Theologians commonly distinguish between the “invisible” and “visible” church. In our previous post we looked at what the Westminster Confession of Faith (25.1) has to say about the invisible church. What about the visible church? The Confession goes on to say the following:
“The visible church, which is also catholic or universal under the gospel (not confined to one nation, as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children: and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.” (25.2)
First, notice that the visible church (like the invisible church spoken of in 25.1), is also in some sense “catholic or universal.” In what way is it universal? The Confession goes on to spell that out in detail, saying that “under the gospel” (i.e. in the New Testament era) the one true church is no longer “confined to one nation” as it used to be in the Old Testament age. The church used to be confined to one earthly nation – Israel. The gospel is now to go out to all the nations (Matthew 28:18-20; Acts 1:8).
There is also another sense in which the visible church is catholic or universal – whereas the invisible church consists of “the whole number of the elect” (25.1), even so the visible church consists of “all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children” (25.2). Everyone who professes the true religion is a member of the visible church.
Professing the true religion, strictly speaking, involves more than merely professing faith in Christ (as essential and important as that is). The visible church is not just every individual professing Christian in the world. Rather (as the remaining sections of chapter 25 will go on to make abundantly clear) the church as church is in view here (no pun intended). Today’s overly-individualized and privatized version of the Christian faith was an utterly foreign concept to the Westminster divines, and rightly so. Indeed, it is a foreign concept to Scripture itself as well! (See here.)
Not only that, but the visible church also includes the children of all those who profess the true religion as well! That may seem like a strange concept to many in our day, but this is the consistent pattern found throughout Scripture (both Old and New Testaments alike). The children of believers have always been included in the covenant community, and have always had the sign and seal of the covenant applied to them (circumcision in the Old Testament, and Baptism in the New Testament). That is why Paul can say in 1 Corinthians 7:14,
“For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy.” (ESV, italics mine)
Does that mean that all of the children of believers are somehow automatically saved (salvation by association?), or even that all of the children of believers, without exception, will come to saving faith in Christ? Of course not. But is it not most often the case that the children of believers in Christ, having been raised in the fear and admonition of the Lord (Ephesians 6:4) and brought up in the church, end up, by God’s grace, coming to a saving knowledge of Christ?
The Confession also states that the visible church is “the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God.” It is as if no one analogy or metaphor for the church is sufficient in order to convey everything that the church really is. Paul says something similar in 1 Timothy 3:14-15, where he writes,
“I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these things to you so that, if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth.” (ESV, italics mine)
The church is Christ’s kingdom. Now Christ rules over all things, not just the church (Psalm 8:6; Matthew 28:18; 1 Corinthians 15:27), but, as Paul says of Christ in Ephesians 1:22, God “placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church” (NIV, italics mine). He is head over all things for the sake of His church! And so the visible church, strictly speaking, is not co-extensive with the limits of Christ’s kingdom (for there are no limits to His authority and reign), but it is the primary manifestation of the kingdom of God on this earth.
Not only is the visible church the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, but it is also “the house and family of God. What a privilege it is to be included in the family and household of God Himself! What a blessing it is to not only be reconciled to God and be able to call upon Him as our heavenly Father through faith in Christ, but also in Him to be given a multitude of “brothers and sisters and mothers and children” (Mark 10:30, ESV)! The church is not just an organization, or even an organism – it is a family!
Lastly, the Confession makes a statement that is sure to raise a few eyebrows in our day. It says that outside of the visible church “there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.” A similar statement is also found in the Belgic Confession (which is the confession of faith for the continental Reformed churches, just like the Westminster Confession is for the Presbyterian churches). It says,
“We believe that since this holy assembly and congregation is the gathering of those who are saved and there is no salvation apart from it, no one ought to withdraw from it, content to be by himself, regardless of his status or condition.” (Article 28, emphasis mine)
And so it is clearly the standard reformed position that there is no salvation apart from the visible church, or at least not normally so. There are some, to be sure, who have no opportunity to join themselves to a local church body where the Word of God is truly preached, and the sacraments are rightly administered, and church discipline is faithfully exercised. Some are suffering extreme persecution and even imprisonment for the faith. Others may live in a place where there simply is no (true) local church. But for most professing Christians that is certainly not the case. And so, as the Belgic Confession makes clear, “no one ought to withdraw from it, content to be by himself.” No man is a church unto himself, “regardless of his status or condition.” No one is sufficient in and of himself to live the Christian life on his own.
There are certainly some within the visible church who profess Christ without actually possessing Christ (i.e. they do not truly believe), and there are also some, no doubt, who are outside of the visible church who truly profess and possess Christ, but these are the exceptions and not the rule. No one who professes faith in Christ should willingly cut himself off from membership in the visible church. No one who professes faith in Christ should be “at home” (or at peace) without a (true) church home.
Part of the reason for that can be seen in Westminster Confession of Faith 25.3, which speaks of the means of grace that are to be found only in the church – the “ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God” which are given “for the gathering and perfecting of the saints” (i.e. believers). (Lord willing, we will deal that section in more detail in a future post.)
Love for our brothers in Christ is one of the evidences of salvation. In 1 John 3:14 the Apostle John writes,
“We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death.” (ESV)
How can we say that we love our brothers in Christ if we avoid fellowship among them in the church? Or is it possible to truly love Christ, while seeking to avoid His body and bride, which is His church?
If you profess to know Christ by faith, but are somehow not a member of a local church. Do not be content to stay by yourself. Do not look for a perfect church, for that does not exist in this life. But rather make it your aim to find a true church where the Word of God is preached truly and sincerely (even if imperfectly), where the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper are administered rightly, and where church discipline is faithfully and lovingly exercised for your good.
When you find such a church (and all do not fit that description, of course), despite her imperfections, join that church. Stay at that church. Worship and serve at that church. And may our faithful Savior Jesus Christ be pleased to greatly bless you in that church, to His glory!