Tuesday, August 28, 2007

The Church of Christ

An Examination of the Reformed Understanding of the Church

Ron Gleason
Pastor, Grace Presbyterian Church in Yorba Linda, CA
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The Catholic Christian Church

We are examining the Reformed understanding of the Church of Jesus Christ. In the Belgic Confession (1561), Article 27 addresses the matter of “The Catholic Christian Church.”1 How did the Reformers understand the nature and character of Christ’s Church? The opening words of this article set the stage: “We believe and profess one catholic or universal Church, which is a holy congregation of true Christian believers, all expecting their salvation in Jesus Christ, being washed by his blood, sanctified and sealed by the Holy Spirit.”2

In one sense, this statement might seem somewhat routine, but it isn’t. It is a masterful summary of the essence of Christ’s Church. Christians are those who both believe and profess a universal Church. What is that Church like? It is a holy congregation. Let’s pause there for a moment because this qualifier points us in one direction only regarding the Church. The holiness of the congregation ought to be, first and foremost, a reflection of the holiness of our Savior. God raises the bar and sets high standards for the Church (cf. Matt. 5:48). Part of the problem for the modern Church is that the bar has been lowered and the teaching/preaching substantially dumbed-down so that holiness is not on the minds of some Christians.

Reliable statistics point to a sharp downturn in biblical morality among Christians so that incidences of marital infidelity, addiction to (Internet) pornography, divorce, homosexuality, unbiblical business practices, cheating on expense accounts and taxes, and a host of other sins go unchecked. This is not even taking into account those who do not commit such sins but have virtually no Bible reading, prayer time, and family devotions. In the final analysis, what amounts to “holiness” is going to a true church (we’ll see in Article 29 how the B.C. says each Christian ought to go about seeking out, attending, and attaching him- or herself to a true church) and not merely one that calls itself a church. As we progress through de Brès’ exposition of this section of the B.C. we’ll discover that there is a spiritual process that is necessary for the Christian that involves a great deal more than the garden variety “church shopping,” “church hopping,” and the superficial “I want to be entertained” mentality manifested by some—many—today. Few today take the requisite time to perform a biblical search for a true church—to their detriment and the detriment of their respective families.

Holiness is for Christians only and for serious Christians at that. De Brès explains that the holy congregation is comprised of true Christian believers, which he will also qualify according to biblical, Reformed standards in Article 29. It is important to note at this juncture however that his emphasis is on the communio sanctorum aspect, thereby distancing himself from the Roman Catholic emphasis on the church as Institute. For example, Rome defines the Church as “The congregation of all the faithful, who, being baptized, profess the same faith, partake of the same sacrament, and are governed by their lawful pastors, under one visible head on earth.”3 The Greek Orthodox conception of the Church is the step-sister of Roman Catholicism. It also emphasizes the external organization of the church and locates the essence of the Church in the Episcopal hierarchy. “The infallibility of the Church is maintained, but his infallibility resides in the bishops, and therefore in the ecclesiastical councils and synods.”4

How Long Has the Church Been Around?

Like his fellow-Reformers, de Brès asserts that “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 he cannot be.”5 In opposition to Dispensationalists who believe that the Church was a sort of “afterthought” in Christ’s mind, a sound reading of Scripture points in an entirely different direction. Even though she has gone through a number of modifications the Church has been one in both testaments. The Church has been in existence from the outset and will be until the end.

This should, in our day and age, give us great confidence because what David Wells calls “our time” manifests one of the most deplorable lacks of biblical knowledge than almost any previous time. It is, indeed, comparable to the Dark Ages, which is tantamount to 1,000 years without a spiritual bath. It is also clear that de Brès understood that true Christians are the subjects of Christ’s kingship. In the Heidelberg Catechism (Lord’s Day 12, Q/A 31) we are asked why our Lord is called Christ, the Anointed One. Part of the answer to that question reveals to us that he is “our eternal King, who governs us by his Word and Spirit, and who defends and preserves us in the enjoyment of that salvation, he has purchased for us.”6

What is key for us to note is the combination of Word and Spirit that not only permeates this confessional statement but also virtually every other Reformed confession as well. The modern Church has found a number of surrogates for the Word and Spirit, but in the Reformed tradition there has always been a healthy emphasis on the two working together. The same Spirit who inspired the scriptures works in the hearts and minds of the true Christians, true members of Christ’s Church both to enlighten and to illumine. One of the key places where this combination works is in and through sound preaching of the Word of God.

This is truly an area where the modern Church is bankrupt and has given the “seekers” stones for bread. Preaching has been de-emphasized and all but pushed off into an obscure corner. The praise band and leadership team take center stage—and a stage it is because it certainly isn’t a chancel. During the Middle Ages and afterwards, the altar of the Roman Catholic Church was in the center of the sanctuary. The pulpit, where the short homily was delivered was off to the side. In many churches today the sermon is a “side dish” and is preferably kept short—very short—and upbeat, filled with anecdotes and the more or less loose stringing together of quotable quotes. If there even is a text and it is read, it is then relegated to a place where it will never be heard from the rest of the service. If it is heard from again the poor text is twisted and distorted to mean anything and everything the pastor wants it to mean that day. Sadly the ill-trained and ill-equipped audience will never know the difference.

Thankfully, there are still faithful churches of Jesus Christ where the Word of God is proclaimed plainly and clearly and where faithful pastors will preach what Scripture teaches even, if necessary, to their detriment. What matters—most—is that the pastor is feeding the sheep from the Word and not from the latest headline, movie, song, or quote from Ghandi, Kierkegaard, or Kafka. In short, the Word is exposited, even if it means not “engaging the culture” for a moment.

What is Faith?

In opposition to the Roman Catholic Church, the Reformers taught that the Church of Christ was truly catholic and not Roman Catholic. By the catholicity of the Church the Reformers understood—with their emphasis on the communio sanctorum—a holy Church that “is not confined, bound, or limited to a certain place or to certain persons, but is spread and dispersed over the whole world; and yet is joined and united with heart and will, by the power of faith, in one and the same spirit.”7 That which joins the true Christians together is true faith.

The Reformers clearly understood what Scripture teaches about the nature of true saving faith and have passed that rich heritage on to us. Before we look at what John Calvin and the authors of the Heidelberg Catechism say about true faith, however, I want to digress for just a moment to make a crucial point about some matters that are often omitted in our modern setting. The authors of the Heidelberg Catechism set out to write a book of comfort. The first question and answer of that catechism is at least as well known as the first question and answer of the Westminster Shorter Catechism. We are asked, What is your only comfort in life and in death? A summary of the answer given is that we do not belong to ourselves, but belong “with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.” By mentioning the Father and the Holy Spirit as well, the authors provide us with a thoroughly Trinitarian starting point.

An interesting side bar—and little known fact—is that approximately one year before the Heidelberg Catechism was published, one of its authors, Zacharias Ursinus, published a larger version in Latin comprised of 323 questions and answers. The first question is essentially the same as in what has come down to us in the Heidelberg Catechism, but what is highly instructive is the answer given in the larger catechism. (The translation of this first answer is mine.)

“That I have been created by God according to his image unto eternal life; and that God, after I had willfully lost this image in Adam, God took up me into his covenant of grace in his immeasurable and unobliged mercy, in order to grace me by faith according to the obedience and death of his Son, whom he sent in the flesh, with righteousness and eternal life; and he has sealed this covenant in my heart by the Holy Spirit, who reforms (or recreates) me according to the image of God and who calls Abba Father in me as well as by his Word and visible signs.”8

Ursinus demonstrates not only the Trinitarian nature of the foundation of this theological/pastoral thinking, but also immediately brings us into the realm of the covenant of grace—and all that it entails—, the much-disputed active obedience of faith, denied by Norman Shepherd and a number of those adhering to the Federal Vision, the passive obedience of Christ, justification by faith, glorification, the Person and Work of the Holy Spirit, and the Word and sacraments. It is this type of astute theological formulation that typifies and characterizes both the Heidelberg Catechism and the Reformation.

One final comment is necessary before we proceed and that is Ursinus’ emphasis on the covenant of grace at the outset of his work. Rather than handling the covenant of grace as a separate locus in theology he is telling us that it will play an integral part of his entire exposition. In terms of how Reformers down through the centuries have understood how expansive the covenant of grace is in terms of its effects upon other loci of theology we need only look at the introduction to Bavinck’s exposition of ecclesiology. To make this accessible to the English-speaking world, I’ll limit myself to his popular dogmatics Our Reasonable Faith.9

He begins by explaining the “route along which” the blessings of God accrue to his people. It is Christ who “brings the benefits of calling and regeneration, faith and repentance, justification and adoption as children, renewal and sanctification, into being in His believers on earth, and sustains and reinforces them.”10 Where does a true church of Jesus Christ come into play in this? Bavinck states, “We have already noted that He grants all those benefits by means of his Word and His Spirit, but have still to see that he also grants them also only in the fellowship that binds all the believers together.11 Thus, Bavinck insists on the combination of Word and Spirit as well as fellowship with a true body of Christ.

Modern churches tend to be individualistic but for the Reformers and Bavinck “The believer…never stands apart by himself; he is never alone.”12 The manner in which Bavinck works this out practically is summarized in the following manner: “The believer is born from above, out of God, but he receives the new life only in the fellowship of the covenant of grace of which Christ is the Head and at the same time the content. If by virtue of this regeneration God is his Father, the church may in a good sense be called his mother.”13

When we delve into Book 3 of the Institutes, we discover that Calvin is still speaking within the context of the covenant of grace as he delineates the way in which we receive the grace of Christ. His opening words in 3.3.1 state unequivocally that the Holy Spirit is the bond that unites us to Christ. He writes, “First, we must understand that as long as Christ remains outside of us, and we are separated from him, all that he has suffered and done for the salvation of the human race remains useless and of no value for us. Therefore, to share with us what he has received from the Father, he had to become ours and dwell within us.”14 In other words, “…all that he possesses is nothing to us until we grow into one body with him.”15

For Calvin, “…the Holy Spirit is the bond by which Christ effectually unites us to himself.”16 Moreover, “faith itself has no other source than the Spirit”17 and no other object than Christ.18 In a very instructive, but also biting section Calvin reminds true believers that faith rests on knowledge and not upon pious ignorance. More specifically, faith rests on knowledge “not only of God but of the divine will.”19 For our purposes, however, it is his definition of faith that summarizes his teaching as well as manifests to us the inter-dependence of Reformed pastors and scholars.

In 3.2.7, Calvin gives us these words: “Now we shall possess a right definition of faith if we call it a firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence toward us, founded upon the truth of the freely given promise in Christ, both revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit.”20 Hold on to what Calvin says here as we proceed to what the authors of the Heidelberg Catechism taught.

If someone were to ask you to give them a succinct definition of faith, what would you say? The authors of the Heidelberg Catechism (Lord’s Day 7, Q/A 21) give us this answer: “True faith is not only a sure knowledge whereby I hold for truth all that God has revealed to us in his Word, but also a firm confidence that the Holy Spirit works by the gospel in my heart, that not only to others, but also to me, remission of sin, everlasting righteousness and salvation are freely given by God, merely of grace, only for the sake of Christ’s merits.”21

Our tendency might be to read over that as if it were yet another theological dictum, but that is far from the case. Since the authors of the Heidelberg Catechism intend their work to be a book of comfort for true believers (cf. Lord’s Day 1, Q/A 1) we can rightly read their work as an extended spiritual discourse on what it means to be in union with Christ and to be conformed to his image. At key points in their exposition, we find them referring to the union of the believer with his or her Lord and Savior by means of the term “ingrafted.”

In Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 7, Answer 21 we read that those only are saved “who by a true faith are grafted into Christ and accept all his benefits.”

Further up in a section discussing the implications and applications of justification by faith Question 64 asks, Does this teaching not make people careless and wicked? The answer given is as follows: “No. It is impossible that those grafted into Christ by true faith should not bring forth fruits of thankfulness.”

Finally, in the longest answer in the Heidelberg Catechism and one that was actually added a year later to the original document, a comparison is drawn between the Lord’s Supper and the papal mass. Without giving the entire answer, it is instructive to listen to what the authors taught regarding the Lord’s Supper. They write, “The Lord’s Supper testifies to us, first, that we have complete forgiveness of all our sins through the one sacrifice of Jesus Christ, which he himself accomplished on the cross once for all; and, second that through the Holy Spirit we are grafted into Christ, who with his true body is now in heaven at the right hand of the Father, and this is where he wants to be worshiped.”

Unfortunately, a number of modern pastors are little concerned that their audience or adherents are true believers and comprehend the importance of being conformed to the image of Christ. They seem more interested in beating the bushes for the lost, unchurched, or cultured dispisers, which is a good thing, but not at the expense of leaving the congregation at “square one” of the rudiments of the gospel. Those who are Reformed or Presbyterian and disregard the unio and prefer to preach all types of “trendy” matters short change their congregations horribly. What could be more important than grasping something of what it means that we are brought into intimate union with him, have been purchased/ransomed/redeemed by his atoning sacrifice, and are to live life coram Deo—in the presence of God, to the glory of God, and under the authority of his Word?

In an excellent article by the Dutch church historian, Willem van ‘t Spijker, our attention is directed to how central the concepts of true faith and the unio functioned in Calvin’s theology.22 He begins by citing Emil Brunner’s notation that the ingrafting of the believer with Christ was the central motif in Reformation theology and that most of Calvin’s theology was unintelligible without a thorough understanding of the centrality of the unio and I would add to that Calvin’s concept of preaching.23

How important is this notion of the unio for the individual as well as for the corporate body in the Church? Van ‘t Spijker is convinced that it is of ultimate importance in two specific areas: 1) assurance of faith and 2) the morality that attends true salvation.24 But whether we are talking about the life of the congregation in general or an individual specifically, the application still holds. In faith, Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper the unio mystica teaches us to seek our lives extra nos, outside of ourselves in Christ.25 For the astute theologian and Christian this must apply to both Christ’s active as well as his passive obedience. Do we merely look extra nos for his atoning sacrifice on the cross without also looking extra nos for his perfect keeping of God’s Law?

Van ‘t Spijker is convinced that when Calvin speaks about our assurance of justification—both temporally and finally I might add—the extra nos is the only possibility to exist before God.26 He reminds us that what Calvin offers in Inst. 3.11.10 is a foundational theme in his theology.27 Moreover, Calvin used the concept of the unio as equally fundamental for understanding his theology of the Holy Spirit.28 In other words, “Christ extra nos becomes, by means of the Spirit, Christ in nobis.”29 This notion is worked out in the Institutes more fully in 3.1.1 and 3.1.3.

For our purposes van ‘t Spijker’s comments regarding the unio and ecclesiology are of particular significance. He writes that even though the insertio is a personal occurrence, it is of no less importance within the context of ecclesiology.30 Why is that? Quite simply put it is due to the emphasis placed upon the unio and the Lord’s Supper, which involves the catholic Church of Jesus Christ. He is further convinced that for Calvin the Lord’s Supper was the greatest theological mystery, but that everything in the true believer’s life is summarized and concentrated in this ecclesiological occurrence.31 In fact, he goes so far as to assert that the being of the Church as well as being a true church of Jesus Christ is, in some sense, bound up in the Lord’s Supper.

We must keep in mind that van ‘t Spijker never mentions the notion of weekly communion as necessary for a holier congregation. It is well known that Calvin sought weekly communion, but we must keep in mind that that is not van ‘t Spijker’s point. It is conceivable that a congregation can celebrate the Holy Meal weekly and because of the preaching not be conforming or be conformed to the image of Christ at all. What matters first and foremost, since the sacraments are merely appendix doctrinae, that the preaching of the Word be sound and solid.32

Therefore, de Brès has provided us with an excellent Article to open the discussion regarding the universal Church of our Lord. He ends by touching on the idea of “the power of faith” and this is where pastors, his fellow-Elders, and biblical preaching come into play. The power of faith is not a magical quantity, but is rather qualitative. Just as faith can be strong or weak; moving forward or being diminished, so can its power. That being the case, we pastors need to perform some very serious soul searching on a regular basis and ask ourselves what kinds of sermons we’re preaching. Are we striving to gain the smiles and approval of our listeners or are we willing to tell them what Scripture says; what Scripture demands? William Still challenges us and reminds us of this essential truth: “To be pastors you must be ‘fed men’, not only in knowledge, but in wisdom, grace, humility, courage, fear of God, and fearlessness of men.”33

Once, by God’s grace, we overcome the fear of men—especially those who are “big givers,” wealthy, or who occupy a privileged place in society, we’ll be more prepared to preach the gospel. Once we settle in our own minds that what our congregation needs is our holiness and guidance in being conformed to the image of Christ, we might become prepared to leave off all the “engage the culture” claptrap and cutesy stories and anecdotes and actually equip the saints for service in the Kingdom of Christ.

1. [1] The chief author of the Belgic Confession was Guido de Brès, who was a preacher in the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands and who died a martyr at the hands of the Roman Catholics in 1567.

2. [2] Joel Beeke & Sinclair Ferguson, Reformed Confessions Harmonized, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999), p. 188.

3. [3] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 196911), p. 562.

4. [4] Ibid., 563.

5. [5] Beeke & Ferguson, Harmonized, 188.

6. [6] Ibid., 64.

7. [7] Ibid., 188. Italics mine.

8. [8] Zacharias Ursinus, Catechesis, summa theologiae per quaestiones et responsiones exposita: sive, capita religionis christianae continens, n.d.

9. [9] Herman Bavinck, Our Reasonable Faith, (Henry Zylstra [trans.]), (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1956).

10. [10] Ibid., 514.

11. [11] Ibid.

12. [12] Ibid.

13. [13] Ibid. Emphases mine.

14. [14] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, in the series, The Library of Christian Classics, (John McNeill [ed.] & Ford Lewis Battles trans.]), (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 19674), p. 537.

15. [15] Ibid.

16. [16] Ibid., 538.

17. [17] Inst. 3.1.4, 541.

18. [18] Inst. 3.2.1, 542.

19. [19] Ibid., 545.

20. [20] Inst. 3.2.7, 551.

21. [21] Ibid., 94.

22. [22] Willem van ‘t Spijker, “‘Extra nos; en ‘In nobis’ bij Calvijn in Pneumatologisch Licht,” in Geest, Woord en Kerk, Opstellen over de geschiedenis van het gereformeerd protestantisme, (Kampen: Kok, 1991).

23. [23] Emil Brunner, Vom Werk des Heiligen Geistes, (Tübingen: Paul Siebeck, 1935) where he writes, “Das ist auch das Zentrum der reformatorischen Theologie, namentlich in ihrer calvinischen Gestalt, der Lehre von der insertio in Christum, von der aus alles andere bei Calvin—seine kämpferische Ethik so gut wie seine Erwählungslehre, seine Lehre vom Sakrament und der Kirche sowohl wie seine Lehre von der Heiligung zu verstehen ist” (p. 33). A few pages later, Brunner emphasizes that the unio (insertio) is “die Mitte des ganzen calvinischen Denkens” (p. 38). Comp. S. van der Linde, De Leer van den Heiligen Geest bij Calvijn, (Doctoral dissertation Utrecht), (Wageningen: H. Veenman & Zonen, 1943) & Werner Krusche, Das Wirken des Heiligen Geistes nach Calvin, (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1957).

24. [24] In Dutch, van ‘t Spijker’s comments are a nice word play. Assurance in Dutch is zekerheid and morality is zedelijkheid.

25. [25] Van ‘t Spijker, Extra, 114.

26. [26] Ibid., 115. “Wanneer Calvijn spreekt over de zekerheid van de rechtvaardiging door het geloof alleen, wijst hij op dit extra nos, als de enige mogelijkheid om voor God te bestaan.”

27. [27] Ibid.

28. [28] Ibid., 121.

29. [29] Ibid.

30. [30] Ibid., 131.

31. [31] Ibid., 131-132.

32. [32] See Herman Selderhuis, Calvin’s Theology of the Psalms, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007).

33. [33] William Still, The Work of the Pastor, (Edinburgh: Rutherford House, 2001), p. 12.

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