(In the last paragraph Kuyper has concluded his discussion of how an individual engages in church reformation and finally makes a break with his church when such church reformation proves impossible from within: In, the following paragraph, Kuyper goes on to discuss the whole concept of the true and the false church for reasons which he himself gives.)
59. The Distinction Between the True and False Church.
In order that the believer may have a definite standard by which to decide when his church ceases to be a true church and begins to be a false church, we must explain further what the marks of the true and false church care.
In the doctrinal and church political struggle which was carried on by our fathers in the Sixteenth Century with Rome, Rome determined fifteen different characteristics as marks of the true church. The Reformed theologians found these to be too superficial for a number of reasons. Over against them they ventured an attempt to establish more correct characteristics. If we sum up what was maintained at that time, then it is clear that all Reformed theologians establish as a necessary characteristic the preaching of the Word of God. Most added to it as a second mark the administration of the sacraments. And a few added to these two the exercise of Christian discipline. A very few substituted for this latter or added to it the mark of Christian love, the holiness of morality, etc. Our Confession of Faith states in Article 29, as is well known, the three marks: 1) the preaching of the Word; 2) the administration of the sacraments; 3) the exercise of ecclesiastical discipline. It sums up these three marks in the one general mark, that we must hold to the pure Word of God, rejecting all things which are opposed to it and holding Jesus Christ as the only Head of the church.
It is also to be observed that our oldest theologians, as well as Article 29 of our Confession of Faith, added to each of these three marks the requirement of purity. The preaching of the Word is not enough. There must be the pure preaching of the gospel. Likewise, the pure administration of the sacrament is required. And the exercise of Christian discipline must be so applied that not only a few, but all sins are punished.
Reading this, a few brothers have come to the conclusion that each church must be considered as falling away from the true church when something is lacking in the preaching, when the administration of the sacraments is wrong, or when the exercise of discipline is lax.
In keeping with this, these same brothers take the occasion to terminate membership from such a church hastily and to set up a pure church with the purpose of showing the fault and sin of the old church and to give the old church a bill of divorcement.
It is not proper to handle such a profound question so superficially. It is a well-known fact that such a man as John a’ Marck, followed by Bernhard de Noor, talked of two other marks: i.e., “purity in the fundamentals of doctrine and holiness of life.” This makes us think that we ought to refrain from so superficial a judgment. At any rate, wiser and betted men such as de Noor, Turretin, and whoever else have pointed out that not each of these three marks is equally indispensable and that in the requirements of these three marks there is a certain latitude left for minor differences.
It is on that ground that we make bold to treat this extremely important point somewhat more carefully than has commonly been done.
In the first place, our attention is fixed on the point that in connection with the drawing up of the marks of the true church, usually three trends apply. We may call these three trends the personal, the Scriptural, and the ecclesiastical.
We can be brief concerning the last one because it is represented by Rome and the controversy which we have with Rome is left out of our consideration in this pamphlet.
But we ought to describe briefly the contrast between the Scriptural and personal trend which, according to another principle can also be distinguished as the objective and the subjective.
In all ages a group of Christians have pressed the point that the mark of the true church should be sought in the subjective and personal holiness of her members. Confessing correctly that the church is the gathering of the elect, these brothers set up the questionable but extremely dangerous demand that these elect should show themselves as children of God. On this they base their risky idea that the church must be known by the holiness of her members, holiness meant in the spiritual, not in the external sense.
On the other hand, over against that subjective idea, throughout all the history of the church of Christ, the idea has been maintained that the external church must be judged, not according to the spiritual state of her members, but only according to the external appearance of the church as such. This insight leads of itself to this proposition: The marks of the church lie not in the holiness of her members, but in the character which she shows as church.
We ought not to judge this first idea too harshly. A thirst for holiness is created in God’s child along with the new birth. How can it be different if the worldly-mindedness into which the church continually sinks gives pain to him who knows God’s hidden ways? One must seek for a separation of the pure and impure and must check that which is evil. If these brothers understand more fully the unbelievable power of sin and if they have learned in fearful wrestling of the soul how each flake of grace which falls as white snow on our souls is dirtied by the stain of our souls, then they would not set the fantasy of imagined purity against this abomination, but would rather engage in an earnest and pressing warning. But those who are fanatical and live too much in the over-excitement of the mind, such as Donatists, Cathari, the Brownites, the Labadites, and whoever else wants to sort out the content of the fishnet before its time and lives in the beautiful hope of their holy purpose, such a one is bound to face bitter disappointment and the risk of the fading of their own freshness of faith.
It can be no different. They fall into error in four respects. 1) They forget that the genuine character of the work of God in the soul does not permit of external judgment. 2) They forget that the dispensation under which we live until our death involves the continual influence of sin in the saints according to God’s inscrutable purpose during the whole of this present age. 3) They forget that the elect can live a long time in the church before they are translated out of death into life. 4) They forget that people are transitory and pass away, while the church remains.
All the Reformers, and especially Calvin, have always opposed this Donatist struggle with deep conviction. Calvin writes: “In bearing the imperfection of the members, our compliance must go very far, because the path is so slippery and the tricks of Satan to make us fall are so sly . . . . And if one says that it is unbearable and intolerable as long as the plague of iniquity continues to eat as a cancer in the church of the Lord, then I ask if the opinion of the Apostles does not satisfy them. In the Corinthian congregation there were not only a few who had fallen into sin, but almost the whole body of the congregation was sick. It was not only a single sin which was rampant there, but much iniquity was present. And it was no sin of minor significance but of fearful abomination. Not only were the morals corrupted, but corruption had also crept into the teaching. And what now does the holy Apostle do as mouthpiece of the Holy Spirit with Whose judgment the church stands or falls? Does he recommend separation? Does he exclude them from Christ? Does he subject them to an anathema? Nothing of the kind, but just the opposite. He still recognizes them as a church of Christ and as a gathering of saints. This is true also of Jesus and His disciples. The depictions which the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Joel, and Habakkuk give us of the sins of the Jerusalem of their days are fearful and horrible. Everything was corrupted among the people and the rulers, even the priests themselves, to such a degree that Isaiah does not hesitate to call Jerusalem a Sodom and Gomorrah . . . . Was this any better in the days of Christ and His apostles? Really not. The false piety of the Pharisees no more than the licentiousness of the Sadducees prevented Christ and His apostles from going up with them to the same temple and using the same sacrament with them.. . . And if you are still not persuaded, look at David, who was burdened by God with maintaining morality, but who covered the misdeed of his shameful lust by abominations of the violation of right and of bloodshed. And yet was not the same David regenerated? Is he not with honor named among the regenerated? Nevertheless what itself aroused horror among the heathen, he, David, thirsted to perpetrate.” (Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, L, IV, c, 1.)
Nearly our whole church has judged in the same way. As far as we know no one who is competent to judge defends this Donatist idea, and we shall let this idea of the subjective or personal mark the true church go, in order to direct the attention of the reader to the second or Scriptural and objective tendencies which the marks of the true church seek not in the personal state of the members, but in the state of the church itself.