Christ the Head
The peace of the church is found in her Head Jesus Christ. When brethren dwell in sweet accord in the church, the good and pleasant unity that they enjoy does not find its basis and expression in all kinds of external, earthly realities that might otherwise give men a sense of close affinity. Rather, the peace and unity of the church, like any other elements of the church’s nature and life, are to be found in Christ who is “…the head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him that all in all” (Eph. 1:22-23). Exalted at God’s right hand, Jesus Christ takes the members of His body, as manifested in local congregations on earth, and by His own Spirit He draws them together in true spiritual unity by drawing them up unto Himself the Head (Eph. 4:15-16; Col. 2:19).
Christ unifies His church by giving her agreement in the pure doctrine of the holy Scriptures. The “one Lord” unites His church in the “one faith” (Eph. 4:5) by giving us pastors and teachers (Eph. 4:10-11), so that through the preaching of the truth we might “come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God” (Eph. 4:13). The first object of the ascended Lord’s unifying work was the Pentecost church of Jerusalem described in Acts 2. The many new converts who were added to the church enjoyed cheerful Christian fellowship as they gladly received the word that Peter preached about Jesus (Acts 2:41) and “continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine” (v. 42). The early church was not built upon “the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees” (Matt. 16:6). The members did not reject Jesus in order to seek their salvation in their own righteousness, nor did they deny the final judgment and bodily resurrection in order to live as brute beasts anticipating annihilation in the dust one day. Had they embraced the false doctrine of the Pharisees and Sadducees, then their fellowship, their being together and having all things in common, their selling of their possessions and goods and parting of them to every man who had need, their continuing daily with one accord in the temple, their breaking bread from house to house, and their eating of meat with gladness and singleness of heart (Acts 2:42-46) would not have been expressions of true peace in Christ but merely the earthly affinity of any other association of people who share something in common. The brotherhood of the early church in Jerusalem was rooted and grounded in the apostolic doctrine that Jesus Christ died for our sins, was buried, and rose again the third day according to the Scriptures (I Cor. 15:3-4), a doctrine hostile to that of the Pharisees and Sadducees.
To be sure, true unity requires that Christ give His church more than agreement in the faith once delivered to the saints. The Spirit of Christ must work in the church true brotherly love as “the bond of perfectness” (Col. 3:14), so that her members speak the truth “in love” (Eph. 4:15). Otherwise, in all her zealous confession of orthodox theology, the church becomes nothing but a “sounding brass” (or noisy gong, I Cor. 13:1), in which the members might have a full head of Bible knowledge and zeal for propositions, but no charity for people. Then hearts are empty, the peace of the church is but a show, and loveless church members eventually bite and devour one another until the body is consumed (Gal. 5:15). The Spirit of Christ must work in the church genuine holiness of heart and life, otherwise gospel truth is adorned with the hideous garments of wickedness and oppression, and the church is full of lusts. And is not that the cause of in-fighting and endless quarrels in the church, for James writes, “From whence come wars and fightings among you? Come they not hence, even of your lusts that war in your members?” (James 3:1). The Spirit of Christ must clothe the members of the church in humility, otherwise their confession of sound doctrine is noxious to God, and He will resist them in their pride (I Pet. 5:5) and abase them (Luke 18:14) so that they have no peace. To be sure, peace within the walls of Jerusalem requires that God give more than agreement in the faith, certainly more than mere agreement on paper. He must cause many lovely graces to flow out of hearts that truly know the Lord Jesus.
Nevertheless, doctrinal unity is first and foundation al because, when Christ the Head draws the members of His body unto Himself in true spiritual unity, He always draws His people unto the saving knowledge of Himself in the Scriptures. Graces like love, holiness, and humility are necessary, but they will fluctuate in the body and not always be as obvious as they ought to be. But there must always be the unchanging rock of the objective truth of God’s Word believed, confessed, and defended in the church. The Reformed faith underscores unity in the truth by teaching that the true church maintains “the pure doctrine of the gospel” (Belgic Confession, Art. 29), and consists of members who are “agreeing in true faith” (Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 21), and are “all expecting their salvation in Jesus Christ” (BC, Art. 27).
The one faith (pure doctrine of the Scriptures) that serves as the foundation upon which Jesus Christ unites His church is expressed in the “Three Forms of Unity.” Reformed churches find the answer to the question, “What is the truth of God’s Word?” in the collective teaching of the three confessional documents called the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dordt. The Spirit does not leave it up to every minister and church member to go to the Bible as an independent theologian seeking to determine, as it were, from scratch, what Scripture says about God, the world, man, sin, the Savior, the covenant, salvation, the church, and the future. The Spirit leads the church into all truth as Jesus promised (John 16:13), and He gives the church the form of sound words (II Tim. 1:13). Reformed churches express that truth in the logical, systematic, comprehensive, antithetical, catechetical, beautiful, warm, clear, and officially approved Forms or Standards we call the “Three Forms of Unity.” As the very name indicates, the Three Forms of Unity are essential for unity because the doctrinal truth contained in them is the basis for the unity of the church as she represents the cause of God over against the wicked world and all sects that are in the world and assume to themselves the name of the church.
The key to church unity and maintaining peace in a congregation and denomination is faithfulness to the Three Forms of Unity. When you ask God to give unity to your church, to preserve unity in your church, and to strengthen unity in your church, then you are first of all beseeching God for the grace to be and remain committed to the Three Forms of Unity. Peace in the church requires officebearers to sign the Formula of Subscription upon their installation into office. In so doing, the servants of the Lord heartily promise their commitment to all the articles and points of doctrine contained in the Three Forms of Unity, and that they will diligently teach and faithfully defend that doctrine without either directly or indirectly contradicting the same by their public preaching or writing. Unity is in the Three Forms of Unity.
When the churches stay in the boundaries of the Three Forms of Unity, there is peace. To stray from the confessions and promote strange statements and teachings that come from either ditch along the proverbial straight and narrow path of orthodoxy is to threaten the peace of the church. Going beyond the confessions and deliberately attempting to impose one’s own (mistaken) conception of Scripture upon the churches troubles the churches. Condemning the doctrine of the confessions as erroneous does damage to church unity. Taking positions that contradict the confessions, or failing to counter and refute attacks against the confessions, imperils church unity. Unity is in the Three Forms of Unity.
The Three Forms of Unity are not restrictive. They do not force the believer, the minister, the church, or the Scriptures themselves into a tight and oppressive little box. There is still freedom of expression within the boundaries of the confessions so that the rich and deep doctrinal teaching of the Scriptures can be explained and applied without every preacher being required to use the exact same, limited number of expressions sentence after sentence. Moreover, there is freedom for careful development within the boundaries of our confessions. If doctrinal development is like the erection of a building, then development does not proceed outward away from the foundation of the structure, but upward. The Three Forms of Unity allow upward growth. For example, what the confessions say about God’s rewarding of our good works is essential and very important, but brief. On the basis of Scripture, much more can be said; but whatever is said must harmonize with the foundation laid by the confessions.
In recent years, the Three Forms of Unity have rightly played a significant role in the preservation of truth and unity in the PRC. Doctrinal disputes carried through the assemblies to the annual meeting of synod were judged and answered with settled and binding decisions grounded in the Three Forms of Unity. Two instances stand out as notable.
First, Synod 2018 addressed the relation between our good works of obedience and our experience of covenant fellowship with God by judging that certain protested sermon statements had given to the believer’s good works a place and function out of harmony with the Reformed confessions. Synod took quotations from three sermons and demonstrated from the Heidelberg Catechism, Lord Day 32 (the necessity of good works), Lord’s Day 45 (Christian prayer), and Lord’s Day 23 (justification by faith alone), how the protested statements were out of harmony with the confessions (PRC Acts of Synod 2018, pp. 61ff.). Synod also proceeded to give further doctrinal explanations grounded in the confessions, so that the Three Forms of Unity were used to settle the issue troubling the churches.
A second notable case illustrating the point that peace in God’s church is based upon the doctrinal unity of the Three Forms of Unity involves the decisions of Synods 2020-2021 concerning the doctrine of repentance. The heart of the issue was a protestant’s objection to the preaching that the believer enjoys God’s merciful pardon in the way of repentance. Synod 2020 (the decisions of which were upheld by Synod 2021) determined that the teaching “that we repent and in the way of repentance experience the mercy of God is the teaching of Scripture and the confessions” (PRC Acts of Synod 2020, p. 79). Synod then appealed to Isaiah 55:7 and Psalm 32:5, as well as to Canons of Dordt V.5, which confessional statement teaches that the saints “by such enormous sins…sometimes lose the sense of God’s favor for a time, until, on returning into the right way of serious repentance, the light of God’s fatherly countenance again shines upon them.” Again, synod used the Reformed confessions and judged that the sermon being protested was setting forth the simple truth of the official standards of Reformed churches on the doctrine of repentance.
Wherever there are doctrinal disputes that must be settled by the churches, the Three Forms of Unity must be used for peace in the church. Should there ever be questions about the nature of saving faith, the personal benefit of doing good works, God’s rewarding of the believer’s good works, the time of justification, remaining depravity in the regenerated believer, or other doctrines, answers are to be found in the Three Forms of Unity.
Historically, in times of doctrinal controversy, the PRC has used the Three Forms of Unity to demonstrate that the Reformed faith teaches sovereign, particular grace. The confessions do not allow but exclude the doctrinal position that there is a grace of God to all men, including the reprobate, manifest in common gifts to all men; that the preaching of the gospel is a gracious offer of salvation on the part of God to all who externally hear the gospel; that the covenant promise of God is conditional and for all who are baptized. Positively, the Three Forms of Unity teach that all the covenant blessings are for the elect alone; that God’s promise of salvation is only for the elect, and He always fulfills His promise; that election is the sole cause and fountain of all our salvation, out of which flow the gifts of grace, including faith; that faith is a gift of God, and a God-given instrument whereby God’s people appropriate salvation in Christ; that the preaching comes to all, and God seriously commands faith and repentance, and that to all those who come and believe God promises life and peace.1
By the mercy of God, the official theology of the PRC is not the theology of devils or men, but the theology of Scripture as summarized in the Three Forms of Unity. Commitment to the Three Forms of Unity must continue. It is the way of the old paths. If your heart desires the peace of the church, then pray to God for ongoing commitment to the Three Forms of Unity. Let us continue to catechize and teach another generation of our youth the Three Forms of Unity. Know the confessions, read them, study them, be at home in them, love them, and prize the preaching of them. This is what Reformed churches do. Because, as the members say with the psalmist, “My heart desires thy peace.”
1 Much of this paragraph is based on and taken from the “Introduction to the Declaration of Principles” in the Confessions and Church Order of the Protestant Reformed Churches (2005), pp. 410-11.