5. The Communion Of Saints. (continued)
That history is not to be compared to a movement along the spokes of a wheel towards its hub.
It does not present the picture of a number of different churches, equally imperfect in their apprehension of the truth as it is in Christ, but simultaneously approximating it.
On the contrary, it was a development from a definite starting point, along a straight line, from which, however, under the influence of the carnal element in the Church, in the course of time, many departed, to follow after their own philosophy, and to establish various denominations and sects.
From the beginning of the new dispensation, the one, holy, catholic Church was built upon the foundation of the prophets and the apostles of which Jesus Christ is the chief corner stone. In the doctrine of the apostles and prophets, as contained in the (Holy Scriptures, was clearly indicated the line along which the Church must develop and grow in the knowledge and grace of her Lord. And along this line of revealed truth there was, indeed, development, but always in the face of much opposition by heretics. These heretics did not innocently wander from the path of truth: they were evil men, motivated by the flesh, loving the world, and seeking to seduce the Church from the way of righteousness, and thus to lead her to destruction. Thus the Scriptures always presents them, and ever warns the Church against their seducing influence. The apostle Paul exhorts believers to grow in the knowledge of Christ, “that we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive.”. And the apostle Peter warns the Church against false teachers that shall arise, “who privily shall bring in damnable heresies, even denying the Lord that bought them, and bring upon themselves swift destruction. And many shall follow their pernicious ways; by reason of whom the way of truth shall be evil spoken of. And through covetousness shall they with feigned words make merchandise of you: whose judgment now of a long time lingereth not, and their damnation slumbereth not.” .
Hence, the history of the Church is a constant struggle to maintain the truth over against the inventions of evil men. It is the history of progress in the face of opposition, of constant deformation and reformation.
It presents the picture, not of spokes in a wheel, but of one central line of progress from which many lines more or less sharply diverge.
In these divergent lines, one dare not see the true multiformity of the Church of Christ. The lie is never a form of the truth.
It is the sacred calling of every believer to seek and to determine, in the light of (Holy Scripture, where the central line of the truth runs, and ever to remain on that line, or to return to it. In other words, it is his most solemn duty, to join himself to the purest manifestation of the Church in the world, and with her to remain.
This does not mean that the believer who takes this calling seriously imagines that no one is saved outside of the particular church in which he has his membership. But it does mean that he abhors all deviations from the truth as it is in Christ, and that he refuses to go along with those that move in the direction of the false church.
Only the truth of Holy Scripture may be his criterion.
Where the Word of God is preached, there is the Church!
The communion of saints is, of course, reflected in the life of the individual believers in relation to one another. The Catechism speaks of this when it mentions the calling of every one to “know it to be his duty, readily and cheerfully to employ his gifts, for the advantage and salvation of other members.”
This means, first of all, that the saint who lives from the faith, and in the consciousness of this communion, will feel himself drawn irresistibly to the assemblies of the people of God, and diligently attend them. This is true, chiefly, with respect to public worship, the gathering of the saints for the purpose of the ministry of the Word and of the Sacraments, and of united prayer and praise. For more than one reason, it is a sad sign when professed Christians leave their pews empty when the Church is assembled for worship, and when they rather stay home or seek their pleasure elsewhere than to go up to the house of the Lord. But it certainly reveals a most miserable lack of appreciation for the fellowship of the saints. But it also must be applied to all other gatherings of the saints as such, to those especially that are organized for mutual edification in the knowledge of Christ. Especially in view of the fact that the believer must needs live a large part of his life in the world, in which he is a stranger, he longs for the gatherings of the people of God, and seeks them diligently.
Secondly, living in the consciousness of the communion of saints, he will be deeply imbued with a sense of his own individual helplessness and insignificance, and understands that he can have significance only in the fellowship of the body of Christ. Even as in a body all the members are interdependent, and no member has any power or meaning by itself, in separation from the body, so each individual believer can have significance only in connection with, and dependence upon all other members. No member occupies an independent place. No matter how richly he may be endowed with spiritual gifts and talents, though he be a theological giant, a most brilliant preacher, the greatest reformer, still he does not stand and labor alone, but can function only as a member of the body. In the grand oratorio that is sung by the Church to the glory of God in Christ, there are no soloists. The believer who lives from the faith of the communion of saints is no separatist or schismatic. “If the foot shall say, Because I am not the hand, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body? And if the ear shall say, Because I am not the eye, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body?”. Nor will he exalt himself above the other members, but he will heed the exhortation of the apostle Paul: “Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves. Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others.” .
And finally, in the consciousness of the communion of saints, all seek to know and to occupy their own place in the whole, to employ their Christ-given gifts of grace for the well-being of the whole, and for the salvation and edification of all the other members. The Church has but one purpose: the glory of God in Christ. To reflect that glory in word and walk is the communal purpose of all the saints. They are of one mind to realize this calling. And in the realization of this calling is implied the salvation and spiritual edification and growth of the members, for if one member suffers the whole body suffers. Hence, no believer lives unto himself. Conscious of the fact that he has nothing that he has not received, he lives in humility before the face of God, not seeking his own glory. Yet again, in a deep sense of his obligation to employ all his gifts to the realization of the high calling wherewith he is called, he will not hide them or bury them in a napkin, but be diligent in the service of his God. And again, knowing that he is not the body, but only one of its members, he will earnestly seek to know and to occupy his own place in the body, in order that in that position he may function to the glory of Christ and to the salvation of his fellow members.
Thus they will “do all things without murmurings and disputings”; and they will be “blameless and harmless, the sons of God, without rebuke, in the midst of a crooked and perverse nation, among whom they shine as lights in the world.”.
In the exercise of the communion of saints the Church will flourish, the believers will be edified, the saints will rejoice.
For God commands his blessing there!
6. The Forgiveness Of Sins.
In the same Lord’s Day that treats the subjects of the holy Catholic Church, and the communion of saints, the Catechism explains the tenth article of the Apostolic Confession, that concerning the forgiveness of sins. In answer to the question: “What believest thou concerning the forgiveness of sins?” it teaches us: “That God, for the sake of Christ’s satisfaction, will no more remember my sins, neither my corrupt nature, against which I have to struggle all my life long; but will graciously impute to me the righteousness of Christ, that I may never be condemned before the tribunal of God.”
It would seem, therefore, that the Catechism, in this connection, would have us treat of the forgiveness of sins only in passing, since it does not even devote a separate Lord’s Day to its discussion.
In a separate discussion of the Apostolicum, this would not be sufficient. It would not do justice to the place the “forgiveness of sins” occupies in that confession. Besides, the subject itself is of central significance for the faith of the believer, too important to be mentioned only in passing.
In the Apostolic Confession, a separate article is devoted to this subject; and let us note, too, that the article occupies a very significant position.
It stands in the series that constitutes the third part of the Confession, that which speaks of the Holy Ghost and our sanctification. At the head of this third division stands the article: “I believe in the Holy Ghost.” And the meaning of this article is not simply to declare that we believe in the third person of the Holy Trinity, but to refer to Him as the Spirit of Christ, that applies to us all the blessings of salvation merited by Christ for His people. All that follows in the Apostolic Confession, therefore, falls under this head. Without the Holy Ghost there would be no connection between the living Christ in all His fullness of spiritual blessings and us. It is in the Spirit that .He returns to us, and that He dwells in us to make us partaker of all the spiritual benefits He purchased for us by His death and perfect obedience. Without the Spirit there would be no Church, and no communion of saints, no forgiveness of sins, no resurrection of the dead, and no life everlasting. Now, let us notice, that the article concerning the forgiveness of sins, stands between that about the Church and the communion of saints, on the one hand, and that which speaks of the resurrection of the dead, on the other. This means that, of all the spiritual blessings that are, in this life, bestowed upon the believers, by the Spirit of Christ, only the forgiveness of sins is mentioned in the Apostolic Confession. It is singled out. We understand, of course, that this is not the only spiritual benefit that the saints have in Christ in this life. We might easily enlarge upon this part of the Confession by adding, for instance: “I believe the new birth, the efficacious calling, the gift of faith, eternal righteousness, sanctification, and preservation unto the end.” All these gifts, and many other riches of grace, are bestowed upon the Church in the world. But of all these blessings of grace, the Apostolicum simply mentions the forgiveness of sins. Evidently, it proceeds from the truth that this one blessing is fundamental, and of basic importance. In the Confession, therefore, the forgiveness of sins occupies a central place.
In a treatise on the Apostolic Confession, therefore, it would be but proper to devote considerable space to this subject.
Yet, the Catechism speaks of it only in passing.
Nor is it difficult to discover the reason for this.
It is true that, in this particular division of the Catechism, it follows the line of the Apostolicum, and thus explains the contents of the Christian faith. But the Heidelberger is much more than a treatise on the Confession. It also explains the rest of Christian doctrine and of our Reformed faith. It speaks of sin and misery, of faith itself, of the means of grace, of the law of God, and of prayer. And in the course of its discussion it mentions the forgiveness of sins in different connections. This was inevitable, exactly because this element of Christian faith and doctrine is of central importance.
Moreover, at the end of its discussion of the Apostolic Confession, the Catechism inserts a general question concerning the importance and fruit of believing all that was briefly comprehended in the twelve articles of our holy catholic faith: “But what doth it profit thee now that thou believest all this?” And in answer to this question, it devotes an entire Lord’s Day to the subject of our justification, which includes the forgiveness of sins. It can, therefore, readily be understood that, in the present connection, the Catechism but briefly refers to this important matter, and treats it as an appendix to the doctrine of the Church, and of the communion of saints.
In order to avoid repetition, therefore, we shall have to follow suit.
We may call attention here to especially two matters that are of importance. First of all, to the central significance of this spiritual blessing, as is indicated by the place it occupies in the Confession; and, secondly, to its inseparable connection with the truth concerning the Church and the communion of saints, as is suggested by the fact that the Catechism groups all these subjects together in one Lord’s Day.
Its central significance and basic importance, with relation to all the other blessings of salvation, is easily understood. Forgiveness of sins means, according to the Catechism, “that God. . . . will no more remember my sins, neither my corrupt nature, against which I have to struggle all my life long.”
This means that, as long as we are in this life, and in “the body of this death,” our sins rise up against us, and, unless something is done about them, form an impassible barrier between God and us. The situation is not thus, that we sinned in the past, that we were delivered from the power of sin, perfectly and completely, and that now we sin no more. On the contrary, we sinned, we still carry about with us our corrupt nature, and we do sin every day. In that state, it is impossible that any blessings of grace and salvation should be bestowed upon us. And, moreover, in the consciousness of our sins, the sins we have committed and do commit, and of our defiled and corrupt nature, we could not possibly have confidence to approach God to ask Him for His favor. For sin is guilt, worthiness of death, and of the wrath of God. And God is holy and righteous: he can have no fellowship with the sinner in his corruption, nor can He acquit the guilty. All this must be expounded more fully in connection with our discussion of the twenty- third Lord’s Day. But even now, in order to see the basic importance of the forgiveness of sin, it must be clearly understood that we are, in ourselves, in the state of sin and guilt, and, therefore, under wrath and condemnation; that, as long as we are in that state before God, we can neither receive nor expect even the smallest token of His favor; and that, therefore, this state must above all be changed, before we can hope for salvation.
This fundamental and radical change is affected by the forgiveness of sins.
It means, so the Catechism explains, “that God. . . . will no more remember my sins, neither my corrupt nature, against which I have to struggle all my life.”
O, this does not mean that God forgets that we are sinners. This would be quite impossible. But it does mean that He does not remember our sins in His wrath and just condemnation, that He does not reckon them against us, that He does not behold us as mere sinners, but as redeemed sinners, that have been perfectly justified, whose sins have been blotted out, and that have fully satisfied for all their sins.
Again, you understand, that this does not presuppose a change in God as if He formerly remembered our sins against us, but now holds them against us no more, that He formerly condemned us, but now condemns us no longer. The change is, not in God, but in us, when through faith He translates us from the state of condemnation into that of forgiveness. In God, it means that there always was forgiveness with Him, that He eternally beholds His people, whom He chose in Christ before the foundation of the world, as redeemed sinners: whom He did predestinate, them He also justified.. Only, when we lay hold upon this marvelous mystery and amazing wonder, by faith, we know and have confidence in God as our Redeemer, and we appropriate the forgiveness of sins.
And once more, this does not mean that God sets aside His righteousness and justice, and acquits the guilty; but it is a revelation of that abundant mercy, according to which He loaded the guilt of our iniquity on His only begotten Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, and that in Him He realized our righteousness.