Ques. 54. What believest thou of the “holy catholic church” of Christ?
Ans. That the Son of God from the beginning 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 forever shall remain, a living member thereof.
Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 20
I believe a church.
I do not believe in a church. I do not rely upon the church for my salvation, since God is the God of my salvation in Jesus Christ. With the fathers of the past I believe in God, the Father Almighty, and in Jesus Christ, God’s only begotten Son, and in the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of Christ, the Author and Finisher of my faith. Therefore I believe a church.
It is not man’s church. It is not in that sense my church. It is God’s church, and therefore also the church of Jesus Christ, which He gathers unto Himself. We marvel as we speak of it. For it belongs to those things, those wonders of grace, which eye cannot see, ear cannot hear, and which exceed our fondest imagination.
There is one church. This is not an external, visible unity. For part of the church is already in heaven, part is still scattered over the earth, and part is still to be born. All the ecumenical attempts of our day toward an outward unity, regardless of creed or practice, must fail and can only lead to the coming of the antichrist. For the unity of the church is the unity of divine election in Christ, manifested in a true faith, even as our fathers declare.
This is a holy church. In its visible manifestation it is still very imperfect, even unholy. Scandalous things are often spoken of thee, O church here on earth. True, the church becomes visible in the walk and confession of the believers. It is also visible in the institute as the congregation functions through its office bearers and as the church assembles under the preaching of the Word and the administration of the Sacraments. But the preaching is still imperfect, the celebration of the Sacraments is still spotted with sin, and the fellowship among the members still leaves much to be desired. There is always a carnal element that meets along with the church, as chaff among the wheat. The believers are still sinful saints. Yet, in spite of all that, the church is sanctified in Christ, the flock of our Lord, a holy priesthood, God’s precious possession. The individual believers are called saints and have the assurance that according to their new life in Christ they can sin no more.
This church is catholic, that is, universal. There is a “church” that lays a false claim to that name and tries to deprive us of it. Yet the true catholic church is recognized by the pure preaching of the Word, the proper administration of the sacraments, and the proper exercise of church discipline. As our fathers teach us to confess in this Lord’s Day, “The Son of God gathers, defends and preserves to Himself by His Spirit and Word, out of the whole human race, a church, chosen unto everlasting life, and agreeing in a true faith.” Adam and Eve, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Moses, Elijah, and David, Peter, James, and John, Paul, Augustine, and Calvin, and many more belong to that church. Yes, every believer in Christ, whether young or old, male or female, bond or free has a place in that church, even until the last elect is gathered in: God has His people among Jews and Gentiles, in Singapore as well as in Australia, in America as well as in Europe. It consists of an amazing variety of race and color, which together makes up the fullness of the Body of Christ.
“Glorious things of thee are spoken, O city of God” (Psalm 87:3). Scripture sometimes, as here, compares the church to a city, the holy city, the city of the Great King, founded upon Zion’s holy hill. In other passages the church is compared to the Bride of God, or even family, sons, and daughters of the Most High. Sometimes we are compared to a body consisting of many members, and are referred to as the Body governed by Christ, its Head. Then again our unity is expressed in the figure of the vine and its branches, or the olive tree.
A very common figure in Scripture is that of a temple, the House of God. Solomon’s temple, as it stood in the land of Canaan and in the center of the Holy City, was an earthly picture and type of the church. We think of this costly, ornate building, its cedar beams, its golden splendor shining in the dazzling brightness of the sun, its altars and its sacrifices of atonement, its priests and its hallowed worship. But besides that, we think of the holy place, where the table of shewbread represented Christ, and the candlestick represented the church, while the altar of incense brought the prayers of the saints before the face of God, purified in Christ. Above all, our attention is called to the Most Holy Place, where God dwelled among His people in the lighted cloud and above the ark of the covenant. With Israel of old we say, “How amiable are Thy tabernacles, O Lord, God of Hosts. Even the sparrow builds its nest within Thy sacred walls.” Nor can we forget that this House of God stood in the center of Jerusalem with its massive walls and iron gates, and its sentinel that kept watch by day and by night. We, too, confess, with a broader vision than the Psalmist had, “Walk about Zion, and go round about her; tell the towers thereof. Mark ye well her bulwarks, consider her palaces; that ye may tell it to the generation following. For this God is our God for ever and ever: He will be our guide even unto death” (Psalm 48:12-14).
Chosen unto everlasting life.
Only God could plan a house magnificent. We confess “a church chosen unto everlasting life.” The eternal Architect chose our Lord Jesus Christ to be the chief cornerstone, the firm foundation, and the unifying strength of His church. God gave to Christ a people, His flock, His precious possession. That is, God determined from before the foundations of the earth how large His church should be. God determined the size, the shape, the dimensions, and even the number of stones and the kinds of stones required for His glorious dwelling place. Every stone is hand picked. Every stone is unique, different from all the rest, in order that each stone may serve its own purpose in the building. An amazing variety of people make up the one church which God has chosen unto His glory in eternity.
We cannot fail to add that while the church is under construction throughout history there is a lot of material that is used for the construction and for the scaffolding, which now detracts from the beauty of the building, but finally will be broken down and burned like straw and stubble. Election includes reprobation. The wicked perish in their sins, but only after they have served their purpose, in spite of themselves, toward the gathering of the saints and the coming of God’s kingdom.
The Son of God gathers His church.
We know that David prepared an abundance of material for Solomon’s temple. In this mass of material there was one huge, unsightly stone, that did not seem to fit anywhere in the plans of the building. For some time it was “a stone of stumbling and a rock of offence” for the builders of the temple. Finally it dawned on them that this stone was appointed for the one place where it fit exactly, the chief cornerstone. We see the fulfillment in the Savior Himself, for,
The stone rejected and despised
Was made the cornerstone.
How wondrous are the ways of God
Unfathomed and unknown!
God purchased His church with His own blood in His dear Son Jesus Christ. God laid the foundation for the church by Christ’s death, resurrection, and exaltation at His own right hand in the heavens.
“Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints, and of the household of God: and are built upon the foundation of the apostles and the prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone; in Whom all the building fitly framed together groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord: in Whom ye also are building for an habitation of God through the Spirit” (Eph. 2:19-22).
You who are fellow citizens of the saints, members of the family of God, are built into a holy temple in the Lord! There is one Master builder, Jesus Christ, Who takes the stones out of the stone quarry of the human race as ugly, filthy stones and forms them into precious, shining jewels in the House of God. This construction work has been carried on since the dawn of history, even for many centuries, both in the old and new dispensation, and, yet the building, as it is being reared up in heaven, is not complete. Each stone is the personal concern of our Lord. “For we are His (God’s) workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:10). We can express it this way; we are being fitted for our own place in that temple of God. Maybe we occupy a prominent place in the forefront where all can see, maybe even a small place in some hidden corner, yet the privilege of serving in that building to the praise of our God is sufficient honor for each of us.
No hammer blow is heard, no sound of chisel or of axe, no noise oft grinding as the building takes form and shape. The work is done, not by power, not by might, but by the Spirit of our God. It is the power of the still, small voice, that nevertheless is able to save or to destroy. For Christ builds His own church by His Word and Spirit. Some would call it the foolishness of preaching. We speak of the power of God within us unto our salvation.
Christ defends and preserves.
We are still a militant church being prepared for the church triumphant. The gates of hell gape wide over against us as they pour forth their evil spirits to destroy us. But we rest assured in the confidence that “a Mighty Fortress is our God.” This does not mean that we sit idly by while the battle rages round about us. We are the watchmen on the walls of Zion. We are kept only by the power of God through faith. Therefore we are called to stand fully equipped with the whole armor of God, which is His Word. We know the pain of our present affliction. Yet we also know that we are being cut, ground down, shaped, and polished for our own unique place in the House of God. When that place is ready and we are ready for that place, Christ reaches down and fits us into our particular spot where we can serve best to the glory of Him Whose House is being built.
Amazing grace! I believe a church, which also means, “that I am and forever shall remain a living member thereof!” Amen.