What exactly is the church? (Have you ever given that much thought?) The biblical doctrine of the church is probably one of the most neglected doctrines in all of the Scripture. To many in our day, having a clear theology of the church (its nature, necessity, purpose, ordinances, offices, and marks) seems much like an afterthought. And yet the very fact that both the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed include statements regarding the church speaks toward the abiding importance of the church and what we are to believe concerning it.
The Westminster Confession of Faith includes an entire chapter on the church. That brief chapter provides a great deal of clarity on this important but neglected subject, so we hope to, Lord willing, examine each part of that chapter, one section at a time.
The very first section of the Westminster Confession’s chapter on the church deals with what is known as the invisible church. Protestant/Reformed theologians have commonly made a distinction between the invisible and the visible church. The Confession (25.1) states:
“The catholic or universal church, which is invisible, consists of the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ the Head thereof; and is the spouse, the body, the fullness of him that fills all in all.”
Now the visible church and invisible church should not primarily be considered as two separate churches, but rather as two aspects of the one true church in Jesus Christ. (We will deal with the visible church in more detail when we come to Westminster Confession of Faith 25.2.) What does it mean that the church is invisible? Louis Berkhof writes,
“This church is said to be invisible, because she is essentially spiritual and in her spiritual essence cannot be discerned by the physical eye; and because it is impossible to determine infallibly who do and do not belong to her.” (Systematic Theology, p.566-566)
The Confession’s statement above teaches us the following:
- The invisible church is catholic or universal. The word “catholic” simply means universal (not Roman Catholic), and refers to the fact that Christ has one Redeemed people, one church, one body. This idea is found in Ephesians 1:22-23, where Paul writes, “And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (ESV).
- The invisible church consists of all of the elect. It is “the whole number of the elect” (25.1). In other words, everyone who will ever be saved in Christ.
- The invisible church consists of all of the elect throughout all time. It is “the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ the Head thereof . . . .(25.1)” So everyone – past, present, and future – who will have been joined to Christ. Many people who have not even been born yet are then part of the invisible church, as are the saints of old, who are now absent from the body but present with the Lord!
- The invisible church also consists of both the church militant (the redeemed on this earth) as well as the church triumphant (the redeemed in heaven).
One day the invisible church will finally become visible to us! Revelation 7:9-12 says,
“After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.” (ESV)
On that great day all of the elect will at long last get to behold that “great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (v.9). What a beautiful sight that will be – the ultimate family reunion!