The Belgic Confession, a Reformed creed, bears the impression of John Calvin’s theology. Soon after it was written by Guido de Brès in 1561, Reformed churches in the Netherlands began adopting it. The Belgic Confession includes a lengthy section on ecclesiology, reflecting the reality that the doctrine of the church was a major conflict between the Romish church and the churches of the Reformation. The ecclesiology is clearly Calvinistic.
Article 27 of the Belgic Confession expresses the Reformed confession on the church—one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church—the truth considered in the May 1 editorial. This one body of the church is manifest concretely in a local congregation, and the Confession (Art. 28) states the Reformed/Calvinistic teaching that outside the church there is no salvation. Therefore, “all men are duty bound to join and unite themselves with it.” Article 29 also acknowledges the fact that all nominally Christian groups “which are in the world assume to themselves the name of the church.”
If it is the duty of all to join the church of Christ, it follows that believers must be able to distinguish what really is the church from that which improperly calls herself the church of Christ. This, in turn, implies two realities. First, that believers are given discernment to distinguish the true church from the many that “assume… the name of the church.” Second, that the true church possesses distinguishing marks that enable believers to identify her with confidence. The marks “by which the true church is known” (Art. 29) are three official activities of the church, specifically, the preaching, the administration of sacraments, and Christian discipline. It is to these marks of the true church that we now turn.
The true church of Jesus Christ is identified chiefly through the preaching heard from the pulpit week after week. It must be the gospel—the pure doctrine of the gospel. Preaching is a unique activity—there truly is nothing like it in all the world. An ordained minister of the Word studies (exegetes) a text of Scripture (God’s Word) for hours, and through prayer and meditation, comparing Scripture with Scripture, comes to understand the text. He grasps the main message that the Spirit intends. That main message will be the theme of the text and of the sermon. The minister seeks the truth of God in Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, as it comes out in the particular text. When he is confident that he has this, he can proceed to write a sermon, an orderly and logical explanation of the text with proper application to the church today. Then, come Sunday, he preaches the sermon as one called by Christ to proclaim the Word of God. He preaches the gospel of Christ crucified. This “pure doctrine of the gospel” proclaims with authority that “salvation is of the Lord alone.” This salvation is rooted in eternal election, grounded in the cross, and received through the faith worked by the Holy Spirit. Then, amazing to consider, Christ speaks through this preaching so that His sheep hear His voice (). This speech of Christ is what makes preaching unlike anything else in the world.
The preaching in Christ’s church sets forth the doctrine of the gospel in all its glory and power. It is pure, unmixed with the errors of Pelagius or Arminius that ascribe to man a part in his salvation. It is uncorrupted with Romish or Federal Vision errors that require man to perform works that will in some way contribute to his salvation. The opinions and philosophies of men are excluded. It must be the pure doctrine of the gospel. Preaching the pure doctrine of the gospel is the chief mark of the true church of Christ. Every sermon, whether it is expounding prophecy, a psalm, an epistle, or biblical history, is the preaching of the gospel. Sermons on Genesis 1 (creation), Exodus 20 (the law), Haggai 1 (God’s rebuke of Israel), or Matthew 3 (the life of Jesus) must set forth the truth of the text in the light of Christ crucified—the gospel.
Why preaching is the chief mark of Christ’s church should be obvious. Preaching sets forth, with authority, the revelation of God in the face of Jesus Christ—the God of our salvation Whom the church worships and serves. Through such preaching God speaks to His people and they come to know and love Him. Without such preaching, therefore, God will not be known or worshiped. The true church, holding forth the Word of truth, also condemns the lie. She hates and will not tolerate any corrupting of the revelation of the God she loves.
The second mark of the true church is the pure administration of the sacraments. Sacraments are holy visible signs and seals of the gospel instituted by Jesus Christ (see Lord’s Day 25 of the Heidelberg Catechism). They set forth Christ crucified to the believers’ senses. God knows the weakness of His people’s faith and therefore gave them sacraments to confirm and strengthen it. The true church, adoring Christ and confessing Him to be their only Savior, also insists that the sacraments do in fact set forth Christ to the faith of believers. Man-made ceremonies added to those sacraments ordained by Christ will not confirm faith in Christ; they will rather draw attention away from Him. Accordingly, the true church is known by the fact that she carefully administers the two sacraments, and those only, in the manner in which Christ gave them to the church. In the Great Commission () Jesus commanded His disciples to baptize. The institution of the Lord’s Supper is found in Jesus’ command, “This do in remembrance of me” ( ). No other ceremonies are allowed as sacraments.
The third distinguishing mark of the true church is that “church discipline is exercised in punishing of sin.” Scripture requires this of Christ’s church and gives guidelines for the proper exercise of Christian discipline. Jesus taught His disciples that a believer who has been sinned against by a fellow believer must seek the brother’s repentance by various efforts. However, if there is no repentance, Jesus further instructed that the offended believer must “tell it unto the church,” that is, to the elders of the church (). The elders are called to deal with the sin in official discipline. The inspired apostle Paul admonished the church in Corinth for failing to discipline a member living in fornication ( ). And he instructs Titus, “A man that is an heretick after the first and second admonition reject” ( ).
Christian discipline is required in Christ’s church because His church must be holy. Although all believers are sinners, they are washed in the blood of Christ. Their sin and guilt are removed in the way of repentance and confession of sin, which implies also a turning away from the iniquity confessed. Impenitence, therefore, may not be tolerated. The true church, loving the holy God, hates sin and will not allow the honor of God to be dragged in the mud. The church also will not endure the sacraments being profaned through the use of them by impenitent sinners. Christian discipline prevents these abominations.
Why these three?
Why are these the three distinguishing marks of the true church of Christ? Several reasons can be given. First, as noted above, Christ the King of the church enjoined these upon His church. This was noted above in connection with the administration of the sacraments and the exercise of Christian discipline. Jesus’ direct command to preach is the Great Commission, “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations…” (Mat. 28:19). It is also the example of all the apostles—they preached. Paul stands out in his reminder to the Corinthians of how “Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach the gospel” (), and that therefore he “preached Christ crucified” and did not want to bring anything other than that ( ). His instruction to the pastor Timothy was, “Preach the word” ( ). The true church is an obedient church, submitting to Christ’s commands regarding preaching, sacraments, and discipline.
The second reason why these are the proper marks of the true church is that where these are found, Christ is present. Christ speaks through the preaching of the pure gospel. Christ is presented in the sacraments, and His power imbues them. And Christ opens and shuts heaven through the keys of the kingdom, that is, preaching and Christian discipline. Where these commanded activities are absent, there also Christ is absent.
Third, Christ uses preaching, sacraments, and discipline to save His church. The elect are saved through faith in Christ. The preaching of the gospel is the power of God unto salvation in them that believe (I Cor. 1:17ff.). The seed of faith planted by the Holy Spirit in the hearts of the elect sinner is brought to activity and consciousness through preaching. The same Spirit confirms and strengthens that faith with the sacraments. Through church discipline, Christ opens the kingdom to His own and keeps them there.
While the preaching is obviously the primary mark, there is, nonetheless, a co-dependency among the three. Notice that the preaching of the gospel gives the content of the sacraments as well as their proper administration. Preaching identifies the sacraments, gives the form for administering them, and teaches who may properly use them.
With regard to Christian discipline, the preaching is also determinative, as it declares both what must be believed and how believers must live. In this way, preaching is a key of the kingdom, and at the same time it draws the lines for Christian discipline. Those who “under the name of Christians maintain doctrines, or practices inconsistent therewith, and will not…renounce their errors and wicked course of life…are…forbidden the use of the sacraments; whereby they are excluded from the Christian church, and by God Himself from the kingdom of Christ” (Heidelberg Catechism, A. 85).
That in turn indicates that the pure administration of the sacraments depends not only on the preaching, but also on Christian discipline. Proper exercise of church discipline admits only proper participants to the sacraments.
The exercise of church discipline is, as noted, guided by the preaching. However, there is an inseparable relationship between preaching and discipline, such that they stand and fall together. Preaching that fails to condemn error and godless living will vitiate the power of discipline. When the preaching fails to condemn Arminianism or the desecration of the Lord’s Day, the key of Christian discipline will eventually cease to remove those who hold to the heresy or who desecrate the Sabbath. On the other hand, if the elders do not exercise discipline against those members who live in fornication or those who hold to the heresy of works-righteousness, then the preaching loses its authority and effectiveness. Eventually, these evils will no longer be condemned in the preaching.
These, then, are the marks that distinguish the true church from the false. Where these are present, the church is the true church of Christ. The Belgic Confession adds this 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. Hereby the true church may certainly be known, from which no man has a right to separate himself” (Art. 29).
The importance of being in a church that manifests these marks cannot be understated. Christ is present there, present with His Spirit, present with His saving power. Outside of this church, there is no salvation. The church that by God’s grace possesses these marks must not imagine that they cannot be lost. Scripture and church history indicate the contrary. There is a constant tendency in the church to deform—to let these precious gifts be corrupted and to slip away. And when the church loses these, what then? Christ removes His candle from her. His Spirit departs. She has become the false church. Terrible is the judgment on the church that does not maintain these marks.
The Belgic Confession has more to say about the true church that is worthy of our attention. Article 29 teaches that there are not only marks of the true church, but also that the members of that church have marks. What are the marks of Christians? That will have to wait until the next editorial on the true church. [That will be the August issue, because the July editorial will cover the 2018 Synod of the Protestant Reformed Churches.]