Sola Ecclesia: The Lost Reformation Doctrine
Michael J. Glodo
With which of the following statements do you most agree?
- "Every day people are straying away from the church and going back to God."
- "Away from [the church] one cannot hope for any forgiveness of sins or any salvation."
For the average evangelical Christian, the first statement may lack some balance, but the second sounds downright Romish. If this describes your reaction, then your ecclesiology is closer to the author of the first, Lenny Bruce, than to the author of the second, John Calvin (Institutes, 4.1.4). Bruce, a satirist of organized religion and nemesis to hypocrisy, and a comedian notorious for his vulgarity and impiety, nevertheless expressed a common contemporary assessment of organized religion, while Calvin's statement seems to betray his role as one of the primary catalysts of the Protestant Reformation.
While most of us will admit that the church is a vital aid in nurturing people in the faith, few of us might go as far as Calvin's statement. We've seen deadness and apostasy in many parts of the visible church. We've watched navel gazing, lethargy, and infighting in the church become a stumbling block to the world. We've accepted and endorsed evangelistic ministries that operate outside the church. We believe deeply in that central Reformation doctrine of salvation by grace alone through faith alone, not by church membership. But at issue is not an archaic, hierarchical, colonial view of the church. At the heart of the matter is the very nature of the gospel. I invite you to reconsider your understanding of the gospel through a better understanding of the church and the biblical connection between the two.
The Church and the Gospel
Gospel means "good news." But good news of what? Grammatically, gospel requires a genitive. If I say to you, "I have good news," you'll ask me, "About what?" Popularly, people believe the good news is different thingsJesus dying for sin, grace, justification, adoption, reconciliation, and peace with God. One responds to this news by "receiving Jesus into his heart" or "accepting Christ as his personal Savior." (Though I have used these expressions in the past, I honestly cannot find any warrant for them in Scripture.)
But biblically, the good news is the good news of the kingdom of God/heaven. The things mentioned above are implications of the coming of the kingdom. Biblically, the response is to repent and believe the good news that the kingdom has come in Christ.
Luke wrote, "The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John. Since that time, the good news of the kingdom of God is being preached" (Luke 16:16). In Acts, often cited as a more pure model for evangelism and church life, the kingdom of God is the content of the apostolic preaching (Acts 8:12; 14:22; 19:8; 20:25; 28:23, 31). Every other description of the gospel in the New Testament is a consequence of the kingdom of God being inaugurated in the ministry of Jesus. (Contrary to classical Dispensationalism, the New Testament teaches that Christ brought in the kingdom by his death, burial, and resurrectionnot that it was delayed by his rejection. See, e.g., Luke 11:20.)
Once we understand that the gospel is about the kingdom, we must ask ourselves, What is the kingdom of God? (For the classic treatment of this subject, see Herman Ridderbos, The Coming of the Kingdom, published by P&R.)
At its most basic level, the kingdom is the reign and rule of God, administered through Jesus Christ. The good news is that this kingdom has been brought to bear through Christ. Seeing the unbreakable connection between gospel and kingdom, we also see how Christ's roles as Savior and Lord are inseparable. To repent and believe the gospel is to acknowledge Christ as King, to submit one's will to his, and to be ruled over by him in his dispensation of mercy, justice, and love.
But how does Christ rule over his kingdom? How does he administer his kingship? He does so through the church, to which he has given the keys of the kingdom (Matt. 16:19), the gifts of office (Eph. 4:8-13), his own Shepherd's voice in the preaching of the Word (Rom. 10:14, 17), his faithful Shepherd's care (1 Pet. 5:1-5), and the means of grace (Acts 2:42). To be outside the church is to be at odds with Christ's rulehis protection, provision, and tender discipline.
Therefore, Calvin's view of the church is not Romish, speculative, or cultural. It is biblical. And so the confession is thoroughly biblical that "the visible church ... is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation" (Westminster Confession of Faith, XXV.2).
We must, of course, make a biblical distinction between the church as visible and the church as invisible. But the invisible cannot be seen. There is no invisible baptism, no invisible Lord's table, no invisible preached Word, no invisible discipline, or no invisible Sabbath. We must also note with care the Westminster Confession's qualification of "ordinary""out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation." But this term qualifies the doctrine in terms of what God may be pleased to do apart from his prescriptions to us, not what we may choose to do to vary from them.
The person who says, "I'm a member of the kingdom of God, not organized religion," is inherently contradictory. How do we know such a person is truly converted? For that matter, how does he know? He has refused Christ's appointed administration of his kingdom and, thus, stands apart from his kingship. For this reason, one cannot possess assurance of salvation indefinitely if one remains outside of the church, any more than if one persists in hardened resistance to Christ's kingship. He may have saving faith, but have none of Christ's means of assuring him of it. Paul wrote, "But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother" (Galatians 4:26 nasb). Hence, Cyprian wrote, "No one has God as his father without the church as his mother." (For evidence of the antiquity and pervasiveness of this high view of the church, see John R. Muether, "A Sixth Sola?" Modern Reformation, July-August 1998, pp. 24-28.)
To the extent that we've been influenced by evangelicalism's low view of the church, we must give up our Lenny Bruce ecclesiology. Many of us have unknowingly adopted a viewpoint similar to classic twentieth-century liberalism. As Ridderbos describes that view, "Liberal theology asserted that, as a visible gathering of believers with a certain amount of organization, the church lay entirely outside Jesus' vision" (Coming of the Kingdom, 335).
The difference is that at least liberalism saw the visible church exalted in the New Testament and accused the church of adding it to Jesus' teaching, whereas evangelicals don't see it exalted at all.
Recovering a Biblical View of the Church
Recovering the doctrine of the church will affect how we plant and promote our churches. As an ecclesiastical version of the "uncola" 7-Up®, many market their churches as the "unchurch" church, not like any church the seeker has known. A prominent congregation in a conservative, orthodox denomination once planted billboards by the interstate highway in their community, stating, "Jesus hated church, too." On the contrary, he loved her and gave himself up for her (Eph. 5:25-27). Just as, when a teenager, I was ashamed to be seen with my fifty-something parents, these evangelists are ashamed to be associated with the unhip mother of believers and beloved wife of Christ. (For a larger treatment of this subject, see my article, "An End to Generational Segregation in the Congregation," Modern Reformation, January-February 2000, pp. 28-33.)
But returning to a biblical view of the church and its primacy for life with God will help us in several specific ways.
First, it will reform the gospel we preach. We will offer people the same good news Jesus offered them. The Great Commission is not just evangelism, it is the extension of Christ's eternal kingdom through the baptizing and teaching of the church.
Second, we will urge professing Christians to unite with the church, to be sealed and nurtured, so that they can rest upon God's assurance, not upon a merely subjective, changeable, and unbiblical affection. We all know the word that describes a child born without a father (see Hebrews 12:8 kjv). It's a cruel word, reflecting not upon the child, but upon the parents. We must stop commending to people the one-parent family of God as father without the church as mother and its consequent bastardization of believers.
Third, we will be drawn back to doxological evangelism, where the people of God publicly demonstrate their rapt affections for their Redeemer in a way that draws the nations to the city which has foundations (Heb. 11:10; cf. Ps. 67; Isa. 2:2-3; 1 Cor. 14:24-25). We will stop rending God by putting his glory and evangelism at odds.
Fourth, we will revive church discipline, both in its instructional and judicial senses. This least-practiced mark of the true church is essential to giving meaning to church membership. This will include maintaining honest church rolls and redeeming membership numbers from their place as the most dubious statistic in Christendom.
Fifth, we will recover the means of gracethe Word, the sacraments, and prayeras Christ's provision for our life with God (Westminster Shorter Catechism, 88-98). Our people will prize them for what they arelife-giving ordinancesand love Christ for giving them to the church. This includes the faithful, frequent, and public presentation of the visible Wordthe sacramentswith table fencing, which reminds one of the great gulf between the kingdom of this world and the next, and with exhortations to believers to improve their baptism. As a fellow minister once asked another who had communion only at a midweek "believer's service""Do you think it pleases our Lord that you hide his body and blood?"
Sixth, we will not give up evangelizing our own members. We know that there are tares among the wheat. While every believer needs the gospel for sanctification, we will not forget that there are those members who have not yet received it for justification.
Finally, we will evidence the powerful witness that Christians are supposed to have. As Edmund Clowney has said,
The church, however, as the community of Christ's Kingdom, can show the world an ethical integrity it must respect. When Peter describes (in 1 Peter 2:12) the impact of Christian righteous deeds in a pagan world, he is not thinking of isolated saints, but of the people of God, called out of darkness into God's light. Christian witness that is limited to private religious experience cannot challenge secularism. (The Church, p. 16)
For true revival is not an individual experience. It is the revival of the church of Christ. Not only does the gospel need to include the church to be the gospel, but it is only "in the church" where God will have the eternal glory for which the gospel is proclaimed to the nations (Eph. 3:20-21). A true evangelist must also be a true churchman. We spread the kingdom only to the degree we extend the church:
The Kingdom began its coming when Jesus entered upon his public ministry. His work upon earth, including his death, was part of its realization. The disciples were in it, and the whole subsequent history of the church is the history of its gradual extension. We ourselves can act our part in its onward movement and are members of it as a present organization. (Geerhardus Vos, The Kingdom of God and the Church, p. 27)
If we really love Christ, we will love sinners and vice versa. But to do both involves a third necessitywe will love his church, the kingdom of Christ on earth.
The author is the stated clerk of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. Reprinted with permission from Reformation & Revival Journal, Fall 2000. Reprinted from New Horizons, May 2001.