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The Church Is One

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul
The Truth Network Radio
May 27, 2024 12:01 am

The Church Is One

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul

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May 27, 2024 12:01 am

Jesus prayed that His followers would be one (John 17:21). Yet to many onlookers, the church appears fractured and divided. What are we to make of this? Today, R.C. Sproul addresses the true basis of the unity of Christ's church.

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R.C. Sproul (1939-2017) was known for his ability to winsomely and clearly communicate deep, practical truths from God's Word. He was founder of Ligonier Ministries, first minister of preaching and teaching at Saint Andrew's Chapel, first president of Reformation Bible College, and executive editor of Tabletalk magazine.

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Nathan W. Bingham is vice president of ministry engagement for Ligonier Ministries, executive producer and host of Renewing Your Mind, host of the Ask Ligonier podcast, and a graduate of Presbyterian Theological College in Melbourne, Australia. Nathan joined Ligonier in 2012 and lives in Central Florida with his wife and four children.

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The more pluralism comes into the church, the greater the level of toleration and the greater the possibility of visible unity, organizational and structural unity. However, there's always a price tag for that, and historically the price tag has been doctrine. There are many Christian denominations. From the outside looking in, the people of God, the bride of Christ, could appear fractured.

How are we to think about that, especially in light of Jesus' prayer in John 17, that His people would be one? This is the Monday edition of Renewing Your Mind. I'm your host, Nathan W. Bingham. The New Testament describes the church as the bride of Christ.

Until Thursday, R.C. Sproul will be helping us think about the church from a Biblical perspective. And to help you do that further, you can request this week's ten-part series, along with Sinclair Ferguson's book, In the Year of Our Lord, which provides reflections on each century of church history, when you give a donation of any amount at

To begin this week's study, here's Dr. Sproul on the unity of the church and the challenges of pluralism. In the 17th chapter of John's gospel, Jesus gives the most extensive prayer that is recorded for us in the New Testament, and it is a prayer of intercession, in which He prays for His disciples and for all who believe through the testimony of the disciples. And consequently, that prayer is called Jesus' high priestly prayer. Now, one of the central themes of that prayer was that Christ prayed to the Father that His people might be one.

It was a prayer for Christian unity, and He went on to say that He prayed that we might be one even as He is one with the Father, so that the unity of the people of God, the unity of the church, is to reflect and mirror the same kind of unity that exists between the Father and the Son. Now, we know that the prayers of Christ as our high priest are efficacious, that they are powerful, and that this was a major concern for Him, that His people not be divided. Yet, here we are living in the 20th century where the church, at least in its visible manifestation, is probably more fragmented and more fractured than at any time in church history. And so, we've seen a crisis with the question, what is the church after all?

And so, what we're going to be doing in the next few days is looking at the biblical concept of the church, at least in some aspects of the church which the New Testament refers to as the bride of Christ. We know that very early in the history of the church, we saw the formation of the Apostles' Creed, and many Christians recite the Apostles' Creed on a regular basis in the liturgy of their church services. And after the Creed makes its affirmations about the character of God and about the character of Christ and the work of Christ, it says, I believe in the holy Catholic church, so that part of the profession of faith of the Christian is a profession of faith concerning the church.

Now, that confessional proclamation was extended even further in the fourth century with the Nicene Creed. In the Nicene Creed, we get some of the classic marks of the church in which the church was defined historically with four adjectival qualifiers, four statements that are made about the church that are guidelines for our understanding of the church. And these four are these, that the church is one holy Catholic and apostolic. And so as we begin our study of the nature of the church, I want to look at these four descriptive categories as they define the nature of the church. First of all, that the church is one. The last survey I saw indicated that in the United States of America alone, there are over 2,000 distinct Protestant denominations. Among them are included such churches as the Church of the Ladder up to Heaven, number one, and the Church of the Ladder up to Heaven, number two, which split from the Church of the Ladder up to Heaven, number one. We have a multitude of Presbyterian denominations, many of which are called split teas because they represent splits from larger denominations.

You have to know the alphabet to be able to incorporate the Baptist churches that abound, the G-A-R-B and all the rest, and we abbreviate these churches with their letters. It's also true of the Lutherans and so on. And so it's been something of a scandal to see this proliferation of denominations that mark the landscape of the church in America.

And it's true not only in America but around the world as well. In the 16th century, at the time of the Protestant Reformation, the schism that occurred with the protest of Luther and the Reformers was really greater in its ramifications than the so-called Great Schism that broke the church between the Eastern and the Western manifestations of historic orthodoxy. Because after the Reformation protest, we saw this proliferation of manifold denominations. One of the concerns that the Roman Catholic Church had in the 16th century with Luther was the concern that Luther's teaching would indeed inspire such fragmentation, particularly when Luther was advocating that the Bible be placed in the hands of the laity. And he insisted on what he called the right of private interpretation of Scripture for each individual Christian. Erasmus of Rotterdam challenged Luther about that and said to Luther that if you put the Bible in the hands of untrained laypersons who don't know the ancient languages and so on and are not under some clearly defined ecclesiastical authority, a floodgate of iniquity will be opened. And Luther responded to that indicating his grave concern that that kind of unbridled individualism would indeed emerge and that people on their own whims would turn the Bible into a wax nose and form it and shape it and make it say whatever they wanted to say and try to establish all kinds of false doctrine by illegitimate appeals to the Scripture. And Luther was acutely conscious of that danger. Nevertheless, he said that the Bible is so clear on the essential message of redemption and that that message is so important to be put into the hands of the masses that he would take the risk of all of this floodgate of iniquity to explode onto the church by turning the Bible loose to the people.

And he finally said, if a floodgate of iniquity occur, so be it. Well, it did occur, and the Reformers themselves were not able to maintain a united front. Luther and the Calvinists, the Lutherans and the Calvinists couldn't get it together, the Anabaptists and the Reformed people couldn't come to agreement, and so we've seen all these different churches develop over history, all claiming to be faithful to the New Testament witness. And obviously, they can't all be being faithful to the New Testament witness because the agreement or the disagreements at times are so sharp. And so how are we to understand and respond to Christ's prayer for the unity of the church and for the ancient church's declaration that the church is one?

Now, there have been different approaches to this. In the 20th century, we have seen what has been labeled as the ecumenical movement, which was an attempt through the World Council of Churches and other movements to move in the direction of forming or reforming these denominational splinter groups into one centralized ecclesiastical body. The whole goal of the ecumenical movement was to restore unity to the visible church. Now, one of the things that we've seen as a result of this push towards unity is an increasing number of mergers between denominations that formerly were divided. Now, one of the problems with mergers as we have seen in history is this tendency. It doesn't happen in every case, but the tendency is that every time two churches merge into one church, you end up with three churches, not just with one church, because the dissonant groups who oppose the merger have a tendency to not participate in the merger and continue a new denomination drawn from their past denomination, and that happens again and again. Now, another problem has emerged with respect to the drive for visible unity, and that is a development of an approach to doctrine, an approach to theology that is often called pluralism.

We know the motto of the United States of America is E Pluribus Unum, which means from many, one, recognizing that in our culture, people from all kinds of backgrounds, ethnic backgrounds, national backgrounds, religious backgrounds, came to the shores of the New World, and America became a melting pot for all of these different strands of cultures and traditions, and we've tried to establish a nation where the people are united under one government with one language in spite of all of these various and disparate backgrounds. And pluralism, however, as an ism, seeks to be a structure or a philosophy that allows for a wide diversity of viewpoints and doctrines to coexist within a single body. And because so many doctrinal disputes have emerged within the structure of some churches, churches have tried to keep the peace of the church and the unity of the church, and yet at the same time accommodate differing views within the church.

And so this principle of pluralism has been embraced in order to accommodate differing viewpoints. Now, the more pluralism comes into the church, the greater the level of toleration and the greater the possibility of visible unity, organizational and structural unity. However, there's always a price tag for that, and historically the price tag has been doctrine, has been the confessional purity of the given churches. Now, you saw in the 16th century and in the 17th century when the Protestant movement began that the various groups such as the Church of England or the Presbyterians in Scotland or the Baptists in various places created what were called confessions. They were creedal statements that set forth the doctrines that were embraced and confessed by these particular churches. And in the main, what these confessional documents would indicate, such as the 39 Articles of the Church of England or the Helvetica Confession or the Belgic Confession or the Scots Confession, all these different confessions, what they contained was first of all a reiteration of that body of doctrines that had passed down through the centuries, that had their roots in terms of historic expression in the so-called ecumenical councils of the first several centuries, like the Council of Nicaea, the Council of Chalcedon, the Council of Ephesus, the Council of Constantinople, and so on, where these Catholic doctrines were held in common among all Christians, such as the doctrine of the Trinity and the person and work of Christ and so on. But then these confessions of the 16th and 17th century would then go beyond these points of Catholic doctrine and spell out in many cases in fine detail the particular beliefs and views of these various denominations.

And so, for centuries, Protestantism was defined in terms of the individual church institutions confessionally by virtue of that body of doctrine that was confessed by each organization. But in our day, part of the impact of the ecumenical movement is to kind of historicize or relativize these older confessions. And an attempt is made in some churches to broaden the confessional basis along the lines of pluralism in order to achieve the unity of the visible church. I can remember one of the first theological crises that I had to be engaged in in my own tradition was over a proposed new confession for the old United Presbyterian Church called the Confession of 1967.

When it was introduced for evaluation and examination and study around 1965, I was invited to be part of a panel of theologians to evaluate this new confession, examine it, and to offer certain suggested emendations and so on to it. And that created quite a controversy in the church I was a member, and the proposal was that in that church where we had the Westminster Confession for centuries being the defining confessional doctrinal statement of the old Presbyterian Church, the proposal was to add to that single confession several other confessions like the Scots Confession, the Barman Declaration of the 20th century, and the Confession of 1967. And I remember when I was ordained, however, there was only one confession in the church. It was the Westminster Confession. And everyone who was ordained had to take a vow before God and before the church that they embraced the system of doctrine within that confession, and you promised to uphold it and so on.

Well, after the confessional basis was changed in 1967, the Westminster Confession remained on the books, but other confessions were added to it, and I had a strange experience that I want to use as an illustration. When Ligonier Ministries began in Pennsylvania in 1971, I was invited by some people in the Pittsburgh area to come and begin this ministry, and I said I wouldn't do it unless I received a call from the presbytery to do it and had the endorsement of the church to do it. I wasn't interested in a Wildcat, Lone Ranger type ministry, and so those people who wanted me to start this ministry went to the local presbytery and asked them to submit a call to me.

Well, the process involved that I would go before the presbytery to be examined to see that my credentials were in order and so on. And so I went to the presbytery meeting, and there was an examining committee, and as they were examining me about their theology, one of the questions that one person raised was this. They said, Dr. Sproul, which of the confessions in the book of confessions of our church most accurately reflects your theology?

And I thought that was a legitimate question, and I didn't hesitate. I said, well, that would be the Westminster Confession. And the person that asked me that question became irate and said to me, what's wrong with the rest of the confessions? I said, I didn't say anything was wrong with the rest of the confessions.

You asked me which one I found most accurately represents my position. And this person was very angry because this person didn't like the Westminster Confession of Faith. So after the questioning period was up, they asked me to leave the room while they would discuss my call and determine whether I was acceptable to them and so on. And so before I left the room, I asked to make a statement, and they said, what's that? And I said, if you decide not to accept me in this presbytery, I hope it will not be because I believe the doctrine contained in the confession under which I was ordained and which you were ordained.

And I left the room. What could they do? They had to approve of me because otherwise they had to confess to perjury on their own. But it was an interesting experience for me because I saw what was happening with an attempt to keep confessions from the past that some people still believed in, but yet neutralize those confessions by adding other ones so that people wouldn't be bound by the historic views of the church. Now that sort of thing that happened there has been proliferated widely in the church today, trying to get out from under the confessional basis of the past and to leave room within the church for a broad horizon to accommodate wide divergences of beliefs. All of this in the cause of the visible unity of the church.

We'll talk more about that in our next session. If you are a part of a church, I'd like to ask you today why you belong to the church you belong to, or why do you go to the church to which you go? I've noticed, for example, that people have a tendency in this day and age to flit between denominations. And the tendency is to go where they like the pastor, or they like the preaching, or they like the music, or they like a particular program, and people feel comfortable moving from denomination to denomination, from church home to church home. And rarely do we find people paying attention to what the church believes. Now, when the church was called to unity in the New Testament, we remember that the Apostle Paul spoke of the unity of the church in these terms, that the church is to be united in that we have one Lord, one faith, and one baptism. That is, that the unity is not something that is merely superficial in terms of a unified organization or a unified methodology. But the first thing, it is a unified confession of faith in the person and work of Christ. And secondly, that the content of our faith is something we agree with. That's the place that we have fallen down, where the church's unity has been broken. And we'll look more at that in our next time.

That was R.C. Sproul on this Monday edition of Renewing Your Mind. I'm glad that you're with us. As Christians, we are the body of Christ. We are the bride of Christ.

But do we spend enough time considering the doctrine of the church? Dr. Sproul taught a 10-message study looking at the church, its unity, its foundation, the marks of a true church, and more. You can have lifetime digital access to this series and the study guide when you give a donation of any amount at by clicking the link in the podcast show notes or calling us at 800 435 4343. And to help you see the Lord's work in building his church, we'll send you Sinclair Ferguson's hardcover book, In the Year of Our Lord. Dr. Ferguson is the vice chairman of Ligonier Ministries, and this book provides reflections and hymns covering each century in church history. Request this resource bundle today at And if you're a Ligonier ministry partner, remember that your monthly support not only fuels our global outreach, but it also gives you exclusive access to discipleship resources, including unlocking our complete teaching series library. If you're not a partner with Ligonier, you can learn more and sign up when you click give monthly when you respond to today's offer at For the church to be unified, we need to be unified in the truth. That'll be Dr. Sproul's topic tomorrow here on Renewing Your Mind. Thank you.
Whisper: medium.en / 2024-05-27 02:35:43 / 2024-05-27 02:43:32 / 8

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