Saturday 25 August 2012

The Marks of the Church (Part 3)

The First Mark: The Preaching of Pure Doctrine

Paul wrote to Timothy: 'What you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also' (2 Timothy 2:2).

One of the challenges that we often face, in the now splintered Protestant wing of the church, is that of subjectivity. It is the problem that Paul described in 2 Corinthians 10:12, 'Not that we dare to classify or compare ourselves with some of those who are commending themselves. But when they measure themselves by one another and compare themselves with one another, they are without understanding'.

If I were to ask a fellow minister or a church member if pure doctrine was being preached in their church, how do you think they would answer? Very rarely would anyone put their 'hand in the air' and admit that it could be a possibility in their situation, that pure doctrine was absent or defective. Why? Well, let me press the point further and ask a second question. On what basis do you measure, as to whether a church preaches pure doctrine? How would you answer? Most commonly there is little or no guardrail against error in evangelical churches, therefore a subjective independent assessment has entered the church unknowingly, through a side-door.

Let me address five issues to ensure that a church is preaching pure doctrine.

1. Is the church committed to preaching?

It can no longer be taken for granted that a church is even committed to the act of preaching in today's morass of confusion within evangelicalism. It was reported to me recently that in a Christian Centre in Sheffield (notice that they have dropped the use of the word church, which is often an indication that they have departed from the Bible), that the preacher, who is more of a business-motivation speaker, spoke on a fashion-item of clothing. He made no reference to the Bible. At this point any sane professing Christian needs to leave that 'Centre' and find a proper church, one that is free from soulish entertainment.

A common indicator that a church has departed from soundness is often their room layout. Does the church have a pulpit? Commonly, the music band now takes centre stage and the preaching has to be done using a music stand. This can be a tell-tale sign that preaching is being down-graded. Another common error is that the man being introduced as being about to preach, is instead described as being about to 'share God's word'. Those who are called by God must preach and herald the truth of God and not share!

2. Does the church have a detailed reformed confession of faith?

After the end of World War II, the church had been ravaged by liberalism. As a result churches had to come together to confirm their commitment to the inerrancy of scripture and they often declared that they held to the basics of the Christian faith. Perhaps nine or ten points on the Trinity, the deity of Christ, baptism and the Second Coming of Christ, for example. While this may have been a good response to liberalism, it is insufficient for a church to be founded on apostolic doctrine using such basic points. Every church needs a solid reformed confession of faith!

How else can we measure the content of the message being preached without a rich confession of faith? How can we train men for the ministry without such a commitment to the apostles' doctrine? For all of the magisterial reformers such as Calvin, Farel, Luther, Bullinger and so, it would have been unthinkable to have a pure church without a proper confession of faith. The evangelical church in the UK must return to her Protestant roots, if we are to have a real and lasting work of reformation.

3. Are the preachers being trained to handle the pure doctrines of scripture?

I think that the previous answer makes the answer to this question self-explantory. I personally pray for a confessional presbyterian seminary in England and may you join with me in prayer for this. If this is something that resonates with you, then let us collectively join together in prayer, and let us see what our God will do.

4. Are Reformed Confessions and Church Creeds living documents for the elders and church members?

This point has to be mentioned also. A church may be committed to historic creeds and confessions of faith but it may be so, only nominally. Every generation needs to return to the first principles of the faith. A Lutheran minister in Berlin recently described the problem of the lack of doctrinal knowledge in churches in the West. We need ministers, elders and deacons, and church members, who are committed to the joy of the doctrines of the Christian faith.

5. Does the love of God pervade the preaching of the gospel?

This may not seem obvious but it is extremely important. It is not enough to have pure doctrine but pure doctrine must be preached in the love of God, otherwise it is not biblical. Listen to John the Apostle: 'Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love. By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him' (1 John 4:7-9).

I sincerely hope that this blog is helpful for us to begin to critically analyse our situation within evangelicalism. I have stated for years that the first step to solving a problem is to recognise that there is indeed a problem in the first place. May we pray for a recovery of the first mark of the church in it's fulness in our generation.

Wednesday 15 August 2012

The Marks of the Church (Part 2)

The Reformers’ Definition of a True Church

One of the earliest recorded definitions of the church is derived from the Apostle’s
Creed, and Christians everywhere have long confessed the belief in a ‘holy catholic
church’ and the ‘communion of the saints.’ The Nicene Creed (381) similarly
established the trinitarian faith and affirms that ‘[we believe] in one holy and catholic, apostolic church.’ This confession provided a framework for what became known as the church’s four attributes. These are unity, holiness, catholicity (universal in relation to the whole) and apostolicity (the apostolic faith and gospel) and this became the norm for the ancient and mediaeval church.

At the Protestant Reformation, the Roman Catholic Church had exclusively claimed these four attributes for itself institutionally, and in response to charges of schism, the Reformers sought to distinguish between a true and false church. Edmund P. Clowney observes that ‘for Luther and Calvin, the preaching of the apostolic gospel defined the true church’ but they also ‘continued to affirm the attributes from the Nicene Creed’ (Edmund P. Clowney, The Church, Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1995, pp 92, 101). Two primary marks (notae) were identified by these magisterial Reformers as the distinguishing outward characteristics that make a church a true church.

Calvin’s hugely influential Institutes expressed the view that these marks
apply to visible, individual churches as opposed to the invisible and universal
church (John Calvin, Institutes, 4: 1: 4 and 9, pp 1016, 1023). He states that ‘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' (John Calvin, Institutes, 4: 1: 9, p 1023. The French Confession of Faith, XVIII, which Calvin prepared in 1559 also states the same two distinguishing marks).

Debate has continued concerning the attempt to discern where the lines should be drawn between falsity and purity and Calvin himself was undoubtedly aware of this complexity. He was prepared to allow for a measure of error but warns: ‘As soon as falsehood breaks into the citadel of religion and the sum of necessary doctrine is overturned and the use of the sacraments is destroyed, surely the death of the church follows—just as a man’s life is ended when his throat is pierced or his heart mortally wounded.’

For Luther as well as for Calvin, the two marks that define a true church are the preaching of pure doctrine and the administration of the sacraments (baptism and the Lord’s Supper). (Benjamin Charles Milner, ‘The Marks of the Church’ in Calvin’s Doctrine of the Church, Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1970, pp 99-133.)

It is clear that Paul had an all-consuming concern for the church to be well-ordered as his letter to Titus teaches. The church is to be governed by godly and qualified elders, who teach sound doctrine so that the church rests upon a sound foundation. Titus 1:5, 'This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you—' and 2:1 'But as for you, teach what accords with sound doctrine'.

Monday 6 August 2012

The Marks of a True Church: Part 1

There is perhaps no more urgent subject than this at the present time in the United Kingdom. From my vantage point it seems that there is often so much confusion as to how the church should function. Our chief concern is the honour and glory of our God but also the well-being and the spiritual care of Christians. In every generation we need to come back to first principles. The rule of faith and practice for the church can be no other than the Holy Spirit speaking in Scripture. Is the teaching of Scripture the rule for how you understand the church?

I intend this to be a mini-series of blogs on this subject. I am part of the church planting committee for the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of England and Wales. Often I make the comment that 'I am not interested in planting churches ... but I am interested in planting the right kinds of churches'. These are churches who are committed to the three marks of a true church.

Do you know what the three marks of a true church are?
They are:

1. The preaching of pure doctrine
2. The right administration of the sacraments (these are baptism and the Lord's Supper)
3. Church discipline; a church needs to be well ordered.

While this is an obvious question for those who know something of church history, it is not commonly taught among Christians in the UK today. Why is this the case? Well if Christians were better informed then they would and could legitimately begin to ask searching questions for their own church's practice. If Christians in the UK were asked today, 'what are the marks of a church?', how would they answer? It would probably include the following:

A contemporary worship band
A lively and relevant talk that addresses my needs
Friendly fellowship
A good range of programmes for the children
Somewhere close to where I live
Lots of opportunities for me to use my gifts
An evangelistic or missional vision

These ideas may sound attractive but do they measure up to Scripture? The answer to solving a problem is often-times to simply get people to recognise that there is a problem in the first place. This blog post sets the 'ball rolling'. Until I write the next blog post a good piece of homework for further study is John Calvin's Institutes, Book 4, Chapters 1-5.

And he [Christ] is the head of the body, the church. Colossians 1:18.

Wednesday 1 August 2012

Students Looking for a Church in Sheffield

To all students coming to Sheffield,

Sheffield Presbyterian Church would like to welcome students who are coming to Sheffield to study.

Our worship services are at 11.00am and 4.00pm. Our meeting place is at The Source which is near Meadowhall Shopping Centre and there is a tram stop right outside. It is the Tinsley/Meadowhall South stop.

Our website is:

We look forward to meeting you,

Kevin Bidwell