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What is the church triumphant?

church triumphant

In Roman Catholic theology, the church, the people of God, are conceived of in three categories, and the “Church Triumphant” is best understand in the context of the three:

The Church Militant is the church on earth—they are militant in that they are in action, fighting the good fight.

The Church Suffering is the church in purgatory—they are suffering for their sins until they have been purged and are worthy of entering the presence of God.

• The Church Triumphant is the church in heaven—they have finally triumphed over their sin on earth, come through purgatory, and are now enjoying the benefits and blessings of heaven.

Other groups, especially Anglicans, Lutherans, and Methodists, may use the categories Church Militant and Church Triumphant in the same way without including the Church Suffering, as these groups do not officially endorse the doctrine of purgatory.

Evangelicals do not often use the category Church Triumphant, or when they do it usually means something very different. The Gaither Vocal Band recorded a song called “The Church Triumphant,” but it does not refer to believers in heaven but to the church here on earth—what Roman Catholic theology would refer to as “The Church Militant.” This highlights a key difference between Roman Catholic and evangelical theology.

In Roman Catholic theology, very few people can be presumed to have triumphed. Most believers are suffering in purgatory. The saints who have been canonized are the only ones we can be sure are currently members of the Church Triumphant. Presumably, after thousands or millions of years in purgatory, others will join them, and eventually all believers will be triumphant,

In evangelical and biblical theology, Christians living today are triumphant in that the victory has been won by Christ. Believers participate in His triumph here and now by their identification with Him. First John 5:4–5 says, “For everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world? Only the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God.” The Church Triumphant is made up of all believers of all times, even those on earth, because their triumph in Christ is never in doubt. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1, ESV). Even though believers on earth may struggle and suffer, there is no doubt about their ultimate triumph. Romans 8 includes the “unbroken and unbreakable chain” that begins with believers being chosen by God and ends with their glorification (verses 29–30). Glorification is so certain that it is referred to in the past tense even though it is yet to happen for believers who are alive on earth.

Romans 8 does not use the word triumphant but says that believers are “more than conquerors,” which certainly conveys the idea of triumph:

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:35–39).

Perhaps there is nothing wrong with thinking of the believers in heaven as the “Church Triumphant.” Certainly, believers in heaven are enjoying the victory. However, because the terminology is so entangled with a theology of merit, perhaps a different term should be used. In Roman Catholic theology, the ultimate triumph of any believer alive today is uncertain because it depends on a combination of the grace of God and the obedient response of fickle, sinful people. In evangelical and biblical theology, the triumph is certain because it depends on the faithfulness of God and the perfect work of Christ on behalf of the believer.

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What is the church triumphant?
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This page last updated: April 29, 2024