A staggering and to many people a bewildering number of churches (denominations) have developed through the years since the time of the great sixteenth century Reformation. It is not our intention to discuss the reasons for this phenomenon. Rather, the question we face is: how does one determine which church is true? What characterizes a true, faithful manifestation of Christ’s Body in the world?
It is not impressive sanctuaries and beautiful liturgies which characterize the true church. The number of members in a denomination has nothing to do with this question. Vast world mission and multimillion-dollar world-relief programs have no bearing on the question. Make no mistake, many of these are certainly legitimate concerns of the church. The church is commissioned by Christ to preach the gospel to all nations. And the church is called by God to relieve the poor and needy. But these are not the marks by which God’s church may be known in the world.
After asserting that everyone is bound by God to join himself to the true church the Belgic Confession of Faith speaks of its marks in these terms: “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. . . . 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 be certainly known, from which no man has a right to separate himself. . . .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” (Article XXIX). Notice the clear, direct, and unequivocal language of this marvelous Reformed Confession. The marks of the true church are the preaching of the pure doctrine of the gospel, the maintaining of the sacraments as instituted by Christ, and the exercise of church discipline. By these marks the true church is “easily and certainly known, from which no man has a right to separate himself.” TheConfession flatly contradicts the notion of many today who make it appear as though it were extremely difficult to distinguish the true from the false church. The Confession also puts the lie to the notion held by many that it makes little difference which church a man joins. The true church is certainly and easily known by its three marks and no man has a right to separate himself from that church.
This is the language of the Bible. When the types and shadows, the sacrifices and ceremonies of the Old Dispensation were fulfilled in the cross and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Savior commanded the apostles and in them the entire church to go into all the world preaching and baptizing, making disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19, 20; Mark 16:15; etc.). Having celebrated the last Passover in the evening before the cross, the Lord instituted the Lord’s Supper with its visible signs and seals of His broken body and shed blood. Jesus commanded us: “This do in remembrance of me” (Matthew 26:26-28; Luke 22:17-20; I Corinthians 11:23-30). That church discipline must be exercised is also abundantly evident from Scripture. The Apostle Paul admonishes the Corinthian believers not to keep company with fornicators (I Corinthians 5). Elders who rule well are to be counted worthy of double honor (I Timothy 5:17). Elders must possess definite qualifications for that office (I Timothy 3). Elders are called to shepherd the flock of God, taking the oversight thereof (I Peter 5:2). God’s people are admonished to obey them that have the rule over them and who watch for their souls (Hebrews 13:7, 17). By these marks (the preaching of the pure doctrine of the Gospel, the proper administration of the sacraments, and the exercise of church discipline) God’s church is known and distinguished in the world. Where these are found there the true church is. To join ourselves to that church is our calling. Our salvation and the salvation of our children depend on that!
Herman Hoeksema had this to say concerning the relationship among these marks: “. . .although each of them is important and must be present to indicate the true church of Christ in the world, they are nevertheless not to be viewed as three separate marks, of equal importance and without connection with one another. On the contrary, in a sense they are all comprehended and implied in the first, the pure preaching of the Word of God. For, first of all, the administration of the sacraments and the exercise of Christian discipline have no meaning without the preaching of the Word. They are subservient to the preaching. In the sacraments, holy baptism and the Lord’s Supper, the Word of God is, as it were, presented in visible and tangible form. And the very power of true Christian discipline is the Word of God and its preaching. Besides, where the Word of God is purely preached in all its fulness, there the sacraments are not likely to be profaned, while such preaching is already in itself exercise of Christian discipline. Hence, we may say that the one all-important distinguishing mark of the true church is the pure preaching of the Word of God. Where the Word of God is preached and heard, there is the church of Christ. Where the Word is not preached, there the church is not present. And where that Word is adulterated, the church must either repent or die” (Reformed Dogmatics, p. 620).
The reason why the preaching of the pure doctrine of the Gospel is the chief mark of the church is clearly taught in Scripture. The church is built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ being the chief cornerstone (Ephesians 2:19-22). In Christ the building (church) fitly framed together grows unto an holy temple in the Lord. That foundation is the Word of God. Another foundation can no man lay! This is precisely why the preaching of the pure doctrine of the Gospel is the indispensable chief mark of the church. If anyone preaches another doctrine he is not building upon the foundation of Christ.
Still more, the preaching of the pure doctrine of the gospel is the chief mark of the church of Christ because it is the chief means of grace, the means by which Christ gathers His church out of the nations. The exalted Christ gave “. . .some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:11-13). This means that the office of the ministry (pastor-teacher) is the gift of Christ to His church. Christ gave the church the ministry of the Word so that it might reach its full growth and maturity in Him. By the means of preaching, Christ preserves His people in the world. He keeps them from being tossed about by every wind of doctrine brought by deceiving false teachers (Ephesians 4:14). In this same vein the Apostle Paul charges Timothy in the sight of God to preach the Word (I Timothy 4:1ff). The time is coming when they will not endure sound doctrine. They will heap to themselves teachers having itching ears. They will turn from the truth to fables. Timothy, therefore, must be diligent and faithful in the preaching of the inspired Word of God. That Word is profitable for doctrine, reproof, correction, instruction in righteousness: that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works (I Timothy 3:16, 17). Jesus said, “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me” (John 10:27). The sheep hear the very voice of Christ. How can that be true today? The answer is: by means of the preaching of the pure doctrine of the gospel. Scripture says: “For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved. How then shall they call on Him in Whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in Him Whom (the word “of” does not appear in the Greek) they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach except they be sent?” (Romans 10:13-15). One must call upon the name of the Lord to be saved. To do this he must believe in Christ, and to believe in Christ he must hear Christ. He must hear the very voice of Christ. Only Christ is able to quicken the hearts of His people so that they believe. The only way to hear the voice of Christ is by means of a preacher who is sent by Christ. The simple fact is that it pleases God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe. God is pleased to use that means in order that no flesh may glory in His presence (cf. I Corinthians 1:21, 29.)
For this reason: “The pure preaching of the Word is the all-important mark whereby you may distinguish the true church in the world. We may also put it succinctly in this form: the church is where Christ is, and Christ is where the Word is preached and maintained in all its purity. Hence, it is the calling of all true believers to join themselves to the purest manifestation of the body of Christ in the world, a manifestation that may be known by the marks of the true church, viz., the pure preaching of the Word, the administration of the sacraments, the exercise of Christian discipline. And of these three the preaching of the Word is the very heart” (H. Hoeksema, Reformed Dogmatics, p. 621).