“The visible church, which is also catholic or universal under the gospel (not confined to one nation as before under the law) consists of all those, throughout the world, that profess the true religion, and of their children; and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.”
Now what is the idea, what is the being, or essence, of the church of Christ? Scripture is rich in terms that describe the church of our Lord Jesus Christ. There is, first of all, the well-known term “body of Christ.” The church is the spiritual body of which Christ is the head and of which all the elect are members. For God has revealed His exceeding great power in that He raised Jesus Christ from the dead and set Him at His right hand in heavenly places and put all things under His feet, “and gave him to be the head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him that filleth all in all.” Ephesians 1:20-23. And in that marvelous passage, Colossians 1:15-20, Christ is described as the firstborn of every creature, by whom and unto whom all things are created, “and he is the head of the body, the church: who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he might have the preeminence.” In the twenty-fourth verse of the same chapter we read: “Who now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh for his body’s sake, which is the church.”
The same organic idea is expressed in John 15:1-5, where the church is compared with a vine and its branches: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the husbandman. Every branch in me that beareth not fruit he taketh away: and every branch that beareth fruit, he purgeth it, that it may bring forth more fruit. Now ye are clean through the word which I have spoken unto you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me. I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing.” The same idea is expressed in the figure of the olive tree in Romans 11. There the apostle writes, in verses 16, ff.: “For if the first fruit be holy, the lump is also holy: and if the root be holy, so are the branches. And if some of the branches be broken off, and thou, being a wild olive tree, wert grafted in among them, and with them partakest of the root and fatness of the olive tree; Boast not against the branches. But if thou boast, thou bearest not the root, but the root thee. Thou wilt say then, The branches were broken off, that I might be graffed in. Well; because of unbelief they were broken off, and thou standest by faith. Be not high-minded, but fear: For if God spared not the natural branches, take heed lest he also spare not thee,” And then, in verse 24 of the same chapter, the apostle writes: “For if thou wert cut out of the olive tree which is wild by nature, and wert graffed contrary to nature into a good olive tree: how much more shall these, which be the natural branches, be graffed into their own olive tree?” And inI Corinthians 12:12, 13 we read: “For as the body is one, and bath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ. For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit.”
From a slightly different point of view, the church is also called the temple of God, or the city of God, the new Jerusalem, or Mount Zion. “Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you? If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are.” I Cor. 3:16, 17. And also in II Corinthians 6:16-18 the same figure is used: “And what agreement hath the temple of God with idols? for ye are the temple of the living God; as God hath said, I will dwell in them, and walk in them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you, And will be a Father unto you, and ye shall be my sons and daughters, saith the Lord Almighty.”
The same idea is expressed in Ephesians 2:19-22, where believers are also called the habitation, or the household, of God: “Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God; And are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone; In whom all the building fitly framed together groweth into an holy temple in the Lord: In whom we also are builded together for an habitation of God through the Spirit.” And in Galatians 4:26 the church is called Jerusalem: “But Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the mother of us all.” In Hebrews 12:22, 23 we read: “But ye are come unto mount Sion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels, To the general assembly and church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect.”
There are several other passages in Holy Writ that speak of the church. But the above passages reveal, in the first place, that the church is one whole, and also that there is a definite number of members, to which one cannot add and from which one cannot subtract any part or any member without marring the whole. Moreover, each member occupies his own definite place in the whole. And in that particular place each member serves his own purpose in the body. The church, therefore, is not an indefinite crowd. Just as a temple is not a mere pile of stones, so the church is not a mere multitude; but it is a well-ordered, harmonious, and beautiful whole, dominated and determined by one idea. Each part, each stone, each beam, each pillar, each window, each ornament fits into the whole and serves the beauty of the whole only in its own place. When the temple is finished, you cannot arbitrarily insert one more stone or remove one single ornament without marring the harmony of its architecture. The same is true, of course, of a body. Also a body is not an arbitrary number of members; but it is one whole, or a complete and perfect unity. It is not a mere arbitrary number of saved men; nor is the whole determined by men or by the will of men. Also the human body is a beautiful, harmonious whole, in which all the members occupy their own place. And so it is with the church. All the members, all the saints, occupy their own place and serve to reveal the idea and purpose of the whole. That purpose is, of course, the glory of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. And the number of members, that is, of the church, is determined only by the will of God. And that will of God is His eternal decree or counsel. The number of members, therefore, that fit into the whole body is no more determined by the will of men than the number of stones that are fitted into the walls of a temple is determined by the stones or by the desires of the dealer in building materials to sell as many stones as possible. It is the will and conception of the divine architect as determined by His eternal decree that determines before the foundation of the world both the idea of the church and the number of its members.
In the second place, the church as described in the texts quoted above, and in many other passages, is a living, spiritual organism, of which Christ is the head and all the elect are members. This too, is expressed especially by the figure of the body, but also by the figure of the vine and the olive tree. The watch you carry in your pocket or on your wrist is also one whole; but is not an organism, but a mechanism. The watch did not grow organically from a common principle. On the contrary, its parts were manufactured separately, and afterwards assembled so as to constitute the watch. On the other hand, an oak, or an elm, or any other tree, is an organism. The trunk and the branches and the leaves of a tree are not mechanically put together, but they develop from a common principle from within. This is true also of the church. It is a living organism, the body of Christ. Christ is first, and He is the head. In Him is all the life of the members of the whole body. From Him, through His Spirit, all the members receive their life and power and energy. He lives in them, and they live out of Him. As the Lord expresses it in that marvelous prayer which is recorded in John 17: “That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me.” Vs. 21. And in verse 23 of the same chapter we read: “I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one; and that the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them, as thou hast loved me.” Thus it is with the whole church. The mind of Christ is their mind. His will is their will. His blessings are their blessings. His resurrection life is their life. Apart from Him they are nothing and can do nothing. Apart from Him they cannot live; they are not living. The church is a beautiful, harmonious, spiritual body, of which Christ is the head and all the elect are the members, that must serve the purpose of revealing the glory of the life of the Triune God through Jesus Christ our Lord.
When we conceive of the church in this light, it will be evident that all the elect, and they only, belong to the church. This is clearly expressed by the Heidelberg Catechism in Lord’s Day XXI, and also very definitely by the Westminster Confession, which we quoted above. Moreover, this is squarely based on Holy Scripture. Ephesians 1:3, 4 reads as follows: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who bath blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ: According as he hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love.” And again, in verse 11 of the same chapter: “In whom also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestinated according to the purpose of him who worketh all things after the counsel of his own will.” The same truth is taught very plainly in I Peter 2:4-9: “To whom coming, as unto a living stone, disallowed indeed of men, but chosen of God, and precious, Ye also, as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house, an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ. Wherefore also it is contained in the scripture; Behold, I lay in Sion a chief corner stone, elect, precious: and he that believeth on him shall not be confounded. Unto you therefore which believe he is precious: but unto them which be disobedient, the stone which the builders disallowed, the same is made the head of the corner, And a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offence, even to them which stumble at the word, being disobedient: whereunto also they were appointed. But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” From these passages it is very evident, in the first place, that God has chosen the church as church. By this we understand that God from eternity willed the organism of the church under her head, Christ Jesus our Lord, And, secondly, it means that He created that church, from the beginning of the world, organically, that is, within the organism of the human race, which, of course, included the reprobate elements in humanity. And, in the third place, we understand that the reprobate shell in time lives under God’s providence in natural, organic relationship, as chaff with the grain, with the elect organism. Elect and reprobate are in a natural, organic sense of the word temporarily one. The reprobate shell serves the organism of the elect, that is, of the church. The two are separated along the lines of election and reprobation by an ever-continuing process. And in the end of the world the organism of the elect church will be finally and completely separated from the reprobate shell. This is, of course, the supralapsarian conception of the church. According to the infralapsarian presentation, God created a perfect and original organism in Adam. This original organism is being marred and spoiled and corrupted by sin. And God restores this original organism in the church by recreation. Our chief objection against this mild Reformed conception is that according to it, after all something falls really in the hands of Satan and is lost. The devil after all gains a certain victory, although God restores His marred creation and has the final victory. According to our conception, God from eternity purposed to create the church in Christ. That church was created in the loins of Adam organically, together with the reprobate shell of the human race. And in the line of election and reprobation God separates the pith from the shell, and brings His elect church to glory. Nothing is lost. Sin and Satan must simply serve the purpose of realizing the church of Christ. And God maintains His counsel. This is the teaching of Holy Writ. We read inEphesians 1:10: “That in the dispensation of the fullness of times he might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth.” In Isaiah 43:3, 4 we read: “For I am the Lord thy God, the Holy One of Israel, thy Savior: I gave Egypt for thy ransom, Ethiopia and Seba for thee. Since thou wast precious in my sight, thou hast been honorable, and I have loved thee: therefore will I give men for thee, and people for thy life.” I may also refer, as I have often done, to Colossians 1:15-20, which, however; I will not quote again. Hence, the entire number of the elect together constitute the church as the body of Christ: The elect from the past, the elect in the present time, and the elect in the future. And from this viewpoint we can distinguish the church as the church militant, the church triumphant, and the church latent.
The church militant is so-called because she has a battle to fight. The deepest cause of this battle is that she represents the cause of the Son of God in the midst of the world that lieth in darkness, that stands in spiritual alliance with the devil, the prince of this world, in enmity against God, and in opposition to the cause of His Son. In order to understand this battle and the cause of the Son of God, we must remember that God created this world and all things that are therein for His own name’s sake unto the praise of His glory. He made the world a kingdom, with man, who was created after the image of God, as the center and pinnacle, the head and king, of all created things, that is, the created things that were on the earth. Man was made in he image of God. He stood in true knowledge of his God, in righteousness and holiness, that he might gather the praise of God reflected in all creation and express it in conscious adoration before the face of God, love Him with all his heart and mind and soul and strength, and consecrate himself and all things to his Creator, the sovereign Lord of all. Representing all creation, man stood in covenant relation to God, and therefore was God’s friend servant. As God’s friend, as the representative of God’s sovereignty, in complete subjection and perfect obedience of love to his Creator, man had dominion over all things. He reigned over all the earthly creation. He was king under God, and therefore, servant-king. All creatures must serve him, that he might serve his God. And serving Him, man enjoyed the blessed fellowship of the Most High, and tasted that the Lord is good.
In this original economy of things a breach was struck by the fall and disobedience of this friend-servant of God, this representative of God and of God’s supreme and only Lordship in the visible world. Its beginning is traced by Scripture to the world of heavenly spirits. Satan, perhaps the highest of angels, stumbled over his own glory. And being puffed up with pride, he pursued after the insane idea of his vain and haughty imagination to be as God. And with this most fundamental of all lies, he invaded the world of man, tempted God’s friend-servant, the king of the earthly creation. And the latter listened to the lie of the devil, He violated God’s covenant of friendship, and concluded a spiritual alliance with the prince of darkness. He plunged himself, and with him the whole human race, into corruption and death, so that out of him the world develops from the principle of enmity against God, always realizing the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life. Moreover, on the other hand, the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against that world and all its ungodliness and unrighteousness, so that under the influence of this divine wrath, and impelled by its own evil lusts from within, it increaseth in iniquity, until the man of sin, the son of perdition, shall be revealed at the time of Antichrist.
However, God will give His glory no other. God is the Lord. He is always Lord over all things, even over the fall and corruption of man. And He accomplishes all His good pleasure, through the vain imagination of Satan and the fall of man prepares the way for His Son to come into the world. That Son He had anointed from before the foundation of the world to be the head of the church, the heir of all things, the Lord of lords and King of kings, the everlasting representative of God’s Lordship over all created things. He is the real and perfect Servant of God. He is the eternal Servant-King under God, in whom and under whom all things, both that are in heaven and that are on the earth, must be united in the heavenly kingdom of the new creation. This Son of God, this anointed Servant of the Lord, was ordained to come into the world, to unite Himself with human nature and to become like unto His brethren in all things, sin excepted. In the world He was to represent God’s cause, His eternal covenant, His truth and righteousness, His sovereignty and lordship, His love and mercy, His glory and honor. Out of the world He must redeem and save His people in the way of perfect obedience, even unto death. And He must form them into a people of God that will live in God’s house and that will extol His praises. He is anointed to overcome all the power of sin and death, to dispossess the devil and the wicked, and finally destroy them by the breath of His mouth. And having overcome all His enemies, He is to submit Himself and His kingdom to the Father, in order that God may be all in all.
This is what we call the cause of the Son of God.
The result is a battle throughout the ages. The world hates Christ and all the powers of darkness unite themselves against Him, to oppose His cause, to bring Him to defeat, and to destroy His kingdom. Because it is the purpose of Satan and his .host and of fallen man, in alliance with this host of darkness, to retain their lordship over the world in the service of sin, unrighteousness, and corruption, the world is principally anti-Christ. Most clearly this becomes evident in the fullness of time, when He personally comes into the world to fight the battle, to reveal Himself as de representative of God’s righteousness, to overcome the power of sin and death, and to wrest from the prince of de world his usurped power and authority, and to establish the everlasting kingdom of God on the foundation of truth and justice. All the forces of iniquity rise up against Him. They oppose and contradict His Word. They despise and heap contempt upon Him. And they persecute Him even unto death, the cruel and shameful death of the cross. But in and through it all He fights the battle of Jehovah and is victorious. He reveals and glorifies the Father, takes away the sin of His own, that are given to Him by the Father, by becoming obedient unto death, overcomes the prince of this world, death and hell, and is raised to glory at the right hand of God. And now He has a name that is above every name, that in the name of Jesus every knee should bow, and every tongue should confess that Jesus is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Such was the battle for the cause of the Son of God when He was in the world. The world hated Him and hated His cause. But He overcame the world and its prince.
However, it is not only in the fullness of time, during the few years of the earthly sojourn and ministry of our Lord, that the Son of God is in the world and that His cause is represented.