It is true that this divine calling comes to us through the preaching of the gospel. However, this does not imply that here, at last, the gathering of the church becomes the work of man. Never are the preachers of the gospel co-laborers with God or co-laborers with Christ. When, as, for instance, in I Corinthians 3:9, we read, “For we are laborers together with God: ye are God’s husbandry, ye are God’s building,” this certainly does not mean that the apostles and also the preachers of the gospel labor together with God. But it refers to the relation of the preachers of the gospel to one another mutually. They are co-laborers together, not with God, but of God. The gospel is not ours; but it is the gospel of Christ. The gospel is His Word. He revealed it, and at the same time He is also its contents. And He speaks it. And this does not change when He delivers the contents of that gospel to us in the Holy Scriptures, or when it is spoken by the preachers of the gospel. Without His own Spirit and Word, those Scriptures and those preachers are powerless. The work of gathering His church never becomes dependent on man. Even when the Lord commissions and calls prophets, apostles, and evangelists to proclaim His Word, or when He gives unto the church pastors and teachers, that through them the church may preach the gospel to all nations, the work of gathering the church does not depend on man whatsoever. Even then it is He that calls and prepares the preachers. It is He that sends them whithersoever He will. And it is He that speaks through the preaching by His Spirit to gather His church. Even though it be through the instrumentality of the preaching and the instrumentality of the preacher, the church is always gathered not by men, but by Christ through His Spirit and Word.
Now this divine calling is heard throughout the ages, from the beginning of the world to the very end. Perhaps someone objects that before the fullness of time Christ was not yet, and that therefore He could not gather His church from the human race during the old dispensation. That is undoubtedly erroneous. For although in time Christ had not yet been revealed, in God’s eternal counsel the Son of God had been anointed the head of His church before the foundation of the world. In the old dispensation the Son of God functioned and revealed Himself and sent His Word by His Spirit as the Christ that was to come. It was through Christ that God sent forth His Word of the gospel in paradise, immediately after the fall, and began to gather His church in our first parents. It was through Christ that Enoch proclaimed the day of the Lord and that Noah became a preacher of righteousness. It was through Christ that the gospel was proclaimed to Abraham and that he was called out of Ur and Haran. It was through Christ that God called His Son out of Egypt. And through Christ He led His church all through the desert. Christ was the Rock that followed them, out of which Israel drank. Christ is the end of the law, revealed in all the shadows of the old dispensation. Christ spoke through all the prophets, and the Spirit of Christ was in them. Christ gathered, throughout the old dispensation, His church, as a hen gathers her chickens.
However, in the fullness of time Christ came, and the gospel was realized in His death and resurrection and exaltation. But He still speaks by His Spirit and Word. He commissions His apostles, and in them the church, to preach the gospel to every creature, and gives them the promise that He will be with them even unto the end of the world. The exalted Lord, through His Spirit and Word, still speaks in the preaching of the gospel, and gathers His church and builds her and preserves her from every nation and tongue and tribe, and will do so until the last one of His brethren, the children of God, shall have come to Mt. Zion, the city of the living God.
To this we must add that in this world Christ gathers this church in the line of continued generations. When He establishes His church in the world, He does not simply gather individuals at random, but families, and continues His church in their generations. Thus it was in the old dispensation. He gathered His church in the line of Seth, Noah, Shem, Abraham, Isaac, Israel, according to His Word: “I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee in their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee.” Gen. 17:7. And the same truth is proclaimed by the apostle Peter on the day of Pentecost: “For the promise is unto you and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call.” Acts 2:39. Hence, the church is the gathering of believers and their children, baptized in the name of the Triune God. It is incumbent upon the church in each generation to preserve the truth of the gospel and to deliver it unto the next generation. The children of the church must be instructed in the fear of the Lord. The result is, too, that the church on earth is never pure. They are not all Israel that are of Israel. There is always carnal seed, that corrupts the church. It is from this carnal seed that the false church springs, and the final great apostasy that will be precursory to the ultimate revelation of the Man of Sin, the Antichrist, that Son of Perdition. Hence, the church is always called to watch and pray, and to put on the whole armor of God, that she may be able to stand in the evil day. Doing this, she may be of good cheer: for the gates of hell shall not overwhelm her.
Reformed people confess that the church is gathered from the beginning to the very end of the world. Thus, in the Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day XXI, to which: we have already referred, the Catechism asks: “What believest thou concerning the holy catholic church of Christ?” And the answer is: “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.” And the same is true of the Netherland Confession of Faith, where we read, in Article XXVII: “We believe and profess, one catholic or universal Church, which is an holy congregation, of true Christian believers, all expecting their salvation in Jesus Christ, being washed by his blood, sanctified and sealed by the Holy Ghost. This Church hath been from the beginning of the world, and will be to the end thereof; which is evident from this, that Christ is an eternal King, which without subjects, cannot be.” With this confession the Reformed Church stands opposed to the view of those who present the church as an interim, as the body of Christ in distinction from the kingdom-people, Israel, that is gathered from the day of Pentecost until the fullness of the Gentiles shall have been gathered in. Over against this view, the Reformed church insists that the church is in the world from the very beginning, that also the saints of the old dispensation belong to the body of Christ, that with the church of the new dispensation they form one people-of God, and that for them all there is one and the same promise and the same salvation.
It may be well to demonstrate the Scriptural ground on which this confession rests. Many seem to think that the church found its inception after the first coming of Christ, after His death and resurrection, after His ascension and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. That outpouring of the Spirit really constitutes, according to them, the birth of the church. The nation of Israel, according to this same conception, is an altogether different people, separate from the church, occupying a position all their own in the economy of salvation. They are the kingdom-people of Christ. For them is meant the separate promise of the land of Canaan for an everlasting possession. It may therefore be expedient to show from Scripture that it is nevertheless the truth that throughout the ages of the world there is one holy catholic church, one people, not two.
First of all, let us call attention to the very important truth that according to Scripture there is only one true seed of Abraham, and that these are the elect, the believers, the spiritual children of God, both of the old and of the new dispensation. It is true, there are children of Abraham according to the flesh and children of the promise, or spiritual children. But this does not hold only for the old dispensation, but also for the new. It cannot be maintained on the basis of Holy Writ that the Jews are the real seed of Abraham, properly so called, while the church is spiritual Israel, the seed of Abraham in a figurative sense. Fact is that according to Scripture the Jews as such, the carnal descendants of Abraham, are not considered the true seed of Abraham at all. Only the children of the promise are counted for the seed. It must be maintained, therefore, that both in the days of the old and of the new dispensation not the Jews, but believers in Christ, are the true children of Abraham.
That this is true is evident from all Scripture. First of all, we refer to the passage of Romans 9:6-8. There we read: “Not as though the word of God hath taken none effect. For they are not all Israel, which are of Israel: Neither, because they are the seed of Abraham, are they all children: but, In Isaac shall thy seed be called. That is, They which are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God: but the children of the promise are counted for the seed.” We may in this connection emphasize the most important points in this passage as far as they have bearing on our present discussion. First of all, let it be noted that the passage speaks of the Jews, of the nation of Israel, the literal descendants of Abraham. Theirs was the promise. Yet, now Christ has come and the promise has entered upon its fulfillment, the majority of Jews were lost, did not receive the promise. Hence, the question arose: did God fail to fulfill His promise? Has the Word of God taken none effect? If the promise of God was given to the seed of Abraham according to the flesh, how must it be explained that so many of the Jews are lost?
Secondly, it is clear that in answer to this question the apostle emphasizes that not all the descendants of Abraham, not the Jews as such, are counted as Abraham’s seed. The promise has not failed. All are not Israel that came from the loins of Abraham. The fact that they are the natural seed of Abraham does not make them children of God. Thirdly, the passage makes plain that also in the old dispensation only spiritual Israel, believers, they that were born not of the flesh but of the promise, are counted for the seed. When, therefore, you read that God gives His promises to Abraham and his seed, you must not make the mistake of applying that Word of God to the Jews as such. For it does not mean the natural descendants of Abraham at all. Only the children of the promise are counted for the seed. In other words, though for a time the seed of Abraham were Jews, the Jews as such were never the seed of Abraham. This is the plain and undeniable teaching of the Word of God in this particular passage. Secondly, I must call your attention to Romans 4:11-16: “And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had yet being uncircumcised: that he might be the father of all them that believe, though they be not circumcised; that righteousness might be imputed unto them also: And the father of circumcision to them who are not of the circumcision only, but who also walk in the steps of that faith of our father Abraham, which he had being yet uncircumcised. For the promise, that he should be the heir of the world, was not to Abraham, or to his seed, through the law, but through the righteousness of faith. For if they which are of the law be heirs, faith is made void, and the promise made of none effect: Because the law worketh wrath: for where no law is, there is no transgression. Therefore it is of faith, that it might be by grace; to the end the promise might be sure to all the seed; not to that only which is of the law, but to that also which is of the faith of Abraham; who is the father of us all.”
In this passage we need only underscore those elements that have bearing on our subject and which are so clear that they cannot be gainsaid. The first point to be noted is that Abraham is here presented as the father of only one seed, whose sole distinguishing characteristic is faith. These children of Abraham are from the Jews, the circumcision, but also from the Gentiles, the uncircumcision. He is the father, therefore, of all believers. Secondly, here too we may note that the Jews as such, the literal descendants of Abraham, are not counted as the seed. For he is said to be the father of circumcision, that is of the Jews, only in so far as they walk in the steps of the faith of their father. Not all that are circumcised are Abraham’s seed. And thirdly, the passage also teaches clearly that to this spiritual seed of Abraham, from the Jews and also from the Gentiles, there is only one promise, namely, that they should be heirs of the world. This promise was never through the law, but only through the righteousness of faith. Hence, they that are of the law, that is, the descendants of Abraham according to the flesh, as such are not heirs of the promise. It is of faith, that the promise might be sure to all the seed, the one spiritual seed of Abraham, from the Jews and also from the Gentiles. There is one father Abraham, one seed of Abraham, one promise to all the seed. And this one promise can be attained only in the way of faith. The position that the Jews are the real seed of Abraham, while the church of the new dispensation are the spiritual seed, is therefore untenable, and must be condemned as contrary to the plain teaching of Scripture.
This is also the plain and simple meaning of the text in Romans 2:28, 29: “For he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh: But he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God.” This passage can stand without comment as far as it sheds light upon our subject. The Jew outwardly is he who is a descendant of Abraham according to the flesh, without the faith of his father Abraham. But the text literally denies that he is a Jew at all. He is not counted as the seed. Only he is a Jew inwardly, spiritually, in whose heart has been wrought the spiritual reality that corresponds to the sign of circumcision, that is, faith and the new life. Only he can be called an Israelite. Not the Jews, therefore, but only the circumcised in heart are Abraham’s seed.
In the epistle to the Galatians we may find the clearest statement of the unity of the people of God from the old and from the new dispensation. Thus, in Galatians 3:7-9 we read: “Know ye therefore that they which are of faith, the same are the children of Abraham. And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the heathen through faith, preached before the gospel unto Abraham, saying, In thee shall all nations be blessed. So then they which be of faith are blessed with faithful Abraham.” It is emphasized here once more that the seed of Abraham are the true believers in our Lord Jesus Christ. To this it cannot be objected that the Bible is referring here to the seed of Abraham in the spiritual sense, and that no mention is made of the Jews as the real seed. For to this possible objection we may reply: 1) That this distinction is contrary to Scripture, as has been shown before. Only the spiritual children of Abraham are counted for the seed, according to the Bible. 2) That the above passage must be read in connection with verse 16: ‘Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made. He saith not, And to seeds, as of many; but as of one, And to thy seed, which is Christ.” From the fact that the singular, and not the plural, of the word seed is used the apostle draws the conclusion that centrally and essentially the seed is Christ. But if this be true, it follows undeniably that they only that are in Him, that is, in Christ, that is, believers, whether they be of the Jews or of the Gentiles, are with Him the seed of Abraham. 3) That to this seed are all the promises made. They are blessed with Abraham, and they only, not others. Note the last verse of this same chapter: “And if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” 4) That the apostle literally denies all separation of Israel and the church, as if they were two peoples, when he compares the people of God of the old and of the new dispensation to a growing child. In the old dispensation the child is still a minor, placed under the constant tutorship of the law. In the new dispensation, however, he has reached the age of majority, and is become a free son. This is evident from the first section of chapter 4:”Now I say, That the heir, as long as he is a child, differeth nothing from a servant, though he be lord of all; But is under tutors and governors until the time appointed of the father. Even so we, when we were children, were in bondage under the elements of the world: But when the fullness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, To redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons. And because ye are sons, God hath sent forth the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, crying, Abba, Father. Wherefore thou art no more a servant, but a son; and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ.” The point that we want to bring out is that the child who was a servant is Israel under the law in the old dispensation, and that the grown up child that is free is the church of the new dispensation.