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* Paper read before the Conference of Ministers of the Reformed Church in the U. S., and of the Protestant Reformed Churches, October 1946.

The doctrine of the Church is for the student of Holy Writ a fascinating subject. This is true, on the one hand, because of the many current erroneous views of this subject. Whereas Holy Writ emphasizes the unity of this Body of Christ, in history she continually reveals herself as torn by dissension and strife. An outstanding example of this throughout the Old Dispensation was Ephraim’s jealousy of Judah which finally culminated in the division of the kingdom. Soon, in the New Dispensation, a hierarchical band is cast about the Church and unity is achieved to a certain extent. Even so, the papal hierarchy cannot prevent the division between the Church, East and West. The Reformation, however, also in this respect effected a great change. Rejecting the hierarchical band of Rome, championing the Word of God as the only basis of fellowship, and once more acknowledging the office of believers, the freedom of the Christian was again maintained. The effect of this on the Church, however, was inevitable—the unity of the papal hierarchy was replaced by hopeless division. This division has been constantly increasing. Also this conference strikingly illustrates this truth. Instead then of the “one holy catholic church”, whereof the Scriptures and the Confessions speak, we today may witness an apparently hopeless segmentation of the Church of Christ, each part heroically (?) striving to surpass the other in its bid for popularity and fame.

On the other hand, the doctrine of the church is fascinating because of its importance, especially in Reformed circles. Articles 27 and 28 of our Confession of Faith, our Thirty-seven Articles, both emphasize the significance of the doctrine of the Church, the former declaring its faith in the catholic or universal aspect of this Body of Christ while the latter affirms it to be each person’s obligation to join himself to the true Church. And it is the doctrine of the Church of God which has evoked from Ursinus and Olevianus one of the most beautiful and inspiring answers of the entire Heidelberg Catechism, in Lord’s Day 21, and I quote: “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 forever shall remain, a living member thereof.” We know that this inspiring language of our Confessions is based upon the Holy Scriptures of God.

Fascinating is also the subject which has been assigned to me: The Tension of the Church. From Adam until now the Church of Christ Jesus, our Lord, has been characterized by a tense, a gripping, a tremendous spiritual strain—she has been exerting herself throughout the ages to the utmost, without one moment of relief or relaxation. The Church’s position in the midst of the world, her state of tenseness resulting therefrom, is surely an amazing phenomenon, and it, too, fascinates the student of the Holy Scriptures, as does the doctrine of the Church Itself. I will endeavor to treat this subject, to develop this phase of our Conference’s discussion of its general theme, “The Church”, without encroaching, too much, upon the papers of the other speakers who will address us.

THE TENSION OF THE CHURCH

Let us note:

  1. Its Idea.
  2. Its Reality.
  3. Its Purpose.

It is not necessary for me to define and elaborate on the concept “Church”. This would ordinarily be a logical procedure as far as a strict interpretation and discussion of my subject is concerned. One can hardly discuss the tension of the Church without being familiar with and having a basic understanding of the Church of Jesus Christ, our Lord—our conception of the one necessarily determines our view of the other. It is surely a basic requisite that we know what the Scriptures declare concerning the Church, both as to her essence and her manifestation in the midst of the world. This phase of the theme of this Conference, however, has been treated by the speaker of yesterday evening, who addressed us on “The Idea of the Church”.

Of immediate concern to us is the meaning of the word “tension”. According to Webster, tension can refer to the stretching or degree of stretching to which a wire, cord, piece of timber, etc., is strained by drawing it in the direction of its length. Tension, then, is synonymous with strain. Figuratively speaking, again according to Webster, the word refers to “mental strain, stretch, or application; strong or severe intellectual effort; great activity or mental strain of emotions or the will”. In the attempt to determine the meaning of the term “tension” as it appears in and applies to my subject, I must confess that, to me, the term “Tension of the Church” is new. Perhaps it is a term of very recent coinage. My difficulty in the preparation of this paper has been that the term “Tension of the Church” appears to me to permit more than one interpretation. Does it refer, for example, to the fact that the new life of the Church of God is always rigidly and uncompromisingly opposed to whatever opposes the Cause of God and of His Christ, and that this life of God, as in the midst of the world, is, negatively, never in a state of relaxation. The “tension” of the Church would then be synonymous with relentless and uncompromising conflict. However, Webster also defines “tension” as a severe intellectual effort, great activity or strain. The tension of the church can therefore also be applied to that tremendous strain to which the Church of God is continuously subjected. The Church of God, if you will, the child of God is continuously in a strait betwixt two. To illustrate this truth from natural life many examples could be quoted. What a tension characterizes the man who, aware of a physical stress, consults his physician to learn whether or not he has cancer. That man is in a strait between his desire to live and the fear of death. Or, permit me to remind you of the soldier just before the battle, yea, when the onslaught of the enemy is already in progress. Many of our young men can readily understand the tension of that soldier as he strains every part of his body and soul to meet that attack. The greatest tension, strain of the child of God and of the Church of God refers undoubtedly to a tremendous conscious spiritual strain or pressure underneath which that Church of God labors and to which she is constantly exposed throughout the ages.

Although I need not define and elaborate on the concept “church”, I must call your attention briefly to the idea of the church insofar as it determines our correct understanding of her tension. Beautifully and pungently, revealing wonderful insight into the truth, our Heidelberg Catechism, in its answer to the question, “What believest thou concerning the holy catholic church”, declares, and I quote: “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 forever shall remain, a living member thereof”.

To ascribe the gathering of the Church to the Son of God is surely Scriptural. “I will establish My covenant between Me and thee and thy seed after thee in their generation for an everlasting covenant”, Gen. 17:7. “And Jesus said unto them, Come after Me, and I will make you to become fishers of men”, Mark 1:17, this surely does not imply that Christ, having made His apostles to be fishers of men, Himself has ceased to be the Fisher of men. “And Jesus came and spake unto them, saying, ALL power is given unto Me in heaven and in earth. Go ye, therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always even unto the end of the world, Amen,Matt. 28:18-20. “And this is the Father’s will which hath sent Me that of all which He hath given Me I should lose nothing, but should raise it upon again at the last day”, John 6:39, “And other sheep I have which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear My voice; and there shall be one fold and one shepherd”. John 12:32. And again, “And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write; These things saith He that is holy, He that is true, He that hath the key of David, He that openeth, and no man shutteth; and shutteth, and no man openeth”. Rev. 3:7. But why should I quote more? Scripture surely speaks this language from Genesis to Revelation.

Of particular interest to us now is the fact that the gathering of the Church is presented by our Catechism as the exclusive work of the Son of God by His Word and Spirit. We need not emphasize at this time that only the Son of God can gather His Church. Suffice it to say that it is He alone who does gather His Church, and that He does so by His Word and Spirit. From this we conclude, on the one hand, that the Church of God is a spiritual entity. Does she not owe her existence to the Son of God who calls her into being by His Spirit? The Church of God is therefore not born but reborn, is not from below but from above, is not out of the first Adam but out of the second Adam, is the spiritual body of Jesus Christ, our Lord. But the Heidelberg Catechism also declares that the Son of God gathers His Church by His Word. We may therefore conclude on the other hand, that the Church also refers to the gathering of the people of God as they consciously are called into being as an elect body of Christ, chosen from before the foundation of the world, and called to be the party of the living God.

It is this peculiar and wonderful calling of the Church of God which also determines her tension. We should understand that we can speak of tension only with respect to the Church, the Church as called by the Son of God out of darkness into His own everlasting kingdom. One can certainly not speak of tension in the natural man. In him everything drifts along with the tide. There is no tension in merely drifting along with the current. Such an one knows no restraint. Man is by nature wholly darkness. Hence, he knows no tension, no strain. In the seeking of the things below his entire being is engaged. Neither can we speak of tension in the modern, carnal church, of today. What is true of the natural man applies also to the false church. There is principally no difference between the modern church and the world. The world denies the reality of sin—the same is true of the modern church and the world. The world denies the reality of sin—the same is true of the modern church, is it not? To be sure, this church recognizes many social faults, but is there anyone in the world who will deny them? The modern church does not recognize atonement, the guilt of sin, the holiness and righteousness of God. The world seeks a righteous and an enduring and a lasting peace for a world of whom the Lord declares that it shall have no peace—do we not hear the same resolutions among those who claim to be of the church of God? The church would improve the world and modern society—but is there anything distinctive about this program? We may therefore safely conclude that it is vain to speak of tension in the modern church of today. The modern church is not a spiritual, heavenly entity in the midst of a natural, earthy, carnal world. It is as carnal as the natural man himself. And at the end of time the world and this church will indeed reveal that they are one when they unite their forces in the final attempt to trample into the dust and crush forever the Church of Jesus Christ, our Lord.

Two outstanding phenomena must be born in mind, it seems to me, if we are to understand the tension of the church. In the first place, the Church of God, from the aspect of her spiritual rebirth, is a spiritual, heavenly entity. To prove this from the Scriptures is hardly necessary. “And you hath He quickened, who were dead in trespasses and sins”. Eph. 2:1. “But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of Him Who hath called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.” I Pet. 2:9. “For our conversation (literally ‘citizenship’) is in heaven; from whence also we look for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ”. Phil. 3:20. And do the Scriptures not speak of “a being born from above”, as in John 3:3, where we read literally: “Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born from above, he cannot see the Kingdom of God.” The Word of God, therefore, speaks literally of the child of God as being born from above, and it is therefore the literal teaching of Holy Writ that the Church of God, from the aspect of her spiritual life, is born of God, is partaker of His divine nature, has her source in the heavens, is a heavenly-spiritual entity in the fullest sense of the word. The child of God has received the life of God Himself, shares God’s divine nature according to the measure of the creature, possesses therefore the life of the heavenly Jerusalem because the heart of that Jerusalem is nothing less than the living God Himself, and, consequently, his expectation, his intense longing and hope is fixed upon that heavenly city from which he expects his Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.

However, this is but one aspect of the Christian’s, the Church’s existence, but one phenomenon which must be borne in mind in connection with the tension of the Church. The other amazing phenomenon is the fact that the Church is such a spiritual entity in the midst of an utterly sinful, corrupt, and earthly world. This, too, is abundantly affirmed in the pages of Holy Writ. In the text which we have already quoted the apostle declares of the Church of God that their citizenship is in heaven. Nevertheless, they are still in the midst of the world. Already in the Old Dispensation David declares in I Chron. 29:15: “For we are strangers before Thee, and sojourners, as were our fathers: our days on earth are as a shadow, and there is none abiding.” And the same thought is expressed by the holy writer in Heb. 11:13-16 where we read: “These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. For they that say such things declare plainly that they seek a country. And truly, if they had been mindful of that country from whence they came out, they might have had opportunity to have returned. But now they desire a better country, that is, an heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God: for He hath prepared for them a city.” The church of God scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, the apostle Peter addresses as elect strangers, and the meaning of the expression is surely that they are strangers because of the election. And the Scriptural figure of the pilgrim is too well known by any student of the Holy Scriptures to require verification. The people of God are therefore born from above, are a heavenly people, but their sojourn continues upon the face of the earth.

The Church of God, however, is not merely heavenly in distinction from the earthy, but they are also a spiritual people in the midst of sin and corruption. They are children of God, born of God, partakers of the life of God only in principle. Romans 7 clearly teaches us this truth. And throughout the Word of God this fact is continually verified. We are saints but also sinners, light in the midst of darkness, righteous but also unrighteous, heavenly but also earthy. We are a heavenly-spiritual people in the midst of the earthy and carnality, not only in the sense that the world round about us is from below, but also because we ourselves continually experience these constantly conflicting forces within ourselves.

Hence, as far as the idea of this tension of the church is concerned, we may conclude that it is caused, follows invariably from the spiritual-heavenly identity of the church and her position in the midst of the world. This occasions the constant strain, the continuous pressure underneath which the church of God must incessantly labor, the terrific pressure to which we are constantly subjected. We are reminded of that word of Paul in his epistle to the Philippians, where we read in chapter 1, verses 23, 24: “For I am a strait betwixt two, having a desire to depart, and to be with Christ which is far better. Nevertheless to abide in the desire to depart, and to be with Christ which is far better. Nevertheless to abide in the flesh is more needful for you.” The church of God is continually betwixt two irreconcilably conflicting forces, the one drawing him irresistibly heavenward, and the other invariably inclining him to the things which are below. Thus we would define the idea of this tension of the Church of God. Let us now attend to the reality of this amazing phenomenon.

II. Its Reality.

First of all, let us attend to this tension as experienced in the life of the individual Christian. On the one hand, the child of God is constantly in a state of spiritual tenseness. I would base my observation in connection with this experience of the Christian on II Cor. 5:17 and Rom. 7, especially the verses 15-17. In the former passage we read: “Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.” And in Rom. 7:15-17 we read: “For that, which I do (literally ‘complete’) I allow not: for what I would, that do I not (literally I read here ‘that do I not carry into practice’) ; but what I hate, that do I. If then I do that which I would not, I consent unto the law that it is good. Now then it is no more I that do it (literally ‘that complete it’), but sin that dwelleth in me”. Notice, as far as this passage in Romans 7 is concerned, that the apostle is not speaking the language here of an unregenerated man. This must be evident from the language used throughout this passage and chapter. The unregenerated man does not hate what he does, cannot confess that no good thing dwelleth in him, cannot speak of the good which he would do, cannot declare that he has a delight in the law of God after the inward man, and cannot thank God for the deliverance which is his through Jesus Christ, his Lord. Neither must we understand Romans 7 as if the apostle Paul were speaking of two individuals, two persons, or even of the Christian as he speaks of himself according to both, the old man and the new man. A careful perusal of verses 15-17 will certainly disclose that the subject in this passage is continuously the same. The child of God is speaking here in the consciousness of himself as a new man.

What then, does the Christian experience within himself according to the Scriptures? On the one hand, he rejoices in complete victory, declaring that old things are passed away and that all things have become new. His old life, old desires, old purposes, old acquaintances, old fellowships are passed away. His entire life of the past is no more. All things have become new. He is aware of a new life, of new desires and purposes and aspirations, of new acquaintances and fellowships, of a new hope, the hope of everlasting life. And, on the other hand, the Christian groans underneath the burden of a fearful struggle. In Rom. 7 he is conscious that, in him, all old things have not passed away, that the old man in him is still very much alive, so that although he would do the good, yet, when he finds the act to have been completed, he discovers to his unutterable sorrow and distress that it has become so polluted with sin that he knows it no more—this is the literal teaching of the apostle Paul in Rom. 7:15-17.

The result of this experience for the child of God is a state of tremendous tension. It is well, in connection with this amazing passage in Romans 7, to note especially two things. In the first place, the Christian is not a duumvir, a “twee-mensch”, a man with two persons, so that when the one person sins the other is not responsible. The Christian, we understand, is a single person, one who in the deepest fountain of his life has become a child of God called out of darkness into the Lord’s marvelous light. Secondly, the Christian does not speak the language of a defeatist in this passage of Holy Writ. One might possibly conclude this from Paul’s infallible description of the life of the Christian. However, we must bear in mind that, although it is true that we do not complete what we would and hate that which we do, nevertheless the victory of the child of God lies exactly herein that he continue to hate the evil and has an inner delight in all the commandments of the Lord. Even so, he is surely in a state of constant tension. The Christian is incessantly betwixt two. The one power within him draws him irresistibly heavenward, away from sin and the things which are below, and toward the life of God and His eternal tabernacle. But he is also aware of another power within him, a power which invariably draws him into the opposite direction. And the child of God is betwixt both and therefore constantly under pressure.