The Marks of the Church

The Marks of The True Church (THE WESTMINSTER CONFESSION OF FAITH 25.4)

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What kinds of things should believers in Christ look for when choosing a church? How do you know when you ought to remain at your current church? Conversely, how do you know when you may need to leave your church and find a new church home? To quote The Clash, “Should I stay or should I go?”

Many in our day seem to make such decisions based largely upon what might be considered peripheral issues, such as the style of music, children’s programs, the personality of the pastor, etc.. Those are not necessarily unimportant things to consider, but are they really the right standard by which we should measure a particular church?

This is where the concept of the “marks of the true church” often proves helpful. The Westminster Confession of Faith (25.4) deals with this subject (although it does not use the phrase “marks of the church), when it says,

“This catholic church hath been sometimes more, sometimes less visible. And particular churches, which are members thereof, are more or less pure, according as the doctrine of the gospel is taught and embraced, ordinances administered, and public worship performed more or less purely in them.”

Keeping in mind that the word “catholic” here (as in the Apostles’ Creed) simply means universal, not Roman Catholic, it is helpful to see that no particular (i.e. local) church or denomination is to be considered as coextensive or coterminous with the catholic/universal church. Frankly, that is how cults tend to view & present themselves (i.e. as the only true church, while all other churches are false, apostate, etc.). Rather, we are to consider particular/local churches in relation to the catholic/universal church.

And so when we are considering a particular church, our primary question must be whether or not it is truly a member of the one catholic, visible church. And how is that to be determined? By considering it in light of what is known as the marks of the true church.

The Confession’s statement above (25.4) states that the standard by which a church is to be measured, the things that we are to consider in order to determine whether or not a particular church is either “more or less pure” are as follows:

  1. “The doctrine of the gospel is taught and embraced.” This must come first. If the gospel of Christ is not truly taught and embraced, then a particular church is a Christian church in name only. A false gospel equals a false church. (Westminster Confession of Faith 25.5 speaks of such churches as “no churches of Christ, but synagogues of Satan.”) And so our first and primary concern when deciding on a church must be that the Word of God is truly preached and taught.
  2. The proper administration of the “ordinances.” This is refers primarily to the sacraments, but most likely includes such things as church discipline, the maintaining of the offices of the church, etc. Sadly, the proper administration of the sacraments is probably an afterthought to many sincere believers, but it has been commonly held to be one of the distinguishing marks of the true church. The sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper are vitally important in the lives of believers. The fact that the Westminster Confession of Faith devotes no less than three (3) whole chapters (27-29) to this subject testifies to its importance.
  3. The purity of public worship. Now the public worship of the church is probably one of the first things that many people consider when choosing a particular church. But the purity of the public worship (i.e. that it conforms to what is commanded in Scripture) often does not seem to be the priority, but rather the personal preferences of the individual. In other words, we commonly ask whether or not the public worship of a particular church is pleasing to us, rather than asking whether or not it is pleasing to God. (Or we simply presume that if it is pleasing to us, then it must somehow be pleasing to God as well.)

Now there is obviously a lot of overlap between those three things. And those three things are not exactly the way that the marks of the true church have most commonly been articulated and defined. (The Confession, of course, does not use that term here.) The classic formulation of the marks of the true church is found (for example) in the Belgic Confession. Article 29 of the Belgic Confession puts it this way:

“The true church can be recognized if it has the following marks: The church engages in the pure preaching of the gospel; it makes use of the pure administration of the sacraments as Christ instituted them; it practices church discipline for correcting faults. In short, it governs itself according to the pure Word of God, rejecting all things contrary to it and holding Jesus Christ as the only Head. By these marks one can be assured of recognizing the true church– and no one ought to be separated from it.”

So the pure preaching of the gospel, the pure administration of the sacraments, and the practice of proper church discipline are stated as being the three (3) marks of the true church. That is not to say that the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Belgic Confession are at odds on this issue; they simply articulate the same things somewhat differently. And notice that the Belgic Confession basically summarizes the three marks by saying, “In short, it governs itself according to the pure Word of God.” That is really the standard.

As for the original question – “Should I stay or should I go?” Article 29 of the Belgic Confession sums it up well when it says, “By these marks one can be assured of recognizing the true church– and no one ought to be separated from it.” If your particular local church does not demonstrate these three simple marks, then you probably need to find yourself a different church. But if it does show itself faithful in these three distinguishing marks (however unimpressive it may be), then (as the Belgic Confession states above), you ought not to be separated from it.

The marks of the true church are as much about knowing when you should stay at a particular church as they are about when you should leave it. Choose your church wisely, measuring all things according to the Word of God. And then faithfully worship, serve, and remain there to the glory of Jesus Christ.

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THE VISIBLE CHURCH (THE WESTMINSTER CONFESSION OF FAITH 25.2)

Theologians commonly distinguish between the “invisible” and “visible” church. In our previous post we looked at what the Westminster Confession of Faith (25.1) has to say about the invisible church. What about the visible church? The Confession goes on to say the following:

“The visible church, which is also catholic or universal under the gospel (not confined to one nation, as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children: and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.” (25.2)

First, notice that the visible church (like the invisible church spoken of in 25.1), is also in some sense “catholic or universal.” In what way is it universal? The Confession goes on to spell that out in detail, saying that “under the gospel” (i.e. in the New Testament era) the one true church is no longer “confined to one nation” as it used to be in the Old Testament age. The church used to be confined to one earthly nation – Israel.  The gospel is now to go out to all the nations (Matthew 28:18-20; Acts 1:8).

There is also another sense in which the visible church is catholic or universal – whereas the invisible church consists of “the whole number of the elect” (25.1), even so the visible church consists of “all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children” (25.2). Everyone who professes the true religion is a member of the visible church.

Professing the true religion, strictly speaking, involves more than merely professing faith in Christ (as essential and important as that is). The visible church is not just every individual professing Christian in the world. Rather (as the remaining sections of chapter 25 will go on to make abundantly clear) the church as church is in view here (no pun intended). Today’s overly-individualized and privatized version of the Christian faith was an utterly foreign concept to the Westminster divines, and rightly so. Indeed, it is a foreign concept to Scripture itself as well! (See here.)

Not only that, but the visible church also includes the children of all those who profess the true religion as well! That may seem like a strange concept to many in our day, but this is the consistent pattern found throughout Scripture (both Old and New Testaments alike). The children of believers have always been included in the covenant community, and have always had the sign and seal of the covenant applied to them (circumcision in the Old Testament, and Baptism in the New Testament). That is why Paul can say in 1 Corinthians 7:14,

“For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy.” (ESV, italics mine)

Does that mean that all of the children of believers are somehow automatically saved (salvation by association?), or even that all of the children of believers, without exception, will come to saving faith in Christ? Of course not. But is it not most often the case that the children of believers in Christ, having been raised in the fear and admonition of the Lord (Ephesians 6:4) and brought up in the church, end up, by God’s grace, coming to a saving knowledge of Christ?

The Confession also states that the visible church is “the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God.” It is as if no one analogy or metaphor for the church is sufficient in order to convey everything that the church really is. Paul says something similar in 1 Timothy 3:14-15, where he writes,

“I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these things to you so that, if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth.” (ESV, italics mine)

The church is Christ’s kingdom. Now Christ rules over all things, not just the church (Psalm 8:6; Matthew 28:18; 1 Corinthians 15:27), but, as Paul says of Christ in Ephesians 1:22, God “placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church” (NIV, italics mine). He is head over all things for the sake of His church! And so the visible church, strictly speaking, is not co-extensive with the limits of Christ’s kingdom (for there are no limits to His authority and reign), but it is the primary manifestation of the kingdom of God on this earth.

Not only is the visible church the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, but it is also “the house and family of God. What a privilege it is to be included in the family and household of God Himself! What a blessing it is to not only be reconciled to God and be able to call upon Him as our heavenly Father through faith in Christ, but also in Him to be given a multitude of “brothers and sisters and mothers and children” (Mark 10:30, ESV)! The church is not just an organization, or even an organism – it is a family!

Lastly, the Confession makes a statement that is sure to raise a few eyebrows in our day. It says that outside of the visible church “there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.” A similar statement is also found in the Belgic Confession (which is the confession of faith for the continental Reformed churches, just like the Westminster Confession is for the Presbyterian churches). It says,

“We believe that since this holy assembly and congregation is the gathering of those who are saved and there is no salvation apart from it, no one ought to withdraw from it, content to be by himself, regardless of his status or condition.” (Article 28, emphasis mine)

And so it is clearly the standard reformed position that there is no salvation apart from the visible church, or at least not normally so. There are some, to be sure, who have no opportunity to join themselves to a local church body where the Word of God is truly preached, and the sacraments are rightly administered, and church discipline is faithfully exercised. Some are suffering extreme persecution and even imprisonment for the faith. Others may live in a place where there simply is no (true) local church. But for most professing Christians that is certainly not the case. And so, as the Belgic Confession makes clear, “no one ought to withdraw from it, content to be by himself.” No man is a church unto himself, “regardless of his status or condition.” No one is sufficient in and of himself to live the Christian life on his own.

There are certainly some within the visible church who profess Christ without actually possessing Christ (i.e. they do not truly believe), and there are also some, no doubt, who are outside of the visible church who truly profess and possess Christ, but these are the exceptions and not the rule. No one who professes faith in Christ should willingly cut himself off from membership in the visible church. No one who professes faith in Christ should be “at home” (or at peace) without a (true) church home.

Part of the reason for that can be seen in Westminster Confession of Faith 25.3, which speaks of the means of grace that are to be found only in the church – the “ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God” which are given “for the gathering and perfecting of the saints” (i.e. believers). (Lord willing, we will deal that section in more detail in a future post.)

Love for our brothers in Christ is one of the evidences of salvation. In 1 John 3:14 the Apostle John writes,

“We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death.” (ESV)

How can we say that we love our brothers in Christ if we avoid fellowship among them in the church? Or is it possible to truly love Christ, while seeking to avoid His body and bride, which is His church?

If you profess to know Christ by faith, but are somehow not a member of a local church. Do not be content to stay by yourself. Do not look for a perfect church, for that does not exist in this life. But rather make it your aim to find a true church where the Word of God is preached truly and sincerely (even if imperfectly), where the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper are administered rightly, and where church discipline is faithfully and lovingly exercised for your good.

When you find such a church (and all do not fit that description, of course), despite her imperfections, join that church. Stay at that church. Worship and serve at that church. And may our faithful Savior Jesus Christ be pleased to greatly bless you in that church, to His glory!

The Westminster Standards on Preaching

Directory_for_Public_WorshipThe Directory for the Publick [sic] Worship of God (circa 1644) is a very helpful (even if much neglected) part of the Westminster Standards. It gives us clear instructions on nearly every aspect of the public worship of God in the church, including such things as how the Scriptures are to be read (and by whom!), the right manner of corporate prayer both before and after the sermon, the proper way to administer the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, as well as many other things.

Not surprisingly, it also contains a brief section outlining the right manner of preaching the word of God. These directions are as helpful as they are simple, and it would no doubt be of great benefit to the church to get back to these basics of biblical preaching.

In the Directory the Westminster divines note that the preacher ought to have three (3) primary concerns in his preaching:

First, the preacher must ensure that the matter be the truth of God. In other words, is what the preacher says truly biblical? Not just the truth, but specifically the truth of God. That is to say that the matter of the sermon must be found in the Word of God. Many things might be true enough in and of themselves, but are not really the subject matter of Scripture. A sermon simply must be true and biblical.

If what is being said in the pulpit is not the truth of God, then it really isn’t a sermon (at least not a Christian one) at all. It may be truly rousing oratory; it may be a very informative lecture; it may even be a fine motivational speech; but it is not a sermon in any meaningful sense of the word.

Second, the preacher must see to it that the truth that he preaches is contained or grounded in the specific text of Scripture that he is preaching. Sometimes preachers preach the right doctrine (see #1 above), but do so from the wrong text. In other words, the matter of the sermon must actually be the matter of the text itself. If not, how will the hearers understand how the preacher arrived at the points or conclusions that he is seeking to impress upon them?

You could say that every time a minister preaches a sermon (if he is doing so according to what the Westminster divines say here), he is not just teaching the flock what the Word of God says, but is also implicitly teaching them how to study the Word of God for themselves! What a blessing and added benefit that would be for any church!

Third, the preacher must primarily emphasize what the text itself primarily emphasizes. In other words, the preacher’s main point(s) ought to be so derived from the main point(s) of the Scripture text, that they are one and the same. And in this way the hearers are to be best edified. The central message of the sermon should be the central message of the text of Scripture. If not, can it really be said that the text itself was properly preached?

May the Lord Jesus Christ, the Head of His church, grant that His ministers would preach His Word faithfully. And may they preach according to these simple rules found in the Directory – that their preaching might be biblical, that it might be based upon the text of Scripture itself, and that it might emphasize what the text itself emphasizes.

The “Grotesque Anomaly” of the Un-Churched Christian

Stott (The Living Church)

In the opening chapter of his book, The Living Church, the late John R.W. Stott has some strong words for those who call themselves believers in Christ all the while having nothing to do with the local church (which is the body of Christ). He calls the un-churched Christian a “grotesque anomaly” (p.19).

It is an anomaly; that is, it is abnormal. It is simply not the way that it is supposed to be. He wastes no time informing us as to why such a person is anomalous. He simply states,

The New Testament knows nothing of such a person. (p.19)

That just might be the best one-sentence argument against church-less Christianity that you will ever read. You will look in vain to find anywhere in the Scriptures where a believer in Christ all by his or her lonesome (or even a family), disconnected from a local body of believers, is considered to be the norm, or even that such a thing is acceptable. In fact, everywhere in Scripture the exact opposite is stated, implied, or assumed.

In the book of Hebrews we are told in no uncertain terms that we are intended to meet together for public worship on a regular basis:

Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. (Hebrews 10:23-25 ESV)

You will notice that everything about this passage is first-person plural (i.e. we, not I; us, not me). There is nothing privatized about anything here. We are to hold fast to “the confession of our hope” (v.23) together. We are to “consider how to stir up one another to love and good works” (v.24). And we are not to neglect to “meet together,” but are rather to encourage one another (v.25).

Now just because something is an anomaly (or even a “grotesque” one, to use Stott’s words), does not mean that it is not all-too-common. In fact, the passage cited above clearly tells us that neglecting to meet together is (unfortunately) “the habit of some” (v.25). In our day it actually seems to be the habit of many. To be sure, there are numerous reasons for such a neglect of the public gathering of the church. But, to be blunt, none of those reasons does away with the simple fact that believers in Christ are meant to meet together, worship together, serve together, and grow together.

Much more could certainly be said. Perhaps in future posts on this blog we will take some time to explore some of the various reasons that many give for not belonging to a local church.  But for the time being, if you somehow find yourself falling into the unfortunate and unflattering category of the “grotesque anomaly,” there is no better time than the present to resolve that you (and your family) will finally stop “neglecting to meet together” with the body of Christ.

Look for a local church where the Bible is clearly believed and taught, where the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper are rightly administered, and where the elders of the church will faithfully exercise discipline for your good. And if you need any help finding such a church, get together with some other believers whom you know and ask them for help. You may find yourself in a church that is far from perfect and even quite messy, but that is much better than being grotesque, isn’t it?

The Most Important Organization in the World

RYM

Ever take a look at your life and wish that you could be involved in something big? Something really important? That you  have helped to make a real difference?  Ronald Reagan once said,

Some people spend an entire lifetime wondering if they made a difference in the world. The Marines don’t have that problem.

The Marines might not have that problem, but neither does anyone who is a member of the Christian church – no matter how small, unimpressive, or insignificant that church may be when viewed by the world’s standards.

People often speak of “megachurches” (usually meaning that they are very, very large), as if they are somehow much more important than those much smaller churches (micro-churches?). But here’s the thing – every true Christian church (which is defined simply as a church where the Scriptures are truly taught/the gospel is truly preached, the sacraments  of baptism & the Lord’s Supper are rightly administered, and church discipline is faithfully exercised) is a mega-church.  Why? Because that is where you will really find the Lord Jesus Christ at work. The church is what the Lord Jesus Christ Himself promised to build and defend. That is where Jesus truly changes lives, families, communities, and the world.

In his book, Renewing Your Mind (which is all about the Apostles’ Creed), R.C. Sproul writes,

The church is the most important organization in the world. It is the target of every demonic, hostile attack in the universe. Jesus personally guaranteed that the gates of hell will never prevail against the church. He made no guarantee that the gates of hell would not be unleashed against it, however. (p.184)

Do you want to be a part of something big? If you are a believer in Jesus Christ and are a member of a local church, then you already are a part of something big!  You are a part of the most important organization in the world! Yes, even that small, unimpressive, all-too-ordinary one down the street.

So join in the worship, work, and witness of the family of God! It doesn’t get any bigger than that!

Preaching the Word or Homiletical Ventriloquism?

Dummy (Edgar Bergen)

What does it mean to “preach the Word” (2 Timothy 4:2, ESV)?  Preaching the Word means that the message of the text of God’s Word is also the message of the sermon.  The text of Scripture is primary; its message (not the preacher’s) is central.

Simply put, if the message of a sermon is not the message of Scripture, it may be called “preaching” (however loosely defined) but it is not truly preaching the Word.

Preaching the Word of God takes more than merely including or quoting Scripture in the sermon (although that is at least a good start).  In his book, The Pastor’s Justification, Jared C. Wilson writes,

Putting some Scriptures in your sermon is not the same thing as preaching the Scriptures. (p.119)

Preaching one’s own ideas from behind the pulpit and sprinkling in a verse or two of Scripture is not unlike using the Bible as nothing more than a ventriloquist’s dummy.  Sad to say, this is what false teachers have always done.  Paul warned the elders of the church of Ephesus that they needed to be on the lookout for savage wolves who would be “speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them” (Acts 20:30).

Indeed, Satan himself twisted the words of God back in the garden of Eden when he tempted Eve to eat of the forbidden fruit (Genesis 3:1-5).  He also quoted Scripture this way when he sought to tempt the Lord Jesus Christ out in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-13).  He quoted the actual words, but twisted their meaning and implications.

So what does this mean for us in the church today?  If you are a minister of the Word of God, make sure that you are not using the Word of God like a wax nose or a ventriloquist’s dummy – presenting your own ideas as if they came from Scripture.  And do the hard, painstaking, time-consuming work of translating, interpreting, and faithfully proclaiming the message of Scripture.  The Westminster Larger Catechism puts it this way:

Q. 159. How is the Word of God to be preached by those that are called thereunto?  A. They that are called to labour in the ministry of the Word, are to preach sound doctrine, diligently, in season and out of season; plainly, not in the enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit, and of power; faithfully, making known the whole counsel of God; wisely, applying themselves to the necessities and capacities of the hearers; zealously, with fervent love to God and the souls of his people; sincerely, aiming at his glory, and their conversion, edification, and salvation.

And for the listeners?  How are you listen to the preaching of the Word of God?  The next question in the Larger Catechism addresses that very topic:

Q. 160. What is required of those that hear the Word preached?   A. It is required of those that hear the Word preached, that they attend upon it with diligence, preparation, and prayer; examine what they hear by the Scriptures; receive the truth with faith, love, meekness, and readiness of mind, as the Word of God; meditate, and confer of it; hide it in their hearts, and bring forth the fruit of it in their lives.

And you thought that the preacher was supposed to be the one doing all of the work during the sermon – far from it!   How are you to ensure that your pastor is not practicing homiletical ventriloquism?  By attending on his preaching of the Word with diligence, preparation and prayer; by examining what you hear by the Scriptures themselves.

Do you bring your Bible to church?  Do you pay attention to the sermon?  Do you follow along and take notes?  We really should listen like the Bereans did in Acts 17.  There they were called “noble” (v.11).  Why? Because they “received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.”  They were hungry for the Word of God, and examined whatever they heard by the Scriptures!

If we were all to do that, there would be far less homiletical ventriloquism and far more true and faithful preaching of the Word of God!