Why Should I Go to This Church - 3
A Bit to Read
Why Should I Join This Church? – 3
Which church should I join, and not withdraw from? Two previous instalments of A Bit to Read indicated that so much of the answer to that question depends on what one means with the word ‘church’. We learned that Scripture does not use the term to describe some invisible or mystical entity that only God knows about, but uses it instead to describe a very visible assembly of Christian believers, gathered at a particular place (that’s Article 27 of the Belgic Confession). In this third instalment we look at the question of why it is necessary to salvation to join the church of Jesus Christ –the gathering of the saints– in your community. At the same time we’ll find an answer to why one is not to withdraw from this church. This gets us into Article 28.
Not separate what God has joined together
In His Word the Lord places an inseparable link between Himself and His church.
1. The church in Corinth –local, visible, joinable– is “of God” (see 1 Corinthians 1:2; 2 Corinthians 1:1). Paul tells Timothy that the church in Ephesus of which he is minister is “God’s household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:14f). Because of this connection between God and His church, Calvin wrote: You cannot have God for your Father if you do not have the Church for your mother.
This link between belonging to God and belonging to God’s church is pointed up in the events of Pentecost. Peter’s preaching after Pentecost was blessed with many converts. The Lord, however, did not let these converts float wherever they would as so many disconnected individuals. Scripture tells us rather that “the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47) – or, as an alternate reading has it, “the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved.” Whichever way one takes it, the ‘number’ to which God joined these new believers was not an invisible entity, but a real, visible gathering where the believers “continued ... in the breaking of bread” (vs 42). To belong to God, to be one of the redeemed, brought with it that one was also joined to His Church. We’re not to separate what God has joined together.
2. That explains (in part) why the saints of the Old Testament desired to come together. Psalm 1:5 makes mention of “... the assembly of the righteous.” The righteous are not portrayed as so many individuals scattered throughout the land. They are a body, a group together, ‘the assembly of the righteous’. Similarly, David in Psalm 16 desired communion with all God’s saints. “As for the saints who are in the land,” he says, “they are the glorious ones in whom is all my delight” (vs 3). Again, David in Psalm 122:1,2 expressed his eagerness to congregate in the temple: “I rejoiced with those who said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the LORD.’ Our feet are standing in your gates, O Jerusalem.” The Temple in Jerusalem foreshadowed the Church of the New Testament, the “house of God” (1 Timothy 3:15). Ruth insisted that she accompany Naomi to the Promised Land because, she said, “your people shall be my people and your God my God” (1:16). She understood: you cannot separate God from His people. Similarly, Zechariah 8:23 tells us of the eagerness of the Gentiles to join the Jew: “Thus says the LORD of hosts: ‘In those days ten men from all languages and nations will take firm hold of one Jew by the hem of his robe and say, ‘Let us go with you, because we have heard that God is with you.’” Those who want salvation seek to join the assembly of the redeemed, for that is where God is.
In sum: one may not separate the church from God, nor God from the church. At a minimum, then, to withdraw from the church is to strain your relation with God.
God works where He is
We need to pursue this further. There is, after all, a distinct advantage to being where God is. How so? Where God is is also where God is pleased to work. The salvation which God in Christ prepared for His church is proclaimed in the world by His church, and so is available in His church. The only gospel that leads to salvation (Acts 4:12) has been given to the church so that the church is “the pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15). It is precisely because the only gospel of salvation has been entrusted to the church that Peter on the day of Pentecost makes a point of quoting Joel (Acts 2:16ff) – a prophet who spoke not only about the manner of salvation but also about the place of that salvation. In his words: “And everyone who calls on the name of the LORD will be saved; for on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there will be deliverance, as the LORD has said, among the survivors whom the LORD calls” (Joel 2:32).
The reference to Mount Zion and Jerusalem describes the place in the Old Testament where the gospel of Jesus Christ was proclaimed through the sacrifices in the temple. Those sacrifices made clear to the people not only that they deserved to die, but also that there was redemption through the blood of Another – and the faithful priests of the Old Testament belaboured this message for the edification of the Godly (Deuteronomy 33:10; Malachi 2:6).
That same gospel is proclaimed in the New Testament dispensation in the church of God. God has ordained that salvation is made available for mankind not in the bush or on the beach, nor in the flock of a stranger (John 10:12); salvation is available in the place where Christ is, where His voice is heard. Christ is present in His fold, so that “My sheep listen to My voice; I know them, and they follow Me” (John 10:27). Recall the illustration I used earlier: if one wished to buy a bike, the place to go is the local bike shop. Certainly you don’t go to the local bakery to buy a bike. That is: if one wants salvation, there is a place where one is guaranteed to find it, namely, the church. One can find salvation here because this is where Christ is pleased to labour. In His church His voice is heard (in the preaching), and so in His church the Holy Spirit works the faith one needs to be saved (see Lord’s Day 25). If one wants salvation, there is a place to go to obtain it.
This is also the meaning of these words of Article 28 of the Belgic Confession: “They must submit themselves to its instruction and discipline, bend their necks under the yoke of Jesus Christ, and serve the edification of the brothers and sisters, according to the talents which God has given them as members of the same body.” The “yoke of Jesus Christ” (the expression comes from Matthew 11:28f) reaches the child of God in His church. Through the offices He gave to His church, Christ exercises His dominion over His children (cf Hebrews 13:7,17, etc). It is in and through His church that the Lord comes to us and we to Him. In doctrine (teaching) and in discipline Christ is actively present, for the salvation of His own.
What happens, then, when one fails to join the church, or withdraws from it? This: one places oneself outside the scope of where God is pleased to work. Yet in the grind of daily life in a broken and fallen world, we need instruction and guidance from our God so very much. The church has rightly been called ‘the workshop of the Holy Spirit’, and the point is that the Divine Mechanic (bear with the expression for the sake of the analogy) is pleased to give us our spiritual tune-up not at our homes or on the side of the road, but in His garage. Since that’s the norm by which He does His work, we need to take our responsibility seriously and make a point of being in His workshop at the frequency He stipulates – and that’s each Sunday anew. Joining His church is not a once-off matter of getting your name on a membership list, but is an activity one repeats Sunday by Sunday as one joins the throngs in the house of God to hear His Word.
Does this all mean that God is unable or unwilling to work outside His workshop? The Lord, as mentioned before, is mighty to work wherever He wills. He is also free to do His work within us on the side of the road or in our homes, or even in a competitor’s garage. But what God is able or willing to do does not take away from my responsibility. Since we may not separate the Lord from the church, and since He is pleased to do His regenerating and strengthening work in His church, I need to act in accordance with His command, and not in accordance with His freedom or power. To ignore His command and presume on His goodness can be a fatal mistake, and is ultimately arrogance in defiance of God’s revealed will.
It is this material of God’s revelation in Scripture that we echo in Article 28:
We believe, since this holy assembly and congregation is the assembly of the redeemed and there is no salvation outside of it, that no one ought to withdraw from it, content to be by himself, no matter what his status or standing may be. But all and everyone are obliged to join it and unite with it, maintaining the unity of the church. They must submit themselves to its instruction and discipline, bend their necks under the yoke of Jesus Christ, and serve the edification of the brothers and sisters, according to the talents which God has given them as members of the same body.
Guido deBres wrote this confession in a context of persecution, and could well understand the temptation of the times to conclude that the price of acting consistently with this confession was simply too high. So deBres added these very pointed words:
To observe this more effectively, it is the duty of all believers, according to the Word of God, to separate from those who do not belong to the Church and to join this assembly wherever God has established it. They should do so even though the rulers and edicts of princes were against it, and death or physical punishment might follow.
All therefore who draw way from the Church or fail to join it act contrary to the ordinance of God.
It is pointed formulation, but we understand the argument: no one may withdraw and all must join the assembly of the redeemed because God has not made salvation available to sinners outside of this assembly.
That begs the obvious question: where is this assembly I’m to join and never to withdraw from? Given that there are so many churches in our community, how do I determine which assembly of Christians I’m to join? That’s the material of Article 29 of the Belgic Confession, to which we’ll turn next time, DV.
December 5, 2008