When therefore we confess that the church is holy, we mean, positively, that both as to her calling and in respect to her nature she is consecrated to God. She is set aside for the service of God as a holy priesthood. And unto this service of the living God she is spiritually prepared. Her mind is consecrated to the Lord, to know Him. Her will is attuned to His will. Her heart is motivated by the love of God. To dwell in His house, to taste that He is good, to sacrifice herself with all things unto Him, and to declare His praises, is the delight of the church: In that sense she is holy unto God.
The holiness of the church is, in the first place, entirely a gift of God. In ourselves we are not holy, but quite unholy. But it is only through the grace of God in Christ Jesus our Lord that we become holy and that therefore also the church is holy. This is also the very idea of the church. It is the company of those that are separated and that are called out of the whole human race. In herself the church has neither the right nor the power to tie consecrated to God and to be separated unto Him. By nature also the church lies, with the whole human race, under condemnation and in the power of sin, pollution, corruption, and death. She is guilty and damnable, and has no right to dwell in the house of God and to stand before His face. She is defiled and impure, dead through trespasses and sins, wholly incapable to know God, to will His will, to love Him, or to do anything that is pleasing in His sight. But God, Who is rich in mercy, formed her into a holy nation, a royal priesthood unto Himself. From before the foundation of the world He ordained His Son to be the head of the church. In the fulness of time He sent Him into the world. Her place He assumed in God’s judgment. Her sin He bore on the accursed tree. Her guilt He removed and blotted out. Eternal righteousness He obtained for her, the right to be God’s people and to dwell in His house forever. And God raised Him from the dead and exalted Him at His own right hand in glory, fulfilled in Him the promise of the Holy Spirit. And through that Spirit of holiness our Lord Jesus Christ now dwells in the church, which is His body. All this is plainly taught in Holy Writ. In Ephesians 1:3, 4 we read: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ: According as he hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love.” And in verses 22 and 23 of the same chapter we read: “And hath put all things under his feet, and gave him to be the head over all things to the church, Which is his body, the fulness of him that filleth all in all.” Hence, the holiness of the church is only in Christ. It is the holiness of Christ that is imputed to the believers as if it were their own. And by His Spirit He also actually imparts His holiness to all the members of His body. The holiness of the church is therefore a gift of pure grace, constantly depending upon the union of the body with its head, Jesus Christ the Lord.
It stands to reason that in the midst of a world that lies in sin and corruption and in darkness the holiness of the church causes her to stand in antithetical relation to that world. The holiness of the church certainly means that she is separated from and stands in opposition to all that is unholy and profane. It is light out of darkness, righteousness out of unrighteousness, holiness out of corruption. It is resurrection from the dead. Out of the depths God causes His people to cry unto Him, exactly because the holy catholic church lives in the midst of a world that is full of hatred and enmity. And therefore the result is that the holiness of the church assumes the form of hatred and opposition to corruption. In the midst of the world, to which also our flesh belongs, holiness is resulting in a cry for forgiveness, a longing to be delivered, a fleeing from sin, a crucifying of the flesh, a condemnation of the works of darkness, a separation from the world in the spiritual, ethical sense of the word. It is putting off the old and putting on the new man. It is the holiness of the antithesis between light and darkness, between righteousness and unrighteousness, between Christ and Belial, between the temple of God and the temple of idols. Such is the character of the holiness of the church.
We may say, therefore, that it is always under the tension between light and darkness that the church in the world must fulfill her calling, “Be ye holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy.” To forget or deny this results in a very serious error. Always there have been and there still are those who separate themselves from the church because she is not perfectly holy and because within her there always appear those that are not of her, carnal and profane men. And they seek to establish the church of only the elect, without spot or wrinkle, in the world. But, as I say, this is a serious mistake. In this world the church is never perfect in holiness, except in Christ. For, in the first place, believers themselves have but a small beginning of holiness, a small beginning of the new obedience in their hearts. The motions of sin are always still in their members. And secondly, all is not Israel that is of Israel. Always there are hypocrites and openly ungodly men continually appearing in the church. They join themselves to the church from without, and they develop and grow from within. We must never forget that all the children of believers are not spiritual seed: tares are always sown among the wheat. The church in this world is never perfect in holiness.
Hence, it follows that the holiness of the church naturally must assume the form of a continual conflict, of the tension between light and darkness. In the Word of God believers are admonished to put off the old man and to mortify the motions of sin that are in their members, so that the church must constantly be on the alert and put off the works of the flesh, which would deprive her of her holy nature and calling. Oh, indeed, the church as such is holy and is called to be holy. She has a holy ministry to fulfill, the ministry of the Word of God as it has been delivered to her in the Holy Scriptures. And she is called to administer the holy sacraments. That Word the church must preserve. The truth of that Word she must appropriate and develop. The gospel of her Lord she must proclaim everywhere and in the whole world. And she must make the good confession. And the holy sacraments she must administer to those that are of Christ, and guard them against being profaned. But precisely in this, her holy calling, she is opposed by the flesh. The carnal element within her hates the pure Word of God opposes it, prefers the vain philosophy of men. It sets itself against the pure preaching of the Word of God. The carnal element in the church always hankers after the things of the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life. That carnal element brings the church into the world, and the world into the church. That carnal element always profanes God’s holy covenant. But the holy catholic church cannot and may not yield. She must and does oppose the flesh, put off the operations of sin, and fulfill her holy calling.
But there is more.
This tension and this conflict appears not only within the walls of the church. But the same conflict appears wherever the church, through the walk and confession of her members, becomes manifest in the world. For these members of the body of Christ are, as we have already remarked, always still in the world. They have no calling to go out of the world and to organize a colony of saints in some secluded spot. On the contrary, they must be in the world. They must live its whole life in all its relationships—in home and school and state and society, with respect to labor and industry, business and commerce. But in all those different relations of life they are called to reveal themselves as members of the body of Christ, as the holy church, the communion of saints. They must be holy in all their walk and conversation. They are called to be holy in the home, in the education of their children, in the state, in the relation of employer and employee, in store and office and shop, and in all of life in de midst of the world. They represent the cause of the Son of God. They walk according to the will of their Lord Jesus Christ. This means that in the spiritual, ethical sense of the word they can never be unequally yoked together with unbelievers. For thus we read in II Corinthians 6:14, ff: “Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness? And what concord hath Christ with Belial? or what part hath he that believeth with an infidel? And what agreement hath the temple of God, with idols? for ye are the temple of the living God; as God hath said,. I will dwell in them, and walk in them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you, And will be a Father unto you, and ye shall be my sons and daughters, saith the Lord Almighty.” It is especially because the church is holy in the midst of the world of darkness that she always must expect conflict, suffering, persecution, opposition, hatred. Indeed, the time is coming, according to Scripture, when she shall be hated of all nations, when her faithful members shall not be able to find a place in the world, when they shall not be able to buy or sell. But in this she must not fear. The Lord foretold her that she would have tribulation in the world, but also left her this word: “Be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” Presently the New Jerusalem, adorned as a bride for her husband, pure and holy, will descend from God out of heaven. That event is the end of all conflict and suffering and the perfect victory for the church of Jesus Christ.
It stands to reason that the believer must join not only a church, but the true church. The question, therefore, must be asked and answered: where can one find that true church? Fact is, of course, that in the world there are many churches. And they differ one from another not only I in accidentals, but even in essentials. They differ not only in regard to nationality, race, color, and language, but also in respect to those things that pertain to the very essence of the church matters concerning the truth, concerning the confession, concerning church government, concerning form of worship. Especially since the time of the Reformation of the sixteenth century, when the church liberated itself from the Roman hierarchy, denominations have multiplied, and scores of confessions of faith have been written and adopted. Even if we leave out of consideration those so-called churches that openly repudiate the Scriptures as the infallible Word of God and deny the very fundamentals of the Christian faith, such as the Trinity, the divinity of Christ, the virgin birth, the atonement through the blood of Christ, and the resurrection of our Lord, there is sufficient difference in doctrine and confession between the rest of the churches in the world to make it impossible for them to live under one roof—unless they arbitrarily deny their own confessions. Of course, if they do the latter, as is certainly very frequently done in our own day, they can easily amalgamate and become one big church. Not infrequently the churches sharply oppose one another in regard to such important truths as absolute predestination, election and reprobation, the sovereignty of the grace of God, the total incapability of the natural man to do any good, infant baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and the second coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. We believe one holy, catholic church. But the unity of this one church is by no means apparent in the world. The church appears to be hopelessly divided.
What, therefore, must be our attitude in regard to all these different manifestations of the church? What is the proper and Scriptural position to assume in this situation? Must we take the stand of those who would have the various churches simply break down the confessional walls of separation, forget their differences, and unite on a very broad platform of a few general principles, hardly expressive of the true Christian faith? Such, indeed, is the attitude of many churches in our own clay. It would not be too much to say that it is the attitude of the majority of those that still call themselves church in our so-called ecumenical age. But such an attitude can be taken only by those churches and by those believers who have long forgotten to take their confessions seriously. They are ready officially to relinquish their doctrinal standards and confessions. For them they are no more than dead traditions. They have no longer a place in their conscious faith. Nevertheless, this is a grave error. No church that takes its confessions seriously could lend its support to such a movement, or assume such an attitude. Hence, the question arises once more: what, in the face of the actual phenomenon of so many different churches, must be the position of the true believer, who is desirous to join himself to the true church in the world, and to no other?
This leads us to the question: what are the marks by which the true church must be known? The Belgic Confession, in Article 28, speaks of those marks in the following words : “We believe, since this holy congregation is an assembly of those who are saved, and that out of it there is no salvation, that no person of whatsoever state or condition he may be, ought to withdraw himself, to live in a separate-state from it; but that all men are in duty bound to join and unite themselves with it; maintaining the unity of the church; submitting themselves to the doctrine and discipline thereof; bowing their necks under the yoke of Jesus Christ; and as mutual members of the same body, serving to the edification of the brethren, according to the talents God has given them. And that this may be the more effectually observed, it is the duty of all believers, according to the word of God, to separate themselves from those who do not belong to the Church, and to join themselves to this congregation wheresoever God hath established it, even though the magistrates and edicts of princes were against it, yea, though they should suffer death or any other corporal punishment. Therefore all those who separate themselves from the same, or do not join themselves to it, act contrary to the ordinance of God.” And in Article 29 of the same confession we read: “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 here not of the 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, who call themselves the Church. The marks by which the true Church is known are these: if the pure doctrine of the gospel is preached therein; if she maintains the pure administration of the sacraments as instituted by Christ; if church discipline is exercised in punishing of sin; in short, if a11 things are managed according to the pure Word of God, all things contrary thereto are 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.” And further, in the same article of the Belgic Confession, the false church is described as follows: “As for the false Church, 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. Neither does she administer the sacraments as appointed by Christ in his Word, but adds to and takes from them, as she thinks proper; she relieth more upon men than upon Christ; and persecutes those who live holily according to the Word of God, and rebuke her for her errors, covetousness, and idolatry. These two Churches are easily known and distinguished from each other.”
The same marks of the true church are mentioned in the Scotch Confession of Faith, in Article 18: “The notes therefore of the true Church of God we believe, confess, and avow to be, first, the true preaching of the Word of God, into the which God has revealed Himself unto us, as the writings of the prophets and apostles do declare. Secondly, the right administration of the sacraments of Christ Jesus, which are annexed unto the Word and promise of God, to seal and confirm the same in our hearts. Lastly, ecclesiastical discipline uprightly ministered, as God’s Word prescribes, whereby vice is repressed, and virtue nourished. Wheresoever then these former marks are seen, and at any time continue (be. the number never so few, about two or three), there without all doubt is the true Church of Christ: Who according to his promise, is in the midst of them.”
The Reformed fathers, therefore, emphasized that the true church has certain distinguishing marks, by which she may be discerned. They insisted that the true church could not be distinguished by its size or numbers, as if the majority could decide the question concerning the true church. That position is condemned by the Reformed fathers. The entire history of the church, both in the old and the new dispensation, condemns that position. In the old dispensation carnal Israel often constituted the majority in the history of the old covenant people; and the true church was represented by the seven thousand that had not bowed the knee to Baal. And the same is true of the new dispensation. According as the church in the world grew large and prosperous, she usually became apostate and corrupt at the same time. The true church was usually represented by the small minority, the weak and despised according to the standard of the flesh and according to the standard of the world. Neither can the true church be discerned and distinguished from the false by the criterion of the decrees and acts of its councils. Also these have frequently corrupted the truth and persecuted the true church. It was social Jerusalem, the Council of the Jews, that persecuted and killed the prophets, and that ultimately nailed Christ to the accursed tree. This history of the old dispensation was frequently repeated in the new dispensation. Neither can you appeal to the antiquity of a certain institute to determine where the true church may be found. For while a church that can boast of centuries of history may have become corrupt and departed from the orthodox Christian faith, a church of more recent origin may stand on the basis of the apostolic faith and represent the continuation of the tie church in the world. This is evident from the Reformation of the Church in the sixteenth century. And therefore, all these characteristics our fathers of the Reformation found incapable of serving as distinguishing marks of the true church. Instead, they pointed to three infallible signs, or marks, by which the true church becomes recognizable: the pure preaching of the Word of God, the proper administration of the sacraments, and the faithful exercise of Christian discipline. Only where these marks are present, there is the true church. Where they are wanting, there the church is not, no matter how mighty and imposing the institution may be that calls itself by the name of church. And where these signs are corrupted, there the church must either repent, or die.
Let us elaborate for a moment on these marks of the true church.
These distinguishing marks of, the church must not be separated, neither must they be viewed as of equal significance and as coordinate. To be sure, all these marks are important. All these marks must certainly be present to indicate the true church of Christ in the world. Nevertheless, they must not be viewed as separate marks, all of equal value in themselves. On the contrary, in a sense they are all comprehended and implied in the first, that is, the pure preaching of the Word of God. For, first of all, the administration of the sacraments and the exercise of Christian discipline have no meaning without the preaching of the Word.