You’ve maybe heard the joke before about St. Peter welcoming people into heaven. He’s giving them a tour, and when he passes a certain room he asks the touring people to be very quiet as they walk on by. “Why?”, they ask. “Because the people in that room think they’re the only ones here.” The joke is usually aimed at Christians who belong to churches which take a firm stance on the truth of the Bible and aren’t so quick to join together in joint worship or joint efforts with Christians who take a looser stand on the Scriptures. “They think they’re the only people going to heaven” is the accusatory criticism that’s often lodged in their direction. The people making the criticism know that it’s not an accurate description of what those Christians believe, but the remark is often made anyway. And, since our church body is one of those Christian denominations that tries hard to stand firmly on the Scriptures in all that we teach and do, we’ve heard the accusation launched in our direction at times. We’ve been joked about as being the people in the room who think they’re the only ones in heaven.
That’s not true, of course. In fact, we confess just the opposite in our regular weekly worship: “We believe in the Holy Christian Church”. We believe what the Lord said through Isaiah the prophet, “As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my Word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.” (Isaiah 55) We know that it is the Holy Spirit who calls us by the Gospel, and that where the Gospel is present in Word and Sacrament, there will be people who by the Spirit’s power believe and are saved.
All those, therefore, who trust the Lord Jesus for forgiveness and salvation are our fellow Christians. They are part of the total group of people in this world who have been called out of the darkness of unbelief into the light of faith in Christ. They may belong to many different kinds of Christian churches. They may go by many names. They live in many places. How big is the number? Who are the true believers in Christ? “The Lord knows those who are his.” (II Timothy 2:19) God knows! And we’ll see them in heaven. Then we too will know who all belong to the Holy Christian Church, that total number of believers across time and across the world who know and trust that in the sacrifice of Christ they have been cleansed and made holy in God’s eyes. And even though we don’t know who they all might be now, we are comforted and encouraged by the fact that we are not alone, but there are many more people out there in this world who share our faith in Jesus. We are connected to those fellow saints by an invisible bond. So, in the same breath as we confess the existence of that “Holy Christian Church”, we acknowledge that it truly is a “Communion of Saints”. Thank you, Lord, for bringing us into that connection, that communion!
At the same time, God asks something of his believers that we cannot ignore. He asks that we remain faithful to his Word in our belief and in our teaching. “Do not add to what I command you and do not subtract from it.” (Deuteronomy 4:2) When it comes to the teaching of the Word, and when it comes to where we identify as church members and how we want our children taught, we are reminded by Paul, “Test everything. Hold on to the good. Avoid every kind of evil.” (I Thessalonians 5:21-12) Many more such admonitions could be cited. But what is clear is that God wants his Word taught accurately and without addition or subtraction. Unfortunately in this sinful, imperfect world there will be teachers and churches who intentionally or carelessly or accidentally add or subtract. When that becomes the stated stand or the public confession of a group of Christians, then denominational lines are drawn. God can still have believers where false teachings are promoted. Such is the power of the Word that is also taught. But, he still wants his believers to avoid and separate from false teaching.
So, this side of heaven, it is true that there will be divisions among Christian groups while it’s also true that there will be people within those groups who are saved and are part of that greater assembly called the Holy Christian Church. In the same way, it is true that God wants his believers to stand firmly upon the Word, and that by necessity will cause divisions among Christians this side of heaven. Yes, we’ll see perfect unity in Paradise. But today, we must hold firmly to the Holy Scriptures, even if that means worshiping and working separately from groups who don’t hold firmly.
God knows those who are his. We’ll see them in heaven – so nobody will need to be quiet when they walk past our room! God also wants faithfulness to his Word. So we’ll seek out and join with those who share that faithfulness here on earth. And God blesses that earthly fellowship when like-minded, Bible believing Christians hold to the Word and worship and work together. “How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity! … For there the Lord bestows his blessing, even life forevermore”. (Psalm 133)
Blessings in Christ,