In the Apostles’ Creed we confess to believe that the Holy Catholic Church is the “Communion of the Saints.” Both from a doctrinal and practical point of view this is a wonderful and blessed aspect of the doctrine of the church as it is taught us in the scriptures. This truth views the church from the aspect of the spiritual fellowship the church as a whole has with God in Christ Jesus and the mutual fellowship that lives among the members. That the church is the communion of the saints means that the saints within the communion together have blessed covenant fellowship with God, and because of this common fellowship have fellowship with one another.
The truth of the communion of the saints is indeed blessed for the saints of God who are pilgrims and strangers in the world, who have no friendship and fellowship with the world, who stand at enmity with the world and those who are of the world. In the world there is no fellowship possible, at least not in the sense of the communion of the saints. The world in which God has placed His church is a world characterized by darkness where there is no knowledge and love of God. In the midst of that world man can have no true fellowship. He may and in fact does have external association for certain common ends and for the satisfaction of his, lusts and pleasures. Among the men of the world there is however always the hatred of God and the hatred of fellow men that causes man to live only unto himself and unto the satisfaction of his own lust and pleasure. Men are prone to hate God and their neighbor, and thus there is strife, division, and hatred, and men are estranged from one another. I especially think of that in the great metropolis in which we live, where it becomes so very evident that everyone lives for himself and unto himself and millions of people living in close physical proximity live as absolute strangers to one another. In the midst of a world of darkness, despair, hatred, and division among men the almighty and wonderful God of our salvation was pleased to gather and establish His church. That church, God calls by His sovereign Word out of darkness into the marvelous fellowship of His covenant, causing that church and her members to know and love Him and causing the members of that church to walk in that same fellowship, knowledge, and love with one another. What a comfort, a blessed dwelling place, is the communion of the saints for all of God’s people!
In two articles I would like to direct your attention for a few moments to this blessed truth of the church. This subject can be easily and properly divided into two main points: the discussion of the communion of the saints as God has ordained and created it, and the calling of the individual saint of God toward that communion. The first subject we shall deal with in this installment and the second in the next installment.
The Scriptures have much to say concerning the truth of the communion of the saints. Perhaps the most beautiful and detailed passages on the subject are I Corinthians 12, Romans 12:3-8, and Ephesians 4.
The meaning of the phrase “communion of the saints” is literally the coming together of many saints of God into one. God calls His people out of sin and darkness, delivers them from the bondage and corruption of sin, causes them to be a new and holy people, and brings these saints into one spiritual fellowship. He separates them from the wicked world and calls them into the fellowship of His own covenant life and into the fellowship of life with one another. This is the communion of the saints.
We must understand, in the first place, that this is a work of God and not first of all of man. The communion of the saints is not an external society or organization formed by men for some sort of humanistic end, such as perhaps social action. When God in eternity ordained and chose His church He ordained it as the communion of the saints. This can only be understood if we understand the doctrine of the church in the truly Reformed sense, namely, that the church is the body of the elect of God. When God chose His church He did not merely choose so many individuals scattered through time and through the nations. Rather He chose the church as one organism with all of the individual members as integral parts of that organism together making up the one glorious whole. This living organism is the communion of the saints as God has ordained her and called her into being. The communion of the saints in the broadest sense of the word includes the whole company of the elect from all ages and all nations as they are all members of one glorious body. The apostle John was given to see a vision of the communion of the saints as it shall be in perfect glory forever in the new heavens and earth. Not only, however, is it true that the church will forever in glory be revealed as the communion of the saints. It pleases God also to reveal the communion of the saints in principle here on earth. He gathers His saints together through the preaching of the Word and calls them out of the world and draws them into the fellowship of the communion of the saints. The communion of the saints exists therefore, wherever the true church is manifest even as God is pleased to manifest it. Thus when we speak of the communion of the saints we must certainly speak of that communion of the saints that God has created in our own local congregation. In each of the passages listed above, the apostle Paul speaks of the communion of the saints as it existed first of all in the local congregations which he is directly addressing.
We have already said that the communion of the saints is the gathering of all of the many saints of God into one. The center of the unity of the communion of the saints is the Lord Jesus Christ. This is a truth that is beautifully described by several figures in the Scriptures. The most common figure used is that of the head which is the Lord Jesus Christ and the body which consists of the true spiritual members of the church of Christ. Scripture also speaks of the church under the figure of the vine and the branches in which Christ is the vine and the members are the branches; and also under the figure of the comer stone Jesus Christ and the members of the church as the building blocks of the temple of God. All of these figures set forth the truth that Christ is the life-center of the church and the saints draw all their life and existence out of Him There is therefore a communion of the life of Christ among the members, and this is the whole reason of their unity. In the communion of the saints pulsates the resurrection life of the Lord Jesus Christ. The saints are united to one another on the basis of righteousness of the cross of Christ that they possess in common. In the hearts of the saints together lives the one, same, faith that unites them to Christ. They are motivated by the same mind, will, and love of the Lord Jesus Christ. They look for the same hope of glory, to dwell with the Lord Jesus Christ forever in perfect blessedness. They live for one and the same purpose, the glory of God in Christ Jesus in the perfection of His covenant and kingdom. Christ by His Word calls the saints of God together. He gives them a desire to live together in communion and He shall unite them forever in glory. The blessedness of the fellowship that the saints of God have with one another centers around their common life in Christ.
The communion of the saints involves the coming together of many saints. Communion of the saints is not possible with one saint by himself. God brings together the many saints who are personally distinct and diverse from one another. The apostle Paul emphasizes this in I Corinthians 12:12: “For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ.” God calls His saints into the fellowship of the communion of the saints who are all different from one another according to their natural endowments. They all have different personalities and ,characteristics; they have different talents and abilities; they come from many different walks of life. All these natural distinctions are preserved in the gathering together of the communion of the saints.
In the second place the saints are diverse according to the gifts of the Spirit that each saint possesses. The apostle Paul gives us a beautiful description of this truth in I Corinthians 12:8-10: “For to one is given by the Spirit, the word of wisdom; to another, the word of knowledge by the same Spirit; to another, faith by the same Spirit; to another, the gifts of healing by the same Spirit; to another the working of miracles; to another prophecy; to another, discerning of spirits; to another, various kinds of tongues; to another, the interpretation of tongues.” This does not, however, divide the communion of the saints, for Paul emphasizes that all these diversities of gifts and differences of administration and diversities of operation are all of the one and same Spirit, of the one Lord and one God who worketh “all in all.”
Because of the varying gifts of the Spirit God gives to each of the members a different place within the communion. “He gave some apostles; some prophets; and some evangelists; and some pastors and teachers.” Ephesians 4:11. Paul mentions here especially the special offices in the churches. This does not mean that only these, however, receive a particular place in the communion. Each saint of God receives of God a place according to his gifts and calling.
In the third place Paul speaks of diversities in the communion because of the different measure of grace given to each one. Of this he speaks especially inRomans 12:6-8: “Having gifts differing according to the grace that is given us, whether prophecy, let us prophesy according to the measure of faith; or ministry, let us wait on our ministering; or he that teacheth, on teaching; or he that exhorteth, on exhortation; he that giveth, let him do it with simplicity; he that showeth mercy, with cheerfulness.”
All these differences are used by God through the Holy Spirit to make up the one glorious whole of the body of Christ. There are none that are superfluous. No member may say, because I am not an elder or a deacon therefore, I am not an important member of the body. “If the foot shall say, because I am not the hand, I am not of the body; is it, therefore, not of the body? And if the ear shall say because I am not the eye, I am not of the body; is it, therefore, not of the body? If the whole body were an eye, where were the hearing; if the whole were hearing where were the smelling? But now hath God set the members, every one of them, in the body, as it hath pleased him.” I Corinthians 12:15-18. Every saint of God has received an essential place within the body of the communion of the saints so that without only one of them the communion of the saints would be incomplete.
God has set the various members in the body so that each individual member serves the whole of the communion of the saints. One does not receive the gifts and calling of the Spirit by himself to serve for his own selfish ends, but always for the sake of the whole of the communion of the saints of which he is a member. And each of the members are in need of all of the other members. If one of the members is missing or does not exercise his gifts and calling it will cause the whole of the communion of the saints to suffer lack. The members mutually satisfy one another’s spiritual necessities. In I Corinthians 12:21-24 the apostle states: “And the eye cannot say unto the hand, I have no need of thee; nor again the head to the feet, I have no need of you. Nay much more those members of the body, which seem to be more feeble are necessary; and those members of the body, which we think to be less honorable, upon these we bestow more abundant honor; and our uncomely parts have more abundant comeliness. For our comely parts have no need; but God hath tempered the body together, having given more abundant honor to that which lacked.” So God will care for all of the spiritual needs of all the members of the body so that no part shall lack. He has so wonderfully united the members of the body together that each serves the other as members of one another, so much so that when “one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; or one member be honored, all the members rejoice with it.” Thus all of the needs of the communion of the saints are filled and satisfied. And God gives the various gifts and members to the communion so that the whole church together may grow unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.
Finally, it is important to emphasize that the communion of the saints is a spiritual communion. This surely follows from all that we have said. The church is not a social club or society. It is a communion ofsaints. They have communion with one another be cause they are saints and live in their capacity as saints. Their communion is an exclusive fellowship. It includes only those who have been made to be saints by the calling and work of God’s grace in Christ Jesus; they are redeemed out of the world. It excludes all that are of the world of darkness and corruption. What a blessed fellowship is then the communion of the saints. In that fellowship we enjoy the blessedness of the knowledge and love of God together with all of the saints. In that fellowship we are blessed with all of the spiritual blessings from the head of the body, the Lord Jesus Christ. And in that body the saints dwell together for their mutual edification, to befriend one another in the midst of the world, to comfort, exhort and admonish one another in the fellowship of love. All of God’s saints have a place in that fellowship; it is their spiritual home in the house of God as it is manifest in the midst of this earth.
There are many practical applications that follow from this Scriptural truth of the communion of the saints. These we shall consider in the next installment.