The Church Institute

October 12, 2014 / No. 3745

Dear Radio Friends,
“I believe an holy, catholic church and that I am and ever shall remain a living member thereof!”
What a beautiful confession the child of God makes concerning the church of Jesus Christ in this world!
But what a serious and consequential confession that is too.
In our last broadcast we began our study of what the Bible teaches about the church. We found that the Heidelberg Catechism, an old confession of Reformed churches, teaches us that the church is the body of Christ, which is made up only of elect believers. The church is made up of those whom God has predestined to eternal life in Christ. For that reason, the members of the church are those whom God has gathered from the beginning of time to the end and from every nation of this world. All of them are saved in the blood of Jesus Christ and are therefore a part of His body in this world. That church is catholic and holy. When we confess that we are a living member of the church of Christ our confession means therefore, first of all, that we are elect believers who stand united with all other believers in this world and in history. But this confession we make concerning the church includes more.
Did you realize, friends, that when we confess to be a member of the church of Christ in this world we must confess our need to join ourselves to a church institute? One cannot be confessed without the other. And it is this that we set ourselves today in our broadcast to prove. When we belong to the church as the body of Christ, we are called by God to join ourselves to a church institute. Now, to come to this conclusion requires of us a further examination of the Bible’s teaching on the church. Remember: a shallow understanding of the church, ignorance of what the Bible teaches us about the church, can only result in misconception of the church and of our place in her. That is why it is important for us to continue to examine what the Bible teaches us about the church itself.
A Church Visible
There are many in our society that are familiar with Christianity because at one time they, or at least their parents or grandparents, were a part of the Christian church. The argument that is often heard when speaking with these about church is that they can be good Christians without belonging to a church institute. They belong to the body of Christ in this world and that is all that is important. In their thinking, the church institute is made up of hypocrites and judgmental people. Besides, the church institute, in their mind, has nothing to offer them. But there is a fallacy in their reasoning that we hope to point out. A true believer is chosen by God to be a part of the church in this world. This means he will do all that is in his power to be a part of the church.
Let me try to explain. You see, literally, the term “church” means “called out.” This points us to the truth that God throughout the course of time calls His elect people out of the darkness of sin and into His light. When God does this He also calls this people out of the wicked world and into the body of His church. In other words, by means of this call of God, the body of Christ becomes visible in this world. Of course! Believers do not belong to some secret, ill-defined, unrecognizable body that no one is able to trace.
Oh, it is true that every believer is given the invisible blessings of salvation. Believers are called unto faith in Jesus Christ. Every one of Christ’s people is saved in the blood of Christ and therefore is regenerated, called, given to believe. They are righteous and holy in the blood of Christ. These are works of the Spirit in the heart of the child of God. All of these make up the internal spiritual life of the members of Christ’s body. These gifts are invisible because they take place within us. Nevertheless, these invisible spiritual gifts make up the life of every member of the church of Christ. Every one of the members of the church shares these gifts in common with each other. So, elect believers share together a spiritual life of regeneration and faith. When we speak of this fact we are referring to the church invisible. The members of the church are spiritually different from the unbelieving people of this world. That which motivates them in life is different. The inner principle of the heart is different. What they do, what they say, where they go in this world, all this flows out of the faith that is found in them. While the wicked live on in their sin, those whom God has called out of this world, called out of the bondage of sin, live on in faith. They are substantially different from the wicked. This is why they are called the church. They are “called out.”
The point is, however, that when this kind of life characterizes the members of the body of Christ, the church, then such faith cannot be hidden. Their faith, first of all, will openly reveal itself in their confession. We read in Romans 10:10, “For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.” When I believe in my heart on Jesus Christ, confession is also made with my mouth. I will speak of my faith to others. I cannot help but tell others of that spiritual life that dwells in me. So I make confession. I witness to others about Christ.
In the second place, our spiritual life of faith results in good works. The fruit of faith is good works. Faith without works is dead, James tells us. When I believe, then the fruits of the Spirit become evident in my life. I walk and live in holiness before God. And again, when I do this I cannot do it in a vacuum. Others see my good works—other believers as well as the wicked in this world. The other side of this matter is this: I see others walking in faith too! I am deeply aware that I am not the only one that has been called out of darkness and out of this world of sin. Others make confession of their faith too. I see the fruit of the Spirit in others. And (and here is the point) I am attracted to them! Birds of a feather flock together, is the saying? It is true, kind seek kind. If there is in me this principle of faith, then it is also in others. If that faith becomes evident in the life of others as it does in our lives, then we are going to seek out the fellowship of others. We will want to be with them and do things with them. We actively will seek out other believers! We do not belong to a church because it is a fun place to be or because it is a great social club. We belong because in our hearts we desire the fellowship of others of like faith. That is the point: elect believers seek out other elect believers in this world because there is among them a spiritual affinity.
This is the church, then, as she becomes visible in this world. When the believers reveal their faith by means of the their confession and walk, the church becomes visible. I hope I did not lose you in all of this! Here is the logic once more. First, the body of Christ is made up of God’s elect people, who through the course of time are called out of sin and darkness and into the body of Christ. Second, the members of this elect church are characterized by the internal, invisible life of regeneration and faith. Third, this life of faith manifests itself visibly in the confession and walk of believers. And fourth, believers seek out other believers because of the spiritual bond that exists between them. In this way, the elect church at any given time in history becomes visible. It becomes known in this world. Believers seek to band together with other believers. The result is that, no matter what time or age in history, no matter where in this world these believers may live, the church becomes visible. And it is this visible manifestation of the church that gives rise to the church institute.
A Church Instituted
The church institute is the result of believers uniting together into an organization under properly ordained officebearers. It is the church, not now from the view of her organic life, but from the point of view of believers seeking to fellowship with other believers. It is the church from the point of view of a legally established body of people under the rule of legally appointed rulers and representatives. It is the church from the point of view of a certain recorded and maintained membership. When believers seek other believers for mutual fellowship in this world, these same believers are called to become an instituted church. This is not what some power-hungry individuals seek to accomplish in many so-called churches today. It is not what men for themselves decided to form. Christ, who is the Head of His body, the church, demands this of believers! It is a command that must be obeyed!
The church from earliest times was instituted. Already in Genesis 4:26, after God gave Seth to Adam and Eve in the place of Abel we read, “then began men to call upon the name of the Lord.” Already then, men gathered together in order to worship God. The church at that time may have been instituted differently than it is today, but it was instituted. At that time the head of the clan was responsible for the worship of his entire family and household—his children, their spouses, his grandchildren, and the servants of his household. When the kingdom of Israel was established, the church took on the form of an earthly nation under the rule of prophets, priests, and eventually kings.
And even if this does not serve to convince anyone of the need of the church to organize itself, the New Testament Scriptures abound in this. We read in Titus 1:5, “For this cause left I thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders in every city, as I had appointed thee.” There were groups of saints in the various cities of Crete. Titus’ job was to organize them under the rule of elders. If we read on in Paul’s letter to Titus, or if we read I Timothy 3, we find that each of these officebearers or elders had to meet special qualifications. When such elders were established and in place, there began the church institute. On his missionary journeys Paul did not leave behind mere groups of believers who simply met together for mutual fellowship. We read in Acts 14:23, “And when they had ordained them elders in every church, and had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord, on whom they believed.”
Neither was there a question of what the membership of these churches ought to be. There was a specific membership. There were people who joined themselves together with these churches as members. Elders, deacons, and pastors were elected out of the membership of these churches. That membership was also exclusive. Not just anyone was allowed to be a member of those churches. Only those who were professing Christians could be members in that church—only those who confessed their faith in Jesus Christ. Those who walked in unbelief, those who refused to confess Christ either by mouth or walk were barred from membership, or, if members, excommunicated out of the church. And although I will not bring up passages to prove each one of these contentions, it is not difficult to find that proof in the Bible. After all, even Paul’s letters were written to instituted churches made up of a certain membership together with its officebearers. Membership therefore in the church institute is made up of all confessing believers who walk according to that confession and their children. This means, of course, that the church institute, in distinction from the elect church of Christ in this world, can have within its confines unbelievers. Men can be hypocrites. Children born into the church, and at times those who join from outside, can be unbelievers who put on a false front for others. Nevertheless, the church as manifested in the church institute is made up of believers and their seed.
The church institute, therefore, is not made up of just a number of people who simply enjoy one another’s fellowship and, as a result, get together to sing, pray, and read God’s Word. The church is a highly organized institution, with officebearers who exercise the authority of Jesus Christ Himself.
Yet, the question may legitimately be raised: what benefit is there in belonging to the church institute? We answer that with another question: why would Christ find it necessary for the church to be organized visibly? Christ has given His church a particular function to perform in the lives of believers. The official means of grace are found in the church institute. We are told in I Corinthians 1 that the preaching is the means that God uses for the salvation of His people. In Romans 10 we learn that there is no preaching except by one who is sent by the church to preach. God has ordained in the church institute certain men that He has officially called to preach the gospel. And that preaching we are called to hear. Then, too, there are the sacraments, which are not just given to any man to administer at his whim. These sacraments are entrusted into the care of the elders ordained in the church institute. They are called to take oversight of them. Scripture also makes it clear that as believers we must make use of these sacraments. We cannot do that unless we are members of the church institute. It is abundantly evident, then, that the reason we must join ourselves to the church institute is that Christ has appointed in His church certain means of grace to be used by believers for their spiritual lives.
There is one additional reason why we are commanded by God to join ourselves with the church institute in this world. It is because Christ has chosen to rule over His people by means of the officebearers of the church. We read in Hebrews 13:7, “Remember them which have the rule over you, who have spoken unto you the word of God: whose faith follow, considering the end of their conversation.” Or again in verse 17, “Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you.” Obviously, Christ has chosen to rule over His church visibly by means of certain men ordained to that office. These are the elders that rule in the church institute. We are called to bow beneath the yoke of Christ by bowing ourselves beneath the rule of the elders. These elders in turn receive the call from Christ to feed, nourish, care for, and yes, even discipline, God’s people. In other words, Christ exercises spiritual oversight over the members of His body by means of officebearers in the church. Christ has chosen to care for His people in the church institute.
A Church Defended
It is in this concrete way that the church of Jesus Christ in this world is preserved and defended. Christ dwells in the church institute where God’s Word is faithfully maintained. It is true that there are institutes that do not maintain the truth of God’s Word. These institutes must be rejected. We will consider that in our next broadcast. But this does not detract from the fact that Christ dwells in the church institute and that He has chosen officebearers to defend the truth and preserve the church.
It is not by some mystical way that the church is preserved. Christ uses concrete means to do this. Outside of the institute, God’s people wander aimlessly and will fall prey to the wicked. Inside the church institute we are preserved safely and securely by the preaching of the Word and the care of the officebearers.
Before concluding, I want to make a special point of calling the attention of young people to this point. You may not walk away from the church institute as if it is was good for mom and dad but has nothing to offer you anymore. You may not do that. You too need to join yourselves to the church. It is absolutely necessary for your spiritual life. You may not live outside of the church. You will find no salvation outside of the church! In the church is safety and security. Do you want to give that up to lead a life of sin? Do not be afraid, do not even hesitate, to join yourself with the church of Christ in this world. Christ is in His true church!
And when all of us together confess, “I believe an holy, catholic church,” then we are confessing that too! It is all implied in that simple short confession. I believe there is a church and that I am a living member of that church! Proof? I have joined myself together with the church institute in this world! Have you?