************ Sermon on Belgic Confession Article 29 ************
By: Rev. Robert Godfrey
This sermon was preached on February 7, 2010
Belgic Confession Article 29
"Recognizing the True Church"
As Californians, I trust we all know our history well enough to be familiar with the gold rush. I want you to imagine a prospector during that time mining for gold, and as he has some gold in his hand his son comes up to him. And as young children are prone to do, he says, "What's that?" The Father replies, "well, this is gold." Again the little boy continues on with the same exact question, "what's that?" And the Father answers, "well, it's a precious element, and its worth a lot of money." The little boy nods his head and looks over to a large pile a few feet away and says, "Are we rich dad? Because that looks like a lot of gold." The Dad responds, "No, that's fool's gold." The little boy looks confused and says, "what's that?" "Well, it's a crystal substance mad of iron and sulphur, and it's not really worth anything." The boy looks confused and says, "how can you tell the difference." The Father goes on to explain how gold is soft, and when he hits it with a hammer it will flatten, how gold gives off a consistent shine under sunlight. He tells his son how fool's gold is brittle, how it breaks apart when you hit is with a hammer, and how it sparkles or glitters when you turn it in the sunlight.
I tell you this as a way to illustrate our understanding of the true church. A couple of weeks ago we received a definition of the true church. Just as the father first told his son what gold was, so we were given a definition of the church. We've heard that the holy catholic church is the place where Christ is the head, as our text says. It is the universal church; A holy congregation of Christian believers expecting salvation in Christ. But we need more help. We need to know what this church looks like How do we recognize it??? How can you tell the difference from the false church…from the fool's gold??? The prospector not only gave his son definitions of gold and fool's gold, he also gave him marks for how he could recognize the difference. This is what Article 29 is concerned with doing. Here we are told how to recognize the true church. We do so by its marks; I. Marks of the True Church II. Marks of True Christians III. Marks of The False Church. This is where we see how the Belgic Confession is so helpful. There isn't one chapter or verse in scripture to turn to that will show us what the true and false churches look like. We have to turn to many different places all over scripture. So our confession helps to put these thoughts together.
I. Marks of the True Church
First we examine the marks of the true church. Remember this isn't a definition of the church, but marks to recognize it. We'll deal fairly briefly with each of these, because in the weeks to come the confession devotes entire articles to each of these marks. The first mark is the gospel preached.
A. Gospel Preached
This is the primary and most important mark of the true church, and is sadly absent from so many "Christian" churches in our day and age. There are many churches where the gospel is not mentioned at all. Where the service is filled with guest speakers, skits, videos, and cantatas, leaving no time for a sermon to be preached. I once attended a service where the ‘spirit moved' the pastor to continue to lead the singing for an extra 1/2 and hour, and at the conclusion of the time he said he had no time for a sermon and ended the service. Even in churches where sermons are preached there are many where the this mark is absent. Many churches have a pastor preach every Sunday. Many where words are proclaimed, maybe even truth, maybe even Biblical truth, but that is not enough. The gospel must be present!!! It is necessary that more than just the word in general be preached every Lord's day. The Gospel must be proclaimed!!!
The words we find in Ezekiel 37 "Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry Bones hear the word of the Lord!" These words are not moral exhortation, they are words that can bring life where once was only death. These are the words that are the double-edged sword of Revelation 1. We must preach Christ and Him crucified, and it must be the center of our worship. And I implore you beloved that if you ever leave this place without being pointed to Christ, come to us. Speak to me, speak to Pastor Dieleman, speak to your elder for we have failed you. You need to hear the words of life. So out of this fountainhead of the word spoken, the sacraments must be rightly upheld as well.
In the gospel we receive the word heard, but in our weakness God gives us the sacraments that we might receive the word seen, touched, smelled, and tasted. But these sacraments must come with the marks of truth. They must be as Christ instituted them, and administered as scripture states. First, they must be as Christ instituted them. That means that they must be only two in number; Baptism and the Lord's Supper. As we see from a number of places in scripture, perhaps most strongly in Matthew 28 and I Corinthians 11; these are the two sacraments that Christ has given to his church. We must also understand what they mean as Christ has instituted them. That they have words that are to accompany them, that they are signs and seals of promises that the Lord has given to us. Secondly, these sacraments must be administered correctly. For example, Baptism is for believers and their children. The Lord's Supper is only for believers, those who can discern the body. We'll talk more about the sacraments in weeks to come, but these too are a mark of the pure church.
The true church is a place where the Gospel is proclaimed, the gospel is confirmed in the sacraments, and the Gospel is protected in church discipline. Church discipline is prescribed in Matthew 18 were receive the model of approaching our brother if he has sinned, if he will not repent taking two or three with, if he still will not repent taking it before the church, and if he still will not repent treating him as a pagan. We take our model of church discipline from this Biblical mandate. However, in our day this mark is disappearing from the church. It gets the reputation for being hateful or mean spirited. However, it is important for us to remember that discipline is anything but hateful. It is done out of love. It is done out of love for God's holiness, for God's word, and for God's people to restore a brother who has wandered. Again we'll talk more about this mark in weeks to come.
So these are the marks by which we may recognize the true church. These help us to begin asking the right questions when we approach a church. If we move to a new area we ask, is Christ being preached each Sunday? Are the promises of His righteousness proclaimed each Lord's Day? Young people as you head off to college ask of a new church is the Lord's Supper being presented as Christ instituted it? Are only professing members partaking? Is the Sign and Seal of baptism given to believers and their children? If a friend calls to tells you about a new church ask them, what accountability do they have at your church? Are there elders? Is discipline a term they would dare to utter? These things aren't some check list invented by a father and mother sending their child off to college. They certainly weren't invented by us. They weren't even invented by the author of the Confession. These are Biblical principles. This is a checklist that we have to tell us what churches are being true to their duties as the bride of Christ.
And it makes sense that where these true marks are found, so too will true Christians be found. That's why the confession goes on to not only give us the three marks of the true church, but to give us many marks of true Christians…
II. Marks of True Christians
Remember when we speak of the church the confession makes a point to say that she will indeed have hypocrites or false Christians found within. But the church is a place where true Christians will dwell. One of the many benefits of this past Christmas that I enjoyed was Candy, and more specifically chocolate, and even more specifically See's candy chocolates. Now See's is always interesting because it's a bit of a gamble, because as Forrest Gump famously coined you never know what you're going to get. But if you take a bite and there's nothing in the middle then is it really a Chocolate? Or if it's spinach, or broccoli, or dirt in the middle, is it really a chocolate?
Well, I think that's somewhat the same way we can think of the church. John Calvin said that the church is a place where the, "gospel is preached and heard." It must not only be a true church on the outside, but it must have true Christians found within. Without being heard the church is just a preaching station. Therefore, the confession gives us a number of marks of what a true Christian looks like, eight to be exact. And these nine marks can be broken down into two categories. Characteristics of Struggle & Reliance.
The middle six marks all deal with the characteristic of Christian struggle. The confession speaks of fleeing, pursuing, loving, not turning, crucifying, and fighting. All of these present the conflict that Christians endure. This conflict is summed up by Paul in Galatians 5:17 "The sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit and the
Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature,. They are in conflict with eachother, so that you do not do what you want." This is the Christian life in a nutshell the battle against sin and Satan, and the putting on of righteousness. The second characteristic is summed up by the first and last mark we're given in the confession, and that is reliance on the Lord. The first mark we're told about is faith. The last one is appealing. Both of these point to the reliance that the Christian has on the Lord for his strength. The confession puts it so beautifully that the true Christian is "appealing constantly to blood, suffering, death, and obedience of the Lord Jesus, in whom they have forgiveness of their sins, through faith in him."
As we prepare for another upcoming Lord's Supper these marks are a helpful reminder for Self-examination. To look and make sure it is a struggle taking place in our lives, to put on the new man of righteousness and cast off the old man of sin. But ultimately to continue to rely upon Christ. For that is the ultimate mark of Christian, his need for Christ. So now we may know the true church because of its marks. We may know there are true Christians in it by their marks. Finally, we are also given the negative aspect, how to spot a false church by its marks.
III. Marks of the False Church
The marks of the false church are like those of fool's gold like I mentioned at the beginning. All of the marks of false gold came in terms of contrast to the marks of the true gold. Fool's gold breaks in contrast to gold bending. Fool's gold glitters in contrast to gold shining. Now we're given the marks of false church in the same way. These marks come in terms of contrast to the true marks. These marks are to be applied to Christian churches around us, just as we would apply the true marks to recognize whether or not they are a true or false church.
A. Authority – Church Over Word
Children, imagine one day your parents say, "We need a new car." You say, "well let's go to the dealership, get in the car, I'll drive, but first take out the trash." There are a number of things wrong with that scenario (even if it may sound good to you). You're making all the decisions, you're telling your parents what to do!!! Yet that's exactly what this mark does. It puts the child over Father. It puts the servant over Master. Whenever speaking of the false church, the first and clearest example that should come to mind is the Roman Catholic church. It's what the Reformers were addressing in these marks, and it still applies today. This idea of the church having authority over the word can be seen in the person of the pope. Listen to these words that come right out of the Roman Catholic Catechism, "The [Pope] has full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered." This is a mark of falsehood… complete authority, without checks or balances over the people of God, the bride of Christ. And this kind of authority necessarily takes away from the purity of the gospel.
B. Sacraments – Improperly done
We've already discussed the true administration and institution. Here we see that a false mark adds to or takes away from that. This is a serious error. Deuteronomy 12:32 says "See that you do all that I command you; do not add to it or take away from it." The Roman Catholic Church has seven sacraments! And even churches that don't have additional sacraments have added to them or taken away from them in how they are administered. Withholding baptism from the children of believers, yet giving the Lord's Supper to children who cannot discern the body…
C. Discipline – Abuse
Remember that the role of discipline is out of love for God, for His word, and for His people… This mark shows quite the opposite. Imagine a lifeguard bringing someone back to shore, and they're not breathing. Even if it might seem to hurt their chest, you perform CPR in the hopes of reviving them. But imagine you see a lifeguard pull someone up on the beach who isn't breathing, and they proceed to strangle them yelling, "BREATHE! BREATHE!" This was the kind of persecution going on. This form of discipline was such that people were being killed if they forsook the church. Now this form of persecution is not quite the same problem today in our churches, usually it is now quite the other extreme. Churches are as lifeguards who allow someone to lie dead on the beach, content to do nothing.
And these marks of the false church we're told make the false church and true church "Easy to tell" from one another. That certainly can be the case. It is easy to see for instance that the Roman Catholic church is a false church. But there is a large middle ground for us today that is not as cut and dry. There is a wide spectrum of Churches.
The writer of the Heidelberg Catechism, Ursinus, talked about how there can only be relative purity in the kingdom of God, and our Presbyterian brothers who we largely agree with use the language "more or less pure" when speaking of the church in the Westminster Confession of Faith. This is because while it can be very easy to distinguish the false church, it can also be difficult because there is a large spectrum between the true and false.
Furthermore, there is a large spectrum of people. Just as there hypocrites in the true church, there are true Christians to be found in false churches. So beloved, great wisdom and love is needed in the midst of all of this. It is not as black and white as it may appear at first glance.
But remember when we use this language, that we are not being narrow-minded, we are not being arrogant, and we are not being hateful. Rather we are being Christ-minded, Gospel-centered, and desiring His church to be what He has called it to be, true gold… Amen.
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