Who needs a church when I have the Bible? Why waste my time with the Church when I have a personal relationship with Jesus? Studies have shown that only sixty per cent of self-proclaimed “born again” Christians attend church in a typical week. One of the reasons is that many have lost confidence in Christian churches. While forty-three of these “born agains” say they have a lot of confidence in Christian churches, thirty-seven per cent say they have “some;” thirteen per cent said they do not have much confidence in them; and four per cent said they have no confidence in these religious bodies.
The dramatic dogma of Christianity is not an individualistic drama, though. While Christ saves individual sinners, he does not save them in isolation, individualistically. The Scriptures teach that God the Father so loved the world (John 3:16) that He sent His Son “to save His people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21); and both the Father and Son poured out the Spirit “on all flesh” (Acts 2:17, 33) to apply the benefits of Christ to the Church.
The Centrality of the Church
We “waste” our time in church planting, corporate life, and weekly worship because one of the central tenets of the Christian faith is the centrality of the church in God’s redemptive plan. Christ came to build a Church (Matthew 16:18) and that Church is “a pillar and buttress of truth” (1 Timothy 3:15).
For us as Reformed Protestants, the centrality of the Church can be seen in the amount of discussion on the doctrine of the Church in the Belgic Confession. Whereas there is only one article on what many Reformed Christians think is our central tenet of faith, the doctrine of election (art. 16), and only one on what many Evangelical Christians think is the most important topic, the doctrines related to eschatology (art. 37), nine of the thirty-seven articles in our Confession are on what we believe about the Church of Christ (arts. 27-36).
In the time in which the Belgic Confession was written there were those who denied the “organized religion” of the established church and its ministry, as well as those who limited the Church to its Roman expression. So too, in our day, the Church is under attack. Even worse, it is not very important to many so-called Christians.
And so the dramatic portrayal of our redemption continues in the Belgic Confession of Faith as we confess where our redemption is found. Our drama turns, then, from theology proper, anthropology, Christology, and soteriology to ecclesiology, the doctrine of the Church.
The Attributes of the Church
Article 27 opens by saying, “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.” Here our Confession, as it does so often, reflects the teaching of the great Christian creeds. In Article 27 we read an exposition of what the Nicene Creed means when it confess that the Church is “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.”
Underlying all the issues between Rome and the Reformation on authority in the Church and man’s salvation was the issue of whether the Protestant churches were truly catholic and in line with the ancient churches and the Scriptures. Or were they schismatics, like the Donatists of old and the Anabaptists of the Reformation period? Our Confession includes a summary of what many of the Reformers, such as John Calvin (1509-64), Peter Martyr Vermigli (1499-1562), and John Jewel (1522-71), said to Rome about the Reformers being the continuation of the true, catholic Church.
When the Creed and Confession say that we believe “one” church, they are saying what Scripture says. In Paul’s “epistle of the Church,” Ephesians, he begins what may be a baptismal creed, saying, “There is one body” (Ephesians 4:4). Earlier he explained that the Gospel of Christ forever abolished the wall between Jews and Gentiles so that there was not a church of the Jews and a church of the Gentiles, but one church (Ephesians 2:11-22, 3:6). The Gentiles had been brought near (2:13) and made fellow citizens and members of the household of God (2:19, 3:6), and both Jews and Gentiles had been made one new man (2:15), were both given access through Christ in one Spirit to the Father (2:18), and are now being built into a holy temple in Christ (2:21-22).
The “holy” Church of the Creed is explained by the Confession as meaning that it 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.” Paul says in Ephesians, this is both a present reality (2:21) and a future expectation (5:26-27). Whether we have in mind the present reality or future expectation, this confession is a confession of faith.
We believe it will be true one day, but even now we confess that the sin-laden, divided, messy institution and organism we call the Church has been made holy in Christ. Despite our sins, God’s grace abounds beyond them (Romans 5:20). We can say with Scripture that the Church is a holy people (e.g., Exodus 19:6; 1 Corinthians 1:2) because the Church is the covenant people of God. So while we do know that not all Israel is Israel (Romans 9:6) from the point of view of election, when we speak of the Church as Christ’s Church, we speak of it as the holy bride of Christ (Ephesians 5; Revelation 21).
The Christian Church is located among all people, places, and times, as Thomas Aquinas said. It existed before the church in Rome came into being. The Confession says, “…this holy Church 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.” The Heidelberg Catechism expresses this very simply, saying, “…out of the whole human race” (Q&A 54).
The Church is universal in a geographical sense, reflecting such texts as James 1:1, where the Church is described as the twelve tribes of Israel scattered abroad. 1 Peter 1:1 describes the elect of God as members of Diaspora, the geographic dispersion of the people of God mentioned in the Old Testament prophets.
The Church is also catholic in an ethnic sense. The Abrahamic promise was that in Abraham “all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3; 22:18). God so loved the world, not merely Israel (John 3:16). All who labor and who are heavy laden and come to Christ receive His rest (Matthew 11:27). God has made the Gentiles clean (Acts 10:27-28). Christ has purchased a multitude of peoples which no man can number from every tribe, tongue, language, and nation (Revelation 7:9, 5:9). The hour has come in which true worshippers will not worship on Mount Gerazim or Zion, but in Spirit and truth (John 4:21-24).
The church is also catholic in a chronological sense: “This Church has 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.” Even more succinct are the words of the Heidelberg Catechism, which says the Church exists “…from the beginning to the end of the world” (Q&A 54).
What this means, in our contemporary language, is that the Church did not begin at Pentecost. Our Dispensational brethren have been teaching this to American Christians for well over a century, which has led to the belief that there are two churches, Israel and the Church. Yet the Confession offers a brilliant “proof” for the Church existing from the time of Adam. Since Jesus Christ is eternal, he is an eternal King, which means He must have always had a people to rule over. All those He was given by the Father in the eternal counsel of redemption (e.g., Ephesians 1:4 cf. Psalm 110) He has ruled over as Head of the Church throughout history.
This was a common theme in Reformed thought. We see it also in the words of John Knox, who like de Brès was in Geneva with John Calvin. In the Scotch Confession of Faith (Confessio Fidei Scoticana) he wrote,
As we believe in one God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, so we firmly believe that from the beginning there has been, now is, and to the end of the world shall be, one Kirk, that is to say, one company and multitude of men chosen by God … This Kirk is catholic, that is, universal, because it contains the chosen of all ages, of all realms, nations, and tongues, be they of the Jews or be they of the Gentiles, who have communion and society with God the Father, and with his Son, Christ Jesus, through the sanctification of his Holy Spirit (art. 16).
The purpose of these statements, along with being biblical, was to counter the Roman Catholic apologists who were arguing that because of the recent rise of the Protestant Churches, they could not be true churches. The Reformers, by pointing to the multiplex meaning of “catholic,” were giving their counter-argument that the Church began even before Rome came to be the “mother” of the Western Church. And so the implication was clear, while the Reformers left the Roman Catholic Church, they were reunited themselves with the true, catholic Church, which Rome had left.
The apostolicity of the Church was a contentious issue between Rome and the Reformers during the Reformation. Whereas Rome pointed to the apostolic succession of the bishop of Rome, the Reformers pointed to true apostolicity being found in adherence to and teaching of apostolic doctrine. And so men like Vermigli said things such as,
We do not propose any novelty, but have rather returned to the fountainhead of pure and apostolic teaching. We value and maintain continuity, communion, and fellowship with all the holy Fathers and bishops who were truly orthodox.
The Reformers were on solid biblical ground in claiming this as the meaning of “apostolic.” For example, the earliest New Covenant Church “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching” (Acts 2:42) and Paul taught that the Church was “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets” (2:20 cf. 4:11). The glorious vision of the New Jerusalem, described as having twelve foundations “and on them were the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb” (Revelation 21:14).
The Preservation of the Church
Our Confession taught that the Protestant churches were the true continuation of the catholic, Christian Church. Yet one of the popular claims Rome used against the Reformers to “prove” that they were the true Church was to point to numerical superiority. How could these new, numerically small churches and regions of churches be the true Church when there are so many who follow Rome?
The Reformers, who said “…greater numbers in themselves do not constitute a true mark of the Church,” turned to the theme of the remnant church in Scripture for polemic as well as pastoral reasons. One such account is the story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal in the days of Ahab. As the Confession says,
And this holy Church is preserved or supported by God against the rage of the whole world; though it sometimes for a while appears very small, and in the eyes of men to be reduced to nothing; as during the perilous reign of Ahab the Lord reserved unto Him seven thousand men who had not bowed their knees to Baal.
Outward success was no more an outward mark of the truthfulness of the church in Elijah’s dark days then it was for the Reformers or even us today. This, the account of 1 Kings 19 makes clear, as a remnant of a mere 7000 out of an entire nation was reserved for the Lord.
Despite the rage of the nations and the seeming calamity of the world, “God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved” (Psalm 46:5). Despite the onslaught of the armies from the gates of hell itself, Christ will establish and protect His church (Matthew 16:18) as He always has. When the exploits of the ungodly line of Cain were displayed in impressive array, the Sethites “began to call upon the name of the LORD” (Genesis 4:26). When the world was as wicked as it ever has been and the impending judgment of the Flood was on the horizon, God saved a mere eight souls (1 Peter 3:20). Although the church seemed small and “reduced to nothing,” becoming like Sodom and Gomorrah, the LORD reserved a remnant (Isaiah 1:9). And the same is true in this age. Although many of the Reformers like Calvin shied away from commenting on the book of Revelation, they believed it spoke of them. When the Devil could not kill Christ, he turned to his Church. Yet, God nourishes her in the wilderness as a pilgrim church (Revelation 12:6).
Our Response to Rome
So how do we live these words, especially in a day in which the Pope is so likeable and seemingly ecumenical and in which many Roman Catholics do not see us as false Christians and churches? While we do believe Rome is the false church and the Papacy the antichrist, the words of Peter Martyr Vermigli should become ours,
…we will not cease to love them in a Christian way because we desire a better life for them. We continually hope and pray that they may be converted to the Gospel of God’s Son, and eventually correct and reform what they have ruined and corrupted in the Church. Rev. Daniel R. Hyde is the pastor of the Oceanside United Reformed Church in Oceanside, California.
Study/Application Questions for Article 27
1. Why is the Church so important in God’s plan of salvation?
2. Is the Church relevant anymore? Why or why not?
3. Can the Church be destroyed? (Matthew 16:18)
4. Is the Church always “successful” in the eyes of the world (1 Kings19)? What are we to think about numerical success from a biblical point of view?