The Ancient Faith
A PLEA TO RESTORE THE APOSTOLIC CHURCH
James C. Creel
In the early part of the nineteenth century, Thomas Campbell, Alexander Campbell, Barton W. Stone, Walter Scott and others, began the reformatory or restoration movement, sometimes called the Current Reformation. In this restoration movement it was sought to restore the faith and practice of the inspired apostles of Jesus the Christ, and thus reproduce the apostolic church. Hence, we have The Plea to Restore the Apostolic Church. This same matchless plea is made today by us, the children of the fathers, who claim to be simply disciples of Christ, or Christians only, and belong to the Church of Christ only.
I. What Called Forth the Plea?
The plea to restore the apostolic church was called forth because of grave departure or falling away from “the faith which was once for all delivered unto the saints.” Modern denominationalism, with its warring sects and conflicting creeds, is proof that there has been serious departure from primitive Christianity. Furthermore, the apostle Paul clearly foretells of a coming departure of falling away from the faith in these words:
But the Spirit saith expressly, that in later times some shall fall away from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits and doctrines of demons, through the hypocrisy of men who speak lies, branded in their own conscience as with a hot iron; forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from meats, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by them that believe and know the truth. (I Tim. 4:1-4)
Again, the same apostle says:
Now we beseech you, brethren, touching the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, and our gathering together unto him; to the end that ye be not quickly shaken from your mind, nor yet be troubled, either by spirit, or by word, or by epistle as from us, as that the day of the Lord is just at hand; let no man beguile you in any wise; for it will not be, except the falling away come first, and the man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition, he that opposeth and exalteth himself against all that is called God or that is worshipped; so that he sitteth in the temple of God, setting himself forth as God. (II Thess. 2:1-4)
It appears that this foretold “falling away” from the faith was to begin among the elders and teachers of the church as indicated in the words of Paul to the elders at Ephesus, and to Timothy. To the “elders” or “bishops” at Ephesus, he says:
Take heed unto yourselves, and to the flock, in which the Holy Spirit hath made you bishops, to feed the church of the Lord that he purchased with his own blood. I know that after my departing grievous wolves shall enter in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves shall men arise speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them. (Acts 20:17, 28-30)
To Timothy, the apostle gives this solemn charge,
I charge thee in the sight of God, and of Christ Jesus, who shall judge the quick and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom; preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with all long-suffering and teaching. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but having itching ears, will heap to themselves teachers after their own lusts, and will turn away their ears from the truth and turn aside unto fables. (II Tim. 4:1-4)
II. The Apostolic Church
The word “church,” in the New Testament use, means, first, in its limited sense, a local assembly or congregation called out; an assembly of baptized believers called out, called of God by Christ through the Gospel into the service and worship of God. In its more extended sense, the church means all the true disciples of Christ in the aggregate, all Christians, the whole body of Christ, the kingdom of heaven on earth. Christ said to Simon Peter: “Upon this rock I will build my church” (Matt. xvi:18). It is then Christ’s church, of the Church of Christ; for He built it. Christ built the church through the ministry of His inspired apostles. The apostle Paul speaks of himself “as a wise master-builder” in laying the foundation of “the church of God that is at Corinth” (I Cor. iii:10). What is here true of Paul is evidently true of all the apostles, in that they were “wise master-builders” of the Church of Christ. Therefore, Christ through the preaching or ministry of the apostles built the church. Hence we have the apostolic church, which was founded by Christ through the inspired apostles.
In the beginning the apostolic church, as founded by Christ, was in faith, doctrine, organization, government, worship, terms of administration, terms of fellowship and unity, just what He would have it be. Since Christ is the sole head and supreme lawgiver, there can be no additions to these things nor subtractions therefrom. What Christ has done, and what He has done through His inspired apostles, needs no improvement, and cannot be improved upon.
The faith of the apostolic church was faith in the Christ. Its doctrine was the preaching and teaching of the inspired apostles, who taught all things whatsoever commanded by the Christ. Its organization consisted solely in the organization of the local congregation; and these local congregations were called “Churches of Christ” (Rom. 16:16). Its government was wholly congregational, in which the revealed law of Christ was supreme in all things. Each congregation or local church was composed of “saints,” “bishops” or “elders” and “deacons” (Phil.1:1), in which the bishops or elders took the oversight, ruled and taught the congregation, while the deacons were the servants. Its worship was the simple worship of the Father in spirit and in truth through the Christ, the one mediator between God and man. Its terms of admission were faith in Christ, repentance, confession and baptism; or being born again “born of water and the Spirit.” Christ gives the terms or law of admission in these words: “Except a man be born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” (John 3:5). Its only terms of fellowship were faith in the Christ and obedience to Him in all things. Its unity consisted of a spiritual oneness of all those in Christ; a oneness in the faith which is in Christ, and the doctrine taught by Christ through His inspired apostles.
To get before the mind fully and clearly just what the plea to restore the apostolic church does mean, it will be well, in the first place, to learn what the plea does not mean; and then clearly see what the plea does mean. In this way a full presentation of the subject can be made.
III. What the Plea Does Not Mean
1. The plea to restore the apostolic church does not mean simply a reformation of some church, or “the church.” The original Church of Christ, the apostolic church, in faith and doctrine, needs no reformation. Therefore, the plea to restore the apostolic church does not mean simply a reformation.
2. The plea does not mean another church, or some new church. There are too many churches of the kind already, and new churches at that. The religious world, to-day, is burdened with the modern sectarian churches. What the world needs is the one old church, the original Church of Christ, in all its primitive faith and doctrine. Therefore, the plea does not mean another church, or some new church.
3. The plea does not mean another denomination or sect. All denominationalism or sectarianism is exceedingly sinful before God, and positively forbidden by His word; and, like all other sins, it must be repented of and forever abandoned. All denominationalism is wholly subversive of the unity of the one body of Christ, the one apostolic church. The original Church of Christ was not a denomination or a sect. In the very nature of things, those who make the plea to restore the apostolic church, who claim to be Christians only and belong to the Church of Christ only, can never be a denomination or a sect. Therefore, the plea does not mean another denomination or sect.
4. The plea does not mean another human creed, human confession of faith or human rule of faith and practice. All human creeds, confessions of faith and books of discipline are divisive, and have produced all the denominations or sects that have rent the Church of God. For instance, take up any one of the leading creeds or confessions of faith of modern denominationalism, and just count the different kinds of parties or denominations produced by that particular creed which can be counted by the scores, yes, even by the hundreds. Every human creed, human confession of faith or human rule of faith and practice, as a bond of union and communion among professed Christians is a subversion of the law of Christ and a reflection upon divine wisdom. Therefore, the plea does not mean another human creed, human confession of faith or human rule of faith and practice.
IV. What the Plea Does Mean
1. The plea to restore the apostolic church means a restoration. It means a complete return “to original ground, and take up things just as the apostles left them,” and thus reproduce or restore New Testament Christianity in all things. It means the going back beyond all human creeds, decrees of popes, councils, synods, assemblies and associations, to Christ and the inspired apostles, and restore all things wherein there has been departure or apostasy. The plea means the rejection of all human imitations, and the restoration of the divine model in all things “that pertain to life and godliness.”
The advocates of the plea to restore the apostolic church, those who are Christians only and belong to the Church of Christ only, occupy a unique position The early reformers, such men as Luther, Calvin, Knox, Wesley and others, sought mightily to accomplish a reformation of the then existing corrupt church or churches. They did a great and lasting work in their way; but none of these great reformers appears to have sought restoration of the one primitive Church of Christ, Their work was a reformation only, while the great work of the advocates of the plea to restore the apostolic church is a restoration.
2. The plea to restore the apostolic church means the restoration of the one divine creed and the one divine rule of faith and practice. The word “creed” from credo, I believe, means, strictly speaking a summary of what one believes. There is this distinction between what is called a creed and a rule of faith and practice; namely, the creed is a summary of what is believed, a summary of “the faith,” while the rule of faith and practice is “the faith” itself. In other words, the true creed is the summary of the New Testament, while the true rule of faith and practice is the New Testament itself.
The one divine creed, the summary, of the whole religion of Jesus Christ, the summary of New Testament Christianity, is expressed in this one plain proposition: Jesus is the Christ the Son of God. If this proposition is true, then all else is true, then all that Jesus said, did and commanded through His apostles is true; then He is divine and “died for our sins,” and arose from the dead the third day. This one divine creed is simple, containing just one article; yet, at the same time, it is all-comprehensive, taking in the whole Messiahship, Lordship and divinity of Jesus. No one can believe more in reference to Christianity than is expressed in this heaven-born creed. This one divine creed needs no revision, no additions, no subtractions, nor any improvement whatever, to meet the wants of all the ages to come. What is needed to-day in the religious world is the restoration of this one divine creed and the complete abandonment of all human creeds.
The one divine rule of faith and practice in the religion of Jesus Christ is the pure word of God, especially the New Testament. This is all-sufficient to instruct and guide man in all religious faith and practice, being a lamp unto his feet and a light unto his path. An inspired apostle says: “Every scripture inspired of God is also profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for instruction which is in righteousness; that the man of God may be complete, furnished completely unto every good work” (II Tim.3:16, 17).
Another inspired writer says: “For the word of God is living, and active, and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing even to the dividing of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and quick to discern the thoughts and intents of the heart” (Heb. 4:12). Jesus says: “The words that I have spoken unto you, they are spirit, and they are life” (John 6:63). Paul says: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God unto salvation to everyone that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek” (Rom. 1:16). All of this being true of the word of God, then certainly it is all and alone sufficient as the one divine rule of faith and practice.
In the beginning, before there had been a falling from the faith, and for more than a hundred years after the complete establishment of the Church of Christ on the earth, the disciples of Christ had no other creed than the divine creed, and no other rule of faith and practice than the one divine rule of faith and practice, the word of the Lord. When false teachers arose and ambitious men began their evil work in the churches, then human creeds and human rules of faith and practice were born to curse the Church of God with sects, and sectarianism. The restoration of the one divine creed and the one divine rule of faith and practice, means the complete abolishment of all human creeds and human rules of faith and practice, and the destruction of all sects and sectarianism among the professed followers of Christ.
3. The plea to restore the apostolic church means the restoration of the faith and practice of the inspired apostles of the Christ. In the New Testament we have a complete and inspired presentation of the whole faith and practice of the apostles. Then to the New Testament only we must go to learn the things spoken by the apostles of the Christ, as the Holy Spirit gave them utterance; for it is said of them: “And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to speak with other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2:4).
The faith of the apostles means the faith they exercised themselves, and commanded all men to have in order to the saving of their souls. The faith of the apostles is a personal faith, faith in the divine person, Jesus the Christ, the Son of God. With the apostles the question was not simply, “what do you believe?” but the question was, “whom do you believe?” or, “in whom do you believe?” “Do you believe in the Christ?” is the vital question. Hence, when the jailor asked the soul-stirring question, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” an inspired apostle answered in these words: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house” (Acts 16:31). Faith in the Christ is faith that trusts in the Christ for salvation. Trust in the Christ is to take Christ at His word, and do what He says or commands. No one trusts in Christ unless he obeys Christ in His commandments. Hence, trust in Christ goes just as far as obedience in Christ goes.
Faith in the Christ is the “one faith,” and the apostle Peter calls it “precious faith” (II Pet.1:1). This “one faith,” “precious faith,” saves because it is faith in the one precious Savior of sinners. Faith in the Christ, while it is always a personal faith, faith in a divine person, at the same time it means the belief of what is affirmed of the divine person called the Christ. Hence, the apostle John says: “Many other signs therefore did Jesus in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that ye may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing (that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God) ye may have life in his name” (John 20:30, 31). This, then, is the faith of the apostles, the “one faith” commanded in the Gospel. This “one faith” in the Christ, which believes “that Jesus is the Christ the Son of God,” is the one divine confession of faith, which with repentance admitted persons to baptism and through baptism into the primitive apostolic church.
The practice of the apostles means all that the apostles preached, taught, commanded, did and wrote for universal observance in all time to come, as they were miraculously endowed by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The practice of the apostles covers the whole ground, takes in the whole truth as it is in Jesus, and all the dear Lord would have us to know, to practice and to be. It takes in the whole apostolic church in all its faith, doctrine, practice and life, and leads to the salvation and glorification of redeemed man in “a new heaven and a new earth.” All of this, as it is now given by divine inspiration, and once for all, in the New Testament, is the faith and practice of the inspired apostles of the Christ.
The restoration of the faith and practice of the apostles means a complete return in all things wherein there has been a falling away or departure from the original apostolic faith and practice. It means the undoing of all religious error by reproducing the once for all revealed truth in all its primitive fullness and simplicity, and persuading all men everywhere to accept it and rejoice in it to the salvation of their souls.
The restoration of the faith and practice of the apostles means to reproduce, or restore, the apostolic church; for in the faith and practice of the apostles only, we have the one original apostolic church in all its divine fullness. Therefore, the restoration of the faith and practice of the apostles means the restoration of the apostolic church in all things. In other words, we restore the apostolic church as we restore the faith and practice of the inspired apostles of the Christ.
4. The plea to restore the apostolic church means the restoration of the original unity or oneness of the body of Christ, the Church of Christ. When a view is taken of the present state of the religious world, it will be seen that the vast majority of the professed followers of the Christ are divided into more than three hundred parties, sects or denominations. What an awful havoc the falling away from the faith has produced! It is enough to make the angels weep, and almost forget that they are “sent forth to do service for the sake of them that inherit salvation!” How painful it must be to the dear Lord to behold the divided and distracted state of His children! Sectarianism or denominationalism is the great blot upon modern Christianity and it is doing more to encourage skepticism and infidelity than all other causes combined.
The Christ earnestly prayed, in His great intercessory prayer, for the unity or oneness of all His disciples in these words: “Neither pray I for these alone but for them also which shall believe on me through their word; that they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me and I in thee, that they also may be one in us; that the world may believe that thou hast sent me” (John 17:20, 21).
The oneness for which Christ prayed is the original oneness or unity that existed in the primitive body of Christ, the Church of Christ, the unity of the apostolic church. The primitive disciples of Christ were one, as the Father is in the Christ and the Christ is in the Father. They were one as the Father and the Christ are one ̶ one in the Father and in the Christ. To be in the Father and in the Christ means the same as to be “in Christ.” To be in Christ is to be completely under the authority and government of the Christ, and be in spiritual union and communion with the Christ and with all those in the Christ.
Therefore, the oneness for which Christ prayed is the spiritual oneness of all those in the Christ. All those in Christ are to be one, “one body”. Hence, Paul says: “So we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and severally members one of another” (Rom. 12:5). This “one body” is the body of Christ, which the apostle affirms in these words “Now ye are the body of Christ, and severally members thereof” (I Cor. 12:27). “The body of Christ” is “the church,” the Church of Christ, the one apostolic church, which is declared in these words: “And he is the head of the body, the church” (Col.1:18). In all this is plainly taught the oneness or unity of the primitive disciples of the Christ, the unity of the apostolic church.
The oneness of the disciples of Christ, or the unity of the apostolic church, is further taught in what is called “the unity of the Spirit,” which evidently means the unity taught or produced by the Holy Spirit. The apostle admonishes the “saints who are at Ephesus and the faithful in Christ Jesus,” to give diligence “to keep the unity of the Spirit,” in these words:
“I therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you to walk worthily of the calling wherewith ye were called, with all lowliness and meekness, with long suffering, forbearing one another in love; giving diligence to keen the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph.4:1-3).
Then the apostle declares what “the unity of the Spirit” is, in the following words:
“There is one body, and one Spirit, even also as ye are called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all, and through all, and in all” (Eph.4:4-6).
Here, then, the unity of the Spirit, in seven units, may be briefly presented as follows:
(1) The one body, the body of Christ, the church;
(2) the one spirit, the Holy Spirit who animates the one body, and who convicts and converts sinners;
(3) the one hope, the one hope of immortality or eternal life;
(4) the one Lord, who is the Lord Jesus Christ, the King of kings and Lord of lords;
(5) the one faith, the one faith in the one Lord Jesus Christ;
(6) the one baptism, the one baptism “in water,” “into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”; [“for the remission of sins” – Acts 2:38]
(7) the one Father, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,” “the Father of Spirits,” “our Father who art in heaven.”
Wherever, among the professed followers of the Christ, is to be found the seven units of “the unity of the Spirit,” there the unity of the apostolic church is to be found, as taught in the New Testament.
In the foregoing we have the oneness of the disciples of Christ for which He prayed, “the unity of the Spirit,” the unity of the apostolic church. Now then, the plea to restore the apostolic church means the complete restoration of this divine oneness or unity in all its primitive fullness and simplicity.
V. The Results to Be Accomplished by the Plea
The results to be accomplished by the plea to restore the apostolic church; in the present divided state of Christendom, are great. Some of these results, briefly presented, are as follows:
- The original Church of Christ, the apostolic church, in its faith, doctrine, organization, government, unity, worship, terms of admission, and terms of fellowship, will be fully restored, or reproduced, among all Christians everywhere.
- All the followers of the Christ will be simply disciples, of Christ, or Christians only, just what they were in the days of the apostles. They will be just plain Christians and not something else, in the way of some denominational distinction, or having upon them some sectarian label to distinguish them from other Christians.
- All Christians will belong to the church of Christ only. They will simply belong to the Church of Christ without belonging to something else in the way of some modern denomination or sectarian church. The Church of Christ is just big enough to contain all Christians.
- All Christians will accept and believe the one divine creed only, and be governed solely by the one divine rule of faith and practice. They will all have the “one faith” in the Christ, and the one divine confession of faith. They will all have the same doctrine, the divine doctrine of the Christ and His inspired apostles.
- Among all Christians there will be the “one body,” the “one Spirit,” the “one hope,” the “one Lord,” the “one faith,” the “one baptism,” the “one God and Father of all.” Then all Christians will give “diligence to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bonds of peace.”
- The earnest prayer which Christ prayed for the oneness of all His disciples will be answered. Then will be Christian union, fellowship, fraternity and love among all professed Christians everywhere. There will be no denominations, sects nor conflicting creeds, to mar the peace and harmony of the children of God. The world will believe the Father has sent the Christ to bless and save it. Then will begin the true golden age in which “peace on earth and good will toward men” will universally prevail.
VI. The Practical Application of the Plea
In making and putting into effect the plea to restore the apostolic church, there are some governing rules or principles to be observed in the practical application of the plea. These governing rules or principles which need to be emphasized, are as follows:
- The all and alone sufficiency of the word of God, especially the New Testament, as the one complete guide in all religious faith and practice.
- In all matters of faith and doctrine, “where the Scriptures speak, we speak; where the Scriptures are silent, we are silent.”
- In all matters of faith and doctrine, not simply in matters of opinion or methods of work or questions of expediency, there must be an express command of the word of God or on approved example or a necessary inference.
- Not anything shall be made a test of Christian fellowship and communication and co-operation, but faith in Christ and obedience to Him in all things.
With these governing rules or principles to guide us, we are now prepared to give the practical application of the plea to restore the apostolic church. This will be done by giving an illustration in the following supposed example:
In the town of Francesville there are five distinct denominational churches, known as the Baptist Church, the Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church, the Congregational Church and the Episcopal Church. In a conference of the ministers and the leaders of these five churches it is unanimously agreed that a union revival shall be held in which all the churches shall join, hand and heart. After deliberation and earnest prayer on the part of the ministers and leaders, it is also agreed that nothing distinctive of any particular denominational church shall be preached in the union meeting; that all the preaching shall be simply the preaching of the Christ and Him crucified, or the preaching of the simple Gospel, or the preaching of just what the apostles preached when they turned people to the Lord. It is further agreed, that all persons who desire to become simply Christians, and manifest that desire by coming forward, shall be instructed, just as the apostles instructed such persons, to believe in the Christ with the whole heart, sincerely repent, confess the Christ and obey Him in baptism.
The union revival now begins with great interest, and a good feeling prevails in the hearts of all. Night after night the good work goes on, with the increased desire for the saving of souls. The simple preaching of the Gospel of the Christ, just what the apostles preached, is felt in all its power, and the people are moved by it. Sinners are plainly told to believe in the Christ, repent of their sins, confess the Christ and obey Him in baptism. Sinners thus instructed respond by the scores, and rejoice in their conversion to the Christ. The great union meeting now draws to a close; and one hundred new converts to the Christ are the immediate results. All these converts have truly believed in the Christ, sincerely repented, confessed the Christ and obeyed Him in being baptized.
Now, then, what are these new converts converted in the union revival? Are they Baptists or Methodists or Presbyterians? No, not at all. To become Baptists or Methodists or Presbyterians, they will have to join the Baptist, Methodist or Presbyterian Church. Well, are they Congregationalists or Episcopalians? Not a bit of it. As yet, no sectarian label whatever can be put upon these new converts. To what denomination do these new converts belong? Not any. Well, then, in reality, what are these new converts at the close of the union revival? Why, they are just Christians. All certainly will agree that they are simply Christians, Christians only; that is all they are. To what church do these new converts, Christians only, belong? Why, to the Church of Christ, of course, which is composed of all true Christians. They entered the Church of Christ in becoming simply Christians; for whatever makes a person a Christian puts that person into the Church of Christ, the one body of Christ, the apostolic church.
At the close of the union meeting the one hundred new converts conclude that, as they are now Christians only, and already belong to the Church of Christ only, all that the dear Lord would have them be and belong to, they will not divide up and go into the different denominational churches at Francesville. They immediately assemble on the Lord’s Day and covenant with one another to keep house for the Lord, making the word of God the man of their counsel in all things. They engage in the worship of God, prayer, praise and the reading of the Scriptures. They partake of the emblems of the broken body and shed blood of the Christ, by virtue of the fact that they are Christians, and have this right and privilege because of the common priesthood of all Christians under the reign of the Christ. They meet every Lord’s Day and engage in the service and worship of God. Then, as they develop and grow in the divine life, they set apart certain suitable persons of their number to be leaders in the worship and all the work; such as elders or pastors, or bishops, deacons or evangelists. Now, then, what are they? Why, they are just a local congregation of Christians, or a local Church of Christ only, because they are Christians only, and belong to the Church of Christ only.
The work begins to grow and spread abroad. The brethren, these Christians only, send some of their numbers and begin a similar work in the town of Coraville, by establishing a Church of Christ there. The two churches now co-operate in the good work, and start another Church of Christ in the village of Tarpley. On the work goes till some twenty “Churches of Christ” are established in the surrounding country. These Christians only, go everywhere preaching the word,” building up Churches of Christ and setting “in order the things that are wanting.” Many of the “denominational Christians are giving up all denominationalism, becoming Christians only, and belonging to the Church of Christ only, and thus joining in a good work of establishing simply Churches of Christ everywhere.
Now, these Churches of Christ thus established have the one divine creed and the one divine rule of faith and practice. In all matters of faith and doctrine, where the Scriptures speak, they speak; where the Scriptures are silent, they are silent. They have no tests of Christian fellowship, communion and co-operation other than faith in Christ and obedience to Him. In all the work of these Christians only, as far as it goes, there is an illustration of the practical application of the plea to restore the apostolic church.
[This sermon is from the book entitled New Testament Christianity, ed. Z. T. Sweeney. Vol. III 1930. It is said that James Creel (1846 – 1923) loved the simple gospel of Christ, and preached it with force, and, as a result of his thirty years of gospel ministry, more than two thousand persons have been induced to become Christians.]