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Author:Rev. Sjirk Bajema
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Congregation:The Reformed Church of Oamaru
 Oamaru, New Zealand
Preached At:Reformed Church of Mangere
 South Auckland, New Zealand
Title:Found The Right Church?
Text:BC 29 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Sjirk Bajema, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.


(Reading: Acts 20:13-38)


Found The Right Church?



Congregation of our Lord Jesus Christ...


     Article XXVIII told us of Scripture’s teaching that the believer has to be part of the Church.

          And we also know from Article XXVIII that that church is both the invisible, universal, Church, and the visible, local church.

              The Lord’s Word is clear that we must be joined to a church.


     But which church?

          Ah, a good question.

              With so many different denominations in our country, you must begin to wonder!

     I mean, where do you begin?

          Is it simply the church you were born in?

              Is it the one that seems to have the most people attending and offers the best programs?


     Article XXIX immediately recognises this dilemma and addresses it.

          That’s why it uses the word “sects” here.

              Because while we may think nowadays that sects are those groups that are definitely unchristian, at the time of the reformation “sects” was simply another name for other “denominations.”

     Of course, then the word “denomination” wasn’t known as such.

          But it was clear there were differences between various churches.

              Especially that was noticeable in the difference between the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches.

                   Yet there was also the differences between the Reformed churches and the Anabaptist churches.


     So, does the Lord speak about this at all?

          Does it really matter which church you belong to, as long as you belong to one somewhere?


     Indeed, it does matter.

          For just as much it’s a command of the Lord to be joined to His Church so it’s His command that the church you join has the marks of a true church.

              For God has made known the standards by which a church must function.


     This is what we turn our attention to first of all in Article XXIX.

          For our first aspect concerns THE MARKS OF A TRUE CHURCH.


     Here we must note that this is an institutional point.

          It is not saying that all the members in this particular church are true Christians.

              For there will be those who aren’t.

     Article XXIX is quite honest about this.

          Early on it speaks of hypocrites, those who are mixed in with true believers but are not truly believers themselves.


     The word “hypocrite” originally referred to an actor, someone who acts differently than the person he really is.

          So he’s a “fake believer,” a weed mixed in with the wheat.

              While on the outside he seems much like everyone else in the church, he’s not honestly doing the will of the Father.

     Even though he says, “Lord, Lord,” he hasn’t been obeying the Lord and producing fruit.

          Jesus speaks of such a person in Matthew 25 verse 11.


     The difficulty is that because we cannot know all who are hypocrites, there are still some in the church.

          And since we don’t know them we cannot separate them from the Church by discipline.


     The concern here, though, is not the members of a group.

          Rather, it’s the way they are grouped, gathered together.

              In other words, the way they are organised.    


     You cannot ask, “Do the people measure up?”

          Then you would come to the same conclusion for every group.

              Instead you have to ask, “Does the assembly, the body, the way it functions, does that measure up?”

                   This is why the Article mentioned the “marks” by which a true church is known.


     And so we come to the three marks of a true church.

          Many of us will remember them from Catechism class days.

              For the three marks of a true church are the preaching of the pure doctrine of the gospel, the pure administration of Christ’s sacraments, and the practice of church discipline.


     So a true church will be united about the preaching of the Gospel and the administration of the sacraments, and with watching over one another, nurturing each other in love and admonishing wrongdoers.

          A true church will have members supporting their office bearers so they can do this.

              Because a true church is first of all faithful to the Lord.


     Now, that doesn’t mean this church will be perfect.

          There will be many weaknesses that remain.

              The characteristics of the Church will still show up many defects.

                   However, it is an assembly, brought together and kept together according to God’s Word.


     Let’s look in a little more detail at these marks.

          The preaching of the pure doctrine of the gospel is not simply where in a particular gathering someone has a message from the Bible.


     I use the word “message” deliberately, because that’s already a warning sign that there isn’t faithful preaching happening in a church.

          When you hear words like “message” used to describe what should be preaching, and when those giving that message tell you about what they want to “just share” with you, there is a definite dumbing down of the gospel.

              What you’re about to hear is a personal view not a definitive exposition of God’s Word.

                   It’s what struck them about the text – but it might not hit you in the same way either.


     There are other wrong views about preaching apart from this mystical view also.

          There is the liberal view.

              This delights in pointing out how God’s Word is really the primitive religious book of the Hebrews.

                   They say it’s a book which often contradicts itself and is highly mythological.


     And then are many variations of either view in-between these two extremes.

          That could be the Roman Catholic churches who often have lay people giving the address, because it’s seen as something lower than the sacrament.

              Or it’s those churches who while seeming to hold a high view of preaching are generally preaching a different gospel altogether.

                   The “health-and-wealth” churches are a prime example of these.


     So, how do you know if a church has this mark?

          Well, how seriously do they take the preaching of the Word?

              Is that preaching set to a certain standard that shows through everything a candidate is examined for the ministry?

     And if something is preached that seems to depart from the church’s Confessions, how’s that dealt with?

          Actually that’s something we’ll come back to with the third mark.


     In terms of preaching, though, you know those in this church are people of the book.

          They bring their Bibles to church.

              They listen to it well.


     Then there is the second mark.

          This is the pure administration of the sacraments.


     The first thing we note here is that this is a church which simply has the biblical sacraments – the Lord’s Supper and baptism.

          No more, as the Catholics do with an extra five.

              And no less, as the Salvation Army does, since it has no sacraments in its services at all.


     We also add to this that the sacraments are given to the right people.

          There’s no superstitious use of baptism as we find in certain Anglican churches.

              In fact, they don’t even call it baptism – it’s a ‘christening’.

     And there is no open Lord’s Supper celebrations either.

          Not just anybody can come to holy communion but only those who have been vetted by the eldership of the church, as Scripture tells us in 1st Corinthians 11.


     Then when the sacraments are performed it’s done according to God’s Word, following the example of our Lord and His apostle.

          And it’s only carried out by those called and ordained to do it.


     This also brings us to the third mark – church discipline is exercised in punishing of sin.

          Because now we see the binding value of church discipline to the first two marks.


     Congregation, a true church will ensure that not only is the Word faithfully preached but it is also faithfully practiced.

          What good is it if it’s preached from the pulpit that adultery is a sin but then church members are allowed to divorce and marry those they were having an affair with!

              That’s hypocrisy!


     And if no one in that church sees that, then most certainly the world sees that!

          But most of all the Lord sees that.

              As He says to the disobedient church of Ephesus in Revelation 2:6, He will surely take away the lamp-stand from its place among them, unless they repent.

     For that lamp-stand represents His Spirit among them.

          So the Word and the Spirit always go together.


     The key in all this is, of course, the place of the Lord Jesus.

          You preach the gospel and you are preaching Him crucified, glorified and coming again!

              He must be acknowledged as the only Head of the Church.


     But while we have seen that we may not know whether all those in a true church are themselves true Christian, the Confession does yet give THE MARKS OF A TRUE CHRISTIAN.

          Our second aspect this afternoon.


     This next paragraph in Article XXIX reminds me of a meeting Charles Spurgeon once had with a very zealous young man.

          He was a young man keen to find the ‘perfect’ church.

              You still have plenty of young Christians today looking for such a fellowship.

     This young man spoke to Charles Spurgeon about a number of concerns he had about the congregation Spurgeon ministered to.

          He went on to say that he hoped soon to find the perfect church.


     It was an opening which Spurgeon couldn’t resist.

          He said to him, “Young man, I have one piece of advice for you when you find such a church.”


     “What is that?” he keenly asked.

          And Spurgeon answered, “Don’t join it – for then it would surely be imperfect!”


     When you look at THE MARKS OF A TRUE CHRISTIAN you can see why Spurgeon replied that way.

          For if there is anything that stands out about the true Christian is that he honestly admits how much of a Christian he isn’t!

              He knows his “great infirmities”; he knows he needs to “fight against them through the Spirit all the days” of his life.

     Constantly he has to confess his sins.

          Because he desperately needs “the blood, death, passion, and obedience of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

              This is true faith.


     So the last kind of person this person will be in proud and judgmental.

          Instead, he will be a humble person.


     Again, when you look at the time de Bres wrote this, it makes so much sense.

          The Roman Catholics said that anyone who subjected himself to the Pope was a true Christian.

              The Anabaptists then, as they do now, looked for a pure church made up of pure members.


     So the Roman Catholic error teaches us about true self-examination.

          No one is automatically a member of the church because of what family he’s born in or what someone else has done to him.

              You have to make sure you are a believer.

     In the words of 2nd Corinthians 13 verse 5, you “must examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves.

          “Do you not realise that Christ Jesus is in you – unless, of course, you fail the test?”


     The Anabaptist error teaches us that even in the holiest there remains much sin, much as they try to deny that.

          I have heard of a Pentecostal believer with the most obvious signs of a bad cold denying there was anything wrong with him!

              He couldn’t admit to that for it would mean there was sin in his life.


     But, congregation, the thing that counts is fighting against that sin.

          As Galatians 5 verse 17 declares, “For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature.

              “They are in conflict with each other, so that you don’t do what you want.


     THE MARKS OF A TRUE CHRISTIAN are vividly described in this story from a denomination which was not biblical enough in its church discipline.

          In one of their churches a minister was asked to conduct the service of a godless man who was a member of his congregation.

              The family had insisted that a public funeral service be held in the church.

     Well, this was the brief and powerful sermon preached by the minister.

          Pointing to the coffin in front of him, he said, “This corpse has been a member of my church for twenty-five years.”


     Don’t be dead like that man, dear friend.

          Be alive in the Lord!

              Make sure you’re in a church that has shepherds like Paul spoke of in Acts 20.

     Because they are shepherds who guard the flock.

          They keep out those who would distort the gospel, as verse 30 says there.


     And so we come to the third aspect this afternoon.

          Here we turn, in the third paragraph of Article XXIX, to THE MARKS OF A FALSE CHURCH.


     We have already touched into parts of this in the previous two points.

          But now you can know for sure if you’re in the wrong church!


     Now, reading through this paragraph you may well think that this is not so easy.

          Certainly not as clear cut as the Article ends with saying that these two types of Churches – true and false – are easily known and distinguished from each other.


     I mean, people in other churches do seem so sincere.

          They do lots of good things.

              And who are we to judge anyway?


     Our age certainly has a different perspective doesn’t it?

          In de Bres’ time standing up for the biblical faith put your life on the line.

              But now, “Well, if that’s what you want to believe, good on you!”

                   “Everyone can believe whatever they like to believe.”


     It can be hard in a world where there are apparently no judgments made anymore.

          It can be, until, you point out that they aren’t preaching and acting according to God’s Word anymore.

              Then you’ll soon find out how intolerant they really are!


     A professor in a theological college was speaking to a conservative man in his denomination.

          As they were discussing the situation in their churches, the professor said, “Oh, but there’s room for everyone under the one umbrella!”

              To which the conservative minister replied, “Oh, yes, there’s room for everyone – until someone tells you the umbrella is full of holes.

                   “Then you can’t wait to kick him out quick enough.”


     There are two particular things about the false church which the Confession notes here.

          The first is that the false-church is man-centred.

              Everything the false church does is done for the benefit of those running the church.

                   As Article XXIX says, “it ascribes more power and authority to itself and its ordinances than to the Word of God.”


     So the false church will have extensive programs, courses, and promotional campaigns.

          But they will all show how much the person in the pew is dependent on the bureaucrat in Head Office or the professor at the theological college.

              The person in the pew is encouraged to commit himself to what comes out of the system and not to simply open God’s Word for himself.

                   In fact, much of the preaching in those churches will be topical instead of expository.


     In Scripture, the prime example of this were the Pharisees of Jesus’ time.

          Our Lord clearly exposes them as those who oppressed the people with man-made laws.


     Secondly, a false church has always killed the prophets of the true God.

          And while it may not do so physically today, you can be sure the attack is still as deadly in a psychological and legal way.

              This is why the third paragraph in our Article ends by how the false church “persecutes those who live holily according to the Word of God and rebuke it for its errors, covetousness, and idolatry.”


     This is what our Lord already foretold during His ministry.

          In John 16 verse 2, he tells us, through His disciples, “They will put you out of the synagogue; in fact, a time is coming when anyone who kills you will think he is offering a service to God.”


     There will be variations of this attack too, congregation, depending on how far the impurity in that church has become.

          But you can get a general idea of where a church lies with the kind of friends she has.


     Let me illustrate this.

          As parents we are concerned about the type of children our children are hanging around with.

              We may well have tried to guide our children to choose the right friends, and where they had bad friends, warned them about it!

                   We may not have always been so aware of whether our children were the best of friends themselves though!


     In the same way, a church can be tested on its faithfulness to God’s Word with the relationship she has with others.

          For example, is she part of a conservative, bible-believing fellowship, such as the International Conference of Reformed Churches, or is she part of the quite liberal World Alliance of Reformed Churches?


     We have all heard of the World Council of Churches.

          We are very wary of what that Council does.

              But do you know how many local churches in your area are a part of that?


     And watch out whenever someone says that there’s a third way besides the true and false church division in the Confession.

          For they will claim that the true Church is made up of the sum total of all churches.

              Which means, of course, that the truth is sacrificed on the altar of unity.


     They will say that we need other parts of the Body of Christ in order to appreciate areas where we may have blind spots.

          For they say that by reason of history, experience, or culture, we don’t see the whole picture.

              So we need to enter into conversation with other parts of the universal church.

                   “We owe that to each other,” one theologian said about such a relationship.        


     But what about what we owe to the Lord?

          Isn’t joining with liberal churches such as the newly-named Protestant Churches in the Netherlands actually compromise?


     Of course it is.

          But they wouldn’t want us to be too back-and-white about these things.

              You wouldn’t want to think true and false churches are easily distinguished from each other.

     Would you?





Let’s pray…

     Lord God, You have clearly laid out all things for us.

          All that we need to know, for doctrine and life, Your Word speaks about.

              So we grieve when churches say that Your Word isn’t so clear.

     Because that takes away from the power of the pulpit in the church.

          That means you can believe whatever you like.

              That means that the only doctrine left in the Presbyterian Church of New Zealand is that you have to believe in women in office.

     Lord, may there be a revival again of Your Word in all churches.

          May it be faithfully proclaimed, and may the sacraments be properly administered, and may church discipline be consistently practiced.

              Through Christ Jesus we pray, Amen.



* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Sjirk Bajema, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
The source for this sermon was:

(c) Copyright 2008, Rev. Sjirk Bajema

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