The Nature and Marks of a True Church, Part One

When we speak of the marks of a true Church we are speaking of the outward characteristics that identify a local congregation as a biblical Church; that is, by what it does. These marks will also be accompanied by the means that produce these marks; that is, by how it achieves what it does. When we speak of the nature of the true Church we are speaking of an inward reality that provides the motivation to accomplish the what, as well as the support to justify the how in accomplishing those marks. This may be referred to as the why of a congregation’s marks and means. Said another way, a Church’s characteristics are defined and evidenced by its mission and methods (marks and means), while its character is defined by its true nature providing the motivation to carry out its mission through the methods it employs.

The main thrust of this article is to answer the why, or the motivation, of Christ’s Church, while touching first upon the marks of a true, biblical Church, as well as touching briefly on the means.

Caveat, first: We must understand from the beginning that this article may not expound thoroughly upon many facets of the Church; facets and aspects that some may believe should have been included or more fully developed —and they may be correct; nevertheless, I believe that we will be given quite a bit to ponder with just the areas we will examine. Therefore, although the formation of the Church, its functions, its leadership, its government, its ordinances, and so forth, are quite important indeed, those aspects of the Church themselves will only be mentioned as it applies to our topic at hand.

Caveat, second: Although I certainly believe in the universal, invisible Church that is comprised of all those redeemed by God’s grace and gathered as one people under Christ Jesus as the Head of His Church from the beginning until He returns, for the most part, when the “Church” is mentioned here, we are studying her as the local, visible Church. Though we all may have varying and differing views between the Church and church, or between the Church and Israel, or between the Church and the kingdom, or whatever the distinction may be, if we read this article as pertaining to our own situations as local, visible gatherings of those called out and assembled in the name of Christ our risen Savior, we may, by God’s grace, fare far better.

The Marks of a True Church

Rather than a Church comprised of saints “that have turned the world upside down” with the gospel of Jesus Christ (Acts 17:6), much of what is called “Christianity” in America may be defined with words such as apathy and avarice, bedlam and betrayal, compromise and complacency, and we could probably go on with d through z. Instead of turning the world upside down by the preaching of the gospel, local gatherings of “believers” have given Christ’s betrothed bride away in a marriage with the ungodly world through an elaborate and very public wedding celebration performed and pronounced by Reverend Hume A. Nist in Vanity Fair, witnessed by one Mr. Worldly Wiseman, approved by the very active religionist, Mr. Talkative, and sealed and sanctioned from a license issued by Judge Noah Count.

Yet, the Lord Jesus promised that “the gates of hell shall not prevail against” His Church (Matt 16:18), neither would He leave His people nor forsake them (Heb 13:5; Matt 28:20; Gen 28:15). “Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and to day, and for ever” (Heb 13:8), as Author and Finisher of faith, has begun a good work in His saints and will bring it to completion in that Day (Heb 12:2; Phil 1:6). His disciples are not stranded as orphans (Jn 14:18). He has preserved His holy Word and has given it to His Church for its sanctification through the teaching and guidance of the Holy Spirit (Matt 24:35; Jn 17:17; 14:26; 16:13). We can surely trust the truth of His Word. So, what does the Bible say about the marks of a true Church?

9 Marks. Mark Dever, pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church, wrote a book titled Nine Marks of a Healthy Church.[1] In his book he presented nine tangible traits from the scriptures that identify a congregation as one having the evidence of a Church that is obedient to her Savior’s commands, loyal to His kingdom, and passionate for His communion. Perhaps not all will agree with these nine marks; or perhaps some might combine two or more to make one category (that is certainly reasonable); or perhaps some may place these in a different order, prioritizing one trait over another. No problem. Whatever our particulars, I think we might all agree that each of these elements should be manifested in a local Church to one degree or another; or at least it should be moving in the direction of fulfilling those features and functions.[2] These marks are listed by Dr. Dever’s ministry as follows: Preaching, Theology, Gospel, Conversions, Evangelism, Membership, Discipline, Discipleship, Leadership.

Preaching. EXPOSITORY PREACHING from the pulpit is the first mark of a healthy Church. Dever defines expository preaching as a “sermon [that] takes the main point of a passage of Scripture, makes it the main point of the sermon, and applies it to life today.” It may take on a form of chapter-by-chapter and verse-by-verse exposition; however, in sermons like those from Edwards, Whitefield, M’Cheyne or Spurgeon, it may be from a different text from week to week, yet no less expository, no less contextual, and no less applicable for the saint who has an ear to hear. Neh 8:8; Rom 10:9-17; 1 Cor 1:21; Heb 4:12; 1 Pet 1:23

Theology. The next mark of a healthy Church is BIBLICAL THEOLOGY. Biblical Theology is simply sound doctrine, or solid, consistent biblical interpretation. A failure in faithfulness to sound doctrine will adversely affect several other character traits listed among these nine marks. 1 Tim 4:6; 6:3; Tit 1:9; 2:10; 2 Jn 1:9

Gospel. A healthy Church is also distinguished as a GOSPEL Church, having a clear biblical understanding of what the gospel is, and knowing the gospel’s power and preeminence, the gospel is given a very high priority and a very central emphasis in every ministry of the Church. Gen 3:15; Isa 52:13-53:12; Acts 2:14-40; Rom 3:21-28; 1 Cor 2:2; 15:1-4

Conversion. Healthy Churches recognize and understand the sovereignty of God in salvation, as well as man’s accountability unto God as his Creator, culpability before God as his Judge, and responsibility to God as his only Redeemer. BIBLICAL CONVERSION of a soul is more than a mere acknowledgement of a fact or truth. It is the supernatural reality of the work of God. Ezek 36:22, 26-27; Mk 1:15; Jn 3:1-8; Acts 2:38; Rom 6:1-23; Eph 2:1-10

Evangelism. A healthy Church is also characterized by its active advancement of the kingdom of God through the PROCLAMATION OF THE GOSPEL OF JESUS CHRIST to a lost and dying world. Matt 28:18-20; Acts 1:8; Rom 10:9-17; 1 Pet 3:15-16

Membership. Biblical CHURCH MEMBERSHIP is not merely names on a Church role; it is the vibrant submission of believing saints to gather as often as possible in order to love, serve, and submit to one another in Christ for God’s glory alone. Matt 16:16-19; Jn 13:34, 35; 1 Cor 5:12-13; Eph 5:20; Heb 10:24, 25

Discipline. A true Church has and practices DISCIPLINE. Biblical discipline is carried out in two main aspects for God’s purpose of making a peculiar people unto Himself. God says, “Be ye holy; for I am holy” (1 Pet 1:16), therefore, the true Church views every aspect of Christianity as an opportunity to develop spiritual habits: worship, prayer, preaching the gospel; teaching God’s Word; family devotional worship, personal meditations upon the scriptures, fellowship with likeminded believers, etc. The second aspect of true Church discipline is found in the correction of sin among individuals within the local congregation. Matt 18:15-20; 1 Cor 5:1-23; Eph 4:11-32; 1 Pet 1:16

Discipleship. A true Church is characterized by BIBLICAL DISCIPLESHIP in and among its members. We are exhorted in the scriptures to grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ (2 Peter 3:18). A true Church does not live by the philosophy, “Do as I say, not as I do.” Instruction in the Word for personal growth, coupled with edification and encouragement through the testimony and example of the assembly’s members, is an identifying feature of a true Church. 1 Cor 11:1; Eph 4:1, 15; Phil 4:9; Heb 10:24-25; 13:7

Leadership. A true Church is also identified by STRONG LEADERS. The strength and maturity of its leaders not only oversees the edification and education of the Church, but are themselves good and faithful stewards, seeking and identifying future leaders. Strong leadership desires strong leaders for the generations to follow, if the Lord should tarry. Jn 21:15-17; 1 Tim 3:1-7; 2 Tim 2:2; Titus 1:5-9; 1 Pet 5:1-3

This is part one of an article that will appear here in three parts. The complete article originally appeared in The Sovereign Grace Messenger from the Summer 2011 issue. The Sovereign Grace Messenger is the periodical published approximately three times per year by the Sovereign Grace Baptist Fellowship.

Part Two will appear tomorrow. Part Three will appear the day following. Part Four, which was not a part of the original article, will be posted following that.

[1] Crossway © 2000, 2004

[2] I am only providing a very fast and loose treatment of Dr. Dever’s “9 Marks” because, although the majority of this article contains the information on the marks of a true Church, the great emphasis on this article is the nature of Christ’s Church, not the marks.


About Jon J. Cardwell

"The Spirited Speaker" - Pastor of Sovereign Grace Baptist Church in Anniston, Alabama. Nationally recognized speaker and publisher. Author of several books, including the bestseller, Christ and Him Crucified.


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