************ Sermon on Belgic Confession Article 29 ************
By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on August 23, 2020
Belgic Confession Article 29
"The Marks of the True Church"
What is the difference between a tiger and leopard? Tigers have stripes and leopards have spots. What is the difference between hockey skates and roller skates? Hockey skates have blades and roller skates have wheels. What is the difference between a bicycle and a tricycle. A bicycle has two wheels and a tricycle has three wheels. Why am I telling you this? To remind you there are certain marks, certain characteristics, for anything.
Article 29 deals with marks. In particular, it describes the marks of the true church, the marks of the false church, and the marks of the true Christian.
I The Marks of the True Church
A In Article 28 we saw it is everyone's duty to join the true church.
What are the marks of the true church? Let's start off with what we learn from Peter. Jesus said to Peter, "you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church" (Mt 16:18). The rock Jesus was speaking about was Peter's confession about who Jesus is. Peter confessed, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." (Mt 16:16). So simple, so basic. If a church does not have this confession as its basis, it is not a church. This is the first and greatest mark of the true church.
Yet, although so many churches claim to confess this, the sad reality is that they aren't all true churches. I keep warning you about Mormons, JWs, and others. They all claim to confess Christ but we know they aren't the true church. They all deny the deity of Christ, and they all elevate the writings of men to the same level as the Bible.
In addition, there are many churches who still confess Christ as the Son of God, but are on their way to becoming a false church. How does this happen? It usually happens by denying certain fundamental truths, and it always involves their view of Scripture.
I am not saying there aren't true believers in a false church. It may be that God will bring revival. But we don't know this. So true believers must separate themselves from the false church and strive for the purity demanded by the Word of God.
B Let us also admit no church on earth is perfect. All attempts to create a pure church have failed. Hypocrites will never be entirely excluded from the church. Jesus tells us Satan always sows weeds among the wheat (Mt 13:24ff). The bad seed often passes as good seed.
Yet, this does not mean we can never tell if a church is true or not. The true church is identified by her confession of Jesus Christ as the Son of the living God. Upon this foundation comes the three marks of the pure preaching of the Gospel, the right administration of the sacraments, and the faithful exercise of church discipline.
C First, based upon the foundation of Jesus Christ as the Son of the living God, the true church preaches the Gospel. The Gospel, not a recent top ten book on the New York Times list, not a recent movie or play. We read in Corinthians that "God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe" (1 Cor 1:21). Because this is what God uses to save, we must be careful that nothing ever moves the preaching of the Gospel aside. It is through preaching that Christ calls His sheep. The Catechism's understanding of our Bible reading is that preaching opens and shuts the kingdom of heaven. The kingdom is opened to those who hear and accept the Gospel promise in true faith. The kingdom is closed to those who do not repent and believe.
This makes preaching the most glorious and important task in the whole world. Please note that I do not say that this makes the preacher the most important person in the world. He is just an ordinary man and a sinner like everyone else. But his task is so weighty because he speaks for God. There is nothing as important and noble as the preaching of the Word of God. It is crucial, therefore, that this preaching be pure.
From a strictly human point of view, there is something foolish about preaching. In the pulpit stands a man who speaks for God, preaches, explains words in a book, and challenges you to believe those words. If you believe, you will receive salvation, and experience an eternal life of pleasure in the presence of God. We might ask how this is even possible. Certainly, it does not make sense to the world. To the unbeliever it is absolute nonsense because often you are hearing what you don't want to hear and are being told to do what you don't want to do. This is what the Bible means by the foolishness of preaching.
D Second, based upon the foundation of Jesus Christ as the Son of the living God, the true church rightly administers the sacraments. We recognize there are two sacraments -- no more and no less -- instituted by the Lord to strengthen faith. They are very simple in their properties and administration. Water is sprinkled, poured, or used for immersion; bread is broken and eaten and wine/juice is poured and drunk.
The right administration of the sacraments means the table should be guarded. More than one member has asked me why our elders stand at the door to talk to visitors when we have the Lord's Supper. The "pure administration of the sacraments" means the true church must supervise or guard the Lord's Table so that not just anyone and everyone can participate. Paul tells us that the church and the individual are to discern the body lest they eat and drink in an unworthy manner and become guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord (1 Cor 11:27-29). The true church, in other words, rightly guards the table.
The right administration of the sacraments also means unbelievers are not allowed to present their children for baptism, answer the baptismal questions, or hold the baby while it is being baptized. Baptism, as instituted by Christ, is only for believers and their children. This automatically excludes unbelievers and nonmembers.
E Third, based upon the foundation of Jesus Christ as the Son of the living God, the true church faithfully exercises church discipline. Scripture shows us over and over again that God is holy and insists that His church be holy even as He is. Public sin and unrepentant hearts bring shame upon the name and church of Christ. The goal is not punishment but repentance. Because there is joy, great joy in heaven, over every sinner who repents.
II The Marks of the False Church
A Article 29 also tells us the marks of the false church. The marks of the false church are a direct contradiction to what is found in the true church. So, let's look at preaching, sacraments, and discipline in the false church.
The first mark of the false church deals with its attitude to God's Word. The false church "assigns more authority to itself and its ordinances than to the Word of God; it does not want to subject itself to the yoke of Christ." Scripture is not the only or final authority in the false church. Other books, official teachings, and ex-cathedra statements all carry more weight than Scripture. The church the Belgic Confession has in mind here is the Roman Catholic Church. The true church holds to Sola Scriptura -- the Bible alone. The Church of Rome, instead, holds to the statements of the pope. Today, the pope's authority is greater than it was in the days of the Reformation.
The false church "assigns more authority to itself and its ordinances than to the Word of God." By this standard we would have to condemn the JWs, Scientology, Mormons, and Christian Science as false.
B The second mark of the false church concerns its view of the sacraments: "it does not administer the sacraments as Christ commanded in His Word; it rather adds to them or subtracts from them as it pleases; it bases itself on men, more than on Jesus Christ."
Again, the church in mind is the Roman Catholic Church. She believes it is the sacraments themselves that give salvation; five sacraments have been added to the two instituted by Christ; and, non-clergy are not allowed to drink the wine.
C The third mark of the false church concerns its use of discipline. The false church "persecutes those who live holy lives according to the Word of God and who rebuke it for its faults, greed, and idolatry." The false church cannot tolerate any criticism. It allows no room for needed correction and admonition. Instead of disciplining wayward and unrepentant members, the false church disciplines those who try to correct and admonish it.
Again, the Belgic Confession of Faith is thinking of the Roman Catholic Church and its persecution of those, like Luther, who dared to challenge its direction.
III The Marks of the True Christian
A Article 29 also tells us the marks of the true Christian. The first and chief characteristic of the true Christian is faith, the same faith as Peter -- faith in Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God. In my visiting and calling I have noticed that a lot of people claim faith, even those who never go to church. And every church member, even those whose lives are nothing but lies, also claim to believe. Churches can deceive themselves into thinking they are true churches of Christ when they are not; likewise, church members can deceive themselves and others into thinking they are true Christian believers when they are not. The first and chief characteristic of the true Christian is a true faith, a genuine faith.
B There is a second mark of true believers. They not only have true faith but they also "flee from sin ... pursue righteousness ... and crucify the flesh and its works." Paul talks about this in Romans 6. We have been joined to Christ in His death and been raised with Him to new life. Therefore, we avoid sin and pursue righteousness. Whenever I hear that phrase "flee from sin," I cannot help but think of Joseph in Potiphar's house. When Joseph was cornered by Potiphar's wife he made a decision to "flee from sin" (Gen 39).
A true Christian, like Joseph, wants to flee from sin, pursue righteousness, and crucify the flesh and its works because he or she knows that all sin is sin against God. Joseph said, "How then could I do such a wicked thing and sin against God?" (Genesis 39:9). Sin is a great offense against God. Not only that, but those "in sin" are those in bondage. For sin will take you further than you want to go; sin will keep you longer than you want to stay; and sin will cost you more than you want to pay. And, Christians who live lives of sin do damage to the cause of Christ and keep others from turning to Him.
C There is also a third mark of true Christian believers. "They love the true God and their neighbors." Love, people of God, is so very important.
There is a church whose members are known for deeds, hard work, perseverance in the faith. They don't tolerate wickedness. They endure hardship. They do not grow weary in defending the faith. This church and her members are orthodox, adhering faithfully to the historic Creeds and Confessions. They defend the faith of the fathers and admonish those churches and individuals who are slipping from the truth. Sounds like the perfect church members, don't they? Yet, they fell short, way short! Why? Because they were without love. "Repent," says the Lord to the church, "or I will destroy you." You can read about this church and her members in Revelation 2. It is the church in Ephesus.
How do we know what is a true church and what is a false church? How do we know who is a true Christian? True churches, false churches, and true Christians -- like tigers and leopards -- have marks. They are easy to recognize and thus to distinguish from each other.
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