Finally. Article 37 begins with the word finally. After a year and a half and 48 sermons we are finally at the end of the Belgic Confession and ready to deal with the last article that deals with final things, the end of all things. The fancy name for this is Eschatology, which is simply the study of last things. Finally when it is all said and done, it comes down to this. Everything we have learned about God and Scripture, about the fall and about Christ and our redemption, about the church and the sacraments, all of it is preparation for this final day. Everything points to the final return of Christ and the final fulfillment of all Scripture and of all history. In the end Jesus will have the last word. The disastrous work of the first Adam will finally be undone by the return of the second Adam. The last judgment is hard for us to talk about because of its implications for all of us, partly because of some measure of guilt and shame we feel about our sinful words and actions, and partly because hell is a very scary prospect and unpleasant topic. But there is something else about this article that strikes deeper into our hearts. When you read it, it doesn’t just read like academic doctrine. This isn’t just spouting truth out of the Bible. As you read you begin to feel there is something personal, something real about this. This is being written by someone living in the days of suffering and persecution, in the days of martyrdom. This sounds more like what a Christian in Iraq or Afghanistan might write than what a Christian in America would write. Article 37: “They will then receive the fruits of their labor and of the trouble they have suffered; their innocence will be openly recognized by all; and they will see the terrible vengeance that God will bring on the evil ones who tyrannized, oppressed, and tormented them in this world.” “…and their cause-- at present condemned as heretical and evil by many judges and civil officers-- will be acknowledged as the ‘cause of the Son of God.’” This is real. There is conviction here and courage, faith and hope.
We live in trying and challenging times politically. We live in times of terrorism and anarchy; in times of abuses of power and authority; in times of undisciplined attacks on our constitution and freedoms. We are watching from the sidelines as our political and judicial systems systematically destroy Biblical morality. With each passing generation it’s getting harder and harder to discern our role as Christian citizens in a country that was once thought by many to be a Christian nation. What does the separation of church and state really mean? What kind of influence is the church in general and Christians in particular to have on our government? Let’s begin by addressing a question many Christian ask. Is America a Christian Nation?
Just about everything that we do that’s important in this life includes a meal. Birthday celebrations, graduation parties, weddings, anniversary dinners, retirement celebrations, memorial banquets. The same is true at church, we recognize our missionaries with a mission’s dinner, we honor our seniors with a special dinner, we just had our annual church picnic, and soon we will have an ice cream social and a harvest dinner yet to come. God created us not just to eat and drink but to enjoy eating and drinking. Food is one of His gifts and being able to enjoy food is another one of His gifts. It is in keeping with the nature of God to establish a meal for us in which we commemorate something He never wants us to forget, the sacrifice of Christ on the cross for the forgiveness of all our sins. This supper reminds us that God’s righteous wrath against the world has been appeased, atoned for, paid in full. But just how big a deal is this sacrament to us today? There was a time in history when what people thought about the Lord’s Supper was a matter of life and death. In England from 1555 to 1558 during the reign of the bloody Queen Mary 288 Protestant Reformers were martyred by being burned at the stake. Why? In large part because of their views on the Lord’s Supper. There was a time in history when the meaning of the Lord’s Supper was so important and highly regarded that some thought it was worth dying for and others thought it was worth killing for. I hope we will not think of the Lord’s Supper as no big deal, something we can take or leave, something people shouldn’t fight over. We come this evening to the longest article of the Belgic Confession, a very carefully worded and extensive treatment of this very important sacrament. We do well to heed the warnings and take to heart this excellent instruction concerning this gift given to us by Jesus through which we participate and share in the body and blood of Jesus. But how can we do that if what article 35 says is true, that these things are beyond our understanding and incomprehensible to us?
The story is told of King Louis IX who reigned over France from 1226 to 1270. He was a godly king often referred to as Saint Louis. The city St. Louis is named after him. He was asked what was the greatest day of his life. Expecting him to say the day of his coronation at the age of 12 or the day of his marriage to princess Margaret, he surprised everyone when he answered, “The day of my baptism.” How many of us if asked that question before today would have ever thought to answer, “The day of my baptism.”?
The Belgic Confession recognizes we are all like children in our understanding. God recognizes our crudeness and weakness, our need for visible, tangible pictures that appeal to our senses. We come this evening to consider the second of the three marks of a true church. Remember the three marks, the true and faithful preaching of the Word of God, the true and right administration of the sacraments, and the faithful exercise of church discipline to bring to repentance those who are living in sin or error. Three lengthy articles are devoted to the sacraments in the Belgic Confession.
Our Constitution of the United States of America and the first seven articles and 27 amendments are the shortest constitution in force in the world today. Its first three articles secure the doctrine of the separation of powers. Our federal government is divided into three branches: the legislative; the executive; and the judicial. Articles Four, Five and Six establish the concept of federalism, describing the rights and responsibilities of state governments and of the states in relationship to the federal government. The Constitution and the form of government that was established by it was written and instituted based on a very strong understanding of the sinful nature of mankind, that men are totally fallen, that sin permeates all we think and do, that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Our founding fathers set in place policies and principles that had checks and balances; with built in accountability. This was meant to limit government, to limit the powers of any one individual and to limit the power of the federal government over state’s rights. Our founding documents sought to carefully walk a balance between tyranny and anarchy, between the abuse of the rule of one person, and the rule of the mob. Human nature being what it is needs structure, discipline and accountability. To do that you have to have laws and the force of discipline behind the laws to enforce them. Where there is sin there is a need for rules and laws and obedience, and when this is broken, there is a need for discipline. This is true in our nation and in our cities and communities, this is true in the military, in schools, in all our homes and in our churches. Article 32 of the Belgic Confession addresses these issues and principles in our churches under what we call church order and church discipline. The officers or spiritual leaders of the church are responsible for the life and doctrine of the church, they are responsible to maintain peace, unity and order. They are to see that the Word is faithfully preached and the sacraments are faithfully administered and received. In order to do all this they must be able to use the tool of good church order to keep order and the tool of spiritual church discipline when something is out of order.
It should be evident to us by now as we work through these articles of the Belgic Confession that deal with the practical governing of the church that this is there the rubber really met the road in the Reformation. While there were many important disagreements on doctrine, here is where the power and authority of the medieval European church was really challenged. Article 31 deals with the very practical matters of who should the officers of the church be, how should they be chosen, how do they relate to each other and how is the church to relate to them. Let’s begin with the most basic and practical of questions. Why does the church need officers?
There’s an old joke about a fellow inviting a friend to church and the friend declines saying he’s against organized religion, to which the inviter says well then you should definitely come to our church because it’s real disorganized. The purpose of church government is for things to be done decently and in good order. Where there is no government there is chaos and confusion, and the possibility for abuse, tyranny and neglect. Consider Somalia as an example of no government. Consider North Korea as an example of oppressive, tyrannical government. Consider Nigeria where some are trying to overthrow the government. People cannot dwell together very long without some kind of order or law or rule or government. Good government is built on the principle that all men are sinners and sin needs to be kept in check. Our political government was set up with checks and balances because our founders had a very high view of sin and the depravity of human hearts. Tonight we come to a topic that isn’t one of the most exciting or appealing but is nevertheless an important and necessary doctrine of Scripture, the government of Christ’s Church. In the last article we talked about the three marks of a true and faithful church. This article talks about how those three marks may be carried out. To have those three marks the church must have leaders, office-bearers, men responsible for seeing that they are done decently and in good order. Let’s state two fundamental overarching principles first.
As we traveled to southern California and back we were thanked several times for flying Southwest airlines. They said they knew that we had many choices in airlines and they thanked us for flying Southwest. We know you have many choices in churches these days and we thank you for choosing First CRC. Not all airlines are created equal, nor are all churches created equal. There are differences, some of the differences are minor, some of them are huge. There are true churches and false churches, churches that teach the Word of God and churches that teach heresy. With the changing landscape in America it takes discernment to know which churches are being faithful to the Word of God. Jesus said by their fruit you shall know them. But even the fruit is hard to judge sometimes. What about Joel Osteen’s church in Houston, Texas? Is it a true church? It’s huge, it’s growing, can we say by that fruit that it must be a true church? We can’t use growth as a mark of a true church or fancy new buildings or success or great programs.
Our text in Hebrews was written sometime in the late first century. The Church has only a few decades old and already people were neglecting her. From the very beginning there have been those who have thought negatively about the church and about the necessity of being a part of a church. Today is no different. There is no lack of those who hold the church in distain, and feel free to criticize or attack her. And unfortunately there are many grounds for criticizing the church today. Scandals abound, money, sex, power, meddling in politics, strive and conflict. But it’s not just the stuff that makes the headlines. There are the petty complaints we all have heard. The church is too old, too irrelevant, too stuck in her ways, or out of touch. The church is too cold, too unfriendly, too cliquish. The pastor is too loud or too boring or too hard to understand. Or the classic, the church is too full of hypocrites. So the conclusion of many is that they don’t need the church, because they have a personal relationship with Jesus. They find God in nature, on the golf course or at the mall. All of this says that we come to the church with a list of expectations or demands; what it needs to measure up to our criteria. This is a byproduct of looking at the church as a human institution, of looking at the church with the eyes of sight and not the eyes of faith. As a human institution the church is filled with sinners and completely stained with sin. But that is not the only perspective or even the best perspective to have of the church. It’s not all about us. The Church of Jesus Christ is built entirely by Jesus Christ and on Jesus Christ. He is the foundation and the corner stone. The Reformers in the time of the Reformation were being accused of tearing down the church and encouraging people to leave the church. Article 28 of the Belgic Confession was written to state just the opposite.