What we now know as the Apostles Creed descended from an earlier form of the creed, known as the Old Roman Symbol. The beginning of the creed dates from as early as the second century. We do not have any direct evidence that it was penned by any of the apostles, but it is an admirable summary of the apostolic teaching.
As we turn to discuss the communion of saints, we first have to deal with how the term communion itself has been downgraded into something fairly mundane. We tend to think of something like community, and since there is a religious tint to it, we make that a nice community. But in our day, we also have the step dancing community, the ham radio community, the LGBT community, and so on. In our idolatry, we have come to believe that we are the tie that binds. But by all that is holy, we are not.
I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, his only begotten Son, our Lord. He was conceived by the Holy Ghost, and born of the virgin, Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into Hades. On the third day He rose again from the dead, ascended into Heaven, and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence He will come to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Ghost, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.
Summary of the Text
“That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you, that ye also may have fellowship with us: and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ . . . But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin” (1 John 1:3,7).
As always, we must begin with gospel. That which was from the beginning, the Word of life, was in our midst (v. 1). This life was manifested to us, and the apostles bore witness to the eternality of this life (v. 2). Our fellowship is both vertical and horizontal, and only horizontal because it is vertical (v. 3). This is written so that our joy may be full (v. 4). God is light, and in Him there is no darkness (v. 5). It is not possible to have fellowship with Him while also having fellowship with darkness (v. 6). But if we have fellowship with the light, then we also have fellowship with anyone else in the light (v. 7).
And so this is what the communion of the saints means. Through the gospel, we have union with Christ. Because we have union with the bridegroom, this means that, of necessity, we have union with the rest of the bride. The unity of the saints flows from the head. The unity of the saints pervades the entire body of saints precisely because of their connection to the Lord. If we have fellowship with the Light, we have fellowship in the light.
The Greek word in the Creed for communion is koinonia, and this is echoing the deep and profound meaning of this reality in the New Testament. You could translate it as fellowship, but for too many Christians, fellowship just means coffee and donuts. Communion is a bit better, but it still does not pack the wallop that koinonia does. The closest I can come is to render it as mutual partaking.
Reformed According to Scripture
Because this phrase came into the Creed a few centuries after the initial composition of it, and because there was so much misunderstanding in the medieval period about the nature of sacraments and saints, churches and so on, it is important for us to register our particular Reformed understanding of this. So permit me to quote the Westminster Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism on this, and I trust you will see the same vertical/horizontal emphasis that we find in our text.
“All saints, that are united to Jesus Christ their Head, by His Spirit, and by faith, have fellowship with Him in His grace, sufferings, death, resurrection, and glory: and, being united to one another in love, they have communion in each other’s gifts and graces, and are obliged to the performance of such duties, public and private, as do conduce to their mutual good, both in the inward and outward man” (WCF 26.1).
“What do you understand by ‘the communion of saints’?
First, that all and every one, who believes, being members of Christ, are in common, partakers of him, and of all his riches and gifts; secondly, that every one must know it to be his duty, readily and cheerfully to employ his gifts, for the advantage and salvation of other members” (HC.55).
Union with Christ is first, and then, as a necessary consequence, you find yourself loving those others whom Christ also loves, and loving those others who, together with you, love the Lord Jesus.
And All By His Spirit
“But speaking the truth in love, may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ: From whom the whole body fitly joined together and compacted by that which every joint supplieth, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part, maketh increase of the body unto the edifying of itself in love” (Eph. 4:15–16).
The biblical logic of partaking works in this way. We grow up into Jesus, and as a result of this, we find the body being knit together. This knitting is truly mysterious, like a child being fashioned in the womb. How and why does it work? How do all the parts know what to do? This is the mystery of a biological body, and the spiritual body works in a similar way, under the hand of our infinitely wise God.
And it is by no means limited to the people in this room, or to the people who have signed off on your denominational distinctives, or even to the people who happen to be alive at this moment. Those who have passed on before us are still connected to the Head, just as you are. That means that, while you must not pray to them, you also must exult in the body together with them. And as for your great, great grandchildren, they also have their place in God’s eternal purposes, and that place is where all of us must turn.
Again, always and forever, this is all about the Lord Jesus Christ.