The pilgrim is a church member. Since the Church is the creation of God, since she is precious in the sight of the Lord, and since Christ gave His life for her, we ought to be very clear as to what the Church of Jesus Christ is essentially. The Scriptures present us with a rich variety of names for this spiritual entity: church, bride, building, temple, plant, vine, tree. Perhaps the most beautiful and highly revelatory name is the body of Christ. According to Colossians one, Christ is the Head of the body, the Church. From this follows that the Church is alive, enjoying the resurrection life of Christ, and bringing forth the Church by His power. The Church is a unity, possessing one faith, one doctrine, one life and hope and love. It is a perfect whole whose perfection is never marred by the haphazard addition or subtraction of members; nor is it possible to speak of the Church in indefinite terms, as if the size or number of her members were not known or determined. And yet, within the fellowship of the Church there is variation and diversity, so that each pilgrim, with his peculiar gifts and abilities, occupies a place and office in the Church which edifies mutually the members and glorifies the Head.
Further, that Christ is the Head of the Church sends us back to the eternal decrees of God, for we read in Colossians I that Christ is before all things, He is the beginning. We are to understand, therefore, that in the counsel of God, Christ was before the Church. God determined to reconcile all things in Him; having elected Him to be the Mediator of the Covenant, God then chose His people in Christ and gave them to Christ. Hence, the name body of Christ stresses the importance of Christ to the Church! He is the origin, the life, the victory, the surety, the glory of the Church. The Church, then, is composed of all those chosen unto eternal life in Christ, before the world was, and is gathered by Him from every nation through His Spirit and Word. Outside of that Church there is no salvation and life. For that Church, Christ has made peace through the blood of His Cross.
Church as Institution
On earth, that one, holy, universal Church, which embraces all of time and every people, reveals itself as an institution. In both dispensations, the Church of God has definite offices, ceremonies, and practices. The result is that this spiritual creation called Church may be recognized and found. She has offices and functioning officers: today there are the elders, and deacons; and ministers, gifts of Christ to the Church through which He governs, is merciful, and speaks. As far as membership is concerned, the Church is composed of believers and their seed. This latter implies that in the church on earth there are more individuals than the elect of God. There are also hypocrites, there is chaff among the wheat, there are superficial hangers-on. In this world the church as institute is a mixed multitude, as was Israel of old.
The picture, therefore, is a complicated one. As time marches on there is a two-fold flowering or development. As the true Church is being gathered by Christ out of the line of continued generations, the carnal, false church continues to arise from the same generations. As the true Church reveals herself in this world, living out of Christ and developing the truth as it is in Him, there is also a malignant growth away from the truth in the direction of the lie and human philosophy. The history of the church is not a static one. There is constant movement, among churches and denominations, from the camp of the truth into the camp of the lie, from the sphere of the true Church into the sphere of the false. It is the case that for a time one denomination carries the torch of truth, and then it is passed to another by the way of reformation. Or as John puts it in Revelation 2, the candlesticks, representing the presence of Jesus Christ, are removed from one church and given to another. This is not an event of a moment. Let it be emphasized that the development of the false church is a process. Discernably and gradually, the pure milk of the Word is adulterated, the influence of false doctrines increases, the word of man questions, contradicts, then replaces the Word of God. Then, sadly but inexorably, a church becomes false.
A Complicated Picture
The situation that faces the serious pilgrim is not simply one of two churches, a completely true and a completely false. But there is a true Church and a false church, and “in between” there are many gradations, many degrees of relative purity and falseness. Yet, the Christian must conduct himself according to the Biblical principle of there being an absolute cleavage between light and darkness, truth and lie. He must be aware of the presence of a true and a false church, and he must be aware of the relentless movement from the one to the other. He has been elected and regenerated. He is saved as a member of Christ’s Body. But how must he view the scene of hundreds and hundreds of Protestant denominations?
In the first place, the pilgrim joins himself to an instituted church and attends that church! He does not forsake the assembling of believers together as the manner of some is, but it is his sacred duty to join himself and his family to the true Church. This needs to be emphasized today, because growing numbers scorn church membership and activity, and claim to have a more direct operation of the Holy Spirit which makes conventional membership unnecessary. Some few others claim that they and a few friends are the only ones worthy of the name “True Church”; so they gather in their living rooms and read the Bible together. Or, as I heard one intellectual say, “There are other ways of getting to heaven than by going to church.” The 28th Article of the Belgic Confession, however, has the answer for all time: “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.”
Clearly, the question is not; shall I join a church, but it is, which church do I join? We are assured by the next article of the same confession that this question can be easily resolved. Prof. Hoeksema, in a little booklet on the church, suggests some answers that have been given here. He writes of the ecumenicist, the traditionalist, and the indifferentist. The first has the neat solution of getting rid of all denominations and doctrinal distinctions; just have one church and everyone go to that church. The second insists that the church of his birth and baptism is the right one; I will trust my leaders, let them do my thinking, and follow, come what may. The third yawns and says what is the difference? We are all going to the same place anyway. Hopefully, none of these answers is yours. I would like to suggest a fourth type that may fit more of us, one whom I would call the selfish-saved. He makes his shibboleth the question of his own salvation. If I am saved, what else is there to be concerned about? Now, truly that is an important question! But what about the more pressing question concerning the glory of God? Are not our church membership, our confession, and worship, and life connected directly to that? And what about the truth of God as it is contained in His precious revelation? What about the welfare of His cause in future generations? John Calvin once wrote in a letter to a friend that the person “who is everlastingly concerned with his own salvation cannot serve God.” Our personal salvation must be seen in the greater context of God’s purpose to glorify Himself. To see things persistently in terms of one’s salvation is basically selfishness! So we ought not to see what we can “get away with” as far as our church membership is concerned. If so be you have tasted that the Lord is gracious, gracious in saving you and bringing you to faith in Jesus Christ, you will desire the pure milk of the Word. Not skimmed Milk, not adulterated milk, not the poisons of a false-gospel, but pure milk!
Positively the Belgic Confession states that the Christian must join himself to that church which reveals herself to be true by easily recognizable marks: “the preaching of the pure doctrine of the gospel (How startling that the gospel is put here in terms of doctrine! DHK), the pure administration of the sacraments as instituted by Christ, and the exercise of church discipline in punishing of sin.” The Confession, in giving us this aid, lays it upon us to use these marks! No matter where your church membership is at present, your calling is to apply these marks constantly. Do you hear the true doctrine of the gospel? Not just some simplistic, sentimentalized gospel, but the systematic, logical, confessional, Scriptural presentation of the full counsel of God? Are the sacraments added to that preaching periodically as signs and seals of the righteousness that is by faith, and are unrepentant sinners kept from use of the sacraments? Is discipline exercised in love, both love for the brother involved as well as love for the cause and name of God? Are false teachers put out? Or does everything go, in doctrine and walk, under the guise of tolerance? Oh, you can know these things. The pilgrim has the Bible, as we saw last time, and that Bible is clear! Let nothing come between the Word of God and the understanding of your conscience.
A Difficult Calling
When the Confession tells us that the distinction between the true and false church can be easily known, it is not saying that doing the right thing is an easy matter. The calling of the pilgrim can be extremely difficult. For example, what if you become convinced that your present church does not measure up favorably to the marks of the true church, so that not only do you know something is wrong intellectually, but you know this spiritually and experientially: you are not being fed with the true Bread from heaven, and your children are not being instructed in the truth of Scripture? And what if every attempt to remedy this sad situation fails, and results in the entrenchment of error? What must you do? One widely observable reaction is that a person sees the problem, abhors the situation, decries the apostasy, and does nothing!He keeps his membership where it is and thinks he is really a little above the rest of his church! Truth is, because of the principle of corporate or federal responsibility, before God and man he is responsible for all the decisions and stands of his church. Your church and mine have taken stands over the years on such things as divorce and re-marriage, union membership, the authority of Scripture, the atonement, worldly amusements, and so on. No matter what we believe in our hearts you and I are accountable for these decisions. We may be confronted on the street by a stranger, and because of our church affiliations, be charged with what our denomination holds to be true. In this respect, we are no better than our church. And if you cannot live with that, then because of the discernment God has given you, you must do some thing!
That something is very serious and very hard; it may involve the losing of friends and the splitting of families. But hear the word of Christ: “Whosoever loveth father and mother more than me is not worthy of the kingdom of heaven.” He came into this world to set members of the same families at odds with one another. Further, the word of Christ, according to Revelation 3:14-22 is that we must leave a church when it goes wayward and refuses to change its course. Christ leaves such a church, and so must we. But also hear this: when such a decision is made for principle’s sake, when the comfort of one’s church and friendships are left behind for love of the Gospel, then Christ will be with them who have so left, and He will commune with them and feed them!
Thus, when the pilgrim settles the question of his church correctly, there are rich rewards for him and his family. First, the Sabbath Days becomes for himrest stops on his journey. We have all driven the interstate highway system and have discovered how, tiring those long stretches can be. How refreshing the periodic rest stops! The pilgrim is on a journey through a strange land, filled with those who hate him and his God, who would destroy him, and prevent the reaching of the destination. He needs, periodically, to have rest and nourishment. He must be assured that he is on the right way, and very likely, he will stand some correction. Especially he needs a view of heaven to inspire him and excite the hope that is in him! Christ does all these things. Christ feeds and strengthens and corrects and gives hope! He does so especially on Sunday through the preaching of His Word!
Also, a rich benefit is derived from fellowshipping with other pilgrims. Pilgrims need each other. They have all things in common, and therefore, can talk about their goal, compare notes on the enemy, give loving correction. Thirdly, he has the assurance, then, that his children will come into contact with the truth. That’s important, isn’t it? You believe that God takes His seed from your seed? That heaven will be populated with the children of believers, according to God’s promise? How important then that our children have and enjoy the means of grace! Then they in turn can transmit this heritage to their children. The pilgrim has joy when he see his children walk in the truth!
Finally, by standing for the truth in the midst of an evil world, the pilgrim stranger may know that he is pleasing to God. He has been called out of darkness for the sole purpose of being to the praise of the glory of God’s grace! He is that only when he believes, confesses, and stands for the truth of Scripture! He sees himself as a vessel of God’s honor, and in that high purpose he loses himself. And his soul is at rest! He has the answer of a good conscience towards God.