Is Calvinism the First Mark of a True Church?

It is no surprise that a topic as important as the gospel of grace will be controversial. Therefore, I realize some of the points made here will be disputed by judicious readers. Unfortunately, that may be because I fail to explain as clearly as I ought. If that is the case, shame on me. But if it is because I lift up the sovereign grace of God in salvation and the utter insufficiency of man, then so be it. Let me be clear: in this post, I do not suggest that Calvinism saves. Only Jesus Christ saves. Furthermore, I do not suggest that one need to understand (or even embrace) every true doctrine to be a Christian. Those who truly repent of sin and trust in Jesus Christ alone are saved. Bottom line.

If the term “Calvinism” triggers you, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this post―perhaps you would be better suited to grapple with Calvinism itself by watching R.C. Sproul’s free video teaching series on reformed theology. Rather, I write this post mainly for those who do indeed embrace Calvinism as the teaching of the Bible. What I am concerned with in this post is the topic of the biblical gospel and the idea of a true church as defined by at least one reformed confession. Though I am not married to labels, I use them liberally here. I understand the danger: Calvinism is so often misrepresented that it ceases to mean what we intend by it. But I trust―if you hold to the same gospel that Knox, Spurgeon, and Sproul held to―you will understand my use of the term.

I do not seek to be anachronistic in my thinking. I know the terms we use today have not been the same for the past 2,000 years. But I do believe the principles are the same. I also understand that, had they the opportunity to discuss it, Luther and Calvin would not have agreed on the exact details of the “five points of Calvinism.” Nevertheless, I believe they both rejected Pelagianism and Semi-Pelagianism as heresy. More to the point, I believe the Bible rejects these things. The questions that I hope to address (though perhaps not fully answer) in this post relate to the following areas of thought:

  • How intricately tied to the gospel are the doctrines of grace?
  • Can you reject the doctrines of grace (i.e. Calvinism) and still proclaim the biblical gospel?
  • What aspects of the gospel must be present for it to be the true gospel?
  • If (at least) the one thing we are to be passionate and dogmatic about is the gospel, and we have books, conferences, confessions, lectures, seminaries, and universities proclaiming that Calvinism is the true representation of biblical doctrine (of which the gospel is the most foundational), how is that we are not more clear with our renunciation of false gospels? Is it truly biblical charity that motivates this lack of precision when it comes to the gospel?

The Reformers identified the gospel as the first mark of a true church. Would they have included a Pelagian or Semi-Pelagian gospel in that definition?  I hope you will consider this question with me. It is, I trust, at least worth our careful attention. The gospel is the one thing we are to be about; deeply considering the many applications of the biblical gospel will never be unfruitful.

A Gospel Worth Fighting For

When the Apostle Paul wrote to the churches of Galatia, he vehemently asserted that the gospel was of supreme importance―so much so that he said, “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” (Galatians 1:8). For emphasis, Paul repeats himself: “As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.” The Greek word for accursed is anathema and it means to be doomed for destruction. The content of the gospel is so important in the life of churches that the Apostle Paul warns in the strongest language to refuse any false gospel.

The gospel is the good news. It is identified in Scripture as the good news of the kingdom, grace, God, peace, and even the good news of your salvation. However, the most used description of the good news is the gospel of Christ:

  •  Mark 1:1: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”
  • Romans 1:9: “the gospel of his Son”
  • Romans 1:16: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ”
  • Romans 15:19: “I have fully preached the gospel of Christ”
  • Romans 15:29: “I shall come in the fulness of the blessing of the gospel of Christ”
  • 1 Corinthians 9:12: “Nevertheless we have not used this power; but suffer all things, lest we should hinder the gospel of Christ”
  • 1 Corinthians 9:18: “I may make the gospel of Christ without charge”
  • 2 Corinthians 2:12: “When I came to Troas to preach Christ’s gospel”
  • 2 Corinthians 4:4: “the glorious gospel of Christ”
  • 2 Corinthians 9:13: “the gospel of Christ”
  • 2 Corinthians 10:14: “preaching the gospel of Christ”
  • Galatians 1:7: “there be some that trouble you, and would pervert the gospel of Christ”

Manifestly, the gospel is about Jesus Christ. The gospel is not simply that Jesus died and rose (Jehovah’s Witnesses and other cults believe this), nor can it simply be that Jesus is also God (Roman Catholics believe that). It must encompass his person and his work. The content of the gospel, therefore, concerns Jesus Christ’s identity and work of redemption. The good news of Christ is a message of good tidings that centers around who Jesus Christ is and what he has done. Concerning his identity, Jesus Christ is the God-man, the eternal and unchangeable Son of God, very God of very God (John 1:1; Titus 2:13; Hebrews 13:8). To reject the true identity of Jesus is to reject the good news about him. A “gospel” which presents Jesus as anything less than the God-man is a false gospel. The scope of this article is not to defend that point (that can be done elsewhere), but to simply state it and move on to  implications.

The gospel is the good news of salvation for sinners. It is therefore about the work that Jesus Christ did (and is doing). In Christ’s great work of redemption (his life, death, and resurrection) he secured the salvation of all the elect. The Bible teaches us that the gospel of Christ includes the fact that Jesus “will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). It teaches us that Jesus Christ laid down his life “for the sheep” (John 10:15). It teaches us that all the Father gives to Christ will come to him (John 6:37). The Bible teaches us that “no one can come to [Christ] unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44). It teaches us that a man must be born again (from above) in order to be saved (John 3). It teaches us that those who become believers are not born of the will of man (a decision), but of God (John 1:13). It teaches us that the repentance of sin and faith in Christ Jesus which are necessary for salvation are, in fact, gifts from God, given to the elect according to God’s grace (2 Timothy 2:25; Ephesians 2:8-9). The good news is that salvation is of the Lord, not man. Every aspect of salvation is of God. Steven Lawson comments:

The central truth of God’s saving grace is succinctly stated in the assertion, “Salvation is of the Lord.” This strong declaration means that every aspect of man’s salvation is from God and is entirely dependent upon God. The only contribution that we make is the sin that was laid upon Jesus Christ at the cross. The Apostle Paul affirmed this when he wrote, “From Him and through Him and to Him are all things” (Rom. 11:36). This is to say, salvation is God determined, God purchased, God applied, and God secured. From start to finish, salvation is of the Lord alone.

In short, the good news of Jesus Christ is nothing less than what is often referred to as the “doctrines of grace” or “Calvinism.” Charles Spurgeon, the Baptist preacher from the 19th century, put it quite frankly: “[T]here is no such thing as preaching Christ and Him crucified, unless we preach what nowadays is called Calvinism. It is a nickname to call it Calvinism; Calvinism is the gospel, and nothing else.”

The gospel of Christ contains the great truth of salvation. The church is entrusted with this truth. 1 Timothy 3:15 tells us that the church is the “pillar and buttress of the truth.” It is the gospel of Christ and the gospel of Christ alone that has the power to save (Romans 1:16).

During the Reformation, the Reformers identified three main marks of a true church. The Belgic Confession summarizes the general view best when it lists the three marks as follows:

  1. “the pure doctrine of the gospel is preached therein”
  2. “she maintains the pure administration of the sacraments”
  3. “church discipline is exercised”

The first and foundational mark of a true church is that “the pure doctrine of the gospel is preached therein.” John Hammett explains:

[John] Calvin was willing to call a group a true church, even if they did not understand all of God’s Word aright, as long as they preserved and preached the pure gospel message. Here we encounter a true sine qua non of the church. If it loses the gospel message, a group of people is no longer a true church. It may be a religious society or club, but it is not a church, for God’s called-out people are called out by the gospel and come in response to the gospel.

The gospel is truly the sine qua non of the church. This means that it is absolutely essential and indispensable to the church. Without it, a congregation is not a congregation of the one true God. They may be a congregation of people meeting together, but they do not qualify as a congregation (or “church”) of God. When Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, he described them as follows: “those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours” (1 Corinthians 1:2). The congregation of God is made up of those who call upon the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. This comprehends both his identity and work. One must call upon the true Christ, and not a false Christ. The Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689 explains who is to make up local congregations:

All persons throughout the world, professing the faith of the gospel, and obedience unto God by Christ according unto it, not destroying their own profession by any errors everting the foundation, or unholiness of conversation, are and may be called visible saints; and of such ought all particular congregations to be constituted.

The phrase “professing the faith of the gospel” refers to the content of the gospel. Without the “faith of the gospel” there are no saints to constitute local churches. It seems the Reformers often equated the Word of God with the pure doctrine of the gospel, interchanging those terms for the first mark of a true church. Martin Luther said: “the sole, uninterrupted, infallible mark of the church has always been the Word.” Commenting on this, W. Robert Godfrey notes, “Without this mark, there can not be any hope at all for the others.”  Hammett concurs: “For the Reformers, the preaching of the Word was almost synonymous with the preaching of the gospel. The gospel message of the Word was salvation by grace alone.

There may not be much argument among evangelicals concerning the statement that the “pure doctrine of the gospel” is the first mark of a true church. However, let us now consider some application. Since it is true that the gospel is foundational to the church, so much so that the Apostle Paul pronounced a curse on any who would preached another gospel (Galatians 1:8), how ought we to respond?

We shall look at three main points of application.

  1. Rome and Evangelicalism
  2. What is a Foundation for?
  3. The Pride of Man and False Conversion

1. Rome and Evangelicalism

The Reformers were battling against many errors of Rome. However, the heart of the doctrine that Rome erred on was justification by grace through faith. Three of the five solas of the Reformation highlight this point of contention: by faith alone, by grace alone, through Christ alone. The Roman Catholic church had abandoned the gospel of grace for a “gospel” of works. I submit that all false “gospels” are influenced by the humanistic concept of Pelagianism. Cicero, a Roman politician who lived 100 years before Christ’s incarnation, noted that men may thank God for material prosperity, but not for their own moral virtue, for this was their own doing. Princeton theologian B. B. Warfield considered Pelagianism “the rehabilitation of [this] heathen view of the world.” Warfield went on to note: “There are fundamentally only two doctrines of salvation: that salvation is from God, and that salvation is from ourselves. The former is the doctrine of common Christianity; the latter is the doctrine of universal heathenism.”

The “Church” of Rome abandoned the pure doctrine of the gospel when she embraced principles of Pelagianism or Semi-Pelagianism. At the Council of Trent, held in the 16th century, Rome officially abandoned the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Rome believed that there was something in man capable of moving closer to God in the process of salvation. The Reformers, true to Paul’s instructions in Galatians, had to reject such a message and messengers.

Despite some troubling attempts to unify Evangelicalism and Rome, many evangelicals are on board with the rejection of the false gospel of Rome. However, there is an equally troubling reality occurring. Kevin Reed reminds us that “we must not stop with Rome” when considering how the gospel has been perverted. He goes on to note that “many modern evangelical churches have embraced the false gospel of decisionalism.” The “gospel” that Jesus died to make salvation possible and that now you decide if his work of redemption will be successful is a false gospel. Michael Horton (Ph.D., University of Coventry and Wycliffe Hall, Oxford) provides some commentary on the current state of many so-called churches:

Entire denominations that were committed confessionally to the doctrine of justification [by grace alone through faith alone] have ended up adopting, in actual practice, a Pelagian message. When evangelicals deny human depravity and inability, affirm that human beings cooperate in their own conversion by the use of their free will, and view salvation as a project of moral improvement (especially when that affirms a notion of entire sanctification), they are further afield from the gospel than Rome has ever been.

W. Robert Godfrey also notes that “Calvin would no doubt…lament the sad state of much of Protestantism today.” But why is there not more outspoken resistance to the false gospel of Pelagianism, Semi-Pelagianism, and Arminianism among conservative evangelicals today? Kevin Reed posits the following possibility:

So why does Godfrey let evangelicals off with only a mild critique, in comparison to his pointed criticisms of Rome? Surely what is good for the Popish goose should be good for the evangelical gander. Why not apply the same historic measures to both Rome and evangelicalism? One suspects that contemporary evangelical writers are reticent to press the issue more forcefully because of the embarrassing implications. A due regard for the marks of the church would not only unchurch Rome, but a major part of modern evangelicalism. That prospect is so startling, that even the most conservative and “reformed” theologians in our day cannot bring themselves to consider the idea.

This may in fact be the case. The fear of man or the fear of ruffling feathers may prevent some from speaking with the clarity of Spurgeon and Warfield. “Oh,” one may say, “I don’t want to come of as an elitist.” Brethren, the Apostle Paul is not teaching elitism. Elitism is the view that one group is superior to the rest in terms of ability or qualities. The false gospel of Arminianisn is elitist. For it says one class of men (those who have chosen Christ) is better than those who have not chosen Christ! No, Paul isn’t teaching elitism in Galatians 1:8-9 when he demands that we contend for the one true gospel. He is teaching Christianity 101. Let’s return to Spurgeon for a moment, in the hopes of learning from him the importance of calling a spade a spade.

Charles Haddon Spurgon preached the gospel of Christ. He took seriously the words of the Apostle Paul to reject any gospel contrary to the one he received. Because of this, Spurgeon was forced to reject the false gospel of Arminianism―a “gospel” which denies the doctrines of grace and makes man the final determiner of salvation. It is worth quoting Spurgon at length concerning his views on such a false gospel:

I do not believe we can preach the gospel, if we do not preach justification by faith, without works; nor unless we preach the sovereignty of God in His dispensation of grace; nor unless we exalt the electing, unchangeable, eternal, immutable, conquering love of Jehovah; nor do I think we can preach the gospel, unless we base it upon the special and particular redemption of His elect and chosen people which Christ wrought out upon the cross; nor can I comprehend a gospel which lets saints fall away after they are called, and suffers the children of God to be burned in the fires of damnation after having once believed in Jesus. Such a gospel I abhor.

Spurgeon could call Arminianism heresy (“And what is the heresy of Arminianism but the addition of something to the work of the Redeemer?”) and yet still call the Arminian his brother. How could he do this? I believe it is because a man may in fact trust in Jesus, may in fact embrace the true gospel of grace in his heart, but be confused and deceived by the preaching of a false gospel. Such a saint, however, would not make the Arminian church a true church. For the pure doctrine of the gospel must be preached as well as believed. If simply the conversion of one or two or ten members would make any assembly a true church, regardless of the doctrine being taught, then we could go sit in at a Jehovah’s Witness meeting every week and proclaim that such an assembly, such a congregation, is of God, since we are attending. A true child of God can be trapped in Rome, but the charge to such a one would be: “Come out from among them and be separate.” The charge should be the same to the true saint in a church preaching the false gospel of Arminianism.

If Charles Spurgeon is right, then any so-called attempt to be united with Arminianism is a fool’s errand. If the distinguishing mark of the church is the pure preaching of the Gospel, how is it that we can call an Arminian church a true church of God? I grant this is not an easy topic for many in evangelicalism today. Spurgeon’s words would likely not be embraced by many today who are serious Reformed Christians. However, we must not shy away from critical thinking simply because the results may be unpleasant.

When Paul wrote to the Ephesians he noted that immature saints can be “tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes” (Ephesians 4:14). It may be difficult to see the heart of a professing Christian who attends a false church. Such a person may be a Calvinist in his heart, despite being carried about by human cunning and winds of false doctrine. What is not difficult, however, is to discern the preaching of a congregation. Thus, perhaps we ought to reject an Arminian congregation as a true church, even while maintaining that an individual therein could be genuinely converted. Again, the presence of believers in and of itself does not make the church true. The pure doctrine of the gospel of the grace of Christ must be found therein.

Since this is the case, let all churches of Christ emphasize again the true gospel. Let pastors preach the gospel with boldness and let them use commensurate boldness in denouncing false gospels. The Gospel of Grace must thunder again from congregations if we are to see revival:

The old truth that Calvin preached, that Augustine preached, that Paul preached, is the truth that I must preach today, or else be false to my conscience and my God. I cannot shape the truth; I know of no such thing as paring off the rough edges of a doctrine. John Knox’s gospel is my gospel. That which thundered through Scotland must thunder through England again. (C.H. Spurgeon)

If this is the first and most foundational mark of the church is the gospel of grace, ought not preachers be more explicit about what the gospel is (i.e. Calvinism)? Why shy away? It is a sad reality that so many in evangelicalism today abhor the doctrines of grace. Therefore, preachers are hesitant to be bold for fear of man. I speak as one not immune from this trap. But if someone will not receive the doctrines of grace, are they not still in the gall of bitterness? Perhaps there should be none of this talk of “our convictions here in this church” or “our understanding of the gospel.” Such a softening gives room for acceptance of the false gospel of Arminianism. When it comes to the gospel of grace we are to give no quarter. We are to denounce any perversion of the gospel of grace. I don’t care if you use the terms Calvinism and Arminianism, if you can do so without in any degree lessening the perspicuity of the fact that what we, as Spurgeon said, nowadays call Calvinism is the gospel and Arminianism is a false gospel.

The pure doctrine of the gospel must be preached. Surely more than Jesus died to save sinners, for the Mormons preach that. Surely more than Jesus is God and he died to save sinners, for the Catholics would concur. Unless the pure gospel of salvation by faith alone, in Christ alone, by grace alone be preached, there is no gospel. It is not good news that Jesus came to die for no one in particular, that those who are “saved” may end up in hell, and there could possibly be no one in heaven other than those mentioned in the Bible as being there. For in Arminian theology, there are no elect of God that will undoubtedly reach glory. There is only the free will of man that can reject salvation. Such a gospel is a falsehood and a perversion of the glorious plan of redemption found in the pages of Scripture. With Spurgeon, I cannot do anything other than say that such a gospel, I abhor.

2. What is a Foundation for?

Our second point of application focuses on the gospel as the foundation of the church. It is truly noted as the first mark of a true church. Without it there is no church. Without the foundation of the gospel you cannot even begin to move on to a proper understanding of Christian living. The gospel (i.e. Calvinism) is the basics of Christianity. It is the foundation. It is the starting point. To start with a false gospel (i.e. Arminianism) is to build on the wrong foundation. Every doctrine and teaching that follows will be perverted in some respect as it relates to the foundation.

A foundation, it should be noted, is meant to be built upon. The foundation is not meant to remain alone. Imagine a construction crew that lays a foundation and then sits back and rests content in their work. The foreman comes along and says, “Hey, what are you guys doing? Get back to work.” They respond, “Hey boss, uh, we laid the foundation. That’s the most important part. We don’t want to focus on other things like the walls and the roof and windows, because then people might lose sight of the foundation. It’s all about the foundation.”

Many preachers today have done just that when it comes to the gospel. In order to retreat from applying all of the Bible to all of life, they have hid behind the gospel! They have neglected the edifice for the foundation! What an error! The gospel is not meant to be the only thing we teach on. It is meant to be the foundation (the only foundation) upon which we are to build a Christian worldview, a Christian life, a Christian home, Christian church, a Christian civilization! It provides the basis for all other things relating to God’s Law-Word.

One of the most powerful passages concerning this topic is found in the book of Hebrews:

About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil. Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. And this we will do if God permits. (Hebrews 5:11-6:3)

Joel McDurmon elaborates on this passage:

The real conviction for us today, therefore, lies in exactly what this passage in Hebrews considers to be “milk.” Read it. It is virtually everything we today consider to be the meat of theology: the doctrine of Christ, the doctrine of repentance, the doctrine of faith alone, the doctrine of baptism, the doctrine of laying-on-of-hands, the doctrine of resurrection, and the doctrine of final judgment. Kindergarten, all. These are the doctrines the author says are mere fundamentals and from which we need to “leave” and “go on to maturity.” In other words, we don’t really need another book on Christology, or hell, or “the gospel.” We need Christians to move on from these foundations.

The gospel is the basics of God’s Word. Basic does not mean crude or banal, it means the essential foundation, the starting point. The author of Hebrews is telling us that we ought to be building upon this foundation (never forgetting it, but building upon it). Is it any wonder we have such a lack of application of Christian doctrine in the home, the church, and the state when our professing churches have either rejected the foundation (Calvinism) or are unwilling to build anything upon it? How could we possibly hope for success using such strategies? There are entire seminary systems in our nation producing Christian leaders and missionaries built upon the foundation of the heresy of Pelagianism.

3. The Pride of Man and False Conversion

One final, brief point of application concerns one of the greatest banes upon the professing church that the false gospel of Arminianism has produced. False gospels produce false conversions in plenty, for they cannot produce a true one. As it relates to Arminianism, the man-centered gospel allows a person to think himself not that bad as he considers the claims of Christ. It allows him to think that he has entered the faith when he has not renounced every last shred of self-confidence and self-sufficiency. This is the recipe for false conversion. However, if the pure doctrine of the gospel were thundered from the pulpits, the pride of man would be attacked straightway and many false conversions would be avoided. A man may profess Christ and join a church so long as he can cling to his Semi-Pelagian worldview. But force him to behold the true gospel, the gospel of the doctrines of grace, and see how many may falter and hesitate. See how many may have not counted the cost of becoming a disciple of Christ. See how many may hate Calvinism more than they love Christ. See how many will balk at submitting to a God “like that.” And then you will see that many have entered the ranks of professing Christians via a false gospel. It takes humility to come to Christ and the false gospel of Arminianism lessens the blow to man’s pride that the true gospel delivers with power.

And so, when the Apostle Paul tells the churches in Galatia to reject a false gospel, he is warning them to reject any “gospel” that is not the gospel of grace that we see laid out in Scripture. That person who preaches a false gospel is accursed. Friends, this is the Word of God; it is not my word. May we apply Paul’s instruction to the churches of Galatia and to our own churches in our day. And then we will perhaps see blessing and revival as the true gospel stands in opposition to the false gospel of man. As the true gospel is laid as the foundation and is built upon in truth. As the true gospel is preached and men and women, boys and girls, see themselves as utterly insufficient to contribute any good whatsoever to their salvation. And then may God be pleased to bless the preaching of his word and save sinners.


As much as I try, I find it difficult to disagree with Spurgeon on this one. The gospel is a gospel of sovereign and sufficient grace. For clarity, however, let it be restated: I believe there are many true Christians who would probably self-identify as “Arminians.” I even believe there are true Christians who self-identify as Roman Catholics. My hope is that they are adamantly opposed to a misconception of Calvinism. Those who truly trust in Christ, even if they are currently trapped in institutions of false doctrine, are brothers in Christ. But if they reject the plain teaching of gospel of pure grace as found in the Bible, that is another matter (cf. John 8:47, 1 John 4:5-6). This is why I fully grant that Roman Catholics can be saved, if they trust in Christ alone (despite what Rome teaches). But the Roman Catholic Church is not a true church—at least the Reformers didn’t think so (and I am not inclined to either).

One of the distinctions to keep in mind when considering this topic is the difference between charity to an individual and “charity” to a system of doctrine. Love is certainly that primary mark of the believer (first love to Christ, then to love neighbor). However, the issue at hand here is the topic of a true church. The focus on the marks of a true church (as presented by the Belgic Confession, at least) has reference to the church as an institution (doctrine, sacraments, discipline). To address that question without addressing the nature of the biblical gospel is not an option.

[This article consists of the notes for a sermon I preached on June 17.  To listen to the sermon, click here.]

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