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This series offers an overview of the chief teachings of the Christian church.

People who are orphans, when they are adopted into a loving and secure home, will sometimes say that they have found their “forever family.” Such adoption is the case when we read in Psalm 68:6: “God sets the solitary in families.” As we continue learning about the work of the Holy Spirit, we find that He is credited with doing just that for those whom He has “called . . . by the gospel, enlightened . . . with His gifts, sanctified and kept . . . in the true faith” ( Luther’s Catechism, Sydow edition). Luther continues, “In the same way, He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian Church on earth.” The Holy Spirit is in the business of making a “forever family” for Jesus Christ. He does it daily, with millions of people, all with an eternal home in mind.

The English Bible’s primary name for this “family” is Church ; the New Testament Greek word for it is ekklesia (from which we get words like “ecclesiastical”); it means “called out,” and that fits, because the Church is made up of those whom the Holy Spirit has called out of a perishing and corrupt world. By God’s grace these have escaped sin’s condemnation and despair. The apostle Peter says God has called the Church “out of darkness into His marvelous light.” (I Peter 2:9)

Saved by grace through faith in Christ, the righteousness of faith is our adoption decree, the declaration of our legal status as members of God’s family. God alone is responsible for building this Church. In the days after Pentecost, after the Holy Spirit had been poured out upon the believers and they preached the risen Christ boldly and vigorously in Jerusalem, we read that “the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved.” (Acts 2:47) Believers in Christ sprang up wherever the Word was scattered—not like individual blades of grass; rather, like the aspen clump—one plant which springs up with new shoots all over the forest floor, yet remains, beneath the soil, a single living organism.

Because it springs up out of the soil of Gospel preaching and faith, the Bible (shifting the metaphor a bit) says the Church is a building, made out of living stones (believers, like you and me): “Coming to Him as to a living stone, rejected indeed by men, but chosen by God and precious, you also, as living stones, are being built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” (1 Peter 2:4-5).

There are some imperfect uses of the English word church . When we speak of the ekklesia —people gathered by faith in Christ into this invisible, spiritual body—most Christian writers will write “Church” with a capital C. But sometimes we say, “going to church,” meaning to gather for worship, or that we’re going to paint “the church,” referring to that building set aside for congregational uses. These meanings are not “the Church” in the proper sense. Because it’s present wherever the Word and Sacraments are in use, the Church is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone” (Ephesians 2:20).

We are indeed a family, or as the Apostles’ Creed says, a “communion of saints.” The Holy Spirit, Whose inspired Word contains many metaphors, speaks of the Church as a body functioning seamlessly as a communion of mutually dependent parts. 1 Corinthians 12:12 explains “for as the body is one and has many members, but all the members of that one body, being many, are one body, so also is Christ.” This Body is our “forever family”—not always so impressive on the outside, but in God’s view, it is holy, Christian, a communion (fellowship), and filled with saints as far as the eye can see.

Peter Reim is a former pastor who now teaches English at the University of Wisconsin-Stout. He makes his home in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.