The marks of Christians

Previous article in this series: June 2018, p. 389.

The Belgic Confession in Article 29 lists the three well-known marks of the true church of Jesus Christ—the preaching of the pure gospel, the proper administration of the sacraments, and the exercise of Christian discipline.[1] The necessity of setting forth the distinguishing marks of Christ’s church was, first, the deformation of the church in the Middle Ages. When the Belgic Confession was written (1561), the church of Rome was thoroughly corrupt in doctrine and practice. In addition, the church of Christ had to be distinguished from radical groups that sprang up. These radical groups were formed by people who separated from Rome in the Reformation but soon manifested that they were of a different spirit. Sometimes these were labeled as Anabaptists, a group the Belgic Confession condemns by name in various articles. Therefore, to distinguish the true church from the false church, as well as from various other groups that assumed the name of Christ’s church, the Belgic Confession provides these biblical marks.

Less well known is the article’s instruction on the marks of the members of the true church. This also arose out of the circumstances of that day, specifically that the lives of many of the members of the Romish church were characterized by wickedness. How could it be any different? From the pope to the local priest, the clergy was steeped in greed and immorality. The love of money was the root that produced all evil. Vile corruption dominated the lives of the clergy, and the people followed their example. Christian discipline was not exercised to root sin out of the church but rather to punish those who dared rebel against the clergy.

However, the problem of immorality was not limited to Rome’s members. When the people forsook Rome for the Reformation, their lives did not immediately rise to a high level of sanctification. Luther, in his visits to churches in outlying regions in Germany reported in dismay that the common people, especially those who live in the country, have no knowledge whatever of Christian teaching, and unfortunately many pastors are quite incompetent and unfitted for teaching. Although the people are supposed to be Christian, are baptized, and receive the holy sacrament, they do not know the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, or the Ten Commandments, they live as if they were pigs and irrational beasts, and now that the Gospel has been restored they have mastered the fine art of abusing liberty.[2]

It would take many years for the teaching and preach­ing of Luther and other faithful ministers to change the lifestyle of the people. Along the way, an antinomian controversy erupted from time to time and continued even after Luther’s death.

Reformer John Calvin had a tremendous urgency with regard to the sanctification of church members.

When he was pastor in Strasburg, Calvin required all the members of the church to meet with him before ev­ery administration of the Lord’s Supper, so that it could be ascertained whether or not they were confessing the truth and walking in obedience to the Word. He worked tirelessly to bring the truth to bear on the lives of the members. Consistories and pastors labored long and hard to correct evils—admonishing, instructing, and disciplining errant members. The fruits were ob­vious in the city of Geneva where Calvin was a pastor from 1541 until his death in 1564. John Knox testified of Geneva that it was “the most perfect school of Christ that ever was in the earth since the days of the apostles. In other places I confess Christ to be truly preached; but manners and religion so sincerely reformed, I have not yet seen in any other place.”[3]

The Belgic Confession clearly follows the teaching of Calvin. This is evident from the marks of the true church, as well as its instruction on the marks of the members of the church.

The point that must be seen is that the walk and con­versation of the members must be consistent with the truth that is preached and confessed. A church is not faithful to Christ merely because the truth of the gospel is preached, the sacraments rightly administered, and Christian discipline maintained. Christ demands that the church, the members, live the truth.

There is a clear relationship, therefore, between the three marks of the true church and the marks of the members. The characteristics of the members are the fruit of the work of the church through preaching, sacraments, and Christian discipline. That is immediately evident from the fact that the first and chief mark of the Christian is faith. Faith proceeds from the Holy Spirit who works faith by the preaching of the gospel, and confirms and strengthens it by the use of the sacraments (Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 65). The first two marks of the true church are the Spirit’s instruments to work and confirm faith! By this faith the Christian appropri­ates Christ, embraces and confesses Him, and receives all the benefits of salvation from Him.

That the members of the church of Christ would be distinguished by their faith in Christ might seem so obvious as to be unnecessary to mention it. But it is not. The historical situation was that Rome, even changing the wording of the Apostle’s Creed, had for years taught her members to confess their faith in the church. The members ought to trust in the church to bring them to salvation. Members needed not to grasp the truth, but only were told to believe that the church would deliver them from sin and hell and get them to heaven. And they were taught to trust that Mary and Peter and An­drew and a host of saints were there to assist them and bestow their excess merits on those who followed the church’s path to eternal life.

In contrast to all that, the Confession insists that faith in Christ is the mark of the Christian. One trembles to think that still today there are churches bearing the name of Christ in which faith, that sure knowledge and hearty confidence, that belief in Christ as the only and complete Savior, is not what distinguishes the members. Churches where the ministers do not have faith in Christ. Churches that willingly forsake the Scriptures. Where the Sunday message is not Christ crucified along with the call to re­pent and believe in this Jesus, but rather the promotion of some social activism. The members do not know Christ, for the Spirit does not work in them faith in Christ.

In the true church of Jesus, faith in Christ is the es­sential mark, out of which the rest of the marks proceed. Faith in Christ produces fruit. The first fruit given is that Christians avoid sin and follow after righteousness—truly a distinguishing mark! Though living in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, themselves born dead in sin, Christians have the life of Christ in them. That life is holy and heavenly. Through the power of grace, the believer mortifies the old man of sin, crucifying his flesh, and he lives out of the new man in Christ. Sanctification is evident in the lives of the members. It is an abomination to God that a congrega­tion confesses the truth but lives in or tolerates iniquity. Fleeing from sin and living in obedience are marks of the one who is united to Christ by faith.

In addition, believers demonstrate the power of faith that works by love. By the power of God’s love poured out into their hearts, they love God. They offer their lives as sacrifices of love and thankfulness to God. And they love their neighbor—whomever God places on their path and whoever needs their help. They love their neighbor with the same love of God in their heart—a love to those unworthy; a love unconditional. In love they give of themselves and of their gifts when there is no possibility of being repaid. In this way they demonstrate the love of God that they know from experience.

Scripture repeatedly points to the importance of love in the church. A church that does not manifest love is completely unfaithful to the God who is love, and to the Savior who in the greatest possible demonstration of love, gave Himself to the death of the cross. Love, Jesus taught, is the notable mark of His disciples: “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another” (John 13:35). A congregation that does not care for her own, or a congregation that greets a visitor with coldness and only desires doctrinal debates is not manifesting this mark. Love is what must greet the visitors and be clearly manifested to all members. Love for God, and love for the neighbor.

Article 29 warns that the members of the true church will not be perfect. Thus, when one looks for the true church, he must not expect to find perfection in the lives of the members. In fact, there will “remain in them great infirmities.” Gross sin. Vile iniquity. Shameful transgressions. There is no sin found in the world of the ungodly that does not also rear its ugly head in the church of Jesus Christ. But in the true church of Christ, sin is condemned from the pulpit, and sinners are ad­monished and rebuked by fellow members and by the elders; and if there is not repentance, members are of­ficially disciplined. God uses all this to strengthen and encourage the members to “fight against [their infirmi­ties] through the Spirit all the days of their life.” Chris­tians are continually driven to the cross where they take “refuge in the blood, death, passion, and obedience of our Lord Jesus Christ, in whom they have remission of sins through faith in him.”

[Having examined the marks of the true members of the church of Jesus Christ, it is important that we apply this article to the church today. That, D.V., next time.]

[1]    That these are the three biblical marks of the true church was explained in the editorial of June 2018, pp. 389-391.

[2]    Theodore Tappert, The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1959), 338.

[3]     W. Stanford Reid, Trumpeter of God (New York: Charles Scrib­ner’s Sons, 1974), 132 (spelling modernized).