Recently in our Sunday Morning Forum Class, we have been discussing the defining marks of a true church. In Matthew 16:18, Jesus said that He would build His church and the gates of hell would not prevail against it. Commentators have remarked about the dual nature of this statement. On one hand, the church takes the offensive against the wickedness of the world and advances the cause of Christ through the preaching of the gospel. On the other hand, the church is in a defensive posture as she suffers the many plots and schemes of Satan to destroy her. This verse contains a promise that the church is protected against Satan’s evil plans and will survive until Christ comes to end this age.
I believe proper understanding of the latter of these two meanings will show that in every age there has been a true church that has held to the doctrines that were taught by Jesus and the apostles. Beginning in the first century, Satan attacked the church by planting seeds of heretical doctrines, and these have grown full bloom into hundreds of groups that lay claim to a descent from the first church begun by Christ. We know all of these churches cannot be true because according to the apostle Paul, “There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; One Lord, one faith, one baptism, One God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all” (Eph. 4:4-6). Since these groups practice a variety of baptisms and are divided on the “one faith” they cannot be true descendants of the first church. Neither are they of “one Lord” because the Lord is not divided. God cannot be worshipped with such division for those who worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth (John 4:24).
True churches are determined by their strict adherence to New Testament doctrine. This is “the faith which was once delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3). According to Jude, there are those who have crept into the true church and have perverted the faith. The evidence is this voluminous variety of groups claiming to be the true church.
To identify the true church, we look first at the doctrine of salvation. Does this particular group teach salvation by grace through faith in Christ alone? Many claim to, but on closer inspection additions have been made to the salvation plan. It may come in the form of rites and rituals; it may be a claim of sanctification based on sign gifts; it may be justification based on sacraments; it may be human or supernatural intermediaries between God and man other than Jesus Christ. The list goes on and on. We also look at the practice of baptism. Is it the scriptural method of complete immersion in water? We look at the polity. Is it congregational? We look at the authority. Does the church take its authority and practices strictly from the canonical sixty-six books of the Bible? And very importantly, we look at its history. When did this group start? Can you find people of like faith and order in each century back to the time of Christ? If the gates of hell have not prevailed against the church, this history must be in evidence.
In next week’s article, we will discuss this important history and look for churches that meet the historical and doctrinal requirements. Until then, what church do you think it may be?
Pastor V. Mark Smith