Questions about the Nature and Necessity of the Church

christianity-questionsA young lady at my church had to write a paper about Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, especially the topic of Book 4 (the Church).  In her research, she asked two pastors from different denominations a series of questions that touch on the nature and necessity of the Church.  I had the privilege to be one of the pastors (as a “teaching elder” in the PCA: Presbyterian Church in America) she interviewed.  (I suspect that the questions and answers in this discussion could lead to an interesting comment thread here.)  Below is a summary of our interview:

1. Does your church practice church discipline? How? And if not, why not?

Yes. We practice both “positive” (training) and “negative” (reproof, correction) discipline. Examples of positive discipline include preaching, teaching, catechizing, and modeling as Christian examples of character and witness. Examples of negative discipline include informally speaking the truth in love (Eph 4:11-16) and gently rebuking a brother/sister (2 Tim 4:1-2); and formally bringing charges of sin against a member to be handled in the church court of jurisdiction (this is the session/elder board for cases involving members of our church). In the PCA, members have the right of appeal to a higher court if they believe their case was handled unjustly.

2. If not, how would you deal with someone in your congregation living in open and public sin?

This does not happen often at our church (at least very visibly). Most of the time a person who remains unrepentant in open and public sin doesn’t stay to receive a public rebuke. The person more often leaves, putting themselves outside the authority of the church. When that happens, the church is publicly notified that the person has been removed from the roles for a sin-disciplinary issue (1 Cor 5:1-5). I remember this happening years ago. On the other hand, sometimes an unrepentant person living in a less-scandalous open and public sin is barred from receiving the Lord’s Supper. Most people don’t recognize this, but it happens.

3. How many sacraments are there? What are they?

Two. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Westminster Shorter Catechism (WSC) 93: Which are the sacraments of the New Testament? The sacraments of the New Testament are, Baptism,(1) and the Lord’s supper.(2)

(1) Matt. 28:19

(2) Matt. 26:26-28

4. How do you define “sacrament”?

A sign and a seal of the covenant of grace that the Lord gives to and participates with his people, of which they participate in by faith. WSC 92: What is a sacrament? A sacrament is an holy ordinance instituted by Christ, wherein, by sensible signs, Christ, and the benefits of the new covenant, are represented, sealed, and applied to believers.(1)

(1) Gen. 17:7,10; Exod. 12:throughout; 1 Cor. 11:23,26

5. How often do you administer the sacraments?

Our church administers the Lord’s Supper almost every week. We administer baptism occasionally when there are new believers who join the church by a public confession of faith and thereby become communicant members. Children of communicant members may be baptized without a confession of faith (if they are deems too immature to make a credible public profession of faith) and thereby become non-communicant members.

6. Who is the recipient of each of the sacraments?

Communicant members of our congregation (or of any other church that preaches the gospel) may receive the Lord’s Supper. Only believers and their children receive baptism, and that each person may receive only once. WSC 95: To whom is baptism to be administered? Baptism is not to be administered to any that are out of the visible church, till they profess their faith in Christ, and obedience to him;(1) but the infants of such as are members of the visible church are to be baptized.(2)

(1) Acts 8:36,37; Acts 2:38

(2) Acts 2:38,39; Gen. 17:10 compared with Col. 2:11,12; 1 Cor. 7:14

7. What is the role of the Holy Spirit in the administration and receiving of the sacraments?

The Holy Spirit is present, not in a bodily or fleshly manner, but in spirit to communicate all the benefits of the covenant of grace to his people as they receive the sacraments by faith. The Holy Spirit, as he indwells the church corporately and his ministers individually, blesses and presides over the administration of the sacraments through duly called and appointed ministers of the gospel.

8. What is the role of the Word of God in the administration and receiving of the sacraments?

The Word of God, as the sole rule of faith and practice for Christ’s Church, plays a governing role in the administration of the sacraments. Thus, the sacraments are not properly administered apart from the reading of the scriptural words of sacramental institution and explanatory instruction of the Word of God provided by the minister. Those who would properly receive the sacraments ought to heed the doctrine and practice prescribed by the Word of God. Both the administration and the receiving of the sacraments should be bathed in prayer.

9. What is the role of faith in the administration and receiving of the sacraments?

Everything in life, especially the sacraments, should be done in faith (Rom 14:23b; Heb 11:6). Only those who confess saving faith should participate in the administration and receiving of the sacraments. However, God is not prevented from giving those with saving faith the benefits of receiving the sacraments if the one who ministers the sacraments does not have for himself saving faith. A minister lawfully called, ordained, and representing Christ’s church may administer the sacraments to the spiritual benefits of the faithful receivers.

Westminster Larger Catechism (WLC) 167: How is our baptism to be improved by us? The needful but much neglected duty of improving our baptism, is to be performed by us all our life long, especially in the time of temptation, and when we are present at the administration of it to others;(1) by serious and thankful consideration of the nature of it, and of the ends for which Christ instituted it, the privileges and benefits conferred and sealed thereby, and our solemn vow made therein;(2) by being humbled for our sinful defilement, our falling short of, and walking contrary to, the grace of baptism, and our engagements;(3) by growing up to assurance of pardon of sin, and of all other blessings sealed to us in that sacrament;(4) by drawing strength from the death and resurrection of Christ, into whom we are baptized, for the mortifying of sin, and quickening of grace;(5) and by endeavouring to live by faith,(6) to have our conversation in holiness and righteousness,(7) as those that have therein given up their names to Christ;(8) and to walk in brotherly love, as being baptized by the same Spirit into one body.(9)

(1) Col. 2:11,12; Rom. 6:4,6,11

(2) Rom. 6:3-5

(3) 1 Cor. 1:11-13; Rom. 6:2,3

(4) Rom. 4:11,12; 1 Pet. 3:21

(5) Rom. 6:3-5

(6) Gal. 3:26,27

(7) Rom. 6:22

(8) Acts 2:38

(9) 1 Cor. 12:13,25,26,27

WSC 97: What is required to the worthy receiving of the Lord’s supper? It is required of them that would worthily partake of the Lord’s supper, that they examine themselves of their knowledge to discern the Lord’s body,(1) of their faith to feed upon him,(2) of their repentance,(3) love,(4) and new obedience;(5) lest, coming unworthily, they eat and drink judgment to themselves.(6)

(1) 1 Cor. 11:28,29

(2) 2 Cor. 13:5

(3) 1 Cor. 11:31

(4) 1 Cor. 10:16,17

(5) 1 Cor. 5:7,8

(6) 1 Cor. 11:28,29

10. Must a Christian attend church to be Christian?

A person must be a member of the “invisible church” to be a Christian. It is God’s will for all Christians to be members of a particular congregation of “visible church”. Normally there is no salvation outside of the Church. Regular, faithful attendance, along with everything that entails (participation in worship, fellowship, ministry, evangelism, mission, mercy, prayer, etc) is implied in church membership.

WLC 62: What is the visible church? The visible church is a society made up of all such as in all ages and places of the world do profess the true religion,(1) and of their children.(2)

(1) 1 Cor. 1:2; 1 Cor. 12:13; Rom. 15:9-12; Rev. 7:9; Ps. 2:8; Ps. 22:27-31; Ps. 45:17; Matt. 28:19,20; Isa. 59:21

(2) 1 Cor. 7:14; Acts 2:39; Rom. 11:16; Gen. 17:7

WLC 63: What are the special privileges of the visible church? The visible church hath the privilege of being under God’s special care and government;(1) of being protected and preserved in all ages, notwithstanding the opposition of all enemies,(2) and of enjoying the communion of saints, the ordinary means of salvation,(3) and offers of grace by Christ to all the members of it in the ministry of the gospel, testifying, that whosoever believes in him shall be saved,(4) and excluding none that will come unto him.(5)

(1) Isa. 4:5,6; 1 Tim. 4:10

(2) Ps. 115:1,2,9; Isa. 31:4,5; Zech. 12:2,3,4,8,9

(3) Acts 2:39,42

(4) Ps. 147:19,20; Rom. 9:4; Eph. 4:11,12; Mark 16:15,16

(5) John 6:37

WLC 64: What is the invisible church? The invisible church is the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one under Christ the head.(1)

(1) Eph. 1:10,22,23; John 10:16; John 11:52

WLC 65: What special benefits do the members of the invisible church enjoy by Christ? The members of the invisible church by Christ enjoy union and communion with him in grace and glory.(1)

(1) John 17:21; Eph. 2:5,6; John 17:24

11. Is the Church necessary for salvation?

Yes, because the Church is the means, through the application of the work Christ, whereby God has chosen to save the world. Just as the ark was necessary for Noah for salvation, the Church is necessary for salvation. This is so because the Church is his people, and salvation means foremost that God is saving a people for himself.

Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) 25.1 The catholic or universal Church, which is invisible, consists of the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ the Head thereof; and is the spouse, the body, the fulness of Him that filleth all in all.(1)

(1) Eph. 1:10,22,23; Eph. 5:23,27,32; Col. 1:18

WCF 25.2 The visible Church, which is also catholic or universal under the Gospel (not confined to one nation, as before under the law) , consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion;(1) and of their children:(2) and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ,(3) the house and family of God,(4) out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.(5)

(1) 1 Cor. 1:2; 1 Cor. 12:12,13; Ps. 2:8; Rev. 7:9; Rom. 15:9-12

(2) 1 Cor. 7:14; Acts 2:39; Ezek. 16:20,21; Rom. 11:16; Gen. 3:15; Gen. 17:7

(3) Matt 13:47; Isa. 9:7

(4) Eph. 2:19; Eph. 3:15

(5) Acts 2:47

Later she asked a few follow-up questions that naturally arose from the first set of interview questions:

12. Receiving of the sacraments ought to be done in faith.  How is that the case for infants who are baptized? How can they have that sort of faith?

Yes, receiving the sacraments ought to be done in faith. The alternative is a Roman Catholic position of ex opere operato (“from the work done”), which just means that the grace communicated to the person taking the sacrament is not based on anything (including the faith of the recipient) except that he physically receives the sacrament. In the case of infant baptism, the grace is received through the faith of one (or both) believing parent. This is by necessity due to the nature of the sacrament of baptism (a sign for the believer and his/her children). Baptism is a sacramental sign and seal of entrance into the covenant community, and the sign applied to infants is especially meaningful because it shows that God chooses us first rather than the other way around. Using the parallel old covenant sign of circumcision, Abraham’s circumcision was a sign of his faith professed, while Isaac’s circumcision was a sign of the faith God was calling him to, a faith that Isaac did not have yet (Rom 4:1-12).

13. What would you say is the difference between an “ordinance” and a “sacrament”, technically? What was interesting was when I started looking into how some churches administered the sacraments, they never refer to the Lord’s Supper or baptism as “sacraments” per se. They are considered necessary ordinances, and these churches carry them out because Christ has told us to. I did notice that they viewed the Lord’s Supper and baptism as purely symbolic things (as in, the Holy Spirit wasn’t present within them).

I think the difference between an “ordinance” and a “sacrament” is that a sacrament is a special means of grace that God institutes for his people. Sacraments are “signs and seals” of God’s grace to his children, wherein he really and truly gives us grace (Rom 6:4; Gal 3:27). An ordinance is anything that God regularly ordains/commands that we should do/observe, with the emphasis on man’s participation or faithfully acting-out the religious rite. Christian traditions that don’t believe in sacraments as means of grace that actually (spiritually) bestow God’s grace to the faithful, usually call baptism and the Lord’s Supper ordinances (sometimes to avoid what they consider the “Roman Catholic” terminology of “sacraments”; see “sacerdotalism“).  Here are some relevant Westminster Shorter Catechism answers:

WSC 94 What is baptism?   Baptism is a sacrament, wherein the washing with water in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost,(1) doth signify and seal our ingrafting into Christ, and partaking of the benefits of the covenant of grace, and our engagement to be the Lord’s.(2)

(1) Matt. 28:19

(2) Rom. 6:4; Gal. 3:27

WSC 95 To whom is baptism to be administered?  Baptism is not to be administered to any that are out of the visible church, till they profess their faith in Christ, and obedience to him;(1) but the infants of such as are members of the visible church are to be baptized.(2)

(1) Acts 8:36,37; Acts 2:38

(2) Acts 2:38,39; Gen. 17:10 compared with Col. 2:11,12; 1 Cor. 7:14

WSC 96 What is the Lord’s supper?  The Lord’s supper is a sacrament, wherein, by giving and receiving bread and wine, according to Christ’s appointment, his death is showed forth; and the worthy receivers are, not after a corporal and carnal manner, but by faith, made partakers of his body and blood, with all his benefits, to their spiritual nourishment, and growth in grace.(1)

(1) 1 Cor. 11:23-26; 1 Cor. 10:16

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One Response to Questions about the Nature and Necessity of the Church

  1. Lemuel X. Mclaughlin says:

    We believe the Sacraments, ordained by Christ, are symbols and pledges of the Christian’s profession and of God’s love toward us. They are means of grace by which God works invisibly in us, quickening, strengthening and confirming our faith in him. Two Sacraments are ordained by Christ our Lord, namely Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

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