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The True Church and being Citizens of Israel

“Remember that you were formerly gentiles in the flesh — called the uncircumcision by those called the circumcision in the flesh by hands — that you were at that time without Christ, alienated from the citizenship of Israel and a stranger to the covenant and the promise, being without hope and an atheist in the world.”

(Ephesians 2:11-12)

One more note before we move to verse 13…what is this language about the citizenship of Israel? Is this a reference to becoming part of national Israel as some would suppose? What is Paul referring to here?

First of all, no. In Romans 9, Paul has already distinguished between national Israel and True Israel, the latter being the children of the promise who are the spiritual children of Israel (Romans 9:6-9). This, in context, is a reference to those God elected to save (Romans 9:10-13). In Galatians 3:29, Paul refers to all of those who are in Christ as the ones who are Abraham’s offspring and thus heirs according to the promise (a.k.a… Children of Promise spoken of in Romans 9). And thus, all of the promises of God to Israel find their fulfillment in Christ and are directed toward the Christian church (2 Corinthians 1:20-22). 

So, in the absolute sense, this is not just saying to the gentiles in the church in Ephesus that they were apart from the Jewish nation of Israel; this is saying that they were outside of True Israel and hence they lived amongst the sons of disobedience.

This raises an important point as to the significance of the church. Christians are not called to be “Lone Rangers” as it were; they were called to be part of a unified body with Christ as the head. Any time we are outside of that context, we find ourselves in a place of separation from the covenant and promises of God. Within it, those promises are meaningful and true, belonging to us.

Yet, in the west, we have embraced the notion of rugged individualism. And while that is an admirable thing in secular culture, it is an idea that is alien to Christian living. We have also embraced a form of commercial mentality when it comes to our church attendance. We go here for a while so long as the preaching pleases us and then we go there. That does not mean there is not a right time to leave a church, but leaving should not be predicated by whether you enjoy the preaching or the activities of the larger body. Leaving should be based on the question of whether the church which you are attending is a true church. If it is a true church, remain. If it is not a true church, flee to a true church.

What constitutes the true church? What distinguishes the gathering of the Children of Promise? There are three things found in the Scriptures and laid out for us in the Belgic Confession (Article 29): the pure doctrine of the Gospel is preached, the pure administration of the sacraments as instituted by Christ, and church discipline is exercised for the chastening of sin. If the whole council of God is not preached or if the doctrines of men are preached instead of the doctrine of God, then it is a false church. If sacraments are treated casually and not with prayerful introspection and commitment, then it is a false church. If church discipline either is ignored or if it is practiced to create a legalistic caste system in the church, then it is a false church. If the church leadership are confronted with their failure in one or more of these areas and they refuse to repent, then you are in a false church from which you must flee. 

They may have good intentions in that false body, but of what value are good intentions when the Apostle Paul condemns that church body as “accursed”? If you graft a healthy body part into a body where the whole of the body is diseased and gangrenous, of what benefit is the healthy part? Will it not too become diseased and gangrenous? If you cling to the doctrines of men, will they save you? Of what hope can they bring? 

While it is true that no church is perfect according to the standards of God, the question is, for what are they striving? Will they repent if their error is shown to them or are they committed and bound to human traditions? What is preached? What is taught? What is sung? What is their foundation? Shall it not be God’s word in all of these areas? Shall we set aside Divine Writ in favor for the ways of men? Is this honoring to God? I would say, “no,” and I would say that such an approach betrays the fact that you are committed to being outside of the citizenship of True Israel. 

If you are tempted to doubt the concept of True and False churches. Maybe you just see me as a grumpy theologian who prefers to sit in his own corner and grump (sometimes I feel like that anyway), then I ask you to look at what has been held by the church fathers through the ages. You will find that they would speak very much like I have spoken. You will find that this notion of rugged individualism is an anomaly when it comes to the history of the church. Look to the confessions, look to the creeds, look to the ancient councils of the church. Over and again you will find that they proclaim the same message, that in salvation we are bound to a body and that there are things that define a true Christian church body, separating it from the false ones. Sometimes it is a matter of doctrine and sometimes it is a matter of practice. But, believe whatever you want to believe “just so long as you love Jesus,” is a notion alien to the church in history and it ought to be anathematized today. 

Colonists Away from the Homeland

“But our country exists in heaven, from which we also eagerly await a Savior — the Lord Jesus Christ,”

(Philippians 3:20)

While many of our English translations will render this, “our citizenship is in heaven,” to do so requires a degree of inference. Literally, Paul writes that “our country” or “our homeland” is in heaven. The language paints a picture of a group of colonists living in a land that is not their own. One must recognize that in Paul’s era, this was a common experience. Rome was expanding its borders and oftentimes Roman citizens would relocate to newly expanded territories for economic reasons and thus found themselves as strangers in a strange land.

Some of our translations, then, infer the language of citizenship to emphasize the permanent connection to where the people of the church belong. This world is not our home. Peter describes us a sojourners (1 Peter 2:11), the author of Hebrews says that we await the permanent city to come (Hebrews 13:14), and Paul contrasts the Jerusalem above with the Jerusalem below (Galatians 4:21-28). Satan is referred to as the prince of the power of the air (Ephesians 2:2 — often used as a reference to this world but also a reference to idolatry — vanity of vanities says the Preacher!). Like Abraham, we are travelers amongst a people who are unlike us.

How are they unlike us? Go to the previous verses. They are those whose end is destruction, who revel in their sin and seek to satiate their bellies. They are those who will not follow the model of Christ but who pursue the things of the flesh. In contrast, we live a different lifestyle, pursuing the pattern of behavior that we have observed in Paul and in other faithful believers before us.

I find it interesting that when I travel, everyone knows that I am an American even before I open my mouth. Perhaps it is the cowboy boots and the blue jeans, perhaps it is the way I carry myself, whatever it is, when I travel it is as if I carry a neon sign over my head that says, “American.” And note that I am not complaining about that reality; I am grateful to have been born in this great nation. I simply make an observation that should carry back to Paul’s language here. By the way we live, the people of this world (unbelievers) ought to recognize that we don’t belong to this world. Sadly, for many professing Christians, that is a stretch.

But Paul does not stop with the idea of belonging to a different country. He also speaks that while we are colonists here in this world, we are awaiting the coming of a Savior — the Lord Jesus Christ — the Prince of Heaven who will return to this world in glory and call all his citizens to himself. Therein lies our hope. Our hope is not in simply returning to heaven in spirit after our death, but it is in the physical resurrection, like Christ’s resurrection, that will come when our Savior returns from the homeland to claim his own people. That is our hope. Sadly, too, it seems that many professing Christians do not have this hope in sight either.

Like Abraham before us, we are sojourners and aliens in a land not our own. Like the Israelites in the wilderness, we are a church moving through the wilderness on the way to the promised land…but we are not there yet. Yet, let our lifestyles reflect the land to which we belong.