“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 bath been from the beginning of the world, and will be to the end thereof; which is evident from this, that Christ is an eternal Icing, 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 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.”
Article XXVII, The Belgic Confession
Even the secular world of late has been forced to acknowledge a religious movement in our land which is claiming hundreds of thousands among its adherents. The movement has come to be called Neo (or the New) Evangelicalism. Several “big names” are associated with this movement, such as Billy Graham, Oral Roberts, Bill Bright, Charles Colson, Eldridge Cleaver, Mark Hatfield, et. al. This movement can be faulted on several counts. It is thoroughly Arminian in its theology, and much of it is characterized by the excesses of Pentecostalism, to say nothing of dispensationalism and millenarianism which also characterize its beliefs. All of these are serious departures from the truth of the Word of God. But perhaps the most basic error is the New Evangelicalism’s disassociation from and indeed in many instances disavowal of the institute of the Church of Jesus Christ. The Church is said to be an archaic relic of the past which has long since served its purpose. What must be stressed is a personal commitment to Christ. One doesn’t need the Church. He can pray and study the Bible and serve the Lord apart from the Church. One doesn’t need formal worship, the preaching of the Word, and all the rest which goes with the Church. Thus the movement is characterized by an individualism and a subjectivism which at best disparage the Church.
We ought to be profoundly thankful for the voice of our fathers sounded in this article of our Confession which so clearly and powerfully sets forth the Bible’s teaching concerning the one, holy, catholic church of Jesus Christ.. With this article and continuing through Article XXXV our Confession treats the subject of Ecclesiology or the doctrine of the Church.
It is essential to understand that the Confessionconsiders the Church as an article of faith. The Church is one and catholic, a holy congregation of true Christian believers saved in Jesus Christ and sanctified and sealed by the Holy Spirit. This Church has been from the beginning of the world and will continue under its eternal King to the end of the world. Preserved and supported by God against the rage of the whole world is this Church. And finally this Church is not bound or limited but spread and dispersed over the whole world and yet is joined with heart and will by the power of faith in a common spirit. All this we believe and profess! That we believe and profess one, holy, catholic Church of Jesus Christ means that we cannot see the Church. Also Christ’s Church belongs to those things which eye hath not seen nor ear heard neither hath it entered into the heart of man to conceive. The Church too belongs to the unseen realities which can only be apprehended by faith. Essential it is to understand this for else we shall be hopelessly confused in our study of the Church. We believe and profess, for example, the oneness or unity of the Church. The Church is one, holy congregation of true believers in Christ, not many congregations. The Church is united in one Christ, one Spirit, and in one faith. And Christ is not divided, neither are there many Spirits or many faiths. But where do you see that? When one observes the Church in the world all one sees is brokenness and discord. The attempts at unity (the ecumenical movement) of the recent past have only resulted in the multiplication of denominations. In our day small remnants of conservatives have broken from several large, mainline denominations to form new denominations. Nevertheless we believe and profess one Church. That means we believe that God has chosen and saved a Church in Christ and that He preserves that Church and gathers that Church out of every nation by His Word and Spirit and will bring that Church to glory.
Therefore the Confession emphasizes the fact that we must not discuss the Church from the point of view of its life and manifestation in the world. That would lead to all kinds of erroneous conclusions. Rather we must discuss the Church as it is described for us in Scripture and, therefore, we must discuss the Church as it is the object of our faith. We cannot see the Church, but we do believe and profess on the basis of the Word of God one, holy, catholic Church. In harmony with this the Confession discusses the Church from its ideal viewpoint, i.e., as it appears in the counsel of God, as it is preserved in the world, and as it will be ultimately perfected in glory. Hence in faith we are prepared to affirm what the Church is, just exactly what it is that we believe and profess. The Church is “one catholic or universal Church, which is a holy congregation of believers, all expecting their salvation in Jesus Christ, being washed in His blood, sanctified and sealed by the Holy Ghost. . . .” Clearly the point here is that the Church is of God and not of man. Strongly that is stressed by the Confession and that is an emphasis much needed in our day. The Church is not in any sense a human institution. It neither has its origin nor does it continue in men. The Church is not a voluntary association of those who have some religious interests or profess to some religious experiences (a la Pentecostalism). The Church is chosen in Jesus Christ before the foundations of world (Eph. 1:3 ff.), saved by God through the cross of Jesus Christ, and sanctified and preserved by God through the Spirit of Christ, and glorified by God in the New Heaven and Earth. Much of the Church’s life appears to contradict this. Yet in faith we witness to the victory of God’s sovereign grace in Christ. God creates and builds and preserves a Church unto Himself.
That Church is a holy congregation, a “gathered” flock which belongs to God by right of purchase. This gathered flock hears the voice of God and. responds in faith. Both the Old and New Testament Scriptures emphasize again and again the pastoral or shepherd-sheep relationship which God sustains to His chosen. Jesus Christ is the good Shepherd to whom the Father gives the sheep. As the good Shepherd He knows His sheep and they know Him and they follow Him. And, as the good Shepherd He lays down His life for the sheep. (John 10) This same truth is implied in the terms used to designate the Church in the Bible. Repeatedly the New Testament calls the Church, “ecclesia,” the ones called out by God. Christ used this term in connection with Peter’s confession. (Matthew 16:18) It is used to designate a group of believers in a given locality. (Acts 5:11, 11:26; I Cor. 11:18, 14:19, 14:28; Gal. 1:2; I Thess. 2:14) In at least one instance it indicates a group of churches within a given area. (Acts 9:31) In a more general sense it denotes the whole body of Christian believers throughout the world. From this point of view the Apostle Paul discusses the doctrine of the Church in First Corinthians and Ephesiaris. Finally, in its most comprehensive sense the “ecclesia” embraces all who are joined to Christ, whether on earth or in heaven. (Eph. 1:22, 3:10, 21; Col. 1:18, 24)
In addition Scripture uses many figurative descriptions which illumine the nature of God’s Church. The Church is repeatedly called the body of Christ. (Eph. 1:23; Col. 1:18;I Cor. 12:27) Christ is the Head of that body and the believers (elect) are the members. Out of Christ the members receive all of their life. And Christ rules them. And in their Head, Christ, believers are united and become one. Peter addressed believers as “living stones” which are erected by God unto a “spiritual house.” (I Peter 2:5) Several times the Church is spoken of in Old Testament terms as the Jerusalem that is from above, the new Jerusalem, or the heavenly Jerusalem. (Gal. 4:26; Heb. 12:22; Rev. 21:2) All of these figurative descriptions speak of the close association which the Church sustains to the eternal God in Jesus Christ. The Church is God’s!
We are therefore constrained to speak of the Church in the light always of the believers’ relation to God. From Him alone comes all of our salvation. The Church is the company of the redeemed. Christ is both its Savior and its Head. The only confidence of the Church lies in the eternal and immutable promise of God in Christ.
This means that the chief characteristic of the life of the Church is its faith. The Church is saved by grace through faith. That is ever the emphasis of the Bible. The Church lives by faith and perseveres by faith and by faith is brought into glory. From a practical point of view this means that because faith is God’s gift and not man’s response, we ought not speak of joining the Church but rather of being joined to the Church. Our believing is never the product of our will but always the response worked in our hearts by the grace of the Holy Spirit of Christ. He plants the seed of regeneration in us, He quickens that seed by the preaching of the Word, He gives us faith and repentance. This in no way does violence to personal responsibility. The Bible everywhere says we must repent and believe. But those who repent and believe must always and do always acknowledge that “it is God who worketh in us both to will and to do of his good pleasure.” (Phil. 2:13) Ours is the life of a faith-fellowship with Christ. Without this, none can claim the privilege of church membership. Nor may the Church tolerate within its fellowship those who refuse to live by faith.
The Church, therefore, is the elect in Christ Jesus, the Body of our Lord who are united to Him by faith, and in Him they are God’s precious possession.
to be continued