Reading Systematic Theology with Wayne Grudem – What is necessary to make a church? How can we recognize a true church? The purposes of the church.

This post is part of a 50+ post series from the classic work by Wayne Grudem (PhD, Cambridge), Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. The aim of each post is to provide an overview of each chapter in the book and related resources for each topic.

Synopsis of Chapter

In his first chapter on the church, Wayne Grudem defines the church as “the community of all true believers for all time.” Grudem outlines the nature, marks, and purposes of the church. 

In the nature of the church, Grudem covers several aspects including the “visible” and “invisible” church. He also reviews the local and universal perspectives on the church and the biblical metaphors used to describe the church. In the marks of the church, Grudem distinguishes between true and false churches by what distinguishes a biblical church from an unbiblical church. Finally, he covers the purposes of the church revealed in Scripture.  

The Nature of the Church

The church is God’s people in every age. The church includes people from the Old Testament as well as the New Testament when the church is more defined as being led by Jesus (Ephesians 5:23). Stephen speaks of Israel in the wilderness as “the church” (Acts 7:38) and the author of Hebrews quotes Psalm 22:22 when he quotes David saying he will sing God’s praise in the midst of the “ekklesia” (Greek: ἐκκλησίας). This same word is translated as “church” in other New Testament passages (Hebrews 2:12). This is the church Jesus promised to build (Matthew 16:18). 

There are visible and invisible aspects to the church. The visible church is what people see, while the invisible church is what God sees – the true believers. From a visible perspective, the church can be seen in each community. Just as Paul wrote to “To the church of God that is in Corinth…” (1 Corinthians 1:2), so we can see churches gathering on the Lord’s Day to worship him in our communities. However, not everyone who claims to be a Christian is one. Only those who are genuinely converted are members of the “invisible” church. As the Scripture says, “the Lord knows those who are his” (2 Timothy 2:19). 

The church is also both local and universal. The church is local in that the church meets in communities. The local church can meet in homes (Romans 16:5, 1 Corinthians 16:5) and in cities (2 Corinthians 1:1). However, the church is also universal since Jesus died for all believers at all times (Ephesians 5:25). 

The Bible also uses several metaphors to describe to us what the church is like. God gave us a multifaceted perspective on what the people of God are like. 

  • Branches on a vine (John 15:5).
  • An olive tree (Romans 11:17-24).
  • A field of crops (1 Corinthians 3:6-9).
  • God’s building” (1 Corinthians 3:9)
  • The Body of Christ: Each person has a different function in the church while we are still members of one body (1 Corinthians 12:16-17).
  • Family: God is our Father (Ephesians 3:14), we are his sons and daughters (2 Corinthians 6:18), and brothers and sisters to each other (1 John 3:14-18).
  • Bride of Christ: The relationship between a husband and wife “refers to Christ and the Church.” (Ephesians 5:32).
  • A pillar and buttress of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15).
  • Living stones” (1 Peter 2:5).
  • A flock of sheep (1 Peter 5:2).

The Church and Israel

Among evangelicals, there is disagreement on the nature of Israel and the church. In dispensationalism, the church is separate from Israel. Israel is a nation and an ethnic group that inherits the Old Testament promises. However, the church is a new entity started at Pentecost. According to this view, God deals differently with the church and Israel though there is usually not a different gospel for each group.

Alternatively, covenant theologians argue against the distinction between Israel and the church. They view the church as a universal entity that is synonymous with God’s people throughout history. Though the New Covenant church had a distinct beginning, it was also a continuation of God’s plan for his people from Adam to Jesus. In covenant theology, ethnic Israel still exists,  but it’s not synonymous with God’s people until ethnic Israelites are reconciled to him through Jesus the Messiah.

The “Marks” of the Church (Distinguishing Characteristics)

During the Reformation, Protestants aimed to distinguish between the true church and false churches in light of the Roman Catholic apostasy. In several confessions, they identified several marks of a true church which would not be a part of false churches. There are two primary marks of true churches which are the right preaching of the word of God and the right administration of the sacraments (baptism and the Lord’s sSupper). Those churches that preach the Word of God truly and administer the sacraments in a biblical manner are true churches. 

The Purposes of the Church

There are three purposes or ministries of the church. For one, the church ministers to God in worship. We are instructed to “sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” to God (Colossians 3:16). As Christians, we exist to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength (Luke 10:27). So the church aims to serve God.  

Secondly, the church has an obligation to minister to each other. As Paul wanted to present every believer “mature in Christ” (Colossians 1:28), so we are supposed to build each other up in the faith. 

Finally, the church has a ministry to the world in evangelism and mercy. Jesus told his disciples to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). In addition, Christ instructs his followers to love their enemies (Luke 6:35-36). When the church fulfills these three ministries (to God, to each other, and to the world), we are fulfilling the purposes he has for the church     

Application: The Blessing of the Church

The church is a blessing to all of God’s people. We are not alone either in our families or civic groups. We fellowship corporately with other believers where we connect with believers in our common confession. This provides a measure of protection from Satanic attacks (Matthew 16:18). Finally, we are instructed in God’s ways in the church so we are better equipped to live and prepare us for the life to come. 

“And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds[a] and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” (Ephesians 4:11-13)

Special Terms

  • body of Christ
  • church
  • ekklesia
  • invisible church
  • marks of the church
  • visible church 

Resources: Wayne Grudem

Related Resources

Photo by Debby Hudson on Unsplash.

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