Calvin on the Church…

7 Jul

“Wherever we find the Word of God surely preached and heard, and the sacraments administered according to the institution of Christ, there, it is not to be doubted, is a church of God.”

This is one of my favorite quotes defining the church.  I think it does a great job of establishing the necessary aspects of the local church, as well as maintain its narrow focus.  The local church is to preach the Word of God, to proclaim the Gospel of His Son and administer the sacraments that Christ has instituted.

Preach the Word

From Jesus in the Great Commission (Matt. 28:18-20) to Paul’s exhortation to the Romans (Rom. 10:14-15), the writer of Hebrews (Heb. 13:7, 17) to the Apostle Peter (1 Pet. 5:1), there has been a call for the local church to teach the Scriptures, proclaiming God’s plan to save a people through His Son, Jesus Christ, for His glory.  The New Testament makes it clear that we should have leaders who teach, guide and provide an example for God’s people.  At the heart of this we see the fulfillment of Jesus’ instruction to make disciples and teach them to obey all He [Jesus] had commanded.

Administer the Sacraments

At the Last Supper, Christ instituted the Lord’s Supper in which we remember Christ’s work upon the cross and receive the grace of God through participating in this meal.  Through our eating of the bread and drinking of the wine, we have communion with the body of Christ, the Church, and enjoy spiritual communion with Christ.  And in all of it, we communicate the New Covenant of Christ and proclaim His saving work upon the cross (Mark 14:22-24, 1 Cor. 11:23-26).

In addition to the command to make disciples and teach them to obey, Christ also gives a command for people to be baptized.  But why? In Romans 6, Paul says:

“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” 

In one sense, baptism performed in the local church is a proclamation of the Gospel and the Holy Spirit’s work within an individual.  We recognize the Spirit’s work in one’s heart to bring him or her from death in sin to life in Christ.  Water baptism signifies the great cleansing power of God’s grace towards us through Christ’s blood.  In baptism, we experience that unity with Christ in our death under the water and renewal as we are raised up, pointing us to a future reality for which we should yearn. What a powerful reminder and experience of the grace of God through the Gospel as it is applied to the heart of person and expressed in public obedience!

Is That Really The Church?

This understanding of the local church as an institution that is meant to preach the Word and administer the sacraments may seem foreign.  Is that really the role of the local church? Isn’t something missing?

Oftentimes we substitute the role of the Church (those who are united with Christ through faith), as a organism, for that of the institution.  What I mean is that we confuse the works that individuals have been given as born again children of God for the work of the local church.  So we say things like:

“The church should be fixing up the community.”

“The church should build a facility for local youths to hang out.”

“The church should be involved in politics!”

Yet, I believe that these are tasks that individuals who make up the local church are given.  God has gifted people in various ways to accomplish various tasks for His glory.  These things may include community restoration work, feeding the homeless, building a recreation center for kids, supporting a pro-life law and many others.  However, I do not think any of these are the express role of the local church, as an institution. While churches may have stances on these things, as well as ministries that extend into these areas (I would not necessarily suggest churches have all these kinds of ministries), they need not have them to be faithful to God’s calling for the local church.

Preach the word and administer the sacraments.

If the local church is pursuing these things, it is being faithful to Christ’s command for it.  And if the local church is faithful to this command, it will, by the grace of God, build disciples who will go out into the world as ambassadors for the Gospel and agents of Christ-centered love and mercy towards others according to their giftings.  May the local church seek to live up to this glorious task it has been given!


4 Responses to “Calvin on the Church…”

  1. David Best July 8, 2011 at 10:16 am #

    “What is church?” One of my favorite questions, and also one of great importance. And congratulations on reaching back to the 1500’s for an answer. A couple friendly critical thoughts here. : )

    I think Calvin’s use of the word “preach” may bring things to mind that needlessly narrow what the scripture’s teach. Looking at the passages you cited, only one of them uses the English word preach. (Romans 10:14-15) (What is the Greek equivalent?) And in contrast, 1 Peter 5 takes the admonition much further, suggesting leaders share their whole life with those entrusted to their care. Clearly the verbal communication of the Gospel is paramount, but what does that look like TODAY? Does it necessarily entail all that we think of when we use the word preach, or especially when Calvin used the word preach?

    Second, you mention what the church should or should not be doing. I don’t know if we disagree here or not. When it comes to specifics, I would agree that not all churches have to be involved in this cause or that. In fact I agree that generally speaking we should do a few things well, rather than a great many things poorly, or even in an average way. I’m open to a small simplistic church that as you are saying, communicates the gospel and administers the sacraments, and then disciples people toward doing and living the gospel through any number of other, possibly secular organizations.

    However here is the rub, (and maybe I’m splitting hairs here, so bear with me.) What is it that we preach, what is the gospel? What is “good news” to the person who is literally perishing? Is it only concerned with the afterlife or is it so much more?

    Consider Jesus’s words in Luke 4.
    18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
    He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
    and recovery of sight for the blind,
    to set the oppressed free,
    19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

    Here he is quoting Isiah as recorded in the 61st chapter. But to put that in context you have to go back to chapter 59. The gospel according to Isaiah (and Jesus) is wide and deep, and concerned not just with the far off, but with there here and now. With things like justice and poverty. The soul’s worship and the bodies nourishment, and justice for all, these things are intimately connected.

    Here are some excerpts from Isaiah 59-61

    Ch 59
    1 Surely the arm of the LORD is not too short to save,
    2 But your iniquities have separated
    you from your God;
    3 For your hands are stained with blood,
    your fingers with guilt.
    4 No one calls for justice;
    no one pleads a case with integrity.
    They rely on empty arguments, they utter lies
    8 The way of peace they do not know;
    there is no justice in their paths.
    12 For our offenses are many in your sight,
    and our sins testify against us.
    Our offenses are ever with us,
    and we acknowledge our iniquities:
    13 rebellion and treachery against the LORD,
    turning our backs on our God,
    inciting revolt and oppression,
    uttering lies our hearts have conceived.
    14 So justice is driven back,
    and righteousness stands at a distance;
    20 “The Redeemer will come to Zion,
    to those in Jacob who repent of their sins,”
    declares the LORD.

    Ch 60
    1 “Arise, shine, for your light has come,
    and the glory of the LORD rises upon you.
    2 See, darkness covers the earth
    and thick darkness is over the peoples,
    but the LORD rises upon you
    and his glory appears over you.
    3 Nations will come to your light,
    and kings to the brightness of your dawn.
    10 “Foreigners will rebuild your walls,
    and their kings will serve you.
    Though in anger I struck you,
    in favor I will show you compassion.
    11 Your gates will always stand open,
    they will never be shut, day or night,
    so that people may bring you the wealth of the nations—
    their kings led in triumphal procession.
    12 For the nation or kingdom that will not serve you will perish;
    it will be utterly ruined.
    16 You will drink the milk of nations
    and be nursed at royal breasts.
    Then you will know that I, the LORD, am your Savior,
    your Redeemer, the Mighty One of Jacob.

    Ch 61
    1 The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me,
    because the LORD has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
    2 to comfort all who mourn,
    3 and provide for those who grieve in Zion—
    to bestow on them a crown of beauty
    instead of ashes, the oil of joy
    instead of mourning,
    and a garment of praise
    instead of a spirit of despair.
    8 “For I, the LORD, love justice;
    I hate robbery and wrongdoing.
    In my faithfulness I will reward my people
    and make an everlasting covenant with them.
    10 I delight greatly in the LORD;
    my soul rejoices in my God.
    For he has clothed me with garments of salvation
    and arrayed me in a robe of his righteousness,
    as a bridegroom adorns his head like a priest,
    and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
    11 For as the soil makes the sprout come up
    and a garden causes seeds to grow,
    so the Sovereign LORD will make righteousness
    and praise spring up before all nations.

    If that then is what we preach, a robust Gospel touching every facet of life, then how can the church not help be be involved in some of these things?

    Those are my thoughts. I look forward to yours. : )

  2. Tyler Helfers July 8, 2011 at 12:05 pm #

    Thanks for the critique and your thoughts. I really appreciate you taking the time to read this, ponder it and ask me about it. I’ll try to address/clarify a few of my thoughts and responses to your questions:

    1. “Preach” as presented in Romans 10:15 comes from the Greek word κηρύσσω, which is a verb meaning to proclaim. Strongs goes on to define it, saying that it was “used of the public proclamation of the gospel and matters pertaining to it, made by John the Baptist, by Jesus, by the apostles and other Christian teachers.” To me, I think this is a call for teachers and pastors to teach the overarching message of the Scripture: God’s plan of redemption for a people through His Son for His glory. The way this message plays out in Scripture will inform and instill much in us and provides the basis for obedience, moral living and ministry. I think this is a theme we see throughout Paul’s letters, in which he starts by presenting the truth of the Gospel and the people’s position in Christ, then exhorts them to action as a result of this glorious theological truth. I think in this way, preaching the Word encompasses teaching facts and theological truths, proclaiming the Gospel of Christ’s death and resurrection for our sin, and obedience to God’s Word. (I think Calvin would agree with that) Yet, while I think Calvin would have in mind a church building as the location for such preaching, I think that whether its a building with pews and pulpit or a living room with easy chairs and a couch, I think this same definition of “preach” can be applied.

    2. As for the role of the church and the Gospel that we proclaim, I think that we’re fairly close in how we understand it, but yet, still have different viewpoints. When it comes to the Gospel we proclaim, I think it is summed up in the message of Christ’s perfect life, death and resurrection for the forgiveness of sins and eternal life. I think that is the message Peter and Paul preach in Acts (2:14-39, 4:1-12, 9:19-20,13:16-41,16:30-31), and the message we should proclaim today. I think you would agree with me on that, but where we differ is on how we understand some of Jesus’ words, such as those from Luke 4. I think that it could be argued that Jesus is proclaiming spiritual truths of which He would fulfill through His teachings, death/resurrection and second coming. Jesus accomplished liberty for for those held captive and oppressed by sin; He opens the eyes of the spiritually blind so they can see Him as the Savior; and He proclaims the year of the Lord’s favor by canceling the debt of sin against us (corresponds to a canceling of debt and setting free of slaves in OT times).

    3. I think there needs to be a distinction between the work of the church and the work accomplished (and yet to be accomplished) by Jesus. This distinction says that Jesus alone has done, is doing and will do certain things that we as individuals, the church, government, etc, cannot do. Jesus’ work alone accomplished salvation for all who put their faith in Him. Jesus alone will bring to fulfillment the New Kingdom in which He will renew all things and there will be no more tears, death, mourning, crying and pain, nor any of the other fallen aspects of our world today (Rev. 21:3-4). I think there are certain things Christ proclaimed that we, as the church, cannot accomplish or should be expected to accomplish. And not only that, I think that if a church seeks to do those things and fails to do the others (preach the word, make disciples, administer the sacraments), that it is neglecting the command Jesus made for the church. However, I think that if we are teaching and preaching of God’s Word and applying the Gospel to our lives, the fruit of that is some of the work that Christ promises to fully accomplish (combating poverty, social justice, loving others, etc.) when He returns. Ephesians 4-6, Colossians 3-4 and the Letter of James are great examples of the kinds of things that should flow out of lives that have been transformed by the Gospel and empowered by the Spirit.

    4. I guess that at the end of the day, I think the Gospel is still robust when focused on the perfect life, death and resurrection of Jesus for the forgiveness of sins, reconciliation with God and eternal life in the New Kingdom for all who believe. Not only that, but I think it matches with what the apostles proclaimed and what Calvin would have thought. With that as the basis of my criteria for the role local church (as an institution) plays (with regard to the Gospel) I think it can faithfully do what it was intended to do. And if it (the local church) is doing that, the members of the local church, who themselves make up the Church, will be equipped to proclaim the Gospel message and have a desire to do some of the things you talk about (social justice, combating poverty, taking care of orphans and widows). And all the while, we can yearn for Christ’s return and the establishment of His New Kingdom in which all of these things will finally and fully be taken care of.

    Thanks again for dialoguing and asking good questions that help sharpen me and my understanding of things. I wish that there was more of this kind of discussion taking place on here. Sola deo gloria!

  3. David Best July 8, 2011 at 6:27 pm #

    An insightful response Tyler. Thanks for doing the leg work for the Greek word for preach. If one were to go too far in moving away from preaching or more accurately, “proclamation” that would clearly be unbiblical. That said, it is still worth thinking about what proclamation in the 21st century should look like. But I know your doing that.

    As for what we preach and what we do, this is possibly the crux of our disagreement (such that it is) “I think there needs to be a distinction between the work of the church and the work accomplished (and yet to be accomplished) by Jesus.”

    Why do you feel the need to make that distinction? The Apostle James does not just implore us to do good, good separate from our faith. He says it goes to the very heart of what we live and proclaim

    “14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? 15 Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.

    (Different conversation, how does this apply in a CNN/internet world where seeing people’s physical needs to so easy, and in turn, so easy to walk away from? I don’t have good answers.)

    In spite of what the Reformers had to say, (by faith alone) James 2:23 seems to say different.

    “21 Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. 23 And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,”[e] and he was called God’s friend. 24 You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and NOT BY FAITH ALONE.”

    Now I’ll allow that the Reformers context implored them to make this distinction. They were combating a Roman Catholic context that had clearly gone too far. I get that. But still, does not the Bible seems to say precisely the opposite? Maybe some good Greek exegesis would shed some light on this as well.

    Maybe when you say “the Letter of James are great examples of the kinds of things that should flow out of lives that have been transformed by the Gospel and empowered by the Spirit.” what you mean is that, to paraphrase James, “these things make a persons faith complete.”? Is that fair?

    Here is the other thing that I think is worth musing on. Is there a difference between “the Gospel” and “the Kingdom of God” (KoG) Some (often those with a secular slant, but some Christians as well) would want to drive a wedge between the teachings of Jesus and the teachings of Paul. That, I would not want to do. But it is interesting that in recent history anyway, (the past 100 years at least) there is much talk about the Gospel, and not as much about the KoG. Or to put it another way, there has been a great deal of focus on What Paul had to say, and less on the words of Jesus. Yet it the phrase KoG that so often comes off the lips of Christ. Rarely if at all does he talk about the “Gospel” (I am writing from memory, so don’t hold me to that.) Except for in a place like this, “After this, Jesus traveled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God.” Luke 8:1 And it is for this reason that I think the two have to be, if not completely fused, close to it. The good news, the Gospel, is the Kingdom of God, and the KoG is here, now, and concerned with the world as it is. AND yet it is also a thing to come, consummated by the return of Christ.

    My concern is not over our nuanced slight disagreement, which in many ways is neither here nor there, but rather in the direction some will go with how we see things differently. Many have drawn a distinction between the “social gospel” and the, I don’t know, “true Gospel” Others have drawn a distinction between the KoG and the Gospel. My desire is to see these things fused. As Jesus told John the Baptist, when asked if he was the one they had been waiting for, “He replied to the messengers, “Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy[a] are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the GOOD NEWS (gospel) is proclaimed to the poor. 23 Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.”

    Selected Passages on the Kingdom of God

    KoG Now
    “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” Mark 1:15

    Once, on being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst.”[c] Luke 17:20-21

    When Jesus had called the Twelve together, he gave them power and authority to drive out all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal the sick. Luke 9:1-2

    “When you enter a town and are welcomed, eat what is offered to you. 9 Heal the sick who are there and tell them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ Luke 10:8-9

    And the KoG coming
    25 “There will be signs in the sun, moon and stars. On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea. 26 People will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken. 27 At that time they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. 28 When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” 31 Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Luke 21:25-31

  4. Tyler Helfers July 9, 2011 at 10:27 am #

    I agree with you that there is a lot to think about with these things. With the passage from James, I think that I would equate “faith completed by works” with faith is proved by works. If we go back to Genesis and the account of Abraham, it says he was counted righteous by his faith, but that God tested that faith by commanding he sacrifice his son. So Abraham’s faith was proved by the obedience to God. I think the Reformers were right when they said, “Salvation is by faith alone, but faith is not alone.” I also, though I do not know for sure, think there are some background issues to which James is responding when he writes here about faith and works; the people had diluted the idea of faith to a mere mental assent of God’s existence (i.e. James 2:19). This is also something Paul dealt with, as people took faith to merely be an assent of facts and an excuse to live licentiously (Rom. 6). He also says something along the same lines in Galatians 5:6, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.”

    When it comes to the Gospel and the KOG, I agree that they are the same: Jesus. I think that when Jesus refers to the Kingdom of God, He is referring to Himself, His arrival as the Messiah, the one who would save God’s people from their sins, deliver them from their enemies and reveal to them His glory, imputing His righteousness and peace to them. I think that this is His meaning when He spoke in Mark 1:15, 17:20-21, etc. In light of this, I think the healings, the miracles and wonders Jesus performed as an important part of His ministry were signs pointing to the legitimacy and authority of His proclamation. It is one thing to claim to be God, the one who will save and the one who has and will fulfill the Scriptures, but quite another to perform wondrous acts that confirm such statements. I think that when He gives the disciples the power to do such things, this is to strengthen their claims to the people when proclaim Jesus. The goal is that between the Scriptures, Jesus’ words and these miraculous deeds, the people would recognize the Messiah and believe. I think this idea is paramount when Jesus responds to Thomas (who doubted apart from touching and seeing Jesus resurrected), “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

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