That they all may be one
(translated from the original Dutch, which can be found at http://www.skocourant.com/nummers07.htm
- November 2 and 9, 2007 editions)
On February 9, 1948 Dr. R. H. Bremmer, minister of the GKV at Groningen-Helpman, held a Scripture reading and radio address for the Nederlandse Christelijke Radio Vereniging. The Scripture reading concerned the prayer of the Lord in John 17: “That they all may be one”. After the Scripture reading Dr. Bremmer gave this speech. This address dealt with the important matter of the Church and the unity of the Church. The speech was published in “De Reformatie”. (1) The language has been modernized and the content is now divided under headings.
The text that I read to you has always played an important part in the Christian Church and its history. “That they all may be one,” “ut omnes unum sint,” is a phrase that time and again has taken hold of and aflamed the heart of believers.
Who does not know the nostalgia for the unity of Christ’s church which has been so terribly broken, and who does not long for the unity that Christ prayed for from the Father. Especially in this time, when from all sides we hear about the Una Sancta, the Holy Universal Christian Church, it is worth the trouble to listen for a moment to this word of Christ.
We should not think in the mean time that it is only today that the matter of the one Holy Universal Church is under discussion. The great reformer, John Calvin, wrote in 1552 to Thomas Cramner:
"[I wish, indeed, it could be brought about that men of learning and authority from the different churches should meet somewhere, and after thoroughly discussing the different articles of faith, should, by a unanimous decision, deliver down to posterity some certain rule of doctrine.] But amongst the chief evils of the age must be reckoned the marked division between the different churches, insomuch that human society can hardly be said to be established among us, much less a holy communion of the members of Christ, which, though all profess it, few indeed really observe with sincerity. But if the clergy are more lukewarm than they should be, the fault lies chiefly with their sovereigns, who are either so involved in their secular affairs, as to neglect altogether the welfare of the Church, and indeed religion itself, or so well content to see their own countries at peace as to care little about others; and thus the members being divided, the body of the Church lies lacerated.
"As to myself, if I should be thought of any use, I would not, if need be, object to cross ten seas for such a purpose. [If the assisting of England were alone concerned, that would be motive enough with me. Much more, therefore, am I of opinion, that I ought to grudge no labor or trouble, seeing that the object in view is an agreement among the learned, to be drawn up by the weight of their authority according to Scripture, in order to unite Churches seated far apart. But my insignificance makes me hope that I may be spared. I shall have discharged my part by offering up my prayers for what may have been done by others. Melanchthon is so far off that it takes some time to exchange letters. Bullinger has, perhaps, already answered you. I only wish that I had the power, as I have the inclination, to serve the cause."] (2)
“That they all may be one” Christ prays in this Word to the Father. Since Christ Himself prays for this unity from His Father, should those who desire to follow Christ not also do everything to help realize and promote this unity?
It is remarkable that when considering this word of Christ, Christians in their thinking go in various directions. There are those who despair of the realization of this word of our Saviour; they think that this prayer is an unheard prayer. They point to the brokenness of the church. They point to the fact that in one town various pulpits are closed against each other, that the Lord’s supper tables are set up against each other, and that instead of progress in the unity of the church, one concludes that there is only an increasing brokenness. They consider this word of the Lord Jesus as an ideal that floats before our eyes without ever becoming a reality. They don’t ask what the Saviour has meant, according to the context, but they approach this Word from the reality of the brokenness of the church. They do so without asking for the deeper meaning of these words. Then they hastily conclude that considering the present reality these words will never be fulfilled.
There are also others. In many ways they agree with the ones just mentioned. They also do not believe that the unity for which Christ prays will ever be realized. They acquiesce in the brokenness of the church and do not believe this division ever will end. They consider the prayer of Christ differently. Yet they believe that this prayer is heard and will be realized. Only they apply it not to outward unity, in reference to the visible church, but they believe that the Saviour points to the invisible church. They think that the Saviour points to a unity between all believers in the invisible body of Christ. They leave the church walls standing but see an invisible unity, over the church walls, a unity of all believers from whatever church they may come. They think that this is what the Lord Jesus prays for and in this way the words “that they all may be one” is fulfilled every day. And certainly, in the invisible church all the believers from all different church institutions shall come together in Christ. Listeners, you see again the same method of approaching this word of the Lord Jesus. They do not ask: “What did the Lord, according to the context of the gospel, mean with this word?” Instead they approach the word of Christ with their own thoughts which they did not first determine by applying the Scriptures. The unity of the church, they say, refers to the invisible, over the church walls, and in this way the Word of Christ and His prayer, is put into the fog. But the question remains, and we will try to clearly answer this, whether the Saviour indeed had only the invisible church in mind.
The Roman Church and the ecumenical movement.
Still, not all Christians live in despair in connection with this prayer of Christ. As if the unity we are speaking about can only be found in the invisible. There are two schools of thought in Christendom which consciously look for the unity that Christ prays for. They look for a visible, discernable church, therein which Christ’s prayer of unity is realized or is on its way to being realized. Therefore the unity efforts of the Roman Catholic Church on the one hand and those of the ecumenical movement on the other hand come into my mind.
The church of Rome does not doubt that Christ’s prayer will be and is heard. Indeed, the oneness of the church is there. Isn’t the unity of the church present over the whole world through the papal chair in Rome? Doesn’t this unity shine forth wonderfully over against the deplorable division of Protestantism? Yes, in the well-known book “The Catholic Faith,” it is stated that this unity of the Roman Catholic Church is the most visible attribute. Rome is so absolute, the writer states, that deviation in doctrine and particularistic contending are out of the question. He who deviates from the unity of this doctrine is already outside of the church as a heretic. He who separates himself from the ecclesiastical authority is schismatic. The doctrine as well as the form of church government is unassailable. Above all, power for the administration of grace, which exclusively flows forth out of the one and only sacrament of the Priesthood, is given to the church. (3)
After giving this general review of the brokenness of Protestantism the writer states, “It is worth the trouble, after this summary, to focus the attention upon the Catholic Church, and compare the internal unity of this State-Church with the internal disunity of the non-Catholic religious denominations. Then the word of the Lord to Peter comes in clear light, in a wonderful luster: “you are the rock and on this rock I will build my church and the gates of hell will not overpower it.”” (4) As you can see, the unity prayed for by the Lord is not realized in the invisible, but sought for in the unity apparent in the Roman Church under its head the pope of Rome.
A movement also rose up among the Protestants looking for the visible revelation of the unity of the church. I specifically think about the so-called ecumenical movement, a movement that increased remarkably in recent years. Also here they are gripped by the word of Christ: “that they all are one.” Here they are seeking to realize that unity in a visible form. However, they use a totally different approach than Rome. In this ecumenical movement they experienced the terrible division of the church and they began to search for the unity of the church, a visible unity. This unity will be revealed when all churches start to take part in a so-called ecumenical discussion. This means that they must state that all churches in their confession show only a sketch, an outline of Christ, that in their separate confessions a sketch is given of His countenance, His face and they should then compare their sketches.
One of the representatives of this movement wrote: “The only thing that is left for us to do, is seek fellowship with separated brothers, and in mutual penance to come to a common dialogue, such as a round table conference and on this table the Holy Scriptures only is laid. To come together in penitence and prayer, to the Christ of the Scriptures and listen to Him. To pray that He will lead us all back to the un-violated purity and the undiminished fullness of His revelation. That He will teach us out of the Holy Scriptures, in order that this Christ-image which we all have designed of Him, will receive more and more common outlines, until he gives us all one and the same harmonising confession.” (5)
Observe, listeners, how the Word of Christ is understood by the ecumenical movement. Sure, they say His prayer is heard “that they may all be one.” But the way to this is that we must acknowledge that we only have a sketch, an outline of Christ. First we must all abandon what we in our own confessions have understood of Christ. When we acknowledge that the image of the Christ of Scripture is only understood in the abandoning of our own image of Christ, then the unity of the church will dawn.
It was on purpose, listeners that I have shown you some opinions of present day “Christendom”. It was to show you how in our time these words of our Saviour are understood by the wise. Now it is about time that we let the Gospel itself speak. The clear meaning of this word of Christ will remain hidden for us when we do not give proper attention to the context of these words. Although examining the context may be a little tiresome, for the sake of our lives we must not neglect it.
The Apostles and the Church
The Lord Jesus prays these words in the Passover room. The climatic night of His suffering and death had come. He celebrated the last Passover with His disciples. He had just sent Judas out of the Passover room. And the Saviour made Himself ready now to begin His last great work of obedience. He now prays to the Father. The prayer became long and John the Evangelist, listened attentively and delivered it to us. When you read this prayer in John 17 carefully, then you will see that your Saviour prays for three distinct groups. First He prays for Himself: “Father glorify Your Son in order that He may glorify You, O Father.” After that Christ directs his gaze at His disciples sitting around Him, and prays also for them. “I gave them Your Word and the world hated them because they are not of the world just as I am not of the world. I do not ask that You take them out of the world. But that You keep them from the Evil One.” Finally Christ prays for His church. Christ prays for the many that will come after Him hearing the message of the gospel from the apostles. He prays for the entire church of all ages. Then He includes the entire church in His mediator’s love. “Father”, Christ says, “I pray not only for these”, that is the apostles sitting in front of Him, but also for them who by their Word believe in Him, and then follow the words of our text, “that they all may be one like You, Father in Me and I in You, that also they in Us are one, that the world may believe that You have sent Me.”
Now the meaning of these words is clearer. Now we see this mighty Word of Christ in its full meaning, “that they all are one.” Christ does not only mean those who will believe by the word of the apostles, namely the church that will come after His resurrection and ascension, but He also includes the apostles.
That they all may be one, namely the apostles, present in front of Him and the church that is coming drawn by their word. Christ is praying for both, the apostles here and the church presently. “Father”, He seems to intend to say, “Father keep them one, my apostles and my church after them. Father, bind them together, hold the church firm on the foundation of the apostles and the apostolic doctrine. Father keep my church with the apostles in the one common confession of My Name.”
Here you see the Christ standing before His Father’s throne. Here you see Him praying not only for His disciples standing around Him but praying for the entire church that is coming in the world. Here, in this night in which He will be betrayed, He commits every one of us to the Father and pleads for the salvation of His dearly bought church. “Father, I pray not only for the eleven disciples here, but also for my entire church that is coming after them. That they all may be one,” one in the preservation of the doctrine of the apostles. One in preserving the Word of grace so that, “Father no rupture may come between these apostles and their confession here, and the church that by their word will believe in me.”
Listeners, it appears as if Christ prophetically looks into the coming ages. He certainly knows the weaknesses of His people. He also knows the cunning attempts of Satan, how he tries to pull His church away from the firm foundation once established by the apostles. He knows that after His ascension the struggle will begin in His church in order to keep pure the Word brought by the apostles. He knows how difficult it will be for flesh and blood in His church to keep the gospel of the crucified and risen Christ, the gospel of sovereign grace. He knows that in His church there is a continuing inclination to not place the ground of salvation in His sacrifice and blood alone, but instead to add regeneration, or experience, or the good works of men. He knows that the church will time and again cease to glory in free grace alone. He knows all this very well.
He is ready to bring His great sacrifice for the church of all ages. He is ready to save that church by His blood. But He also knows how little His church wants to be saved by that blood alone. He knows how little they will seek the ground for their salvation and for the faith in the Word from that cross and that sacrifice alone. He knows that the struggle will be kindled time and again, in order to keep pure the gospel of free grace. He knows how often more will be added to the Word of the apostles. How time and again human teachings on matters such as good works or the rebirth of a christian will be added. Because Christ knows all this, therefore He prays “Father, make my church to be faithful to the good confession of Peter. And resist Satan, O Father, in order that the church does not move away from this established foundation.” This is truly His High-Priestly prayer against all false doctrine and temptations of Satan, this is the prayer of the Christ, to preserve the church with the gospel of sovereign and free grace.
Listeners; this prayer sent up by Christ in the Passover room on the night of His suffering is heard by the Father. Yes, the Father did hear the Son, when He prayed for His apostles and for the entire church, namely those who by the apostles’ word would believe in Him. Christ’s prayer in the Passover room did not fade away here on earth. It ascended up on high. It passed by all the stars to the throne of the Father. You see Jesus Christ in this prayer-struggle committing His apostles and His entire church to the Father’s holy throne. It is the Mediator praying His Mediator-prayer.
The Father hears these words. He sees behind this prayer the complete suffering and death of His beloved Son. The Father sees behind this the entire Mediator-struggle. The Father hears this prayer. We believe this because He hears every prayer of His Son because all prayers of Christ are directed to His Father’s will and His Father’s command.
The struggle for Unity
Listeners, you have to see the entire history of the church in light of the hearing of this prayer of Christ. Then you will see the proper light on the unity and the brokenness of the church. Then you will also see which work of the church is according to this prayer of Jesus Christ and which work of the church is against it. Then you will see the unfolding of the last twenty centuries of church history in light of this prayer of Jesus Christ. Then you won’t make the mistake of using the reality of the brokenness of the church or some type of church concept in order to interpret and explain the words of Christ in this text.
When you consider the history and life of Christ’s church in the light of these words, you clearly see that the Father, today and all the days of this world, remembers the prayer of His Son. Every time when Satan obtains a foothold in the church and begins to darken the gospel of sovereign grace, the Father intervenes. Every time when Satan breaks down the unity of the apostles and the apostolic doctrine, the Father intervenes. On the grounds of this prayer of His Son, He brings His Word to triumph again in His church.
This is the background of the entire history of Christ’s church. All the conflicts and struggles through the ages, relate to the struggle to safeguard this unity.
Maintain the Institute?
The purpose of this struggle is not to maintain the unity of the institution, a church-like structure. If this were true Rome would be right! If the struggle for keeping this Word of Christ would mean that you have to remain with an established institute at any cost then the pope would be right! The idea that men may never secede from an instituted church, no matter how great its sins are, is thoroughly false and untrue. Our forefathers already understood this when they confessed Article 28 of the Belgic Confession. They wrote it down with their life-blood in sight of the burning stakes, and the guillotines. They wrote that it is the office of all believers to separate from them that are not of the church and join this assembly – that is the true church of Christ – wherever the Lord has established it, even when the magistrate and princes were against it, and death or physical punishment might follow. All therefore who draw away from the church or fail to join it act contrary to the ordinance of God.
Those who say that you may never separate from an established church institute do not submit to this prayer of Christ. Christ did not pray for an established church institute. No, in this Mediator-prayer of the Saviour, Christ prays that the Father may keep His church in the unity with the apostles and the apostolic doctrine. To that unity He brings His church back again and again.
Is this not the reason for every struggle in Christ’s Church? You will see this again and again when you know the history of the church well, also the most recent church history. Time and again man tries to add to or take away from this established foundation of unity laid by Christ through His apostles. Every time when Satan gains a foothold in Christ’s church there is something added to, or taken away from, this apostolic foundation. Instead of the gospel of free and sovereign grace a human doctrine is preached. Whatever this doctrine may be, whether there is trust in personal piety or regeneration or trust in the doctrine of salvation by good works, you deviate from the foundation established by Christ. But the Father never lets this go on for a long time. He always interferes. He always remembers the prayer of His Son and again leads His church back to the bond of unity between the apostles and us. When Christ maintains His church, hell may freely rage, but He, seated at God’s right hand, is able to preserve it.
If Christ had in mind a unity with an established institute that would then mean that the instituted church could never abandon, by the temptation of Satan, the once established foundation of unity with the doctrine of the apostles. The unity with the foundation established by the apostles and the instituted church would remain. But the history of Israel, and also the New Testament, and the church throughout history, shows something different. That unity is not there automatically. The unity is maintained by the Father faithfully listening to the prayer of His Son and through His merciful bringing-to-dominion His Word in His church by His grace alone.
Listeners, with this it will also be clear that we deny the hearing of this prayer of Christ if the result is an invisible unity of all believers, right across and over church walls. As if in that sense the “ut omnes unum sint,” “that they all be one”, has to be understood. Does Christ speak here concerning the invisible church? But He speaks about them, who by their Word will believe in me. He speaks about them, who, through the apostles, that is, by the preaching of His Word in His church, will believe in Him. Christ does indeed think of the visible church, the church to whom He entrusted His Word, the greatest treasure of His grace.
That is how the prayer of Christ is heard throughout the history of His dearly bought church. It is the greatest joy of all who love Him, that when they maintain the unity with the apostolic foundation, they know themselves included in the church-gathering work of the Saviour. The church continues, as stated in the Catechism, from the beginning of the world to the end.
The Father and the Son
Listeners, Christ still adds something to these words. He continues, “that all of them may be one, Father, just as You are in Me and I am in You. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that You have sent Me.” Christ is opening many beautiful perspectives for you here. How endlessly broad is the horizon of His prayer. “As You are in Me and I am in You, that they may also be one in Us.” The Saviour has prayed for the unity of His apostles with the church which comes after them, now He prays also that this unity may be as firm as the unity between the Father and the Son. In the same way as they are one may also the church be one with the apostles. With these words, we become enlightened as to the unity desired by Christ. This further confirms the words of the Saviour that we spoke to you concerning the first words of this text.
You must pay close attention to which unity the Saviour has in mind here. “As You Father are in me and I am in You, that they all may be one,” Calvin already pointed out that here is not meant the unity of the Father and the Son in their eternal divine nature. Surely, listeners, you know that the Father and the Son are one from eternity, one in their eternal divinity. The Church has confessed this beautifully, when it said, that Christ is God of God and Light of Light. From eternity and unto eternity the Father and the Son are one. But that is not what the Saviour means.
He appears here in this prayer as the Mediator, as God and man in one person, as the office-bearer Jesus Christ, who is busy to redeem you. He points to the unity that exists between the Father and Himself as Mediator. This is the unity that results in the complete submission of Him, the Mediator, to the Word and the will of His Father. Listeners, what a perfect unity between the Father and His Son our Mediator! Look at Him, throughout His entire life, in His perfect obedience. He is one with the will of His Father even when it requires the most difficult obedience. Because of this the Saviour says, “As You Father are in me and I in You, they all are one”. Likewise now the Father’s love emanates onto His Son on account of that perfect obedience. Christ is one with the Father in the obedient accomplishment of His will. So Christ prays now that also we, the apostles, and the entire church that comes after them, may rest in the perfect communion of Father and Son, and that we may rest in the genuine unity of the work of the Father and the work of the Son. Yes … in both of them!
This unity, listeners, grows also in the world as a result of hearing Christ’s prayer. This unity grows wherever the communion of the true church of Christ is maintained. This unity grows where the church maintains the words of the same Belgic Confession that we cited previously, where the pure preaching of the gospel is practiced, where there is the pure administration of the Sacraments, where the use of church discipline is exercised to punish sins. In short, it governs itself according to the pure word of God, rejecting all things contrary to it and regarding Jesus Christ as the only Head.
Where Christ’s church maintains this, through the ages and at all places in the world, there exists the true catholic church. The beautiful fruit of this prayer of Christ is that catholic church, of which, to cite our confession once more in Article 27, is not confined or limited to one particular place or to certain persons, but is spread and dispersed throughout the entire world. However, it is joined and united with heart and will, in one and the same Spirit, by the power of faith.
It is this unity that Christ prays for; evident in what is visible, maintaining the unity with the proclamation of the gospel, which is bound to the Word of the apostles and to that alone. Evident also in together eating of Christ’s body at the one table, which is opened for all whom Christ has opened and closed for all whom Christ has closed. For He closes and nobody opens and He opens and nobody closes.
What a salvation, listeners, and what a joy to know yourselves one with the apostles, one with the Mediator Jesus Christ, and one in Him with the Father. It is an obligation for all believers in Christ, throughout the world, to seek that unity. All believers must resist false unity and seek the unity of the church as confessed by our forefathers.
Finally, Christ still added to this prayer, “that the world may know You have sent Me”. In his explanation of the gospel of John, Calvin refers to the Last Day. That Day will come and even the reprobate, the unbelievers, by seeing this great multitude that no-one can count, will have to admit that Christ was not a deceiver, and that Christ was definitely the One Whom He said He was. Their eyes shall then, according to Calvin, become blinded by the splendour of His majesty.
We believe that these closing words of Christ also mean this: that by faithfully maintaining the unity with Christ and the apostles, people will be drawn out of the world to the knowledge of Christ.
“Ut omnes unum sint,” “that they all are one.” This is a powerful prayer of Christ. Throughout the ages the Church has been fascinated by this prayer. However this prayer of the Saviour is often misunderstood in the church.
We have come to the end. See Him in the Passover room once more, listeners. The Saviour is praying for His beloved apostles, and beyond this for the innumerable multitude spreading out before His eyes, the church from all places and all times, who one day will gather together and stand before His throne.
O, Christ sees Satan going around as a roaring lion, seeking who he can devour. Didn’t he just break Judas loose from the twelve?
So many dangers threaten His church. What a great struggle it will be to maintain the pure Gospel. But look, Christ prays, “Father I not only pray for them, but also for those who by their word believe in Me, that they all may be one as You, Father are in me and I in You.” This is Christ’s prayer and the Father has heard and still hears it everyday until the end of the ages.
The bond of unity between the apostles and the church is always safeguarded through struggle. Let everyone who hears this and loves the cause of Christ’s church direct himself towards this prayer. Then you will find your way in the confusion of this time, also in the matter of the church. Then you will understand the depth of the words that Calvin, God’s faithful servant, wrote to cardinal Sadoletus concerning the unity of the church:
“May God give that you Sadolet, and the ones that are with you, someday may see that there is no other bond of church-unity then the fact that the Lord Christ, who reconciled us with God the Father, is gathering us out of the dispersion into the communion of His body, in order that we, only by His Word and His Spirit, may grow together into one heart and one soul.” (6)
Translated by T. van Laar
1. De Reformatie, Vol. 23, #26 and 27; March 1948.
2. Referred to by Dr. H. VanderLinde, Rome and the Una Sancta 1947, page 9. Editor’s note:Editor’s note: the original quotation in the speech was translated from Latin to Dutch to English; for easier reading the version of the quotation used above is taken from a Latin to English translation. It also contains more than was originally quoted in the speech by adding a sentence to the beginning of the quotation as well as adding seven sentences to the end of the quotation to provide the reader with a greater context.
3. Prof. Dr. Ignatius Klug, The Catholic Faith, An apologistic overview of dogmatic
Church history, Heemstede, 1939, page 376.
4. ibid, page 385.
5. Dr. H. VanderLinde, ibid, page 27. For those interested in the ecumenical movement this is an interesting and thought provoking book.
6. Quoted from: ‘Apology of the reformation of the Church’ Three essays of John Calvin Introduced by Dr. K Sietsma, Amsterdam, 1937, page 68. In his introduction Dr. Sietsma quotes: No one can deny that in our day the Church question is in the limelight…. The difficult question of the place of the Church and her task in modern life is for many, a heartfelt matter. Remembering the Secession and Doleantie has increased awareness in our country. Many other reasons have also worked to put the questions concerning the Church, her attitude towards different societies, her nature and essence, on the agenda (page 6). In 1948 the letter of Calvin to Sadolet has more impact then in 1937 when Dr. Sietsma wrote these words.