Louis Berkhof

The Invisible Church (Westminster Confession of Faith on the Church – Part 1)

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What exactly is the church? (Have you ever given that much thought?) The biblical doctrine of the church is probably one of the most neglected doctrines in all of the Scripture. To many in our day, having a clear theology of the church (its nature, necessity, purpose, ordinances, offices, and marks) seems much like an afterthought. And yet the very fact that both the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed include statements regarding the church speaks toward the abiding importance of the church and what we are to believe concerning it.

The Westminster Confession of Faith includes an entire chapter on the church. That brief chapter provides a great deal of clarity on this important but neglected subject, so we hope to, Lord willing, examine each part of that chapter, one section at a time.

The very first section of the Westminster Confession’s chapter on the church deals with what is known as the invisible church. Protestant/Reformed theologians have commonly made a distinction between the invisible and the visible church.  The Confession (25.1) states:

“The catholic or universal church, which is invisible, consists of the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ the Head thereof; and is the spouse, the body, the fullness of him that fills all in all.”

Now the visible church and invisible church should not primarily be considered as two separate churches, but rather as two aspects of the one true church in Jesus Christ. (We will deal with the visible church in more detail when we come to Westminster Confession of Faith 25.2.) What does it mean that the church is invisible? Louis Berkhof writes,

“This church is said to be invisible, because she is essentially spiritual and in her spiritual essence cannot be discerned by the physical eye; and because it is impossible to determine infallibly who do and do not belong to her.” (Systematic Theology, p.566-566)

The Confession’s statement above teaches us the following:

  1. The invisible church is catholic or universal. The word “catholic” simply means universal (not Roman Catholic), and refers to the fact that Christ has one Redeemed people, one church, one body. This idea is found in Ephesians 1:22-23, where Paul writes, “And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (ESV).
  1. The invisible church consists of all of the elect. It is “the whole number of the elect” (25.1). In other words, everyone who will ever be saved in Christ.
  1. The invisible church consists of all of the elect throughout all time. It is “the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ the Head thereof . . . .(25.1)” So everyone – past, present, and future – who will have been joined to Christ. Many people who have not even been born yet are then part of the invisible church, as are the saints of old, who are now absent from the body but present with the Lord!
  1. The invisible church also consists of both the church militant (the redeemed on this earth) as well as the church triumphant (the redeemed in heaven).

One day the invisible church will finally become visible to us! Revelation 7:9-12 says,

“After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.” (ESV)

On that great day all of the elect will at long last get to behold that “great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (v.9). What a beautiful sight that will be – the ultimate family reunion!

John Owen on the Communicatio Idiomatum

Owen (Glory of Christ)The communicatio idiomatum (or the communication of properties) is one of the more important doctrines related to the incarnation of Christ, and yet it is not exactly one of the more well-known or commonly-discussed doctrines in our day.

The Westminster Confession of Faith, in its chapter entitled “Of Christ the Mediator” puts it this way:

“Christ, in the work of mediation, acts according to both natures, by each nature doing that which is proper to itself; yet, by reason of the unity of the person, that which is proper to one nature is sometimes in Scripture attributed to the person denominated by the other nature” (8.7).

That, for example, is why Acts 20:28 can speak of “the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood” (ESV, emphasis mine). Can God bleed? In the person of Christ, yes, but only according to His human nature. But because of the unity of His person, the Son of God can properly be said to have suffered, bled, and died.

The communicatio and some of its implications are helpfully summarized by Louis Berkhof:

“[The communicatio idiomatum] means that the properties of both, the human and divine natures, are now the properties of the person, and are therefore ascribed to the person. The person can be said to be almighty, omniscient, omnipresent, and so on, but can also be called a man of sorrows, of limited knowledge and power, and subject to human want and miseries. We must be careful not to understand the term to mean that anything peculiar to the divine nature was communicated to the human nature, or vice versa; or that there is an interpenetration of the two natures, as a result of which the divine is humanized, and the human is deified (Rome). The deity cannot share in human weakness; neither can man participate in any of the essential perfections of the Godhead.” (Systematic Theology, p.324)

In his book, The Glory of Christ, John Owen (1616-1683) explains how all of this relates to the earthly life, ministry, and death of Christ. He writes,

“The Lord Christ suffered and did many things both in his life and in his death as a human being. But all that he did and suffered as a human being was done and suffered by his whole person, even although what he did and suffered as a human being was not actually done and suffered by his divine nature. Because his human nature was part of his whole person, what he did as a human being could be said to have been done by God himself as God, e.g. God purchased his church ‘with his own blood; (Acts 20:28).” (p.43-44)

So we do not speak of the human nature of Christ dying for our sins, but of the death of Christ Himself (i.e. his whole person), according to His human nature. As Owen puts it, all that He did and suffered “was done and suffered by his whole person,” and yet also “not actually done and suffered by his divine nature.” Only this doctrine, properly understood, truly does justice to the incarnation of Christ, as well as to both His divine and human natures.

Berkhof on the Difference Between the Lutheran & Reformed Views of the Threefold Use of the Law

BerkhofIn part 5 of his Systematic Theology, Louis Berkhof includes a chapter on “The Word as a Means of Grace.” At the close of that chapter, he points out that there is often a distinction or difference between the way that Lutherans view the threefold use of the law (i.e. the civil, pedagogical, and normative uses of the law – see here), and the way that the Reformed view that same threefold use.

Now he is quick to point out that both groups “accept” or affirm the threefold use. Neither would reject any of the three uses of the law. The difference is rather to be found in the emphasis on one of the uses over the others. Berkhof notes that “Lutherans stress the second use of the law” (i.e. the pedagogical use, wherein the law of God reveals our sin to us and drives us to Christ for salvation). He writes,

“In their estimation the law is primarily the appointed means for bringing men under conviction of sin and thus indirectly pointing the way to Jesus Christ as the Savior of sinners. While they admit the third use of the law, they do it with a certain reserve, since they hold that believers are no more under the law. According to them, the third use of the law is necessary only because, and in so far as, believers are still sinners; they must be held in check by the law, and should become ever-increasingly conscious of their sins. It is not surprising therefore that this third use of the law occupies no important place in their system” (p.615).

In other words, the emphasis is primarily a negative one. To the Lutherans, the primary use of the law of God for believers is to remind them of their sins, and to restrain them from sin. To be sure, the Reformed certainly acknowledge this aspect as well. The Westminster Confession of Faith (19.6) says that the law of God is of use even to the regenerate in order to “restrain their corruptions, in that it forbids sin: and the threatenings of it serve to show what even their sins deserve; and what afflictions, in this life, they may expect for them, although freed from the curse thereof threatened in the law.”

What about the Reformed view? Berkhof continues:

The Reformed do full justice to the second use of the law, teaching that through the law cometh the knowledge of sin,” and that the law awakens the consciousness of the need of redemption; but they devote even more attention to the law in connection with the doctrine of sanctification. They stand strong in the conviction that believers are still under the law as a rule of life and of gratitude. Hence the Heidelberg Catechism devotes no less than eleven Lord’s Days to the discussion of the law, and that in its third part, which deals with gratitude” (ibid).

So, if you are a believer in Christ, which (if any) describes your approach to the third use of the law of God? Do you approach it “with a certain reserve” (as the Lutherans commonly do), or do you devote even more attention to the law in connection with the doctrine of sanctification” (as the Reformed commonly do)? By all means we should “do full justice to the second use of the law” (as Berkhof puts it), but that should in no way prevent us from ‘devoting even more attention’ to the third use of the law of God when it comes to sanctification. There is no reason to make an either/or choice out of what the Scriptures present to us as a both/and proposition.

Berkhof on the Threefold Use of the Law

BerkhofReformed theologians commonly speak of three (3) uses of the law of God. In his Systematic Theology, Louis Berkhof (1873-1957) explains the distinctions between the various uses (what he calls the “threefold use”) in the following way:

Use #1 – the Civil Use: “The law serves the purpose of restraining sin and promoting righteousness. Considered from this point of view, the law presupposes sin and is necessary on account of sin. It serves the purpose of God’s common grace in the world at large” (p.614).

So in this way God’s law is useful for the benefit of society generally (both believer and unbeliever alike). Sin and wickedness have detrimental effects on any community or society. Righteousness, on the other hand, is beneficial to any community or society. As Proverbs 14:34 says, “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people” (ESV). So the law of God (in order for the first use of the law to actually be of use in this way) must then somehow be published or made known to society in general. The less the law is made known, the less it will be of use to restrain sin (or to promote righteousness) in society. While such a use is certainly limited to common (not saving) grace, as Berkhof points out above, such common grace is a good thing. It should not be looked down upon or neglected.

Use #2 – the Pedagogical Use: “In this capacity the law serves the purpose of bringing man under conviction of sin, and of making him conscious of his inability to meet the demands of the law. In that way the law becomes a tutor to lead him unto Christ, and thus becomes subservient to God’s gracious purpose of redemption” (ibid).

The Westminster Larger Catechism Q.96 speaks of this use:

“What particular use is there of the moral law to unregenerate men? A. The moral law is of use to unregenerate men, to awaken their consciences to flee from wrath to come, and to drive them to Christ; or, upon their continuance in the estate and way of sin, to leave them inexcusable, and under the curse thereof.”

In this use the law of God acts as a mirror of sorts, showing the unbeliever his sin, and driving him to look to Christ by faith for salvation. The law shows us our desperate need for the Savior.

Use #3 – the Normative Use: “This is the so-called . . . third use of the law. The law is a rule of life for believers, reminding them of their duties and leading them in the way of life and salvation. This third use of the law is denied by the Antinomians” (p.615).

Simply put, after the law of God drives us to faith in Christ for salvation (2nd use of the law), it then becomes our rule of life (3rd use), showing us how we should live in light of our salvation in Christ. The Westminster Larger Catechism Q.97 speaks of this use:

“What special use is there of the moral law to the regenerate? A. Although they that are regenerate, and believe in Christ, be delivered from the moral law as a covenant of works, so as thereby they are neither justified nor condemned; yet besides the general uses thereof common to them with all men, it is of special use, to show them how much they are bound to Christ for his fulfilling it, and enduring the curse thereof in their stead, and for their good, and thereby to provoke them to more thankfulness, and to express the same in their greater care to conform themselves thereunto as the rule of their obedience.”

So to the regenerate (i.e. believers in Christ), the law is still of great usefulness, to show us our debt to Christ for our salvation (both in His active and passive obedience), to “provoke” us to thankfulness to Him for our salvation, and to express that thankfulness in striving to conform ourselves unto His law in our daily lives. In a sense, the believer now has even more reason to obey God’s law because of his salvation!

Louis Berkhof on Original Sin

BerkhofHave you ever wondered why theologians use the term original sin? The term is often used to distinguish it from the actual sins and transgressions that flow from it. But in what way is it said to be original? Louis Berkhof (as usual) is helpful in dealing with this question. In his Systematic Theology, he writes:

This sin is called “original sin,” (1) because it is derived from the original root of the human race; (2) because it is present in the life of every individual from the time of his birth, and therefore cannot be regarded as the result of imitation; and (3) because it is the inward root of all of the actual sins that defile the life of man. We should guard against the mistake of thinking that the term in any way implies that the sin designated by it belongs to the original constitution of human nature, which would imply that God created man as a sinner. (p.244)

So Berkhof gives us three (3) reasons why we call it “original” sin. First, because this sin is “derived from the original root of the human race” (i.e. Adam). The sinful condition (including both guilt & the corruption of our whole nature) of all mankind is inherited from Adam and stems from his sin and fall in the garden (Genesis 3:1-24; Romans 5:12-21). Second, we call it “original” sin because this sin is “present in the life of every individual from the time of his birth.” In other words, in Adam we all come into this world as sinners; it is part of our nature, inherited from Adam. In the words of King David, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Psalm 51:5 ESV). He is not there saying that the act of his conception was sinful  (e.g. adultery or fornication), but rather that he was a sinner from his very conception – it was a part of his fallen nature. Third, we call it original sin because it is the “inward root” of all of our actual sins and transgressions. It is cause & effect. So we are not sinners just because we sin; we sin because we are sinners by nature. The origin of our sins is to be found in Adam’s first sin and the sinful nature that we all inherit in him.

And note that the idea of original sin does not mean that the human race was originally created by God as sinful. We often say things like, “to err is human.” That may be so, but it is really only the case in Adam after the fall. Prior to the fall, “to err” was indeed possible, but it was in no way inherent in human nature as originally created by God.

 

Berkhof on the Outward and Ordinary Means of Grace

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How does God normally work in the lives of sinners?  How does Christ communicate to His people the benefits of redemption?  How does the Holy Spirit usually cause believers to grow in grace?

In his Systematic Theology, Louis Berkhof writes,

Fallen man receives all the blessings of salvation out of the eternal fountain of the grace of God, in virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ and through the operation of the Holy Spirit. While the Spirit can and does in some respects operate immediately on the soul of the sinner, He has seen fit to bind Himself largely to the use of certain means in the communication of divine grace. The term “means of grace” is not found in the Bible, but is nevertheless a proper designation of the means that are indicated in the Bible. (p.604)

What are those “means of grace” that the Holy Spirit “has seen fit to bind Himself largely to” in the communication of the divine grace to sinners?  The Westminster Shorter Catechism asks and answers that question in  the following way:

Q. 88. What are the outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of redemption?
A. The outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of redemption are, his ordinances, especially the Word, sacraments, and prayer; all which are made effectual to the elect for salvation.

If you think about it, that makes the public worship of the church on the Lord’s day very important, even central to God’s plan for working in the lives of sinners.  Yet that is a concept that seems downright foreign to many in the church today.

The “Word” (as explained in the very next question in the catechism – Q.89) refers to “the reading, but especially the preaching, of the Word.” Private reading and meditation on the Word is good and necessary, but it is no substitute for the preaching of the Word. (And, no, listening to sermons online really isn’t quite the same thing.) The sacraments (baptism and the Lord’s Supper) are not private ordinances, but are by definition a part of the public worship of the church.  And prayer? While we certainly would not downplay the importance of personal, private prayer (see Matthew 6:5-6), the kind of prayer spoken of as a means of grace is primarily corporate prayer in public worship.  This is what is being referred to in Acts 2:42 where Luke writes,

And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.

When Luke says “the prayers,” this is not just a reference to prayer in general, but specifically to prayer in public worship.  Indeed everything mentioned in Acts 2:42 (i.e. the apostles’ teaching, the fellowship, the breaking of bread [i.e. the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper], and the prayers) is corporate in nature – it is describing the church gathered together, not individual believers in private.

All of this has some very important implications for how we view public and private worship:

  1. If you want to grow in grace as a Christian, you must not neglect the public, corporate worship of the church on the Lord’s day.  Private devotions (reading & studying the Bible privately, spending time in prayer, etc.) are certainly good and commendable, but they are not sufficient. They were never intended to be sufficient (much less primary), for our spiritual nourishment and growth in grace.  Christianity is most certainly personal, but it is never intended to be private.
  2. Our churches simply must emphasize and rely upon the means of grace (the preaching of the Word, the Sacraments, and prayer) if we truly want to see God at work in and through us.  The outward and ordinary means of grace may not be very flashy; they may not be exciting; they may not be very impressive in the eyes of the world (or in the eyes of worldly Christians for that matter!); in short, they may seem rather, well, ordinary.  But they are God’s ordained means of growing His people in grace and building His church.
  3. If you are a member or regular attender of a church where the means of grace are neglected, downplayed, or even absent from public worship, you should not expect to grow in grace there. Without the means of grace, all the bells and whistles in the world are just so much noise (even if well-orchestrated noise).
  4. Small groups, growth groups, community groups – whatever you call them – can be a good thing.  They can serve a vital purpose, especially in larger churches.  But small groups are not more important to the growth of believers than public worship on the Lord’s day.  Small groups are helpful, but they are not where the “real work” of ministry and growth happens.  This truth is contrary to much of what passes for conventional wisdom in the church today.

So we dare not neglect the outward and ordinary means of grace.  And that means that we must not neglect the public, corporate worship of the church on the Lord’s day.  It may not seem like much – it may seem all too ordinary, but where you find the Word, Sacraments, and corporate prayer – that is where you will find God to be at work in the lives of sinners, bringing life from the dead, leading sinners to saving faith in the Savior, and building them up in the grace of Jesus Christ.

See you on Sunday!

What is sin?

Sin AppleWhat is sin?  That is a question few people (even in the church) seem to be asking themselves these days. The Westminster Shorter Catechism asks and answers this very question for us.

Q.14 What is sin? A. Sin is any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God.

Louis Berkhof writes,

Fundamentally, [sin] is not something passive, such as a weakness, a fault, or an imperfection, for which we cannot be held responsible, but an active opposition to God, and a positive transgression of His law, which constitutes guilt. Sin is the result of a free but evil choice of man. (Systematic Theology, p.231)

So when you speak of “sin” or hear it spoken of in a sermon or Bible study, keep this in mind.  Sin is not some mere shortcoming or defect, but either a willful failure to do what God commands (“want of conformity unto” the law of God) or an active doing of what He forbids (“transgression of the law of God”). In short, it is nothing less than rebellion against God and His law.