What It Means to Be Reformed (8) The Church – My Chief Joy (1)
For some Christians these days it’s almost trendy to claim a Reformed identity. But being Reformed takes more than claiming “I am Reformed,” just as being a Christian does not come from saying “I am Christian.” Being trendy is not what we are about. All of us who have “Reformed” in the name of our church need to be concerned that we are indeed Reformed. In these editorials I have suggested that to summarize accurately what it means to be a Reformed Christian, we must emphasize and be committed to five “C”s: Covenant, Calvinism, Church, Confessions, and a particular view of the Christian life. Formerly, when I taught the older catechism classes, I emphasized three “C”s. Each week I said to the young people, “To be Reformed means that we are Covenantal, Calvinistic, and Confessional,” and then asked the students carefully to explain what each of these meant. But to be more comprehensive, two other “C”s ought to be added—Church and Christian life—because without a proper view of and emphasis on these, one’s identity as Reformed is incomplete, if not suspect. In this editorial I begin to explain the “C” of “Church.”
Love for the Church
A Reformed believer loves the church. I love the church. I love the church, the bride and body of Jesus Christ. I love the particular church where my family has its membership in Hudsonville, Michigan, USA. I love that visible, instituted church, in her offices and members, her worship and government, her work and missions. I love the denomination that my particular church is part of—the Protestant Reformed Churches in America. I also love the true church of Jesus Christ wherever she shows herself in the world.
I don’t love her weaknesses, faults, and imperfections (and there are plenty); but I love her even when I see these flaws, and pray for God to correct her errors and strengthen her in holiness. My love for the church is not as extensive as it should be either; but each year when I travel and see more faithful churches throughout the world, that love broadens. My love for the church is not as strong as it should be; but it grows stronger every year, and I am thankful for that grace of God. By God’s grace, my love for the church is “above my chief joy” (Ps. 137:6).
A Reformed member’s love for the church reflects a profound reality: Christ, who loves the church with a profound love, lives in the believer. That is, Christ creates that love in the believer when Christ Himself comes to live in him. Christ said, “I will build my church” (Matt. 16:18), and now Christ in us responds: “Build her!” Christ says, “I love her well” (Psalter #368, from Ps. 132); and Christ in us says, “We also love her!” Our love grows when we read Christ’s word in Ephesians that God exalted Him over all things to, or for the sake of, the church (Eph. 1:22, 23). “From heaven he came and sought her.” Now, in heaven, He governs all things for the church’s sake! As Ephesians teaches ecclesiology—the church’s blessedness, election, redemption, unity, holiness—it reaches one of its pinnacles when chapter four explains why Christ gave gifts to men: for the edifying of the church. The entire Scripture teaches the importance of the church, ending in Revelation’s letters to the seven churches. And if there remains any question whether a Christian ought to love the church above his chief joy, the question will fade when he understands that, when Christ returns, He does so in order to marry this church and love her forever (Rev. 19:7ff.; 21:2).
A Reformed believer’s love for the church also shows that he knows something about history. “Reformed” is defined by history (as I hope to show in the editorials on Reformed being defined as “Confessional”), and Reformation history is history of the church. What is often forgotten is that Reformation history is as much about ecclesiology (the doctrine of the church) as it is about soteriology (the doctrine of salvation). The Reformers took issue with the Roman Catholic Church, not only because Rome corrupted the doctrines of salvation (“Calvinism”) but also because Rome wrongly defined the church. What is the church? How should she be governed and what should her worship be like? Rome and the Reformers disagreed. When the Reformers separated themselves from Rome, Rome herself declared that ecclesiology was the main issue.
The relationships between the doctrine of salvation and the doctrine of the church were clear to the Reformers as well. Among other connections, remember these: 1) Only the true church has the instruments by which God is pleased to work salvation. 2) Only the doctrine of a truly gracious salvation enables the church to worship as she should—reverently, humbly, gladly—that is, in the right way and with the right motives.
Reformation Confessions: Passion for the Church
When the Reformers wrote their creeds, they articulated their ecclesiology precisely. They also wrote in such a way as to make plain their passion for the church, even their willingness to die for the body of Christ. If we want to own the name Reformed, we will too.
A Reformed Christian confesses what the Belgic Confession does in Articles 27-29. What a beautiful confession of the church we Reformed Christians make!
We believe and profess, one catholic or universal Church…[which] hath been from the beginning of the world, and will be to the end thereof…. This holy Church is preserved or supported by God, against the rage of the whole world…. No person…ought to withdraw himself, to live in a separate state from it; but…all men are in duty bound to join and unite themselves with it. Out of [this church] is no salvation.
For the Reformers, joining the church was the only way in which they were truly “bowing their necks under the yoke of Jesus Christ.” Then, since “all sects which are in the world assume to themselves the name of the Church,” the Reformed fathers spelled out very carefully for us how to identify the true church, so as to join her and not just any church. In addition, joining the true church meant that they “separate themselves from all those who do not belong to the Church.” And they understood the cost: “even though the magistrates and edicts of princes were against it, yea, though they should suffer death or any other corporeal punishment.” Guido DeBrés, the author of these words, did.
Our Heidelberg Catechism is just as beautiful, even if briefer. After it explains the essence of the church, it has us exclaim: “and I…am and forever shall remain, a living member thereof(!)” To confess that without an exclamation point is impossible for me!
Almost a century later, our Presbyterian brothers in Great Britain spelled out their confession of the church, echoing their relatives on the continent. “The visible church…is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.”1 These Reformers also distinguished the true church from the false, called the people of God to join the true church, and emphasized the “special privileges” of the church: “of being under God’s special care and government; of being protected and preserved in all ages…of enjoying the communion of saints…and (for the elect) union and communion with [Christ] in grace and glory.”
To be Reformed is to confess and love Christ’s church.
The Reformers were but following the lead of the ancient church. When the earliest church fathers confessed their apostolic faith in “the twelve articles of faith,” they confessed the Trinity: God the Father and creation, God the Son and redemption, and God the Holy Spirit and sanctification. Listen carefully to your church’s confession next Sunday evening. Immediately after, “I believe in the Holy Spirit” comes, “I believe an holy catholic church,” because the central work of the Holy Spirit of Christ in the world is the creation, gathering, and preservation of the church. The Reformed accent on church is ancient Christianity.
The Reformers were not trumpeting “Kingdom, Kingdom, Kingdom!” as though kingdom (wrongly defined, increasingly today, as “Christianized culture”) is the main thing and church but one of many instruments—and probably not even the essential instrument—to bring about this more important “Kingdom!” Rather, when the Reformers prayed “Thy kingdom come” they were praying, “that is…preserve and increase thy church” (Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 48).
Highest Regard for the Church
So, being Reformed is more than saying we are Reformed. And loving the church is more than mouthing those words. Reformed folk practice what they preach. If the church is above our chief joy, it will show. Highest regard for Christ’s body means:
We will commit ourselves and our generations to a high view of and an utmost respect for the church—not only the invisible church, but the visible church institute: my church and my denomination, for starters (assuming, of course, that “my church” has the marks of the true church). If we forget to speak well of that church, may our right hands forget their cunning. If, God forbid, we speak poorly of that church, may our tongues cleave to the roofs of our mouths.
Second, we will commit ourselves and our children to membership in the church. Reformed Christians do not float aimlessly from church to church; or endlessly sample churches smorgasbord-like, as though that will give them good ecclesiastical balance; or even sit in one church but without membership in it. We will find the church that manifests most clearly the marks of the true church in the world, attach ourselves to her officially, and never separate ourselves from her whatever the costs, personally or otherwise. And we will not easily transfer to another church when life in our church becomes difficult but will, for the sake of the generation learning from my example, stick it out and keep a long-term perspective.
Third, we will commit ourselves to living among the people of God who are members of the church—first of all the congregation of which we are members; then the people of God who are members of the denomination who confess like precious faith; and so too the church members who are closest to our denomination in confession and walk. We who love the church cannot be isolationists, loners. Faithful to the antithetical life, we sing: “No forward man or evil shall my companion be.” We also sing: “The faithful and the upright shall minister to me…” (Psalter #271). And we will live in such a way that we allow them to do so.
Fourth, we will commit ourselves and our families to a brave defense of the faith our church confesses, a life that harmonizes with that confession, and a humble submission to the authority of the elders of the church. More on those next time.
In most of us, God planted that high regard for the church institute through the faithful, prayerful (and probably tearful) labor of our parents. They taught us to love the church, not by tedious exhortations: “Love the church!,” but by their humble example of heart-felt devotion to the church. Most Reformed believers who love the church have their parents to thank. Which points back to our explanation of “covenant.”
And ahead to “Christian life.” There was a day when the life of most Christians had its center in their church. I dare guess that today you will find most of their children where you would have found their parents—living in and for their church.
1 See Westminster Confession of Faith, 25-31, and Larger Catechism, 61-65.