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.
In the spirit of the Commonwealth Day tomorrow we shall commence with a truly wondrous British story. William Montague Dyke was the son of one of the most prosperous baronets of England. As such he was reared in cultivated and noble society. In 1887 however he became stone blind at the mere age of ten. Composing himself to this new state in life William became devoted to his studies. Without the sundry of distractions which encumbered his peers William gained a temperament which solely cultivated itself in the pleasures of the mind. With this temperament he gained early entrance into Cambridge, and during his studies he encountered the daughter of a high-ranking British naval officer, Miss Cave. Although William was blind his love for Miss Cave was indeed not. Tenderly observing the more delicate and sweeter frames of Miss Cane’s voice, words, and air William courted her hand in marriage. He chose to satisfy himself with what he saw of Miss Cane in his mind more passionately than to behold her in the flesh. As one biographer wrote, “William Montague Dyke had lived in darkness, studied in darkness, won high university honours in darkness. He had met his affinity in darkness, learned to lover her in darkness, wooed her in darkness.” As wonderful as this is, the story does not end here. Two weeks before their wedding William submitted himself to an experimental treatment to restore his sight. The surgery was completed and William’s face was left wrapped in bandages which were to be removed on October 12, the day of his wedding to Miss Cave. No one new whether or not the treatment would actually work, but nonetheless William requested his father to remove the bandages from his face the moment his wife-to-be walked up the isle and only at that point. The day arrived and the wedding ceremonies commenced with many an august and prestigious gentry, cabinet ministers, bishops, and professors in attendance for what was to be the marriage of the decade between the children of England’s wealthiest baron and Britain’s highest military officer. Nobly dressed at the alter stood William, patiently awaiting his betrothed, his face still bundled in cloth. Finally, with the soft tone of the Wedding March, Miss Cave was led by her white haired father, the prestigious admiral, down the isle. William’s father began to carefully remove the bandages from his son’s eyes. He continued to unravel the bandages as the bride walked up the isle until finally, when William’s face was fully uncovered his bride stood before him. The hushed congregation of England’s finest watched intently as the blind William and bride now stood face to face. William’s exhilarated words echoed throughout the cathedral braking the silence, “You are more beautiful than I ever imagined!” He could see her. 1 Corinthians 13:12, “For now we see through a glass darkly: but then shall we see face to face.” Upon the anniversary of our local church, Grace Haven Reformed Brethren, I find the impossible task before me of endeavouring to explaining something of that “Great Secret… concerning Christ, and concerning the Church.” I find myself a blind man speaking to blind men of the beauty of Christ’s bride. But I know that when Christ comes for his bride and removes the scales from my eyes, the veil from our face, we too shall cry dear brother and sister, “You are more beautiful than I ever imagined!” And yet it is still my duty today to assist us in in just that, imagining the beauty of Christ and the glory of his bride. I want William’s exclamation to be the cry of our own hearts today.
THE VISIBLE CHURCH
The first and natural inquiry should be what is the church? Is it a social club? An association? Society of individuals? A cultural convention? Ultimately we know from Scripture that the church is the bride of Christ. This means she is the whole number of God’s elect, the entire assembly of saints throughout all ages and all territories under the headship of Christ. As Hebrews nobly states she is, “The assembly and congregation of the first born, which are written in heaven.” This is the church spiritual and invisible, the church only now as God sees it. Wayne Grudem defines, “The church is the community of all true believers for all time.” However the church as we see it is commonly termed as the “Church visible.” That is the professors of true religion under the Gospel, believers of the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ and professing members of the family of God. The church is thusly both universal (Catholic) and local. What then are the true distinguishing marks of the local, visible church. Can two Christians meeting at Tim Hortons reading the Bible be rightly identified as a local “church” or is there something more to the institution? The great puritan John Owen defined the characteristics of the professing visible church as follows. “I intend such a church in general as avowing authority from Christ (1.) For the ministerial preaching of the word; (2.) Administration of the sacraments; (3.) For the exercise of evangelical discipline; and (4.) To give a public testimony against the devil and the world, not contradicting their profession with any corrupt principles or practices inconsistent with it.” Summarily, the purity of Grace Haven as a local, visible church is measured by her Scriptural teaching, her right exercise of the ordinances of Baptism and the Lord Supper, her true practice of church discipline, together with Grace Haven’s militant and holy evangelical witness in the world. The more pure she be in these four areas the more “visible” Grace Haven will be as a church. Owen’s fourth point is the most easily missed in circles such as our own and can diminish our sight of her “visibility.” We may have doctrinally pure, faithfully expositional, hermeneutically accurate preaching but not be a pure church. We may faithfully and repeatedly administer the Eucharist and Baptism but still remain a false church. We may even practice church discipline and yet all the while Grace Haven may not be a “visible” church. We may rehearse all of these church principles and practices and yet if we do not give a public testimony and if we do not confront the world we are not a true, visible church. In this sense, there is no such thing as an “invisible” “visible” church. Owen continues, “For the church, as visible, is a society gathered and erected to express and declare the holiness of Christ, and the power of his grace in his person and doctrine; and where this is not done, no church is of any advantage unto the interests of his glory in this world. The preservation, therefore, of holiness in them, whereof the discipline mentioned is an effectual means, is as necessary and of the same importance with the preservation of their being.” The visible church is visible in her proclamation. She is visible in her profession. She is visible in her practice. So we must ask ourselves “Are we ministering from the Word?” “Is Grace Haven administering the sacraments?” “Are we exercising church discipline?” And especially, “How are we, as a church, confronting culture around us with our uniformity of right doctrine preached and duties practiced?” The visible church must be just that “visible”, noticeable, and salient. We become more visible, noticeable, and salient as we cultivate purity and holiness in these four regards.
PRIVILEGE OF CHRIST’S SPECIAL CARE
Do you have a high view of Grace Haven? Dear Christian, what is your comprehension of how special Christ’s care for us is and what a privilege we have? John Calvin wrote, “If we do not prefer the church toward all other objects of our interest we are unworthy of being counted among her members.” Why should we so highly esteem and regard the church? Perhaps the best view in Scripture of the privilege of Christ’s special care and protection is seen in Matthew 16:18. “Upon this rock I will build my Church: and the gates of hell shall not overcome it.” Why love the church? Because Christ says it is “My church”! Grace Haven is a personal possession belonging to Christ and this is what establishes her value. It is not my church, nor is it our church, it is not even the prime minister’s church, it is Christ the King’s church! He is her head. Surgeon wrote of this special love, “Christ loves His church specially… something special and particular – and it stands quite alone and all by itself. Having chosen because of His love, He loves because of His choice, and that love is a peculiar, special, remarkable, pre-eminent love such as He bestows upon no one else of all the human race!” We are to love the church like nothing else, because Christ loves Grace Haven like nothing else. Furthermore, it is His church because God gifted her to Christ as we read in Christ’s prayer from the Last Supper, “I have declared thy Name unto the men which thou gavest me out of the world: thine they were, and thou gavest them me, and they have kept thy word. Now they know that all things whatsoever thou hast given me, are of thee.” It is His church because she was promised to Christ. “For I am jealous over you, with godly jealousy: for I have prepared you for one husband, to present you as a pure virgin to Christ.” We are his betrothed. It is His church because she was purchased by him. The blood of our Lord Jesus Christ was the dowry price for her. “Knowing that ye were not redeemed with corruptible things, as silver and gold, from you vain conversation, received by the traditions of the fathers, But with the precious blood of Christ, as of a Lamb undefiled, and without spot.”
Again, how are your affections toward the church of the Lord Jesus Christ? But not just do you lover her, but do you love her enough? Scott Brown acutely observes, “We have trained our affections to love other things greatly and love the essential things lightly.” These misplaced affections lead to idolatry. Idolatry is where we forsake what God has commanded us to do because our affections are toward that which God has not commanded us to do. In a community such as ours, family integration can lead to family idolatry. Joel Beeke correctly states, “As precious and intimate our own personal immediate family is, it is only but an interm arrangement. But our Church family life however is for all eternity.” Family integration does not mean that the church is made or done or subservient to the family. Jeff Pollard provides us with examples of such family idolatry.
- Family members we have not seen for a long time come for a visit on the Lord’s Day. So rather than worshiping God on the Lord’s Day with the brethren, which God has commanded us to do, we stay home to visit, which the Lord has not commanded us to do.
- Our children have a gift for music, sports, or some other academic pursuit. A public event takes place in line with that gift and we come back so late from that event, which God has not commanded us to do, that we are tired and do not attend the Church on the Sabbath, which God has commanded us to do.
- A new family arrives at Church but we regard ourselves as not outgoing, introspective, or introverted and so we don’t open our home to hospitality, which God has commanded us to do, in order that we may preserve our family comfort zone, which God has not commanded us to do.
- We have a busy week ahead or behind us and we feel need to rest and instead of gathering with the Saints, which God has commanded us to do, we take the day off from religious observance, which God has not commanded us to do.
- We see another church body which can meet some of our personal wants that we do not feel are being met at our local church. So we at times reserve contributing to the fellowship of the brethren at our local church, which God has commanded us to do, to entertain ourselves by consuming the fruits of another assembly thereby robbing both, which God has not commanded us to do.
John Owen emphasizes, “The celebration of the ordinances of sacred worship appointed by Christ, and the participation of his institutions for their edification, is not a matter of accident… but is to be an act in them of choice and voluntary obedience unto the commands of Christ. By some this duty is more expressly attended unto than by others, and by some it is totally neglected; for neither… do they consider what is their duty unto the Lord Christ therein, nor what is most meet for their own edification. They go on in these things with others, according to the customs of the times and places wherein they live, confounding their civil and spiritual relations. And these we cannot but judge to walk irregularly, through ignorance, mistakes, or prejudices. Neither will they in their least secular concernments behave themselves with so much regardlessness or negligence…But a liberty of this nature, regulated by the gospel, to be exercised in and about the great concernments of men’s souls, is by many denied and by most neglected.” If Owen warned this in the height of the Puritan era how much more ought it concern us in ours? Now these situations instanced outside of Church are not necessarily evil, and do not mistake this for there never being a situation that permits missing Church. We need only to strongly and critically re-evaluate when it is lawful and necessary to do so. In view of Christ’s supreme love for his bride ought not we also have a supreme love for her? Do we love her lightly and love other things greatly? What do you greatly love more than the church? What do you greatly love more than Grace Haven? It had better not be your programs, events, conferences, work, leisure, or even your family. “My mother and my brethren are these which hear the word of God, and do it.” A family integrated church does not mean a church that is integrated around the family, but rather families that are integrated around the church. Anything less is not family integration, but family idolatry. I say this not to abandon our programs, events, conferences, work, leisure, or family but to place them rightly in relation to the bride of Christ. When we commit family idolatry don’t deceive yourself into thinking that you only defraud yourself, but also your family and our brethren, and Christ. When Saul was persecuting the church the Jesus said to him, “Saul, Saul, why persecutes thou me?” Christ didn’t say “Saul, Saul, why persecutes thou the church” but “Why persecutes thou me?”! Because Christ so closely and personally identifies himself with the church, when we persecute the church, Christ regards it as persecuting Himself. So may the Lord not have just cause to say to me or any of us by name “Josiah, Josiah why neglectest thou me?” Or “Josiah, Josiah why criticizest thou me?” Or “Josiah, Josiah why skippest thou me?” Or “Josiah, Josiah why fault-findest thou me?” Weariness with the Lord’s day is weariness with the Lord. Weariness with the church is weariness with Christ. John Calvin states, “He cannot have God for his Father who refuses to have the Church for his mother.”
CARE & GOVERNMENT
“Upon this rock I will build my Church: and the gates of hell shall not overcome it.” Both the head and the foundation of the church is Christ. The pure church expresses this foundation in its confession of faith as the Apostles did a few verses prior to Christ’s pronouncement to Peter. “Thou art that Christ, the son of the living God.” This confession of faith is the cornerstone of the church, the objective reality upon which we rest, and the foundation upon which Christ privileges us with special care and government of being protected and preserved in all ages, notwithstanding the opposition of all enemies. Take note of it. “I will build.” “Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners: but citizens with the Saints, and of the household of God. And are built upon the foundation of the Apostles and Prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone. In whom all the building coupled together, groweth unto an holy Temple in the Lord. In whom ye also are built together to be the habitation of God by the Spirit.” Grace Haven as the local, visible expression of the invisible church, is Christ’s workmanship. Firstly, Christ’s workmanship promises the triumph of his bride. “And the gates of hell shall not overcome it.” Hell cannot resist the faith of the church. Calvin observes, “Against all the powers of Satan the firmness of the church will prove to be invincible, because the truth of God, on which the faith of the Church rests, will ever remain unshaken.” 1 John 5:4, “This is that victory that hath overcome this world even our faith.” Contrary to popular illustration, the picture given in Matthew 16 is not Hell attacking the refuge of the church, but rather the church storming the gates of Hell. Gates by nature are not offensive instruments of war, they are defensive. Gates cannot attack, but only be attacked. Furthermore in Scripture the term “Gate” commonly notes place or jurisdiction of power, authority, counsels, and social designs. Additionally, one can observe the plurality of the term “Gates” here in Matthew 16. Summarily, what is being declared is that all the powers of hell, the many counsels of hell, and the multiple social designs of Satan cannot resist the onslaught of Christ’s one militant church. Secondly, Christ’s workmanship promises the eternal establishment of his bride. “To whom coming as unto a living stone, disallowed of men, but chosen of God and precious. Ye also as lively stones, be made a spiritual house, an holy Priesthood to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God by Jesus Christ.” Christ hewed us as living stones from the very quarries of hell, redeemed us into his kingdom, and there is refining and shaping us into the edifice of his bride. Thirdly, Christ’s workmanship promises the reward for his bride. “That he might sanctify it, and cleanse it by the washing of water through the word, That he might make it unto himself a glorious Church, not having spot or wrinkle, or any such thing: but that it should be holy and without blame.” Surgeon praises, “He loved her, not so much for what she is, but what He makes her as the object of His love. He loves her not for what comes to Him from her, or with her, but for what He is able to bestow upon her! His is the strongest love that ever was, for He has loved unseemliness till He has changed it into beauty! He has loved the sinner till He has made him a saint. He has loved the foul and filthy till He has washed them with water by the Word of God and presented them to Himself without spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing. We love because of loveliness apprehended and perceived, but Christ loved because He would impart His own loveliness to the object of His choice.” This is the tender care and sovereign government of Christ over his bride, over us, over Grace Haven.
COMMUNION OF SAINTS
Do you enjoy the communion of saints which you have here? Samuel Rutherford said this of his local church, “The great Master Gardener planted me here whereby his grace in this part of the vineyard I grow and here I will abide until the great Master of the vineyard think fit to transplant me.” If there were to be a theme verse for our assembly for me it would be 1 Peter 4:9. “Be ye harbours one to another.” The term “harbour” or “haven”, as it is in our name, denotes a wondrous picture of the communion of saints. Just as a haven is defined by its easy, strategic, accessibility so too the church is to be open to all they whom have need of her. We say with Christ, “Come unto me, all ye that are weary and laden, and I will ease you.” Just as the quality of the harbour can be identified from ships at sea by the stillness of its waters, so too the world can identify a church by the fervent love harboured within her. Just as a suitable harbour is as wide as it is deep, allowing sundry and diverse ships to drive themselves deeply into her refuge so too the church is sufficient to all sorts and sizes of individuals who come to her. “All that the Father giveth me, shall come to me: and him that cometh to me, I cast not away.” A harbour is also a temporary, albeit habitual, resting point. She is large enough to rest a ship from its work, but too small for the ships work to be done. A ship cannot successfully fulfill its mandate by remaining anchored at the harbour, and it must venture out into the perils of the sea. However, a ship also cannot successfully fulfill its mandate by venturing in the perils of the sea without taking repeated refuge in a haven. The haven will help the ship to do its work, but will not do the work of the ship. So too the church is to be a habitual anchorage point, “Not forsaking the fellowship that we have among ourselves.” Furthermore the church also is sufficient to hep the Christian for his needs. “He shall feed his flock like a shepherd: he shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bossom, and shall guide them with the young.” So too do Christians venture out from the church in the the perils of the world, “As thou didst send me into the world, so have I sent them into the world.” The final characteristic of a haven as a caricature the church would be the strategic importance of her. A harbour is not just a place of dockage, but also that of trade, making it of economic and national importance. However enemy ships can just as easily enter the haven to take her as the trade ships which do so routinely. Hence it is that the Apostle Peter immediately exhorts, “Be ye harbours one to another, without grudging.” Grudging literally means, “To hold or harbour with malicious disposition.” The church can either harbour “fervent love among you” or she can harbour a malicious disposition. John Owen therefore exhorts, “Unto this catholic church we owe all Christian love, and are obliged to exercise all the effects of it, both towards the whole and every particular member, as we have advantage and occasion. And not only so, but it is our duty to live in constant communion with it.”
OFFERS OF GRACE
“As good disposers of the manifold grace of God.” Offers of grace are made by Christ. “The conjunctions of all the members into one body, their mutual usefulness unto one another, the edification of the whole, with its increase, the due exercise of love (which things contain the whole nature and the utmost ends of all church-communion), do depend merely and solely upon, and flow from, the relation that the members have to the Head, and their union with him.” John Owen. We can only dispose the manifold grace of God to others as we have received the nourishment of that grace from our union with the Head. Grace Haven will only be as graceful as you or I are full of grace. Grace Haven is holy only as her members are holy. Remember the haven is a place of trade as well as dockage and shelter. A harbour will be esteemed only by both safe waters and safe business in mutual commerce. So too do Christians in the haven of the church increase their grace by “ministering the same one to another, as good disposers of the manifold grace of God.” Hear Spurgeon’s words, “You are a steward and if a steward should receive his lord’s goods, and keep them for himself he would be an unfaithful steward. Child of God, see to it that you faithfully discharge your responsibility as one of the “good stewards of the manifold grace of God.” Heed the directives of the Apostle Peter to do so. “If any man speak, let him speak as the words of God. If any man minister, let him do it as of the ability which God ministereth, that God in all things may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom is praise and dominion forever, and ever, Amen.” First it is optional, “If any man speak”, “If any man minister.” Second it is invitational, “let him speak” “let him do it.” Third it is directive, “Let him speak as the words of God.” Fourth it is unconditional, “Let him do it as of the ability which God giveth.” Fifth it is purposeful, “That God in all things may be glorified.” So old and young men, I with the Apostle Peter encourage you in the spirit of harbouring fervent love to choose the option, receive the invitation, take the direction, be ok that it is unconditional and rejoice in the purpose. As you love Grace Haven, you will be a good disposer to her. Can you say with William, “You are more beautiful than I ever imagined!”?