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In our last article we called attention to the work of the gathering of the church. Just to establish the connection we remind you that we emphasized the following fundamental truths concerning this gathering of the church. In the first place, this act of gathering the Church is the great wonderwork of God in history, so that the church and its establishment is strictly a divine work, not merely a human organization or society or even a mere “religious movement”. In the second place, we emphasized that the church is the gathering of those who are called to be saints, and that this calling is of God and is efficacious: God unerringly calls His church into existence. We called attention, in the third place, to the truth that this calling takes place through our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God in human nature, and by His Word and Spirit. And finally, we stressed the fact that this calling through our Lord Jesus Christ goes forth through the preaching of the gospel throughout the ages, both of the old and new dispensations, and that also in this respect the gathering of the church is strictly a divine work.

The reader must bear in mind that we mention these truths and emphasize them only with a view to our main subject, “Church Membership in His Fear”, and that while it is our purpose to discover to ourselves the meaning and spiritual requirements of church membership in the fear of the Lord, we can only do so bearing in mind the nature of the church and the mode of her existence in the world. To that end we emphasized previously that the church is the holy catholic church, and that the believer in all his relationship to the church in the world and in his entire attitude must in holy fear be deeply conscious of the fact that it is the holy catholic church which is, so to speak, at stake in this question. And to that end we call attention now to the truth of the gathering of the church with the purpose of emphasizing the practical importance of this truth as far as our church membership is concerned.

There is, however, one more important element which we must notice in this connection. And that is the truth that in this world Christ gathers His church in the midst of the world, He does not in a disorderly and discontinuous and random fashion gather individuals; but He gathers families, and He continues His church in the line of generations. That this is true is beyond all contradiction. This fact appears in the very beginning of the history of the church, when in the period before the flood the antithesis between the “sons of God” and the “daughters of men” took form, and when it followed the lines of the generations of Seth on the one hand, and Cain on the other. And thus it was that in the entire old dispensation Christ gathered His church in the line of Seth, Noah, Shem, Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, even according to His promise in Genesis 17:7 which was in essence repeated many times afterwards. And while in the new dispensation the church is no longer nationally limited, the same rule holds, and the promise is unto us and our children. We must beware, however, that we do not wrongly conclude from this truth that membership in the body of Christ is a natural heritage, which we acquire simply by virtue of birth from believing parents. Membership in the church of Jesus Christ is not a matter of flesh and blood. Nor does the fact that God continues His church in the generations of the saints mean that He gathers every child of believers into the body of Jesus Christ or that in any sense at all every child has grace. For that gathering in the line of generations,—and that is the very striking fact to anyone who considers the revelation of this truth in Holy Scripture,—is exactly antithetical, so that while there is a gathering there is at once a distinction made, the result of which, to use the example of the old dispensation once more, is that the church is gathered in the line of a Shem, in distinction from a Japheth and a Ham; an Abraham, in distinction from his father’s house; an Isaac, in distinction from an Ishmael (and the sons of Keturah); a Jacob, in distinction from an Esau; a Judah, in distinction (generally) from the ten tribes.

Yet there is something different about those children of believers that are not children of the promise, that are not brought into living contact with Christ, in distinction from other reprobate children. And the difference is that they are born and brought up in the sphere of the manifestation of the church. And in that sphere they have everything in common with the elect seed except the grace of God in Jesus Christ. They share the preaching of the gospel; they share the sacraments; they share the catechetical instruction; they share all that belongs to the life of the church in the midst of the world;—except the grace of God that renews them and brings them into living spiritual contact with the body of Christ and with Christ Himself. God’s promise is not for them, nor ever realized unto them. His promise is for us and our children organically, for us and for our elect seed, because it pleases Him to take His seed, the children of the promise, from among our offspring.

Conclusions.

We may, in the light of the above discussion of the gathering of the church, draw the following conclusions with a view to our subject of church membership in His fear. In the first place, the church on earth is the gathering of believers and their children, baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. In the second place, the church on earth, as a result of the fact that the Son of God gathers it by His Word and Spirit, always exists as a gathering. You may, perhaps, be tempted to say that this is a truism. Let it be, then, but let us remember it as a very important truism. In the third place, and in close connection with our second conclusion, this gathering of the church, or this gathered church is manifested in gatherings, plural.

Now this whole truth concerning the gathering of the church, as well as the conclusions which we have just drawn, stands in connection naturally with the truth of the institution of the church and all that it means. Nevertheless, we may at this stage well call attention to the practical significance of the above conclusions as far as our church membership is concerned, provided we remember that there is more to follow and that what we now say must be considered in that light also of what follows.

Believers and Their Children.

The first fact which follows from our conclusion that the church on earth is the gathering of believers and their children is a negative one. And while it appears to be only another doctrinal conclusion which we draw, it is nevertheless from the viewpoint of the matter of church membership a very important one. It is this: the church on earth is never pure from the viewpoint of its members. They are not all Israel that are of Israel. The carnal seed is always present.

Now this may seem to be a very commonplace fact. But every now and then that malicious story has a way of arising that the Protestant Reformed Churches and people think that they are all elect and that all the elect are in the Protestant Reformed Churches. I call it a malicious story, because it is undoubtedly raised by those who hate us and who hate the doctrine of election which we are graced to teach, and who wish to influence unknowing and innocent children of God. Let it be said in concrete form and emphatically: the Protestant Reformed Churches are never pure; in them all is not Israel that are of Israel; the carnal seed is always present in them.

That means, too, that when we seek to join ourselves to the church here on earth we must never look for a church where all are without doubt elect people of God. We will surely fail in our search. Often the matter of church membership and the question of the true and the false church is confused by this approach. This is not the time to propose the positive and correct standard in this matter; that must wait for a later issue. We only want now to disavow emphatically that any church here on earth is ever pure from the viewpoint of its membership.

Furthermore, we must remember that it is always this carnal seed that corrupts the church on earth. It is from this carnal seed that the false church springs. It is from that same carnal seed that the final great apostasy, that precedes the manifestation of the man of sin, arises. It is from that carnal element that error and ungodliness and all kinds of trouble may be expected to arise also in our own churches. And I would add that as Protestant Reformed people we especially should be aware of that probability, exactly because of our view that Christ gathers His church in the line of generations.

And being aware of it, we must never be discouraged when error arises. On the contrary, we must know that the mighty Christ is gathering His church and that even in this present time His gathering of the church is a distinctive gathering which brings into being the very antithesis between the spiritual and the carnal seed.

Therefore the church and its members is called also always to watch and to pray, to put on the whole armor of God, to be girt about with the truth, in order that she may be able to stand, in the assurance that Christ will surely gather and preserve His Church to the end.

And that calling is concrete too! It means that in the faith that the church is gathered in the line of generations and consists here on earth in the gathering of believers and their children, we are mindful of our calling to preserve the truth of the gospel. It means that we are mindful of our calling to deliver that truth to the next generation. It means that believers are responsible that their children are in catechism and prepared for their catechetical work. It means that believers are responsible also outside of the sphere of the church institute that their children are “instructed and brought up in the doctrine of this Christian church to the utmost of their power” in home and school.

This truth implies also that families belong to church and go to church. It is undoubtedly because of this truth that our church membership is reckoned in family units,—a system which appears strange and illogical in other circles often, where membership is reckoned in the number of souls. But our church attendance itself should very definitely evidence that faith that God gathers His church in the line of generations. In the fear of the Lord believers should take their children with them to church, take them by the hand, and that at as early an age as feasible. And when the children begin to grow up a little, they should not be allowed to go to church individually. Believing parents should not allow their families to go to church separately or by installments, and to sit scattered all over the auditorium. From every aspect it is proper that children sit with their parents in church, where their parents may know without doubt that they are present at the services, and where their parents may know that they are behaving in an orderly and attentive way during the preaching of the Word. And they should insist as long as their children are children in the church that this shall be the rule.

That is church membership in the fear of the Lord!