The Confession of Faith: A commentary on The Westminster Confession of Faith

by A. A. Hodge

A. A. Hodge

Chapter 25

Of the Church

SECTION I: The catholic or universal church, which is invisible, consists of the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ the Head thereof; and is the spouse, the body, the fullness of him that filleth all in all.[1]

1. Eph. 1:10, 22-23; 5:23, 27, 32; Col. 1:18

SECTION II: The visible church, which is also catholic or universal under the gospel (not confined to one nation, as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion;[2] and of their children:[3] and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ,[4] the house and family of God,[5] out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.[6]

2. I Cor. 1:2; 12:12-13; Psa. 2:8; Rev. 7:9; Rom. 15:9-12
3. I Cor. 7:14; Acts 2:39; Gen. 17:7-12; Ezek. 16:20-21; Rom. 11:16; see Gal. 3:7, 9, 14; Rom. 4:12, 16, 24
4. Matt. 13:47; Isa. 9:7; Luke 1:32-33; Acts 2:30-36; Col. 1:13
5. Eph. 2:19; 3:15
6. Acts 2:47

SECTION III: Unto this catholic visible church Christ hath given the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God, for the gathering and perfecting of the saints, in this life, to the end of the world: and doth, by his own presence and Spirit, according to his promise, make them effectual thereunto. [7]

7. I Cor. 12:28; Eph. 4:11-13; Matt. 28:19-20; Isa. 59:12

THE word catholic means universal, and therefore is the proper title of the true Church of Christ, viewed as one body, composed of many members, existing in different places and at different times; and is consequently very improperly applied to that corrupt and schismatical body, the Church of Rome.

The word in the New Testament corresponding to the English word church is ecclesia (ekklesia); this is derived from the word calein (kalein), to call, to call out, and thus constitute a separate body; which word is used to express the effectual call of the Holy Spirit, whereby he brings dead souls to life in the world of regeneration. Rom. viii, 28 -- 30; 1 Pet. ii. 9; v. 10. The word " church," therefore, is a collective term including the whole body of the " called " (kletoi) or the " elect " (eklektoi), or of " believers." Rev. xvii. 14; 1 Cor. i. 2, 24.

To this Church, or collective body of the "effectually called," all the promises of the Gospel are addressed. It is said to be the "pillar and ground of the truth " (1 Tim. iii, 15); the "body" and "fulness of Christ" (Eph. i. 22, 23); "the Bride, the Lamb's wife" (Rev. xxi. 2, 9); and it is affirmed that "the gates of hell shall not prevail against it." Matt. xvi. 18

As every part of this entire body possesses the common nature of the whole, the common term " Church " is naturally applied sometimes to the entire body, of all nations and ages, conceived of as a unit (Col. i. 18); and sometimes to the church of a particular province or city, as "the church of the Thessalonians," or "the church of Ephesus " (2 Thess. i. 1; Rev. ii. 1); or in the plural for the several individual churches of a province, as "the churches in Asia," or " the churches of Macedonia," or of " Galatia" (1 Cor. xvi. 1; 2 Cor. viii. 1; Rev. i. 4); and sometimes the word is applied to designate some Christian family, as " the church in the house of Priscilla and Aquila." Rom. xvi. 5; Col. iv. 15; Philem. 2.

Our Confession teaches in these sections --
1. That there is a collective body, comprising all the elect of God of all nations and generations, called the Church invisible. The fact that there is such a body must be believed by every person who believes that all men, of every age and nation since Adam, who received Christ and experienced the power of his redemption, are to be saved, and that all who reject him will be lost. That this entire body in its ideal completeness, not one true member wanting, not one false member marring its symmetry, has been constantly present to the mind of God from eternity, must be believed by all persons who acknowledge either or both the divine foreknowledge and foreordination.

This body, thus seen in its absolute fulness and perfection by God from eternity, will be at last revealed to the universe in all its completeness and glory, so that it will transcend all the other works of God in its visible excellences. And it is seen in part by us now in the successive ages as it is gathered in, because every member of it is a man or woman living and acting in the world, and the spiritual life whereby they are constituted members of the Church makes itself manifest by its fruits. This Church is called "invisible," however, (1.) Because the portions of it at any time or place visible are immeasurably small in comparison with the body as a whole in its full complement of saints of all nations and generations; and (2.) Because even in the sections of this body visible to us its outlines are very uncertain. Many who appear as parts of it do not really belong to it, and many may really belong to it whose union with it is not manifest. The lines are not to human eye drawn with any degree of accuracy between the Church and the world. In the meantime, the true Church, not yet perfectly developed and manifested, lurks in the phenomenal Church, as the grain of the growing corn lurks in the ear, and in this sense it is invisible. For that which constitutes the essence of this Church is not the visible profession or fruitfulness, but that invisible indwelling divine life, from which the profession and the fruitfulness proceed.

2. These sections teach that there is also a catholic or universal visible Church, consisting of those of every nation who profess the true religion, together with their children. This proposition involves -- (1.) The truth that the true Church, consisting of persons, a part of whom are always living, and, with more or less faithfulness, bringing forth visible fruits of holiness on the earth, of course is itself always in part, and with greater or less clearness, visible. The universal visible Church is therefore not a different Church from that which has just been described as invisible. It is the same body, as its successive generations pass in their order and are imperfectly discriminated from the rest of mankind by the eye of man. (2.) The truth that God has commanded his people to organize themselves into distinct visible ecclesiastical communities, with constitutions, laws and officers, badges, ordinances and discipline, for the great purpose of giving visibility to his kingdom, of making known the gospel of that kingdom, and of gathering in all its elect subjects. Each one of these distinct organized communities which is faithful to the great King is an integral part of the visible Church; and all together, of all names and nations, constitute the catholic or universal visible Church. The conditions of human life, physical, political, and social, and the imperfections of Christians, render impossible a practical organic union of all these organized bodies; yet that they all are one visible Church is self-evident, from the fact that they are all visible parts of the true spiritual or invisible Church, which, being "the body of Christ," can never be divided. (3.) The truth also that since the Church is rendered visible by the profession and outward obedience of its members; and since no class of men are ever endowed with the power of discriminating with absolute accuracy the genuineness of Christian characteristics, it necessarily follows that a credible profession, as presumptive evidence of real religion, constitutes a person a member of the visible Church. By a credible profession is meant a profession of the true religion sufficiently intelligent and sufficiently corroborated by the daily life of the professor to be credited as genuine. Every such profession is ground for the presumption that the person is a member of the true Church, and consequently constitutes him a member of the visible Church, and lays an obligation upon all other Christians to regard and treat him accordingly. This visible Church is called "the kingdom of heaven" on the earth; and its nature and progress are set forth in the parables of the "sower and the seed," the "wheat and the tares," the "mustard seed," the "leaven," the "net which was cast into the sea and gathered fish of every kind," etc. Matt. xiii. (4.) Also the truth that the children of all professors of the true religion are, on that account, fellow-members with their parents of the visible Church. This important principle will properly come up for discussion and proof under chapter xxviii. section 4.

3. These sections teach that God has given to this universal visible Church, in all its branches and constituent elements -- (1.) The inspired Scriptures as an infallible oracle and rule of faith and practice; (2.) The Gospel ministry -- an order not qualified and indicated by manual contact, but by the gifts and graces of the Holy Ghost; (3.) The ordinances, such as preaching, prayer, singing of praise, and the holy sacraments of Baptism, and the Lord's Supper, and discipline. And (4.) That the great end designed to be accomplished by this grant is (a.) the gathering in of the elect from the children of the Church or from the world, and (b.) the perfecting of the saints when thus gathered. Eph. iv. 11 -- 13. And (5.) That the success of these agencies in attaining this end is secured beyond peradventure by the promise of Christ to be with them and to render them effectual until the end of the world. Matt. xxviii. 20.

4. These sections teach that out of the bounds of this universal visible Church there is no ordinary possibility of salvation. This proposition is believed by our Church and by all other evangelical Christians to apply only to adults who are out of the pale of the visible Church. A11 the members of the human race dying in infancy are believed to be saved through the merits of Christ. Since, then, the universal visible Church consists of all the professors of the true religion in the world, to say that out of it there is ordinarily no possibility of salvation is only saying -- (1.) That God has never in any way revealed his intention of saving any sane adult destitute of the personal knowledge of Christ. (2.) That an unexceptional experience in heathen lands leads us to the conviction that none in such a condition are saved. (3.) That God has very emphatically declared that those who deny his Son before men shall not be saved. Matt. x. 33. (4.) That every man who hears the gospel is commanded to confess Christ before men -- that is, to become a public, visible professor of the true religion. Matt. x. 32. The conditions of salvation laid down in Rom. x. 9, 10 are --" If thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe with thy heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved. For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation." There are obviously various ways in which Christ may be publicly acknowledged and confessed. In some way every person having the love of Christ in his heart will confess him. But our Confession intends in these sections to teach further that ordinarily, where there is the knowledge and opportunity, God requires every one who loves Christ to confess him in the regular way of joining the community of his people and of taking the sacramental badges of his discipleship. That this is commanded will be shown under chapters xxvii.-xxix. And that when providentially possible every Christian heart will be prompt to obey in this matter, is self-evident. When shame or fear of persecution is the preventing consideration, then the failure to obey is equivalent to the positive rejection of Christ, since the rejection of him will have to be publicly pretended in such case in order to avoid the consequences attending upon the public acknowledgment of him.

SECTION IV: This catholic church hath been sometimes more, sometimes less visible.[8] And particular churches, which are members thereof, are more or less pure, according as the doctrine of the gospel is taught and embraced, ordinances administered, and public worship performed more or less purely in them.[9]

8. Rom. 11:3-5; Acts 2:41, 47; 9:31; 18:8-10
9. Acts 2:41-42; I Cor. 5:6-7; Rev. ch. 2-3

SECTION V: The purest churches under heaven are subject both to mixture and error;[10] and some have so degenerated, as to become no churches of Christ, but synagogues of Satan.[11] Nevertheless, there shall be always a church on earth, to worship God according to his will.[12]

10. I Cor. 13:12; Rev. ch. 2-3; Matt. 13:24-30, 47
11. Matt. 23:37-39; Rom. 11:18-22
12. Matt. 16:18; Psa. 45:16-7; 72:17; Matt. 28:19-20; I Cor. 15:51-52; I Thess. 4:17

SECTION VI: There is no other head of the church but the Lord Jesus Christ.[13] Nor can the pope of Rome, in any sense, be head thereof;[14] but is that Antichrist, that man of sin, and son of perdition, that exalts himself, in the Church, against Christ and all that is called God.

13. Col. 1:18; Eph. 1:22
14. Matt. 23:8-10; I Peter 5:2-4

All that is taught in these sections necessarily follows from what we have above ascertained as to the nature of the visible Church: --

1. Since the catholic or universal visible Church consists of all the professors of the true religion in the world, and of all the particular ecclesiastical organizations which continue loyal to the Head, and maintain doctrines essentially sound, it must necessarily follow that the Church as a whole is in any age more or less visible, and any particular constituent church more or less pure in proportion -- (1.) To the purity of the doctrine they profess and the worship they maintain; (2.) To their zeal and spiritual character and energy; and (3.) To the purity of their membership maintained by discipline. In proportion as these are all advanced in perfection, and prevail generally throughout the whole body, in the same degree will the entire Church appear more visibly discriminated from the world and manifest in her entire outline. In the same measure, also, will every individual ecclesiastical organization be pure -- that is, free from heterogeneous elements -- and consecrated to the accomplishment of the ends for which it is designed.

2. It follows, also, from the very nature of the visible Church and its condition in this world, that its purity is a matter of degree, varying at different times and in different sections. The teaching of Scripture as to the nature of the kingdom under the present dispensation (Matt. xiii.), the nature of man yet imperfectly sanctified, and the universal experience of the churches, lead us to the conclusion that the very purest churches are yet very imperfect, and will continue so to the end, and that some will become so corrupt as to lose their character as true churches of Christ altogether. This was the case with the ancient Church under the reign of Ahab, when the children of Israel had apostatized from the service of the true God to such an extent that Elijah thought he was the only one left faithful. Even in that state of affairs the Lord declared, "Yet I have left me seven thousand in Israel, all the knees which have not bowed unto Baal." 1 Kings xix. 18. Even more entire deterioration has happened to the ancient churches founded by the apostles in the East and by their successors in Northern Africa. The churches which acknowledge the supremacy of the Bishop of Rome have abandoned the faith and obscured the glory of their Lord in one direction, while many professedly Protestant churches -- as the English and American Socinians and the German Rationalists -- have made an equal apostasy in another.

The Church of Rome maintains that the promise of Christ secures the infallible orthodoxy and purity of the visible organization, in subjection to apostolically-ordained bishops, to the end of the world. But the Church whose infallible orthodoxy and purity is guaranteed by the divine promise is no outward visible organization or succession of bishops or priests; it is the particular Church of no nation or generation, but it is the true invisible body of the elect or of true believers of all nations and ages. That it is so is proved -- (1.) From the fact that for eighteen hundred years the promise has been fulfilled in the sense we have defined, but has never been fulfilled in the sense the Romish Church demands. They have themselves led the defection from the faith and practice of the apostolic Church. And among Romanists and Protestants alike, visible ecclesiastical organizations are continually changing their characters and relations to the truth. (2.) Several of the Epistles are addressed to "the Church," and the salutations explain that phrase by the equivalents "the called," "the saints," etc. See the salutations of First and Second Corinthians, Ephesians, Colossians, First and Second Peter, and Jude. The same attributes are ascribed to the members of the true Church in the body of the Epistles. 1 Cor. i. 30; iii. 16; vi. 11; Eph. ii. 3 -- 8, 19 -- 22; Col. i. 21, 22; ii. 10; 1 Pet. ii. 9. (3.) The attributes ascribed to the true Church prove it to be spiritual, and, in the sense explained, invisible, and not an outward organized succession. Eph. v. 27; 1 Pet. ii. 5; John x. 27; Col. i. 18, 24.

3. It follows, nevertheless, from the relation which the visible Church sustains to the invisible Church, that since, according to divine promise, the latter can never entirely fail from the earth (Matt. xvi. 18), so likewise, however the former may be obscured by heresies or lessened by defection, it can never be entirely wanting. Wherever the true Church is, it will be more or less visible; not in proportion, however, to the size or pretension of the organization with which it may be associated, but in proportion to the purity of its faith and the spiritual activity and fruitfulness of its membership.

4. That the Lord Jesus Christ is the only absolute and supreme Head of the Church is self-evident, is abundantly asserted in Scripture (Col. i. 18, and Zph. i. 20 -- 23), and has never been denied by any Christians.

Many have, however, maintained that, as the visible Church on earth has a government and laws, and since these must be administered by a visible authority, so the Church must have an earthly visible head, acting upon authority delegated by Christ and is his representative. The Church of Rome claims this for the Pope: "So has Christ -- the Head and Spouse -- placed over his Church, which he governs by his most inward Spirit, a man to be the vicar and minister of his power; for as a visible church requires a visible head, our Saviour appointed Peter head and pastor of all the faithful." Cat. Rom., part i. ch. x., q. 11.

The Erastian State Churches of Germany and Great Britain have acknowledged their respective sovereigns as supreme heads of the Church as well as of the State. Henry VIII. was recognized as "supreme head of the Church of England," and it was enacted "That the king, his heirs, etc., shall be taken, accepted, and reputed the only supreme head on earth of the Church of England, called Anglicana Ecclesia; and shall have and enjoy, annexed and united to the imperial crown of this realm, as well the style and title thereof, as all honours, dignities, immunities, profits and commodities to the said dignity of supreme head of the said. Church belonging and appertaining." 26 Henry VIII., cap. i. This supremacy of the reigning sovereign over the Church is even made an article of faith, being incorporated into the Thirty- seventh Article of the Church of England: "The Queen's majesty has the chief power in this realm of England, and other her dominions; unto whom the chief government of all estates of this realm, whether they be ecclesiastical or civil, in all causes doth appertain."

In both these cases, and in all cases of like claims to ecclesiastical supremacy, it is a mere question of fact and evidence. If, as a matter of fact, Christ delegated his authority either to the Pope or to national Sovereigns, and made them, as his victors, visible heads of his Church, then we ought to obey them, and our disobedience is treason to Christ. On the contrary, if they have no such authority, and are unable to prove their claims by unquestionable credentials, then their assumption of such power is a blasphemous intrusion upon divine prerogatives and treason to the human race. It is obvious that neither party can show any plausible foundation for their claims, and that upon the slightest interrogation they fall of their own weight.

In the absence of any duly accredited visible head of the Church, we are forced back to direct dependence for law and its administration, as well as for redemption, upon the great invisible Head. He presides over and governs his Church -- (1.) Through his inspired Word, which is, as we have seen, an infallible, complete, and perspicuous rule of faith and practice. (2.) Through the apostolical institutions transmitted to us, as the ministry, the sacraments, the ordinances, etc. Eph. iv. 11. And (3.) Through his own spiritual presence, which extends to all his members, and endures to the end of the world. Matt. xviii. 20; xxviii. 20.

The word "Antichrist" occurs in the New Testament in 1 John ii. 18, 22; iv. 3; 2 John 7. The coming of the "man of sin," the "son of perdition," is predicted in 2 Thess. ii. 3, 4. Interpreters have differed as to whether these phrases were intended to designate a personal opponent of the Lord, or principles and systems antagonistic to him and his cause. The authors of our Confession can hardly have intended to declare that each individual Pope of the long succession is the personal Antichrist, and they probably meant that the Papal system is in spirit, form, and effect, wholly antichristian, and that it marked a defection from apostolical Christianity foreseen and foretold in Scripture. All of which was true in their day, and is true in ours. We have need, however, to remember that as the forms of evil change, and the complications of the kingdom of Christ with that of Satan vary with the progress of events, "even now are there many Antichrists." 1 John ii. 18.

Text scanned and Edited by Michael Bremmer

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