We have begun to call attention to the practical import of the truth that the Son of God gathers His church by His Word and Spirit from the beginning to the end of the world out of the whole human race. And last time we mentioned specifically the practical significance of the truth that this gathering takes place in the line of continued generations. It still remains, therefore, to call attention to the importance for church membership in the fear of the Lord of the truth that the church is a gathering out of the whole human race, and that this gathering is manifested in gatherings. This we shall do in the present article.
An Actual Gathering.
The result of the fact that the Son of God gathers to Himself a church is that the church is gathered, that it is a gathering. That stands to reason. That is a truism, you say. But let us try to understand the importance of this “truism”.
On the one hand, of course, it is true that the end result of this gathering process is the complete and perfect body of Christ as it shall be realized in the day of the Lord, and as it shall consist of all His people, all the elect, of all ages, from every nation and tribe and tongue, and as they shall be presented without spot or wrinkle in the assembly of the elect in life eternal. And when we confess a holy catholic church, it is that church which is the subject of our confession of faith. Then the church shall not exist at all any more as a mixture. The carnal seed shall no longer be in her. The battle of the church will be over. The sinful flesh of the believers will be done away. The church also as to its membership will be absolutely pure, holy. That is in itself a very practical truth, also with respect to our church membership here below. Only we must remember that the power of that truth lies in the fact that it is strictly and only the Son of God Who gathers His church unto Himself. Take that fact away, lay the gathering of the church to the charge of man, to the charge of human preachers, to the charge of the members of that church in any way, compromise that truth by giving men a share in that gathering process, and its certainty is lost; and when the certainty is lost, the powerful comfort of that truth is lost. He, the mighty Son of God, and He alone, gathers to Himself a church chosen to everlasting life. And remember: He does it. He does not merely try to gather a church; He actually gathers her. That is a very rich and beautiful truth. It means that the believers may rest quietly in the calm assurance of faith, when he looks about him and in himself. When he beholds one church after another succumbing to the manifold lies of human philosophy, when he sees it becoming manifest in the very congregation of which he is a member that all is not Israel that is called Israel, when he sees the faithful becoming few in number, when he sees the truth assailed and denied and compromised, when he sees what appear to be the overwhelming assaults of the powers of darkness tearing the church asunder, when he beholds how weakly the new life of the members of the body of Christ really comes to manifestation in the midst of the church, when he sees the very communion of churches in which he has been all his lifetime a member, and which holds the love of his heart and is the object of his loyalty, from which he only with difficulty can separate himself, falling into the way of error,—in a word, when his whole experience tells him that the cause of the church is a hopeless and lost cause, a miserable failure, then he may know with the knowledge of faith that the cause of the Son of God cannot fail, but that even through these very things the Son of God goes right on gathering, defending, and, preserving His church. In that quiet assurance he can act also according to faith. It is only with that confidence that the faithful church has ever been able to maintain the truth. It was only with that confidence that mighty men of God in the past have had the courage to “break with the church,” to oppose a mighty and powerful institute that had become corrupt. It was in that confidence that a Luther and a Calvin had the courage to maintain the truth of Scripture and to go a separate way in the Reformation of the 16th century. It was in that calm assurance that men have been willing to lie down at the stake, calling upon the name of the Lord Jesus. It was in that confidence that faithful leaders and whole congregations could be willing to lose their place in “the church”, to be deposed and cast out, and to suffer the loss of their all as churches. Yes, it was in that confidence that the Protestant Reformed Churches had the courage to maintain themselves 25 years ago as a tiny and feeble baby, teetering on the brink of death. And yes, it is only in that confidence that the Son of God gathers His church by His Spirit and Word that we can and must go on defending the faith, small and despised and without outward might in the world though we continue to be.
And this implies further that all our efforts as churches, as members of the church, as ministry must stand in the service of that gathering work of the Son of God. More must be said also in this connection when we come to the subject of the church as institute. Rut even now we must emphasize that we may be busy as members of His church only in this faith, that the Son of God gathers His church. We do not gather it. We must never, as the gathering of the church on earth, labor out of the conceited and sinful idea of somehow adding our bit to that gathering work of Christ, either by our own membership or by our activities as members of His church. It is not our efforts toward growth, not our efforts toward unity, not our efforts even for the manifestation of the unity of the body of Christ that make the body of Christ that great wonderwork, that make it catholic and one, that cause the glory of the one Christ to shine in the one body of many members. No: the Son of God, only, strictly, and alone gathers His church. It is that faith that must control us as members of His church.
In the second place, we must remember that the gathering of the church is a gathering unto spiritual separation. The church is gathered out of the whole human race, a race that lies in the corruption of sin and death. And the church is called unto holiness. And it is holy in principle. And its members are holy in principle. And also on earth the gathering of the church becomes spiritually manifest. That the church is a gathering is not merely manifest, of course, in this, that it gathers locally and physically in a certain building at stated times to hear the preaching of the Word. That belongs to the manifestation of the church, as we shall see, and is an important element also. But we must understand that even then, when the members of the church come together in a public gathering, they manifest themselves as a spiritual gathering. Otherwise you might also draw the false conclusion that everyone who gathers with the church belongs to the body of Christ, and that being a member of the church is just a matter of “going to church”. But the holiness of the church must be manifest in the holiness of her members. And the holiness of her members must be manifest in all their life in the midst of the world. It must be seen that the church and the members of the church are actually gathered out of the whole human race, and that they therefore are in the world, but not of the world. In all that you do and in every sphere and relationship of life it must be evident that you have been gathered by the Son of God.
In the third place, it follows from this truth of the gathering of the church that the church gathers together. We must not make the fatal mistake of separating the truth that the church gathers together from the truth that the Son of God gathers His church by His Word and Spirit. Then the whole confession that there is an holy catholic church becomes after all something hazy, something abstract, which has no effect at least on our life here below and in this present time. While it is true that the end result of Christ’s gathering His church is the complete, glorified church in the new heavens and the new earth, we should understand at once that also on earth the church becomes manifest as a gathering. This is plain from all Scripture. Already in the old dispensation the church is frequently pictured as gathering together. Israel is referred to as the congregation, or the congregation of Jehovah; and they assembled for the purpose of the worship of Jehovah at the tabernacle and later at the temple. Besides, other gatherings of the people of Israel are mentioned, as, for instance, during the time of Samuel, and in the time of Elijah. Thus also the Psalmist speaks of the amiableness of the tabernacles of the Lord. And he faints for the courts of the Lord.. In the New Testament this same fact is very evident. We have only to think of the numerous congregations which were established and also instituted by the apostle Paul on his missionary journeys. Or we may remind ourselves that the Holy Spirit was poured out in the church as it was assembled in those days in Jerusalem. Or we may point to the many epistles which were addressed to specific congregations and which were read in the assemblies of the churches. And we must remember that these were the gatherings of the church on earth at those times. So true is this that the epistles are even addressed to “the church of God at . . .” There can be no doubt about it that the church is actually and concretely manifest in gatherings of specific congregations at certain places and at stated times.
And that means that the believer will not think lightly of his membership in the church in the world. He knows that it is the will of the Lord that His body shall become manifest in the world as the gathering of believers with their children and that it is therefore his obligation before God to belong to that gathering. He is aware also that the Spirit of Christ was poured out in the church as well as that Christ’s Word is addressed to the church. And the believer will not separate himself from the gatherings of the church for any earthly or carnal considerations.
This follows, of course, from the very nature of the life of the believer and from the very manner of his salvation. By being called the believer becomes member of the body of Christ. He is not saved as an individual. He lives the life of regeneration as a member of the body. And just as in the natural sense no member of my body has any power in separation from my body, so the believer has no life in himself, apart from Christ, and in separation from the body of Christ, the church. It is the urge of his regenerated heart to join the fellowship of believers. He belongs with them. His life is a life in common with them. He cannot live alone. Membership in the church in the world is indispensable for his spiritual life.
(to be continued)