1 Corinthians

THE VISIBLE CHURCH (THE WESTMINSTER CONFESSION OF FAITH ON THE CHURCH – PART 2)

Theologians commonly distinguish between the “invisible” and “visible” church. In our previous post we looked at what the Westminster Confession of Faith (25.1) has to say about the invisible church. What about the visible church? The Confession goes on to say the following:

“The visible church, which is also catholic or universal under the gospel (not confined to one nation, as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children: and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.” (25.2)

First, notice that the visible church (like the invisible church spoken of in 25.1), is also in some sense “catholic or universal.” In what way is it universal? The Confession goes on to spell that out in detail, saying that “under the gospel” (i.e. in the New Testament era) the one true church is no longer “confined to one nation” as it used to be in the Old Testament age. The church used to be confined to one earthly nation – Israel.  The gospel is now to go out to all the nations (Matthew 28:18-20; Acts 1:8).

There is also another sense in which the visible church is catholic or universal – whereas the invisible church consists of “the whole number of the elect” (25.1), even so the visible church consists of “all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children” (25.2). Everyone who professes the true religion is a member of the visible church.

Professing the true religion, strictly speaking, involves more than merely professing faith in Christ (as essential and important as that is). The visible church is not just every individual professing Christian in the world. Rather (as the remaining sections of chapter 25 will go on to make abundantly clear) the church as church is in view here (no pun intended). Today’s overly-individualized and privatized version of the Christian faith was an utterly foreign concept to the Westminster divines, and rightly so. Indeed, it is a foreign concept to Scripture itself as well! (See here.)

Not only that, but the visible church also includes the children of all those who profess the true religion as well! That may seem like a strange concept to many in our day, but this is the consistent pattern found throughout Scripture (both Old and New Testaments alike). The children of believers have always been included in the covenant community, and have always had the sign and seal of the covenant applied to them (circumcision in the Old Testament, and Baptism in the New Testament). That is why Paul can say in 1 Corinthians 7:14,

“For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy.” (ESV, italics mine)

Does that mean that all of the children of believers are somehow automatically saved (salvation by association?), or even that all of the children of believers, without exception, will come to saving faith in Christ? Of course not. But is it not most often the case that the children of believers in Christ, having been raised in the fear and admonition of the Lord (Ephesians 6:4) and brought up in the church, end up, by God’s grace, coming to a saving knowledge of Christ?

The Confession also states that the visible church is “the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God.” It is as if no one analogy or metaphor for the church is sufficient in order to convey everything that the church really is. Paul says something similar in 1 Timothy 3:14-15, where he writes,

“I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these things to you so that, if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth.” (ESV, italics mine)

The church is Christ’s kingdom. Now Christ rules over all things, not just the church (Psalm 8:6; Matthew 28:18; 1 Corinthians 15:27), but, as Paul says of Christ in Ephesians 1:22, God “placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church” (NIV, italics mine). He is head over all things for the sake of His church! And so the visible church, strictly speaking, is not co-extensive with the limits of Christ’s kingdom (for there are no limits to His authority and reign), but it is the primary manifestation of the kingdom of God on this earth.

Not only is the visible church the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, but it is also “the house and family of God. What a privilege it is to be included in the family and household of God Himself! What a blessing it is to not only be reconciled to God and be able to call upon Him as our heavenly Father through faith in Christ, but also in Him to be given a multitude of “brothers and sisters and mothers and children” (Mark 10:30, ESV)! The church is not just an organization, or even an organism – it is a family!

Lastly, the Confession makes a statement that is sure to raise a few eyebrows in our day. It says that outside of the visible church “there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.” A similar statement is also found in the Belgic Confession (which is the confession of faith for the continental Reformed churches, just like the Westminster Confession is for the Presbyterian churches). It says,

“We believe that since this holy assembly and congregation is the gathering of those who are saved and there is no salvation apart from it, no one ought to withdraw from it, content to be by himself, regardless of his status or condition.” (Article 28, emphasis mine)

And so it is clearly the standard reformed position that there is no salvation apart from the visible church, or at least not normally so. There are some, to be sure, who have no opportunity to join themselves to a local church body where the Word of God is truly preached, and the sacraments are rightly administered, and church discipline is faithfully exercised. Some are suffering extreme persecution and even imprisonment for the faith. Others may live in a place where there simply is no (true) local church. But for most professing Christians that is certainly not the case. And so, as the Belgic Confession makes clear, “no one ought to withdraw from it, content to be by himself.” No man is a church unto himself, “regardless of his status or condition.” No one is sufficient in and of himself to live the Christian life on his own.

There are certainly some within the visible church who profess Christ without actually possessing Christ (i.e. they do not truly believe), and there are also some, no doubt, who are outside of the visible church who truly profess and possess Christ, but these are the exceptions and not the rule. No one who professes faith in Christ should willingly cut himself off from membership in the visible church. No one who professes faith in Christ should be “at home” (or at peace) without a (true) church home.

Part of the reason for that can be seen in Westminster Confession of Faith 25.3, which speaks of the means of grace that are to be found only in the church – the “ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God” which are given “for the gathering and perfecting of the saints” (i.e. believers). (Lord willing, we will deal that section in more detail in a future post.)

Love for our brothers in Christ is one of the evidences of salvation. In 1 John 3:14 the Apostle John writes,

“We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death.” (ESV)

How can we say that we love our brothers in Christ if we avoid fellowship among them in the church? Or is it possible to truly love Christ, while seeking to avoid His body and bride, which is His church?

If you profess to know Christ by faith, but are somehow not a member of a local church. Do not be content to stay by yourself. Do not look for a perfect church, for that does not exist in this life. But rather make it your aim to find a true church where the Word of God is preached truly and sincerely (even if imperfectly), where the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper are administered rightly, and where church discipline is faithfully and lovingly exercised for your good.

When you find such a church (and all do not fit that description, of course), despite her imperfections, join that church. Stay at that church. Worship and serve at that church. And may our faithful Savior Jesus Christ be pleased to greatly bless you in that church, to His glory!

Thomas Brooks on the Lord’s Supper and Assurance

Brooks (Heaven on Earth)In his book, Heaven on Earth, Thomas Brooks (1608-1680) writes all about assurance of salvation – it is essentially a treatise on that great subject. There Brooks deals with such things as proving that believers may attain a well-grounded assurance, pointing out what means may be used in order to obtain assurance, giving reasons why believers may lack assurance,  and demonstrating the differences between true and counterfeit assurance. It is a very helpful and encouraging book.

There he also shows us the vital connection between the Lord’s Supper and assurance. He writes,

It was the principal end of Christ’s institution of the sacrament of the supper that he might assure them of his love, and that he might seal up to them the forgiveness of their sins, the acceptation of their persons, and the salvation of their souls, Mat. 26.27,28. The nature of a seal is to make things sure and firm among men; so the supper of the Lord is Christ’s broad seal; it is Christ’s privy-seal, whereby he seals and assures his people that they are happy here, that they shall be more happy hereafter, that they are everlastingly beloved of God, that his heart is set upon them, that their names are written in the book of life, that there is laid up for them a crown of righteousness, and that nothing shall be able to separate them from him who is their light, their life, their crown, their all in all. (p.27)

Brooks would have us to understand that the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is primarily about assurance. It is “the principal end” (or main purpose) for which the Lord Jesus Christ instituted it for His people. The Supper is meant to reassure believers of Christ’s great love for them. It is, to use Brook’s words above, to “seal up to them the forgiveness of their sins, the acceptation of their persons, and the salvation of their souls.” A “seal” is given for the express purpose of assurance. It is “to make things sure and form among men.”

The Lord’s Supper is certainly not the only means whereby believers may attain, maintain, and be strengthened in their assurance of salvation, but it is certainly one of the most important, and one which must not be neglected. The very fact that the Lord Jesus instituted this Sacrament to be perpetually celebrated by His church until He returns (1 Corinthians 11:26) shows us our perpetual need for assurance. It also shows us how greatly our faithful Savior desires that His beloved people would have assurance of His great love for them.

The Use of Wine in the Lord’s Supper

communionIn 1 Corinthians 11:20-21 Paul says something that clearly indicates that wine was used in the Lord’s Supper.  There he writes,

When you come together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat. For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk.

Drunkenness at the Lord’s Supper? One thing is certain – people weren’t getting “drunk” on non-fermented grape juice.  And notice what he does not propose as the solution to someone being drunk at the Lord’s Supper – he never suggests (much less commands) that wine should no longer be used! If ever there would have been an excuse to forbid the use of wine in the observance of the Lord’s Supper, it would have been in Corinth. The fact that Paul did no such thing should be very instructive to us. If alcohol itself were somehow inherently sinful or if Jesus Himself had not instituted this Sacrament with wine, it would have been the simplest solution, wouldn’t it? It would certainly sound logical enough. But because the Lord Jesus Himself instituted the sacrament with wine, we should be very careful not to tinker with it however we see fit.

The use of grape juice instead of wine in the Lord’s Supper is actually a relatively recent innovation in the practice of the church. In fact, it was virtually unheard of throughout the first 1,800 or so years of church history. In his book, The Lord’s Supper: Eternal Word in Broken Bread, Robert Letham notes,

Only with the rise of the temperance movement in the nineteenth century was an aversion to alcohol allowed to intrude into the Christian church. (p.52)

To be sure, the Bible plainly condemns drunkenness. Ephesians 5:18 (also written by the Apostle Paul, who wrote 1 Corinthians) plainly says, “And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit.” So drunkenness is indeed a sin, but drinking wine itself is not. And if the Lord Jesus Himself actually commanded that we drink wine in remembrance of Him and His blood shed on the Cross for our sins, certainly we should not try to be wiser than God. Even less should we appear to charge Him with error at somehow giving us something that would be harmful to us.

Maybe this is a non-issue for you. If so, good. But what should you do if you have an issue of conscience against any use of alcohol whatsoever? Maybe you were raised in a church tradition where you have been taught that alcohol itself is inherently sinful. (I myself was raised in such a church tradition.) Or maybe you have struggled with addiction to alcohol and fear that even the smallest amount of wine (as it is certainly common in the Lord’s Supper to use the tiniest of cups) crossing your lips could be the beginning of a terrible downward spiral back into alcohol abuse.

If any of those scenarios describes you, I would humbly offer you the following advice:

  1. Do not go against your conscience. Elsewhere Paul writes, “But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23, ESV). So if you are presently convinced that something is inherently sinful, then abstain from it until such time as your conscience freely permits. (Many churches, including ours, offer both wine and grape juice for this very reason.)
  2. Seek to the best of your ability to have a biblically-informed conscience. Prayerfully examine the whole counsel of God on the subject. Make sure that you are drawing the line where Scripture itself draws the line. There are more than enough commandments in the Word of God already; we don’t need to be adding to them (or subtracting from them, for that matter).
  3. Act in accordance with that biblically-informed conscience. If you now come to the conclusion that wine (and not grape juice) is what is to be used in the Lord’s Supper as Jesus originally instituted it, trust that He knows what is best and partake of the wine in the Supper in faith.
  4. One last thing – in the event that your mind is changed and your conscience has been persuaded of the use of wine, be careful not to seek to short-circuit this very same process in the life of a fellow brother or sister in the Lord who still has a conviction against the use of wine. Pray, gently seek to inform their conscience with Scripture, but do not try to get someone else to go against their coscience.

Of course, these same principles apply to just about everything in the Christian life, not just the use of wine in the Lord’s Supper. But I hope that you find them helpful in thinking about the right administration & observance of the Lord’s Supper.

Messy Church?

watercolor-box-174549_1280We are sinners, every last one of us. And the church, if it is growing as it should, will at times be a rather messy place. Just like a growing family can have a messy home and can require a watchful eye and busy parents (and older siblings), even so the church is a place where sinners can come to faith in Christ and repentance unto life in Him, and begin with the baby steps of following Christ all of their days.

Rome was not built in a day, and neither are disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ. Not a single one of us are finished products yet, not even close.

As the saying goes, the church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints. And if we are reaching out with the gospel of Jesus Christ the way we should, the risen and ascended Lord Jesus Christ, who is even now ruling over all things for the sake of His church, will be sovereignly lavishing His saving grace on all kinds of sinners! Listen to Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 6:9-11,

“Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”

Look at the kinds of sinners who were saved, washed, and sanctified by God’s grace in Christ there in Corinth – real, actual sinners! The sexually immoral, adulterers, homosexuals, drunkards and thieves!

Wait – you mean that Jesus saves those kinds of people too?!? Of course He does! Or do we think that the arm of the Lord is too shortened to reach and save the lost? Is He only able or willing to save people like us who only sinned in the more respectable or socially-acceptable ways? No, he came into the world to save sinners, among whom Paul saw himself as the chief – the worst of the bunch (1 Timothy 1:15)! “The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10), not merely just to help those who help themselves.

Do we mentally exclude people from our witness because they are too far gone? Do we think that those with serious sin issues are beyond the reach of the grace of Christ? Remember that Jesus is a friend of sinners. He spent a lot of time around real, live sinners! Matthew 11:19 says,

“The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds.”

Do we require people to clean themselves up first before they can come to Jesus (or before they can come to our church)? Or do we share the gospel with them, confident that (as Paul says in Romans 1:16) it is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes”? We might read 1 Corinthians and shake our heads, but that church, despite all of her obvious (and serious) problems, was still a church where the Lord was at work in saving and transforming sinners.  It was a messy church, but it was messy for the right reason – because God was at work.

Certainly in the church “all things should be done decently and in order” (1 Corinthians 14:40, ESV), but decently and in good order does not necessarily mean that everything must be neat and tidy, does it? May your church and mine become a little messier because God is at work in our midst saving all kinds of sinners.

The Importance of the Lord’s Supper

bread-72103_1280Do we place much of an emphasis or priority on the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, or do we barely give it a second thought? Richard Phillips, senior minister of Second Presbyterian Church in Greenville, South Carolina, writes of how odd it is that so many believers today have such a low regard for the Lord’s Supper:

“They seldom observe it and assign to it little significance. They are largely ignorant of the theology poured into and out from it. They derive no assurance or comfort, and seek no grace, as they receive from the Lord’s Table. How remarkable this is among those supposedly devoted to the Bible!” (What Is the Lord’s Supper?, p.5-6)

You might be surprised to learn that the church down through her long history has not always viewed the Lord’s Supper with as much disinterest or apathy as many do in the church today – quite the opposite, actually! In his very helpful book about the Lord’s Supper entitled, Given For You: Reclaiming Calvin’s Doctrine of the Lord’s Supper, Keith Mathison makes the following observation:

“One of the most interesting phenomena that one encounters when comparing the writings of the sixteenth-century Reformers with the writings of their twentieth-century heirs is the different amount of attention devoted to the Lord’s Supper. The Reformers devoted volumes of books, letters, tracts, and sermons to the subject. The sixteenth century was a time of heated controversy over such crucial doctrines as the authority of Scripture and justification by faith alone, yet the doctrine that was discussed more often than any other was that of the Lord’s Supper.” (xv)

Another writer puts it this way:

“More ink was spilled over the Lord’s Supper, and more horses were ridden to exhaustion attending conferences about it, than over any other doctrine.” (David J. Engelsma, “Martin Bucer’s “Calvinistic” Doctrine of the Lord’s Supper” (Protestant Reformed Theological Journal, Grandville, MI, 1988)

One need only ask when the last time was that you heard a sermon or any extensive teaching on the subject to see how far we have fallen from such a mindset.

To further illustrate the point, The Westminster Larger Catechism devotes no less than 10 separate questions to the subject, while the Heidelberg Catechism spends three (3) whole Lord’s days on the subject with a total of 8 questions (and some rather lengthy answers). Clearly the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper is a very important one. It is a subject that the 16th century Protestant Reformers and their heirs in the 17th century spent quite a bit of time and energy studying, teaching, and even debating about together. It was near and dear to their hearts, and should be so to ours as well.

Last but not least, we as believers are commanded by our Lord Jesus Christ to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. Jesus said, Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19; 1 Corinthians 11:24). He certainly appointed and established this Sacrament for our benefit, to be a blessing and a means of grace, but that makes it no less of a command just the same. It is much like when a mother slaves all day over a hot stove to put a good, healthy meal on the table, but still often needs to tell her children to eat! Surely if it is important enough for Jesus to not only appoint it for our benefit, but also to command us to partake of it on a regular basis, we would be well-served to sit up and take notice, as well as seek to understand what the Word of God has to say about it.

May we learn to think more highly of the Lord’s Supper, to think about it more often, and (even more importantly) to think about it more biblically. And if that means that we end up disagreeing over it and debating the subject, so much the better! Better to care enough about it to vigorously debate it than to view it with apathy.

Grace and the Local Church

Chapel 2

Paul thanked God for the church at Corinth.  Think about that next time you are tempted to complain about your church.

The church at Corinth, from what we can gather by examining the Apostle Paul’s letters to them, was simply a mess.  They suffered from divisions (1 Corinthians 1:10-3:23), gross sexual immorality (1 Corinthians 5:1-13; 6:12-20), believers taking each other to court (1 Corinthians 6:1-11), idolatry (1 Corinthians 10:1-22), disorderly worship,including the abuse of the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11:1-34; 14:1-40), confusion regarding spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 12:1-31; 14:1-40), and even confusion regarding the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:1-58).

Doesn’t exactly sound like a church that any of us would want to go near with a 10-foot pole, does it?  But look at Paul’s words to them in the opening greeting of his first epistle:

“I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus, that in every way you were enriched in him in all speech and all knowledge—even as the testimony about Christ was confirmed among you—so that you are not lacking in any gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” (1 Corinthians 1:4-9 ESV)

Amazing words of grace, considering the problems that this church had (which are detailed throughout much of the rest of the letter). Paul was truly thankful to God for the church at Corinth!

Do we thank God for the local church – our local church? Do we thank God for each other in our local church like that?  Do we thank God always for His grace in the lives of our fellow believers, even those with whom we may not see eye to eye on all things?  Do we even thank God for our fellow believers whose lives are marked by immaturity and struggles with sin?

Do we see past the imperfections, sins, and personality conflicts, so that we can call to mind the grace, gifts, and future perfection in Christ of our fellow believers?  Paul certainly did, and we would do well to follow his example.

Think about this passage next time you are tempted to dwell too much on the weaknesses, problems, or personality conflicts at your church.  Every believer in your church (warts and all!) is a cause for gratitude for the grace of God in Jesus Christ.

If we thought more of God’s amazing grace toward each other, we would no doubt show more grace toward each other.