Turretin on marks of the true visible church (part 1)

Francis Turretin writes: (underlining emphasis mine–CD)

“Twelfth question; the marks of the church – Is the truth of doctrine which is held in any assembly, or its conformity with the word of God by the pure preaching and profession of the word, and the lawful administration and use of the sacraments, a mark of the true visible church? We affirm against the Romanists.”

I will focus on “the truth of doctrine which is held in any assembly, or its conformity with the word of God by the pure preaching and profession of the word,” and leave aside the rest.

“I. After having treated of the nature, properties and adjuncts of the church, the order demands that we discuss its marks. This question pertains to its exter­nal state and is of the highest importance in religion. For since salvation cannot be obtained except in communion with the true church and many glory in this sacred name who are destitute of its truth, it is of great value to know its true marks that we may be able to distinguish the true fold of Christ from the dens of wolves; and the genuine society of pious Christians (to whose communion we are called) from the conventicles of heretics, which must be shunned by us; also that thus we may know what that assembly is to which it is necessary that we should join ourselves that we may obtain salvation. And because the question can be twofold (the first concerning the true marks, which are asserted by us; the other concerning the false and adulterous which are obtruded by the Romanists), we will discuss each separately and now treat of the first.

An accurate reply is this:

A. The Church is an entity created by God by the power of the gospel with Jesus Christ as her Head and Husband, to the praise of the glory of His grace. Wherever the true Church is found, the true gospel is always found. [Psa 2:6; 46:4-5; 48:1-2,11-13; 50:2; 99:2; 102:13-21; 111:1; 118:22; Isa 2:3; 28:16; 33:5-6; 35:8-10; 52:7; 62:12; Mat 16:18; Act 20:28; Rom 12:4-5; 1Co 12:24,27; Eph 1:6,13; 2:20-22; 5:23-32; Col 1:18; 1Th 1:1; 2Th 1:1; 1Ti 3:15; Tit 1:9; 2:15; Jam 1:21; Rev 21:12] [https://agrammatos.files.wordpress.com/2018/01/ccf.pdf]

Wherever the true Church (assembly of believers) is found, the true gospel is always found.

“II. By marks, however, are commonly understood certain external signs striking the senses by which we arrive at the knowledge of a hidden thing, which are called by the Greeks gnorismata. Now these are either only probable and verisimilar (which are called eikota), of which this is the nature— that they in some measure designate by a probable but least necessary reason a thing; to wit, those which are drawn from external and accidental adjuncts which clothe and attend the thing itself. Others are necessary and essential (which are called tekmeria, which indicate the thing investigated certainly and infallibly: as smoke, fire; respira­tion, life; because they are taken from the essence of the thing or from its inseparable properties). Now we do not here treat of marks of the first order, but of the latter.”

Moving on to get at by what, specifically, are these “external signs” are identifiers or indicators of the “true marks of the true visible church.”

“III. For the truth of a mark, various persons require various things. Some re­quire that it be essential, not accidental; proper and not common; certain, clear and sensible, not doubtful and unevident. Others (as Bellarmine) require that it be proper, somewhat known and inseparable. We think only two are required, to which the others are easily referred —that it be proper and that it be somewhat known. For if it is proper, it is also necessary, essential and inseparable; if some­what known, it is evident and sensible.”

Turretin, let’s go with what is essential to to the gospel, which would be the infallible, inerrant, and authoritative God-breathed Scriptures and the essential gospel doctrines that are based on and are derived from.

“IV. (1) As the church can-be viewed either as to internal and mystical state and as invisible, or as to external state and as visible and instituted, it can be disputed in different ways about its marks. Either inasmuch as it is invisible for recognizing the true elect and believers, in which sense it has for marks faith, hope and love put on by efficacious calling, from which each one is certain of his own calling (2 Pet. 1:10) and by which he renders it at least probably certain to others (Mt. 5:16; Jam. 2:18). But we do not treat of these marks here. Or inasmuch as it is visible and according to the form of collection and external union. Thus concerning its marks, it is inquired what are the marks and characters by which the true visible church (to which believers ought to join themselves for salva­tion) can be known.”

Those whose profession of Christ appears credible we are to judge as our brothers and sisters in Christ.  We are not to judge whether or not they are truly elect in a supernatural sense.  We are to judge based upon their profession (at face value) of sincere and unhypocritical love of Christ and the brethren.

“Grace [be] with all those that love our Lord Jesus Christ in incorruptibility.” (Ephesians 6:24)

“…but the end of the commandment is love out of a pure heart and a good conscience, and faith not pretended.” (1 Timothy 1:5)

” … taking recollection of the unpretended faith in you, which first dwelt in your grandmother Lois and [in] your mother Eunice, and I am assured that [it is] also in you.” (2 Timothy 1:5)

“Having purified your souls in the obedience of the truth through the Spirit to unpretended brotherly love, love one another fervently out of a pure heart.” (1 Peter 1:22).

It is our prayer that none of these initial professors of the true gospel will turn out like Demas, Korah, Dathan, Abiram, or those general persons mentioned in these passages:

“They went out from us, but they were not of us. For if they were of us, they would have remained with us; but [they left] so that it might be revealed that they all are not of us.” (1 John 2:19)

“For also heresies need to be among you, so that the approved ones may become revealed among you.” (1 Corinthians 11:19)

Why don’t Paul and John make a possible allowance for the “mature and balanced” consideration that the heretical disapproved ones are simply “duller brethren” who have been blanketed by many layers and years of tradition, and have “just been taught wrong”? [James R. White makes arguments like this all the time to defend obvious God-haters.]

“V. (2) The question does not concern the marks of the Christian church in general; for the profession of Christianity sufficiently distinguishes this from the heathen and other unbelievers. But it is treated in particular of the marks of a particular visible church that we may distinguish an orthodox and purer church from a heterodox and heretical; so that this being found wanting, we may betake ourselves to the communion of that. Thus a twofold confederation of Christians must be distinguished here. One general, founded upon the profession of Christi­anity and contained in the Apostles’ Creed and baptism as marks of Christianity, which indeed can suffice to constitute a baptized Christian, but certainly not to the obtaining of salvation; since it is often exposed to various fundamental er­rors, in faith as well as in worship. The other special, in a communion which has the purity of the word and the sacraments, mingled with no heresy and idolatry, in which salvation can be obtained (concerning which we properly treat here). Not in what manner a society of Christians can be distinguished from an assem­bly of pagans, Turks and other unbelievers; but how of the various assemblies which profess the name of Christ, the true and orthodox can be distinguished from the false and heretical, which are unworthy of the name of the true church.”

As was cited before, where the true Church is found, the true gospel is always found.  But this is not a “mark in general” (or even as a mark of only one particular assembly), as if the true gospel is to be believed by Christ’s assembly “in general” (or one assembly in particular), but not by EVERY SINGLE SAVED (REGENERATE) PERSON WITHOUT EXCEPTION.

The crucial question is:  What are the doctrines, that, if a person does not believe them, we can say that they are not saved?  The “every single saved (regenerate) person without exception” is a Biblical weapon to combat and counter such insidious separations as Machen’s:

“What then is our conclusion? Is belief in the virgin birth necessary to every man if he is to be a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ? The question is wrongly put when it is put in that way. Who can tell exactly how much knowledge of the facts about Christ is necessary if a man is to have saving faith? None but God can tell. Some knowledge is certainly required, but how much is required we cannot say. ‘Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief’ said a man in the Gospel who was saved. Though today there are many men of little faith, many who are troubled by the voices that are heard on all sides…What right have we to say that full knowledge and full conviction are necessary before a man can put his trust in the crucified and risen Lord? What right have we to say that no man can be saved before he has come to a full conviction regarding the stupendous miracle narrated in the first chapters of Mathew and Luke?…One thing at least is clear: even if the belief in the virgin birth is not necessary to every Christian, it is necessary to Christianity. And it is necessary to the corporate witness of the Church….Let it never be forgotten that the virgin birth is an integral part of the New Testament witness about Christ, and that that witness is strongest when it is taken as it stands.” (J. Gresham Machen, The Virgin Birth of Christ (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1930), pp. 395-396; underlining mine–CD).

Machen exhibits abject capitulation, fornication, pride, false humility, and utter contempt for God’s truth.  Continuing with Turretin:

“VI. Now although in assigning the marks of the true church, a certain diversity in words occurs among the orthodox, still they agree in the thing itself. For whether it is called one alone (to wit, the truth of doctrine and conformity with the word of God) or many (to wit, the pure preaching of the word with the lawful adminis­tration of the sacraments, to which some add the exercise of discipline and holi­ness of life or obedience given to the word), it is all the same thing. For where the truth obtains publicly, there also love and holiness nourish in their own way; nor can the pure word of God be preached anywhere without the sacraments being also administered lawfully in the same place and the discipline prescribed in the word of God being observed and thriving, since these two flow from the word of God and are appendages of it.”

If there is true agreement regarding things related to the efficacious atonement of the true gospel, then there is nothing at all wrong with “a certain diversity of words.”  We must always hearken back to how the apostle Paul had judged the Judaizers in Galatia as unregenerate false brethren (Galatians 1:8-9).  Paul and the Judaizers were NOT fighting over optional gospel doctrines, divisive logomachies, or “mere shibboleths” like some tolerant Calvinists would like to have it if they were more forthright and consistent in their rejection of efficacious atonement.

VII. Further we must observe about these marks:

(1) That there are different degrees of necessity and some are more necessary than others. In the first degree of necessity is the pure preaching and profession of the word, since without it the church cannot exist. But the administration of the sacraments does not have an equal degree of necessity which so depends upon the former that it may nevertheless be wanting for a time (as was the case with the Israelite church in the desert, which was without circumcision). The same is the case with discipline, which pertains to the defense of the church, but which, being removed or corrupted, the church is not immediately taken away.

(2) There is a certain latitude of these marks as they admit various degrees of purity— now more perfect, then more imperfect, as they more or less approach to the rule of Scripture (hence they argue a church either purer or impurer. But not on this account is this latitude to be extended so far as that fundamental errors should be tolerated, but only faults and lighter errors. As therefore that society cannot retain the name of a true church which cherishes capital errors overturning the foundation of salva­tion, so it does not straightway lose the name of a true church which impinges anywhere upon doctrine. And although it can no longer be called a pure church, still it does not cease to be a true church. Hay and stubble do not immediately take away the dignity of a church from any assembly, provided it is not built upon them as a foundation, according to the rule of the apostle (1 Cor. 3:12).

(3) The church can be viewed either as constituted or as to be constituted; either in a pure and uncorrupted state or in an impure and partly corrupt state. The ques­tion is here instituted concerning its marks—with respect to the former and not the latter state.

(4) The opinion of the church is not to be estimated from the private opinions of rulers and bishops who, seized with a frenzy for disputes, often pass over to steep places, which nevertheless are either not understood or are not approved by the church. Rather the opinion of the church is to be esti­mated from the doctrine and practice publicly received and retained.”

Regarding point (1).  The primacy of gospel is most important (e.g., Gospel Atonement, Gospel Resurrection, and Gospel Repentance).

“This edition of Outside the Camp dedicated to some basic moral issues. This is not something on which we have typically focused; our main focus has been and continues to be in the area of gospel doctrine. However, there is a critical need to take a stand regarding some moral issues with which we are faced. We have already taken such a stand in our assembly and in our numerous conversations and correspondences with people, and it is now time to bring these things together into articles.

We are, of course, going to be accused of legalism by the antinomians, just as we have been accused of antinomianism by the legalists. (In fact, we have even been accused of believing that a regenerate person can believe all the right doctrines and yet live in immorality.) But this just comes with the territory.

The truth is that promoting morality and promoting salvation by grace alone are absolutely compatible, as the apostle Paul showed many times. Our morality forms absolutely no part of the ground of our acceptance before God, and all who have been accepted before God based on the work of Christ alone will have lives characterized by morality – not in order to gain or maintain acceptance before God, but out of love for God who saved us based on nothing in ourselves.

We must also mention judgment based on morality. We cannot judge someone to be a believer based on that person’s moral lifestyle, since there are moral unbelievers. Judgment must still be made on gospel doctrine. Not all who live moral lives are saved; in fact, most who live moral lives are unsaved. On the other hand, all who are saved will live moral lives. Thus, if anyone lives a life that is characterized by immorality, he is unsaved; he shows he does not believe the gospel. But if we encounter someone whose life is characterized by morality, we do not know if that person is saved or unsaved until we know what gospel doctrine he believes or does not believe. Two people can look the same in character and conduct who are in opposite spiritual states. The primacy of doctrine in making judgments remains.”

On Turretin’s point (2) regarding “churches” more or less “pure.”  Consider the wicked Westminster Confession of Faith’s, Of Marriage and Divorce (24.5).  The theologians at Westminster Abbey gave a nefarious nod to the commission of and continuance in adultery.  Is a “church” who is guilty of tolerating, endorsing, and encouraging adultery, based on the framers’ making up their own unscriptural justification of it (“as if the offending party were dead”), a merely “less pure” true assembly?  Or is it a synagogue of Satan, a haunt of adulterers and adulteresses that is filled with that putrid stench that reaches the Holy nostrils of God, who says that adulterers will be judged and will not inherit His kingdom (1 Corinthians 6:9-10; Galatians 5:19-21; Hebrews 13:4)?  [cf. John Piper on divorce and remarriage]

“VIII. Since the truth and conformity of doctrine with the word of God or the sincere preaching and observance of the gospel are said to be the proper marks for distinguishing the church, others are not excluded, but included.  For whether or not you attend to the voice of God, it is the word; or the faith of men, it is about the word; or life and obedience, it is the fruit of the word; or good order (eutaxian), it is from the word; or the sacraments, they are seals and appendages of the word, and the word visible. And thus wherever we turn our eyes, the divine word is a true criterion (feriterion) of the church, which on that account is said to be a standard, scepter, light, rule and balance by whose polar star and rule all things must be examined. However, a mark can be spoken of in two ways: either with respect to the efficient cause (to wit, God, who uses it to sealing the true church); or with respect to the receiving subject (when received by the hearers it brings forth the fruits of faith and piety, from which it is known).”

Regarding how the fruits of righteousness which are by Jesus Christ (Philippians 1:11) relate to genuine and unfeigned belief in the true gospel.  Marc writes the following in a short piece called, “Judging by the gospel.”  Marc writes:

“Most certainly an unbeliever can outwardly profess belief in the true gospel, explain the specifics of the true gospel, can tell himself and others that he believes the true gospel, and can even say that all who do not believe the true gospel are lost, and STILL be unregenerate! I think of Philippians 1:16 where Paul says that there are some who proclaim the TRUE GOSPEL out of pretense and not out of sincerity; these people are obviously unsaved, yet they preach the true gospel — thus, they know enough of it to preach it. I think of Bill Parker as a contemporary example. He certainly can articulate the true gospel and even says that all Arminians and tolerant Calvinists are lost, yet he doesn’t live what he preaches.”

Samuel writes:

“please give me more insight in this matter, I put before you this two quotes,how both can be use to discern the true saved person from unsaved? judge by confession of gospel plus life or only confession of gospel? I am not denying to live,pursue the holy life, the work of Holy Spirit,sanctified life of a believer! I hope you will get what I am asking!”

[Marc writes]:

“Dear Samuel,

Great question!

Let’s first go to the issue of Bill Parker, since this is what prompted your response. Bill Parker articulates the true gospel and even says that all Arminians and tolerant Calvinists are lost. Yet he speaks peace to people who deny the gospel! We know he speaks peace to Mark McCulley and to Henry Mahan. So even though he says the right things, his peace-speaking shows that he is unregenerate. So he claims to believe the true gospel, yet he is a hypocrite. This shows that he does not truly believe the true gospel. So we still judge Bill Parker to be lost based on the gospel.

Let’s now go to the issue of a person who claims to believe the true gospel but who is an immoral person. I’ll use the extreme example of a homosexual. Suppose a person answers all my questions correctly yet is a homosexual. Would you say he is saved? Of course not. Although he professes to believe the true gospel, his lifestyle shows that he does not believe the true gospel. This is what the Confession means when it says, ‘Some people may show by their lawless way of life that they do not believe the gospel.’

Now let’s go to the issue of a person to whom we have never spoken who is an immoral person. Again, I’ll use the extreme example of a homosexual. Do I need to personally go to that person to see what gospel he confesses before I judge him lost? No. The fact that he is a homosexual is enough to judge him lost. Again, ‘Some people may show by their lawless way of life that they do not believe the gospel.’ This is a ‘short-cut,’ if you will, to judge that some people do not believe the gospel.

Notice in the last two paragraphs that I am still judging ultimately by the gospel — the person’s immoral lifestyle shows me that he does not believe the gospel. We must make judgments as to whether or not a person believes the gospel. When I see a homosexual, I make a judgment that he does not believe the gospel.

Now let’s go to #4. We’ve already seen the first part of it. Let’s look at it in its entirety:

‘Some people may show by their lawless way of life that they do not believe the gospel, but no one can demonstrate by his law-keeping that he believes the gospel; for there are many whose lives appear to conform to the law of God who are yet unregenerate. Therefore, let no man be judged by his reputation, good works, sufferings, appearance, or any other standard but the gospel.’

The first part shows that a lawless way of life is an indication of not believing the gospel. Thus, all immoral people are unregenerate. Yet the second part shows that, just because someone is a moral person, this does not necessarily mean that he is regenerate. Thus, not all moral people are regenerate. This is what the second part talks about. It is talking about judging moral people by their reputation, good works, sufferings, appearance, etc. We cannot judge a person to be a Christian just because he is moral. We need to find out what gospel he believes. In contrast with the homosexual (where we do not need to know what he confesses), in the case of the moral person, we do need to know what he confesses in order to make a judgment. Do you see the difference?

#5 states that those who refuse to judge by what this moral person confesses but instead judge by that person’s outward appearance/morality or by a false gospel, show themselves to be unregenerate.

We are still judging by the standard of the gospel in all cases. But in certain cases, we need to know what the person confesses, while in other cases, we can tell by the person’s lifestyle.

Here’s something that I hope will simplify it:

All Christians are moral.

Not all who are moral are Christians.

All immoral people are not Christians.

Thus, since all Christians believe the gospel:

All who believe the gospel are moral.

Not all who are moral believe the gospel.

All immoral people do not believe the gospel.

So, when it comes to making judgments:

Among those who are moral, we need to know what gospel they believe by finding out what gospel they confess.

Among immoral people, we already know that they believe a false gospel.

And in the case of people like Bill Parker, we sometimes find out that those who are moral and profess to believe the true gospel can be hypocrites, speaking peace when there is no peace, contrary to what they profess.

I hope this makes things clear for you. Please feel free to ask more questions if you need to.

In Christ,



The section of the CCF on Judging righteous judgment (i.e., judging saved and lost by the gospel that one believes is the power (dunamis) of God to salvation to everyone believing (Romans 1:16).