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Doctrine of the Church: The Marks of the True Church (Pure Preaching of the Gospel)

April 2, 2023 Series: Great Doctrines of the Christian Faith

Topic: Doctrine of the Church

How can I identify a true visible church of Jesus Christ? Is it true that a church can be a true church of Jesus Christ and have all of  the marks of a church in place, and yet be a church that is dead and not alive? Sadly that is true. It can be a true visible church of Jesus Christ, and yet it’s membership is largely unregenerate, because it has all of the marks of the church in place. Also we want to remember that there are, according to the Lord’s sovereign decree, which is not visible to us.  There may be regenerate people in churches that are synagogues of Satan. And that’s why those people  are called, in the book of Revelation, to come out of that estate. So lets identify then, the marks or notes of the church.   First of all the historic and Reformed Presbyterian churches have recognized the church of Rome as an apostate church, Antichrist, a synagogue of Satan. And this, although she has a profession and perhaps even a recognition as being, even a part of the visible church. She however, is an apostate - a false  church. The definition of a false church is: 

  • A church which has departed from the faith that was once delivered to the saints.
  • A false church is a church that no longer contends for the faith, that has departed from its practices. (1 Corinthians 10:20).
  • She ascribes more power and authority to herself and her ordinances than to the Word of God
  • She will not submit herself to the yoke of Christ.
  • She does not administer the sacraments, as appointed by Christ in his word, but adds to and takes from them as she thinks proper.
  • She relies more upon men than upon Christ
  • She persecutes those who live holily according to the Word of God and rebuke her for her errors, covetousness, and idolatry.

The people of God are counseled to come out of her, in Revelation chapter 18:1-8, “And after these things I saw another angel come down from heaven, having great power; and the earth was lightened with his glory. And he cried mightily with a strong voice, saying Babylon the great is fallen, is fallen and is become the habitation of devils, and cage of every unclean and hateful bird. For all nations have drunk of the wine of the wrath of her fornication, and the kings of the earth have committed fornication  with her, and the merchants of the earth are waxed rich through the abundance of her delicacies. And I heard another  voice from heaven, saying, Come out of her, my people, that ye be not partakers of her sins, and that ye receive not of her plagues. For her sins have reached unto heaven, and God hath remembered her iniquities. Reward her, even as she rewarded you, and double unto her double according to her works: in the cup which she hath filled, fill to her double. How much she hath glorified herself, and lived deliciously, so much torment and sorrow give her: for she saith in her heart, I sit a queen and am no widow, and shall see no sorrow. Therefore shall her plagues come in one day, death and mourning and famine; and she shall be utterly burned with fire: for strong is the Lord God who judgeth her. “  So this is Babylon the great, as she is known in the book of Revelation. For historic reformed understanding this is the church of Rome. But note that there can be true believers in Rome. They would be deceived, but they are God’s people and He calls them out of that church. Now, lets take a look at Revelation ch. 2:8-9. And unto the angel of the church in Smyrna write; These things saith the first and  the last ,which was dead, and is alive; “ I know thy works, and tribulations, and poverty, (but thou art rich) and I know the blasphemy of them which say they are jews, and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan.” Now,  It is possible that a church, remember the church of the jews of the old testament,  that was God’s true people . And yet they could devolve into a synagogue of Satan. The Lord can remove his candlestick. Removing the candlestick means what? Well she may still have a form, but the gospel is no longer being proclaimed there. In Revelations ch. 3:1 And unto the angel of the church of Sardis write; These things saith he that have the seven spirits of God, and the seven stars; I know this works, that thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead. So here the church of Sardis is recognized as having a name, like she’s alive, but truly she is dead. And another, very interesting passage that doesn’t figure into these discussions very often, but is fascinating to think about or meditate on is in III John, turn to Third John. Here John is writing to the church, he says: The elder unto the well beloved Gaius whom I love in truth. Beloved I wish above all things that thou mayest prosper and be in health, even as this soul prospereth. For I rejoiced greatly when the brethren came and testified of the truth that is in, thee even as thou walkest in the truth. I have no greater joy that to hear that my children walk in the truth. Beloved, thou doest faithfully whatsoever thou doest to the brethren, and to strangers; Which have borne witness of thy charity before the church: whom if thou bring forward sin their journey after a godly sort, thou shalt do well. Because that for his name’s sake they went forth, taking nothing of the Gentiles. We therefore ought to receive such, that we might be fellowhelpers to the truth.  Now those  terms there,  to conduct the saints along , and to receive them, this has to do with churches recognizing members of other churches and their ministry  and helping them along the way as they go to minister. But now watch what happens in verse 9. I wrote unto the church: but Diotrophes, who loveth to have preeminence among them, receiveth us not. Wherefore if I come I will remember his deeds which he doeth, prating against us with malicious words: and not content therewith, neither doth he himself receive the brethren, and forbidden them that would and  casteth them out of the church. Beloved, follow not that which is evil, but that which is good. He that doeth good is of God, but he that doeth evil, hath not seen God. Demetrius hath good report of all men, and of the truth itself: yea, and we also bear record; and ye know that our record is true. “ This is an interesting passage, in that this man Diotrephes was probably a leader in  the church at Ephesus,   if not the pastor of the church at Ephesus. And John says I wrote to him , but because he likes to have the preeminence he does not receive us, and he does not receive the brethren and he excommunicates those who do. So notice,  that  even the close association with the apostle John, did not stop the church, where Diotrephes was some kind of a leader from this kind of apostasy.  Now we don’t  know who Demetrius is that John mentions later. But it seems that John is telling Gaius and others, that they should apply to Demetrius for relief, and that they should perhaps rise up against Diotrephes and ask that the eldership should draw him under some kind of accusation and  correction. We note finally then, that the Lord threatens to take away the candlestick from the Ephesian church, so we turn to Revelation ch. 2:5. Notice that there are a lot of things the Lord commends them for, their works , their labors their patience, that thou cans’t bear them which are evil: and tho hast tried them which say they are apostles and are not, and hast found them liars.  And hast borne, and hast patience and for my name’s sake hast labored, and hast not fainted. Never the less I have somewhat against thee, because thous hast left thy first love. Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works; or else I will come unto thee quickly and will remove thy candlestick out of his place, except those repent. Its interesting isn’t it?  That they do a lot of things well in Ephesus, and yet they have left their first love. That is they do not love the Lord with all their heart, soul, mind and strength. Maybe they have become to busy with the “business” of the church, and not devoting themselves to God in that business. We must understand that good works can be done, but without heart. If good works can be done without hearts  purified by faith, without hearts bowed before the Lord. Well then, they are not truly good works are they? So the Lord threatens them with removing their candlestick. What do you think that would that look like? When the Lord removes a candlestick from a church like that ?  Well they’re going to go on holding services. They’re not going to say Oh look at that the Lord has removed our candlestick, I guess we will have to go somewhere else.  No that’s not what they do. They don’t recognize that, they go on as they have been, exercising those same sins. They ask you to bow your head and to raise your hand if you wish to be saved. Or tell you God has a plan for your life, or some other nonsense like that.

So it is an interesting thing, that we can have visible churches that are truly not churches at all.  There are such things as the “marks”of the church. So these are certainly important matters, as it pertains to the people of God. In pursuing this topic then, we desire to make several qualifications at the outset, pertaining to the issue of the Marks of the True Church:

  • The First point, is that irregularities from the Biblical order do not unchurch a church. This is a very important principle because their is a striving in some cases for perfectionism, and what that ends up doing, is devolving into sectarianism instead. So irregularities from the Biblical order do not unchurch a church. We differ among true churches of Christ, as to the nature for instance, of baptism. As presbyterians we’re oriented toward the continuity of grace between both testaments and having a biblical defense of that, we favor and teach paedo baptism, or the baptism of infants. However, we do not unchurch our Baptist brethren because they do not believe in that practice. We may not believe they are correct in that, but we do not unchurch them.
  • Secondly there are no perfect churches among the true churches of Christ.

There are only impure true churches. And the quest for perfection has often led to schisms and divisions and not always for the right reasons.

  • Third, the decision to attend a local church is s decision to serve and not to judge. So that once it is reasonably established, that this church or that church is a true church of Jesus Christ and it is the best church in his area that he can attend. We join it for the sake of seeing her advance, not to remain critical and aloof from her. In other words, we can’t use the marks of the church to remain separate,  even though we are attending somewhere and critical of some things.
  • Fourth, there is an historic distinction among churches more or less pure as it regards  to their being verses their well being. The well being of a church pertains to many things. Where errors in doctrine are practiced  or have crept in. The doctrines and commandments of men and not God and  have displaced certain practices and certain beliefs. Such a church is deficient in well being, although she may be  a true church. If those deficiencies do not strike any of the essentials of the Christian religion. We’ll get into that a little later when, we get into identifying a true church from a false church. However if a church is deficient in any of these essentials it is not her well being that is jeopardized, but her being as a true church. The same is true of a christian, an individual christian, who ( and all of us do this, right? ), hold to some errors, and yet we can be a true disciple of Christ, and in reality, a member of the invisible church.

This is a topic that is very difficult to administer practically, and it manifests differently in various ages, in various geographical settings, according to the greater or lesser light, and the opportunity that the people in these places or  times have. But the principle itself is a good principle. As we look at the marks of the church, we will understand the nature of the distinction that we must  make between the ordinary, and the extraordinary as well. There are times in the church, times in her history, even today in particular places in the world. Where she is more or less  pure, and yet she is more or less endowed. Both can be true of different churches in different places. And those are going to affect how we judge the marks of the church. Let me explain what I mean by that. That in a places where there are a number of good sound, solid reformed churches. The marks of the church, are going to be used there. Where there is greater light there is greater responsibility.  Our Lord Jesus Christ declared,” to whom much is given, much is required.” However, if we were to take some of our churches in the Philippines for example,  and plop them down next door to some of the afore-mentioned solid reformed churches  here in the states. We would say, Oh , you shouldn’t go there. But where they are in the Philippines, they may be the best and most perfect church that can be found. And so yes you want to go there. So geography, time, all of these things, must play into our understanding of the marks of the church. Now marks remain, and they’re all that toward which we strive, at all times, and in all places and ages of the world.  But the counsel we give may be different based upon those marks. We can’t apply today’s standards to 400 years ago. It takes a lot of judgment, we don’t want to come with a kind of zero tolerance mentality, a lot of rule making fashion. But we do want to understand that these marks are important. They do identify the true church and where they are wanting.  We want to be careful, but we do want to say, that this brings any church, any particular visible church into doubt. Finally then, note that any decision to call a church or denomination apostate, heterodox, orthodox etc. is not a private decision, but one that is undertaken by a proper ecclesiastical body. The charge of heresy  is all to often thrown about today by private individuals, casting that insult at others.   This is a term historically reserved for ecclesiastical jurisdictions to determine, a presbytery, a general assembly etc. of a true church. So that a study of the marks of the church is helpful in determining  whether or not a true church exists in any particular local area that you might want to attend in good conscience, or whether you should  move to another area where there is a good sound church.

 Well that concludes our introduction, and with that backdrop lets take a look the marks of the church. For this I'm going to use the Belgic Confession article 29 as my source for The Marks of the True Church and wherein She differs From the False Church. The Marks by which the true church is known are these:

  1. If the pure doctrine of the gospel is preached therein
  2. If it maintains the pure administration of the sacraments as instituted by Christ
  3. If church discipline is exercised in punishing of sin.
  4. 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
  5. Hereby the true Church may certainly be known, from which no man has a right to separate himself.

This last line is very important, and it is often forgotten in the discussion on the notes of the Church. These same marks are taught more or less explicitly, in every reformed confession of faith. The Belgic confession is not alone here, I just used it because it’s very clear and easy to understand. The Westminster Confession of Faith Chapter 25 has the:

  • Preaching of the gospel
  • The administration of the ordinances, including the sacraments
  • And the purity of her worship and membership

So  to the WCF, speaks very specifically of the same or almost the same marks as the Belgic Confession.

So let's begin following the three marks of the Belgic and Westminster confessions with the preaching of the gospel. Lets  start with the gospel of John, John  8:31- 32 Then said Jesus to those Jews which believed on Him, if ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed; 32. And ye shall; l know the truth and the truth will set you free.”  In John Ch. 10:27-29My sheep hear my voice, and I know them and they follow me. And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand.”My Father, which gave them me, is greater than all; and no man is able to pluck them out of my. Father’s hand.”

In John 14: 23-24  “ Jesus answered and said unto him, If a man love me he will keep my words: and my father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him. 24. He that loveth me not, keepeth not my sayings and the word which ye hear is not mine, but the Father’s which sent me.”

In 1’st Corinthians ch.3:12-13 “ Now if any man build upon this foundation gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble; 13 Every man’s work shall be made manifest: for the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man’s work of what sort it is. Then in 2’nd Timothy ch. 4: 1-5 “ I charge ye therefore before God and the Lord Jesus Christ, who shall judge the quick and the dead at his appearing and his kingdom; Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all long-suffering and doctrine. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts, shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; and they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables. But watch thou in all things, endure afflictions, do the work of an evangelist, make full proof of thy ministry.”  

We note immediately here, that we’re speaking not of the catholic, (or visible ) church per se’, but particular local churches where these ordinances exist. We’re not talking about simply believers considered as  members of a particular church because of their profession of faith. We’re talking about where preaching exists, and that would be a gathered church. In other words, while there are professors all over the world. This profession of theirs, is had in the church itself under authority and under all ordinary circumstances. If there is a true church of Jesus Christ, within a reasonable distance of any person claiming to be a Christian, her imperfections will not keep that person from hearing the  word of Christ  preached there. In the first set of verses John 8, & John 10, and John 14 we heard there about the hearers of the word preached. That they loved the word. That there is a decided affinity that they have for the word of God.  That they desire to hear it preached. They will go to the place where the word of God is being preached.  Where the doctrine of the gospel is being preached in it’s purity.  In the second set of verses 1st Cor. 3:12 & II Tim. 4:1-5, we heard that  the responsibility of the ministry is to preach the word, not fables. To preach the word of God as we heard from the apostle Paul in a couple of lectures from Acts ch. 20: 27 ‘For I have not shunned to declare unto you all the counsel of God.”   That is the example. So the preaching of the word is the first mark of the church.  The church is gathered to the preaching of the word. Note Ephesians ch.4:3. So the apostle is talking about the unity of the church here. “Endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”  There is one body and one Spirit, even as you are called in one hope of your calling. One Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all, and in you all. But to everyone of us, grace is given according to the measure of the gift of Christ. Wherefore he saith, When he ascended up on high, he led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men. Now that He ascended, but what is it that He also descended first into the lower parts of the earth? He that descended is the same also that ascended up far above all heavens: that He might fill all things. And he gave some apostles, some prophets, 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:”  Notice what Paul said here, That Jesus Christ has assigned the teaching office of the church to five different functions: Apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers.  He has given these five different teaching offices for the perfection of the saints. That word perfecting, means that they , ( the saints) might be drawn together, that they might be filled up in their number, that they might be brought to wholeness. This is a very important passage here,  that the minsters of the gospel are to go preaching the word of God. And through their preaching they gather the saints together. When the WCF talks about this particular verse it says that the ministry is given for the gathering  and perfecting of the saints. It is to gather and  to perfect. To bring them all together, to make their number whole and to teach them everything Christ has commanded.  To bring them to that ecclesiastical wholeness. This is why preaching is that first note, that first mark of the church. Because it is in the proclamation of the word of God, that the people of God, are gathered to Jesus Christ. You can’t have a church without preaching and yet we need some judgment in this. Let’s say for example there’s a good solid church started up and a dozen or so families attend there. And  the pastor there goes along and he  has been preaching for a year. Then all of a sudden tragically he dies. What do we do then ? Does that mean they are no longer a church because they don’t have a preacher ? No, it means they are deficient and they need to fill that up. So you see we need a little judgment here, we can’t simply unchurch a church because her pastor goes away in one way or another. So we’re not speaking then, of the catholic visible church nut particular churches where the preaching had gone forth. Where the word of God is being proclaimed by a min sister of the gospel. And so it is to this preaching of the word and the proclamation of the gospel, that the church gathers. And note in the discussion of church unity, that this is centered around the doctrine of the church. The teaching and preaching of the ministers of the word. And they are given for three particular functions. What are those things they are top do? They are to:

  • Gather and perfect the church
  • They are to do the work of the ministry, that is that they serve the Lord Jesus Christ, they work in His kingdom, as those who are under Him. And in that work of the ministry, they do all those things Jesus taught ministers  to do. They are not lords over God’s heritage. They are examples of the flock.
  • They are to edify the body of Christ, to build up that spiritual temple that offers holy sacrifices as Peter will call it, in First Peter ch 2. So as Jesus Christ has ascended they remain here to do His work. Then for the edification for the body of Christ for her unity and perfection, until she is full grown and founded upon proper doctrine.

Now there have been some that understood that the only essential mark of the church, ought to be a profession of faith in Christ, and that the ministry of the word, the  pure preaching of the word and so on, is secondary.  It is not of the essence of the church. Lets make sure that we get these things straight. Its very important that we understand that the visible catholic church is simply made up of professors. But particular churches must have these marks in place. Especially with regard to their being and well being. So when a church loses one of the marks through the losing of one of her officers from some tragedy, death sickness etc. she does not cease to be a church, but she is no longer regular in that estate.  So she must look to fill up that void, that ministry must be built back up, so that she can continue on as a true visible church. So in response, let us be clear that while the visible church catholic consists of all those who profess faith in Christ, this profession comes as a result of the preaching of the word of God, and the doctrine of the gospel. And we need to put a fine point with regard to the preaching of the word and the doctrine of the gospel. We must teach the word of God in it’s entirety , all of the doctrine of the gospel. We must preach what scripture says, not what we would like it to say.

John 8:31-32 “if you abide in my word you are my disciple indeed, and you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free”

John 7:17 “Sanctify them and they truth, Thy word is truth”

John 8:47 “He who is of God hears God’s words. Therefore you not hear them because you are not of God.”

  • The Word of God will save them that hear you, and yourself.
  • The Word of God must have supremacy.
  • Where there is no word - there can not be a church
  • Where there is no word - there can be no right administration of sacraments
  • Where there is no word - there can be no right structure of discipline
  • John 14:23- 24 “ If anyone loves me, he will keep my word. Sand my Father will love him. And we will come and make our home with him. He who does not love me does not keep my words. And the word that you hear is not mine.”
      • The emphasis is on he who will keep the Word of God, who truly loves God, keeps his word, His command, he will not keep the word, doesn’t love it.
      • The emphasis is on the word that Christ brought is not his own word, but the word of the Father, who has sent him to proclaim the truth of the gospel.

 In every church, the duty and responsibility of the pastor, the elders the deacons and other members is to ensure that the truth of the Word of God is being proclaimed.

    • It must be taught properly
    • It is not a question of whether or not you have the teaching of the word
    • It is a question of what type of teaching you have concerning the word.
    • A teacher of heresy is not acceptable, even if he is generous and forgiving. Right judgment of teachers, must be based on what they say. People who deny essential Christian truths are not sound teachers or fellow believers no matter how sincere or morally upright they may appear to be, (read II John 4-11). John Calvin righteously cautions us “Believers ought to examine carefully what kind of doctrine is taught by those who profess to be the servants of God.”
      • Is the word of God in it’s purity being interpreted?
      • Well you guys are teaching Calvinism! No we’re teaching Biblical Christianity. Read Ephesians ch. 1:4-5
      • Is it the word of men making the Word of God say what they want it to say? Read Matthew ch 16: 16-19.
    • It may not always be done without error, as we are human.
    • But it must be tested to ensure it is without error as much as possible.
    • II John 9. “Whoever transgresses and does not abide in the doctrine of Christ, hath not God.”
        • One must abide in the doctrine of teaching of God, the teaching of Christ.
        • If one is not teaching the doctrine of Christ, that individual who transgresses and does not abide in it. Very simply that person does not have God.
      • Read First Timothy ch. 4:9-16 The preacher is to command the practice of the Word of God.











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