The Marks of the True Church: 1. “True Proclamation of the Word”


Sermon Text: John 8:31-47
Main Points:
I. True church vs. false church
II. What does ‘the marks of the true church’ mean?
III. The true proclamation of the word of God

In spring, farmers get busier. Sowing is one of their works usually done in springtime. It’s not difficult to imagine farmer’s joyful anticipation of the harvest from the seeds sown; they’d picture in their minds the fields with ripening grains and fruits. A farmer sowed seeds and provided all necessary care for his crops for some months. He was excited to see all the shoots growing and showing a clear evidence of a healthy and promising harvest season in a few more months. He was expecting an outstanding harvest of wheat. One day, someone came to him and commended him for growing ryegrass so healthy. By the way, ‘ryegrass’ is one of the popular grass for cattle pastures. Being puzzled, this farmer replied, ‘Thanks, but, no, mate, this is rye, wheat, not ryegrass.’ ‘Oh, yes,’ the stranger said, ‘it’s definitely ryegrass.’ Truth was that this farmer sowed seeds not of wheat, but of ryegrass, one of stock feeding grass and which shouldn’t be confused with rye, a grain crop. The farmer was shocked and shaken by his mistake.

This illustrates what we’ve just read from the passage in Jn. 8. Jesus said to the Jews, ‘Guys, you’re growing a wrong crop, watering a wrong garden.’ His message to them was clear that they were following and worshipping the wrong one, that is, the devil, rather than the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of the covenant. Hearing Him, the Jews raised their voices, instead of examining their faith, their worship, their commitment, but said in reply to Jesus, ‘No! You’re wrong! You’ve gone too far this time for we surely are God-worshippers!’ But, assuredly, Jesus was right because He knew God, His Father, and what was in the hearts of men. The Lord Jesus clarified in this passage that the Jews gathered before Him were not only the followers but also the children of the devil. In other words, they were a ‘false’ church.

To the contrary, the Lord talks about a ‘true’ church in v. 31: “If you abide in My word, you are truly My disciples.” Being Jesus’ ‘true’ disciples – not imaginary nor fake disciples – two blessings are promised – they are in v. 32, first, ‘knowing the truth, and second, ‘being set free by the truth.’

This is not the only place our Lord Jesus teaches about two churches – one true and the other false. For example, in Jn. 17 (the chapter usually referred to as the chapter of ‘Jesus’ high priestly prayer’), our Lord clearly prays for one group of people and not for the other. He prays for His ‘true’ disciples and all who will believe in Him through hearing the gospel after them, that is, in a word, His ‘true’ church. Rom. 9:8 adds more explanation to this, putting it in terms of Abraham’s offspring, “it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of promise are counted as offspring.” The Bible distinguishes the ‘true’ church as Abraham’s true offspring from the ‘false’ church who are not Abraham’s offspring but the children of the devil.

I talk about true and false church today because we’re going to hear about something that is referred to as ‘the marks of the true church.’ Over three Sundays in this month which all churches with the Reformed faith consider as the Reformation month, we’ll consider three marks that describe the true church. Today, we’ll see the first of these marks, that is, ‘the true proclamation of the word of God.’ On the next two Sundays, we’ll consider ‘the right administration of the Sacraments’ and ‘the faithful exercise of church discipline.’ It sounds complicated, but it’s not a heavy subject at all because these three marks describe what you and I believe in and do always. I’m sure that these messages on the three marks of the true church will help you to see why we’re called to follow and keep the message we’ve received from the Lord Jesus, and stand firm in this faith.

Having said, let me elaborate a little further on the distinction between true and false churches, and explain their difference from a different angle. To the true believers, ‘true church’ of Jesus Christ is like a mother to her child. An infant baby drinks milk from his mother; being weaned, his mum continually nurtures him. Many of our contemporaries think that when teenage children reach their adulthood, they leave their parents, but that’s not true – they’re fed by their mothers and fathers continually. I mean, in the means of their support, beginning from prayers.

In this way, the true church to true Christians is like a mother to her children. Every Christian who believes in Jesus, thus, is a member of God’s household is nurtured by the church that is true and faithful to its Head, Jesus Christ. For this reason, we’re told that outside of this true church, no Christian receives spiritual nourishment; outside of Christ’s true church, no Christian is able to remain in Christ, like the way no infant can live without receiving milk from his mum. The WCF points out and says that ‘outside of [church, that is, the house and family of God] there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.’ Not only our Presbyterian Church’s Confession of Faith, but also the Dutch Reformed Church’s Belgic Confession agrees and says, ‘We believe that since this holy assembly and congregation is the gathering of those who are saved and there is no salvation apart from it.’

To the contrary, the false church doesn’t provide any spiritual nourishment to its followers. In fact, it cannot feed anyone because it has no life, it has no Christ, thus, no salvation can be delivered to anyone. 2 Jn. 1:9 is clear about this, saying, “Everyone who goes on ahead and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God.” As the Lord Jesus declares, the false church belongs to its father, the devil who was ‘a murderer from the beginning’ and is ‘the deceiver of the whole world.’ All who belong to this false church do the works of its father, the devil, that is what Gal. 5:19-21 describe as ‘the works of the flesh’ such as sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry and so on. Gal. 5:21 clearly warns us that “those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.”

I guess that, by now, you wonder which one is true and which one is false church. You might wonder in your mind and say, ‘Is Presbyterian Church true church whereas Mormons and JWs are false ones? Then, what about Baptist or Uniting or Methodist or Roman Catholic Church? What about Church of Christ and countless independent, Charismatic/Pentecostal churches?’ If your wondering is in this line, please forget that question because the matter of true and false church is not about denominationalism. Rather, it is about distinguishing one church from another in terms of their truthfulness to either Christ or the devil. I mean, distinguishing one Presbyterian church from another Presbyterian church, recognising one Baptist or Pentecostal church from other Baptist or Pentecostal churches.

The point is not the ‘brand’ or ‘label’ of any church, but each church’s ‘signature’ or ‘characteristic mark or tune.’ And this is what the so-called ‘the marks of the true church’ is about. The 16th century Reformers like John Calvin, Martin Luther, Zwingli and John Knox clarified these marks because their time heavily demanded a clear understanding of this. People from both the Roman Catholic side and the Protestant side wandered which side was true. A clear understanding of it divided them to go the way of either life of death. The Reformers’ answer was drawn from the Bible, and these ‘marks of the true church’ unassailably distinguish true church from false one.

It is like how we distinguish a church building from any conference hall. Both have some common features like navel or auditorium, podium, seats, windows, lights and so on. But to be a church, I mean, a typical Protestant church building, some unique features are expected, such as the cross, musical instruments like the piano or organ, baptismal font, and so on. Yet, the most important and critical feature for a church building is the Bible and reverence for God the Bible teaches. Likewise, these three marks give a clear, distinct feature of the true church of Christ.

This ‘teaching’ the apostles delivered to us is the word of God, the Bible. And where this word is truly proclaimed, there Christ’s true church is. This is the first ‘mark’ of the true church and it is the most fundamental of the three marks. ‘True proclamation’ means pure and right teaching and declaration of God’s word. Whether a church – regardless of that church’s denominational affiliation – faithfully teach and preach God’s word is the first and most fundamental mark.

I think this first mark is like a builder’s measuring device for horizontal level. A builder works with a device called ‘spirit level’ or ‘bubble level’ to make sure his bricks and other building materials are absolutely level horizontally as well as vertically. When a building is built and bricks are laid, keeping horizontal level is critical. So, builders and bricklayers always carry that level with them to measure every time they lay bricks or put up any building material vertically. If the horizontal level is ignored, that building will not stand long. Think about the importance of this level in terms of a skyscraper. I believe engineers and construction workers who erect such a marvellous monument must use some other sophisticated equipment to put each story absolutely perfectly horizontal and vertical. Otherwise, there would be no skyscrapers that could last a day or two – even an hour – because of the weight of the entire building and any weak point in the structure would cause the whole thing to crush instantly.

In similar way, proclaiming God’s word falsely or in a compromised way or omitting from or adding anything to it, a church cannot stand – it’ll soon fall. This is what our Lord Jesus means in the beginning of our text passage for this morning – that is, v. 31, and if I may put it in my illustration of builder, it would mean like this: “If you abide in My word [that is, if you keep the horizontal level], you are truly My disciples, and you will know the truth [again, with your good work of keeping of the level, you’ll truly be a builder who knows the fundamental principle of building], and the truth will set you free [you’ll rest and enjoy the safety of your completed building].” Do you get the point? True proclamation of God’s word is crucial for the true church of Christ our Lord.

V. 47 of this same chapter teaches us the same truth about the fundamental importance of this mark. Hear what the Lord says, “Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you [the Jews of Jn. 8] do not hear them is that you are not of God.” A clearer teaching is recorded in Jn. 14:23 where Jesus tells us an amazing truth of being the true church: “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word, and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him.” Is there any clearer teaching than this about the word of God as the first and most fundamental mark of the true church?

I believe that you all know how crucial it is for Christ’s church to proclaim God’s word. Yet, let me refine this first mark just a bit more. True proclamation of God’s word means to teach and preach the ‘full counsel’ of God’s word. Philemon 6 describes it as “the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ” and this ‘every good thing’ is further explained in 2 Tim. 3:16-17 as ‘all Scripture breathed out by God.’ One verse or a chapter or any one book or some parts of the Bible does not constitute the ‘full counsel’ or ‘knowledge’ of God and Christ; the whole things of the Old and New Testaments must be proclaimed, expounded, taught and preached. In this sense, often Christians point this first mark simply as ‘sound doctrine.’

So, if any church sees that preaching ‘repentance’ would offend non-Christian visitors and shun them off from their further investigation of their salvation, and actually omits this truth of repentance in its proclamation, that church’s doctrine is not ‘sound,’ and so, that church is surely on the side of the false church. If another church teaches all things of the Bible but denies any certain teaching – for example, God’s sovereignty or Christ’s deity or His human nature and so on – that church should be on the list of the false church. So, the true proclamation of God’s word means proclamation of the full counsel of God’s word.

Also, the true proclamation of the word means the teaching of the Scriptures is uncompromisable, unnegotiable. Gal. 1:8 speaks about it: “even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.” And its immediate verse (v. 9) repeats it once more. That is a strong language, isn’t it? Preaching and teaching the full counsel of God and Christ cannot be compromised.

After all, the church that belongs to Christ hears Christ’s words, and hearing them, proclaims Christ’s words rather than man’s word. This is why the true proclamation of God’s word is a mark of the true church.

What does this teach us? Firstly, we ought to be members of the true church of Christ that proclaims the full counsel of the Scriptures, honouring its authority, recognising its infallibility and inerrancy as it is given to us by God for our salvation.

Secondly, finding and being members of a true church, we must joyfully work together in keeping the ‘sound’ doctrine, ‘full knowledge’ of our Lord, and proclaiming it to our hearts and all people around us.

Thirdly and lastly, we must not be discouraged by seeing the world’s enmity toward us. The more faithful to this mark of the true church, the bitter and stronger will be the world’s opposition toward us. After all, that’s what the Lord Jesus pointed out in our text passage, saying that there are two groups – one, the true church of God and Christ, and the other, the children of the devil. There’s no third or fourth group. And the members of the true church of Christ are supposed to be hated by those of the devil. So, we shouldn’t be discouraged or dismayed; instead, we follow and keep the pattern of the sound words that we have heard from the Lord and transferred to us by the apostles. ***

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