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Expressions of the Church

The Bible refers to the church in both general and specific terms.  In some places it refers to the church in terms of all of God’s people, in all places, at all times.  In other places, Scripture references the church in terms of a specific group of God’s people at a specific location and place in time.  Bible scholars typically refer to the general description of the church as the “universal church” and the specific description of the church as the “local church.”

The Universal Church

The universal church is used to describe the expression of the church as all of God’s people at all times and locations.  (Acts 9:31, 1 Corinthians 12:28, Matthew 16:18, Colossians 1:18) A person becomes a member of the univeral church by faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ.  Only genuine Christians who turn from a lifestyle of sin to whole-heartedly trust in and obey Jesus are included in the universal church.  Practically this means that only those who are members of the universal church will be saved by virtue of their faith in Jesus Christ.

The Local Church

The local church describes the expression of the church as a specific group of God’s people at a specific time and location.  (1 Thessalonians 1:1, 1 Corinthians 4:17, 2 Corinthians 11:8) Local churches are smaller gatherings of the universal church where Christians who live in a particular city or neighborhood gather together to corporately worship God and scatter to pursue non-Christians for Jesus through mission.  The local church, as an expression of the universal church, is made up primarily of Christians who place their faith in Jesus and live for the glory of God. 

Unlike the universal church, however, the local church also consists of non-Christians who attend a church gathering as curious onlookers determing whether not they will believe in and follow Jesus.  As a result, not all attenders of the local church are Christians and not everyone who attends an expression of the local church will be saved.  Only members of the universal church, who possess saving faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord will be saved by his work as they live in obedience to him in this life and the next.

Two Truths

The concepts of the universal and local church reveal two key truths.  First, only God, who reads the hearts of  men, knows those who belong to the universal church.  2 Timothy 2:19 tells us that “the Lord knows those who are his.”  This means that we will likely not truly know who has, and who has not, truly trusted in and followed Jesus this side of eternity.  God’s arms are open wide inviting all people everywhere to turn from sin to trust in Jesus.  We don’t know who will respond and who won’t, we simply need to lovingly and deliberately seek to invite one another into the church through faith in, and obedience to, Jesus.

Second, this also means that there are people who attend the local church gathering who are not genuine Christians, though they may outwardly look like they are.  (Matthew 7:21-23, 1 John 2:19, Acts 20:29-30)  Not all people who attend a local Church trust in and obey Jesus.  Not all people who attend a local church will be saved. In other words attending a local church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than standing in a garage makes you a mechanic.  It is only through authentic faith in Jesus Christ that we are enrolled in the universal church.  Becoming a member of God’s people is only made possible by faith in Jesus’ substitutionary death for the forgiveness of our sins and in Jesus’ resurrection for victory over Satan, sin, hell and death.  Therefore, we only have the power to live for God by faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus, by which we serve him all of our days in obedience to Jesus as Lord as serving members of the local church so that, through our witness, others might meet Jesus and become members of the universal church of God.  

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