Luther on the Seven Marks of the Church

Dr. Jack Kilcrease

When talking with various Christians about how they define the church, one is often surprised by the wide variety of answers. For example, Roman Catholics believe that the church is primarily an institution headed by the Pope. As an institution, is has a vast set of rules and regulations compiled in a book called the Code of Canon Law. Similarly, Reformed and Baptist Christians often speak of the church as a community of people who have agreed to join themselves together in order to hold one another accountable to the law of God.

On the surface these answers may seem very different. Nevertheless, what these views of the church all have in common is that they understand it to be a community held together by certain regulations. By contrast, when Luther and subsequent Lutheran Christians talk about the church, they primarily speak of the church as the holy people of God who have faith in Christ. The holiness which the church possesses is not based on human works, but on the holiness that Christ shares with the church through Word and Sacrament.

Because the holiness of the Church is not its own but comes from Christ through faith, the church is primarily invisible. To be clear, the church is not invisible sense that we cannot see the people of God. Rather, the church is hidden in the sense that we cannot directly observe its holiness. Since the holiness the church possesses is received by faith and not by works, it cannot be seen. We cannot look into each other's hearts and minds and see our faith. If the church's holiness were based on its works of holiness, then it would be visible, since one can see works. This is why the alternative views of the church referred to earlier see church as at least partially visible as an institution or a community of accountability.

Although the holiness of believers is invisible because it is received by faith, Lutheran Christians still believe that there is a way to discover where the church is. In one of Luther's later writings, "On the Councils and the Church" (1539), the Reformer claimed that there were essentially seven marks by which one could discern the church. The first four marks of the church (the Word of God, Baptism, the Lord's Supper, and the Office of the Keys) are all instruments through which Christ gives His holiness to the church. Luther shows that God is faithful to His Word, and if He has promised to give people His holiness through these means, the presence of the Word and the sacraments are an absolutely clear sign that Christian people are gathered together as the church.

The last three marks of the church are the effects of the presence of Christ's holiness in the church. The fifth mark of the church is the ordination of ministers. Ministers are necessary in order preach the Word and administer the sacraments. Through the first four marks of the Church, God works on the hearts and minds of His people so that they empowered to call true ministers of the Word. In the same ways, the last two marks of the Church are the fruits of becoming a holy person by faith. People who have faith call upon God in prayer and praise because of the gratitude they feel at having received holiness (sixth mark). People who have faith suffer rejection from the world, and therefore, like Jesus, bear the cross (seventh mark).

From this description of the church and its marks, it should be clear that the church is very different from any other human community. All other communities are based on rules that people agree to obey and which are enforced. This is the glue that holds the community together. The church is not like this though. Although Christians seek to be obedient to God and His law, their obedience is not the glue that holds the church together. Rather, the church is held together by the presence of the risen Jesus, who, through Word and Sacrament, binds the people of God into a fellowship of holiness and grace.

Dr. Jack Kilcrease is Adjunct Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Institute of Lutheran Theology, Fellow at Wittenberg Institute, and Adjunct Philosophy Professor at Aquinas College.

Created: May 14th, 2016