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The Marks of a True Church

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul
The Truth Network Radio
May 30, 2024 12:01 am

The Marks of a True Church

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul

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May 30, 2024 12:01 am

What qualifications should we look for as we seek to discern whether a church is faithful to the Lord? Today, R.C. Sproul presents the marks of a true church that the Protestant Reformers identified in Scripture.

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R.C. Sproul (1939-2017) was known for his ability to winsomely and clearly communicate deep, practical truths from God's Word. He was founder of Ligonier Ministries, first minister of preaching and teaching at Saint Andrew's Chapel, first president of Reformation Bible College, and executive editor of Tabletalk magazine.

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Nathan W. Bingham is vice president of ministry engagement for Ligonier Ministries, executive producer and host of Renewing Your Mind, host of the Ask Ligonier podcast, and a graduate of Presbyterian Theological College in Melbourne, Australia. Nathan joined Ligonier in 2012 and lives in Central Florida with his wife and four children.

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Hi, this is Nathan W. Bingham, host of Renewing Your Mind, and before we get to today's episode, I wanted to let you know that if you plan to attend next year's Ligonier National Conference on the theme, I Will Build My Church, until Saturday, you can register and save 50%.

This is our lowest rate, so be sure to secure this discount while there's still time. The conference will be in Orlando, Florida next April, and we would love to see you, along with thousands of other Christians, for three days of trusted teaching and rich fellowship. This 50% discount ends on Saturday, so register now to join us for Ligonier's 2025 National Conference, I Will Build My Church. You can sign up and secure your spot by visiting org slash 2025 or clicking the link in the podcast show notes.

Now on to today's episode. Most people leave churches or split churches not over major, major serious matters of the faith, but over what color you paint the church basement or you're alienated because somebody offended you, and so we storm out in protest. And that fails to see the sacred nature of the church itself. One of the hardest decisions we ever make as a Christian is the decision to leave a local church. Even if we leave over a major issue of the faith, we should be grieved to know that the church is still in grave error. So how do you know when to leave?

That's what R.C. Sproul will address today on Renewing Your Mind as he considers the marks of a true church. The message you're about to hear is from a ten-part study titled The Bride of Christ. Until midnight tonight, you can request this series in a special resource bundle, and you give a gift of any amount at But respond today, as this offer won't be repeated tomorrow. So how do you know if the church on the corner is a true church, and when do you know a church has crossed the line that now it's time to leave?

Here's Dr. Sproul. In the past several days, we've been looking at the nature of the church. We saw, first of all, that the church is described historically as that institution that is one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic. We've looked at the meaning of the term church as those people who are owned and possessed by Christ.

We've seen that the church is a confessing body, that it has a content of faith that it shares and it proclaims to the world. But the question I want to look at today in this session is this, when is a church not a church? I have to say I get letters all the time from people who pour out their souls and they say, I'm very unhappy in the church I attend or which I belong. I'm not happy with what's preached or with what's taught or the activities that are going on in the church, where people will cry out and say, my soul is being starved. I want to be fed, and I can't find a church that is alive and that is deeply rooted in the things of God. Or the people say, I'm alienated from my church. Can I leave and look for another church?

And that's a very, very serious question. And this question was paramount in the 16th century at the time of the Reformation where we saw the greatest fragmentation of the visible church that ever took place. And after the break with Rome of the Protestant reformers, all kinds of divergent groups sprung up with different creeds and different confessions and different forms of government, different liturgies, all claiming to be Christian churches, and many of them claiming to be the only true church.

And so the people of that day were asking, well, how can we tell? I mean, how do we know a true church from a false church? What are the marks of an authentic church? And so the reformers of that time wrestled seriously with that question because Rome, of course, did not recognize the Protestant churches as authentic churches. And Rome had said in the past that the church can be defined this way. Where the bishop is, there is the church. And if there is no authorization of the Roman bishop, then whatever little societies spring up are not valid churches. Well, the Protestant reformers took a different view of the matter, and they sought to isolate and delineate the marks of a valid or a true church. And they basically settled on three such distinctive characteristics, and those three characteristics are these. First of all, they said for a church to be a true church, the gospel must be preached faithfully.

Now I'll come back and elaborate on that in a moment. The second mark of the church was an institution where the sacraments are duly administered. And the third mark of a church is where there is authentic discipline, and a corollary of that is ecclesiastical government, which exists for the nurture and the discipline of the people. So of all the different elements that make up a church, the three non-negotiables that the reformers pinpointed as essential marks of a true church are these three.

And let's look at the first one, the gospel, where the gospel is proclaimed. Now what they meant by this was not just simply the announcement of the good news of Jesus' death and the atonement, but rather where the essential truths of Christianity are faithfully taught and proclaimed. And if a church, for example, in its official decrees or confessional standards denied an essential of Christian faith, then that means, according to the reformers, that that institution would no longer be considered a church. For example, historic Protestantism would not recognize Mormonism as an authentic Christian church, because the Mormon faith historically has fundamentally denied the deity of Christ. And so whatever else it affirmed about historic Christianity, the denial of the deity of Christ was seen as a denial of something essential to biblical Christianity, and therefore any organization that denied the deity of Christ would not be considered by the reformers to be a valid, bona fide church. The issue with Rome in the 16th century on the doctrine of justification by faith alone, which was so volatile at that time, was volatile because the reformers believed that the doctrine of justification by faith alone was an essential of the gospel. And even though the Roman Catholic church steadfastly embraced many elements of historic orthodoxy, such as the deity of Christ, the Trinity, the atonement, and that sort of thing, their condemnation of justification by faith alone inclined the reformers to come to the conclusion that Rome was no longer a valid church. They believed that Rome had become apostate in the 16th century when Rome issued its anathema and condemnation upon sola fide, whereby the reformers heard in that condemnation a condemnation of the gospel itself. And so they wouldn't recognize Rome as a legitimate church, and vice versa. Rome did not believe in the Reformed view of the gospel, and they wouldn't recognize the Protestant churches as legitimate churches.

The second aspect has to do with the sacraments, and there are quasi-Christian bodies in the world who not only reduce the sacraments from the seven that the Roman Catholic church hold to the two that most Protestants hold, but some have denied sacraments altogether. And the reformers would say, if there are no sacraments, the Lord's Supper and baptism, whatever else you have in your organization, it's not a church. Now that becomes significant today when we have parachurch groups and ministries like Young Life and Campus Crusade and InterVarsity and a host of other type organizations that are engaged in a daily basis on various elements of Christian outreach and ministry. They have specified tasks to work alongside the church. Ligonier Ministries may be called a paraministry.

We're an educational institution. We're not a church. Ligonier Ministries doesn't administer the sacraments. We don't have church membership whereby we impart discipline to people who are on the constituency of Ligonier. That's not our function. We're called to assist the church educationally, but we have a very narrow focus at that point and don't pretend to be a church.

Nobody's a member of Ligonier in that sense. We don't baptize people and have them enter the Ligonier church. The using of the sacraments and the serving of the sacraments is a task for the church, and every true church is engaged in the sacraments. The third element is the element of discipline or government, and we've seen through church history that the whole business of church discipline has been something that is somewhat fluctuating. There have been times in the past where church discipline has manifested itself in terms that were characteristically considered to be harsh. During, again, the sixteenth century, there was fierce persecution, not only from the Roman Catholic Church against Protestants, but also Protestants against Catholics, and we know that people were subjected to the rack, to torture, and all kinds of manner of punishments as a matter of church discipline. I know it's a black eye in the history of the church, but if you would read, for example, the theories of the bishops of the Roman Catholic Church in the sixteenth century when they were considering the use of torture in the Inquisition and so on, and even execution, burning heretics at the stake, and that sort of thing.

On the surface, from our vantage point in the twentieth century, this stuff seems to be cruel, unusual, barbaric punishment and elements of discipline, and perhaps it is. But I want us to understand this, that the leaders of the church in the sixteenth century, ladies and gentlemen, really believed in hell, and they really believed that there was no faith that could be worse to befall a human being than to be cast into hell, and that there is nothing to be feared ultimately more than the perpetual punishment and discipline of God. And the church really believed that it was justifiable to use just about any means necessary to rebuke and discipline one of its members to keep them out of the jaws of hell.

If it took a torture chamber, if it took the rack, even if it took the threat of being burned at the stake to rescue a person from the jaws of hell, it was conceived to be legitimate. Now again, I'm not defending that, but I am trying to get us to understand the mindset of people in the sixteenth century who really took hell seriously. Part of our attitude today towards church discipline is we don't need to be disciplining people at all because it doesn't matter, because we don't really believe in the threat of divine judgment in our day. Well, the pendulum tends to swing to extremes in church history when it comes to discipline. Sometimes the church gets involved in this harsh and severe forms of discipline that I've already mentioned.

At other times, the church is marked by an extraordinary form of what we call Latitudinarianism, where virtually no discipline is imposed upon the people. One of the mainline denominations in America a few years ago had quite a controversy brewing in the church when a group of pastors and scholars put together a paper and a report, and a formal report that they recommended to the church with respect to a sex ethic that authorized homosexual liaisons and to some degree premarital sex and extramarital sex in certain specified contexts as being all right. And when this report was introduced as legislation, as it were, to the church for the church's study and possible approval, there was a hue and cry among the rank and file and among many clergy who rose to oppose this new approach to sexuality.

And a showdown came at the annual meeting of this denomination, and when the vote was taken, the proposal was defeated, which caused the conservatives in that church to rejoice, and rightly so, that that particular proposal was defeated. But the strange thing that came out of this in my judgment was though the church did not adopt this particular position on sexual behavior, it also did not censure or discipline in any way the clergy who advocated the position. So basically what the church was saying is this is not our official position, but if you want to be a minister in our church and hold these things and teach these things, we're not going to do anything about it. So there was a default of discipline at that point, and we've seen this again and again and again where people can be involved in outrageous conduct and outrageous behavior, and the church doesn't say a word. Now that raises a question if a church fails in a significant way to be disciplining its members with respect to gross and heinous and egregious sins, is that institution still a church? Again the question is when does a church become apostate? That is not an easy question to answer because it's very rare in church history that an institution will come up and say, we don't believe in the atonement of Christ, or we don't believe in the deity of Christ.

It's not always that clear cut. Sometimes it is, but for the most part it's just that the church will play loosely with essential truths of the Christian faith. And we make a distinction between de facto apostasy and de jure apostasy, between formal and material apostasy. Formal apostasy is when the church clearly, unequivocally, anathematizes an essential truth or denies an essential truth of the Christian faith. De facto apostasy is apostasy at a practical level where the creeds are still intact, but the church doesn't believe the creeds anymore, or that the church begins to undermine the very creeds that they say that they believe. And again because that's kind of a sliding scale of seriousness and practice, who can discern when the church is no longer a church? It's not an easy matter. So that brings me to this practical application when people are asking me, should I leave my church and go to another?

First thing I want to say to anyone who raises that question is however you decide that, you better not do it willy-nilly, because it's a very serious, serious matter. When we join a church, whatever church we join, in almost every case we do it with a solemn vow before God. And to leave that institution, to remove oneself from a group before whom I've made a sacred vow, requires serious reasons to justify that. And our church vows are just almost meaningless today. People just flit from one church to another like they were going down the street for a loaf of bread. And we promise in my church at least in our membership vows to make diligent use of the means of grace.

We promise when we're there to submit ourselves to the authority of the church. And yet most people quit churches or leave churches or split churches not over major, major serious matters of the faith, but over what color you paint the church basement or you're alienated because somebody in the women's association said something that offended you. And so we storm out in protest and that fails to see the sacred nature of the church itself. Again, there are three different stages. There are times when we simply may not leave the church.

And that's simple. We may not leave the church when there's no just reason to leave the church. We ought to honor our commitment to a church to the best of our ability as long as we possibly can unless the other two principles apply. The second point we can be at is where you may leave the church. Now I say that it's possible at times for people to leave a church when that church is so seriously corrupt that you don't even know whether it's apostate or not apostate, but that in reality you are not able to be nurtured and nourished as a Christian, and your family cannot receive the benefit of nurture either. I think that when churches become that corrupt, you're allowed to leave them and to seek a church where you will be nurtured and fed spiritually and cared for in your souls. The third category is when you must leave the church, and that, of course, is when the church is apostate. You may say, I'm going to stay within the church and try to work for its change and recovery and so on, but if the church is in fact apostate, you're simply not allowed to be there. It would be like the prophets of Baal who had the confrontation with Elijah on Mount Carmel, and the prophets of Baal were claiming that God was on their side, and Elijah said no, and they have the confrontation, and the fire comes from heaven, and it's very clear where God is in this and that the house of Baal is a pagan institution. Can you imagine somebody there saying, well, I see now that Yahweh is God, but I'm going to stay here in the house of Baal as salt and light and try to work for its reform and try to recover it for the things of God.

We're not allowed to do that. If the institution we are in commits apostasy, it is our duty to leave it. So those are the three options you have.

I mean the three possibilities. You may be in a situation where you must leave. You may be in a situation where you may leave.

You may be in a situation where you may not leave, and to leave would be sinning. And so I only mention those for your consideration that when you make that decision, you look carefully at the marks of the church. Is the gospel preached? Are the sacraments duly administered? Is there a biblical form of church government and discipline?

If those three things are present, you ought not to leave. You ought to work to help be an edifying part of that section of the body of Christ. Leaving a church is a painful thing, and as I said, it ought not to be done in a cavalier or casual way, not without great, great care to make sure that it's not just an act of pride or an act of immaturity on our own part. But yet at the same time, dear friends, to be a part of an authentic church is vitally important to your soul and to the souls of your family. And I think you need to look carefully at that and not select churches just on the basis of the social benefits that may flow out of them or the convenience of location or anything else, but that you should be a part of a visible church that makes a clear confession of faith in the gospel, where the gospel is preached faithfully, hopefully the whole counsel of God is being proclaimed, and where you can be nurtured by the sacraments of the Lord's Supper and of baptism, and where you can expect a godly rule over your own life and the discipline that you need and I need within the life of the church. And when we find a church, we'll never find one that's perfect. And so we have to understand that these are matters of degree, but it's important that in their essence these three principles are present for you to be engaged in that institution.

That was R.C. Sproul concluding this series on the Bride of Christ. This is the Thursday edition of Renewing Your Mind, and I'm thankful that you're joining us this week. We spend a lot of time with our local church, gathering together on the Lord's Day and perhaps other times through the week as well, so selecting a church is a serious decision. It's also why it's so important to know what the Bible says about the church. To help you study that further, request online access to Dr. Sproul's 10-part series, The Bride of Christ, and its study guide when you call us at 800-435-4343 or at And when you do, we'll also send you Sinclair Ferguson's hardcover book, In the Year of Our Lord. This book was written to encourage you in your walk and to give you a sense of your place in God's kingdom. So request this resource bundle at or by clicking the link in the podcast show notes. This offer ends at midnight, and it won't be repeated tomorrow. R.C. Sproul was a gifted communicator and had the ability to communicate the faith even to children, and you'll hear both of those qualities tomorrow as he reads one of his children's books, The Night's Map. So I hope your entire family joins us tomorrow here on Renewing Your Mind.
Whisper: medium.en / 2024-05-30 02:23:19 / 2024-05-30 02:31:50 / 9

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