104. Why do you insert this article after the Church?
Because no man obtains pardon for his sins without being previously incorporated into the people of God, persevering in unity and communion with the Body of Christ in such a way as to be a true member of the Church.
There are two ideas that Calvin seems to be developing here. Each has to do with forgiveness of sins. The first is that forgiveness of (pardon for) sins comes to those who are “incorporated into the people of God”. In other words, only those who are in the Church are forgiven. This point is not dealing with being members of a local church, but is dealing instead with those who are joined to Christ through faith in the gospel. That forgiveness is a gift to the Church should not surprise anyone. Paul notes this clearly in his letters:
“In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace” (Eph. 1:7)
“in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Col. 1:14)
“And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses” (Col. 2:13)
Each of these passages contain plural pronouns, emphasizing the corporate intention of Christ’s work. His blood provides forgiveness for all of OUR sins. The Church can praise the Lord Jesus for having her sins forgiven.
But how does an individual know that he/she is a true member of the Church? This is the second idea Calvin teaches. It is by “persevering in unity and communion with the Body of Christ in such a way as to be a true member of the Church”. This is where meaningful membership is important. If you say that you are a part of the Church, but rarely fellowship/worship with other believers, could you not be deceiving yourself? If you resist the meeting and encouragement that comes with “unity and communion”, are you really a part of the Church? If you do not strive for holy unity but would rather gossip and slander and divide, are you a true member? And if you are not in the Church, can you say that you are forgiven? It is not that church membership makes you forgiven, but that only true members of the body of Christ are pardoned.