Thankfulness for the Church

The text of a speech given to several hundred young people at the annual mass meeting of Protestant Reformed Young People’s Societies in Grandville, Michigan on November 27, 2011.

Great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised in the city of our God…Let mount Zion rejoice…Walk about Zion…Tell the towers thereof. Mark ye well her bulwarks, consider her palaces; that ye may tell it to the generation following. Psalm 48.
This past Reformation Day weekend—a few weeks ago—my wife and I were in Wittenberg, Germany. This is the historic city where, in 1517, Jesus Christ began the reformation of his church by the witness to the gospel of his great servant, Martin Luther.
In the Castle Church—the church on the doors of which Luther posted the 95 theses, or doctrinal propositions, the church in which Luther is buried, and the church in which Luther preached—was a bright, young, German man of about nineteen or twenty. His duty was to describe the glorious history of that church to the visitors.
When the young German had finished informing us of the history and significance of the church building, I asked him, “Do you yourself believe what Luther taught? Do you believe the truths of the gospel that the Reformation restored to the people of God?”
This was his answer: “I believe in God, and I believe in Jesus. But I do not believe the church.”
What he meant was: “I am not a member of any church; I never attend church; I reject the church.”
He then informed us that the large majority of young people in Germany do not even profess to believe in God and in Jesus. Of the few who do profess to believe in God, the majority, like the young man serving as a guide in the Castle Church, do not “believe the church,” that is, have nothing to do with any church.
My first thought was that the warning Luther once gave his beloved Germans has come true. Addressing all of Germany (and Luther had the ear of the entire nation, and knew it), Luther cried out, “God has given you Germans his precious gospel. Treasure it, and hold on to it! If you do not treasure it, God will take it away from you, and Germany will never receive it back again.”
My second thought was: “How contrary to the Apostles’ Creed” (which, of course, expresses the faith of every true Christian)! Belief in God the Father and in Jesus Christ, the Son, is necessarily accompanied by belief in God the Holy Ghost. According to the Apostles’ Creed, God the Holy Ghost works faith concerning the church: “I believe an holy, catholic church.”
True faith in God and in Jesus always includes faith concerning the church.
One who does not believe the church does not truly believe in God and Jesus. How can one who does not believe the church believe in God and in Jesus? God loves the church and elected her to salvation. Jesus loved the church and gave himself for her. God is the God of the church. Jesus is the head and savior of the church.
My third thought was: “How contrary to the purpose, not only of Luther and all the other Reformers, but also of Christ himself, regarding the sixteenth-century Reformation.” That purpose was not simply to uncover the truths of the gospel—justification by faith alone, and all the others. That purpose was not even simply that individuals would believe the gospel, and be saved.
But the purpose of Jesus Christ with the Reformation was the reforming of the church. Christ loved the church in 1517. Christ made the church beautiful and strong once again.
It was then and there—on the weekend of Reformation Day, in Wittenberg, Germany, as a young German was saying that he did not believe the church—that I made up my mind what my speech to you would be.
We too must love the church, as God loves the church and as Jesus loves the church. In this love, we must rejoice in the church, in the words of Psalm 48.
There is a danger that you young people have the same wicked attitude toward the church that that young German has.
You would not think of rejecting God and Jesus, but the church is another matter.
You can be severely critical of the church. You can easily postpone confession of faith, by which you become full members of the church. You can be quite indifferent toward the church, taking the church for granted. Some even leave the church for purely selfish, carnal reasons.
This afternoon, I will bring you the word of God that calls you to be thankful for the church—the church of which you are members by the great goodness of God.
In this way, I combine the two purposes of this meeting, as I understand them.
One purpose is to celebrate Reformation Day, which was a few weeks ago. The other is to express our thanks to God for all his goodness to us and blessing of us in connection with Thanksgiving Day, which was only a few days ago.
The word of God that calls you (and me also, of course) to be thankful for the church and our membership in the church is Psalm 48, which was just read.
Thankfulness for the Church: What?
Psalm 48 is about the church.
Zion in the Old Testament—the name of the mountains where the temple of God stood, and the palace of the king—refers to the city of Jerusalem. The city of Jerusalem was the church. It was the chosen people of God, saved by Jesus Christ, worshipping the one, true God, and governed by God’s appointed office-bearers. Jerusalem was believers and their children, called out of an ungodly world to be God’s holy people.
In Galatians 4:26, the apostle calls the New Testament church the true, spiritual Jerusalem—the “mother” of believers. Hebrews 12:22, 23 identifies “mount Sion, and…the city of the living God” with the “church of the firstborn,” which is the true and “heavenly Jerusalem.”
Psalm 48 describes Zion as the “city of God.” As a city, it was the community of many people, grown-ups and their children, living together in an orderly fashion under rulers and laws. As the city of God, it was the community that God had formed for his worship and praise and in the midst of which he himself lived with his holy people.
The New Testament church is this city.
In his commentary on Psalm 48, John Calvin wrote: “Since Christ by his coming has renewed the world, whatever was spoken of that city in old time belongs to the spiritual Jerusalem…the Church.”
You must think of your church this way: “the city of God.”
You must think of your membership as your citizenship in the city of God.
The Church Institute
The reference in Psalm 48 is to the church institute, the congregation that gathers for worship on the Lord’s Day, with a pastor, elders, and deacons.
The reference is to the church that you can see.
Psalm 48 is not extolling the church universal, or catholic—the church made up of all the elect, which is invisible. This too is the church, and sometimes when the Bible speaks of the church it refers to the entire body and bride of Christ, made up of all the elect, and only the elect, and gathered by Christ out of the world from the beginning to the end of the world.
In Psalm 48, as usually in the Bible, the reference is to the local congregation, to the church with a directory of members, in which is your name and mine.
It is important that you know this, because there is a danger that someone says that he loves and is thankful for the invisible church of all the elect, even though he does not care at all for the church institute and, therefore, does not have his name in any church directory. I have an idea that, if I had pressed him, the young German in Wittenberg would have said that he believes the universal, invisible church. He only rejects the visible institute. Thus, he rejects the church of Psalm 48.
Psalm 48 makes plain that it speaks highly, not of the invisible church of the elect, but of the visible institution of the church.
Jerusalem, or Zion, in the Old Testament was a visible city with towers that could be told; with bulwarks that could be marked; and with palaces that could be considered.
The church praised by Psalm 48 can be seen. You can see its beauty. You can take note of its strength. In it, you find refuge. It has enemies that assemble to attack it. They march against it. But when they see the church’s defenses, they lose heart and flee.
Even these enemies of the church can see the church: “They saw it, and so they marveled; they were troubled, and hasted away” (Psalm 48:5).
The church is visible.
The True Church
But the church of Psalm 48 is not every religious organization that claims to be a church. It is not every institute that has a sign-board in the front yard, “Christian Church.”
The Zion of Psalm 48 is a true church. A true church is one that confesses, proclaims, and defends God’s name (Psalm 48:10), and God’s name is the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ, consisting of all the doctrines of the Bible. God’s name was the beauty and strength of Old Testament Zion. God’s name is the beauty and strength of the church today.
In Article 29, our Belgic Confession tells us that a true church has three, distinct marks, identifying it as a true church, God’s New Testament Zion. The first and foremost is the preaching of “the pure doctrine of the gospel.”
You can be sure, therefore, that Psalm 48 is referring to the churches of which you are members. They preach the pure doctrine of the gospel. Fundamentally, this pure doctrine of the gospel is the truth that Jesus Christ restored to his church at the Reformation: justification by faith alone; salvation by sovereign grace alone; Jesus Christ as the only, almighty savior.
The preaching of this gospel produces lives of obedience to the law of God.
The doctrine that is preached has as its ultimate purpose this confession by the church and its members: “Great is the Lord” (Psalm 48:1).
Thankfulness for the Church
For this church, you are to be thankful. You must rejoice in the church and be glad about it (Psalm 48:11). Your careful examination of the church’s beauty and strength is, plainly, a joyful examination (Psalm 48:12, 13).
You must rejoice over the church, not only for what the church is in itself, but also for what it is for you. You are sons and daughters of Judah, that is, sons and daughters of the church (Psalm 48:11). What the church is, benefits you. It is the city of God for your benefit. It is beautiful with a beauty that makes you beautiful. By its strength, it is a refuge for you. In it God dwells, so that he can be your God for ever and ever (Psalm 48:14). The community of people that is the church affords friendship and help for you.
Your joy in and about the church is a form of thankfulness to God for the church. You are thankful to God for choosing the church in his gracious decree of election. You are thankful to God for establishing the church in the righteousness of the cross of Christ. You are thankful to God for gathering the church by his word and Spirit. You are thankful to God for re-forming the church in the sixteenth century. You are thankful to God for your own congregation.
You may not be like that young, German man who believes in God and in Jesus, but who has no use for God’s church—city of God.
Rather, let mount Zion rejoice. Let the daughters and sons of the church walk about Zion with admiration and joy.
This is an exhortation to you young people—a divine command: Be thankful for the church. “Let mount Zion rejoice!” (Psalm 48:11). “Walk about Zion!” (Psalm 48:12).
Especially the children and the young people are in view: “Tell it to the generation following!” (Psalm 48:13). God wants the coming generation to know and be thankful for the church, because they are members of the church with their parents and grandparents by God’s covenant grace and promise.
He commands the old generation to tell the beauty and strength of the church to the younger generation, so that the younger generation will be thankful. This is what I am doing this afternoon at your mass meeting. I am obeying the command of God to tell the beauty and strength of the church to you, the generation following.
Here are some of the reasons why you should rejoice over the church and be thankful, according to Psalm 48.
Thankfulness for the Church: Why?
The church has been created by God so that he may dwell with you. God established the church (Psalm 48:8). In the church, we have God as our God for ever and ever (Psalm 48:14). Dwelling with God is not only the highest privilege and the keenest pleasure. It is also salvation and eternal life. Outside the true, instituted church, ordinarily, you cannot have God as your God or Jesus Christ as your savior.
In the church, by the church’s preaching of the gospel and administration of the sacraments, you enjoy salvation. Salvation is in the church—salvation from sin; salvation from the devil; salvation from the ungodly world (which is not your friend, but your sworn foe); and salvation from death and hell.
Zion is our refuge. The enemies were dismayed and fled away when they saw Zion (Psalm 48:5-7). In Zion is God’s lovingkindness (Psalm 48:9). In Zion, we are saved by God’s righteousness (Psalm 48:10). In Zion, God guides each of us safely through life, even unto death (and the thought is that he then guides us safely through death) (Psalm 48:14).
In the church, we have the righteousness of the forgiveness of sins, the guide of the word and Spirit of Christ for a holy life, good hope with regard to death, and protection from all our enemies.
In the church!
Not outside the church!
Be thankful for the church!
Another reason why you should be thankful for the church is that in and with the church you can participate in the most important calling of the child of God: public worship of God, especially on the Lord’s Day. This is the main thing. This is how Psalm 48 begins: “Great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised” (Psalm 48:1). Psalm 48:1 adds at once, “in the city of our God.” Only in the church is God thus praised. Not outside the church! Not apart from the church!
There are men and women in Europe today, who are miserable, beseeching God every day for the opportunity to worship God purely in a true church.
At the Reformation, men and women died, at the stake, for their work on behalf of true churches and for their insistence on worshipping God in and with a true church.
The Pilgrims, who began our national custom of an annual Thanksgiving Day, came to this country for the sake of a true church and for the sake of worshipping God rightly in a true church. They did not come to America mainly for plump turkeys. The “city on a hill” that they envisioned was a true church, the Zion of Psalm 48.
Your salvation is not the main thing. The main thing is the praise of God. And this happens supremely and fundamentally in the public worship of the church.
Be thankful for the church!
Thankfulness for the Church: How?
Genuine thankfulness always shows itself.
You will show your thankfulness for the church by being and remaining lively, faithful members of the church. Attend the worship services diligently! Make confession of faith in your church as soon as you come to know and embrace with a believing heart the doctrines that the church teaches! Do not leave the church, whether for a job, or for schooling, or for a wife or a husband!
You must show your thankfulness by becoming doctrinally knowledgeable, sound members of the church. The main calling of young people is not to travel hither, thither, and yon building houses for the homeless, alleviating poverty in society, or witnessing to the unbelieving. Build a house for the homeless, help the poor, and witness, as you have opportunity, but do not suppose that this is your main calling from God in your youth.
Your main calling is to be instructed in the doctrines of the Christian faith as we have them purely in our Protestant Reformed Churches. Your main calling is to know thoroughly the name of God, which is the beauty and strength of his Zion.
Tell this truth to the generation following! Psalm 48 commands me and my generation. Implied is the equally imperious command to you: Listen and learn!
Show your thankfulness also by appreciating the church of which you are a member, and speaking well of it to others. It is not perfect. It is not sinless. The reason is that you and I—its members—are not perfect and sinless. But it is a true church, with the three marks, especially, the mark of the truth.
Some are very critical of the church. Even parents and grandparents, who ought to know better, run the church down. It is not at all surprising, then, that their children and grandchildren leave the church, often ending up as members of a false church, or of no church at all. These parents and grandparents have told the “generation following” bad things about the church, and their generation has paid careful attention.
If there are serious weaknesses in your church, protest in an orderly way. Regarding other weaknesses, be determined to correct them. Improve what God may have done in and for his church by my generation.
But beware, lest you spit on the towers that God has erected, throw rocks at the bulwarks God has built, write graffiti on the palaces in which God dwells, and, generally, busy yourself in the foolish, fruitless labor of tearing down the city of God.
God does not say, “Walk about Zion to find as much fault with my city as you can.”
Know the church! Love the church! Live in and with the church! Be thankful for the church!
You believe in God the Father and in Jesus Christ.
Believe also an holy, catholic church, as it takes form in the congregation of which you are a member.