How to Recognize a True Church, Part 2 by John MacArthur

There’s really only one reality that compels me and compels any faithful leader in the church, and that is, What does the King command me as His slave to do on His behalf, in His kingdom, because this is His kingdom? Paul says, “It is required of stewards”…and this is a stewardship…“that a man  be found faithful.” Faithful assumes simply being compliant, submissive, and obedient to what I have been given from God to do.



Being a pastor, or being an elder, leader in the church, places me immediately under Christ who is  the great shepherd, as Peter calls Him. And I’m simply an under-shepherd, carrying out His orders  as revealed in Scripture. I love the church. My life is the church. There are other things that I do; they’re secondary to shepherding the flock of God, to being a part of the church. I could never leave the church. I could never do something else other than this. When I have been asked to do something else, to step out of being a pastor and go do some other ministry, as some kind of ministry executive, or ministry leader, or itinerant teacher, or preacher. The answer is always immediate and complete and absolute and it is, “No, I cannot leave the church.” The church is the only institution that our Lord ever built and promised to bless. The church is His and that’s all that is His. All the people of God in the world today are a part of the church. This is His body, the function of the kingdom. The functions of the kingdom all take place in the life of the church. Everything that God has ordained for His people takes place in the communion of the church, in the fellowship of the church, through the gifts and ministries of the people of God who make up the church.



The church is the only way to shepherd God’s people. It is the flock of God. I can write books. I can do conferences. I can go here and go there and speak here and speak there. I can be on the radio. I can be on television. All those things are sort of alongside the church to help believers in other places, but those are the resources that come alongside to help strengthen the church. But anyone who is called into ministry is called to the church. Anyone who is called to shepherd is called to shepherd the church, the flock of God, to watch for their souls as one who must give an account, Hebrews 13 says. We have to feed and lead and prepare to feed, and prepare to lead. And we’re accountable for that.



And all the rewards, in a real sense, all the genuine rewards, the great riches of ministry are basically enjoyed in the church. It is in the church that we see the power of the Word at work over the long period of time. It is in the church that we see people sanctified. I can write a book, I can preach on the radio, and I can meet somebody who tells me what that meant to them, but I only know the lives of the people I live with, in the church. And I can see the sanctifying work and I can taste the fruit of the ministry of the Word and the work of the Spirit in their lives.


I’m both afraid not to be faithful to My King, to My Lord, to the Head of the church, and at the same time, I am delighted and glad to be faithful. I’m afraid not to be faithful, and I’m joyful to be faithful. I want to avoid His displeasure, for sure, but I also want to enjoy His favor. And that sets the course for the church. The whole goal of leadership in the church is to conform the people of God to the Word of God. And the greatest model of that is Christ Himself. So to be used by God to be an agent by whom the Word is brought to bear on the people of God to form them into the image of Christ, that’s what the ministry is about. That’s what it’s about.



And this ministry in the church is driven by the supremacy of preaching and teaching. That’s the heart of it all. Preach the Word, teach the Word. You have given to the church evangelists, teaching pastors. In either case they are proclaiming the truth. They are teaching the gospel, the truth. Teachers, preachers, feed the flock of God, feed them the Word of God. Preach the Word in season and out of season; you know all of those injunctions.



So when we think about the church–and I’m just giving you sort of a broad look at it–when we think about the church, this is what we’re talking about. We’re talking about that assembly of people who live under the authority of the Word of God, who live under a clear understanding of the Word of  God brought to them by faithful leaders and teachers who proclaim these truths and who support their claims and their proclamation by the way they live. I could never be content outside the church. I could never be fulfilled outside the church. The church is my life. The church is where I live and move and have my being, as does every believer. That’s why we don’t “forsake the assembling of ourselves together.” That’s why, as we read in Hebrews 10, we “come together to stimulate one another to love and good works and all the more as we see the day [the day of our Lord’s return] approaching.”



Now if we want to get a biblical definition to start with, let me take you to Matthew 16, because this is the first place in the New Testament where church is mentioned. A familiar portion of Scripture, and in verse 18 you have this statement by our Lord, “I will build My church.” “I will build My church.” That’s the first time in the New Testament we come to the word “church.” “I will build My church.” He’s not talking about a building; He’s not talking about organizations, institutions, programs, strategies. He’s talking about people, –“I will build My church.” The possessive pronoun, “My church,” is a reminder the church does not belong to us, it is His church. It belongs to Him. In Acts 20 we are reminded that God purchased the church with His own blood. We have been redeemed, Peter says, not with corruptible things like silver and gold, but with the precious blood of the Lord Jesus Christ, a Lamb without blemish and without spot. So at immense cost, the Lord has paid the price for His church and He is building His church. The only question that I ever ask is,



“What does the Lord of the church ask of me to serve Him in the building of His church?”



Now with that introduction of the church in Matthew 16, we draw ourselves into this little section of Scripture, and I want to show you some wonderful, foundational truths that are here. I think it was about six or seven years ago that I went through–I think it was 2007 or 2006–that I went through this passage with the men who were at the Shepherds’ Conference. And it is that definitive a passage to help you understand what constitutes a true church.



Here are the essentials that define a church.



Number one, a church is a collection of redeemed people who make a great confession. Just put down  “a great confession.” Let’s pick it up at verse 13, “Jesus came into the district of Caesarea, Philippi, and He was asking His disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, and others Elijah, still others Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.’ But He said to them, ‘Who do you say that I am?’” That is the question that the church, the true church answers correctly. Okay? The church is first and foremost defined by its Christology. “Who do you say that I am?” Peter answers, and he answered not only for himself, but the rest of those believing disciples, “You’re the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” that’s who you are.



Now we know from Scripture that Jesus also is presented as the cornerstone. Paul says, 1 Corinthians 3, Jesus is the foundation. Peter says He’s the cornerstone. The church is built on Him. He is the foundation. First Corinthians 3, “No one can build on any other foundation. Again, Ephesians 2, Christ is the foundation stone, the cornerstone. So the first and essential and definitive characteristic of the true church is that it has a biblical view of Jesus Christ. It has the right view of Jesus Christ. It is not a superficial view; it is not a sentimental view of Jesus. It is not a view of Jesus that He is some prophet and nothing more, such as the liberals have. It is the true view of Christ. If anybody preaches another Christ, let him be anathema, let him be cursed. If anybody preaches another gospel, let him be cursed. This is Paul, if anybody comes to you with anything other than the true Christ, 2 John, don’t even listen to him, he is in grave error. Everything starts at Christology.



Now let me back up a little bit in verse 13. Caesarea Philippi is a town on the north border, the Lebanese, of the land of Israel. It originally was known as Paneas. It was changed to Caesarea Philippi to honor Caesar. Paneas was its original name from the Greek god Pan. You’ve heard of Pan flutes. The little god who plays the flute was the god Pan. It was a center, actually, of Greek and Roman life. It was a center of idolatry. There were idols all over the place, from the Greek era. And with the arrival of Caesar, there was a temple built there to the god Augustus Caesar, and the town was renamed in honor of Caesar. It was the place in Israel where the cultures of the non-Jewish religions of the world had come to meet. There were Jews there but it was on the northern border and so it had absorbed all the paganism of past generations. It was the right place to clarify the nature of salvation, the nature of the church and the truth about the Lord Jesus Christ.



It is in that environment, an environment of idolatry, that our Lord asks the question, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” And to that, there are answers, John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah,  one of the prophets, that would be coming from the Jewish people. “Who do you say that I am?” And they affirm in verse 16 that He is the Messiah, the Son of the living God, the anointed one, the promised Redeemer; that He is deity; that He is humanity. This is the confession that establishes the true church. If that confession is not made, then you don’t have a true church, you don’t have true, believing people. The church is not a group of people who need a motivational talk. It is not a group of unbelievers who like the music. It is not a collection of unsaved people who need help for their addictions. It is not people who want to feel spirituality, who want to experience spirituality. It is not a collection of people who want to go through mindless rituals and traditions. It is an assembly of those who make this great confession of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. To spread it a little bit, Romans 10, who believe in Him, who believe God raised Him from the dead and who confess Jesus as Lord. It is that assembly of people who believe in His name, John 20:31, and therefore have eternal life.


In the next part of this series, we will answer these two questions, “What is the common confession of the true Church?” and “What is the foundation of the life of the Church?”

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