Sermon: LORD'S DAY 21 - Rev. C.
From "Living In The Joy Of Faith" with the kind
permission of Inheritance Publications
THE CHURCH: THE GATHERING OF BELIEVERS
Text: Lord's Day 2 1, Qu. & A. 54 Reading: John 10 : 1-30
Psalm 129 1, 3
Psalm 87 3, 4
Hymn 40 1, 3, 4
Psalm 23 1, 3
Hymn 451, 2, 3
Introduction: Beloved congregation of the Lord Jesus Christ,
We may in this Lord's Day examine what our confession says about the Church of our Lord Jesus Christ. It seems that dealing with this topic is always timely and necessary because of the many misunderstandings and the persistent confusion which always surround this matter. We should ask ourselves the question: why is there always so much confusion on the point of the Church? Surely this is not because the Word of God is unclear in this respect! Neither is our confession really difficult to understand in these matters! The confusion stems more from the fact that we sometimes tend to go by what we see or think of the Church, and not by what is revealed about the Church.
What do we see when we look around us? We see a multitude of "churches", sects, and spiritual movements, sorely divided, maintaining a separate existence, and yet all claiming the title, "Church of Jesus Christ", often at the expense of the others. But the Bible says that Christ is not divided and teaches the unity of the Church.
In order to reconcile the Biblical teaching of unity with the apparent divisions which there are, people have resorted to all kinds of theories which would explain or resolve the issue. There is, for example, the distinction made between the visible (local) church and the invisible (universal) church. According to this distinction, all true believers are members of a great invisible church, which will become apparent only on the great day of Christ. Therefore, the church of which you are a member here on earth, is of less importance. As long as you believe in Christ, it is okay. There is also, to use another example, the theory of the pluriformity of the church. This theory holds that the Church of Christ has many forms; all churches are a form of the real thing. The one form is perhaps more pure (better) than the other-and to each his own preference-but all forms are acceptable and valuable.
The net result of these theories is that we are all made to appear as being one even though we can stay neatly divided! And the implication is that you may never really say of another church that it is a false (unfaithful) church! You may think that "your church" is better, but you may never say that another is false. And so you can understand that whenever someone speaks about "true" and "false" churches, he is immediately accused of being intolerant and sectarian.
It is important to have the correct starting point in all this. We shall not go by what we see, but by what God has revealed. Not the sinful facts but the divine norms determine our confession concerning the Church.
Then we discover first and foremost that this is not our church, but is the Church of Christ! This makes quite a difference. I believe that this is actually the theme of this first question and answer of Lord's Day 21. The Son of God-Christ-gathers, defends, and preserves for Himself a Church chosen to everlasting life! So the question is not what you see or think of the Church, but what Christ has revealed. What do you believe-onthe basis of Scripture-concerning the holy, catholic Church of Christ?
I summarize this Lord's Day as follows:
The confession concerning the Church as the great gathering of the believers by our Lord Jesus Christ.
1. the special character of this Church
2. the dynamic history of this Church
3. the spiritual unity of this Church.
1. The first point here, then, is about the character of the Church. And we should determine what we mean by the word "character". Character is an essential feature which makes something what it really is. Character is the special quality of something. We speak of the special character of the Church!
Well, then, what is so special about the Church? Some would say that there is nothing special about the Church. It is just one of our many human organizations or social institutions, of which you can be a member or not. And here is where the basic mistake is made!
For the Church has a special character in that it is not a human organization with people of similar interests, but is rather the organization of Jesus Christ, His body, His congregation! I know that this Church is comprised of people, and that we, as people, have a tremendous responsibility towards the Church-in that sense it is also our church! -but the Church is first and foremost a divine institution which belongs to Christ. This is what makes the Church special and unique. There is no other institution or gathering like it in the entire world. People come together only because Christ brings them together.
Many people consider the church to be a voluntary association of men. Then the particular church you attend is a matter of 'Tree choice"! But that is a humanistic approach to the church, for then we are the constituting and determining factor. And this is a reduction of the power and glory of Christ in the Church, for He alone, personally and sovereignly, gathers the Church!
It may seem a simple truth that the Church belongs to Christ, but the consequence of this simple fact is often overlooked. We are not dealing in the Church with. our efforts and insights, but with Christ's work of salvation! That reality must make us serious, careful, and diligent in our membership of the Church. If the Church is merely a human institution, we can switch from denomination to denomination according to our tastes. If we do not feel at home in one, we can go to another. Then the norm has become: does it appeal to me and do I feel comfortable? Then our preferences begin to overrule Christ's revealed standards! How easily does this happen!
But the very word "Church" already means "that which belongs to the Lord!" He is the potter, we are the clay. He is the Master, we are the servants. He is the Shepherd, we are the flock! The Bible uses the word ecclesia, meaning "chosen congregation% which has been called out of the world, separated from sin, and made to belong to Christ! When Christ speaks about this Church, this ecclesia, He says, My Church! (Matthew 16:18) No one else calls, gathers, defends, and preserves this Church than Christ alone! When we look at the Church, then we see Christ at work!
This determines the special character of the Church. Therefore our confession speaks about a holy Church, and the members of the Church are addressed in the Bible as saints. The body of Christ is holy and His Bride is saintly. And we must understand that this has nothing to do with the members of the Church in themselves, for they are and remain sinful people. That the members of the Church are spoken of as saints is due to Christ's work of redemption. The Bible speaks about the Church which He purchased with His own blood, and which He washed and purified by that precious blood as being a holy Church.
It is the same Christ Who calls His sheep and gathers them, who also cleanses them and sanctifies them in His service! The gathering of the Church is inseparably linked to the sacrifice on the cross, for there He took away the sins of His people! Does not Christ say in John 10, "I am the good Shepherd, Who lays down His life for His sheep". There we see so clearly the deep love which Christ has for His Church and the strong bond which He maintains with His Church!
Whatever we might want to say about the Church, be it good or bad, we must start here with the confession that the "Son of God gathers, defends, and preserves for Himself . . . a Church chosen to everlasting life". For that is the special character of the Church as sanctified body of Christ.
He gathers: the origin of the Church lies in Christ's will and power to gather. Without Him there would be no gathering. He defends: the present security of the Church lies in His sovereign care. He preserves: the future certainty of the Church lies in His gracious providence, so that, indeed, we could sing with the Church of old, from Psalm 129, "They have oppressed me sorely from my youth, yet they have not prevailed against me ever". If the Church were a human institution, it would have disappeared long ago, together with the empires and peoples of old. But now we know that this Church shall remain until the last day, for it belongs to Christ and to Him alone!
Will you speak in these terms and with this respect about the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ? Will you always have an eye for the special character of this Church? For then you will always be careful in what you say about that Church and how you behave within that Church! If you see Christ at work here, then you will more and more discover the dynamic history of the Church. We come to the second point.
2. If we know the special character of this Church, the question still remains: where and when does Christ gather this Church? And I want you to note that our confession speaks about the holy, catholic Church. Catholic means world-wide, all over the world, and also not restricted to one place or time!
We learn from the Scriptures that we are not to restrict this gathering work of Christ to any given place or time, because this gathering is a timeencompassing, world-wide project of Christ. As the Catechism says, "the Son of God [gathers His Church] out of the whole human race, from the beginning of the world to its end . . ."
From the beginning of the world! Already in Paradise, when He called Adam. and Eve to Himself, Christ began to gather His Church. This work of gathering continued in their children, Abel, Seth, and Enosh. Then already there was a form of public worship. Then already there were clear lines of demarcation: the children of God were separated from the children of this world. To say it otherwise, there was from the beginning an antithesis between Church and world, between the righteous and the ungodly!
Whenever God's people forgot this antithesis, the LORD brought it about again, so that He might keep His people pure and holy in the midst of this world.
The Lord continued His work through Abraham and in Israel, working towards the fullness of time when the Christ would be born, and then He commissioned the Gospel to be proclaimed to all flesh! You see, the Church of Christ has a history, a process of growth, and a very dynamic (lively) history at that! "History" is a process of development, with positive strides ahead and also with negative declines, times of growth and recession, of reformation and deformation. But always there is a constant progress towards the great goal of full glory in Jesus Christ!
This Church indeed has a dynamic history. It exists from the beginning of the world and is gathered out of the whole human race. This is not to deny that this history was at one time restricted to one people, for it was! Once the LORD gathered His people only in Israel. As Psalm 147 says: "He dealt thus with no other nation, they did not know His revelation". But that was temporary. Also then there were examples and prophecies that Christ's gathering work would soon go worldwide. Think of Naaman, the Syrian. Think of the widow of Zarephath and of the prophecies of Isaiah about the nations who will flock to Jerusalem. God always had a catholic Church in mind. Even when this gathering was concentrated in Israel, the Lord maintained this catholic quality and perspective of the Church.
This becomes so clear in the New Testament. Christ Himself said to the Jews in His day: "I have other sheep, that are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will heed my voice. So there shall be one flock, one Shepherd" (John 10:16). The other sheep of the other fold are the Gentiles. So Paul later said that in Christ the Gentiles who were strangers, have now come near (Ephesians 2)! The Church is no longer a matter of blood or race, of country or nationality, but the Church is now-as it really always has been a matter of calling and of faith!
This rich history of the Church has not yet been finished. We are a part of that history. We are taken up in it. Notice that this process of gathering is still going on! The Catechism speaks in the present tense: Christ gathers, defends, and preserves. He still does so today and will do so until the end of the world. We have not yet seen the final act of gathering. We do not know the whole number! The gathering of the Church of Christ is for us an immense, un-over-seeable work of Christ, which we believe on the basis of the Scriptures! When you think of the gathering of the Church, do not think in small terms, but in terms of a multitude that no one can count! (Revelation 7:9).
This should make us at the same time both humble and joyful. We are humble because we are not the only ones being gathered by Christ. Christ speaks more languages than just English, French, Dutch or German. And we are joyful, because in this vast and boundless work Christ is bringing to redemption all whom the Father has given Him. Not one shall be forgotten or left behind!
Also today, there are so many brothers and sisters in the world whom we have never met and whom we do not know, with whom we could not even communicate because of language barriers. Their colour, background and culture is different than ours; their knowledge might be less than ours. But still, the Lord has called and gathers them just as He does us! We may see this and accept this in faith!
And of this holy, catholic Church, un-overseeable in vastness and number, yet always visible on earth in its worship and its members, we also confess that it is one in faith and must be one! We come to the last point.
3. We confess here also that Christ gathers, defends, and preserves His Church "by His Spirit and Word in the unity of the true faith". The unity of the Church is an important matter. Remember how I spoke in the beginning of an apparent disunity. In the midst of so many churches and sects, where is the Church of Christ, of which it can and must be said that this is the true, the real Church of Christ, according to Lord's Day 21 Is it so surprising that people try to use the escape clause of the theory of pluriformity, an escape clause which, in reality, however, only makes things worse and less clear?
We must understand that the unity of the Church is a spiritual unity. This means that it is determined and worked by the Holy Spirit. It is moulded by the Word of God. The believers are one in the true faith. And faith here is not just the act of believing but also the contents of the faith! Christ gathers those believers, while they, from their side must be gathered. They must come together, in submission to the Word of God, in obedience to the work of the Holy Spirit, to hear the faithful preaching of the Gospel.
We confess in Article 27 of the Belgic Confession that there is one catholic or universal Church. This Church is being gathered by Christ in the unity of the true faith. That is a mighty reality! Christ will complete and perfect this Church, bringing all true believers together and removing all that separates them. The reality and certainty of the unity of the Church lies in Christ and in His perfect work of gathering!
Now the point is that I must maintain the unity of that Church by joining this Church locally where ever God has established it! This is what we confess in Article 28 of the Belgic Confession. And since there are so many sects that call themselves "church", says Article 29 of the Belgic Confession, we must diligently and carefully discern from Scripture which is the true Church! For there in that faithful Church is where the Lord calls me, concretely, today! There I must maintain the unity of the Church and experience the communion of the saints. Ibis is the clear line of Scriptural thinking in our confession.
The spiritual unity of the Church of Christ means that I let the Spirit take me to where the Word of God is preached in truth, where the sacraments are administered according to the institution of Christ, and where Scriptural discipline is properly exercised. This is the norm which God has revealed to us in His holy Word, and which we must obey.
Christ gathers. He alone saves us, and not the Church. He knows those who are His own. He will find each and every sheep and bring it into His sheepfold. But we shall obey the call of His Word where we live and be joined with the Church which in our town shows itself faithful to Jesus Christ and to the pure doctrine. So we find the "true" Church, which means simply the faithful Church. We shall not start with the secret and hidden things of God, but we shall obey the revealed norms of the Lord! For it is not our church, but Christ's Church. We shall not follow our ideas, but His norms.
We must more and more have an eye for Christ's norms. Christ knows His people wherever they are. He is gathering and He will gather them. He knows all who belong to Him. There are no questions about that. But we must speak about the Church which adheres to the norms and shows the marks of the Church. There the unity of faith is evident and there the communion of saints is practised!
The spiritual unity of the Church is not some vague, mysterious unity which is invisible. No, the spiritual unity of the Church must be concrete. There must be one faith, one baptism, one confession, and one worship! This concreteness may not be neglected, for that would lead to a one-sided and wrong way of speaking about the Church, contrary to our confession.
For the normative way to that great gathering of the holy, catholic, Christian Church is still through the local Church that is faithful to the norms of Christ! We may not judge others, but we do appeal to them that we be joined together in the unity of the true faith. We do not say that outside of Christ's faithful Churches there are no true believers, but we do say that those believers are in the wrong place, and it may cost them and their children dearly. For the false church devours its own children.
There is also the other side, the great comfort which we confess as members of Christ's Church. For we also confess here: "I believe that I am and forever shall remain a living member of it", that is, of this holy, catholic Church of Christ! Christ said of His sheep: "My sheep hear my voice and I know them, and they follow Me, and I give them eternal life and they shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of my hand' (John 10:29). The loving Shepherd of the sheep will keep all His lambs in safety. But those lambs must then also listen to the voice of the Shepherd! They must follow Him and must do so more and more! With the promise of preservation comes the call to reformation!
There lies the deepest issue. All those human constructions about the Church, those escape routes, are a rejection of the call to reformation. People stay in false churches, for they tell themselves that it does not make any difference. But the toll is great, especially among their children! If they do not maintain the unity with the true Church of Christ where all things are managed according to God's Word, they are in danger of losing every bond with Christ Himself!
But when we maintain the spiritual unity of the Church of Christ, then He will establish us forever as members of His body, and He will one day take us to Himself in eternity and present His Church as His Bride to His Father. Then what David already confessed will be true for all of us: 'And in Thy house, LORD, I shall dwell forever" (Psalm 23:3, Book of Praise). AMEN.
THE CHURCH IS COMMUNION OF SAINTS
Text: Lord's Day 21, Qu. & A. 55 Reading: I Corinthians 12 : 4-26
Psalm 122 3
Psalm 65 3
Psalm 101 2, 3, 4
Psalm 16 1
Psalm 68 10
Introduction: Beloved congregation of the Lord Jesus Christ,
Last week I spoke to you about the "Church" as the specific gathering of the Lord Jesus Christ, the holy and catholic Church, a special gathering of people out of all times and places. Today we may look at the same Church as being "the communion of saints".
The same Church. I put it that way with purpose, for there is sometimes a tendency to separate the Church and the communion of saints. The communion of saints is seen as much broader than the instituted or visible church. Dr. A. Kuyper spoke of the communion of saints as an organism-a living and dynamic fellowship-while he saw the institution of the church as static and restricted. So he saw a difference between the church and the "communion of saints". The communion of the saints is much broader than the local church or institution!
The Catechism, however, does not speak this way. The Church and the communion of saints are not different things but are one and the same thing! The Church is and is to be the communion of saints. There is a comma here, which equates the one with the other. I believe a holy, catholic, Christian Church which is the communion of saints.
Qu. & A. 54 speaks about the Church in principle terms as the work of Christ. Qu. & A. 55 approaches the matter more in practical terms as our obligation! Still, Christ, the Head of the Church, is also here the constituting and determining factor. He sets and determines communion. There is no communionoutside or beyond Him. He gathers His Church in the unity of the true faith, and therefore we are to be unified and must show ourselves to be a communion of saints. It is a reality and a mandate at the same time! Just as the Church has a prophetic ministry to the world, so it has a priestly ministry to its members.
I summarize this Lord's Day as follows:
The confession concerning the Church as the communion of the saints.
1. wherein this communion exists.
2. wherein this communion appears.
1. The first question is: what makes the communion of saints? We are all different people. We have a different background, different characters, and differing circumstances.
Our background may be predominantly "Dutch", but it is not a characteristic of the Dutch to be so unified. On the contrary, the Dutch are a rather individualistic bunch. Besides, there are those among us who do not have a Dutch background. Background does not a communion make.
As far as our "characters" are concerned, one is by nature bold while the other is shy. One is outspoken, while the other is quiet. The one is optimistic, while the other is pessimistic. We all have our own characters. Not one is alike.
And if we look at present circumstances, these, too, are quite different. One is single, while the other is married. One is young, while the other is old. One is wealthy, while the other is struggling financially. Our circumstances are definitely not the same!
Let us face the facts: background, character, and circumstances do not constitute the communion of saints. But they need not break it either. All these things add colour and variety to the communion of saints. There is a great variety in the human race which is also reflected in the communion of saints. The Church is not a drab, uniform mass of likeminded people, but is richly diversified in its members. They are young and old, poor and rich, sick and healthy. We should not try to press everyone into a specific mould, for then we lose an essential aspect of the communion of saints!
Still the question remains: what does, then, constitute the communion of saints? The word communion does imply that we have something in common. What is it then that we have in common? In what does this communion exist?
The Catechism says: "First, that believers, all and everyone, as members of Christ have communion with Him . . ." Each word is impressive and important here.
Believers form the communion of saints. With believers are included, of course, their children, who together stand in the covenant reality of God. The communion of saints is foremost a communion in faith, both in the activity of faith as in the contents of faith. We all believe the same things. So, if there are those who do not believe and who do not share the same confession of faith, there can be no communion with them. There is also no basis on which to stand or build with them. There may be a certain association or cooperation with such people-most of us have to work alongside unbelievers and even have a relatively good relationship with some -but there is always a gap or a distance between them and us in the essential matters of life. You may work side by side, but time and again you will experience that you are far apart.
In the same way, although perhaps to a lesser degree, there is often a distance with those who belong to another "church" which does not have the reformed confession or does not maintain that confession. When the essential element of the unity of faith is lacking, we can hardly speak of the communion of saints, which is a communion in faith!
This is the reason why the Word of God forbids, for example, courtship with an unbeliever and why we stress communion of saints before the communion of marriage. Especially marriage, which is such a close bond reflecting the unity of Christ and His Church, must be a bond in the faith and in the Lord. Only a plant with roots can grow. Only a house with foundations can weather the storms. If a person loves the Lord Jesus Christ, he will be open to instruction in the Truth, not just after marriage, but also before marriage. Therefore, as a rule, only marriages of communicant members are solemnized in Reformed Churches.
Not every relationship or organization merits the name "communion of saints", not even every organization which calls itself "Christian". For the communion of saints is established by a common faith, by one confession, and by unity of worship. This is why we must always be careful with respect to inter-denominational Christian organizations. We have always asked: how can we work together in faith in such organizations while we cannot seem to worship together in the unity of the true faith? Does the Christian organization precede and supersede the Church of Christ?
This is the problem which we face, for example, in the effort to form a Christian political party. Romanists, Baptists, and Reformed sit around one table to establish a Christian politic stance. There are immediately some fundamental differences which will never be fully resolved because there is no communion in the faith or in the same confession!
This does not mean that we may never participate in such an organization and that it does not have value or importance (especially when we can have Scriptural input). We may even be grateful for the opportunity to conduct Christian politics. But it does mean that it offers only limited opportunities. It also means that we must be careful that-despite good intentions-such organizations do not lead us astray and away from the communion of saints. If we participate in such organizations, it must be a watchful and careful participation.
The communion of saints is one of a common faith and confession. This faith, we read, binds us to Christ, as His members, and unites us as a body. Christ is the Head, and we are the members. That is how the Bible speaks about the communion of saints. We first belong to Christ and so we belong to each other. Christ comes first. How can we belong to one another as Christians if we do not first belong to Christ, our Lord?
The Catechism says that we have "communion with Him [Christ]". Together, we share in Christ. All the members who form the body are attached in the same way to Christ, by faith! And so we together share in "all His treasures and gifts".
Notice the order here in the Catechism. We first share in Christ, then in His treasures, and finally in His gifts. The communion of saints is not, in the first place, that we have some things in common, but that we have Christ in common-Christ crucified and resurrected. Individually and together we have a living bond, a spiritual bond with Christ. We tend to think of the communion of saints as being a relationship of people on earth, but the communion of saints first directs itself upwards, by faith. It is a bond with heaven! It means having a connection to the throne, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. It means receiving your directions from heaven, by the Word of God. If that living bond is not there, all those treasures and gifts pass us by as well.
We have Christ in common. And Christ is a living Head of His Church, Who governs, guides, instructs, and disciplines us, individually and together. The list of all that He does for us and in us is endless! Take Christ away and there is no communion of saints. Destroy the bond of faith, and you destroy the communion of the saints.
First we have communion with Christ. And then we share in "all His treasures and gifts". But what is meant by these treasures and gifts? Are treasures the same as gifts? Most explainers see in the treasures the greater things and in the gifts the lesser things.
Without distinguishing too rigidly, we can perhaps speak of the treasures as the great riches which Christ has earned for us, and which we all share indiscriminately. The treasures of Christ's love, Christ's Name, and Christ's righteousness belong to the whole
Church. To say it with the last words of the Apostles' Creed: the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting-all these things combined-for do they not come together, in a package?-form the great treasure of the Church!
The word "treasure" indicates that these things are precious and priceless, to be sought and desired above all other things in life! It also indicates that these things cannot vanish or disappear. They cannot be stolen from us by anyone. They do not belong to only a few in the Church, but are the heritage of all the members.
The word "treasures" indicates that we are rich, rich in Christ. And these riches come to us via the cross. The apostle Paul has written about this as follows: you know the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for our sake He became poor, so that by His poverty you might become rich! (II Corinthians 8:9). The communion of saints, the treasures of the Church have been purchased by the precious blood of our Lord Jesus Christ! For this communion Christ was ex-communicated, forsaken even by His Father in the darkness of Golgotha and the agony of hell.
Christ and His cross, through which all the treasures of the Kingdom of heaven come our way, are at the heart of the communion of saints! When we look at one another in the Church, what do we see? We see a man, a woman, a child, a person with good or bad qualities. Yes, but we also see someone redeemed by the blood of Christ, who awaits the resurrection from the dead and who will with us inherit the new earth and eternal life! Together we are heirs of Christ, and therefore children of God and brothers and sisters in the Lord!
We must approach each other as fellowheirs of the Kingdom, comforting one another with these riches, admonishing one another in these riches, together looking forward to the glory of Christ! This is what makes a Christian marriage such a beautiful thing. Husband and wife are together heirs of the grace of life. Your wife is your sister in Christ. Your son is your brother in Christ. This is what makes the communion of saints of such great value.
If only we dealt with each other in this perspective. Then our lives would be more joyful. Sometimes, we have so much criticism about each other, and it is not constructive, but biting criticism, criticism like burning acid. We can really wound and cut each other up. We can be so hard and unyielding to each other. Before we open our mouth to say something to or about each other, we should remember: I am dealing with a brother or sister in Christ, a fellow-heir, who shares with me the riches of Christ, the blood of Golgotha. Sure, if something must be said, let it be said, but only in humility, in a spirit of fellowship and love. Otherwise don't say it. We share the treasures, forgiveness, new life, and eternal hope, and we must put these treasures to work among us. Then the riches will grow with compounded interest, for all of us!
And we share in His gifts. If the word "treasures" denotes more the total and grand inheritance, the word "gifts" points more to special aspects. We speak of gifts in the sense of charismata. The Catechism directs us here to I Corinthians 12, where Paul speaks of one body possessing the same spiritual treasure, yet having a variety of gifts. It is this word "variety" which is important with respect to these gifts. There is one treasure, given to everyone in the same measure, but with the gifts things are different. The gifts differ in measure, according to the distribution of the Spirit!
We all have different gifts. And this is not meant only spiritually, but also materially. Some have more earthly possessions than others. This may be partly due to effort and insight, but it is also a matter of grace. But the apostle Paul does refer especially to spiritual matters like: wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, the ability to distinguish, tongues etc. (see verses 8-11). This variety in talents, gifts, possessions, and means is what makes the Church colourful.
Does this variety lead to friction in the Church? Will we not get cliques? Will it be, as in Corinth, the rich versus the poor, the intellectuals versus the less knowledgeable? This can and does happen. But it happens against the will and the command of Christ. The variety of gifts flowing forth from one Lord and one Spirit may not disrupt the communion of saints, but, on the contrary, must bring it out even more in its deepest significance. We come to the second element.
2. For you see now the vital point that the gifts which you or I may have received (perhaps in contrast to others) are not your gifts or my gifts at all, for they still belong to the Church! Others must share in your gifts and my gifts as well!
In other words, the gifts which an individual member receives are not intended solely for him, but for all, and all the gifts of everyone combined makes the functioning of the communion of saints a reality. When does this communion fall? It fails when we withhold ourselves and our gifts from the communion and do not give according to the measure that we have been given!
Christ does not enrich certain individuals with certain gifts. These individuals are members of His body, members of each other, and in them He enriches the entire body!
Communion means sharing. We pass on to each other and use for each other what we have received from Christ. We have received it for one another.
The Catechism puts it this way: "Second, that everyone is duty-bound to use his gifts readily and cheerfully for the benefit and well-being of the other members". The original German is very strong here. The Catechism is saying that everyone is under the obligation, indeed is bound by a holy duty, to put his gifts to work for the upbuilding of the others.
The moment we receive from Christ, we owe the communion of saints. Our gifts are working gifts; our capital is working capital. Christ said that from him who has received much, much will be asked. The more gifts we have, the more we owe. When Christ gives to you, the Church may ask from you!
He gave you a heart so that you might have compassion toward your brothers and sisters. He gave you a mind, so that you would think also on their behalf. He gave you a mouth, so that you might speak with them, to comfort or to admonish. He gave you a hand so that you might extend it. He gave you feet so that you might hasten to their aid. He gave you your wealth, so that you might share it. He gave you your knowledge so that you might pass it on.
Does this mean that you may have nothing for yourself? No time or money for yourself? No, communion is not communism. Communism denies that persons may have private property. The Lord grants us our own possessions. Our needs are important and our time must be used also for ourselves and for our families. God does not rob us of our gifts; all He asks is that we share them. Sharing does not make you any poorer at all; it only enriches you and your neighbour!
This obligation is not a burden. Notice how the Catechism says here that we shall share these gifts readily and cheerfully. This means: I do not do it for my good name and position in the Church, seeking my own glory, but I do it from the bottom of my heart, filled with the love of Christ, for the benefit of my brothers and sisters. "Readily" means that you are always ready. I do not have to be asked a hundred times, but I immediately offer to help. "Cheerfully" means to share with joy and not begrudgingly, for I love to share what Christ has given me! And so I share not only with some, but with all my brothers and sisters, also with those whom I personally do not like so much.
Readily and cheerfully? Are we not losing this readiness and cheerfulness? We live in a self-seeking society and in an egoistical world. Does the Me-first mentality not affect us? When you have opportunity to visit someone, or to go to a society meeting, do you go readily and cheerfully, or because you have to? When you write out a cheque for the church, or the school, or whatever important cause in the Kingdom of God, do you do this with some pain, because you have to, lamenting the loss of your hardearned money? Why does it always take so much prodding from the officebearers before some members meet their obligation in the Church and the communion of saints? You should not have to be reminded of your duty to each other, for it should be the first thing on your mind. You should do it readily and cheerfully. Those who have not learned to share, do not know what the Church is all about.
And the goal of all this is our mutual edification! The goal is our own wen-being and that of others in the Church! And in that mutual edification lies the glory of God, who gives to all for the common good. Then everyone is important and no one can be missed. Then we are all concerned for each other. When one suffers, we all sympathize. When one is honoured, we all rejoice, says Paul.
How does the communion of saints function among us? Does it depend on whom you talk to? Some will say: it is terrible. Others will say: it is great. One thing is very sure and that is that we get out of it what we put into it! The ones who complain the most, generally put in the least. Communion of saints, indeed. The question which comes to us in this Lord's Day is not what the communion has done for me. The question is what I-duty-bound-have done for this communion? Am I using my gifts readily and cheerfully for the benefit and well-being of others?
For when the Master returns, He will call all His servants, and will say to each one: I gave you gifts. What did you do with them? He win ask all of us, old and young, from Benjamin, to Judah. And He asks of us nothing that He did not Himself first give. He gave everything He had for the benefit and wellbeing of the Church and all its members. He gave even His own life for the salvation of the saints. He is hem our hope and our help! We must do it for His sake and in His strength, by His Spirit.
Let the communion of saints then appear more and more as we use our gifts for the benefit of the others. So we may help to build the Church and glorify our Lord. AMEN.
THE MINISTRY OF THE CHURCH
Text: Lord's Day 25, Qu. & A. 56 Reading: II Corinthians 5 : 10-21
Psalm 65 1, 2
Hymn IB 3
Psalm 103 1, 4
Psalm 98 4; Psalm 32 1
Psalm 56 5; Hymn 49 1
Introduction: Beloved congregation of the Lord Jesus Christ,
We are still dealing in Lord's Day 21 with the confession concerning the Church. We saw how this Church is characterized as a gathering of all believers by Christ (Qu. 54) and how it is also a communion of saints (Qu. 55). Now we deal with the last question and answer concerning the forgiveness of sins.
You might wonder how this matter of the forgiveness of sins really ties in with the confession concerning the Church. In the Apostles' Creed these are separate articles, but in the Catechism they are dealt with in one Lord's Day. Obviously the writers of the Catechism wished to lay a strong connection between "the Church" and "die forgiveness of sins". The connection is this: the Church is the place where the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed and received. In a similar way, the Belgic Confession speaks of the Church "outside of which there is no salvation" (Article 28). Forgiveness of sins (and so salvation) is inseparably connected to the Church of Christ!
Does this mean that the Church can or may forgive sins? You know that the Roman Catholic Church has the pretence that the church forgives sins and absolves of guilt. This idea is based on Christ's word in John 20:23; "If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained". Christ said this to His disciples as He sent them on their apostolic mission. Therefore, Rome says that in the apostolic succession and the priesthood, the church may absolve of guilt.
Reformed explainers have always maintained that the actual power to forgive sins lies with God alone and is given to Christ. In this text, Christ refers in strong terms to the exercise of church discipline. We find here that Christ will concur in heaven with the faithful use of the keys of the kingdom on earth! So we do not grant to the Church the power which Rome claims, but we do say that Christ has indeed entrusted to His Church a powerful ministry, the ministry of reconciliation, which is a matter of life and death.
This is also what the apostle Paul writes in his second letter to the Corinthians. The forgiveness of sins is a gift of God in Christ, but this ministry of reconciliation-by which the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed-has been entrusted to the Church and its officebearers as a vital ministry. So indeed, when we speak about the Church, we may also speak about the "forgiveness of sins". I summarize this Lord's Day as follows:
Christ entrusts the ministry of reconciliation to His Church.
This ministry has two aspects:
1. proclamation of the forgiveness of sins
2. preparation for the day of judgment.
1. The question is: "What do you believe concerning the forgiveness of sins?" This question does not seek to establish some personal opinion or individual confession. Instead, it asks what you as a member of Christ's Church and a partaker of the communion of saints believe concerning the ministry of reconciliation.
It immediately becomes clear in the Catechism that the Church does not, as such, forgive sins. It is not the ministry of the Church to forgive sins. We read: "I believe that God . . . will no more remember my sins". The Church proclaims the forgiveness of sins; the forgiveness itself is out of God, through Christ!
However, make no mistake about it, these two go together. The forgiveness is received through the proclamation, just as faith is worked by the preaching! It is God who reconciles, but the ministry of reconciliation-the proclamation and application of this forgiveness-that is the task of the Church! The great reason for the existence of the ministry of the Church is to proclaim the forgiveness of sins out of God through Christ!
I would like you to note that the ministry of the Church is a pleasant one and that the message of the Church is a beautiful one. Perhaps I may stress this for a moment, for it is not always understood correctly. As Reformed Churches we somehow have the stigma that we are a very strict church with a heavy message- of doom and discipline. We are seen as a moralistic institution. And indeed the preaching of the Church is to be strict and powerful. The Law of God must be upheld in no uncertain terms! But in all this the message of the Church is still one of great joy which must come through in clarity and strength. The message of the Church is a ministry of reconciliation. The message is "that God will no more remember my sins!"
This is the starting point in the whole ministry of the Church, and the ever-returning echo of the preaching. There is forgiveness of sins! Every Sunday again this is proclaimed, received and confessed. The ministry of the Church is not to repress people, to take away their joy, freedom and riches, or to make them sigh and moan, but to bring joy, to proclaim peace and freedom, to lead to song and praise!
In order to do so, however, the Church must be honest and complete in clearly uncovering all the facts. It must preach the whole doctrine of the Scriptures to convince people of their sins and misery. The Church may not make light of the seriousness of sin, of the incriminating weakness of the sinful nature in which we all share, and of the high price paid for these sins! All this, too, must be clearly said! We may never isolate the preaching of the forgiveness of sins from its full Biblical context. In the true ministry of reconciliation there is an urgent pleading. As Paul writes in II Corinthians 5:20: "We beseech you, on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God!" The ministry of the Church must always convey this sense of urgency!
And if, then, one thing must be clear in the ministry of reconciliation, it is that the forgiveness of sins is not based on what we have done or might still do, but only on the ground, the one basis of Christ's satisfaction! When God reconciles us to Himself and draws us close to Him in love and mercy, then it is only because of His own Son, Jesus Christ! He made full satisfaction for us.
The Church must always make very clear what Christ's satisfaction means. "Satisfaction" implies two important matters. In the first place, Christ fulfilled the positive demand of the Law: He gave perfect obedience to God on our behalf. And in the second place, He bore the full penalty of the Law, the righteous judgment of God upon our sins. The heart and the glory of the ministry of the Church is the preaching of Christ's perfect satisfaction, His work of atonement accomplished through His whole life and especially on the cross. The Church preaches Christ and Him crucified!
You will understand, then, that the ministry of reconciliation may never direct people to what they can yet do for their salvation, or to what the Church might possibly yet do for them, but always to what Christ has done and still is doing. The glory and pride of reformed preaching is to show that in Christ alone lies the whole salvation of God's people.
Therefore, when we confess the forgiveness of sins, we are urged to give God the praise. We say: "Lord, I do not deserve this -and I never will---but I receive this out of Thy mercy, for Christ's sake". This is a jubilant but also a humble confession!
It is quite something to be able to say-as we do here in this answer 56, that "God will no more remember my sins nor my sinful nature". This means that we are free from the curse, and may live forever in a blessed communion with God. This confession cost Christ so much! He paid for this with His life and had to bear that curse.
Through this ministry of reconciliation, we will never forget the high price paid by Christ. Therefore we do not lightly step over our sins. Therefore we do not easily play down our sinful nature-as is done in many "churches" today. For the Word of God tells us that everyone who believes the forgiveness of sins, shall stay away from all unrighteousness! That is also Paul's warning to the Corinthians. He pleads with them that they take God's work in Christ seriously, and that no sin come between them and God.
The Catechism speaks the same way. It says that "God will no more remember my sins nor my sinful nature". This is a tremendous reality which we wholeheartedly confess. But at the same time it is added, "against which I have to struggle all my life". The proclamation of the forgiveness of sins has in it the calling to struggle against sins! This is an essential part of the ministry of reconciliation. Whoever proclaims the forgiveness of sins must also proclaim the calling to battle sin. With the riches, comes the obligation.
In one sermon a minister might stress the aspect of our riches, of forgiveness, and the emphasis might be one of comfort, while in another sermon he might speak more about the obligation, and the emphasis might be one of admonition. Sometimes there will be an equal emphasis on both. These things depend on the text and the context. But both elements must always be present.
Here in Answer 56 both elements are present. We do indeed hear about forgiveness, but also about the calling to stand firm in a life-long battle against our sinful nature. Where there is justification, there must be sanctification; where there is redemption, there must be renewal. Where Christ is truly confessed, there the Holy Spirit is active!
And whoever does not battle his sinful nature also loses sight of the forgiveness of sins. Then we develop an indifferent attitude. When discipline is administered, we pretend that the Church is without authority and that the office-bearers are shortsighted. Instead of being justified in Christ by faith, we feel justified in ourselves.
But the Lord entrusted to His Church the ministry of reconciliation, the power of the Word to bind or to loosen, to proclaim forgiveness or to excommunicate, and so to be an instrument by which the forgiveness of God or the judgment of God is meted out. Indeed, it is the ministry of the Church to prepare you, one way or the other, for the day of judgment. Through the ministry of the Church you will be either confident or desperate on that day. We come to the second point.
2. The ministry of the Church must be sincere and powerful, because a day of judgment or a day of reckoning is coming. How are we going to face that day? Are we prepared for that day?
There is sometimes a bit of misunderstanding with regards to our position on that day, brothers and sisters. We confess here that God "will no more remember my sins nor my sinful nature", but does that mean that all is now instantly forgotten? Does this confession imply that if we commit a sin and then say, "Forgive me, Lord", God will answer, "What sin? I don't even remember anymore"?
Is this a matter of "forgive and forget"? That is often how we speak about it. We do not like to be reminded of past poor performances. We have asked for forgiveness, and so we say: "Forget it, all is forgiven, it is gone, don't come back on it. don't ever mention it again, look ahead!" And this attitude is true in the sense that we should not linger on past sins and injustices, especially not those of others. We tend to forget our own sins quickly, but we "remember" those of others. Their sins just seem to keep resurfacing in our minds and conversations.
What does the Catechism mean here? Does it mean that our forgiven sins will never resurface again, not even on the day of judgment? Does this mean that all the true believers just file past the judgment seat of God and no further word will be said? If that were the case, there would in effect actually be no judgment day for us! Judgment Day is then only for the ungodly, who will have to pause before the tribunal of God, while the righteous will immediately be shipped off to the new earth without delay! Is that how it will go?
No way! The day of judgment will have more impact than that! We, too, will stop and appear before the judgment seat of God. In II Corinthians 5:10 we read this: "For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive good or evil according to what he has done in the body". And we read in the Book Revelation that the books will be opened. Which books? The book of my life and your life! The books which record what we have done in the body, here on earth. And we will have to give account of ourselves on that day!
Now you say, "Hold it, for the Catechism says, 'God will no more remember my sins'. How can you say that God will come back on them?" Indeed, we must understand that "to remember" (which is also a Biblical expression) does not mean, "never mention again", for what would then be the sense of opening the books, as Revelation tells us? "No more remember" means here to not take into account as a decisive basis for judgment! God will not count them against us, but our sins will certainly be bought to light on the day of judgment!
As a matter of fact, we will appear before Christ, and He will open to us the book of our life, concerning what we have done in the body! The Catechism does not say that I will never come into judgment (as a legal process) but that I will never come into condemnation (which is the result of that judgment). We will be judged, and we shall appear before the Judge, but we will not be condemned. Instead, we will be acquitted! Each of us will be individually tried, and it will be a fair trial, leading not to condemnation, but to acquittal and release! For, as the Catechism says, God will then grant us "the righteousness of Christ".
Do we sufficiently realize that one day we will personally stand before the judgment seat of God, and that He will open to us the book of our life? And the Lord God will be perfectly honest with us on that day. He will not overlook the good works which He worked in us by His Word and Spirit. He will also not skim over the evil that we did. And when He makes up the balance, it will be evident to us, as it never was before, how sinful we have been and what great sin we have committed! And we will know that in ourselves we stand utterly condemned!
Must we then be afraid of the day of judgment? We must fear God, and await that day with awe and humility. It will be no light thing to stand before the judgment seat of Christ! We sometimes hear jokes about "knocking on the door of heaven, and the apostle Peter opening to us" with some snide question, but this is no joking matter, for God will indeed ask some questions and open to us our lives. What will we then say? Then we cannot put the blame on our husband, our wife, our children, our boss, the consistory, or whomever, for we have only ourselves to blame! What will we say on that day for our sins?
That is why we must fight our sinful nature now, as much as we can. Do not add to the list that is already there! Do not pile up sin after sin---as if it doesn't matter-but fight your sinfulness, all your life, for the book of your sins is thick enough as it is! The Church must always urge you to break with your sins now, lest you die in them!
It belongs to the ministry of the Church to prepare the people of God for the day of judgment, to comfort with a view to that day, and also to admonish with a view to that day. For on that day we will stand condemned. But we will not come into condemnation. There is a difference, you know, between standing condemned in yourself and coming into condemnation. That last thing will not happen! For then the forgiveness of sins appears to us in all its riches and comfort. Then the sacrifice of Clirist takes on a significance which we also never saw before!
For then Christ will say: I lay upon you my righteousness. I gave you faith and hope, and so you have believed in My Name. By My Spirit I put you in the struggle of faith, and you have not struggled in vain. You are guilty, but I bore the penalty. You will not come into condemnation. Come receive My righteousness and enter into the glory of the Father!
And there we stand on the new earth, as if we had never committed any sin. God did not overlook my sin, but He did remember His mercy. He remembered His Son on the cross. He remembered His promise to us in the covenant! He remembered. He brought all this into account when he acquitted me.
I often forgot. I often wondered. I was sometimes so afraid that He would condemn me. I knew He had the full right to do so. But I believed that He would remember His mercy and forgive my sins. It was proclaimed to me time and again in Church. I am grateful that ' I may be a member of the Church which has the ministry of reconciliation, the Church which Christ gathers and upon which He bestows all His treasures and gifts. I am grateful that I may belong to a church which is a communion of saints, of people sanctified in Christ, a church which comforts me in my sins, calls me to the battle of faith, and so prepares me for the day of judgment.
So we beseech you, as ambassadors of Christ, on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. Believe the forgiveness of sins for Christ's sake. Fight the good fight of faith. Get ready for the day of judgment when the books are opened. Get ready for the Day of Judgment when also the book is opened, the Book of Life. For that Book also exists, as we read in Revelation. I believe the forgiveness of sins, and that means that my name is in that Book of Life!
When the trumpets sound and the day has come, then we may say: yes, I am ready. I'm not ready in myself, but I've been prepared by the ministry of reconciliation. I've been prepared in Christ.
Here I am, Lord. AMEN.