This year marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. There are countless observances unfolding throughout the year, culminating this October 31st when Christians all over the world remember the date 500 years earlier when Martin Luther nailed his famous 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenburg. The Reformation unleashed a seismic change in the church which we are still experiencing today. At the last count, there are over 44,000 Protestant denominations around the world, comprising about one third of all Christians. The theological hallmarks of the Reformation have been summed up in the famous five solas—sola fide, sola scriptura, sola gratia, solus Christus, and soli Deo Gloria (faith alone, Scripture alone, grace alone, Christ alone, to the glory of God alone).
John Wesley and the Wesleyan revivals brought further depth to all of the five solas. “Christ alone” became more Trinitarian. “Faith alone” was understood more holistically by seeing it within the context of the entire doctrine of salvation. “Grace alone” was expanded to include many more dimensions than only the grace that justifies us.
The most glaring omission from the five solas is, of course, that there is no mention of the church. There is no sola ecclesia. I think it is clear to all of us why Luther did not include such a phrase in the Reformation. The ecclesiastical structures of the church had become more of a hindrance than a help and, as we know even today, the church can sometimes obscure, rather than illuminate, the gospel of Jesus Christ.
However, we must remember that central to the New Testament is the emphasis on community. You might be able to be justified alone at an altar, but you cannot be sanctified apart from community. When we are baptized, we are not merely baptized by faith, i.e. a solitary person putting his or her faith in Jesus Christ alone. We are also baptized into a community of faith which stretches back through time, and around the world.
This is why we must resist the popular notion to say “yes” to Jesus, but “no” to the church. The Church is what God is building in the world: “I will build my church” is one of the most formative and powerful statements of Jesus to his disciples (Matt. 16:18). The church does not have a mere instrumental purpose in the world. In other words, the church doesn’t just have the “function” of preaching the gospel or caring for the poor, or anything else which the church does. The church has an ontological purpose in the world, i.e. it is what God is building in the world.
Denominations may falter, or our particular local church may disappoint us at times, but the true church of Jesus Christ around the world will go on. We live in a day when there is rampant distrust of institutions coupled with an exaltation of the autonomous, free self. The true church is not some burdensome bureaucracy of oppression, but is the very bride of Christ which links heaven and earth together through the incarnation.
Graduates of the 2017 class, I charge you to go forth from this place and build the church of Jesus Christ! Resist the temptation to just give up on the church and embrace a more privatized faith which we can celebrate, if I can use the phrase, mihi soli, by myself alone. There is no mihi soli in our Christian identity. Let me encourage you to resist this, because the church is nothing less than our mystical participation in the body of Jesus Christ. We are, at times, forced, like the Pietists, to carve out a ecclesiolae in ecclesia (a true church within the structural church). But, in the end, the church must always take corporate, visible form as the community of those who belong to Jesus Christ. We may have to meet in catacombs, but we still meet together and share with words and songs our shared life together.
This is why Asbury Seminary is so committed to unleashing hundreds of new church planters and a wave of re-missionized churches. Church planting is nothing less than evangelism in community. It is the Apostolic way of evangelism. Every time you hear someone wring their hands and tell you how many millions of members have been lost, or worrying about the rise of a post-Christian America, remind them of how many more millions can be gained if we remember the gospel, remain faithful to the Word of God, and roll up our sleeves and start building communities of the New Creation—little outposts of heaven right here on earth—the church of Jesus Christ! Amen.