The Apostle Paul reprehended (continuing with chapter 17 of the Second Helvetic Confession—H.V.) Peter, an apostle (Gal. 2:11), and Barnabas fell at variance with Paul (Acts 15:39). Great contention arose in the Church at Antioch between those who preached one and the same Christ, as Luke records in the Acts of the Apostles, Acts 15:2. And here have at all times been great contentions in the Church, and the most excellent doctors of the Church have, about no small matters, differed in opinion; yet so as, in the mean time, the Church ceased not to be the Church for all these contentions. For thus it pleases God to use the dissensions that arise in the Church, to the glory of his name, to the setting forth of the truth, and to the end that such as are not approved might be manifest (I Cor. 11:19).
Now, as we acknowledge no other head of the Church than Christ, so do we not acknowledge every church to be the true Church which vaunts herself so to be; but we teach that to be the true Church indeed in which the marks and tokens of the true Church are to be found. Firstly and chiefly, the lawful and sincere preaching of the Word of God as it is left unto us in the writings of the prophets and the apostles, which do all seem to lead us unto Christ, who in the Gospel has said, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me; and I give unto them eternal life. A stranger they do not hear, but flee from him, because they know not his voice” (John 10:5, 27, 28).
And they that are such in the Church of God have all but one faith and one spirit; and therefore they worship but one God, and him alone they serve in spirit and in truth, loving him with all their hearts and with all their strength, praying unto him alone through Jesus Christ, the only Mediator and Intercessor; and they seek not life or justice but only in Christ, and by faith in him; because they do acknowledge Christ the only head and foundation of his Church, and, being surely founded on him, do daily repair themselves by repentance, and do with patience bear the cross laid upon them; and, besides, by unfeigned love joining themselves to all the members of Christ, do thereby declare themselves to be the disciples of Christ, by continuing in the bond of peace and holy unity. They do withal communicate in the sacraments ordained by Christ, and delivered unto us by his apostles, using them in no other manner than as they received them from the Lord himself. That saying of the Apostle Paul is well known to all, “I have received from the Lord that which I delivered unto you” (I Cor. 11:23). For which cause we condemn all such churches, as strangers from the true Church of Christ, which are not such as we have heard they ought to be. Howsoever, in the mean time, they brag of the Succession of bishops, of unity, and of antiquity. Moreover, we have in charge from the apostles of Christ “to shun idolatry” (I Cor. 10:14; I John 5:21), and “to come out of Babylon,” and to have no fellowship with her, unless we mean to be partakers with her of all God’s plagues laid upon her (Rev. 18:4; II Cor. 6:17).
But as for communicating with the true Church of Christ, we so highly esteem it that we say plainly that none can live before God who do not communicate with the true Church of God, but separate themselves from the same. For as without the ark of Noah there was no escaping when the world perished in the flood; even so do we believe that without Christ, who in the Church offers himself to be enjoyed of the elect, there can be no certain salvation? and therefore we teach that such as would be saved must in no wise separate themselves from the true Church of Christ.
But as yet we do not so strictly shut up the Church with in those marks before mentioned, as thereby to exclude all those out of the Church who either do not participate of the sacraments (not willingly, nor upon contempt; but who, being constrained by necessity, do against their will abstain from them, or else do want them), or in whom faith does sometimes fail, though not quite decay, or altogether die: or in whom some slips and errors of infirmity may be found. For we know that God had some friends in the world that were not of the commonwealth of Israel. We know what befell the people of God in the captivity of Babylon, where they were without their sacrifices seventy years. We know what happened to St. Peter, who denied his Master, and what is wont daily to happen among the faithful and chosen of God who go astray and are full of infirmities. We know, moreover, what manner of churches the churches in Galatia and Corinth were in the apostles’ time: in which St. Paul condemns many and heinous crimes; yet he calls them holy churches of Christ (I Cor. 1:2; Gal. 1:2).
Yea, and it happens sometimes that God in his just judgment suffers the truth of his Word, and the Catholic faith, and his own true worship, to be so obscured and defaced that the Church seems almost quite razed out, and not so much as a face of a Church to remain; as we see fell out in the days of E1ijah (I Kings 19:10, 14), and at other times. And yet, in the mean time, the Lord has in this world, even in this darkness, his true worshippers, and those not a few, but even seven thousand and more (I Kings 19:18; Rev. 7:4, 9). For the apostle cries, “The foundation of the Lord standeth sure, and hath this seal, The Lord knoweth who are his,” etc. (II Tim. 2:19). Whereupon the Church of God may be termed invisible; not that the men whereof it consists are invisible, but because, being hidden from our sight, and known only unto God, it cannot be discerned by the judgment of man.
Again, not all that are reckoned in the number of the Church are saints, and lively and true members of the Church. For there are many hypocrites, who outwardly do hear the Word of God, and publicly receive the sacraments, and do seem to pray unto God along through Christ, to confess Christ to be their onlyrighteousness, and to worship God, and to exercise the duties of charity to the brethren, and for a while through patience to endure in troubles and calamities. And yet they are altogether destitute of the inward illumination of the Spirit of God, of faith and sincerity of heart, and of perseverance or continuance unto the end. And these men are, for the most part, at length laid open in their true character. For the Apostle John says, “They went out from among us, but they were not of us: for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us” (I John 2:19). Yet these men, while they do pretend religion, are accounted to be in the Church. Even as traitors in a commonwealth, before they be detected, are accounted in the number of good citizens; and as the cockle and darnel and chaff are found among the wheat; and as wens and swellings are in a perfect body, when they are rather diseases and deformities than true members of the body. And therefore the Church is very well compared to a drag-net, which draws up fishes of all sorts; and to a field, wherein is found both darnel and good corn (Matt. 13:26, 47). Hence we must be very careful not to judge rashly before the time, nor to exclude, and cast off or cut away, those whom the Lord would not have excluded nor cut off, or whom, without some damage to the Church, we cannot separate from it. Again, we must be very vigilant lest, the godly falling fast asleep, the wicked grow stronger, and do some mischief in the Church.
Furthermore, we teach that it is carefully to be marked, wherein especially the truth and unity of the Church consists, lest that we either rashly breed or nourish schisms in the Church. It consists not in outward rites and ceremonies, but rather in the truth and unity of the Catholic faith. This Catholic faith is not taught us by the ordinances or laws of men, but by the holy Scriptures, a compendious and short sum whereof is the Apostles’ Creed. And, therefore, we read in the ancient writers that there were manifold diversities of ceremonies, but that those were always free; neither did any man think that the unity of the Church was thereby broken or dissolved. We say, then, that the true unity of the Church does consist in several points of doctrine in the true and uniform preaching of the Gospel, and in such rites as the Lord himself has expressly set down. And here we urge that saying of the apostle very earnestly, “Let us, as many as are perfect, be thus minded: and if in any thing ye be otherwise minded, God shall reveal even this unto you. Nevertheless, whereunto we have already attained, let us walk by the same rule, let us mind the same thing” (Phil. 3:15, 16).—end of quote of Chapter 17 of the Second Helvetic Confession.
The doctrine of the Church is set forth in the Reformed Symbols in the Heidelberg Catechism and in the Confession of Faith or, as they are also called, the Thirty-Seven Articles. The Heidelberg Catechism calls attention to this doctrine in Lord’s Day 21, Question and Answer 54. In answer to the question: “What believest thou concerning the ‘holy catholic church’ of Christ?”, we have this beautiful answer: “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 for ever shall remain, a living member thereof.”
Our Confession of Faith calls our attention to the doctrine of the Church in Articles 27-29. Art. 27 reads as follows: “We believe and profess, one catholic or universal Church, which is an holy congregation, of true Christian believers, all expecting their salvation in Jesus Christ, being washed by his blood, sanctified and sealed by the Holy Ghost. This Church hath been from the beginning of the world, and will be to the end thereof; which is evident from this, that Christ is an eternal King, which, without subjects, cannot be. And this holy Church is preserved or supported by God, against the rage of the whole world; though she sometimes (for a while) appears very small, and in the eyes of men, to be reduced to nothing: as during the perilous reign of Ahab, the Lord preserved unto him seven thousand men, who had not bowed their knees to Baal. Furthermore, this holy Church is not confined, bound, or limited to a certain place or to certain persons, but is spread and dispersed over the whole world; and is joined and united with heart and will, by the power of faith, in one and the same spirit.”
The Lord willing, we will conclude our quotations from our Confession of Faith in our following article. This will also conclude our quotations in re the doctrine of the Church. Then we expect to make some observations concerning this doctrine of the Church, also concerning the distinction between the True and False Church. Only, we do well to remember when discussing this distinction between the True and False Church, that we do not ignore the Reformed conception of the Church as set forth in our Heidelberg Catechism in Lord’s Day 21. And we will notice that the same truth is set forth in our Confession of Faith, Articles 27-29, as in Question and Answer 54 of our Heidelberg Catechism.