Previous article in this series: August 2018, p. 437.
Where is the true church to be found? The Reformed church confesses that the true church can be identified by three notable marks, namely, the preaching of the pure doctrine of the gospel, the administration of the sacraments as instituted by Christ, and the proper exercise of church discipline. It was necessary for the church of the Reformation to set forth these marks in order that the true church of Christ be distinguished from the false, that is, Rome, as well as from various groups that had separated from the Reformation, such as radicals. There is no indication that the Reformed (Belgic) Confession of Faith was labeling the Lutherans as the false church, even though significant doctrinal differences separated the Reformed from the Lutheran churches.
The question remains for Reformed believers living over 450 year later: how should we apply Article 29 of the Confession to the church situation today? Across the globe are thousands upon thousands of Christian churches and denominations. Is it possible to identify the true church? Believers must be able, else they will not know to what church they must join themselves. To that application of these marks we turn.
Note first, that, properly considered, these marks apply to a local congregation rather than to a denomination. Only a local congregation can preach, administer sacraments, and exercise Christian discipline. That is why, in an apostatizing denomination there can yet be individual congregations that manifest these marks quite clearly. Whether such congregations ought to remain in an apostatizing denomination is another question. But the point is, that the marks are found in the congregation. However, that being true, insofar as the congregations of a denomination are in harmony as regards their preaching and practice, the marks can be applied to a denomination.
One only true church?
One way that these marks are often misapplied is by selecting one denomination and identifying it as the true church, and then rejecting all others as false church. Virtually every church has members who consider their church to be the true church, and then draw the “logical” conclusion that all others are false (See figure 1).
This is a wrong application of the Confession’s standards. That this is wrong is obvious from the fact that the Confession gives marks, not names. It did not identify the Reformed churches of the Netherlands as the true church. It did not identify the Lutheran churches as true or false. It did not even name Rome, though the description of the false church makes clear that Rome is false church. It is clear that the Confession was not interested in identifying one specific church as the true one.
Yet there is a more important reason why this is a false application. Recall the attributes of the church of Jesus Christ. She is a catholic or universal church. Jesus’ church is not limited to thirty-four congregations in the United States and Canada. She is not limited to 500 congregations in the United States and Canada. The true church of Jesus is gathered out of the nations. No church in the world can claim to be THE true church of Jesus and all the rest false, because no church is truly universal.
Nor is it correct in a given country to limit the true church to one denomination, for the simple reason that outside the church there is no salvation. If someone would limit the true church of Christ to the Protestant Reformed Churches, for example, he would at the same time be maintaining that currently there are no saved people in Detroit, in Omaha, in Lexington, or in Houston, that is to say, in any city where a Protestant Reformed Church was not found. And anyone in Grand Rapids who is not Protestant Reformed is not saved. That is preposterous.
Therefore, we reject—emphatically reject—the idea that any one denomination or congregation can be identified as the true church, and all the rest rejected as false. The Confession itself does not allow it. We insist that one can identify the true church, but that does not involve singling out one particular church as the (only) true church.
All churches are equally true?
The other extreme is also contrary to the Confession, namely, that all churches that take the name Christian are to be considered equally as true church. This is popular today. When I was a boy, the back of the Saturday newspaper carried notices of church services all over the Grand Rapids area, with the urging, “Go to the church of your choice.” Later they added, “or synagogue.” The thinking manifest by this, which continues today, is that it really does not matter which church you attend. No one has a corner on the truth. No one may judge others for their beliefs. None can see the heart and judge sincerity. Therefore, it does not matter. All churches are equally legitimate avenues leading to heaven.
That all churches may be considered true churches flatly contradicts the teaching of the Confession, and of the Bible. Jesus warned against those who called Him “Lord, Lord” but did not follow what He taught (Luke 6:46-49). This is also exemplified in the church that dares to take the name of Christ as hers, but does not teach His Word. The believer must evaluate the preaching in particular, as well as the administration of the sacraments and church discipline. This evaluation is not seeking to identify Christians and non-Christians. Rather, it is identifying the church where one must be a member. Do not lose sight of this. The goal of the Confession is not that one can smugly identify the false church and condemn it. The goal is rather that believers are able to distinguish the true church from the false in order to guide them to join the true. With that goal in view, the Confession clearly rejects the idea that all churches named Christian may be viewed as satisfactory options for believers to join.
The church as wedge
The proper way to apply the marks of the Confession is to recognize that the true church of Jesus Christ is best described as a wedge (See figure 2). Within this “wedge” are a variety of churches, but one thing surely characterizes them—they are committed to the Bible. They maintain that the Bible is God’s Word. They may have wrong interpretations of that Word; they may have glaring inconsistencies in their theology, allowing truth and error to exist side by side. Worship might not be as pure as it ought. Members might not even recognize that the teachings in the church’s theology conflict. But they are genuinely committed to maintain the truth of the Bible.
However, just as a wedge (like one that is used to split a log) has a sharp edge and a dull side, so likewise the true church has a sharp edge and a dull side. At the sharp edge, the marks are clearly visible. The church represented by this edge preaches the pure doctrine of the gospel, properly administers the sacraments, and rightly exercises discipline.
Moving away from that sharp edge, the marks become less distinct. Errors are tolerated in the preaching—not the cardinal truths of the Trinity or the Incarnation, and the like, but departures from the truth of Scripture. Such departures might be official decisions adopting error, but more often errors are preached and are not condemned and rejected.
As one moves to the dull side, the marks are present, but badly corrupted. The churches represented by this side are apostatizing at a fast rate and will sooner or later join the ranks of the false church.
The interest of the believer is not so much to identify the false church, that is, to be able to label certain churches as false. But neither may he be complacent to find that his church is somewhere “in the wedge.” As noted, the issue is which church to join.
Also, one must recognize that no church is standing still. A church is either striving to be more faithful to the Word of God, or it is moving away from the truth. That is in harmony with the Reformation’s slogan, “We must be Reformed and always reforming.” Always reforming involves continually conforming the church’s doctrine and practice to the standard of the Bible.
What church, then, ought the Christian to join? It should be obvious that a Christian should join himself or herself to the church that is at the point of the wedge. That is, to the church where the three marks are the most clearly manifest. This is the church that preaches the pure doctrine of the gospel, for that is the essential mark, and the others flow out of it.
But one might say, how can one know which church is at the sharp edge, at the very point of the wedge? The answer is—the Bible. The Bible is the standard for truth. It is necessary to compare what this church is preaching with the truth of Scripture. The Reformed confessions also help in the evaluation. This is what the Belgic Confession requires. Believers must join themselves to the true church. Here is the church where the marks are most clearly manifest. The obligation is to join that church—at the point of the wedge.
Every believer must be convinced, then, that the church of which he is a member is truly at the point of the wedge where the marks are most purely manifest. Whether one is living in Singapore, Russia, Brazil, America, or Germany, one must be sure that the church where he is member is at that point. This is not implying that there is one church in all the world that is at the point of the wedge and all Christians must move to that country and join that church. Not at all. Stay in your own country, believers, and as Jesus instructed, proclaim there “what great things God has done for you.” Build up the church there. And work mightily to see to it that the church is moving, not away from the truth, but rather toward greater clarity and faithfulness. If indeed there is no true church of Christ in your country or area, you are obligated to move. For outside the true church, there is no salvation.
What a privilege and responsibility God gives to each believer! Not only must the believer join the true church, but he must also be a living member of that church—praying for her; loving each and every member; ever guarding the offices so that qualified men are faithful watchmen on the towers of Zion; submitting to these men, and thus to the yoke of Christ; and watching that the church is preaching the pure doctrine of the gospel.
It is an unspeakable blessing to be a member of such a church. Let not the imperfections of the officebearers and the sins of the members cause you to lose sight of the privilege. Christ is there, feeding, governing, and caring for His beloved flock. There the believer can flourish in his generations.
May God continue to preserve and bless His church on the earth until the day that Christ comes to take His people to Himself.
 The figure of a wedge is not original with me. I heard it first as a student in a seminary commencement address in 1983 by the late Homer C. Hoeksema. He taught this in seminary, and I have since used the illustration in my instruction. His fine speech (“At the Point of the Wedge”) was printed in the Standard Bearer, and can be found in the July 1, 1983 issue, vol. 59, pp. 415ff.