The Church

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!

Ephesians 6:1 on Children and Public Worship

In many evangelical churches it has become increasingly common for the little ones to be excluded in one way or another from attending public worship with their families.

We have the nursery for infants, separate programs of various kinds for the younger children, and some churches even go so far as to have a separate meeting(s) for the youth (i.e. junior and senior high school students) during the worship service.  It would almost seem that in some churches a child could practically go from infancy all the way through graduation from high school without ever actually attending the public worship of their church! (And we wonder why so many children leave the church when they move away to college – they were never really in the church in the first place!)

Now this post is not intended to be an argument against churches having nurseries or cry rooms available to their members who have little ones. (Nor is it an argument against youth ministry in general.) Parents sometimes worry that their noisy infant or toddler might disrupt things or distract others from worship. Such concerns are understandable. (As a father of three younger children myself, I know what it is like to have one of our children crying, wiggling around in their seats, or generally making noise of some kind.) But some churches actually go so far as to openly discourage parents from keeping their little ones with them during the service.

That should not be the case. Parents in our churches should not be discouraged from having their little ones sit with them during the worship service. More than that, I believe that we should do what we can to make children (and their parents!) actually feel welcome in the worship services of our churches. Might that lead to more noise and distraction? Sure. But I think the benefits (especially to the children) over the long haul far outweigh any apparent short-lived negatives that might be involved in having them sit in with the rest of the church during worship.

Not only that, but I believe that we actually have scriptural warrant for such a practice. In Ephesians 6:1-4 the Apostle Paul quotes and applies the 5th commandment, saying,

“Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honor your father and mother” (this is the first commandment with a promise), “that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.” Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” (ESV)

Notice that in his epistle to the church he gives an imperative or command to children. And he does not just give this command to them through their parents, but rather addresses it to the children themselves – directly. In other words, he doesn’t say, “Parents, make sure that your children know that they should obey you in the Lord, for this is right,” but rather “Children, obey your parents in the Lord” (v.1, italics mine)

That should get our attention. Paul, the great apostle and evangelist to the Gentiles, did not see himself as above teaching children; he did not view them as unworthy of instruction along with the rest of the church. Even more importantly for our purposes here, we should take note that he clearly presupposes the presence of children in the public worship services of the church, where his epistles would no doubt have been read and taught to the church.

This also implies that in our preaching we ought to bear in mind the presence of children, and even address them directly at times, when applicable. This also means that our preaching should not be aimed so far over their heads that they cannot even begin to understand anything that is being said.

And let us never forget the words of our Lord Jesus Christ Himself, who said,

“Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 19:14, ESV)

The Prayer Meeting as a Gauge of the Spiritual Life of the Church

Elder DicksonPerhaps the only thing rarer in the church these days than the Sunday evening worship service is the prayer meeting. And even when there is a regular prayer meeting, it is surely often one of the most sparsely-attended gatherings of the church.

Why is this the case? Did our Lord Jesus not say (quoting Isaiah 56:7) that “My house shall be called a house of prayer” (Matt. 21:13; Mark 11:17; Luke 19:46)? The church, then, should be characterized by (among other things) prayer.

Now, it is certainly possible that a church can be a praying church without necessarily having a weekly prayer meeting. But it sure helps, doesn’t it? If your church has a regular prayer meeting, even if  it is not well-attended, take heart. Don’t give up on it. Great things often come from small beginnings.

In his book, The Elder and His Work, David Dickson (1821-1885) makes the following observation:

“In a country village of which we know, there has been a prayer meeting conducted now for more than a hundred years. That place has been blessed three or four times with a revival of religion – shall we not say in answer to these prayers? This interesting fact was also told us: that when the tide of blessing was about to come in, the numbers began unaccountably to increase till the place was too strait for them; even outside the door there were many earnest attenders. The people knew that the tide was far out when the number fell to five or six. Then they began to pray again for a turning of the tide, and a spring tide came. Alas! in many of our congregations the tide is far out, if we are to judge by attendance at prayer meetings, which are a kind of gauge of spiritual life; yet let those who attend them continue to pray on.” (p.79)

That observation may be somewhat anecdotal, but it certainly strikes me as true. I have long been convinced that we will know that something really special is happening in the life of our church when our weekly prayer meetings start being strongly-attended.

Is the “tide” far out at your church? Maybe so. But who knows what the Lord may do (or when) if His people just continue to pray on together. If attendance at prayer meetings is a “gauge” of the spiritual life of the church, and if that gauge shows that our churches are in need of revitalization and revival, let us continue to pray together for a turning of the tide. Let us watch and pray for the spring tide to roll in.

David Dickson on the Importance of the Office of Elder

Elder DicksonIn his book, The Elder and His Work, David Dickson (1821-1885) starts with a chapter called “The Importance of the Eldership.” There he briefly makes his case that the biblical office of elder “is absolutely necessary for a healthy and useful church” (p.26). He writes,

“We need no new machinery in the Christian church. It is all provided ready to our hand in the Presbyterian system. What we need is more motive-power to set it going and keep it going. We need the baptism of the Spirit to fill us elders with love and zeal, that we may labor in our office and that the work of our hands may be established.” (p.26)

How often do we in the church look for “new machinery” (i.e. new programs, gimmicks, etc.) to increase our influence and outreach, while neglecting or overlooking the gifts that Christ has given to His church in the offices which He has ordained (both elder and deacon)?

It is not without reason that one of the primary things that the Apostle Paul tasked Titus with doing in the churches in Crete was to appoint elders. In Titus 1:3 he writes,

“This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you” (ESV).

Titus was to put things in order in the churches in Crete. And what was the first thing that came to Paul’s mind when he thought of a church being in good order? Elders. More precisely, a plurality of elders (i.e. more than one elder). It is not too much to say that in Paul’s mind, guided as he was by the Spirit of Christ, a church without elders was not properly in order, biblically-speaking.

Do we think that highly of the office of elder? Do we think of elders as being utterly essential to the life, health, and usefulness of the church? If not, it is a sure indicator that we need to recover the biblical view of the nature, qualifications, and work of the office of elder. If we were to do that, the church would almost certainly be in a much healthier condition, and would be far more useful to the Lord.

FORGIVING OUR DEBTORS (THE LORD’S PRAYER – PART VIII)

Praying HandsThe fifth request found in the Lord’s Prayer is “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” (Matthew 6:12, KJV). It is all too easy to focus our attention on the first part of that request (i.e. “forgive us our debts”), while giving little or no thought to what follows (“as we forgive our debtors”). We looked at the first part in our previous post, and so it is the latter part of this request that we will consider together here.

The Bible repeatedly reminds us of the need to forgive one another. There must be a reason for that! And so this part of the Lord’s Prayer serves as a reminder that forgiveness will be necessary. And it will be necessary because we all still sin against each other. Sometimes we will be the one sinned against; sometimes the shoe will be on the other foot and we will be the offending party. (Frankly, each of us probably fits the latter description more often than we might care to admit.)

This holds true in marriage. One of my favorite books on marriage is titled, When Sinners Say “I Do”, by Dave Harvey. The title alone speaks volumes, and is instructive. Even the most godly marriage imaginable is still a marriage between two sinners (even if forgiven, redeemed sinners). And so forgiveness will often be necessary. Harvey repeats one statement a number of times throughout the book: “Forgiven sinners forgive sin.” In some ways that is a good summary of this part of the Lord’s Prayer.

This also holds true in churches. Do you expect to find a perfect church? A church that is without sin? Good luck with that. In fact, the church this side of heaven is made up entirely of sinners. In this life every believer in Christ is a forgiven sinner, even a sanctified sinner (!), but still a sinner nonetheless. Put enough of those sinners in close proximity for long enough, and some sparks are bound to fly! And so we pray together as the Lord Jesus taught us, “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” (Matthew 6:12).

So when (not if!) we are sinned against, we must learn to forgive. And we must forgive as Christ has forgiven us (Colossians 3:13). Likewise when we sin against someone else, we must be quick to repent, and seek out forgiveness and reconciliation with them.

If you are a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ, may the joy of being freely forgiven of all of your sins, lead you more and more to freely forgive others as well.

The Westminster Standards on Preaching

Directory_for_Public_WorshipThe Directory for the Publick [sic] Worship of God (circa 1644) is a very helpful (even if much neglected) part of the Westminster Standards. It gives us clear instructions on nearly every aspect of the public worship of God in the church, including such things as how the Scriptures are to be read (and by whom!), the right manner of corporate prayer both before and after the sermon, the proper way to administer the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, as well as many other things.

Not surprisingly, it also contains a brief section outlining the right manner of preaching the word of God. These directions are as helpful as they are simple, and it would no doubt be of great benefit to the church to get back to these basics of biblical preaching.

In the Directory the Westminster divines note that the preacher ought to have three (3) primary concerns in his preaching:

First, the preacher must ensure that the matter be the truth of God. In other words, is what the preacher says truly biblical? Not just the truth, but specifically the truth of God. That is to say that the matter of the sermon must be found in the Word of God. Many things might be true enough in and of themselves, but are not really the subject matter of Scripture. A sermon simply must be true and biblical.

If what is being said in the pulpit is not the truth of God, then it really isn’t a sermon (at least not a Christian one) at all. It may be truly rousing oratory; it may be a very informative lecture; it may even be a fine motivational speech; but it is not a sermon in any meaningful sense of the word.

Second, the preacher must see to it that the truth that he preaches is contained or grounded in the specific text of Scripture that he is preaching. Sometimes preachers preach the right doctrine (see #1 above), but do so from the wrong text. In other words, the matter of the sermon must actually be the matter of the text itself. If not, how will the hearers understand how the preacher arrived at the points or conclusions that he is seeking to impress upon them?

You could say that every time a minister preaches a sermon (if he is doing so according to what the Westminster divines say here), he is not just teaching the flock what the Word of God says, but is also implicitly teaching them how to study the Word of God for themselves! What a blessing and added benefit that would be for any church!

Third, the preacher must primarily emphasize what the text itself primarily emphasizes. In other words, the preacher’s main point(s) ought to be so derived from the main point(s) of the Scripture text, that they are one and the same. And in this way the hearers are to be best edified. The central message of the sermon should be the central message of the text of Scripture. If not, can it really be said that the text itself was properly preached?

May the Lord Jesus Christ, the Head of His church, grant that His ministers would preach His Word faithfully. And may they preach according to these simple rules found in the Directory – that their preaching might be biblical, that it might be based upon the text of Scripture itself, and that it might emphasize what the text itself emphasizes.

The Manifold Helps to Holiness in the Church

Gospel Mystery

In his book, The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification, Puritan author Walter Marshall (1628-1680) gives us no less than six (6) ways in which the fellowship of the saints in the local church is conducive toward growth in holiness and sanctification (p.211-212):

1.  The Word and Sacraments (i.e. the means of grace in public worship), as well as the ministry of pastors and elders in overseeing and caring for our souls (Hebrews 13:17) are a great help to believers in striving to grow in holiness. But how rarely do we consider the ministry of the local church in public worship or in pastoral oversight when it comes to our desire to grow in holiness? Marshall points out that none of these helps unto holiness can be enjoyed outside of the fellowship of believers in the church. If you desire to grow in grace and holiness, do not overlook the importance of the local church.

2.  Mutual Prayer – How great a blessing it is when believers not only pray, or even pray for one another, but also pray with one another? What a support and encouragement that can be! And how much greater when the whole church gathers to pray together!

3.  Mutual Admonition, Instruction, and Consolation – It is not without reason that Scripture so often tells us of the importance of “one another” ministry among believers in the church. We are to let the Word of Christ dwell among us richly, which includes “teaching and admonishing one another” (Colossians 3:16). And one of the reasons that the writer of the book of Hebrews tells us not to neglect to meet together is that we might “stir up one another to love and good works” (10:24-25). Marshall writes,

“In church fellowship there are many helpers, many to watch. Soldiers have their security in company [i.e. numbers]; and the church is compared to an army with banners (Song vi. 4, 10). So, for quickening affections, Iron sharpeneth iron (Prov. xxvii. 17)” (p.212).

So it is not just the pastors and elders who are of great assistance to us in our growth in godliness, but the entire church! We are each to be bother helper and helped!

4.  External Supports – When suffering afflictions, how greatly it helps us to have shoulders to lean upon or cry upon. Simply put, we bear each others burdens in the church.

5.  Excommunication (!) – Yes, you read that correctly. Excommunication is a benefit of being a part of a local church? So what difference is there between that and just not getting involved in the church in the first place? As Marshall explains,

This ordinance is appointed for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved (1 Cor. v. 5). Better and more hopeful it is, to be cast out by the church, for a person’s amendment [i.e. repentance and restoration], than to be wholly without the church at all times; and better to be a lost sheep than a goat or swine . . . ” (p.212).

6.  The Lively Examples of the Saints – How helpful it is to have godly examples set before our eyes throughout our days. And how often is this very thing actually neglected by those churches who seem to undervalue the elderly in our churches, all in the name of the supposed importance of youth. Both are important to be sure (as saints of all ages are), but how much more do the younger need to learn from the older! The dear senior saints who have walked with the Lord Jesus Christ for a great many years have much to teach the younger believers, who are often just taking baby steps in the faith.

Marshall has a lot more to say about the way of sanctification, and I highly recommend this book to you. But I hope that this small sample of what he has to say about it gives you a renewed appreciation for the importance of the church in the Christian life.