J.C. Ryle, 1896
There is perhaps no subject in religion which is so much misunderstood as the subject of the "Church." There is certainly no misunderstanding which has done more harm to professing Christians than the misunderstanding of this subject.
There are few words in the New Testament which are used in such a variety of meanings, as the word "Church." There seem to be four meanings of the word Church in the New Testament.
(1) It is applied to the whole body of the elect. (Hebrews 12:23)
(2) It is applied to the baptized Christians of a particular place, or district. (Acts 8:1)
(3) It is applied to a small number of professing Christians, in a particular family. (Romans 16:5)
(4) It is applied to the whole body of baptized people throughout the world, both good and bad. (1 Corinthians 12:28)
In the fourth sense, the word is used very seldom indeed. The first and second sense are the most common.
It is a word which we hear constantly, and yet we cannot help observing that different people use it in different senses.
The English politician in our days talks of "the Church." What does he mean? You will generally find he means the Episcopal Church established in his own country.
The Roman Catholic talks of "the Church." What does he mean? He means the Church of Rome, and tells you that there is no other Church in the world except his own.
The Dissenter talks of "the Church." What does he mean? He means the communicants of that chapel of which he is a member.
The members of the Church of England talk of "the Church." What do they mean? One means the building in which he worships on a Sunday. Another means the clergy — and when anyone is ordained, tells you that he has gone into the Church! A third has some vague notions about what he is pleased to call apostolical succession, and hints mysteriously that the Church is made up of Christians who are governed by Bishops, and of none beside.
There is no denying these things. They are all patent and notorious facts. And they all help to explain the assertion with which I started — but that there are few subjects so much misunderstood as that of the "Church."
I believe that to have clear ideas about the Church is of the first importance in the present day. I believe that mistakes on this point are one grand cause of the religious delusions into which so many fall. I wish to direct attention to that great primary meaning in which the word "Church" is used in the New Testament, and to clear the subject of that misty vagueness by which it is surrounded in so many minds. It was a most true saying of Bishop Jewel the Reformer, "It never was anything yet so absurd or so wicked, but it might seem easy to be covered and defended by the name of the Church."
I. Let me then show, first of all, what is that one true Church, out of which no man can be saved.
II. Let me explain, in the second place, what is the position and value of all visible professing Churches.
III. And let me, in the third place, draw from the subject some practical counsels and cautions for the times in which we live.
I. First of all let me show that one true Church out of which no man can be saved.
There is a Church, outside of which there is no salvation — a Church to which a man must belong, or be lost eternally. I lay this down without hesitation or reserve, I say it as strongly and as confidently as the strongest advocate of the Church of Rome.
But what is this Church?
Where is this Church?
What are the marks by which this Church may be known?
These are the grand questions.
The one true Church is well described in the Communion Service of the Church of England, as "the mystical body of Christ, which is the blessed company of all faithful people." It is composed of all believers in the Lord Jesus. It is made up of all God's elect — of all converted men and women — of all true Christians. In whoever we can discern . . .
the election of God the Father,
the sprinkling of the blood of God the Son,
the sanctifying work of God the Spirit —
in that person we see a member of Christ's true Church.
It is a Church of which all the members have the same marks. They are all born again of the Spirit. They all possess "repentance towards God, faith towards our Lord Jesus Christ," and holiness of life and conversation. They all hate sin, and they all love Christ. They worship differently, and after various fashions. Some worship with a form of prayer, and some with none. Some worship kneeling, and some standing. But they all worship with one heart. They are all led by one Spirit. They all build upon one foundation. They all draw their religion from one single book. They are all joined to one great center, which is Jesus Christ. They all, even now, can say with one heart, "Hallelujah" — and they all can respond with one heart and voice, "Amen and amen."
It is a Church which is dependent upon no ministers upon earth, however much it values those who preach the gospel to its members. The life of its members does not hang on Church-membership and baptism and the Lord's Supper, although they highly value these things, when they are to be had. But it has only one Great Head — one Shepherd — one chief Bishop — and that is Jesus Christ. He alone, by His Spirit, admits the members of this Church, though ministers may show the door. Until He opens the door, no man on earth can open it — neither Bishops, nor presbyters, nor convocations, nor synods.
Once let a man repent and believe the Gospel, and that moment he becomes a member of this Church. Like the penitent thief, he may have no opportunity of being baptized. But he has that which is far better than any water baptism — the baptism of the Spirit. He may not be able to receive the bread and wine in the Lord's Supper — but he eats Christ's body and drinks Christ's blood by faith every day he lives, and no minister on earth can prevent him. He may be excommunicated by ordained men, and cut off from the outward ordinances of the professing Church — but all the ordained men in the world cannot shut him out of the true Church.
It is a Church whose existence does not depend on forms, ceremonies, cathedrals, churches, chapels, pulpits, fonts, vestments, organs, endowments, money, kings, governments, magistrates, or any favor whatever from the hand of man. It has often lived on and continued when all these things have been taken from it. It has often been driven into the wilderness, or into dens and caves of the earth, by those who ought to have been its friends. But its existence depends on nothing but the presence of Christ and His Spirit, and so long as they are with it the Church cannot die. "A man may be a true and visible member of the true Church — and yet be no actual member of any visible Church."
This is the Church to which the titles of present honor and privilege, and the promises of future glory especially belong.
This is the body of Christ.
This is the bride.
This is the Lamb's wife.
This is the flock of Christ.
This is the household of faith and family of God.
This is God's building, God's foundation, and the temple of the Holy Spirit.
This is the Church of the first born, whose names are written in Heaven.
This is the royal priesthood, the chosen generation, the peculiar people, the purchased possession, the habitation of God, the light of the world, the salt and the wheat of the earth.
This is the "holy Catholic Church" of the Apostles' Creed. This is the "One Catholic and Apostolic Church "of the Nicene Creed. This is that Church to which the Lord Jesus promises "the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it," and to which He says, "I am with you always, even unto the end of the world." (Matthew 16:18, 28:20)
This is the only Church which possesses true unity. Its members are entirely agreed on all the weightier matters of religion, for they are all taught by one Spirit. About God, and Christ, and the Spirit, and sin, and their own hearts, and faith, and repentance and the necessity of holiness, and the value of the Bible, and the importance of prayer, and the resurrection, and judgment to come — about all these points they see eye to eye. Take three or four of them, strangers to one another, from the remotest corners of the earth. Examine them separately on these points. You will find them all of one mind.
This is the only Church which possesses true sanctity. Its members are all holy. They are not merely holy by profession, holy in name, and holy in the judgment of charity. They are all holy in act, and deed, and reality, and life, and truth. They are all more or less conformed to the image of Jesus Christ. They are all more or less like their great Head. No unholy man belongs to this Church.
This is the only Church which is truly Catholic (Universal). It is not the Church of any one nation or people. Its members are to be found in every part of the world where the Gospel is received and believed. It is not confined within the limits of any one country, nor pent up within the pale of any particular forms or outward government. In it there is no difference between Jew and Greek, black man and white, Episcopalian and Presbyterian — but faith in Christ is all. Its members will be gathered from north, and south, and east, and west, in the last day; and will be of every name, and denomination, and kindred, and people, and tongue — but all one in Christ Jesus.
This is the only Church which is truly apostolic. It is built on the foundation laid by the apostles, and holds the doctrines which they preached. The two grand objects at which its members aim, are apostolic faith and apostolic practice; and they consider the man who talks of following the apostles without possessing these two things, to be no better than sounding brass and a tinkling cymbal.
This is the only Church which is certain to endure unto the end. Nothing can altogether overthrow and destroy it. Its members may be persecuted, oppressed, imprisoned, beaten, beheaded, burned. But the true Church is never altogether extinguished. It rises again from its afflictions. It lives on through fire and water. When crushed in one land — it springs up in another. The Pharaohs, the Herods, the Neros, the Julians, the Diocletians, the bloody Marys, the Charles the Ninths — have labored in vain to put down this Church. They slay their thousands, and then pass away and go to their own place. The true Church outlives them all, and sees them buried each in his turn. The true Church is an anvil that has broken many a hammer in this world, and will break many a hammer still. It is a bush which is often burning, and yet is not consumed.
This is the only Church of which not one member can perish. Once enrolled in the lists of this Church, sinners are safe for eternity. They are never cast away.
The election of God the Father,
the continual intercession of God the Son,
the daily renewing and sanctifying power of God the Holy Spirit
— surround and fence them in like a garden enclosed. Not one bone of Christ's mystical body shall ever be broken. Not one lamb of Christ's flock shall ever be plucked out of His hand.
This is the Church which does the work of Christ upon earth. Its members are a little flock, and few in number compared with the children of the world — one or two here, and two or three there — a few in this parish, and a few in that. But these are those who shake the universe. These are those who change the fortunes of kingdoms by their prayers. These are those who are the active workers for spreading the knowledge of pure religion and undefiled. These are the life-blood of a country — the shield, the defense, the stay and the support of any nation to which they belong.
This is the Church which shall be truly glorious at the end of all things. When all earthly glory is passed away, then shall this Church be presented without spot, before God the Father's throne. Thrones, principalities, and powers upon earth shall come to nothing. Dignities and offices and endowments shall all pass away. But the Church of the first-born shall shine as the stars at the last, and be presented with joy before the Father's throne, in the day of Christ's appearing. When the Lord's jewels are made up, and the manifestation of the sons of God takes places — Episcopacy, and Presbyterianism, and Congregationalism will not be mentioned. One Church only will be named, and that is the Church of the elect.
This is the Church for which a true minister of the Lord Jesus Christ's Gospel chiefly labors. What is it to a true minister to fill the building in which he preaches? What is it to him to see communicants come up more and more to his table? What is it to him to see his party grow? It is all nothing, unless he can see men and women "born again" — unless he can see souls converted and brought to Christ — unless he can see here one and there another, "coming out from the world", "taking up the cross and following Christ," and thus increasing the numbers of the one true Church.
This is the Church to which a man must belong, if he would be saved. Until we belong to this true church, we are nothing better than lost souls. We may have the form, the husk, the skin and the shell of religion — but we have not got the substance and the life. Yes! we may have countless outward privileges — we may enjoy great light and knowledge and opportunities — but if we do not belong to the body of Christ, then our light, and knowledge, and privileges, and opportunities, will not save our souls.
Alas, for the ignorance that prevails on this point! Men imagine if they join this Church or that Church, and become communicants, and go through certain forms — that all must be right with their souls. It is an utter delusion! It is a gross mistake! All were not Israel who were called Israel, and all are not members of Christ's body who profess themselves Christians. Never let us forget that we may be staunch Episcopalians, or Presbyterians, or Independents, or Baptists, or Wesleyans, or Plymouth Brethren — and yet not belong to the true Church. And if we do not, it will be better at last if we had never been born!
Let me pass on now to the second point I propose to speak of.
II. Let me explain the position and value of all VISIBLE professing Churches.
No careful reader of the Bible can fail to observe that many separate visible Churches are mentioned in the New Testament. At Corinth, at Ephesus, at Thessalonica, at Antioch, at Smyrna, at Sardis, at Laodicea, and several other places. At each we find a distinct body of professing Christians — a body of people baptized in Christ's name, and professing the faith of Christ's Gospel. And these bodies of people we find spoken of as "the Churches" of the places which are named. Thus Paul says to the Corinthians, "But we have no such custom, neither the Churches of Christ." (1 Corinthians 11:16) So also we read of the Churches of Judea, the Churches of Syria, the Churches of Galatia, the Churches of Asia, the Churches of Macedonia. In each case, the expression means the bodies of baptized Christians in the countries mentioned.
Now, we have but little information given us in the New Testament about these Churches — but that little is very clear and plain, so far as it goes.
We know, for one thing, that these Churches were all mixed bodies. They consisted not only of converted people, but of many unconverted people also. They contained not only believers, but members who fell into gross errors and mistakes, both of faith and practice. This is clear from the account we have of the Churches at Corinth, at Ephesus, and at Sardis. Of Sardis, the Lord Jesus Himself says, that there were "a few," a few only, in it, who had not "defiled their garments." (Rev. 3:4)
We know, moreover, that even in the Apostles' times, Churches received plain warnings, that they might perish and pass away altogether. To the Church at Rome the threat was held out that it would be "cut off"; to the Church at Ephesus, that its "candlestick would be taken away"; to the Church at Laodicea, that it would be utterly rejected. (Romans 11:22; Rev.2:5, and 3:16)
We know, moreover, that in all these Churches there was public worship, preaching, reading of the Scriptures, prayer, praise, discipline, order, government, the ministry, and the sacraments. What kind of governments some Churches had, it is impossible to say positively. We read of officers who were called angels, or bishops, or deacons, or elders, or pastors, or teachers, or evangelists, or prophets. (1 Corinthians 12:28; Ephesians 4:11; Phil.1:1; 1 Timothy 3:1; Rev. 1:20) All these are mentioned. But the particulars about most of these officers are kept from us by the Spirit of God.
As to the standard of doctrine and practice in the Churches, we have the fullest and most distinct information. On these points the language of the New Testament is clear and unmistakable. But as to government and outward ceremonies — the information given to us is strikingly small.
The contrast between the Church of the Old Testament and the Churches of the New, in this respect, is very great. In the one, we find little, comparatively, about doctrine — but much about forms and ordinances. In the other, we have much about doctrine — and little about forms. In the Old Testament Church the minutest directions were given for the performance of every part of the ceremonies of religion. In the New Testament Churches we find the ceremonies expressly abolished, as no longer needed after Christ's death, and nothing hardly, except a few general principles, supplying their place.
The New Testament Churches have got no book of Leviticus. Their two chief principles seem to be, 'Let all things be done decently and in order," "Let all things be done unto edification." (1 Corinthians 14:26, 40) But as to the application of these general principles, it seems to have been left to each particular Church to decide. We know, finally, that the work begun by the missionary preaching of the Apostles, was carried on through the instrumentality of the professing Churches. It was through the means of grace used in their public assemblies, that God added to the number of His people, converted sinners, and built up saints.
Mixed and imperfect as these Churches plainly were, within their pale were to be found nearly all the existing believers and members of the body of Christ. Everything in the New Testament leads us to suppose that there could have been few believers, if any, who were not members of some one or other of the professing Churches scattered up and down the world.
Such is about the whole of the information the New Testament gives us concerning visible Churches in the apostolic times. How shall we use this information?
What shall we say of all the visible Churches in our own time? We live in days when there are many Churches — the Church of England, the Church of Scotland, the Church of Ireland, the Church of Rome, the Greek Church, the Syrian Church, the Armenian Church, the Lutheran Church, the Genevan Church, and many others. We have Episcopalian Churches. We have Presbyterian Churches. We have Independent Churches. In what manner shall we speak of them? Let me put down a few general principles:
(a) For one thing, no visible Church on earth has a right to say, "We are the true Church, and except men belong to our communion, they cannot be saved."No Church whatever has a right to say that — whether it be the Church of Rome, the Church of Scotland, or the Church of England — whether it be an Episcopalian Church, a Presbyterian, or an Independent. Where is the text in the Bible that ties admission into the kingdom of God to the membership of any one particular visible Church upon earth? I say confidently — there is not one.
(b) Furthermore, no visible Church has a right to say "We alone have the true form of worship, the true Church government, the true way of administering the Sacraments, and the true manner of offering up united prayer; and all others are completely wrong."No Church, I repeat, has a right to say anything of the kind. Where can such assertions be proved by Scripture? What one plan, positive word of revelation can men bring forward as proof of any such affirmations? I say confidently — there is not one.
There is not a text in the Bible which expressly commands Churches to have one special form of government, and expressly forbids any other. If there is, let men point it out. There is not a text which expressly confines Christians to the use of a liturgy, or expressly enjoins them only to have extemporaneous prayer. If there is, let it be shown. And yet for hundreds of years Episcopalians and Presbyterians and Independents have contended with each other, as if these things had been settled as minutely as the Levitical ceremonies, and as if everybody who did not see with their eyes was almost guilty of a deadly sin!
It seems astonishing, that in a matter like this, men should not only be satisfied with the full persuasion that they themselves are right — but must also go on to condemn everybody who disagrees with them, as utterly wrong! And yet this groundless theory, that God has laid down one particular form of Church government and ceremonies — has often divided men who ought to have known better. It has caused even good men to speak and write very unadvisedly. It has been made a fountain of incessant strife, intolerance, and bigotry by men of all parties, even among Protestants, down to the present day.
(c) Furthermore, no visible Church on earth has a right to say, "We shall never fall away. We shall last forever."There is no promise in the Bible to guarantee the continuance of any professing Church upon earth. Many have fallen completely, and perished already. Where are the Churches of Africa, in which Augustine and Cyprian used once to preach? Where are most of the Churches of Asia Minor, which we read of in the New Testament? They are gone. They have passed away, and left hardly a wreck behind. Other existing Churches are so corrupt — that it is a plain duty to leave them, lest we become partakers of their sins, and share in their plagues.
(d) Furthermore, no visible Church is in a sound and healthy state, which has not the marks we see in all the New Testament Churches.A Church in which the Bible is not the standard of faith and practice — a Church in which repentance, faith, and holiness, are not prominently put forward as essential to salvation — a Church in which forms, and ceremonies, and ordinances not commanded in the Bible, are the chief things urged upon the attention of the members — such a Church is in a very diseased and unsatisfactory condition! It may not formally deny any article of the Christian faith. It may have been founded originally by the Apostles. It may boast that it is Catholic. But if the Apostles were to rise from the dead, and visit such a Church — I believe they would command it to repent, and have no communion with it until it did!
(e) Furthermore, no mere membership of any visible Church will avail a man anything "in the hour of death and in the day of judgment."No communion with a visible Church, will stand in the place of direct personal communion with the Lord Jesus. No attendance whatever on its ordinances, is a substitute for personal faith and conversion. It will be no consolation when we lay our heads upon a dying pillow, if we can say no more than this — that we have belonged to a pure Church. It will be no answer in the last great day, when the secrets of all hearts are revealed — if we can only say that we worshiped in the Church in which we were baptized, and used its forms.
(e) After all, what is the great use and purpose for which God has raised up and maintained visible Churches upon earth?They are useful as witnesses, keepers, and librarians of Holy Scripture. They are useful as maintainers of a regular succession of ministers to preach the Gospel. They are useful as preservers of order among professing Christians. But their great and principal use is to train up, to rear, to nurse, to keep together, members of that one true Church which is the body of Jesus Christ. They are intended to "edify the body of Christ." (Ephesians 4:12)
Which is the best visible Church upon earth? That is the best visible church, which adds most members to the one true Church; which most promotes "repentance towards God, faith towards the Lord Jesus Christ," and good works among its members. These are the true tests and tokens of a really good and flourishing Church. Give me that Church which has evidence of this kind to show.
Which is the worst visible Church on earth? That is the worst visible church, which has the fewest members of the one true Church to show in its ranks. Such a Church may possess excellent forms, learned ministers, venerable customs, and ancient institutions. But if it cannot point to faith, repentance, and holiness of heart and life among its members — it is a poor Church indeed. "By their fruits", the Churches upon earth must be judged, as well as individual Christians.
We shall do well to remember these things.
On the one side, a visible professing Church is a true thing, and a thing according to the mind of God. It is not, as some would tell us in these days, a more human device — a thing which God does not speak of in the Word. It is amazing to my mind, that anyone can read the New Testament, and then say that visible Churches are not authorised in the Bible.
On the other side, something more is needed than merely belonging to this visible Church, or to that visible Church — to take a man to Heaven. Are we born again? Have we repented of our sins? Have we laid hold of Christ by faith? Are we holy in life and conversation? These are the grand points that a man must seek to ascertain. Without these things, the highest, the strictest, and the most regular member of a visible Church — will be a lost Churchman in the last great day
Let us look upon visible Churches, with their outward forms and ordinances, as being to the one true invisible Church — what the husk is to the kernel of the nut. Both grow together — but both husk and kernel. Yet one is far more precious than the other. Just so, the true Church is far more precious than the outward and visible. The husk is useful to the kernel. It preserves it from many injuries, and enables it to grow. Just so the outward Church is useful to the body of Christ; it is within the pale of its ordinances that believers are generally born again, and grow up in faith, hope, and charity. The husk is utterly worthless without the kernel.
Just so, the outward Church is utterly worthless except it guards and covers over the inward and the true. The husk will die, but the kernel has a principle of life in it. Just so the forms and ordinances of the outward Church will all pass away — but that which lives and lasts forever is the true Church within. To expect the kernel without the husk, is expecting that which is contrary to the common order of the laws of nature. To expect to find the true Church, and members of the true Church, without having an orderly and well-governed and visible Church — is expecting that which God, in the ordinary course of things, does not give.
Let us seek a right understanding upon these points.
To give to the visible Church the names, attributes, promises, and privileges, which belong to the one true Church, the body of Christ — is to confound the two things: the visible — and the invisible Church; the professing Church — and the Church of the elect. This is an immense delusion. It is a trap into which only too many fall. It is a great rock, on which many, in these days, unhappily make shipwreck!
Once confound the body of Christ with the outward professing Church, and there is no amount of error into which you may not at last fall. Nearly all converts to Romanism begin with getting it wrong here.
Once get hold of the idea that Church government is of more importance than sound doctrine — and that a Church with bishops teaching falsehood is better than a Church without bishops teaching truth — and one can say what we may come to in religion.
Let me now pass on to the third and last thing I proposed to do.
III. Let me draw from the subject some PRACTICAL COUNSELS and CAUTIONS for the times in which we live.
I feel deeply that I would neglect a duty if I did not do this. The errors and mistakes connected with the subject of the Church are so many and so serious, that they need to be plainly denounced, and men need to be plainly put upon their guard against them. I have laid down some general principles about the one true invisible Church — and about the visible professing Churches. Now let me go on to make some particular application of these general principles to the times in which we live.
(1) First of all, let no reader suppose, because I have said that no membership of a visible Church can be the saving of a soul, that it does not signify to what visible Church a man belongs.It does signify to what visible Church a man belongs — and it signifies very much. There are Churches in which the Bible is practically lost sight of altogether. There are Churches in which Jesus Christ's Gospel is buried, and lies completely hidden. There are Churches in which a man may hear God's service performed in an unknown language, and never hear of "repentance towards God, faith towards Christ," and the work of the Holy Spirit, from one end of the year to the other.
Such are the Armenian and Greek Churches — and such, above all others in corruption, is the Church of Rome. To belong to such Churches brings tremendous peril upon anybody's soul. They do not help men to the one true Church. They are far more likely to keep men out, and put barriers in their way forever. A wise man should beware of ever being tempted to belong to such Churches himself, or of ever thinking lightly of the conduct of those who join such Churches, as if they had only committed a little sin.
2. In the next place, let us not be moved by the argument of the Roman Catholic when he says, "There is only one true Church, and that one true Church is the Church of Rome, and you must join us if you intend to be saved."Let no reader be entrapped by such miserable sophistry as this! A more preposterous and unwarrantable assertion was never made, if the question is simply tried by the Bible! It is an astonishing proof of the fallen condition of man's understanding that so many people are taken in by it.
Tell the man who uses this argument, that there is indeed only one true Church — but it is not the Church of Rome, or the Church of England, or the Church of any other nation upon earth. Defy him boldly to show a single text which says that the Church of Rome is that one true Church to which men must belong. Tell him that to quote texts of Scripture which merely speak of "the Church," is no proof on his side at all, and that such texts might just as well refer to the Church of Jerusalem, or the Church of Antioch — as to Rome. Point out to him the eleventh chapter of the Epistle to the Romans, which foretells Romish arrogance, and Romish presumption, and the possibility of Rome itself being cut off. Tell him that the Church's proud claim to be the one true Church is a mere baseless assumption — a house built upon sand, which has not a shred of Scripture to rest upon. Alas, how awful it is to think, that many in this day of light and knowledge should be completely carried away by this miserable argument: "There must be one true Church — that true Church must be a visible, professing Church — the Church of Rome is that one true Church — therefore join it, or you will not be saved!"
(3) In the next place, let us not be shaken by those people who talk of "the voice of the Church," and the "Catholic Church" when we disagree with them, as if the very mention of these words ought to silence us.There are many in these days of theological warfare, whose favorite weapon, when the Bible is appealed to, is this: "The Church says it — the Church has always so ruled it — the voice of the Church has always so pronounced it." I warn my readers never to be deceived by arguments of this kind. Ask men what they mean when, they talk in this vague way about "the Church." If they mean the whole professing Church throughout the world — then call upon them to show when and where the whole Church has met to decide the matter about which they speak. Or ask them if the Church had met, what right its decision would have to be listened to, except it could be shown to be founded upon the Word of God?
Or, if they mean by "the voice of the Church," the voice of the Church of England — then ask them to show you in the Thirty-nine Articles the doctrine which they want you to receive, and are pressing on you. Point out to them that the Church of England says in those Articles, that "nothing is to be required of men, as necessary for salvation, except it can be read in, or proved by, the Holy Scriptures." Point out to them that it says furthermore, that although the Church has power to decree rites and ceremonies, and authority in controversies of faith — yet it is not lawful for the visible Church to ordain anything contrary to God's written Word, or so to expound one place of Scripture as to make it repugnant to another. Show them also what the Church of England says when it speaks of the three creeds — the Apostles' Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed. It does not say they are to be received and believed because the Primitive Church put them forth — but because "they may be proved by most certain warrants of Holy Scripture."
Tell men, when they talk mysteriously to you about "hearing the Church," that our Lord was not speaking of matters of faith at all when He said, "Hear the Church." (Matthew 18:17) Tell them that your rule of faith and practice is the Bible only, and that if they will show you their views in the Bible — then you will receive them, but not otherwise. Tell them that their favorite arguments, "the voice of the Church," and the "Catholic Church," are nothing but high sounding phrases, and mere meaningless terms. They are great swelling words, which make a noise in the distance — but in reality have neither substance nor power.
Alas, that it should be needful to say all this. But I fear there are only too many to whom "the voice of the Church" has been like the fabled Medusa's head — it seems to have petrified their common sense!
(4) In the next place, let me warn members of the Church of England, never to take up ground on behalf of their Church, which cannot be defended from the Holy Scriptures.I love the Church of which I am a minister, and I delight to take up high ground on its behalf. But I do not call that ground really high, which is not also Scripturally safe. I think it foolish and wrong to take up ground from which we are sure to be driven when we come to argue closely with those who differ from us.
Now there are many in this day who would have us tell all Presbyterians and Independents that the only true Church is always an Episcopal Church — that to this belong the promises of Christ, and to no other kind of Church at all — that to separate from an Episcopal Church is to leave the true Church, to be guilty of an act of schism, and fearfully to peril the soul. This is the argument made use of by many. Let us beware of ever taking up such ground. It cannot be maintained. It cannot be shown to be tenable by plain, unmistakable texts of Scripture.
The only case in which an appeal to the testimony of the Church seems allowable is where it is made in order to establish an historical fact. Only let it be remembered that receiving the testimony of the Church to a fact, does not for a moment imply that the Church has any authoritative power to interpret doctrine infallibly. A man may be a very competent witness to the fact that a book has been faithfully printed, and yet know little or nothing about the meaning of its contents.
When the Scripture says, "Unless a man is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God." When the Scripture says, "Except you repent, you shall all likewise perish." When the Scripture says, "Without holiness no man shall see the Lord." When the Scripture says, "He who believes not on the Lord Jesus Christ shall be damned." When the Scripture so speaks — such doctrines cannot be proclaimed too plainly by us. But never anywhere does Scripture say, from Matthew down to Revelation, "Unless a man belongs to a Church governed by bishops, he cannot be saved." There is not a text in Scripture which says anything of the kind, from first to last. It is in vain for us to argue as if Scripture had spoken in this way. Once begin to require things in religion which are not required of men in the Bible — and where are we to stop?
Let no one misunderstand my meaning in saying this. I am deeply convinced of the excellency of my own Church. I would even say, if it were not a proud boast — its superiority over any other Church upon earth. I see more for Episcopacy in the Bible than I do for any other form of Church government. I consider the historical fact that there were Bishops in most of the professing Churches at the beginning of Christianity, deserves much weight. I believe it is far wiser to have a regular, settled liturgy, for the use of congregations, than to make a congregation dependent upon its minister's frames and feelings for the tone of its regular prayers. I think that endowment settled and established by law, are a way of paying ministers far preferable to the voluntary system. I am satisfied that, well administered, the Church of England is more calculated to help souls to Heaven than any Church on earth.
But I never can take up the ground that some men do in this day, who say that the Episcopal Church is the only true Church in Great Britain, and that all outside that Church are guilty schismatics. I cannot do it, because I am sure such ground as this never can be maintained.
No doubt the opinions I am expressing on this point are utterly opposed to those which many members of the Church of England hold in the present day. Such men will say that I am no sound Churchman — that I am ignorant of true Church principles — and so forth. Such charges weigh very little with me. I have found that those who talk loudest about the Church, are not always its most faithful friends, and often end with leaving it altogether. I am not to be put down by such vague talk as this. I would like men who tell me my views are not "Church" views, to consider calmly what authority they have for such an assertion.
The Church of England calmly asserts that its own ministers are scripturally ordained. But this is a very different thing from saying that those who are not ordained in like manner are not ordained at all. It calmly asserts that there always have been bishops, priests, and deacons. But this is very different from saying that where these are not, there is no true Church. It calmly asserts that a man must be lawfully called and sent, in order to be a minister. But it nowhere says that none but bishops have power to call.
I believe the Church of England has been graciously guided by God's mercy to adopt the language of true Scriptural moderation. It is a moderation strikingly in contrast with the bold, decided language which it uses when speaking in the doctrinal Articles about things essential to salvation. But it is the only true ground which can ever be maintained. It is the only ground on which we ought to stand. Let us be satisfied that our own communion is Scriptural — but let us never pretend to unchurch all other communions beside our own.
For my own part, I abhor the idea of saying that men like Carey, and Rhenius, and Williams, and Campbell, the missionaries, were not real ministers of Jesus Christ. I loathe the idea of handing over the churches to which such men as Matthew Henry, and Doddridge, and Robert Hall, and M'Cheyne, and Chalmers belonged, to the uncovenanted mercies of God, or saying that such men as these were not really and truly ordained. Hard language is sometimes used about them. People dare to talk of their not belonging to the "True Church," and of their being guilty of schism! I cannot for a moment hold such views. I deeply lament that anyone should hold them. I would to God that we had many Episcopalians like the men I have named. People may shut them out from what they call the "True Church," but I am firmly persuaded they will not shut them out from the kingdom of God. Surely those whom God has not excluded, we should take care not to exclude.
(5) In the next place, let us not set down men as no Christians, because they do not agree with us in our manner of worshiping God.In saying this, I would have it distinctly understood that I am not speaking now of those who deny the doctrine of the Trinity, and the sufficiency of Scripture to make men wise unto salvation. I speak with especial reference to the great body of Protestant Dissenters in England, who hold the leading doctrines of the Gospel as set forth at the time of the Reformation. I wish every member of the Church of England to take broad, charitable, and Scriptural views of such people, and to dismiss from his mind the wretched, narrow-minded, bigoted prejudices which are so unhappily common on the subject.
Are they members of the one true Church?
Do they love the Lord Jesus Christ?
Are they born again of God's Spirit?
Are they penitent, believing, holy people?
If they are, they will get to Heaven, I firmly believe, as certainly as any Episcopalian on earth. Men must tolerate them — but if such a word may be used — men must tolerate them, see them, and love them too, in Heaven and the kingdom of Christ. Surely if we expect to meet men of different denominations from our own at the right hand of the Lord Jesus, and to spend eternity in their company, we ought not to look coldly on them upon earth. Surely it were far better to begin something like union and cooperation with them, and to cultivate a spirit of love and kind feeling towards them while we can.
We may think our Dissenting brethren mistaken in many of their views. We may believe they miss privileges, and lose advantages by being separated from our own Church. We may be fully satisfied that Episcopacy is that form of government which is most agreeable to God's Word, and most in harmony with what we read of in the history of the early Church. We may feel persuaded, that, taking human nature as it is, it is far better, both for ministers and hearers, to have a liturgy, or settled form of prayer, and endowments guaranteed by the State, and an income for ministers not dependent on pew-rents. We may feel persuaded, from observation of the working of the voluntary system, and of the state of religion among Dissenters generally, that the way of the Church of England is the "more excellent way." But, after all, we must not speak positively where the Bible does not speak positively. Where, in all of Scripture, can we point out that text which says that Episcopacy and a liturgy are things absolutely needful to salvation? I say, without fear of contradiction: Nowhere at all!
We may regret the divisions among professing Christians in our own country. We may feel that they weaken the holy cause of Christ's Gospel. We may feel that people have often, and do often, become Dissenters from very insufficient reasons, and from motives by no means of the highest order. But, after all, we must not forget by whom the greater part of these divisions were primarily occasioned. Who obliged the bulk of English Nonconformists to secede? Who drove them out of the fold of the Church of England? We of the Church of England did it ourselves, by not properly providing for their souls' needs! Who, in reality, built the Dissenting chapels, the Bethels, the Bethesdas, which so often offend the eyes of many members of the Church of England in these days? We did ourselves! We did it — by gross neglect of the people's souls — by the grossly unscriptural kind of preaching which prevailed in the pulpits of our churches a century ago. I believe the plain truth is, that the vast minority of Dissenters in England did not leave the Church of England at first from any abstract dislike to the principle of Episcopacy, or liturgies, or establishments. But they did dislike the moral essays and inconsistent lives of the clergy — and we must confess, with shame, that obey had only too much reason!
Some may think it strange that they did not see the beauties of our Prayer-book and Episcopacy more clearly. But there was one thing they saw far more clearly — and that was, that men wholly taken up with sports and the world, and never preaching Christ — were not likely to teach them the way to be saved. Surely when these things are so, we have no right to speak harshly about Dissenters. We have no right to wonder at secession and separations. If sheep are not fed — then who can wonder if they stray? If men found out that the gospel was not preached by the clergy of the Church of England — then who can blame them if they cared more for the Gospel than for the clergy, and went to hear that Gospel wherever it could be heard?
I know well that such opinions as these are very offensive to many people. Many will think I am taking very low ground in speaking as I have done about Dissenters. It is easy to think so, and to imagine higher ground might be found. It is not quite so easy to point out higher ground in Scripture, or to justify the language frequently used in speaking of English Dissenters.
We must consider calmly the conduct of the Church of England for the last two hundred years. We must not forget that "he is the schismatic, who causes the schism." We must confess that the Church of England caused most of the dissent that has taken place. However much we may regret divisions, we must take the greater part of the blame to ourselves.
Surely we ought to feel very tender towards our separating brethren. We should never forget that many of them hold the essence of Jesus Christ's Gospel. Justice and fairness demand that we should treat them with kindness. Whatever their mistakes may, be, we of the Church of England made the vast majority of them what they are at the present day. Granting for a moment that they are wrong, we are not the men who can, with any face, tell them so.
(6) Let me pass on now to another warning of a different kind. Let me warn men not to imagine that divisions and schisms are unimportant things.This also is a great delusion, and one into which many fall, when they find there is no visible Church which can be called the only true Church on earth. So weak are our understandings, that if we do not fall over upon the one side — we are disposed at once to fall over on the other. Let us settle it down then in our minds, that all divisions among Christians are an immense evil. All divisions strengthen the hands of infidels, and help the devil. The great maxim of Satan is, "divide and conquer." If he can get professing Christians by the ears, and make them spend their strength in contending one with another, our spiritual enemy has gained a great point.
We may be very sure that union is strength, and we may be no less sure that discipline and uniformity are one great aid to union. Order is a vast help to efficient working in Christ's cause as well as in other things, and "God is not the Author of confusion, but of peace, as in all Churches of the saints." (1 Corinthians 14:33)
I would not be misunderstood in saying this. I fully admit that separation is justifiable under some circumstances, beyond a question. But it is absurd to say on that account that there is no such thing as schism. I for one cannot say so. Men ought to tolerate much — I say it confidently — men ought to tolerate and put up with much, before they think of separating and dividing, and leaving one Church for another.
It is a step which nothing but the deliberate teaching of false doctrine can really justify. It is a step that should never be taken without much consideration, much waiting, and much prayer. It is a step that seems to me more than questionable, except it can be clearly proved that the salvation of the soul is really at stake. It is a step that in England is often taken far too lightly, and with an evident lack of thought as to its serious nature and tendency. It is a common opinion of ignorant people, "It is no matter where we go. It is no matter if we first join one denomination and then join another — first worship with this people, and then with that. It is all the same where we go, if we do but go to some place of worship."
I say this common opinion is an enormous evil, and ought to be denounced by all true-hearted Christians. This Athenian kind of spirit, which ever wants something new — which must have something different in religion from what it had a little time ago, is a spirit which I cannot praise. I believe it to be the mark of a very diseased and unhealthy state of soul.
(7) In the next place, let me warn men not to be shaken by those who say that all visible Churches are necessarily corrupt, and that no man can belong to them without peril to his soul.There never have been lacking men of this kind, men who have forgotten that everything must be imperfect which is carried on by human agency, and have spent their lives in a vain search after a perfectly pure Church. Members of all Churches must be prepared to meet such men, and especially members of the Church of England. Fault-finding is the easiest of all tasks. There never was a system upon earth, in which man had anything to do, in which faults, and many faults too, might not soon be found. We must expect to find imperfections in every visible Church upon earth. There always were such in the New Testament Churches. There always will be such now. There is only one Church without spot or blemish — that is the one true Church, the body of Christ, which Christ shall present to His Father in the last great day.
With regard to the Church of England, I will only remark that men ought not to confound the bad working of a system, with the system itself. It may be quite true that many of its ministers are not what they ought to be. It may be true that some of its revenues are misapplied, and not properly spent. This does not prove that the whole machinery of the Church of England is rotten and corrupt, and that the whole Church is an institution which ought to be cast down. Surely there is many a good machine on earth at this moment which works badly, simply because it is in hands that know not in what way it ought to be worked.
I will only ask those who advise men to leave the Church of England: what they have got better to show us? Where is the visible Church — where is the denomination of Christians upon earth, which is perfect, without spot, and without blemish? None, I say confidently — none is to be found at all. Many people of scrupulous consciences, I firmly believe, have found this to their cost already. They left the Church of England because of alleged imperfections. They thought they could better their condition. What do they think now? If the truth were really told, I believe they would confess that in getting rid of one kind of imperfection — they have met with another; and that in healing one sore — they have opened two more, far worse than the first.
I advise the members of the Church of England not to leave that Church lightly, and without good reason. Numerous forms and ceremonies may be attended with evil consequences, but there are also evils in the absence of them. Episcopacy may have its disadvantages, but Presbyterianism and Congregationalism have their disadvantages too. A liturgy may possibly cramp and confine some highly gifted ministers, but the lack of one sadly cramps and confines the public devotions of many congregations. The Church of England Prayer-book may not be perfect, and may be capable of many improvements. It would be strange if this was not the case, when we remember that its compilers were not inspired men. Still, after all, the Prayer-book's imperfections are few, compared to its excellencies. The testimony of Robert Hall, the famous Baptist, on this subject is very striking. He says, "The evangelical purity of its sentiments, the chastened fervor of its devotion, and the majestic simplicity of its language, have combined to place it in the very first rank of uninspired compositions."
(8) In the last place, let me advise men to try to understand thoroughly the principles and constitution of the Church of England.I say that advisedly. I say it to Churchmen and Dissenters alike. The ignorance which prevails in our country about the Church of England is great and deplorable. There are thousands of members of that Church who never studied the Thirty-nine Articles — who hardly know of their existence — and who have often found fault with the very doctrines that these Articles contain, and especially the seventeenth. Yet those Articles are the Church's confession of faith. They show what is the Church's view of doctrine. No man, I say, is a true member of the Church of England who does not thoroughly agree, in heart and in truth, with the Thirty-nine Articles of his own Church.
So also there are thousands who have never read the Homilies which the Church of England has provided. Many have never heard of them, much less read them. Yet those Homilies are declared by the thirty-fifth Article to contain "godly and wholesome doctrine," and they condemn thousands of so-called Churchmen in this day.
So also there are hundreds of thousands who do not know that the laity might prevent many improper ministers from being ordained in the Established Church. No man can be ordained a Deacon in the Church of England, without notice being read in the parish church to which he belongs, and without people being invited to tell the Bishop if they know of any just cause or impediment why he should not be ordained.
But the laity hardly ever raise any impediment against the ordination of a young man. Surely when this is the case, if men utterly unfit for the ministerial office get into the ministry of the Church of England, the blame ought not to be borne only by the Bishops who ordain them — but to be shared by the laity who never objected to their being ordained. If we belong to the Church of England, let us wipe of this reproach. Let us try to understand our own Church. Let us study the Articles of Religion regularly, and make ourselves master of them. Let us read the Homilies with care, and see in them what the Reformers taught as true.
Surely, I may well come around to the point with which I started. I may well say that ignorance covers the whole subject as with a cloud. As to the true Church — as to the visible professing Churches — as to the real doctrines and constitution of the Established Church of England — as to all these subjects — it is painful to see the ignorance which prevails. Surely it ought not to be so.
And now, let me conclude this paper by saying a few words of PRACTICAL APPLICATION to the conscience of everyone who reads it.
(a) First of all let me advise every reader to ask himself, solemnly and seriously, whether he belongs to that one true Church of Christ, which I began by describing.Oh, that men would but see that salvation turns upon this question! Oh, that men would but see that it shall profit nothing to say, "I have always gone to my Church", or "always gone to my Meetings" — if they have not gone to Christ by faith, and been born again, and been made one with Christ, and Christ with them! Oh, that men would understand that "the kingdom of God is not food and drink, but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit" — that true religion does not turn on Episcopacy, or Presbyterianism — on churches or chapels or liturgies — but on justification, and sanctification, on saving faith, and new hearts! Oh, that men would set their minds more upon these points, and leave off their miserable squabbling about unprofitable controversies, and settle down to this one great question — Have I come to Christ and laid hold of Him, and been born again?
(b) Last of all, if we can say that we belong to the one true Church, we may rejoice.Our Church shall never fall. Our Church shall never come to an end. The world and all its greatness will pass away. The works of Statesmen shall vanish and come to nothing. The cathedrals and churches of man's erecting shall all crumble into dust. But the one true Church shall never perish. It is built upon a rock. It shall stand forever. It shall never fall. It shall wax brighter and brighter to the end, and never be so bright as when the wicked shall be separated from it, and it shall stand alone.
If we belong to the true Church, let us not waste our time in controversies about outward things. Let us say to them all, "Get behind me!" Let us care for nothing so much as the heart and marrow of Christianity. Let the grand point to which we give our attention be the essence of true religion — the foundations of the one true Church.
If we belong to the true Church, let us see that we love all its members. Let our principle be, "Grace be with all who love the Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity." (Ephesians 6:24) Wherever we find a man that has grace and faith — let us hold out our right hand to him. Let us not stop to ask him where he was baptized, and what place of worship he attends. Does he love Jesus? Is be born again? Then let us say to ourselves, "This is a brother. We are to be with him in Heaven by-and-by forever. Let us love him upon earth. If we are to be in the same home, let us love each other even now upon the road."
Finally, if we belong to the true Church, let us try to increase the number of members of that Church. Let us not work merely for a denomination, or labor only to get proselytes to our own professing visible Church. Let our first care be to pluck brands from the fire — to awaken sleeping souls — to rouse those who are in darkness and ignorance, and to make them acquainted with Him who is "the light of the world," and "Whom to know is life eternal." Never let us forget, that he who has helped to turn one sinner from his sins and make him a temple of the Holy Spirit — has done a far more glorious and lasting work than if he had built York-Minster, or St. Peter's at Rome!