"Notes" to the Belgic
Confession - Rev. C. Bouwman
EVERYONE'S DUTY TO JOIN THE CHURCH
In Article 27 we confessed what we learned from Scripture concerning what the Church was and what her characteristics were. The Church, we confessed, is not the sum total of God's elect, but rather it is the gathering of the people of God, the assembly of all those saved through Jesus Christ. We also confessed that the church is characterised by four attributes: 1) unity, 2) holiness, 3) catholicity, and 4) apostolicity.
Article 28 commences with the words, "We believe, since this holy assembly and congregation ..." Which holy assembly and congregation is referred to here? Could deBres possibly be referring to a Church different from that confessed in Article 27? Is it possible that the church spoken of in Article 27 is a reference to the Church as God sees it, a church invisible to man, and that Article 28 is a reference to the Church as man sees it, a visible church? This distinction between a visible and an invisible church was taught by, amongst others, Abraham Kuyper. It is also widely accepted in our day. However, Article 28 does not allow for such a contrast. Rather, Article 28 speaks of the very same Church as confessed in Article 27 and this is obvious from deBres' use of the pronoun this in his opening sentence. The pronoun 'this' indicates something referred to previously. "This holy assembly and congregation," is not a new or different Church but the very same one spoken of in the last paragraph of Article 27, where we read, "this holy Church," defined at the beginning of Article 27 as "a holy congregation and assembly." This conclusion is simple a matter of accepted English grammar.
VISIBLE VERSUS INVISIBLE CHURCH: AN UNSCRIPTURAL DISTINCTION
The notion of a visible church versus an invisible church is derived not from Scripture but from the teaching of the Greek philosopher Plato who lived some three or four centuries before Christ. Plato tried to come to grips with the concept of what is real. He reasoned that a real, true impression of things only exists in the mind of God, and that on earth God has made many representations of the real thing. For example, God alone has in mind a real impression of the horse, but on earth there exist many different representations of the real horse, such as the Shetland pony, the Clydesdale, the Percherons, the Quarter horse, the Palomino, etc, each showing to some greater or lesser degree something of the real horse as God alone knows it. Hence, the real horse is not the same as the horse one sees in the paddock. The real horse only exists in God's mind and is invisible to man. Each different kind of horse man sees is merely a better or worse representation of what is in God's mind. We might, for example, judge the Thoroughbred to be a more pure horse than the stout, heavy Clydesdale.
This line of thought was influential in western thinking, and so also received a place in theologians' efforts to understand what the Church was (see Figure 1). Following Plato's reasoning, the real Church was something God alone saw. To man the real Church was invisible; he could only see manifestations of the Church on earth. These manifestations include for example the Lutheran Church, the Church of Christ, the Uniting Church, the Free Reformed Church, the Presbyterian Church, etc. Each of these churches are better or worse representations of the real Church as God alone knows it. They are all churches, but the one church is a closer representation of the real thing than the other. Which church one ought to attend is then made secondary to membership in the Church, that body of believers as it exists in the mind of God.
Each of these different visible manifestations of the Church-as-God-knows-it are called "denominations" and from this is derived the theory of "denominationalism"; this is a theory very much alive today. One could compare this concept of different church denominations to the different denominations of money (that is, as it used to be before coins replaced the paper dollar notes): $1 note, $2 note, $5 note, $10 note, $20 note, etc. Although the one denomination is worth more than the other, all denominations are equally real and equally valid. In applying this line of thought to the church, all the different churches are said to be equally valid, but there are differing degrees of purity amongst the churches. The different churches are more or less pure manifestations of the real Church as God alone knows it. One can understand that in such thinking of the church, there is no room left for the notion of the true and false church. As none of the above notes are false notes (though one more desirable than the other), so no church (provided it preaches Christ) can be termed false (though one may be more pure than the next).
Such an understanding of the church has practical implications. It means in practice, for example, that the consistory of the Lutheran Church in the above Figure is able to permit people of the next denominations to participate in their celebration of the Lord's Supper. The criteria for admission to the table of the Lord is then whether or not one is a believer, whether or not one is a member of THE Church. Hence also the notion of an open pulpit, where ministers of one denomination are welcomed on the pulpit of the next, for don't all preach the one Gospel? This 'denominationalist' thinking is widespread throughout the evangelical world, and can also be detected within the Free Reformed Churches. Why is it that members feel free to withdraw from church? Why is it that members feel free to go 'church shopping?' At bottom it's because they do not see the Free Reformed Church to be the TRUE church but just one of the many manifestations of THE Church.
THE IDENTITY OF THE CHURCH AS THE ASSEMBLY OF THE REDEEMED OUTSIDE OF WHICH THERE IS NO SALVATION
The Church to which I belong is the very same Church to which Adam, Abraham, Aaron, Augustine, etc, belonged. This is possible because the Church is Catholic, having its beginnings all the way back in Paradise: it "has existed from the beginning of the world..." (Article 27). The thought is humbling, and very rich; we are not ecclesiastical orphans in this big world.
In Article 28 deBres echoes the teaching of Scripture that all are called to join this Church and none may not withdraw from it. Says Article 28,
1) the Church "is the assembly of the redeemed," and
2) "there is no salvation outside of it,"
1) "no one ought to withdraw from it," and
2) "all and everyone are obliged to join it."
Here is a twofold command to all believers. None may send a letter of resignation to his consistory, and equally, all believers (whether currently separate or in other churches) are to join Christ's Church. This is a comprehensive command to all believers; all must come and join. To add emphasis to this twofold command, deBres concludes this article with this statement, "All therefore who draw away from the Church or fail to join it act contrary to the ordinance of God." DeBres uses strong language here. On what Scriptural grounds was deBres able to confess this in his day? Equally, are we able to defend such a perspective and such strong language in our confession today?
A. THE TWO REALITIES
1) THE CHURCH IS THE ASSEMBLY OF THE REDEEMED: SCRIPTURAL GROUNDS
The following Scriptural arguments may be mentioned in support of the Confession's claim that the Church is the assembly of the redeemed.
i. The Church belongs to God.
Article 28 had begun with describing the Church as "this holy assembly". This description of the Church is an echo of passages of Scripture as Exodus 19:6 ("a holy nation") and I Peter 2:9 (again "a holy nation"). Notice how the apostle applies to the Church of the New Testament the identical title Israel received from God in the Old Testament. This holy nation, washed by the blood of Christ, belongs to God; these are they whom God in Christ has delivered from the power of the devil. That is why the apostle Paul regularly speaks of the congregation as "the church of God." Paul's letters to the Corinthians are addressed to "the church of God which is at Corinth ..." (I Corinthians 1:2; see II Corinthians 1:1). This is the normal congregation, with many weaknesses and sins, strongly admonished by the apostle to repent. Yet, because of Christ's work for them, she is addressed as "church of God".
Paul writes to Timothy about how things ought to be done in Church (regarding, for example, the offices in the Church). Timothy is a minister of the Church at Ephesus, minister of a real, local Church, God's house. Writes Paul, "These things I write to you…so that you may know how you ought to conduct yourself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth" (1 Timothy 3:14f). This Church in Ephesus, with all its sins and weaknesses, is God's house, God's dwelling place, God's Church. The Church belongs to God; one may therefore not separate the Church from God. When one speaks of the Church one implies God, for the Church is of God. To belong to God means then too that one ought to belong to God's church. The church's identity as church of God requires that one join her.
Since the church is church of God, God joined believers to His church. Peter's preaching after Pentecost was blessed with many converts. The Lord, however, did not let these converts float wherever they would. Scripture tells us rather that "the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved" (Acts 2:47). The church to which God joined these new believers was not an invisible Church, but a real, visible entity where the believers "continued ... in the breaking of bread" (vs 42). To belong to God, to be one of the redeemed, implies that one also be joined to His Church.
ii. The Brethren desire Togetherness
Psalm 1:5 makes mention of "... the congregation of the righteous." The righteous are not portrayed as so many individuals. They are a body, a group together, 'the congregation of the righteous'. The redeemed wish to be together.
This desire receives expression from David in Psalm 16:3. "As for the saints who are on the earth, 'They are the excellent ones, in whom is all my delight.'" In unison with David I can say that God is my God and hence I also delight in all who are His, namely the saints. I don't want to be on my own, but I want to be together with all God's saints. I want to be close to that in which I delight.
David in Psalm 122:1,2 expressed his eagerness to congregate in the temple. "I was glad when they said to me, 'Let us go into the house of the LORD.' Our feet have been standing within your gates, O Jerusalem!" The Temple in Jerusalem foreshadowed the Church of the New Testament, the "house of God" (1 Timothy 3:15). I do not want to be isolated from it, on my own, but I want to join it, I want to go there with fellow believers.
iii. Here God meets His people.
Ruth insisted that she accompany Naomi to the Promised Land. She did so because, she said, "your people shall be my people, and your God, my God" (1:16). She understood: you cannot separate God from His people. To receive God means that you also receive God's people.
Zechariah 8:23 tells us of the eagerness of the Gentiles to join the Jew. "Thus says the LORD of hosts: 'In those days ten men from every language of the nations shall grasp the sleeve of a Jewish man, saying "Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.'" Those who want salvation seek to join the assembly of the redeemed, for that is where God is.
Why do I join the Church? If God is my God, then I want to be with the Church of God. As Calvin once put it, "You cannot have God as your Father if you refuse to have the Church as your Mother."
2) OUTSIDE THE CHURCH THERE IS NO SALVATION: SCRIPTURAL GROUNDS
The second reason mentioned in Article 28 for the prohibition against withdrawal from the Church and the demand to join the Church is the phrase "there is no salvation outside of it." This phrase has been variously interpreted over the years. There have been those who understood the pronoun 'it' to refer to the invisible church, the church as God sees it, all the elect. Then the point of the phrase is that there is no salvation outside the body of the elect; that is: outside the body of the elect none will be saved. So the punch of the phrase becomes that one must make sure that he is elect, is a believer, must come to faith. Yet, since the Confession does not speak of some invisible church (=all the elect), this cannot be the meaning of the phrase.
There have also been those who have understood the phrase to mean that no-one will be saved outside the Church, for believers are only to be found inside the Church (Rev Hoorn in the Netherlands in the early 1980's). This understanding assumes that all the elect are in the local, visible church, that this church equals all the elect. However, with Article 27 we have confessed Scripture to teach that the Church is not all the elect but is rather the assembly of the elect. There can, then, definitely be believers, elect persons, outside the church. It is then not correct either to say that one must be a member of Free Reformed Churches in order to be saved. See further the notes on Article 27, page 107, concerning John 10:16.
The point of the phrase 'there is no salvation outside of it' is this: salvation is not available outside the church. God has ordained that salvation is made available for mankind not in the bush or on the beach, nor in the flock of a hireling (John 10:12); salvation is available there where Christ is, where His voice is heard. Christ is present in His fold, so that "My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me" (John 10:27). To use an example: if one wished to buy a bike, the place to go is the local bike shop. Certainly you don't go to the local bakery to buy a bike. That is: if one wants salvation, there is a place where one is guaranteed to find it, namely, the Church. One can find salvation here because this is where Christ labours. In His Church His voice is heard (in the preaching), and so in His Church the Holy Spirit works faith. If one wants faith, there is a place to go to obtain it.
Again, this is not to say that outside the Church no one will ever be saved. It is quite possible that one will one day find a bike for sale in a bakery. Yet that possibility does not mean that you shop at all the bakeries to find a bike. The Holy Spirit is sovereign, almighty, able to work faith wherever and however He pleases. He has, though, been pleased to bind Himself to particular means of working the faith needed for salvation, and that is through the preaching of the Word. As the apostle says in Romans 10:17, "So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God" (cf Lord's Day 25). It is for us to abide by the means the Lord has revealed to us. If we wish to be saved, we need to adhere to the norms of Scripture. That means: we join the Church of Jesus Christ. That's where the Holy Spirit works, that's where salvation is available. It will not do then for me to stay away from Church, or to go to the church of the hireling (much as the hireling may sound like Christ, see John 10:12); rather, I am to do what God wants of me, namely to be in Christ's Church, the 'workshop of the Holy Spirit,' for that is God's norm in bringing His redeemed children to faith.
These two realities lead to two conclusions. Since 1) the church is "the assembly of the redeemed", and 2) "there is no salvation outside of it", two conclusions follow: 1) "no one ought to withdraw from it", and 2) "all and everyone are obliged to join it".
B. THE TWO CONCLUSIONS
1) WITHDRAWAL FROM THE CHURCH IS SIN AGAINST THE SECOND COMMANDMENT
Article 28 concludes as follows, "All therefore who draw away from the Church or fail to join it act contrary to the ordinance of God." It does not say here that a person who withdraws himself from the Church will be lost and will go to hell. Here deBres is modest about the eternal destiny of those who withdraw from the Church. In keeping with I Corinthians 5:13 ("But those who are outside God judges"), deBres makes no comment on whether or not a person who withdraws himself from the Church will be saved. He does, however, say that to withdraw is sin. And sins have consequences.
In the second commandment the Lord God gave this instruction: "You shall not make for yourself a carved image - any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them..." Lord's Day 35, Q & A 96, expounds what God requires of us in the second commandment as follows, "We are not to make an image of God in any way, nor to worship Him in any other manner than He has commanded in His Word."
The Lord is particular about how we should worship Him. To think that God wouldn't mind if I worship Him in the way I choose is to sin against the second commandment, for essentially it is making a mental image of God which does not correspond with Who God has revealed Himself to be, namely, particular about how I worship Him. In the second commandment God goes on to say, "For I the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me..." (Deuteronomy 5:9). Who hate the Lord? The reference here is not to the heathen or the harlots, but to who want to serve the Lord but choose to do so in their own, self-chosen manner. To withdraw from the Church is "contrary to the ordinance of God"; it is sin against the second commandment.
Withdrawing from the Church does not automatically make one an unbeliever. Yet it remains true that faith is worked by the Holy Spirit through the preaching. To absent oneself from that preaching means one's faith is no longer fed, and so it will eventually starve and die. Said God to Israel with reference to obedience to His second commandment, "I…am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations." My actions today not only affect me, but have implications for my children. If I no longer hear and heed God's Word and Law today, I also deprive my children and grandchildren of hearing God's Word. Withdrawal from the Church is not a decision for the self only, but it has implications for future generations. One need but consider what happened to the many thousands who failed to join the Liberation of 1944. Today, some two generations later, countless descendants of those who submitted to bindings above Scripture officially tolerate the proclamation of gross heresies from their pulpits. On the other hand, God blesses obedience: He shows "mercy to thousands of those who love Me and keep My commandments" (Deuteronomy 5:10).
Yes, one can leave the
Church and still be a believer, but then one can no longer count on the blessing
of the Lord. God only rewards obedience with His blessing. "Therefore
you shall be careful to do as the LORD your God has commanded you; you shall
not turn aside to the right hand or to the left. You shall walk in all
the ways which the LORD your God has commanded you, that you may live and
that it may be well with you, and that you may prolong your days in the
land which you shall possess" (Deuteronomy 5:32,33). God is
particular. I may not turn to the right or to the left. I may make no compromises.
I may not belittle any of His commandments. I am to do exactly what
God has commanded, and only then may I expect God's blessing. "For
this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments. And His commandments
are not burdensome" (I John 5:3). To act in a manner consistent with
God's will on the matter of the Church requires the obedience of faith.
DeBres saw too that to break with the Church, or to fail to join the Church, is the equivalent of putting one's salvation on the line, even into so many generations. That is why DeBres confesses that one is to join himself to, and to stay joined to God's Church, "even though the rulers and edicts of princes were against it, and death or physical punishment might follow." Why is joining the Church even worth the cost of one's life or physical punishment? It is because, ultimately, one's own (and one's children's) eternal salvation is at stake. The price of withdrawing from the Church is always too high to pay.
2) THE CHURCH AND THE COMMUNION OF SAINTS
The consequence flowing from the double reality of 1) the church being "the assembly of the redeemed," and 2) "there is no salvation outside of it", includes more than that "no one ought to withdraw from it". There is also the obligation that "all and everyone" are "to join it".
Joining the Church involves more than getting your name on a membership list. Certainly that is part of it. Joining oneself to the Church is something one does Sunday by Sunday, by being in Church when the Word is preached. In Hebrews 10:25 we are exhorted, "... not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching." Soon Christ shall return, there isn't much time left, and it is for me to be there where salvation through Him alone is preached.
Again, there is more to Church membership than filling my spot on the pew each Sunday. Church membership also implies an active involvement on the part of each member. Says deBres: The members "must submit themselves to (the Church's) instruction and discipline, bend their necks under the yoke of Jesus Christ, and serve the edification of the brothers and sisters, according to the talents which God has given them as members of the same body." Scripture compares the Church, the body of believers, to a physical body where all members of the body are dependent upon each other. One reads of this in 1 Corinthians 12:12, "For as the body is one and has many members, but all the members of that one body, being many are one body, so also is Christ." Each member needs the other. Each member knows that he needs the other members and that they need him.
The communion of saints
is part and parcel of being Church. Said Paul to the Corinthians, "Now
you (the saints of Corinth, the Corinthian Church), are a body of
Christ, and members individually" (1 Corinthians 12:27. (Note:
the Greek text does not have the definite article 'the' here). That is: the
church of Corinth is a complete body, with each member needing every other
member. So each believer in Corinth was to make a point of being actively
involved in the body, for mutual benefit and personal advantage. Likewise,
the Church at Kelmscott today is a complete body of Christ, and so
is also to be a body, to be a communion of saints together, where each
member is there for the other and where each member is dependent upon the
other. It will not do for me therefore to distance myself from the congregation.
After all, isn't David's delight in the communion of saints, his delight in
the togetherness of the saints, also my delight? (Psalm 16, Psalm 122). Hence
I delight in congregating with the saints Sunday by Sunday, and I give myself
in service to the saints all the time.