The Marks of the Christian
A forgotten paragraph?
Sometimes it is suggested that the marks of the Church are not really as important as the marks of the Christians. It does not matter so much, it is said, to what church you belong, as long as you are truly a Christian and show forth the “marks of the Christians” in your life. Personal faith and commitment to Christ are seen as being much more important than formal membership of any particular church or denomination.
Sometimes the complaint is voiced that many Reformed people do not even know the “marks of the Christians.” We so strongly emphasize the one set of “marks” (of the Church) that we forget the other (more important) set of “marks” (of the Christians).
Almost everyone who makes public profession of faith in a Reformed church knows what the (three) marks of the true Church are, but can everyone also with the same speed and accuracy list the marks of the Christians? Is the section of Article 29 which contains “the marks of the Christians” not in many ways a forgotten paragraph?
Hopefully, this is not the case. It is extremely important to know the “marks of the Christians” and to live accordingly. At the same time, it must be said that we should not play the two sets of marks out against each other, as if personal faith is of greater importance than church membership, or vice-versa. Our Belgic Confession does not separate the two, but sees both as being complementary and intertwined: we are to be members of Christ's true Church and as members to be recognized by the marks of the Christians!
The “marks of the Christians” remind us that we may never be members of the Church in name only, but that we must in every way be living members, whose life is fully dedicated to Christ.
The question may be asked why our confession here lists “the marks of the Christians.” The purpose of listing these marks is to prevent especially two wrong views on the Church.
The first error is the idea that all the members of the Church are by that very fact saved. The Confession has already warned in this article against “the hypocrites, who are mixed in the Church along with the good and yet are not part of the Church, although they are outwardly in it.” There are hypocrites in the Church. There may be unbelievers who for a time and for specific reasons act as part of the Church of Christ, even though their hearts are not dedicated to the Lord.
The notion that church membership itself is of a saving nature is implicitly promoted by the Roman Catholic Church. Romanist theology teaches that common members, the laity, do not necessarily have to believe the doctrine of the Scriptures and lead holy lives to be saved. In Rome's view, this is more the task of the clergy. As long as you are formally a member of the Church, God's grace is bestowed upon you through the hierarchy. This extends to the Church's office bearers an exclusive privilege which, in fact, belongs only to Christ. Here we find the pinnacle of clericalism.
This is the reason why many Roman Catholics do not know the Bible, hardly attend church, and have a very poor understanding of sin and salvation, but yet believe that the Church will save them. Dr. P.Y. de Jong, in his book The Church's Witness to the World, a respected commentary on the Belgic Confession, writes on this point,
“We take sharp issue with Rome which would reserve the marks largely to objective ordinances and the hierarchy which represents Christ on earth and bestows grace in His name. This does violence to what Scripture teaches about the unique nature and responsibility of professing Christians.”
Membership of the Church is very important, and it has everything to do with our salvation, but we do not believe that the Church saves us. That is the one error which our Reformed Confession refutes. Only Christ saves us by His one sacrifice on the cross and justifies us by true faith.
The other error is the Anabaptist idea that the (real) Church consists only of regenerated people, who do not sin and are perfect. Our Confession, by listing these marks of the Christians, indicates that the members must indeed be living members and strive for perfection according to God's law.
The Confession lists the marks of the Christians as the norm for Christian life, but then immediately adds,
“Although great weakness remains in [the Christians], they fight against it by the Spirit all the days of their life. They appeal constantly to the blood, suffering, death, and obedience of Christ, in whom they have forgiveness of their sins through faith in Him.”
We should not expect that the members of the Church are perfect. There are those who have left the Church because of perceived flaws or shortcomings of the (other) members, but often such leaving indicates poor insight into the weak nature of the Church on earth and a lack of proper humility regarding oneself. We do not advocate a perfect Church, even if we sincerely uphold the marks of the Christians.
We believe that faith must be a living matter, evident in works of love. Hence, Christians are known by the marks. But we do not believe that the Church consists of super-people who have already achieved perfection.
Dr. P.Y. de Jong puts it as follows, “Thus the Reformed churches have insisted upon experiential religion and warned against a dead orthodoxy, without falling into the snare of making specific spiritual experiences a standard of admission into church fellowship. No one, so they argued cogently from God's Word, can or may attempt to judge the secrets of the heart.”
The “true Church” is by no means a perfect Church, but is a body which consists of believers, who by the Holy Spirit daily fight against their weaknesses, and in whose midst are also hypocrites and unbelievers.
Faith working through love
When we look at “the marks of the Christians,” as described in Article 29 of the Belgic Confession, we find two main words: faith and love, whereby faith is the root and love is the fruit.
Christians are first known by this mark, “they believe in Jesus Christ as the only Saviour.” At the basis of all activity in the Christian life, lies faith, the gift of God's grace, worked by His Spirit through the Gospel. A true Christian is a sincere believer, who has a personal relationship of faith with Jesus Christ, expecting all salvation from Him alone. This is the heart of the Reformed Confession, which is echoed also in the doctrine concerning the church.
This faith is not a dead substance but produces in the believer many fruits. Whoever is a true Christian, therefore, according to our Confession, will “flee from sin and pursue righteousness, love the true God and their neighbour without turning to the right or left, and crucify their flesh and its works.” In short, this is the power of regeneration and sanctification which becomes evident in the lives of true Christians.
A Christian is known by a clear direction and purpose in life: to flee from sin and obey God's command of love. This is a straight course and a complete commitment, “without turning to the right or to the left.” Any path which would lead away from Christ, the only foundation, is avoided.
This is no easy undertaking, to say the least. Of true Christians it is said that they “crucify the flesh and its works.” This is a reference to Galatians 5:24, “And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.”
In his Bottenberg commentary on Galatians, Dr. S. Greijdanus writes at this point,
“This does not mean that [our] depraved nature has immediately fallen away. Someone who is crucified is not dead at the very moment of crucifixion. But with this crucifixion he completely loses his freedom to move and act, and is irrevocably doomed to die.”
Our sinful nature, which is still with us, does not control us anymore, but is, in fact, in a process of dying.
The members of the Church have one thing in common with those of the world: we are all sinners. But there is a radical difference between sinners. Christians hate their sins, and flee from them, while unbelievers love their sins, and live in them.
To sum this up: the marks of the Christians are faith and love (obedience). As we are justified by a living faith, so we are actively sanctified to good works.
The Belgic Confession does not list the marks of the Christians in order to make us doubt our salvation. But we are in this way urged to engage in proper self-examination. Being a member of the true Church is, though important, in itself not enough. The question is: do we live as children of God? This question is meant to encourage us to show forth greater diligence and sincerity in the Lord's service.
John Calvin put it this way, “…seeing that, in this earthly prison of the body, no man is supplied with strength sufficient to hasten in his course with due alacrity, while the greater number are so oppressed with weakness, that hesitating, and halting, and even crawling on the ground, they make little progress, let everyone go so far as his humble ability enables him, and prosecute the journey once begun. No one will travel so badly as not daily to make some degree of progress.”
The Reformed Confession allows no formalism or automatism. Instead, it urges us to continue the good fight, despite our many weaknesses, and to make some degree of progress every day. If we concentrate on this, Christ will bring us across the finish line. This is His promise to His Church and its living members. He will perfect His Bride, and present her in glory to His Father.