The Idea of the Church (continued)
However, the Church is not a mechanical, but an organic unity. It is a spiritual organism. The difference between a mechanism and an organism is that, while both are constituted of parts through which the whole functions, the former is assembled from previously prepared parts, the latter grows from a common principle of life. A watch is a mechanism, a tree is an organism. The church is the spiritual body of Christ, it is the olive tree of which He is the root; believers are branches of the vine which is Christ, members of His body, of His flesh, and of His bones.; ; . The saints, therefore, must grow up in Him in all things, which is the head, even Christ. . And from Christ, “the whole body fitly joined together and compacted by that which every joint supplieth, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part, maketh increase of the body unto the edifying of itself in love.” . Christ is first. He is the head. In Him is all the life of the whole body, of every one of its members. Even though it is true that the church is gathered out of the whole world, and though this gathering, through the preaching of the gospel, called individual men into the fellowship of the church, the fact is that this is accomplished only through Christ’s entering, by His Spirit and Word, into the hearts of those that are given Him by the Father. From Him as the head of the body the members receive their life, and in virtue of His abiding in them they continue to live. Even as the branches live in and out of the vine, so believers live only in fellowship with Christ. His mind is their mind, His will is their will, His resurrection-life is their life, His glory is their glory. Apart from Him they are nothing, and can do nothing. By Him their existence as members of the church is determined as truly as Adam’s existence was determined by God’s act of creation.
Thus the whole, in all its parts, and through all its organs, is adapted to serve its purpose. That purpose is indicated in Scripture by such terms as the temple of God, the city of God, the people of God, the royal priesthood, or kingdom of priests. They express that the church is designed to be the dwelling place of God, and that she must serve the purpose of reflecting the glory of God’s grace in Christ. The church is the reflection of God’s own covenant-life of friendship. With her the triune God establishing His most intimate fellowship, that she may know Him, taste that He is good, be consecrated to Him in holy service, walk in His light, and shew forth the praises of Him that called her out of darkness into His marvelous light.
That is the idea of the church.
She is the body of Christ, that beautiful, complete, harmonious, spiritual organism of which the living, resurrected and glorified Lord is the one dominating principle, and all the redeemed elect are members; and that serves the purpose of reflecting the fullness of the glory of God’s grace in the beloved.
2. The Election of the Church.
The church is realized, so the Catechism teaches us, by the act of the Son of God, whereby He gathers, defends, and preserves her, and that, too, out of the whole human race.
She is, therefore, not a new creation in the sense that she is called out of nothing. Historically speaking, another organism, that of the human race, precedes the organism of the body of Christ, and for a time, from a natural viewpoint, the church is part of that other organism. Just as the kernel of wheat is, temporarily, organically one with the chaff, but is ultimately separated from it, so those that constitute the members of the body of Christ are, for a time, organically one with the original, natural organism of the race, and are separated from the latter by the wonder of grace. Moreover, that it is in the way of redemption, through the blood of Christ, and by deliverance from the power of darkness, sin and death, that the church is separated from the “world” and called out of the human race, presupposes that the original organism of the human race was marred and spoiled through sin, wholly lost in corruption and death. And that the church is ecclesia, the fathering of those that are called out, implies that not all the members of the original organism are engrafted into the new, spiritual organism of the body of Christ.
The church is that spiritual organism which, through redemption, regeneration, and calling, through the Spirit and word of the Son of God, is gathered out of, and separated from the organism of the whole human race, lost in sin and death, and that in such a way that a large part of the original organism is lost.
This fact raises two questions.
The first is: who determines the number of those that are gathered out of the old organism into the new as well as the individuals that are privileged to belong to this number?
And the second question is this: what is the relation between the church and the old organism of the race as originally created in Adam, between redemption and creation, between grace and nature?
The first question concerns the difference between Calvinism and Arminianism, the Reformed conception of the church and the view of those who make the work of salvation dependent on the will of man.
Arminianism, no matter what form it may assume, is essentially humanism, pelagianism, individualism, nominalism. It teaches that the idea, and the scope of the church, the number of its members, and the individuals that enter into the fellowship of the body of Christ, are determined by the will of man. God is dependent in His choice on the choice of man. For the Arminian does, indeed, speak of divine election, but to him it means that God chose that He foresaw as believers and faithful in Christ. God saves those that are willing to be saved, He rejects those that reject Christ. Arminianism is man-centered. Man’s freedom must be maintained, and that, too, at the expense of God’s sovereignty. His salvation, rather than the glory of God, is the purpose of all things, the important thing that matters. Hence, we said that Arminianism is individualistic: the church is a mere multitude of individuals, called into existence by the efforts and will of man. Those that become members of the church cannot be conceived as component parts of a preconceived, predetermined, and well planned whole, for it is the will of individual men that determines its scope. When, not the architect, but the dealer in building material determines, how much and what kind of building material shall go into a structure, the result can hardly be a harmonious whole. According to the Arminian conception the matter is even worse with respect to the house of God, for it is the building material itself that determines its idea and size. Hence, the church on earth is really a society for the salvation of as great a number of men as possible, possible, that is, through the efforts of men.
The Reformed conception, however, is theocentric: it revolves around the proper conception of God as revealed in the Scriptures; the purpose of all things, also of the calling of the church, is the glory of God in His self-revelation. It is, moreover, organic: the whole is not determined by the individuals, but the latter are determined by the former. The whole church very really exists, the idea of the church is there, before she is gathered out of the whole human race. She is in the mind and will of God, in His eternal counsel. With God the church is eternally. He has engraved her in the palms of His hands, her walls are continually before Him. Isa. 49: “For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom he did predestinate, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified.” The whole of the redeemed, sanctified, and glorified church is with God eternally. He determined the idea of the church, the purpose and scope of the church, and He alone determined who shall enter into her blessed fellowship, and what place they shall occupy therein. And He also determined, with equal freedom and sovereignty, who shall not enter into the fellowship of Christ, but perish in the way of sin and death. And this eternal determination He also executes in time. Those whom He gave to Christ in His sovereign counsel, He also draws to Him in time. “All that the Father giveth me shall come to me, and him that cometh to me, I will in no wise cast out.”.
Such is the Reformed conception.
The Heidelberg Catechism offers no special exposition of the doctrine of sovereign predestination. In fact, the only place where it is at all mentioned, is in the fifty fourth question and answer. We must remember that this part of our confessions was composed about half a century before the Arminian controversy. Yet, it must be admitted that it mentions the doctrine of election in a most proper and beautiful connection, that is, as a part of the truth concerning the holy catholic church. And it emphasizes this truth in a threefold way, viz., first, by ascribing the gathering in of the church out of the whole human race to the Son of God alone, without mentioning the work of man; secondly, by directly stating that the church that so gathered is “chosen to everlasting life; and, thirdly, by teaching the preservation and perseverance of the saints in the words “and that I . . . shall forever remain a living member thereof.”
The Netherland Confession mentions this truth in Article XVI as follows: “We believe that all the posterity of Adam being thus fallen into perdition and ruin, by the sin of our first parents, God then did manifest himself such as he is; that is to say, merciful and just: Merciful, since he delivers and preserves from this perdition all, whom he, in his eternal and unchangeable counsel of mere goodness, hath elected in Christ Jesus our Lord, without any respect to their works: Just in leaving others in the fall and perdition wherein they have involved themselves.”
And our fathers of the seventeenth century, realizing the fundamental and central importance of this truth of predestination, when it was undermined by Arminius and his followers, called together a national synod, and invited delegates of Reformed Churches in other lands, to defend this truth, and preserve it in the Canons of Dordrecht for generations to come.
In these Canons, the Reformed Churches confess:
“That some receive the gift of faith from God, and others do not receive it, proceeds from God’s eternal decree, Tor known unto God are all his works from the beginning of the world’,. ‘Who worketh all things after the counsel of his own will,” . According to which decree, he graciously softens the hearts of the elect, however obstinate, and inclines them to believe; while he leaves the non-elect in his just judgment to their own wickedness and obduracy. And herein is especially displayed the profound, the merciful, and at the same time the righteous discrimination between men, equally involved in ruin; or that decree of election and reprobation, revealed in the Word of God, which, though men of perverse, impure and unstable minds wrest to their own destruction, yet to holy and pious souls affords unspeakable consolation.” I, A, 7.
“Election is the unchangeable purpose of God, whereby, before the foundation of the world, he hath, out of mere grace, chosen, from the whole human race, which had fallen through their own fault, from their primitive state of rectitude, into sin and destruction, a certain number of persons to redemption in Christ, whom he from eternity appointed the Mediator and Head of the elect, and the foundation of salvation.
“This elect number, though by nature neither better nor more deserving than others, but with them involved in one common misery, God hath decreed to give to Christ, to be saved by him, and effectually to call and draw them to his communion by his Word and Spirit, to bestow upon them true faith, justification and sanctification; and having powerfully preserved them in the fellowship of his Son, finally, to glorify them for the demonstration of his mercy, and for the praise of the riches of his glorious grace; as it is written : ‘According as he hath chosen us in him, before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy, and without blame before him in love; having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of the glory of his grace, wherein he hath made us accepted in the beloved.’. And elsewhere: ‘Whom he did predestinate, them he also called, and whom he called, them he also justified, and whom he justified them he also glorified.’ .” I, A, 7,
And concerning the truth of reprobation, the Canons teach:
“What peculiarly tends to illustrate and recommend to us the eternal and unmerited grace of election, is the express testimony of Scripture, that not all, but some only are elected, while others are passed by in the eternal decree; whom God, out of his sovereign, most just, irreprehensible, and unchangeable good pleasure, hath decreed to leave in the common misery into which they have willfully plunged themselves, and not to bestow upon them saving faith, and the grace of conversion; but permitting them in his just judgment to follow their own ways, at least for the declaration of his justice, to condemn and punish them forever, not only on account of their unbelief, but also for all their other sins. And this is the decree of reprobation which by no means makes God the author of sin (the very thought of which is blasphemy), but declares him to be an awful, irreprehensible, and righteous judge and avenger thereof.” I, A, 15.
And the same truth is confessed in other symbols of Reformed origin.
It is the truth of God’s sovereign grace.
Quite properly, this doctrine has been called the cor ecclesiae, the heart of the church.
True, heretics of every color have opposed it. They pointed to some individual, aphoristic passages of Scripture, preferably to those that contain such terms as “world”, “all”, or “all men”, and wresting them from their context, gave them a universal content, in order to instill into men’s minds the error that God, on His part, is gracious to all men, and willing to save them all. Mostly, however, they argued against this truth by means of mere human considerations, and accused those that maintained this truth that they made God the author of sin, present Him as a wanton tyrant, denied that He is merciful, had no place for the truth of man’s responsibility, and the like.
Against all such proud opposition to the truth of God’s sovereign grace, the Scripture’s condemnation is sufficient: “O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus?”.
And the doctrine of sovereign predestination is so thoroughly the current teaching of Scripture, and so intimately related to the whole system of truth concerning our salvation, that the denial of it distorts the whole, and every part of it.
In a discussion and exposition of the Catechism such as this, it would require far too much space to elaborate upon this, and to quote at length from Holy Writ to prove its being founded on the Word of God.
A few passages may suffice.
That, in the old dispensation, God chose the nation of Israel in distinction of all other nations, to reveal Himself to them alone as the God of salvation, and to establish His covenant with them, is a well-known fact, which cannot be explained except in the light of the truth of God’s free, elective, sovereign grace.
That even in the nation of Israel, God’s sovereign predestination made distinction and separation between the carnal and the spiritual seed, so that there always was only “the remnant according to the election of grace” that was saved, is the plain teaching of Scripture in the ninth chapter of the epistle to the Romans.
There the apostle writes about the “Israelites; to whom pertaineth the adoption, and the glory, and the covenants, and the giving of the law and the service of God, and the promises; whose are the fathers, and of whom as concerning the flesh Christ came, who is over all God blessed for ever, Amen.” And yet, “they are not all Israel, which are of Israel.” Not the children of the flesh, but the children of the promise are counted for the seed. And what determined whether, among the people of Israel, some were carnal, others spiritual children? Only God’s sovereign predestination. For “when Rebecca also have conceived by one, even by our father Isaac; (For the children being not yet born, neither having done any good or evil, that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works, but of him that calleth;) It was said unto her, The elder shall serve the younger. As it is written, Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated.”