This article is part of a series on the Apostles’ Creed. Here Dr Ferguson discusses what it means to believe in the communion of saints, as we confess in the creed. Why is important to be part of a church community? Ferguson speaks about the gift of the preaching of the Word and the individual gifts given to believers as described in Ephesians 4:1-16.

7 pages. Transcribed by Delia Nicholson. Transcription started at 6:40 and stopped at 38:38.

Apostolic Confession - I Believe in the Communion of Saints

Read Ephesians 4:1-16

We have been thinking about [the Apostles’ Creed], this 100 word summary of the Christian faith, which most of us in our congregation know by heart. If I were to steal into your house in the middle of the night and poke you at three o'clock in the morning and say, “Christian, what do you believe?” I think that you would be able to say, "I believe in God the Father…" We say it so often on Sundays. But we have been thinking that perhaps we don't make as much use of it as we might do as Christians when people say to us, "What is it that Christians believe?" I think some of us go into a kind of panic mode, or we run down to the Christian book shop and say, "Can you give me a book on what Christians believe?" And we don't make use of these 100 words (at least, 100 words in the Latin). It is a simple, glorious statement of almost everything there is in the Christian gospel.

We have come, in this third section of it, to think about the way in which the Holy Spirit fulfils the purposes of God and takes the work of Jesus Christ and applies it to His people. And one of the ways in which He does that is by building the church – by bringing the church and churches into being – so that we enjoy what the creed calls the “communion of the saints”. I believe in…the holy, catholic church, the communion of saints…” (Apostles’ Creed). In other words, Christians do not just believe in an institution or an organization. They believe that they belong to a living community, a living fellowship. I believe in the communion of the saints.

Fellowship Among Believers🔗

(Transcription of audio file from 08:50 to 09:00 omitted.)

Most of us know the great old hymn written by John Fawcett [called Blest Be the Tie that Binds] (1782). And there is a very interesting story behind that hymn that illustrates what the communion of the saints really is. John Fawcett was a minister in England at the end of the 18th century. He was a minister in a fairly out of the way place, and he was called to another church in what (humanly speaking) was a far more significant place, and materially speaking it carried a far more significant salary for his wife and for his family. Not for that reason, but because he thought this was an opportunity for him to minister to more people, he decided he would accept the call of this other congregation. So he and Mrs Fawcett, and people in the church who helped, packed their bags and got everything on the cart. So imagine Mr and Mrs Fawcett sitting on their cart, with their chairs and their kitchen table and the few books that Mr Fawcett had. They were just about to set off, and his congregation gathered around him to bid him farewell. Just as they bid him farewell, they all burst into tears. There they are, he is leaving them, and they are weeping and weeping and weeping. And Mr Fawcett turns to his wife, looks into the back of the cart, and says, "I think we need to unpack this and stay with these people. We cannot possibly leave those to whom we are bound so closely in Christian love."

Most of us are so used to having ministers that we like (I hope). We are supposed to have good [feelings] towards ministers as Christians. But ministers do very unusual things. There isn't another profession in the world that is called to do what ministers are called to do. Remember how Paul puts it to Timothy: When you teach the people of God the Word, make sure you reprove them and correct them and challenge them and search their consciences (2 Timothy 3:16). So very often, if somebody is a true minister of the gospel, he (under his own preaching) and we as members of the congregation should feel, "How much more of this can I take? My sins are being exposed! God is challenging me here." Speaking for myself, sometimes under the ministry of the Word I find myself just bowled over by my unworthiness and by the exposure of my sin and by my need that seems to take place and the wonder of Spirit empowered preaching. And yet, these people still loved him. These people were crying, because they didn't want him to go. Because of course, they understood that what he had done in his teaching them God's Word had transformed them into a community where they loved one another so much. They just couldn't bear for these bonds to be broken.

Which, among other things, teaches us that the more we truly become a church, the more pain we will experience when our fellowship is broken – either by removal in this world, or by removal of someone we love to another world. It is a great lie that Christians don't feel the loss of death the way non-Christians do. Christians actually feel the loss of death more keenly than non-Christians do, because they feel the sweetness of what has been broken. Yes, by God's grace there is light and there can even be joy and hope. But that doesn't mean that we are any different from Jesus, who, even though He knew He was going to raise Lazarus from the dead, wept loudly at his tomb.

[Paul is thinking] about all that he is willing to put up with in his life for the sake of a group of Christians who ethnically and in all kinds of other ways are so different from him. It is a wonderful illustration of the very words of John Fawcett's that we have been singing: "Blest be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love" (Blest Be the Tie that Binds, 1872).

Bound in Love🔗

Now, it is so important that we understand that that is what the church is. The church is not a club where we share together in activities that we just happen to have an interest in. The church is a community where our hearts are bound together in love. And Paul in this passage (if I can just pick out one or two highlights of what he is saying) is telling us what it is that creates that kind of community.

I don't know what your experience is, but my experience is that very often people who are unchurched or who are not Christians have very strange and confused ideas of what a church really is. But I have often found, when they come in among the people who belong to a vibrant, living church, that they will turn to me or to whoever they have come with almost open mouthed and say, "I didn't realise that this is what church was really like!" And this answers our Lord's prayer in John 17, [where Jesus says]: When my people's fellowship is a mirror image of the fellowship that I have with my Father, then the world will become to believe that you sent me to be the Saviour of the world. So we often need to underline for ourselves that our single most significant evangelistic tool in the 21st century is simply that we should be a real church. In a way, it is as simple as that. Be a real church, and people, when they come among us, will say, "I never thought church was like this! This is absolutely extraordinary! Where on earth did this come from?" And of course, graciously we will say, "It didn't come from earth! It came from heaven."

The Church as the Body of Christ🔗

But how does it come from heaven? That is what Paul was talking about here. I want you to notice a couple of things that he says. First of all, in order to accomplish this, the Lord Jesus gives particular gifts to the whole body of Christ. You would have noticed in this passage that that is the picture that Paul uses when he describes the church: He says the church is like a body. The interesting thing about that is that he is the only person in the Bible who says that. He is the only author in the Bible who ever describes the church as a body. An intriguing question is: Where did he get that idea from? One of the places he got it from, I think, was his experience on the Damascus road. Jesus met him on the Damascus road, and He said to him, "Saul, why are you persecuting me?" (Acts 9). Paul didn't even believe that Jesus was alive, so how could he be persecuting Him? I rather suspect that as he thought more and more through the years, "What did Jesus really mean when He said that I had been persecuting Him?" he came to understand what he talks about in Corinthians, in Romans, in Ephesians and in Colossians: That Jesus so unites His people to Himself through faith that it is as though He were their head and they were members/parts of His body. And what He wants to do (as this passage makes clear) is to grow this body and to make this body strong, so that this body becomes a standing reminder to the world of all that Jesus Christ is and all that He has done for our salvation.

The Gift of the Ministry of the Word🔗

And in order to do this, Paul says Jesus has given particular gifts. He mentions four specific gifts. He says He has given apostles, and He has given prophets, and He has given evangelists, and He has given pastors (or ‘shepherds’) and teachers (which probably is two ways of describing the same thing). The interesting thing about these four gifts is that they are all gifts of individuals whose central task is to teach the Word of God. That was the task of the apostle. That was the task of the prophet (he was literally a ‘foreteller’ and a ‘forthteller’ of the Word of God). That was the task of the evangelist (remember how Paul says to Timothy about his teaching in 2 Timothy 4:5: “Do the work of an evangelist"). And it is also the central work of pastors and teachers.

Transformed by the Gospel🔗

And if you think about it, of course Jesus would do that, because that is what He spent so much of His time doing. He spent so much of His time teaching people the truth of the gospel. Because He understood that it is by understanding the truth of the gospel and responding to the truth of the gospel that our lives begin to become transformed into His likeness. Remember Paul's famous words in Romans 12:2: "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed…" How are we transformed? We are transformed, he says, by the renewing of our minds. As the truth of the gospel makes its impact on our lives and we begin to understand the truth of the gospel, then that begins to impact and transform the whole of our lives. This is why often in Paul's letters, when things go wrong in a church or wrong in an individual Christian's life, he keeps saying, "But don't you understand the gospel? Don't you understand how the Gospel works?" And I think it is a very interesting thing in the history of the Christian church that churches and individual congregations have been most alive over the long haul when they have been taught and taught and taught and taught the Word of God. Which, again, is why Jesus prayed in His great prayer in John 17: Father, transform them – “Santify them in the truth; your word is truth” (verse 17).

Now, why is that so important? Actually, it is important because of something that, in my sense of things, most Christians have never experienced. Most Christians today have not experienced the Word of God being poured and poured and poured and poured and poured into them through the ministry of the Word. That is why Christians today are so anaemic. If you go to other parts of the world, where Christians seem to be strong and vibrant, you discover that characteristically they are meeting together in order that the Word of God may be poured into them and poured into them and poured into them and poured into them. But we have become a kind of society where [we say], “We can do it ourselves”. So in essence we say to the Lord Jesus, "I know you have given apostles and prophets and evangelists and pastors and teachers, but I can do it myself." But you can't, can you? You can't really do it yourself. But when you meet a Christian who has been immersed in what Paul is speaking about here, you begin to see how there is a stability and a strength and a poise and a dignity and a wisdom imparted to them.

What does that have to do with the church? It is simply this: It is through the ministry of the Word that the Lord is most pleased to chip the edges off my warped personality to make me more like Jesus. He is doing that in me and He is doing that in you, in order that, like a master mason, He can slide us together in such a way that we could come from totally different countries, we could have totally different personalities, we could have completely different social backgrounds, but we discover that we fit together. And there isn't another society in the world where that takes place. So Paul is emphasizing the absolute centrality to us of the ministry of God's Word. And that is why so many churches you know are so appallingly weak as churches – it is because they haven't guarded the importance of the ministry of the Word.

The Ministry of the Word Equips Believers🔗

Then notice what he says happens: This gift that Christ has given of the ministry of the Word actually serves the gifts of the whole community. This is so interesting and exciting. The purpose of the ministry of the Word is not so that a few men in the congregation can have the privilege of standing up there on a Sunday and spouting forth. The function of the ministry of the Word is that it informs and nourishes and transforms and edifies me, in order that the gifts the Lord has given to me may be strengthened, so that I may be able to use them for others. Look at what he says: "He gave…shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry" (Ephesians 4:11b-12a). The ministry of the Word reproduces itself in the ministry of the people.

This word ‘equip’ is very interesting, because it is the very language that is used in the Gospels of what Jesus found the fishermen disciples doing when He passed by at the Sea of Galilee and called them. Do remember what they were doing? They had been out fishing, and when Jesus came and called them they were mending their nets. They were repairing their nets, cleaning them, and getting them ready. For what? Getting them ready to store for winter? No. They were getting them ready so that they could fish successfully the next night. That is the language that is used here. This is what happens when the Word of God “jumps out” of the pulpit and starts running around our lives. We begin to discover that the gifts the Lord has given to us as individuals are sharpened and honed and strengthened, and our lives are healed, and we are equipped, in order that in due term we may be able to serve others and minister to others.

The Individual Gifts Given to Believers🔗

Notice what Paul says about this. There is a wonderful balance to what he says. Christ gives the ministry of the Word. The ministry of the Word builds up the ministry of the whole church. And then the gifts that Christ has given to each member in turn further build the whole church up. Until, as he says, when every part is doing its work properly, the body grows (Ephesians 4:16) to the “measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (4:13). Or, if I can put it this way: When someone comes to church and isn't reminded of Jesus somehow or another by the presence of this community, then something has gone wrong in the way in which the gifts that Christ has given to that community are being used. Because when our gifts are strengthened and nourished and employed in this way, we find that the body begins to build itself up, and more and more as a community we become a standing reminder of the grace and the glory and the lordship and the saving work of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Using Our Gifts to Serve Others🔗

How is that so? For this reason: When Jesus gives gifts to His people, He gives those gifts to us not for ourselves, but for our fellow believers. So if somebody says to you, “You are wonderfully spiritually gifted", you don't say, "Well, I am glad somebody recognizes it! Sometimes I feel nobody really recognizes my gifts." One of the saddest things you hear in the church is, "Nobody recognizes my gifts!" The reason that is always true is because you are not laying your gifts in tribute to the Lord Jesus Christ in order to serve others. When there is a motivation to serve and love others, there will always be a sphere for the use of the gifts that the Lord has given to you.

I love this story about Wilhelm Furtwängler, the great German conductor. He had finished some great Beethoven symphony, and the place was just resounding with praise. Somebody came up and said, "Maestro, you were magnificent tonight!" And Furtwängler said to him, "Furtwängler not magnificent. Beethoven magnificent. Furtwängler conductor." He knew his place. Did any of you see the Yo-Yo Ma concert on public television, a few weeks ago? It was absolutely breath-taking. And in the end I thought, “This man is a musician who understands his role.” At the end the place went wild with applause, but what he was doing was he was going round the members of the orchestra shaking their hands and hugging them, because I think he had a sense that they had all been servants of something greater than themselves.

When that is true in the church – when we are serving one another, when we are kneeling before one another and saying, "Dear friend, the Lord Jesus has given me something for you, and I want you to have it" (which is what it means to have a spiritual gift) – people don't see that anywhere else in the whole wide world. And they think, "What does that remind me of?" The answer is that it reminds them of the Lord Jesus, who took the servant’s towel and bowed before His disciples and washed their feet.

Every Christian Has a Gift to Use in Service🔗

The wonderful thing is that Paul suggests in this passage that each of us in the body of Christ has a gift for the body of Christ. So one of my privileges and responsibilities as a Christian and as a member of the fellowship is to say, "Lord, will you make my heart beat to serve others in such a way that it will become obvious (perhaps first to them and then even to me) what gift it is that you have given to me." I know many ministers (I would certainly include myself among them) who would never have begun the gospel ministry if it hadn't been that someone had come alongside us and said, “God has given you a gift here." Do you know what your gift is? Maybe if you don't it is because you have actually never really been prepared to serve the body of Christ. But when you become willing to serve the body of Christ, your gifts will become clear.

(Transcription of audio file from 33:30 to 33:41 omitted.)

Let me give you an illustration of this. I was speaking to somebody in the church the other day, and he said, "It was so lovely to see your mother-in-law” at a wedding that we were all at. He said, “That was special.” Because that young man was somebody for whom my mother-in-law has prayed for many years. And I thought to myself, “Isn't that something!” Here is somebody who in a hidden way has taken on the burden of somebody – somebody's life, somebody's future – and wanted to be there at the wedding as a kind of fruition of the gift the Lord had given to them of prayer. If the truth were told, there is probably no greater gift needed in the Christian church in the Western world today than the gift of prayer. And yet it is so demeaned. Sometime you almost have to gently take [people] by the shoulders when they say, “The only thing I can do is pray” in order to say to them, “That is the greatest gift in the world.” Some of you [might think], “There is not very much I can do now.” Maybe you have dreaded that day. I kind of dread that day. I dread that day when I close the door and I think, “No more preaching.” You can feel so helpless. Your physical strength goes, and all you can do is pray. But that is absolutely everything.

(Transcription of audio file from 35:04 to 35:17 and 35:33 to 35:49 omitted.)

The Body Builds Itself Up When Each Part Works Properly🔗

Now, here is the sting in the tail. Paul says, "The body builds itself up when each part is working properly" (Ephesians 4:16b). Anyone here with something wrong with them today? Maybe you have got toothache today, or you have got some sickness. Do you just feel that sickness or toothache in the part of your anatomy where it is located? No, you feel it through your whole being, don't you? That is what Paul is saying. If every part isn't doing its work properly, then the whole body suffers. What would the body of Christ to which you belong look like if everybody in the body worked the way you do? Would it be better or would it be worse? This is what binds us together.

(Transcription of audio file from 38:00 to 38:20 omitted.)

I love to tell people who are coming into membership here that there is a member of our church who has been on the waiting list for the St. Andrew’s Society of Columbia for nine years. He is not an outsider – his father was a member – and he has been on that waiting list for nine years! That must be some society to belong to. Wouldn't it be something if people said about your church, “Even if the waiting list to get into that church was nine years, it would be worth waiting for”? Shouldn't your church be worth more than membership in the St Andrew’s Society? And if it is not, could it be because you or I are one of those who aren't doing our work properly?

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