Marks of a True Church: Pure Preaching of the Gospel

from Jan 24, 2013 Category: Articles

The most fundamental of the three marks of a true church is the pure preaching of the gospel. Apart from the gospel preached, there is no church.

We see this in the example of our Lord, who began His earthly ministry by preaching—“From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’” (Matt. 4:17)—and concluded it by sending out His apostles to preach and continue His work—“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations… teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:19–20).

Apart from the gospel preached, there is no church. —Daniel Hyde

The apostle Paul addressed the importance of preaching the doctrine of justification when he said:

How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news.” But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ. (Rom. 10:14–17)

To purely preach the gospel, a minister must preach that sinners are justified by the free grace of God alone, which is received through faith alone, which itself is a gift of God, and that this faith is placed in and rests on nothing except Jesus Christ the Righteous. Churches must see to it, in the words of the famous hymn, that those in the pew understand, “My hope is built on nothing less, than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.” It was the loss of this truth in the Roman Catholic Church that so troubled the Reformers. As the Italian Reformer Peter Martyr Vermigli (1499–1562) said about the Catholic Church, “They have undoubtedly corrupted doctrine, since they deny what Scripture affirms: that we are justified by faith alone.”

The Reformers understood justification to be purely preached when the Word is “rightly handl[ed]” (2 Tim. 2:15). A part of using the Word properly involves recognizing that it has two elements: law and gospel. The law is to be preached in all its terror, while the gospel is to be preached in all its comfort as that which the law cannot do (Rom. 8:3–4; CD, 3/4.6). Simply put, the Reformers taught us to preach Christ crucified (1 Cor. 1:23). If a church preaches any other “gospel,” whether it is explicitly faith plus works or some insidious version of “get in by faith, stay in by obedience,” it is not in conformity with the “teaching of Christ” (2 John 9) but with that of an antichrist counterfeit. Anything other than the doctrine of justification sola fide is what Paul termed “a different gospel” (Gal. 1:6), which brings with it an eternal anathema (Gal. 1:8–9)

Next week we will consider the second mark of a true church, the pure administration of the sacraments.

See also:

This blog series is adapted from Welcome to a Reformed Church by Daniel Hyde.