Like its preceding articles, Article 29 commences its very first sentence with the words "we believe." These two words are of significance, for they shed a particular light on the meaning of the rest of the sentence and article. That is: the material of Article 29, including its lines of thought, are items revealed in Scripture and therefore embraced by faith. The question is not what one sees or thinks; the question is rather: what is God's revelation?
THE NEED FOR DISCERNING WHAT THE TRUE CHURCH IS
The believer confesses in Article 29 that "we ought to discern diligently and very carefully from the Word of God what is the true Church." Two reasons may be given for this need to "discern diligently and very carefully."
1. The first has already been confessed in Article 28. That
article had given expression to the teaching of the Lord that
" all and everyone are obliged to join [the church]
and unite with it." Two reasons in turn had been
given in Article 28 as to why one needed to join the church:
i. "since this holy assembly and congregation is the assembly of the redeemed, all the redeemed
ought to join it;
ii. "there is no salvation outside of it."
These elements of God's revelation point up the need to join the church.
2. However, in the brokenness of life, there are so many gathering who call themselves churches while in fact they have no right to the term. As Article 29 says it: "all sects which are in the world today claim for themselves the name of Church." We see it in our local community. One finds, for example, the Uniting Church, the Anglican Church, The Church of Christ, the Free Reformed Church, the Westminster Presbyterian Church.
Having confessed with Article 28 that I must join the Church, how then, from all these 'churches,' do I discern which is THE church I must join? In order to do that I need the instruction of the Word of God. On the basis of the Word of God alone am I able to discern what the Church is, and so determine where it is that I belong and to which Church I must therefore join myself.
ALL MUST JOIN THE CHURCH; THEREFORE I TOO MUST JOIN THE CHURCH
With Article 28 I confess that I must join the Church. As things have turned out for me (and for many of us), the fact that I am a member of one of the Free Reformed Churches today is not so much due to the fact that I joined this Church, but rather, is due to the fact that I was joined to this Church. I was born, baptised and raised in the Free Reformed Churches. Yet the Confession speaks of a decision when it speaks of joining. Why am I Free Reformed? Is it because I was born and raised as 'Free Reformed', because my parents go to a 'Free Reformed' Church, because I developed friendships with other 'Free Reformed' people and feel comfortable with them? Or am I a member of the Free Reformed Church because I'm convinced that the Lord has called me to the Free Reformed Church, because I'm convinced that this is where the marks of the true Church are found and therefore I must go to this Church out of obedience to God? This latter is the only legitimate reason, the only good reason before God, for being Free Reformed. It is on the basis of the Word of God alone that I am to determine which is the true Church. Only on the basis of Scripture can I justify my church membership.
Knowing from the Word of God what the Church is, and being called by God's Word to join the Church, it follows that I must therefore discern between the many churches I see around me as to which church is indeed Christ's Church. I may not belong to a church because I feel comfortable there, or because I was born into that church; rather, I must make a point of joining that Church where Christ wants me to.
THE THREE MARKS OF THE TRUE CHURCH
Having to describe things as 'true' is only necessary when counterfeit replicas of them also exist. For example, by definition money is real. When the teller gives you change, immediately question whether or not it is real tender. One assumes it is real, and spends it until it should be proven to be fake. Likewise, by definition the Church is true; one doesn't think of it as being false. That the Church is true is something one takes for granted. Adding the word 'true' to the word 'church' does not alter the meaning of the word 'church'. Therefore, in speaking of the 'true Church," Article 29 is making a confession concerning the very same concept of church as confessed in articles 27 and 28. The 'true' Church of Article 29 is the Church of Article 27 and of Article 28.
Article 29 describes the marks of that very same Church:
"The true Church is to be recognised by the following marks:
1) It practises the pure preaching of the gospel;
2) It maintains the pure administration of the sacraments as Christ instituted them.
3) It exercises Church discipline for correcting and punishing sins."
1) The pure preaching of the gospel
Note well that the true Church is not characterised by preaching, but by PURE preaching. To hear the pure preaching of the Gospel is the equivalent of hearing the voice of Christ. The voice of Christ will not twist, omit, or add to what is written in the Bible. If Christ speaks, one hears what is found in the Bible. Why is it important for me to be in the Church where Christ speaks? It is because that is where salvation is available to me; that is where I hear pure preaching of the gospel.
Of all the churches I find in my community, how am I to discern which of these has the pure preaching? To discern this I am to look at the pulpit. I need to learn whether what is said from the pulpit is truly scriptural. From what I hear from the pulpit, do I recognise the voice of Christ?
In John 10:11,12 the shepherd and the hireling are contrasted, the one concerned for the well being of his sheep (even to the point of sacrificing his own life for the sheep), while the other's primary concern is his own well being. Said Jesus, "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep. But a hireling, he who is not the shepherd, one who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees; and the wolf catches the sheep and scatters them." It is imperative therefore for the sheep to be able to discern between the shepherd and the hireling. How do the sheep know that they are indeed following the shepherd and not the hireling? Said Jesus, "I am the good shepherd; and I know My sheep, and am known by My own" (John 10:14). How do the sheep know the Shepherd? "My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me" (John 10:27). Here Jesus repeats what He said in the verses 3 and 4 of the same chapter, namely, "... and the sheep hear (the shepherd's) voice; and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. And when he brings out his own sheep, he goes before them; and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice."
Where is the Good Shepherd's voice heard? It is heard in the Church. To hear the preaching of the Word of God is to hear the voice of the Good Shepherd. This Word calls me to join that Church where Christ the Good Shepherd is the Head of the Church, where His Word is the final authority.
2) The pure administration of the sacraments as Christ instituted them
The sacraments are the visible preaching of the Word of God; preaching made clear to the eyes in order to underline, illustrate, the message that is heard. Pure administration of the sacraments, then, points also to Christ's presence. (The Confession deals with the sacraments in Articles 33-35).
3) Church discipline is exercised for correcting and punishing sins
The Good Shepherd, motivated by love for His sheep, reaches out to His sheep when they go astray. He seeks them out so that He might lead them back to His fold. The Shepherd loves His sheep so much that He even laid down His life for them. If I don't listen to Christ my Shepherd, if I don't want to hear His voice, He disciplines me out of love. His motive is to bring me back to Him so that I may live within the safety of His fold, His Church, for that is where He offers me salvation.
All together, then, the three marks speak of the Christ's pastoral care for His people. Article 29 summarises these three marks of the true Church as follows, "In short, (the true Church) governs itself according to the Word of God, rejecting all things contrary to it and regarding Jesus Christ as the only Head." The presence of these three marks in a church testifies to the fact that Christ is the Head of that Church. If Christ is there, then His whole Word will be the final authority in every question.
In discerning which church I must join, it is not for me to look at the people attending a given church. All people that attend church are in need of the forgiveness of sins, today, tomorrow, next week, next year. If I am to use people as my criteria for finding the church, I will never find it. A church is essentially a gathering of believers who know themselves, on account of sin, dependent on Jesus Christ for salvation (see Article 27). Hence I expect to find sinners in church, people with many faults. In the one gathering I may well find better people than in another. However, the decisive factor is whether the preaching is Scriptural. Is the Word of God the ONLY and FINAL authority in this gathering? If I can answer this question in the affirmative, I am to join that Church.
One could consider deBres' confession concerning the Christian
to be better placed in Article 24, for isn't the Christian the
result of the renewing, sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit?
However, in view of the confession that the Church is the assembly
of believers, a confession concerning the marks of the Christian
is well placed in Article 29. One cannot separate Christians
from the Church, nor can one separate the Church from Christians.
The mere presence of Christians does not make an assembly a true
Church; rather, the point is that in the true Church are Christians.
After all, the Word of God is not proclaimed where there are
none chosen to life.
In his description of the Christian, deBres uses very absolute terminology. How does one recognise a Christian?
1. "They believe in Jesus Christ the only Saviour." All Christians have the same Christ in common. There are not multiple Christs, and therefore not multiple faiths in Christ either.
2. Christians "flee from sin." One does not flee from an angry dog at a relaxed, sauntering pace. To flee means to run, to dash, to make a desperate effort to get away from lurking danger. This is also the Christian's reaction in the face of sin. The Christian does not loiter in the presence of sin. The Christian knows his own vulnerability (Lord's Day 52.127), and so aggressively puts distances himself and sin.
3. Christians "pursue righteousness." The Christian is not blasè about righteousness, does not reach for it in a non-committed fashion. Pursuit speaks of action. When in pursuit of something one is at work, doing something, chasing after something. With strong, and even aggressive, determination the Christian strives to reach the goal of righteousness.
4. Christians also "love God and their neighbour without turning to the right or left." Obedience to God is to follow the straight path of obedience without tolerating any straying. Said God to Israel when He gave to them His commandments, "... you shall be careful to do as the LORD your God has commanded you; you shall not turn aside to the right hand or to the left" (Deuteronomy 5:32). There is absolutely no room for 'give and take,' no room for any compromise.
5. Christians "crucify their flesh and its works." Crucifixion is not a small measure of self-denial. Crucifixion: whatever is hung on a cross most certainly dies. Here is an absolute description of the Christian's response to sin: the Christian is serious about his hatred of and his fight against sin. This does not negate the fact that there remains much weakness in the Christian (see Article 24). Yet, the Christian does actively fight against his remaining weaknesses and shortcomings, constantly looking to Christ in confident assurance that with Him alone is light and salvation.
Where does one find Christians? Where should one find Christians? Christians are found in the (true) Church, as a result of the pure preaching of the gospel, as a result of hearing Christ's voice. It is in Church that Christ and the Holy Spirit are at work. In discerning which church is the true Church one does not first look at the person in the pew and then attend to what is heard from the pulpit. Rather, one must first attend to what is heard from the pulpit. It is from the pulpit that Christ is preached, and such preaching finds its results in the pew: Christians.
THE FALSE CHURCH
To add the word false to the word church does add something to the notion of Church. One assumes that the Church is true until it is detected to be false (just as one assumes money is real until it is proven to be counterfeit). To precede the word 'church' with 'false' is the equivalent of saying: here is a gathering which calls itself church while in fact it is not a church.
To say that a church is false does not mean that the people of that church are all going to hell. That is not what Scripture says. Article 28 confessed on the basis of Scripture that those who do not join themselves to the true Church "act contrary to the ordinance of God." This is not the same as saying they will not be saved.
The adjective 'false' captures the notion that something is illegitimate, illegal, counterfeit. Satan likes to imitate what God does (2 Corinthians 11:14). God gathers His Church, so Satan also gathers a church. Satan's church looks and sounds much like God's Church. Satan's church is no more 'church' than counterfeit money is money. Satan's church is illegitimate in God's eyes, illegal, counterfeit. Can the Lord possibly be pleased when besides the Church where Christ is Sovereign there appears another assembly of believers where Christ is not Sovereign, but which instead is led by a hireling?! Such a church is a false church, illegitimate, counterfeit.
The Scriptures give a couple of examples of false, illegitimate, counterfeit assemblies. In Numbers 16 one reads of Israel, God's assembly, where God was recognised as the final authority. The assembly of the people under the leadership of Moses and Aaron was legitimate before God, for God Himself had ordained Moses and Aaron, regulated that assembly. The chapter tells us, though, of a second assembly, under the self-appointed leadership of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram. Here is a second assembly over against the first, a second church. The one recognised the Lord God as Head, while the other did not recognise God as the final authority in all things. The one assembly/church, was legitimate in God's eyes and survived; the other was illegitimate and went down into the pit. Scripture does not say of those who died whether they went to heaven or not. What is clear from Numbers 16 is that God's judgement rests upon a church which is false, illegitimate.
One finds another example of a false church in 1 Kings 12. Jeroboam had become king of the ten northern tribes of Israel. God's instruction to Israel was that they were to worship Him in Jerusalem. Jeroboam, placing political expedience ahead of obedience to God, closed the borders between Israel and Judah and established sanctuaries of worship in Dan and Bethel. This way his subjects could not be tempted to defect to Rehoboam, king of the two tribes of Judah in the south, when they travelled to Jerusalem to worship. Jeroboam made two golden calves and said to the people, "It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem. Here are your gods, O Israel, which brought you up from the land of Egypt" (1 Kings 12:28,29). Or, as can equally be translated (for the word 'god' is always in plural form in the Hebrew language): "Here is your God, O Israel, which brought you up from the land of Egypt".
What is important to note here is that Jeroboam did not want to serve other gods. He too wanted to continue serving the God of Israel. The point is rather, that he wanted to serve God differently than God had commanded. For example, in Leviticus 23:33 one reads, "Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, "Speak to the children of Israel saying: 'The fifteenth day of this seventh month shall be the Feast of Tabernacles for seven days to the LORD." What did Jeroboam do? "Jeroboam ordained a feast on the fifteenth day of the eighth month, like the feast that was in Judah" (1 Kings 12:32). Furthermore, God had ordained the Levites to make the sacrifices in the Temple. However, Jeroboam ignored this. Instead, "he made shrines on the high places, and made priests from every class of people, who were not of the sons of Levi. ... So he did at Bethel, sacrificing to the calves that he had made. And at Bethel he installed the priests of the high places which he had made" (1 Kings 12:31,32). Not only did Jeroboam take upon himself an authority that was not his, ie, he made priests rather than accepting the officebearers ordained by God Himself, but he also made priests from any tribe of Israel when God had specified they should be from the tribe of Levi. Here is a service of God, according to self-chosen standards.
The people did serve God, but they did not serve where He wanted to be served nor did they serve Him in the way He wanted to be served. Jeroboam did not let God have the final authority, and hence the gathering of people in Bethel was illegitimate in God's eyes. The illegitimacy (in God's eyes) of the Bethel sanctuary was pointed up by the words spoken by the man of God against Jeroboam's self-styled worship. This man of God " gave a sign the same day saying, "This is the sign which the LORD has spoken: Surely the altar shall split apart, and the ashes on it shall be poured out" (I Kings 13:3). The prophet spoke the Word of God and God's words are never empty or powerless. What God says always comes true, also concerning His judgement on this illegitimate church. In I Kings 13:5 one reads, "The altar also was split apart, and the ashes poured out from the altar, according to the sign which the man of God had given by the word of the LORD." Here was evidence of God's displeasure on this illegitimate assembly of His people.
In 1 Kings 12 we have a clear example of what it is deBres says concerning the false church in Article 29. "The false church assigns more authority to itself and its ordinances than to the Word of God. It does not want to submit itself to the yoke of Christ.... It bases itself more on men than on Jesus Christ. It persecutes those who live holy lives according to the Word of God and who rebuke the false church for its sins, greed and idolatries." What was Jeroboam's response to the words of the prophet? Having been rebuked on account of his church's "sins, greed and idolatries" Jeroboam responds by calling for the prophet's arrest (1 Kings 12:4). Here is an example of persecution of those "who live holy lives according to the Word of God and rebuke the false church."
In two of His seven letters to the churches of Asia Minor, Jesus Christ makes mention of "the synagogue of Satan" (Revelation 2:9; 3:9). The reference is to a gathering of persons in the name of God that is obviously so degenerate as to be unmistakably the work of Satan. Not every false church is equally corrupt (as also not every true church is equally 'pure'). However, it is not the amount of perversion in a church that determines whether it is false. A church is false, illegitimate before God, when it does not want to bow before the Word of God. In its extreme form such a church may very unmistakably be a synagogue of Satan.
TRUE AND FALSE CHURCHES: EASILY DISTINGUISHABLE
Having commenced Article 29 with the words, "we believe," deBres makes the following conclusion concerning the Church and the counter church, the True Church versus the false church. "We believe ... (that) these two churches are easily recognised and distinguished from each other." With these words I confess to believe that Scripture tells me that it is clear which church is the true Church. One might question whether it was really that clear to the Israelites in the days of Numbers 16 whether or not the church of Korah, Dathan and Abiram was the true Church. Was it clear to them whether they should remain with the assembly of Moses and Aaron or join that of Korah, Dathan and Abiram? Was it clear in the days of Jeroboam if the church he set up was a true church? After all, he did promote the worship of the God who delivered Israel from Egypt. In the brokenness of life, with emotional ties and family ties clouding the issue, it may well seem difficult to determine which is the true church. Yet for us today it is not at all difficult to determine whether the people of Israel should join themselves to the assembly of Moses or the assembly of Korah.
In the midst of much strife, in the midst of being confused perhaps by what I see and hear of the many different churches around me, or by the way my emotions tend to lead me, I believe that it is not so difficult to discern what is the True Church. Today it is clear to me who I should have sided with if I lived in the days of Numbers 16 or in the days of Jeroboam. Why is this clear? It is clear because the only criteria by which this could be discerned was whether or not the Word of God was proclaimed and submitted to. It was doctrinal error that made the false church stand apart from the true Church. Hence today too it need not be that difficult to discern which church is legitimate in God's eyes.
THE CHALLENGE POSED BY ARTICLE 29
Article 29 challenges me to ask myself where I might find the true Church in Kelmscott. In which church do I belong? Where is it that God wants me to be? Am I convinced that in the Church where I am currently a member the Word of God is the final authority? If I am not convinced, I have a task ahead of myself. That is: I need to call the brethren to repentance. If they refuse to submit to the Word of God, it is for me to leave, to find and join myself to the true church.
However, if I am convinced that I am joined to the Church to which God calls me; if by the grace of God His Word is indeed the final authority in the Free Reformed Church of Kelmscott, then I must ensure that it remains that way. I cannot assume that it will just automatically remain that way, for the Church of today is not necessarily the same as the Church of tomorrow. Things can change, for the members of the Church are all sinful. The important question to ask when evaluating whether or not the Church one belongs to is true is whether the members continue to recognise the voice of Christ and humbly bow to it. This cannot be taken for granted. It requires much struggling and attentiveness to be and remain true Church.
My Church membership is to be a conscious decision on my part. I must discern that this is the true Church, and if so, therefore I join it and therefore I may not withdraw from it. Birth, baptism or friendships are no valid grounds on which to base Church membership. The Church I am joined to is only legitimate, is only a true Church, when the voice of Christ is heard from its pulpit.
If I have discerned 'my' Church to be the true Church, then this must also be the Church to which all must join themselves, as I confessed in Article 28. In practice: if I must, on the basis of Scripture, call the Free Reformed Church of Kelmscott the true church of town, then all Christians in town are duty bound before God to join this true Church, the Free Reformed Church. This may indeed sound arrogant and haughty to the human ear. But what really is arrogance, haughtiness? That one would rise up against Scripture, speak against it, act contrary to it, fail to submit to it - isn't that arrogance? If Christ says, "My people are to obey My voice," may I then say that I find that too restrictive and then go ahead and do what I think is better? It takes humility to respond and say, "Yes, I believe it," and then act accordingly. To say that the Church I belong to is the true Church, to say that the Free Reformed Church is the true Church, is not arrogant, but is an act of humble obedience to Scripture. If God's Word is the final authority in the Church I belong to, then in spite of the fact that there may also be Christians in the church down the road, I am to humbly accept that this Church to which I belong is THE Church of Christ with which I and all believers must be united.
More, if God has already sovereignly joined me to His Church (=
the true Church) in Kelmscott, there is room on my part only for
deep thankfulness. Who am I that the Lord should join me
to His Church?! This is mercy, and it leads to such thankfulness
that I join the call of the Bible to others of town also to join
this church, Christ's Church.