Understanding the marks of a true church ought to be of supreme importance to every believer. How do we know if any given church may be rightly considered to be a true church or not? For instance, every professing Christian ought to know that the Church of Jesus Christ Latter-Day Saints is not in anyway whatsoever a true Christian church. It has always been, in every stage, a synagogue of Satan parading a false Christ and false gospel. But what about churches belonging to particular Chritian denominations or those that have remained independent? The principles that enable us to answer this question have been systematically developed for us in church history. The Reformation era was a particularly formative movement in the development and articulation of the doctrine of the marks of the church.
During the Reformation era, there was a progressive development of understanding what marks distinguished a true church from a false church. This was, of course, owing to the Reformers efforts to bring reform to the Roman Catholic Church. Rome had emphacized the four attributes of the church, namely, “one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic church.” While the Reformers agreed that those are the attributes or marks of the invisible church (i.e., the whole body of believers throughout all time), they rejected a number of these as being marks of the visible church. For instance, whereas Rome insisted that it was the true church, since we believe that there is only one church, the Reformers emphacized that the unity of all believers belonged to the sphere of the invisible church, but that there would be manifestations of the visible church on earth that were more or less pure according to their fidelity to the marks of the visible church. As Geerhardus Vos explained,
“The marks (notae, γνωρίσματα) refer to the visible church and not, like the attributes, the invisible church. A mark by its nature is something that must fall within the sphere of what is visible. Although the Church, viewed in its entirety, can never disappear from the earth, there is still no guarantee that its individual parts will continue to exist. They can completely degenerate and deteriorate; believers who are still therein can die off so that only apparent members remain. But the presence of true members does not let itself be recognized. We cannot see into the heart of men.”1
While we must distinguish between the attributes and the marks of the church, we must also remember that these are not antithetical to each other. They merely function in a different manner from one another. When we adopt this distinction, we will better understand the development of the doctrine of the marks of the church in Reformation history.
John Calvin on the Marks
While many of the Reformers were developing a theology of the marks of a true church, John Calvin is often credited with the most widereaching influence on the development of our understanding of them. Most scholars will note that Calvin only referred to two marks–namely, the right administration ofg word and sacraments. In the Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin explained, “We only contend for the true and legitimate constitution of the Church, which requires not only a communion in the sacraments, which are the signs of a Christian profession, but above all, an agreement in doctrine.”2 Elsewhere in the Institutes he stated, “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 [cf. Eph. 2:20].”3
Calvin fleshed out his understanding of the operational role of these two marks in the context of the local church. He wrote,
“The Church is called ‘the house of God, the pillar and ground of truth.’ For in these words Paul signifies that in order to keep the truth of God from being lost in the world, the Church is its faithful guardian; because it has been the will of God, by the ministry of the Church, to preserve the pure preaching of his word, and to manifest himself as our affectionate Father, while he nourishes us with spiritual food, and provides all things conducive to our salvation.”4
So strong was Calvin in his belief about these marks that he posited what it means for someone to be apart from these marks. In Institutes 4.1.10, he insisted, “So highly does the Lord esteem the communion of his Church, that he considers everyone as a traitor and apostate from religion, who perversely withdraws himself from any Christian society which preserves the true ministry of the word and sacraments.”5
While Calvin referred mostly to the right ministry of the word and sacraments as marks of a true church, he would add church discipline as a mark later in his ministry. In his Ecclesiastical Orders, Calvin explicitly expressed his belief in three marks. He wrote, “There are three things on which the safety of the Church is founded and supported: doctrine, discipline, and the sacraments.” These would become the three marks of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
Sixteenth and Seventeenth Confessions
The Reformed Confessions spoke to the issue of the marks of the true church in light of Roman Catholic perversions of the biblical teaching on the nature of the Church. For instance, Westminster Confession of Faith 25.3 and 4 describes the marks of a true, visible church when it states the following:
“Unto this catholic visible Church Christ hath given the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God, for the gathering and perfecting of the saints, in this life, to the end of the world: and doth by his own presence and Spirit, according to his promise, make them effectual thereunto…and particular Churches, which are members thereof, are more or less pure, according as the doctrine of the Gospel is taught and embraced, ordinances administered, and public worship performed more or less purely in them.” (Westminster Confession of Faith, 25.3-4).
Here, the Divines state that “the doctrine of the Gospel, ordinances and public worship” are necessary for a church to be considered a true church. The Belgic Confession (a precursor to the Westminster Standards), in article 29, outlines in a more succinct form what have been so frequently termed “the marks of a true church” when it states:
“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.”
After setting out these three marks of a true church, Guido de Brès, the principle author of the Belgic Confession, went on to contrast the three marks of a true church with those of a false churches. He wrote:
“As for the false Church, it ascribes more power and authority to itself and its ordinances than to the Word of God, and will not submit itself to the yoke of Christ. Neither does it administer the sacraments as appointed by Christ in His Word, but adds to and takes from, as it thinks proper; it relies more upon men than upon Christ; and persecutes those who live holily according to the Word of God and rebuke it for its errors, covetousness, and idolatry.”
The Offices, Means, and Marks
When we ask the question about the marks of the church, we have to remember that Scripture teaches that the church is the body of Christ. He is the head of the members. Every true believer is savingly in union with Christ. Every professing believer is under the administration of Christ’s governance in the visible church. This means that we can never develop a biblical understanding of the marks of a true church without first starting with the Lord Jesus Christ.
A fascinating correspondence emerges as we consider the three marks of the church in light of Christ. It has long been understood that Scripture teaches that there are the three offices in which Christ functions as mediator between God and man–that of Prophet, Priest, and King. Just as Jesus carries out his mediatorial work with regard to these three offices, so he works in his church in ways commensurate with those offices. Accordingly, the three marks of the church are reflective of the relationship that Jesus sustains to his body as its head. The three marks of the church have their origin in Christ. As the Lord Jesus serves as the mediator of the new covenant, carrying out the responsibilities of prophet, priest, and king in relationship to his church, so he has given three marks that coincide with those offices.
On a simplistic level, we can say that Christ, as Prophet, corresponds to the mark of the “pure preaching of the word,” Christ, as Priest, corresponds to “the right administration of the sacraments,” and Christ, as King, corresponds to “the faithful exercise of discipline.” In this way, the three marks are merely a reflection of the presence and power of the risen Christ at work among his people in the world.
Daniel J. Meeter, in his work Meeting each other in doctrine, liturgy, and government, writes,
“Where Christ is active and his Lordship is honored and obeyed, that is the ‘true church.’ . . .How are these marks directly related to the threefold office of Christ? First, preaching arises out of the gift of prophecy. It also relates to priesthood and royalty, when it bears witness to Jesus’ heavenly priesthood and his finished work for our salvation, and when it testifies to Christ’s claim as king. Second, the administration of the sacraments arises out of Jesus’ priestly work on the cross, his prayer for us, and the communication to us of the benefits of his sacrifice by the means of the washing of his blood and the breaking of bread. But the sacraments are also prophetic, when they celebrate the promises of God as present realities that we can touch, taste, and see. They are also royal prophecies when they point us to the celestial banquet, when, after having washed our robes in the blood of the Lamb, we shall sit down for the royal feast, when his kingdom has fully come. Third, church discipline arises out of the right claims of Jesus’ kingship. It also points to the holiness of his priestly work, to which we must come repentant and hungry; and it points to the power of his prophetic word. . .revealing the secrets that are within the hearts of men and women, and announcing the way of salvation.”
In connection with the three marks of the true church corresponding to the three offices of Christ is the fact that the means of grace also correspond to the offices of Christ and the marks of the church. The three mediatorial offices of Christ and the three primary means of grace coincide to form the “three marks of a true church” within the context of local, visible churches. As Paul Avis suggests, “The principal means by which God saves us—the channels through which God works for our salvation—are also the marks of the true Church (notae ecclesiae). Or, to put it the other way round: the signs by which we can tell where the true Church is to be found are precisely the key means of grace that give the Church its raison d’être.”6
While some have limited the means of grace to the word, sacraments, and prayer (on account of the teaching of Acts 2:42), it is equally true that discipline is a means of grace. It is not difficult to see how the means of grace relate to the offices of Christ. Christ as prophet of his church, appoints his word to a means of grace for the nourishment of the souls of his people. Christ as priest of his church, mediates through the means of prayer and the sacraments for the deepening of communion with him, and Christ as king uses the practice of church discipline to be a means of grace unto the recovery of fallen saints and the protection of the flock from wolves. As Christ carries out his offices in the ministry of the means of grace the marks of the church become evident. In this sense, the offices of Christ, means of grace, and marks of the church work in tandum with one another.
Among the means of grace, the word is the primary means from which the others find their operational efficacy. The seventeenth century English Puritan, Richard Sibbes explained,
“The mark whereby this church is known is especially the truth of God. That is the seed of the church, the truth of God discovered by his word and ordinance. To which is annexed the sacraments and ecclesiastical government; but the former most necessary. And these three were typified in the ark; for there was the law signifying the word, and the pot of manna signifying the sacrament, and the rod to shew the discipline. Those three were, as it were, types of the three marks of the church. But especially the word.”
The nineteenth century Princeton theologian, Geerhardus Vos, rightly explained the rationale behind an emphasis on the priority of the Word over the sacraments, when he wrote:
“If necessary, we can think of Word as a means of grace without sacrament, but it is impossible to think of sacrament as a means of grace without Word. The sacraments depend on Scripture, and the truth of Scripture speaks in and through them.”
In other words, the right administration of the sacraments is absolutely dependent on the accompaniment of the pure preaching of the word. The reverse is not true, however. The word is never dependent on the sacraments. The same is true of discipline. In order for the proper exercise of discipline to be enacted, Scripture must serve as the foundational guiding principle. We are not free to exercise discipline in a way that is out of accord with the biblical injunctions regarding its purposes and practice.
A Pure, yet Imperfect, Church
This opens yet another question. If the three marks of the church are the pure preaching of the word, the right administration of the sacraments, and the proper exercise of discipline, how pure must these three marks be for a church to still be considered a true church. This is a question that was also not foreign to the Reformers and the post-Reformation scholastics. In the Institutes, Calvin noted that the marks that distinguish a true church from a false church may be delinquent in some form or another. In Institutes 4.2, under the title, The True and False Church compared,” Calvin explained that a true church may only have some of the three marks and still be considered a church, so-called, but that Rome, who had perverted everyone of the marks to such a degree that they had “obliterated” them. He wrote,
“I affirm that they are Churches, inasmuch as God has wonderfully preserved among them a remnant of his people, though miserably dispersed and dejected, and as there still remain some marks of the Church, especially those, the efficacy of which neither the craft of the devil, nor the malice of men, can ever destroy. But, on the other hand because those marks which we ought chiefly to regard in this controversy, are obliterated, I affirm, that the form of the legitimate Church is not to be found either in any one of their congregations, or in the body at large.”7
This was also the position of the members of the Westminster Assembly. In WCF 25.5, they explained,
“The purest churches under heaven are subject both to mixture and error; and some have so degenerated, as to become no churches of Christ, but synagogues of Satan. Nevertheless, there shall be always a church on earth, to worship God according to his will.”
The members of the Assemblty included this statement in the Confession of Faith, at least in part, over the debates that the Reformers had with the Anabaptists in the sixteenth century. For instance, Martin Bucer had contended with certain Anabaptist theologians of his day ower what he perceived to be a schismatic nature to their zeal for ecclesiastical purity. Bucer had raised strong objection to the severity with which the Anabaptists had approached the practice of discipline. Accordingly, the Reformers understood that there would be varying degrees of purity in regard to the administration of the word, sacraments, and discipline.
This ought to give every true believer a measure of caution before making strong pronouncements about any given Christian fellowship. The three marks must be present for a church to be considered a true church; however, there will always be mixture of truth and error in every visible church in this fallen world. Nevertheless, wherever the three marks are more or less purely ministered, Christ as prophet, priest, and king of the church is present; and, wherever Christ is at work in his church, the means of grace will be operational among the members of the church.
1. Geerhardus Vos, Reformed Dogmatics, ed. Richard B. Gaffin Jr., trans. Richard B. Gaffin Jr., vol. 5 (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012–2016), 23.
2. John Calvin and John Allen, Institutes of the Christian Religion, vol. 3 (New-Haven; Philadelphia: Hezekiah Howe; Philip H. Nicklin, 1816), 53.
3. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion & 2, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, vol. 1, The Library of Christian Classics (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 1023.
4. John Calvin and John Allen, Institutes of the Christian Religion, vol. 3 (New-Haven; Philadelphia: Hezekiah Howe; Philip H. Nicklin, 1816), 19–20.
5. John Calvin and John Allen, Institutes of the Christian Religion, vol. 3 (New-Haven; Philadelphia: Hezekiah Howe; Philip H. Nicklin, 1816), 19.
6. Paul Avis, “The Church and Ministry,” in T&T Clark Companion to Reformation Theology, ed. David M. Whitford, T&T Clark Companion (London; New York: T&T Clark, 2012), 149.
7. John Calvin and John Allen, Institutes of the Christian Religion, vol. 3 (New-Haven; Philadelphia: Hezekiah Howe; Philip H. Nicklin, 1816), 53.