************ Sermon on Belgic Confession Article 27 ************
By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on January 17, 2010
Belgic Confession Article 27
"The Holy Catholic Church"
"Who needs the church when I have the Bible?" "Why waste my time with the church with I have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ?" "Who needs the church when I can go for a peaceful walk through the park?"
These are the kind of statements that are heard too often from evangelical Christians in America. A recent study showed that while 67 percent of born-again Christians read from the Bible in any given week, only 65 percent attended church in that same week. If you were to ask, many of these Christians would say "Yes" to Jesus but "No" to the church.
I The Centrality of the Church
A This is not the view of the Bible. When we look at the Bible, we see that Christ saves individual sinners but He does not save them in isolation. They are always saved into a group. Remember what the angel said to Joseph?
(Mt 1:21) She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.Jesus was sent, according to John 3:16, because God so loved the world. And, at Pentecost, the Spirit was poured out on all people (Acts 2:17). These people are called the church.
B We begin a new doctrine in the Belgic Confession of Faith today. We have already looked at the Doctrine of God (Articles 1-13), the Doctrine of Man (Articles 14-15), the Doctrine of Christ (Articles 16-19), and the Doctrine of Salvation (Articles 20-26). Today, we begin our study of the Doctrine of the Church (Articles 27-36).
Now, let me give you a bit of a quiz. Many Reformed Christians believe the doctrine of election is central to our faith. How many articles of the Confession deal with election? Many evangelical Christians think eschatology (the doctrine of the last things) is the most important doctrine. How many articles of the Confession deal with eschatology? Now, how many articles of the Confession deal with the doctrine of the church? Here are the answers: one article deals with election, one article deals with eschatology, and are you ready for this ten articles deal with the church; ten out of the thirty seven articles of the Belgic Confession of Faith are devoted to the church.
Which tells you what? Which tells you that the doctrine of the church is very central to who we are as Reformed believers. Have you ever considered the church this way? That she is central to our faith as Reformed believers? We often lose sight of this when we debate the "five points of Calvinism" with Arminians, when we debate the creeds and confessions with those in independent churches, and when we debate last things with dispensationalists. In today's cultural climate, where the church is under attack or considered irrelevant, we confess to the world that the church is important to who we are and what we believe.
C In a couple of minutes I am going to use a Roman Catholic phrase for the church that may shock some of you. But before I do that, let me ask a question. What pronoun does the Bible use when talking about the church? Is the church called an "it"? Is the church referred to as "he"? Is the church mentioned as "them"? The Bible uses the feminine pronoun "her" when talking about the church.
(Eph 5:25) Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her ...The church is the bride of Christ. So, of course, the church is a "her" or a "she." But there is also another reason we refer to the church as "her" and "she." Here is where I mention the Roman Catholic phrase. The church is the "mother of faith." It is in her that we are nurtured. It is from her that we get the milk of salvation. She is the one who feeds us and nourishes us with the Word of God.
(Rev 21:2) I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.
Do you hear what I am saying? The church is important. The church is central. The church is not irrelevant. That is why we can sing, "I Love Your Church, O Lord."
II The Church: A Definition
A We've been talking about the church and her importance in the life of believers. But, what do we mean when we say "church"? What is the church?
Different people give different answers to this question as the following quotations illustrate:
-"Our church is located at 6400 W. Walnut Ave." According to this, the church is a building.
-"We have church at 9:30 a.m. and 6:30 p.m." Church, here, is the same as worship.
-"We are part of the United Reformed Church." Here, the church is identified as a particular denomination or federation.
B Based upon Scripture, the Belgic Confession reminds us that the church is not a building, she is not worship, she is not a denomination.
[She is] a holy congregation and gathering of true Christian believers, awaiting their entire salvation in Jesus Christ being washed by his blood, and sanctified and sealed by the Holy Spirit.
The church is a "congregation." The church is a "gathering." In other words, the church is people. This means the church is before me in the pews this evening. This means the church meets for choir practice on Sunday mornings. This means the church gathers for Bible Study many Wednesday and Thursday nights. This also means the church is in Catechism and Sunday School classes Sunday mornings.
This reminds me of something: more than once I have heard people say, in talking about our children and youth, "They are the future of the church." I cringe and flinch when I hear that. Our children and young people are not the future of the church; they, as much as their parents, are the present of the church future leaders, maybe but they, no less than the adults, are part of that holy congregation and gathering awaiting their entire salvation in Jesus Christ. And to say otherwise, is to deny them a place in the Kingdom.
C The church is more than just a body of believers, young and old. She is a body of believers called or chosen by God. The Greek word for church is "ekklesia." Literally, this word means "the called ones." The church is not a voluntary association of like-minded people. She is not like the Lions or Kiwanis or Rotary Clubs clubs that you decide to join. No, not at all. You don't wake up one morning and decide to join the church. You are picked and chosen for the church. It is God Who has chosen the church in Christ.
Hence it follows that the church is God's church. She is His workmanship, His creation. It is improper to speak of "my church," or "our church," or "Godfrey's church," or "Dieleman's church." The only proper way to talk here is of "God's church." Scripture points us in this direction when it repeatedly calls the church "the body of Christ" and "the temple of the Holy Spirit."
This teaching is of tremendous importance in the life of the church. Since the church belongs to God all things in her life must be done and must be seen in relation to God. Because she is God's, the church operates not for her own glory or for her pastor's glory but for God's glory. The church is God's possession so she must live and work for the Lord.
God calls the church, God gathers the church, God forms the church. This says something about God's will for all believers God's will is that no believer attempt to believe alone; instead, God's will is that believers be part of a group.
God calls the church, God gathers the church, God forms the church. This says something not only about God's will for all believers but also about God's mission for the church. The church's God-given job, her God-given calling, is to gather together all believers. This not only means missions, evangelism, and outreach but it also means a sincere effort at reclaiming the solitary Christian. Over and over again we must aggressively affirm the necessary connection between faith in Christ and commitment to His church. One cannot exist without the other, as demonstrated repeatedly in the book of Acts. There we see that no one was counted as a Christian until he or she was baptized and received into the community of God's people (Acts 1:5, 1:22, 2:38, 2:41, 8:12, 8:13, 8:16, 8:36, 8:38, 9:18, 10:37, 10:47, 10:48, 11:16, 13:24, 16:15, 16:33, 18:8, 18:25, 19:3, 19:4, 19:5, 22:16). God's will is that solitary or independent Christians need to be incorporated into the life and discipline of the church. And, those who are church members need to be committed to their church, taking seriously their accountability to the congregation and resisting the temptation to "jump ship."
D The church is also more than a body of young and old believers called by God. She is also a body of "true Christian believers" called by God and expecting to be saved. The church is found only where true believers are to be found. In other words, the church is found where faith is found a faith that believes in Jesus and expects to be saved.
In those places where the church has sank to the level of being a social club, the church is no longer to be found. When the church is just a world affairs or liberation theology group she also ceases to be church.
The church is church only when people still believe and have a true faith. The church is not church when people no longer believe the essentials of the faith. Which are what: that God is triune, that Jesus is true God and true man, that God is the Maker of heaven and earth, that Jesus arose from the grave, that salvation is only by grace through faith, that the Bible alone is our infallible guide for faith and practice. Those are the essentials of the faith that must be believed by the true church.
III The Church: Her Attributes
A Article 27 tells us the church is central to our identification as Reformed Christians. Article 27 defines the church for us. And, Article 27 describes her attributes or characteristics.
The first attribute: the church is one. Article 27 open with the words, "We believe and confess one single catholic or universal church ..."
Yet, much of church history, sad to say, makes a mockery of this confession. Right now there are over 2000 different denominations in the world and there are over 200 different Reformed denominations. Consider our denomination's sad history of disunity. Our roots lie in the Christian Reformed Church from which we broke away. However, the Christian Reformed Church in turn broke away from the Reformed Church of America. And, before that, our roots go to churches in the Netherlands that also broke away. Since the time of the Reformation and before, our history has been and is one of schism, disunity, and disharmony.
As we look at the church with human eyes, we see a badly splintered, divided, broken church. But we can also look at the church from God's perspective. From this perspective we see there is more to the church than what our eyes show us. From this perspective we see that the church is one. I think here of what Paul writes in our Scripture reading:
(Eph 4:4-6) There is one body and one Spirit-- just as you were called to one hope when you were called-- (5) one Lord, one faith, one baptism; (6) one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. This was important to Paul. There was not a Jewish Church and a Gentile Church. The Gospel of Jesus Christ abolished the wall of hostility between Jew and Gentile so that there is only one church.
Why is there this great difference between what God sees and what we see? With our human eyes we look at the visible church. That, after all, is the only one we can see. This visible church is badly divided. But God looks at the invisible church the church He calls and saves and this church is one:
... joined and united in heart and will, in one and the same Spirit, by the power of faith.
B The second attribute: the church is holy. Article 27 says, "We believe and confess ... a holy congregation ... sanctified and sealed by the Holy Spirit."
Again, there is a tension between what the world sees and what God sees. The world sees the sin that exists in the church. The world sees and laughs at ministers who get caught in sin like adultery and theft. "What a bunch of hypocrites," it says.
God looks at the church after she has been cleansed by the blood of Christ. He sees sinners, forgiven sinners, "washed by (the) blood, sanctified and sealed by the Spirit." He sees a people called out of the world, set apart from the world, and indwelt by the Spirit of holiness. Again, we see the visible church whereas God sees the invisible church.
C The third attribute: the church is catholic which means worldwide or universal. The Belgic Confession describes it this way:
And so this holy church is not confined, bound, or limited to a certain place or certain persons. But it is spread and dispersed throughout the entire world.
The church is catholic in an ethnic sense. What does the Revelation say? She is from every tribe, language, people, and nation (Rev 5:9; 7:9).
The church is catholic in a geographical sense. James 1:1 describes her as "the twelve tribes scattered among the nations." Peter writes to "God's elect, strangers in the world, scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia" (1Pt 1:1). Today, we would add India, China, Russia, Iraq, Malaysia, Brazil, Haiti, and so on.
The church is catholic in a historical or chronological sense. As the Confession puts it,
The church has existed from the beginning of the world and will last until the end, as appears from the fact that Christ is eternal King who cannot be without subjects.What this means for today is that the church did NOT begin at Pentecost as the dispensationalists have been proclaiming to American Christians for well over a century. Their teaching has led to the belief that there are two churches, Israel and the church. In contrast, the Confession affirms that the church has existed from the time of Adam and Eve in the Garden.
IV The Preservation of the Church
A The Confession of Faith was written at the time of the Reformation. One of the reasons for its writing was to defend the Reformed faith against the charges of the Roman Catholic Church.
The Church of Rome pointed to the Pope as proof that it was apostolic. The Reformers, by way of contrast, pointed out their faithfulness to the teachings of the apostles. God preserves the church, said the Reformers, not by popes as successors to the apostles but by devotion to the teachings of the apostles (Acts 2:42).
B The Church of Rome also pointed to its superior numbers as proof that it was the true church. As an aside, don't we still see that today? Pastors like Joel Osteen and Rick Warren misinterpret numbers as proof that God has blessed them. But outward success is not a mark of the true church. It wasn't in the days of Elijah when only seven thousand out of an entire nation didn't bend their knees to Baal. Success is measured not by numbers but by faithfulness to the Gospel. As the Confession puts it,
And this holy church is preserved by God against the rage of the whole world, even though for a time it may appear very small in the eyes of menas though it were snuffed out.
The church, my brothers and sisters, is not something we can take or leave at our own pleasure. She is not something we can neglect. She is the bride of Christ. She is the mother of our faith. She is important to what we are as Reformed Christians.
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