John Calvin: The Necessity of Being Part of the Visible Church

Of the True Church. Duty of Cultivating Unity with Her, as the Mother of All the Godly

4. But as it is now our purpose to discourse of the visible church, let us learn from her single title of Mother, how useful, no, how necessary the knowledge of her is, since there is no other means of entering into life unless she conceive us in the womb and give us birth, unless she nourish us at her breasts, and, in short, keep us under her charge and government, until, divested of mortal flesh, we become like the angels (Matt 22:30).  For our weakness does not permit us to leave the school until we have spent our whole lives as scholars. Moreover, beyond the pale of the church no forgiveness of sins, no salvation, can be hoped for, as Isaiah and Joel testify (Isa 37:32; Joel 2:32).  To their testimony, Ezekiel subscribes, when he declares, “They shall not be in the assembly of my people, neither shall they be written in the writing of the house of Israel” (Ezek 13:9); as, on the other hand, those who turn to the cultivation of true piety are said to inscribe their names among the citizens of Jerusalem.  For which reason it is said in the psalm, “Remember me, O Lord, with the favor that thou bearest unto thy people: O visit me with thy salvation; that I may see the good of thy chosen, that I may rejoice in the gladness of thy nation, that I may glory with thine inheritance” (Ps 106:4-5).  By these words the paternal favor of God and the special evidence of spiritual life are confined to his peculiar [exclusive] people, and hence the abandonment of the church is always fatal.

5.  But let us proceed to a full exposition of this view.  Paul says that our Savior, “ascended far above all heavens, that he might fill all things.  And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: till we all come in the unity of the faith; and of the knowledge of the Son of God, into a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Eph 4:10-13).  We see that God, who might perfect his people in a moment, chooses not to bring them to manhood in any other way than by education of the church.  We see the mode of doing it expressed; the preaching of celestial doctrine is committed to pastors.  We see that all without exception are brought into the same order, that they may with meek and docile spirit allow themselves to be governedby teachers appointed for this purpose.  Isaiah had long before given this as the characteristic of the kingdom of Christ, “My Spirit that is upon thee, and my words which I have put in thy mouth, shall not depart out of thy mouth, nor out of the mouth of thy seed, nor out of the mouth of thy seed’s seed, saith the Lord, from henceforth and for ever” (Isa 59:21).  Hence it follows, that all who reject the spiritual food of the soul divinely offered to them by the hands of the church, deserve to perish of hunger and famine.  God inspires us with faith, but it is by the instrumentality of his gospel, as Paul reminds us, “Faith cometh by hearing” (Rom 10:17). God reserves to himself the power of maintaining it, but it is by the preaching of the gospel, as Paul also declares, that he brings it forth and unfolds it.  With this view, it pleased him in ancient times that sacred meetings should be held in the sanctuary, that consent in faith might be nourished by doctrineproceeding from the lips of the priest.  Those magnificent titles, as when the temple is called God’s rest, his sanctuary, his habitation, and when he is said to dwell between the cherubim (Ps 132:13-14; 80:1), are used for no other purpose than to procure respect, love, reverence, and dignity to the ministry of heavenly doctrine, to which otherwise the appearance of an insignificant human being might be in no slight degree derogatory.  Therefore, to teach us, that the treasure offered to us in earthen vessels is of inestimable value (2 Cor 4:7), God himself appears and, as the author of this ordinance, requires his presence to be recognized in his own institution.  Accordingly, after forbidding his people to give heed to familiar spirits, wizards, and other superstitions (Lev 19:30-31), he adds that he will give what ought to be sufficient for all – namely, that he will never leave them without prophets.  For, as he did not commit his ancient people to angels, but raised up teachers on the earth to perform a truly angelic office, so he is pleased to instruct us in the present day by human means.  But as anciently he did not confine himself to the law merely, but added priests as interpreters from whose lips the people might inquire after his true meaning, so in the present day he would not only have us to be attentive to reading,  but has appointed masters to give us their assistance.   In this there is a twofold advantage.  For, on the one hand, he by an admirable test proves our obedience when we listen to his ministers just as we would to himself; while on the other hand, he consults our weakness in being pleased to address us after the manner of men by means of interpreters, that he may thus allure us to himself, instead of driving us away by his thunder.  How well this familiar mode of teaching is suited to us all the godly are aware, from the dread with which the divine majesty justly inspires them.

Those who think that the authority of the doctrine is impaired by the insignificance of the men who are called to teach, betray their ingratitude; for among the many noble endowments with which God has adorned the human race, one of the most remarkable is, that he deigns to consecrate the mouths and tongues of men to his service, making his own voice to be heard in them.  Wherefore, let us not on our part decline obediently to embrace the doctrine of salvation, delivered by his command and mouth; because, although the power of teaching is not confined to external means, he has, however, confined us to his ordinary method of teaching, which method, when fanatics refuse to observe, they entangle themselves in many fatal snares.  Pride, or fastidiousness, or emulation, induces many to persuade themselves that they can profit sufficiently by reading and meditating in private, and thus to despise public meetings, and deem preaching superfluous.  But since as much as in them lies they loose or burst the sacred bond of unity, none of them escapes the just punishment of this impious divorce, but become fascinated with pestiferous errors, and the foulest delusions.  Wherefore, in order that the pure simplicity of the faith may flourish among us, let us not decline to use this exercise of piety, which God by his institution of it has shown to be necessary, and which he so highly recommends.  None, even among the most petulant of men, would venture to say, that we are to shut our ears against God, but in all ages prophets and pious teachers have had a difficult contest to maintain with the ungodly, whose perverseness cannot submit to the yoke of being taught by the lips and ministry of men.  This is just the same as if they were to destroy the impress of God as exhibited to us in doctrine.  For no other reason were believers anciently enjoined to seek the face of God in the sanctuary (Ps 105:4) [an injunction so often repeated in the Law], than because the doctrine of the Law, and the exhortation of the prophets, were to them a living image of God.  This Paul declares, that in his preaching the glory of God shone in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Cor 4:6).  The more detestable are the apostates who delight in introducing schisms in churches, just as if they wished to drive the sheep from the fold, and throw them into the jaws of wolves.  Let us hold, agreeably to the passage we quoted from Paul, that the church can only be edified by external preaching, and that there is no other bond by which the saints can be kept together than by uniting with one consent to observe the order which God has appointed in his church for learning and making progress……

10.  We have said that the symbols by which the church is discerned are the preaching of the word and the observance of the sacraments, for these cannot anywhere exist without producing fruit and prospering by the blessing of God.  I say not that wherever the word is preached fruit immediately appears; but that in every place where it is received, and has a fixed abode, it uniformly displays its efficacy.  Be this as it may, when the preaching of the gospel is reverently heard, and the sacraments are not neglected, there for the time the face of the church appears without deception or ambiguity and no man may with impunity spurn her authority, or reject her admonitions or resist her counsels, or make sport of her censures, far less revolt from her, and violate her unity…  For such is the value which the Lord sets on the communion of his church, that all who contumaciously alienate themselves from any Christian society, in which the true ministry of his word and sacraments is maintained, he regards as deserters of religion.  So highly does he recommend her authority, that when it is violated he considers that his own authority is impaired.  For there is no small weight in the designation given to her, “the house of God”, “the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim 3:15).  By these words Paul intimates that to prevent the truth from perishing in the world, the church is its faithful guardian, because God has been pleased to preserve the pure preaching of his word by her instrumentality, and to exhibit himself as a parent while he feeds us with spiritual nourishment, and provides whatever is conducive to our salvation.  Moreover, no mean praise is conferred on the church when she is said to have been chosen and set apart by Christ as his spouse, “not having spot or wrinkle, or any such thing” (Eph 5:27), as “his body, the fullness of him that filleth all in all” (Eph 1:23).  Whence it follows, that revolt from the church is denial of God and Christ.  Wherefore there is the more necessity of a dissent so iniquitous; for seeing by it we aim as far as in us lies at the destruction of God’s truth, we deserve to be crushed by the full power of his anger.  No crime can be imagined more atrocious than that of sacrilegiously and perfidiously violating the sacred marriage which the only begotten Son of God has condescended to contract with us.

11.  Wherefore let these marks be carefully impressed upon our minds, and let us estimate them as in the sight of the Lord.  There is nothing on which Satan is more intent than to destroy and efface one or both of them – at one time to delete and abolish these marks, and thereby destroy the true and genuine distinction of the church; at another, to bring them into contempt, and so hurry us into open revolt from the church.  To his wiles it was owing that for several ages the pure preaching of the word disappeared, and now, with the same dishonest aim, he labours to overthrow the ministry, which, however, Christ has so ordered in his church, that if it is removed the whole edifice must fall.  How perilous, then, no, how fatal the temptation, when we even entertain a thought of separating ourselves from that assembly in which are beheld the signs and badges which the Lord has deemed sufficient to characterize his church!  We see how great caution should be employed in both respects.  That we may not be imposed upon by the name of church, every congregation which claims the name must be brought to that test as to a Lydian stone.  If it holds the order instituted by the Lord in word and sacraments there will be no deception; we may safely pay it the honour due to a church: on the other hand, if it exhibit itself without word and sacraments, we must in this case be no less careful to avoid the imposture than we were to shun pride and presumption in the other.

Taken from: “Institutes of the Christian Religion” by John Calvin, Book 4, Chapters 1-11, 2008, Hendrickson Publishers Marketing, LLC, Peabody, Massachusetts