Annotations to the Heidelberg Catechism - Lord's Day 21
Lord's Day 21
What do you believe
concerning the holy catholic Christian church?
I believe that the Son of God,
out of the whole human race,
from the beginning of the world to its end,
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 I believe that I am
and forever shall remain
a living member of it.
What do you understand by
the communion of saints?
that believers, all and everyone,
as members of Christ
have communion with Him
and share in all His treasures and gifts.
that everyone is duty‑bound
to use his gifts
readily and cheerfully
for the benefit and well‑being
of the other members.
What do you believe
concerning the forgiveness of sins?
I believe that God,
because of Christ's satisfaction,
will no more remember
nor my sinful nature,
against which I have to struggle
all my life,
but He will graciously grant me
the righteousness of Christ,
that I may never come into condemnation.
Q. & A. 54 (Part I) The House of God
- The word “church” connotes something that belongs to the Lord. The word probably evokes the idea of “house,” so that it is permissible to speak of “The House of God” (see 1 Tim 3:15; 1 Pet 4:17). For that is what the church is, the house of God, the temple which he chose for himself and which he builds. Holy Scripture uses the word “congregation,” which is a translation of the Greek word ekklèsia. (Cf. Fr., église). It denotes the gathering of the people called together by the government in olden times, to impart information. The church also has that characteristic. It is a congregation which is called together; it is called by one person (God), while others come to it (the members).
- You should note that the creed states, “I believe the church.” It does not say, “I believe In . . . ,” but only, “I believe. . . .” Hence, there is a distinction between this article and the preceding ones. In those it said, “I believe In. . . .” That means, from the Scriptures I know and entrust myself to God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. We do not entrust ourselves to the church, nor do we rely on her. But we do believe the church, that is, we know it only from the Word.
- The Word of the Lord always speaks in terms of promise and demand, in accordance with the two parts of the covenant. It speaks that way about the church, too.
The church is promised to us and demanded of us. The Bible tells us what God will do in respect of the church and what he demands of us in respect of the church.
God's promise concerning the church is that he chooses it, redeems it by his Son, and sanctifies it through his Spirit. (Isa 43:1-3; Mt 16:18; Jn 10:28-30). His demand is that we maintain the unity of the church and serve its preservation and increase in all our words and actions. (Eph 4:1-5; Rom 12:10). The Catechism speaks mainly about God's promise concerning the church. That promise is also confessed in art 27 of the BC. Articles 28-9 of the BC discuss God's demand in detail. Article 28 states that everyone is obliged to join the true church, while art. 29 discusses the distinction between the true and false church.
- The BC uses two words for the church. Article 28 says, “this holy Assembly and Congregation is the assembly of the redeemed and there is no salvation outside of it.” Thus, it calls the church a Congregation (L.: congregatio), or gathering, for Christ gathers the believers; he brings them together (collects them) as one flock (cf., e.g., a stamp Collection). But this Congregation is also an Assembly (L.: coetus), i.e., a meeting. Those, whom Christ gathers, also assemble; they come together; they seek each other. The Word of the Lord motivates them to do so.
- It is beautiful and deserves our attention that the Catechism begins its description of the church by pointing to the Son of God, our Lord Jesus Christ. For it is he who gathers, defends and governs the church. God has anointed him as king over Zion (Ps 2:6). Thus, no true communion with the church is possible without communion with Christ. Article 27 of the BC says that the church is “a holy congregation and assembly of the true Christian believers.” True, the church contains hypocrites (those who pretend, like actors in a play). But although they are in the church, they are not of (part of) the church. (They are like gall stones which are in the body and are nourished by it, but do not belong to it). With the church, therefore, we must always look to Christ. He is its strength, its King. That is why, also for the church, we may expect all things from him, who has been given all power in heaven and on earth. We must always ask what his will is. If we do that, the church will be gathered and defended “automatically.” If everyone did that, the unity of the church would be maintained properly. That unity is not maintained properly now, partly because of our defective insight into the truth, but more especially because men do not put their trust solely in Christ and do not seek exclusively what his Word demands.
The Catechism also says that Christ gathers a church “for Himself.” He gathers it for his own, for the church is his. That is why we must always ask what the Lord's will is in all things concerning the church.
- Christ gathers his church from the beginning of the world to its end. His church gathering work comprehends several dispensations (See Introduction, D, 4). Further, he gathers the church out of the whole human race, from all tribes and peoples and tongues (Rev 7:9). And he gathers it by his Spirit, who makes use of the Word (Acts 16:14). That is how he gathers the congregation which is chosen to everlasting life! The church's destination is life eternal. The church will reach that destination, because it was chosen for life eternal (Rom 8:29). The church's source is God's election.
- Christ, who gathers his church, also defends and preserves it. That does not mean that it will always have a peaceful existence. The church has been called to struggle and to bear the cross and it was foretold the church that it would face persecution in the world. But despite all the fury of the enemy, Christ will not let it succumb (see BC, art. 27). Further, he will not neglect to provide the church with everything necessary to permit it to persevere in faith (2 Tim 4:17, 18).
- In the last words of the answer the Catechism teaches us that there are two kinds of members, living and dead members. The latter, too, are members; otherwise they could not be excommunicated. They are dead branches on the vine. The last sentence of the answer, “And I believe that I am and forever shall remain a living member of it,” makes it clear that this also forms part of our faith, just as much as the first sentence. That it why it repeats the words “I believe.” Only in faith do I know that I am a living member of the church. And in that faith I also know that I shall forever remain a member of it. This knowledge should not lead us to complacency and carelessness, but is meant for our consolation and encouragement. (Read the fifth chapter of the CD carefully on this point).
- The church is one. Article 27 of the BC says: ". . . it is joined and united with heart and will, in one and the same Spirit, by the power of faith."
The Catechism says that the church is gathered “in the unity of the true faith” (Eph 4:4-6; Jn 17:21). The church Exists, in Christ, and through the Holy Spirit. And we are commanded to Maintain the unity of the church. (See BC, art. 28). We may not be content to be by ourselves, but are obliged to join it and to submit ourselves to its instruction and discipline; we must bow our necks under Christ's yoke.
- The church is holy. Article 27 of the BC says: ". . . [its members] are washed by [Christ's] blood, and are sanctified and sealed by the Holy Spirit."
That does not mean that they are perfect. Article 29 of the BC says: "Although great weakness remains in them, they fight against it by the Spirit all the days of their life. They appeal constantly to the blood, suffering, death, and obedience of Jesus Christ, in whom they have forgiveness of their sins through faith in Him." (See also Eph 5:25-27).
- The church is catholic (universal), for it is gathered out of all nations, and from all ranks and stations (Rev 7:9; BC, art. 27, penultimate sentence).
- The church is Christian. Article 31 of the BC says that Christ is “the only universal Bishop and the only Head of the Church.” (See further, Col 1:18; Eph 2:20-22). An assembly which does not recognize and maintain Christ's exclusive kingship, is not the church.
B. Cross References
- CD II, 9, confesses that the church has always existed and will always exist.
- See also the Form for the Public Profession of Faith, questions 1 and 4.
- What do the words “church” and “congregation,” respectively, mean? What is the difference between “I believe” and “I believe In”? Why do we say, “I Believe the church”?
- What else must we distinguish concerning the church as it is described in Scripture?
- What is God's promise for the church? What is his demand?
- What aspect of the church does the Catechism address primarily? Which art. of the BC also confesses this? What is the subject matter of art. 28 and 29, respectively, of the BC?
- Which two expressions does the BC use to describe the church? What is the distinction between them?
- Who is the King of the church? Is true communion in the church possible if there is no communion with Christ?
- What are hypocrites? Are they In the church, or Of it? What is the difference?
- During which time period does Christ gather his church? Out of what does he gather it? By what means does he gather it? What is the church's destination? What is its source?
- What else does Christ do besides Gathering his church? What does that mean?
- What kinds of members are there? How do you know that you are a living member of the church and that you will forever remain a living member? Which chapter of the CD speaks about the perseverance of the saints?
- What is the basis of the unity of the church? What is our duty with respect to this unity?
- What does it mean that the church is holy? Is it also perfect?
- What is the significance of calling the church “catholic”?
- What does it mean that the church is called “Christian”?
Q. & A. 54 (Part II) Church and Churches?
- When people discuss the church, they are apt to use various terms which are not used by the confession, and which we should also avoid. For although each of these terms denotes something that is true about the church, their use has caused several misconceptions about the church. We shall discuss the terms here in order to point out and reject the errors connected with them.
- For example, people speak of the church Militant, Triumphant and Future. There is some truth in this distinction, provided one does not over emphasize it. The church does, indeed, have to Fight against Satan, the world and the corrupt nature of its members, but it is also already entitled to boast: “In all these things we are more than conquerors” (Rom 8:37). Further, the church in heaven is Triumphant, having Conquered, but also in heaven the members of the church continue to pray for Christ's complete victory (Rev 6:10). Speaking about the Church to Come also has merit, in that it reminds us of the fact that those already sanctified and those who presently believe do not together form the entire church. Others will still be added to it. That is why the Catechism says that the Son of God Gathers, Defends and Preserves his church, and uses the present tense for all three verbs. Christ does this today and continues to do it. Hence, the church is still Nascent (in the process of becoming). No one can as yet survey it in its entirety. That will only be possible when the last of the elect has been glorified. For the time being, the church is still like a house that is being built. You can see part of it, but not the whole.
The church Militant, Triumphant and To Come are, therefore, not three churches, but three parts of the same church. No communion is possible between the first and the second, but the first must imitate the second's faith whereby it conquered. Further, the first must preserve this faith for the last.
- Also used is the distinction between the Visible and Invisible church, and it has caused a lot of harm. It is true that there is much about the church that is Invisible and much that is Visible, just as a watch has an invisible part, the movement, and a visible, the face. Thus, e.g., the church's extent and its faith are Invisible, while its confession and walk of life are Visible. The problem is that some people severed the one concept from the other to some extent. They would say, for example: What really counts is that we are members of the invisible church. (This is, in fact, an absurdity. How can an assembly of people be invisible?) These people were of the opinion that the word “gathers” in the Catechism refers to the visible church, while the expression “forever shall remain a . . . member . . . ” refers to the invisible church. But neither the Catechism, nor the BC recognizes the distinction.
- Another distinction that is used is the one between the church as Institute and as Organism. True, the church is a living organism. It is a Body and we are its Members. But it also exists as an Institution, an established body. Thus, for example, it is governed by the established offices. But here, too, the problem was that some people severed the two concepts. Thus, it is sometimes said that although we are not one in the institute, we are one in the organism. But those who argue in that manner readily become apathetic toward the institute. That happens a lot, but is to be condemned.
- Therefore (since the Confession does Not teach it anywhere), we reject every distinction between The Church and the churches, by which is meant: The Church is spread over all churches, even though The Church may be represented to a greater or lesser degree in the different churches. This theory is called the doctrine of Pluriformity,1which holds that The Church is revealed in Many Forms in all churches. It is true that the life of the church is pluriform. Thus, there are differences between city and country churches, large and small churches, rich and poor churches, and old and new churches. But when churches are not a unity, contradict each other, and refuse to enter into ecclesiastical fellowship with each other, there is not a pluriform manifestation of the one church.
- Dr. A. Kuyper, one of the most ardent defenders of this theory, acknowledged that the confession does not recognize it. The theory is particularly objectionable because it proceeds from the Actual situation, instead of the Word only, and because it accords a certain legitimacy to the sin of disunity. That is why this theory is unable to promote the unity of the church and paralyses the church in the exercise of discipline. Further, the theory of pluriformity opened and continues to open the way to present-day ecumenism.
- The confession does not speak of more or less pure churches like the theory of pluriformity, but speaks “of the body and the communion of the true Church which must be distinguished from all sects that call themselves the Church” (BC, art. 29). Article 29 of the BC also states:We believe that we ought to discern diligently and very carefully from the Word of God what is the true Church, for all sects which are in the world today claim for themselves the name of Church.
Article 29 further defines the marks of the true church as follows:
a. “It practices the pure preaching of the gospel” [i.e., without adding to it or subtracting from it];
b. “It maintains the pure administration of the sacraments as Christ has instituted them” [hence, in such a manner and to such persons as Christ commands]; and
c. “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. (Emphasis supplied)
These marks can sometimes be applied in greater or lesser degree to groups which separate themselves improperly from the church and which are not, therefore, The True Church, whilst they remain needlessly separate and apart and refuse to practice true communion. You should now look up the marks of the false church in art. 29.
There can be believers in the false church, as well as ministers who wish to preach the gospel. But art. 28 of the BC states that their calling, in accordance with the Word of God, then is to separate themselves from those who are not of the church and to join themselves to the true (faithful) church, wherever God has instituted it. When believers neglect to follow this prescribed course, they cause untold spiritual damage to themselves and confuse those of little faith who are blinded by the number of believers.
- Can one recommend the use of the various terms people employ in speaking about the church which do not appear in the confessions? Why not?
- What do the terms, church militant, triumphant and to come, mean? Can they be accepted as absolutes? Why not? What is the relationship between these three parts of the church? Can one survey the church?
- What is visible of the church? What is invisible? Why is the term “invisible church” really an absurdity? What problem does the use of the terms “visible church” and “invisible church” cause?
- What does it mean that the church is a living organism? What does it mean that it exists as an institution? What problem does the use of the terms “church as organism” and “church as institute” promote?
- What does the doctrine of pluriformity teach? Does it derive from the confession? Is the life of the church not pluriform? In what way is it pluriform?
- Does the confession speak about more or less pure churches? How does it distinguish between churches? What are the marks of the true church? What is the duty of those who are in the false church?
Q. & A. 54 (Part III) How We Should Conduct Ourselves in God's House
- Articles 30-32 of the BC speak about the government of the church. The only King of the church is Christ, who rules it by his Spirit and Word and by means of the offices in the church. Hence, the office bearers do not have a sovereign, but only a serving authority. They do not govern by force, but by instruction. Their function is not to subject the believers to themselves, but to Christ and his Word.
- The offices are:
a. The Extraordinary offices of apostles, prophets and evangelists, which were instituted in the early years of the church for its establishment.
b. the Ordinary offices, which are still maintained and must continue (see LD 12, Q&A 32, Note 5.b):
i. Ministers or pastors, who preach the Word of God and administer the sacraments (1 Tim 5:17).
ii. Elders, who govern the church with the ministers (Acts 20:28).
iii. Deacons, who practice the work of mercy.
- The officers together form the council (or consistory) of the church (BC, art. 30; CO, art. 38). That is how Christ has regulated the local government of his church. (See Rev 1-3).
The consistory is the only governing authority in the church. The several local churches are required to enter into a federation with each other, but the major assemblies, that is, the assemblies in which delegates of local churches come together, are not higher forms of government. Nor are they meetings of officers of the church.
Two delegates (minister and elder) of each of a number of local churches meet as a Classis once every three months. Delegates of the classes meet as a Regional Synod once a year. Delegates of the regional synods meet as a General Synod once every three years. The decisions of a major assembly shall be considered settled and binding by the churches, Unless they are proved to be in conflict with the Word of God or with the Church Order (CO, art. 31). The Church Order, together with the Three Forms of Unity, form the accord for the federation of the churches.
- Every active member of the church ought to be familiar with the Church Order. It is desirable that every member own a simple explanation of the Church Order.
B. Cross References
- See the Forms for the Ordination (or Installation) of Ministers of the Word and of Missionaries, and for the Ordination of Elders and Deacons.
- Plymouth Brethren (“the Brethren,” as they call themselves, or Darbyites, after their spiritual father, J.N. Darby). These do not accept the special offices in the church. Whoever of them feels moved (by the Holy Spirit, so they say), will lead in the preaching and the administration of the sacraments.
- Salvation Army. Apart from the fact that this sect promotes Arminian and other heresies, it is structured as a self-willed organization in which the sacraments are despised. The sect recognizes neither baptism nor the Lord's supper.
- Catholic Apostolic Church (or Irvingites). These believe that they must continue to maintain the office of apostle. Further, their most recent group (there are three or four groupings within the sect) teaches that Christ has again appeared to their apostles in the flesh and that those apostles speak the word of God. (The Bible is a dated book for them).
- Hierarchy. This is found particularly in the Roman church. In that church, one office is subjected to the next, so that the offices form a pyramid which culminates in the Pope as the highest ruler of the church.
- Caesaropapism. This was found in the Greek church. In that church, Caesar (emperor, the worldly power) ruled as a pope. 2.
- Congregationalism (or independentism). It rejects a federation of churches. In so far as its adherents still have assemblies of delegates of the churches, they regard the decisions of the assemblies as having an advisory character only.
- Ecumenical Movement. This movement accepts every organization which calls itself church and was established to organize all “churches” into a world church. (World Council of Churches (W.C.C.)). Other ecumenical organizations include the International Council of Christian Churches (I.C.C.C., which maintains that it is true to the Bible), and the Reformed Ecumenical Council (R.E.C., formerly, Reformed Ecumenical Synod).
D. Comments: The History of the Church
The history of the church is a process of deformation and reformation. Under Rome's rule, the church became terribly deformed (adoration of the saints, papal mass, doctrine of good works, position of the pope). But in the beginning of the 16th century, God, in his faithfulness, granted the great Reformation (Luther, Calvin). In the Netherlands the Reformation achieved its zenith in the Synod of Dort of 1618-19. Thereafter, the church relapsed and degenerated. In 1816 King Willem I chained the church to the state. After that, people were free to teach what they wished in the church. The Lord gave a new Reformation in 1834 by means of the Secession, which began in Ulrum. Its leaders were: Hendrik de Cock, Simon van Velzen, Anth. Brummelkamp, H. Scholte. The Secession did not create a new church. Rather, it caused a return to the old doctrine and church polity and the church again became faithful, although many rejected the Secession. In 1886 a second secession, or “Doleantie,” ocurred under the leadership of Dr. A. Kuyper and Dr. F.L. Rutgers. In 1892 the two groups united to form the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands. A small part of the church of 1834 did not join in the union, but continued as the “Christelijke Gereformeerde Kerk.”3At first, the church flourished, but soon it again relapsed and deformed. The Synods of 1939-44 violated the principle of Christian freedom by binding the believers to a doctrine (presumptive regeneration) which cannot be proved from the Scriptures. Already in 1946 the so-called “Replacement Formula” was substituted for the doctrine. Synod no longer dared to accept the doctrine of presumptive regeneration, although it continued to impose it. Synod “set aside” the Replacement Formula in 1959, but did not revoke it and continued to recommend it. Further, the Synods ascribed to themselves an authority which exceeded the authority of the Word (synodocracy).4In the Liberation of 1944, the Lord in his grace immediately granted repentance of these sins. Like the Secession, the Liberation did not establish a new church.5Everyone should make further study of the history of the church!
- Who is the only King of the church? How does he govern it? What kind of authority do the office bearers have and how must they exercise it?
- What do you know about extraordinary offices? Which are the ordinary offices?
- How did Christ regulate the government of his church? Is it necessary that there be major assemblies? Which major assemblies do you know about? How often do they assemble? What authority do their decisions have?
- What do the Plymouth Brethren, the Salvation Army, and the Catholic Apostolic Church, respectively, teach? What are hierarchy, caesaropapism and ecumenism?
- What happened at the beginning of the 16th century? What happened, respectively, in 1618-19, 1834, 1886, 1892, and 1944? Who were the leaders of the Secession and of the Doleantie?
Q. & A. 55 You Are Each Other's Members
- You must take careful note of the fact that the doctrine of the communion of “saints” is part of the doctrine of the church. In the Apostles' Creed you will not find a semicolon between the “church” and the “communion of saints,” but a comma. These are two sides of the same coin. The church, which we believe, is the communion of saints.
- The saints are the members of the church (see LD 21, Q&A 54, part I, note 10).
- Their privilege is that they all share in Christ's Treasures and Gifts. Their calling is to use those gifts Readily and Cheerfully for the Benefit and Well-being of the other members.
- He who thinks that the communion of saints can be practised properly whilst paying no heed to the church, is sorely misguided.
B. Cross References
- Article 28 of the BC acknowledges that all and everyone are obliged to join the church and to ". . . serve the edification of the brothers and sisters, according to the talents which God has given them as members of the same body."
- See also the Form for the Celebration of the Lord's supper (Fellowship).
- Is the communion of saints something different than the church?
- Who are the saints that are referred to?
- What is their privilege? What is their duty?
Q. & A. 56 Peace with God
- The Catechism discusses the forgiveness of sins in LD's 15, 23 and 51. In this Q&A this subject is portrayed especially as the benefit which God gives to his church. (See also the Compendium,6Q&A 42: “What benefits does God give to this congregation? He grants it forgiveness of sins, resurrection of the body and eternal life”). We can also point to art. 28 of the BC, which states that outside of the church there is no salvation. That does not mean that no one can be saved outside the church, but that Salvation (health) is not found outside the church and no one may Expect it outside the church.
- Only God can forgive sin. We will not get rid of it by discussing it with someone. That may give relief, but not forgiveness. You have to ask for and receive forgiveness of God!
- When God forgives sin, he does not impute it to us and forgets it. Forgiveness is possible because he himself paid for the debt of sin through Christ, For the Sake of Christ's Satisfaction.
- God forgives All Our Sins and our sinful nature, against which we have to struggle all our lives. There is no forgiveness without this struggle. For the struggle is the mark of our repentance and evidence of the genuineness of the prayer for forgiveness. Ps 32:2 says: "Blessed is the man to whom the Lord imputes no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit."
- Why is the forgiveness of sins discussed in this context? Where else does the Catechism discuss it? What does it mean that there is no salvation outside the church?
- Who, only, can forgive?
- What does the verb “to forgive” mean? How can the righteous God forgive sins?
- What does God forgive?
- What does Ps. 32:2 say?