Traditionally, there are three marks of the church: the preaching of the Word, the administration of the Sacraments, and discipline. The Belgic Confession (Article 29) states,
“The true church is to be recognized by the following marks: It practices the pure preaching of the gospel. It maintains the pure administration of the sacraments as Christ instituted them. It exercises church discipline for correcting and punishing sins. In short, it governs itself according to the pure Word of God, rejecting all things contrary to it and regarding Jesus Christ as the only Head. Hereby the true church can certainly be known and no one has the right to separate from it.”
What is undoubtedly being captured here is a purity or commitment to Scripture as the only rule for faith and life, and the lordship of Christ. The preaching of the gospel and administration of the sacraments comes from Acts 2:42, “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” Discipline then came into view given the guarding of the preached Word and the sacraments. Scripture speaks to all three issues, so this is not a question of whether it is Biblical. As much as these three marks should be affirmed, the Bible characterizes the church in a manner that the three marks ought to rest upon. The characteristic I am referring to is love.
Jesus spoke of love many times, but one that stands out occurs on the night of his betrayal. Shortly after washing the disciples’ feet Jesus says,
“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” – John 13:34-35
What further impresses upon me this notion that love is the central, foundational mark of the church is John Murray’s excellent words to begin his book, Redemption Accomplished and Applied,
“The accomplishment of redemption is concerned with what has been generally called the atonement. No treatment of the atonement can be properly oriented that does not trace its source to the free and sovereign love of God. It is with this perspective that the best known text in the Bible provides us: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). Here we have an ultimate of divine revelation and therefore of human thought. Beyond this we cannot and dare not go.”
If Murray is correct, and I think he is, then the very heart of salvation in Christ is found in God’s love. This is the good news of Jesus Christ. Salvation in Christ is born from God’s love. Yes, there should be faithful preaching, administration of sacraments and discipline, but what must precede these marks is love.