The foundation and structure of unity. What is the basis of Christian unity? There are multiple protestant denominations that exist – even multiple types of the same denominations. There are a plethora of Christian cults constantly seeking our affirmation and their legitimacy. The Roman Catholic Church has become just another denomination rather than what the reformers understood it to be – a false church and a church of the antichrist. Thus, there remains a frightening confusion between what it means to be a true and false church, between true and false unity. Sadly, it is painfully evident that ignorance abounds as to what it means to be confessional – let alone reformed; to be Protestant – let alone evangelical. On what basis, therefore, can we even know if we have genuine unity with another professing Christian? I want to put it to you that the basis upon which we can know if we have unity with other professing Christians is based on what Paul describes as the foundation and structure of the household of God. The foundation – sola Scriptura (Scripture alone) – and the structure – solus Christus – (Christ alone) are the fundamental principles that build the true household of God. This means the foundation of the gospel community can only be built on the sole supreme authority of the Word of God – for faith and life. The structure, indeed the only structure that can stand on this foundation, is that of the true person and work of Christ – and Him alone.
It’s no wonder that Paul used this imagery in Ephesians ch. 2 where he describes that we, both Jew and Gentile, are saved by grace through faith and not by works. This redemption purchased for His people, who are saved out of two major people groups (Jews and Gentile), brings these peoples into one united household. The implications of this are: ‘So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.’ (Ephesians 2:19–22 ESV)
The foundation. How does the Paul describe the unity of his people who have been redeemed? First, as a ‘household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets.’ The redeemed have unity being built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, that is by believing the words of those who spoke the very Words of God – pointing us to Christ as they spoke with the authority of Christ. Thus,affirming that Scripture alone has – and is – the supreme authority – because it is the Word of God – is foundational to true Christian unity.
The structure. Secondly, the redeemed also have unity in ‘Christ Jesus…being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure…grows into a holy temple in the Lord.’ The cornerstone of the building is a crucial piece which secures and strengthens the frame or structure. It’s what all the other structural pieces are measured against and aligned with. Without this structure, the building will not stand. The gospel of the person and work of Christ – otherwise known as justification (by faith alone) is the ‘article upon which the church stands or falls’ (Luther) or the hinge upon which everything turns (Calvin). Without getting the person and work of Christ right, without getting justification right, without getting the gospel right, we have no structure, we have no true church.
Implications. If we share the same foundation and the same structure we can know that we have unity with like minded believers who believe God’s Word (the prophets and the apostles) over man’s word, and who believe the biblical gospel. If we believe God’s Word and His Gospel it doesn’t matter (for the purposes of evangelical unity) whether or not we are Baptist, Methodist, Anglican, Lutheran, Presbyterian, or Congregational etc. because we – together – believe His Word and His Work. Interestingly, this foundation and structure are none other than the two main causes of the Protestant reformation. The initial flash point of the reformation was whether we can purchase forgiveness through any means, either money, works or attitude. That is, has Christ done everything to accomplish our salvation or not? Is Christ really the cornerstone or is He just the blue print of the building – the example? Have we really been justified by faith alone or by cooperation? How do we know this? This 16th century debate then necessarily led to expose the underlying problem of the Roman Church: that Scripture was not the sole and supreme authority. Theirs was an authority ‘built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets‘… yes, but also on popes, councils and man made traditions. You see, if your foundation is faulty, so will your cornerstone be. If your foundation is right it is difficult to get the cornerstone wrong. Without sharing this Scripture alone foundation and this Christ alone structure we do not have any union, unity or fellowship with any believer who denies these realities even though they claim ‘Jesus’, profess to be Christian, or are even employed as a pastor. What abut the Roman Catholics? Their official doctrine opposes both the Scripture alone foundation and the Christ alone structure. They add the commandments of men to Scripture and they add works of men to Christ.
A final point. What about those who confess these things but by their life deny them? It is true that one can be orthodox in theology (at least on the surface) and profess these truths yet inwardly they disobey and deny them. These people are generally exposed when God sends them suffering and persecution. This is why many people leave the church when ‘bad’ things happen to them. But it does raise the final point. The final point is this, that we can consider these two truths, the foundation and structure, as external evidences of unity. However, the ultimate reality, that is alluded to in the passage above, gives us true unity: In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit. Those who have been born again, who have the Spirit of Christ, who are indwelled by the Holy Spirit have union together. This is what we could call the internal unity. What we profess to believe above is the external unity but the Spirit of Christ indwelling us and causing us to trust His Word and His Work (i.e. the gospel) is the internal evidence and means of true Christian unity. With the Spirit living inside of us, we cannot for long hold errors relating to the foundation and structure for long because the Spirit of sanctification will sanctify our hearts and minds. The Holy Spirit is also then the unifying Spirit in Christ.
A final word. I think it is also important when we talk about the authority of Scripture and the gospel of the person and work of Christ (i.e. justification by faith alone – because Christ alone has done everything for us) we must not only affirm what the proposition affirms, we must also deny what the proposition denies. For example, for one to say that they believe in justification by grace alone they must also believe that those who do not believe in the gospel will perish. There is no gospel if there is no saving from something…i.e. hell. There are plenty of Christians who talk about grace alone but in the next confused breath assert that somehow everyone will be saved. Do you see how this is an undermining of the gospel they claim to believe? Sneeky and cunning people can use our vocabulary and say they believe in the authority of Scripture meanwhile being led solely by their feelings, subjectivism or culture. In our culture today we have some people justifying abortion, homosexuality (in the church, marriage and ministry) and transgenderism by stating they are consistent with Scripture. Yet these beliefs are tantamount to calling God a liar. With such people we have no unity. They are actively denying the authority of Scripture and the gospel of Jesus Christ who – if they would only listen to the gospel – would be saved if they repented and trusted in His Word and believed the Word who became flesh to die for sinners like me.
Soli Deo Gloria