In our preceding article we had begun to call attention to the fact that the Roman Catholic conception of the catholicity of the Church of God is superficial and contrary to the Word of God. And we noted, among other things, that Rome would maintain its catholicity by calling attention to the fact that the church, wherever it exists, must count a multitude of members among all the peoples of the earth which is striking to the eye. Rome, therefore, must be the true church because it is greater than any sect in particular, probably greater than the total membership of all “sects” combined.
We understand, of course, that when Rome here speaks of sects it refers primarily to the Protestant churches. But, how contrary is this presentation of Rome! Dr. Bavinck mentions a total of 264 million Roman Catholics. The Church of Rome has been expanding throughout the ages. How great will that church be when Christ returns upon the clouds of heaven?! But the Scriptures inform us that, “When the Son of Man comes, shall He find faith upon the earth?’ This is surely the teaching of the Word of God that the church, the true church of God, will become ever smaller as we approach the end of the ages. And do we not read in the Scriptures of a remnant, of seven thousand that had not bowed the knee before Baal? Does not the Word of God speak of the Church as a “little flock,” and also that “many are called, but few are chosen”? Besides, in this connection, Rome denounces the Protestant churches because they are segments that have seceded from Rome. Is this a mark of the true church that we do not break with existing churches, and is this a mark of the false church that we once belonged to an existing church and are now no longer connected with it? What, then, must be Rome’s appraisal of the ten tribes of Israel in the Old Dispensation when they seceded from the kingdom of Judah and from the throne of David? These ten tribes surely constituted a much greater number than the single tribe of Judah. What must Rome say of the fact that, immediately before the flood, only 8 persons served the Lord and were saved in the ark and by the flood? Were these eight persons the true church in that day? The mark of the true church never must be sought in numerical. greatness. In fact, numerical greatness and strength is exactly the mark of the false church. Besides, the Protestant Reformation, as in 1517, did not secede from Rome, but was cast out by Rome, and Rome did this because the Protestant Reformation would maintain the truth of the Word of God, that we are justified solely by faith, and this because of the Lord’s sovereign grace.
Positively, how much richer is the Protestant view of the catholicity of the church! Rome’s view is superficial, seeks the meaning of this attribute only in external numbers and membership. To be sure, the catholicity of the church refers to the truth that the Body of our Lord Jesus Christ is called out of all nations, lands, peoples and tongues. It certainly means that the Church of God is constituted of a multitude as great as the sand along the seashore, the dust upon the ground, the stars in the sky. It means that the Church of God embraces all peoples, is catholic, universal, includes all nations, nationalities and races. It includes among its members every color: white and black and red and yellow. However, it is exactly because of this that the catholicity of the church is such a tremendous thought. It, therefore, also emphasizes the truth that the Church of God in Christ is of such a nature that it is able to embrace and include in its membership all the peoples of the earth. Where do you find an organization of this nature in the midst of the world? We will have occasion to point to this in connection with the multiformity of the church. But we may say now that the catholicity of the church means that the Church, because of what it is, is able to transcend all boundaries and lines of demarcation, and unite in its fellowship all peoples, races, languages and color.
When we speak of the catholicity of the church, we must also include in our discussion two other very important aspects or phases of this attribute: the church’s gathering by the Son of God and its multiformity. The church is gathered by the Son of God by His Spirit and Word. This follows, must follow from the Protestant conception of the Church. This is literally held before us in our Confessions, Lord’s Day 21, Answer 54, and we quote: “That the Son of God from the beginning to the end of the world, gathers, defends, and preserves to Himself by His Spirit and word, out of the whole human race, a church chosen to everlasting life, agreeing in true faith; and that I am and for ever shall remain a living member thereof.” This can hardly be applied to Rome, how Rome gathered the Church. Rome certainly did not view the gathering of the Church as taking place by the Son of God. Romegathered its church. It did not gather, the Church by the Spirit and Word, but by the sword and with the threat of violence should the heathen refuse to embrace Rome’s “gospel.” And, in this connection, it must be gathered that this policy of force in the gathering of the church was also advocated by Augustine who quoted that text of Scripture of Luke 1423, and we underscore: “And the lord said unto the servant, Go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled.” Protestantism, however, maintains the gathering of the Church as solely the work of the Son of God.
Indeed, the Church of God is gathered by the Son of God. To be sure, it is gathered by the Son of God also as the Christ. In fact, this Church can be gathered by the Son of God only as the Christ. He must be the Christ, the Anointed Servant of Jehovah, like unto us in all things sin excepted. He must suffer and die for us. The gathering of the Church can never take place except in the way of His death and atonement, in the way of the full and complete satisfaction of the righteousness of God. But, even so, only the Son of God can gather the Church. Fact is, on the one hand, only the eternal Son of God could become the Christ, could satisfy fully and completely the righteousness of God. And, God alone can gather His Church. Man cannot gather the Church of God. In the erection of this building of God’s eternal mercies man cannot add one stone in its erection. And we may also add that no creature in heaven or on earth can ever frustrate its being built, can ever prevent that these stones are placed in position, even to the very last. God alone gathers the Church, also as far as the preaching of the gospel is concerned. It is, of course, true that the Church may and must preach the Word. Even so, however, the Church can only bear the Divine Word, hold it forth. It may sound pious to win souls for Jesus, and we may read of revivalists who converted thousands of souls. But if God speak not His Word, and if the Son of God gather not the Church, if we must win souls, no soul will ever be won.
That the Son of God must gather the Church of God lies in the very nature of the case. On the one hand, a definite number must be gathered. Scripture teaches the doctrine of predestination, election and reprobation. The Church of God is a building. And this building is composed of exactly so many stones. Hence, it is not true that merely some individuals must be gathered, but a Church must be saved, a building must be set up, a temple must be built; and this emphasizes the doctrine of election. Besides, each stone occupies its own place in this building. And this is not all. To understand that only the Son of God can gather the Church, one must also bear in mind who are gathered. Souls must be saved who are lost in sin, dead in trespasses. People must be gathered who cannot hear or see the things of God or of the Kingdom of God. Sheep must be gathered who have gone astray, each his own way, and who can never find the way home. Indeed, this Church must be called out of darkness into light, out of death into life. The blind must be made to see, the deaf to hear, the lame to walk, the dumb to speak, and all these elect must be lifted up and translated into heavenly life and immortality. This will explain why the gathering of the Church is solely the work of the Son of God, of the living God Himself. If creation be the work of God, and it is, then it surely must be true that this work of re-creation is also the work of God, inasmuch as the work of re-creation surely appears to us to be a greater work of God than that of creation. To create an eye is wonderful. But to re-create an eye that lies shattered in a thousand and one pieces is surely more wonderful. Indeed, the Church is gathered by the eternal Son of God. This is the language of our Confessions.
However, the catholicity of the Church also includes what we call the multiformity of the Church. The multiformity of the Church of God refers to its many forms. Some would explain this multiformity of the Church to the many churches of Protestantism: the Protestant Reformed, Christian Reformed, Reformed, Presbyterian, etc. Each church, then, is developing the truth of God as it sees the truth, and when finally each has done so to the best of its ability, they will all one day meet in the unity of the faith, of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man.
But this view is surely impossible. O, it is true that we all know only in part. But this does not imply that each church represents the truth of God’s Word in its own way. Fact is, all the churches do not represent various aspects of the truth, converging upon a future and central point of contact. This, however, is true: their views are opposite, are developing into different directions, are causing a constantly greater and wider divergence.
What, then, is the multiformity of the church? Now we read that the Son of God gathers His own out of the whole human race. Elsewhere we read that it is gathered out of all nations, lands, peoples and tongues. This, however, does not necessarily explain the multiformity of the church. We certainly believe that in eternity all differences of color and language and race will certainly fall away. Yet, then the multiformity of the church will certainly attain unto its most perfect expression. The multiformity of the Church of God certainly means that, among all the millions of elect, all will be different. No two will be alike. Each child of God will have his own particular talent and character. Not all the members of the Body of Christ will be “hands, feet, toes, mouth, eye, ear,” etc. Each one, in his own way, will receive of the measure of the gift of Christ. Hence, the multiformity of the Church is the church, characterized by a most amazing unity, yet revealing that unity in a most amazing multiple of forms: a tremendous variation, each blending perfectly and culminating in the one glory of the glorified Son of Man, our Lord Jesus Christ. And, in this life, the amazing Church is one and able to transcend all boundary lines of color and race, uniting them in the faith of the one Son of God. No other organization in the midst of the world can claim this amazing feature of the Church of God in Christ. How wonderful is the multiformity of the Church of God! What a mighty chorus is this elect Body of our Lord Jesus Christ, all blending together in the one song of Moses and of the Lamb!