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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
Title:Learn to discern the church
Text:BC 29 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Psalm 65:1-3

Psalm 128

Hymn 53

Hymn 1

Hymn 83

Scripture readings: Acts 4:1-22, Galatians 1

Catechism lesson:  Belgic Confession article 29

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved brothers and sisters in our Lord Jesus,

Have you ever had the bad experience of receiving counterfeit money?  Everywhere in the world, there are criminals trying their best to make fake money.  Everywhere in the world, there are law-enforcement and government financial bodies trying to combat counterfeit currency.  When they train people in identifying counterfeit money, the first thing they do is have the trainees study genuine money.  Genuine bills have certain key features that are difficult to counterfeit.  When you’re getting into this area of combatting counterfeit currency, first you master what the true thing looks like, and only then do you begin studying the fake money. 

The Belgic Confession applies the same method in article 29.  Here we’re considering Christ’s church and where to find it.  Because the church is so important and necessary, it’s crucial that we have some criteria to find where it is.  It’s critical that we have some tools in place to discern what is a church of Christ and what isn’t.  Summarizing the teaching of Scripture, our Confession gives us those tools.  We learn about how to recognize the real thing and also how to detect counterfeits.  So this afternoon, we’re going to learn to discern the church

What does a true church of Jesus Christ look like?  How can we discern it?  For most of us maybe this isn’t such a pressing question.  After all, we’re members here.  But it’s good we approach this question with some self-examination in mind.  It’s good that we think about this not to beat our chests about what a good true church we are, but to examine our church and see how we’re doing in this regard.  Can we credibly claim to be a true church of Jesus Christ?  That’s not a question to take for granted.  Don’t you want to be confident that you’re in a true church of Jesus Christ?  We need to learn the skill of discernment. 

But it’s also good to reflect on this because we may find ourselves in a situation where we need to find a true church in a given place.  Perhaps your education or work will take you to some far off city where we don’t have a sister church.  Then you need to have the skills in place to discern where you can find a church of Jesus Christ where you can either visit or, if it’s a long-term situation, become a member.

What’s the most important thing in a church?  Our Belgic Confession puts “the pure preaching of the gospel” as number one.  When John Calvin and other Reformed theologians wrote about the marks, they always put this one first too.  It’s not a random choice, as if this could be listed third and it wouldn’t make a difference.  It’s first because it’s the most important. 

This is the approach of the apostle Paul in Galatians 1.  Paul had preached the gospel of grace among the Galatians.  But then others came and preached something different and they gained traction among the Galatian churches.  Paul was amazed at how quickly the Galatians bought into this perversion of the gospel.  Then he says in verse 8 of Galatians 1, “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned!”  Harsh words, but they show the weightiness of the issue.  We can then ask the question:  how can a church be true to Christ if it tolerates a situation where Christ’s gospel is not preached?

But let’s back up here for a second and ask a different question:  what does Paul mean by “the gospel”?  What does our Confession mean when it says that the true church practises the pure preaching of the gospel?   The gospel is good news.  It’s an announcement of something someone else has done for us.  Read Galatians.  Throughout this book Paul contrasts the message of salvation in Christ alone with the message of the Judaizers.  The Judaizers said believers must observe the law to be saved by Christ.  Paul’s gospel is that salvation comes through resting and trusting in what Christ has done for you.  Paul’s gospel is that in love Christ paid for your sins with his blood.  Paul’s gospel is that Christ has turned away the wrath of God that you deserve through his sacrifice on the cross.  Through Christ you are no longer an enemy of God, but a friend.  Paul’s gospel is that God made Christ to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.  The good news is that through Christ we are accounted holy and righteous, we are included in God’s family as his beloved children, adopted by grace.  All of Christ’s obedience is ours, all of his sacrifice, all of his death, in Christ we receive everything we lost in Adam and even more!  You see the gospel isn’t about us doing stuff to earn our way, but about what Christ has done for us to save us from sin and its consequences.  It’s all focussed on him. 

This is the message that a true church of Jesus Christ will constantly hold forth.  This is what will be held up as being of first importance.  A church without the gospel is not a church, but more like a synagogue or a mosque, places where human achievements are central. 

Again, thinking about this has to lead us to self-examination. Are we a church which practises the pure preaching of the gospel?  If we’re not, we need to be confronted with that.  If we’re not, you have a responsibility to speak up.  If I’m not a preacher of the gospel, you have to let me know.  But if we do hear the preaching of the gospel here, we can be thankful.  Then we also have another responsibility:  believe it as we often as we hear it.  Don’t let it slip by without embracing it again each time in true faith.

Closely connected with the preaching of the gospel is the faithful administration of the sacraments as given by Christ.  Some have described the sacraments as a visible preaching of the gospel.  The sacraments proclaim to us the same message in a different medium.  In preaching we hear words, in sacraments we see, taste, and touch signs and seals.  But those signs and seals speak to us of Christ and his work for us too.  Baptism signs and seals the promise of washing with Christ’s blood and Spirit.  The Lord’s Supper signs and seals the death of Christ in the place of sinners – his body broken and his blood shed for you and me.  Everything in the sacraments is gospel-oriented too. 

A true church of Christ will faithfully administer these sacraments.  That means baptism with plain water for believers and their children.  Baptism in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as Christ commanded.  Baptism administered once – if God gives his promise once, once is enough!  Faithful administration of the sacraments includes the Lord’s Supper, believers eating bread and drinking wine as they are fed by Christ.  A simple celebration and remembrance of what Christ has done, exactly as Christ instituted it.

Here again, we can ask:  do we faithfully administer the sacraments?  Outwardly the question is easy to answer.  It’s not difficult to sprinkle water on the head in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  It’s not hard to eat a piece of bread or drink wine as we remember Christ’s sacrifice together.  But there are other areas where we could be slipping.  That’s not to say we are slipping, but the potential is always there because the church is always made up of sinful human beings. 

Our own Confession says the church is a mixed body.  We confess from the Scriptures that not “all who are descended from Israel are Israel” (Rom. 9:6).  Just as in the Old Testament, there were Jews who had uncircumcised hearts, so also in the New Testament there can be those “who are not part of the church, yet they are outwardly in it.”  These are the hypocrites, the folks who pretend to be Christians.  They can use the sacrament of baptism while they’re secretly living in sin.  They could be partaking of the Lord’s Supper while privately harbouring a sinful lifestyle.  The church might faithfully administer the sacrament, but not everyone in the church necessarily faithfully receives the sacrament.  And when that sort of unfaithfulness is there, it has a detrimental effect on the church.  Hypocrisy is difficult to tackle in the church because by its very nature it’s hidden.  We might suspect it, but we want to be charitable with our brothers and sisters.  If they claim to be Christians, then we try to take that claim at face value.  But in its official ministry, the church has a calling to challenge hypocrisy and warn against it.  Let me do that right now. 

If you’re living in hypocrisy, if you’re living an unrepentant sinful lifestyle, if you’re holding to certain pet sins and refuse to give them up, you’re under the wrath of God.  You cannot be saved if you don’t turn from your sin, hate it, and flee to Christ for safety.  And by partaking of the sacraments while you persist in your sin, you’re doing great harm to yourself and adding to the judgment of God upon you. 

A refusal to tolerate unrepentant sinful living is the third mark of a true church of Jesus Christ.  The teaching of Christ on this point in Matthew 18 is clear.  If a brother or sister is living in sin, the people in a true church will go after that person and try to bring them back from their sinful way.  If they won’t listen, then the elders will get involved and the process of official church discipline begins.  If the sinful way of life persists, then eventually excommunication results.  The person is removed from the church and from the kingdom of God.  The important thing to realize about church discipline is that it boils down to love.  Our Lord Jesus is the Good Shepherd.  He loves his flock.  If one of the sheep strays, he goes after them in love to try and bring them back.  He does that first through the members of the church, and then through the elders.  But the whole point is restoration.  Church discipline might be an unpopular idea “out there,” but neglecting it is unloving and unkind.  Proverbs says that the kisses of an enemy are deceitful, but the wounds of a friend are faithful.  If a church won’t love you enough to kick you out if you were living in sin, you have to question whether it can really be a true church of Christ.  If the elders won’t love you enough to admonish you and warn you, can they really be true shepherds of God’s flock?   

Here again, loved ones, let’s examine ourselves.  If you know of a member who is unrepentantly living in sin, do you care enough to speak with them?  If they won’t listen to you, will you go with another brother or sister?  Will you bring it to the elders of the church if that fails too?  Do you care enough for your brothers and sisters to follow what Christ has commanded in Matthew 18?  And for us who are elders, brothers, will we have the love of Christ and be faithful in our use of this key of the kingdom?  If we’re to be a true church of Christ, we will and we must. 

Basically, a true church can be recognized not only for what it says it believes about the Bible, but also for how it puts into practice what the Bible teaches.  The Bible alone has to be the foundation for a true church of Jesus Christ, because the Bible is the Word of Christ.  He is the only head of the Church.  Therefore he alone has the right to set the agenda for the church.  Only he can tell the church what to believe, what to communicate, and what to do. 

If a church is being faithful to Christ in all these ways, there’ll be fruit.  The fruit will be seen with believers who trust in Christ alone for their salvation.  The fruit will be there with Christians who hate sin and want to do what is right in the eyes of God.  They love God and want to grow as his children.  No, they’re not yet perfect.  Yes, they still struggle with sin – actually the struggle is what marks them as God’s children in this age.  But they look to Christ.  The people in a true church of Christ are fixing their eyes on him as their only hope for salvation.  The way our Confession puts it is beautiful:  “They appeal constantly to the blood, suffering, death, and obedience of Jesus Christ, in whom they have forgiveness of their sins through faith in him.”  The true church is centered on Christ and so are the true Christians in it.     

If you’re going to discern the church, you have to know what the real thing looks like.  We have those three marks to help us with that.  But then there are also counterfeits.  Our Confession speaks about many claiming for themselves the name of church.  It speaks of a false church. 

In the past, some have oversimplified our Confession’s approach here.  Some have said that there are two categories.  A church is either true or false.  It’s one or the other.  If a church doesn’t perfectly bear the three marks of a true church, then it must be a false church.  So a church can have faithful preaching of the gospel, faithful administration of the sacraments, but if it fails in the area of church discipline, then it is automatically a false church.  But our Confession doesn’t say this. 

Our Confession has another category here that’s often forgotten:  the sect.  The sect claims to be a Christian church but is lacking in some key area or another.  In the original context of Guido de Bres, most of the Anabaptist groups were regarded as sects.  They weren’t true churches, but they weren’t the false church either.  Now, true Bible-believing Christians don’t belong in sects and they should separate from them.  But the false church is really in a league all of its own and it’s the false church our Confession focuses on at the end of article 29.    

What does a false church look like?  It takes the Word of God down from its place of primacy.  It either puts it on the same level as the word of men, or it puts it below the word of men.  The true church holds to the Bible alone as our authoritative source for what we believe and how we live.  The false church says the Bible PLUS the word of man, or the decisions of the church and so on.  The false church doesn’t submit to the yoke of Christ.  The yoke of Christ is the instruction of Christ.  To submit to his yoke is to learn from him.  The false church doesn’t want to learn from Christ, and doesn’t want to purely preach his gospel.  It mixes the gospel with human works.  It says you need Jesus Christ for salvation, but not him alone.  It’s Jesus PLUS human works.  And when it comes to the sacraments, the false church adds and takes away at its own whim.  It can add as many sacraments as it wants and even with the ones that Christ commands, it can all kinds of extra stuff not spoken of in the Bible.  The false church adds spittle and oil to baptism and takes away the cup of holy communion from Christians.  The false church is man-centered. 

Finally, there’s something else crucial to recognize in the false church:  the persecution of godly believers.  The true church exercises discipline over those going astray.  The false church punishes the godly who want to live according to Scripture and who speak about the wrong ways of the false church.  That was exactly what was happening in Acts 4.  The old Jewish church had turned into a false church.  They persecuted Peter and John for preaching the gospel of Christ.  They told them to stop preaching and to shut up about Jesus.  That’s what the false church does – it can’t stand the gospel and it does everything it can to destroy it.  The false church can’t stand the Christ revealed in the Bible – if they will have a Jesus, it has to be their own personal Jesus, a Jesus of their own making.

In the days of Guido de Bres, everyone knew what this was referring to.  Our Confession points to the Roman Catholic Church.  But the Roman Catholic Church isn’t named and that’s a good thing.  That’s good because it’s not restricted to the pope and his followers.  There have been other false churches in history and there are other false churches today.  It may not be nice to say it, but it’s the reality. Now I’m not going to give you a list.  If you apply the criteria of the Belgic Confession, the false church will be easy enough to detect. 

Let me remind you though:   God doesn’t call us to go through a list of churches in our area and mark off which ones are true, which ones are false, and which ones might be sects.  What purpose might that serve besides puffing us up and making us self-righteous?  God calls us first of all to consider this church.  We need to discern the health of our church.  Can we credibly claim to be a true church of Christ?  The marks are there.  But if we’re honest we’ll also find much that’s imperfect and stained with sin.  We’ll see that as we look further afield at other churches in our federation too.  Can we honestly claim that church discipline has always been administered faithfully in our churches?  None of our churches have ever swept abuse under the carpet?  Or placed an abuse victim under discipline while the abuser gets a free pass?  Has no one living in sin ever participated in the Lord’s Supper, even with the knowledge of other believers in the church?  Let’s not be naïve.  It’s to our shame.  Can we honestly claim that the gospel has always been purely preached in our churches?  There have been sermons preached where there was no gospel and I shudder to think that I’ve been guilty of this too.  The true church of Christ is humble and admits its weaknesses and by the grace of God resolves to be more faithful.  Someone once said that the true church is not so much a destination as a journey.  There’s much truth in that.  It’s about a direction we endeavour to travel with God’s help and strength.  Once we think we have arrived, once we think we’ve made it, we’re in deep trouble.  Brothers and sisters, let’s be humble and strive to be the true church described in article 29.

At the same time, there can be moments in our lives where we do have to assess others claiming to be a church of Jesus Christ.  In his providence God brings those times across our path – we don’t go looking for them.  As I mentioned before, you can have the situation where work or education brings you to a different part of the world.  Or even maybe a vacation.  Perhaps your child starts dating a Christian from some other church.  Then we do have to judiciously apply the summary of biblical teaching that we find in article 29.  Do we find the three marks?  And if not, are we dealing with a sect or a false church?  Somehow you have to reach a conclusion.  Not every church which claims to be a true church of Christ is the real thing and some are dangerous to your spiritual health or to the health of your loved ones.

Learning to discern is an important part of growing as a Christian.  We have to discern truth from error in so many different areas of our lives.  You see, Satan is the father of lies.  He wants to trap us and lead us away from Christ, the way, the truth, and the life.  One of the ways he’ll try to do that is through sloppy and confused thinking about the church.  Loved ones, be on your guard.  Learn to discern what’s true, also when it comes to the church of Jesus Christ.  AMEN.                                


Father in heaven,

Thank you again for the teaching of your Word about the church.  We’re grateful for a church where we can hear the preaching of the gospel, where the sacraments are administered as Christ commanded, and where church discipline is taught and practiced.  Father, at the same time, we confess to you our many shortcomings and inconsistencies as a church.  Even as a church we haven’t always followed your Word purely.  Please forgive us and please help us as we resolve to be more committed to you and your will for us.  Please help us to be a gospel-centered church where Christ is treasured and proclaimed as the Saviour of sinners  Father, we also pray for those in sects or false churches, also in our own community.  We pray that you would show your mercy and open their eyes to all the truth of your Word, to the glory of the gospel, and to the greatness of the only Saviour Jesus Christ.    

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

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