Saturday, August 15, 2015

So You Want to Be a Calvinist? John Calvin on the Marks of the Church

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John Calvin here defines the essential features, or “marks” of the true church as the preaching of the Word of God, and the proper administration of the sacraments. A degree of failure or diversity on other matters may be permitted, providing that these two essential features are present. He wrote:

Wherever we see the Word of God purely preached and listened to, and the sacraments administered according to Christ’s institution, it is in no way to be doubted that a church of God exists. For his promise cannot fail: ‘Whenever two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20)… If the ministry has the Word and honours it, if it has the administration of the sacraments, it deserves without doubt to be held and considered a church. For it is certain that such things are not without fruit. In this way the unity of the universal church is preserved, which diabolical spirits have always tried to tear apart; and we do not deny authority to those lawful assemblies which have been set up in accordance with the opportunities of different places in mind.

We have identified that the distinguishing marks of the church are the preaching of the Word and the observance of the sacraments. These can never happen without bringing forth fruit and prospering through God’s blessing. I do not say that wherever the Word is preached there will be immediate results, but that wherever it is received and takes root, it shows its effectiveness. When the preaching of the gospel is reverently heard and the sacraments are not neglected, there for the time being no false or ambiguous form of the church is seen; and no one is permitted to ignore its authority, flout its warnings, resist its counsels, or make light of its chastisements – much less to break away from it and wreck its unity. For the Lord values the fellowship of his church so highly that all those who arrogantly leave any Christian society (provided that it holds fast to the true ministry of Word and sacraments) are regarded by him as deserters. He so values the authority of the church that when it is violated he believes that his own authority has been diminished…

When we say that the pure ministry of the Word and pure mode of celebrating the sacraments are a sufficient pledge and guarantee by which we may recognize as a church any society, we mean where both these marks exist, it is not to be rejected, even if it is riddled with faults in other respects. What is more, some shortcoming may find its way into the administration of either doctrine or sacraments, but this ought not to estrange us from communion with this church. For not all articles of true doctrine are of equal weight. Some are so necessary to know that they should be certain and unquestioned by everyone as proper to religion, such as: God is one; Christ is God and the Son of God; our salvation rests in God’s mercy; and the like. There are other [articles of doctrine] disputed among the churches which still do no break the unity of faith…

I am not condoning error, no matter how insignificant it may be, nor do I wish to encourage it. But I am saying that we should not desert a church on account of some minor disagreement, if it upholds sound doctrine over the essentials of piety, and maintains the use of the sacraments established by the Lord.”

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