Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Church in Frame's Frame, Part I

For various reasons, the PCA has recently become embroiled in a debate over this question: What is the Church? Who belongs to it? What can we say about those who are visibly members of our church, yet do not have true, fruitful, and persevering faith?

The questions are a direct result of the tension inherent in the Scriptures between God's eternal decrees to save His people and His visible outworking of those plans. On the one hand, the Church is the set of those who are effectually called by God to salvation. On the other, the way in which God works out His calling, seen especially in the government of the Church and also His special consideration for the family, requires us to honor the boundaries of the Church as we see it.

I will argue that the tension between the decrees and their visible outworking denies us the ability to view God's Church through a single lens. There is no salvation-o-meter by which we may measure "the true Church as God sees it." That leaves us collecting knowledge about the Church by means of various perspectives. The Scriptures speak at times of the Church in terms of our ethical obligations to a visible body; at times, in terms of the fruit that we see in ourselves and others; and at times, in terms of our own knowledge of our faith and participation of the promises of God. These three perspectives cohere together to give us approximate knowledge of the Church of God.

The Church is the Company of the Elect

Most obvious in the Scriptures is that the Church is Jesus' bride for whom He died, the flock for whom He laid down His life. This perspective is brought out clearly in the writings of John (John 10; Rev. 5.9-10; Rev. 21), Paul (Eph. 5.25-27), and Peter (1 Peter 1.1-2). The death of Christ for His people is the basis for their forgiveness of sins (Eph. 1, Rom. 5), enabling them to be God's justified people (Rom. 3). Hence, it is the fulfillment of God's promise to Abraham to "be a God" to his descendants, to Eve that her "seed would crush the head of the serpent", and to Israel concerning the new covenant that would remove the principle of sin and death.

In short, when Scripture speaks to and of the Church, it often speaks of it as "the Church as only God can see it" in all of its glory throughout time, the company of the elect who form together a temple in whom God dwells and is worshiped (Eph. 2).

While this view of the Church is in some sense eternal -- "eschatological" -- it would be a mistake to believe that it is a view only possible or practical at the end of time. Far from it; when Paul writes to the church in Rome, he clearly presents their present experience as an intrusion of the eschatological into their lives. Hence:

What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don't you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.

If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin— because anyone who has died has been freed from sin.
-- Rom 6.1-7

Here, as elsewhere, Paul argues from the Roman Christians' participation in the eschatological new life, resurrection, and freedom from sin to their behavior in the here-and-now. He is speaking to them as if it were a settled issue that they have been granted the salvation that characterizes membership in the people of God. The same kind of language is evident throughout the epistles, both Pauline and catholic (e.g., 1 Pet 1).

In systematic terms, of course, we are talking about nothing more nor less than the invisible church of WCoF 25.1.

Further, it is clear in Scriptures that God considers this Church, the company of the elect, to be "the real Church." That is to say, those who do not believe and are not elect have no real right to be there. Instructive on this point are 1 Cor 5, 2 Cor 6.14-18, and Matt 13.24ff).1

More can be said about this Church as God sees it, the "invisible church." It's probably best to let the Scriptures speak for themselves.

Rom. 1.6-8
Eph. 1.18-23
Eph. 3.4-12
Eph. 5.22-33
Phil. 1.1-11
Col. 1.17-23
1 Tim. 3.15
Heb. 12.18-24

But one necessary point needs to be made in preparation for what follows: Our knowledge of this church is necessarily incomplete. There are those who imagine themselves to be a part of it, and yet are not (Matt. 7.21-23). There are teachers who participate in the fellowship of the saints, yet have no legitimate part in it (Jude, 2 Cor 11.1-15). Conversely, there are those who worry about their salvation and yet definitely belong to Christ (Rev. 2.8-11). This body to which we belong, the Church, looks fuzzy to our eyes.

The next post will examine the visible outworking of God's plan in the Church, and why it is that we must speak of and honor the visible aspect of the Church.

1. John Murray makes this point in "Christian Baptism", ch. 3.

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