Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Recognizing the True Church

Throughout Scripture, the word "church" means two different but related things. One way it is used is to indicate all persons who are received into God's presence, those who are God's children and true members of Christ's body. The other way it is used is to indicate all men who profess to worship God and Christ throughout the world. "In this church are mingled many hypocrites who have nothing of Christ but the name and outward appearance." There have always been those in this church who are not a part of the body of Christ. Calvin then writes, "the former church, invisible to us, is visible to the eyes of God alone, so we are commanded to revere and keep communion with the latter, which is called 'church' in respect to men."

Only God knows who is truly part of His church. He did give us some outward signs that we might recognize better the members of the church. These recognize "by confession of faith, by example of life, and by partaking of the sacraments" those who profess in the same God and Christ.

In a recent class, we were focusing on ecclesiology, the study of the church. This next section was very important to our professor as he referenced it a number of times. Calvin writes, "Wherever we see the Word of God purely preached and heard, and the sacraments administered according to Christ's institution, there, it is not to be doubted, a church of God exists." These are the marks of the true church - the Word of God is preached and heard also that the sacraments are administered. Calvin further defines the church, "the church universal is a multitude gathered from all nations; it is divided and dispersed in separate places, but agrees on the one truth of divine doctrine, and is bound by the bond of the same religion. Under it are thus included individual churches, disposed in towns and villages according to human need, so that each rightly has the name and authority of the church. Individual men who, by their profession of religion, are reckoned within such churches, even though they may actually be strangers to the church, still in a sense belong to it until they have been rejected by public judgment." Once again, Calvin defines the church by stating, "If it has the ministry of the Word and honors it, if it has the administration of the sacraments, it deserves without doubt to be held and considered a church."

If the gospel is heard and the sacraments are not neglected then "no one is permitted to spurn its authority, flout its warnings, resist its counsels, or make light of its chastisements - much less to desert it and break its unity." We are to build up the body of Christ, not break it apart. Paul calls the church, "the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth," (1 Timothy 3:15). Calvin writes that Paul meant "the church is the faithful keeper of God's truth in order that it may not perish in the world."

Satan is at work trying to destroy the church. "Sometimes he tries by effacing and destroying these marks to remove the true and genuine distinction of the church. Sometimes he tries by heaping contempt upon them to drag us away from the church in open rebellion." There is nothing that Satan would like to see more than the destruction of the church. We should be vigilant in making sure that these marks exist in our congregations.

Occasionally, we may see that a fault in a non-essential doctrine may arise in the preaching of the Gospel or the administration of the sacraments. This should not cause us to leave the church or try to split apart the congregation. Essential doctrine consists of "God is one; Christ is God and the Son of God; our salvation rests in God's mercy; and the like." Non-essential matters should never be a reason for schism among Christians, although unity of belief is preferred. We should try to correct what is displeasing in the church if the Word is preached and the sacraments are administered rather than splitting from the church. But this correction must happen in a way not to disturb the peace and discipline of the church. Calvin writes, "we are neither to renounce the communion of the church nor, remaining in it, to disturb its peace and duly ordered discipline."

There have always been perfectionists within the church. Some who think of themselves as "airy spirits" are convinced of their own perfect sanctity. "There are others who sin more out of ill-advised zeal for righteousness than out of that insane pride." These people try to find the "perfect" church. Eventually they often leave the church out of hatred of the lawful church. Calvin suggests that they examine Christ's parables related to the church and the final judgment, such as the parable of the dragnet (Matthew 13:47-58) or the parable of the sower (Matthew 13:24-30).

Tomorrow's reading: 4.1.14-4.1.20

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