The Distinguishing Marks 

We may mention three commonly given answers to this question which will lead one inevitably to move toward and to serve in the cause of the false church. 

The first is the answer of the ecumenicist. He wants to forget about ecclesiastical and denominational differences. The walls of separation must be broken down, he claims. Churches must unite on a broad platform. Once you start down that path, of course, there is no stopping. Nor do those who take this position want to stop! They want to go right on, until they have achieved the world-church. And remember: the world-church is the great whore ofRevelation 17! It is, of course, impossible for the child of God who takes his confession seriously to assume this attitude. 

The second is the answer of the traditionalist. He takes the stand that the church in which he was born and baptized, the church to which his parents’ belonged, is for him the church. And frequently his attitude becomes one of “my church, right or wrong.” He holds to that church slavishly, trusts in it, frequently maintains that it cannot err. He puts his trust in an institution of men. Or he may simply be personally unconcerned about the course his church follows, leaving it to the “leaders” to chart that course, while he ignorantly and rather apathetically follows. This is an attitude which is fundamentally idolatry. It is both erroneous and dangerous, and that, too, not only for one’s self, but for his children and children’s children. Any particular church in the midst of the world is able to err, and even to become wholly corrupt! It is able to become like the church of Laodicea in Revelation 4. Jerusalem can become in the process of history spiritually like Babylon or like Sodom and Gomorrah. This is precisely what happens, in fact, when in the process of time the false church develops. 

A third answer is that of indifferentism. After all, the indifferentist says, it does not really make any great difference what one believes. We all believe in the same God and the same Christ; and we are all going to the same heaven. And our salvation does not depend upon what church we belong to; people in all churches will be saved. And in this day of the social gospel, the indifferentist likes to stress, besides, that it isn’t so much a question of what you believe, but of how you live! But we should remember, in the first place, that; ultimately our salvation does indeed become involved. You and I cannot deny the faith and be saved! Our Confession of Faith stresses this too: outside of the holy congregation which is an assembly of those who are saved there is no salvation. Secondly, from a spiritual point of view this attitude of indifferentism (which frequently manifests itself as bitter intolerance toward those who desire to be faithful to the Word of God) betrays an altogether wrong approach. It is not the attitude expressed in the words of Psalm 137 which were quoted at the beginning of this pamphlet, but a selfish attitude, concerned only about one’s individual salvation and about how little Christianity is necessary for that salvation—not concerned about the church, about the truth, about the cause of Christ and the glory of God. In the third place, it is frequently exactly such neglectful indifference which more than anything else helps in the direction of the false church. When people do not care, when a church is not on guard, then the way is open for false prophets to introduce all kinds of error into the church with impunity, and thus to lead the church in the wrong direction. 

The Reformed and Scriptural answer to this question is furnished in Article 29 of our Confession of Faith. It is the bounden duty of the believer to join himself to the true church; and there are three marks by which that true church is recognizable. Those marks are described in our Confession as follows: 

“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.” 

A few explanatory remarks are in order. 

In the first place, we should notice that in a sense all three marks are comprehended in the first mark. The sacraments and Christian discipline have no meaning without the preaching of the Word. The sacraments depend on the Word because the sacraments do nothing else than represent and seal visibly and tangibly that which is set forth in the Word. And Christian discipline depends on the Word because the very content and power of Christian discipline is the Word of Christ. Besides, the preaching of the Word is chief because where the Word is purely preached, there neither the sacraments nor Christian discipline will very readily be corrupted. There is instruction; there the will of Christ is made known; there the truth is proclaimed. And where this is done, the sacraments are not likely to be profaned, nor Christian discipline neglected. Principally, therefore, we may reduce these, three marks to the one, all-important mark of the preaching of the Word. And we may say that where the Word is preached, there is Christ and His church. Where the Word is not preached, there the church is not present and there Christ is not. And where that Word is adulterated in the preaching, there the church is faced by the alternative of either repenting or dying! 

In the second place, notice how our Confession describes that first mark, in language which is almost strange in our day: “if the pure doctrine of the gospel is preached.” This emphasizes that the very structure of the gospel is doctrine, teachings. The true church is not characterized by the preaching of a “thumb-nail” gospel. It is not marked by preaching which is in a broad and loose sense evangelical—whatever that may mean—or evangelistic in the popular “soul-saving” and crusade sense. It preaches the pure doctrine of the gospel. Lose that, and you lose the gospel! And lose the gospel of the Scriptures out of the preaching, and the preaching has lost its fundamental character. We must not have mere preaching, as to form. We must not only have some doctrine. We must have the doctrine of the gospel, and that, too, the pure doctrine of the gospel. Preaching is basically exposition of the Word of God, proclamation of the whole counsel of God according to the Scriptures. 

In the third place, we can only rightly understand and apply these marks when we understand that they are fundamentally antithetical. That is, we must consider them and apply them in the light of what are the marks of the false church. Of this Article 29 speaks also: 

“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.” 

In other words, the basic, either-or issue is: the Word of Christ or the word of man! 

The reason why these are the marks is connected with the very nature of the church. The church is built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, of which Jesus Christ is the chief cornerstone. There simply is no other foundation possible—not for the true church! If the church is to be built, it must be built on that foundation. And whoever proclaims anything else than the pure doctrine of the gospel is not building upon that foundation; he builds on another foundation, and he builds a mere human institution. It pleases Christ to call and to build His church through the preaching of the Word. Men may raise all kinds of objections against preaching and against sermons—as they do nowadays. They may devise various glamorous substitutes for the preaching of the pure doctrine of the gospel. The fact remains that it pleases Christ to gather His church through the preaching of the Word! You can never change that! Where the Word is preached, there is Christ; there is the voice of the Good Shepherd; there the sheep hear His voice; there they follow Him; there He gives them eternal life! Don’t ever forget that!

For remember: the church needs Christ! It is only in living connection with that Christ that the church is the church, and that the members possess the life of Christ. And the only contact which we have with Christ as long as we are in this present world is through His Word (not man’s word), through Hissacraments, and through His government and discipline. Where these are missing, Christ is missing. Where they are corrupted and to the extent that they are corrupted, there I am being separated from contact with Christ my Head! This is the life-and-death seriousness of this entire question of the marks of the true church! 

A Matter Of Easy Discernment 

While the believer today faces a complex ecclesiastical scene, the difference between the true and the false church is nevertheless a matter of easy discernment. Our Confession of Faith emphasizes this: “Hereby the true Church may certainly be known, from which no man has a right to separate himself.” And again: “These two Churches (that is, the true and the false, H.C.H.) are easily known and distinguished from each other.” 

Why is this true? 

In the first place, it is true because God has given us a clear and infallible standard by which the true church can be known and distinguished. That standard is the Word of God. That Word of God is perspicuous, clear, so that the simplest child of God can understand and discern the truth of the gospel. In the light of that Word the simplest child of God can discern the truth from the lie. That Word of God is unambiguous: it is not capable of two meanings. It does not teach, for example, that God loves all men and that He does not love all men, or that Christ died for all men and that He died only for His elect. God’s Word is clear, crystal clear, as to the truth and the lie. This is the objective reason why it is possible to distinguish when a church begins to depart in the direction of the false church, and why it is possible to discern when that primary mark of the preaching of the pure doctrine of the gospel is corrupted. We have an infallible, objective guide! And the second, subjective reason is that every believer, as a member of the body of Christ, has the Spirit, the Spirit of Christ, the Spirit of the church, the Spirit of truth, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of discernment. By that Spirit and in the light of His Word he may view the ecclesiastical scene today and may easily discern the true from the false church. 

Judged in the light of these marks, that ecclesiastical scene today is, negatively, one of appalling apostasy. One need not look far afield to notice this. Look at the Reformed scene, at those who are generally classified as belonging yet to the tradition of the Reformation. There is tremendous doctrinal apostasy, frequently under the guise of theological freedom: all kinds of error is increasingly tolerated and allowed to go unpunished and unrebuked, while what has always been the faith of our fathers is lightly set aside. There is apostasy as to the preaching: preaching as proclamation of the pure doctrine of the gospel, expository preaching, has largely become a rare article. Topical preaching, moralism, the social gospel are the replacements. Besides, people become tired of preaching and busy themselves with devising new and glamorous substitutes for the simple and pure preaching of the Word of God—hippy services, dialogues, dramas, modem, revisionistic liturgicalism, and every new and different thing imaginable. Then, too, there is the encroachment of the ecumenical movement, at the expense of true unity and at the expense of the truth of the gospel. Or there is the modern striving after the so-called “deinstitutionalization” of the church: the cry that the church must break out of its instituted form, the cry that the church must “be where the action is,” the emphasis on “doing” rather than “believing.” In brief, there are all kinds of adjustments and adaptations today which have but one goal: to make the church according to man and pleasing to man. 

Along with all this, there is decay and degradation as to the very standards of Christian living. The keys of the kingdom are no more employed, or they are totally corrupted. Regardless of the requirements of faith and repentance, of uprightness in doctrine and walk, anyone is welcomed into the membership of the churches. The table of the Lord is opened to all, and thereby profaned. The Sabbath is desecrated. The church pews become empty. Members of the church seek their enjoyment elsewhere. They become friends of the world, singing and dancing and carousing with the world, speaking and acting and looking like the world. Christian morality and sanctification according to the precepts of the Lord have become old-fashioned, and the devilishness of situation-ethics has found its way into the church. Church and world, believer and unbeliever, light and darkness, Christ and Belial, are made to walk hand in hand in almost every sphere of human life. For the most part, that which calls itself church today presents but a sad caricature of the holy, catholic church of Christ. 

All these phenomena have come about gradually, almost stealthily, though especially in recent years with rapidly increasing tempo. And they are sad realities today in churches which by name are of Reformed persuasion! 

At the same time, do not forget, the true church is also present in the world. And it also is easily discerned, discerned by its distinguishing marks! 

Where is it? 

We of the Protestant Reformed Churches claim and testify that we represent that true church, represent the purest manifestation of the body of Christ on earth. We make that claim in all humility, without boasting, without a holier-than-thou attitude, in humble acknowledgement that we are what we are only by the sovereign grace of our God. But we make this testimony also without hesitation. You can discern this arid test it by the marks of the church. And is it not a striking thing that whatever opponents have said or still say about us—and admittedly there have been a good many unflattering things said—they cannot deny that those marks are present in the Protestant Reformed Churches. They are not able to say that in the Protestant Reformed Churches, according to the standard of Scripture And the creeds, the pure doctrine of the gospel is not preached. Small though we may be, by the grace of God we preach the pure doctrine of the gospel, administer the sacraments purely, and exercise Christian discipline faithfully. 

The Calling To Observe The Marks 

What is involved in our calling to observe and to apply the test of these marks? Briefly, we point to the following: 

1) The faithful church must not only hold fast that which it has, but must positively increase in knowledge, must become stronger in the truth, must grow in the faith, and must thus become more firmly rooted in Christ. Besides, the church must faithfully instruct the covenant seed, the future church, in the faith of the gospel, lest God’s people be destroyed for lack of knowledge. Moreover, the faithful church must always watch and be on guard against the enemy. This is the calling of the watchmen on the walls of Zion, first of all; but it is the calling of the entire congregation with them. 

2) What is the calling of the departing church? That calling, at the very first sign of departure and unfaithfulness—not when that church has already gone a few miles down the road of error, which historically has always been too late—is in one word: repent! You have only to read the Lord’s letters to the seven churches in Revelation 2 and Revelation 3to confirm this. 

3) What is the calling of the faithful church toward the unfaithful? Of the seven churches in Asia Minor, two were without rebuke; three were departing in various respects; and two were almost dead. What must the faithful churches do with respect to those who depart? They must not give them up; neither must they ignore them; surely, they must not amalgamate with them and become corrupt like them. Their calling is, first of all, to remain faithful; and, secondly, no matter bow distasteful this may be to the unfaithful, to call all the rest to repentance! And if this fails, they must call the faithful remnant to separate themselves from the apostate church. Is not this what the Lord Christ Himself does? 

4) As far as the individual child of God is concerned, he may place nothing before his duty to seek and to join himself to the true church. To this end, the believer must become spiritually equipped and prepared and thoroughly established in the knowledge of the truth of the Word of God. And forno reason may he turn away from this sacred calling to seek the true church. This may bring on various practical problems. It can be a problem when employment opportunities open up to you which will be closed to you if you insist on joining yourself to the true church. Or, for young people it can create problems at the time of courtship if they insist that the “church question” has priority. And, in general, insistence upon seeking the true church frequently involves being reproached and despised and ostracized by church and world. But remember: there is no shame in being despised for the sake of faithfulness to the Word of God and love of His Zion! And: the yoke of Jesus is easy, and His burden is light! Let your stand be that of Psalm 137: “I prefer Jerusalem above my chief joy!” 

5) For the individual child of God when he comes into contact with corruption in the church, this calling implies that he must strive for reformation. He must do so either in cooperation with the institution of his church, or in protest against it. But reformation is his sacred duty! Moreover, if protest fails, and the carnal element begins to dominate in a church, and the institute will not listen, his calling is not to protest endlessly and at the same time to bemoan the frustrations of protest. In such a case his duty of reformation means, in obedience to the will of God, that he must separate and institute the church anew if necessary. This is a very painful and also a very serious matter, a step which may not be taken for any carnal considerations. But for Christ’s sake, for the truth’s sake, for the love of Zion’s sake, if he prefers Jerusalem above his chief joy, he will do it. He will refuse to promote the false church, and he will seek and join himself to the true. 

Always we are called to be faithful unto death. In that way we have the sure promise of the Lord: “I will give you a crown of life.”