“We believe, since this holy congregation is an assembly of those who are saved, and outside of it there is no salvation . . .” —Belgic Confession, Article 28
Though we as Reformed Christians may be unsure or even uncomfortable about how freely present-day evangelicals speak about their relationship to Christ in the possessive “my” or “mine,” it certainly has biblical precedence. I am reminded of one, who in the midst of a sterling and courageous defense of the doctrine of justification by faith, spoke of Jesus as one who “loved me and gave Himself for me” (Gal. 2:20).
Having said that, we all need to evaluate our understanding of salvation, including the language we use to describe it, to make certain that it reflects all the biblical data. Our Belgic Confession, in particular, aids us in this pursuit of Scripture truth by reminding us of the holistic nature of salvation: that redemption has a corporate aspect to it.
The bond between the Christian and Christ’s church is not to be understood as merely a formal assent by the Christian to a strong ecclesiology but, in fact, a living bond expressed in terms of our union with Christ by faith and its outworking in the life of the local congregation and broader Christian community in the unity of a common salvation.
I would especially draw your attention to how this common salvation affects the communion of saints, since I believe this was what Guido De Brès meant to convey. Notice that the confession uses the singular “holy congregation” and “assembly” in Article 28. Thus De Brès was not thinking of any particular gathering of the saints, or even those of the “(Reformed) Churches under the Cross” which he served. Rather he had in mind the catholic church or Christ’s people in all ages and times that He has saved.
We see this reflected in Article 27 as we confess “one catholic or universal Church, which is a holy congregation of true Christian believers.” What makes this church “catholic” is that is has existed “from the beginning of the world and will be to the end thereof” and is not “confined, bound, or limited to a certain place or to certain persons.”
Undoubtedly this is drawn from Scripture truths and teachings. Paul speaks of the reconciliatory work of Christ not only in terms of our restoration to a peaceful relationship with God but also with one another. “Now” he says “in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (Eph. 2:13). The Gentiles to whom he writes have been brought to the same God as the Jews, through the same Christ as the Jews and thus now have the privilege of being together “fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (v. 19).
I wonder though if this is something we even spend time contemplating. We are in the company of the saved and we are part of a saved body. We share a privilege unlike any other privilege that humanity, as a whole, possesses. As we considered in our last article, there are many things that bond people together, but this is what binds us together as Christians: nothing less than the precious blood of Christ that has atoned for our transgressions! Indeed, He “saves His people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21).
Perhaps some of you have worshiped with brothers and sisters in Christ from a different culture and in a different language. Did you think, afterwards, how wonderful that was and even that it was a foretaste of eternal life?1 Perhaps we would do well to sing Psalm 87 (and like psalms) more often, for we see that the highest ideal of the church’s existence is that all of the nations are represented in this “holy congregation.”
We can compare this picture the psalmist paints to a time when you visited a church and discovered that they have a registry or registration book. In that book you find dates, names, and church affiliations. More often than not, a person will write in where he is from, which gives the reader a sense of the wideness of the net the congregation casts in terms of who knows about him or who has found out about him.
So also Zion, from the perspective of the psalmist, has a registry of names including the origin of the people. Indeed the Egyptian, the Babylonian, the Philistine, and the Ethiopian are all “born” in Zion (v. 5). Yet did these nations (in the main) partake of the covenant that God made with Israel? No, that was limited to Abraham’s seed. The nations listed here were all, at one time or another, even sworn enemies of Abraham’s children. What, then, is the psalmist talking about? How is it possible that these people find themselves assembled in holy Zion?
Evidently the psalmist is speaking of the book of life or the Lamb’s book of life. Zion, then, is not referring to Jerusalem, the physical city, but about the church incorporating all the peoples of the earth into her midst. The author of Hebrews speaks of this Zion in chapter 12 of his epistle: “But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven” (vv. 22–23).
Herein lies the essence of the catholic church’s unity in a common salvation: it is spiritual and not physical. That is, it is not something we can see (at least not yet). It is something we confess to be true simply because Scripture tells us that it is so. Only on that day when the Lord returns and gathers us from east and west, north and south, will we truly see or perceive the glorious reality of this confession.2
But when we say that the essence of the catholic church’s unity is spiritual, we do not mean to say it cannot be manifested in concrete, physical ways. Indeed not only should it be, but also it must be. Ask yourselves, where are the Lamb’s people? Do they exist for themselves or of themselves? Are they saved in a far-off land outside of the communion of saints? No, for as De Brès reminds us in this very article of the confession, outside of this church, which is manifested in local, physical gatherings, there is no salvation.
After all, is not the preaching of the gospel the means of salvation or the ordinary way in which God works to bring the nations to orinto Zion? (Rom. 10:14–15) And has not the church been entrusted with this gospel and the faith once for all delivered to the saints? Who other than this people, in real time and space, have been called to disciple the nations? Truly the privilege of a common salvation is not just to experience it but also to proclaim it as well. What an extraordinary responsibility and opportunity we share together.3
And yet despite all this, we must take care not to fall into various traps that our enemy has laid for us. Confessing the truth of the oneness or bond of common salvation experienced in Christ’s church exposes us to three common errors of which we must be aware and warn against. We can only address them briefly here, but a summary explanation and exposure of each will, I believe, suffice to guard our hearts against any unnatural or sinful prejudices.
The first error concerns the idea that salvation is only for church people or covenant members. Instead, we remember that Christ came to seek the lost, even those who had been largely abandoned by the covenant community of His day. Let us be humbled by Calvin’s reminder about how the sacraments of the church, even as signs and seals of our salvation in Christ, remind us of the unworthiness we all possess before a holy God:
He whom you detest appears to you to be unworthy of the grace of Christ. Why then was Christ himself made a sacrifice and a curse, but that he might stretch out his hand to accursed sinners? Now, if we feel disgust at being associated by baptism and the Lord’s Supper with vile men, and regard our connection with them as a sort of stain upon us, we ought immediately to descend into ourselves, and to search without flattery our own evils. Such an examination will make us willingly allow ourselves to be washed in the same fountain with the most impure, and will hinder us from rejecting the righteousness which he offers indiscriminately to all the ungodly, the life which he offers to the dead, and the salvation which he offers to the lost.4
The second error we wish to avoid is that salvation is only for those who submit to (fill in the blank) or salvation is only for those who jump through hoops. The gospel is simple enough for a child to understand (in terms of their baptism) that they were dirty (sinful) but are now washed clean by Jesus’ blood. Though we rightly guard church membership with a jealous eye to maintain the purity of Christ’s body, we must also graciously communicate that the requirements for membership are not a unbiblical binding on the conscience or heart of the sincere believer who needs more instruction.
The third error is, perhaps, the most pernicious of all, as the enemy tries to convince us that salvation automatically belongs to us because we belong to the church. Salvation is not ours solely by virtue of outward church membership. The traditional, Reformed distinction between the visible and invisible church serves our purposes here well.5 That is, we maintain that not everyone who partakes in the broader community of the church by baptism and confession truly partakes in the eternal salvation of the believer who is united to Christ by faith and receives all His benefits. Paul reminds his readers that not all Israel are of Israel (Rom. 9:6). Ishmael and Esau are a sober reminder to the church today that not all who are joined to the church in name and sacramental experience have truly believed and confessed on the name of the Lord Jesus, that is from the heart as well as the mouth (Rom. 10:10).
Yet if we have done so, brothers and sisters, we are truly a family of believers who are bound together in Christ despite all of our differences. We are all saved by one Savior. Give praise to your Redeemer for making it so.
1. See Revelation 5:9.
2. The idea here is similar to Peter’s statement about Christ’s absence from us. Peter says Christ “having not seen you love. Though now you do not see Him, yet believing, you rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory” (1 Peter 1:8).
3. I believe that every member in the church has a responsibility to bring the gospel to the world. However we should distinguish between the Great Commission being fulfilled or followed by the various parts of the body of Christ who are commissioned for/to particular tasks and the Great Commission being given to the church as a whole body or one. As Paul explains, some are teachers, some are preachers but not all (Rom. 12:4–8; Eph. 4:11–13). Only some are stewards of the mysteries of the gospel (1 Cor. 4:1) and should administer the sacraments. That is, not every believer can or should try to fulfill every particular aspect of the Great Commission because they are not called or gifted to do so. Having said that, the church fulfills the Great Commission as a whole by supporting in prayer, finances and love those who are commissioned for the work of the gospel (Eph. 6:19–20; 1 Cor. 9:14; 16:14–16). The church is also responsible for calling (sending) the missionaries and evangelists (see Acts 13:1–3; Gal. 2:9). Finally, as a body, the church supports the Great Commission by living a life worthy of the gospel that is proclaimed within her midst (Phil. 1:27).
4. Emphasis mine. Taken from Calvin’s “Harmony of the Gospels” Luke 5:27–32.
5. See paragraph 1 of the Belgic Confession, Article 29, Q&A 54 of the Heidelberg Catechism , and Canons of Dort 5.9. It should be noted that though some Reformed authors and theologians have showed reticence in adopting the term visible and invisible church, most have held to the essential theological argument being made, even if they have expressed if differently. See “The Christian Reformed Church and the Covenant,” by Anthony A. Hoekema (chapter 9 in Perspectives on the Christian Reformed Church, edited by Peter de Klerk and Richard R. De Ridder) for a fruitful and edifying discussion on this point.
Rev. Daniel Kok is pastor of Grace Reformed Church (URCNA) in Leduc, AB.