An outstanding feature of the Scripture’s teaching concerning the church is the importance of faithfulness to the truth of God’s Word, and to the sound doctrinal preaching of the Word. The life of the church is dependent upon Christ’s Word. But today there is a forsaking of true Scriptural preaching and teaching. This is detrimental to the church, and in fact brings it to destruction if persistently followed. It is well that we consider our ways also, in the light of the teaching of God’s Word concerning the church. As we consider this truth of the church, we do not treat or even say anything that is new, but are reminded of the instruction of Christ to His Body.
The church is, first of all, the body of Christ. In Eph. 1:20-23 we see the church so called. God “hath put all things under his (Christ’s) feet, and gave him to be head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fulness of him that filleth all in. all.” And this same testimony is found in Col. 1:15-20, where Christ is described as the firstborn of the church. “He is the head of the body, the church: who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead.” Further, the church is pictured as the branches, with Christ as the vine in John 15:1-5. And in I Peter 2, the church is spoken of as a temple, which figure is used also inEph. 2:19-22. Finally the church is called the church of the firstborn in Hebrews 12:22-23.
In these texts we are given to understand that the Church of Christ is one organic whole, and a unity with a definite number of members. The church is not merely a crowd of people. Nor is there a question who will be in the church, or a matter, of chance how many shall be in the church. God has determined her in Christ from before the foundation of the world. And He in Christ surely gathers her as the body of His Son. The church, then, is not dependent upon the persuasive powers of its ministers or its members for its growth and size. May we remember this when we may be tempted to use attractive figures of speech or cute little stories to teach something about God and the things of His kingdom. The church is not nourished and built up by such. Rather God calls His church as a body, as a temple, as a whole with a definite number of members. And without fail He gathers that church. Not one member is gathered that ought not to be, nor is one left out that should be there. God Who determines His church in Christ from before the foundation of the world, saves that church through the blood of His Son. And He has determined in Christ to gather that church by the means of the preaching of Christ and Him crucified and raised. Only then does the sound preaching of Christ have any place in the gathering and instruction of the church. Let us not then attempt to instruct the members of the church with anything less than the expounding of the Word.
The importance is illustrated by the figure of the vine and branches by which Christ instructs us. Christ is first, the head, and from Him the body draws its life. The church is the church exactly as they are ingrafted into Christ and draw there all from Him. Through the Spirit and the Word of Christ the church receives its life and energy. Apart from Christ, the church (branches) is not. Thus, the church is gathered and sustained only where the word of Christ is truly found, which nourishes and strengthens His members.
We shall consider this truth a bit more in detail the church chosen of God from eternity in Christ, is gathered in time from the whole human race, from every nation, tongue, and tribe, from the beginning of the world unto the end. Thus in every generation the church exists, the body of Christ is gathered and becomes manifest on earth. And so it shall be until the time that the last member of the body of Christ is born and gathered by Christ into His body, cf. John 10:26-30. God eternally knows and determines that body of Christ; and thus also it is He that determines the end of time when the last of His children are gathered. The body of Christ shall surely be perfected and made complete!
This gathering of the church in Christ is the wonder-work of God by grace in time. He separates His children from the wicked world and delivers them unto Himself, holy and without blame, to enter into His eternal fellowship and glory. Indeed, it is a wonder of God’s grace. For in the gathering of His church, He builds His temple out of material altogether in itself unfit. For we are sinners, dead in sin and trespass. More wondrous it is than creation. For the human race is, in Adam and in its own sin, guilty and damnable. Out of such, God’s church is gathered into the communion of the justified and righteous. We who were in the midst of death, unable to dwell in the holy presence of our God, are gathered by Christ’s Spirit and Word into the fellowship and communion of our covenant God. This gathering can then be attributed alone to God’s grace, cf. Eph. 2:1-10. Hence, to follow the ways of rationalism, gadgets, moral stories, or in any other way to follow the invention of man in order to appeal to the church is utter nonsense. And it surely can avail no good. Alone does serious, faithful preaching and instruction, well demonstrated from the Scriptures themselves, serve the welfare of that Church. For alone is there comfort and the message of forgiveness found there. And only then, in the faithful exposition of the Bible, is Christ heard unto salvation.
Further, the Scripture clearly teaches that the gathering of the church is the work of God’s grace. It is not of man, though God uses us as His instruments. It is God in Christ Who gathers. “But now thus saith the Lord that created thee, O Jacob, and he that formed thee, O Israel, Fear not: for I have redeemed thee, I have called thee by name: thou art mine.” Is. 43:1. Or again we read, “Even us, whom he hath called, not of the Jews only, but also of the Gentiles. As he saith also in Osee, I will call them my people, which were not my people; and her beloved, which was not beloved. And it shall come to pass, that in the place where it was said unto them, Ye are not my people; there shall they be called the children of the living God.” Rom. 9:24-26. Not only does the text show here that it is God alone who gathers the church, but also that the church is one—both in the old and new dispensation. There are many texts to which we could turn, but we will quote but one more: “God is faithful, by whom ye were called unto the fellowship of His Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord.” I Cor. 1:9.
The divine calling, whereby the church is gathered out of the world, takes place always through Christ. He has the words of eternal life! It is the Son of God by His Spirit and Word, Who gathers His own church out of the whole human race. God always speaks through His Son and by the Spirit. And this divine calling comes to us through the preaching of the Word. The gospel is clearly not ours, but is Christ’s. It is His Word. He reveals it, and He is its contents. And Christ speaks it unto the gathering of His church! It is not, then, Christ and the church, not Christ and the minister, but Christ through the instrumentality of the church and his ministers whom He has prepared, ordained, and called to preach, that calls His church and gathers her.
Also at this point we see how important it is that we do not tamper with His word. Today man is busy attempting to change the meaning of Christ’s word. Man is saying that what was true in Paul’s day or in John’s day is no longer true or applicable today. Thus man overthrows the word of Christ about reprobation, about the wrath of God against sin and the sinner, about women’s blessed place of silence in the church, about the Genesis account of the creation of the world in six twenty-four hour days, etc. They would use the excuse that doing this they make it easier to gather the church, and may even point to the growth of their numbers following this course of action. However, when the word is so changed, Christ is not preached or is not preached to the extent that the word is so overthrown. The result is that the church shall not be gathered there. And, without repentance, Christ will altogether remove His candlestick from her that so walks.
On the other hand, when the Word is by grace maintained purely, when the church and the preacher are led by Christ’s Spirit to have the Scripture speak, as a two-edged sword, condemning sin and the sinner, and thus leading to Christ and His cross and resurrection as the only object of our trust and comfort—then is Christ gathering and blessing His church and His people.
As the church is so gathered, a unity in Christ becomes manifest. This is because the church is one. “So we, being many, are one body in Christ, and every one members of one another.” Rom. 125. And also we read, For as the body is one and hath many members, and all members of that body being many, are one body: so also is Christ. For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit.” I Cor. 12:12-13. And yet. again we read, “‘there is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; One Lord, one faith, one baptism, One God and Father of all, who is above all and through all, and in you all.” Eph. 4:4-6.
Hence, we see that there is only one church, God’s elect of all ages, who as true members of God’s church are perfectly united together in a bond of spiritual unity and fellowship, so that they are formed into one spiritual body. In time this church becomes manifest from place to place in local congregations, in which her members walk together in agreement and harmony with one another, spiritually united in the bond of peace in Christ. This they have now in principle only, because of sin and because in this life there are always the tares with the wheat. Nevertheless this spiritual unity is the characteristic of Christ’s church already now.
This means that we do not look to the movements toward mere outward unity of this ecumenical age, as a fulfillment of the unity of the church. There are many which still call themselves church, and who devise to manifest a unity between churches by eliminating all the differences between them. And in the process throw the true doctrines of God’s Word to the winds in order to unite. Or there are congregations that try to unite all their members by ridding themselves of the antithetical preaching and the antithetical character of the Word in instruction and Christian discipline. But this is absolutely wrong. The church must always be distinctively standing in the truth. A mere outward unity does not accomplish the true spiritual unity of the church. It is not the true unity of the body of Christ!
Christ alone establishes unity in His church. It is not by man or by the inventions of man by which he might try to make the church united. Man cannot cause unity; by nature all he can do is disrupt everything. For man is by nature selfish and seeks only his own good. Thus the true manifestation of the church of Christ is established alone where it pleases Christ to dwell by His Spirit and Word in the hearts of His own. Christ by the pure preaching of the Word, and by the operation of His Spirit, brings His children to repentance and ingrafts them into His body. And there is the unity of the church manifest in the fellowship of His people with their God and one another in and through Christ, Jesus, our Lord.
This unity is, therefore, not natural. For that which is natural is of sin and darkness. But the unity of the church is spiritual. And then this unity transcends all natural ties—it cannot be based upon family ties, nationality, or race; but it is based upon the oneness of the Spirit of Christ, Who bestows the fulness of Christ upon the members of His body. Christ gathers the elect under His word to fellowship with the Father. His life dwells in the church and the members of the same are separated from the world as Christ’s peculiar body.
From what has been said, it is obvious that God’s children, with the calling of Christ to be gathered together in unity of Spirit, do so alone on the basis of the Word of Christ. In the first place this means that they are not united by outward means, but alone by the faithful preaching and instruction of the Scriptures. The church does not desire less doctrine—but she has ever the need to grow in the knowledge of Christ. It is strict adherence to the Scripture in the preaching, catechism, writing, and in the labors of pastoral care and discipline which unites God’s people. Not coffee hours, social gatherings, poems, stories, or the works of man. God’s children seek union not in the way of less doctrine and less antithetical preaching, but in the way of ever growing in the doctrine of Christ. And though the church becomes ever so small (and she will in this end of time) she dare not seek realization of her unity in any other direction than that of growing in the knowledge of Christ her Head. May God grant us grace to be so faithful to the Scripture in all we undertake as the body of Christ.