In our preceding article we had begun to call attention to another phase of the doctrine of the Church during the second period, 300-750 A.D., namely the importance of membership in this true church. And we quoted Articles 27 and 28 of our Confession of Faith. Continuing with the articles of this Confession of Faith which relate to this subject, Article 29 confesses the marks of the true Church and also sets forth wherein she differs from the false Church, as follows: “We believe, that we ought diligently and circumspectly to discern from the Word of God which is the true Church,, since all sects which are in the world assume to themselves the name of the church. But we speak not here of hypocrites, who are mixed in the Church with the good, yet are not of the Church, though externally in it (it would be interesting to know how the Liberated explain these words, inasmuch as they have condemned in the past the terminology of true and false church, in the sense of visible and invisible, and would maintain that all the baptized are equally in the Church; they certainly did not approve of any distinction between those who are in the Church actually, really, and those who are in the Church merely externally—H.V.); but we say that the body and communion of the true Church must be distinguished from all sects, who call themselves the Church. The marks, by which the true Church is known, are these: if the pure doctrine of the gospel is preached therein; if she maintains the pure administration of the sacraments as instituted by Christ; if church discipline is exercised in punishing of sin: in short, if all things are managed according to the pure Word of God, all things contrary thereto rejected, and Jesus Christ acknowledged as the only head of the Church. Hereby the true Church may certainly be known, from which no man has a right to separate himself. With respect to those, who are members of the Church, they may be known by the marks of Christians: namely, by faith; and when they have received Jesus Christ, the only Savior (to receive Jesus Christ is not the same as “accepting” Him; to accept Him emphasizes an action which proceeds from the sinner, but to receive Him means that Jesus Christ is given to him—H.V.), they avoid sin, follow after righteousness, love the true God and their neighbor, neither turn aside to the right or left, and crucify the flesh with the works thereof. But this is not to be understood, as if there did not remain in them great infirmities; but they fight against them through the Spirit, all the days of their life, continually taking their refuge in the blood, heath, passion and obedience of our Lord Jesus Christ, “in whom they have remissions of sins, through faith in Him.” As for the false Church, she ascribes more power and authority to herself and her ordinances than to the Word of God, and will not submit herself to the yoke of Christ. Neither does she administer the sacraments as appointed by Christ in His Word, but adds to and takes from them, as she thinks proper; she relieth more upon men than upon Christ; and persecutes those, who live holily according to the Word of God, and rebuke her from her errors, covetousness, and idolatry. These two Churches are easily known and distinguished from each other.”—end of quote. It is not the purpose, of course, of these articles to explain Articles 27-29 of our Confession of Faith in detail. We merely wished to quote them in connection with the subject with which we are busy at present. Although we read, at the close of Article 29, that it is easy to distinguish between the true Church and the false Church, this applies only when this absolute distinction between true) and false is clear and easily discernible. One of the characteristics of the true Church, for example, is the pure preaching of the gospel. Nevertheless, we know that the departure from the Word of God and the denial of the fundamental truths of the Scriptures does not occur as in a moment, “overnight.” The modern church today denies that Jesus is the eternal Son of God, coeternal and coequal with the Father and the Spirit. Yet, we do well to remember that the church which proclaims this today was once sound and that the departure from the truth, although inexorable, is nevertheless gradual. Hence, there are certainly degrees of falseness as far as the manifestation of the false church is concerned. One more observation we wish to make in connection with Article 29. The Roman Catholic Church of today stands condemned, of course, by this article. This is understandable. The article declares that the characteristic of the true Church, briefly summarized, is this: if all things are managed according to the pure Word of God. How different it is in the Roman Catholic Church! In that church the church determines what the pure preaching of the Word of God is. The Church, specifically the pope, proclaims what is in harmony with or contrary to the truth. In this article, however, the Word of God determines what the true or false Church is. Here the Word of God is championed as the sole rule of life and of doctrine. This was surely the guiding principle of the Reformation, and it must continue to be the guiding principle in the life of the Church throughout the ages.
Relative the importance of membership in the true church, as advocated in the second period of the Church, 300-750 A.D., we may say that it was generally held that membership in this Catholic Church was strictly necessary unto salvation. This was also the view which was maintained by earlier Church fathers, such as Cyprian, and it was maintained also in this period. Fact is, our own Confession of Faith, in Article 28, when speaking of the calling of every child of God to join himself to the true Church, called the Catholic Christian Church in Article 27, declares that “this holy congregation is an assembly of those who are saved, and that out of it there is no salvation.” And the fathers certainly advocate that no one can be saved who separates himself from the true Church in the midst of the world.
Gregory the Great, the first monk to become pope, and who ruled over the Church from 590-604, and is said to have been the first to use the humble-proud title: servant of the servants of God, declared that “Heretics are unworthy of life and cannot escape the wrath of God unless they come into the Catholic Church.” Augustine certainly maintained the principle that membership in the Catholic Church (not to be confused with the Roman Catholic Church) was absolutely necessary unto salvation. He declares, for example, that “Whoso is not in this Church does not receive the Holy Ghost.” This great Church father has declared, in opposition to the Donatists, the issue to have been: “The question is, indeed, discussed between us, Where is the church, Whether among us or among them?” He held that the great church is theone Catholic church by virtue of the distribution of the latter throughout the whole world and by virtue of its connection with the church of the apostles, whose successors the bishops are. “Outside of this one Catholic church,” he continues, “the body of Christ, there is no truth, no salvation. Separation from it is a sacrilege. Only chaff is blown off by the fan; only pride and lack of love can impel a Christian to split the unity of the church.” This declaration of Augustine rests upon the thought that it is only in the Catholic church that the Spirit and love are bestowed upon man, and that the saints are to be found only in the Catholic church.
In connection with this question of the Church, we wish to present to our readers the few quotations of Augustine which he wrote in his struggle with the Donatists. The first quotation reads as follows: “As my Father hath sent Me,” says our Lord, “even so send I you. And when He had said this, He breathed on them, and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost. Whosoever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whosoever sins ye retain, they are retained.” Therefore, if they represented the Church, and this was said to them as to the Church herself, it follows that the peace of the Church looses sins, and estrangement from the Church retains them, not according to the will of men, but according to the will of God and the prayers of the saints who are spiritual, who “judge all things, but themselves are judged of no man.” For the rock retains, the rock remits; the dove retains the dove remits; unity retains, unity remits. But the peace of this unity exists only in the good, in those who are either already spiritual, or are advancing by the obedience of concord to spiritual things; it exists not in the bad, whether they make disturbances abroad, or are endured within the Church with lamentations, baptizing and being baptized. But just as those who are tolerated with groanings within the Church, although they do not belong to the same unity of the dove, and to that “glorious Church, not having spot or wrinkle, or any such thing,” yet if they are corrected, and confess that they approached to baptism most unworthily, are not baptized again, but belong to the dove, through whose groans those sins are remitted which were retained in them who were estranged from her peace; so those also who are more openly within the Church, if they have received the same sacraments, are not freed from their sins on coming, after correction, to the unity of the Church, by a repetition of baptism, but by the same law of charity and bond of unity. For if “those only may baptize who are set over the Church, and established by the law of the gospel and ordination as appointed by the Lord, “were they in any wise of this kind who seized on estates by treacherous frauds, and increased their gains by compound interest? I know not, since those are established by ordination as appointed of the Lord, of whom the apostle, in giving them a standard, says, “No greedy, not given to filthy lucre.” Yet men of this kind used to baptize in the time of Cyprian himself, and he confesses with many lamentations that they were his fellow-bishops, and endures them with the great reward of tolerance. Yet did they not confer remission of sins which is granted through the prayers of the saints, that is, the groans of the dove, whoever it be that baptizes, if those to whom it is given belong to her peace. For the Lord would not say to robbers and usurers, “Whosoever sins ye remit, they shall be remitted to him; and whosoever sins ye retain, they shall be retained.” “Outside the Church, indeed, nothing can be either bound or loosed, since there is no one who can either bind or loose; “but he is loosed who has made peace with the dove, and he is bound who is not at peace with the dove, whether he is openly without, or appears to be within.”—end of quote.
Continuing with our quotations from the writings of Augustine, we read the following: “But if martyrdom is of no avail for this reason, because it has not charity, neither does it profit those who, as Paul says, and Cyprian further sets forth, are living within the Church, without charity in envy and malice; and yet they can both receive and transmit true baptism. “Salvation,” he says, “is not without the Church.” Who says that it is? And, therefore, whatever men have that belongs to the Church, it profits them nothing towards salvation outside of the Church.”—end of quote.