Looking at the early church, the Reformation, and the Confessions, this article seeks to answer the question: what are the marks that distinguish a Christian?

Source: Lux Mundi, 2009. 9 pages.

The Inside or the Outside: What Distinguishes a Christian?

Prior to my appointment here, the so-called self-image of the Free University and this Faculty of Theology came to my attention. The University had already discarded Abraham Kuyper’s ideal of science based on ‘Reformed principles’. Now the University calls itself ‘a Christian institution holding a strong ecumenical position’, and it ‘still retains its tradition of Christian standards and values’. This tradition is further specified as ‘Protestant-Christian’. I would like to make a connection with that self-image in my speech. Is the VU’s self-image vague and minimalist, or is it deeply rooted and rich in opportunity?

The chair to which I have been appointed aims to ‘promote the study of the history of the Reformation and spread the knowledge of this history’. In the Faculty of Theology it can be found under the research group ‘Dogmatics & Ecumenics’, and as there is a connection with the International Reformed Theological Institute, we may assume that the aim is to spread knowledge of the Reformation in The Netherlands and abroad

I hope to apply myself to the historical theological aspect of the 16th century Reformation. The confessions and catechisms first come to mind as a source of contemplation and expression of the doctrine of faith. I therefore chose a passage from the Belgic Confession that has always appealed to me: concerning the marks that distinguish a Christian (or ought to).

By putting it that way, I am cheating a little. Actually, Article 29 of the Belgic Confession asks in what way the members of the church can be recognized.

As for those who can belong to the church, we can recognize them by the distinguishing marks of Christians.

I call that the human side to this article. You can speak quite theoretically about the church, but it is in her members that she takes real shape. What are these distinguishing marks? ‘faith’ (meaning the content of the Christian faith as well as the way it forms us).

‘Fleeing from sin and pursuing righteousness, once we have received the one and only Saviour, Jesus Christ’. (It is all about surrendering to the Saviour, for without Him nothing changes – while, with Him, there is a great deal to be gained) ‘loving the true God and your neighbour’. (That is the twofold love-commandment that puts its mark on life both religiously and ethically).

This is worked out in what follows in the rest of the passage, with the emphasis on the struggle of faith against our weakness, and on our fleeing to Christ. That is how we recognize members of the churches (bound to these confessions). For these are the marks of a Christian!

Now, the question may arise whether this is a presentation of general characteristics that fit all Christians all over the world. Or is it an image of the ‘Reformed believer’ of the 16th century? Or an ideal that should be met by the ‘true’ Christian, not limited to a certain historical age?

We all like to be specific and use adjectives from church history to introduce ourselves. If someone presents himself as ‘Catholic’ or ‘Protestant’, I will call myself ‘Reformed’, and one will be quick to specify further: ‘Oh, Reformed liberated’. ‘Now the cat is out of the bag’, you are probably thinking: ‘weren’t the Reformed Churches (liberated) those who claimed to be the only true church?’ For that is, without any cheating, exactly what Article 29 is about: the marks of the Christian ‘by which those belonging to the (true) church can be recognized’.


Let me start by stating that you cannot deny that together we have a problem with this Article 29. With the ‘one catholic or universal Church, which is a holy congregation and assembly of true Christian believers’ (Art. 27). The name of ‘Christian’ is tarnished by our feelings of embarrassment concerning the true church and our ‘Reformed, ten times over’.

What about in our day? It may be that my introducing myself as ‘a Christian’ is not clear at all to my neighbour in AD 2009. Perhaps we must learn to express that differently. What image do I want Muslims to have of me as Christian? And her, at the Faculty of Theology?

I would like to take some giant steps back in time with you: back to the 1st century where we were first given the name of Christian; to the 4th century to what is called the corpus christianum, the Christian society in which church and state mingled from Saturday to Sunday; to the 16th century and the varying circumstances of the Reformed churches; to conclude with the present times, the 21st century, where Christians and churches are seeking their identity in a secular society. Name-bearer and name-giver (Greeks and Romans). Enemy-image and self-image (from Polycarp to Gregory)

  • Recognition-image (Calvin)
  • Church-image (Heinrich Bullinger)
  • Modest self-image (Gallic and Belgic Confessions)
  • Office-image (Heidelberg Catechism, Ursinus’
  • Commentary, Olevanius’ explanation)
  • Broken image (nota electionis, The Canons of Dort)
  • Image of a child (Jean Taffin)
  • Ethics: spirituality inside-out

1. Name-bearer and name-giver🔗

It was in Antioch, Syria, that disciples were first called Christians (Acts 11:26). Those disciples were the men and women who accepted Jesus as the Kurios, their Lord. They did not present themselves as ‘Christian’ but were called ‘Christian’ by their fellow-citizens. Barnabas and Saul worked in the congregation for a year ‘and taught great numbers of people’. This group stood out among the people of Antioch, and the members are called ‘Christianoi’. For it is there that the Jewish-Christian community first came out into the open. Christianoi does not have an unfriendly ring about it, it simply refers to followers of Christ (as indeed there were also ‘Heroodianoi’ or Herodians, cf. Mark 3:6; 12:13).

The tone of the name Christianus (the Latin expression) in the Roman world is less positive. The classic authors of the 1st century after the birth of Christ use the name to identify a group of people, usually in the context of an accusation: ‘those who are accused of being Christians’. Flavius Josephus writes about Jesus, who won over many Jews and Greeks:

He was the Christos. 

And he adds:

Even now the sect of Christians, named after him, has not disappeared.

Tertullian (c.150-222) is the first Christian author to use Latin: he explains that the hated name Christianus is derived from ‘anointing’ (de unctione). In the centuries after Christ’s resurrection, the Christian name is used by ‘the outside’ to label Christ’s followers, and ultimately it is used as an accusation. The name was honourably accepted by Christ’s followers, however, and they did not reject it under persecution.

2. Enemy-image and self-image🔗

Writings after the New Testament prove that congregations were not ashamed to be called christianos. Peter had encouraged the congregations to take this stand: ‘If you suffer because you are Christian (hoos christianos) do not be ashamed but praise God that you bear that name’ (1 Peter 4:16). In bishop Ignatius’ letters, he writes that he ‘wishes to be found in the company of the Christians in Ephesus’, and that ‘it is good that we are not only called christianous but live it too’, i.e. following the Christian teaching. The acts of the martyrs are also an important source of information. Take for example the case against Polycarp, who had been appointed bishop of Smyrna by the Apostle John. Under interrogation they asked him: ‘what is wrong with calling Caesar ‘Kurios’ ... in order to be saved?’ When the sentence was pronounced, a herald called out in the arena three times: ‘Polycarp himself has confessed that he is a Christian’.

In the 2nd and 3rd century, the Christian movement grew and spread through the Roman Empire. Yet we find no further reflection on the name Christian. A person becomes part of the Christian church, the mother of all believers, by baptism in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. With Augustine, for example, we more often find the name catholici than christiani. In Augustine’s times, this much had changed: attention had shifted to the quality of Christian life. So, for example, he rejected the Donatists’ emphasis on sanctity, in that they would call upon ‘good people’ to ‘take care of their soul and be a Christian’. What madness! By saying to a Christian ‘be a Christian’, are you not denying that he is one? On the other hand, he pointed out the necessity of true repentance. It is the catholic – in the original Greek: common – character of the Christian church that focuses attention to the Christian’s state and standing.

A century later, Gregory the Great (540-604) says in a sermon on Luke 9 (‘whoever is ashamed of My words’) that if the name of Christ were not so popular, the holy church would not have as many confessors of His Name. Such a general confession is not sufficient to prove faith. In ‘proof of faith’ (probation fidei) we are coming close to the ‘marks of faith’. When public confession of Christ’s name has become the general opinion, there may be some who are counted under the name of Christianity that do not possess the Faith of Christianity. In times of general social acceptance of the Christian faith, the question becomes, What is on the inside? The question is no longer about who dares to come out and stand up for his faith, but whether the Christian name comes genuinely from within, influencing the outside.

3. Recognition-image (Calvin)🔗

Calvin wrote about the church’s appearance and her marks in his Institutes, in the famous notae ecclesiae. When we look at Institutes 4.1.8 we see that it is placed in the context of the doctrine of the church. He is writing about the visible church.

The necessity of cleaving to the holy Catholic Church and the Communion of Saints.

He does not get stuck in the contradiction ‘visible-invisible church’, as can be found with Augustine. In fact, many scholars have opined that the title above 4.1.7 should read “The true and visible church”, as opposed to “the invisible and visible church”. There is a side to the true church that only God can see, but we should concern ourselves with the visible. The concluding sentence of 7 is: Hence, as it is necessary to believe the invisible Church, which is manifest to the eye of God only, so we are also enjoined to regard this Church which is so called with reference to man, and to cultivate its communion. 8 Connects to that by stating: Accordingly, inasmuch as it was of importance to us to recognize it, the Lord has distinguished it by certain marks, and as it were symbols. The reader, expecting a description of these marks, must wait until 9. First Calvin expands on how immensely great God’s knowledge is and how limited is our understanding. In this setting he comes to speak of the members of the church. Whoever speaks of God’s church speaks of the members he has met – we do not see the church as God sees her.

By the name of Church is designated the whole body of mankind scattered throughout the world, who profess to worship one God and Christ, who by baptism are initiated into the faith; by partaking of the Lord’s Supper profess unity in true doctrine and charity, agree in holding the word of the Lord, and observe the ministry which Christ has appointed for the preaching of it. Inst. 4.1.7

So the church becomes visible in her members. In the administering of baptism, the partaking of the Lord’s Supper, the profession, of faith and in the worship services. Those are the ‘certain marks, and as it were symbols’.

How then can we recognize the church in her members? Are they not often sinful and hypocritical? In Institutes 8, Calvin explains that we can only recognize them in the following manner: It is, indeed, the special prerogative of God to know those who are his, as Paul declares in the passage already quoted, (2 Tim. 2:19). Therefore we should not be too soon to judge, For even those who seemed most abandoned, and who had been completely despaired of, are by his goodness recalled to life, while those who seemed most stable often fall. The struggle of faith is taking place. Calvin sees the church on earth as God’s work in progress.

For he knows, and has his mark, on those who know neither him nor themselves. Of those again who openly bear his badge, his eyes alone see who of them are unfeignedly holy, and will persevere even to the end.

The message is clear: speak with respect and great care about the church and her members. Yet it is possible to say something about the members of the church. I especially draw your attention to the following passage:

On the other hand, foreseeing that it was in some degree expedient for us to know who are to be regarded by us his sons, he has in this matter accommodated himself to our capacity. But as here full certainty was not necessary, he has in its place substituted the judgment of charity, by which we acknowledge all as members of the Church who by confession of faith, regularity of conduct, and participation in the sacraments, unite with us in acknowledging the same God and Christ.

So the famous marks from the Institutes 4.1.7. may also be seen as marks of the members.

What marks are named by Calvin?

  1. Confession of faith,
  2. regularity of conduct and
  3. participation of the sacraments.

It is an active, searching recognition, not an objective determination. The three marks are public, visible matters of Christian life. Through this the church comes to light. Public testimony should be lovingly accepted on the assumption that the hearts of our brothers and sisters are true because their confession and life do not show otherwise. The marks correspond with those of the church in that they hear the Word, use the sacraments, and are not under church discipline. And so we are back to Calvin’s goal: knowing and living in the true church, with her members. God knows the inside, the hearts of His elected children. We may expect the outward marks of church life to be a reflection of the inside of our fellow-believers.

4. Church image (Heinrich Bullinger)🔗

Bullinger names the church’s marks in his first sermon in the 5th chapter of the Decades, the Sancta catholica ecclesia. The proclamation of the true teaching and good supervision of the sacraments are the so-called externae notae. Alongside these are the internae notae. What are the marks of the internal life of the church (and her members)? Bullinger summarizes it as follows: the marks of the true and living church of Christ are: the communion with Christ’s Spirit, sincere faith and Christian love, without which no one has part of this spiritual body. In this way one can recognize whether one is, or is not, a part of this church. In a study of the Decades, Peter Opitz points out that Bullinger also discerns between internae and externae notae ecclesia of the church, although even outward marks are more than objective phenomena. It is not just about administration (of the sacraments) but also about participation. My conclusion is therefore that the notae internae concern the marks of the church and have ecclesiological meaning as well as a pneumatological and Christological aspect. The marks of the inner life of the church and her members come together. You know the church by her life and by her members.

5. Modest self-image (Gallic Confession and Belgic Confession)🔗

Did Calvin and Bullinger’s train of thought find its way into the Confessions? Art. 27 of the Gallic Confession begins in the same way as Art. 29 of the Belgic Confession: we ought to discern very carefully what is the true church. Yet this confession differs from the Belgic in that it deals primarily with the marks of the church. Although the term ‘marks of a Christian’ cannot be found, the place and gist is identical to Calvin’s arguments in Institutes 4.1.7-8. The Belgic confession does use the words notae fildelium, marks of a believer. The context of the whole of Art. 29 is clear: as for those who can belong to the church, we can recognize them by the distinguishing marks of Christians. After the marks of the church, it is clearly about the recognition of the church in her members. ‘Christian’ is used here as a synonym for church members.

So once again: what are the marks? The three that Calvin named (confession, Christian life and partaking of the sacraments) were objectively determinable outward matters. The Belgic Confession – taking it a step further than the Gallic – also names inward matters of faith.

We should take special note here of the address of this self-image: namely the government, which in these times supported the Catholic church, as ruled by Rome, and saw the Protestants as a danger to the state. How did the members of the Reformed church wish to make themselves known in the public domain of the late 16th century? That is the question, and the answer is: take note of the marks that characterize them. They are inward matters that radiate out into the public domain.

  1. Faith, meaning the Christian faith or religion, no more than accepting the only saviour Jesus Christ. Faith comes unarmed.
  2. Living according to the twofold commandment of love, and struggling against sin, are no danger to the state, but beneficial to the public order.
  3. Struggling against weakness, seeking forgiveness in Christ: we do not look down on fellow-countrymen of different faith.

The emphasis, on the inward in Art. 29 of the Belgic Confession is directed at a distrusting government, and against the Anabaptists, and therefore must not be seen as being in contradiction to Calvin’s more outward, objective marks of the church. The Reformed still see the church, not as holy and infallible in her members, but as a mixed body (as Augustine did) that takes her place in society, characterized by the struggle of faith, not by achieved perfection. Faith and love, spirituality and ethics are both inside and outside a Christian. You ought to be able to recognize church members by it. And in this manner the church is the true church. The church speaking here is again one that has been scattered in a broken corpus christianum. Art. 29c should be positioned historically in the complex reality of the corpus christianum and the religious struggle of the16th century.

6. Office-image – Heidelberg Catechism🔗

Lord’s Day 12 also comes to mind when reflecting upon the marks of a Christian (Q.31: Why is He called Christ? and Q.32: Why are you called a Christian?). The name Christ is explained as stemming from the anointing tradition in Israel. That is the connecting link between the anointed servants of God in the OT and the threefold office of Christ: He is our chief Prophet and Teacher, our only High Priest and eternal King. Q. 32 mirrors this in saying that because the church confesses Christ as the Anointed, the name Christian means that: ‘because I am a member of Christ by faith, and thus am partaker of his anointing...’ Christ’s appointment by the Father and anointing with the Spirit (in baptism) are reflected in us. And therefore the three offices of Christ are reflected in the life of a Christian.

They will therefore

  1. confess his name;
  2. present themselves as a living sacrifice of thankfulness to him; and
  3. with a free and good conscience fight against sin and Satan in this life and afterwards reign with him eternally, over all creatures.

Some later translations even explicitly added ‘as prophet, priest and king,’ following Ursinus’ teaching on this point as well as Caspar Olevianus’ explanations in his book Vester Grundi (1567). He states that Christ does not keep His office of teacher and prophet to Himself but shares these gifts with the entire ‘body’. Firstly by equipping His church with teachers, through which we learn (even if we have no special office as prophet or teacher) to praise God through confessing our faith, to teach our household and build up our neighbour in the service of the Lord. This description of the name ‘Christian’ in this meaning of the Christian’s threefold office, is an emphasis peculiar to the Reformed tradition. Lord’s Day 12 makes no mention of the recognition of the church. All emphasis lies on the connection between Christ and the Christian, the inner life expressing itself not merely in a Christian lifestyle, but even in the Christian’s official duties. Following Christ takes shape in society.

7. Broken image – notae electionis🔗

Calvin thought partly along the lines of the doctrine of election in his ecclesiology. He brings up the marks of a Christian only because the Lord knows those who are His own. He speaks of the notae of election. Is there not the danger of people looking for marks (of election) within themselves? Calvin speaks of notae electionis or testimonia with reference to personal assurance of election. God, who works these marks in us, proclaims in this His electing love. In 3.21.7 Calvin writes that in regard to the elect, we regard calling as the evidence (testimonium) of election, and justification as another symbol of its manifestation, until it is fully accomplished by the attainment of glory. These signs are gifts of God to bring us personal security and confidence of our election by God. Even the gifts of the Spirit can be called ‘marks of the hidden election’. Calling, the gift of faith, justification through Christ, and a life of sanctification all are signs or testimonies of God who is working in us. So the marks of election link with the marks of a Christian. Personally, children of God may ascertain God’s work in themselves.

That is why the characteristics mentioned in the Canons of Dort as marks of conversion are identical to these. The fruits of election are: true belief in Christ, child-like adoration of God, grief over our sins, and hunger and thirst for justice (Canons of Dort I Art.12) The connection with the notae ecclesiae is also clear: if Christians use the means of grace, their faith is strengthened, as is the comfort of the election (Canons of Dort V Art.14).

In the Reformed confessions, the aspect of election is separated from the ecclesiological aspects – rightly so, in my opinion. The marks of election concern the believer personally: how he can be sure of his salvation. With the marks of the Christian it was about the outward in the church (following Calvin), about the inner side of the church (following Bullinger), or about the image we hope others should have of the church (Belgic Confession).

Yet Christians very soon adopted the marks (of election) as their self-image. This shift took place in the changed situation of persecution. With the notae electionis, all attention is on the inside. A possible advantage of this could be a dedication to the inner side of the church, which also radiates into the outside. A possible danger, however, is that personal salvation receives a more central position than the neighbour, the congregation, and Christianity.

8. Image of a child (Jean Taffin)🔗

Jean Taffin (1529-1602) is often named in connection with the origin of the Belgic Confession. The remarkable title of his first book is Des marques des enfants de Dieu (1586) and it is about the marks of God’s children. I see this work as the first commentary on Art. 29 of the Belgic Confession. Taffin’s title is very clear: it refers to the marks that show us that we are God’s children. He discerns inward and outward marks or testimonies. Above all else, the inward are, according to Romans 8:16, the operations of the Spirit who enables us to be God’s children. The first mark is the Spirit enabling us to cry out “Abba, Father”. The second inner mark is that God’s Spirit is living in us and that we are children of God. Paul terms it ‘marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit’ (Eph 1:13). On the grounds of Romans 8:29-30, we can say that ‘those God foreknew’ whom ‘he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son’ are children of God. ‘And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified’. Is the fourth mark then knowledge of election? No, it is belief in the calling and justification in Christ’s blood (that will lead to glory). The four inward signs are therefore: the Spirit that

  1. teaches us to say Father,
  2. reveals God’s love for us,
  3. seals us and acts as security of the promise, and
  4. affirms that we are called and justified by the blood of Christ. The Spirit reveals the heart of the Father.

Consequently works, or fruits, of faith may also be seen as inner signs, enabling us to experience that we are God’s children.

  • The first fruit is peace with God, rest of conscience, patience and hope in persecution.
  • the second fruit is love for God and our neighbour – proof of God’s love in us: just like stones that, warmed by the sun, are able to radiate warmth.
  • the third fruit is so-called regeneration or rebirth. Quoting Taffin: ‘that we fear to anger God and long to walk in obedience’.
  • the fourth fruit is passionate prayer

In short, just as glowing coals prove that there is a fire, and movement of the body displays life, so the marks or testimonies are fruits of the Holy Spirit and of faith and rebirth.

These are trustworthy testimonies and inner signs that we are children of God.

Taffin does not leave it at that. He also places these marks in an ecclesiological perspective with a description of the visible and outward signs of our being God’s children. This consists in the fact that we are and should show ourselves to be true members of the church of Christ.

Summarized: Taffin recognizes four inward signs of the child of God and four fruits of inner faith, fruits being outward (=visible) signs. Furthermore, he shows us three characteristics of the true church, in naming the outward marks of the true church as well as their influence on her members.

Those who hear and receive the Word of God as members of the church show that they partake of these goods and are children of God.

The second mark of the church is use of the sacraments. Baptism and communion point to our being sons of God (Gal 3:26, 27). As third mark, Taffin names only the name of Jesus Christ.

 He concludes from this ‘that it is clear how each member of the church can and must assure himself of being a child of God and recognize all other members of the church also as children of God.’ The thought that it is then possible for one to regard someone to be a child of God who later proves to be a hypocrite, is resolutely denied by Taffin with: ‘such a condition is contradictory to the love that thinks no evil, believes and hopes all things’ (1 Cor. 13). Those who are members of the church and do not leave her we must regard as children of God. Outward signs are therefore:

  1. hearing the proclamation of God’s Word,
  2. partaking of the sacraments, and
  3. attending common prayers.

Those who do this must be seen as heirs to eternal life. That is the eschatological perspective in which Jean Taffin wrote his first book, aimed at comforting the faithful in the bitter experience of persecution. In times of persecution the marks bring comfort and courage. In times of peace, introspection can lead to an exclusive position. The 21st century forces Christians to rethink the sound of the name Christian in the ears of the neighbour who may only recognize the name of “Christ” as a swear word.

9. Ethics: spirituality inside out🔗

Toward the end of the 2nd millennium, Christianity had lost its special position in the West. Although the Christian church appears to be growing in Asia, Africa and South America, in The Netherlands people may be familiar with the word ‘god’, but the names of God and Jesus Christ do not touch many of them. In the 21st century the question again arises, as it did in the 1st century post natum Christi, how we shall be called and what image we have of ourselves and the others, especially when we take the many different cultures into consideration.

I would like to conclude my oration with a number of theses that echo the argument and outline a research program.

  1. The name ‘Christian’ is fundamentally and historically indispensable. Possible negative associations are our own fault or are a result of the following of Christ. Study of the early church patriarchs and those of the 16th century (Jean Taffin) help us to regard persecution as a mark of the church and possible martyrdom (de Brés) as a mark of a Christian (Acts 14: 22). Their work deserves further study.
  2. Even the corpus christianum that started with emperor Constantine did not display the unity we would wish. Nicenes and Arians both claimed catholicity. How can the characteristics of the church (unity, sanctity, catholicity, apostolicity) and her marks be connected together once again? The ecclesiology must not give in to the divided churches. In a multi-religious society, the Christian faith needs to take shape in a visible church.
  3. Calvin keeps his notae christianorum close to the marks of the church. Bullinger even spoke of internae notae of the church as “the true image of God’s children”. Is that the same as what we mean by a) spirituality, and b) ethics? We have our work cut out with the twofold commandment of love if that is the image that Christians wish to display to their fellow-citizens. I would encourage further research on how John Calvin and his students became guides in spirituality.
  4. It is clear that the doctrine of election also formed the background to Calvin’s ecclesiology. I wish to strictly divide the marks of election from those of the church members. Yet there is a connection that leads to a more or less experiential sort of faith and devotion. In the preparations for the synod in Dort in 2018-2019 there will be enough opportunity to discuss (renewal of) the doctrine of election (predestination doctrine).
  5. I would also like to study further the Spiritual gifts, especially in the early Christian church. Can special charismata also serve as marks of the church and of Christians? The tree will be judged by its fruit, says the Lord. But for charismata the following applies: that the Spirit ‘gives them to each one, just as he determines... (1 Cor 12:11). I would like to know what the areas of tension were in the various periods of culture in which different spiritual gifts are named, and in what manner the charismata belong to the notae ecclesiae or to the marks of the Christian.


This speech could have been simpler, and some may wish it had been. On 1st January the calendar distributed by, among others, Open Doors, displayed the following text:

The two marks of a Christian are:
to forgive and be forgiven.

That needs no lengthy explanation, but I am afraid I gave one – therefore I thank you for your attention.

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