• November 12, 2020
  • BY Scott Lilly
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Martin Luther: “The Marks of the Church”

In On the Councils and the Church, Luther disputes (among other things) the claims that Protestant congregations cannot be true churches. While one could add to his seven marks which display a true congregation, one certainly would affirm these marks of the church as clear. I have left out most of the railings against the pope and his policies, but left a few in, since they give you a flavor for what he is arguing against in his historical context.

1: We shall speak to one another about the Church. The Creed teaches us that a people of God must be on earth and remain until the end of the world. But how can a poor, erring man know where this Christian, holy people in the world is? First, This Christian, holy people are to be known by this, that it has God’s Word. It is the high, chief, holy possession from which the Christian people take the name “holy,” for God’s Word is holy and sanctifies everything it touches; nay, it is the very holiness of God. Romans 1:16 says, “It is God’s power, which saves all who believe thereon,” and 2 Timothy 4:3, “It is all made holy by the Word of God and prayer”; for the Holy Ghost Himself administers it, and anoints and sanctifies the Church, that is, the Christian, holy people, with it and not with the pope’s chrism, with which he anoints, or sanctifies fingers, garb, cloaks, cups, and stones. These things never teach us to love, believe, and praise God, and be godly. They only adorn the bag of worms, but afterwards they fall apart and decay, with the chrism and whatever holiness is in it, and with the bag of worms itself. But this relic is the true relic, the true unction, which anoints to everlasting life, even though you can have no papal tiara or bishop’s miter. We speak, however, of the external Word orally preached by men like you and me. For Christ left this behind Him as an outward sign whereby His Church, His Christian, holy people in the world, was to be recognized. Wherever, therefore, you hear or see this Word preached, believed, confessed, and acted on, there do not doubt that there must be a true ecclesia sancta catholica, a Christian, holy people, even though it be small in numbers; for God’s Word does not go away empty ( Isaiah 55:11), but must have at least a fourth part, or a piece of the field. If there were no other mark than this one alone, it would still be enough to show that there must be a Christian church there; for God’s Word cannot be present without God’s people, and God’s people cannot be without God’s Word. Who would preach or listen to preaching, if no people of God were there? And what could or would God’s people believe, if God’s Word were not there? This is the thing that does all miracles, sets everything to rights, upholds everything, accomplishes everything, does everything.


2:  God’s people, or the Christian holy people, are known by the holy Sacrament of Baptism, when it is rightly taught and believed and used according to Christ’s ordinance. That, too, is a public sign and precious, holy possession. Where you see this mark, know that the holy Christian people must be there, even though the pope does not baptize you. Do not be confused by the question of who does the baptizing; for baptism does not belong to the baptizer and is not given to him, but it belongs to him who is baptized, for whom it was established by God and to whom it is given; just as the Word of God does not belong to the preacher (except in so far as he hears and believes it) but to him who hears and believes, and to him it is given.


3:  God’s people, or a Christian, holy Church is known by the holy Sacrament of the Altar, when it is rightly administered according to Christ’s institution and is believed and received. That, too, is a public mark and precious, holy possession, bequeathed by Christ, whereby His people is made holy. By means of this sacrament it exercises itself in faith, and openly confesses that it is a Christian people, as it does also by means of the Word of God and baptism. Where you see this sacrament administered with a right usage, be sure that God’s people is there. It was said above about the Word, where God’s Word is, there must the Church be; so, also, where Baptism and the Sacrament are must God’s people be, and vice versa.


4:  The people of God, or holy Christians, are known by the keys, which they publicly use. Christ decrees, in Matthew 18:15 that if a Christian sins, he shall be rebuked, and if he does not amend his ways, he shall be bound and cast out; but if he amends, he shall be set free. This is the power of the keys. Now the use of the keys is twofold, — public, and private. Now wherever you see the sins of some persons forgiven or rebuked, publicly or privately, know that God’s people are there; for if God’s people are not there, the keys are not there; and if the keys are not there, God’s people are not there. Christ has bequeathed them as a public mark and holy possession. The keys belong, not to the pope, as he lyingly says, but to the Church, that is, to Christ’s people, God’s people, the holy Christian people throughout the world, or wherever there are Christians. They cannot all be at Rome, unless the whole world were at Rome, and that has not happened yet. As Baptism, the Sacrament, and God’s Word do not belong to the pope but to the Church, so with the keys, they are claves ecclesia (keys of the church), not claves papae (keys of the pope).


5:  The Church is known outwardly by the fact that it consecrates or calls ministers, or has offices which they occupy. For we must have bishops, pastors, or preachers, to give, administer and use, publicly and privately, the four things, or precious possessions, that have been mentioned, for the sake of and in the name of the Church, or rather because of their institution by Christ, as St. Paul says in Ephesians 4:11, “and gave some to be apostles, prophets, evangelists, teachers and shepherds, etc.” The whole group cannot do these things, but must commit them, or allow them to be committed, to someone. What would happen if everyone wanted to speak or administer the sacraments and no one would yield to another? Wherever you see this, be assured that God’s people, the Christian, holy people, are present.


6:  The holy, Christian people are known by prayer and public thanksgiving and praise to God. Where you see and hear that the Lord’s Prayer is prayed and the use of it is taught; where Psalms, or spiritual songs, are sung, in accordance with the Word of God and the right faith; when the Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Catechism are openly used; — there be sure that a holy Christian people is; for prayer, too, is one of the precious holy possessions, whereby everything is made holy, as St. Paul says.


7:  The holy, Christian Church is outwardly known by the holy possession of the Holy Cross. It must endure all hardship and persecution, all kinds of temptation and evil (as the Lord’s Prayer says) from devil, world, and flesh; it must be inwardly sad, timid, terrified; outwardly poor, despised, sick, weak; thus it becomes like its head, Christ. The reason must be only this, — that it holds fast to Christ and God’s Word and thus suffers for Christ’s sake, according to Matthew 5:10, “Blessed are they that endure persecution for my sake.”


These are the true seven chief parts of the high and holy possession whereby the Holy Ghost works in us a daily sanctification and vivification in Christ. I would even call these seven things the seven sacraments, but this word, “sacrament,” has been misused by the papists and is used in another sense in Scripture, therefore I let them remain simply seven chief means of Christian sanctification, or seven holy possessions.


~ From Martin Luther’s On the Councils and the Church

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