The Church

Excerpt from Concise Theology

by J.I. Packer

Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit (Eph. 2:19-22).

The church (Greek: ecclesia, meaning “assembly”) exists in, through, and because of Jesus Christ. Thus it is a distinctive New Testament reality. Yet it is at the same time a continuation, through a new phase of redemptive history, of Israel, the seed of Abraham, God’s covenant people of Old Testament times. The differences between the church and Israel are rooted in the newness of the covenant by which God and his people are bound to each other. The new covenant under which the church lives (1 Cor. 11:25; Heb. 8:7-13) is a new form of the relationship whereby God says to a chosen community, “I will be your God; you shall be my people” (Exod. 6:7; Jer. 31:33). Both the continuity and the discontinuity between Israel and the church reflect this change in the form of the covenant, which took place at Christ’s coming.

The new features of the new covenant are as follows: First, the Old Testament priests, sacrifices, and sanctuary are superseded by the mediation of Jesus, the crucified, risen, and reigning God-man (Heb. 1-10), in whom believers now find their identity as the seed of Abraham and the people of God (Gal. 3:29; 1 Pet. 2:4-10).

Second, the ethnic exclusivism of the old covenant (Deut. 7:6; Ps. 147:19-20) is replaced by the inclusion in Christ on equal terms of believers from all nations (Eph. 2-3; Rev. 5:9-10).

Third, the Spirit is poured out both on each Christian and on the church, so that fellowship with Christ (1 John 1:3), ministry from Christ (John 12:32; 14:18; Eph. 2:17), and foretastes of heaven (2 Cor. 1:22; Eph. 1:14) become realities of churchly experience.

The unbelief of most Jews (Rom. 9-11) led to a situation depicted by Paul as God breaking off the natural branches of his olive tree (the historical covenant community) and replacing them with wild olive shoots (Rom. 11:17-24). The predominantly Gentile character of the church is due not to the terms of the new covenant but to Jewish rejection of them, and Paul taught that this will one day be reversed (Rom. 11:15, 23-31).

The New Testament defines the church in terms of the fulfillment of Old Testament hopes and patterns through a relationship to all three Persons of the Godhead, brought about by the mediatorial ministry of Jesus Christ. The church is seen as the family and flock of God (Eph. 2:18; 3:15; 4:6; John 10:16; 1 Pet. 5:2-4), his Israel (Gal. 6:16); the body and bride of Christ (Eph. 1:22-23; 5:25-28; Rev. 19:7; 21:2, 9-27); and the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 3:16; cf. Eph. 2:19-22). Those in the church are called the “elect” (chosen), the “saints” (consecrated ones, set apart for God), and the “brothers” (adopted children of God).

Essentially, the church is, was, and always will be a single worshiping community, permanently gathered in the true sanctuary which is the heavenly Jerusalem (Gal. 4:26; Heb. 12:22-24), the place of God’s presence. Here all who are alive in Christ, the physically living with the physically dead (i.e., the church militant with the church triumphant) worship continually. In the world, however, this one church appears in the form of local congregations, each one called to fulfill the role of being a microcosm (a small-scale representative sample) of the church as a whole. This explains how it is that for Paul the one church universal is the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:12-26; Eph. 1:22-23; 3:6; 4:4), and so is the local congregation (1 Cor. 12:27).

It is customary to characterize the church on earth as “one” (because it really is so in Christ, as Eph. 4:3-6 shows, despite the great number of local churches and denominational groupings), “holy” (because it is consecrated to God corporately, as each Christian is individually, Eph. 2:21), “catholic” (because it is worldwide in extent and seeks to hold the fullness of the faith), and “apostolic” (because it is founded on apostolic teaching, Eph. 2:20). All four qualities may be illustrated from Ephesians 2:19-22.

There is a distinction to be drawn between the church as we humans see it and as God alone can see it. This is the historic distinction between the “visible church” and the “invisible church.” Invisible means, not that we can see no sign of its presence, but that we cannot know (as God, the heart-reader, knows, 2 Tim. 2:19) which of those baptized, professing members of the church as an organized institution are inwardly regenerate and thus belong to the church as a spiritual fellowship of sinners loving their Savior. Jesus taught that in the organized church there would always be people who thought they were Christians and passed as Christians, some indeed becoming ministers, but who were not renewed in heart and would therefore be exposed and rejected at the Judgment (Matt. 7:15-27; 13:24-30, 36-43, 47-50; 25:1-46). The “visible-invisible” distinction is drawn to take account of this. It is not that there are two churches but that the visible community regularly contains imitation Christians whom God knows not to be real (and who could know this for themselves if they would, 2 Cor. 13:5).

The New Testament assumes that all Christians will share in the life of a local church, meeting with it for worship (Heb. 10:25), accepting its nurture and discipline (Matt. 18:15-20; Gal. 6:1), and sharing in its work of witness. Christians disobey God and impoverish themselves by refusing to join with other believers when there is a local congregation that they can belong to.

God does not prescribe for Christian worship in the detailed fashion of Old Testament times, but the New Testament shows clearly what the staple ingredients of corporate Christian worship are, namely, praise (“psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs,” Eph. 5:19), prayer, and preaching, with regular administration of the Lord’s Supper (Acts 20:7-11). Singing to God’s praise was evidently a big thing in the apostolic church, as it has been in all movements of spiritual power ever since: Paul and Barnabas, along with their praying (aloud), sang hymns in the prison in Philippi (Acts 16:25), and the New Testament contains a number of what appear to be hymn fragments (Eph. 5:14; Phil. 2:6-11; 1 Tim. 3:16; and others) while the “new songs” of Revelation are both numerous and exuberant, indeed ecstatic (Rev. 4:8, 11; 5:9-10, 12-13; 7:10, 12; 11:15, 17-18; 12:10-12; 15:3-4; 19:1-8; 21:3-4). Any local church anywhere that is spiritually alive will undoubtedly take its singing, praying, and preaching very seriously indeed, and be jealous for all three.

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