The Westminster Standards

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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Book Review: God Is, by Mark Jones

God IsMark Jones’ newest book, God Is, is a book about what is often called “theology proper.” That is, it is about the study of God as He has revealed Himself in Scripture. That in itself makes this volume a welcome addition. As Jones notes in his introduction, “books on the doctrine of God are few and far between” (p.16).

Don’t let the subtitle (“A Devotional Guide to the Attributes of God”) fool you. This “devotional” is by no means lacking in substance the way that books of that genre often tend to do. I don’t know of many so-called devotional books that quote liberally from the likes of Thomas Watson, John Owen, Thomas Goodwin, Stephen Charnock, and Herman Bavinck (just to name a handful).

While there is a great deal of substance in this book, its relative brevity (only 215 pages, plus end notes) makes it very readable. As with his previous volume, Knowing Christ, here Jones once again takes what can be some rather complex theological concepts (like the simplicity of God!) and makes them much more accessible to the layperson. (For my review of Knowing Christ, see here.)

Each chapter, as the title suggests, deals with a different attribute or perfection of God. He opens with a chapter on the Trinity (“God Is Triune”), and follows that up with a chapter on the simplicity of God (“God Is Simple”), which is probably a concept that many readers will be unfamiliar with prior to reading this book.

Chapters 3 through 6 seem to echo the order of the attributes of God found in question and answer #4 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, which says,

“Q.4. What is God? A. God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.”

  • Chapter 3 – “God Is Spirit.”
  • Chapter 4 – “God Is Infinite.”
  • Chapter 5 – “God Is Eternal.”
  • Chapter 6 – “God Is Unchangeable.”

See? You’re learning the Shorter Catechism and didn’t even know it!

There are 26 chapters in all, and all of the chapters are relatively short. (None of them exceeds 9 pages in length.) This actually makes the book very useful for devotional reading. I read just one chapter per day, and found that very helpful.

Each chapter follows a distinct and easy to follow pattern: First Jones states the doctrine of God’s respective attributes. He then follows that with a brief section demonstrating how each particular attribute of God is known and understood rightly by us in Christ alone. And finally he offers a section dealing with how these things rightly apply to the Christian life (what some of the old Puritan writers often referred to as the “uses” of the doctrine). This is doctrine with hands and feet, doctrine for life.

If I were to offer any minor criticism, it would be only this – the final two chapters (on the anger of God and the anthropomorphic way that God reveals Himself in Scripture), while being very clear, helpful, and even necessary for the book to be in some sense complete, would probably be more fitting as appendixes of some kind, rather than formal chapters in the book.

What I mean is this – the book is entitled God Is, and so each chapter deals with an attribute of God. That being the case, each chapter title begins with “God Is ___.” Those last two chapters don’t really fit that same way. Strictly speaking God is not angry or anthropomorphic in and of Himself. In other words, those things are not His essential attributes. Jones, of course, makes this very clear in those chapters. He says, for example, that “God’s anger remains an expression of his outward will, not his essential being” (p.194).

So my criticism is not so much of the content itself, but rather one small part the arrangement of it. It is admittedly a minor nitpick on my part, and it in no way detracted from my enjoyment of the book.

All in all, I enjoyed this book very much and found it to be eminently clear and helpful. If you are looking for a good book on the attributes of God, I enthusiastically recommend it to you. And if you are not looking for such a book? You probably should be – pick up a copy and read it anyway! You’ll be glad that you did.

A Footnote on the Neglect of God’s Law

devoted7a-810x1280__82818.1478970628.315.315In one of the many footnotes in his book, Devoted to God, Sinclair Ferguson makes a sobering observation about the all-too-common tendency in many evangelical circles today to neglect God’s law:

“The contrast between older evangelical teaching on the law and its relative relegation today may be illustrated by the fact that the catechisms written by Luther and Calvin at the time of the sixteenth-century Reformation devoted considerable attention to the exposition of the law. They were followed by the Westminster Larger and Shorter Catechisms which devote around one third of their questions to the exposition and application of the Ten Commandments. By contrast, were catechisms to be written today by evangelicals it is doubtful whether the law would receive much if any detailed attention.” (p.163, footnote 6)

The Westminster Shorter Catechism devotes no less than 41 (Q.41-81) of its 107 total questions to dealing with a right understanding of the ten commandments.  In other words, nearly 40% of the Shorter Catechism is spent focusing on this summary of the moral law of God! Likewise the Heidelberg Catechism includes 24 questions (out of a total of 129), divided up over the span of 11 Lord’s days, to the same subject. So 11 out of the 52 weeks in a calendar year are to be spent dealing with instruction on God’s moral law.

This should be instructive to us as believers. How much time do we spend considering God’s law or meditating upon it?  Psalm 1 calls upon us to delight in “the law of the LORD, and so to meditate upon it “day and night” (Psalm 1:2). This should also be instructive to those of us who have the privilege of serving the Lord as pastors & teachers in His church. Do we devote much time & attention to teaching God’s law to His people? If we do not, we would seem to be neglecting, not only the law of God, but also the best examples from among our Reformed fathers in the faith.

We must not relegate the law of God to the status of a mere footnote of the Christian faith.

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.