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Lecture XIV: The Mystery of the Church

(Art. 16–17, 25a)

As we beleve in ane God, Father, Sonne, and haly Ghaist; sa do we maist constantly beleeve, that from the beginning there hes bene, and now is, and to the end of the warld sall be, ane Kirk, that is to say, ane company and multitude of men chosen of God, who richtly worship and imbrace him be trew faith in Christ Jesus, quha is the only head of the same Kirk, quhilk alswa is the bodie and spouse of Christ Jesus, quhilk Kirk is catholike, that is, universal, because it conteinis the Elect of all ages, of all realmes, nations, and tongues, be they of the Jewes, or be they of the Gentiles, quha have communion and societie with God the Father, and with his Son Christ Jesus, throw the sanctificatioun of his haly Spirit: and therefore it is called the communioun, not of prophane persounes, bot of Saincts, quha as citizenis of the heavenly Jerusalem, have the fruitioun of the maist inestimable benefites, to wit, of ane God, ane Lord Jesus, ane faith, and ane baptisme: Out of the quhilk Kirk, there is nouther lyfe, nor eternall felicitie. And therefore we utterly abhorre the blasphemie of them that affirme, that men quhilk live according to equitie and justice, sal be saved, quhat Religioun that ever they have professed. For as without Christ Jesus there is nouther life nor salvation; so sal there nane be participant therof, bot sik as the Father hes given unto his Sonne Christ Jesus, and they that in time cum unto him, avowe his doctrine, and beleeve into him, we comprehend the children with the faithfull parentes. This Kirk is invisible, knawen onelie to God, quha alane knawis whome he hes chosen; and comprehends as weill (as said is) the Elect that be departed, commonlie called the Kirk Triumphant, and they that zit live and fecht against sinne and Sathan as sall live hereafter.


The Elect departed are in peace and rest fra their labours: Not that they sleep, and come to a certaine oblivion, as some Phantastickes do affirme; bot that they are delivered fra all feare and torment, and all temptatioun, to quhilk we and all Goddis Elect are subject in this life, and therefore do beare the name of the Kirk Militant: As contrariwise, the reprobate and unfaithfull departed have anguish, torment, and paine, that cannot be expressed. Sa that nouther are the ane nor the uther in sik sleepe that they feele not joy or torment, as the Parable of Christ Jesus in the 16th of Luke, his words to the thiefe, and thir wordes of the saules crying under the Altar, O Lord, thou that art righteous and just, How lang sall thou not revenge our blude upon thir that dwellis in the Eird? dois testifie.


Albeit that the Worde of God trewly preached, and the Sacraments richtlie ministred, and Discipline executed according to the Worde of God, be the certaine and infallible Signes of the trew Kirk, we meane not that everie particular persoun joyned with sik company, be ane elect member of Christ Jesus: For we acknawledge and confesse, that Dornell, Cockell, and Caffe may be sawen, grow, and in great aboundance lie in the middis of the Wheit, that is, the Reprobate may be joyned in the societie of the Elect, and may externally use with them the benefites of the worde and Sacraments: Bot sik being bot temporall professoures in mouth, but not in heart, do fall backe, and continew not to the end. And therefore have they na fruite of Christs death, Resurrection nor Ascension.


There exists what we may call a vertical view of true service of God or the true Christian life. When we understand the Christian life in the light of its origin and object, it is simply and without reservation the life of Jesus Christ Himself, so far as men through God's Holy Spirit are united with Him in faith, so far as His life becomes theirs and their life His. It is of this vertical view of the Christian life that we have been speaking till now. We have seen in our last lecture that the determination of the Christian life by Jesus Christ is a total one; beyond and beside it there exists neither a general nor a special true Christian life. This total claim is the last word in the matter. The other or what we may call the horizontal view of the same reality will not cancel or even limit this totality; it can only confirm it. And there does exist such a second horizontal view of this reality, confirming and reiterating the first view. We are not introducing it arbitrarily. On the contrary, this reality itself requires this second view of it. If the Christian life is the life of Jesus Christ; then that implies that the life of this one person is the life of many, the life of a people. If their true life only exists in this One and in faith in Him, yet this One does not live His own life for Himself and for His own sake. On the contrary, having life in Himself, He pours it forth on those who through the Holy Spirit have their life in Him by faith. They it is who are united and formed into this people. They it is who by virtue of their common descent, history and speech together form the area within which Jesus Christ lives His divine life in human form, that is as the Reconciler of men and as the true Christian life upon earth. They it is in whose midst the sign and the signs of the Divine election and calling of man have been set up and are being set up again and again. The “many,” this people, this area and these signs in the midst of this area have been referred to by the Scottish Confession from the very beginning—we recall our sixth lecture on article 5. We saw then that this people of Jesus Christ's is the people of Israel; in it, in its area, under the sign given it are gathered together the many who are reconciled with God in Jesus Christ and who, being thus reconciled, have a right to proclaim His glory, as they serve Him in gratitude and repentance. The people of Israel was never identical with the Jewish people, as a natural entity. On the contrary, if the Jewish people has received and to this day never lost the promise that it is the people to whom God will reveal His Glory, none the less this promise is one to which it has never had either a natural or an exclusive claim. That became manifest when it rejected its Messiah and delivered Him up to the judgement and power of Pilate, a Gentile judge. With this rejecting and delivering up of the Messiah by the Jews, and with what the Gentiles then did to Him, the door, which had never been closed, was thrown wide open. His people, that disobedient people among whom and for whom He suffered, is the Israel which is gathered together by the Holy Spirit, the Israel of all those who have become debtors to Him, and who have been freed by Him, the one Holy Church of Jews and Gentiles. Despite the differences in earthly descent, this people is united by its common origin in the Crucified Son of God. Despite the differences in the temporal and historical situation of its members, it is united by their common experience under the guidance and in the keeping of the one Lord. Despite the differences in natural languages, it is united by the common language of the Holy Spirit, who speaks of the great acts of God. Despite the differences between the living and the dead, it is united by the common benefit which we may yet receive, while those who are dead have already received it once and for all—as is worked out in Article 17 of the Confession. And this people is sanctified despite the fact that it is a disobedient people, as is unmistakeably clear in the light of its origin in the Cross of Christ. It is sanctified through Him who makes the ungodly righteous, through the election and calling of its Lord and Head, through its being free in faith to assent to its salvation. Such is the horizontal view of the Christian life. Such is the life of the Church of Jesus Christ; that it is one and is holy is certainly hidden and is a matter for faith. But that it exists is manifest and can be seen as well as believed. As a divine establishment and foundation it is hidden, but as a human assembly and community it is manifest. As the Israel which is born of the Word and the Spirit and the people to whom God will reveal His glory it is hidden, but it is manifest as the historical form of Christendom. As the body and bride of Jesus Christ it is hidden, but it is manifest wherever men “richtly worship and imbrace [God] be trew faith in Christ Jesus,” as the Scottish Confession says. I repeat, with a slight alteration, “it is manifest wherever men wish truly and obediently to worship God and to embrace Him through faith in Jesus Christ.”


Real service of God, the true Christian life on the one hand, and on the other the life of the one holy church, these two are distinguishable in thought, but not in reality. Where there was no Christian life there would be no church. But also where there was no church, there would be no Christian life. “Out of the quhilk Kirk, there is nouther lyfe, nor eternall felicitie,” as the Confession says. For Jesus Christ, Whose life is the Christian life, does live in God, and does sit at the right hand of the Father in His everlasting kingdom and hence in measureless exaltation over His church, as her Heavenly and Invisible Head. But there also He is the One, who as God humbled Himself in order that as man He might be exalted. Hence in Heaven, too, He is our Mediator, Advocate and High Priest. Hence there, too, He is not without His people, the many elected and called by Him, who are one with Him through faith here on earth and in time. And so conversely He lives for us on earth and in time nowhere else than in the midst of his people, as the meaning and content of its history, the ground and truth of the promise made to it and the object of its faith. Jesus Christ lives by the tidings about Him being proclaimed and heard. This is His life on earth. He lives where two or three are gathered together in His name. He lives where men hope to be united to Him and so to be sanctified by Him as a body. He lives as king by the actualisation of His lordship. All this means that He lives in His church. It is true that He lives in His church, as it is hidden and not as it is manifest. But He lives in His church and not outside it, i.e. not in such a way that one could seek Him and shun His people, or love Him and hate His people. And neither is there any faith, active in love, possessed by an individual, such that the individual could regard and treat it as his own private concern. This is the great error, which since the seventeenth century has prevailed in modern Protestantism. Religion is perhaps a private matter. But we are speaking here not of religion but of faith, and that cannot be a private matter. In the Christian life we are not concerned with our becoming Christian personalities or with such personalities, being like minded, subsequently becoming united in one way or another. All that—Christian personalities and the union of them—can be very fine, but yet it looks as if there were already in process here another instance of the idolatry in which man wishes really to make his own achievements the basis of his confidence. The one and only thing with which we are concerned in the Christian life is our becoming members of the Israel which is born of the Word and the Spirit. Real service of God takes place in the fellowship of the one holy church or it does not take place at all. Real service of God does consist in our believing in Jesus Christ and in accepting the fact that He lives His life in our stead and for our sake. But His life as the life of the Head is not to be separated from the life of the body, nor His life as the life of the One from the life of the many. If His life is our life, then our life must be the life of members of His body. We, too, cannot remain without, but because He is within His church, we must likewise be within and with Him. We must guard against very easy but false analogies. One can be a good citizen without belonging to a political party. One can be musical without joining a choral society. One can be a philosopher and as an eclectic or sceptic stand aloof from all philosophical movements, and the great philosophers are always above these. But one cannot hold the Christian faith without holding it in the church and with the church. The church is neither a party nor a society nor a movement. She is the form in which the Christian faith exists, because it is faith in the One who died and rose again for the many. Such a content must have and can only have this form.


We have already said that the Christian life or the life of the church is not only invisible, but is also visible and public. It is, as we have seen, visible and public wherever men rightly and obediently worship God, and through true faith in Jesus Christ wish to embrace Him. It is visible wherever men confess this faith that is in them and wish to submit themselves and their actions to God's commandments. How could it be other than visible and public? There is no lack of those who wish in an equally visible and public way not to do this. The church possesses an appearance and a form by which she is distinguished from other forms and through which her existence can immediately be established by any man. This appearance, which she possesses, has features which are fair and elevating and others which are ugly and disappointing. It depends on the point of view from which you consider the church, whether you see and stress the one or the other more. Both points of view are true. On the one side are her treasures, which have grown greater and greater in the course of her long history, human greatness, heroism, profound thought, love, epoch-making achievements, and quiet but not unsuccessful educational work among the nations and among countless individuals. This is the one side. But on the other side1—everything human has always another side too—there is a slough of human folly and wickedness, senseless conservatism and an even far more senseless mania for modernisation; the most serious errors even by the greatest men of the church, and that at the place too where the light seems to shine brightest; fearful disruption and dark stains at the very spot where you might wish to rejoice the most. Such is church history and such too the church in the present age, i.e. in her visible and public form. May one not in the end rejoice despite the evil, or must one not bow one's head and mourn in the end in spite of the good? Over this optimists and pessimists may dispute. Only both sides should not forget that the object of which both are speaking and which both judge according to its visible form, is possessed of a mystery. The true Christian life, the unity and holiness of the church, is nowhere visible or public. It is not something which can immediately be established by anyone. It is in Jesus Christ that she possesses her true nature, unity and holiness—not in what the men gathered together in her, as men, even the greatest and most serious of them, are, say and do, but in what Jesus Christ is for them, has said to them and done for them. She possesses her true nature, unity and holiness in the hidden work of the Holy Spirit, in His electing, calling, directing and comforting. What we see are men, who in all sorts of ways wish to embrace Jesus Christ by faith. But the truth lies not in what men wish, but in what God wills. That is something which in its very nature we do not see, not even where the church seems to show us its brilliant side. God's thoughts are not our thoughts. The optimists in the church ought to be reminded of that. But the same holds true on the negative side, for the pessimists as well. Should the true nature and so the unity and holiness of the church actually disappear and should she have become not the church of Jesus Christ but an empty form deserted by God, that too will not be visible and public, but will be hidden, a judgement passed by God and therefore not to be passed by men. Once again God's thoughts are not our thoughts. If what we see can be no ground for ascribing the presence of the Holy Spirit to the church, neither can it be a ground for denying it. What we see are men, who want to apprehend Jesus Christ in faith after a manner that is to us hardly comprehensible or perhaps not comprehensible at all. But how do we know that they have not succeeded in doing so after all, if for all that, Jesus Christ has apprehended them. “Who art thou that judgest another man's servant; to his own master he standeth or falleth. Yea, he shall be holden up; for God is able to make him stand” (Romans 14, 4), a verse always to be remembered. This is what the pessimists must be told. The true nature, unity and holiness of the church is the mystery of the church. How could it be anything else, when her life is actually the life of Jesus Christ Himself?


The road which leads from the outward form of the church to its mystery, from her two-sided visible and public character to her true nature, unity and holiness, is the road of faith. This road cannot be avoided, but must be taken again and again. If we do not take it, we are doomed here as elsewhere to sway about hopelessly, as on a see-saw, between the extremities of a foolish optimism and a foolish pessimism. In that case we are members of the church, to-day eager and enthusiastic and to-morrow tired and sceptical. Members? No, not members, but spectators, keen to-day and tired to-morrow, comparable with the spectators of a game, at one moment clapping and at another booing, interested perhaps owing to some bet on the result, but with it all merely showing that they are not really taking part in the game, but merely looking on. The players themselves have not taken on bets, are not clapping or booing—but are playing. That is what taking part means, and it is just the same in the church—to take part in the life of the church means to have faith. Our faith is what decides that we are members of the church and not mere spectators. And it is precisely faith which decides that we are taking a part not only in the visible, public form of the church, but at the same time in its true nature, unity and holiness. By assenting in faith to Jesus Christ as our Lord, we have already received and given ourselves the answer to the question about the one, true and holy church. We have then sought and found the church in Him as her Head, far beyond all visible human greatness or all visible human misery. Whoever wished to seek for her anywhere else would seek for ever in vain. In this seeking and finding of faith the church lives, whether her form be one in which she is more surrounded by splendour or by misery. But this faith here in time is always a decision. We are not yet in the “ecclesia trumphans” in which, as Article 17 of the Confession says, we shall be “delivered fra all feare and torment and all temptatioun” but we are in the “ecclesia militans,” which can only exist from century to century and from day to day through the actualisation of the faith of its living members. For this very reason this seeking and finding of faith cannot mean that we are removed from the human, public life of the church, or can escape from it. How could a man who would withdraw from her temporal form have a share in her divine, hidden life? Would that not mean that he would be withdrawing himself from honest seeking and finding and would thus be withdrawing himself from the Lord of the church? Could he reach the goal, who did not wish to travel the road to it? But the road begins with the human, historical, earthly form of the church. We are not to come to a standstill beside this form, whether as optimists or as pessimists. But we may not leave it behind us either. For the life of the “ecclesia militans” consists in her having again and again to become a church through the decision of faith. She is not the church, she becomes the church again and again. She became this yesterday. The decisions of faith of those who went before us have brought us here. And through the decisions of our faith it will come about to-morrow too that she will become a church, the one, true and holy church of Jesus Christ, i.e. the visible form in which the Lord, as the Mystery of the church, will come into contact with the many who will come after us.

  • 1.

    Goethe once said that the whole of church history is a jumble of error and force.