It is not claiming too much to say that the great Reformation of the church included a battle over the very nature of the church of Christ itself!1
1) The battle against Rome
The Reformers fought against the false definition of the church that was deeply entrenched in the corrupt medieval church in Western Europe. According to Rome, the church is (well-nigh exclusively) an institutional church, that hierarchical organization with the pope as her visible head. Moreover, the church is not even her people but her “clergy”—priests, bishops, archbishops, and cardinals.
Besides defining the church institutionally, Rome proclaimed herself as the only true church. She drew the remorseless consequence: unless you are a member of the papal church, you are heretical or schismatic and headed to hell, for outside the Roman church there is no salvation!
Rome’s false and imperious ecclesiology functioned as a deliberate snare to keep her members inside her institution. You cannot leave her, for you will perish! You cannot organize a separate church, for Rome is the only institutional church!
So what were God-fearing people in the sixteenth-century church to do? The more they learned the truth of the Word and tested the Roman church by that standard, the more they understood how much she needed reform in doctrine, preaching, sacraments, discipline, government, and worship.
But how could one reform the papal church from within? The more people prayed and labored for its reformation, the more they learned from hard experience that there were many angry “laity” and powerful “clergy” in the ecclesiastical hierarchy (including the state!) who were vehemently opposed to significant reform. Indeed, a formidable section of the church held that, since Rome was, by definition, the true church, any reformation that included anything beyond superficial matters was both doctrinally impossible and practically unnecessary. Thus it was reprehensible and dangerous even to talk about biblical and sweeping church reformation within the papal church.
Some, however, did seek reform from within, such as Jacques Lefèvre d’Étaples in France; but they had minimal results. Others came to see, over a shorter or longer period of time, that reforming the Roman church from within was largely ineffective (for example, William Farel, a disciple of Lefèvre, who labored around Paris for several years), and/or impossible (for example, Martin Luther, who was excommunicated), and/or sinful (because she is a harlot church headed by the Antichrist).
Of immense help to all who broke with Rome and formed true churches outside her tyrannous dominion was the key ecclesiastical truth that the church, essentially and first of all, is the totality of all those eternally elected in Jesus Christ (cf. Heidelberg Catechism, Q. & A. 54). The church, as the company of the predestinate, consists of all the elect now living, plus all those predestinated who have lived or will live. “The catholic or universal church, which is invisible, consists of the whole number of the elect that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ the head thereof” (Westminster Confession, 25:1).
It is clearly taught in Scripture that the church is “chosen [or elected]…in him [that is, Christ] before the foundation of the world” (). Paul wrote to a true congregation in Macedonia, “Knowing, brethren beloved, your election of God” ( ). Peter addressed believers in churches in what is now northern Turkey as “elect” ( ).
The Reformation understood that the fountain or source of the church is God’s gracious election in Christ. It confessed predestination as the cor ecclesiae, a Latin phrase meaning “the heart of the church,” with “heart” here referring to origin or source (as in). Since the fountain or heart or origin of the church is sovereign election, the nature or essence of the church is the company of the predestinate.
Here the sixteenth-century Reformation reached back to Jan Hus, the fifteenth-century Bohemian pre-Reformer, who was greatly influenced by the fourteenth-century English pre-Reformer, John Wycliffe. All the Reformation and pre-Reformation worthies who understood the church as the company of the predestinate were echoing elements in the teaching of Augustine (AD 354-430), the great North African church father.
There is a vital connection between the Reformation’s view of the nature of the church as the company of the predestinate and its doctrine of sovereign grace. Protestant soteriology (doctrine of salvation) leads to Protestant ecclesiology (doctrine of the church).
God’s salvation of individual sinners is rooted in unconditional election, based upon Christ’s redemption, and effected in the Spirit’s regeneration, calling, sanctification, preservation and glorification. But what is the church if she is not the collective body of all individuals who are saved? Therefore, if every individual who will be in the new creation is elect, then the church is the company of the predestinate.
Protestantism’s soteriology, in highlighting the invisible (for example, election, grace, and faith) and inward (for example, regeneration, calling, and sanctification), also emphasizes the church’s spirituality and invisibility, as a body whose membership is only known fully by God, not man. On the other hand, Rome’s soteriology, with its decisive elements being visible and external (for example, water baptism as regenerating, man’s outward works, and so on), is in perfect accord with its institutional and hierarchical ecclesiology.
So what about the descendants of the Reformation in the twenty-first century? Sadly, most have never heard that the church is the company of the predestinate. Most Protestants, including most evangelicals, believe in man’s free will, thereby denying God’s unconditional election. According to the majority of Protestants, whether or not someone is truly in the church is determined by his/her own will, not Jehovah’s will.
It is tragic that most Protestants today disagree with Martin Luther’s The Bondage of the Will (1525) and agree with the Roman church, which has always been the strongest advocate of man’s free will. Because of their heretical doctrine of salvation by the will of man (contra), most Protestants today are actually against the Reformation—not only its soteriolology but also its ecclesiology—in its crucial definition of the very nature of the church.
2) The battle against the fanatics
Besides Rome, the Reformers also had to fight against people whom they identified as fanatics. These folk included those who accepted some tenets of Reformation teaching, such as predestination and the church’s invisibility, but rejected other truths, especially in the area of ecclesiology. These fanatics claimed that they were eternally chosen by God, united to Jesus Christ, and filled with faith, hope, and love, and so had no real need of the local church, with its preaching, sacraments, discipline, worship, and fellowship. The Reformers accurately characterized such people as proud and foolish.
Over against the error of the fanatics, the Reformation maintained that the company of the predestinate comes to manifestation in local congregations, which serve the edification of the elect. The invisible church reveals itself in visible churches, where the true saints are built up. The organic church becomes evident in instituted churches, so that the means of grace in organized congregations are used by God to strengthen the spiritual lives of those eternally chosen in Christ.
This is the teaching of Acts 2: “Then they that gladly received his word were baptized: and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls…. And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved” (vv. 41, 47). The elect, who were brought to faith in Jesus the Messiah, were added to the visible, organized church with its officebearers (apostles), oversight, teaching, baptism, Lord’s Supper, and public worship, including prayers (vv. 41-42).
It is lamentable that also in our day there are unstable souls who like Reformed soteriology, but reject the full biblical and Reformation ecclesiology. They sit loose to the church institute, reckoning that they do not need to join and/or attend a faithful congregation with the means of grace that Christ has placed there. After all, they are elect members of the invisible church! Often they seek to buttress themselves in their isolation by criticisms of sins and weaknesses in organized congregations and/or their members that are accurate or exaggerated or imaginary.
The Westminster Confession, after speaking of the church as the company of the predestinate (25:1), refers to the institute church to which “Christ hath given the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God” (25:3) as “the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation” (25:2).
Protestantism opposes isolationist fanaticism by insisting that it is precisely because we are members of the elect, invisible church that we must join an instituted congregation bearing the three marks of a true church: faithful preaching, sacramental administration, and discipline (Belgic Confession, Arts. 27-29).
3) The battle against the anabaptists
Over against the Anabaptists, the Reformation maintained that visible, instituted churches must include not only believers but also their children (Heidelberg Catechism, Q. & A. 74).
The Scriptures teach that believers’ children are in God’s kingdom () and church ( ), as those who receive the Spirit of Christ ( ) and the promise of salvation ( ). Four times in , God states that the children of believers are included in His covenant of grace: “I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee in their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee.”
This was the teaching of all the Reformers, bar none. This was the doctrine of all the Reformation creeds, whether Lutheran or Reformed or Anglican or Presbyterian, in their treatment of the members of the church and/or the subjects of baptism. As the Westminster Confession declares, “The visible church, which is also catholic or universal under the gospel, (not confined to one nation, as before under the law), consists of all these throughout the world that profess the true religion, together with their children” (25:2; cf. 29:4-6).
Today, many Protestant congregations deny this Reformation teaching on the inclusion of the children of believers in the church. On the one hand, many congregations that baptize children and include them in their membership administer the sacrament to the children of manifest unbelievers. On the other hand, in baptistic churches, the children of believers are not members of the congregation (unless and until, later in life, they make a profession of faith). As if the Bible did not call the seed of believers “holy” () or promise them God’s Spirit and blessing ( )!
The Reformed also stressed that not all the children of believers are elect members of the invisible church: “Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated” (). But not all professing members of the church institute are part of the church organic either ( ; ). Thus church discipline must be exercised upon all impenitent members, whether baptized or confessing.
A full treatment of the Reformation doctrine of the church is, of course, impossible in an article of this length. Yet one can see how this foundational matter of the church’s nature as the company of the predestinate, which comes to manifestation in instituted congregations consisting of believers and their seed, leads us into and helps us to understand the election, gathering, and preservation of the church; the church latent, militant, and triumphant; the unity, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity of the church; the church’s preaching, sacraments, and worship; the authority, offices, government, and discipline of the church; and the church’s distinguishing marks or characteristics; and the true church versus the false church.
1 Out of the many sources that could be quoted, for the sake of space, we will confine ourselves to the opening sections of Westminster Confession, Chap. 25, a mid-seventeenth-century condensation of the Protestant doctrine of the church that fits well with the approach of this article.