How to Recognize a True Church, Part 3 by John MacArthur

This is part 3 of our series on how to recognize a true church. We will endeavor to answer these two questions, “What is the common confession of the true Church?” and “What is the foundation of the life of the Church?”

An early hymn that was obviously sung in the church gives us insight into this. If you’ll look with me into Paul’s epistles, I’ll take you to his letter to Timothy. And in 1 Timothy chapter 3, and verse 15, we read this about the church, the church is “the household of God,” it’s the family of God. It is a family in the sense that we’ve all been born into it, we’ve all been regenerated. It is “the church of the living God.” It is “the pillar and support of the truth.” So those are all wonderful, instructive references to the church as the family of God by regeneration, as the church of the living God–that is possessing the very life of God, as the pillar and support of the truth, those who have come to the truth, believe the truth, embrace the truth, hear the truth, proclaim the truth.

But verse 16 then adds this, “This collection of people who make up the household of God, who possess the very life of God, who possess the truth of God, have a common confession.” They have a common confession, homologoumenos, “without disagreement,” “without disagreement”; they all say the same thing. Logoumenos, logeo, “to say”; homo, “the same.” They all say the same thing. All believers, all who make up the true church have a common confession. And what is that common confession? But that Jesus is God in the flesh. He is Lord; He is Redeemer; He is King.

That is unanimous, and that confession comes in a hymn in verse 16. Six third-person, singular, aorist verbs in the original Greek; it is laid out as a poem with rhythm and parallels and the subject is Christ–“He who,” that is Christ, “He who was revealed in the flesh”–that’s the incarnation, the manifestation of the eternal Son of God in human flesh–“was vindicated in the Spirit. That vindication is dikaioma, which is the word “righteous,”–who was righteous or was justified in the Spirit. You remember that He had yielded Himself up to the power of the Holy Spirit, through whom His righteousness was demonstrated and made manifest. He was observed by angels at His birth, at His temptation, at His resurrection–“proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up to glory,” His ascension.

This is the common confession, we believe in Christ as God revealed in human flesh, as demonstrably righteous through the Holy Spirit, as attended by angels throughout His life, from His birth to His resurrection, as the one proclaimed in the gospel among the nations and for salvation, believed on in the world, the one taken up to glory. This is our confession, His deity, His incarnation, His virgin birth, His holiness. The affirmation and approval of God as attested by angels, preached by the apostles, preached by the prophets, believed on by sinners, taken to glory to be placed at the Father’s right hand. This is not a sentimental view of Jesus; this is not the Jesus of the sentimentalists. This is not the Jesus of the prosperity preachers. This is not the Jesus of the mystics. This is not the Jesus of those who say Jesus is your genie, and you can call on Him to create your world any way you want it. This is the Jesus of Scripture.

A church is a gathering of people who believe in Him and say with Peter, “You are the Christ,” and with Thomas, “My Lord and My God.” And again with Peter, “To whom shall we go, You and You alone have the words of eternal life.” A church is a gathering of people then who make this common confession about Christ from the incarnation to the glorification of Christ and everything in between. We are known by the accuracy and the faithfulness of our Christology, of our belief in Christ. And I would say, it’s pretty obvious to all of you, that if there’s anything that defines Grace Community Church, it is our preoccupation with Christ, is that not true? We never get very far from exalting  Him. We sing about Him. We pray and worship Him. We preach about Him whether it’s the gospels or the Old Testament, wherever it is, or the epistles of the New Testament. We are always Christ focused and our view of Christ is completely informed by and confined by the revelation of Holy Scripture.

So, foundational to the life of the church, putting the church on a solid footing, the church is an assembly of people who make this great confession. That’s a church. A gathering of unbelievers, sprinkled with Christians, is a gathering of unbelievers sprinkled with Christians. It’s not an assembly of the church.

There are people today who do everything they can to gather unbelievers and they call it a church. Somebody said to me one of those kinds of places is called Grace Church. Does it bother you that   they call it Grace? I said, “No, it bothers me that they call it church.” It’s not a church. I’m not against having an outreach to unbelievers. I’m certainly for that, but that’s not the church. You need to be part of the church; that’s where you live your life. That’s where you find your accountability, your strength; that’s where you minister and are ministered to. That’s where you grow. That’s where you serve. That’s where you find comfort. That’s where you share joy.

Now secondly, and there’s another foundation here in this passage, back to Matthew 16, there’s another foundational reality here. Let’s call it the great communication, the great communication. There is the great confession, which defines the church, and there is the great communication. I’m trying to do a little alliteration so you kind of have something to hang on to. Verse 17, “Jesus said to him”…Peter, after his confession on behalf of all the other believing disciples, he said…“You’re the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus said to him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonas [that means son of John, or son of Jonas, his father’s name], because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven.” Flesh and blood didn’t reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven.

What is the great communication that defines the church? We go back to kind of where we started, the church has communication from God. And what is that communication? It is none other than Holy Scripture, none other than Holy Scripture. Peter’s confession came because God had revealed the truth. In fact, that’s exactly what it says here, “Flesh and blood did not apokalupto [“disclose, uncover, make known”] reveal this to you.” You know, we don’t get our orders from man. The true church isn’t led by the pope. The true church isn’t led by cardinals, a college of cardinals. The true church isn’t led by any kind of magisterial group of men. The true church isn’t led by one man. The true church is not led by Joseph Smith. The true church is not led by Judge Rutherford. The true church is not led by a woman, Mary Baker Eddy, such as the Christian Science movement is. The true church is not led by any human; it’s not flesh and blood. Ours is a revelation from our Father who is in heaven. The church requires the Word to come down from heaven, the blessed Word of God. This is the great communication. It’s all we have. It’s all we need. It’s all we want.

I suppose you could come on a Sunday and I could figure out a way to read the phone book and make it interesting. It wouldn’t be life changing. I suppose I could read a very insightful book on human psychology. Nobody would be transformed by it, although there would be some level of curiosity. It would be sort of like imitating Oprah. We don’t do that. We don’t do that. We open the one divine source of revelation, the Bible, and we hear from God, the divine communicator.

Verse 18 says, “I also say to you that you are Peter and upon this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.” This is a very familiar statement that has long been a staple in the Roman Catholic system. They say that this is where the Lord made Peter the first pope. Of course, that’s not at all what it says. “You are Peter” (there’s a kind of a tone that you’re not really very important). You’re just Peter, you’re not Holy Father Peter; you’re just Peter. You’re just Peter. “But upon this rock, I will build My church.” “You are Peter [“stone”], but upon this rock bed [different word], I will build My church.”

What is the rock bed upon which He will build His church? I believe it is the affirmation of Peter that “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” The church is not built on the supremacy of Peter. It  is not built on Peter, it is built on the revelation from God which Peter believed, okay? It is built on the revelation from God which Peter believed. The church is the gathering of people who are subject to the power and authority of the revelation of God. We are the people who are subject to the power and authority of the revelation of God–the Lord builds His church on the authority of His divine revelation. And there is so much authority in that revelation. Verse 19 says that I’ll give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. “And whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.”

Now just exactly what is that saying? I’ll give you the keys to the kingdom. What do keys do? They open. What is the ministry of the church? What is the mandate of the church? The mandate of the church is to open the door to the kingdom and invite sinners in. I’m going to give you the key to open the door to the kingdom. What is the key? The key is the Scripture. The Scripture gives all necessary truth about entrance into the kingdom. I’m going to give you the truth that opens the door of the kingdom. And you then can go out and “whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in  heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.”

Now does that give some kind of…some kind of independent authority to us, to pastors; did it to Peter? No, no. He is saying this: whenever you function with the Word of God, you function in harmony with heaven. That’s the point. Whenever you say to someone, and this is rabbinic language, you’re bound in your sins because they have rejected the gospel. Heaven agrees. When you say to someone you’re loosed from your sins because they’ve received the gospel, heaven agrees. As long as you are faithful to the Word of God, you operate with the full authority of heaven. If a person comes up and says to me, “I don’t believe your message. I don’t believe the gospel you preach.” I could say   to that person with full authority, “You are bound in your sin and you will perish.” If someone comes to me and says, “I believe with all my heart. I’ve turned from my sin and fully embraced Christ.” I don’t know the divine transaction, I can’t read minds, but on the basis of that testimony–an evidence of a transformed life such as we heard in baptism–I could say to that person, “You are loosed from your sins.” I have the right to affirm the authority of Scripture. This is our great communication. This is all we have. This is all we need. And this is all we want. This is why you come and this is why you listen because you love the truth.

When anybody departs from the great communication, the divine revelation, he’s in trouble. Verse 23, Peter suggested that this was a bad plan, Jesus dying. “No, no, Lord, this isn’t going to happen to you”–that’s a departure from Scripture. He turned and said to Peter, “Get behind Me”…What?…“Satan.” When you deviate from Scripture, you have just landed in Satan’s domain. You’ve just taken up His cause. When anybody departs from the revelation which is the will of God, he takes the side of the enemy of God, the side of Satan. But the church, making a great confession, and the church coming under the authority of the great communication, the revelation of God, is invincible. Go back, verse 18, “I will build My church and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.” Death itself can’t stop it. Nothing can stop it. And so I say what I said at the very beginning: if the church fails, it can only fail in one way. The only way the church can fail is to fail to submit to the Word of God. If the church is faithful to the great confession and the great revelation of Holy Scripture, then the Lord will build His church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it. The church that is faithful to the great confession and to Holy Scripture is invincible and authoritative.

This is a declaration that stretches from Peter through the apostles, to whom the Lord promised that the Holy Spirit would come upon them and bring everything to their remembrance. And He promised them that they would be inspired writers, and they’re associates of Holy Scripture.

There’s a third element, and maybe we have time to talk about this a little bit briefly. A church is characterized, it’s a collection of people who are subject to their King, who are redeemed by the Lord Jesus Christ, who have a proper view of Him and a proper view of Scripture. They come under His authority, and they come under the authority of Holy Scripture. It is their joy to do so in both cases: a great confession, a great communication.

Thirdly, there’s a great contrast. There’s a great contrast in verse 20. “Then He warned the disciples they should tell no one that He was the Christ.” This is so strange. He warned the disciples that they should tell no one that He was the Messiah. Having acknowledged the great confession and the great revelation that He is Lord and God and that God has spoken in His Word, you would think that He would say, “Now go tell everybody.” This is counter-intuitive. They are warned. The word “warned” is there; serious prohibition, tell nobody. Is this anti-evangelism? Is this sort of…is this sort of momentary kind of instruction that is overruled by the Great Commission? What is this?

Here’s the problem. If they had gone out to tell everyone that Jesus was the Messiah, this would have been terribly confusing. Why? Because their definition of Messiah was wrong, was wrong. Their definition of Messiah, that is the Jewish people, was not accurate. They had their messianic expectations. He would be a man. He would be a political leader. He would be a military leader. He would be powerful. He would be a mighty ruler. He would gather an army. He would destroy their enemies. He would liberate them from Roman oppression. They did not believe that they needed spiritual salvation. They didn’t need a savior. They didn’t need a savior, they just needed a deliverer. They just needed a great king, a great soldier, a great general, a great provider who could bring a kingdom of peace and tranquility and prosperity.

And if the disciples had run out and said, “Well, Jesus is the Messiah,” it would have literally fed into their expectations. And so they would have viewed Him wrongly. In John 18 He says, “My kingdom is not of this world.” We can’t talk to this people about Me being Messiah because their view is wrong. Jesus then is saying, “Do not give any impression that I am here to alter human life on this planet politically, sociologically, militarily, economically; I’m not. My kingdom has no connection to earthly kingdoms; it is irrelevant to the kingdom of salvation. What happens politically, militarily, economically, nationally, the church has no direct role in rearranging sinners into more acceptable life patterns, into better economics, better social structures. That is not what the true church does. We have no interest in that. We accept, and this is important to understand, we accept what the old generations used to call a hybrid composite society. We reject a sacral society. We reject that. We see a distinction between the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of men. And that was not always the case, not always the case. Even leading up to the establishment of America, every society was a sacral society, the way Islam is today. Every society of Islam is one society subject to the rule of Islam and there is no separation. Christianity has never been, in that respect, a part of social experiments and social structure. We make a contribution to life by righteous conduct and behavior and love and good deeds and good works and all of that, but we reject a national religion, we reject a sacral society. We understand that we are a part of a hybrid composite society, that we are a society within a society.

You know, the Jews actually did understand that. That is why so much persecution broke out against them. There’s a very interesting little book written by Pohdoretz called, Why the Jews Are Liberal. And in that book he shows that Europe for years and years and years and years rejected the Jews, rejected the Jews. Anti-Semitism flourished long before Nazi Germany, long before the explosion of massacres under Stalin and Hitler. And the reason the Jews were always rejected was because they never mixed, they were always so conformed and confined by their adherence to their traditions and Old Testament patterns and laws that they became a society within a society and that threatened people. And eventually it reached the proportions it did under Hitler. They understood that historically because God had literally prescribed life for them in such a way that they were unable to co-mingle. But they made every effort to do it.

Now in the reality, not in some temporal form, not by dietary laws and other prescriptions but on a spiritual level, the church is a society within a society. And when the society overturns its morality and substitutes immorality for morality. When a society changes the rules, we don’t go along. And then when the society cries for tolerance, we don’t give tolerance. We become intolerant and eventually then we become the target of persecution. We will always be a society within a society.

It amazes me, on the basis of that, how much time and money professing Christians and so-called churches have spent trying to manipulate the kingdom of darkness into a more acceptable form. We have no connection with the kingdoms of this world. A true church is an isolated island. We influence the world one person at a time. We influence the world by the preaching and the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ. There are times when we speak against the things the world does–we speak against criminal behavior, we speak against abortion, we speak against homosexuality, against sexual immorality. We speak against the parental abuse; we speak against the delinquency of children. We speak against all those things that the Bible defines as sin. We will always do that. But we understand that the solution to all those things is not to change the social structure. The solution to all those things is to proclaim the gospel individually and through the pulpits and the means that are given to us.

So a true church then lives with a great confession, under the authority of a great communication,  and in great contrast to the society around it. And I think you’re having to live in a time in our own country when that contrast is more stark than it’s ever been in the past, it’s ever been. It’s definitively more stark–how different the true church is than the kingdom of this world in which we find ourselves today. And there are churches that are trying their best to slide across that chasm and be as much like the world as they can possibly be, and they violate this principle, and they sell out.

Well, that’s enough for now. So how can you tell a church? It’s a gathering of people who confess Christ, a gathering of people who submit to the authority of Scripture, a gathering of people who understand that they are a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, as Peter calls them, a kingdom within a kingdom, a nation within a nation, a people within a people who belong to a different king, who come under different laws, who serve different purposes and only insofar as we can influence our nation for the gospel, can we fulfill our mandate in the world.

Now there’s more and I’ll wait till next time to give that to you.[1]


[1] Dave Jordan, M. E. (n.d.). Pulpit Magazine June 2013 Vol. 02. No. 6.

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