We Confess An Exposition & Application of the Belgic Confession Article 28: Of the Communion of the Saints

When we look at the ecclesiastical landscape of our time is it any wonder that the Church has lost its relevance to modern man? With scandals involving money, sex, and power; with its meddling in the realm of political agendas; and with its irrelevant message of “don’t drink, don’t smoke, and don’t go with girls that do,” why are we surprised? The visible church is a mess.

Nevertheless, we, as historically conscious, confessional Protestants, believe that Christ has created a visible Church, that is, a congregation of those whom the Lord has redeemed. To say this in our Christian “culture,” though, either elicits the response, “I agree, I’m a member of the invisible Church,” or, “I don’t need the Church because I have a personal relationship with Jesus.”

As we said in our last article, while Christ does save individual sinners, He does so in order to bring them into communion with His Body, the Church. We not only confess, “I believe a holy catholic Church,” but also, “the communion of saints.” The Church, then, is central to God’s redemptive plan, and therefore needs to be central to our Christian faith and Christian life. “But the Church is full of hypocrites.” That is exactly for whom the Lord died and why you need to be there!

Here we want to examine briefly Article 28 of our Belgic Confession of Faith. In one of the more strongly-worded articles, the meaning of the phrase “the communion of saints” (Apostles’ Creed) is explained in order to place before us and the world, the necessity of Christ’s Church here on earth.

Outside the Church There is No Salvation

Article 28 opens with the shocking statement, “We believe, since this holy congregation [mentioned in Article 27] is an assembly of those who are saved, and outside of it there is no salvation…” Yet what sounds shocking and “Catholic” to our ears was simply the received language of the Church and affirmed by our Protestant forefathers. This opening phrase of the Belgic Confession was the common way of speaking about the visible Church among the Reformers.

For example, in 1561 Theodore Beza was the chief spokesman for the Reformed churches of France at the Colloquy of Poissy, which was intended to unite the divided Roman and Protestant churches in the Kingdom of France. In debating on the necessity of reforming the church in France in terms of “restoring the ruins of Jerusalem,” Beza confessed the Reformed churches’ belief in the Church, which was “the company and community of the saints and without which there could be no salvation.”

What is so illuminating for us who live in an anti-ecclesiastical culture is that the phrase “outside the church there is no salvation” (Latin, extra ecclesiam nulla salus) was never rejected by Reformers. So where did this phrase come from? It is commonly said to have been first penned by Cyprian, bishop of Carthage (200-258). Yet, even before Cyprian wrote this phrase, Origen, in his sermon on the story of Rahab, said, “Let no one deceive himself. Outside this house, that is, outside the Church, no one is saved (Latin, extra ecclesiam, nemo salvatur). If anyone goes outside, he is responsible for his own death.” The circumstances and intent of Origen’s words are not clear to scholars, unlike those of Cyprian.

The events leading up to Cyprian’s claim were some of the most volatile in the early church. During the serious persecution of Christians in Rome and North Africa under Caesar Decius in 250 A.D., many Christians renounced their faith and purchased a libellus, an official document saying they had offered sacrifice to Caesar as Lord.

After this brief period of persecution Cyprian delivered an address entitled On the Lapsed in June 251. In it he said no human could forgive the apostasy of those who renounced their faith; only God could. He later softened his view and agreed with Cornelius, bishop of Rome, that if these apostates repented they could be received back into the church.

This led to serious opposition by Novatian, a presbyter in the church in Rome who set himself up as bishop of Rome. He and his primary follower, Novatus, claimed that they were the true church. The Novatian sect, then, drew a large following during the ensuing years. The next great issue was what to do with those of the Novatian sect who desired to return to the Church? To this question Cyprian set his pen to write and said that since there is no salvation outside the Church, those who were baptized in a Novatian church had to be rebaptized.

During this time, Cyprian saw the nature of the church being an institution. In distinguishing the church from the Novatian sect he pointed to the succession of bishops from Peter to Cornelius to prove the Novatians were outside the Faith. Another of his famous sayings was that “the church is in the bishop” (Latin, ecclesia in episcopo) because the bishop defines the church and guarantees the orthodoxy of the church.

For Cyprian and his stress on the importance of the bishop, “Outside the church there is no salvation” meant “outside the bishop of Rome, there is no salvation.” And his phrase, “You cannot have God for your father unless you have the Church for your mother” had the same meaning: the church traced to Rome is the mother of the faithful and all in fellowship with Rome are her children.

So what did the Beza, the Reformers, and the Belgic Confession mean when they said “outside the church there is no salvation?” Certainly they reinterpreted this phrase to mean something other than “outside the Roman Church there was no salvation.”
As Reformed Christians we mean that salvation is found in the Church, but the Church that Christ established, with the pure preaching of the Word, pure administration of the sacraments, and church discipline (which we will discuss in relation to Belgic Confession, Article 29).

What this means for us is this. We must keep a simple distinction in mind as we speak with non-Christians as well as non-Reformed Christian friends. This distinction is between the ordinary and extraordinary work of God. We must keep clear what God does and what God can do, or, what He has promised to do and what He has not.

The ordinary promised means by which God saves sinners is His visible Church because there is a necessary link between salvation in Christ and His body, the Church. To it was given the keys of the kingdom, the preaching of the Gospel and discipline (Matthew 16:18-19 cf. Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 8385; Romans 10:14-17). To it those being saved were added daily (Acts 2:47). For it Christ died (Ephesians 5:25-27). For this reason the Church is described as the temple of God (1 Corinthians 3:16; Ephesians 2:1122) and the mother of the faithful (Galatians 4:26).

God has ordained that salvation is offered for the world not at home, the beach, nor in the flock of a hireling (John 10:12, i.e. false Church); therefore, salvation is available where Christ’s voice is heard. Christ is present in His fold, so that “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27). To illustrate this, imagine that you wanted to buy a bike. The obvious place to go is the local bike shop. Certainly you would not go to the local bakery to buy a bike. In the same way, if you wanted to expose a non-Christian friend to salvation in Christ, there is a place where you are promised he will hear about it: the Church. You would not take your friend to the mall because Christ has not promised to save there.

So the distinction should be clear: extraordinarily God can save outside of His Church, but the point of this phrase is what God has promised to do. The Holy Spirit is sovereign, but He has been pleased to bind Himself to the particular means of the Church’s called, ordained, and sent preachers (Romans 10:14-17). This phrase, then, is not saying outside the Church no one will ever be saved or that no saved person is outside the Church, but it is pointing us to what Scripture clearly promises.

The Duty of Joining

For this reason, then, Article 28 continues, saying,

…no person of whatsoever state or condition he may be, ought to withdraw from it [the Church], content to be by himself; but that all men are in duty bound to join and unite themselves with it; maintain the unity of the Church; submitting themselves to the doctrine and discipline thereof; bowing their necks under the yoke of Jesus Christ; and as mutual members of the same body, serving to the edification of the brethren, according to the talents God has given them.

There are five duties listed in Article 28 in light of salvation being found in and through Christ’s Church: joining, maintaining, submitting, bowing, and serving it.

Joining

Those who are saved are brought into the community of the saved. As Scripture says, the members of Christ are brought into the Body of Christ (Acts 4:32; Romans 12:4-5; 1 Corinthians 12:12-31). The idea of “church membership” is assumed in the Bible because Christians belong to Christ and to each other. This is illustrated in that the Book of Life is the heavenly archetype of the earthly registers of members found in Scripture (Hebrews 12:23 cf. the lists in the books of Numbers and Chronicles; Psalms 87:4-6).

Second, salvation is in terms of the Lord adding a “countable” people to a definable group (Acts 2:41, 47, 3:4). And this number, the disciples, distinguished from “the rest” (Acts 4:23, 5:13). This is visibly signified in the sacraments of baptism, which is the crossing over the boundary of the world into the covenant community, and the Supper, which is the visible sign of maintaining communion in the community (Acts 2:41; 1 Corinthians12:13, 10:16-22, 11:20-34).

Third, the pastors and elders of the church are to take heed to the flock of God (e.g., Acts 20:28). It is assumed that these leaders had no doubt as to whom those people were. In fact, there were even lists of Christian widows eligible for the church’s benevolent ministry (1 Timothy 5:9). Finally, church discipline is described as effecting a change of status/relationship between an individual and the Church, and the Lord (1 Corinthians 5).

Maintaining

The members of Christ and His Body, then, are to “maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3). The peace that we have been given from God in our justification (Romans 5:1) is to affect us to passing that peace to each other as the family and household of God (Ephesians 2:19; 1 Timothy 3:15).

Submitting

Furthermore, as members we are to submit to the doctrine and discipline of Christ’s Church (Hebrews 13:17). Notice that the Confession teaches that we commune together as Christians by submitting together in the Church. You are obligated, according to Scripture (1 Corinthians 9; Galatians 6:6ff), to care for the poor and to support the ministry of the Word, in its broadest sense, with your money reflective of what God has given you. You are obligated to support the work of Christ with the various gifts and talents God has given you (Romans 12; Ephesians 4) with your time and prayers, your fellowship and edifying words, even your admonitions for the love of the brother or sister who is departing from the way of the Lord.

Bowing

As servants of Christ we are also to bow under His yoke, which is “easy” (Matthew 11:30). What this means is that we are to be lifelong followers of Christ for He did not come to make converts, but disciples. We cannot be “content to be by [ourselves],” but we must be students in the school of Christ.

Serving

Finally, we commune together as Christians by serving in the Church (Ephesians 4:12, 16; 1 Corinthians 12:7, 27). As Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 55 says, “…each one must feel himself bound to use his gifts readily and cheerfully for the advantage and welfare of other members.” This intimate fellowship and participation in things with others which the Creed expresses in the phrase “communion of saints” (Latin, sanctorum communionem; Greek, hagion koinonian), is vividly described in John Donne’s “Meditation 17,” which says in part, …The church is Catholic, universal; so are all her actions; all that she does belongs to all. When she baptizes a child, that action concerns me; for that child is thereby connected to that body which is my head too, and ingrafted into that body whereof I am a member. And when she buries a man, that action concerns me…No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.

The Duty of Separating

As a result of joining the Church, the Christian necessarily separates himself from others, as Article 28 concludes, saying,

And that this may be more effectively observed, it is the duty of all believers, according to the Word of God, to separate themselves from all those who do not belong to the Church, and to join themselves to this congregation, wheresoever God has established it, even though the magistrates and edicts of princes were against it; yea, though they should suffer death or any other corporal punishment. Therefore all those who separate themselves from the same or do not join themselves to it act contrary to the ordinance of God.

We are called not only to union with each other, but separation from the world in the sense that we no longer live as the world wants us. The apostle powerfully conveyed this to the sinful congregation of Corinth, saying, “Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers…What agreement has the temple of God with idols…be separate from them…” (2 Corinthians. 6:14-16). For the glory of God we are obligated to live lives of separation and holiness. That means that we find no fellowship with the ungodly and unbelievers and, as in times of apostasy and reformation, that we come out from among those who manifest themselves as belonging to the false church.

This part of Article 28, historically, is especially speaking of those who were called the “Nicodemites” during the Reformation. Named after Nicodemus who came to Jesus “by night” for fear of being put out of the synagogue (John 3:2 cf. 12:42), the Nicodemites were those mostly in France who claimed to be followers of the Reformers and the restored gospel, but who refused to leave the Roman Catholic Church for fear of “the magistrates and edicts of princes” and because they might “suffer death or any other corporal punishment.” In addressing them, our Confession shows the centrality of the Church of Christ to the faith and life of God’s people, and the world.

Rev. Daniel R. Hyde is the pastor of the Oceanside United Reformed Church in Oceanside, California.

Study/Application Questions for Article 28

1. How does our understanding of the statement, “Outside the church there is no salvation,” differ from Rome as well as non-Reformed evangelical Christians?

2. May a true Christian be a “lone ranger” in the world? (cf. Heb. 10:24-25)

3. The Confession of Faith speaks of the obligation of “joining” the visible church. Is this biblical? Is it necessary? Explain your answers.

4. What do the following metaphors for the Church teach us about membership in the Church? Vine/Branches (John 15), Shepherd/ Sheep (John 10), Temple/Stones (1 Pet. 2), Body/Members (Rom. 12), Bride/Husband (Eph. 5).

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