The Marks of the True Church
If ever there was one article in our Confession of Faith that was both irrelevant and relevant for our time, surely it would be Article 29 and the marks of the true church. This article is irrelevant if we approach the Confession as a dust-covered relic of times past, but it is eminently practical and relevant when we realize how it guides us in a timeless way. There are so many groups, assemblies, and ministries that call themselves “churches” in our culture. One need only walk or drive down the main street of any city to see that anyone with a new idea on how to make church relevant has done so. So how does the average Christian know which churches are biblical? Is there such a thing as an unbiblical church? Thankfully our Confession of Faith gives us guidance based on God’s Word in finding a church.
We need to discern which churches are true
After explaining what the Church is in article 27 and then saying that it is necessary to join it in article 28, article 29 of the Belgic Confession answers the questions, “Which church?” The opening lines begin by stating that it is necessary for believers to examine every “church” to discern if it is true or not, saying,
We believe that we ought diligently and circumspectly to discern from the Word of God which is the true Church, since all sects which are in the world assume to themselves the name of the Church. But we speak not here of hypocrites, who are mixed in the Church with the good, yet are not of the Church, though externally in it; but we say that the body and communion of the true Church must be distinguished from all sects that call themselves the Church.
It was Martin Luther who was one of the very first during the Reformation to speak of the external signs that identify the Christian church in his 1539 treatise On the Councils and the Church. Later, in his treatise, Against Hanswurst (1541), he said there have always been two churches, the true and false. This was not novel to Luther or the Reformers, but borrowed from St. Augustine’s The City of God, where he traces the two lines of Seth and Cain to show the true and false people of God.
And so our Confession says that we must be diligent and circumspect, that is, careful, in discerning which assemblies are the true and which the false. This is a biblical concept taught to us by John, who instructs us, saying, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1). It is a biblical given that not all prophets are sent by the Lord. Because of this the New Testament warns us against false doctrine (Colossians 2:8, 20), false prophets (Galatians 1:7; 2 Peter 2:1-4), and the harlot of Babylon (false religion mixed with the powers of the world; Revelation 18).
First of all, every “church” calls itself some kind of Christian Church, whether it is the Family Church down the street, the Foursquare Church, First Presbyterian Church, the United Methodist Church – the list is endless. All professing Christian groups identify themselves as churches. The context of our Confession was that every “sect” (Latin, sequi, that is, something that splits off), whether Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran, Anabaptist, Hussite, Waldensian, Anglican, and Reformed called themselves by the biblical name “church.” Although we may have a more cluttered view of things with so many denominations, associations, federations, and independent churches, it is nevertheless true that “these two Churches are easily known and distinguished from each other” because the boundary markers we have are themselves clear.
Second, all these multitudes of “churches” say they follow the Bible, say they are Christian, say they are practicing biblical Christianity. The wisdom of the day in finding a Church is going to a “Bible-believing church.” The problem with this is that everyone says this. So what happens is that Christians are taught that they can choose a church based on their personal preference. Some like traditional churches, some like contemporary; some like this kind, and some like that kind. We are told today that whichever church best serves the needs of your family is the one you need to attend.
Third, culturally we live in a tolerant society. This means that it is assumed that every church is a true expression of the Church because they are sincere, they believe the Bible, they love the Lord, and they are trying their best to fulfill the Great Commission. Although we may have disagreements at the end of the day, we are all in a church. We need to be aware that we have all been influenced by this mind-set more than we realize. When we speak of the “marks” of the Church and have to draw lines it is not easy; it is offensive; it is not politically correct.
What about hypocrites?
When we speak of true churches and false churches we are not speaking of individuals, whether in a true church or a false church. Instead, we are speaking of “the body and communion” of the true church versus the false church. Our calling is not to go to a church and determine who is saved and who is not, nor is it to find a pure church with no unbelief or hypocrites within it. When we say a particular “church” is a “false church” we are not saying there are no Christians in that place nor when we say a church is a true church are we saying there are no hypocrites in that place. Our task is to discern the confession of faith of particular churches.
As a side note, it is important to recognize that in this discussion the Confession assumes the distinction between the external/internal, visible/invisible in its discussion of the Church. The church it is a mixed multitude of hypocrites and “the good,” as the Confession describes those with true faith. Yet, from another point of view, that is, from the Lord’s eternal perspective, these hypocrites “are not of the Church, though externally in it.” Although in the covenant community externally they do not possess the substance of the covenant internally.
Marks of the true church
In discerning which churches are true and which are false, we are to do so “from the Word of God,” not sentiment. And so, as Reformed churches we speak of there being three marks (Latin, notae) by which the true Church is known: 1) the pure preaching of the gospel, 2) the pure administration of the sacraments as instituted by Christ, and 3) the exercising of church discipline in punishing sin. And yet, these three marks may be summarized by one overarching mark above all others, if you will; being governed by the pure Word of God alone:
In short, if all things are managed according to the pure Word of God, all things contrary thereto rejected, and Jesus Christ acknowledged as the only Head of the Church. Hereby the true Church may certainly be known, from which no man has a right to separate himself.
This is testified to in Scripture which says that Christ alone is the foundation of the Church (1 Corinthians 3:11) as well as being the cornerstone of that foundation (1 Peter 2); yet, we are also taught that the apostles and prophets are the foundation of the Church (Ephesians 2) because they testify and point us to Christ. And so a true church is one that is governs itself by the authority of the Word. Practically speaking, though, we say this is shown in the three areas of preaching, sacraments, and discipline. These are the marks of Christ’s Church because these are the means whereby Christ has promised to meet with His people. Where these three marks are found Christ is present in saving grace.
Historically there was debate over how many marks there were. The Augsburg Confession (1530) spoke of the two marks of the preaching of the Gospel and administration of the sacraments. To this conclusion John Calvin was in agreement. In speaking of these two marks Martin Luther so famously said,
The temple is now as wide as the world. For the Word is preached and the sacraments administered everywhere; and wherever these are properly observed, whether it be in a ship on the sea, or in a house on land, there is God’s house, or the Church, and there God should be sought and found.
As early as 1544 Peter Martyr Vermigli was the first Reformed theologian to add the “third mark,” church discipline. Soon after others such as Martin Bucer and John Knox, followed suit.
While eventually coming to consensus about there being three marks, church discipline was often said to be “a fruit of the first two.” One of the reasons men such as Melanchthon, Bullinger, Calvin, and Viret spoke of two marks was the existence of the Anabaptists. In debating with Rome about the catholicity and apostolicity of the Protestant faith, they felt it necessary to distance themselves from Anabaptism, which was known for its extreme rigor and discipline, in order not to be reviled as Anabaptists themselves.
Pure preaching of the Gospel
The pure preaching of the Gospel was understood by our forefathers to refer to the doctrine of justification by grace alone (sola gratia) through faith alone (sola fide) on account of Christ alone (solus Christus). As Peter Martyr Vermigli said in contrast to Rome:
They have undoubtedly corrupted doctrine, since they deny what Scripture affirms: that we are justified by faith alone.
We see all throughout the writings of the Reformers that they understood justification to be purely preached when the Word was “rightly divided” (2 Timothy 2:15) into its two parts: Law and Gospel. The Law was preached in all its terror, while the Gospel was preached in all its comfort as that which the Law could not do (cf. Romans 8:3-4; Canons of Dort, III/IV, 6). In doing this the Reformers taught us to preach Christ and Him crucified.
What is important for us to understand is that the Confession is not concerned whether a church has a biblical statement of faith, purpose statement, or even is a member of a federation/denomination with an orthodox Protestant Confession, but whether the Gospel is actually being preached. This is a warning to us. Just because we have a Confession does not make us a true church.
We have to preach the Gospel purely. If we preach any other “gospel,” whether it be explicitly faith plus works or some insidious version of “get in by faith, stay in by obedience,” let us be eternally anathema (Galatians 1:6-9). If we come not with the “doctrine of Christ” (2 John 9) but a counterfeit, be it ever so sincere, may we not be allowed in the homes of the faithful for we are antichrists!
Pure administration of the sacraments
The sacraments are purely administered when only the two Christ instituted (cf. Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 68) are celebrated in the church. This means Rome is not a true church, nor are groups such as the Salvation Army which do not baptize. As well, the sacraments must be administered as Christ instituted them. With baptism this means that the water must be administered in the name of the Triune God and by an ordained minister (Matthew 28:18-20). Whether one is baptized in a church building or at the beach, with a font or a bowl, by sprinkling, pouring, or immersion, and whether the minister sprinkles, pours, or immerses once or three time is indifferent. As well, it was understood that baptism was a covenantal ordinance, that is, that it was administered to believers and their seed (Genesis 17:10-13; Romans 4:11-12).
With the Lord’s Supper the pure administration means that both bread (whether leavened or unleavened) and wine (as Calvin says, no matter the color) are to be given to the people, whether kneeling, sitting, or standing. This is to be done by reciting the words of institution (1 Corinthians 11:23-26), as the example of Paul testifies, along with prayer (“...when he had given thanks...”) over the bread and wine. This means that whether the minister reads a long Form, explains the sacrament in his sermon (a la the practice in Strasbourg), or explains it in his own words (he is a trained minister after all) does not make the sacrament more or less purely administered. After all, Jesus and Paul did not prescribe any Forms nor the usage of them.
The third mark is the one that defends the Lord’s reputation for holiness (Ezekiel 36:16-21; 1 Corinthians 5:1), protects the Church from infection (1 Corinthians 5:6; Hebrews 12:15 16; 2 Timothy 2:14, 16-18), and restores the rebellious, making clear the seriousness of their resistance to Christ’s Word and Church (1 Corinthians 5:5; 2 Corinthians 2:5-11; Hebrews 3:12- 13, 10:24-25, 12:11-16).
Marks of true Christians
After listing the marks of the Church, the Confession also lists the marks of Christians. The reason for doing this, again, is because the Reformers taught a distinction between the church as it is invisible to us, yet visible to the Lord, and visible to us. Calvin speaks of the church as the elect; yet, for our sakes, he has accommodated himself to us and given us a church to see. So when the Confession speaks of the marks of Christians being faith, avoiding sin, following after righteousness, loving God and neighbor, neither turning aside to the right or left, crucifying the flesh, fighting against sin, and continually taking refuge in Christ, it is speaking of those who are not only “in the church” but those who are “of the church” as possessors of the benefits of the covenant of grace.
Marks of the false church
Finally, having explained the marks of the true Church, the Confession explains what the false Church is. The false Church also has three marks, which are the opposite of the marks of the true Church: 1) it ascribes more authority to itself than to the Word of God, 2) it does it not administer the sacraments as appointed by Christ, but adds to and takes from them, and, 3) it persecutes those who live holy according to the Word of God and rebuke it for its errors, covetousness, and idolatry. Thus the false Church is “the synagogue of Satan,” as John calls it (Revelation 2:9; 3:9).
Historically speaking, at least in the Western Church, this refers to the Roman Catholic Church as its Pope and tradition have equal, if not more, authority than the Word of God, as it has added confirmation, penance, marriage, ordination, and last rites to the Christ’s ordained sacraments, and it persecutes the true Church, calling it schismatic, sectarian, “separated brethren.”
And so this article, which seems so distant, irrelevant, and even intolerant to our ears, offers us sound guidance as to how to find a church which Christ has established and in which He will meet with His people. It is our duty to pray for the protection and propagation of such churches in our dark times as we pray the words of our Lord: Thy kingdom come.
Study/application questions for article 29
- How can we explain biblically to the myriads of professing Christians in our culture that just because an assembly has the name “church” in its name does not mean that it is truly a “church?” How do we do so without being intolerant in a tolerant society?
- Why is it the duty of the Christian “diligently and circumspectly” to find a true church?
- Where in the Gospel narratives does Jesus speak of the three marks of the “true church?”
- How would you explain in your own words each of the three marks?
- How does a “false church” denigrate the marks of the church?