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Question and Answer

Marks of a True Church

Question:

I am a new member to the Reformed church and don't understand how you come to conclusions about certain issues. One of these is the distinctions of the Christian Church. My pastor says there are three: 1. Preaching the gospel. 2. The sacraments. 3. Discipline. I have no trouble accepting these as biblical. How can you define the church in only three definitions. What about, love, forgiveness, prayer, benevolence, etc? How do they fit into these definitions?

Answer:

Let me begin with a bit of history. The Reformed marks of the church distinguish true and false churches. Since the fourth century, Christians, including the Reformers, have used the Nicene Creed as a confession of faith. Worshippers confess that they believe one holy catholic and apostolic church. However, since many sects claim the name "church," the Reformers asked what scripturally defined marks distinguish true and false churches? How can we identify where the true church of God is present?

The Reformers are clear: Where the word of God is truly preached and taught, the sacraments rightly administered, and church discipline faithfully exercised, there the one true holy and apostolic church is present.

You have correctly pointed out a number of godly virtues that adorn the church's life, namely, forgiveness, prayer, and benevolence. And, of course, you can add scores of other virtues to your list. The important thing to remember is that all of these godly virtues appear and flourish only where the three marks of the church are present. Take love for example. How do we experience the love of God in Christ, and learn to distinguish Christian from pagan love? Only by the faithful preaching and hearing of the word of God. Our Savior hosts his holy Supper to nourish us in our love for him and his body, the church. Faithful shepherds of God's church discipline the church's members both as an act of love and as a means of cultivating biblical love among the church's members.

Please permit me to use an illustration that may be of some value. The three indispensable elements of a house are a foundation, a frame, and a roof. Many things may be installed in a house, such as a washer and dryer, oven, plumbing, electrical wiring, beds, tables, and chairs. The list is endless. I may have each of these things piled in a field, but I don't have a house until I have a foundation, a frame, and a roof.

Every godly virtue you listed must be present in the life of the church. But unless the Word of God is truly preached and taught, the sacraments rightly administered, and church discipline faithfully exercised, you have no church, and where these marks are absent the godliness that must adorn the church will be absent too. Take away any one of these marks, and you have a group of people, but not the church of the living God.

Welcome to your new church home! I am excited about your future. As you delight in the word truly preached, the sacraments rightly administered, and church discipline faithfully exercised, then you will grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the biblical virtues you prize so much will adorn your life.


About Q&A

"Questions and Answers" is a weekly feature of the OPC website. At least one new question is posted each week, so there should always be something new here for you to read. (For those who would like to look at previous questions and answers, they will continue to be available as well.)

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