Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 21
Question 54. What believest thou concerning the “holy catholic church” of Christ?
Answer. 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.
Question 55. What do you understand by “the communion of saints”?
Answer. First, that all and every one who believes, being members of Christ, are, in common, partakers of Him and of all His riches and gifts; secondly, that every one must know it to be his duty, readily and cheerfully to employ his gifts, for the advantage and salvation of other members.
Question 56. What believest thou concerning “the forgiveness of sins”?
Answer. That God, for the sake of Christ’s satisfaction, will no more remember my sins, neither my corrupt nature, against which I have to struggle all my life long; but will graciously impute to me the righteousness of Christ, that I may never be condemned before the tribunal of God.
This Lord’s Day asks three questions: What is the church? What is the communion of saints? and, What is the forgiveness of sins?
All three of the answers given in the Catechism begin with Jesus Christ. It’s important to note this, because our tendency in answering any one of these questions is to look away from Christ to what we see and experience, with the result that we become discouraged. When asked, What is the church? we tend to look at our church, its smallness, its sinful members, its lack of unity, all its weaknesses, and we are discouraged. When asked, What is the communion of saints? we tend to look at our relationships with other church members and say, “There’s not much in it for me; nobody pays much attention to me; I don’t know what communion is.” When asked about the forgiveness of sins, we will look at our own sins, and doubt that they could ever be forgiven because they are so many and so great.
Answering these questions, we need to look to Christ. That’s what faith does, and we answer these questions by faith; “I believe an holy catholic church, I believe the communion of saints, I believe the forgiveness of sins.” By faith we see each of these in their relation to Jesus Christ.
Seeing the Church through Faith
What is the church?
Even though the Bible does use the word “church” to refer to the local organized congregation (), we should have a much broader view of the church than this. The Catechism speaks of the church not as an organization or denomination, but as it is in God’s eyes, a great company of people who have been chosen by God and redeemed by Christ; who are being gathered by the Word and Spirit; and who are forever united to Christ by faith. The church is “catholic,” or universal, which means that it can be found in all parts of the world and in all ages. The church is not limited to a time, a place, a denomination, a congregation, or an ethnic group, but is made up of all the elect from the beginning to the end of the world, and is called in Scripture the body of Christ.
Because of this, there are things we can say about the church, by faith, that we might hesitate to say from our experience. Even though the church appears to us to be fragmented, we believe that the church is the one body of Christ. Even though the church is made up of sinners, we believe that the church is the holy bride of Christ. Even though our work of evangelism seems to bear little fruit, we believe that Christ is gathering His church.
This perspective helps me in two practical ways.
First, it helps me to see the importance and possibility of membership in a local church. God doesn’t save random individuals, but the saved who are baptized into Christ are added to the church (). Instead of proudly looking for a flawless church, I look for a church that is faithful in the main areas of preaching the true gospel, administering the sacraments faithfully, and exercising Christian discipline. Instead of selfishly holding myself back from membership because a church doesn’t meet my felt needs, I join in order to contribute to the life of the body.
Second, it helps me to be a contributing member in the body of Christ. The Catechism refers to “living” members. Sadly, some church members are more like dead branches than living members. They are enrolled as members of the church, but that is as far as it goes. They contribute little, they participate at a minimum, they do not know the other members, they rarely if ever witness for Christ, and they bear little of the fruits of the Spirit. But those who are united to Christ are “living” members who, drawing from Christ, are fruitful in godliness with a view to the gathering of the church, and in love with a view to serving other members of the body. Our perspective, and our motivation, is that this is Christ’s church, that He loves her, that He has given Himself for her, and that His goal for her is the glory of the entire body. With this perspective, I will willingly love and serve His body.
The Communion of Saints
What is the communion of saints?
The Roman Catholic says that this refers to the communion we can have with “the saints,” and so they pray to patron saints.
But how would you answer it as a Reformed believer? Most of us, I think, would say this refers to the fellowship that believers have with one another. And whenever that subject comes up, people will begin to complain about the lack of communion and love in their church, and they mean that they just do not feel loved. Whenever we try to explain the communion of saints by looking first or only at our horizontal relationships, we will not get it right.
Looking at the Catechism, the communion of the saints is first the communion of all believers with Christ, and second the communion of believers with each other. The first is the basis for the second. Our communion with each other flows out of our communion with Christ.
My communion with Christ means that I am partaker of Christ and all His riches and benefits. That means I have all I need and more, that I know the love and fullness of Christ, and that in my need I turn to Him for fulfillment, comfort, and peace.
The communion of other believers with Christ means that I love them because they are one with Christ. I do not look at them and their worthiness to be loved before I make a choice to love them, but I see them in relation to Christ. I see them as His, purchased with His blood, and, knowing His love for me, I love Him by loving His body.
Sometimes there is not much communion among saints in a church. It should not be that way, but sometimes it just is. What then? Most important is that I do not withdraw, and say, “I am being left out.” That is a selfish perspective, which views others as being there to serve me, rather than seeing self as one who must serve others.
The remedy is to get busy using my gifts to serve others. After all, this is what Christ has done (Matt. 28:20). My concern should never be myself, but rather the advantage and salvation of others.
Perhaps we think this is not all that important; that doctrinal purity and righteous living are more important than serving others in the body. Jesus tells us, in Matthew 25, how important this is. Jesus says to one who feeds a hungry mouth, or gives a glass of cold water to the thirsty, or takes in a stranger, or clothes the poor, or visits the sick, or makes the effort to see one who is imprisoned, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” (). And the one who does not do it, does not do it to Christ, and shows by this that he is none of His.
A Body Forgiven
“…forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you” ().
We might be inclined to think that forgiveness has nothing to do with the church, that it is a very personal thing between the individual and God, and so this subject does not really fit with the church. There are, however, at least four ways that forgiveness is connected to the church.
1. The church proclaims the gospel, which has forgiveness at its heart, and which is absolutely essential for my salvation.
2. Through its exercise of Christian discipline, the church retains and remits sin. A part of the experience of forgiveness is repentance.
3. The church as a whole is the company of those who have been forgiven. Christ has washed his bride of sin by the blood of the cross.
4. Knowing the grace of forgiveness, I am called to have a merciful heart, and to forgive those in the church who sin against me. The church is made up of forgiven sinners who forgive one another.
The experience of forgiveness, then, is closely tied to my place in the church of Jesus Christ.
How wonderful it is to know that I am forgiven. It means that God does not hold my sin against me, and it means that the perfect righteousness of Christ is freely given to me, and thus I can be confident that I will never be condemned by God. The Catechism breathes with assurance here.
But what about doubt? Sinner, look away to Christ. Repent of your sins, yes. Grieve over them as an offense to God, yes. But in faith look away to Christ and His perfect righteousness and sufficient suffering. Jesus says, “He that cometh to me, I will in no wise cast out” ().
Questions for Discussion
1. Why is it important to answer the questions of this Lord’s Day from the perspective of faith?
2. To what does the “catholicity” of the church refer? Who belongs to the “catholic” church? Do you think that you have a broad enough understanding of the universal church of Christ?
3. How does believing that Christ is gathering and building the church encourage me in witnessing and in the support of missions?
4. Why is membership in a local church important, and what should I look for in a church?
5. What is individualism, and why is it wrong?
6. When it comes to the communion of the saints, why is it important to see that our fellowship is first with Christ? ()
7. If you would begin to feel that there is not much love and communion between other members of the body and yourself, how should you go about rectifying this?
8. Find some Bible passages from the gospels and epistles that show the importance of the communion of the saints in a local church setting.
9. In what ways should members of the body of Christ enrich and serve one another? Does this attitude of serving characterize you? Does it characterize the church of which you are a member?
10. How is the forgiveness of sins connected to the doctrine of the church?
11. Describe the peace and joy that comes through knowing that your sins are forgiven.