Why Should I Go to This Church - 4
A Bit to Read
Why Should I Go to This Church? - 4
In previous instalments I have endeavoured to show that we may expect to find more Canadians in heaven than only Canadian Reformed persons. That’s not to say that church membership is irrelevant; the second instalment considered the phrase that “there is no salvation outside of it” and concluded that to receive salvation one needs to join the catholic church of Christ, and do so by joining a very real, local, physical assembly, the church of Jesus Christ in one’s community. The third instalment gave the reason why it is necessary to join the church: the church cannot be separated from God, and God has ordained that salvation is made available to sinners through the ministry of the church.
Since the church, then, is so important to salvation, where may one find this church? That is: where is salvation available??
This broken life
As we seek an answer to this question, it is necessary to keep a number of factors in mind.
- God, sovereign as He is, “mercifully sends heralds of [His] most joyful message to whom He will and when He wills” (Canons of Dort, Chap 1, Art 3). God is not bound to any race of people, or to any language group, or to any families from generation to generation. He is free to call whom He chooses, where He wills, and at the time of His choosing. This does not mean that the Lord works at random, in the sense that He labours one day in this place, and withdraws tomorrow to labour in another place. He has revealed in His Word that He works within the framework of the covenant He has established with believers and their seed. He calls whom He wills and brings them to faith, and does not leave again until and unless these covenant children harden themselves in disobedience to His covenant.
- Satan is portrayed in the Scripture as a deceiver (John 8:44; Revelation 12:9), and a very cunning deceiver at that. So devious is he in his efforts to lead astray the people of God that he “masquerades as an angel of light” (2 Corinthians 11:14). He sets himself up (and sets up his ministers too, cf 2 Corinthians 11:13ff) as a herald of truth, even of the gospel of Jesus Christ, only to lead astray, step by step, the people who are not alert to his designs. Specific to the point in question: in an effort to lead astray the child of God, Satan will set up what looks like the Church of Jesus Christ while it in fact is his synagogue (Revelation 3:9).
- The hearts of people are and remain sinful. Though regenerated by the Holy Spirit, the people of God remain “so weak that we cannot stand even for a moment” (Lord’s Day 52.127). Paul cried out his frustration in the face of his remaining weaknesses: “I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out” (Romans 7:18) and “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?!” (Romans 7:24). That the church of Galatia turned away so quickly from “the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel” (Galatians 1:6) serves to point up how vulnerable Christians remain to Satan’s subtle attacks. On this point, it can never be cause for surprise to find people of God in a synagogue of Satan.
- The Lord God created the human race to act responsibly. Despite our fall into sin (and the weakness that results), God continues to treat us as responsible beings, and so to act in obedience to His norms. In relation to the point in question: our calling remains to join the assembly of God’s people wherever God gathers His own. Neither our circumstances nor our characters nor any other factor makes sin against the will of God tolerable or acceptable.
These factors together set before the children of God the need to “discern diligently and very carefully from the Word of God what is the true Church,” as Article 29 has it. After all, “all sects which are in the world today claim for themselves the name of Church.” The ongoing activity of God in Christ to gather His church, the attempts of Satan to present himself as an angel of light, the weakness of the human heart, and the responsibility God has given to us, all conspire together to demand that the child of God needs to “discern…what is the true Church.” This ‘discerning’ needs to remain a daily exercise. The child of God can never assume that ‘his’ church obviously is the true church today and therefore shall remain so indefinitely – so that the child of God can blissfully sit on his hands. Concretely, this means that the readers of this publication need repeatedly to see to it that ‘our’ church is and remains a true church of Jesus Christ.
From His throne in heaven, the Lord rules His own in this world through the ministry of the Word. The Church of Jesus Christ, we must remember, is a christocracy, a word that means that ‘Christ rules’. Where the authority of the word of God is acknowledged, there Christ is ruling. Such an assembly is His assembly.
- Christ rules through His Word. That Word, given in Holy Scriptures, is administered to sinners through the preaching (cf 2 Corinthians 2-5). To change images: the presence of the Shepherd is pointed up by whether or not His voice is sounded (see John 10). Fundamental, then, to the question of where the church of Christ is found is not whether a Bible is present, or a pulpit, or even preaching; fundamental is whether the preaching sounds like the voice of Jesus Christ. That is: is Christ acknowledged as sovereign, as Lord, as Head – His revealed will in Scripture the final authority? In practice: do the office bearers faithfully speak what the Head of the Church has instructed them to speak in His Word? Or do they add something to God’s revelation, or take something away from it, ignore a part? (See Deuteronomy 4:2; Revelation 22:20).
- As the faithful preaching of the gospel is the audible evidence that Christ’s authority is acknowledged, so the faithful administration of the sacraments is the visible evidence that His authority is acknowledged. The content of the preaching and of the sacraments is identical; both are “intended to focus our faith on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross as the only ground of our salvation” (LD 25). In an assembly, then, where the sacraments are not administered as Christ has instituted them, one cannot speak of Christ’s lordship being acknowledged. Such an assembly (of Christians!) is not an assembly of Christ.
- Again, where sin is allowed to run riot in the midst of the congregation (so that the message of the preaching is not enforced), the authority of Christ is not acknowledged. In the church of Christ, sin cannot be tolerated. Not that in His Church there is perfection, but there is sorrow for sin, repentance from sin, a conscious effort to stay far from sin.
The above three points are commonly known as the three marks of the church. Article 29 mentions them in its well-known formulation:
The true Church is to be recognized by the following marks: It practises the pure preaching of the gospel. It maintains the pure administration of the sacraments as Christ instituted them. It exercises Church discipline for correcting and punishing sins. In short, it governs itself according to the pure Word of God, rejecting all things contrary to it and regarding Jesus Christ as the only Head. Hereby the true Church can certainly be known and no one has the right to separate from it.
Notice that these three marks are all activities. The preaching of the gospel, the administration of the sacraments, and the maintenance of church discipline happen repeatedly and faithfully. These are ongoing activities of the Divine Mechanic (recall previous Bit to Read) that demonstrate His presence. A gathering of God’s people that fails to act consistency with the Saviour’s lordship has no right to call itself a church, for the Head of the church is not at work there. The people of God must gather where Christ is. And where Christ is, there Christ is also busy; there is action centred on the Word of Christ.
In our town there are numerous groups who claim for themselves the name of Church. No group in the community may rightly claim the name ‘Church’, however, unless that group governs itself according to the pure Word of God, rejecting all things contrary to it and regarding Jesus Christ as the only Head.
1. Such a gathering of believers is legitimate, because it gathers where Christ is busy, where the authority of His Word is humbly acknowledged. This gathering is legitimate in God’s eyes – a ‘true’ church. To this gathering I must join myself week by week, for my salvation’s sake. The criteria for joining this church can never include human factors as:
- It’s around the corner,
- I like the people, the singing, the baby-sit facilities, the preacher,
- My parents brought me up in this church, and so I’m comfortable here.
The criteria for joining a church can only be: my Lord is acknowledged here. This church is His work.
2. Other Christians of town, for whatever reason, meet in a gathering where Christ’s Headship is not acknowledged. Such a church may look much like Christ’s church, may have a gifted preacher and impressive singing, may have friendly members and fine confessions, etc. But as long as it does not “govern itself according to the pure Word of God”, as long as it does not “reject all things contrary to [that Word] and regard Jesus Christ as the only Head”, it is an illegitimate gathering of Christians. That is: they assemble in a place different from where Christ calls them, for He calls His people to His Word. For my very salvation’s sake I am not to join myself to that assembly.
No one may, therefore, judge the legitimacy of a group by whether or not its members are believers. Jesus said that He had other sheep who were not members of His fold; He had to bring them so that one day there would be (future tense!) one flock and one shepherd (John 10:16). The Bible is silent about whether those who congregated with Korah, Dathan and Abiram were believers or not, but the Bible is insistent that their assembly was illegitimate (Numbers 16) – and God demonstrated His strong displeasure with this illegitimate assembly of His people. Those who gathered with Jeroboam in Bethel transgressed God’s command (they assembled illegally, outside of the God-appointed place in Jerusalem), but nowhere do the Scriptures teach that those who assembled in Bethel were unbelievers and eventually damned (1 Kings 13). Not the identity of the people determines whether an assembly is legitimate before God (“true”), but rather whether Christ is busy there. And His activity is recognised by acknowledgment of His authority.
The False Church
From passages of Scripture as Numbers 16 and 1 Kings 13, Guido deBres also learned to speak about a false church. The term ‘false’ does not describe that its members are all hypocrites and unbelievers, and will ultimately be eternally lost. The term ‘false’ instead catches the notion that this assembly of believers (!) is illegitimate in God’s eyes, and that’s to say that this group of Christians is gathering at a place where Christ Himself is not present – and His absence is evident from the sounds coming off the pulpit. One hears not the voice of the Good Shepherd, but hears instead the voice of a stranger, a thief and robber (John 10:1,5). False money can look like the real thing and even buy you some goods, but is nevertheless counterfeit and illegitimate; so too a false church can look like the real thing and even benefit its members, but it is illegitimate before God, a counterfeit of the real thing. Invariably, then, a false church “assigns more authority to itself and its ordinances than to the Word of God. It does not want to submit itself to the yoke of Christ,” so that “it persecutes those who … rebuke the false church for its sins.” In a word, “it bases itself more on men than on Jesus Christ.” It’s obvious: for my own salvation’s sake (and, of course, my children’s after me), I may not join an assembly of Christians where the Voice of the Shepherd is not the final authority; I need instead to depart from it in favour of joining the assembly of believers where Christ’s Word is authoritative.
This series was triggered by an announcement that expressed disapproval about a member’s decision to withdraw from the church. There had to be disapproval of this withdrawal because of what the church is; the church is not some invisible body of the elect (with each local congregation being a better or worse manifestation of this church; that’s language found neither in Scripture nor in the Confession), but the church is the assembly of the redeemed – and that makes failure to assemble transgression of the mandate confessed in Article 28 of the Belgic Confession. The Lord Jesus Christ, after all, ‘works on’ His people at a certain place, and that place is recognizable by its submission to the Scriptures.
Here’s the ongoing challenge for every church: never may we assume that we are and will always remain a legitimate assembly of God’s people, with the Good Shepherd always at work in our midst. Repeatedly we need to ensure that the sound we hear in church is in fact the voice of the Good Shepherd and we need to ensure that we heed His voice humbly and work with His Word eagerly. For that’s how, and where, salvation is available.
December 12, 2008