Summary: How does one distinguish a true church from a false church? This sermon examines three marks that define a true church of Christ.

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Last week I began a short series of sermons on the topic of the church.

Jesus is building his church. All over the world, whether in urban or rural areas, in densely or sparsely populated areas, or in places hostile or friendly toward Christianity, Jesus is building his church.

The title of last week’s sermon was, “What Is the Church?” I noted that the church is the community of all true believers for all time, that the church is invisible and visible, and that the church is local and universal.

Today, I want to continue with another message in the series I am calling, “Jesus Is Building His Church.” My message today is titled, “What Is a True Church?” So, with that in mind, let us read the narrative where Jesus told his disciples that he is building his church. It is found in Matthew 16:13-20, and the particular text for our focus is Matthew 16:18. Let us read the word of God:

13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” 17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” 20 Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ. (Matthew 16:13-20)


Many of you have answered a knock at the door and been greeted by two or three nice-looking people offering you one of two magazines titled Awake or Watchtower. As you talk with them, if you talk with them (because I know that some of you unfortunately do not talk with them), you discover that they are “Jehovah’s Witnesses.” If you continue your discussion, you learn that they worship on Sundays at the Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses. The Jehovah’s Witnesses try to convince you that they are in fact a true church. Are they a true church?

Sometimes you have been riding down the road and seen two young men. They are almost always identified by their clothes. They have dark pants, white shirts, dark ties, and large name tags on their shirt pockets. If you were to talk with them, you would discover that they are on a two-year mission with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, more commonly known as Mormons. They also claim that they are a true church. In fact, they imply that in the name of their denomination, don’t they? They are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. So, are they a true church?

At the time of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century one of the central questions had to do with the definition of a true church. The Roman Catholic Church insisted that it was indeed a true church.

The debate centered on the marks, or attributes, or characteristics of a true church. The Roman Catholic Church said that the revised Nicene Creed of 381 AD contained a definition of the attributes of a true church. One of the affirmations states: “I believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.” This, said, the Roman Catholic Church is a statement that specifies the attributes of a true church.

Let’s look at these attributes in the order in which they were discussed.

First, the church is apostolic. Apostolicity for the Roman Catholic Church was the apostolic authority of the Pope. The Pope was the apostolic successor to the Apostle Peter. And so, a true church is one which submits itself to the apostolic authority of Peter’s successor, the Pope. Thus, the Roman Catholic Church asserted that the Protestant churches of the Reformation were not true churches because they had renounced the authority of the Pope.

Second, the church is holy. According to the Roman Catholic Church the holiness of the church was the holiness dispensed by properly consecrated priests from the altar in the sacraments. The Protestants rejected the sacramental grace of the sacraments as the Roman Catholic Church presented it. The Protestants also rejected the fact that ministers had to be consecrated by apostolic bishops. So, the Roman Catholic Church declared that Protestants had no sacramental grace to dispense and no apostolically ordained ministers either. Therefore, the Protestants could not be holy.

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