The Marks of a True Church

What are the marks of a true church? I have heard people say there are three: 1. The preaching of the gospel takes place. 2. The sacraments are rightly administered. 3. Church discipline is exercised.

I can see that all of these are biblical. But is that all one should look for? What about prayer, love, evangelism, discipleship and practical care for people, etc?

Thanks for your question. Of course, many sects call themselves a “church.” Such has always been the case throughout Church history. Because of this, the Protestant Reformers in coming to understand the true Gospel of Christ, sought to help people distinguish between true and false churches. Since early on in Church history, Christians have used the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed as confessions of faith. If a Church has a problem affirming these basic doctrines found in these catholic creeds (the word catholic here means universal, meaning that all orthodox Christians would affirm these truths) it leads me to think that they do not embrace true and sound doctrine. If a Church cannot affirm essential truths such as the Trinity or the full deity and humanity of Christ, then it is embracing something else, and anything else is a heresy. A heretical church by its very definition, cannot be a true church. It is vital that we get our doctrine right on the essentials of the faith. We only have to read Galatians chapter 1 to realise that if a church preaches another gospel, it comes under the anathema (the eternal curse) of God. That is why Martin Luther called the doctrine of sola fide (justification by faith alone) the article upon which the church stands or falls.

The Reformers were clear: The one true holy and apostolic church is present where (1) the word of God (and the Gospel) is preached and taught; (2) the sacraments of the church are rightly administered (namely baptism and the Lord’s Supper) and (3) church discipline is faithfully exercised. By implication, this third mark necessarily requires the presence of godly leadership (elders) who provide a safe place for the sheep to grow in Christ and who can ward off any wolves who seek to devour (see Acts 20). That is why Christians simply getting together for fellowship, though wonderful, without the oversight and care of elders, it does not consititute the gathering of a true Church. Christ, the Chief Shepherd has established His under shepherds for the care, protection and spiritual well being of His precious sheep (see Hebrews 13:17).

In his Institutes, John Calvin wrote, “Wherever we see the Word of God purely preached and heard, and the sacraments administered according to Christ’s institution, there, it is not to be doubted, a church of God exists” (4.1.9). Buck Parsons commented on this by saying, “Calvin and the Reformers understood that the pure preaching of the Word and the right administration of the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, which includes the practice of church discipline, were essential elements of a true church, with the implicit repudiation of false churches that did not conform to these fundamental biblical qualifications.”

Other things are vital for church life as you rightly observed. We could add many more things to your list in fact. However these things flourish only where the three marks of the church are present.

For instance, lets talk about love. Love is absolutely vital for the health of a local church, yet we need to ask “how do we distinguish true Christian love from all imitations?” We do so by being exposed to the word of God. When God’s word is rightly preached and taught it actually cultivates true Christian love amongst the flock. It is a function of faithful shepherds of God’s church to (at certain times) bring caring, Christ like and Biblically based discipline to the church’s members, both as an act of love and as a means of cultivating genuine and authentic love among the church’s members.

I heard a good illustration some time back that I feel is worth sharing. Think of the three indispensable elements of a house: a foundation, a frame, and a roof. Many things may be installed in a house, such as couches, chairs, curtains, sinks, toilets, a bath or shower, a washer and dryer, an oven, electrical wiring, beds and so on. I think having a good accurate clock is a good thing to have in a house too. I am sure we agree that the list could be endless. Yet though I may have all of these things in a yard somewhere, I really don’t have a house until I have the three essentials elements of a foundation, a frame, and a roof.

There are many essential elements for healthy church life. Yet unless the Word of God is rightly preached and taught, the sacraments rightly administered, and church discipline is faithfully exercised, there is no true church present. Where these marks are absent, true holiness will be absent too. If even one of these three marks are missing it should not be considered to be a true church of Christ.

To Preach, to Really Preach…

“Preaching is the most public of ministries and therefore, the most conspicuous in its failure and the most subjective to the temptation of hypocrisy. It is imperative only that those who undertake it are appropriately gifted by the Holy Spirit. Such ‘gifting’ includes prophecy, evangelism, the consciousness of an unavoidable call, providential endowments, and outward confirmation as evidenced by the Holy Spirit’s making the preaching effort into a new Bethlehem.

There is no special honor in being so gifted–there is only special pain. The pulpit calls them to it as the sea calls its sailors, and, like the sea, it batters and bruises and does not rest, but always there is the lure of its ‘better and incomparable’ society.

To preach, to really preach, is to die naked a little at a time, and to know each time you do it that you must do it again. Only one certainty sustains the preacher: That God never denies a man peace except to give him glory.”

– Bruce Thielemann

Don’t Assume

Kevin DeYoung writes:

It may be the best known Bible verse in our culture: “Judge not, that you be not judged” (Matt. 7:1).

As one of our society’s most popular verses, it is also one of the most misunderstood. Too many people, non-Christian and Christian, take Jesus’ words to be a blanket rejection of all moral evaluation. But given that Jesus alludes to his opponents as dogs and pigs five verses later, it’s safe to think Jesus wasn’t condemning every kind of judgment. We see from the rest of the Gospel that Matthew 7:1 is not inconsistent with strong criticisms, negative statements, church discipline, and warnings about hell. Judgmentalism is not the same as making ethical and doctrinal demands or believing others to be wrong.

And yet, after all the necessary qualifications, we must not mute this important command. As sinners, we are apt to assume the worst about people. We are eager to find favorable comparisons that make ourselves look good at the expense of others. We are quick to size people up and think we have them figured them out. But I have learned over the years–both as the giver and receiver of judgmental assumptions–that it’s best not to assume.

Don’t assume you know all the facts after hearing one side of the story.

Don’t assume the person is guilty just because strong charges are made against him.

Don’t assume you understand a blogger’s heart after reading one post.

Don’t assume that famous author, preacher, athlete, politician, or local celebrity won’t read what you write and don’t assume they won’t care what you say.

Don’t assume the divorced person is to blame for the divorce.

Don’t assume the single mom isn’t following Jesus.

Don’t assume the guy from the Mission is less of a man or less of a Christian.

Don’t assume the pastor looking for work is a bad pastor.

Don’t assume the church that struggles or fails is a bad church.

Don’t assume you’d be a better mom.

Don’t assume bad kids are the result of bad parents.

Don’t assume your parents are clueless.

Don’t assume everyone should drop everything to attend to your needs, and don’t assume no one will.

Don’t assume the rich are ungenerous.

Don’t assume the poor are lazy.

Don’t assume you know what they are all like after meeting one or two of their kind.

Don’t assume you should read between the lines.

Don’t assume you have interpreted the emotions of the email correctly.

Don’t assume everyone has forgotten about you.

Don’t assume they meant to leave you off the list.

Don’t assume everyone else has a charmed life.

Don’t assume a bad day makes her a bad friend.

Don’t assume the repentance isn’t genuine.

Don’t assume the forgiveness isn’t sincere.

Don’t assume God can’t change you.

Don’t assume God can’t love you.

Don’t assume God can’t love them.

Nine Big Words

We live in the information age, where knowledge is increasing at a speed hardly fathomed in former generations. Yet in the church, knowledge of God’s word seems to be at an all time low. In a recent Christian booksellers convention barely 1 in a 100 writers could provide a reasonable response to the question of what it means to be saved.

In any discipline, there are certain basics that need to be learned. If someone is to learn how to be a mechanic, they would need to become very familiar with the inner workings of a “carburetor” (a device that blends air and fuel for an internal combustion engine). The same is true for a whole host of other parts of a working engine. There is no other way forward if someone is to become a mechanic. There are words that simply have to be mastered.

The trend is that those responsible for the training of pastors tell their students to never mention theological words from the pulpit, the result being that much of the Bible is incomprehensible to most people. There is a language to the Bible – certain words need to be learned before the joy of reading God’s word can be a reality. Yet there has been an intentional “dumbing down” in the pulpit which has left Christians bereft of the joy that should be theirs in comprehending the “so great salvation” that God has provided us.

Non-Christians often tell us that they do not NEED the Christian faith. But if they ever understood what is at stake, there is nothing more important or necessary. They will all stand before a holy God and give an account for their lives and those who are not in right standing with God will be thrown into the lake of fire (they don’t just jump in). What they will need more than anything at that moment is ATONEMENT. They need a substitute, one who suffered in their place as their sin bearer. They may not “feel” the need for it now, but believe me, it will be the most important thing imaginable then.

ATONEMENT: the work Christ did in his life and death to earn our salvation. Two aspects:
1. His passive obedience – laying down His life as a payment for our sin
2. His active obedience – the 33.5 years He lived as a man, never sinning, but positively, always obeying His Father in thought, word and deed.
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Can one be a true Christian and never go to Church?

A transcript from a Question and Answers session with Dr. R. C. Sproul and Rev. Rick Phillips at a Ligonier Conference in 2007:

Question: Can one be a true Christian and never go to Church? … what about people who have jobs which mean that they are constantly working on Sundays and therefore are not in Church? (this may well involve two different questions….)

Dr. R. C. Sproul: “I would say that it is possible to be a Christian and never go to Church. The thief on the cross never had any opportunity to go to Church. The Roman Catholic Church defines the votum ecclesium explicitum, which is an explicit desire to be joined to the Church but you are providentially hindered from doing it; OR at least the implicitum – that you have some desire in your heart to do what is pleasing to God, you just don’t know yet that going to Church is pleasing to God.

If you are a Christian and persistently absent yourself from the assembling together of the saints of God, that would indicate to me that your profession is a false profession. Its possible for someone who does not know any better, for a short time after their conversion, to not be involved in a (local) body, but how can you have even an elementary understanding of the commandments of Christ and absent yourself from His body for any protracted length of time? If somebody did that I would say that is very strong evidence that they were never really converted.

Rick Phillips: “There’s different kinds of necessity. It is not necessary as a condition of salvation but under normal circumstances it is a necessary consequence, as is sanctification in general. It is normative that we should be part of the people of God and their worship. And I want to say…. now I dont know the person and I dont know the particulars… but you are are making a tragically foolish life choice if you are in an occupation that keeps you from being part of the people of God both in their worship and therefore in their life. When we look back on our lives the quality and value of the teaching in the Church and our participation in the Church will be one of the chief features through which we were a blessing to others and we were blessed.

It blows my mind (as a pastor).. someone will come to me and ask “Pastor, can you tell me if there’s a good church in such and such a city?” and I will say, “well why do you ask?”

“I’ve decided to move there.”

You’ve decided to move someplace without knowing what churches are there? Why?

“I’m making $10,000 more.”

That is a foolish choice. You’ve got children.. and we factor in the availability of God fearing Bible Reformed churches – that takes such a low place in our decision making; whereas the salary is everything. And one of the most important things in our lives will be the faithfulness of the word that’s preached and the church that we go to and where we raise our children. It needs to be FAR higher on our priority list.

Sproul: “You think of the story of Abraham and Lot, when their cowboys couldn’t get along, Abraham said, “now look, lets not fuss. We’ll divide the land in half. You go first. You choose first. You take whatever you want.” And Lot looked over this way and he saw grass, wonderful places for grazing his cattle. There was a city there where he could take his cattle to market. All he saw were dollar signs (or shekels, or whatever it was at the time) in his head.. and said “I’ll take that” leaving Abraham with the arid desert, a horrible place to raise cows. And so Abraham acknowledged it – he made a bargain and allowed his relative to take what he wanted. And Lot chose Sodom and Sodom was a fantastic place to raise cows, but it was a horrible place to raise his family, which he found out. And that is what Rick is saying, “why wouldn’t where you go to Church be paramount before you make a decision to move somewhere?”

Phillips: “And then Lot was saved by God’s grace but not Lot’s daughters.”

Sproul: “That’s right.”

No Different in Principle…

“… to rely on oneself for faith is no different in principle from relying on oneself for works, and the one is as unchristian and anti-Christian as the other.”

– J.I. Packer and O.R. Johnston, “Historical and Theological Introduction,” in Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will, trans. J.I. Packer and O.R. Johnston (Cambridge: James Clarke/Westwood, N.J.: Revell,1957, p. 59)

Understanding Romans 10:17

“So faith comes from hearing, though I would recoil at the idea of labeling it as such. In my mind, I just believed the Bible, or so I thought.

I was recently having a discussion with a gentleman through e-mail and he was lamenting the fact that I no longer believed as he does (he is a synergist). He said my problem was that I gave false teaching a chance to wreak havoc in my soul by exposing myself to it – by listening to it. He then wrote “Faith comes by hearing” If you keep hearing something you start to believe it.” He thinks of Reformed theology as falsehood, and so using this verse (Romans 10:17), was seeking to show the source of my error, namely that I should never have listened to reformed theology.

Leaving the discussion about Reformed theology aside, is what he wrote correct? Does hearing something mean that you will believe it. I would suggest not, and go further to say that his view of Scripture is incredibly low to say such a thing. The obvious implication of his words is the concept that we believe anything we hear. But is that true? I have heard many things in life that I do not believe. Some people in England believe Manchester United are the greatest soccer team in the land, when it is clear that this title belongs to Liverpool alone. I could hear someone talk of the Manchester team in such glowing terms all day and all night for a week, and never believe the bald faced satanic lie. I jest, of course (slightly anyway – after all the Manchester team are called “The Red Devils”) – but the point is still a valid one. We do not believe everything we hear – even something we hear repeatedly. It is God Himself who gives the gift of saving faith (Ephesians 2:8,9) – it is not the product of our natural humanity, however many times a person hears the Gospel preached.
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Glorious by Paul Baloche

Verse 1

Look inside the mystery, victorious and strong
No one else above Him, none as strong to save
He alone has conquered the power of the grave


Glorious, my eyes have seen the glory of the Lord
Glorious, He stands above the rulers of the earth

Verse 2

Look beyond the tombstone, see the living God
See the resurrected Ruler of my heart
No one else above Him, none to match His worth
The hope of His returning fills the universe


Glorious, my eyes have seen the glory of the Lord
Glorious, He stands above the rulers of the earth
Glorious, Glorious, Lord you are glorious