To gain the proper perspective with respect to our subject, we must go back in our thoughts to Old Testament days. You will recall that in the land of the captivity in the days of Darius the Mede the enemies of Daniel persuaded the king to issue a decree that no one, for a period of thirty days, should ask anything of any god or man, except of the king. in that connection we read that when Daniel knew of the king’s decree, he deliberately went to his house and prayed three times daily with his windows open toward Jerusalem, even as he did aforetime (Daniel 6:4-10).
What motivated Daniel?
The answer is undoubtedly expressed in the song of the captives, Psalm 137:5, 6: “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy.” That was Daniel’s faith. He lived by this faith, so that he was ready even to die for it, as became evident when he allowed himself to be cast into the den of lions.
The situation of the child of God in the twentieth century is indeed different than was Daniel’s. It is much more complicated. Then there was only one place in all the world where God’s people could properly serve Him. Zion in that day was limited to the land of Canaan and the city of Jerusalem and Mount Zion. Today that is different. The church of Jesus Christ has broken through its national boundaries and is established throughout the world. Besides, there is the complication that there are many who claim to represent that church and who go by the name of that church and who claim as the church to proclaim the gospel and to administer the sacraments in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. It does not require much insight, therefore, to discern that the situation is far more complex today.
But while the situation is different, the principle remains the same.
If things are spiritually right with God’s people, if they live from faith and according to the standard of the Word of God, then the driving impulse of their life is the same as that of Daniel. It is faith’s urge to seek Zion, the true church. Moreover, as it was with Daniel, so it will be with God’s people today: if that is the driving urge of their life, then no sacrifice will be so great as to keep them from following that impulse.
The True And The False Church
In order to understand the meaning and importance of the marks of the church it is necessary to understand what is meant by the church which is distinguished and distinguishable by those marks. And while it is impossible to make a complete and detailed study of this important Scriptural idea within the limits of this pamphlet, it is important to note the following points in this connection:
1) It must be emphasized that it is the will of Christ that His body, the one, holy, catholic church, shall become manifest in the midst of the world as the gathering of believers and their seed. The holy catholic church is not some vague, spiritual abstraction which has no manifestation here on earth; but it becomes manifest, and it does so as the gathering of believers and their seed. This has been true both in the old and in the new dispensations. The church became manifest in Israel of the old dispensation; and the church became manifest in the various congregations which were established in apostolic times and which are addressed in the epistles as “the church.” This truth is confessed by Reformed churches in our Confession of Faith, Articles 27 and 28.
2) Christ Himself instituted His church on earth and. gave her the ministry of the Word, gave her, in fact, all the offices and their functions. Thus, for example, Ephesians 4:11 teaches us that Christ “gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers.” The same is true of the offices of elder and deacon in the church. This work of Christ has as its purpose the perfecting of the saints, the edifying, upbuilding, of His body. Christ, therefore, has thus instituted His church in order that His church, from the beginning to the end of the world, might continue to be gathered out of the whole human race by His Spirit and Word.
Let us bear in mind that when we speak of the marks of the church, we refer to the church from this point of view, that is; to the church as it isinstituted by Christ and becomes manifest as an institution through its offices and through the functions of those offices in an organized local congregation, a certain local manifestation of the body of Christ on earth. If we keep this in mind, it will avoid the confusion and misunderstanding which frequently arises in connection with the subject of the true and the false church. The subject under discussion is not the marks of the true believer, the marks of the Christian. Neither is the claim of the true church in the world the claim that it is perfect, or the claim that it consists only of regenerated people of God, only of true believers, or that outside of a given congregation or denomination there are no elect people of God. This is not the question. But we confront this question: where is the church of Jesus Christ in this world from the point of view of its institution? Where is it that the Lord Jesus Christ, the Head of His church, has instituted that church? Where are the God-ordained offices and officebearers? Where does it please Christ as the officebearer in the house of God to function and to bless and to gather His church? The church is manifest here in the world; it can be recognized and found and joined. And not all churches who claim to be the manifestation of that church are that church, or are so in purity.
3) Thirdly, there is at the basis of our subject the truth that it is the sacred duty of everyone to join himself to the true church. This is stated very succinctly in our Confession of Faith, Article 28, which we quote:
“We believe, since this holy congregation is an assembly of those who are saved, and that out of it there is no salvation, that no person of whatsoever state or condition he may be, ought to withdraw himself, to live in a separate state from it; but that all men are in duty bound to join and unite themselves with it; maintaining the unity of the Church; submitting themselves to the doctrine and discipline thereof; bowing their necks under the yoke of Jesus Christ; and as mutual members of the same body, serving to the edification of the brethren, according to the talents God has given them. And that this may be the more effectually observed, it is the duty of all believers, according to the word of God, to separate themselves from all those who do not belong to the Church, and to join themselves to this congregation, wheresoever God hath established it, even though the magistrates and edicts of princes were against it, yea, though they should suffer death or any other corporal punishment. Therefore all those who separate themselves from the same, or do not join themselves to it, act contrary to the ordinance of God.”
Here tile calling of the child of God is very clearly stated. It is the will of Christ that the believer willingly submit himself to the instruction and oversight and government of that church of Jesus Christ as instituted in the midst of the world,wheresoever it may be. That is for his spiritual welfare and well-being and salvation. The child of God, therefore, certainly will not take his church membership lightly. He certainly will not be numbered among those who can change their church membership almost as easily as they can change their clothes. If he is a serious-minded child of God, he will not separate himself from that church for any earthly or carnal considerations, no matter what they may be. This lies in the very nature of his spiritual life. He is a member of the spiritual body of Christ. He is not saved as a mere individual, but as a member of Christ’s body. He lives his new life not as an individual in isolation from all other regenerated children of God, but only as a member of the body. He possesses and enjoys and lives his life only in the body and thus in connection with the Head, Christ. Even as the church of Christ is not a mere mass of members, but a body, so that church lives, and all the members live, only as a body and members, and, as members in the body in connection with the Head. With all believers, therefore, the child of God confesses one Lord; with all believers he partakes of one Spirit; with all believers he shares a common faith in that one Lord. And for that reason it is the urge of his regenerated heart, the impulse of his new life, to seek and to join himself to the true church and to realize concretely, in as far as that is possible in this present world, the fellowship of believers. He belongs there. He cannot live alone. His life is a communal life.
4) There is a factor which complicates the situation very seriously, however; and that factor is the presence and development in this present world of the false church. From an historical point of view, this development is due to the imperfection of the church as long as it exists in the midst of the world. One element in that imperfection is the fact that the carnal seed continues in the course of history to arise from within the church, to arise (just as the spiritual seed arises) out of the generations of believers. The line of election and reprobation cuts across the generations of the people of God. A second element is the fact that believers themselves are not perfect, but have only a small beginning of the new obedience. They all still have in them the old man of sin. And in connection with this imperfection, the church is open to all kinds of evil influences from the world round about it. From that point of view, you can say in a sense that the position of the church in this present world isprecarious. God wants His church to exist in the world, but not of the world. And because the church is itself imperfect, and because it exists squarely in the midst of the world, the church as it becomes manifest here in the world in any given congregation is open to influences from that world. It is open to the influence of the philosophy of this world, of the thinking of this world, of the striving of this world, open, too, to all kinds of influences which we may classify under the heading of “allurements”—allurements to leave its position of spiritual isolation, to abandon its position as theholy church, and to make common cause with the wicked world.
As a result, there is throughout history a continual development. The true church manifests itself in the midst of the world. But always—because of the imperfection just mentioned—there is at the same time a development away from the truth, away from the calling of the church, a development in the direction of the wicked world, in the direction of vain and humanistic philosophy. Thus arises the false church, the pseudo-church. Besides, there is movement in history toward the goal of the end, the end of all things! And as far as the false church is concerned, this means that there is development toward the goal of the final, ultimate manifestation of that false church which is pictured to us in the Book of Revelation under the symbolism of the great whore, who is allied with the antichristian kingdom. There is development toward the ultimate realization of the antithesis, toward the realization of that situation when all of history must needs come to an end, when the false church has completely served the purpose of the manifestation of the sinfulness of sin, and when the situation of the faithful church in the midst of the world has become impossible, so that it is not able any longer to exist in the world: development toward the day of the coming of the Lord!
Thus, there is, in principle, an absolute cleavage between the true and the false church. We may notice, too, that our Confession of Faith speaks of this cleavage in such “either-or” terms: the true church and the false church!
Further, there is between those two, the true church and the false church, a continual movement from the true toward the false. Churches, as everyone will realize, do not become completely false all at once. On the contrary, the completely false church, the church of which it cannot be said at all that Christ is present in it, is the product of a process. There is a gradual weaning away from the truth, a gradual increase of the power and influence of the lie and false doctrine, until finally a certain church becomes completely false. The practical result of this process of development is the situation in which the child of God finds in the midst of the world not merely two churches, a completely true church and a completely false church. Rather, speaking practically, there are between those two many gradations, so that it is possible and proper to speak of the purest, of varying degrees of less pure churches, and of the completely false.
Yet we must be cautioned that in this situation the child of God must conduct himself in accord with the principle of the absolute cleavage which we noted earlier. In the light of this principle, there is always either a movement toward the true church or a moving in the direction of the false church. The question, therefore, from a practical, spiritual point of view is, to put it bluntly, not this: can and may I “get away with” belonging to a church which is less pure, rather than to the purest manifestation of the body of Christ in the world? Such a question bespeaks a deeply unspiritual attitude toward the holy, catholic church. But the question is: how and where must and can the believer seek and join himself to the true church?
As was suggested earlier, this question has become especially complicated since the time of the Reformation of the sixteenth century. Not only are there all kinds of churches in the world which differ from one another in various natural respects: churches which differ as far as their national origin is concerned, which differ as to race and color, as to language, as to geographical location. Things of this kind, after all, do not affect the spiritual nature of the church. But there are also hundreds and even thousands of churches which differ as to the essentials: they differ as to doctrine, as to confession, as to government, as to worship and liturgy, as to the sacraments, as to discipline. And in that mass of different churches you find a vast difference of degree. There are those, of course, who openly repudiate the Scriptures and who have long ago abandoned the Word of God completely, who deny the very fundamentals of the faith, such as the Trinity, the incarnation, the atonement, the resurrection of Christ, etc. Practically speaking, such churches present no problem for the believer and his church membership. The life of regeneration simply cannot exist there, cannot find fellowship and sustenance there. Why not? Because Christ is not there!
The problem, however, becomes more complicated when we confront the many different kinds of churches who claim to hold—and to a degree do hold—to what are called the fundamentals, but who are nevertheless divided as to many important doctrines. They are divided, for example, as to the truth of predestination, divided with respect to the atonement, divided with respect to the doctrine of the Lord’s return; or they may differ sharply with respect to the sacraments or the exercise of Christian discipline. Or, to make the problem, more specific, there are the several churches which belong, broadly speaking, to the Reformed community, but who differ greatly and who are sharply divided.
It is at this point that the question comes into focus: where is the church? Where is the true church, to which I, as a believer, am called before God to join myself? And if it is anywhere—and it is—how can that true church be recognized? How can it be known? The question, therefore, for any serious-minded child of God, is not just an abstract, doctrinal question, but a very really practical, spiritual one. Where is the church? Where must I be joined as a member of Christ’s church on earth?
(to be continued)