July 2, 2013
i. The catholic or universal Church which is invisible, consists of the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ the Head thereof; and is the spouse, the body, the fulness of Him that fills all in all.
After Peter confesses that Jesus is the Christ, the Lord makes this remarkable pronouncement: "I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it" (Matt. 16:18). The Greek word translated "church" means a number of persons called together in a public assembly (Acts 19:32, 39, 41). When the Jews translated the Hebrew Old Testament into Greek, this word was used for the congregation of Israel at Mt. Sinai (Deut. 4:10; 9:10), and later assemblies, especially for worship (2 Chron. 6:3, 12, 13; Ps. 22:22, 25; Joel 2:16).
Christ seized this word with a rich history in Israel and claimed it as His own: My church. He is the Lord of the congregation of God's worshipers, the King of the true Israel (Phil. 3:3). Christ builds the church by His power, and He promises that Satan will never overthrow it.
This church transcends each local congregation of worshipers. A local church can die spiritually (Rev. 3:1). Christ Himself may remove its light (Rev. 2:5). There are many sad sights of empty buildings where a church once met, or where formerly faithful churches have fallen into heresy. But Christ said that His church cannot fail.
Therefore Christ spoke of what the Westminster Confession calls "the catholic or universal church," both the church worldwide and the church in heaven and on earth. The word "catholic" comes from a Greek word meaning universal or international, and does not necessarily or exclusively refer to Roman Catholicism. Some of the church's members are already in glory (the church triumphant). Some still fight the good fight of the faith on earth (the church militant). But all are one people called out of the world into holy union with Christ (1 Cor. 1:2). When we meet in local congregations, we join with saints in heaven and throughout the earth to worship God through Christ as one great assembly (Heb. 12:22-24). The Confession has a number of things to say about the universal church.
First, this church is invisible. That does not mean its members are ghosts that meet in phantom buildings. It means that the universal church is defined in ways that are spiritually discerned and not physically seen. The church is not a building, but a people who worship in spirit and truth, a temple built with living, personal stones (John 4:20-24; 1 Peter 2:5). It is not a particular denomination and cannot be defined by allegiance to any mere man such as the Pope of Rome (1 Cor. 1:12-13). At certain times and places, the true church may exist as hidden gatherings of believers fiercely persecuted by leaders of the visible church (Rev. 13:11-15).
We cannot produce a complete list of the church's members, for some whom we thought to be saved fall away and show that they never really belonged (1 John 2:19). Not everyone who confesses Jesus as Lord is known to Him or saved by Him (Matt. 7:21-23). The church's membership is not defined by participation in baptism and the Lord's Supper, for some who receive the sacraments are not in Christ (Acts 8:13, 18-24; 1 Cor. 10:1-8), and some true believers do not have the opportunity to receive them (Luke 23:39-43).
The true church is defined by invisible factors. The qualifications for membership are the secret election of God and the internal work of the Holy Spirit to produce faith. We can see evidence of these divine operations in the fruit of the Spirit, but the true identity of the church is invisible. Yet it is visible or known to God: "The Lord knoweth them that are his" (2 Tim. 2:19).
Second, the church consists of the elect. God elected or chose individuals in order to save them from their sins, adopt them as His children and heirs, and make them holy by union with Christ (Eph. 1:4). The church is "a chosen generation," joined to Christ who is Himself "chosen of God, and precious" (1 Peter 2:4, 9). The Bible says, "Christ died for the church" (Eph. 5:25), that is, He decreed to redeem the elect long before any of them were born. Their names were "written in the book of life from the foundation of the world," and when they believe in the Lamb they overcome the world because by God's grace they are "called, and chosen, and faithful" (Rev. 17:8, 14).
Third, the church is in union with Christ as the bride or spouse of the Lord. The church was promised to Christ in God's eternal counsels (2 Tim. 1:9), and is betrothed to Christ by the Spirit in effectual calling (1 Cor. 1:9; 6:17). As Christ's spouse, the church is the object of Christ's redeeming love and His nourishing and cherishing affection (Eph. 5:25, 28-29).
Fourth, the members of the church are joined to Christ in a living, organic, and personal union, knit to Him as closely as the members or parts of a man's body (Eph. 5:30-31). Since Christ is the church's head, he rules over it as Lord and the true members of the church submit to His Word as it washes them clean (Eph. 5:23, 24, 26).
This unspeakable privilege of union with Christ makes the church the recipient of the fullness of Christ's graces, "his body, the fulness of him that filleth all in all" (Eph. 1:23). There is no station in life higher or more privileged than to be a member of the true church!
Dr. Joel Beeke is the President and Professor of Systematic Theology and Homiletics at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary and pastor of Heritage Netherlands Reformed Congregation in Grand Rapids, Michigan.