Part Two, Of Man’s Redemption, Lord’s Day 21, Chapter 5: The Communion of Saints

To the article concerning the holy catholic church the Apostolicum appends the confession of the communion of saints.

The two are most intimately related. The Church is the communion of saints. Yet, although they cannot be separated, they can easily be distinguished. The communion of saints is the Church considered only from one aspect of its nature and life, that of the fellowship between the members, and of their mutual relation to one another.

In answer to the question: “What do you understand by the communion of saints?” the Catechism instructs us as follows: “First, that all and everyone who believes, being members of Christ, are in common partakers of him, and of all his riches and gifts; secondly, that everyone must know it to be his duty, readily and cheerfully to employ his gifts, for the advantage and salvation of other members.”

Two elements must at once be distinguished in this answer. The first concerns the actually existing bond of this communion; the second refers to the believers’ living from the faith of that fellowship and bringing it into practice in their life in relation to one another.

The communion of saints is not established by the saints: it is of the Lord Jesus Christ. It does not spring into existence from the determination and act of the believers to realize a certain fellowship among one another, to create a certain society for mutual advantage and edification. On the contrary, the communion of saints is first, its exercise follows. The confession: “I believe the communion of saints” presents this peculiar fellowship as an object of faith. It means: “I believe that there is such a communion of saints.” That communion may not always be manifest. To the earthly eye it may not always be visible. Many influences in this world may often mar this fellowship. Nevertheless, I believe that the communion of saints is a reality. It exists now, in the gathering of believers and their children in this world, and it will exist, and be fully and most gloriously revealed, when the whole Church shall have been gathered out of the world, and Christ shall present her to the Father, without spot or wrinkle, in heavenly perfection.

What then is this communion?

It is that actually existing bond of fellowship that is based on and rooted in the essential, spiritual unity of believers in Christ, and operates through the multiformity or individual diversity of all the saints.

All true communion requires a basic unity of the whole, but also diversity or multiformity of the members of that whole.

When a large chorus renders Handel’s Messiah, that chorus constitutes a communion of singers. Their unity rests in the fact that they all sing the same oratorio; their multiformity is found in the variety and diversity of many voices. Did they all sing different songs, there would be no bond of unity; were all the voices identically the same, there would be no communion or fellowship possible.

Thus there is a certain natural communion of men, even though this fellowship is ruptured by sin. The basis of this natural communion is that God made all men of one blood: there is a basic unity and affinity among men. And the possibility of fellowship in this communion is given with, the manifold diversity of individual human beings. If men were not basically one, there would be nothing that united them; if all individual human beings were exactly alike, like so many drops of water, there could be no interaction and fellowship between them: each individual would constitute a whole, and be sufficient unto himself. Now, however, human society is established on the basis of the essential oneness of mankind, and operates through the diversity of its individual members.

The same is true of the communion of saints.

The saints are one in Christ. As the Catechism expresses it, all believers “are in common partakers of him, and of his riches and gifts.” There is one Christ. And (He is the Head of the whole Church. That one Lord has received the Spirit, and through that one Spirit He dwells in the whole Church, His body, and in all its members. And this indwelling Christ is the sole basis and fountain for the unity of the saints. Through that indwelling Lord there is in all believers a communion of nature, the spiritual nature of the sons of God; a communion of life, the life of their risen Lord, spiritual, heavenly life; and a communion of love, the love of God that is shed abroad in their hearts, and that reveals itself as love to God in Christ and to one another. Moreover, they have the same faith, the same knowledge of God, the same righteousness, the righteousness of God in Christ, the same hope, the hope of the glory of God. They speak fundamentally the same language, so that they know and understand one another; and they unitedly strive for the same purpose: the glory of God in Christ. In them is the same mind, the mind of Christ, the same will, the will of their Lord, and they all speak the same thing: the Word of Christ. This unity of nature, of life, of love, of faith, of hope, and purpose, is the ground of the communion of saints. It is not of themselves in Christ, through the one Spirit, this bond of unity is established.

Hence, it is a communion of saints.

This must be emphasized. The believer does not confess a “brotherhood of men”. Even though he does not deny that there is a certain natural affinity among men, rooted in the fact that God made all mankind of one blood, he denies that this affinity, from a spiritual, ethical viewpoint, is still a real communion or brotherhood. Just as he denies the “universal Fatherhood of God” in the modernistic sense of that term, so he repudiates the universal brotherhood of men in the same sense. For sin entered into the world. And sin is darkness. In darkness there is no fellowship. But out of the world that lieth in darkness God through Christ gathers His Church, and in the Church establishes a new communion, the fellowship of God in Christ, according to which we walk in the light, and have communion with one another. This communion of saints, therefore, is both particular, exclusive, and antithetical. It does not embrace all men. It is incapable of taking up into its fellowship mere men as such. And this is not due to any act or attitude on their part, to some exclusive constitution they establish, or to a proud “holier than thou” disposition; it is simply due to God’s election, and to the act of Christ whereby He gathers unto I Himself all whom the Father gave Him out of the world.

This communion is, therefore, a spiritual, ethical fellowship. It is not a communion of select friends, of men that are attracted to one another by common natural characteristics: it transcends all natural traits of character, and unites men of the most diversified and opposite type. Nor is this communion determined by or dependent on a certain likeness in social standing, or commonness in the pursuit of earthly ends: it draws together men of every class and social standing in the world, rich and poor, learned and uneducated, great and small, masters and servants, rulers and subjects. The communion of saints is not a caste. It overcomes all differences between men, provided they are called out of darkness into the marvelous light of God. Only the fact that Christ is in them, and that, by His grace, they have been called unto a new life, unites them into a common bond. It is the communion of saints. “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.” Eph. 4:4-6.

However, there is, in the body of Christ, an endless diversity of individual members, and because of this multiformity of the members they are interdependent, they supplement one another, they are in need of one another, and they constitute a real communion of saints.

If they were all identically the same, such a communion could not exist. Suppose it were possible that the whole of Christ dwelled individualistically in every saint, so that each one possessed in himself all the riches of Christ, and were able to reflect all His fullness in Himself alone, then there would be no fellowship of the saints, each believer would be sufficient unto himself. But this is not the case. The members of the body of Christ are diverse from one another. This diversity is caused by more than one factor. There is, first of all, the natural difference, difference in nationality, in race and color, in character and temperament, in personality and ability, in talents and gifts. It is true that this diversity is not spiritual, but natural. Nevertheless, we may certainly assume that this natural distinction is made subservient to the communion of Christ, so that the grace of Christ does not destroy it, but rather uses it for its manifold reflection and glory. How different is David from Asaph, Amos from Isaiah, John from Paul, James from Peter! And also this difference is predestinated by God in His inscrutable wisdom, in order that through it the wonderful grace and knowledge of Christ might be reflected in all its manifold glory, The same may be applied to all the saints. The almighty and eternal God without doubt also predestinated the individual character, temperament, ability, capacity, and personality of every one of His chosen saints, in such a way that, in heavenly glory, when the entire multitude of the redeemed shall sing the praises of Him that called them, each may do so in his own way, with his own voice, and together they may constitute one mighty and harmonious chorus, causing the new creation to rebound with its blessed hallelujah’s! In the second place, there is also a diversity of spiritual gifts. Although all partake of the same Christ, and all have the same life and love and faith and hope, yet there is difference in the dispensation of special gifts. Gifts of wisdom and knowledge, of instruction and exhortation, of comfort and consolation, are not the same in all. And finally, there is a diversity in regard to the measure of the gifts of Christ They may all receive talents, but to the one is given five, to another two talents, and to a third one talent. And all these differences are not restricted to the saints on earth only: they are carried over into eternity. Also in the new creation, the millions upon millions of saints will all have their distinct individuality: Christ will give them all a new name which no man knoweth saving he that receiveth it. Rev. 2:17. In heaven, too, there will be diversity of spiritual gifts, and of positions: the servant whose pound had gained ten pounds was given authority over ten cities, and he that had gained five pounds was given authority over five cities. And shall not the apostles sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel?

This unity of the saints in Christ, as they partake in common of Him, operating through the endless diversity of the individual believers, constitutes the communion of saints.

In eternal glory this communion will be revealed in all its beauty of perfection.

But also in the Church on earth, and in each local congregation, this communion exists, and must be reflected.

That this is, indeed, the nature of the communion of saints is plainly taught in Holy Writ. In Ephesians four, after the apostle had written of the unity of the Spirit, he adds: “But unto every one of us is given grace according to the measure of the gift of Christ.” And a most beautiful description of this communion of the saints, both from the viewpoint of its unity and of its diversity, is given in the twelfth chapter of First Corinthians: “Now there are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are differences of administrations, but the same Lord. And there are diversities of operations, but it is the same God which worketh all in all. But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to every man to profit withal. For to one is given by the Spirit the word of wisdom; to another the word of knowledge by the same Spirit; to another faith by the same Spirit; to another the gift of healing by the same Spirit; to another the working of miracles; to another prophecy; to another discerning of spirits; to another divers kinds of tongues; to another the interpretation of tongues: But all these worketh that one and the selfsame Spirit, dividing to every man severally as he will. For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ. For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have all been made to drink of that one Spirit For the body is not one member, but many.” 4-14.

And then the apostle develops the figure of the body and its members in detail, and applies it to the Church as the communion of saints: “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? If the whole body were an eye, where were the hearing? If the whole were hearing, where were the smelling? But now hath God set the members every one of them in the body, as it hath pleased him. And if they were all one member, where were the body? But now are they many members, yet but one body. . . . Now ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular.” 15-17.

This true multiformity of the members in the one body is, in our opinion, the sole multiformity of the Church we have a right to speak of in the light of Holy Scripture.

Since the time of the Reformation of the sixteenth century, by which the outward bond of the Romish hierarchy was broken, and the Church returned to her position of liberty in Christ, the Church in the world has been and still is divided into many different denominations and sects. This was to be expected. Always there is the carnal seed in the Church in the world. False teachers must needs sneak into the Church and inculcate their false doctrine into her members, seducing them to a carnal life. The manifestation of this evil may be suppressed and covered up by the power of an outward hierarchal yoke, but as soon as the yoke is removed, and the Church recognizes no other bond than that of the Word of God, it is bound to reveal itself. Hence, what is called Church in the world is hopelessly divided. Every denomination has its own creed, every sect its own particular doctrine. Those that call themselves undenominational, or those that sail under the slogan “No creed but Christ,” insist upon their own peculiar doctrinal hobby perhaps more than those that adhere to and confess their creed.

Now, this division of the Church into many different denominations and sects is frequently, but falsely, called the multiformity of the Church. It is argued that in all these denominations is found the holy catholic Church, so that they are, essentially, all one in Christ. It is further argued that all these different churches with their different creeds have the truth as it is in Christ. Only, they all know in part, and none of them can claim to know and proclaim the truth in all its purity. Hence, they are all imperfect manifestations of the true Church. And as they all present different aspects of the one Gospel, and all reflect the abundant glory of Christ in their own way, they represent the Church in its multiformity. They are to be compared to so many spokes of one wheel: all these Churches are centered in the hub, which is Christ, yet none of them has actually reached the center. They all point to Christ; they strive to reach His fullness; but they are all imperfect. In the consciousness of this imperfection, no particular church on earth dare claim to be the pure Church in, distinction from others. Rather must we assume the position that the Church in which we have our membership is, together with all others, but one imperfect form and manifestation of the holy catholic Church, no purer than others.

This conception of the multiformity of the Church on earth is as pernicious as it is false.

It is false, because it denies that the pure preaching of the Word of God is, indeed, the distinguishing mark of the true Church. According to this view, the truth of the Gospel is vague and ambiguous. Scripture cannot serve as a clear and definite criterion to determine where the truth is confessed and preached. Hence, the preaching of the sovereign grace of God and of absolute predestination together with the Arminian error of man’s free will constitute an approach to the truth; both are aspects of a truth that lies on a higher plane, too high for us to grasp. If one Church believes in infant baptism, and the other opposes this truth, while a third must have nothing of “water baptism” at all, they are all fundamentally agreed, only, they are striving to reach a height of truth that is beyond them. In such a view there is no room for discipline exercised upon those that introduce false doctrines. But this is quite contrary to the whole Word of God which everywhere exhorts us to stand fast in the truth, and to watch against the false prophets and teachers, that would seduce the saints from the way of righteousness. False this view is, too, from a historical viewpoint. For it is simply not true that all the existing denominations and sects represent so many forms of the Church, simultaneously striving to attain to the fullness of the truth in Christ.

Such is not their history.