Clearly Distinguishing the True Church from the False

[The reader is asked to read first the Belgic Confession Article 29: The Marks of the True Church, and Wherein She Differs from the False Church.]

Many of the great debates of the Reformation concerned the church itself—what the church is, and what she should be like. That fact led Guido de Bres to devote the largest section of the Belgic Confession to ecclesiology, the doctrine of the church. The Confession gives solid, biblical instruction on the offices and government of the church (30, 31), the order and discipline that must be found in the church (32), the sacraments (33-35), and the relationship between the church and the state (36). Article 27 describes the church catholic, and the following article insists that it is the duty of everyone to join a manifestation of the catholic church, i.e., to join a local congregation that is part of the one, holy, catholic church. The importance, yea, the necessity, of this membership, is obvious, for outside of it there is no salvation. But if one is required to join a congregation that is a manifestation of this true church, one must know how to distinguish the true church from the false. That is the significance of Article 29—it gives the marks by which one can clearly recognize the true church and the false.

The Confession gives three marks of the true church, namely:

  • the pure doctrine of the gospel is preached therein;
  • she maintains the pure administration of the sacraments as instituted by Christ; and
  • church discipline is exercised in the punishing of sin.

Then it adds a summary: “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.”

Readily apparent is the influence that John Calvin had on Reformed theology and on de Bres himself. When Calvin came to Geneva in 1536, he drew up aConfession of Faith which all the citizens and inhabitants of Geneva and the subjects of the country must promise to keep and hold. Article 18 of this confession was on “the church.” The article reads (and we emphasize the marks of the church):

While there is one only Church of Jesus Christ, we always acknowledge that necessity requires companies of the faithful to be distributed in different places. Of these assemblies each one is called Church. But in as much as all companies do not assemble in the name of our Lord, but rather to blaspheme and pollute him by their sacrilegious deeds, we believe that the proper mark by which rightly to discern the Church of Jesus Christ is that his holy gospel be purely and faithfully preached, proclaimed, heard, and kept, that his sacraments be properly administered, even if there be some imperfections and faults, as there always will be among men. On the other hand, where the Gospel is not declared, heard, and received, there we do not acknowledge the form of the Church. Hence the churches governed by the ordinances of the pope are rather synagogues of the devil than Christian churches.1

Twenty-three years later, Calvin’s views had not changed, as his last edition of the Institutes shows: “Hence the form of the Church appears and stands forth conspicuous to our view. Wherever we see the word of God sincerely preached and heard, wherever we see the sacraments administered according to the institution of Christ, there we cannot have any doubt that the Church of God has some existence…” (4.1.9).

In his famous reply to Cardinal Sadolet, Calvin wrote, “There are three things on which the safety of the Church is founded and supported: doctrine, discipline, and the sacraments; and to these a fourth is added: ceremonies, by which to exercise the people in offices of piety.”

Notice that there Calvin places Christian discipline alongside of doctrine and the sacraments. Indeed, Calvin made it plain that he considered proper Christian discipline to be a mark of the church. In practice and in writing, he maintained that proper administration of the sacraments included barring those who lived in open, unrepentant sin. Calvin was willing to put his life on the line to uphold the principle that the impenitent had no right to the sacraments.

The question arises, why these three marks? The answer to that is first of all this: By means of these three, Christ saves His church. Recall that the Confession taught that outside of the church of Christ, there is no salvation. These are the means Christ uses in the church—preaching, sacraments, and discipline.

Accordingly, these are the three official activities that Christ specifically enjoined upon His disciples, who represented the church. 1) Preach (Matt. 28:19-20); 2) Administer the sacraments (Matt. 28:19-20); 3) Exercise Christian discipline (Matt. 16Matt. 18I Cor. 5).

In addition, Christ is the Anointed One, theofficebearer of God, set by God to be head over all things to the church (Eph. 1:22-23). Christ preaches in His church, through the minister whom He calls to preach. Christ administers the sacraments and exercises Christian discipline through the ministers and elders. Christ does that because He is present in His church by His grace and Spirit. He walks in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks (Rev. 2:1). Where Christ is present, there these marks are visible.

But where Christ is not present, where He has removed His Spirit, the assembly is the false church. The marks of the false church are the exact opposite of the marks of the true church. The false church rejects the truth and preaches the lie. “She ascribes more power and authority to herself and her ordinances than to the Word of God, and will not submit herself to the yoke of Christ.”

In the false church, the sacraments are profaned: “Neither does she administer the sacraments as appointed by Christ in His Word, but adds to and takes from them, as she thinks proper.”

And in the false church, Christian discipline is misused. Rather than punish the impenitent evil doer, the false church “persecutes those who live holily according to the Word of God, and rebuke her for her errors, covetousness, and idolatry.”

The Confession rightly concludes: “These two churches are easily known and distinguished from each other.”

One True Church?

The Confession’s clear and absolute distinction between the true and the false church creates a problem for some. They conclude that there must be one true church (that is, denomination), and all the rest are false. Or, that there can be but one true church in a given area, and all the rest are false. That is emphatically not what the article is teaching. Proof of this is found first in history. Reformers such as Calvin and de Bres did not hold that there was but one true church. Calvin not only revered Luther and fellowshipped with Melanchthon, he also instructed Reformed people in foreign lands (where no Reformed church existed) to worship with the Lutherans, even when they used candles in the worship service. On the other hand, Calvin called all believers to come out of Rome! Rome was the false church; the Lutherans were not.

Second, that the article is not suggesting that there is one denomination that is true, while all others are false, is clear from this, that the article is discussing the local congregation, not the denomination. For only the local congregation preaches, administers the sacraments, and exercises Christian discipline.

Third, the article is explaining how to distinguish the true from the false. It is not teaching how to identify the only true one.

Let me illustrate the difference. A man who mines for gold knows that there is in the ground gold, and fool’s gold. The fool’s gold has some resemblance to true gold. An inexperienced observer might ask him: How can you distinguish between true gold and fake gold? The miner could then give certain characteristics of true gold, and certain characteristics of fake gold. He is not answering the question: How can you tell the one pure gold nugget that is the only true, pure gold nugget? Certainly some gold nuggets are purer than other gold nuggets. But that is not the point. He will set forth how to recognize the difference between true gold and fool’s gold.

Likewise the Confession is not telling us how to identify the one true church in distinction from all false. It is rather setting forth how we can know that a church is a true church of Christ, and how we can know that another is a false church. Some of the churches are true, having the preaching of the truth, proper administration of the two sacraments, and some Christian discipline exercised. Such a church may also have some wrong teaching, some improper elements in the administration of the sacraments, and some inconsistencies in Christian discipline. That church is not as pure as it should be. But it is not yet a false church. If it does not repent and return to the preaching of the pure doctrine, proper administration of the sacraments, and right application of Christian discipline, such a church will become the false church. She will lose all the marks of the true, and exhibit all the marks of the false church.

For this reason, a helpful figure for understanding “the true church” is a wedge.2 The figure of the wedge is excellent because a wedge has a sharp point and a dull edge. The sharp point of the wedge represents the church where the three marks are clearly and sharply manifest. The dull edge represents the church where the three marks are largely obscured—barely visible and mixed with all sorts of errors.

This understanding of Article 29 has significant practical application.

First, the calling of each and every believer is to be at the point of the wedge. He must therefore not onlydistinguish between the true and the false, he must also discern the church that is at the point. And he must not rest until he is convinced that the church where he is member is at the point of the wedge. He must be convinced that no other church has the truth more purely preached; that no other church is more faithful in administering the sacraments or exercising Christian discipline. If he faithfully applies the standard, namely the Bible and the Reformed confessions, then he arrives at the point of the wedge.

Second, the Confession, after setting forth the marks of the true church, rightly warns: “from which no man has a right to separate himself.” No one may leave the church that has these marks because he was offended by a fellow member, or a decision of a consistory did not go his way, or he does not like the minister. At the same time, the fact that a church has the marks to some extent does not require a man to remain there until that church has lost all evidence of the marks of the true church. When a church adopts false doctrine and refuses to repent, it has taken a step away from the truth. It has set itself on the path of apostasy. After protesting, warning, and urging his church to turn, to no avail, a faithful member must leave that church for one that maintains the truth of God more purely. God will bless that move towards the point of the wedge. On the other hand, God’s judgment comes on one who moves from the point of the wedge to a church that less clearly manifests the three marks. God’s judgment is that the man, in his generations, moves out of the true church altogether! A dreadful judgment indeed!

The Reformed believer rejoices that the Confession gives this good guidance to distinguish the true from the false church. May God grant to His people the wisdom to discern, and the courage to seek membership where the true church clearly manifests these marks. Insofar as a man is at the point, he contributes to the sharpness of the church’s witness. Insofar as anyone is content to be in a church that is not at the point, he contributes to the dullness of the wedge. Therefore, for the good of the church, for your own spiritual profit, and for the glory of God’s name, rightly apply this article. Seek the true church that is at the point of the wedge.

1 Reid, J. K. S. (1954). Calvin: Theological Treatises (31). Louisville, KY; London: Westminster John Knox Press.

2 I heartily recommend a Standard Bearer article printed in July of 1983 entitled, “At the Point of the Wedge” (Vol. 59, p. 415). It is the commencement address of the late Prof. H.C. Hoeksema to the graduates of the Protestant Reformed Theological Seminary that spring.