What is your duty regarding the church?
Scripture: I Corinthians 12; Belgic Confession article 28
Sermon by Rev. Leo de Vos
Orthodox Christian Reformed Church of Burlington, Washington
© Burlington United Reformed Church; The Preacher, Vol. 17, No. 8
This sermon may be used in worship services for free; please state the author and church above.
Beloved congregation of our Lord Jesus Christ,
In our worship services, we hear the same things repeated very often. A danger is that they become so familiar to us that we no longer take heart to the words which are being spoken to us. When we listen to the law, it is difficult to take heart to every commandment, and to apply them to our lives, because we hear the law repeated so very often. The same might be true when you are addressed as “Beloved congregation.” What does it mean when the minister says “Beloved congregation of our Lord Jesus Christ?” This title is a wonderful address, a rich description of you and me, brothers and sisters, in our Lord Jesus Christ. For it means that, though I have come into this house of God aware that there is so much that is sinful and crooked in me, aware that I come as a sinful person hardly daring to lift my head and my heart to God, that Christ is yet pleased to love me. That is, Christ is pleased to call me a part of His body when He announces His love to His congregation. I am sure you will agree with me this morning that there is nothing better than to be addressed as “Beloved in the Lord Jesus Christ!” This is far better than to be congratulated on the front page of the newspaper, this is far better than to be a celebrity on a popular talk show or a star on TV. “Beloved congregation of the Lord Jesus Christ”—what greater title could we hope for, or receive?
This morning we do wish to look more deeply at the great privilege of what it means to be a member of the body of Jesus Christ. And we wish to state at the outset that there are few doctrines over which there is more confusion in North America today than the doctrine of the church of Jesus Christ. For the last century, Christians have been told that it makes little difference what church you belong to. Our dear brother Billy Graham, who has indeed been used of God in various evangelistic campaigns to convert many people, has not helped in this respect. He and his workers tell people that once they’re converted they can go back to any church whether a liberal church, or whatever church they are a part of. The message is: it really does not matter what church you belong to! And in America it’s very popular to believe that you may be jolly, good Christians without ever joining any church at all. In fact, I am sure that this morning there are many “Baptist Bobs” who attend the “Bedside Baptist Chapel,” using the remote control, surfing from one radio or TV preacher to the next. Sadly, many such people believe they are Christians and even part of the body of Jesus Christ.
We want to look at this doctrine from our confession of the Word of God. We want to consider our theme: What is Your Duty Regarding the Church? And we want to see that first, we have to rightly confess this church of Jesus Christ; second, we should promptly join it; third, we whole-heartedly should serve in it and finally, we should diligently guard our membership in it.
First, we must rightly confess the church of our Lord Jesus Christ. Now we know from Article 27 that the church is the glorious body of the Lord Jesus Christ. The church is made of all the believers who have ever lived—even those who are already with Christ in heaven are a part of this body. The church is the New Jerusalem which will one day come down from heaven with Christ in her midst. Then the church will have no need for the sun or the moon, the Son of Righteousness will be in her midst and He will be her light. In that day the church will be completely holy and pure, the one, glorious body of Jesus Christ.
Here our confession makes an astounding statement about the church of Jesus Christ! It is so astounding we can hardly imagine what this statement means! It says that there is no salvation outside of this congregation of Jesus Christ. What does this mean? It means what Revelation 22:15 says: outside of this church are the dogs, outside of this church are the perverts, outside of this church is nothing but pollution, impurity and ungodliness, but within her is holiness, within her is purity, and within her is glory. The language of the New Testaments speaks of this glorious body of Jesus Christ and calls her the Bride of the Lord Jesus Christ. In the Old Testament she is called the perfection of beauty (Psalm 50:1-2); a royal diadem in the hand of the Lord (Isaiah 62:3). Christ has bought His church with His own blood. He is jealous of her; He loves her; He died for her; He lives for her.
In light of this rich description, how could a person expect to find salvation outside of the bride of Jesus Christ? Since our Lord has died for this bride alone, and has set His love on this pure bride only, how would we expect to find salvation out there in the pollution of the world? Beloved, our forefathers were not making some kind of Roman Catholic slip when they said “outside of her there is not salvation.” The truth is that there is no salvation outside of this glorious body of Jesus Christ.
Therefore we must ask ourselves, “If salvation is received only in this glorious body of Jesus Christ, where do I find her? How do I find this glorious body? Must I wait until I get to heaven to experience the joy of belonging to this glorious body of Jesus Christ?” We must realize at the outset that this is not what our forefathers meant by these words in our confession. Our forefathers meant this—that this one glorious body of Christ, with its invisible aspect in heaven, has a visible aspect in this world. It is wheresoever God has established it. This glorious body has an address! You will find it in every state in America, in every province of Canada and in virtually every country of the world. For God has established it there. Have you noticed that every epistle written in the Word of God, is usually written to a local congregation of Jesus Christ? See Christ pictured in Revelation walking in the midst of seven golden candle sticks. These are seven churches, each in a city you can pin-point on a map, shepherded by ministers and elders of the Lord Jesus Christ.
What we are saying is that the one glorious body of Jesus Christ takes expression in a local assembly. This expression is pictured for us in I Corinthians 12. This church takes expression as an organized church of Jesus Christ where brothers and sisters meet together and where there are pastors and elders. Christ says that He nourishes his members through the local assemblies. For here in this church, at this address, we are baptized, we are fed the Word of God, we are taught our confessions, we partake a holy food. Ephesians 4:11-16 declares that our Lord Jesus Christ nourishes His body, expressed in the local church, through the faithful preaching of pastors and shepherding of elders.
Because there is no salvation outside of this assembly, we are urged in the confession, secondly, to promptly to join it. Now someone might say, “Yes I want to join it in heaven; I long for the day when I’ll be in heaven in the glorious New Jerusalem; I long for the day when I can see the Lord Jesus Christ and walk with Him there, but I want nothing to do with the church in this world. After all, the church in this world is full of hypocrites.” We reply that our brother speaks truth, doesn’t he? Sadly, the church is often filled with very sinful people. I have not yet met one perfect person in the church of Jesus Christ. Charles Spurgeon, the great pastor, was told by a lady that she had reached the plateau of perfection in her life. When Spurgeon challenged her view that there could be perfect people in the church she soon became very angry! Her view of perfectionism was shown-up! You will find down-right nasty people in the church of Jesus Christ. They are sinners, saved by grace. A professor asked why the church is like Noah’s ark. The answer is that because the stench on the inside is better than the flood on the outside. You will find stinky, sinful people in the church. We are obliged to join her, because sinners in the church are saved by God’s grace in Jesus Christ. Christ has loved her; He has shed his blood for her; He purifies and cleanses her that she may be prepared for life eternal. And so it stands to reason that people who long to be cleansed and sanctified by the grace of Jesus Christ should join the church of Jesus Christ. It stands to reason that there should be sinners in the church of Jesus Christ, that there will be nasty people inside of her because this is the place to which we come to be cleansed by Jesus Christ. Do you expect to find healthy people in the hospital wards? Of course not! So it is in the church of Jesus Christ. We are here because we know that we need the blood of Jesus Christ our Savior. We know that there is no other hope or healing for us whatsoever apart from this.
Therefore we may not remain by ourselves, but our confession exhorts us to promptly join this body where God has established it. By the language “where God has established it,” our forefathers meant where a sound local church is located which has the marks confessed in Article 29. In Psalm 48, this congregation is pictured by the city of Jerusalem, with her solid bulwarks, her defensive towers, and her mighty gates. Just imagine living in the middle ages, being chased by some renegade knights who would kill and rob you. What would you do? You would run into the nearest castle or town to take refuge. Our confession stresses the necessity of joining the local church as a refuge. Look at her high walls of defense! She defends you by teaching you the truth, by nourishing you in Jesus Christ. The local congregation must be joined. You are not to be content to be by yourself. In this respect American individualism is down-right harmful, even destructive to the Christian church. You must join the local body, where Christ has established her. That might mean that you have to separate from a congregation that is no longer faithful to God’s word. (How to determine this is found in Article 29.) But is your duty to not remain a lone ranger but to join the local body.
Our problem with this teaching is that we live in a time when the doctrine of the church is largely forgotten. We live in a culture where people are taught that they can be born-again believers without any accountability to a local congregation. But our forefathers said that anyone who loves the Lord Jesus Christ, who loves the new Jerusalem, must express this loyalty by being part of a church where God has established it. This means I show my love to Christ by joining a church with a consistory, with an address, with worship services, and with the communion of the saints. When teaching this in catechism, at least one or two catechumens usually ask, “What about the Robinson Crusoe Christian? What local church can he join while deserted on a tropical island? If he meets a stranded lady and marries her is this a marriage before God?” The answer is that if this Robinson Crusoe character is a true believer he already is a member of the body of Jesus Christ. But if he ever makes it to civilization, he had better find and join this body, wherever Christ has established it!
We also notice that our Confession says that, by joining the local church, we maintain the unity of the church: that no person of whatsoever state or condition he may be, ought to withdraw from it, content to be by himself; but that all men are in duty bound to join and unite themselves with it; maintaining the unity of the Church… By joining this church we express the unity of the Christian church. Indeed, the teaching of the New Testament is that by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body. Not joining the church makes one guilty of serious sin; namely, that of schism in the body of Christ. Then we choose to remain as lone rangers. Then we are saying “I want no part of Christ’s body in this world.” “I don’t want join myself to her.” No, we are obliged to join her, to belong to this body, locally expressed.
By joining the local church we are also confessing that our Lord Jesus Christ knows what is best. Some people don’t like to fly because they prefer to drive. They want to be in the driver’s seat, in full control. They are afraid to entrust their lives to the skill of a pilot. But when we join the church of Jesus Christ, we say “Jesus Savior, pilot me over life’s tempestuous sea!” When we join the church we are saying, “Lord Jesus, I bow to Thy yoke. I am not in control of my own life anymore. I am thankful, Lord, that you are my pilot. I entrust my life completely to you.” The person who will not join or who resigns is in a sorry state. He is ultimately saying he will not have Christ for his head. He does not want Jesus Christ to pilot him. Our Lord pilots His church through the lawfully-called ruling and teaching elders. This means the Lord leads, teaches and nourishes His church.
Our confession says that by joining this church we submit ourselves to its doctrine and discipline, bowing our necks under the yoke of Jesus Christ. Would we not admit that each of us needs to be governed by Jesus Christ, through His office bearers? The elders and minister admit that they need Christ’s oversight through their fellow office-bearers as much as any other member needs oversight. We submit to the yoke of Jesus Christ. There is nothing which should frighten the believer more than being in charge of his own spiritual life. Jeremiah 17:9 says “The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked; who can know it?” No, the person who joins the church of Christ gladly submits to the shepherding of Christ.
And then we notice that our confession goes on to say that we must serve in this church, to the edification of the brothers and sisters, according to the talents that God has given them as members of the same body. And some might think that because the church of Christ is one, this means that we all have to be the same. Cults demand uniformity. Look at members of a cult and you notice that they usually all dress the same way; they say the same things; they do the same things. But the church of Jesus Christ appreciates diversity. There is not one person in this body today who is the same as another. You all look very different. The church is made up of various members. We do not all dress alike, look alike, think alike. Thank goodness! Our diversity, in fact, serves as a means of edification in the body. The church’s harmony comes from the difference of the gifts God has given to the members. If we want to sing in harmony we had better not all sing tenor. Then we would never have harmony! Singing in harmony means that various people sing different parts. And all the of their voices blend into one beautiful song to God. So is the church of Jesus Christ made of different members with different talents. But they all blend their voices in a beautiful song and confession to their Savior Jesus Christ.
And that is really the theme that we read of in I Corinthians 12. The body is not one member but many. The body is made up of various kinds of members, like the human body. We have feet, and hands; we have eyes and ears. All of the parts of our human bodies function differently, none are the same. The theme of I Corinthians 12 is that the church is like a human body, made up of many members. In fact, if we were all identical we could never edify one another. If the whole body were an eye, if we were all the same, each having the same function, the same thoughts, the same looks, where would be the hearing? If the whole were the hearing, all one big ear, where would be the smelling (vs.17)? The apostle uses a very clear, logical illustration here for us. If they were all one member, were would the body be? But now indeed there are many members, yet one body (vss.19-20). The clear principle taught here is that the church is made up of many different members! There are many gifts in this congregation. Right here in the local congregation your gifts and talents are exercised!
Another clear principle in I Corinthians 12 is that different members of the church depend on each other. They could not get along without each other. Now, boys and girls, at birthday parties you play fun games. Sometimes you blindfold each other. You soon experience that when you’re blindfolded you can’t walk very well, because you are forever bumping into chairs or walls. You can’t use your hands very well for you reach out and touch the wrong things. You see that your feet and hands desperately need your eyes. Some of you run a three-legged race at the church picnic. And you realize it is very difficult to run that race because your eyes see where you want to go, but your legs can’t get you there the way you want them to get you there. With an illustration even boys and girls can understand, I Corinthians 12 is saying that we all need each other in the body of Jesus Christ. Therefore, nobody has an excuse or reason to remain outside of it and not to join it. Every member is necessary to its well-being.
In fact, I Corinthians 12 says the stronger need the weaker, or the stronger can’t function at all. The eyes need the feet or they are rather useless to get you anywhere! Every part of the body depends upon another part. Not only do the stronger members need the weaker, but they even give more honor to the weaker members. How many of you would admit that you have sweaty, smelly feet? If you don’t want to admit this, your family will tell you the truth. Come to think about it, our feet are down-right dishonorable. They really are not very nice at all. But none of us have come into church with bare feet. Instead, we dress up our feet with fancy socks and shoes. When our feet are sore and tired we soak them and bathe them. When you’re working in construction you wear steel-shanked boots so you don’t get nails in your feet. Why is this? Because my eyes, my hands, my ears and my nose would be of little use, unless my stinky feet could carry me where I need to go. That’s what the Lord is saying about His church—that He placed every member in His church according to His good pleasure, in such a way that we would depend upon each other. We even put more honor on those parts that we consider to be the least honorable. And those members of the body which we think to be less honorable, upon these we bestow greater honor, and our unpresentable parts have greater modesty (vs. 23).
Remember this illustration of the body! If you feel awkward, if you feel out of place, if you feel dishonorable in this local congregation, you are needed here! God honors the one who thinks he is the least honorable. God uses that man or woman, that boy or that girl in His church who thinks that he or she has the least gifts. If you feel you have no special honor or gifts, you have come to the right place; you belong here! So our confession says that God has placed every member in the church, to serve for the edification of the brothers and sisters according to the talents God has given them. Can anyone therefore hear the word of God and say “I don’t belong here; God has no place for me in His church; I have no talents or gifts of use to anyone?” God says just the opposite. If you are a dishonorable member, you will receive greater honor.
In light of this passage, how could someone conclude that being a member of church doesn’t matter. That you don’t have to be a member to belong. If you had an arm or leg amputated, what would happen to it? Oh, we hate to think such a terrible thought. But this is truly the implication of I Corinthians 12. If we are not members of the church, we’re going to wither and rot away. If we are not members of a local church we can’t live. Because then we can’t be nourished by Christ, and we can’t nourish each other by using our talents. We can only remain healthy if we belong to the body of our Lord Jesus Christ. And in the light of this, we can surely see what a serious thing it is to be a member of the church of Jesus Christ. You often meet people who say “I didn’t get anything out of church today;” or, “I don’t get anything out of church.” But, we have to ask, just like the World War motto “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” “Ask not what your church can do for you, but what you can do for your church.” That’s the goal, that’s why you are here: to put your shoulders to the wheel, to work hard, to use your talents, your gifts, for the edification of the whole body.
Then finally, as a pastoral warning, carefully guard your membership in Christ’s church. I believe we have to say this. In North America, it seems that every Tom, Dick or Harry thinks that he can start a church. If he doesn’t like something in his own church, he leaves and does it his own way. We have a smorgasbord of home churches and fellowships in America today. You name it and it’s out there. There is every kind of church or fellowship, every kind of group you could ever find. There are probably as many various groups of churches are there are soccer clubs in Burlington. This development has been a reaction to the deadness of the organized church. We can understand this, can’t we? When the organized church becomes dead, and teaches a liberal gospel, when it has nothing to say in the preaching of the Word, some people rightly react to this. But often they wrongly do there own thing. Today it seems as if our country is rampant with people doing their own thing in the church. This is not a new thing either. Throughout history, there have always been some people who have left the church and started there own little sects or cults. The Dutch Puritan, Rev. Wilhelmus Brakel, in the section on the church in his four-volume work on theology, pleads with his congregation not to follow such people.
And this is what our confession is doing here as well in article 28. It’s giving a pastoral warning that we don’t withdraw from this church too quickly; that we be very careful to guard our love for her and our membership in her. Just as we love our Lord Jesus Christ and cherish Him, so we must guard our membership in the church, His glorious body. And I would urge you according to the warning of the confession: beware of drawing away! Beware of the voices that you listen to! There are many, many confusing voices out there. The apostle John warns his dear children to beware of those who have gone out from us because they were not with us to start with (1 John 2:19). Dissatisfaction in your own heart opens you up to listen to other voices. As long as you pamper your own dissatisfied heart, you will be open to listen to other voices. And it is easy to slip away; it is so easy to begin to attend just one service on Sunday. It is easy to stay away from catechism; it is easy to stay away from Bible Study; it is easy to stay away from social events; it is easy to disappear in the woods where no one is going to see you again. But it is much harder to come back. It is much harder to be a living, faithful member in the church of Jesus Christ.
I challenge you to be diligent to cherish with all your heart the joy of belonging to the New Jerusalem, the body of Jesus Christ. Do you not say in your heart, “How I long to be in that eternal assembly; how I long to be in heaven; how I long to see the glory of my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in the New Jerusalem?” Do you not long to be there? I am sure everyone of you says “I long to be there with all my heart; I long to be with the Lord Jesus Christ!” Then I say to you, cling to Christ here; yes, cling to Him here! And show your love for Christ, by loving His body. Love His church wherever God has established it! Indeed, there are many faithful churches in this world; there are faithful denominations; there are many faithful local churches which belong to no denomination. Cling to that body of Jesus Christ where the Lord has placed you. And you will surely be a blessing. Amen.