The Proper Viewpoint
Thus far we have discussed rather negatively various attitudes which may be and often are assumed toward the question, ‘‘Where must I join myself as a church member?”
We found that the attitude of the undenominationalist is to be rejected, that the attitude of those who place implicit trust in a certain institute is essentially idolatry, that those who simply go along with a certain movement of churches for various carnal reasons are carelessly indifferent traditionalists, and that those who view the whole matter from the standpoint of the possibility of avoiding hell-fire are utilitarian in their approach. We furthermore emphasized the idea that we are not always free of these tendencies ourselves, even though it be true that we would not easily jump denominational boundaries. What this means for us as Protestant Reformed members is easily seen. We do not hesitate to say that the Protestant Reformed Churches are the purest manifestation of the body of Christ in the world. If you and I, then, are members of those churches, the objective fact is that we are members of the purest manifestation of the body of Christ in the world. But the subjective question remains: why are we members? And if our membership is motivated by any of the attitudes described above, we still are walking in a wrong way, yes, walking in sin, contrary to the fear of the Lord.
Hence, we must be moved by a different attitude in this matter. And our attitude must be that of the question, “Where must I, before the face of God, belong?” It is certainly not true that one can relegate every church but his own to the class of totally false. It is historically incorrect to say that once a church has erred in doctrine or in discipline, it at once deserts all the truth and all Christian discipline. Such things take place only gradually, in the way of increasing and progressive departure from the truth, and, as all history teaches us, over a period of years. The beginnings of error, for example, were present in the Romish Church centuries before the Reformation took place; but during those same centuries the Romish Church was the only instituted church there was. And therefore, while there comes a time when a church must finally be classified as false, so that it would be impossible for a living, consciously believing child of God to resort under its ecclesiastical roof, it is incorrect to single out one single organized and instituted church as the only true church. From the point of view of objective fact, we must certainly distinguish degrees of purity and degrees of falsehood, according as a church denies or confesses the truth on the various truths contained in the one truth of Scripture. On any other basis one would certainly have to maintain that he who lives and dies outside of the Protestant Reformed Churches,—or to make it very broad, the Reformed Churches—goes to everlasting destruction.
But in order to understand our duty in this respect, we must first rid ourselves of every notion that the church is a sort of institute for saving souls. Your and my salvation is not the purpose of the church’s existence in the world. The matter stands just the other way: the church—also as it is instituted in the world—is the purpose of our salvation. God wants his holy, catholic church, with Christ Jesus as its Head and King, to be manifest in this present world. He purposes that it shall be manifest in the preaching of the gospel, of the truth as it is in Jesus, the truth of Holy Scripture. He purposes that it shall be manifest in the administration (and thus, of course, also the partaking) of the sacraments as Jesus Christ has ordained them. He purposes that it shall be manifest in the exercise of church discipline according to the principles of the Word of God. This is his purpose because the church must be to the glory of his Name as it is revealed in his Son Jesus Christ.
It is because of this that our fathers also found the distinguishing marks of the church to consist in the pure preaching of the Word, the pure administration of the sacraments, and the right exercise of church discipline. They maintained that the true church could not be distinguished by its size or numbers, as though the majority decided where the church was. They understood full well that the true church is often small, that according as the church in the world grew large and prosperous it usually became apostate and corrupt. They saw very well that the true church was not to be discerned from the false by the criterion of the decrees and acts of its councils or by the edicts of princes and magistrates. Nor were they deceived by the claim of the antiquity of a certain institute, which, though it could boast of centuries of existence, could become corrupt and depart from the orthodox Christian faith.
Rather they recognized, according to Article 29 of the Belgic Confession, three infallible signs by which the true church becomes recognizable, namely: the pure preaching of the Word, the proper administration of the sacraments, and the faithful exercise of Christian discipline. Where these marks are present, there is the true church. Where they are wanting, there the church is not. And where these signs,—though not utterly wanting,—are corrupted, there the church must repent or die.
In a sense all three of these marks are comprehended in the first, the pure preaching of the Word of God. For, in the first place, the administration of the sacraments and the exercise of Christian discipline have no meaning apart from the preaching of the Word. They stand in the service of it. In the sacraments the Word of God is presented in visible and tangible form. And the essence of Christian discipline is the very Word of Christ. Besides, the sacraments are not likely to be profaned where the Word of God is purely preached; nor, essentially, is Christian discipline neglected there, since such preaching is already the exercise of Christian discipline. We may, therefore, safely say that the central, all-important mark of the true church is the pure preaching of the Word of God.
The reason for this is easily understood. The church is built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone. But that foundation is exactly the Word of God. And that Word of God is contained in the Scriptures. Whoever, therefore, proclaims another word, the word of man, does not build upon the one foundation. And not building upon that one foundation, he does not build the church. Furthermore, we must remember that it pleases Christ to call, preserve, and defend his church through the Word preached. Only where the Word is preached, therefore, according to the Scriptures, there is heard the voice of the Son of God. Where the Word is not preached, there Christ does not speak his Word of salvation, and there the church is not gathered.
There is, therefore, a very definite standard by which the church may be known. Nor need we object at this juncture that what is pure and impure preaching of the Word is a debatable subject in last instance. For then we assail Holy Writ itself. We surely must maintain that on no cardinal point of doctrine does Holy Writ leave the slightest room for difference of opinion, but on the contrary is very clear as to what is the truth and what is the lie. Scripture is the objective and clear standard whereby the preaching, the administration of the sacraments, and the exercise of discipline are to be judged.
In the light of the above, to what conclusions may we come?
In the first place, we must emphasize that the whole question must be viewed in the fear of the Lord from the viewpoint of the question, “Where does God require me to be?” The question is not at all, “Where may I be?” but, “Where must I be?” The question is not, “Which church will best serve me, and how will it serve me?” but. “In which church do I stand in the service of God’s holy catholic church to the utmost of my power?”
In the second place, the answer to that question must always be: in the church where, according to my earnest conviction before God, in the light of Holy Scripture, the Word of God is purely preached, the sacraments are properly administered, and Christian discipline is faithfully exercised. There may, indeed, be other churches, where the Word has not been utterly forsaken, where the sacraments are not entirely profaned, and where the exercise of Christian discipline is not completely forgotten. It may also be that God has his people there yet, and that the Almighty has a reason for having his people there. That is not the question, not the question for you and me in the matter of our membership. It is in view of the fact that the marks of the true church may not yet be absent but may be corrupted, that the standard of membership is usually resolved by us into a matter of belonging, according to our conviction, in the light of Scripture, to the purest manifestation of the body of Christ in the world.
In the third place, it follows that the moment that I recognize that the church to which I belong is in error on a given point in respect to Word, sacraments, or discipline, I stand in duty bound before God to point the church to that error, and if it fails to repent to separate myself and join myself to a church more pure. And if the latter is impossible, then I must continue under protest and continue protesting until the Lord opens the way to separation.
In the fourth place, it follows also that if I join myself to a church which I know to be walking impenitently in the way of error, I am in principle aiding and abetting the cause of the false church. I myself am walking in a wrong way, and unless I repent, I shall die. God and his Word are not to be mocked! In that respect the matter of our church membership is certainly a matter of our salvation also. There is no salvation for him that willfully and impenitently walks in the way of opposition to the truth of Scripture.
And so the matter is very serious. We, as Protestant Reformed people, must be always aware of it. We may not listen to the siren song of church union. We may not be deceived into recognizing any other standard of membership than that which we have, according to our Reformed Confessions. It may very well be, in fact, it is true that there are many other people of God outside of our churches. It is also true that our calling is to seek unity with all the people of God. But that unity may only be upon the basis of the pure truth of God’s Word. To any who do not stand upon that basis you must say, “Repent!” To any church that does not stand upon that foundation you must point the way. You may never be a party to any attempt to lower denominational walls at the expense of the truth of God’s Word, at the expense of the truth as we confess it as Protestant Reformed Churches. And you must always, as an active member, a living member, maintain, defend, cherish, preserve, support, seek and develop, proclaim within and without, that truth, even as you value your life!
And the more serious is that calling because of the times that are upon us, of which the Scriptures speak, when men will not endure sound doctrine, but after their own lusts heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears. . Times they are when men turn away their ears from the truth, and are turned unto fables. .
Turn away, therefore, from every form of false doctrine. Find, and join yourself always to the true church of Jesus Christ, never working in the direction of the false church, as you do if you follow after any false doctrine. Find and join yourself always to the true church in its purest form, where the Word of God is proclaimed in all its purity. And let no earthly, carnal inducement ever move you to separate yourself from its fellowship.
That is the fear of the Lord!