Dear Church Family,
During Sunday morning worship, we are in a sermon series entitled, “The Church and the Means of Grace.” The sermons in this series are as follows (the audio recordings of the sermons preached thus far in this series are available online here):
(1) The Pastor’s Keep: His Self
(2) The Pastor’s Keep: His Teaching
(3) The Vision of the Church
(4) The Visible Church, Part 1
(5) The Visible Church, Part 2
(6) The Effectual Word
(8) The Lord’s Supper
The Doctrine of the Visible Church
We have just finished the fourth sermon in this series: part 1 of our examination of the visible church. In our look at the doctrine of the visible church and what the Bible teaches us about it, we are looking at five elements: the scope, sphere, sovereignty, sonship, and salvation of the visible church (yes, I like alliterations!). These five points are drawn from the definition of the visible church as given in the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF), chapter 25, paragraph 2:
The visible Church, which is also catholic or universal under the Gospel (not confined to one nation, as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children: and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.
In Inquirer/New Member classes, I often point out how the word “church” (Greek: ekklesia) only occurs in two passages in the Gospels (Matthew 16:18; 18:17). Certainly the idea and the principle is present in many other places, but the actually word ekklesia (translated as “church,” and literally meaning “the called out ones”) is only to be found in two places in the Gospels.
This doesn’t mean, as is sometimes proposed, that Jesus was not concerned about the institution of the church, but merely about revealing personal, spiritual truths. When you actually look at the passages that contain the word “church” in the Gospels, it is apparent that Jesus actually emphasized the importance of the corporate life of faith among other Christians. [By the way, the word is used throughout the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) in reference to God’s people (Israel); the word is also used throughout the New Testament in reference to the followers of Christ.]
Recently, I ran across a very brief, but excellent article by Terry Johnson on this very topic. The article is called Jesus and the Church, and I commend it to you. Johnson’s point is that we ought not to merely count Jesus’ words regarding the church; rather, we ought to weigh them such that we might have a better and more biblical ecclesiology – a better and more biblical understanding of the doctrine of the church and our place in the body of Christ.
Belonging to the Visible Church
When I was in the army, I attended Ranger school (actually, I attended twice, failing the first time and graduating the second). While in garrison (not training out in the field), before entering the dining facility to eat a meal we were required to recite the Ranger Creed – corporately and from memory. Every day, at least three times a day, we recited this 6-paragraph creed at the top of lungs. Every Ranger in the army learns this creed. It’s a tradition which has abided for many years.
I can’t tell you how many times in my life, certain phrases or words from that creed have been brought back to my mind and influenced my thinking and behavior: “the esprit de corps of the Rangers,” “never shall I fail my comrades,” “mentally alert, physically strong, and morally straight,” “one hundred percent and then some,” “gallantly, will I show the world,” “I will never leave a fallen comrade to fall into the hands of the enemy,” “intestinal fortitude,” “though I be the lone survivor.”
The words of the Ranger Creed speak of commitments, promises, and responsibilities, but they also elicit a sense of belonging to something that is much bigger than one’s self. The same is true of the vows that each member takes when they join the church in the PCA (Book of Church Order, 57-5):
1. Do you acknowledge yourselves to be sinners in the sight of God, justly deserving His displeasure, and without hope save in His sovereign mercy?
2. Do you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ as the Son of God, and Savior of sinners, and do you receive and rest upon Him alone for salvation as He is offered in the Gospel?
3. Do you now resolve and promise, in humble reliance upon the grace of the Holy Spirit, that you will endeavor to live as becomes the followers of Christ?
4. Do you promise to support the Church in its worship and work to the best of your ability?
5. Do you submit yourselves to the government and discipline of the Church, and promise to study its purity and peace?
Though not a creed, per se, as members of the visible church we would do well to reflect upon these words – allowing them to help inform our understanding of who we are and how we belong to something bigger than ourselves: “sinners in the sight of God,” “without hope save in His sovereign mercy,” “believe in the Lord Jesus Christ as the Son of God and Savior of sinners,” “receive and rest upon Him alone for salvation,” “endeavor to live as becomes the followers of Christ,” “support the Church in its worship and work,” “submit to the government and discipline of the Church,” “study its purity and peace.”
As we have noted in our current sermon series, the importance of the visible church and being a member of the local church is viewed today by many Christians as not that important. Christians are often fearful of organization, structure, and formal relationships, thinking that the Christian life is merely private and personal but not also public and corporate. I once heard a man express it this way, “Anything organized cannot be religious.”
This way of thinking is often reinforced by pastors and preachers who will speak of the Scriptures as “God’s love letter to you personally” or “God’s Word specifically written to you as an individual.” Of course, the Bible is God’s Word to you personally, and intended to be read, studied, and applied by every individual Christian. But, we need to recognize that, apart from perhaps the pastoral letters (1 & 2 Timothy, Titus), we must first understand that the Bible was written to the community of faith, the church, as we also make specific applications to our lives. [Even the pastorals, though written to specific individual pastors, are intended for God’s people, the church.]
A “hermit Christian” or a “Lone Ranger Christian” is an oxymoron. If you have repented of your sins and trusted in Christ, then you are a child of God. And, if you are a child of God, then the church is where you belong. You are part of something bigger than yourself!
The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch