*This lecture was delivered at a meeting of the League of Men’s Societies at the First Prot. Ref. Church, Grand Rapids.
The subject that has been assigned to me for this evening is bound to have a strong appeal to all those who love the truth of Scripture and who confess their faith in a holy, catholic church, “of which I am and always shall remain a living member.” This subject is as interesting as it is important. It is important for us who profess the truth as God entrusted it to our churches. But it is also important to safeguard ourselves against the many errors so prevalent in our day. If ever, it should now be thoroughly understood what we believe and profess concerning the church, her life and her activity. And at the same time, it is necessary for all of us to know how to fulfill our calling in the office of all believers in the midst of the church, according to the unction of the Holy Spirit which we have received from Christ.
In discussing the multiformity of the church we meet many problems which we can only hope to touch upon in this essay. Some of the problems are worthy of a broader discussion than we can give them now, and may well be considered separately at a later date. At this time I wish to stress the idea of the multiformity of the church as it is set before us in the Scriptures. Therefore I would refer you to its basis, its manifestation, and its implications.
I. Its Basis.
In order to come to a Scripturally sound conception of the multiformity of the church, we must be aware of certain fundamental principles that are basic to it. A few of these we briefly call to our attention.
First of all, it is important that we maintain that we believe a holy, catholic church. The true church of Jesus Christ is both holy and catholic. Although we all agree that the church as we see her in her outward manifestation here on earth is neither holy nor catholic, we immediately remind ourselves that we are not speaking of the church as we see her with our natural eye in all the imperfection of sinful flesh, but we are speaking of the church as she is the object of our faith. We believe that the church according to her true spiritual essence is both holy and catholic. She is holy, for God sees no transgression in Israel and no sin in Jacob. The Lord regards His people as He has chosen her in Christ, redeemed her through the blood of the cross, and sanctifies her as a spotlessly holy and undefiled bride, the bride of Christ. Thus she will become manifest in all her glory and splendor in the new creation. At the same time, the Church is universal, catholic. In the old dispensation the church was gathered within the boundaries of natural Israel, but in the new dispensation God gathers His Church out of every nation and tribe and people. No national distinction destroys the unity of the true church, which is one according to her internal, spiritual essence; one in Christ. This unity will become fully evident in heaven when the church will be fully gathered and assembled about the throne, to show forth the praises of God eternally in the new creation.
Moreover, we confess concerning God’s church that Christ is her Head and she is His body. Scripture sometimes uses the figure of the vine and its branches, or sometimes of a body and its members, or also of a temple with its foundation and its stones. Always the idea is, that the church is an elect organism in Christ, gathered during the history of this present time and revealing its full perfection in the glory of the world to come.expresses this most beautifully. There we are told that Christ “is the image of the invisible God, the Firstborn of every creature; for by Him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities or powers: all things were created by Him, and for Him. And He is before all things, and by Him all things consist. 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. For it pleased the Father that in Him should all fullness dwell.”
Christ’s work was exalted to the highest heavens as a reward on His accomplished work of the cross. There He received a name above all names as exalted Lord over heaven and earth. All power is given unto Him, so that God works out the counsel of His will through Him. In grace He rules over His church, blesses her from heaven, and uses all things unto her deliverance and eternal perfection. This includes that Christ also received the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of the exalted Lord. And with the Holy Spirit He receives all the blessings of salvation which God has prepared from eternity for His church. Christ is the reservoir, filled with all spiritual and heavenly blessings to bestow them upon His people. This is the idea of, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Who hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ.”
Thus we should establish in the third place, that Christ comes to dwell in His church through the Spirit. It is the Spirit of Christ that is poured out into the church. This Spirit works powerfully through the means of the Word to gather the elect together, and to bless them with the blessings of salvation prepared for them in Christ. Christ ministers His Word and applies it by the operation of the Spirit. Ministers are but ambassadors of Christ, speaking on His authority and in His name. Thus we read in, “How then shall they call on Him in Whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe Whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach, except they be sent? As it is written, How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace, and bring glad tidings of good things!” Through the ministry of the Word, and only through that ministry, Christ bestows His salvation upon His people. Thus He gathers His church, preserves her in the faith, and causes her to grow in grace through His Word and by His Spirit. Therefore we can say with the church father Iraneus, “Where the church is, there is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is the church, and there is all grace.”
Finally it should be borne in mind that this church is gathered in the line of continued generations of the believers during the history of this present time. Out of the natural seed of the believers God takes unto Himself a spiritual seed, ordained unto eternal life. This fact creates many difficulties as far as the natural existence of God’s church in the world is concerned.
In the first place, it is not all Israel that is called Israel. The carnal seed meets with the church and often professes to be a part of it. In fact, this carnal seed frequently gains the overhand, overrules and oppresses the true church. Cain lords it over Abel. Esau maintains himself over against Jacob, carnal Israel determines to make idolatry the sanctified religion of the nation, crucifies the Christ, oppresses the faithful. The carnal element always casts out the true church and tries to make her life impossible upon the earth.
In the second place, only a small part of the church becomes evident at any one time in the history of the world. God gathers His church from the beginning to the end of time, so that only a small part of the church exists on the earth at any given time. And the church is always separated by insurmountable barriers of space, race, color and language. There is even a difference in traits and disposition, as is very evident, for example, between the white and the black race.
And finally, the church is still in imperfection and weakness. Not only that we still see through a glass darkly (in an enigma), but we also know only in part. There is a development in the process of God’s revelation in Scripture, and there is a development in dogma ever since the Scriptures were complete.teaches us that “God, Who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, hath in these last days spoken to us by His Son, Whom He hath appointed heir of all things.” Thus also there is development and progress in the understanding of the Scriptures and in the expression of our doctrines as time goes on. We all are ready to confess that we do not understand all things thoroughly, but, in fact, we understand all things only in part. Yes, the more we delve into the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, the more we realize how little we actually know and understand about these things.
Yet the fact remains, that God’s church is one church in her true spiritual essence, guided and blessed by the operation of the Holy Spirit Who dwells in her. The church does not consist of various denominations, which together make up the true church. Then she would be divided. Even though we may grant that there are true believers in various denominations, these various denominations do not make up the true church. The church is spiritual, heavenly, and therefore is knit together by a spiritual bond. She is one in the Spirit, the body of Christ, the temple of the Lord. This is taught us in, “There is one Body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling. One Lord, one faith, one baptism. One God and Father of all, Who is above all, and through all, and in you all.” Also in , “Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellow-citizens with all 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 unto an holy temple in the Lord. In Whom ye also are builded together for an habitation of God through the Spirit.”
But this oneness manifests itself in a rich diversity. There is no monotonous uniformity in the church, like an army of soldiers passing by in review, or like the automobiles that run as a steady stream from the assembly line. God’s church becomes manifest in a rich diversity. God is one, yet rich in the diversity of all His virtues. Christ is one, yet rich in all the blessedness of His salvation. And thus also the church is one, manifesting the fullness of the riches of Christ.
We could draw an example from nature. Although the heavens are filled with stars, the one star exceeds the other star in glory. Although there are many thousands of trees, there are no two alike. Even each maple tree has its own peculiar characteristics. Think also of all the different kinds of animals, yet even no two dogs are alike. The same thing holds true, and even more so, of people. Members of the same family, and even twins in the family are never entirely identical.
How much more this is true of the body of Christ, the Church. Scripture compares it to a temple in which every stone has its own peculiar place to make up the fullness of the structure. And again Scripture compares it to a body in which every member has its own position, its own characteristics, its own purpose. And Revelation suggests the figure of a choir, in which each member must take his own particular place in order to sing the grand oratorio of Moses and the Lamb.
Thus, we conclude, that this holy and universal body of Christ, which is filled and blessed by the Holy Spirit, manifests itself even already on earth, and finally in heaven, in a rich diversity, that is in the multiformity of the church.
(to be continued)