The Confession of Faith Article 27 Of the Catholic Christian Church
Our confession explains the doctrine of the church. In article 27 it speaks about the essence of the church, article 28 stresses that everyone is bound to join the church, article 29 gives the marks of the true church, and articles 30 through 32 deal with the government of the church. Following these are articles about the sacraments and the latter events.
The doctrine of the church is the last part of the confession; the more purely the former articles are explained, the better we will understand the doctrine of the church. We should keep in mind that it is not the church which decides about the Truth and about religion, but it is the Truth which decides about the church. That which is to be understood regarding the church is at once explained in our article, for it gives the definition of the essence of the church as follows: "We believe and profess, one catholic or universal Church, which is a holy congregation of true Christian believers."
There are many who claim that they are the church of Christ, but I am afraid that it is totally different than here defined. If we see the condition of the church in our days, then Jeremiah's frame befits us when he cried out, "Oh that my head were waters, and mine eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night for the slain of the daughter of my people!" We frequently hear and can read in the newspapers about born-again Christians. They live in worldly activities and dishonor God's Name; they are on radio and television, take part in sports on Sunday, etc. This is not of the Lord, but is a deceit of the devil to try to convince us that also in this way one can be saved.
Many call themselves Christian, but they even miss the knowledge of the Truth. The name of Christ is used more than ever before in our countries, but I fear that more and more we are becoming heathen countries, where there is no room for the Lord and His service. Sin is lived out more brutally than before. Is it then lost, completely lost, for the church? No, against the destroying work of sin and Satan there stands the work of grace, which builds up and binds together. By grace we are not only restored in communion with God, but also become members of the body of Christ, which is the true church, as our present article informs us.
We find the word "church" in the Bible in many places. In Greek it is "ekklesia", which means that which is called. When we use the word church, we think so often of the building, but that is not the meaning. It is the people which are chosen from eternity, bought by the blood of Christ, and called at God's time by Word and Spirit. In Isaiah 48:12 there is written, "Hearken unto Me, O Jacob and Israel, My called." Thus the "Church" is called with a holy calling, after God's own pleasure and grace, and is also designated the Body and the Bride of Christ.
The church has many other names in the Bible, but there is none so significant as "The Body of Christ". If we are not incorporated in Christ, then we do not belong to the Church. It all means, however, that if we are incorporated in Christ and the Lord has begun the good work, then, regardless how small and insignificant we are in our own eyes and how often it is contested whether it is of the Lord, we are also partakers of His grace and merits. By the name, Body of Christ, we learn that all the members are organically bound to Christ, Who is the Head of the Church. No matter how far God's children are separated in time and place, together they form the body of Christ, as 1 Corinthians 12:13 teaches, "By one Spirit are we all baptized into one body."
The Church is also called the Bride of Christ. In former days a bride was bought for a price, and it may also be truly said of the Church that she is bought for a price; they are the ransomed of the Lord. It would make this article too extensive if all the names were explained in detail, but it is a great comfort for the church when something of this may be explained to us for our own heart in the opening of the Word.
In this article we read, "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 Ghost." It is not written here that we believe in one catholic church. That would be the doctrine of Rome, who say that they only can give salvation and that outside of the church of Rome there is no salvation. They believe that faith in the church is of the same importance as is faith in God the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. God's children believe in God, but not in a church which claims that salvation is only within their walls.
This is, of course, not written to give us freedom to go to any church. No, we are responsible to join a church where the Truth is brought before us. It is often said that the Lord will not ask us from what church we have come when we die, but this is done to cover up the fact that one belongs to a church where the truth is not taught. Herein we are fully responsible before the Lord! God's children profess and believe one catholic or universal church built of lively stones, which means that reprobates don't belong to this church and, before their conversion, the elect were also outsiders.
Is it not a terrible thought to be all the days of our life in the church, but not of the church? May it drive us out to the Lord, asking of Him that which we need in this respect and crying for mercy.
Sometimes there is spoken of the 'visible' and 'invisible' church. These expressions we find first in the writings of Luther in the year 1521; Zwingli used the same words in 1523, and they are also found in Calvin's Institutes. It has become a familiar expression in the church, but is often misinterpreted. It does not mean that there are two churches, because we know that there is but one church. "My dove, My undefiled is but one." The church is invisible in their hidden spiritual life with God, but they are visible in their meetings, confession and administration of the sacraments. By baptism and confession their children come into an external relationship to the church, but without regeneration they are not living members.
When the church is spoken about, it is very well possible that you will say that it is a difficult subject. Yes, I know it is not the easiest topic to write about, although, if we have some knowledge of the truth, it will then not be too hard. If I should ask, "Are you converted?" it is probably a clear language for you; by our upbringing we know what it means. But when we know this, then we also know whether we are a member of the church whereof this article speaks or whether we are strangers of it. When we miss grace, we miss everything. I hope there may come a time in your life that you will realize, under the administration of the Holy Ghost, what it means to not belong to the Body of Christ. Going to church, but not of the church, will then become unbearable!
The confession speaks of one church which the Lord gathers out of all generations. This is the true church. Prior to the Reformation the essence of the church was also found in the church of Rome, but after the Reformation it has become a false church, going further and further away from the Word of God. Our fathers called the pope the anti-Christ. When we think of the present pope, who is a very strong personality, then the danger whereof our fathers spoke is not imaginary. Especially when you read in the Bible how the anti-Christ is described, there is then remarkably much resemblance with the pope.
Since the Reformation many schisms have come into the church all over the world, but nevertheless the body of Christ, the church, is still upon earth. The spiritual unity of this church is experienced by the regenerated, in whose hearts love is poured out, and so they are able to love the Lord and their neighbors, although it is in beginning.
This one church consists of two parts – the church militant and the church triumphant. The first is on earth, the other in heaven. Rome speaks yet of a third part, namely, the suffering church in purgatory, which is the place of complete cleansing before they may enter into heaven. No place can be found in God's Word to defend the doctrine of purgatory or to give a good basis for it, and therefore we must condemn it. The Socinians have another error – they deny the existence of the church triumphant at this time. They believe it will begin after the second coming of Christ. Also many in our days say that dead is dead and therefore do not believe in a life after death. How foolish!
Having discussed that the church is one, we must also say that it is holy. This holiness does not consist in beautiful church buildings and apparel, as we find in the church of Rome. It is an inner holiness; they are washed in the blood and by the Spirit of Christ. There is therefore no honor to us, but all honor to the Lord! Under the leading of the Holy Spirit that church will go in the way of sanctification. They are holy in Christ!
Our confession speaks of the catholic or universal church; it is throughout all the world and through all ages. It has nothing to do with the name which Rome uses, for that name is for them a lie. We all know why it is called a Christian church. The name Christians was first used in Antioch, where it was given mockingly to the followers of Christ. It has now become their most honorable name.
Of this church our confession says, "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, cannot be." We will not go so deeply into this part, for it is evident that the Lord has preserved His church in wonderful ways, especially when we think of the history of Israel in the Old Testament, but also of that which is related to us in the New Testament.
The church militant has always had many enemies who have persecuted both in secret and in public. There have been times when it was to be feared that nothing would be left of it, but the promise of the Lord is that the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. "I am with you always." This is also a comfort for the church in our days. Although we don't have open persecution at the present time, it is still a time wherein the enmity against the church is great. In God's Word the church is compared to a woman that is forsaken, but the Lord has promised that her children cannot be numbered. "For thy Maker is thine husband." In Him the church will extend over all the world.
The question, of course, is will I belong to that multitude who will stand on the other side of the sea of glass as victors? How necessary it is to examine ourselves in this respect. Membership of a church is good, but we must become a member of THE church, and this takes place in regeneration.
Christ, Who is the head of the church, will continue to gather His church, but also to protect them when they become weak and few in number. The warfare against the church began in Paradise after the fall, and will continue until the end of time. When Satan lost the battle with Christ, he began to persecute the church. Having now 6000 years experience, he knows the weaknesses in the defence of the church. Probably the greatest danger in our days is in world conformity; there is no difference between the church and the world, even though many affirm that they are Christians. And yet, at the end of the world there will be a multitude that cannot be counted.
There were times in the history of the church that the number of living members was very low. I am afraid that this must also be said of our times. However, there will be found a remnant who cannot miss the Lord in their lives and who cry unto Him for grace.
The church is not always in the same place. The Lord may give His Word to a certain country for a period of time, but later take it away when there are reasons for doing so. Think of the congregations of Asia Minor; nothing other than ruins is left of those seven churches. In the beginning of our era the church of Rome was a flourishing church, but not any longer. When the Lord leaves one country, it is possible that other countries will receive His Word. For example, a country such as Japan, where today the Word of God is spreading very fast, receives the truth while the western nations are left to themselves. O, may we feel the danger, and that it drives us out unto the Lord, begging that He may remember us in mercy. "My counsel shall stand and I will do all My pleasure."
Our confession speaks of this, saying, "Furthermore, 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." All people who are quickened by the Spirit and receive a true faith belong to that church, which is here spoken of. The country where we live is not important. They are all members of one and the same body, and Christ cares for them, although Satan tries to destroy them. He is as a roaring lion, especially trying to gain the young people, who are the future of the church. He also tries to overcome the living members, so that they might forsake the truth. That which the Lord has planted in them, that true saving faith, cannot be uprooted by the devil. They may fall in sin, but it is impossible that they will live in sin.
May the Lord give to His children an increase in the knowledge of Him Who is the head of the church so that they may receive the assurance of being living members of the church, living members of the body of Christ. That one church is joined and united with heart and will, by the power of faith, in one and the same spirit.