3. The fourfold way in which the church of Christ can be understood.
On the ground of the authority of Holy Scripture, the essence of the church must be considered as distinguished under four aspects. One can refer to the church as it is determined in the counsel of God; the church as her life is hidden in Christ; the church as it is realized on earth among men; and finally the church as it shall finally rejoice before the throne in glory.
Confusion of these four makes clear insight difficult.
Not as if there are four churches. It is the same church which is ordained in God’s counsel, which is given to Christ by the Father, which is created on earth, and which one day rejoices in glory. But this fourfold viewpoint must be distinguished because, according as one considers her as in God’s counsel, in Christ, in the world, or in the glory of heaven, entirely different relations exist which change the answers to all further questions.
In God’s counsel the church of all ages exists with the full number of the elect and it is completed according to a perfect plan from the foundations of the world. In that counsel it is ordained, called, justified, and glorified before the face of the Triune God.
If I speak, on the other hand, of the church in Christ, then that stately, majestic unity is immediately broken because the relation of the patriarchs and prophets under the Old Dispensation to the Mediator is one thing, and the relation of the believers of. the New Dispensation to Christ is another. There was a moment in time when Christ became flesh, a moment when He suffered and died, a moment when He arose; and therefore there was also a time when these wonders of mercy had not yet happened. The forgiveness and justification which are eternal in God’s counsel thus enter history with Christ. Ransom becomes a fact for the church when He died. Justification first belonged to the church when He arose. And likewise, the relation of the church which is still upon earth to the Mediator differs from the relation in which the church in heaven stands to Him. While she is here the bride calls to her Bridegroom. There she is already entered into a holy marriage. This difference is so radical that here she still has need of reconciliation, but there no longer. Nevertheless the church is by no means divided by this distinction because the elect of ancient times as well as those who now live upon earth or are already entered into salvation, yes even the seed of the church which must still come forth, are all given to the Son from eternity. It is in Him one body with the Lord. When Christ died all the elect died in Christ, and when He arose all the elect rose with Him. Yes, all the elect, placed with Christ, sit with Him in heaven. “You are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God.” (Colossians 3:2) That is a holy, unfathomable mystery.
And again these relationships are entirely different if the church is considered by us not as it is included in the counsel of God or even as it is hidden in Christ, but as it is revealed upon earth during this dispensation. Then indeed the unity which the church has in the counsel of God is lost, as well as the holiness which she possesses in Christ; and the church goes through all these different conditions and has to move in all these separate relations which flow forth from her contact with the world, from her contamination by sin; as well as from those changes and developments which are necessarily inseparable from her life in history.
Finally, this is true also for the church now already in heaven when all these earthly relationships have fallen away and room is made for new relationships of an entirely different kind. The church then is ruled by the distinction in glory between the preliminary glory in which the saved now already rejoice, and the more perfect glory after the resurrection which awaits Christ’s return.
He who speaks concerning the church confuses himself and others if he does not continually and in all the discussion ask: in which of these four relationships does he refer to the church?
While treating concerning the reformation of the church, this writing has also to face the same question. And the answer can be no different from that in connection with the reformation of the church. We are not speaking of the church in God’s counsel, nor the church as it is in Christ, nor even the church in heaven, because the church in this threefold sense is not deformed and thus cannot be reformed. But it is our purpose to treat only and exclusively of the church of Christ as she is manifested on earth.
4. Why one and the same church on earth is at the same time visible and invisible.
This church of Christ on earth is at the same time visible and invisible. In one and the same way as each man is a partly perceptible and partly imperceptible being without being two creatures, so also this distinction between visible and invisible does not in the least abolish the unity of the essence of the church. It is one and the same church which resides in the spiritual according to her hidden, being and in this way reveals herself only to the spiritual eye, but which according to her external form appears visibly to the natural perception of the believers as well as of the world.
According to her spiritual, invisible side, the church is one upon the whole earth; and that whole church on earth is also one with the church which is already in heaven. In like manner, the invisible church is at the same time holy, not only because she is an artistic masterpiece of God which depends entirely upon His divine influences and works, but also because the spiritual defilements as well as the indwelling sin of the believers does not belong to her and, rather, wages a war against her.
According to her perceptible side, on the other hand, the church appears piecemeal and is thus always, local; i.e., divided indefinitely. And the national churches exist first because between these local churches a mutual bond is established as the nature of the church and the national relationships necessarily require.ï¿½ Yet broader bonds of churches can never be anything else than temporal or extremely loose and elastic. Just as these churches (as visible manifestations of the invisible church) are not one, so they are not holy either. This is true because they share the imperfection of all earthly life and are polluted by the might of sin which continually undermines from within and without the well-being of the church.
It is true of the church of Christ on earth and indeed more so in her visible appearance, that the imperious demand for reformation concerns her as long as deformation is present.
Strictly viewed, this demand for reformation is also a continuous one because the church, in the strictest sense, is always deformed. It is never seen in pure and sound form, and always unholy elements are present in it. Yet reformation in this pamphlet is not meant in that absolute sense. There is a deviation from the spiritual essence of the church which lies in the nature of her appearance in the world, and without which the church cannot be manifested among men; and which therefore, as great as the deviation may be from the spiritual ideal, yet with respect to the visible manifestation of the church, is itself normal and continues present in her, at least as long as the mastery of the holy over the unholy and of the truth over the lie remains unharmed and pure. This necessary deviation from the ideal cannot be taken away through any reformation. He who tries this loses the church and founds a sect. In that respect the obligation to reformation does not apply. That becomes Donatism! Perfectionism. He strives for a church which possesses the holiness of angels upon earth! This is a striving in which, alas, beastiality as plunder is always brought in!
The church comes under the obligation of reformation in her visible manifestation only when deviation sinks beneath this normal standard, not only by bringing the unholy into herself, but by tolerating it through silence and failure to punish; or worse yet, through giving to the lie and to that which is unholy power and mastery over the truth and holiness.
On this ground, the reformation of the church can be described as: “the discharge of the obligation which rests upon the church in her visible manifestation, that is on the local churches of Christ; after Christ, both individually and mutually, as frequently as lies and sin throw off the yoke of Christ and go unpunished, to secure a new truth and holiness by her mastery over lies and sin by returning to her original form which is commanded in God’s Word.”
1 This reference to national churches must be understood in the light of the State Church whic existed in the Netherlands at that time.