The True Marks of the Church: A Reflection on Luther’s Teachings

FELSISA and the Mission of Lutheran Churches. kansas-sunset-crosses-standing-tall-and-proud

By Matthew C. Harrison, printed with permission from the ©2022 Reporter (www.reporter.lcms.org), the official newspaper of the LCMS)

The LCMS seeks church fellowship with churches around the world who clearly confess and hold to the “marks” of the church. Having “faith” or being a pious person is not a sufficient mark upon which the church and its unity depend. Faith is unseen. The appearance of it can be faked, or it can contain errors. 

The true “marks” of the church are evident to all and provide sufficient grounds to identify the presence of true fellowship. As Luther notes, even when they are present but obscured by false teaching or belief, they still gather Christians. Article VII of the Augsburg Confession defines the marks of the church as the “pure” preaching of the Gospel and the “right” administration of the Sacraments. Luther, in “On the Councils and the Church” (1539), expands the number of marks, and this document is referenced as authoritative by our Formula of Concord. I’ve abridged Luther’s comments below. Though we know and thank God that enough of His Word is present also outside orthodox Lutheranism to bring many to Christ, for the purpose of being in fellowship with other church bodies, Holy Scripture requires that we hold to these marks as the sole standard for recognising such fellowship (i.e., shared proclamation of the Gospel and participation in the Sacraments).

Luther’s Works on the marks of the church

Christ promises, “I am with you always, to the close of the age” [Matt. 28:20]. But how will or how can a poor confused person tell where such Christian holy people are to be found in this world?

First, the holy Christian people are recognised by their possession of the holy word of God. To be sure, not all have it in equal measure, as St. Paul says [1 Cor. 3:12–14]. Some possess the word in its complete purity, others do not. Those who have the pure word are called those who “build on the foundation with gold, silver, and precious stones”; those who do not have it in its purity are the ones who “build on the foundation with wood, hay, and straw,” and yet will be saved through fire. … This is the principal item, and the holiest of holy possessions, by reason of which the Christian people are called holy; for God’s word is holy and sanctifies everything it touches; it is indeed the very holiness of God, Romans 1:16, “It is the power of God for salvation to every one who has faith,” and 1 Timothy 4:5, “Everything is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.” …

Second, God’s people or the Christian holy people are recognised by the holy sacrament of baptism, wherever it is taught, believed, and administered correctly according to Christ’s ordinance. That too is a public sign and a precious, holy possession by which God’s people are sanctified. …

Third, God’s people, or Christian holy people, are recognised by the holy sacrament of the altar, wherever it is rightly administered, believed, and received, according to Christ’s institution. This too is a public sign and a precious, holy possession left behind by Christ by which his people are sanctified so that they also exercise themselves in faith and openly confess that they are Christian, just as they do with the word and with baptism. …

Fourth, God’s people or holy Christians are recognised by the office of the keys exercised publicly. That is, as Christ decrees in Matthew 18:15–20, if a Christian sins, he should be reproved; and if he does not mend his ways, he should be bound in his sin and cast out. If he does mend his ways, he should be absolved. That is the office of the keys. …

Fifth, the church is recognised externally by the fact that it consecrates or calls ministers or has offices that it is to administer. There must be bishops, pastors, or preachers, who publicly and privately give, administer, and use the aforementioned four things or holy possessions on behalf of and in the name of the church, or rather by reason of their institution by Christ, as St. Paul states in Ephesians 4:8, “He received gifts among men …” — his gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some teachers and governors, etc. The people as a whole cannot do these things but must entrust or have them entrusted to one person. … The others should be content with this arrangement and agree to it. Wherever you see this done, be assured that God’s people, the holy Christian people, are present. …

Sixth, the holy Christian people are externally recognised by prayer, public praise, and thanksgiving to God. Where you see and hear the Lord’s Prayer prayed and taught; or psalms or other spiritual songs sung, in accordance with the word of God and the true faith; also the creed, the Ten Commandments, and the catechism used in public, you may rest assured that a holy Christian people of God are present. …

Seventh, the holy Christian people are externally recognised by the holy possession of the sacred cross. They must endure every misfortune and persecution, all kinds of trials and evil from the devil, the world, and the flesh (as the Lord’s Prayer indicates) by inward sadness, timidity, fear, outward poverty, contempt, illness, and weakness, in order to become like their head, Christ. And the only reason they must suffer is that they steadfastly adhere to Christ and God’s word, enduring this for the sake of Christ, Matthew 5 :11, “Blessed are you when men persecute you on my account.” They must be pious, quiet, obedient, and prepared to serve the government and everybody with life and goods, doing no one any harm. … Wherever you see or hear this, you may know that the holy Christian church is there, as Christ says in Matthew 5 :11–12, “Blessed are you when men revile you and utter all kinds of evil against you on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.” This too is a holy possession whereby the Holy Spirit not only sanctifies his people, but also blesses them.


From Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 41: Church and Ministry III, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999), 148–165. Reprinted with permission of Fortress Press.

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