That this is indeed the true significance and interpretation of this passage is evident from the illustration which the author uses at the close of the passage. It is the illustration of a field. And in that held is the good seed, but also the seed of thorns and thistles. If no rain would come upon that field, neither the good seed nor the seed of thorns and briers would ever become manifest. But now through the rain that often comes upon that field, the field brings forth two crops: the crop of thorns and briers and the crop of good corn and grain. In the one case that field receives a curse from God in the very rain that falls upon it; in the other, however, it receives a blessing through the same rain. The same is true of the rain of the Word of God. Also this rain has a two-fold effect. For that rain falls upon the reprobate, as well as upon the elect. In the heart of the reprobate is the seed of sin. And the rain of the gospel cometh upon that seed in the heart of the reprobate, serves to manifest the corruption of sin that is in that heart. It is, therefore, a savor of death unto death. In the heart of the elect God implants the seed of regeneration. And when the rain of the Word of God falls upon that regenerated heart, the fruit brought forth is that of repentance, righteousness, and eternal life. And so, while the one receives a curse through the same Word of God, the other receives a blessing from God.
Scripture, therefore, as well as the Reformed confessions, teaches the perseverance of the saints because of God’s infallible preservation. The perseverance of the saints, therefore, may be called that act of the grace of God whereby He preserves the believers and saints in Christ Jesus in His power and through faith to the very end, until salvation and glory, so that they fight the good fight of faith and so that they can never fall away from the grace they once received. This is indeed the teaching of the Word of God throughout. Thus, for instance, we read in John 6:37-40: “All that the Father giveth me shall come to me; and him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out. For I came down from heaven, not to do mine own will, but the will of him that sent me. And this is the Father’s will which hath sent me, that of all which he hath given me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up again at the last day. And this is the will of him that sent me, that every one which seeth the Son, and believeth on him, may have everlasting life; and I will raise him up at the last day.” Again, in John 10:26-30 we read: “But ye believe not, because ye are not of my sheep, as I said unto you. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me: And I will give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand. My father, which gave them me, is greater than all; and no man is able to pluck them out of my Father’s hand. I and my Father are one.” And again, in Philippians 1:6 we read: “Being confident of this very thing, that he which bath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ.” And, to quote no more, in I Peter 1:4, 5 we read: “To an inheritance incorruptible, and undefiled, and that fadeth not away, reserved in heaven for you, Who are kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.” The certain perseverance of the saints is rooted in God’s eternal election. It is guaranteed by the work of the Holy Spirit and the gifts of grace, which are without repentance. It is guaranteed, moreover, by the very intercession of Christ for His own people, whom the Father gave Him. For His prayer will surely be heard. And finally, it is in the very nature of the spiritual life of the saints. For that life is eternal life: and therefore, it can never perish. He that believeth in the Son bath eternal life. And therefore, that eternal life can never be destroyed. God, who has implanted that eternal life in his heart, will preserve it unto final glory.
THE IDEA OF THE CHURCH
Following upon the doctrine of salvation is the doctrine of the church. And the doctrine of the church includes an exposition of the means of grace, namely, the preaching of the Word and the celebration of the sacraments. That the latter are included in the doctrine of the church is because they are instituted in the church and are observed by the church.
First of all, then, we will discuss the idea of the church. The Heidelberg Catechism gives the following description, if not definition, of the church: “That the Son of God from the beginning to the end of the world, gathers, defends, and preserves to himself by his Spirit and word, out of the whole human race, a church chosen to everlasting life, agreeing in true faith; and that I am and for ever shall remain, a living member thereof.” Lord’s Day XX.
Also in the Belgic Confession we find a description of the church, in Article XXVII, under the heading “Of the Catholic Christian Church.” This article reads as follows: “We believe and profess one catholic or universal Church, which is an holy congregation, of true Christian believers, all expecting their salvation in Jesus Christ, being washed by his blood, sanctified and sealed by the Holy Ghost. This Church hath been from the beginning of the world, and will be to the end thereof; which is evident from this, that Christ is an eternal King, which, without subjects, cannot be. And this holy Church is preserved or supported by God, against the rage of the whole world; though she sometimes (for a while) appears very small, and in the eyes of men, to be reduced to nothing: as during the perilous reign of Ahab, the Lord reserved unto him seven thousand men, who had not bowed their knees to Baal. Furthermore, this holy Church is not confined, bound, or limited to a certain place or to certain persons, but is spread and dispersed over the whole world; and yet is joined and united with heart and will, by the power of faith, in one and the same spirit.”
In harmony with these quotations from our confessions, we may say that the church is the body of Christ, an organic whole, of which they who are chosen from before the foundation of the world constitute the members, gathered by the Son of God through His Spirit and Word, in all ages and from all the nations of the world, and manifesting itself on earth as the gathering of believers and their seed. This definition implies that the very essence, the attributes, and the calling of the church are not to be determined by that which we observe of the church as an historically existing assembly in the world. On the contrary, it must be understood from God’s own revelation in the Scriptures. The church is not a human institution. Men do not bring her into existence. God alone determines her being, nature, purpose, and calling, even as He alone gathers and preserves her. Hence, it is from the Word of God alone that we can derive our knowledge concerning the church. And whatever men may postulate about her nature and calling that is contrary to the Word of God must be rejected. It is only on the basis of Scripture, through God’s own revelation, that one can say, “I believe an holy, catholic church.”
The early church fathers linked salvation and the church inseparably together. They all taught and emphasized in their writings that salvation is only in and with the church, and that there is no salvation outside of the church. As we consider the views of the early church fathers, we must bear in mind that their conception of the church was not clearly defined. In appreciating them, we must remember that they made no sharp distinctions, as, for instance, between the church visible and invisible, the church as an organism and as an institute. One of these church fathers, Irenaeus by name, maintained that in the church all the treasures of truth are deposited. Outside of the church are only thieves and robbers, pools of foul water, referring, of course, to them that professed to be Christians but were not connected with the church. Another of these church fathers, namely Clement of Alexandria, defines the church as the society of the elect, and compares her to a mother to whom the whole of our spiritual life and nourishment belongs. The church is the body of the Lord, outside of which there is no salvation. Virtually the same was taught by all the early church ‘fathers. In a later period, that is, from about the fourth to the eighth century, the church developed in external power and glory in the world, especially from the time of Constantine the Great. It assumed more and more the form of a kingdom, that is, of a kingdom of this world. At this time there was a controversy about the purity of the church and the question of church discipline between some sects and the church catholic. Some maintained that the church visible must be pure, and advocated strictest discipline. For the church consists, according to them, only of the true, spiritual people of God. On the other hand, however, Augustine, one of the best known church fathers of this period, admitted the necessity of church discipline, but maintained that absolute purity could not be attained for the church in the midst of the world. The two distinguishing marks of the church, according to Augustine, are catholicity and apostolicity. For the church of the new dispensation is founded by the apostles. It was generally held that membership in the true catholic church was strictly necessary unto salvation. As Augustine had it: “Whoso is not in this church cannot now receive the Holy Ghost.” According to another of the church fathers in this period, heretics are unworthy of life and cannot escape the wrath of God unless they come into the fold of the Holy catholic church. The doctrine of the church, up to the time of the Reformation, was chiefly characterized by the emphasis on the supremacy of the pope of Rome. The popes themselves defined their power and position, not only with relation to the church, but also, with relation to temporal governments. It was taught by some of them that although the primary and principal foundation of the church is Jesus Christ Himself, the only begotten Son of God, the secondary foundation of the church is Saint Peter. According to some, Peter is the vice-regent of Him to whom belongs the earth and the fullness thereof. As the moon derives its light from the sun, and is inferior to it in quantity and quality, in position as well as in effect, so the regal power of temporal sovereigns derives: its dignity from papal authority. One of the popes issued the following decree: We declare, say, define, and pronounce, that to be subject to the Roman pontiff is for every human creature an altogether necessary condition of salvation.” We can easily understand that this conception led to spiritual despotism. And it was even defended that heretics and schismatics should be brought to repentance by physical punishment. Even capital punishment was held to be none too severe for heretics. If a temporal lord was held to fall short of showing his allegiance to the Roman pope, he was excommunicated and his domain was placed under the ban, and all his subjects were released from submission to him.
The Reformers broke quite principally with this conception of the church. In fact, it is well known that the main principles of the Reformation of the sixteenth century are usually considered to be two. There is, first of all, the: principle that the Reformers acknowledged but one source of authority, that is, the Holy Scriptures, or the Word of God. With this principle they stood opposed to the Roman Catholic Church, as well as to false mysticism and to rationalism. To the Roman Catholic Church they stood opposed, because it acknowledged, besides, the Scriptures, also tradition as a source of authority, while the Protestants rejected everything as having authority, except the Word of God. Besides, the Roman Catholics include the apocryphal books in the Bible; Protestants recognized only the sixty-six canonical books. Roman Catholics claimed that the right and power to interpret the Scriptures belonged to the church only, that is, to the clergy; protestants maintain that every Christian is able and has the right to interpret the Word of God. By this same principle, however, as I already said, the Reformers were opposed to false mysticism. The latter is characterized by the rejection of the objective authority of the Bible and by relying upon the inner light. Protestants claim that the objective revelation in Scripture must be the sole and only reliable canon for faith and life. And in opposition to rationalism, the Reformers maintained that reason must be subjected to the Scripture as the Word of God.
But if what may be called the formal principle of the Reformation was the authority of the Word of God as contained in the Holy Scriptures, the material principle was justification by faith only. The Roman Church was Semi-pelagian, and held that justification is also by works. But the Reformers rejected this idea, and maintained that the believer is justified only by his faith.
The influence on the doctrine of the church of these two principles is very evident. In the first place, a considerable part of the Roman Catholic doctrine concerned indeed all that concerns the church. The priesthood, the pope, the sacraments, and related doctrines,—all this was not based on the word of God at all, but simply on tradition and on the institutions of men. All this, however was rejected by the Reformation. Besides, by virtue of the principle that man is justified also by works, especially by the external observation of ecclesiastical ordinances, the Roman Catholic Church had gradually assumed the position of mediator between Christ and the believer. But the Reformers must have none of this. They swept away the institution of the church from between God and the individual believer. The Romish view of the church is most clearly and ably expressed by Roert Bellarmin, a Jesuit, 1542-1621. According to him, the church is a company of men, externally bound together by the profession of the same Christian faith, the communion of the same sacraments, under the same government of legitimate pastors especially the pope. Hence, he excluded from the church all that are professed unbelievers, all that do not partake of the sacraments, and all that do not recognize the pope as the head of the entire church. But included are all others, whether they be godly or ungodly, elect or reprobate. He therefore made no distinction between the church visible and invisible. The pope, according to him, is infallible in matters pertaining to faith and life. But the Protestants had an entirely different conception of the church. According to them, the church consists essentially of the fellowship of all that are united by the bond of faith. To the church belong all the elect, of the past, of the present, and of the future. The true church on earth is invisible as far as its spiritual fellowship is concerned, but becomes manifest as the church visible where the Word of God is purely preached and the sacraments are rightly administered and where the Christian discipline is maintained. All believers are priests, not only a separate class of clergy. Yet the church functions through its duly ordained and called office-bearers in the ministry of the Word, the administration of the sacraments, and the exercise of Christian discipline.
Since then this doctrine concerning the church has been embodied in all the confessions of the protestant churches. This is true of the Heidelberg Catechism, in Lord’s Day XXI, Question and Answer 54, as we have already quoted above. And the same is true of the Confession Belgica, Article XXVII, which we also quoted. According to this article, the holy catholic church is an object of faith; and it is not confined to a particular group or nation, but is spread over the whole world. And it is gathered throughout the history of the world. It includes all that are saved, and excludes all that are not saved. In other words, it includes all believers in Christ and excludes all unbelievers. It claims that within its confines are all the benefits of salvation; and without these limits there is no possibility of salvation.
This is further emphatically confessed in Article XXVIII of the same confession, which emphasizes that everyone is bound to join himself to the true church: “We believe, since this holy congregation is an assembly of those who are saved, and that out of it there is no salvation, that no person of whatsoever state or condition he may be, ought to withdraw himself, to live in a separate state from it; but that all men are in duty bound to join and unite themselves with it; maintaining the unity of the church; submitting themselves to the doctrine and discipline thereof; bowing their necks under the yoke of Jesus Christ; and as mutual members of the same body, serving to the edification of the brethren, according to the talents God has given them. And that this may be the more effectually observed, it is the duty of all believers, according to the word of God, to separate themselves from all those who do not belong to the church, and to join themselves to this congregation, wheresoever God hath established it, even though the magistrates and edicts of princes were against it, yea, though they should suffer death or any other corporal punishment. Therefore all those, who separate themselves from the same, or do not join themselves to it, act contrary to the ordinance of God.”
From this it is very evident that the Reformers took the doctrine of the church very seriously, and did not teach any false multiformity of the church. It was indeed possible to join one’s self to the true church. But exactly because of this, it was necessary according to them, that we must be able to distinguish between the true and the false church. And in order to be able to do this, one must know what are the marks of the true church. Of these, again, the Confessio Belgica speaks in Article XXIX: “We believe, that we ought diligently and circumspectly to discern from the Word of God which is the true church, since all sects which are in the world assume to themselves the name of the church. But we speak not here of hypocrites, who are mixed in the church with the good, yet are not of the church, though externally in it; but we say that the body and communion of the true church must be distinguished from all sects, who call themselves the church. The marks, by which the true church is known, are these: if the pure doctrine of the gospel is preached therein; if she maintains the pure administration of the sacraments as instituted by Christ; if church discipline is exercised in punishment of sin; in short, if all things are managed according to the pure Word of God, all things contrary thereto rejected, and Jesus Christ acknowledged as the only Head of the Church. Hereby the true Church may certainly be known, from which no man has a right to separate himself. With respect to those, who are members of the Church, they may be known by the marks of Christians: namely, by faith; and when they have received Jesus Christ the only Savior, they avoid sin, follow after righteousness, love the true God and their neighbor, neither turn aside to the right or left, and crucify the flesh with the works thereof. But this is not to be understood, as if there did cot remain in them great infirmities; but they fight against them through the Spirit, all the days of their life continually taking their refuge in the blood, death, passion and obedience of our Lord Jesus Christ, ‘in whom they have remission of sins, through faith in him.’ As for the false church, she ascribes more power and authority to herself and her ordinances than to the Word of God, and will not submit herself to the yoke of Christ. Neither does she administer the sacraments as appointed by Christ in his Word, but adds to and takes from them, as she thinks proper; she relieth more upon men than Christ; and persecutes those, who live holily according to the Word of God, and rebuke her for her errors, covetousness, and idolatry. These two churches are easily known and distinguished from each other.” The Second Helvetic Confession has a long chapter on the holy catholic church, Chapter 17, from which we quote the following: “Forasmuch as God from the beginning would have men to be saved, and to come to the knowledge of the truth (I Tim. 2:4), therefore it is necessary that there always should have been, and should be at this day, and to the end of the world, a church-that is, a company of the faithful called and gathered out of the world; a communion, I say, of all saints, that is, of them who truly know and rightly worship and serve the true God, and Jesus Christ the Savior, by the Word of the Holy Spirit, and who by faith are partakers of all those good graces which are freely offered through Christ. These all are citizens of one and the same city, living under one Lord, under the same laws, and in the same fellowship of all good things; and the apostle calls them ‘fellow citizens with the saints, and of the household of God’ (Eph. 2:19); terming the faithful upon the earth saints (I Cor. 4:1), who are sanctified by the blood of the Son of God. Of these is that article of our creed wholly to be understood, ‘I believe in the holy catholic church, the communion of saints.’
“And, seeing that there is always but ‘one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Jesus Christ’ (I Tim. 2:5); also, one shepherd of the whole flock, one head of this body, and, to conclude, one Spirit, one salvation, one faith, one testament, one covenant,—it follows necessarily that there is but one church, which we therefore call catholic because it is universal, spread abroad through all the parts and quarters of the world, and reaches unto all times, and is not limited within the compass either of time or place. Here, therefore, we must condemn the Donatists, who penned up the church within the corners of Africa; neither do we assent to the Roman clergy, who vaunt that the Church of Rome alone is in a manner catholic.” And the last part of this long chapter speaks of the marks of the true church as follows: “Furthermore, we teach that it is carefully to be marked, wherein especially the truth and unity of the church consists, lest that we either rashly breed or nourish schisms in the church. It consists not in outward rites and ceremonies, but rather in the truth and unity of the catholic faith. This catholic faith is not taught us by the ordinances or laws of men, but by the Holy Scriptures, a compendious and short sum whereof is the Apostles’ Creed. And, therefore,, we read in the ancient writers that there were manifold diversities of ceremonies, but that those were always free; neither did any man think that the unity of the church was thereby broken or dissolved. We say, then, that the true unity of the church does consist in several points of doctrine, in the true and uniform preaching of the gospel, and in such rites as the Lord Himself has expressly set down. And here we urge that saying of the apostle very earnestly, ‘Let us, as many as are perfect, be: thus minded: and if in anything ye be otherwise minded, God shall reveal even this unto you. Nevertheless, whereunto we have already attained, let us walk by the same rule, let us mind the same thing.’ (Phil. 3:15, 16)”
Also the Westminster Confession has an article about the church, in Chapter XXV, 1 and 2: “The catholic or universal church, which is invisible, consists of the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ the head thereof; and is the spouse, the body, the fullness of him that filleth all in all.