July 3, 2013
iii. Unto this catholic visible Church Christ has given the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God, for the gathering and perfecting of the saints, in this life, to the end of the world: and does, by His own presence and Spirit, according to His promise, make them effectual thereunto.
Some people think that true spirituality is so mystical that we really do not need the church with its creeds and confessions, and its forms of worship, so long as we follow what God says to our hearts. A personal relationship with the Lord trumps everything else, even the plain teaching of the Bible. Other people put so much stock in the sacraments that they think receiving baptism, attending church, and taking the Lord's Supper virtually guarantees their salvation unless they do something really bad. Reformed Christianity, in contrast to these extremes, does not separate the life of the visible church and the invisible work of the Spirit, but emphasizes both as crucial to knowing and pleasing God.
We treasure the church because Christ has given to the visible church the means by which He saves His people. First, Christ gives them the ministry, that is, men gifted and called as servants of the Word. Paul taught that the ascended Christ builds up His body by giving ministers of the Word to the church (Eph. 4:10-12). These men are not saviors but only servants of God and stewards of God's truth (1 Cor. 4:1). Still, ministers who are faithful in their lives and teachings are instruments by which God saves the church from sin and brings it to glory (1 Tim. 4:16; 2 Tim. 2:10).
Second, Christ gives to the church the oracles of God (Rom. 3:1-2), the Holy Scriptures. I am grateful that in America we live in an age of unprecedented access to the Scriptures (just a click away on the internet). But the church, as "the pillar and ground of the truth" (2 Tim. 3:15), still plays a central role in preserving the Scriptures, guarding their faithful translation and interpretation, promoting education and literacy, reading them as part of public worship, and encouraging the private reading of the Bible in personal devotions and family worship.
Third, Christ gives the ordinances to the church. By "ordinances" the Confession refers to the public means of worship which Christ ordained or commanded, such as baptism, the Lord's Supper, public prayer, and singing praise to God (see Confession, 21.5). The holy God inhabits the praises of Israel (Ps. 22:3), and many times God's people have experienced His presence dwelling with them as they worship together on the Lord's Day. Indeed, Christ promised His special presence when believers assemble in His name (Ps. 22:22; Matt. 18:20).
Christ commanded His church to preach the Word and to use the ordinances, and promised, "Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world" (Matt. 28:19-20)--implying that these means of grace will never grow obsolete and we must faithfully use them to the end of the world. Far from despising the means, we should use them with great expectation, for as we use the means, Christ is present with us. And Christ will not let His church fail.
However, we do not turn the means of grace into a surrogate Christ, but instead, as the Confession says, believe that Christ must make them effective by His own presence and Spirit. Mechanical rituals and even the preaching of sermons do not have any inherent power to do spiritual good. Reformed Christianity rejects the ex opere operato ("by the work having been worked") principle of the Roman church where the mere performance of the liturgy confers grace. Instead, we do the work of the church constantly remembering Christ's words, "I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing" (John 15:5).
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.