Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 21 - Church and Forgiveness
Question 54: What do you believe concerning
the holy catholic church?
Answer 54: 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.
Question 55: What do you understand by
he communion of saints?
Answer 55: First,
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 church?
The Catechism is not interested in my notions about the church. It does not ask what I think or feel about this, but what I believe about it. Apparently, according to the Catechism I can only tell what the church is by faith. Why is that?
I Believe One Christian Church
When the sun is shining in the blue sky, we no longer need to believe it. We only believe what we do not see and yet it is there.1
How is it with the church? Because it says: I believe a holy catholic, Christian Church. Apparently I cannot simply perceive it and get to know the church that way. Is it then invisible? And must I therefore believe it for that reason? Many people think that this is indeed the case. According to them, the church referred to here is the sum total of all Christians. These Christians may be members of all sorts of churches and sects. It may also be that they are not affiliated with any specific group. But for Christ, all these people together make up the Church. The real one; the ideal one. We cannot see it. Not even in our own place of residence, because its members attend church everywhere and nowhere. It has no address and is invisible. That is why we have to believe that it is there. The holy, universal Christian church of the Twelve Articles and Lord’s Day 21 would refer to this invisible church.
But the Catechism evidently does not think of this kind of ideal fantasy church, where the members do not know each other. After all, it says that every member is obliged to help the others. But then those members must know and encounter each other. Then this church has to be visible and identifiable. Then its address must be known and its time of meeting. And this is indeed how the NT speaks of the church. For “congregation” it uses a word that denotes a popular assembly: people who belong together and who seek each other out.2
But if everyone can see the church...why do I still have to believe it? Because that what makes it a church is indeed invisible. I see nothing of it when I do not believe. Even attending the church services does not help. In itself, such services offer a good opportunity to get to know the church more closely. Then it is completely on its own and hides nothing. Nevertheless, anyone who attends such a worship service seriously but without faith will understand very little of it. He will notice that there are people gathered together who are singing, praying, listening and going through some program called “liturgy”. But he will observe only what people are doing. The presence of Christ there escapes him, whereas that is the characteristic element of every worship service. The church people come together and the church council calls them together, but it is Christ who brings them together. He gathers them around himself as a shepherd does with his sheep. That is what makes this into the church: that alone. Yet we cannot see that all-important thing. Even though it has nothing to hide from anyone, we cannot get to know the church without faith.3
And so: I believe a Christian church. This implies that I get to know it exclusively from the word of God.
The Church in the OT
Anyone who looks up the word “congregation” in a concordance will see at a glance how frequently it occurs in the OT. About as much as in the NT. In addition, the word “assembly” is regularly used, which has almost the same meaning.4 Strictly speaking, therefore, the OT was not so much about Israel as a nation, but more about “the congregation of the LORD”.5 The two did not coincide automatically, because not every Israelite was a member of this congregation. God decreed separate admission requirements: those who were leprous or emasculated were not admitted, even though they were Jews.
The words “congregation” and “assembly” indicate that its members were chosen and assembled by the LORD.6 But already centuries before Israel existed did people begin to call upon the name of the LORD.7 From this we may deduce that the first church services were then already held.8 That was in the time of Adam. That is why Article 27 of the Belgic Confession says that this church has been there from the beginning of the world.
From then on the Son of God was also with his church. It was he who gathered his people from the beginning. We narrow the message of the OT when we pretend that it only announces the coming of Christ to earth. As if he had been absent during all those prior centuries. It is true that people looked forward to his coming as man, but the OT also tells us on every page how he, as the Son of God — long before his birth in Bethlehem — was involved in everything that happened to that ancient Israel. 9He was afflicted in all their afflictions.10
The rebellion spoken of in Psalm 2 was directed not only against an earthly king of Israel, but especially against the Son of God. Paul writes that at that time Christ travelled alongside Israel through the wilderness.11
Based on all of this, Lord’s Day 21 says that the Son of God is gathering his church from the beginning of the world. Adam and Eve were its first members. They became so after their fall into sin when God called them and gave them his promises.
Finally, we note that the OT already draws a certain connection between the church and the kingdom of God. The congregation was the assembly — the only one in the entire world — that recognized and praised God as King of the earth.12 That was apparently its first task. On its behalf, David praised the LORD and called on the “whole assembly” to do the same.13 It was the little bridgehead on earth that recognized his rule. In fact, it was the beginning of his kingdom. We see these important details reappearing in the NT.
The NT Continues the Line of Thought
In the NT we encounter the same church. There it is called “‘ecclesia” and that is the same word that the Greek translation of the OT (the Septuagint) used to refer to it as “the church of the LORD” from the time of Moses. Throughout all the change, the church of Christ as he separated it from the temple and synagogue, is the same as it was in the days of Moses14
And like the OT, the NT calls full attention to the kingdom or kingship of God. In fact, it takes some time before we first encounter the word “church” for the first time. However, all four gospels begin speaking quite soon about the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven. John the Baptist announced that it was near.15 Jesus himself also began his preaching with this: “repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near”.16 This kingdom occupied a very central place in his teaching.17It was the subject of his parables. But even after his resurrection, he used the forty days to speak to his disciples about all that concerns the kingdom of God.18
On the other hand, he speaks of his church only twice in the four gospels. We find this only in Matthew 16:18 and 18:17. But both times he does so within the broader framework of the Kingdom. For the church constitutes the people of the kingdom.19
That remains the continuing line in the NT. For when the apostle John wants to express his close connection with the seven churches in Asia he calls himself their partner in the kingdom.20 He wrote that they were made into a kingdom.21 And Peter calls his readers a royal priesthood.22
This is clearly an extension of the OT. Church history will culminate in the establishment of God’s rule in heaven and on earth. Until everyone is subject to him; then God will be all in all.23
Jesus did not teach us to pray: your church come. But: your kingdom come. That is the ultimate goal of everything. But this prayer does include: “preserve and increase your church”.24 The preservation of the church serves the coming of the kingdom. It is there for the sake of that kingdom. That is why Christ gave to it the keys of the kingdom of heaven.25
In conclusion, the NT uses a remarkable number of metaphors for the church. It is said that there are more than eighty such images.26
In their own way these reveal something of the church. To name a few: the body, the bride, the flock, the temple, and the vine. These varied descriptions are already an indication that we cannot squeeze the doctrine of the church into a tight system.
The Church is Not an Organization But a Community
In the church there are many rules and agreements. These can be found in the church order. In addition, each local congregation has its own regulations. After all, the church cannot function without some form of organization. Nevertheless, it is not an organization in the ordinary sense of the word. In this connection it is already remarkable that Lord’s Day 21 does not even mention the elders and deacons. This is not to say that they are being ignored. After all, it says that Christ gathers his church “by his Spirit and word”. That word also includes 1 Timothy and Titus, where it speaks of elders and deacons. But apparently it is not an oversight when they are not mentioned separately. This is because the church is not an organization directed by men but is instead a community founded by Christ. In the church we are not a tightly knit organization but firmly connected to the living Christ and as such to each other. The church is his body.27
This gives it an absolutely distinctive structure. If all is well, every church member has a personal bond with Christ.
But because of that bond, they also form a close union among themselves. For in their communion with Christ they mutually share in all his treasures and gifts.
So the thing that binds us together is not primarily that we get along so well with each other, but that each one personally has a living bond with Christ. It is just like a right hand and a left hand. They do not form a pair because they happen to look alike or are always near each other, but because they both belong to the same body. Moreover, the eyes and ears of that body are not remotely similar to the hands and yet all those different members form a perfect unity. So it is with the church. It is the body of Christ.
The believers share in all his treasures and gifts — each one personally, but also all together. Others, too, may profit from what each person receives. Conversely, I may share in what they have received. We are obliged to serve one another with our gifts. Not with sighing, but willingly and with joy, for each other’s benefit and salvation.
Church members have much to offer each other!
The Secret to the Church’s Endurance
A shopkeeper can invest a lot of time and money in his new business but then he has to wait and see if he will get enough customers. He runs the risk of disappointment. This is not the case with Jesus. He does not have to wait and see how many people will join him, or how few. God had determined in advance who would be saved by him. Based on that certainty, Jesus has been gathering his church throughout the centuries. Sometimes it seemed to have almost disappeared completely. Shortly before he was to pay the high price for his church, the prospects were bleak. A handful of people were still faithful to him. Yet in that dark hour he knew perfectly well that he was not going to give his blood in vain. He spoke to the Father about those who had been given to him.28
The church has been chosen to eternal life. Therefore, its future always looks hopeful. All reserved seats are being occupied. In this encouraging conviction we continue to evangelize, to do mission work and to educate our children. In all of the disappointments that we experience in this, we know that we are in the service of Christ. His work cannot fail. He will fill his church.
What About the Church in Heaven?
Do the believers who have died still belong to the church? Can we speak of a church in heaven? And do the believers on earth and in heaven belong to the one church of Christ? The Catechism does not express an unambiguous opinion on this question. Nevertheless, its words do contain the implied statement that even the believers who have died are still full members of the church. For I believe not only that I am a living member of this church, but also that I shall forever remain a living member.29
I therefore belong, without any interruption, even after death. Then a lot of things change. I am no longer counted as a member of the local church but I remain forever a member of “this” church by which is meant the holy catholic Christian church.
That is why the Te Deum hymn rightly speaks of the holy church, rejoicing everywhere, here below and up above, and confessing the name of God as Father, Son and Spirit.
Does the Church Exist Forever?
The Catechism says Christ is gathering his church to the end of the world. No longer. Yet that does not mean that the church will cease to exist after that. It does imply that many things will change. It will be a church without deacons, for there is no more poverty or loneliness. There will be no more sermons on forgiveness of sins, because there is no more sin. There will be no more baptisms and no more celebrations of communion, because our faith no longer needs strengthening. It will be a church without missionaries. It will look entirely different.
Has the church then been absorbed into the kingdom? But the NT says that the church continues to exist as the bride of Christ. The moment God accepts the kingship is also the point that the marriage of the Lamb has come. And this union lasts forever.30 That is why our Form for Baptism rightly speaks of the place we will receive in eternal life in the midst of the multitude of the elect. The whole of our future is considered there, also after the final day. It broadens the heart to know that together with the believers of all times and places we are members of this one great congregation of Christ, and will remain so for all eternity.
Nothing is as Catholic as the Church
I believe a…catholic…church.
The church is not identified here as universal or catholic because it embraces, so to speak, the churches of all times and places. The catholic Christian church of Lord’s Day 21 is not a very different church from the one to which I belong on earth. Also in that small village church Christ is gathering his worldwide church every Sunday. Whoever is a wholehearted member of a church that keeps God’s word pure is thereby included in the worldwide church-gathering work of Christ. Together with Enoch, Moses, Isaiah and Peter and Paul, he belongs to that general catholic church. It is called “catholic” because it is the church of all times and all places.31 Therein lies a double encouragement. In the first place, the church outlives all the powers and schools of thought that still have a hold on the world today. Not it, but all self-conceived philosophies and other systems will soon be gone. However widespread they are and however many worshippers they may have, they are not catholic or universal, but time-bound. Soon they will no longer be there. But the church will always and forever be there. Therefore, it is essentially impossible that there would ever be a so-called post-Christian era. However, there will be post-socialist and post-capitalist times. Secondly, “catholic” means that the whole earth is destined to belong to it.32 This may seem ridiculous. The Bible portrays the church as the woman who has to flee to the wilderness.33
But the wonderful reality is that this same woman is in fact the mighty queen whom John saw standing in her striking solar cloak, with the moon under her feet and a garland of twelve twinkling stars crowning her head.34 The world is hers. This is another reason why the church is called “catholic”.
Question 56: What do you believe concerning
the forgiveness of sins?
Answer 56: 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 will graciously grant me
the righteousness of Christ,
that I may never come into condemnation.
Just now the church confessed itself to be a communion of saints. Right after that it speaks about the forgiveness of sins. And both times the same people are speaking. The holy church from the previous article is the same one that is now speaking about all my sins and the sinful nature. What kind of saints (or: holy people) are they?
Holy People Who Sin
Someone who had been a Christian for years complained that he still did things he disliked. It was his honest desire to do what is right. But each time things worked out differently. You could compare it to someone learning to surf. He tries hard to keep himself upright and wants to, yet he keeps tumbling into the water. By his own admission Paul was such a failing Christian.
He felt miserable, exclaiming “Wretched man that I am!”35Yet he was a saint.
Not because he had almost stopped sinning. The Bible does not speak of sinless saints, but of saint who are called.36 We are holy because Christ has called us out of the world and gathered us around him. But when such saints continue to fail, how do they differ from all other people?
Such a failing saint knows only one answer to this: I believe the forgiveness of sins. God never wants to think about all my sin again. Gone is gone: as far as the east is from the west.37 He treats me as if I had never had or committed any sin.38
Nor My Sinful Nature
We do not commit every sinful act a second or a third time. David allowed a man to be killed once in his lifetime because he coveted his wife — and never again after that. Paul never again persecuted the church after his encounter with Christ. There are wrongful deeds we can stop doing permanently.
But evil is not present only in wrongful deeds that we are sometimes able to quit doing. It lies deeper: in our sinful nature. We cannot shake it off, but take it with us. And because of that I do not do the things I want to do, the good, but what I do not want to do, the evil.39
We do evil things because we are wicked. Someone who steals does not become a thief, but does so because in his heart he is a thief. God wants to forgive us for this too! The Catechism mentions it separately: God will no more remember my sinful nature, against which I have to fight all my life. He does not look at me for having done evil things, nor does he look at me for still having an evil nature. He accepts me completely as I am. This seems so incredible that Ursinus, one of the authors of our Catechism, notes, “This is the most difficult article to believe. For one would be able to teach anything to those who are in mortal distress rather than the forgiveness of sins. And the devil allows us to believe anything, if only he can take away this comfort.”40
There is no more astounding news than that God very consciously never wants to think about all my sins and faults again!
But Ursinus is right. It is so inconceivable that we could be told to believe anything more than that. The devil seeks to take advantage of this. He allows me to believe that the whole Bible is literally true, from cover to cover. Even that Jesus came to save me from sin...as long as I do not believe that God wants to cancel my sins and my sinful nature — while that belongs to the core and the focus of the gospel.
The devil has understood this well.
But the church, fortunately, understood this no less. Forgiveness belongs indispensably to that which faith expects. It opens the gate to all further salvation. Whoever rejects it misses everything completely. Whoever accepts it receives all things.
That is why the Twelve Articles mention this gift of Christ to his church in the first place.