Readers of this blog will know that I like to spend time in the 16-17th centuries to relax. In between finishing my final revision of my sermon for Sunday on Romans 10.14-21 and my wife off to the hairdresser, I had a bit of time for Wilhelmus à Brakel. Here he is on the way the church is subordinate to the Word of God and not the other way around:
If the Word of God is the only criterion by which we can determine a church to be the true church of God, then we must first acknowledge Scripture to be the Word of God before acknowledging the church to be the true church. Furthermore, we cannot receive the testimony of the church unless we acknowledge her to be the true church. Thus, we do not believe the Word to be the Word of God because the church affirms it, but on the contrary, we believe the church to be the true church because the Word validates her as such. A house rests upon its foundation, and not the foundation upon the house. A construction is subordinate to its cause rather than the cause being subordinate to what it has constructed.
The Christian’s Reasonable Service, 1:29
What happens when we miss à Brakel’s point that the Word of God is the only criterion by which we can determine the true church of God?
Discipleship becomes the ticking time-bomb of disharmony.
As Article 6 of the Thirty-Nine Articles affirms, God’s Word is fully sufficient and true converts thirst for it like a newborn’s thirst for milk. It is a sad fact of our sinful natures that for many who have years invested in the church have hearts that can become calloused toward the Truth. Years of comfortable church that seemingly affirmed their preferences, that never confronted them with unpleasant biblical limits or boundaries that would offend them or challenge their presuppositions, have led them to hear the Word but excuse themselves from applying it to their lives and to their hearts, steadily becoming self-deceived. And they project this hard-heartedness onto newcomers. Unfortunately, some never notice or accept that new believers are craving pure spiritual milk and even graduating to meat ahead of them.
Discipleship becomes the battlefield:
- Denominational veterans who remain totally unaware that they are self-deceived.
- Others who are not converted who struggle with a conviction of sin in the hypocrisy that the Word of God exposes in them and in the veterans who ignore the Word of God completely.
- And the genuinely converted who are hungry but helpless without mature mentors among them.
What happens when a church begins to sit under the authority of God’s Word as your delight, his commands as anything but burdensome, and the Gospel as something of which you are completely unashamed? I’d love to tell you it magically fixes everything. It does not. It DOES give you a new and infinitely more biblically-defensible set of problems, and it DOES initiate a protracted season of pruning and refinement that leaves a far more faithful and joy-filled remnant.
The Word of God validates the true church in the end.