The Church of Christ (III)
In the last issue, we began a kind of reconnaissance of what the Reformed world has historically taught regarding the nature and character of the Church of Jesus Christ. Our initial foray took us to the Belgic Confession (1561), which was written by Guido de Brès. We took this approach primarily because there is so much confusion today about the Church and few even ask anymore about the nature of a true congregation of Jesus Christ.
More often than not a number of pragmatic reasons are put forward when it comes to choosing a local congregation for the family or individual. We obviously don’t have the time to allow every reason to pass in review, but allow me a few moments to give you some that I have heard.
Topping the list is almost invariably the statement that the music is great. Probing deeper the usual discoveries are made. The music is loud, contemporary, upbeat, and cutting edge. Hands are raised and people sway back and forth with their eyes closed. I made a startling discovery at the Chattanooga, TN PCA General Assembly. You might not know this, so it is worth passing along for your spiritual edification. Here’s what I discovered: the Holy Spirit doesn’t move or work when you sing psalms. It is patently true. I was once a skeptic myself, but the GA that year removed all shadow of a doubt. I know empirically.
Prior to our worship service one evening we sang a number of praise songs. Actually, the others sang, because I simply didn’t know them and I couldn’t keep up with when we were going to sing the same verse again—for the eighth time—and when we were going to sing the bridge, and…well, you get the point. As some of the people sang, eyes were closed, hands were raised, and there was a lot of swaying back and forth in near ecstasy. Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not put off or out if people do that. But here’s where my discovery came—ich ben aufgeklärt!—when we finally got around to singing a psalm all the eyes opened, the hands when down, and the swaying ceased. I suppose that people thought that the Holy Spirit was watching and didn’t like what looked like dancing. After all, this was a gathering of Presbos. Therefore, singing praise songs is better than singing hymns and psalms because the Holy Spirit doesn’t particularly care for that type of traditionalism—the dead faith of the living.
Second, the teenagers love the youth program. This comes from the “programs oriented” circles. Our youngest son, who is now an Orange County Deputy Sheriff, got drafted by the New York Yankees out of high school. Prior to the draft that year he played on three pro scout teams. I got to watch a lot of baseball and see a lot of the same faces over an extended period of time. But here’s the point I want to make. At one of those games I was talking to a dad about his son and he was telling me that his son really liked the youth program at the church they were attending—not members of; just attending—so I asked him what his son was learning about God. He glazed over a little and replied, “No, Ron, he really likes it a lot.” I responded that I understood but still wondered what he was learning about God. Finally, the father admitted to me that he didn’t have a clue. The kids or youth leader get slimed, the music is fun, the skits are fun, they watch fun videos like Jesus Rocks, therefore it’s all good.
A third and—in some circles—a growing reason is that certain churches are chosen and others are bypassed because the wife refuses to attend. A lot of the arguing goes on behind closed doors, but it’s there and it’s real. The man, wanting to avoid a conflict every Sunday, caves. This approach is truly an assault on male spiritual leadership in the home. Some women want their husbands to be spiritual leaders, but refuse to follow his lead in attending and joining a congregation that will truly equip him for his task.
In over twenty-five years that I’ve been a pastor I’ve discovered that the primary struggles in my life and in the life of the “lambs” that God has entrusted to me and my fellow-Elders are spiritual in nature. Things like reading the Bible daily on a consistent basis, a vital and heartfelt prayer life, praying with my wife, and leading family devotions top the list of areas where I’m not as consistent as I ought to be. I find this to be true of church members as well. Granted, some are better than others, but it’s a struggle. So why wouldn’t a wife want her husband to choose a local congregation where he’s going to be encouraged to lead at home and in the church and, simultaneously, be equipped to do the same?
Yet, when the wife is either under the influence of so-called Christian feminism or has preconceived notions of what kinds of sermons she expects the pastor to preach there can be trouble. This is not to suggest that the pastor gets it right all the time, but rather is simply meant to point out that if the pastor is truly shepherding and loving the flock that has been entrusted into his care that he will give the congregation what it needs and not necessarily what it wants to hear.
The Heidelberg Catechism on the Universal/Catholic Church
In the Heidelberg Catechism (Lord’s Day 21, Q/As 54-56) the authors summarize what Scripture teaches about the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ. They introduce the subject by asking us what we believe concerning this aspect of the Apostles’ Creed, since that is what they are expositing at this point in the catechism.
How do they answer that question? How would you answer it? If you take the time to study their answer, you’ll find that it is replete with Scripture and scriptural references. Here’s their answer: “That the Son of God, out of the whole human race, from the beginning to the end of the world, gathers, defends, and preserves for himself, by his Spirit and Word, in the unity of the true faith, a Church chosen to everlasting life; and that I am, and forever shall remain, a living member of it.”
The catholicity of Christ’s Church extends to the whole human race and this Church has been in existence since the beginning of the world and will endure to world’s end. The Son of God gathers, defends, and preserves this Church for himself. It is his Church and those who are under-shepherds would do very well to keep this in mind. It is not about them or their little empires or their aspirations to be a “successful” pastor; the successful pastor is the one who faithfully and clearly preaches God’s Word week in and week out, who visits his people in their homes, instructs them in the Bible and the catechisms, visits the shut-ins and those in the hospitals, and who manages and administers his meetings well.
What are the means of Christ’s Church-gathering work? The authors answer that the entire process of gathering, defending, and preserving his Church is by the Holy Spirit and the Word. This is the wording that is found in a number of Reformed confessions on a regular basis, albeit we usually find it expressed as Word and Spirit. The point here is that in the Presbyterian and Reformed tradition (the living faith of the dead) our reliance is on the Son of God gathering, defending, and preserving his Church by the Holy Spirit who inspired the scriptures and by the scriptures themselves.
Even though election is mentioned by the phrase “a Church chosen to everlasting life” the authors also tie in the important concept of the “communion of the saints” when we’re instructed that we are to be living members of Christ’s Church. Therefore, Ursinus reminds us in his commentary on the catechism he helped write that the nature or essence of the Church is “a gathering of people, who receive and confess the true doctrine of God and of his worship, the proper administration of the sacraments he instituted, and obeying his worship.”
In his commentary, Ursinus follows other Reformers in insisting that there is no salvation outside of the true Church and supports his position from Scripture. John Calvin, for example, introduces his explanation of the doctrine of the Church in this fashion: “I shall start, then, with the church, into whose bosom God is pleased to gather his sons, not only that they may be nourished by her help and ministry as long as they are infants and children, but also that they may be guided by her motherly care until they mature and at last reach the goal of faith” and “…for those to whom he is Father the church may also be Mother.”
What is important to note is that he sees the place where the preaching of the Word of God flourishes is in the Church. In another place, Calvin supplies us with what God has enjoined upon pastors: the “preaching of the heavenly doctrine.” Or, “…the church is built up solely by outward preaching.”
The notion of the communion of the saints is worked out more fully in Q/A 55 when we are asked to explain what we understand by our confession in the Apostles’ Creed regarding the communion of the saints. It is necessary for us to reflect upon that crucial question in the modern Church. What is essential to keep in mind is that our answer must be connected to what we just confessed in Q/A 54. Holding on to the truths we acknowledged there, we’re now going to take another step forward.
Woven into the fabric of the answer is a confession of our union with Christ. The technical term is the unio mystica or insertio. In terms that you and I understand, it’s conformity to Christ’s image or—as we saw last time—being “engrafted” into Christ by faith. Those who are being conformed to Christ’s image are “partakers of him and all his treasures and gifts.” This is the clear implication and extent of the union of the believer with the risen and ascended Christ.
The second aspect of the answer directs our attention to the practical applications and outworkings of being a living member of Christ’s Church; of being a part of the communion of saints. Part of being a member of a local congregation is employing our gifts readily and cheerfully for the advantage and salvation of other members. In other words, we are to show and know ourselves to be members of a covenant community and that requires our active participation in that body of believers.
One of the many areas where the modern Church is highly deficient is precisely here. Decades of superficial and tawdry entertainment have led many church consumers to believe that they are there to be catered to and entertained. If the entertainment factor stalls, then there is another consumer-driven congregation down the road who is willing to make the consumer happy and not speak about living a cross-driven life. A true body of Christ will be one in which the spiritual gifts will be discovered and then used for the well being and salvation of the others. How many modern consumers, who are eager to get out of the building after the service for a tee time or a tea time, are really concerned about the salvation of the other consumers? It’s possible in some churches never to have to speak to another person and to remain virtually totally anonymous.
The Heidelberg’s third question regarding the Church concentrates on the forgiveness of sins. As the Son of God gathers his Church around the Word of God by the Holy Spirit there should be an acknowledgment of our sins as well as the celebration of the forgiveness we receive both individually and as a body of Christ. It is within the context of this answer that the authors employ the reminders that we are forgiven “for the sake of Christ’s satisfaction” and being granted “the righteousness of Christ.”
As we move forward, it is evident from the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and from Calvin’s Institutes and other writings and commentaries that there is an inseparable relationship between Christ’s Church and the preaching of the Word of God. It really could not be much easier, so why do we try to make it so hard? What I keep hearing is that if we are to engage the culture effectively there must be the requisite contextualization. The Bible must be placed within a particular cultural context and be made to fit the notions and concepts of that particular culture. In terms of America, we must somehow make the scriptures palatable to the postmodern cultured despiser of the Christian faith.
We do not have the time to go into the whole (to my mind somewhat overrated, over-used, and often misunderstood) idea of contextualization, but Dick Gaffin has made some noteworthy comments in a recent article that are worthy of our consideration. In the first place, he states that “Scripture, ultimately, is not in need of contextualization but provides its own.” Gaffin cites the book of Hebrews as a case in point. He reminds us that it was “Originally addressed, as were the other New Testament documents, to readers in a particular time and place, under specific social, economic, and political conditions” but it nevertheless “reveals remarkably little about these cultural factors.” Gaffin has just given us a much-needed correction to the entire contextualization controversy. In spite of our erudition and desire to be culturally astute, we have overlooked this obvious elephant in the room.
Staying with the example of the book of Hebrews, it is patently true that “What the writer is concerned to have his readers grasp clearly is that they are ‘in these last days’ when God has spoken his final word in his Son (1:2), when Christ ‘has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself…and…will appear a second time…to bring salvation” (9:26, 28). Once again, Gaffin has introduced the obvious, but it is highly instructive. He concludes, “The ultimately relevant and decisive ‘context’ of his readers’ existence, in all its undoubtedly enculturated particularity, is not that particular context but the period between the exaltation and return of Christ, in which the church has its identity as the new and final wilderness community (esp. 3:7ff.).”
Simply put, what is often lacking in modern church services is precisely the relationship between “doing church” and preaching. It’s somewhat understandable when Joel Osteen is not concerned with biblical worship but with entertaining the troops. It’s quite another thing when some PCA pastors are guilty of the same thing.
 For this answer, the authors offer us the following texts as pertinent: Eph. 5:26; John 10:11; Acts 20:28; Eph. 4:11-13; Gen. 26:4; Rev. 5:9; Ps. 71:17-18; Isa. 59:21; 1 Cor. 11:26; Matt. 16:18; John 10:28-30; Ps. 129:1-5; Rom. 1:16; 10:14-17; Acts 2:42; Eph. 4:3-5; Rom. 8:29; Eph. 1:10-13; 1 John 3:14, 19-21; 2 Cor. 13:5; Rom. 8:10; Ps. 23:6; 1 Cor. 1:8-9; John 10:28; 1 John 2:19; 1 Pet. 1:5.
 Zacharias Ursinus, Het Schatboek der verklaring over de Heidelbergse Catechismus, Vol. 1, (Festus Hommius [trans.]), (Dordrecht: Uitgeverij J.P. van den Tol, 1977), p. 436.
 Ibid., 445. Cf. Isa. 37:32; Ezek. 13:9; Joel 2:32; John 15:4; 3:36.
 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Vol. 2, (John McNeill [ed.] & Ford Lewis Battles [trans.]), (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 19674), p. 1012.
 Ibid., 1011-1012, where he says, “And in order that the preaching of the gospel might flourish, he (God) deposited this treasure in the church.”
 Ibid., 4.1.5, p. 1017.
 Ibid., 1019.
 Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., “The Vitality of Reformed Systematic Theology,” in Anthony T. Selvaggio (ed.), The Faith Once Delivered, Essays in Honor of Dr. Wayne R. Spear, (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 2007), p. 28.
 Ibid. Footnote 77.
Labels: The Church of Christ