Dear Church Family,
This past Sunday, we continued our Sunday school lessons in the Westminster Larger Catechism (WLC) in questions 63-66. Here is a brief review.
WLC 63 What are the special privileges of the visible church?
A. The visible church hath the privilege of being under God’s special care and government; of being protected and preserved in all ages, notwithstanding the opposition of all enemies, and of enjoying the communion of saints, the ordinary means of salvation, 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, and excluding none that will come unto him.
As per the previous question in the catechism, the visible church is made up of all those who “profess the true religion and of their children” (WLC 62). Here, now, we learn of the special privileges of those who are members of the visible church. We may speak of these special privileges under three broad categories:
(1) Being protected and preserved in all ages
Isaiah prophesied that God would send a son who would be born to us, and the government will rest upon His shoulders; there will be no end to the increase of His government or of peace (Isaiah 9:6-7). Just so, in the New Testament, Jesus to build His church and that the gates of Hades will not overpower it (Matthew 16:18). In the midst of the opposition from many enemies, Christ’s church receives the special privilege of being protected and preserved in all ages.
(2) Enjoying the communion of saints and the ordinary means of salvation
The communion of saints describes the holy fellowship that professing Christians have with one in other in worship, in the spiritual edification of one another, and in the outward (or physical) help that Christians provide to one another. The “ordinary means of salvation” are defined later in the Larger Catechism as those means whereby Christ communicates to His church the benefits of His mediation, namely, “all His ordinances; especially the word, sacraments, and prayer” (WLC 154).
We see blessings of this communion of the saints and emphasis on the ordinary means of grace right from the beginning in the early church. On the first day of Pentecost after Jesus’ resurrection, all those who were added to the church “were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone kept feeling a sense of awe; and many wonders and signs were taking place through the apostles. And all those who had believed were together and had all things in common; and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need. Day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved” (Acts 2:42-47).
In the church, those who profess the true religion and their children continue to hear the preaching of the gospel which is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16). This is a special privilege of membership in the visible church which is often overlooked or taken for granted. John Calvin helpfully emphasizes the necessity of the visible church for our spiritual edification and growth in grace:
“But as it is now our purpose to discourse of the visible Church, let us learn, from her single title of Mother, how useful, nay, how necessary the knowledge of her is, since there is no other means of entering into life unless she conceive us in the womb and give us birth, unless she nourish us at her breasts, and, in short, keep us under her charge and government, until, divested of mortal flesh, we become like the angels (Mt. 22:30). For our weakness does not permit us to leave the school until we have spent our whole lives as scholars. Moreover, beyond the pale of the Church no forgiveness of sins, no salvation, can be hoped for…” (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, IV.1.iv).
WLC 64 What is the invisible church?
A. The invisible church is the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one under Christ the head.
While the visible church is comprised of all those who profess the true religion and their children, the invisible church is comprised of the whole number of the elect from all ages. We could also say that the invisible church is made of all those who are, or will be, effectually called and regenerated by the grace of Christ.
Jesus speaks about the church in this way when He teaches that He has “other sheep, which are not of this fold” whom He must bring also. They will hear His voice and will become one flock with one shepherd” (John 10:14-16). This is later confirmed in the book of Acts upon the conversion of Gentiles. When Paul and Barnabas preached the gospel to the people of Pisidian Antioch, “they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord; and as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed” (Acts 13:48).
When speaking of the visible and invisible church, it is important to remember that we are not speaking of two different churches, but of one church viewed from two different perspectives. The visible church is the church viewed from man’s limited perspective (we hear people’s professions of faith and see their children). The invisible church is the church viewed from God’s all-knowing perspective (He knows who are His).
WLC 65 What special benefits do the members of the invisible church enjoy by Christ?
A. The members of the invisible church by Christ enjoy union and communion with him in grace and glory.
The special benefits of those who belong to the visible church are briefly described in this question as “union and communion with Christ in grace and glory.” The reason that this description is so brief is because this question and answer of the catechism provides an introduction to the next series of questions (Q 66-90) which go into much more detail concerning the benefits received by the members of the invisible church.
At this point, it might just be helpful to define the terms “grace” and “glory” as they are used in the Westminster Standards. “Grace” here refers to the present benefit of union communion with Christ. Jesus prayed for this present union and communion when He asked the Father that His disciples may one with the Father and the Son (John 17:20-21). “Glory” here refers to the future benefit of union and communion with Christ. Jesus prayed for this future union and communion when He asked the Father for His disciples to be with Him in glory (John 17:24).
The Westminster Shorter Catechism uses the terms “grace” and “glory” in a similar manner when it explains the meaning of second petition of the Lord’s prayer: “In the second petition (which is, Thy kingdom come) we pray, That Satan’s kingdom may be destroyed; and that the kingdom of grace may be advanced, ourselves and others brought into it, and kept in it; and that the kingdom of glory may be hastened” (WSC 102).
WLC 66 What is that union which the elect have with Christ?
A. The union which the elect have with Christ is the work of God’s grace, whereby they are spiritually and mystically, yet really and inseparably, joined to Christ as their head and husband; which is done in their effectual calling.
There are a couple of interesting things to note in this catechism question and answer. First, union with Christ is described as being “spiritually and mystically” joined to Christ. It is a spiritual reality which is easier to experience than to describe. Second, union with Christ is described as being “really and inseparably” joined to Christ. Though perhaps hard to describe, it is a permanent reality for all those who are “in Christ.” Third, this union with Christ is done in the “effectual calling” of the elect. The next catechism question defines effectual calling; for now, it enough to say that effectual calling is the word of God’s power and grace wherein He enlightens a person’s mind an renews his will. Thus, union with Christ is a result of the work of God’s word and Spirit in regeneration.
We should note one final thing about importance and centrality of this doctrine of union with Christ. It would seem that the placement of the doctrine of union with Christ as the first aspect of special benefits of the invisible church points to its primacy and basis of all other aspects of salvation. That is, union with Christ – God’s spiritually joining individual believers to Christ – is the work of God’s grace out of which flows all other benefits of salvation.
“…the subject of union with Christ should not be co-ordinated with the other phases of the application of redemption with which we have dealt. That reason is that union with Christ is in itself a very broad and embracive subject. It is not simply a step in the application of redemption; when viewed, according to the teaching of Scripture, in its broader aspects it underlies every step of the application of redemption. Union with Christ is really the central truth of the whole doctrine of salvation not only in its application but also in its once-for-all accomplishment in the finished work of Christ.” (John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied, 161)
As I mentioned above, WLC 65 introduces the next series of questions which deal with the special benefits that belong to the members of the invisible church. Union with Christ (WLC 66) is that first benefit from which all others necessarily flow. In Sunday school in the coming weeks, we will examine these special benefits which are ours by God’s grace through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. I hope you will join us!
The Lord be with you!
– Pastor Peter M. Dietsch