The Marks of the True Church

“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 call 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 be certainly 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. 

Article XXIX, The Belgic Confession

In its previous article the Confession presents the truth that everyone is bound to join himself to the true Church and no one ought to withdraw from it and live in a separate state from it. This article naturally follows. If it be the duty of all men to join themselves to the true Church, they must be able to distinguish clearly the true Church from the false Church. This article tells how this is done. We believe according to the teaching of the Word of God that there are certain marks by which the true Church is easily distinguished from the false. The necessity for this lies in the fact that there are many sects in the world which assume to themselves the name Church. By sect the Confession means any group which purports to be the Church but which teaches false doctrine. Often, we might add, this false doctrine is accompanied by evil conduct. (Cf. II Peter 2:1ff.) It is characteristic too of the sects that they exalt one doctrine or a few at the expense of the rest of Biblical truth. Not infrequently they claim for themselves or their leaders special revelation from the Holy Spirit. These have proliferated in the recent past making it all the more incumbent upon us to maintain the truth as it is set forth by the Confession. The fundamental presupposition of the Confession is that the true Church does in fact exist in the world. It must be distinguished from all sects which claim to be the Church and it may easily be distinguished from these sects by the marks of the true Church. It remains, therefore, the duty of everyone diligently to search for the true Church, join himself to it and remain in its fellowship. 

This search is often very difficult and even painful and must be put in its proper light. The Church, after all, for the most part is gathered in the line of the generation of believers. The Covenant is established with believers and their seed: (Genesis 17:7) “the promise is to you and to your children and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call.” (Acts 2:39) This means that children indeed belong to the Church to which their parents belonged, and because their parents belonged to that Church. This is not bad as is sometimes asserted. But the point is that one must constantly be on the alert that the Church to which he belongs does not begin the journey toward the false Church. That journey, as the history of the Church abundantly witnesses, is often very long. A manifestation of the true Church does not become false over night. But long as that journey may be it is irrevocable! Once an institute of the Church embarks on the journey toward the false Church there is no turning back. If, therefore, after careful and diligent study of God’s Word one discovers that the Church of which he is a member is on the way to becoming the false Church he is under solemn obligation to leave that Church and either re-establish the institute by way of reformation or find an institute of the Church which manifests the marks of the true Church. 

In general concerning those marks of the true Church we must understand that they are defined in the Word of God. They have not been determined by men to be the marks of the Church but the Scriptures teach us that by these marks the true Church may be known. Scripture, after all, is the objective standard for all truth. Scripture tells us what the Church is and how it may be distinguished. We must also understand that the three marks mentioned by the Confession are not really coordinate. By this we do not mean to say that all three must not be present. They must. But the preaching of the pure doctrine of the gospel is the chief mark of the Church. Apart from it the other two marks could not exist. If there were no preaching there could be no proper administration of the sacraments and there could be no exercise of Church discipline. Thus these marks are essentially one mark: the preaching of the pure doctrine of the gospel. That is the one mark that matters! Where the preaching of the pure doctrine of the gospel is, there will be the proper administration of the sacraments and the faithful exercise of Church discipline, and there is the true Church! On the other hand, where the pure doctrine of the gospel is not preached, the sacraments are soon profaned and Church discipline becomes non existent. 

The chief mark of the Church is, therefore, the preaching of the pure doctrine of the gospel. This is abundantly evident from the Scriptures. I Corinthians 1:18-24teaches that: “. . . it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe.” (vs. 21 b.) It simply pleases God to use the means of preaching (considered “foolishness” by the world) to save His people and to make of no effect and destroy the wisdom and understanding of the world. Likewise Scripture teaches that the ascended Christ gave apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers to His Church for the perfecting of the saints and the edifying of the body of Christ. Through the work of the ministry of these officebearers who are preachers the saints are brought into the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of God and are no more tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine. (Ephesians 4:7-16) Jesus said: “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.” (John 10:27) That cannot mean just the disciples and other followers of the Savior at that time. Jesus means that all of His sheep hear His voice, are known by Him, and follow Him. But how can this be? How is it that we today hear not just about Jesus, but actually hear the voice of the Good Shepherd? Romans 10:13-15 supplies the answer: “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 they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach, except they be sent?” This passage teaches that one must call upon the name of the Lord in order to be saved. In order to call upon the name of the Lord one needs faith. In order to receive faith one must hear Christ. Note that one must not hear of or about Christ, but one must hear Christ Himself. And one cannot hear Christ without a preacher, and no one can preach except he be sent. Thus it is that by the means of preaching the sheep of Christ hear His voice, know Him, and follow Him. 

That preaching must have as its content “the pure doctrine of the gospel.” That stands to reason. The pure doctrine of the gospel is simply the Holy Scriptures, the Word of God in Christ. If the voice of Christ is to be heard, then the Word of Christ, nothing less and nothing more, must be preached. And that marks the true Church. There one will find the proper administration of the sacraments, the exercise of Christian discipline, and all things managed according to the Word of God. For where the preaching of the pure doctrine of the gospel is, there is Christ. And where Christ is, there is the true Church. “Hereby the true Church may be certainly known, from which no man has a right to separate himself.” 

By way of contrast the Confession mentions the marks of the false Church, i.e., those Churches which have over the course of time become false. In particular, considering the historical occasion of this Reformation Creed, the Confession has reference to the Roman Catholic Church. The false Church trusts in the authority of men (popes and bishops et. al.) than in the Word of God and will not submit to the yoke of Christ. The false Church adds to and subtracts from the sacraments appointed by Christ and persecutes the Godly instead of excommunicating the ungodly. This latter was reality at the time the Confession was penned; indeed its author, Guido de Bres, himself died a martyr. 

Evidently because it is one’s calling not only to seek the true Church, but also to seek the communion of the saints, the Confession speaks of the marks of the members of the true Church. To be sure, where one finds the true church he will also find the people of God. These marks are: a walk of Godly sanctification in separation from the world and a seeking for refuge in the blood, death, passion and obedience of our Lord Jesus Christ. This is what characterizes believers, members of the true Church. 

This does not mean, however, the article warns, that believers are perfect in this world. There remain in them many infirmities against which they must fight all their life long through the power of the Holy Spirit. The members of the true Church are but sinners and even the holiest of them have only a small beginning of the new obedience. This is precisely why they need the preaching of the pure doctrine of the gospel, the sacraments, and the discipline of Christ: And, let it be understood, the weaknesses and sins of the members of the Church are neither a reason to leave nor a reason to refuse to join that Church where the pure doctrine of the gospel is preached, as some allege. The one thing that matters is this: is the pure doctrine of the gospel preached in this Church? If so, that is where I belong. That Church I must never leave, not for any reason: not for a husband or wife, not for a job; no, not for any reason! There I shall be fed with the Bread of Life; there I shall drink from the fountain of Living Water; there I shall hear the voice of the Good Shepherd Who laid down His life for me; there I shall be built up in the knowledge of the Son of God; there I shall be saved!