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Recognizing a Real Church

Tom Pennington • Selected Scriptures

  • 2006-08-27 PM
  • Systematic Theology
  • Sermons


Tonight, we continue our study in the doctrine of the church. If you want an interesting Sunday afternoon, next week find a quiet place and a major Dallas/Ft. Worth area phone directory, and work through all the categories of churches listed in that directory. Let me give you just what I found. Now those are just the categories, folks, of churches in the Dallas/Ft. Worth area. Now some of these obviously are not Christian churches, and don't purport to be, Baha'i and so forth, Buddhist. But most of them would claim to be (in some way) affiliated with the Christian faith. When you look at that list, you have to ask yourself how in the world do we know which of these is a real church? Really, that isn't just one question, however. As I think about that question, there really are three crucial questions that we ought to be asking and answering when we're talking about what is a real church.

The first question is: what is the difference between a church and a Christian gathering? In other words, how is it that a church differs from a simple collection of Christian people? That's the first question, and it's crucial that you answer that.

The second question is: what is the difference, then, between a true church and a false church?

And the third question is: what is the difference between a weak, unhealthy, true church and a strong, healthy, true church? So, you have in this last question, genuine, true Christian churches, one weak and one strong, what makes the difference?

Those are the three questions that we have to really ask and answer when we ask the question: how do you know what's a real church? This week I want us to answer, Lord willing, the first two of these questions, and next week we'll try to address the third.

So, tonight I want us to look at what makes a church (as opposed to simply a gathering of believers), and then for those that are churches what constitutes a true, genuine church as opposed to a false church. And then next week we'll examine what's the difference between a healthy church and an unhealthy church, o.k.?

So, let's begin, then, with the question: what is the difference between a church and a Christian gathering? Now, we've already learned that the Greek word for church, "ecclesia" simply means "the assembly". So, the church is not a building, it's not a piece of property; it's an assembly of Christians just like this one. But when you think about that for moment, you realize that Christians often get together for fellowship, for prayer, for worship, for other distinctly Christian activities (and even activities that are done in the context of a church), and yet we don't often call all of those activities or all of those gatherings, churches.

Why is that? What are the fundamental differences between say, Christian concerts, home Bible studies, such organizations as Bible Study Fellowship, or Christian Businessman's Association on the one hand, and a church on the other? Well essentially, there are three distinctions that you need to be aware of that make something no longer a Christian gathering but a church.

The first, to be a church there must be a mutual commitment to be a church. Now, this seems fairly obvious, but it's important that we say it. There must be a mutual agreement by the people involved to join together as a local manifestation of the universal church. In other words, one of the distinctions of a church is the express purpose of filling the role of a church.

There are several creeds by the way, that point this out. This is obvious in the text of Scripture. When you see in the New Testament churches addressed, they are purposefully drawn together in order to fulfill the function of a church. And because of that, several of the creeds bring it out for us, for example the London Baptist Confession of 1689 says that a church consists of those who, "Do willingly consent, giving themselves to the Lord and one to another by the will of God in professed subjection to the ordinances of the gospel." There is an understanding, a willing consent to say this group that I'm gathering with is in fact going to be my church. It is a church. We are gathering for the purposes of functioning as a church.

The more general, New Hampshire Confession puts it this way, "A visible church is a congregation of baptized believers, associated by covenant in faith and fellowship of the gospel." In other words, the word "covenant" here, don't be scared off by that. The word simply means "a promise". You made a covenant when you were married. You made a promise, a legally binding promise. And that's essentially what the New Hampshire Confession is saying that a church is simply a congregation of believers who've been baptized, who have associated willingly themselves with one another by a promise to be together as a church. So, to be a church there first has to be a mutual commitment to be a church. That's why a simple gathering of believers is not a church.

There's a second thing; however, not only must there be a mutual commitment to be a church, but secondly there must be the regular participation in corporate worship on the Lord's Day. Throughout the New Testament and church history, what made the church distinct from other entities was the commitment to gather together on the Lord's Day for corporate worship. You see it throughout the New Testament; in Acts 20:7, "On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul began talking to them, intending to leave the next day, and he prolonged his message until midnight." I love that verse. 1 Corinthians 16:2, "On the first day of every week each one of you is to put aside and save, as he may prosper, so that no collections be made when I come."

There is, throughout the New Testament, the clear ramification that the church gathered (in early church history as well, that the church gathered) on the first day of the week for worship. And so, to be a church, not only must there be a mutual commitment to be a church, but there must be the commitment to participate regularly in corporate worship on the Lord's Day. I say regularly as opposed to every week because there've been churches through the history of the church, who didn't have a pastor, who would meet once a month when an itinerant evangelist or pastor came around so that they could meet. But there was a commitment to a regular assembly for corporate worship on the Lord's Day as often as was possible.

Thirdly, if it's going to be a church (as opposed to merely a gathering of Christians), there must be the consistent practice of the ordinances. Wayne Grudem, in his Systematic Theology comments on this. He says,

Once an organization begins to practice baptism and the Lord's Supper, it is a continuing organization and is attempting to function as a church. By contrast, groups who do not administer baptism or the Lord's Supper signify that they are not intending to function as a church. If a local Bible study began baptizing its own new converts and regularly participating in the Lord's Supper, these things would signify an intention to function as a church, and it would be difficult to say why it should not be considered a church in itself.

So, the key differences between a church and a Christian gathering are:

1) the common intention to be a church

2) the regular corporate worship on the Lord's Day; and

3) consistent practice of the ordinances.

That makes something that would ordinarily be a Christian gathering, if those things are present, it then becomes a church properly so-called. But (and here's where we need to move to our second question), if those were the only criteria that we used for identifying a church, then almost everything on that list I showed you at the beginning would be a real church because they all can argue, to some degree, that they fulfill these functions.

So, that introduces us to the next question that we have to answer, and that is what is the difference between a true church and a false church? If those three things are present it's o.k., it's acceptable to call it a church, but not everything that is called a church is the true church of Jesus Christ.

Now, let me give you a brief history of why this is important and how it became important in the flow of the history of the church. In the early life of the church, of course, there was very little debate about this question. The apostles identified certain groups in the first century as churches. There was no question about which were churches and which weren't. It was clearly made manifest by the word of the apostles, the emissaries of Christ, the proxies for Jesus on earth. There was only one visible church across the Roman world, and all heretics were simply identified, put out, and kept out of the true church.

And that condition remained consistent, this idea of, sort of a one, monolithic church. The Roman Catholic Church, of course, eventually picked that up and used it to its own advantage. But that same sort of understanding existed, for the most part, in the stream of church history all the way to the Reformation. But when you get to the Reformation, you begin to see the reformers understand that something terrible has happened, something was rotten, as it were, in the state of Denmark.

John Wycliffe, in the 1300's, recognized that something wasn't right. He renounced the pope's claims. He repudiated the mass. And he redefined, if you will, the church. He says the church is the assembly of all those predestined to salvation, it's not some visible organization, some massive monolithic organization like the Roman Catholic Church, it is simply the assembly of those predestined to salvation. Of course, this and other views got him killed.

John Huss, later in the 1300's and early 1400's, said that the church was, in fact, two righteous persons congregated together in Christ's Name, with Christ as the head. That, he says, is a particular, holy church. Back to those first criteria we looked at together: if they're meeting together on purpose to be the church, and if they're faithful followers of Christ, then they in fact constitute a church.

Martin Luther broke with the tradition when he said the church is the "communio sanctorum," that is, "the communion of the saints." That's exactly what we believe. It is the communion of the saints. And often when the New Testament epistles begin, they refer to "the letter written to the saints who are at such-and-such a city." It is the communion, or the fellowship of the saints.

Now in response to these positions, Roman Catholic theologians argue that these Protestant groups (you understand where the word "protestant" comes from - those who were protesting the state of the church, the Roman Catholic Church, these protestant groups), could not be the true church because they didn't demonstrate the attributes of the church, that is one, holy, catholic, apostolic church, as we studied a couple of weeks ago. So, the reformers were focused to examine the Scriptures to see if they could define biblically what constituted a true church. They eventually came to a consensus of two or three marks of a true church.

"Nota", in the Latin is the word, but "marks" is our English word. Robert Reymond writes, "Via these marks, the reformers wanted to indicate from the Word of God which is the true church since all sects which are in the world, assume to themselves, the name of the true church." I mean, who doesn't call themselves the church of Jesus Christ, even if they aren't? So, there had to be some way to distinguish those that were from those that weren't. Now, again just finishing up our little brief history, stay with me here, we'll go to Scripture in just a moment. But the followers of Luther proposed two marks of a church: the true preaching of the Word of God, and the right administration of, as they would have said, the sacraments or the ordinances.

You see this in the Augsburg Confession of 1530, "The church is the congregation of the saints in which the gospel is rightly taught and the sacraments rightly administered." By the way, you'll notice here that instead of the true preaching of the Word of God, the Augsburg Confession says, "the gospel rightly taught". That really is the heart of what they meant by the true preaching of the Word of God. You can be wrong about a lot of things and still be a church, but you can't be wrong about the gospel and be a church. And we'll talk more about that in just a moment.

John Calvin said, "Wherever we see the Word of God purely preached and heard, and the sacraments administered according to Christ's institution, there, it is not to be doubted, a church of God exists."

Now, later reformers added a third mark, and that was the faithful exercise of church discipline. They argued that where these are present, there the church is present. Where they're absent, whatever church, whatever it may claim to be, it is in fact not the true church. Now, let's take a look and see if these hold up to the light of Scripture. What biblical warrant did the reformers have for arguing these as the marks of the true church?

Let's start, of course, with the true preaching of the Word of God. There are a number of passages that drive home the reality that those who truly are followers of Christ respond to the words of Christ. In John 8:31 Jesus was saying to those Jews who had expressed a belief in Him, "'If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine....'" It was one thing to, can I say this, make a decision. It was another thing to manifest the reality of that change of direction, of that decision, by a life of obedience. Jesus said the measure of a true disciple is those who continue in My word. So, the reformers said, obviously then, those who aren't continuing in the Word of Christ are not his disciples, and if an entire church is characterized by that, then it cannot be a true church. And the same thing in John 8:47, "'He who is of God hears the words of God; for this reason [Jesus said] you do not hear them, because you are not of God.'"

So, you see how Jesus laid down as the measuring line a response to His words. In John 14:23, "Jesus answered and said ... 'If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our abode with him. Again, with His disciples on the night of the last supper, the night before His crucifixion, Jesus lays down this same standard. "'If you love Me, [then] you will keep My ... [word].'"

So, you can understand why this becomes a very clear indication of a true church. Does it embrace the Word of God? Second Thessalonians 2:15, Paul says to the Thessalonican Christians, "So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught, [and here tradition doesn't mean those sort of oral traditions passed down, but rather notice how he defines it. which you were taught,] whether by word of mouth or by letter from us." [He's talking about the word of an apostle; he says that's the measure of what you as a church are to do.]

Now, there are a number of other passages that we'll look at a little bit later, so I'm not going to go over them now, but they also make this same basic point, that there is biblical warrant, do you see that, for arguing that a true church, a primary characteristic of a true church is one in which there is the true preaching of the Word of God and especially the straightforward presentation of the true gospel from the Word of God.

Now the second mark, they argued, was the right administration of the ordinances. Question is, why would this show up? Why would they include this as a mark of a true church? Well, first of all, because they wanted to contrast the true church with the Roman Catholic teaching that some sort of saving grace came through the sacraments, making them a kind of work unto salvation. And so, they were saying the right (the key word here being "right" or "proper") administration of the sacraments, or the ordinances. So, in other words, it became a clear difference whether you were practicing, as the Roman Catholics do, the ongoing execution of Christ in the mass, or whether you were as the reformers were doing, practicing a remembrance as well as a celebration of the grace that was received through the ordinances, but not anything salvific, not anything that had to do with saving grace.

It also, by including the right administration of the ordinances it became a clear indication that that particular group had an intention to be a church, we mentioned that earlier. So, this was key: how do you know a true church, how do you know a church? By whether or not they practice the ordinances.

And then, finally, it also served (as the ordinances did) as a control to the membership of the church. Baptism was the initiatory rite into membership. And the Lord's Table, as they partook of it often weekly, in some cases daily, and as we do monthly, it becomes a way to show continuing membership in the church. There are a couple of texts that drive this home. Turn with me to 1 Corinthians. These are the texts that support the concept the right administration of the ordinances are crucial to the life of a church, 1 Corinthians 10:14,

Therefore, my beloved, [free from] flee from idolatry. I speak as to wise men; you judge what I say. Is not the cup of blessing which we bless a sharing in the blood of Christ? Is not the bread which we break a sharing in the body of Christ? [Saying, "listen there's fellowship that we have in this ordinance."] Since there is one bread, we who are many are one body; for we all partake of the one bread. Look at the nation Israel; are not those who eat the sacrifices sharers in the altar? What do I mean then? That a thing sacrificed to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, but I say that the things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to demons and not to God; ... I do not want you to become sharers in demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons; you cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons."

Now, what's Paul's point here? He's obviously talking in the Corinthian context about those New Testament Christians in Corinth being sucked back into the idolatrous worship. And he's saying that can't happen; you can't partake of both the table of Christ and the table of idols and demons because idols are nothing; they aren't gods, instead the gods of the nations are idols; and ultimately, they are empowered by demons, as both Deuteronomy and 1 Corinthians tells us.

So, the application then, is to say that you cannot be connected with an improper expression of the ordinances like the Roman mass and still be a true church. You see it in 1 Corinthians 11:23, and I won't read that to you. It's a passage we often look at the Lord's Table, and in fact, we're going to be looking at it together here in a few weeks when we look at the ordinances as well. But the argument was (and I think it's a right argument) that for it to be a true church there cannot be a distortion of the ordinances like there was in the Roman Catholic system. That's essentially what the reformers were arguing.

Now, the third mark of a true church (stay with me here just a moment), the third mark was the faithful exercise of church discipline. And there are a number of passages, of course, which drive this home. Matthew 18, Jesus commanded that in the church discipline would be practiced.

We've looked at that in great detail. In Acts 20 (turn there for a moment) as Paul talks to the Ephesian elders, Acts 20:28, [he says, "I want you to"]

"Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood. I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them."

And he begins that by saying, "Be on guard." How does a shepherd deal with a wolf? He kills it, or in the case of the church, they put them out so they can't damage the sheep, they can't ravage the sheep. And so, to be a true church there has to be the guardianship of the flock and of the truth. Romans 16:17,

... I urge you, brethren, keep your eye on those who cause dissensions and hindrances contrary to the teaching which you learned, and turn away from them. For such men are slaves, not of our Lord Christ but of their own appetites; and by their smooth and flattering speech they deceive the hearts of the unsuspecting. [Boy, that sounds like it's right off the page of our papers.]

First Corinthians 5, "Remove the wicked man from among yourselves." [Speaking of the incestuous man.] Galatians 6:1, "... even if anyone is caught in any trespass, [brethren] you who are spiritual, restore such a one...." Ephesians 5,

Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience ... do not participate in the unfruitful deeds of darkness, but instead even expose them...."

And on and on the New Testament goes with this point. First Thessalonians 3, "If anyone does not obey our instruction in this letter, take ... note of that person ... do not associate with him, so that he ... [may] put to shame ... [but don't] regard him as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother." First Timothy 1:20, he mentions by name Hymenaeus and Alexander and he says, "I have handed [them] over to Satan, so that they will be taught not to blaspheme." First Timothy 5:20, "If an elder continues in sin, rebuke him in the presence of all." Titus 1:10, "... there are many rebellious men, empty talkers ... deceivers ... who must be silenced because they are upsetting whole families, teaching things they should not teach for the sake of sordid gain."

On and on the New Testament goes and even in Revelation, the letters to the churches, the same point is made. So, the reformers said, listen, some reformers added this third point, and said if the truth isn't safeguarded, then it's not a true church.

So, when you look at the marks of a true church, the argument was it consists of the true preaching of the Word of God, the right administration of the ordinances, and the faithful exercise of church discipline. Now, folks, most agree that 2 and 3, listen carefully, most agree that the 2nd and 3rd points are not essential to have a true church. But as I'll argue next week, they are essential to have a healthy, pure church. So, in reality there is only one mark that distinguishes a true church from a false one. It is the true proclamation of the Word of God, namely, the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Louis Berkhof, in his Systematic Theology says,

"Strictly speaking, it may be said that the true preaching of the Word and its recognition as the standard of doctrine and life is the one mark of the church. Without it, there is no church, and it determines the right administration of the sacraments and the faithful exercise of church discipline." [In other words, if this one's right, the others will be right as well. This is the key.]

Now, I've just sort of set a foundation for you. We still haven't answered yet the real question, and that is, what is the dividing line? When does a true church become a false church? What is the great divide between a weak, disobedient, doctrinally corrupt, true church and a false church? Well, I did a lot of reading this week, and a lot of thinking and praying and working through this in my own mind, and I have to think that essentially this happens when the church denies the truth of the gospel. That is the line over which if you cross, you cease to be a church; specifically, starting with the Person and work of Christ.

Turn with me to John, 1 John 2, 1 John 2:18. And you see this (if you've read the book of 1 John recently), you see this throughout, and I'm just going to point out these passages. Because here John is, identifying what was a form of sort of pre-Gnosticism in the church, it wasn't yet full-blown Gnosticism as it would become. But it's "pre;" it has some of the same qualities of the Gnosticism that would be full-blown later, denying certain things about Jesus, for example His full humanity, etc. And John wants to speak to this, and he wants us to understand that if you embrace wrong teaching about the Person and work of Jesus Christ that puts you outside of the family. First John 2:18,

Children, it is the last hour; and just as you heard that antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have appeared; from this we know that it is the last hour. They went out from us, but they were not really of us; [again, now, he's speaking of those whose teaching was characterized by what he's about to point out] for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, so that it would be shown that they all are not of us. But you have an anointing from the Holy One, and you all know. I have not written to you because you do not know the truth, but because you do know it ... because no lie is of the truth. [Now, here he gets to the point. Who are these people that went out from us?] Verse 22, Who is the liar but the one who denies that Jesus is the ... [Messiah]? This is the antichrist, the one who denies the Father and the Son. Whoever denies the Son does not have the Father; the one who confesses the Son has the Father also." [So, he begins to make Christ, and the Person and work of Christ, the dividing point between the true church and the false church.]

You see this continuing in 1 John 4:1,

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. [Again, he's concerned that there's this false teaching going on by false prophets. But] By this you know the Spirit of God: [he says] every spirit that confesses that Jesus ... has come in the flesh is from God....

He's arming them against this pre-Gnosticism that was so characteristic of the churches he ministered in. And he's saying, "listen, if somebody denies that Jesus was really human, then you know that this is not from God, this is a false prophet." Verse 4,

You are from God, little children, and have overcome them; because greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world. They are from the world; [Notice how he makes this dichotomy. If this is what they believe and embrace, then they're not of us, they're not of the church, they're of the world] therefore they speak as from the world, and the world listens to them. We are from God; he who knows God listens to us; he who is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error.

John made it clear that the way we distinguish between the true and the false is whether or not they embrace the true doctrine of Jesus Christ. Notice verse 15 of the same chapter, "Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God." Chapter 5:1, "Whoever believes that Jesus is the ... [Messiah] is born of God, and whoever loves the Father loves the child born of Him." Jesus is the point; He is at that crux of determining on one side is error and heresy and a false church, and on the other side is the true church that embraces Him. Second 2 John 7, "... many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh. This is the deceiver and the antichrist."

Folks, what do you think? Would John have said those who are wrong about Jesus Christ are true churches? No, that's his very point here. That sets them apart from all that's genuine and true. So, when does a true church become a false church? When it denies the reality of the Person and work of Jesus Christ. But also, when it's wrong about and denies the means of salvation. This is all wrapped up in the gospel. The gospel is Christ and how to appropriate Him. So, if they're wrong about Christ, then they're outside the true church, and if it's a church that embraces it, it's not a true church, it's a false church. And if they're wrong about how to appropriate Christ, then they're also not part of the true church, nor if it's a church, is it a true church, it is a false church.

You see this in Galatians 1, Galatians 1, of course, very familiar to you. Paul is deeply concerned about the Judaizes, those who have feigned belief in Jesus Christ and have expressed that belief, but they have married Christ and His work to their own efforts and work. They were quick to claim grace, quick to claim forgiveness, quick to say that they believed in Jesus, that they believed in faith in Jesus, but it was never faith alone, and Christ alone. So, in Galatians 1, Paul says, verse 6,

I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel ... [But it's not really another because there's some] ... who are disturbing you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. [In other words, they didn't really come up with their own sort of ingenious gospel separate from the gospel of Christ, instead they're taking the gospel of Christ, and they're perverting it. They're massaging it, molding it into what they want it to be.] But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed! ["anathema", eternally damned. For] ... we have said before, so [that] I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to what you received, he is to be ["anathema"] ...!

Do you understand what Paul is saying here? I've told you this before because I think it's so important. If I ever stood in this pulpit and said anything contrary to the gospel as it's presented on the pages of Scripture which is faith alone in Christ alone, because of His sacrifice alone, then you should grab me by the seat of my pants and throw me out of this place.

Paul says if he showed up, if we could verify that the Apostle Paul showed up here tonight and stood behind this pulpit and put on this postmodern microphone and said, "I am here to tell you there's a different way," Paul says, "Do not listen. Let whoever that is, even if it's me, be damned." What about an angel? A verifiable angel? If Gabriel stood behind this pulpit and preached anything other than the gospel as it's recorded in the pages of Scripture, then he is to be damned. Now you tell me, do you think a person or a church that embraces a false gospel is a true church? Absolutely not. You see, the Judaizes claimed to be an expression of genuine Christianity. But Paul absolutely disagreed. He said that their denial of justification by faith alone made them the enemies of the gospel. In fact, in chapter 2, look at 2:4. He calls them false brethren. They're not the genuine deal, they're false brethren.

You know this is so important, folks. There is a Bible church here in the Dallas area, pastor of a Bible church here in the Dallas area who has argued that both Pope John Paul and Mother Teresa were wonderful Christians and that they are both now in heaven. And in defense of his position he says this, he says, "Listen you don't have to believe in justification by faith alone to be a Christian, you just have to believe in Jesus, you just have to believe in Christ." And in one sense I agree; you know at the moment of salvation you don't have to be a theologian, and you don't have understand all the doctrinal nuances of this crucial doctrine.

But here's where the problem lies. We've been talking about this a little bit as a staff recently. You cannot understand justification by faith alone and then deny it and still be a Christian, which was the case in both John Paul's life as well as Mother Teresa's. This, by the way, is why Paul put the Judaizes outside of the Christian faith and outside of the church. It's because they understood justification by faith, and they repudiated it. And we should do the same to anyone or to any church or to any denomination that preaches another gospel. It is not a true church; it is a false church.

Now, with that background, let's briefly talk about the application of what we've talked about tonight. And I think there are far-reaching applications.

First of all: if a church embraces a false Christ and/or a false gospel, it is a false church. This pertains, obviously, to all of the cults, as we call them: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (the Mormons), they embrace a different Jesus, the half-brother of Lucifer, a created being. They have a different Christ. They also have a different gospel. They are not an offshoot of genuine Christianity. They are not as they want to present themselves in today's media marketing world, one of those wholesome, "other" Christian denominations. They are the false church, a false church.

The same thing is true with groups like the Jehovah's Witnesses and ad infinitum. There's a whole list that we could conjure up. The point is: I want you to see that the cults are not the true church of Jesus Christ. And the reason this is important is because there is a move (and some of you have read about this), there is a move in our day to embrace these cults as a little aberrant on a few things but as brothers and sisters in Christ. They are not. We should love them. We should be concerned for them. We should share the gospel, the true gospel of Jesus Christ with them. We shouldn't hate them, but they are not brothers and sisters in Christ. They are not part of the true church. They are false churches.

What about the Roman Catholic Church? Well, you really have to look at this in several ways. First of all, the church as a whole. At one point (and it's impossible to reconstruct from church history), but at one point (as long as the gospel was truly taught) it was a true church. But today, without question, the church as a whole is a false church because it denies the truth of the gospel. Read the Council of Trent; makes it absolutely clear that justification by faith in their frame of thinking is opposed to the truth of Scripture. So, the church as a whole is without question a false church and not a true church. What about individual Roman Catholic parishes? Well, the vast majority are false churches because they embrace a false gospel. But there are a few priests, like Luther at the time of the Reformation, that have come to understand the simplicity of the gospel and embrace and teach it. These are true churches, even though there is incredible error mixed with it, as long as they embrace the truth of the gospel, at that point they're a true church.

There aren't many of these.

I had the experience when I was at Grace to You of receiving a letter from a Catholic priest, who had (I believe) come to genuine faith in Christ, who had repudiated the system, and he had this little following of people that (much like Luther in Germany) he was teaching the truth of the gospel, and people were being radically saved. Now I'm not saying that his remaining there was the right choice to make. My point is that little group, that little church was a true church even in the midst of a huge organization that is a false church, if the gospel is truly presented.

And then you have to look at individual Roman Catholics. I think there are many genuine believers in the vast Roman Catholic system. But, here's the key, and I want you to listen carefully. I think there are many believers, genuine Christians, in the Roman Catholic system. But, and this a huge caveat, they cannot understand what the Roman Catholic Church teaches about salvation and believe it and still be a Christian because what the Catholic church teaches is a false gospel. So, if they are Christian, it's by God's mercy and grace that somehow they have not heard or not understood the error that is presented them through the system, and they have somehow (through the work of the Spirit) come to understand the truth through the Word of God and embraced that truth in simple faith in Christ.

Finally, what about liberal Protestant denominations and churches? I think we would have to say, by the standard we've looked at from Scripture tonight, that most liberal Protestant denominations and churches are false churches. They're not true churches. Wayne Grudem, in his Sytematic Theology says,

When there is an assembly of people who take the name Christian but consistently teach that people cannot believe their Bibles, indeed a church whose pastor and congregation seldom read their Bibles or pray in any meaningful way and do not believe or perhaps even understand the gospel of salvation by faith in Christ alone, then how can we say that this is a true church?

Amen. It's a great question. He's making the very point I'm making and that is that most of the liberal Protestant denominations and churches are false churches. So, if a church embraces a false Christ and/or a false gospel, it is a false church, it is not a true church.

Second application: if a church embraces the true Christ and the true gospel, it is a true church. This is the opposite side, but I want you to listen carefully. This is crucial to understand because sometimes if a church isn't exactly where we are, we're quick to write it off as a false church filled with false teachers. But you know what? If it embraces the true Christ and the true gospel, it is a true church. It may be incredibly spiritually immature as the church in Corinth was. It may be a church where there is a cold, dead orthodoxy, without a genuine love for Christ, as in Revelation 2, the church in Ephesus was. It may be a church that tolerates doctrinal error and licentious living to some degree, like the church in Pergamum in Revelation 2:12 and following. It may be a church that compromises with the world like Revelation 2:18 - 29 describes the church in Thyatira. It may even be a dead church, that is, a church that is composed primarily of unbelievers, like the church in Sardis. And yet, it is still identified by Christ Himself as a church, as long as there is the true Christ proclaimed and the true gospel presented.

I can add, it may differ with us in our church doctrinally in major ways, but it is still a true church and it deserves different treatment than a false church. Let me say that again, as much as we may disagree, as many of these issues as may be present there, it deserves to be treated differently than a false church deserves to be treated. Now, I'm not saying that we should therefore go and partner with churches that are guilty and characterized by these things. I'm talking more about an attitude; the attitude of our thinking.

Just as an example. We wholeheartedly, full, and what's the word I'm looking for? With full, energy and authority from the Scripture itself, we reject the seeker sensitive movement and the churches that it spawns. But folks, are they presenting the true Christ, the Christ of Scripture? And a true gospel? Now granted, it may be a watered-down gospel; it may not have all the elements we wish it had. But is it Christ alone, faith alone, through the life and death of Christ alone? If those things are there, then it deserves different treatment than false churches deserve from us.

The third and final application is: I think the doctrinal path that we've looked at tonight to becoming a false church, the fact that a true church can be on a path that leads them to become a false church, I think that underscores for our church the importance of accurate teaching of the Word of God. You know, in 1 Timothy 3:15, Paul calls the church "the pillar and support of the truth." And it is only as we cling to and teach the truth that we are protected as a church from sliding into serious error and even eventually, God forbid, into being a false church where the gospel is not presented and/or Christ is wrongly presented.

And of course, Paul makes this point in 2 Timothy. Let's finish with this, look at 2 Timothy 3, those great verses at the end of chapter 3,

All Scripture is inspired by God [is] ... profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work. [Remember there were no chapter breaks in the original text of Scripture. There wasn't even punctuation in the earliest manuscripts. And so this ties to what he begins in verse 1 of chapter 4, because all of that's true,] I solemnly charge you [Timothy] in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom: preach the word; be ready... [when it's popular and when it's not. And you say what is] "in season and out of season"? [I have no idea, but I think the point is that when it's in season and when it's not, that's all the time, that's what he's saying. Preach the Word all the time. I do think the implication is when it's popular and when it's not.] "... reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and...[they'll] turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths.

Here is the antidote: the antidote to error is the truth. And we as a church must individually and personally in our own time in the Word of God, and in our classes and in our Sunday schools, and in our corporate worship constantly come back to the Word of God because that in the end is what distinguishes a true church from a false church. May God give us the grace to pursue it.

Let's pray together.

Father, it deeply burdens our hearts that there are organizations in our world that claim to be the church of Jesus Christ, that are accepted by many as a true church, that are, in fact, damning souls forever. Father, I pray that in Your mercy and grace You would reach down to those dark places and pluck out as it were, brands from the burning. Father, I pray that You would continue the work of Your grace.

Lord, I pray here, that You would help us as a church to be discerning and at the same time gracious. Help us to be absolutely definitive when it comes to false gospels and false Christs and false churches.

And Father, help us to even be discerning and clear when it comes to true churches that have strayed into error, but Lord help us to handle it differently. Help us to have the attitude of brothers to other brothers, as opposed to enemies.

And Father, most of all, help each of us individually and corporately together as a church to be committed to Your Word and first and foremost to Jesus Christ and His amazing gospel. Lord, don't let us ever get over it, don't let us ever stop proclaiming it, help us always to defend it, and to pass it on to others.

We pray in Jesus' name. Amen.

Systematic Theology