The Communion of Saints

 

Thus much of the properties of the church; now follow the prerogatives or benefits which God bestoweth on it, which are in number four.

 

The first is expressed in these words: the communion of saints. Where communion signifieth that fellowship or society that one hath with another; and by saints, we understand not dead men enrolled in the popeŐs calendar, but all that are sanctified by the blood of Christ, whether they be living or dead; as Paul saith (1 Cor. 1:2), Unto the church of God which is at Corinth, to them that are sanctified in Jesus Christ, saints by calling; and (1 Cor. 14:33), God is the God of peace in all the churches of the saints. Now if we add the clause I believe unto these words, the meaning is this: I confess and acknowledge that there is a spiritual fellowship and society among all the members of Christ, being the faithful servants and children of God; and withal I believe that I am partaker of the same with the rest.

 

This communion hath two parts: fellowship of the members with the Head, and of the members with themselves:

 

 

1.

The communion of the members with their Head is not outward, but altogether spiritual in the conscience; and for the opening of it, we must consider what the church receiveth of Christ, and what He receives of it:

 

(1) The church receives of Christ four most worthy benefits:

 

(i) The first, that Christ our Mediator, God and man, hath truly given Himself unto us, and is become our lot and portion, and withal God the Father, and the Holy Spirit, in Him; as David saith (Psa. 16:5,6), Jehovah is the portion of mine inheritance, and of my cup; thou shalt maintain my lot; the lines are fallen unto me in pleasant places; yea I have a fair heritage; and (Psa. 73:26), My flesh faileth, and my heart also; but God is the strength of my heart, and my portion for ever.

 

(ii) The second is the right of adoption, whereby all the faithful whether in heaven or earth are actually made the true children of God. The benefit is wonderful, howsoever carnal men esteem not of it. If a man should either by election or birth, or any way else be made the son and heir of an earthly prince, he would think himself highly advanced; how highly then are they extolled which are made the sons of God Himself.

 

(iii) The third benefit is a title and right to the righteousness of Christ in His sufferings and His fulfilling of the law. The excellence of it is unspeakable, because it serves to award the greatest temptations of the devil. When the devil replieth thus: Thou art a transgressor of the law of God, therefore thou shalt be damned; by means of that communion which we have with Christ, we answer again that Christ suffered the curse of the law to free us from due and deserved damnation; and when he further replies that seeing we never fulfilled the law, we cannot therefore enter into heaven; we answer again that ChristŐs obedience is a fulfilling of the law for us, and His whole righteousness is ours to make us stand righteous before God.

 

(iv) The fourth benefit is a right to the kingdom of heaven, as Christ comforting His disciples saith (Luke 12:32), Fear not little flock, it is your FatherŐs pleasure to give you a kingdom; and hence it is sundry times called the inheritance, and the lot of the saints (Acts 26:18; Col. 1:12; Eph. 1:18).

 

Furthermore, for the conveyance of these benefits unto us, God hath ordained the preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments, specially the LordŐs supper; and hath commanded the solemn and ordinary use of them in the church. And hereupon the LordŐs supper is called the communion. The cup of blessing (saith Paul (1 Cor. 10:16)) which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? And the bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? That is, a sign and seal of the communion.

 

(2) Again, the things which Christ receives of us are two: our sins with the punishment thereof made His by application or imputation; and our afflictions with all the miseries of this life which he accounts His own, and therefore doth as it were put under His shoulders to bear the burden of them. And this communion between Christ and us is expressed in the Scriptures by that blessed and heavenly bargain in which there is mutual exchange between Christ and us. He imparts to us (Isa. 55:1) milk and wine without silver or money, to refresh us, and (Rev. 3:18) gold tried by the fire, that we may become rich, and white raiment that we may be clothed, and eye-salve to anoint our eyes that we may see; and we for our parts return unto Him nothing but blindness, and nakedness, and poverty, and the loathsome burden of all our filthy sins.

 

 

 

2.

The second part of the communion is that which the saints have one with another. And it is either of the living with the living, or of the living with the dead:

 

 

(1) Now the communion of the living stands in three things:

            (i) In the like affection.

            (ii) In the gifts of the Spirit.

            (iii) In the use of temporal riches.

 

(i) For the first, communion in affection is whereby all the servants of God are like affected to God, to Christ, to their own sins, and to each other. They are all of one nature and heart alike disposed, though they be not acquainted, nor have any external fellowship in the flesh. As in a family, children are for the most part one like another and brought up alike; even so it is in GodŐs family which is His church; the numbers thereof are all alike in heart and affection; and the reason is because they have one Spirit to guide them all; and therefore St Peter saith (Acts 4:32), The multitude of them that believed, were of one heart and of one soul, neither any of them said anything which he possessed was his own, but they had all things common. And the prophet Isaiah, foretelling the unity which should be in the kingdom of Christ, said (Isa. 11:6,7), The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall live with the kid, and the calf, and the lion, and the fat beast together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall feed, and their young ones shall lie together; and the lion shall eat straw like the bullock. The sucking child shall play upon the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand into the cockatrice hole. By these beasts are signified men that be of a wicked and brutish nature, which, when they shall be brought into the kingdom of Christ, shall lay aside the same, and become loving, gentle, courteous, and all of one mind. And St Peter (2 Pet. 1:7) requires of the church the practice of brotherly love, and that is to carry a tender affection to men, not because they are of the same flesh, but because they are joined in the bond of one spirit with us. Furthermore, by reason of this: that all the children of God are of one heart, there follows another duty of this communion, whereby they bear one the burdens of another, and when one member is grieved, all are grieved; when one rejoiceth, all rejoice, as in the body when one member suffereth, all suffer.

 

(ii) The second branch of their communion, is in the gifts of GodŐs Spirit, as love, hope, fear, etc. And this is shewed when one man doth employ the graces of God bestowed on him, for the good and salvation of another. As a candle spendeth itself to give light to others; so must GodŐs people spend those gifts which God hath given them for the benefit of their brethren. A Christian man howsoever he be the freest man upon earth, yet is he servant to all men, especially to the church of God, to do service unto the members of it by love for the good of all. And this good is procured when we convey the graces of God bestowed on us to our brethren; and this is done five ways:

 

(a) By example.

(b) By admonition.

(c) By exhortation.

(d) By consolation.

(e) By prayer.

 

(a) The first, which is good example, we are enjoined by Christ, saying (Matt. 5:16), Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven. And that our hearts might be touched with special care of this duty, the Lord sets before us His own blessed example, saying (Lev. 11:44), Be ye holy as I am holy; and (Matt. 11:29), Learn of me that I am meek and lowly. And Paul saith (1 Cor. 11:1), Be ye followers of me, as I follow Christ; and the higher men are exalted, the more careful ought they to be in giving good example. For let a man of note or estimation do evil, and he shall presently have many followers. Evil example runs from one to another like a leprosy or infection; and this Christ signified when He said (Luke 13:7) that the fig tree planted in the vineyard, If it bears no fruit, makes all the ground barren.

 

(b) The second means of communication of the gifts of God unto others, is admonition, which is an ordinance of God whereby Christian men are to recover their brethren from their sins. A man by occasion fallen into the water, is in danger of his life; and the reaching of the hand by another is the means to save him. Now every man when he sinneth, doth as much as in him lieth, cast his soul into the very pit of hell; and wholesome admonitions are as the reaching out of the hand to recover him again. But it will peradventure be said, how shall we proceed in admonishing of others? Answer: We are to observe three things:

 

i. The first is to search out whether we that are to reprove be faulty ourselves in the same thing or no. First, we must take out the beam that is in our own eye, and so shall we see clearly to pull out the mote in our brotherŐs eye (Matt. 7:5).

 

ii. Secondly, before we reprove, we must be sure that the fault is committed; we must not go upon hearsay or likelihood; and therefore the Holy Ghost saith (Heb. 10:24), Let us consider or observe one another to provoke unto love and good works.

 

iii. Thirdly, before we reprove, we must in Christian wisdom make choice of time and place; for all times and places serve not to this purpose. And therefore Solomon saith (Prov. 19:11), It is the glory of a man to pass by an offence.

 

Furthermore, in the action of admonishing, two things are to be observed:

 

i. A man must deliver the words of his admonition (so far forth as he can) out of the Word of God, so as the party which is admonished, may in the person of man see God Himself to reprove him.

 

ii. His response must be made with as much compassion and fellow-feeling of other menŐs wants as may be. As Paul saith (Gal. 6:1), If any man be fallen by occasion into any fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one with the spirit of meekness.

 

(c) The third way of communicating good things to others, is exhortation; and it is a means to excite and stir them on forward, which do already walk in the way of godliness. Therefore the holy God saith (Heb. 3:13), Exhort one another daily, lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin. But alas, the practice of this duty, as also of the former, is hard to be found among men; for it is usual in families, that masters and fathers instead of admonishing their servants and children, teach them the practice of sin in swearing, blaspheming, slandering, etc., and as for exhortation, it is not used. Let a man that hath the fear of God offend never so little, instead of brotherly exhortation, he shall hear his profession cast in his teeth, and his hearing of sermons; this practice is so general that many beginning newly to tread in the steps of godliness are hereby daunted, and quite driven back.

 

(d) The fourth way is consolation, which is a means appointed by God, whereby one man should with words of heavenly comfort refresh the souls of others afflicted with sickness or any other way feeling the hand of God either in body or in mind. And this duty is as little regarded as any of the former. In times of menŐs sickness neighbours come in, but what say they? I am sorry to see you in this case, I hope to see you well again, I would be sorry else etc. Not one of an hundred can speak a word of comfort to the weary; but we are faulty herein. For with what affection do we believe the communion of saints, when we ourselves are as dry fountains that do scarce convey a drop of refreshing to others?

 

(e) The last means is prayer, whereby GodŐs church procures blessings for the several members thereof, and they again for the whole. And herein lies a principal point of the communion of saints, which ministereth notable comfort to every Christian heart. For hence we may reason thus: I am indeed a member of the catholic church of God, and therefore though my own prayers be weak, yet my comfort is this: I know that I am partaker of all the good prayers of all the people of God dispersed over the face of the whole earth, my fellow members, and of all the blessings which God bestows on them. This will make us in all our troubles to say with Elisha (2 Kin. 6:16), Fear not, for they that be with us are more than they that be with them. When the people of Israel had sinned in worshipping the golden calf, the wrath of the Lord was kindled, and made a breach into them, as cannon shot against a wall; but (Psa. 106:23) Moses the servant of God stood in the breach before the Lord to turn away His wrath, lest He should destroy them. And the prayer of Moses was so effectual that the Lord said (Exod. 32:10), Let me alone, as though Moses by prayer had held the hand of God that He could not punish the people. And some think that StephenŐs prayer for his enemies when he was stoned (Acts 7:60), was a means of PaulŐs conversion. And surely though there were no other reason, yet this were sufficient to move a man to embrace Christian religion, considering that being a member of the church, he hath part in all the prayers of the saints throughout the world, and of the blessings of God that come thereby.

 

(iii) The third part of this communion is in temporal things, as goods and riches; whereby I mean no anabaptistical communion, but that which was used in the primitive church, when they had all things common in respect of use; and some sold their goods and possessions and parted them to all men, as everyone had need. And by their example, we are taught to be content to employ those goods which God hath bestowed on us, for the good of our fellow members within the compass of our callings, and to our ability, and beyond our ability, if need require. Paul saith (Gal. 6:10), Do good to all, but especially to them which are of the household of faith.

 

 

(2) The communion of the living with the dead, stands in two things:

 

(i) The one is that the saints departed in the church triumphant do in general pray for the church militant upon earth, desiring the final deliverance of all their fellow members from all their miseries. And therefore in the Apocalypse (Rev. 6:10), they cry on this manner: How long Lord, holy and true, dost not thou judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth? I say in general, because they pray not for the particular conditions and persons of men upon earth, considering they neither know, nor see, nor hear us; neither can they tell what things are done upon earth.

 

(ii) The second is that the godly on earth do in heart and affection converse with them in heaven, desiring continually to be dissolved and to be with Christ. Now whereas the papists do further enlarge this communion, avouching that the saints in heaven do make intercession to Christ for us, and impart their merits unto us; and that we again for that cause are to invocate them, and to do unto them religious worship; we dissent from them, being resolved that these things are but inventions of manŐs brain, wanting warrant of the Word.

 

Lastly, to conclude, a question may be demanded, how any one of us may particularly know and be assured in ourselves that we have part in this communion of saints? Answer: St John opens this point to the full when he saith (1 John 1:6,7), If we say that we have fellowship with Him, and yet walk in darkness, we lie; but if we walk in the light, as He is light, then we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Christ purgeth us from all our sins. In which words he makes knowledge of GodŐs will joined with obedience, to be an infallible mark of one that is in the communion; as on the contrary, ignorance of GodŐs will, or disobedience, or both, to be tokens of one that hath neither fellowship with Christ, or with the true members of Christ. And therefore to end this point, if we would have fellowship with Christ, let us learn to know what sin is, and to flee from the same as from the bane of our souls, and to make conscience of every evil way.

 

 

The duties to be learned by the communion of saints, are manifold:

 

Duty 1. And first of all, if we do believe the fellowship which all the faithful have with Christ and with themselves; and be resolved that we have part therein, then must we separate and withdraw ourselves from all ungodly and unlawful societies of men in the world whatsoever they be. Unlawful societies are manifold, but I will only touch one, which everywhere annoyeth religion, and hindereth greatly this communion of saints, and that is when men join themselves in company to pass away the time in drinking, gaming etc. Behold a large fellowship which beareth sway in all places; there is almost no town but there is at the least one knot of such companions; and he that will not be combined with such loose mates, he is thought to be a man of no good nature; he is foisted forth of every company; he is nobody; and if a man will yield to run riot with them in the misspending of his time and goods, he is thought to be the best fellow in the world. But what is done in this society? And how do these cup-companions spend their time? Surely the greatest part of day and night is usually spent in swearing, gaming, drinking, surfeiting, revelling and railing on the ministers of the Word and such as profess religion, to omit the enormities which they procure to themselves hereby; and this behaviour spreads itself like a canker over every place, and it defiles both town and country. But we that look for comfort by the communion of saints, must not cast in our lot with such a wicked generation, but separate ourselves from them. For undoubtedly their society is not of God, but of the devil; and they that are of this society, cannot be of the holy communion of saints; and surely except the magistrate by the sword, or church by the power of the keys, do pull down such fellowship, the holy society of GodŐs church and people must decay. Excommunication is a censure ordained of God for this end, to banish them from this heavenly communion of the members of Christ, that live inordinately and have communion with men in the works of darkness.

 

Duty 2. Secondly, by this we are taught that men professing the same religion must be linked in society and converse together in Christian love, meekness, gentleness and patience; as St Paul taught in the Philippians (Phil. 2:1,2), If there be any fellowship of the Spirit, if there be any compassion and mercy, fulfil my joy, that we may be like-minded, having the same love, being of one accord, and of like judgment. And again (Eph. 4:3), Keep (saith he) the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. Why? Mark how his reason is fetched from this communion (vv. 4-6): Because there is one body, one Spirit, even as you are called into the hope of your vocation, one Lord, one faith, one hope, one baptism, one God and Father of all, which is above all, and in you all. And no doubt the same reason made David say (Psa. 16:3), All my delight is in the saints which be upon earth.

 

Duty 3. Thirdly, every Christian man that acknowledgeth this communion, must carry about with him a fellow-feeling, that is, an heart touched with compassion in regard of all the miseries that befall either the whole church or any member thereof, as Christ our Head, teacheth us by His own example (Acts 9:4), when He called to Saul, and said, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? giving him to understand that He is touched with the abuses to His church, as if they had directly been done to His own Person. The prophet Amos reproveth the people (Amos 6:6), because they drank wine in bowls, and anointed themselves with the chief ointment; but why? Was it not lawful for them to do so? Yes; but the cause for which they are reproved follows: No man (saith he) is sorry for the afflictions of Joseph. In the midst of their delights and pleasures they had no regard of the miseries of the poor church and servants of God elsewhere in affliction, which every man ought to shew forth in the practice of all duties of love; and therefore Paul saith (Eph. 6:18), Pray always, with all manner of prayers and supplications in the Spirit, and watch thereunto with all perseverance and supplications for the saints. And he highly commendeth the Philippians (Phil. 4:14) for communicating to his afflictions. And further he bids Philemon (Philem. 20) to comfort Onesimus his bowels in the Lord. And St John saith (1 John 3:16), if a manŐs life would save his neighbourŐs soul, he must lay it down, if need require. We have all of us daily occasion to practise this duty towards the afflicted members of GodŐs church in other countries. For howsoever we enjoy the gospel with peace, yet they are under persecution for the same; and so oft as we hear report of this, we should suffer our hearts to be grieved with them, and pray to God for them.

 

We must here be admonished not to seek out own things, but to refer the labours of our callings to the common good, especially of the church whereof we are members. As for them that seek for nothing but to maintain their own estate and wealth, and therefore in their trades use false weights and measures, the engrossing, corrupting, mingling of wares, glozing, lying, smoothing, swearing, forbearing, dissembling, griping, oppressing of the poor, etc., they may plead for themselves what they will; but in truth they never knew yet what the communion of saints meant.

 

Duty 4. Lastly, considering we are all knit into one mystical body, and have mutual fellowship in the same, our duty is to redress the faults of our brethren, and to cover them, as the hand in the body lays a plaister upon the sore in the foot or in the leg, and withal covers it. Love covers the multitude of sins (1 Pet. 4:8). And when men disgrace their brethren for their wants, and blaze them to the world, they do not the duty of fellow-members.