Rev. James Laning, home missionary in the Protestant Reformed Churches and member of Zion PRC in Jenison, MI, the calling church

With this article I plan to follow a bit of a different approach. There have been discussions recently about the need for something like a curriculum that could be used with those who come to our churches from the outside. With that need in mind, I plan to go through the doctrines at a more rapid pace.

I will begin with the study of the church, and do so for a couple of reasons. First, I have written some articles in the past on subjects treated in the first three sections of dogmatics (theology, anthropology and Christology), and Rev. M. McGeown is currently writing in this rubric on the fourth section (soteriology). So I will begin with section five, which is a study of the church (ecclesiology). A second reason for beginning here is that many professing Christians know relatively little about what the church is or does. Many have never had impressed upon them the importance of being a member of a sound church institute. Thus, when giving instruction to those within and without our churches, it is important to spend time stressing what God says about the church, the work she has been given, and our calling to be a church member, using our gifts to God’s glory and for the advantage of His people.

The intended audience of these articles is not limited to those who come to our churches from outside. There are many adults who realize that although they have gone through our entire catechism instruction, they have forgotten a number of doctrinal points that they really should know. They would like a refresher course, so to speak, on these doctrines. Yet they would prefer not to spend too long on any one doctrine. They would like to see the forest, as it were, and to feel like they have a grasp of the whole system of doctrine that we call the Reformed faith. So in these articles I will move through the doctrines more rapidly, striving to set them forth rather concisely, while endeavoring to show how each individual tree fits into the whole.

In each article I intend to include at least one illustration from Scripture that helps us understand and remember a given doctrine. The illustrations God Himself gives do serve that purpose. Whether it be a story, a ceremony, a miracle, or a symbol, the pictures God has provided for us appeal to our senses, and impress upon us what our Lord is saying. They make it easier to remember the doctrines and are helpful when explaining them to someone else, including our own children.

Finally, at the end of each article I will provide a summary in point form. Often when giving instruction it is good at the end to summarize what has been said. So a brief summary will be provided in the form of a few bullet points.

So with that being said, let us begin.

What the Spirit says about the church

To learn about the church we must look not to ourselves but to Scripture. We must not be like someone who does not look to the Scriptures but simply says, “The church is and does what the church I grew up in is and does.” In contrast, we must look to God and listen to what He says about what the church is and what she is called to do.

Scripture has a lot to say about the church. The attributes of the church (that is, that she is one, holy, catholic and apostolic) are set forth, for example, in the book of Ephesians. In the pastoral epistles (I and II Timothy and Titus) we find instruction on the structure, offices, and work of the church institute. Furthermore, in the epistles that were written to specific churches and in what God says to the seven churches referred to in the book of Revelation (chapters two and three), we find what our Lord says both positively and negatively about a number of specific, instituted churches. These congregations of the past, then, serve to illustrate to us what we should (and should not) do.

Yet Scripture’s instruction about the church is by no means limited to the New Testament. Old Testament Israel was the church. In the history of Israel we see illustrated very clearly that God has one holy people. This people He has delivered from bondage and transformed into a kingdom of priests, set apart from the nations of the world as the one people with whom He dwells. The tabernacle and later the temple were constructed according to the plan God showed His people. These structures, along with the laws concerning what was to take place at the house of God, illustrate for us the attributes and work of the one holy people of God, cleansed by Christ, who continually worship the One who has saved them.

Indeed, throughout the entire Bible we find instruction to the church about the church. The whole book is written to God’s one covenant people, whom He has saved by His grace. He has delivered her from sin and death, and has given her specific instructions as to what He would have her to do.

The holy nation, the kingdom of Christ

So what is the church? The church is the body of Christ, the bride of Christ, and the kingdom of Christ. The church is Christ’s body, consisting of all those who are in Him. The church is Christ’s bride. She is the one people with whom Christ is united in an everlasting bond of marriage. The church is also Christ’s kingdom. The members of Christ’s body are also the citizens of His kingdom.

There is instruction concerning the church in what God said to Israel in the days of Moses. God called Israel out of Egypt and declared to them that they were to be a special people, separate from the Gentiles. “And ye shall be holy unto me: for I the Lord am holy, and have severed you from other people, that ye should be mine” (Lev. 20:26).

Israel would be the Lord’s. Unlike the nations of this world, Israel would be a holy kingdom of priests. “And ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation’ (Ex. 19:6).

They would be the one nation that was holy, consecrated to their God. They would be the one kingdom of priests, brought nigh unto God, and privileged to serve in His presence.1 In I Peter we find a reference to this promise that God’s people would be a holy nation. The apostle Peter, inspired by the Spirit, wrote that what God said to Israel earlier at Mt. Sinai applies to the church of Jesus Christ also today.

In I Peter the true church is called “…a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people” (I Pet. 2:9).

The church is a people, a kingdom, that is unlike any of the nations on earth. Each nation has geographical boundaries and is ruled by someone on this planet. The church, in contrast, has no geographical boundaries, and no one on earth is its leader. The church, of course, does have a king, but He is in heaven. The church also does have a boundary (that is, a person can be within the church or outside the church), but the boundary is not geographical.

The church consists of all those united to Christ. All those in Christ by faith are members of the church, saved by God’s grace. Those not in Christ are outside the church, and the wrath of God abides upon them. Those within Christ’s body have been brought into her by an irresistible work of God. Having been efficaciously brought in, there is no way they can fall out.

The church given the keys

The fact that the church has been given the keys of the kingdom is an additional proof that the church is Christ’s kingdom. Years before Peter wrote I Peter 2:9, Christ told Peter that the church is the kingdom of God. It was right after Peter confessed that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, that our Lord said to him, “Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matt. 16:18-19).

Christ, who holds the keys of God’s kingdom, has given the keys to the church. To be outside the church is to be outside the kingdom of Christ. An impenitent person who is removed from a true church is outside the body and kingdom of Christ. That is how serious it is to be removed from the church.2

God saved us that we might live not unto ourselves, but unto Him.

Ye also, as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house, an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ (I Pet. 2:5).

We really are priests, and as priests we are to offer sacrifices, spiritual sacrifices. We are to offer ourselves as a living sacrifice, humbly serving Him as those thankful for our salvation. That is our calling. That is also our privilege. May we as priests together glorify our King, joyfully labor together in His service, and offering unto our God the ongoing sacrifice of praise.

Summary points

  • The church is the kingdom of Christ. The members of Christ’s church are also the citizens of Christ’s kingdom.
  • Illustration: The nation of Israel in the old dispensation. What God said to Israel about them being a holy nation is applied in the New Testament also to the church today. Israel was the church and also serves to illustrate what the church is.
  • Additional proof: The church was given the keys of the kingdom of heaven. The fact that the church has the keys of the kingdom is proof that the church is Christ’s kingdom, and that to be outside the church is to be outside the kingdom.

 

1 When we consider this promise, as well as God’s other promises, we must keep in mind that all God’s promises are to Christ. God promised Christ that He would be both King and Priest forever (Ps. 110:1-4). God promised also that those whom He gave to Christ would be kings and priests under Him. In other words, God’s promise is particular. It is to Christ and to those who are in Him (Gal. 3:16, 29).

2 That the church is God’s kingdom has been long understood by God’s people and is confessed in a number of places in our Reformed creeds. Our Heidelberg Catechism in the answer to question 85 (which is about Christian discipline) says that when someone is excommunicated that person is “excluded from the Christian church, and by God Himself from the kingdom of Christ.” In other words, to be outside the church is to be outside Christ’s kingdom.

The same truth is taught in the Belgic Confession. In Article 27 we confess that, “This church had 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 He cannot be.” This article states that the church is Christ’s kingdom. If the church did not exist, Christ would have no subjects.

In these articles from time to time I plan to include references to our confessions in the footnotes.