O Church of God, thou spotless bride.
On Jesus' breast secure!
No stains of sin in thee abide.
Thy garments all are pure;
Of unity and holiness
Thy gentle voice doth sing,
Of purity and lowliness
Thy songs of triumph ring.
-- Clara M. Brooks.
A number of years had passed since Edwin began preaching, and in the suburbs of a large city where the houses were numbered in groups of twos and threes, there was a certain quiet dwelling that could not help attracting the notice of the passerby; for the place, surrounded as it was by a pretty grassy lawn with a few choice flowers scattered here and there, disclosed the fact that the occupants of the cottage were lovers of the beautiful.
Through an open window a song of praise was floating, and upon the face of the fair and noble young woman within could be read happiness, contentment, and love. She was busying herself about the stove, for she was Edwin's wife, and she was preparing her husband's evening meal. God not only had raised the poorhouse waif above his difficulties, but had given him in addition a good Christian companion to comfort and encourage him.
A smile and a cheerful word were Edwin's greeting when he returned from the post-office. Seating himself in the large comfortable chair that had been placed by loving hands close beside the window, he began at once to examine the mail. There were several letters, which were each read in turn; but when Edwin came to the paper, his face wore a puzzled expression, for the latter was not his own.
|I guess a mistake has been made somehow at the post-office,| he said, |for this paper belongs to another person; but I see that the wrapper is loose, and I suppose it will be all right for me to slip it off and look the paper over, for that's what I hope the other fellow will do with mine.| Then as he proceeded to unfold the large religious periodical, he remarked, |I haven't yet found a paper that can come up to our own, and we can rejoice tonight because whoever has it will have something good to read.|
At the very beginning of their home life, Edwin, feeling that some good religious paper ought to come regularly to their home, had chosen from a bundle of sample copies the paper he considered best suited for their purpose, and for some time it had been making its weekly visits to their home. Since then it had been his custom to read aloud either from it or the Bible while his wife was busy about her household duties. In this way they could talk over together the subjects that puzzled them while these were still fresh in their minds.
As Edwin's eyes fell upon the title of the new paper that he had just brought and found that the name of the paper contained three words and that the middle word was Gospel, he said, |Well, it at least has a good name, and now we'll see if it teaches what its title indicates.|
The heading of an article that read, |God's Word as Our Guide,| next attracted his attention; and when he began reading, his wife left her partly prepared supper to come and look over his shoulder.
|As trusting children of God, we naturally look to him for guidance; for he has said, 'I will instruct thee and teach thee in the way that thou shalt go: I will guide thee with mine eye.' When two paths lie before us and we know not which one to take, we ask God to make known to us the way that he would have us take. God is willing to do this. He is glad to have us follow where he leads.|
|That is very good,| Edwin's wife remarked.
Drawing a chair beside his own for her, Edwin said:
|Never mind the supper. Sit down, and we will eat later.|
Then he read: |In Exod.19:5 God says that his people will be a peculiar treasure unto him above all people. This great favor is bestowed upon all those who obey his voice. When we see how much people have cost him, we can comprehend, in a measure, how precious we must be in his sight. Naturally we value anything by its cost. If this rule be applied here, truly God must place great value upon his people; for he spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all. He must therefore estimate our value by his Son.|
Next he read under the heading God's Church: |No one thing on earth is complete enough in its nature to fully represent the church of God. Neither is the human mind able to grasp singly a name that would express every feature of the church. For this reason God has made use of many relative names, such as kingdom, Zion, holy city, house, body of Christ, bride of Christ, family, sheepfold, vine and its branches, and other similar illustrations.
|First, let us consider the word 'church.' It means a congregation of people separated from the world (John 15:19). Next, God's church is characterized by being separate from the world and all its evils (2 Cor.6:14), and Christ is the head (Eph.1:22), the door (John 10:9), the foundation (1 Cor.3:11), and the chief corner-stone (Eph.2:19,20).|
For a moment the paper dropped idly in Edwin's hands, for the truth of God was streaming down into his heart. Ever since his talk in the summer-kitchen with Mrs. Miller, when she said that she was converted at the time when she joined church and in answer to Edwin's question as to what the church was replied that the church was the little building where the roads met, he had felt that there was such a thing as |the church,| but he could not get it settled that it was the building on the corner, as Mrs. Miller had told him that it was. But whenever so situated that he could do so, he had continued to be a regular attendant of every religious service either at that place or in some adjoining community. In his heart he felt that as the meaning of eternity, prayer, and conversion had been revealed to his entire satisfaction, God would in his own good time help him to discover the true meaning of the word |church.|
Presently he read under another heading: |The gospel of salvation that Christ preached penetrated the dark places of sin and idolatry like sun rays driving back the darkness of night. Wickedness in the hearts and lives of men gave way to grace and truth. Christ then established his church. True holiness adorned her fair brow. Unity and purity were her chief characteristics. Of her it is said, 'Thou art all fair, my love; there is no spot in thee' (S. of Sol.4:7). And again, 'My dove, my undefiled, is but one' (S. of Sol.6:9). 'He [Christ] is the head of the body, the church ... that in all things he might have preeminence' (Col.1:18).
|Having purchased, founded, and built the church, God claims exclusive right to the government. She is not 'our church,' but 'God's building,' owned by God alone. All her members are the sons of God and bear his holy image. 'God hath set the members every one of them in the body, as it hath pleased him' (1 Cor.12:18), for 'ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular.'|
For a moment Edwin paused to meditate upon what he had read; then he continued:
|It is God himself that assigns each member his place in the church, or the body of Christ, and makes known to him what his line of spiritual work is to be -- 'Now ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular. And God hath set some in the church, first apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healing,' etc. (1 Cor.12:27,28).
|The origin of the church is the immediate result of conversion and is inseparable from it. 'I pray not for the world, but for them which thou hast given me; for they are thine. Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word; that they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me ... that the world may believe that thou hast sent me' (John 17:9, 20, 21). 'As new-born babes, desire the sincere milk of the word, that ye may grow thereby ... ye also, as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house, an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ. But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should show forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvelous light: which in time past were not a people, but are now the people of God.' (1 Pet.2:2, 5, 9, 10).|
Again Edwin paused, and as the wonderful beauty and completeness of God's plan concerning his people dawned upon his mind, his large brown eyes were brightened with tears of joy, and he said to his wife:
|I believe I understand at last what is meant by 'the church.' All converted souls, both dead and alive, and of every nation or race of people in the world, make up God's church, and to become a member of the church is to be converted, or born into God's family.|
|Read on,| his wife said eagerly, and Edwin continued:
|God's people are not to forsake the assembling of themselves together to worship him (Heb.10:25); 'for where two or three are gathered together in my name there am I in the midst of them.' (Matt.18:20).
|It may be a mystery in the mind of some why we read in the Bible of churches, when God has but one church. A little attention to the word will convince any honest mind that the church of God is plural only in regard to its geographical location. The people in the different communities could not go up to Jerusalem in order to assemble themselves together in worship, for the distance in some instances would have been too great. Thus, it became necessary for many to form home congregations. But although they were often widely separated, the same sweet fellowship was flowing in the hearts of all, and God looked upon them all together as his church, or the body of his beloved Son. The idea in referring to the church, or the divine congregation, as a bride and wife in relation to Christ was to teach their close relationship. 'And I will betroth thee unto me forever; yea, I will betroth thee unto me in righteousness, and in judgment, and in loving-kindness, and in mercies. I will even betroth thee unto me in faithfulness: and thou shalt know the Lord' (Hosea 2:19, 20). 'For I am jealous over you with godly jealousy: for I have espoused you to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ' (2 Cor.11:2). 'He that hath the bride is the bridegroom' (John 3:29). 'For thy maker is thine husband; the Lord of hosts is his name; and thy Redeemer the Holy One of Israel; The God of the whole earth shall he be called' (Isa.54:5). 'Let us be glad and rejoice, and give honor to him: for the marriage of the Lamb is come, and his wife hath made herself ready. And to her was granted that she should be arrayed in fine linen, clean and white: for the fine linen is the righteousness of saints' (Rev.19:7, 8). Since no man can rightly have more than one wife, God has but one church, and Christ is her husband.|
|Wife,| Edwin said, |this truly is wonderful. I see it all clearly now. God has had a purpose in keeping me from joining the little church on the corner, for I was already born into God's church when I was converted. He understood my ignorance; and although they have long since changed their minds concerning me, the ten years that I requested to prove my sincerity have shielded me from making a mistake, and my name has long ago been enrolled in heaven.|
As they continued to glance over the pages of the paper, they came to a large advertisement of a camp-meeting to be held in an adjoining State. After reading the urgent invitation to all who could to come to the spiritual feast, Edwin said that he would like very much to attend that meeting. It was impossible for them to both leave at the same time, but Edwin's wife urged him to go while she remained to take care of things at home.
Before retiring that night Edwin told his companion about the first camp-meeting that he ever attended. |I know,| he said, |that I was looked upon by many as a lunatic, but I'm glad that God realized and understood all about the difficulties that had surrounded my early life. And, Wife, if I had it all to do over again, I could never know more perfectly how to consecrate myself to God and to realize the completeness of his love within my heart.| And thus their talk continued long into the night. Their supper had been forgotten, for they were feasting on heavenly manna.
When the time for the meeting arrived, Edwin bade his wife farewell at the station; and as it was but a few hours' ride, he was soon at his destination. His general appearance as well as his understanding of the three languages helped him to make a far better impression than he had made at the time of him conversion, but his same innocence regarding sinful pleasures was still very noticeable. From his earliest recollections in the poorhouse his desire to do right for principle's sake had never left him. This desire and God's wonderful protection had guarded him against many evils that might in later years have entangled his feet and obstructed his pathway.
What he saw and heard in the meeting was in such harmony with all that God had taught him and with what he had read in the Bible that he said, |Of a truth I have found God's church, and his people shall henceforth be my people.|
He was still of the same humble, teachable spirit, and when he returned to his home, he carried many rich morsels of truth to his loving and faithful wife.
|One God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all| (Eph.4: 6). |He will guide you into all truth| (John 16: 13).