The Reformed Faith

An Exposition of the

Westminster Confession of Faith

Robert Shaw

Chapter XXVI. Of Communion of Saints

Section I.–All saints that are united to Jesus Christ their head, by his Spirit and by faith, have fellowship with him in his graces, sufferings, death, resurrection, and glory: and, being united to one another in love, they have communion in each other's gifts and graces, and are obliged to the performance of such duties, public and private, as to conduce to their mutual good, both in the inward and outward man.

Section II.–Saints by profession are bound to maintain an holy fellowship and communion in the worship of God, and in performing such other spiritual services as tend to their mutual edification; as also in relieving each other in outward things, according to their several abilities and necessities. Which communion, as God offereth opportunity, is to be extended unto all those who, in every place, call upon the name of the Lord Jesus.

Exposition

Communion is founded in union. The above sections embrace–First, The union of the saints to Jesus Christ, and their communion with him; Secondly, The union and communion of real saints with one another; Thirdly, The union of saints by profession, and the communion which they are bound to maintain.

1. All saints are united to Jesus Christ. This is not an essential union, such as subsists between the sacred persons of the Godhead; nor a personal union, such as exists between the divine and human natures in the person of Christ; nor merely a political union, like that between a king and his subjects; nor a mere moral union, like that between two friends. Between Christ and believers there is a legal union, like that betwixt a surety and the person for whom he engages. This union was formed from all eternity, when Christ was appointed their federal head. But, besides this, there is a spiritual union formed between them in time, of which our Confession here treats. It is a profound mystery, and, for this reason, is usually denominated a mystical union. But, though deeply mysterious, its reality cannot be questioned. Sometimes it is expressed in Scripture by believers being in Christ: "There is now, therefore, no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus."–Rom. viii. 1. At other times Christ is said to be in believers: "know ye not your ownselves, how that Jesus Christ is in you, except ye be reprobates."–2 Cor. xiii. 5. Sometimes both modes of expression are joined together: "Abide in me, and I in you." John xv. 4. This union is exhibited and illustrated in Scripture by various similitudes. It is compared to the union between a tree and its branches (John xv. 5)–to the union between the building and the foundation by which it is supported (1 Pet. ii. 4, 6)–to the union between husband and wife (Eph. v. 31, 32)–and to the union between the head and the members of the body.–Eph. iv. 15, 16. These similitudes, though they come far short of the union which they represent, yet clearly import its reality. In all unions, there is something which binds together the things or persons united. As the union between Christ and his people is spiritual in its nature, so are its bonds; and these are the Holy Spirit on Christ's part, and faith on their part. Christ apprehends them by his Spirit, and they receive him by that with which his Spirit produces in them. Hence he is said to dwell in their hearts by faith. So close and intimate is this union, that Christ and believers are said to be one spirit: "He that is joined to the Lord is one spirit" with him.–1 Cor. vi. 17. But it is the crowning excellence of this union, that it can never be dissolved. The Holy Spirit will never depart from any in whom he has taken up his residence.–John xiv. 16, 17. Satan and all his agents, with all their combined strength and subtilty, cannot separate one soul from Christ.–Rom. viii. 38, 39. Death will break all other ties, and separate the soul from the body, but it cannot dissolve the union between Christ and believers. Hence they are said to "die in the Lord," and to "sleep in Jesus." - Rev. xiv. 13; 1 Thess. iv. 14.

Being thus united to Christ, believers have fellowship with him in his sufferings and death, and are therefore said to be "crucified and dead with Christ."–Rom. vi. 6, 8. They have also fellowship with Christ in his resurrection; for they are "raised up together with him," and have communion with him in his life.–Eph. ii. 6; Gal. ii. 20. They have fellowship with him in his victories. He spoiled principalities and powers, overcame the world, destroyed death, and vanquished the grave for them; and they shall be made more than conquerors over all these enemies, through him.–Rom. viii. 37. They have communion with him in all the benefits which he purchased; hence they are said to be "made partakers of Christ," and to be "complete in him who is the head of all principality end power" (Heb. iii. 14; Col. ii. 10);–they have an interest in his righteousness, by which he fulfilled the law in their room, and are thus entitled to the blessing of justification;–they are adopted into the family of heaven, and made heirs of God, and joint heirs with his Son Jesus Christ;–they are sanctified in soul, body-, and spirit, being enabled by his grace to die more and more unto sin, and live unto righteousness;–they now sit in heavenly places with Christ as their representing head; and, in due time, they shall be glorified in their own persons together with him.–Eph. ii. 6; Col. ii. 4. In short, all things are theirs, as the Apostle Paul asserts; and he bounds their title to all things upon their union to Christ: "All things are yours; whether Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas, or the world, or life, or death, or things present, or things to come; all are yours; and ye are Christ's; and Christ is God's."–1 Cor. iii. 22, 23.

2. All real saints are united to one another, and have communion among themselves. They form one body, are all united to Christ as their common head, and are partakers of one Spirit. They have all obtained like precious faith; and their faith, as to the leading doctrines of the gospel, is substantially the same. They are also united in love, which is called "the bond of perfectness." So perfectly were the primitive Christians knit together by this bond, that they were "of one heart and of one soul"–Acts iv. 32. There is nothing which our Saviour more earnestly inculcated upon his followers than mutual love; he represented it as the best proof to themselves, and the most decisive evidence to others, that they were his genuine disciples: "A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye love one another." John xiii. 34, 35. As the saints "love our Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity," so they love all in whom they can perceive the image of Christ. Being thus united to one another, they have communion with each other in their gifts and graces. As the natural body consists of many members - some of superior, and others of inferior use, and each member is serviceable to its fellow-members, and contributes to the good of the whole–so the mystical body of Christ is composed of many members, endured with different gifts and graces; and the several members ought to be profitable to each other, and promote the benefit of the whole Church. They are obliged to the performance of such duties as conduce to their mutual good. They ought to be "kindly affectioned one to another, with brotherly love; in honour preferring one another"–to "bear one another's burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ"–to a rejoice with them that rejoice, and weep with them that weep"–to offer up fervent "supplication for all saints"–and, "as they have opportunity, do good to all men, especially to them who are of the household of faith."

3. Saints by profession are also united in one body, and bound to maintain a holy fellowship and communion with each other. Professed saints compose the Church considered as visible; and of this society unity is an essential attribute. This union is not confined to those who live together, and can assemble in one place for the observance of religious ordinances; but extends to "all that in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours." The visible bonds of this unity are specified by the Apostle Paul: "There is one body and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all."–Eph. iv. 4-6. Our Confession mentions three things in which professed saints are bound to hold fellowship and communion with one another: First, They ought to assemble together for joining in the public worship of God. This species of communion was assiduously maintained the early Christians: "They continued steadfastly in the apostles' doctrine, and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers."–Acts in. 42. When some, at a later period, had become negligent in cultivating this communion, the apostle warned them against "forsaking the assembling of themselves together, as the manner of some is." "The institutions of the gospel were intended as a bond of union among Christians; and by the joint celebration of them communion is maintained and expressed. "By one Spirit we are all baptised into one body;' and "being many, we are one bread and one body; for we are all partakers of that one bread' in the sacramental communion.–1 Cor. x. 17, xii. 13. It is not necessary to this unity that Christians should all meet for worship in the same place–this is physically impossible; nor are we to conceive of Church communion as local. It consists in their celebrating the some holy ordinances–in their performing acts of worship the same in kind, wherever they assemble; and in their being disposed and ready to embrace every proper occurring opportunity to join with all "those who in every place call on the name of Jesus Christ the Lord, both theirs and ours.' Thus it was in the primitive Church; and thus it would still be if catholic unity were preserved, and if the institutions of Christ, along with the faith to which they relate, were everywhere preserved pure and entire." Secondly, Professed saints ought to perform such other spiritual services as tend to their mutual edification. They are enjoined to "follow after the things wherewith one may edify another."–Rom. xiv. 19. Among the "services which tend to mutual edification," may be mentioned mutual prayer; spiritual conference; admonishing, exhorting, and provoking one another to love and good works; comforting the feeble-minded, supporting the weak, visiting and encouraging the afflicted.–Mal. iii. 16; Col. iii. 16; 1 Thess. v. 11, 14; Heb. x. 24. Thirdly, Professed saints ought to relieve each other in outward things, according to their several abilities and opportunities. Not a few who are "rich in faith, and heirs of the kingdom which God hath promised to them that love him," are poor in this world. - James ii. 5. Their Christian brethren, who have "this world's good," ought to sympathise with them, and minister to their necessities.–1 John iii. 17. Sometimes Christians in one country suffer "the spoiling of their goods," and are reduced to great straits, through the violence of persecution; in such cases, their brethren in other places ought to contribute liberally for their relief. This duty was nobly exemplified by the primitive Christians: "It pleased them of Macedonia and Achaia to make a certain contribution for the poor saints which were at Jerusalem."–Rom. xv. 25. If professing Christians in one district are unable of themselves to provide for the regular dispensation of public religious ordinances among them, it is no less the duty of their brethren who are placed in more favourable circumstances to afford them pecuniary aid. Thus the strong should support the weak, that the abundance of the one may be a supply for the want of the other, that there may be equality. Ministering to the saints is expressly called "fellowship."–2 Cor. viii. 4. To this kind of communion the concluding sentence of this section of our Confession may, perhaps, more especially refer: "Which communion, as God offereth opportunity, is to be extended unto all those who, in every place, call upon the name of the Lord Jesus." This sentence is closely connected with the clause immediately preceding, which relates to "relieving each other in outward things;" and the whole of the Scripture proofs adduced refer either to the Church of Jerusalem–which "had all things common"–or to the saints in one place "sending relief" to those in distant places who were impoverished by persecution. It will be admitted, however; that Christian communion of a more extensive nature, including all those services which tend to mutual edification, ought to be maintained with all that call on the name of the Lord Jesus, as opportunity permits; nay, were the visible catholic Church what it ought to be, according to the rule of God's Word, one in professions the members of this or that particular Church would be entitled to enjoy, and bound to hold, Church communion wherever Providence might order their lot. If professed Christians throughout the world, instead of being divided into diverse and opposing sections, were cemented into one holy brotherhood, then, whoever was admitted into the fellowship of the Church in one place, would be recognised as a member of the catholic Church, and would be entitled to claim the privilege of communion in any particular Church where his lot was cast. On the other hand, whoever was laid under censure in a particular Church, would be considered under the same in all others; and would not be receded into communion till the sentence were reversed by the same power, or by a still higher authority. Thus it ought to be; and thus it would be, were that unity which should characterise the visible Church, fully realised. But in the present state of the Church, divided and subdivided as it is into an almost countless number of sections, all of them contending for some peculiar principle or practice which they deem important, and by which they are not only distinguished from, but opposed to, other denominations, such extended Church communion cannot be consistently maintained. It will scarcely be questioned that separation from corrupt Churches becomes, in certain cases, warrantable and necessary; but "where communion is lawful, it will not be easy to vindicate separation from the charge of schism." If a particular Church is organised for the special purpose of vindicating the sole headship of Christ and the spiritual independence of his Church–were the members of that Church to join in all the intimacies of communion with another Church which had either avowedly or practically surrendered these distinguishing principles, they would virtually declare that they have no scriptural and conscientious grounds for separation, and expose themselves to the charge of unnecessarily rending that body which Christ so fervently prayed might be "one."

Section III.–This communion which the saints have with Christ, doth not make them in any wise partakers of the substance of the Godhead, or to be equal with Christ in any respect: either of which to affirm, is impious and blasphemous. Nor doth their communion one with another as saints, take away or infringe the title or property which each man hath in his goods and possessions.

Exposition

This section guards against two heretical opinions–the one relating to the saints' communion with Christ; the other, to their communion with one another. Certain mystics have employed impious and blasphemous terms in reference to the saints' union and communion with Christ, as if they were deified or christified. They have not scrupled to use the phrases of being "goaded in God," and "christed in Christ," and other expressions equally wild. In the beginning of the sixteenth century, the Anabaptists of Germany, among other absurd and dangerous tenets, contended for the necessity of a community of goods among Christians. This doctrine never made much progress in this country, and modern Anabaptists entirely reject it. In opposition to these extravagant notions, our Confession teaches: -

1. That the saints' communion with Christ does not involve a participation of the substance of his Godhead, nor constitute an equality between him and them in any respect. The union that subsists between Christ and believers leaves them distinct persons; and the communion which believers have with Christ does not raise them to an equality with him in dignity. gluey cannot participate in his divine excellencies, which are incommunicable; neither can they share with him in the glory of his mediatory work. He had none to co-operate with him in that arduous work, and he alone must bear the glory; as the saints are not deified, neither are they exalted to be mediators and saviours in conjunction with Christ.

2. That the saints' communion with one another does not take away or infringe upon the rights of private property. The perpetual obligation of the eighth commandment, the admonitions of the New Testament to charity and hospitality, the particular precepts addressed to the high and to the low, to the rich and to the poor–all plainly prove that, under the gospel, each man retains a property in his goods and possessions. We are told, indeed, that in the primitive Church "all that believed had all things common, and sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need."–Acts ii. 44, 45. From this "it has been supposed that there was a real community of goods among the Christians of Jerusalem; or that every man, renouncing all right in his property, delivered it over to a public stock, to which all had an equal claim. It appears, however, from the story of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts v. 4), that the disciples were under no obligation, or bound by no positive law, to dispose of their property for the benefit of the Church; and that, after it was sold, they could retain the whole, or any part of the price, provided that they did not, like those unhappy persons, practise dissimulation and deceit; and it is further evident, from the passage we have quoted, that although in many instances they laid down the price at the apostles' feet, entrusting them with the distribution, yet they sometimes reserved it in their own hands, and gave it to the indigent, according to their own ideas of their need. These considerations seem to prove, that there was not an actual community of goods in the primitive Church; but that, in consequence of the fervent charity which united their hearts and interests, "no man,' as Luke informs us in the fourth chapter, "said that ought of the things which he possessed was his own,' or appropriated them to his own use, but readily parted with them for the supply of his brethren. There is no evidence that the conduct of the Church of Jerusalem was followed by any other Church, even in the apostolic age; but as far as it is an example of generous love triumphing over the selfish affections, and exciting men to pursue the welfare of others as their own, it is worthy to be imitated to the end of the world."

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