The 3 Essential Marks of a Biblical Church

The 3 Essential Marks of a Biblical Church

Feb 28, 2024


  1. Introduction
  2. The 3 Essential Marks of a Biblical Church
  3. Biblical Basis for the 3 Essential Marks
    • Salvation by Faith Alone
    • Believer's Water Baptism
    • Spirit Baptism Evidenced with Tongues
  4. The Restoration of the 3 Marks in History
    • The Reformation and Salvation by Faith Alone
    • Baptists and Believer's Baptism
    • Pentecostalism and Spirit Baptism
  5. Classification of Denominations by the 3 Marks
    • No Marks: Catholic Churches
    • One Mark: Mainline Protestant Churches
    • Two Marks: Baptist Churches
    • Three Marks: Pentecostal/Charismatic Churches
  6. Conclusion


Many people think of the diversity of Christian churches as simply different expressions of common core beliefs. However nothing could be further from the truth. The Bible, God's Word is to be our standard of truth.

The Bible teaches that there are three essential marks of a biblical church and indeed of a biblical believer. These three essential marks are based on the commands of Jesus, the example of Jesus and the apostolic teaching of the New Testament.

On the day of Pentecost, Peter preached a Spirit-inspired message that summarizes the core beliefs that Jesus taught. The three essential marks are explicitly described in Acts 2:38, a cornerstone in understanding these essential pillars of the biblical church.

Acts 2:38 "And Peter said to them, 'Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.'"

This verse not only provides a blueprint for Christian initiation, but also encapsulates the three pivotal marks of a biblical church: salvation by faith alone, believer's water baptism, and Spirit baptism as a separate experience.

Biblical Basis for the 3 Essential Marks

The three essential marks listed in Acts 2:38 are described in detail throughout the New Testament. We will now look at some of the biblical basis for each mark.

1. Salvation by Faith Alone

The mark of salvation by faith alone is the first essential mark of a biblical church. It asserts that faith in Jesus Christ is the only means through which one can obtain forgiveness of sins and eternal life, apart from human works or merits.

John 3:16 For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.

The one condition that Jesus gives to have eternal life is to believe in him. There is no other condition. Paul makes this clear in the following verses.

Ephesians 2:8–9 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.

These verses explain that we are saved through faith alone. Faith receives the gift of God without any condition except faith. The importance of this mark is made clear by the statement that salvation is not a result of works, anything that we do to earn it. Jesus also makes it clear that repentance is a necessary part of faith in the follow verse.

Mark 1:15 The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.

The first essential mark of a biblical church is the clear teaching of salvation by faith alone. The first essential mark of a biblical believer is obedience to Jesus' command to repent and believe in the Gospel, to believe in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord.

2. Believer's Water Baptism

Believers baptism is the practice of baptizing individuals who make a personal confession of faith in Jesus Christ. Baptism by immersion signifies a believer's identification with Christ's death, burial and resurrection. Believer's baptism was commanded by Jesus.

Matthew 28:19-20 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.

Jesus teaches that disciples are made by repentance and faith in Him. Then they are to be baptized in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Romans 6:3–4 Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.

Paul's words to the Romans highlight the symbolic and participatory nature of baptism, linking it to the core of the Gospel, the death and resurrection of Jesus. This practice, in obedience to Jesus' command underscores the importance of personal belief and commitment as prerequisites for baptism. Believer's baptism is distinguished from infant baptism, which does not involve a personal declaration of faith and so is not a biblical practice.

Believer's baptism follows both the command and example of Jesus. To follow Jesus as a biblical believer is to follow his example and obey his commands.

Matthew 3:13–16 Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water ...

Jesus obviously had no sin that needed repentance, nor did he need water baptism as a symbol of being saved. He was baptized as an example for us to follow as he fulfilled all righteousness, the plan that the Father had given to him to carry out.

3. Spirit Baptism Evidenced With Tongues

The baptism in the Holy Spirit is biblically described as a distinct experience from conversion. Spirit baptism was commanded and experienced by Jesus Himself.

Luke 3:21-22 Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heavens were opened, and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove;

Jesus' Spirit anointing or Spirit baptism gave him the power to carry out his ministry as described in the following verses.

Luke 4:1 And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness.
Luke 4:14 And Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit to Galilee,

Jesus commanded his disciples to follow his example. They were not to begin the ministry of making disciples until they had received the power of the Spirit through Spirit baptism.

Acts 1:4–5 And while staying with them he ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, “you heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”

Jesus describes Spirit baptism as providing the power of the Spirit to his disciples to be witnesses for him.

Acts 1:8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.

The promise of Jesus to His disciples emphasizes the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit which enables believers to live out their faith in supernatural ways. The separate experience of Spirit baptism is characterized by a deeper encounter with God and is a gateway into moving in spiritual gifts.

Jesus clearly taught that believers must ask the Father for Spirit baptism and the Father would grant their request.

Luke 11:13 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!

Tongues Are the Power of Spirit Baptism

In the initial experience of Spirit baptism, the disciples spoke in tongues.

Acts 2:4 And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.

Tongues were the visible sign that the disciples had been Spirit baptized. Speaking in tongues is speaking in a language that is unknown to the speaker. On the day of Pentecost, the languages being spoken were understood by listeners from many countries as their native language. However, that aspect of the day of Pentecost, as well as the rushing wind and tongues of fire are never mentioned again.

Peter preaches that the sign of tongues and supernatural visions and dreams were prophesied by the prophet Joel as being a characteristic of believers in the entirety of the last days. The last days are the time between Jesus' ascension and his return to earth.

Acts 2:17 ‘And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams;

Throughout the book of Acts we see tongues as being the defining evidence of Spirit baptism on every occasion. Let's look at one example.

Acts 10:44-48 While Peter was still saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. And the believers from among the circumcised who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles. For they were hearing them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter declared, 'Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?' And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.

In this incident, the people believed in Jesus, the Holy Spirit fell on them and they began to speak in tongues. Peter makes it clear that this group of believers had received the Holy Spirit baptism, just as he had on the day of Pentecost with the evidence of speaking in tongues. So, they were instructed to be water baptized as well. This passage among others, makes it clear that tongues are the sign and evidence of Spirit baptism.

How are tongues the power of Spirit baptism? In 1 Corinthians 12-14, Paul gives detailed instructions on the use of spiritual gifts, especially tongues. We learn that there are two types of tongues, tongues with interpretation given in public settings and tongues practiced in private as a prayer language. Paul makes it clear that private prayer language tongues are the power of Spirit baptism in the following verses.

1 Corinthians 14:2 For one who speaks in a tongue speaks not to men but to God; for no one understands him, but he utters mysteries in the Spirit.

This verse is speaking of a believer praying in tongues to God. No one understands what he is saying, neither he himself or any listener. So, what good is praying in tongues in a private prayer language?

1 Corinthians 14:4 The one who speaks in a tongue builds up himself.

So speaking in tongues as a prayer language builds the one who prays in the spirit up, it strengthens him, it gives him power. How can that be explained?

Romans 8:26-27 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

When a person prays in tongues, prays in the Spirit, the Spirit prays through them. The Spirit intercedes according to God's will, that is the Spirit prays a perfect prayer, unblemished by our sinful thoughts. Prayers prayed according to God's will are always answered. Therein lies the power of Spirit baptism. Powerful prayers that are always answered. Nothing could be more powerful than that. What did the apostle Paul think of praying in tongues in his prayer language?

1 Corinthians 14:18 I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you.

From the context, Paul is not talking about public tongues with interpretation, he speaking of using private tongues, his personal prayer language, the power of Spirit baptism. Tongues is the doorway into all of the other supernatural spiritual gifts as well. Spirit baptism is a separate experience from salvation and is evidenced with tongues.

The Restoration of the 3 Marks in History

The pattern and function of the early church that we see in the book of Acts and in the rest of the New Testament is God's design and pattern for His church of all ages. Unfortunately, within several centuries after the closing of the New Testament, the church had fallen away from God's plan. It transformed into a man-made shell of Catholicism that exhibited none of the essential marks of a biblical church. This turning away from God led to the Dark Ages of over 1000 years from the 5th-century until the 16th-century. However, God had a plan to restore these three essential marks of his biblical church one by one.

The Reformation and Salvation by Faith Alone

The 16th-century Protestant Reformation, led by figures such as Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Huldrych Zwingli, was a pivotal movement that sought to reform the Roman Catholic church. Central to the Reformation was the reassertion of salvation by faith alone. The Reformation challenged the Catholic Church's reliance on sacraments and works for salvation.

Luther's translation of the Bible into German and his 95 Theses catalyzed a movement that emphasized direct access to the scriptures and the priesthood of all believers. The Reformation's legacy in promoting salvation by faith alone reshaped Christianity. It led to the establishment of many Protestant denominations that continue to uphold this doctrine as foundational. The first mark of the biblical church has been restored.

Baptists and Believer's Baptism

The Baptist movement, which gained momentum in the 17th-century, emphasized believer's baptism as a core tenet. The practice of infant baptism prevalent in Catholic and many Protestant traditions was rejected. Baptists argued for baptism as an ordinance reserved for those who have made a conscious decision to follow Christ.

This emphasis on personal faith and the consequent act of baptism marked a significant departure from the established practices of both Catholicism and the other Protestant denominations. The Baptists understanding of believer's baptism aligned closely with the New Testament precedents. The second mark of the biblical church has been restored.

Pentecostalism and Spirit Baptism

The early 20th century saw the emergence of the Pentecostal movement, with the Azusa Street Revival in Los Angeles (1906-1915) serving as a focal point for the spread of Pentecostalism. This movement emphasized a personal and experiential faith, particularly highlighting the baptism in the Holy Spirit as evidenced by speaking in tongues and the operation of spiritual gifts.

Pentecostalism's emphasis on Spirit baptism as a separate and empowering experience contributed to its rapid growth and the development of the Charismatic movement within existing denominations. This movement has had a profound impact on contemporary Christian worship, theology, and mission, emphasizing the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit in the church. The third and final essential mark of the biblical church has been restored.

Classification of Denominations by the 3 Marks

There are estimated to be over 45,000 Christian denominations in the world. With so many choices, how can a person determine which are truly biblical churches? One must evaluate churches by their adherence to biblical truth. A simple and effective way to evaluate biblical churches is by their adherence to the 3 essential marks of a biblical church. Only those churches that teach and practice all 3 essential marks are biblical churches.

No Marks: Catholic Churches

The Roman Catholic Church, with its sacramental system and ecclesiological structure diverges significantly from the three marks outlined in Acts 2:38. Catholic theology emphasizes the role of the church and its sacraments, including infant baptism, in mediating grace and salvation. This is a false perspective that denies the biblical marks of salvation by faith alone, believer's baptism and Spirit baptism as separate spiritual experiences essential for every biblical believer.

One Mark: Mainline Protestant Churches

Mainline protestant churches include Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist, Anglican and Episcopal churches. These churches were formed out of the Reformation and affirm salvation by faith alone theologically. However, they practice infant baptism and do not embrace Spirit baptism with the evidence of tongues and the manifestation of other spiritual gifts.

Two Marks: Baptist Churches

Baptist churches embrace salvation by faith alone, believer's water baptism, but do not accept Spirit baptism with the evidence of tongues as a separate experience. All of the above denominations can be classified as cessationist, that is they believe that all miraculous moving of the Holy Spirit has ceased since the apostolic era.

Three Marks: Pentecostal/Charismatic Churches

Pentecostal and Charismatic denominations and movements most closely adhere to all three marks identified in Acts 2:38 and throughout the New Testament. These groups teach and advocate for salvation for faith alone, the necessity of believer's baptism following a personal confession of faith, and the distinct experience of Spirit baptism by speaking in tongues and the manifestation of spiritual gifts.

By far the largest biblical fellowship or denomination in the world that closely adheres to the three essential marks of the biblical church is the Assemblies of God which Life Church St Louis is part of. The Assemblies of God is a rapidly growing world-wide fellowship of over 85 million biblical believers that have the same beliefs included in our 16 Fundamental Truths. As the largest biblical fellowship or denomination in the world we have over 440,000 churches worldwide in almost every nation. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, the Assemblies of God has one of the largest missionary forces in the world, which has led to exponential growth since its birth in 1914.


All the denominations that are included in the zero mark, one mark and two mark groupings are not biblical churches. This is not a matter of difference of interpretations, it is not God-given diversity in the church, it is a matter of disobedience to specific and direct commands of God's Word and Jesus Himself.

Matthew 9:16-17 No one puts a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch tears away from the garment, and a worse tear is made.Neither is new wine put into old wineskins. If it is, the skins burst and the wine is spilled and the skins are destroyed. But new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.

These denominations and churches are old wineskins that have not embraced the restoration of the biblical church led by the Holy Spirit, the new wine being poured out since the day of Pentecost.

If you are looking for a church to learn about God's Word, choose a denomination and church that teaches the 3 essential marks of a biblical church. Make sure that the beliefs page on the church's website describes this 3 essential marks fully. Finally, attend the church to see if the practice of the church adheres to their stated beliefs. The largest denomination in the world is the Assemblies of God and you will find their churches in just about every city, so that is the best place to look.

If you are currently in a denomination that is listed above as a zero mark, one mark or two marks church, we encourage you to leave. You are not in a biblical church. This three marks are not minor points of theology that biblical believers may differ on. They are the foundational truths that God's Word commands for every biblical church. True biblical believers that embrace the truth of God's Word and these essential marks will leave the false teaching of a non-biblical church and find their place in a biblical church May God bless you as you seek and find God's truth and Spirit in a church that is a dwelling place for the Holy Spirit.

For further insight, see the message Awaken to the Spirit | Acts 2.