Calvin was far from original on this point. Scripture everywhere teaches that the Lord’s command regulates communion with God. Adam (Gen. 2:15–17), Abel (Gen. 4:4), Noah (Gen. 8:20–22), Abraham (Gen. 17:9–14), and Moses (Gen. Ex. 20:1–11), to give just five well-known examples, are all given divine directives that inform their liturgical practices. Conversely, Cain (Gen. 4:5), Nadab and Abihu (Lev. 10:1–3), Saul (1 Sam. 15:22–35), Uzzah (2 Sam. 6:3–8), and Uzziah (2 Chron. 26:16–23) all face God’s judgment for imposing their own standards on Israel’s worship. With these cases in mind, it should come as no surprise that when Jesus commissions His church, He gives instruction on preaching (2 Tim. 4:1–2), prayer (Matt. 6:5–15), singing (Col. 3:16–17), baptism (Matt. 28:19), and the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:23–26). These biblical elements are nonnegotiables in corporate worship. They represent the appointed means by which Christ as Head of the church guides and governs His people in worship that brings glory and honor to God.
Third, the perspective of eternity. Having considered the authority of Christ and the nature of worship, we are now ready to consider how these two principles inform our understanding of the church militant. On May 16, 1816, John Black, a little-known Scottish Presbyterian pastor and one-time professor at what would become the University of Pittsburgh, preached a sermon titled “Church Fellowship” before a gathering of ministers in Philadelphia. The sermon explicitly connects the communion of the saints with the topic of worship. Black states:
Saints by profession of faith are bound to hold communion and fellowship in the worship and service of God. The church is a society. She is formed upon the principle of an organic body, having a head and members. This constitution proceeds upon the ground of a covenant, embracing the head, and all the members, in a state of union and communion together. All the members united to Jesus Christ, and members one of another, walk together in love. They join their hands, for their hearts are united. They take sweet counsel together, and walk unto the house of God in company (cf. Ps. 55:14).
For Black, the communion of the saints provides a “social principle of earth” that informs how we should view other Christians and our worship together. The local gathering of the saints in worship on the Lord’s Day represents a “holy convocation,” where we assemble under the banner of King Jesus, hear His gracious Word proclaimed in Scripture, and fellowship together by eating and drinking at His table. All this prepares us for joining the heavenly host in worshiping God through the ministry of the Lamb (see Rev. 4–5; 21–22).
All this sounds so wonderful—and it is. But the gathering of the saints on this side of Canaan’s shore is also marked by the frailties and failures that characterize life and ministry and worship in a fallen world. Congregations are often divided. Moral scandals sometimes overtake even the best of churches. Theological errors can creep into pulpits and pews. Beyond that, each one of us must confront our own sinful inclinations, thoughts, and behavior that often stifle our attempts to worship God according to His Word.
As we confront sin and suffering, heresy and heartache, we must train our eyes to see the church from the perspective of eternity. The church militant must pass through the crucible of sanctification as it prepares for the day when Christ will present it to His heavenly Father as a dazzling bride, without spot or wrinkle (Eph. 4:13–16; 5:27). This means that the church on earth is not yet what it will one day be (1 John 3:2). Even more, we must look past our own sliver of time to realize that the church here and now is only a small part of the much larger body of Christ in heaven that consists of a vast multitude of people from throughout the ages and from every tongue, tribe, and people. With Christ as our King, we as the church militant have every hope that what we see dimly here on earth will be realized more fully when our faith becomes sight. Until then, may the Lord find us faithful to the charge He has given us in His Word.