Rev. Kortering is a minister emeritus in the Protestant Reformed Churches.
Having set forth different views of the congregation and the problems associated with them, we now turn to the correct view, which is called the “organic” view of the church. This term was coined by Herman Hoeksema, especially in his book Believers and Their Seed. Let’s allow him to speak for himself as we quote a short segment from this work. We begin on page 114.
God’s people in this world are pictured to us in nature as a plant, of which some of the branches bear fruit and others do not. You are acquainted with such plants. Think, for example, of our well-known tomato plant. You have there an organism, growing out of one root. The entire organism is called by the name of the fruit-bearing plant. As such, it is fertilized; as such, it receives rain and sunshine. But when presently the organism of that plant has developed, then you discover that there are nevertheless two kinds of branches shooting forth on that one plant. There are fruit-bearing branches; but there, between them, you also find suckers, which indeed draw their life-sap out of the plant, but which never bear any fruit. Such shoots and suckers are then also cut out, in order that the good branches may bear more fruit. Thus it is with many plants. Thus it is also, for example, with the cucumber or with the grapevine. And in this you have the Scriptural figure of the people of God as they exist in the world. God forms His covenant people in the line of believers and their seed. As such, they manifest the figure of such an organic whole. He, then, who would refuse to call that people by the name of the people of God, he who would refuse to address them as God’s people, he who would refuse to assure them as God’s people of the riches of God’s promises in Christ, he who would refuse to point them as God’s people to their calling as those who are of the party of the living God in the midst of the world, but who would rather treat them as a mixed multitude, without any spiritual character or stamp—that man would surely err sorely. Yet on the other hand, he who would think that he may presuppose that there are absolutely no unregenerate and reprobate individuals among that people, and who therefore would refuse to proclaim woe as well as weal to them if they do not walk in the paths of God’s covenant, that man would err just as sorely. No, that entire people must be addressed, treated, comforted, and admonished as the Israel of God. And yet, at the same time, you may never forget that not all is Israel that is called Israel. There are branches which never bear fruit, which bring forth wild fruit, and which are presently cut off.
This organic view of the church relates not only to the local congregation, but also to the church throughout the entire world. She is to be viewed as one organic whole, living out of Jesus Christ and in Him bearing much fruit. At the same time, she is not the church triumphant but the church militant, still doing battle against sin and death, without and within. Therefore, it is proper that whether the established church is within a mission setting such as Singapore, or within a mature denomination such as the Protestant Reformed Churches in America, the pastor views his congregation in this manner.
The Bible sheds abundant light upon this subject.
The prophet Isaiah used this language in Isaiah 5:1-7:
Now will I sing to my well-beloved a song of my beloved touching his vineyard. My well beloved hath a vineyard in a very fruitful hill: And he fenced it, and gathered out the stones thereof, and planted it with the choicest vine, and built a tower in the midst of it, and also made a winepress therein: and he looked that it should bring forth grapes, and it brought forth wild grapes. And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem, and men of Judah, judge, I pray you, betwixt me and my vineyard. What could have been done more to my vineyard that I have not done in it? Wherefore, when I looked that it should bring forth grapes, brought it forth wild grapes? And now, go to: I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard; I will take away the hedge thereof, and it shall be eaten up; and break down the wall thereof, and it shall be trodden down: And I will lay it waste: it shall not be pruned, nor digged; but there shall come up briers and thorns: I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it. For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah his pleasant plant: and he looked for judgment, but behold oppression; for righteousness, but behold a cry.
Even though Israel/Judah had apostatized and made themselves ready for judgment, yet God approaches her as “my well-beloved.” For among them rest the remnant of grace out of whose body shall come forth the promised Messiah.
The Lord Jesus uses the same approach in His ministry. This is found in John 15:1-6:
I am the true vine, and my Father is the husbandman. Every branch in me that beareth not fruit he taketh away: and every branch that beareth fruit, he purgeth it, that it may bring forth more fruit. Now ye are clean through the word which I have spoken unto you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me. I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing. If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered; and men gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned.
Here He pictures the church as a living vine made up of many branches. Some of the branches must be cut off because they do not bear fruit. Others must be pruned so they bear more fruit. The church is viewed as such a vine, upon which the Father as husbandman performs all his work of gathering the fruits.
Paul follows this same example when he refers to the church throughout all of history as an olive tree (cf.Rom. 11:16-27). We will summarize the teaching of the inspired apostle. He sets forth the church as being one church, made up of natural olive branches (believing Jews) and wild olive branches that have been engrafted into the olive tree (believing Gentiles). God is constantly working upon this olive tree by the preaching of the gospel. This activity of God was not to eliminate the Jews. Rather, He included believing Gentiles in this one tree to provoke the Jews to jealousy, so that they might in turn also embrace Jesus Christ, and in this manner both “all Israel is saved” and the “fullness of the Gentiles” is come in. The entire church of all ages, made up of believing Jews and Gentiles, is viewed as the one olive tree.
This explains why the same apostle, in his letters, addressed the churches as “the church of God.” See, for example, I Corinthians 1:2: “Unto the church of God which is at Corinth, to them that are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, with all that in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours.” He was well aware that there were all sorts of problems in this church, and he had to address severely in this letter many erring members. Yet he does not view them asmixed or lost, but rather as saved in Christ who need to hear the message of the gospel.
In keeping with this biblical teaching, the pastor addresses the congregation at the time of worship as “Beloved in our Lord Jesus Christ.” He does not approach them as lost souls, nor as a mixed multitude, nor as all saved, but rather as the church that is in Jesus Christ. Just because that church is still in the midst of this world, it needs the instruction of the truth of salvation. The members must hear over and over again the call to repentance and faith, to convert unto God, to live new and holy lives. Sprinkled throughout all the epistles are exhortations and warnings against sin and a call to repent and believe.
The danger that a preacher who holds to this clear teaching of the Bible faces is that he may draw a wrong conclusion, that he is to preach to the church as those who are saved and secure in Christ, who do not need to hear a call to repent and believe because they are saved already. If this is his view, he would conclude that there is no need for “mission preaching” as we explained it in our former article. Such neglect would have a devastating effect on the local church.
Herman Hoeksema warns against this in his Reformed Dogmatics. I quote from pages 654 and 655:
The preaching of the Word in the sphere of the covenant must be both distinctive and upbuild-ing. It cannot proceed on the assumption that all the children of the covenant, that is, all those that are born in the sphere of and under the covenant, are elect and regenerated. The theory of presumptive regeneration, according to which it is presumed that all the children that are born under the covenant are regenerated, is certainly not Scriptural; not all are Israel that are of Israel; and not the children of the flesh, but the children of the promise are counted for the seed. Nor can it be said that those who are under the covenant, but who are and remain carnal and never come to saving faith or true conversion, belong to the exceptions. The history of the Old Testament church teaches quite the opposite. Always it was the carnal seed that abounded in the covenant of the old dispensation, and the remnant according to the election of grace was saved. Nor does this appear different when we look at the church of the new dispensation in general. If we consider baptized Christendom as a whole, it would seem that those who have apostatized from the faith are far more numerous than the faithful believers. Always, therefore, there is a carnal seed in the church. And the theory of presumptive regeneration, that presumes that all the children born in the covenant are elect, is not only unscriptural, but it is also dangerous. Dangerous it is, not because, as the popular saying goes, it tends to let the people go to hell with an imaginary heaven: for that is quite impossible, at least where the truth is preached. But the danger is that because it presumes what is not true, according to Scripture, it leaves the carnally minded in the church, and thus the church of Christ is corrupted. And therefore the preaching must be directed not only to the elect, but also to the reprobate; not only to the godly, but also the ungodly. It must be so distinctive that under its influence the reprobate and ungodly cannot remain, but will reveal themselves as haters of the truth of God and His Christ.
Moreover, even the elect and regenerated are not perfect. Even as regards them, there is much flesh in the church. Daily they have to strive with the desires and lusts of the flesh, and must be admonished steadfastly to walk in the way of the covenant, to hate sin, and to fight against it and flee from it.
Therefore, the preaching in the sphere of the covenant must always be distinctive. This does not mean that it must divide the church into elect and reprobate, converted and unconverted, and address them separately. Rather, it means that the whole church, as it organically exists in the world, must be brought under the influence of the very same preaching. The same Word must be directed to all. All must be exhorted to be converted and to convert themselves, to repent in dust and ashes. All must be admonished continually to walk in the way of sanctification and to live antithetically, as of the party of the living God in the midst of the world. Such preaching will have the result that it is a savor of life for those whom God has chosen unto everlasting salvation, but at the same time a savor of death unto death for the rest. Only under such preaching alone will the church be built up, and believers will be edified.
This same idea is expressed forthrightly in our Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 31. Our purpose in making this reference now is not to go into detail concerning what is to be said. We will consider that in our next article. Rather, we refer to this Lord’s Day from the point of view of the congregation needing the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Obviously, the keys of the kingdom are given to the established church, which has officebearers doing their work as assigned by Christ. The two keys of the kingdom include the preaching of the gospel and the exercise of Christian discipline. Notice with me, there are in the local congregation believers who need God’s Word. “…according to the command of Christ it is declared and publicly testified to all and every believer, that, whenever they receive the promise of the gospel by a true faith, all their sins are really forgiven….” Added to that is mention of other members of the congregation who are called unbelievers. “…when it is declared and testified to all unbelievers, and such as do not sincerely repent, that they stand exposed to the wrath of God and eternal condemnation….”
From this we conclude that, even though we rejoice in the clear teaching of the Bible that the church is viewed organically as the people of God, and the pastor ministers to them as such, nevertheless this does not make missionary preaching unnecessary. The unconverted must be called to repent and believe. The pastor must be fully aware of this fact, and therefore his preaching must always be that of a two-edged sword that will cut the hearts of God’s people so that they cry out in sorrow and repentance. It will also speak to the unbelievers that they stand exposed to God’s wrath and punishment. As we learn in II Corinthians 2:15, the preaching of the gospel will be a sweet savor of Christ in them that are saved and in them that perish.
The established church, whether in a mission setting such as Singapore or in our churches here in America, preach the same gospel. There is only one gospel, that given to us on the pages of the infallible Word of God. That Word is full of exhortations to repent, to forsake evil, to know and embrace the God of creation, to stand by faith at the foot of the cross of Jesus and receive Him as God’s Redeemer, the only One through whom we can become righteous before God. All who truly embrace Jesus as their Savior come to know Him as their Lord. Salvation and holy living go together. One cannot be saved and continue in sin. Rather he forsakes all sin and seeks to walk in a new and holy life with God. We acknowledge that the heart of the gospel is Jesus Christ, and that every sermon must have Christ at its center. This can be true only if we recognize that every sermon must be addressed to sinners who need to be converted to God and come to realize that true liberty in Christ is to be victorious over sin. Thus every sermon beats with the vibrancy of the good news of salvation, which we call here “mission preaching.”
This is the idea of Heidelberg Catechism preaching as well. So-called catechism preaching is not limited to an exercise in dogmatic instruction. It is preaching the gospel every Lord’s Day. A proper understanding of the threefold knowledge necessary to live and die happily in comfort makes this clear. The threefold knowledge of the catechism makes up the good news of the gospel. The sins I know Sunday morning when I get up to go to church are the sins that make me miserable that very moment, and I need to hear the gospel of comfort that very morning. Growing in the consciousness of sin is what makes me miserable. The older I get, and the more mature I become, the more I see how terrible my sins are and how impossible it is for me to be saved apart from the love and mercy of a Heavenly Father who gave us His own Son.
My point is this, that if we preach such a gospel in the setting of the established church and God brings a non-Christian or unconverted man off the street, we don’t have to change the message or hold a special service for him. He can come anytime into our services and he will hear “mission preaching.” There may be differences, in that certain passages are more conducive to this, or that the emphasis may be upon various aspects of our Christian faith, nevertheless, every sermon will have Christ at its center, and with Christ, the good news of the gospel.
We will focus on this a little more in our next article.