Vol. VIII — No. 44 November 5, 1967


The Reformation Restored the Proper Understanding of the Church

Matthew 16:13-19

When Jesus came into the coasts of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, saying, Whom do men say that I the Son of man am? And they said, Some say that thou art John the Baptist: some, Elias; and others, Jeremias, or one of the prophets. He saith unto them, But whom say ye that I am? And Simon Peter answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God. And Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou, Simon Barjona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven. And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

In Christ Jesus, whose Church will continue to defy the gates of hell till the end of time, Fellow Redeemed:

Our meditation this morning shall revolve about one word—“church.” This word occurs only three times in the four Gospels. The word means literally, “those called out.” The Church is made up of all those who from the beginning of time have been called out of the darkness of sin and guilt and damnation into the light of the forgiveness and salvation that is in Christ Jesus.

But this simple definition of the Church as “the communion of saints” or the gathering of all believers was lost in the days before the Reformation, even as it has become lost again in our day. People then thought of the Church as the “Holy Roman Catholic Church,” headed by the pope, then the large superstructure of clergy or the hierarchy, followed by the laity. This vast organization, together with its elaborate ceremonies and vestments, was considered and believed to be the Church that Jesus Christ founded and wanted here on earth.

As Luther was led by the Spirit of God further and further into the truth, he realized more and more that the church, as he had known it from childhood, was not the champion of the Gospel of Jesus Christ but rather the suppressor of the Gospel. He was led to the conclusion that the pope, instead of being the Vicar of Christ, was actually the Great Antichrist, foretold by St. Paul in II Thessalonians 2. As his understanding of these things grew, Luther realized that the basic understanding of the biblical concept of “church” needed reformation. And so it was that—


I. That it is built on “Christ, the Son of the living God,” not on Peter or his alleged successors.

Our text is the key passage that Rome uses to support its contention that Peter was the first pope and that our Lord wanted to build His Church upon Peter and his successors. But the text does not support that contention. The scene is laid in Caesarea Philippi, an area remote from the scenes of our Lord’s Galilaean ministry. Jesus was alone with His disciples. He asked them, all of them, concerning the popular opinions that were afloat concerning Him: “Whom do men say that I the Son of man am?” The disciples reported some of those opinions—that He was John the Baptist risen from the dead, or one of the great prophets returned to this earth. All these popular notions had one common denominator—that Jesus was a great prophet, but not the Son of God. Upon this background of popular opinion the Lord directed a pointed question at all of His disciples, “But whom say ye that I am?” On the basis of hearing His words and seeing the signs and wonders that He had done each one was to give answer. Peter, in accordance with his natural disposition and natural qualities of leadership, answered as spokesman for all, saying, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.” That answer was acknowledged by Jesus as correct. He called Peter “blessed,” but He immediately added a word of instruction to protect Peter against any temptation towards false pride. Peter did not arrive at that answer because of any innate natural or any acquired spiritual abilities, “for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven.” The Father had cause this truth, that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, to be revealed on earth and had sent His Spirit to open the eyes of Peter and the others to that truth. Then Jesus continued, “And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus called Simon “Peter,” that is “the Rock-man.” You will recall that Jesus had given Simon that name. In making that Spirit-moved confession Simon was living up to his new name, Peter, the Rock, or the man who was like a rock. Then Jesus continued, “Upon this rock I will build my church.” But Jesus used a different form of the word—not petros, stone or rock, but petra, a ledge or shelf of rock. Catholic exegetes contend that Jesus here said that He will build His Church on Peter. That contention violates both the language that Jesus used and the context, for shortly thereafter Jesus had to call Peter “Satan” because his flesh and blood asserted itself and wanted to talk Jesus out of suffering and dying as the Savior for all. The Church is not built on Peter or any man, but upon the shelf of rock that Peter had just confessed—the revealed truth that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. That is the Cornerstone of the Church. When Jesus gave unto Peter the keys of the Kingdom, He gave them to him not only as an individual, but as the representative spokesman for all the disciples. On the evening of Easter day He confirmed that gift to the other disciples.

The Church is built on Jesus Christ, God’s Son, the Promised Messiah and Savior. The Lord Jesus did not intend to nor did He replace Himself with Peter as the foundation for the Church. He did not give to Peter only the power of the keys, the power to open and close the gates of heaven. All of this is fiction, created over the ages and believed by most all before the Reformation and believed by Catholics today yet. The Reformation restored the proper understanding that the Church is built on no one other than Christ, the Son of the living God. So we believe, even as we have just sung:

The Church’s one foundation
Is Jesus Christ, her Lord;
She is His new creation
By water and the Word;
From heaven He came and sought her
To be His holy Bride,
With His own Blood He bought her,
And for her life He died.

The Reformation also restored the proper understanding of the members of the Church, namely,

II. That it consists of “Peters” who believe and confess that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

The Church is made up of people who have been called out of the darkness of this world that is doomed to destruction to faith in Jesus, the promised Christ, who is God’s Son and the Savior of man. In brief, Church = believers in Jesus Christ, that is, all who share the faith of Peter. This is the simple truth that was restored by the Reformation. The Seventh Article of the Augsburg Confession defines the Church very simply: “The Church is the congregation of saints, in which the Gospel is rightly taught and the Sacraments are rightly administered.” In Article XII of The Smalcald Articles Luther wrote, “Thank God, today a child of seven years old knows what the Church is, namely, the holy believers and lambs who hear the voice of their Shepherd.”

Unfortunately this simple understanding of the true essence of the Church has again slipped away from most of the heirs of the Reformation. In the days before the Reformation people thought of the “church” as the organization of the Holy Roman Church with its pope, cardinals, archbishops, priests, ceremonies, vestments, holy days, monasteries, churches, lay people, and so on and on. Today people also tend to think of the “church” as it appears in its organizational form, consisting of the major denominations and all the smaller groups.

From this mistaken notion other errors flow. The unity of the Church is then no longer a unity of faith and confession in the Gospel, but rather is to be manifested in a united organizational structure. This is the error that lies at the bottom of the ecumenical movement. The proponents of this movement mistakenly believe that building organizational bridges between the many denominations, without removing doctrinal differences and arriving at a unity of faith and confession, is building the Church. It isn’t!

Another common error is to identify church membership with being a member of the Holy Christian Church. Many people have their names listed on the membership roll of some church, but that does not make them part of the Holy Christian Church. The Lord will ask no one, “Did you have membership in some visible, organized Christian church on earth?” Ho, but He will ask, “Do you accept me and believe in he, the Son of God and your Savior from sin?” He who answers “yes” to that question will be saved, for he is a “Peter”—a member of the Church.

Here we do well to pause a moment and think about the matter of congregational growth. All of us want our congregation to grow in size and numbers, but let us beware of imagining that growth in the membership rolls is always the same as building the Church of Jesus Christ. If a congregation is unfaithful to the Gospel, permits the opinion of man on matters of doctrine to have equal right with the Word of Jesus Christ, yea permits its members, rather than the Word of God, to judge what is right or wrong, what is to be believed and rejected, in the Church, then a congregation may grow in size and numbers. There is evidence on all sides that such a growth is possible. But let no one think that this is building the Church of Jesus Christ. His Church is not built when people are encouraged to defy the Lord in His word, when they are led to believe that disobedience is as good as or superior to obedience to the Word, and that error and falsehood are equal to the holy Truth. That is the method of building human towers of Babel. The Church is built when the Gospel is preached in its truth and purity, when error is exposed and refuted, and thus the Spirit of God has opportunity to lead men and women and children to faith and obedience. It is our business to be faithful to our Lord in the preaching and teaching of His word, leaving it up to Him to add to our membership such as bow the knee before Him with faith that is obedient to His every Word. Many will say, “Lord, Lord,” on the last day. Many of those will have been church members, but the Lord will say, “I never knew you. You claimed to be a child of God, but you rejected Me in My Word.” The Church is made up of “Peters”—people who believe and confess Christ. Only such are members of the Holy Christian Church! May we all be numbered among them.

The Reformation also restored this understanding of the Church—

III. That its essence—faith in Christ—remains constant, though its form may change.

Luther was quite content to let the pope remain as the visible head of the church, if he would only step back and permit the word of Christ to rule in the church. The form or structure of the Church has not been set by Christ. That may change according to the needs of the times. In the pre-Reformation times the form was monarchial with the pope as head or king. Later the single head was replaced with a larger group, called bishops or elders. Many churches today have that form of government and structure, or organization. we have been accustomed to the congregational form of church government, although you people have experienced how gradually the control of the affairs of the church was wrested away from the local congregation as the drive towards centralization continued.

Let us realize that the form of the Church may and does vary according to the needs of the children of God. Jesus gathered His disciples on a hill side, along the sea shore, in a home. After Pentecost, when the Church grew, it felt the need for organization so that it could better carry out its divine commission By force of circumstances this congregation is completely independent organizationally. And yet the congregation is and has been dependent upon others to supply it with pastors, educational materials, hymn books, mission and educational opportunities. The congregation has and must and can adjust its form and organization according to its needs and its mission, for the form of the Church is a matter of Christian liberty.

But with all the possibilities of change in form and organization the essence of the Church ever remains the same. It is always faith in Christ. Where two or three are gathered in the name of the Lord to hear His word and do His will, whether that be in a private home as this congregation began, or in a public worship as we are now conducting, or in a gathering of others of the same mind and spirit in other parts of the country as in a synod convention, there the Lord is in the midst of them. There is the Church! There is the Communion of Saints. Its essence always remains faith in Christ; its form may and does change. Amen.

—Pastor Paul F. Nolting

Preached - October 22, 1967
Holy Trinity Independent
Evangelical Lutheran Church
West Columbia, South Carolina

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