The Church In The World.
In our last article we called attention to the Reformed and Scriptural conception of the holy catholic Church. We did this, not because it was our intention to discuss dogmatically the idea of the church, as such. That does not belong in the territory of this rubric. We must remember that the chief question before us, at present is: what is the significance of church membership in the fear of the Lord? And it was with a view to that question that it became necessary to briefly call attention to the fundamentals of the Christian faith concerning the holy catholic church. It is of the utmost importance that the child of God constantly remember that the matter of membership in Christ’s Church, in the holy catholic church, is principally at stake when he deals with the various problems and questions which arise in connection with the church in the world and in connection with his own church membership and his attitude toward the church and in the congregation to which he belongs. The matter is not to be played with, nor lightly dealt with. But as we approach the question of our church membership we must be deeply conscious of the fact that it concerns the church of Christ Himself, that it concerns Christ, the head of the church; and our attitude must be deeply spiritual and earnest.
For the fact of the matter is that while we may call this “church” and that “church”, and while, to be sure,—and very properly and necessarily,—there are many congregations, there is nevertheless only one church. And again, while we make distinctions between true church and false church, or between true, truer, and truest over against false, falser, and falsest, or between pure, purer, and purest, over against corrupt more corrupt and most corrupt,—and undoubtedly here also with some justification,—Scripture knows of only one church essentially.
There are not many churches essentially, therefore, but in the real sense of the word only one body of Christ. Nor, as we emphasized in the conclusion of our last article, must we make the mistake of multiplying churches when we begin to make distinctions.—Not that these distinctions are not proper in themselves, and necessary. But they must remain distinctions, and never become separations. The distinctions we make upon the basis of Holy Writ are only valid within the limits of the concept holy catholic church; and they must always serve only and strictly to describe for us the various aspects of that church and her life. Hence, as we make these various distinctions, we must not end after all with a half dozen different churches which have little or no connection with the holy catholic church, so that there is a visible church and an invisible church, a militant church and a triumphant church, an instituted church and an organic church. Then, of course, all speech of the holy catholic church is devitalized. Then we finally arrive at the point where the holy catholic church is merely a hazy, idealistic, abstract theory, with which in our life as Christians we never come into vital contact and which never touches our lives in any concrete way. For that reason, too, the language which we use must express the fact that these distinctions are indeed only distinctions. It is improper to speak of a visible church, proper to speak of the church visible. Improper it is to speak of a militant church, proper to speak of the church militant, that is, the church from the aspect of her militance. Improper it is to speak of an instituted church, proper to speak of the church institute.
Proceeding from that standpoint we may inquire as to the relation between the holy catholic church and the church organism and the church institute, may investigate the relation between the holy catholic church and the church as she lives in the midst of the world and comes to manifestation in the midst of the world. Above all, however, also here we must bear in mind that God has only one church!
It is this inquiry which will be our second step in answering the question: what is the significance of church membership in His fear?
The Gathering of the Church.
Considered in its entirety, the church includes all the redeemed, sanctified, and glorified elect; and as such it exists now yet only in the counsel of God. It has not yet been fully realized. But this church is gathered in time. It is gathered from out of the whole human race, from every nation, tongue, and tribe, from the beginning of the world to the end, so that in every generation the church exists and is gathered and becomes manifest on earth. There will be a time, therefore, when the church shall have been completely gathered, when every last one of the elect shall have been born and shall have been called out of darkness into God’s marvelous light, and when too the church shall be manifest completely and perfectly as one gathering and shall no longer be locally divided and temporally separated, but shall everlastingly live together in one place, in one glory, with the same Christ, fully and completely and unitedly enjoying the fellowship of the one God. Then the full counsel of God concerning His church, as He has eternally conceived her, shall be realized.
Now, however, the church is still in the process of being gathered.
Concerning the act of gathering the church, as such, we do not intend to go into detail here. But I deem it important, nevertheless, that we remind ourselves of several elements in this connection.
1) This gathering of the church is the wonderwork of God. God gathers His church in every generation and from every nation throughout history. And the wonder of the gathering of the church is exactly that it consists in the resurrection of the dead, in calling light out of darkness, righteousness out of guilt, heaven out of hell. And it is through that wonderwork of the gathering of the elect church out of a race of damnable, corrupt, sin-darkened, dead men that God reveals Himself as God, the Lord. From the point of view of our subject in these articles this truth is important, for it means that the church is in no sense of the word a human institution. Man does in no sense bring the church into existence, or even cooperate with God in building His church. Nor does the church exist by the consent of its members. It is not a society, nor a school of philosophy, nor even a religious movement among others. It is the living body of the living Christ, the Son of God in the flesh, who died and rose again, and who imparts His own life to the members of His body. It is the wonderwork of divine grace alone!
2) God accomplishes this work of gathering the church through His own divine, irresistible, and efficacious calling. Everywhere in Scripture this truth is emphasized. God called His Son (Israel) out of Egypt.. The apostle Paul addresses himself to the communion of those who are called to be saints. ; . Hence the church is designated in the New Testament Scriptures by the Greek word which means the gathering of those who are called out. God calls His church efficaciously into existence!
3) This divine calling whereby the church is gathered out of the world issues forth through Jesus Christ our Lord. The Word by which the church is called is the mighty Word of salvation. The Son of God in the flesh, our Lord Jesus Christ, speaks the Word of the divine calling whereby the Church is gathered out of the world. The Son of God by His Word and Spirit gathers the church.
4) This work of divine calling by the Son of God through His Word and Spirit takes place through the preaching of the gospel. It is of the utmost importance, in the first place, that we understand that also this is strictly a divine work. We must not do an about face here, and begin to say that here the work of man finds a place in the gathering of the church. For according to Scripture, not only is the gospel that is preached Christ’s, in the sense that He revealed it and that He is its contents. But the gospel is never heard unless Christ speaks it. And even when the calling comes through the preaching of the Word, it is Christ alone who calls and sends apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. It is Christ alone who prepares such preachers. And it is Christ who must and does speak His Word by His Spirit through the preaching, and who thus calls His church. In the second place, we must remember that Christ thus speaks His Word and by His Word and Spirit gathers His church throughout the ages. It is the Word of Christ that is spoken throughout the old dispensation already. It was the Word of Christ which was realized in the fullness of time, in the cross and resurrection and exaltation of the Son of God in the flesh. And it is still the Word of Christ which is spoken through the apostles and evangelists and pastors and teachers whom He commissions and sends throughout the new dispensation. The Son of God Himself by His Spirit, through the Word of the gospel, which is spoken and revealed from the beginning to the end of time, gathers His church throughout history.
5) Finally, we must remember the principle that in this world Christ gathers His church in the line of generations.
But our discussion of this truth together with our conclusions concerning the result of the work of the gathering of the church we shall leave for the next issue, D.V.