The Third Mark of a True Church

[The following is a transcript from a sermon preached on September 9, 2018; click here to listen to the sermon.]

Ever since the Fall, the history of humanity has been one of battle between the seed of Christ and the seed of Satan. Jesus Christ is in the business of recruiting followers to his cause—a cause that will win the day. Satan, though mortally wounded, is still trying to muck up as much as he can. There remains therefore a tension between the followers of Christ and the followers of Satan. The church is on the forefront of this battle, as it equips the saints to do the work of the ministry in pulling down Satanic strongholds and defeating evil in the world. However, the mixture of good and evil is ubiquitous in our existence. Sometimes, even within the church, evil arises to the point that a purging in necessary. This was the case in the church of Corinth, when Paul addresses the issue of church discipline and excommunication in 1 Corinthians 5.

It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and such sexual immorality as is not even named among the Gentiles–that a man has his father’s wife! And you are puffed up, and have not rather mourned, that he who has done this deed might be taken away from among you. For I indeed, as absent in body but present in spirit, have already judged (as though I were present) him who has so done this deed. In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when you are gathered together, along with my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus. Your glorying is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Therefore purge out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, since you truly are unleavened. For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. I wrote to you in my epistle not to keep company with sexually immoral people. Yet I certainly did not mean with the sexually immoral people of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I have written to you not to keep company with anyone named a brother, who is sexually immoral, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or an extortioner–not even to eat with such a person. For what have I to do with judging those also who are outside? Do you not judge those who are inside? But those who are outside God judges. Therefore “put away from yourselves the evil person.” (1 Corinthians 5)

The focus of the whole chapter is excommunication, the last step in church discipline when there is no repentance. The situation was this: within the church at Corinth there was a man who was living in outright and defiant sin. He was, in the words of Martin Luther, a “callous and wicked” person. Paul’s instruction to the church is that this man needs to be removed from the membership of the local church. Three verses within the chapter highlight this:

And you are puffed up, and have not rather mourned, that he who has done this deed might be taken away from among you. (v. 2)

Therefore purge out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, since you truly are unleavened. For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us. (v. 7)

But those who are outside God judges. Therefore “put away from yourselves the evil person.” (v. 13)

There is much that can be said about the specifics of church discipline, but today we want to focus on one of the essential elements of church discipline—and that is this: church discipline is about making a distinction between followers of Jesus and followers of Satan.

This is the final message in what was a mini-series on the Marks of a True Church. During the Reformation, the Reformers were faced with the question of What is a true church? They had to determine whether or not the church of Rome was a true church. The mere fact that many believers were present in the church of Rome was not enough to qualify it as a true church. The mere fact that the Bible was present in the church was not sufficient either. The Reformers dug deeper in seeking to determine the marks of a true church.

And as we ask the same question today, we would do well to learn from the Reformers. I’ve spoken with a couple of people regarding the 1st Mark of a True Church being the “pure doctrine of the gospel.” One of the arguments made against my position—which was that a church which preaches and holds to a truly Arminian message is not preaching the true gospel and is therefore not a true church—was that there are so many Christians in churches like that. That may be true, but it is irrelevant to the question. There were many, many, many Christians in the church of Rome—all the Reformers were in it—but that didn’t qualify it as a true church in the eyes of the Reformers.

In previous messages we have discussed what many of the Reformers identified as the first two marks of a true church. Specifically, I drew upon one of the oldest doctrinal standards, the Belgic Confession of 1561. The Belgic Confession summarizes the three marks of a true church as follows:

The true church can be recognized if it has the following marks: (1) The church engages in the pure preaching of the gospel; (2) it makes use of the pure administration of the sacraments as Christ instituted them; (3) it practices church discipline for correcting faults.

Today we conclude with a consideration of this third and final mark of a true church: church discipline.

Now, church discipline can be defined in its broad sense as “the process of correcting sin in the life of the congregation and its members” (Jonathan Leeman). But the more formal church discipline in view today is that which can lead to a church member being removed from membership. And that is what we see in the text of 1 Corinthians 5.

We have to ask ourselves why did the Apostle Paul see it as so important to remove someone from membership and why did the Reformers see church discipline as so important—so as to include in a very short list of marks for a true church?

Again, we note that one of the reasons church discipline is so important is because its proper application leads to a distinction between followers of Jesus and followers of Satan. Paul’s instruction to the Corinthians in verses 2, 7, and 13, show us that he wanted the church to make a distinction: this “wicked and callous” man, as far as any human can ascertain, was not following Jesus Christ, but was rather following Satan.

As the buttress of truth, one of the church’s main responsibilities in the world is to teach the Christian worldview properly. The head of the church, the Lord Jesus Christ, taught that men either follow him or they follow Satan (John 8).

Men and women, boys and girls, are either following Jesus Christ, or they are “following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience (Ephesians 2:2). There is no neutrality in God’s world. And there can be no neutrality in the church. For the church to allow a follower of Satan to remain in the church would be to disregard the distinction that God has made between Christians and non-Christians.

Here’s the point: the church is to be composed of followers of Jesus, not followers of Satan. This is what Paul has in mind in verse 7:

Therefore purge out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, since you truly are unleavened. For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us.

Paul is saying the church is truly unleavened. The true church is pure—that is, made up of those who follow Jesus and have their sins forgiven. The church is to be composed of Christians, those who depart from iniquity: “Let everyone who names the name of the Lord depart from iniquity (2 Timothy 2:19b). The local church is to seek to manifest that reality. Therefore, in the course of time if it becomes evident that a church member is not departing from iniquity, such a church member must be disciplined, not only out of love for him and a desire for him to repent, but also in order to maintain the church as a “new lump,” free from the old leaven of unregenerate, Satan-followers.

Paul’s charge to the Corinthians was to “purge the evil person from among you” (v. 13). His reason for this was that Christ’s sacrifice has led to the creation of a purified community of believers—the church. To allow a follower of Satan to remain in the assembly of followers of Jesus is to disregard Christ’s sacrifice. To blur this distinction is to disregard one of Christ’s great accomplishments in the atonement: to purchase a people for himself that is distinct from the world and Satan.

John Calvin gave three reasons for church discipline:

  • “that the good be not corrupted by the constant company of the wicked”
  • “that those overcome by shame for their baseness begin to repent”

And the following reason is the one we are highlighting right now:

  • “that they who lead a filthy and infamous life may not be called Christians, to the dishonor of God, as if his holy church [cf. Eph. 5:25-26] were a conspiracy of wicked and abandoned men.  For since the church itself is the body of Christ [Col. 1:24], it cannot be corrupted by such foul and decaying members without some disgrace falling upon its Head.”

It is possible that a true Christian may be rightly excommunicated from the church due to grievous sin. However, such a person, being a true Christian, will repent and return to the fold. Calvin reminds us of this:

“It is, therefore, not our task to erase from the number of the elect those who have been expelled from the church, or to despair as if they were already lost.  It is lawful to regard them as estranged from the church, and thus, from Christ— but only for such time as they remain separated.”

If they repent, they are to be welcomed back. If they do not repent, they are to regarded as “estranged from Christ,” and following the course of this world. It may often be the case that when such a sinner comes back, they may have repented for the first time—the church discipline may have even been the means God used to bring about their conversion.

The Reformers believed that maintaining the purity of the church was of such importance that to fail to do so would be to abandon the concept of the church altogether. As such, many considered church discipline as an essential mark of a true church. An assembly that preached the true gospel, administered the ordinances, but had no instrument to maintain a distinction from the world was no church at all.

Now, with all that being said, it is undeniable that the church is still going to be comprised of sinners. Even the most mature saint is not free from sin. In commenting on admission to the Lord’s Supper, which in many ways is identical to admission to the church, Martin Luther noted that those who were not “callous and wicked people,” should be admitted eventhough otherwise they are feeble and full of infirmities.”

This leads us to a final point of application: what is the standard by which someone is admitted or excluded from the church? There are at least two things we ought to note when considering this.

  1. Not all sins are equally heinous
  2. Professors of religion (Christ) should be given the benefit of the doubt

1. Not all sins are equally heinous

In the Westminster Larger Catechism, the following question is asked:

Q. 150. Are all transgressions of the law of God equally heinous in themselves, and in the sight of God?

A. All transgressions of the law of God are not equally heinous; but some sins in themselves and by reason of several aggravations, are more heinous in the sight of God than others.

The next question (151) gives a large list of what makes some sins more heinous than others. I encourage you to read the list at your convenience, but I will cite part of it to give you a flavor of what the writers of the catechism had in mind:

Sins receive their aggravations…from the nature and quality of the offence: if it be against the express letter of the law, break many commandments, contain in it many sins: if not only conceived in the heart, but break forth in words and actions, scandalize others, and admit of no reparation: if againsts means, mercies, judgments, light of nature, conviction of conscience, public or private admonition, censures of the church, civil punishments; and our prayers, purposes, promises, vows, covenants, and engagements to God or men; if done deliberately, willfully, presumptuously, impudently, boastingly, maliciously, frequently, obstinately, with delight, continuance, or relapsing after repentance.

The list goes on. Some sins are “worse” than others. We even see this within Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. He rebukes them for division and pride, but does not call for the excommunication of those involved in the “party spirit.” However, of the man living in presumptuous sexual sin, he calls for his excommunication.

Question 152 of the catechism clarifies that every sin, “even the least,” deserves God’s wrath, if not repented of. All sins are evil, and warrant God’s wrath, but some are more evil than others. Jesus affirmed this truth when denounced the cities of his day, comparing them to Sodom:

And you, Capernaum, who are exalted to heaven, will be brought down to Hades; for if the mighty works which were done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I say to you that it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment than for you.” (Matthew 11:23-24)

2. Professors of religion should be given the benefit of the doubt

The standard for church membership in the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith can be found in Chapter 26, Paragraph 2:

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.

Paul opens his letter to the Corinthians by identifying the saints as those “who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 1:2c). In my sermon on baptism, I spoke about this: the problem with modern evangelicalism is not simply that we welcome too many people into the church; it is that we preach a shallow gospel message.

However, if we proclaim the biblical gospel, as Paul and Peter did, then we ought not turn away those who make a profession of faith, even if they are still, in the words of Luther, “feeble and full of infirmities.” The church is where they need to be in order to grow strong, develop a Christian conscience, and fight sin.

Unless someone “destroys their own profession” with grievous sin or heretical doctrine, they ought to received as “visible saints.”

Tom Nettles, in his biography of Charles Spurgeon, identified three things that Spurgeon would look for when someone was considering entrance into the church:

One, is there clear evidence of dependence on Christ for salvation? This involved a clear and felt knowledge of sin and a deep sense of the necessity of the cross. Two, does the candidate exhibit a noticeable change of character including a desire for pleasing God and a desire for others to believe the gospel? Three, is there some understanding of, with a submission to, the doctrines of grace?

In one sense, these are high standards. In keeping with the 1st Mark of a True Church, I agree that some understanding of and submission to the doctrines of grace ought to be a requirement for membership as those doctrines are essential to the gospel. However, in another sense, these standards are simply asking the question: Is this person a follower of Christ or a follower of Satan?

Exit from the church via excommunication is not simply for sinning. If that were the case, every single one of us here and in every church should be excommunicated. Rather, it is for grievous, high-handed, unrepentant sin that marks someone as a follower of Satan. In like manner, requirements for entry to the church should not be higher (or lower) than requirements for excommunication. Church life is going to be messy because we are all sinners, and sometimes, a follower of Satan enters into the church. Nevertheless, despite that reality, the New Testament does not spend a lot of time talking about making it harder to enter the church, but it does spend some time discussing when someone ought to be removed from the church.

When it comes to church discipline, John Calvin noted that “gentleness is required in the whole body of the church.” There is to be mercy, patience, and forbearance. But, there is also the need to remove one who is destroying his profession of faith by living according to the laws of Satan, rather than Christ. That is what is required in church discipline.


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