“We believe and profess, one catholic or universal Church, which is an holy congregation, of true Christian believers, all expecting their salvation in Jesus Christ, being washed by his blood, sanctified and sealed by the Holy Ghost. This Church hath been from the beginning of the world, and will be to the end thereof; which is evident from this, that Christ is an eternal King, which without subjects, cannot be. And this holy Church is preserved or supported by God, against the rage of the whole world; though she sometimes (for a while) appears very small, and in the eyes of men, to be reduced to nothing: as during the perilous reign of Ahab, the Lord reserved unto him seven thousand men, who had not bowed their knees to Baal. Furthermore, this holy Church is not confined, bound, or limited to a certain place or to certain persons, but is spread and dispersed over the whole world; and yet is joined and united with heart and will, by the power of faith, in one and the same spirit.”
The Belgic Confession, Article XXVII
In the previous issue we emphasized that theConfession speaks of the Church not as it appears in the world, but as it is an article of the faith of the believer. We believe that the Church is and that the Church is one, holy, and catholic. The content of that faith is found only in the Holy Scriptures. In His Word God tells us what the Church is and what its calling is. We also emphasized in that same connection that the Church is emphatically God’s Church. It is not an association of men who agree to unite and form a church. It is not merely a social institution, but it is God’s Church. The Church is conceived by God, given life and existence by Him, and preserved and saved and glorified by God.
God’s Church according to Scripture has certain attributes or characteristics which are mentioned in theConfession. The Church is one. There are not many churches, many faiths, many doctrines, but only one Church united in one truth and doctrine. Again, when one observes the Church as it appears in the world he cannot see that. What one sees of the church in the world is division and all kinds of .differences of doctrine and belief and practice. Although the Church appears in the world as separated by space, time, and barriers of nationality and language, and as divided by differences of creed and confession, yet the Church is actually one in Christ. We confess: “. . . She is joined and united with heart and will, by the power of faith, in one and same Spirit.” The deepest principle of this unity or oneness of the Church is found in Jesus Christ its head. The Church is chosen in Christ (Ephesians 1:3 ff.) and made alive with Christ (Ephesians 2:5) and is thus one in Christ. For this reason Scripture often speaks of the Church as the Body of which Christ is the Head. (Cf.Romans 12; I Corinthians 12; Ephesians 1:22, 23) Christ is, therefore, the principle of the life of the Church and He is the mind and the will of the Church. Never may the Church be conceived of apart from Jesus Christ. Thus believers are exhorted to walk worthy of their calling, endeavoring to keep the unity (oneness) of the Spirit in the bond of peace. The ground of this exhortation is the fact that they 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’ ” (Ephesians 4:1-6)
“Furthermore, this holy Church is not confined, bound, or limited to a certain place or to certain persons, but is spread and dispersed over the whole world. . . .” It is in these terms that the Confession affirms thecatholicity of the Church. The Church is universal. The Roman Catholic Church claims to be alone the catholic church in the true sense of the word. But this is not the case. The Body of Christ, united in true faith and in the truth of the Scriptures, is alone truly catholic. Although for a time the Church was limited almost exclusively to the nation of the Jews, on Pentecost (Acts 2) it burst through these national boundaries and became catholic (universal) in the true sense of the word.
The purpose of this catholicity is twofold. On the one hand it is the means of accomplishing the pluriformity of the Church. And on the other hand, it is the means of saving the human race. By this we do not mean that all men are saved, but the Church is the true human race. The Church, therefore, is gathered and saved out of every nation, tribe, and tongue. The catholicity of the Church is accomplished by means of the preaching of the Word. This is precisely why Christ commissioned the Apostles to go into all the world baptizing and preaching the gospel in order to make disciples of all nations. This is why too on Pentecost the Spirit-filled Apostle Peter preached and the Lord added three thousand souls to His Church. Subsequently, as the Biblical record in Acts clearly testifies, the Apostles went everywhere preaching and baptizing. By the mighty, divine, wonder-working power of preaching the Church grew and spread and became dispersed throughout the entire world.
The third attribute of the Church is its holiness. Once again it must be borne in mind that the Church is holy as it is conceived in the counsel of God and described in Scripture. We confess the holiness of the Church by faith. As the Church appears in the world it is far from holy. There are at least two reasons for this. The first is that the saints themselves are not perfect. Much sin cleaves to them according to their sinful natures. Against those sinful natures the saints must wage constant warfare. Daily they must put off the old man which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts. (Ephesians 4:22) The holiness of the members of the Church is but a small beginning or principle. The other reason is that there is always present in the Church the carnal element. In plain words the Church must ever contend with wicked men in its own midst. That carnal element became manifest almost immediately after the fall in Cain and his seed. Against them Enoch had to prophesy concerning the Lord’s coming in judgment (Jude). An entire generation among Israel, the Old Dispensational Church, could not enter the promised land because of unbelief and perished in the wilderness. And always in Israel there was but a small remnant according to the election of grace who sincerely loved the Lord and looked for the fulfillment of the promise. Because the carnal element had gamed the ascendancy in the Church of the sixteenth century the Protestant Reformation became a necessity and God raised up great men such as Luther and Calvin and others in order to reform the Church. Thus it has been all through the Church’s history. For this reason the Church is called to exercise discipline especially through the office of elder. The elders of the Church must ever be vigilant and watch lest the people of God be led astray either in doctrine or in life. Nevertheless, as an object of faith, the Church is holy. The Church expects all its salvation in Jesus Christ: “being washed by his blood, sanctified and sealed by the Holy Ghost.”
We ought to note that various distinctions have been adopted to describe the one, holy, catholic Church. The Church is spoken of as an organism and an institute. When the Church is spoken of as an organism, it is emphasized that the Church is the living Body of which Christ is the Head. The Church is governed by its Head, Christ, and receives all of its life out of Jesus Christ by faith. When we speak of the institute of the Church we mean the Church from the viewpoint of the ministry of the Word and the administration of the sacraments together with the special offices of the elder and deacon and the office of all believers. It is as institute that the Church comes to manifestation in its local congregations. The Church may also be distinguished as militant, triumphant, and the latent. The Church militant is the Church on earth which has not attained to its final victory, but is called to fight the battle of faith in the world marching as the army of Jesus Christ under the banner of His cross. But even in that battle the militant Church is “more than conqueror” for the victory has been won at the cross and sealed in the resurrection of its Lord. Besides, faith is the victory which overcomes the world. The Church which is now in glory is the Church Triumphant. For this part of the Church the battle is over, the noise and the fury have ceased. These saints have exchanged their weapons for the crown of glory and they rest from their works and toil for they rest in the fellowship of their God. But even for these the victory is not complete and will not be until the Church is completely saved and their bodies are raised from the grave and their blood has been avenged on their enemies. (Cf. Rev. 6:9-l1) The Church Latent is the Church not yet born. As history progresses the Church latent grows smaller while the Church triumphant grows steadily larger with the departing of each saint.
Sometimes too the Church is distinguished as visible and invisible. The Church visible is the Church from the point of view of the life of its members in the world as they manifest in their lives the kingdom of heaven to which they belong and as they live their lives under the shadow of the cross. The Church invisible is the Church from the viewpoint of its inner spiritual life of grace and the blessings of Jesus Christ.
The Confession also makes the point that the Church has been from the very beginning of time and will continue to the end thereof. We must maintain this precious truth over against all forms of dispensationalism. The Church was born not on Pentecost, but in Paradise. God gathers His Church is the line of continued generations from the beginning to the end of time so that there is only one Church. One can easily follow that line as it is revealed in Scriptures. There is the “seed of the woman” over against the “seed of the serpent.” That seed of the woman is Abel, Seth; Enoch, Noah, Shem (With Japheth dwelling in his tents), Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and twelve tribes of Israel, Judah, the House of David, the remnant according to the election of grace. Finally that seed of the woman which becomes the seed of Abraham is Christ and all who are in Him by faith. (Galatians 3) That is the Church. It is true that in the Old Dispensation (the age of the types and shadows) the Church was limited almost entirely to the Jews. But even then there were exceptions (some of whom one will find in the genealogies of Christ, cf. Matthew 1 and Luke 3). And, all the prophets spoke of the “Day of the Lord” when the Church would be universal. This is proved by the fact, the Confession asserts, that Christ is an eternal King which without subjects cannot be. Apparently the argument is that Christ as the eternal King is the only King of His people. Another King there is not. The people of God, therefore, are one Church under the sovereign rule of Jesus Christ. Especially as that rule becomes manifest in time and history, there never was a moment when Christ was without His subjects.
Finally let us understand and never forget that the establishment of the Church in the world is a wonder of grace. By His divine power of grace God has called the Church out of darkness into His marvelous light. The foundations of the Church lie in divine election in Christ Jesus. The saints and faithful at Ephesus are the ones whom God chose in Christ “before the foundation of the world.” (Ephesians 1:4) In Thessalonica the believers knew their election. (I Thessalonians 1:4) The “strangers” to whom Peter wrote became that “according to the foreknowledge of God the Father.” (I Peter 1:2) On the behalf of these elect God sent His only begotten Son into the world. The Good Shepherd laid down His life for the sheep given Him of the Father (John 10) and took it again in the resurrection. Upon His ascension Christ poured out His Spirit into that Church in order that it might be filled with all the blessings of salvation and guided into all the truth.
In that faith we rejoice in the assurance that “this holy Church is preserved or supported by God, against the rage of the whole world.” The Church may appear very small at times, as during the perilous reign of Ahab when apparently the Church had perished. But even then the Lord preserved an elect remnant, seven thousand, who had not bowed the knee to Baal. The Church is always just that, a remnant, a hut in a cucumber patch, a force not to be reckoned with compared with the millions of this world. The Church always has a hard battle. There is the devil who goes about as a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour; there is the world which rages against the Church; and there is the sinful flesh of the members of the Church. There is too the enemy from within. False teachers privily bring in damnable heresies (II Peter 2) and scoffers taunt the Church concerning the coming of its Lord (II Peter 3). Against these enemies the Church must wage unceasing warfare. The Church must not dream of world conquest, for it is a besieged city, and always will be.
For the believer this means that he must fight the good fight of faith. He must separate himself from the evil world and live as a pilgrim and stranger who seeks the city which has the foundations whose builder and maker is God. In the battle he never despairs for he remembers the word of the King of the Church: “Be of good cheer, for I have overcome the world.”