1 Timothy

THE VISIBLE CHURCH (THE WESTMINSTER CONFESSION OF FAITH 25.2)

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!

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Book Review: Finding Faithful Elders And Deacons

Thabiti M. Anyabwile

How do I love this book? Let me count the ways!

First, it is thoroughly biblical from start to finish.  Anyabwile firmly grounds everything he says in Scripture.  His treatment of the qualifications of both deacons and elders (in that order) largely consists of a verse-by-verse or even phrase-by-phrase exegesis of 1 Timothy chapters 3-4.

Second, this book is short and to the point.  There is no filler or wasted space.  He gets right to the point and stays on point in each chapter.

Third, both church officer & laity alike will benefit from this book.  As a pastor, I not only found this book to be useful in clarifying my understanding of the nature and work of the offices of elder & deacon, but also found it to be more than a little edifying & encouraging as well.  Church members who want to be more well-informed in their nomination & election of church officers will also find it immensely helpful.

Another thing that I greatly appreciated was that Anyabwile did not just focus on the qualifications of elders or pastors (part 2 of the book), but also dedicated the entire third section of the book to the work that they are called to do.  Again, this section would be good for pastor/elder & laity alike.  We often have unbiblical notions or expectations about what our pastors and ruling elders are called to do,  and this can cause much confusion and unnecessary difficulty in the church.

There is much more that could be said, but suffice it to say that I highly recommend this book.  I will almost certainly be referring to it (and re-reading it!) in the future.  And I hope that I am not alone in that regard.

A Dangerous Love

Love of Money

Paul has some sobering words for us about a dangerous love – the love of money:

For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs. (1 Timothy 6:10, ESV)

Think about that for a moment.  The love of money, which by any reasonable measure is far more prominent among professing believers than we might imagine, is also far more dangerous than we might think.  I am often far more prone to the temptation to love money than I imagine.  Maybe you are too.

I don’t know about you, but the first way that I tend to mis-read this warning is to somehow assume that it must be primarily for the benefit of someone else (i.e. someone other than me, of course). We do that with a lot of the warnings and admonitions found in Scripture, don’t we?  And that serves to demonstrate the truth of Jeremiah 17:9, which tells us that our hearts are “deceitful above all things, and desperately sick.”  Our hearts can be tricky things, can’t they?  Our hearts can fool or deceive us.  (Next time someone tell you to “just follow your heart,” remind them of Jeremiah 17:9!)

Another way that I tend to mis-read this warning is to assume that it must primarily be for the rich. (And by “rich” of course, I mean someone who has more than I do.)  But that is not what Paul says at all, is it?  He doesn’t say that having too much money is a root of all kinds of evils, but rather loving money.  So it is not a matter of being one of the haves or the have-nots, but a matter of loving money.  Both haves and have-nots can and do love money. Rich people can certainly love money, but so can the poor.  In fact, the poor person can easily spend just as much time obsessing about money as anyone else, rich or otherwise.  So being poor is no sure defense from the love of money, and neither is living comfortably somewhere in the middle.

Paul warns about at least three (3) dangers inherent in the love of money:

First, loving money is a “root of all kinds of evils.”  In other words, it is the cause or source of all kinds of other sins.  So to fail to guard your heart against the love of money is to effectively leave the door wide open for a host of other sins/evils.

A thoughtful examination of the 10 Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17; Deuteronomy 5:6-21) will reveal that the love of money can lead to any number of the sins listed there.  Can the love of money lead to breaking the first commandment (i.e. “You shall have no other gods before me.” Exodus 20:3, ESV)? You bet!  Jesus Himself tells us that we “cannot serve God and money” (Matthew 6:24).  How about the second commandment?  Paul tells us that greed or covetousness is “idolatry” (Colossians 3:5).  The fourth commandment practically spells it out for us:

Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. (Exodus 20:8-11, ESV)

It is easy to see how the love of money (and/or a lack of faith in God’s provision for our needs) can cause someone to work unnecessarily on the Lord’s Day (Sunday) in order to make more money.  While there are certainly vocations in which working on the Lord’s day cannot be avoided (e.g. emergency service personnel, doctors, etc.), it must be said that most forms of work in our day simply do not fit that description. 

If you skip out on the public worship of the Lord Jesus Christ on Sundays in order to work and make more money, the love of money may be the culprit. After all, the Lord has given us “six days” (v.9) in which to work. (Six days sounds like plenty of time to work, right?)

How about murder? Certainly. (What do they always seem to say in the crime shows on TV? “Follow the money!”)  Adultery? Again, yes. Theft? Well, duh.  You get the picture.

Second, loving money is a “craving” that has led many a soul to ‘wander away from the faith.’  This alone should cause us to beware the love of money, and to guard our hearts closely.  Again, Jesus’ words in Matthew 6:24 come to mind – we cannot serve God and money at the same time. It is one or the other.

Third and finally, loving money leads to pain and regret.  To use Paul’s words from 1 Timothy 6:10, through the love of money some have “pierced themselves with many pangs.” Now to be sure this piercing with many pangs is something that Paul connected directly with wandering away from the faith.  The one leads to the other. In v.9 Paul says that a desire to be rich leads people into “many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.” This is deadly serious stuff that Paul is talking about here.  The love of money is a very dangerous love.

Now think about the so-called “prosperity gospel” in light of all of this.  At the end of the day, what the proponents of the prosperity gospel are proclaiming is a false gospel that actively encourages the love of money (the very thing that Paul warns us against in 1 Timothy 6:10).  Their false gospel leads to “all kinds of evils.” Their false gospel leads its followers down a road that is likely to lead to wandering away from the faith!

The preachers of the prosperity gospel would have you to believe that earthly prosperity is your divine birthright, that you should have your best life now.  Paul warns us that such a message is a lie straight from the mouth of hell and that it leads to nothing but regret and heartache, and destruction.

But beyond even that, how many of us would never fall for the false teaching of the prosperity preachers on TV, but still in many ways seem to make it our goal to live our best life now?  How many of us are not content to live within our means? (Hello, credit card debt!) How many of us give God the leftovers rather than tithing? How many of us are desperate to seem successful, even in the eyes of others in the church?

No wonder the Apostle Paul also tells us that “godliness with contentment is great gain” (1 Timothy 6:6, ESV). May the Lord give us grace to guard our hearts from the love of money, and so spare us from all kinds of evils, wanderings, and pangs.  And may he drive out the love of money by pouring out His love in our hearts, that we might love Him first and foremost.

At the end of the day, the great commandment (to the love the Lord our God with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our mind. – Matthew 22:37) is not only for the glory of God, but for our own good as well.