—is a covenant you make with God alone." (24)

Although a leader of the emerging church movement (often critical of the megachurch model), Dan Kimball advocates the same ecclesiological assumptions. He challenges the Reformation's identification of the church as the place where certain things are done, such as preaching and sacrament. Instead, he says, the church is a people who do certain things. (25) Of course, this shifts the focus of activity from God to us. Just as surely as in the Roman Catholic system, the church's works take priority over God's grace. Preaching the gospel takes a backseat to "living the gospel" (as if the gospel were something for us to do instead of good news for us to believe and proclaim).

In the Roman Catholic view, the church is more of a giver of grace than the embassy of grace. The true church is identified with its ministers (popes, bishops, and priests) rather than its ministry (Word, Sacrament, and discipline). The ambassadors mistake themselves for the King. Radical Protestantism, however, overreacts against this smothering hierarchy by locating the true identity of the church in the people and their personal piety. Any official function of "the ministry of reconciliation" is a threat to the egalitarian spirit of the community. In different ways, both of these approaches threaten to replace Jesus Christ in his saving office, through his ordained ministry, with the willing and doing of human beings. Over a century ago, the Dutch Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck observed a similar irony:

The difference is only that, whereas Rome finds the ground and possibility for the continued existence of the Christian religion in the institutional church, i.e., the infallible pope, Schleiermacher and his kind find it in the church as organism, i.e., in the religious community, while mysticism and rationalism find it in religious individuals. All of them explain the continued existence in terms of the leading of the Holy Spirit, the indwelling of Christ, but this has its organ, the pope in the case of Rome, the organism of the church in the case of Schleiermacher, and for Anabaptism, in every believer individually. (26)

Across the spectrum of evangelicalism, the presupposition is widely shared that the individual believer's personal relationship with Jesus is immediate, inward, and direct, based on one's decision to accept Christ, and that membership in the church is also an individual decision that may (or, in some cases, may not) serve that basic contract.

Welcome to a Reformation Church

In contrast to both hierarchical and egalitarian models of the church, Reformation teaching affirms with the New Testament that the church is "the creation of the Word." The Spirit gives us faith through the preaching of the Word—specifically, through hearing the gospel. That is why the growth of the church in the book of Acts is reported with the phrase, "And the word of God spread." We live out our callings in the world not as if we were the gospel, but because of the gospel and in a way that brings those around us into the atmosphere of its blessings. It is certainly true that our hypocritical practice can repel people from hearing the gospel. If people do not hear the gospel proclaimed, however, they will not be saved. This is why the central mandate of the Great Commission is to "proclaim the gospel to everyone": "So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ" (Rom. 10:17). Faith is expressed through love and good works, but it does not come from them. Peter says that we are "born again...through the living and abiding word of God....And this word is the good news that was preached to you" (1 Pet. 1:23, 25).

We neither confuse the sign with the reality nor separate them. Just as, according to 1 Corinthians 10:16, the bread and wine remain signs even though they are united to the reality in heaven (Christ's body and blood), the visible church "participates" in the consummated kingdom of God, even though it remains an earthly sign.

Christ is not now present on earth in his natural body, and his ecclesial body cannot serve as his substitute. Neither in a hierarchical nor egalitarian form is the church an extension of Jesus Christ's unique person and work. Yet the church is not orphaned by its ascended Lord, since the Spirit unites us to Christ and therefore to each other in a communion of faith, hope, and love. Thus even now there is a society spread throughout the kingdoms of this age that, however ambiguous to our empirical observation, is not only a community but a communion, not only a fellowship of believers but a church, not only a group of friends who have contracted with Jesus for salvation—and therefore with a local church as a "service-provider"—but as a genuine sign participating in the reality of the everlasting Sabbath feast that awaits us.

Neither because of its exalted ministers nor because of its pious faith and activity in the world, but because of Christ's ministry that he is pleased to exercise through sinful creatures by his Spirit, is the church truly an embassy of grace in this passing evil age, waiting for the return of its glorified Head. Pointing like John the Baptist away from ourselves to the Lamb of God, the church proclaims to the world, "Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again!"



1 [ Back ] For more on this, see David VanDrunen's excellent book, Living in God's Two Kingdoms: A Biblical Vision for Christianity and Culture (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010).
2 [ Back ] Robert Bellarmine, De controversies, tom. 2, liber 3, De ecclesia militante, cap. 2, "De definitione Ecclesiae" (Naples: Giuliano, 1857), 2:75.
3 [ Back ] Karl Adam, The Spirit of Catholicism (New York: Crossroad, 1997), 6.
4 [ Back ] Adam, 14.
5 [ Back ] Adam, 15.
6 [ Back ] Miroslav Volf, After Our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 18.
7 [ Back ] Volf, 16, 17.
8 [ Back ] Stanley Grenz, Theology for the Community of God (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1997), 609-11.
9 [ Back ] Grenz, 614.
10 [ Back ] George Barna, Marketing the Church (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1988), 37.
11 [ Back ] George Barna, Revolution: Finding Vibrant Faith Beyond the Walls of the Sanctuary (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale, 2005), back cover copy.
12 [ Back ] Barna, Revolution, x.
13 [ Back ] Barna, Revolution, 17.
14 [ Back ] Barna, Revolution, 17.
15 [ Back ] Barna, Revolution, 22.
16 [ Back ] Barna, Revolution, 24-25.
17 [ Back ] Barna, Revolution, 29.
18 [ Back ] Barna, Revolution, 30-31.
19 [ Back ] Barna, Revolution, 37.
20 [ Back ] Barna, Revolution, 37.
21 [ Back ] Barna, Revolution, 62-63.
22 [ Back ] Barna, Revolution, 63.
23 [ Back ] Barna, Revolution, 65.
24 [ Back ] Barna, Revolution, 70.
25 [ Back ] Dan Kimball, The Emerging Church: Vintage Christianity for New Generations (Zondervan, 2003), esp. 91ff.
26 [ Back ] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, trans. John Vriend, ed. John Bolt (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), 1:424.


Michael Horton is the J. Gresham Machen professor of apologetics and systematic theology at Westminster Seminary California (Escondido, California), host of the White Horse Inn, national radio broadcast, and editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation magazine. He is author of many books, including The Gospel-Driven Life, Christless Christianity, People and Place, Putting Amazing Back Into Grace, The Christian Faith, and For Calvinism.

Issue: "Embassy of Grace" May/June 2011 Vol. 20 No. 3 Page number(s): 14-21

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