St. Paul's Lutheran Church

Close this search box.

Marks of the Church

1 – The Word of God

June 2, 2024

What are the “marks of the church”? Are these “marks” necessary? What if a church doesn’t exhibit some or all of these “marks”?

Well, let’s take a big bite into reality and acknowledge something very fundamental. In this world there exists both the true church and the false church, and as Christians we should want to know the difference. I think the American experience chides us away from distinguishing because, we try to make life a Sesame Street life where no one disagrees, and everything is opinion.

But this isn’t life, and this isn’t the church. The Christian church is messy; the Christian church has always had division, and the Christian church has always contended with and fought against the hordes of false teachers and false teaching that seem to constantly try and break down the doors and take over the pulpits. The WORST thing we can do is “Agree to disagree” because this is an open-door invite to the devil to come on in and have his way with our minds and our hearts.

The Marks of the church define for us what the church is and what it looks like so we know the difference between the church with sound teaching and the false church – antichurch – with the devil’s lies.

Allow me to define a few terms. First the word “church.” This word has two or three senses in which it can be used. In the narrowest sense, it’s a group of people meeting together in some location to study, learn, pray, or hear the Word of God. But I will use the word “congregation” whenever I’m referring to this very narrow sense of “church.”

In a broader sense, “church” is a denomination or a body of many congregations throughout the world that subscribe to a specific set of beliefs and hopefully have similar practices. The LCMS is a church body, the United Methodists is a church body, the ELCA is a church body, etc. “Lutheran” is not a church body because there are many different church bodies that call themselves “Lutheran.”

Finally, the broadest sense of the word “church” is the universal church, all believers of all time and space. I’m also going to refer to the anti-church, anti-Christ or false church, which is something that props itself up as the church in its teachings and its practices but is not. And the false church can span denominations, time, and location.

The term “marks” is just another word for characteristics or “pillars,” these foundational things which can be tested and clearly seen and described.

And today we’re going to talk about the first and the absolute most important mark of the church – The Word of God. And this mark of the church most clearly distinguishes between the true, universal church and the false, anti-church whose lord is the devil.

Let’s go back to Luther and even a few hundred years before him, right around 1,000 AD. What was going on in the world?

During the mid to late Medieval era, on account of things such as feudalism, increased power of the pope, the Turkish (Muslim) invasions and the Crusades, the church was drifting further and further away from a strictly Biblical theology and embracing superstition and philosophy. So much so that, in order to protect its hold over the European people, the pope and bishops didn’t even allow copies of the Scripture to be distributed – of course printing was expensive so only the wealthy could afford books anyway – but even those who could afford a Bible couldn’t read Latin so owning one was pointless.

By the time Luther comes on the scene in the 15th and 16th centuries, the Roman Catholic church had all but abandoned the Bible. In fact, it really didn’t matter all that much what the Bible said; what mattered was what the Pope said the Bible said. And Luther and the reformers did not like this one bit.

So, when Luther talks about the Marks of the church, the very first one he lists is the Word of God. It’s fundamental. You cannot have the true church where the Word of God is subjected to human will or opinion or the false teachings of the devil.

The Christian people of God must be known as a people who have God’s Word. But what is God’s Word? Well, there are three distinct ways in which we can answer, and all three revolve around Scripture.

First, we could say that the Scripture is NOT God’s Word, that God’s Word is just this etheric thing floating around someplace but has no connection to the Bible. And though this has not been a historic belief, it is becoming more and more popular today, even among some church bodies.

Second, we could say that the Scripture IS God’s Word, that God’s Word is fully and completely revealed for us in the Bible – at least as much as we need to know – and that we can fully trust every Word that proceeds from it. This is the orthodox view, the historic view which, even today, most churches still “claim” to believe.

Finally, there is the hybrid view, that the Scripture “contains” God’s Word. This is the pick and choose view, where each individual has authority to determine what is and what isn’t God’s Word in the Bible, and to simply shrug off what is deemed NOT God’s Word.

This view, primarily found in liberal or “liberation” church bodies, is a very tempting one to hold because it allows each individual to become his own lord over the Bible. This means it is also the most dangerous view and the one the devil pushes hard for us to accept.

But, the LCMS is an orthodox and confessional church, and this means we believe the Bible IS the Word of God from cover to cover and not even the most learned of theologians in our synod has authority over the Scripture.

And why is it important that we confess the Scripture as the Word of God? Because people are naturally skeptics. And if we approach the Scripture with a skeptical lens, then we end up judging the Scripture by our own opinions, likes and dislikes, or by the culture around us. And this happens all the time.

Further, if we hold that the Scripture merely “contains” God’s Word, then how can we really trust anything the Scripture says? And if we can’t trust what the Scripture says then what really IS the Christian faith?

One of the biggest reasons behind the 1970’s struggles at the St. Louis seminary and the eventual walk out of the students and some faculty, and the creation of the new ELCA Lutheran church body in the mid 80’s was the issue of Scriptural infallibility. Those who walked out said, “For the sake of Mission, we must subject the Scripture to scrutiny,” while those who stood firm with the LCMS said, “No, for the sake of faithfulness to God, we must abide by the infallible Word of God.” Those who walked out and left the Synod didn’t even assert that a Christian must believe in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Everything in the Scripture was up for grabs, and for the sake of growing the church, missionalism, they were more than willing to abandon the Bible. And now, some 50 years later, we in the LCMS still confess the Scripture as the infallible and without error Word of God.

Now we might read something in the Scripture and say, “But that teaching is not attractive or culturally relevant or will lead people away from the church,” or we might say, “What it plainly says doesn’t make any sense, so we shouldn’t believe it,” which is sort of the way most of the protestant church bodies read the Scripture, with a rationalistic lens.

But what does the Scripture say? “The word of God is living and active, sharper than any double-edged sword. It penetrates even to the point of dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow, even being able to judge the ideas and thoughts of the heart,” Hebrews 4:12. Paul writes, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes,” and “The Word of God sanctifies everything it touches and makes them good.”

The Word of God is administered by the Spirit of God and not by human invention or cleverness which leads to an unfaithful handling of the sacred texts.

And when we subject the Holy Scripture to human reason, what always happens? And we may have good intentions; we may want more people in church and want the Gospel to be heard, but when we take the living and active Word of God and poison it with the sinful thoughts, words, and deeds of culture, of opinion, of postmodern individualism, what happens? Simply put, we lead people away from Christ.

Now, one of the problems in our culture today is the issue of interpretation. Who has the right interpretation, the Lutherans, the Catholics, the Methodists, the Non-denominationals…and we fall into this slump, this fear of not wanting to deal with the division over Scripture because we think it’s complicated, offensive, rude, and it comes off as prideful and the old cliché, “holier than thou.”

But I want you to think about Jesus’ words in our Gospel reading today.

“You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its flavor, how will it become salty again? Then it is no good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled on by people.”

I went back and read commentaries from the church fathers on this passage. I read commentary from Origen, St. Hilary, Cyril of Alexandria, St. Chrysostom, and then I read the commentary from a Lutheran theologian named Lenske, and they all say the same thing. We ARE the salt of the earth, this means that, because we have been given the royal gift of eternal forgiveness of sins, life everlasting, have been filled with the Holy Spirit, and a great inheritance awaits us, that we must remain steadfast in the Word of God. Not just in our understanding, but in our serving the neighbor and how we confess the faith.

If we fall for the abhorrent trap of, “Agree to disagree, everyone has his own interpretation, don’t stand firm on the solid rock,” we become saltless and flavorless and what happens? The world and the wily devil trample on us like we don’t matter.

Imagine if St. Athanasius chickened out when Arius the heretic came and said that Jesus wasn’t God or eternal, where would we be today? Imagine if St. Paul, out of fear of his reputation, stopped preaching the Gospel to the Gentiles in Asia minor. Imagine if, after Christ’s death and resurrection, the Apostles, out of fear of the Jews throwing them in prison, didn’t preach on the Day of Pentecost. Imagine of Christians in the early church, rather than being the light to the world, hid their light under a bowl and told no one of the love of God in Christ, taught no one the Sacraments, were too scared to offend when teaching infant baptism or real presence in the Lord’s Supper, and said nothing. What would we be today? Imagine if Job took the advice of his friends who told him to curse God. Imagine if Luther, out of fear of his life, recanted His writings and teachings about justification by faith alone in Christ alone.

Did they have fears? Sure, every one of them did. Did they worry that they wouldn’t get the words out right? Sure. But they trusted the Word of Christ when He said, “I am with you always; I will not forsake you.”

So then, how do we know what interpretation is the right interpretation?

Well, false teaching doesn’t come from God. So, where does false teaching come from? If not from God, then it either comes from the whims and musings of men, or it comes from the devil. And what good are supposedly Christian teachings or interpretations that come from sinful men or from the devil? False teaching will grow a church very quickly, but in the end, it’s still false teaching.

Now, wherever the Word of God is rightly preached and taught, the devil will fight and holler and scream to silence the Word as he is driven out. He will use violent threats and slanderous attacks AND, as Luther liked rhetorically to say, the devil will always prop up his own beautiful, attractive, seemingly pious chapel next to a church of God. Regardless, wherever the Word of God is rightly taught and preached, know for sure that the people who gather to listen and abide, they are living in the fertile soil of truth, even if it’s only a few people.

But this doesn’t answer the question: how do we know something is false teaching; how do we know what interpretation is right, how do you know that I’m not preaching or teaching you a bunch of lies and false doctrine?

Well, fundamental to historic, orthodox, apostolic Christianity is the concept of “Scripture interprets Scripture” and Luther recognized this. What does this mean? The Bible tells us how it wants to be interpreted and even gives us the tools to do it. Human reason – and human opinion – is the arch enemy of proper biblical interpretation. The thing that makes confessional Lutherans distinct is that we try, really, really hard not to let human reason or opinion get in the way. If it doesn’t make sense, then it doesn’t make sense. If it’s paradoxical, then it’s paradoxical, and we just let it stand.

Luther said that the Scripture provides us with one sense – the literal or natural sense, and every passage, every verse, has one and only one intended meaning. For example, when we read the Book of Acts, we read it as is intended to be read by the author, St. Luke. When we read the Book of Revelation, we read it as the author, St. John, intended – and this means we should familiarize ourselves with the genre of Jewish apocalyptic literature before we go off trying to fit 21st century things or events into 1st century symbols. No, the “locusts” in Revelation are NOT helicopters or drones. I promise you that.

Now, application may be different, and circumstance may take that one intended meaning and apply it in different ways, but it’s still one intended meaning and we cannot misapply that meaning, and this means there cannot be multiple interpretations unless man or the devil is getting in the mix.

The Scripture tells us how to read and interpret. For as Jesus Himself says, all the law and the prophets point to Him. There’s the biblically taught interpretive method: Look for Jesus in the text!

For example, how does the story of David and Goliath proclaim Jesus? A megachurch TV Evangelist said that David and Goliath is all about how you can defeat your “giants,” but that’s not at all correct. David and Goliath is about Jesus. He will strike your head and you will strike his heal…the eighth child, the shepherd, the youngest child, he comes to kill mighty, evil, goliath by cracking his skull and thereby saves Israel and becomes her king. That’s Jesus!

When Peter writes, “Baptism now saves you,” unless there’s something in the context which clearly tells us not to take his words literally, we take Peter at his word and believe that Jesus Himself taught Peter that baptism saves. When Jesus says, “This IS my body, this IS my blood,” unless there is something in the context telling us to take this in some other way, we take it literally, and who cares if it isn’t rational or scientifically provable. Same with the 6-day literal creation. Nothing in the Scripture suggests to us that we should read Genesis 1 in any way but literal. And at the center of it all is Jesus.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, without the Word of God, without the Holy Scripture, we are nothing. We aren’t a church, we aren’t a congregation, we aren’t a light that shines in the community, we aren’t the salt which flavors the earth with the goodness of the Lord, we are nothing.

And as our Lord says, our righteousness must surpass the pharisees. What does this mean? It means that we cannot obtain our eternal kingdom by putting on a good show, an outward song and dance, by appearing righteous before others while being rotten to the core in the heart.

We must instead be clothed in the righteousness of the only One whose righteousness truly can exceed the pharisees. We must wear the righteousness of Christ. And His righteousness is for all who feel and know the depth and breadth of their sin and transgression, for people who have fallen so far from the glory of God and His perfect holiness and Law, for people who have wandered so far, who have nothing…His righteousness is for you.

Repent of your sins; acknowledge your helplessness and need, and then watch what the Word of God does as it wraps you in Jesus, forgives you of your sins, and delivers true, everlasting freedom and hope to your sore and despairing soul.

And brothers and sisters, we are confessional Lutheran Christians. We’re not Methodist, we’re not Baptist, we’re not Presbyterian, we are historic, orthodox, confessional Lutherans. Let us be what we are and not be ashamed of it. Let us confess the faith as we have been taught in the creeds and the Catechism and not hide our confession out of fear of offense or because of a spirit of indifference. Instead, by God’s Word and His Spirit, may we stand firm on the solid rock of our Lord Christ and trust that when we say, “Scripture Alone,” we mean it.