Words mean things, and, if we’re not careful, words can easily die the death of one, two, or a thousand qualifications. As editors, we often deliberate the use of words in their contexts and the appropriate uses of qualifiers in modifying words, particularly those words with eternal significance. For example, what’s the difference between a Christian and a true Christian, faith and true, saving faith, a church and a true, biblical church? We find ourselves using qualifiers, such as the word true, in order to emphasize the marked difference between a true Christian and a false, or nominal, Christian, between a true church and an apostate church.
In the course of our use of language, certain qualifiers become necessary on account of the misuse and abuse of words that are used inappropriately. One of the primary reasons the magisterial Reformers of the sixteenth century found it necessary to use the word sola to qualify theologically loaded and thus eternally significant words, such as Scripture, faith, grace, and Christ, is on account of the misuse of those words and the doctrinal nuances added to those words by many within Roman Catholicism. Similarly, when it came to defining what a true church is over and against the apostate churches that stemmed from Rome, the Reformers looked to Scripture alone to determine what comprises a true church. In his Institutes, John Calvin wrote, “Wherever we see the Word of God purely preached and heard, and the sacraments administered according to Christ’s institution, there, it is not to be doubted, a church of God exists” (4.1.9). Calvin and the Reformers understood that the pure preaching of the Word and the right administration of the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, which includes the practice of church discipline, were essential elements of a true church, with the implicit repudiation of false churches that did not conform to these fundamental biblical qualifications.
In one sense, the marks of a true church are the same marks of a true Christian, who displays his faith in the gospel of Christ with fruits unto daily repentance, faith, and eternal life. While there remains confusion about the nature of a true church, even more troubling is how few Christians seem to grasp the simple, biblical meaning of what it is to be a true Christian — or should I just say, without qualification, a Christian, saved by grace, through faith, because of Christ.