Question 19What is an instituted church of the gospel?

Answer A society of persons called out of the world, or their natural worldly state, by the administration of the word and Spirit, unto the obedience of the faith, or the knowledge and worship of God in Christ, joined together in a holy band, or by special agreement, for the exercise of the communion of saints, in the due observation of all the ordinances of the gospel.

Rom. 1:5,6; 1 Cor. 1:2,4:15; Heb. 3:1; James 1:18; Rev. 1:20; 1 Pet. 2:5; Eph. 2:20-22; 2 Cor. 6:16-18.

Explication — The church whose nature is here inquired after is not the catholic church of elect believers of all ages and seasons, from the beginning of the world unto the end thereof, nor of any one age, nor the universality of professors of the gospel; but a particular church, wherein, by the appointment of Christ, all the ordinances of the worship of God are to be observed and attended unto according to his will.

For although it be required of them whom a particular church is constituted that they be true believers, seeing that unless a man be born again he cannot enter into the kingdom of God, and so on that account they be members of the church catholic, as also that they make visible profession of faith and obedience unto Jesus Christ, yet moreover it is the will, command, and appointment of Christ, that they should be joined together in particular societies or churches, for the due observation of the ordinances of the gospel, which can alone be done in such assemblies.

For as the members of the catholic church are not known unto one another merely on the account of that faith and union with Christ which make them so, — whence the whole society of them is, as such, invisible to the world, and themselves visible only on the account of their profession, and therefore cannot, merely as such, observe the ordinances of the gospel, which observation is their profession; — so the visible professors that are in the world, in any age, cannot at any time assemble together; which, from the nature of the thing itself, and the institution of Christ, is indispensably necessary for the celebration of sundry parts of that worship which he requires in his church: and therefore particular churches are themselves an ordinance of the New Testament, as the national church of the Jews was of old; for when God of old erected his worship, and enjoined the solemn observation of it, he also appointed a church as his institution for the due celebration of it.

That was the people of Israel, solemnly taken into a church relation with him by covenant; wherein they took upon themselves to observe all the laws, and ordinances, and institutions of his worship: Exod. 20:19, “Speak thou with us, and we will hear.” Exod. 24:3, “And Moses came and told the people all the words of the LORD, and all the judgments: and all the people answered with one voice, and said, All the words which the LORD hath said will we do.” Deut. 5:27, “All that the LORD our God shall speak unto thee, we will hear it, and do it.” And God accordingly appointed them ordinances to be observed by the whole congregation of them together, at the same time, in the same place: Exod. 23:17, “Three times in the year all thy males shall appear before the Lord GOD.”  Deut. 16:16, “Three times in a year shall all thy males appear before the LORD thy God in the place which he shall choose.”

Neither would God allow any stranger, any one not of the church so instituted by him, to celebrate any part of his instituted worship, until he was solemnly admitted into that church as a member thereof: Exod. 12:47,48, “All the congregation of Israel shall keep it. And when a stranger shall sojourn with thee, and will keep the passover to the LORD, let all his males be circumcised, and then let him come near and keep it; and he shall be as one that is born in the land: for no uncircumcised person shall eat thereof.”

To the same end and purpose, when the knowledge of God was to be diffused all the world over by the preaching of the gospel, and believers of all nations under heaven were to be admitted unto the privilege of his worship, Eph. 2:13-18, the national church of the Jews with all the ordinances of it being removed and taken away, the Lord Christ hath appointed particular churches, or united assemblies of believers, amongst and by whom he will have all his holy ordinances of worship celebrated. And this institution of his, at the first preaching of the gospel, was invariably and inviolably observed by all that took on them to be his disciples, without any one instance of questioning it to the contrary in the whole world, or the celebration of any ordinances of his worship amongst any persons, but only in such societies or particular churches. And there is sufficient evidence and warranty of this institution given us in the Scripture; for, —

First, They are appointed and approved by Christ: Matt. 18:15-20, “If thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as a heathen man and a publican. Verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed also in heaven. Again I say unto you, That if two of you shall agree on earth as touching touching any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”

Such a church he supposeth and approveth as his disciples had relation unto, and as any one of them could have recourse unto, as a brother, in obedience to his commands and directions.

This could not be the church of the Jews, neither in its whole body nor in any of its judicatories; for as at that time there was a solemn decree of excommunication against all and every one that should profess his name, — John 9:22, “The Jews had agreed already, that if any man did confess that he was Christ, he should be put out of the synagogue,” — which was executed accordingly upon the man that was born blind, verse 34, which utterly disabled them from making any use of this direction, command, or institution of his for the present; so afterward the chief business of the rulers of those assemblies, from the highest court of their sanhedrin to the meanest judicatory in their synagogues, was to persecute them and bring them unto death: Matt. 10:17, “They will deliver you up to the councils, and they will scourge you in their synagogues;” John 15:20,21.

And it is not likely that the Lord Christ would send his disciples for direction and satisfaction in the weighty matters of their obedience unto him, and mutual love towards one another, unto them with whom they neither had, nor could, nor ought to have, any thing to do withal; and if they were intended, they were all already made as heathens and publicans, being cast out by them for refusing to hear them in their blasphemies and persecutions of Christ himself. Such a society, also, is plainly intended as whereunto Christ promiseth his presence by his Spirit, and whose righteous sentences he takes upon himself to ratify and confirm in heaven.

Moreover, such a church doth he direct unto as with which his disciples were to have familiar, brotherly, constant converse and communion, with whom they were so to be joined in society as to be owned or rejected by them according to their judgment; as is apparent in the practice enjoined unto them, and without relation whereunto no duty here appointed could be performed. As, therefore, the very name of the church and nature of the thing bespeak a society, so it is evident that no society but that of a particular church of the gospel can be here intended.

Secondly, These churches he calls his “candlsticks,” Rev. 1:20, in allusion unto the candlesticks of the temple; which, being an institution of the Old Testament, doth directly declare these churches be so under the New. And this he speaks in reference unto those seven principal churches of Asia, every one of which was a candlestick or an institution of his own.

Thirdly, In pursuit of this appointment of Christ, and by his authority, the apostles, so soon as any were converted unto the faith at Jerusalem, although the old national church-state of the Jews was yet continued, gathered them into a church or society for celebration of the ordinances of the gospel: Acts 2:41,42, “They that gladly received his word were baptized. And they continued stedfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers.” Verse 47, “The Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved.” And this company is expressly called “The church at Jerusalem,” Acts 8:1. This church, thus called and collected out of the church of the Jews, was the rule and pattern of the disposing of all the disciples of Christ into church-societies, in obedience unto his command, throughout the world, Acts 11:26, 14:23,27.

Fourthly, They took care for the forming, completing, and establishing them in order according to his will, under the rule of them given and granted unto them by himself for that purpose; all in a steady pursuit of the commands of Christ: Acts 14:23, “They ordained them elders in every church;” Titus 1:5, “For this cause left I thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders in every city, as I had appointed thee;” 1 Cor. 12:28; Eph. 4:11,12.

Fifthly, They do everywhere, in the name and authority of Christ, give unto these churches rules, directions, and precepts, for the due ordering of all things relating to the worship of God, and according to his mind, as we shall see afterward in particular; for, —

1. There is no charge given unto the officers, ministers, guides, or overseers that he hath appointed, but it is in reference unto the discharge of their duty in such churches. That ministers or officers are of Christ’s appointment is expressly declared, Eph. 4:11, 12, “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.” 1 Cor. 12:28, “God hath set some in the church, first apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers.” These are of Christ’s institution, but to what end? Why, as they were ordained in every church, Acts 14:23, Titus 1:5, so their whole charge is limited to the churches: Acts 20:17,18,28, “He sent to Ephesus, and called the elders of the church, and said to them, Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood;” 1 Pet. 5:1,2, “the elders which are among you I exhort: feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof;” 1 Tim. 3:15; Col. 4:17, “And say to Archippus, Take heed to the ministry which thou hast received in the Lord, that thou fulfil it.”

They were the churches of Christ wherein they ministered; which Christ, appointing them to take care of, manifests to be his own institution and appointment. And this is fully declared, Rev. 2, 3, where all the dealings of Christ with his angels, or ministers, are about their behaviour and deportment among his candlesticks, each of them, the candlestick whereunto he was related, or the particular churches that they had care of and presided in, the candlesticks being no less of the institution of Christ than the angels.  And they were distinct particular churches, which had their distinct particular officers, whom he treated distinctly withal about his institutions and worship, especially about that of the state of the churches themselves, and their constitution according to his mind.

2. There is no instruction, exhortation, or reproof given unto any of the disciples of Christ after his ascension, in any of the books of the New Testament, but as they were collected into and were members of such particular churches. This will be evidenced in the many instances of those duties that shall afterwards be insisted on. And the Lord Christ hath not left that as a matter of liberty, choice, or conveniency, which he hath made the foundation of the due manner of the performance of all those duties whereby his disciples yield obedience unto his commands, to his glory in the world.

Sixthly, The principal writings of the apostles are expressly directed unto such churches, and all of them intentionally, 1 Cor. 1:1,2; 2 Cor. 1:1; Gal. 1:1,2; Phil. 1:1; Col. 1:1,2, 4:16; 1 Thess. 1:1; 2 Thess. 1:1; Eph. 1:1, compared with Acts 20:17; 1 Pet. 5:2; — or unto such particular persons, giving directions for their behaviour and duty in such churches, 1 Tim. 3:15; Titus 1:5. So that the great care of the apostles was about these churches, as the principal institution of Christ, and that whereon the due observance of all his other commands doth depend. Of what nature or sort these churches were shall be afterward evinced; we here only manifest their institution by the authority of Christ.

Seventhly, Much of the writings of the apostles, in those epistles directed to those churches, consists in rules, precepts, instructions, and exhortations for the guidance and preservation of them in purity and order, with their continuance in a condition of due obedience unto the Lord Christ. To this end do they so fully and largely acquaint the rulers and members of them with their mutual duty in that especial relation wherein they stand to each other; as also all persons in particular in what is required of them by virtue of their membership in any particular society; as may be seen at large in sundry of Paul’s epistles. And to give more strength hereunto, our Lord Jesus Christ, in the revelation that he made of his mind and will personally after his ascension into heaven, insisted principally about the condition, order, and preservation of particular churches, not taking notice of any of his disciples not belonging to them or joined with them. These he warns, reproves, instructs, threatens, commands; all in order to their walking before him in the condition of particular churches, Rev. 2 and 3 at large.

Besides, as he hath appointed them to be the seat and subject of all his ordinances, having granted the right of them unto them alone, 1 Tim. 3:15, intrusting them with the exercise of that authority which he puts forth in the rule of his disciples in this world, he hath also appointed the most holy institution of his supper to denote and express that union and communion which the members of each of these churches have by his ordinance among themselves: 1 Cor. 10:16,17, “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? For we being many are one bread, and one body: for we are all partakers of that one bread.” And also he gives out unto them the gifts and graces of his Spirit, to make every one of them meet for and useful in that place which he holds in such churches; as the apostle discourseth at large, 1 Cor. 12:15-26; Col. 2:19; Eph. 4:16. It is manifest, then, that no ordinance of Christ is appointed to be observed by his disciples, no communication of the gifts of the Holy Ghost is promised to them, no especial duty is required of them, but with respect unto these churches of his institution.

In the answer to this question four things are declared tending to the explication of the nature of a particular church or churches: — 1. The subject-matter of them, or the persons whereof such a church doth or ought to consist. 2. The means whereby they are brought into a condition capable of such an estate, or qualified for it. 3. The general ends of their calling. 4. The especial means whereby they are constituted a church; which last will be spoken unto in the next question.

For the first, all men are by nature the children of wrath, and do belong unto the world, which is the kingdom of Satan, and are under the power of darkness, as the Scripture everywhere declares. In this state men are not subjects of the kingdom of Christ, nor meet to become members of his church. Out of this condition they cannot deliver themselves. They have neither will unto it nor power for it; but they are called out of it. This calling is that which effectually delivers them from the kingdom of Satan, and translates them into the kingdom of Christ.

And this work or effect, the Scripture, on several accounts, variously expresseth; sometimes by regeneration, or a new birth; sometimes by conversion, or turning unto God; sometimes by vivification, or quickening from the dead; sometimes from illumination, or opening the eyes of the blind; — all which are carried on by sanctification in holiness, and attended with justification and adoption.

And as these are all distinct in themselves, having several formal reasons of them, so they all concur to complete that effectual vocation or calling that is required to constitute persons members of the church. For besides that this is signified by the typical holiness of the church of old, into the room whereof real holiness was to succeed under the New Testament, — Exod. 6; Ps. 24:3-6, 15:1,2; Isa. 35:8,9, 54:13,14, 60:21; 1 Pet. 2:9, — our Lord Jesus Christ hath laid it down as an everlasting rule, that “except a man be born again, he cannot enter the kingdom of God,” John 3:3,5, requiring regeneration as an indispensable condition in a member of his church, a subject of his kingdom: for his temple is now to be built of living stones, 1 Pet. 2:5, — men spiritual and savingly quickened from their death in sin, and by the Holy Ghost, whereof they are partakers, made a meet habitation of God, Eph. 2:21,22; 1 Cor. 3:16; 2 Cor. 6:16; which receiving vital supplies from Christ its head, increaseth in faith and holiness, edifying itself in love, Eph. 4:15,16.

And as the apostles in their writings do ascribe unto all the churches, and the members of them, a participation in this effectual vocation, affirming that they are “saints, called, sanctified, justified,” and accepted with God in Christ, — Rom. 1:5,6; 1 Cor. 1:2, 4:15; Heb. 3:1; James 1:18; 1 Pet. 2:5; 2 Cor. 6:17,18; 1 Cor. 6:11, — so many of the duties that are required of them in that relation and condition are such as none can perform unto the glory of God, their own benefit, and the edification of others (the ends of all obedience), unless they are partakers of this effectual calling, 1 Cor. 10:16,17, 12:12; Eph. 4:16.

And hereunto that these churches, and the members of them, are not only commanded to separate themselves, as to their worship of God, from the world, — that is, men in their worldly state and condition, — but are also required, when any amongst them transgress against the rules and laws of this holy calling above described, to cast them out of their society and communion, 1 Cor. 5:13. From all which it appears who are the subject-matter of these churches of Christ; as also, secondly, the means whereby they come to be so, — namely, the administration of the Spirit and word of Christ; and, thirdly, the general ends of their calling, which are all spoken to in this answer.

The Life and Works of John Owen Vol.15