The Church and the Sacraments, The Time of the Reformation, Views on the Church, The Protestant View

In our presentation of the Protestant view of the Church, we must also call attention to the marks of the Church. What are these marks of the true church of Christ? Why are these the marks of the church? What is meant by the true church, and what is the distinction between the true church and the false church? Must we maintain that there is only one true church (the Protestant Reformed Church) and that all other churches are false? There are those, also in our churches, who would maintain this, although the undersigned must confess that he has heard very little proof in support of this conception. In fact, all the confessional proof I have ever heard centers exclusively in .Article 29 of our Confession of Faith and, as far as this article is concerned, only upon the fact that we read of the true church and not of ,churches that are truer or purer, less pure and least pure. Article 29 of our Confession of Faith, however, is not the only place in our Confessions that should be quoted when we discuss the distinction between the pure and false church. Our Heidelberg Catechism has also something to tell us concerning this truth.

In our discussion of this aspect of the Church it might be advisable to quote from the Reformed Confessions as they express themselves on this subject. The Roman Catholic Church, we all know, regards itself as the true church and does not hesitate to declare that all other churches are false. We need not quote their writings in support of this. The Westminster Confession of Faith, 1647, in Chapter XXV, which speaks of the church, writes in paragraphs I and V as follows: “This catholic Church hath been sometimes more, sometimes less visible. And particular churches, which are members thereof, are more or less pure, according as the doctrine of the gospel is taught and embraced, ordinances administered, and public worship performed more or less purely in them . . . The purest churches under heaven are subject to mixture and error; and some have so degenerated as to become no churches of Christ, but synagogues of Satan. Nevertheless, there shall be always a church on earth to worship God according to his will.”

The Second Helvetic Confession speaks Of The Catholic And Holy Church Of God, And Of The One Only Head Of The Church in Chapter XVII. Of this chapter we quote the following: “But as for communicating with the true Church of Christ, we so highly esteem it that we say plainly that none can live before God who do not communicate with the true Church of God, but separate themselves from the same. For as without the ark of Noah there was no escaping when the world perished in the flood; even so do we believe that without Christ, who in the Church offers himself to be enjoyed of the elect, there can be no certain salvation: and therefore we teach that such as would be saved must in no wise separate themselves from the true Church of Christ.

“But as yet we do not so strictly shut up the Church within those marks before mentioned, as thereby to exclude all those out of the Church who either do not participate of the sacraments (not willingly, nor upon contempt J but who, being constrained by necessity, do against their will abstain from them, or else do want them), or in whom faith does sometimes fail, though not quite decay, nor altogether die: or in whom some slips and errors of infirmity may be found. For we know that God had some friends in the world that were not of the commonwealth of Israel. We know what befell the people of God in the captivity of Babylon, where they were without their sacrifices seventy years. We know what happened to St. Peter, who denied his Master, and what is wont daily to happen among the faithful and chosen of God who go astray and are full of infirmities. We know, moreover, what manner of churches the churches in Galatia and Corinth were in the apostles’ time: in which St. Paul condemns many and heinous crimes; yet he calls them holy churches of Christ (I Cor. 1:2Gal. 1:2).”

And it will surely not be amiss in this connection to quote once more from our Reformed Confessions or Symbols. Question 54 of our Heidelberg Catechism asks: “What believest thou concerning the ‘holy catholic church’ of Christ?” And the answer reads: “That the Son of God from the beginning to the end of the world, gathers, defends, and preserves to himself by his Spirit and word, out of the whole human race, a church chosen to everlasting life, agreeing in true faith: and that I am and forever shall remain, a living member thereof.”

Article 27 of our Confession of Faith reads: “We believe and profess, one catholic or universal Church, which is an holy congregation, of true Christian believers, all expecting their salvation in Jesus Christ, being washed by his blood, sanctified and sealed by the Holy Ghost. This Church bath been from the beginning of the world, and will be to the end thereof; which is evident from this, that Christ is an eternal King, which, without subjects, cannot be. And this holy Church is preserved or supported by God, against the rage of the whole world; though she sometimes (for a while) appears very small, and in the eyes of men, to be reduced to nothing: as during the perilous reign of Ahab, the Lord preserved unto him seven thousand men, who had not bowed their knees to Baal. Furthermore, this holy Church is not confined, bound, or limited to a certain place or to certain persons, but is spread and dispersed over the whole world; and yet is joined and united with heart and will, by the power of faith, in one and the same spirit.”

Article 28 of this Confession of Faith reads as follows, concerning the truth that every one is bound to join himself to the true Church : “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 day be the more effectually observed, it is the duty of all believers, according to the word of God, to separate themselves from all 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 Art. 29 of this same Confession, treating of the marks of the true Church, and wherein she differs from the false Church reads as follows: “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 not here of 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 tail 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 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. With respect to those, who are members of the Church, they may be known by the marks of Christians: namely, by faith; and when they have received Jesus Christ the only Savior, they avoid sin, follow after righteousness, love the true God and their neighbor, neither turn aside to the right or left, and crucify the flesh with the works thereof. But this is not to be understood, as if there did not remain in them great infirmities; but they fight against them through the Spirit, all the days of their life, continually taking their refuge in the blood, death, passion and obedience of our Lord Jesus Christ, “in whom they have remission of sins, through faith in him.” 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.”

We wish to conclude this article with a quotation from John Calvin. We realize that, to establish the confessional truth of the distinction between the true and false church, it is quite sufficient to quote from the Confessions. Nevertheless, it is surely of interest to note what the noted Reformer has to say on this subject. In our following article we also wish to quote from the dogmatics of Dr. H. Bavinck. Calvin, who surely hated the errors and hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church, writes as follows in his Institutes, Book IV, chapter II: “While we refuse, therefore, to allow to the Papists the title of the Church, without any qualification or restriction, we do not deny that there are Churches among them . . . Daniel and Paul had predicted that Antichrist would sit in the temple of God. The head of that cursed and abominable kingdom, in the Western Church, we affirm to be the Pope. When his seat is placed in the temple of God, it suggests, that his kingdom will be such, that he will not abolish the name of Christ, or the Church. Hence it appears, that we by no means deny that Churches may exist, even under his tyranny; but he has profaned them by sacrilegious impiety, afflicted them by cruel despotism, corrupted and almost terminated their existence by false and pernicious doctrines, like poisonous potions; in such Churches, Christ lies half buried, the gospel is suppressed, piety exterminated, and the worship of God almost abolished; in a word, they are altogether in such a state of confusion, that they exhibit a picture of Babylon, rather than of the holy city of God. To conclude, I affirm that they are Churches, inasmuch as God has wonderfully preserved among them a remnant of his people, though miserably dispersed and dejected, and as there still remain some marks of the Church, especially those, the efficacy of which neither the craft of the, devil nor the malice of men can ever destroy.” We call attention to the fact that Calvin, in this quotation, not only writes that he does not deny that churches may exist under the tyranny of the Pope, but he also declares that in the Roman Catholic Church there still remain some marks of the Church, and he refers, of course, to the marks of the true church.