Tuesday, September 10, 2019

The Communion of Saints and the Christian Life

In an earlier post, I had written about the biblical doctrine of the communion of saints and its development in the Reformation. In short, this doctrine is the idea that believers share a common union with Christ and His benefits, giving them a share in each other's gifts and graces, so that each is bound to maintain a fellowship in common worship, mutual edification, and outward relief. Here I want to write again on how this doctrine enriches our explanation of the church and our role in it. We can explain the church not only as a means by which salvation comes to us through the word and sacrament, but also as a benefit of salvation and a purpose of salvation.

Would anyone want to reject forgiveness, resurrection, or any other benefit of salvation? Those who have been baptized into one body by the Spirit have been given all His diverse gifts found throughout the whole body (1 Cor. 12:7, 12-13). This includes the gift of pastors and teachers, which Christ gives to His church to build it up (Eph. 4:11). The gifts of the whole church are a gift to me. It is a great benefit to the individual body part (eye, ear, etc.) to be united with the rest of the body. The church, the society of saints, is a divine gift, obtained by the sacrifice of Christ and received only though union with Him.

And not only is the church given to us, but we are each given by God to the church. One purpose of our salvation is to build up a new humanity in Christ. The sanctification of the church is a goal of Christ’s death (Eph. 5:25-27). Thus, grace is given to each of us so that we might each do our part to increase the maturity and Christlikeness of the church (Eph. 4:7-16). While the salvation of individuals is one goal of salvation, it is also a means to a further goal, which is the maturation of the church.

And so the Christian life is a shared life. It is one that involves binding relationships that are founded on union with Christ. Active membership in the visible society of saints is not an optional or merely desirable aspect of the Christian life. As a means, a benefit, and a purpose of salvation, it necessarily has a place in the life of the believer.

The organization of the church provides a context for practicing this communion by identifying the body of Christ through baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and discipline. A fixed congregation under established leadership provides a context where we can maintain this fellowship in worship, mutual edification, and care for one another’s needs. In this way, the communion of the saints is nourished by Christ's appointed ordinances, equipped to build itself up, just as a body eats food and then process this food with its various organs so that it gains strength and growth. We can only gain this benefit by participating in a particular visible church. As Abraham Kuyper said, “From the organism the institution is born, but also through the institution the organism is fed” (“Rooted and Grounded,” The Church, 2016).

So the church is not a mere accessory to the Christian life, nor is church membership a bare command. The importance of the church flows from our shared union with Christ. The doctrine of the communion of saints connects salvation and the church and unites the believer to the body. The correct understanding of this doctrine motivates and directs a participatory practice of Christian community in the context of the organized church. In a day where American Christians are prone to privatize the faith and abandon organized religion, we could use greater reflection on this important biblical concept.

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