We are nearing the end of our Gospel Convergence series on the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith. I would still encourage you to pick up a copy of the confession and read along with me.
Chapter 27 of the Confession raises the topic of the communion of the saints. This is perhaps a phrase that is uncommon in modern Christian vocabulary, and yet it communicates a beautifully rich picture of the fellowship that all Christians enjoy with one another. In an attempt to flesh this out somewhat the Confession appears to answer two questions.
What is Communion of the Saints?
Communion of the saints begins where most Christian doctrines begin, with Jesus Christ. First, communion of the saints is unity in Jesus. ‘All saints’, the Confession explains ‘are united to Jesus Christ, their head, by His Spirit and faith, although they are not thereby made one person with Him’ (pg. 111). It continues by underlining that this unity is expressed in sharing Jesus’ graces, sufferings, death, resurrection and glory. John clarifies the unity we have in Jesus in stating ‘our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ’ (1 Jn. 1:3). Paul reflects the Christian life in seeking to ‘share [Jesus’] sufferings, becoming like him in his death’ (Phil. 3:10). In Romans 6:5, then, we are reminded that just as ‘we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.’ Indeed, this certainty is manifested in that Paul can say that even now we share Jesus’ glory as we are seated with him in the heavenly places (Eph. 2:6).
Second, however, the Confession makes it clear that this unity in Jesus means we are explicitly united to one another as Christians. This is evident in that we all stand on level ground in Jesus Christ. Paul, in perhaps his most forceful letter, presses this home in stating: ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus’ (Gal. 3:28). Even though Paul uses this list to make it clear that we are all one in Jesus Christ, in no way does our salvation erase these differences physically (such as gender). Rather, we are all different but equal in Christ. This is reinforced in the image Paul uses in Ephesians 4:16, ‘the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.’
What does Communion of the Saints mean?
This second questions notes that the unity in Jesus and with one another, in other words the communion of saints, has explicitly practical implications. In fact, we saw a glimpse of that by quoting Ephesians 4:16. There are three answers to this question present in the Confession.
First, the communion of the saints means that we must share the gifts God has given us for the mutual benefit of each other. At the beginning of a vitally important section in 1 Corinthians on the orderly worship of God we are told that ‘[t]o each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good’ (12:7). In other words, each Christian is given a gift by the spirit to use for the mutual benefit of all Christians in that place. Again, a similar point is made at the end of 1 Thessalonians as Paul writes ‘we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all’ (5:14). As the Confession puts it: ‘[Christians] are obliged to the performance of such duties, public and private, in an orderly way, as do conduce to their mutual good’ (pg. 111).
Second, ‘[s]aints, by profession are bound to maintain an holy fellowship and communion in the worship of God’ (pg. 111). Again, this implication is drawn directly from Scripture. The writer to the Hebrews encourages:
Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near’ (10:23-25)
Third, this communion requires that we relieve each other’s outward needs when necessary and appropriate. In Galatians Paul closes by encouraging his readers to do good to everyone, but especially to the household of faith (6:10). There is a special bond between Christians which gives them priority in receiving help. The early church offers us an example of what this looks like as Luke records for us that ‘the disciples determined everyone according to his ability, to send relief to the brothers living in Judea. And they did so, sending it to the elders by the hand of Barnabas and Saul’ (Acts 11:29-30). In fact, relieving the needs of our fellow Christians is commanded by John, and offered as an evidence of our genuine profession. John asks, ‘if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? (1 Jn. 3:17). He then warns, ‘let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth’ (v. 18).