Tragically it takes little to no effort to find congregations where God’s Word is not considered authoritative or sufficient; where man’s interests and felt needs shape the teaching; where ears are tickled with soft truth and self-esteem; where the power and work of the Holy Spirit are abused and blasphemed; where the gospel is little more than a get-rich-quick scheme. All those perversions permeate the church today—in parts of the world, they dominate it.
It’s much harder to find a good church. Some believers are exhausted and disheartened by the search—others give up altogether. But as Cameron pointed out earlier this week, God’s people must not forsake the fellowship found only in the Body of Christ (Hebrews 10:25).
We’ve not been called out of this world, renewed, and transformed just to live in spiritual isolation. God’s people are meant to grow together in Christlikeness—“to stimulate one another to love and good deeds” (Hebrews 10:24). We can’t do that if we’re not faithfully connected to a local body of believers.
Understand that involvement in the local church is a vital non-negotiable. Consequentially the next question is how can we spot good churches among all the bad ones?
While many groups and congregations may self-identify as a church, there are some irreducible biblical essentials that define and drive the true church.
A Great Confession
In Matthew 16, Jesus asked the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16:15).
The first way to identify a true church is by how it answers that question. Do its members echo the confession of Peter, who said in the next verse, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God”? Put simply, do they have a biblical view of Jesus Christ?
A church that does not know, love, and worship the Christ of the Bible does not have a trustworthy foundation.
A Great Communication
Christ’s response to Peter’s confession reveals another fundamental of the true church. Jesus says, “Blessed are you, Simon Barjona, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 16:17).
The true church doesn’t receive its confession from a pope, a college of cardinals, or any magisterial group of men. God Himself communicated His message directly to us through His Word. And the true church is home to people who are subject to the power and authority of Scripture.
The church that holds faithfully to the authority and sufficiency of God’s Word insulates itself from all sorts of spiritual disaster.
A Great Contrast
In 1 Peter 2:11, the apostle identifies his readers as “aliens and strangers” in this world. Hebrews 11:13 refers to God’s people as “strangers and exiles on the earth.”
A fundamental quality of a true church is that it stands in contrast to the world. This world is dominated by those who “not only do [evil things], but also give hearty approval to those who practice them” (Romans 1:32). But the true church lives out Christ’s command in Matthew 5:16, “Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.”
A Great Conquest
The true church is the true church because of Christ’s great sacrifice on its behalf. Through the suffering of Christ, we have been redeemed for eternity. Consider how Paul describes the Lord’s redemptive work: “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Corinthians 5:21).
The consistent message of the true church is that Christ conquered death and hell on the cross. If the cross and the resurrection of Christ are not focal points of the teaching and worship, it’s not a true church.
A Great Conflict
While the true church celebrates Christ’s conquering work, it also understands that a great spiritual conflict still exists in this world. In fact, John MacArthur says “it is foundational to the life of the church to confront everything that works against the purpose of God.”
That starts in the church. Paul warned the Ephesian elders that, “after my departure, savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore, be on the alert” (Acts 20:29-31).
The true church is not blithely skipping through life in this ruined world. It understands the severity of the spiritual conflict all around us, and it works to keep out the corrupting influence of the world and guard the purity of God’s people.
A Great Contradiction
Unlike the prosperity preachers on TV, who feast on the gullibility and greed of their viewers, the true church doesn’t promise fame or a financial windfall. In fact, the life Christ promised to His disciples is anything but incentive-laden.
If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. (Matthew 16:24-25)
The true church doesn’t gather together to increase their fame, influence, or earning potential. They don’t elevate themselves—they eagerly and humbly submit their entire lives to the Lord.
A Great Consummation
Finally, the true church is not consumed with the here and now. It’s not caught up in the cares and trends of the world, or bound to temporal relevance and fleeting popularity. The eyes of God’s people are fixed on the return of Christ and the reward that awaits in eternity.
In the end, the Lord will settle all accounts, meting out His wrath on unrepentant sinners and richly blessing His people. The true church looks forward to this day—more than that, it lives and serves in light of it. The expectation of Christ’s return animates and invigorates all aspects of life in the true church.
These characteristics of a true church are borrowed from John MacArthur’s sermon, “How to Recognize a Real Church, Parts 1-2.” For more detailed explanation of these points, you can listen to John’s sermon here.