What is the language and meaning of our Confessions when they speak of the marks of the true church, and that these marks distinguish the true church from the false church? What do the Confessions mean when they say that the true church can easily be distinguished from the false church? Does this mean that our Protestant Reformed Churches are the only true church and that all other churches in this country are wholly false? Then it would surely be easy to distinguish these two churches. This was also the stand that was taken by the Liberated. The undersigned recalls this vividly from his experiences in Hamilton, Canada. Almost immediately after he became minister in Hamilton, Canada, he attended a meeting of the Hamilton Men’s Society. At that society meeting one of the members delivered a paper on the true and false church. And he contended very vehemently that the Protestant Reformed Church was the pure church and that all other churches were false. And we, also recall vividly that we opposed that position of these Liberated immigrants, calling attention to the Scriptural truth that Christ’s sheep hear His voice, and that wherever these sheep are they hear His voice, and this voice is heard only through the gospel. This happened in February of 1950. It seems to the undersigned that it always was his position that only those churches were wholly false who had completely departed from the Scriptures, where the truth was wholly silenced, and where there was no longer any remnant of the people of the living God. The Reformers did not even call the Roman Catholic Church the wholly false church. And the baptism as administered in that church was always considered valid. The question is therefore valid and pertinent: how must we distinguish between the true and the false church?
First of all, the true church, according to Lord’s Day 21 and also according to Art. 27-29 of our Confession of Faith, refers to the Church of God as it reveals itself in the midst of the world. This is evident from the fact that this church is gathered by the Son of God, not only by His Spirit, but also by His Word, the preaching of the gospel. And the Confession of Faith informs us that the true and false churches are easily known and distinguished from each other. Besides, we are called to join the true church, and this must mean that this church comes to manifestation in the midst of the world. Otherwise it would be impossible to join it.
Secondly, we must all surely agree that there is only one pure church. There can be only one pure church, institute. There can be only one pure church organism. We have already remarked in this series of articles on the distinction between the true and false church that when our Confessions speak of the Church, they refer to both, the institute and the organism. There can be only one pure organism. This lies in the very nature of the case. There can be only one pure manifestation of the work of God’s grace in the midst of the world. There can be only one walk which is according to the precepts and statutes of the Lord. There can be only one way in which the Holy Spirit operates in the hearts and lives of the people of God. The Holy Spirit does not teach one elect to seek the things that are above and another elect to seek the things that are below. He does not move one sinner to seek justification as a free gift of God, sovereignly bestowed by the Divine gift of faith and another sinner to seek justification in the way of his own works. He surely does not convict one sinner of sin and that all his works, apart from regenerating grace, are filthy and wholly corrupt in the sight of God, and then proceeds to convince another sinner that he, although unregenerated, can do many things that are pleasing to the Lord. The Holy Spirit works only one way in the heart and life of a sinner, and there can be only one manifestation of this Divine work of grace in the midst of the world. To me, this simply stands beyond dispute and without fear of contradiction. I am sure that we all agree on this.
The same also applies to the church institute. There can be only one pure institute of the church. When we speak of the institute of the church, we refer to the Church of God as it reveals itself, officially, through its officebearers. The institute of the church refers specifically to the official preaching of the Word, the administration of the sacraments, and the exercise of Christian discipline. There can be only one pure institute. There can be only one pure preaching of the gospel. The truth, we surely understand, is never relative, it is always absolute. The preaching of the gospel is either according to the Scriptures or it is not according to the Scriptures. From this point of view, we can certainly maintain that there cannot be an absolutely pure institute in the midst of this world. How often does it not happen that, having preached on a certain text of the Word of God, we change our conception of the meaning of that particular text and preach on it differently years later. Were both interpretations of that particular passage according to the meaning of the Holy Spirit as far as that passage is concerned? Besides, do we not see in a glass darkly? O, this does not mean that the Church, in its official interpretation of the Word of God may be proven to have been in error pars later. Then we could never have certainty. Then we may always be plagued by the fear that we may be in error. And we surely have the promise of the Lord that He will direct His Church into all the truth. Nevertheless, we see in a glass darkly. How incomplete must be our knowledge of the unfathomable Word of God while in the earthly house of this tabernacle! How much more we will see of the beauty of the Scriptures when presently this weary night will be passed and we shall see face to face! Even so, be it in a relative sense of the word, there can be only one pure institute of the church, as far as the preaching of the gospel is concerned. It is certainly according to Scripture and our Confessions that God has willed and elected His own, sovereignly, from before the foundation of the world, that the sinner is conceived and born dead in sins and in trespasses, so that he is incapable of doing any good and is inclined to all evil, that Christ died atoningly upon the cross of Calvary for the sins of the elect, who had been given Him by the Father before the world was, that the work of regeneration and conversion is Divine and wholly irresistible, and that the perseverance of the saints is certain even unto the very end. There are the truths of the Word of God. They are never relative, always absolute. And anything that militates against these truths is not taught in the Scriptures or in our Confessions. Indeed, how true it is that there is only one truth of the Word of God! And the same absolute, either or character also applies to the administration of the sacraments and the exercise of Christian discipline. The Baptist maintains that the infants must not be baptized and that only they must be baptized who confess their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ in order that this sign and seal of the covenant may not lie but speak the truth, and the one of Reformed persuasion contends that infants must be baptized, contending that the Church of God throughout the ages is one and that to this one Church of God throughout the ages only one sign and seal of the covenant has been given: and we feel instinctively that both conceptions cannot be correct. The one contends that the sacrament of baptism is a Divine promise and pledge that is given to all those who are baptized, and that each child, in baptism, receives from the Lord the Divine promise and pledge that He seeks and desires the salvation of all who receive this sign of the covenant, whereas others, as specifically our Protestant Reformed Church, vehemently maintain that the sign of baptism is just as particular as is the cross of Calvary which is symbolized in this sacrament. And we understand that both conceptions of this sacrament cannot be true inasmuch as they stand directly over against each other. Rome believes in the doctrine of transubstantiation, the Lutherans believe in what is known as consubstantiation, and the Reformed and Calvinistic view of the Lord’s Supper believes that the bread and wine are symbols of the broken body and shed blood of the Lord. Rome believes that the bread and wine are actually changed into the body and blood of the Lord; Luther contended that, although the bread and wine are not changed into the actual body and blood of the Lord, that, nevertheless, inasmuch as the glorified Christ has become omnipresent, that therefore the real body and blood of the Lord are actually partaken of, through the mouth, with the bread and wine. And the Calvinistic conception is the symbolical conception, maintains strictly the symbolical character of these elements of the Lord’s Supper. Of course, we understand that only one of these presentations can possibly be according to the Word of God. And so we could go on. Some churches simply have discarded all discipline, contend that the only discipline that may be exercised is through the Word, whereas others contend that the Christian discipline of excommunication must be strictly applied. But, enough has been written to indicate that there can be only one pure church institute in the midst of the world. And also with respect to this, I am confident to say, there is no disagreement among us. However, although there is only one pure church institute, does this mean necessarily that this one true institute and organism must be viewed as limited to one church denomination? May we say, for example, that the Protestant Reformed Churches have a “monopoly” on this “one pure church?” Is this taught by our Reformed Confessions? Do all the marks of the true church belong exclusively to one church denomination, and are these marks wholly lacking in all other churches? But does not Article 29 of our Confession of Faith teach us that this true church is spread over the whole world? Indeed, the two churches, true and false, can easily be known and distinguished from each other. But does this mean that it is easy to recognize and distinguish the one true church, denomination, and to recognize all other church denominations as wholly false?
Thirdly, according to our Confessions (see Lord’s Day 21), this true church, whereof our Confessions speak, is gathered by the Son of God, and He does this by His Spirit and Word. I consider this to be extremely important. This simply means that the true Church of Christ consists therefore of those who are gathered by the Son of God. This is literally stated in Lord’s Day 21. And in Articles 27 and 29 of our Confession of Faith we not only read what the true church is but we also read who are the members of that one true church. The members of this true church are the elect, are those who agree in true faith (Lord’s Day 21), are those who are Saved, who have received Jesus Christ as their only Savior, avoid sin, follow after righteousness, love the true God and their neighbor, who neither turn aside to the right or left, who crucify the flesh with the works thereof. All this is literally stated in Art. 29 of our Confession of Faith. What does all this mean, as far as the distinction between the true and false church is concerned? To this, the Lord willing, we will call attention in our following article.