The marks, by which the true Church is known, are designated in Article 29 of our Confession of Faith as the preaching of the pure gospel, the maintaining of the pure administration of the sacraments and the exercise of church or Christian discipline. The Reformers were unanimous in their determination that the Holy Scriptures were the only norm or standard of the Church, and they designated accordingly (according to the Holy Scriptures as the only norm) the marks whereby the true church could be distinguished from the false church. However, there was a slight difference among them. Luther enumerated 7 marks of the true church: the pure administration of the Word, of baptism, the .Lord’s Supper, the keys, the lawful election of officebearers, public prayer and instruction, and the cross. Calvin, among others, listed two: the pure administration of the Word and of the sacraments. Others added a third mark to the two marks of Calvin: the proper exercise of discipline or sanctification of life. In our Reformed Symbols three marks are mentioned: the pure administration of the Word, the proper administration of the sacraments, and the exercise of Christian discipline.
We speak of three marks of the true church. There is really only one mark: the pure preaching of the gospel or Word. This lies in the very nature of the case. Nothing, of course, can possibly be considered of equal importance with the Word of God. That the preaching of the Word is the mark of the true Church is simply because it is through the preaching of the Word of God that our Lord Jesus Christ gathers His Church from all peoples, nations, languages and tongues. This is surely the language of our Confessions, specifically stated in Lord’s Day 21, Question and Answer 54 of our Heidelberg Catechism. In the administration of the sacraments it is Christ who speaks His own Word through the Divinely instituted signs and seals as they are administered by the Church. The Host at the table is Christ Himself and He speaks through these signs to the believers. Besides, the Word of God is also the content of the sacraments. The preaching of the gospel can stand alone, can serve as a means of grace without the sacraments, but we can never divorce the sacraments from the Word of God. The sacraments present the Word to us in a symbol, and Christ speaks through these symbols as He does through the Word preached. And as far as the Keys of Christian Discipline are concerned, the main Key, of course, is the preaching of the Word. Fact is, there is no other key. Christian discipline is nothing else than the Church’s official enforcement of the preaching of the gospel or the Word to those who walk in sin, not to mention that other form of Christian discipline which believers are called to exercise toward one another, and which discipline also takes place only through the Word of God. And, even as it is Christ who speaks His own Word through the preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments, so also it is Christ who speaks His own Word as discipline is exercised by the Church, so that it is Christ Himself who either binds or looses in the consciousness of everyone to whom this discipline is applied. We believe that when Christian discipline is applied, officially, by the Church, in accordance with the Word of God, then it is Christ who also enforces that discipline in the consciousness of the ones who err. This is surely the proper conception of the proper administration of Christian discipline.
Of interest is the question: why are these the marks of the true church? Why are not the attributes (its oneness, holiness, catholicity, apostolicity, multiformity) the marks of the true church? I believe that the answer to this question is obvious, although one might expect that the marks of the true church could be those characteristics which reveal to us the identity of the Church in the midst of the world. One could conceivably expect that the marks of the true church, revealing the Church to us and distinguishing the true church from the false church, could be the attributes of the church, inasmuch as these attributes designate what the church essentially is. That the marks of the true church are connected with the means of grace, such as the preaching of the Word, the proper administration of the sacraments, and the exercise of Christian discipline, is because the Church of God is the Body of Christ, and the Church of God is therefore where Christ gathers it. Only Christ gathers His Church. We cannot gather it. We cannot make the Church. Christ alone gathers, establishes His Church. And we do well always to bear this in mind. Hence, where He gathers and establishes it, there is the Church. It is for this reason that the marks of the true church are the means of grace. And, as we shall presently see, this is also of fundamental significance when we attempt to understand our Confessions as far as the distinction is concerned between the true and the false church.
Relative the distinction between the true and the false church, we wish to state emphatically that, to understand this, we must proceed from the fact that we cannot make separation between the institute of the church and its organism. The undersigned recalls that he in the past has stated that it was his opinion that the Protestant Reformed Churches constituted the true Church of Christ in the midst of the world. We recall the Second Annual Conference which was held between the ministers and students of the Protestant Reformed Churches and the Reformed Churches in the U.S. in Hull, Iowa, October 1-3, 1945 (See Vol. 23 of our Standard Bearer, pages 116-120). The undersigned conceived of our churches as the true church and other churches as false, only insofar as the other churches had, in principle, become false in the sense that they had officially, as institute, departed from the truth. At that conference I asked the question: “What do you consider to be the false Church and its marks?” And later at that conference (one of the speeches at that conference was on the subject: “The Distinguishing Marks of the Church”) I made the following remark: “We speak of one false Church and all kinds of pure churches; not all equally pure but in a relative sense. Would it not be better to speak of one pure church and all kinds of false churches; false in the sense that they haveofficially forsaken the marks of the true church?” Notice, please, in this latter quotation, that I speak of “false in the sense that they have officially forsaken the marks of the true church.” It is plain, therefore, from this quotation that when I spoke at that time of our church as being the pure church and other churches as being the false church, I meant this in the sense of the church’s institute, and then only insofar as a church had, in principle, departed from the truth of the Word of God. And, incidentally, as far as this phase of the truth is concerned, I am still of the same opinion, that is, as far as a church’s principal departure from the church is concerned. But, shall we, then, speak of one church as being pure and all other churches as being false? To this question I now answer with an emphatic No! Why? Because we can never separate the institute and the organism of the church. To declare that the one is wholly false must imply that the other is also wholly false; to maintain that the organism is not wholly false (as, for example, that there are also people of God in other churches}, must necessarily mean that the institute is not wholly false. The institute and the organism of the church are inseparably connected and cannot ever be separated from each other. Notice, please, that this is maintained in the quotations from Dr. Bavinck and of John Calvin which we have quoted in this series of articles. In the quotation of Dr. Bavinck we read this: “A church is a gathering of true Christ-believers in a definite locality. If at a certain place there is not a single believer anymore, either actually or potentially, then the Word of God is also unknown, and there is no church anymore. And, on the contrary, if the Word of God be somewhat known in a certain place, how impure and adulterated the church may be, that Word will certainly perform its work and there is a church of Christ.” Dr. Bavinck here sets forth the undeniable principle that the Word of God and people of the Lord are always inseparably connected, that the one is present wherever the other is present. And in that quotation of John Calvin we read this: “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 rejected, 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.”
That the institute and organism of the church can never be separated is also emphasized in our Confessions. This is plain, on the one hand, from Lord’s Day 21 of our Heidelberg Catechism, Question and Answer 54. Notice, please, that the Church, the one, holy, catholic church, is gathered through the Son of God by His Spirit and Word, and that He gathers a church chosen to everlasting life. That the church here includes the organism is evident from the fact that this answer speaks of the elect (those chosen to everlasting life), and also that they agree in true faith. And that this answer also refers to the institute appears from the fact that the Son of God gathers this church by His Spirit andWord. And this is also plain, on the other hand, from Articles 27-29 of our Confession of Faith. We certainly need not prove that these articles refer to the institute of the church. Fact is, the marks of the true church are set forth in these articles, and they are the pure preaching of the Word, the proper administration of the sacraments, and the exercise of Christian discipline. These activities, we understand belong properly to the institute of the church. But, these same articles also refer to the organism of the church. In these articles we read that the Catholic Christian Church 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. Notice, too, that this holy Church is spread and dispersed over the whole world, and therefore it is not limited to a certain place or community, which statement, we understand, applies to the Church of God as gathered by the Son of God in the New Dispensation. And in Article 29, which speaks of the marks of the true Church, we read this: “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.” It is evident, therefore, that when our Confessions speak of the true church, they refer to the church as institute and organism. And this surely lies in the very nature of the case. We can never separate the two: if the one be wholly false, the other must be wholly false. And if the one be partly pure, not wholly false, then the other must be partly pure, can never be wholly false. Why this is true we shall see, the Lord willing, in our following article. But, this is a very important principle.