Word, Sacrament, and Discipline: The Offices of Christ

            All that the church is can be found in her union with Christ. As John Calvin has so memorably put it, “we must remember that as long as Christ remains outside of us, and we are separated from him, all that he has suffered and done for the salvation of the human race remains useless and of no value for us.”[1]          This is true not only of Christian’s individually but of the church corporate as well. Christ is “head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Ephesians 1:22-23).

            Thus, in considering the church’s union in Christ there arises an interesting connection between who Christ is and what the church is. Specifically, we see a parallel between who Christ is in his threefold office as Prophet, Priest, and King and noting what the marks of a true church are.

            This connection has been picked up in Reformed thinking. The Heidelberg Catechism, in questions 31 and 32, explicitly unite Christ’s mediatorial office as Prophet, Priest, and King and what that means for the church’s membership in Him. Kevin DeYoung, commenting on this connection, writes that the church “[ordained] by the same Father and anointed by the same Spirit, [is] to fulfill, in a lesser way, the same offices as our namesake.”[2] The English reformer and martyr Nicholas Ridley, noting the church’s union in Christ, wrote that the church “which is the spouse of Christ, the body of Christ... is known unto men in this dark world [by these marks]: the sincere preaching of God’s holy word, the due administration of the sacraments, charity, and a faithful observing of ecclesiastical discipline, according to the word of God.”[3]

            Let us examine each office and mark respectively.

            Christ, who is our Prophet, is the clearest revelation of God to us. Not only is he the incarnate Word, the image of the invisible God, but as our Prophet all he teaches us is true and life-giving. “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son” (Hebrews 1:1-2).

            And we now have his prophetic teaching given to us through his Apostles, inscripturated and written down for us in our Bible’s (Acts 2:42, 2 Tim. 3:14-17). Christ’s church then is seen, is known, to be a true church in how she teaches that word. Christ preached reconciliation, the forgiveness of sins for entrance into his Kingdom and so too does his church now preach that same message. “All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us” (2 Corinthians 5:18-20).

            The church serves Christ our Prophet and showcases Christ in prophetically declaring and rightly preaching his inspired and inscripturated word. “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17).

            Christ, who is our great High Priest, not only came to be our sole mediator but offered himself as our only acceptable sacrifice, dying on our behalf and, three days later and overcoming death on our behalf. And even now he lives to intercede for us, representing his elect before the Father. The church makes this visible in the right administration of her sacraments.

            It is the local church who baptizes members into the body, which is Christ’s church, visibly showing through the sign of baptism someone’s death into Christ. And baptism showcases their being born again into Christ’s resurrection, having in him newness of life as well as the hope of a future resurrection to come.

            So too do we see Christ’s mediatorial priesthood in the Lord’s Supper; his church partaking of the bread and the cup, signifying their communion with Christ’s broken body and their sins washed away by his shed blood. As the church eats and drinks, it showcases their union in and oneness with Christ their High Priest.

            Yes, by faith alone we are forgiven and united to Christ, but it is the right administration of the sacraments which makes this visible to a watching world. Indeed, “as you come to Jesus, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:4-5).

            Now, this brings us to Christ’s kingship. Jesus is indeed King of kings, and carries out his office of king in “subduing us to himself, in ruling and defending us, and in restraining and conquering all his and our enemies” (Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q. & A. 25). As of yet, not every knee has bowed to his supreme rule, but the church, as citizens of his kingdom, has. It is his church which submits to the rule of his word.

            When Peter rightly confessed Christ, Christ as King promised that even the gates of hell could not overcome the church, that is, those united by the same confession. It was there where he also authorized the church to delineate and establish the boundaries of his kingdom, an outworking of Christ’s kingship here on earth. “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. (Matthew 16:19).

            What this meant was that the church was to exercise church discipline. If a brother in sin refuses to repent - that is, refuses to submit his life to Christ as King - then, “if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.  Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.  Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven.  For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Matthew 18:17-20).

            This is Christ’s kingly rule being deputized and wielded by his church. Certainly a Day will come where Christ our King will delineate with his sword, but now his church wields the keys showcasing to the world what true submission to Christ looks like.

            Thus we see that the marks of a true church - the right preaching of the Word, right administration of the sacraments, and right church discipline - stem out of and find there grounding in Christ’s offices of Prophet, Priest, and King. The church is tasked with making Christ known to the world, and we do so most fully when we preach the Gospel (this is Christ’s prophetic work shown in and through us), when we show the Gospel (this is Christ’s priestly work made visible through us), and when we protect the Gospel (this being Christ’s kingly work seen in and through us).

Stephen Unthank (MDiv, Capital Bible Seminary) serves at Greenbelt Baptist Church in Greenbelt, MD, just outside of Washington, DC.  He lives in Maryland with his wife, Maricel and their two children, Ambrose and Lilou.

[1] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 3.1.1. The fuller quote, “we must remember that as long as Christ remains outside of us, and we are separated from him, all that he has suffered and done for the salvation of the human race remains useless and of no value for us.”1 Therefore, to share with us what he has received from the Father, he had to become ours and to dwell within us. For this reason, he is called ‘our Head’ [Eph. 4:15], and ‘the first-born among many brethren’ [Rom. 8:29]. We also, in turn, are said to be ‘engrafted into him’ [Rom. 11:17], and to ‘put on Christ’ [Gal. 3:27]; for, as I have said, all that he possesses is nothing to us until we grow into one body with him. It is true that we obtain this by faith.”

[2] Kevin DeYoung, The Good News We Almost Forgot: Rediscovering the Gospel in a 16th Century Catechism (Moody Publishers, 2010), 69. J. Todd Billings writes about the connection between questions 31 and 32 in the Heidelberg Catechism, noting how the doctrine of our union in Christ undergirds the connection and what it means for the church’s ministry today; see J. Todd Billings, Union With Christ: Reframing Theology and Ministry for the Church (Baker Academic, 2011), 160-165.

[3] The Reformation of the Church: A Collection of Reformed and Puritan Documents on Church Issues, edited by Iain H. Murray (Banner of Truth, 1997), 19.


Stephen Unthank