The Reformation Study Bible correctly explains that the difference between the visible and invisible church is simply a matter of perspective: God’s vs. man’s.
The church on earth is one in Christ despite the great number of local congregations and denominations (Eph. 4:3-6). It is holy because it is consecrated to God corporately, as each Christian is individually (Eph. 2:21). It is catholic (meaning “universal”) because it is worldwide. Finally, it is apostolic because it is founded on apostolic teaching (Eph. 2:20). All four qualities may be seen in Eph. 2:19-22.
There is a distinction to be drawn between the church as people see it and as God alone sees it. This difference is the historic distinction between the “visible church” and the “invisible church.” “Invisible” does not mean that no part of it can be seen, but that its exact boundary is not known to us. Only God knows (2 Tim. 2:19) which members of the earthly congregations are inwardly born again, and so belong to the church as an eternal and spiritual fellowship. Jesus taught that in the organized church there would always be people who seemed to be Christians, not excluding leaders, who were nevertheless not renewed in hart and would be exposed and rejected at the judgment (Matt. 7:15-23; 13:24-30, 36-43, 47-50; 25:1-46). There are not two church, one visible and another hidden in heaven, but one church only, known perfectly to God and known imperfectly on earth.Reformation Study Bible, comment on Eph. 3-4
This was taken (almost word for word) from J.I. Packer’s Concise Theology, though Packer adds a helpful comment at the end.
There is a distinction to be drawn between the church as we humans see it and as God alone can see it. This is the historic distinction between the “visible church” and the “invisible church.” Invisible means, not that we can see no sign of its presence, but that we cannot know (as God, the heart-reader, knows, 2 Tim. 2:19) which of those baptized, professing members of the church as an organized institution are inwardly regenerate and thus belong to the church as a spiritual fellowship of sinners loving their Savior. Jesus taught that in the organized church there would always be people who thought they were Christians and passed as Christians, some indeed becoming ministers, but who were not renewed in heart and would therefore be exposed and rejected at the Judgment (Matt. 7:15-27; 13:24-30, 36-43, 47-50; 25:1-46). The “visible-invisible” distinction is drawn to take account of this. It is not that there are two churches but that the visible community regularly contains imitation Christians whom God knows not to be real (and who could know this for themselves if they would, 2 Cor. 13:5).Concise Theology
For more on this point, and the implications for baptism and covenant theology, see
- Church Membership: De Jure or De Facto?
- Hodge’s (Baptist) Understanding of the Visible/Invisible Church
- John Murray (the Baptist) vs James Bannerman (the Presbyterian) on The Church
- à Brakel (the baptist) on the Visible/Invisible Church
- The French Reformed Understanding of the Visible/Invisible Church
- 19th Century Scottish Presbyterian Criticism of Bannerman’s Visible/Invisible Church(es)