MARKS OF A VIBRANT CHURCH
Part 1 of 2

We have already seen the four marks which Reformed churches generally use to gauge the faithfulness and fidelity of a church or denomination to Christ. These are: (1) True preaching of the Word of God; (2) Right administration of the sacraments; (3) Faithful exercise of church discipline; and (4) Biblical worship.

While these marks are essential to any church that names the Name of Christ, we must recognise that a true church is not necessarily a vibrant church according to the New Testament standards. A vibrant church must necessarily be a true church, but a true church, though it ought to be, needs not be a vibrant church. What is a vibrant church according to the Scripture?

I believe the answer can be found in Acts 2:37–47. This passage describes the response of the people to Peter’s inaugural sermon in the wake of the Pentecostal outpouring of the Holy Spirit. If there is any church which may be used as a model of vibrancy, it must be the church described in these few verses. What are the marks of this church that make it worthy of our emulation? Let me list six of them:

1. An Emphasis on True Preaching

From Acts 2:14–36, Luke records for us the Apostle Peter’s inaugural sermon. Three things stand out very distinctly in this sermon: (1) it is eminently biblical for it is essentially an exposition of three Old Testament passages, namely Joel 2, Psalm 16 and Psalm 110; (2) it is eminently Christ-centred, for the whole sermon is about Christ; (3) it is distinctly evangelistic.

This is the kind of sermon that we must pay especial attention to. It must be expository and must point the congregation to Christ. If this sermon was the catalyst to the formation of the truly vibrant church of Acts 2, then such sermons ought to be the hallmark of a vibrant church. We are, of course, not saying that all our sermons must have the same theme and emphasis, but a church that majors only in negative themes of attacking errors in her preaching programme, for example, may appear militant and strong but cannot expect to be growing healthily and vibrantly in the Lord.

Naturally, the responsibility to ensure this emphasis must fall largely on the shoulders of your pastor. But let us remember that the delivery of the sermon ought not to be the end of it, but the beginning of it. It would, indeed, be the end if it falls on the wayside, but otherwise, it should yield fruit “some an hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty” (Mt 13:23). Such was the case in the church of Acts 2. We read:

[37] Now when they heard this, they were pricked in their heart, and said unto Peter and to the rest of the apostles, Men and brethren, what shall we do? [39] Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptised every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.

Notice that the people were not intellectually stimulated or captivated by Peter’s eloquence. Rather they were pricked in the heart. They felt that the words of Peter were like sharp arrows aimed at their hearts, and as he completed each sentence, these arrows found their target in their hearts with pain that they could not contain. As the sermon was preached, they were brought into the presence of the thrice holy God and became painfully aware of their sin against the Holy One, and how they deserve eternal damnation, and so they cried out: “What must we do?”

I do not know how you respond to the sermons you hear week after week. To be fair, sometimes the fault may lie with the preacher in failing to bring out the Word clearly and urgently. But when the words preached have been aimed at some particular sins that you know you have been trifling with, what have been your responses? Oh friend, if indictments of sin do not prick your heart at all, then it must be that your heart has calcified and hardened. And if you remain in that condition without repentance, you will prove yourself to be an apostate at the very end. Do you sense a growing hardness in your heart, dear friend? May I exhort you to cry out to the Lord and weep before Him till your heart be broken and melted that you may once again hear the Master’s voice and heed it lovingly.

A vibrant local church begins not with elaborate programs and building funds, and a self-satisfied, confident and proud people, but with a people whose hearts have been touched by the glory and holiness of God that each member realises that he is nothing, has nothing and can do nothing without Christ.

2. An Emphasis on Doctrine

Peter’s sermon sparked a revival among the people, and three thousand souls were saved and added to the church by baptism that very day. We read this in verses 40–41. But what concerns us now is the following verse, which describes what the church was like in those early days: And they continued stedfastly in the apostles’ doctrine… (Acts 2:42a).

The people had heard the Gospel, they were soundly converted, but they were not complacent. They continued stedfastly in the Apostles’ doctrine or teaching. They devoted themselves to learning from the Apostles. Apparently the Apostles did not only preach evangelistic or gospel-invitation messages, but spent time to instruct the new believers. There are many churches today that try to de-emphasise doctrine: “doctrine divides, love unites,” and doctrines are hard stuff only for the Bible students, why do we want to emphasise on doctrine? Well, according to the Scriptures, we must emphasise on doctrine.

The author of Hebrews, rebuking his readers for their apathetic attitude towards doctrine, admonished them: “For when for the time ye ought to be teachers, ye have need that one teach you again which be the first principles of the oracles of God; and are become such as have need of milk, and not of strong meat” (Heb 5:12).

What the author intimates here is that there is no excuse for us, who have been Christians for a while, not to make progress in doctrine. And yes, did not Jude exhort us to “earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints” (Jude 3)? How do you earnestly contend for the faith unless you know your theology? And just in case anyone should think that this verse must refer to the ministers and leaders of the church, let us realise that Jude addresses his letter to “them that are sanctified by God the Father, and preserved in Jesus Christ, and called” (Jude 1), which must certainly mean every believer. So yes, there is a scriptural injunction to study beyond the ABC’s of the faith.

In this regards, may I urge you to read and study the Confession of our church, namely, the Westminster Confession of Faith. This confession, written from 1642 to 1649, is, I believe, still the most sublime and accurate distillation of Christian truth available. Let us therefore be acquainted with it. Many in Presbyterian churches today are neither Presbyterian nor Reformed and, worst still, they miss out on a great opportunity for sound instruction in doctrine by failing to study the Confession. Such will pay lip-service to the Confession, but their practice of Christianity testifies of their ignorance and neglect of the means of grace the Lord has placed at their disposal.

Do read and study our Confessions and Catechisms. Make use of commentaries, such as Robert Shaw’s for the Confession and Thomas Vincent’s for the Shorter Catechism, and Thomas Ridgeley for the Larger Catechism. In fact, may I urge you also to memorise the Shorter Catechism so that a system of doctrine may be retained in your mind, as false doctrines more and more are flooding the Church of God. This, by the way, is a biblical instruction, for this is what Paul means when he exhorts Timothy to “Hold fast the form of sound words” (2 Tim 1:13). The word translated “form” refers to a schema, outline or summary. So Paul is exhorting Timothy to retain an outline system of doctrine in his mind. The Catechism was designed for this very purpose.

3. An Emphasis on Worship and Sacraments

[41] Then they that gladly received his word were baptised…. [42] And they continued stedfastly… in breaking of bread, and in prayers. [46] And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple….

The Protestant church recognises only two sacraments, and it is interesting that both of these should be mentioned in these two verses. Breaking of bread in verse 42 refers to the Lord’s Supper, unlike in verse 46 where it probably refers to fellowship meals.

Since sacraments and prayers are part of worship, and since it is probable that the Christians met in the courts of the temple for corporate worship, we may rightly say that the vibrant church must have an emphasis on worship. Yet a vibrant worship does not mean that we may admit any human innovations which are not permitted in the Word of God. Thus the WSC 50 says, “The Second Commandment requireth the receiving, observing, and keeping pure and entire, all such religious worship and ordinances as God hath appointed in His Word” (Deut 32:46; Mt 28:20; Acts 2:42).

We must never impose our human understanding of worship on the Scripture. God is sovereign and holy; He has the absolute right to determine how His creatures should worship Him. We must not imagine that worship is vibrant only if it is lively according to cultural and traditional norms. Worship with uplifting contemporary songs augmented with choreographed dances may appear to some to be full of vibrancy, but such worship would, I believe, be will-worship and displeasing to God. Even in human life, when we seek to honour someone, we will attempt to do something that the person is pleased with, not what we imagine to be fitting for such an occasion of celebration. But strangely, in the area of worship, this principle is frequently ignored.

Our worship must, rather, be vibrant, whole-hearted, and in spirit as well as in truth. The author of Hebrews, paraphrasing or expounding Deuteronomy 4:23–24, in which Moses enjoined the keeping of the Second Commandment said:

Wherefore we receiving a kingdom which cannot be moved, let us have grace, whereby we may serve [i.e., “worship,” Greek: latreuô] God acceptably with reverence and godly fear: For our God is a consuming fire (Heb 12:28–29).

In other words, our worship must be acceptable to God, and it must be attended with reverence and godly fear. Though we ought to enjoy worship, we must never gauge a worship service by the enjoyment we derived from it, but by whether it is according to God’s prescription and so redound unto His glory.


J.J. Lim