The previous six articles touched on topics that are crucially important for peace in the church. We have considered (1) the desire itself and why it is so urgent that we pray for the peace of the church in these perilous days; (2) the foundation of unity in the doctrinal truth of the Three Forms of Unity (Reformed confessions); (3) our calling to go to the brother/body with whom we have a serious problem; (4) the importance of listening to each other; (5) supporting victims of sexual abuse; and (6) confronting spousal abuse. Now we conclude with the heart of the whole matter: love for the church.
What a glorious reality the church is! Not any sect in the world that fancies itself the church, but the true church of the living God is beautiful for situation and the joy of the whole earth. Not merely the invisible body of all of the elect, but the visible manifestation of that mystical body as a true instituted church of Christ on earth in a local congregation is glorious. Glorious things are spoken of Jerusalem of old, the many congregations established through mission labors in the apostolic era, and any true church where we have our membership today.
The church is the body and bride of the Lord of heaven, purchased by His blood. She is the royal city of the great King. She is the mountain of God’s holiness. She is the dwelling place of the Most High. She is the grand palace of the saving knowledge of Christ Jesus. She is the mighty citadel of truth that strikes fear and consternation into the hearts of great kings. She is the assembly of believers and their seed where God has put His name.
There in the church God gives us a name and a place. There in the church we gather for the public worship of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. There in the church we have our true family—those who do the will of the Lord, whether they be male or female, young or old, rich or poor, black or white. There in the church the Christ who is exalted over all in heaven is pleased to be present with us through the special offices of minister, elder, and deacon. He is pleased to operate by His Word and Spirit in dispensing grace through the preaching of the holy gospel (including catechism) and the administration of the sacraments. He is pleased to maintain purity in the exercise of Christian discipline. He makes His church a city that is set on a hill, a light that cannot be hid, as His members testify of Him in personal witnessing and local evangelism. He causes a congregation of His to seek to manifest true unity and catholicity in as far as that is possible, not only in denominational fellowship, but also in relation to all churches that have obtained like precious faith with her, both domestic and foreign.
A faithful congregation, as a manifestation of the one body of Christ, has a history in this world that begins at her organization with charter members in a certain- named locality. Her history continues with the joys of newborn babies, new members joining, marriages, baptisms, confessions of faith, and all the sweet fellowship that the members enjoy as they stand together in the gospel. Her history also includes the sorrows of death, departures, opposition, controversy, and myriad trials.
While glorious, Christ’s church will never attain perfection here on earth because she is made up of sinners like you and me who are finite, foolish, and often sorely lacking in our love for her. Some never make a church their home because everywhere they go they find faults and leave, ricocheting their way through life off this church and off that church, in hopeless pursuit of perfection on earth. The church through history always has spots, wrinkles, blemishes, and other such things on her garments. She is never worthy in herself of being presented unto Christ a glorious church.
Her holiest prophets, priests, and kings of old had only a small beginning of obedience and often manifested unbelief and wickedness not unlike that of the neighboring heathens. When God’s church first appeared in the city of Corinth during the apostolic era, she was a congregation troubled by members who denied the bodily resurrection, schismatically divided themselves according to their favorite minister, profaned the Lord’s Supper, ran off to the civil courts to sue each other over petty issues, and tolerated a man living impenitently with his father’s wife. Until the day of Christ, the church remains in constant need of the sanctifying Spirit and calls for repentance, reformation, and renewal. Through history, many instituted churches so degenerate spiritually in proudly promoting heresy and wickedness that Christ eventually comes and fights against them with the sword of His mouth.
All her imperfections notwithstanding, Jerusalem of old was the habitation of the mighty God of Jacob. The troubled church in Corinth was still the gathering of saints called unto the fellowship of Jesus Christ. A holy congregation today, even with all her blemishes, is a manifestation of the beloved bride of Jesus. Christ always preserves His church somewhere in the world. He sanctifies and cleanses her with the washing of water by the Word until the day He presents her unto Himself in eternal glory.
Love for the church
If you are begotten of God, then you love the church. You love your church as it is the body of Christ and a spiritual mother to you. To sing from the Psalter is to sing of our love for the church, and when we do, we are not singing about some abstraction. Nor are we merely singing about some gathering that is out of sight and hundreds of miles away so that its members cannot step on our toes. Rather, we sing of the gathering to which we belong with our fellow saints. For the singing Israelite, it was Jerusalem on Mount Zion where the temple was built and God was worshiped for many years in the beauty of holiness by thronging worshipers. For us it is our own congregation where we have our membership.
The Psalms make very clear what love for the church looks like. When we love the church, we ask God to make us disabled or dumb if we do not maintain constant affection for her. In fact, we even personify the church and sing to her: “Let my right hand forget her skill, if I forget to love thee well. If I do not remember thee, then let my tongue from utterance cease; if any earthly joy to me, be dear as Zion’s joy and peace.” (Psalter #379).
When the church is distressed, and consequently our life becomes difficult, we do not forsake her, but we are also distressed and cease not to pray for her: “O Lord, regard the prayer of those, who love the walls of Zion well, whose hearts are heavy for her woes…” (Psalter #273).
If we are separated from the sweet communion and holy ordinances of God’s sanctuary, we pine: “O Lord of Hosts, how lovely, thy tabernacles are; for them my heart is yearning, in banishment afar” (Psalter #227). For, there is little that stirs our hearts like “the welcome sound, the call to seek Jehovah’s house of prayer” (Psalter #349).
Tireless is our devotion to our congregation where God and our brethren dwell: “For sake of friends and kindred dear, my heart’s desire is Zion’s peace; and for the house of God, the Lord, my loving care shall never cease” (Psalter #350).
From the heart of the believer who truly loves God’s church bursts the joyful exclamation: “Blessed Zion, all our fountains are in thee” (Psalter #237)!
This kind of love for the church, a heavenly love that God alone can put in the heart, does not weaken when trouble comes to the church. This love for the church does not dry up when problems due to sin arise in the church, problems that directly affect our own personal life. This love does not cease when we find something disagreeable to us in the church.
On the contrary, it is in the day of trouble and distress, perhaps when some great evil must be resisted with strenuous effort, that true, Spirit-worked love for the church shows itself as never before. When we would otherwise become angry and vengeful and abandon the church, seeking our own personal advantage, God works a wonder of grace in our hearts so that we say to the church, “To thee my love shall never be denied” (Psalter #349). Right there, at that point of trouble, love for the church truly shows itself. At that point God tests whether all those stanzas we have been singing from the Psalter were rooted in our heart or only vain words on our lips. When love for the church costs us something, we truly begin to reflect in a faint way the infinite love of our blessed Head who humbled Himself unto the deepest reproach and pains of hell, both in body and soul, on the tree of cross, confessing, “To thee, O church, my love shall never be denied.”
That love for the church, which is the love of Christ Himself, worked in our hearts by the Holy Spirit, is magnified over against the carnal self-love of our wicked flesh and all the hatred that the enemies of the church have for her. The church is always despised and rejected in the world. She is harassed by Sanballats and Tobiahs in every age. Usually, the most lethal assaults against her come from those whose history is intertwined with hers. In the early church, the unbelieving Jews were filled with envy and rage and attacked the missionaries and believers more viciously than any other foe.
Few seem to love God’s church today. Seducers seek to spoil her with heresies and false doctrine. Lovers of contention and unholy disputations cause divisions and offenses, threatening to rip her to shreds. Some loudly damn and curse her as a brood of vipers, a den of unbelievers, or the whore of Babylon. Some live with a hair-trigger temper and, if the slightest matter does not go their way in the church, they open fire on her with both barrels. In self-aggrandizement, some write and speak vile slander against her to the glee of those who take pleasure in church-bashing. Some by their personal life of wickedness give the enemy occasion to ridicule God’s church. Others are ashamed of the church and disown any relation to her.
Do you love the church? Do I?
Desiring her peace
There is only one kind of church member who earnestly desires the peace of the church, and prays fervently for it. He is the man, or she is the woman, who loves the church. When God fills our hearts with love for Christ and His bride, we not only pray for her peace, but we take great care that no attitude, action, or word of ours is an unholy sin against the unity of the church. If the peace of God’s church is of no concern to us, and we will unleash our tongue as an unruly evil full of deadly poison against whomever we please, then we are revealing our loveless heart.
As hatred for the church increases in intensity, may God give us deeper love for His church, for only when we love Jerusalem, do we seek Jerusalem’s peace. The church never depends upon our love; if she did, she would be no more. It is in God’s love that the church abides and has joy and peace. May God show His love by causing us to sing from a heart of love Psalter #348: stanzas 4-6:
O pray that Zion may be blest
And have abundant peace,
For all that love thee in their hearts
Shall prosper and increase.
I pray the Lord that peace may still
Within thy walls abound,
And ever in thy palaces
Prosperity be found.
Yea, for the sake of friends and kin,
My heart desires thy peace,
And for the house of God the Lord
My care shall never cease.