A few weeks ago we were given a tract which developed the theme expressed in the above title. The little tract was written by the Rt. Rev. J. C. Ryle, Bishop of Liverpool. The cover page was subscribed with the following: “A searching message for every heart.” We will quote most of the message, and the reader will judge whether this is true or not.
“The one true Church is composed of all believers in the Lord Jesus. It is made up of all God’s electâ€•of all converted men and womenâ€•of all true Christians. In whomsoever we can discern the election of God the Father, the sprinkling of the blood of God the Son, the sanctifying work of God the Spirit, in that person we see a member of Christ’s true Church.
“It is a Church of which all the members have the same marks. They are all born again of the Spirit. They all possess ‘repentance towards God, faith towards our Lord, Jesus Christ,’ and holiness of life and conversation. They all hate sin, and they all love Christ. They worship differently, and after various fashions. Some, worship with a form of prayer, and some with none. Some worship kneeling, and some standing. But they all worship with one heart. They are all led by one Spirit. They all build upon one foundation. They all draw their religion from one single book â€• that is the Bible. They are all joined to one great center â€• that is Jesus Christ. They all, even now, can say with one heart, ‘Hallelujah’; and they all can respond with one heart and voice, ‘Amen and amen.’
CHRIST THE ONE SHEPHERD
“It is a Church which is dependent upon no ministers upon earth, however much it values those who preach the gospel to its members. The life of its members does not hang upon church membership, and baptism, and the Lord’s supper, although they highly value these things when they are to be had. But it has only one great Head, one Shepherd, one chief Bishopâ€•and that is Jesus Christ. He alone, by His Spirit, admits the members of this Church, though ministers may show the door. Till He opens the door, no man on earth can open itâ€•neither bishops, nor presbyters, nor convocations, nor synods. Once let a man repent and believe the gospel, and that moment he becomes a member of this Church. Like the penitent thief, he may have no opportunity of being baptized. But he has that which is far better than any water baptism â€•the baptism of the spirit. He may not be able to receive the bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper, but he eats Christ’s body and drinks Christ’s blood by faith every day he lives, and no minister on earth can prevent him. He may be excommunicated by ordained men, and cut off from the outward ordinances of the professing church, but all the ordained men in the world cannot shut him out of the true Church.
“It is the Church whose existence does not depend on forms, ceremonies, cathedrals, churches, chapels, pulpits, fonts, vestments, organs, endowments, money, kings, governments, magistrates, or any act of favor whatsoever from the hand of man. It has often lived on and continued when all these things have been taken from it. It has often been driven into the wilderness, or into dens and caves of the earth, by those who ought to have been its friends. Its existence depends on nothing but the presence of Christ and His Spirit, and they being ever, with it, the Church cannot die.
THE HOLY CATHOLIC CHURCH
“This is the Church to which the scriptural titles of present honor and privilege, and the promises of future glory, specially belong. This is the body of Christ. This is the Bride, the Lamb’s Wife. This is the flock of Christ, the household of faith and the family of God, God’s building, God’s foundation, and the temple of the Holy Spirit. This is the Church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. This is the royal priesthood, the chosen generation, the peculiar people, the purchased possession, the habitation of God, the light of the world, the salt and the wheat of the earth. This is the ‘Holy Catholic Church’ of the Apostles’ Creed, the ‘One Catholic and Apostolic Church’ of the Nicene Creed. This is that Church to which the Lord Jesus promises that ‘the gates of hell shall not prevail against it,’ and to which, He says, ‘I am with you alway even unto the end of the world.’ (Matthew 16:18; Matthew 28:20).
“This is the only Church which possesses true unity. Its members are entirely agreed on all the weightier matters of religion, for they are all taught by one Spirit. About God and Christ, and the Spirit, and sin, and their own hearts, and faith, and repentance, and the necessity of holiness, and the value of the Bible, and the importance of prayer, and the resurrection, and judgment to come â€•about all these points they are of one mind. Take three or four of them, strangers to one another, from the remotest corners of the earth. Examine them separately on these points. You will find them all of one judgment.
ALL ITS MEMBERS HOLY
“This is the one Church which possesses true sanctity. Its members are all holy. They are not merely holy by profession, holy in name, and holy in the judgment of charity. They are all holy in act, and deed, and reality, and life, and truth. They are all more or less conformed to the image of Jesus Christ. No unholy man belongs to this Church.
“This is the only Church which is truly catholic. It is not the church of any one nation or people. Its members are to be found in every part of the world where the gospel is received and believed. It is not confined within the limits of any one country, nor pent up within the pale of any particular forms or outward government. In it there is no difference between Jew and Greek, black man and white, Episcopalian and Presbyterian â€• but faith in Christ is all. Its members will be gathered from north, and south, and east, and west, in the last day, and will be of every name and tongueâ€•but all one in Christ Jesus.
APOSTOLIC FAITH AND PRACTICE
“This is the only Church which is truly apostolic. It is built on the foundation laid by the apostles, and holds the doctrines which they preached. The two grand objects at which its members aim are apostolic faith and apostolic practice; and they consider the man who talks of following the apostles, without possessing these two things, to be no better than sounding brass and a tinkling cymbal.
“This is the only Church which is certain to endure unto the end. Nothing can altogether overthrow and destroy it. Its members may be persecuted, oppressed, imprisoned, beaten, beheaded, burned, but the true Church is never altogether extinguished. It rises again from its afflictions. It lives on through fire and water. When crushed in one land, it springs up in another. The Pharaohs, the Herods, the Neros, the bloody Marys, have labored in vain to put down this Church. They slay their thousands, and then pass away and go to their own place. The true Church outlives them all, and sees them buried each in his turn. It is an anvil that has broken many a hammer in this world, and will break many a hammer still. It is a bush which is often burning, and yet it is not consumed.
“This is the only Church of which no one member can perish. Once enrolled in the lists of this Church, sinners are safe for eternity. They are never cast away. The election of God the Father, the continual intercession of God the Son, the daily renewing and sanctifying power of God the Holy Spirit, surround and fence them in like a garden enclosed. Not one bone of Christ’s mystical body shall ever be broken. Not one lamb of Christ’s flock shall ever be plucked out of His hand.
SMALL BUT VITAL
“This is the Church which does the work of Christ upon earth. Its members are a little flock, and few in number, compared with the children of the world: one or two here, and two or three there, a few in this parish, and a few in that. But these are they who shake the universe, who change the fortunes of kingdoms by their prayers. These are they who are the active workers for spreading the knowledge of pure religion and undefiled. These are the lifeblood of a countryâ€• the shield, the defense, the stay, and the support of any nation to which they belong. “This is the Church which shall be truly glorious at the end. When all earthly glory is passed away, then shall this Church be presented without spot before God the Father’s throne. Thrones, principalities and powers upon earth shall come to nothing. Dignities, and offices, and endowments, shall all pass away. But the Church of the first-born shall shine as the stars at the last; and be presented with joy before the Father’s throne, in the day of Christ’s appearing. When the Lord’s jewels are made up, and the manifestation of the sons of God takes place, Episcopacy, and Presbyterianism, and Congregationalism, will not be mentioned. One Church only wiil be named, and that is the Church of the elect. “Reader, this is the true Church to which a man must belong, if he would be saved. Till you belong to this, you are nothing better than a lost soul. You may have the form, the husk, the skin, and the shell of religion, but you have not the substance and the life. What ignorance prevails on this point! Men fancy that if they join this church or that church, and become communicants, and go thrpugh certain forms, that all must be right with their souls. It is an utter delusion. You may be a staunch Episcopalian, or Presbyterian, or Independent, or Baptist, or Wesleyan, or Plymouth Brother, and yet not belong to the true Church. And if you do not, it will be better at last if you had never been born.”
We wish to make only two or three observations. In the first place, very noticeably the author makes no attempt in this message to gain members to his or any other particular manifestation of the church. The tract, therefore, in distinction from the general run of tracts, is quite unique. The author, it appears, has no particular axe to grind, but is intent on simply setting forth the truth concerning the Holy Catholic Church.
Secondly, very noticeably the author aptly sets forth the truth that the church is not the product of man in any sense of the word. The church is entirely a work of God, of His conception, of His saving power, of His sovereign grace. That, too, is most refreshing when you consider how many today conceive of the church as a product of man’s ingenuity and power exclusively, or at best, a work of God with the cooperation of man.
And thirdly, as far as we are able to judge, we can agree with the entire substance of this tract. There is, however, one point we thought was missing. When we compare the tract with what our fathers set forth in Articles 27-29 of the Belgic Confession concerning the “Catholic Christian Church,” we notice that the fathers believe and express that the one catholic, or universal church can be observed and distinguished in the world. The church accordingly is not only viewed idealistically but really existing and to be distinguished by certain distinguishing marks that set her off from the false church. When the fathers say in Article 28: “And that this may be the more effectually observed, it is the duty of all believers, according to the word of God, to separate themselves from all those who do not belong to the church, and to join themselves to this congregation; wheresoever God hath established it,” it is plain that there is a visible and local manifestation of the church. Again, “hereby the true church may certainly be known, from which no man has a right to separate himself … These two churches (true and false â€• M.S.) are easily known and distinguished from each other,” this certainly implies that there is a true church of Christ in the world which manifests the three distinguishing ear-marks. “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 sin . . .” In short, there is a purer and less pure manifestation of the church in the world. It is our conviction, as well as of our Reformed fathers, that it is our duty to be joined to the purest manifestation of the church in the world. This, the tract failed to bring out.