Editorial Note: With permission from the Arthur S. Maxwell estate and the Review and Herald Publishing Association, it is a pleasure to present for Elder’s Digest readers this inspiring and enlightening chapter from the classic, Your Bible and You. The reprinting of this chapter is intended to offer readers a resource and model for sharing this important message with others.
There are more than 200 denominations in the USA alone. Most of these are nominally Christian, varying in belief from “left” to “right,” from extreme liberal to extreme conservative.
Some are large organizations with millions of members, while many are small splinter groups with comparatively few adherents. All, however, have one point in common. Each group believes that it is the chief—if not the exclusive— repository of truth and therefore has a duty under God to continue its separate witness. Some openly claim to be the true church of Jesus Christ, with a prior claim upon God’s favor.
Because of such a confusing situation, it is no wonder that many, both within and without these organizations, are asking, Which, if any, is the true church? Maybe you have asked this question yourself.
Sometimes it is said that the true church is invisible, being made up of people of all denominations who love the Lord in sincerity and try to serve Him the best they know how. There may be some truth in this. Nevertheless, there is no good reason that the true church should not be visible. As your Bible makes clear, the time will come when good people everywhere will detach themselves from their present affiliations and identify themselves with the body that most closely conforms to God’s ideals in this present evil world. See Rev - elation 18:4. 1
Suppose someday you should look for such a body; what should you ex - pect to find? What should it teach? What should be its standards ?
Here again your Bible can be a lamp to your feet and a light to your path. Within its pages you will find all the specifications necessary for easy identification.
1. IT WILL RADIATE THE LOVE OF GOD.
Says Jesus: “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35, RSV). Love is para - mount. Any group that is critical, censorious, and legalistic could not possibly be the true church. “He who does not love does not know God,” says the apostle John, “for God is love” (1 John 4:8, RSV). “Beloved,” he adds, “let us love one another; for love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and loves God” (verse 7). Again, in verse 16, he says, “God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.”
In his great chapter on love the apostle Paul suggests that though a group claim to have apostles, prophets, teachers, and even miracle workers, if it does not manifest love, it is no more than a “noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” See 1 Corinthians 12:28–13:1, RSV.
In other words, love, expressed in kindness, graciousness, tolerance, and compassion, is the most conspicuous sign of the true church.
2. IT WILL EXALT JESUS CHRIST AS THE SON OF GOD.
Once when Jesus was talking with His disciples He asked them to tell Him who they thought He was. “Simon Peter answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus replied, “Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:16, 18).
“Upon this rock” Christ builds His church. Not upon Peter, of course, but upon Peter’s glorious affirmation of the divinity of Christ. Belief in this great truth is fundamental. As Paul says: “If thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved” (Romans 10:9).
“Neither is there salvation in any other,” says Peter: “for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
Declares John: “Whosoever shall confess that Jesus is the Son of God, God dwelleth in him, and he in God” (1 John 4:15). And what is true of the individual is true also of a religious group. Unless it exalts Jesus Christ as the Son of God and confesses His divinity before men, it is not and cannot be the true church. See Matthew 10:32, 33.
3. IT WILL HONOR THE BIBLE AS THE WORD OF GOD.
In his second letter to Timothy, the apostle Paul says: “All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16, 17, RSV).
Bidding farewell to the Christians in Ephesus, he says: “I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified” (Acts 20:32, RSV).
Likewise he tells the Romans: “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope” (Romans 15:4, RSV).
Peter says that the Word of God “liveth and abideth forever” (1 Peter 1:23), and that the “holy men of God” who wrote it spoke “as they were moved by the Holy Ghost” (2 Peter 1:21).
Such was the attitude of the early Christians to the Holy Scriptures. They revered them as the inspired word of God. So will the true church today.
4. IT WILL REGARD THE TEN COMMANDMENTS AS THE HOLY LAW OF GOD.
“By this we may be sure that we know him,” says the apostle John, “if we keep his commandments. He who says ‘I know him’ but disobeys his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him; but whoever keeps his word, in him truly love for God is perfected. By this we may be sure that we are in him: he who says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked” (1 John 2:3–6, RSV).
So if we “know him” and if we are “in him” we will keep His commandments and walk as He walked.
How did Jesus walk? Unquestionably in the way of the Ten Commandments. “I have kept my Father’s commandments,” He says, “and abide in his love” (John 15:10). Again: “Think not that I am come to destroy the law or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil” (Matthew 5:17).
One great purpose of His first advent was to “magnify the law, and make it honourable” (Isaiah 42:21), and such will be the purpose of His true church in every age. Indeed, it is said of His people in the last days of earth’s history: “Here are they that keep the commandments of God, and the faith of Jesus” (Revelation 14:12).
5. IT WILL OBSERVE THE SEVENTH DAY AS GOD’S SABBATH.
It is inconceivable that God’s true church could keep any other day than His day. And His day, as your Bible so clearly points out, is the seventh day.
Observance of the seventh day is, in fact, an outstanding sign of the true church. “It is a sign,” God says, “between me and you throughout your generations; that ye may know that I am the Lord that doth sanctify you” (Exodus 31:13).
This is repeated in Ezekiel 20:12: “I gave them my sabbaths, to be a sign between me and them, that they might know that I am the Lord that sanctify them.”
So the true Sabbath is not only a memorial of Creation but also of sanctification. It was designed to remind God’s people of His power to create and redeem. Consequently, it is a most fitting sign of His true church in every age, throughout all generations.
6. IT WILL PRACTICE THE BIBLICAL METHOD OF BAPTISM.
This follows very simply from the command of Jesus to His disciples: “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost” (Matthew 28:19).
Baptism in Bible times was not by sprinkling, but by immersion. You will find an example of this in Acts 8:38, where Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch “went down both into the water” and later came up “out of the water.” And there was good reason for this method, as Paul points out in his letter to the Romans.
“Know ye not,” he says, “that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death? Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:3, 4).
By allowing himself to be lowered under the water a new member of the church signified his willingness to die to his old life of sin. By rising out of the water he declared his determination to live a new life in Christ.
It was a fitting introduction to the true church, and its valuable meaning has not changed with the passing years.
7. IT WILL CELEBRATE THE LORD’S SUPPER IN SIMPLICITY.
Says the apostle Paul to the Corinthians: “I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you, That the Lord Jesus the same night in which he was betrayed took bread: and when he had given thanks, he brake it, and said, Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of me.
“After the same manner also he took the cup, when he had supped, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood; this do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me. For as often as ye eat this bread and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord’s death till he come” (1 Corinthians 11:23–26).
Here is something the true church will do till the end of time. No grand and pompous ceremony is called for, but the reverent partaking of bread and wine in memory of the sufferings and sacrifice of its Founder.
How simple was the first such service is revealed in Matthew 26:20–30, Luke 22:7–20, and Mark 14:17–25, and John adds the sweet story of how, in preparation for the solemn ceremony, Jesus humbly knelt and washed His disciples’ feet. “If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet,” He says, “ye also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you. . . . If ye know these things, happy are ye if ye do them” (John 13:14–17).
The true church will be found following Jesus’ bidding and example.
8. IT WILL POSSESS THE GIFTS OF THE SPIRIT.
When the Holy Spirit came upon the early church He brought “diversities of gifts” (1 Corinthians 12:4). To one was given “the word of wisdom; to another the word of knowledge by the same Spirit; to another faith by the same Spirit; to another the gifts of healing by the same Spirit; to another the working of miracles; to another prophecy; to another discerning of spirits; to another divers kinds of tongues; to another the interpretation of tongues” (verses 8–11).
Each of these gifts was for the help and blessing of the church. Those receiving them were to work together in harmony for the edification of the entire membership, with no exaltation of one above another.
Repeating this information to the Ephesians, Paul says: “He gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:11–13).
In view of the fact that these gifts are to remain with the church until it attains “the stature of the fulness of Christ,” it is reasonable to assume that some, if not all of them, are still available to the true church. Where they are most in evidence, that church is likely to be found.
9. IT WILL BE MODEST IN APPEARANCE, GENTLE IN SPIRIT.
It would be hard to associate the church of the humble Galilean with lavish display, ornate ceremonies, and wasteful extravagance. Such things are completely out of harmony with His life of humble, holy, selfless service for others.
Says the apostle Peter, remembering the precious days by Galilee, “As he which hath called you is holy, so be ye holy in all manner of conversation.” Then he bids women not to overdress, but rather to put on “the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit, which is in the sight of God of great price.” To men he says, “Love as brethren, be pitiful, be courteous: not rendering evil for evil, or railing for railing” (1 Peter 3:1–9).
This is the sort of church God wants today. Its members will manifest the same beautiful spirit both in their private lives and corporate activities.
10. IT WILL BE CLEANLIVING, UPRIGHT, AND NOBLE, EAGER TO HELP IN ALL GOOD WORKS.
The grace of God, says the apostle Paul, teaches us that “denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world,” if for no other reason than that Jesus “gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works” (Titus 2:12, 14).
Likewise Peter describes the followers of Jesus as “a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people.”
“As strangers and pilgrims,” he exhorts them, “abstain from fleshly lusts, which war against the soul; having your conversation honest among the Gentiles: that . . . they may by your good works, which they shall behold, glorify God in the day of visitation” (1 Peter 2:11, 12).
Ever seeking by divine grace to emulate the perfect example of their beloved Master, members of the true church will be conspicuous for their upright and noble lives and their eagerness to help the needy. When disaster strikes, be it fire, flood, or famine, they will be first in line to serve their fellow men.
11. IT WILL LOOK EAGERLY FOR CHRIST’S RETURN.
This outreach to others will be an outgrowth of a firm belief in the personal return of Jesus. The church that is “zealous for good deeds” will look with longing for the fulfillment of the blessed hope, “the appearing of the glory of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13, RSV).
It will cherish the Master’s promise, “If I go . . . , I will come again” (John 14:1–3).
It will be ever on the alert for the promised signs of His return (Luke 21:25–27).
It will heed His solemn warning to “watch” with increasing vigilance as it sees the day approaching (Matthew 24:42), while its constant prayer will be “Even so, come, Lord Jesus” (Revelation 22:20).
Belief in Christ’s second advent is indeed one of the most vital marks of the true church.
12. IT WILL HAVE A WORLD PROGRAM.
It cannot help it. Ringing in its ears will be the Master’s command:
“Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15). Nor will it ever forget His prediction: “This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come” (Matthew 24:14).
“Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature.” Mark 16:15
In the light of these great passages of Scripture, the true church will not confine its activities to one locality, or one country, or even one continent. Its eyes will roam over the whole wide world. Its vision and compassion will reach to “every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people” (Revelation 14:6).
With a mission program that encircles the globe, its members will dedicate themselves and their all to completing the proclamation of “the everlasting gospel” in order that their beloved Lord may soon return in glory. Fearlessly, daringly, confidently, they will cry “with a loud voice” to all mankind, “Fear God, and give glory to him, for the hour of his judgment is come: and worship him that made heaven, and earth, and the sea, and the fountains of waters” (verse 7).
If you should ever hear this message, look at its messengers and their manner of life. Examine their credentials in the light of your Bible. See whether they fit in with the twelve identifying marks set forth in this chapter. If they do, let your heart leap with joy. You may well have discovered God’s true church, the spiritual home you have been seeking.
1 All biblical quotations are from the KJV, unless otherwise indicated.
Arthur S. Maxwell was a well-known author, editor, and administrator. He wrote a total of 112 books during his lifetime and is known affectionately around the world as “Uncle Arthur,” the author of Bedtime Stories and The Bible Story.