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Keach on Inconsistent Congregationalists

June 24, 2017 4 comments

In the 17th century, three main reformed camps were the Presbyterians, the Congregationalists, and the Baptists. The Presbyterians believed in a national church. Congregationalists believed the church consists of people who had been saved out of the world (the nation) who then gather together in congregations. No one was considered a member of the church until they had made a credible profession of saving faith and was thus admitted to the Lord’s Table. Baptists were Congregationalists who rejected infant baptism.

Keach recognized a great inconsistency in the Congregationalists. In fact, it was specifically this inconsistency that led to a controvery in New England, resulting in the Synod of 1662. The Congregationalists were faced very practically with Keach’s dilemma. They could not answer it, so they abandoned a key Congregationalist tenet and turned back towards a Presbyterian view, which did not restrict membership to those who had been called out of the world. This is known as the Half-Way Covenant.

As for our Brethren, called Congregational, I cannot tell what they mean by contending for the Practice of Pædo-Baptism, nor do I well know what their Sentiments are about it: they agree (as I do understand) with us (and other Christians,) that Baptism is an initiating Rite or Ordinance; now if their Infants are in Covenant with themselves, and are made visible Church-Members by Baptism in Infancy, and until by actual Sins they violate their Right and Privilege, abide Members thereof.

(1.) Then I would know whether they have their Names in their Church-Book, or Register, as Members? And

(2dly,) Whether they ever Excommunicate (or bring under any Church Censure) such of their Children who fall into scandalous Sins, or actual Transgressions, or not?

(3dly,) If not, what kind of polluted Churches must thir’s be, who have not purged out such corrupt Members?

The truth is, I see not how Infant Baptism is consistent with any Church State, unless it be National; and no doubt, the first Contrivers or Founders of it, devised that way for the Progress of that they call the Christian Religion, and so opened a Door, that Christ shut, when he put an end to the National Church of the Jews.—Therefore I wonder at our strict Independants, considering their Notions, (knowing how their Principles differ from; and their Understanding or Knowledge of Gospel-Church Constitution exceeds others) for Baptism does not initiate into their Churches, it seems by their Practice; unless their Children, when baptized, were thereby made Members with them.

Keach, B. (1693). Sermon III. In The Ax Laid to the Root, Parts I & II (Vol. 2, p. 34). London: John Harris.

(Note that modern Presbyterians, in abandoning the national church model, have followed largely in the path of Congregationalism)

Kline’s Argument Against Presbyterianism

March 10, 2017 2 comments

In the 17th century, Presbyterians argued for their ecclesiology from the structure of the Jewish church. It was divided geographically and functioned with varying levels of authority (presbytery, general assembly, etc). Gillespie said “it is plain from Scripture that there was at least a two-fold ecclesiastical court among the Jews, the synagogue and the sanhedrim, the latter having authority above the former.” An important part of this argument was distinguishing between the church and the state in Israel. “That there was an high ecclesiastical sanhedrim, distinct from the civil sanhedrim, is observed by Pelargus, on Deut. 17., and Sopingius, ad Bonam Fidem Sibrandi, p. 261, et seq., beside many others cited before, part 1, chapter 11. And that it was so we prove from three places of the Old Testament… We find Deut. 17, a distinction of two supreme judicatories, to be set in the place which the Lord should choose to put his name there,—the one of the priests and Levites, the other of the judges.” Both the Episcopalians and the Separatists/Congregationalists argued that appeal cannot be made to Israel. In response, Gillespie argued

Is it right dealing now to forbid us to reason from the form of the Jews? I will not use any further expostulation, but let the reader judge. The truth is this: Even as that which is in a child, as he is a child, agreeth not to a man, yet that which is in a child, as he is animal rationale, agreeth also to a man; so what we find in the Jewish church, as it was Jewish, or in infancy, and under the pedagogy of the law, agreeth not indeed to the Christian church. But whatsoever the Jewish church had, as it was a political church, or ecclesiastical republic (of which sort of things the diversity and subordination of ecclesiastical courts was one), doth belong by the same reason to the Christian church. I say further, though the commonwealth and civil policy of the Jews be not in all points a pattern to our civil policy, yet I am sure it is no error to imitate the civil policy of the Jews in such things as they had, not for any special reason proper to them, but are common to all well constituted commonwealths; and so we may argue from their commonwealth, that it is a good policy to have divers civil courts, and the higher to receive appellations from the inferior, as it was among them. Shall we not, by the very like reason, fetch from their ecclesiastical republic diversity of spiritual courts, and the supreme to receive appellations from the inferior, because so was the constitution of the Jewish church, and that under the common respect and account of a political church, and not for any special reason which doth not concern us?

The Church of England should derive it’s ecclesiastical polity from the Jewish church, and the commonwealth of England should derive its civil polity from the commonwealth of Israel.

In an essay titled Goodwin vs. Gillespie: An Old Testament Debate for Church Polity, Jonathan Brack summarizes a debate that took place in the Westminster Assembly between the Presbyterians and the Congregationalists.

Mr. Calamy argues for a Gillespie-like understanding of a distinction between civil and ecclesiastical courts from Deuteronomy 17:12:

Here is a distinctive that hints 2 courts. By ‘priests’ is not meant one priest but many. By “Judge” cannot be meant the high priest, for he is contradistinct from the priest. 2. Cron. 19:8–11 ther is the resistution of them by Jehosaphat. This text showes the distinction of the Judicatories. The words in the 8 v. read with a reduplication.

Goodwin, a Congregationalist, objected.

In questioning the often-used Deut. 17: 8–9 and 2 Chron. 35:8 texts posed by Gillespie, where Gillespie demonstrated a distinction between church and state in the Old Testament, Goodwin showed himself to be functioning from a different hermeneutical angle. An angle that disagreed on the status and nature of the Jewish church in the Old Testament,

That which belonged to this Sanhedrin at Jerusalem, it was either matters Judiciall, therefore called ‘matters of the Lord’ because God had given expresse … Or matters of the king, the things of his revenew, or perhaps matters of warre and peace, yet soe as they did not … The church & state ware involved in one. Their lawes ware the lawes of God. Their judicialls had spirituals in them. [7]

Goodwin along with Phillip Nye challenged the distinction between civil and ecclesiastical.

[…]

Phillip Nye launched into a long speech attempting to disprove the civil and ecclesiastical distinction made from Deuteronomy 17:8–9.

The matter before us is about the validity of this place of scripture to prove that besides the priests an addition of elders. My concievements are that the totum totalum of the common wealth ware of a mixt nature … Ther is no such a perpetuall intermixture throughout all as in the Jewish church.

[…]

Goodwin’s point was that everything given in Deuteronomy was “ecclesiastical” in a certain sense. This was because, for Goodwin, ecclesiastical and civil are one and the same in the Old Testament. To this, Lord Say added that on these grounds,

It ware much better to find out those places that established a ground for this ruling elder in the New Testament wher this constitution was.

So the Congregationlists argued that Israel was a unique entity of a “mixt nature” that cannot be appealed to in order to establish church government under the New Covenant.

Different Hermeneutics

Brack goes on to highlight how the Presbyterians pointed out inconsistencies in the Congregationalists on this point.

After Calamy represents the basic Presbyterian position of Old Testament roots for elder-rule, Gillespie strengthens the argument by arguing for hermeneutical implications,

Something to strengthen what is spoken. The analogy betwixt Jewish & Christian church, little question of that little question… If this faile, the argument of Baptisme from circumcision will faile also.

…How can the Assembly agree to pedo-baptism by appealing to the Old Testament, without also functioning the same way for the debate on church polity?… If one were to cut loose the Old Testament ground for elder rule, then one were to cut loose the very ground for Presbyterianism, not to mention baptism…

To this Mr. Vines pressed Goodwin and Lord Say on the exact same hermeneutical point made by Gillespie two days earlier,

For that we must not looke to the state of the Jewish church, is only a warrantableness for the analogy of the Old Testament & New, granted. The brother that spake last said before we must cut loose the argument of Jewish church; [for] but how shall we prove pedo-Baptism?

Richard Vines saw the inconsistency in hermeneutical method being deployed by the Congregationalists. If we were to cut loose the Old Testament ground for church polity, then what is to stop us from the Anabaptist tenet of cutting loose our progeny as well?

Meredith Kline

In 1953, in an essay titled The Relevance of the Theocracy, Kline wrote a short essay arguing against appeal to Israel for matters of civil government and ecclesiology. He said any such appeal is unwarranted because Israel was a unique theocratic entity unlike any other. It was a type of heaven. As a result, “church” and “state” were of a “mixt nature.”

If we do listen we will not try to segment the Theocracy into the usual three discrete institutions. We will not then say: “Here (e.g. in Aaron) is the church, and here (e.g. in Moses or David) is the state, and there the family.” Not even roughly speaking. For all that can be said accurately is, “Here are theocratic priests, here are theocratic kings, here are theocratic prophets and there are the theocratic people from whose ranks all these have come. (Cf. Ex. 28:1; Dt. 17:5; 18:5.)…

That the horns of the dilemma are vaporous is evident, for the argument rests on an utterly false equation of the theocratic monarchy with the ordinary state. As observed above, neither church nor state is isolable within the Theocracy. It is therefore impossible to identify one theocratic institution such as the kingship with the ordinary concept of the state…

Our chief criticism again, in terms of the thesis of this article, is that to label the priests and/or the prophets as the church within the Theocracy [as the Presbyterians did] is unwarranted… God was in the midst of the covenant people and, therefore, all was church, as also all was family and all state – the church of God, the family of God, the Kingdom of God – all in one and one in all, and such was the Theocracy. However, if all is church and all is family and all is state, then nothing is church and nothing is family and nothing is state in the usual sense of those words. Strictly speaking all is Theocracy and nothing but Theocracy.

Like many modern Presbyterians, Kline has neglected the roots of Presbyterianism and is unaware that he has adopted the Congregationalist hermeneutic (see my post on Congregationalist covenant theology).

I will close with these words from Brack:

In recent church polity debates among Presbyterians and Particularists… appealing to Old Testament ecclesiastical polity in order to gain support for the purported theories of New Testament polity assumes a presupposed debated hermeneutical method. In other words, a foul is committed in the debate, since a disagreement over how one uses the Old Testament is not properly neutral. This truth, in the mind of many Presbyterians, is a strange inconsistency in the pattern of basic Reformed hermeneutic strategies.

Recognizing that Israel in the land of Canaan was a type of heaven necessarily leads to congregtaionalism and the rejection of paedobaptism, as Presbyterians warned from the beginning.

(See also Meredith Kline: Baptist Criticism of the WCF is Correct)

Re: Some Vossian Thoughts on the Visible-Invisible Church Distinction

December 31, 2016 1 comment

Lane Keister, at the Green Baggins blog, offers some comments on Vos’ explanation of the visible-invisible church distinction. His point is that there are visible and invisible aspects of the church, noting that Anabaptists and some baptists are therefore in error in holding that the true church is entirely invisible. Keister apparently didn’t put much thought into that point, since I don’t know any Anabaptists or baptists who deny there is a visible aspect of the true church. Interestingly, a commenter picked up on a very important point. He objected to Keister’s insistence that visible and invisible refer to two aspects of the same church because he felt that would lead to the Federal Vision error. I offered some comments. Read more…

John Murray (the Baptist) vs James Bannerman (the Presbyterian) on The Church

December 5, 2016 2 comments

One of the primary foundations of infant baptism is the concept of an external church member, with external church privileges, stemming from an external covenant of grace. While saving faith is a required condition for the invisible church, it is not a condition of the visible church. Therefore the church consists of both true believers and false believers, along with their children.

James Bannerman

James Bannerman, a member of the Free Church of Scotland, published the popular The Church of Christ in 1868. He explains this concept as it relates to the visible/invisible church distinction.

Now, at the outset, it is not unimportant to remark, that when we speak of the Church invisible and the Church visible, we are not to be understood as if we referred in these designations to two separate and distinct Churches, but rather to the same Church under two different characters. We do not assert that Christ has founded two Churches on earth, but only one; and we affirm that that one Church is to be regarded under two distinct aspects. As the Church invisible, it consists of the whole number of the elect, who are vitally united to Christ the Head, and of none other. As the Church visible, it consists of all those who profess the faith of Christ, together with their children…

The Church invisible stands with respect to its members, in an inward and spiritual relationship to Christ, whereas the Church visible stands to Him in an outward relationship only… involving no more than the promise and enjoyment of outward privileges…

This external relationship, in which the members of the visible Church stand to Christ, as having been brought into a Church state from out of the world, has been often spoken of by theologians under the name of an external covenant or federal relationship. Whatever name may be given to it, there is no doubt that there is a real and important relationship into which the members of the visible Church have entered, to be distinguished alike from the state of the world without, and from the state of the invisible Church within…

[T]he formal professor may not possess that faith unfeigned and that vital union to the Saviour which will obtain for him the internal and saving blessing which the real believer will find in the ordinances; but there are external privileges which he may and does obtain in consequence of his mere outward profession and observance; and although he falls short of the saving benefit which the spiritual Christian finds in Christ’s Church, yet the benefits he actually enjoys are both real and important. This relation of the mere formal professor and member of the visible Church to Christ may be called an external covenant and outward federal union, or not. But under whatever name, it is important to bear in mind that there is such a relationship, involving both real responsibilities and real privileges; and that it is this relationship, as contradistinguished from an inward and saving one, that makes the difference between the members of the visible and the members of the invisible Church of Christ.

That is a principle foundation of paedobaptism, and Bannerman knew it. He goes on to explain that this particular view of the distinction between the visible and invisible church is what separates Presbyterianism from Congregationalism and paedobaptism from credobaptism.

The principles now illustrated, in regard to the real distinction and yet the real connection between the Church invisible and the Church visible, bear with them very important consequences. It may be well to indicate, without illustrating in detail, their bearings in four different directions.

In the first place, the doctrine in regard to the visible and invisible Church which we have laid down, if it be a correct and scriptural one, has a most important and decisive bearing upon the principles of Independents in reference to Church communion…

[T]he conclusions to which the principles already laid down, in regard to the Church in its twofold character of visible and invisible, seem to lead on the subject of its membership. Independents in general have rejected this distinction, and denied that there is ground in Scripture for asserting the existence of an outward society of professing Christians standing in an outward relation to Christ, and made up of nominal as well as actual believers…

In the second place, the principles in regard to the visible and invisible Church already indicated have a very important bearing on the question of the lawfulness or unlawfulness of Infant Baptism… [T]he doctrine of the visible Church and its external covenant relationship to Christ, lays the foundation for those views of Church membership which justify us in regarding the infants of professing Christians as entitled to share the communion and privileges of the Church

The Independent view, which insists on the possession of a saving faith in Christ as the only footing on which Church membership can be conceded, and the only title to the enjoyment of Church ordinances, tends very directly, if consistently carried out, to deprive the infants of professing Christians of their right to be regarded as members of the Church, or to claim the benefit of its ordinances.

John Murray

Writing 100 years later, John Murray criticized Bannerman’s (Presbyterianism’s) argument regarding the visible/invisible church distinction. Murray wrote about this issue on multiple occasions. His essay The Church: Its Definition in Terms of ‘Visible’ and ‘Invisible’ Invalid is found in Volume I of his Collected Writings. He also wrote about it in The Theology of the Westminster Confession of Faith, found in Volume IV.

In the former, he argues

It has been common to make a sharp distinction between the church visible and the church invisible and with this distinction to apply definitions by which the differentiation can be maintained. This position calls for examination in the light of Scripture…

The distinction between the church visible and the church invisible is not well-grounded in terms of Scripture, and the abuses to which the distinction has been subjected require correction…

Strictly speaking, it is not proper to speak of the ‘visible church’. According to Scripture we should speak of ‘the church’ and conceive of it as that visible entity that exists and functions in accord with the institution of Christ as Head, the church that is the body of Christ indwelt and directed by the Holy Spirit, consisting of those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be saints, manifested in the congregations of the faithful, and finally the church glorious, holy and without blemish.

Murray’s point is liable to misunderstanding. In fact, Federal Vision proponents have  called upon Murray in defense of their rejection of the invisible church. But that is certainly not what Murray meant. He defines the church in terms typically reserved for the invisible church and says they apply to the visible church as well. He does not reject the invisible church at all.

His third chapter in Christian Baptism titled “The Church” actually brings great clarity to his position. It is excellent. I could honestly quote and endorse the entire chapter (save the last paragraph and 2-3 sentences elsewhere). I will try to be as concise as I can in quoting him here.

The Church as Invisible

The church is therefore circumscribed by the facts of regeneration and faith, facts which in themselves are spiritual and invisible. For this reason no man or organisation of men is able infallibly to determine who are regenerate and who are not, who are true believers and who are not… For these reasons, if for not others, we must recognize that there is an aspect of invisibility that attaches to the concept of the church. *21

*21 In order to avoid the misconstructions and misconceptions frequently associated with the distinction between the church visible and invisible it is more proper to speak of the church as invisible and the church as visible or of the aspects of invisibility and visibility attaching to the church rather than of the visible church and the invisible church. The terms visible and invisible are aspects from which the church may be viewed. James Bannerman states this well: “When we speak of the Church invisible and the Church visible, we are not to be understood as if we referred in these designations to two separate and distinct Churches, but rather to the same Church under two different characters. We do not assert that Christ has founded two Churches on earth, but only one; and we affirm that that one Church is to be regarded under two distinct aspects” (op. cit., Vol. I, p. 29). But Bannerman does not appear to carry out this emphasis consistently in his subsequent discussion. He proceeds to define the visible church and the invisible respectively in terms of distinctions which do not appear to be borne out by the usage of Scripture itself.

Our approach to this question of the church must take account of the fact that every one who has a place in the organization which is visible and known to men is not by that mere token necessarily united to Christ by regeneration and faith. It is the distinction between that which is visible to men and what is known and viewed only perfectly by God that is guarded by saying that there is to the church and aspect of invisibility

The Church as Visible

[T]hose united to Christ form the communion of the saints and the congregation of the faithful… We cannot think of the church invisible as anything that exists in abstraction or apart from the overt expression which the spiritual and invisible facts of union and communion with Christ demand…

[H]uman agency and responsibility are operative in the church… [H]ow does this administration on the part of men relate itself to those spiritual and invisible facts by which the church is constituted? Men are n o t omniscient. and they, are fallible… What we find in the New Testament is that the constituting bond of communion w a s common faith in Christ and that the condition of admission to the fellowship was this same common faith (cf. Acts 2:38‐42: 8:13. 35~38: 10:34-38; 16:14, 15, 31‐ 33). This faith. however. did not have any automatic way of evidencing itself and, consequently. could become effective in gaining admission to the fellowship of the saints only by confession or profession. This means that faith was registered by confession, and the criterion by which the church exercised its administrative responsibility in the admission of members was confession…

This profession, though it is a profession that only a true believer can honestly and truly make, is, nevertheless, of such a nature that those who do not have true faith may make it to the satisfaction of those responsible for that administration whereby admission is secured into the fellowship of the church (cf. Acts 8:13, 20-23). We are here faced with the anomaly that the visible entity which is called the church may comprise within its membership those who do not really and truly belong to the body of Christ… This is an anomaly which must be fully appreciated and we must not make attempts to eliminate it. There are two dangers we must avoid and into which we are too liable to fall. *24

The first danger is to construe the confession as not a confession of true and saving faith but simply of intellectual and historical faith. In this way it might appear that the discrepancy between the fact that the church consists of those who are members of the body of Christ and the fact that many may be admitted into the fellowship of the visible church who are not truly members of the body of Christ is removed. It is a false solution. There is no warrant whatsoever for supposing that the confession which we find in the New Testament, by which members were admitted into the fellowship of the church, was a profession of mere intellectual or historical belief. It was the confession of like nature with that which Peter made at Caesarea Philippi, a confession which elicited from our Lord the benediction, “Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-jona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven” (Matt. 16:17). It is most instructive in this regard that the confession of Peter provided the occasion for the most significant disclosure made by our Lord respecting the church: “Upon this rock I will build my church” (Matt. 16:18). However we may interpret the word “rock” in this utterance there can be no question but that the church confession is the kind of confession made by Peter. And this means that the confession requisite for membership in the church is the confession of Jesus as the Christ, as the Son of God, as Savior, and as Lord. It is a profession of true and saving faith.

It is not by any means the prerogative of those who administer the government and disicpline of the church to determine whether the professino made is a true and sincere profession of such faith. A judgment of this kind would exceed the warrant of men. But it is the prerogative and duty of those who rule in the church of God to make plain, both in the instruction and examination of candidates for admission, what the meaning of the profession is and to insist that only the regenerate, only those united to Christ by faith, can truly make the profession required. There is thus the fullest scope for the examination of candidates in ascertaining the intelligence and consistency of the profession made, in instructing candidates respecting the nature of the Christian confession, in dissuading those who do not have true faith from making the profession which they cannot sincerely and honestly make, and in maintaining the purity of the church against the entrance of the ignorant and profane. But this examination, it must be remembered, is not conducted on the premise that to the officers of the church or to the church as a communion is given the prerogative to determine who are regenerate and who are not. It is conducted, rather, on the basis that to the ministry of the church belongs the obligation to insure as far as possible by instruction and warning that only those united to Christ will make the confession which only. such can truly make. It is the function of the church to demand an intelligent, credible, and uncontradicted confession that Jesus isthe Christ, the Son of the living God.

Murray the Congregationalist

To clarify, Murray is here rejecting the Presbyterian view of profession and adopting the Congregational view (his footnote 24 recommends Williston Walker’s The Creeds and Platforms of Congregationalism, Chapter XI “For a history of thought and debate on this question” – see also Visible Saints: The History of a Puritan Idea). Recall what Bannerman said above. Mere formal profession devoid of saving faith (what is known as “historical faith”) is all that is required for membership in the visible church.

[T]he formal professor may not possess that faith unfeigned and that vital union to the Saviour which will obtain for him the internal and saving blessing which the real believer will find in the ordinances; but there are external privileges which he may and does obtain in consequence of his mere outward profession and observance; and although he falls short of the saving benefit which the spiritual Christian finds in Christ’s Church, yet the benefits he actually enjoys are both real and important. This relation of the mere formal professor and member of the visible Church to Christ may be called an external covenant and outward federal union, or not. But under whatever name, it is important to bear in mind that there is such a relationship, involving both real responsibilities and real privileges; and that it is this relationship, as contradistinguished from an inward and saving one, that makes the difference between the members of the visible and the members of the invisible Church of Christ.

This is what Murray is explicitly rejecting. What is required is saving faith, not historical faith. Bannerman identified this as the Independent (Congregationalist) view. “The Independent view, which insists on the possession of a saving faith in Christ as the only footing on which Church membership can be conceded…”

Samuel Rutherford, one of the leading members of the Westminster Assembly (Dr. Guy Richard says “Rutherford had a huge impact upon the Assembly” and Chad Van Dixhoorn says Rutherford was the second-most prominent speaker on the floor of the Assembly), faced this argument in his day. He responded to the Congregationalists thus:

Therefore these words must import that nothing is more required for the church to confer the seal of the covenant without sin, but that the children be descended of parents professing the truth and faith, though the parents (indeed, as concerning any real union of faith) be plain strangers to the covenant [inwardly], and are members of the church only as an arm of wood is a member of the body.  Which being true, as it must be said, the assumption [of the Separatists] is weak and sick.

For the question is: what is it to be externally within the covenant? 

It is not to see all known sins, to be a chosen people, a people taught of God [inwardly], as this argument would say.

1. For then God would not have commanded Joshua (Josh. 5) to circumcise all Israel because their fathers were externally within the covenant.

2. For their fathers were a generation of unbelievers who knew not God, who tempted Him, grieved his holy Spirit in the wilderness, and professed themselves by their murmuring never to be truly within the covenant [inwardly].

Then to profess the doctrine of the covenant is but to be born Jews, avow the Lord in external profession and swear a covenant with Him (Deut. 29), [even] when the heart is blinded and hardened (Deut. 29:4).  And so by this it is clear that Joshua had commandment of God to give the seal of the covenant to their children, who [the parents] were as openly wicked against the Lord, as murderers, drunkards, swearers, etc.

3. This argument [of the Separatists] will prove that circumcision could lawfully be given to none but the children of parents within the covenant, that is, professedly known to be faithful, holy, and separated from the profane world in the judgment of charity. This has no warrant of the Word.  For:

1. The children of the most wicked were circumcised (Josh. 5:2 [see also verses 6-7]). We desire to know whom God forbade to be circumcised that were carnally descended of Abraham?  Or show us example or precept thereof in the Word.

2. What God required in the parents, whose infants the church might lawfully and without sin circumcise, was that they were born Jews. O, says Mr. Best, they were behooved [required] to be members of the church, whose infants might lawfully be circumcised.  I answer: that is ignotum per ignotius [unknown per the unknown].  Show me one person being a born Jew whose child the Lord forbid to circumcise?

3. What is it to be a member of the Jewish Church? Is it to be a visible saint and taught of God [inwardly]?  I [admit this to be] true: that was required indeed to make men acceptable before God.  But to make one a visible member of the visible Jewish church, nothing was required but to be a born Jew, profess God’s truth, and keep from external ceremonial pollutions.  I mean: to be a member of the visible church, [is] to keep external and church communion with the rest of God’s people.

On the Baptism of the Children of Adherents

John Murray the Baptist

Murray continues:

The second danger that must be avoided is the tendency to define the church in such a way as would seem to eliminate or at least tone down the discrepancy or anomaly with which we are dealing. This again is a mistake. Our definition of the church must not be framed in terms of an accommodation by which we make provision, within our definition, for the inclusion of hypocrites, that is to say, of those who profess to be Christ’s but are not really his. Our definition of the church must be framed in terms of the constitutive principle, to wit, that the church consists of those who are united to Christ and are members of his body. It is the communion of saints. And it is precisely that body of believers in fellowship with Christ and with one another, associated together in the world in accordance with Christ’s institution, which is called in the New Testament “the church” and is what we often call the visible church. We may not abandon this constitutive principle, we may not accommodate our definition in order to make allowance for the fact that some make the profession who do not have the faith and who enter into the fellowship without the bond that constitutes it.*26

*26 It is very easy to fall into this kind of accommodation when we begin to apply the distinction between the church as invisible and the church as visible. And, indeed, it may appear to be necessary in order to avoid other pitfalls of the Romish doctrine of the church. In the esteem of the present writer this appears rather conspicuously in James Bannerman’s excellent work, The Church of Christ. His definition of the visible church is framed in terms that do not appear to be supported by New Testament usage (cf. op. cit. Vol. I, pp. 29ff). The terms in which Bannerman develops the distinction between visible and invisible and frames his definition of the visible church seem to provide us with a very simple and effective polemic against Rome. The controversy with Rome must, of course, be unabated, but it does not appear to be sound to conduct this controversy on the basis of a definition which does not find its counterpart in the Biblical usage with reference to the church.

I Cor. 1:1, 2… provides us with Paul’s concept of the church at Corinth, namely, those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be saints, and he does not conceive of the church in broader terms so as to distinguish between the church and those sanctified and called…

Paul recognised that there was old leaven in the church at Corinth, leaven which needed to be purged out. But when he addresses the church he does not address it as a community to be defined in terms of old leaven and new unleavened bread. He does not define the church in terms which would make allowance for both elements. No, he addresses the church as those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, and who call upon the name of the Lord Jesus Christ…

It is true that hypocrites may secure admission to the church. As we have seen, the very administration which Christ has instituted for the admission of members allows for that. There are disciples who are not truly disciples, and there are branches in the vine which are not vitally and abidingly in the vine. But while we fully recognise this fact we must at the same time distinguish between the constitutive principle in terms of which the church is defined, on the one hand, and the de facto situation arising from the way in which Christ has chosen to administer the affairs of his church in the world, on the other. The inclusion and exclusion are in the hands of fallible men. This administration is of divine institution. Hence those who are not Christ’s gain admission.*27 Here is the anomaly. We have to recognise and contain it. It persists in its sharpness because we refuse to define the church in lower terms than the body of Christ and the communion of the saints. It is that definition that creates the anomaly and we may not revise the definition in order to relieve the tension…

*27 Cf. Calvin: Inst. IV, i, 7 and 8.
In refraining from the attempt to define the church in terms of an accommodation that will make allowance for the inclusion of hypocrites we are following the same lines as would have to be followed in defining the kingdom of God. We are not forgetful of the parables of the tares and the wheat and of the drag net. There is a mixture in the kingdom, and Christ will at the end gather out of his kingdom all things that offend and them which do iniquity. But we may not define the kingdom of God in terms of accommodation to this de facto situation. We must define it in terms of the rule and realm of righteousness, life, and peace.

What we have here from Murray is the exact argument I have made previously regarding the church (See Church Membership: De Jure or De Facto?). False believers who are not united to Christ are part of the visible church de facto only because their “inclusion and exclusion are in the hands of fallible men.” But according to God, who sees rightly, they are not part of the church, the body of Christ. The visible/invisible church distinction is the distinction between man’s fallible perspective and God’s infallible perspective. Murray’s student Edmund P. Clowny (the first president of Westminster Theological Seminary) noted “The confusion about the relation of the aspects of visibility and invisibility of the church can only grow until it is again recognized that the church as invisible is not some abstract ideal, but simply the church as God sees it, in contrast with the church as we see it.” (“Distinctive Emphases in Presbyterian Church Polity,” in Pressing Toward the Mark)

This same point was made by James Ussher.

But are none to be accounted members of this [visible] Church, but such as are true believers, and so inseparably united unto Christ their head? Truly and properly none other. (1 John 2.19)… [they are] in humane judgement accounted members of the true Church, and Saints by calling, (1 Cor 1.1) until the Lord (who only knoweth his) do make known the contrary.

Cited in Church Membership: De Jure or De Facto?

And by the Second Helvetic Confession:

Whence the Church of God may be termed invisible; not because the men from whom the Church is gathered are invisible, but because, being hidden from our eyes and known only to God, it often secretly escapes human judgment… not all that are reckoned in the number of the Church are saints, and living and true members of the Church. For there are many hypocrites… But eventually the character of these men, for the most part, will be disclosed. For the apostle John says: “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would indeed have continued with us” (I John 2:19). And although while they simulate piety they are not of the Church, yet they are considered to be in the Church, just as traitors in a state are numbered among its citizens before they are discovered…

Chapter XVII

And Wilhelmus à Brakel:

As one person cannot be divided into an invisible and a visible person, one may not divide the church into a visible and invisible church, for then it would seem as if there were two churches, each being a different church. One may also not divide the church into a visible and invisible church as far as the members themselves are concerned, as if the one had different members from the other… This is, in our opinion, an erroneous view, generating many confusing thoughts and expressions concerning the church… If one understands the differentiation between the external and internal church to be but a twofold view and perspective of one and the same church, and does not hold to a twofold membership relationship, all is well and our proposition is confirmed: The differentiation between an external and internal church on the basis of membership and relationship is not good. One and the same church, consisting of true believers only, can either be viewed in reference to her internal spiritual condition, or in reference to her external manifestation in the world. This is what we have stated…

The church is a congregation of true believers. The unconverted, even though they have made confession of faith, have been accepted into the fellowship of the church, live without offense, and have been admitted to the use of the sacraments, the unconverted, I repeat, are not true members of the church. This is so whether the church is viewed in her internal, spiritual condition or in her public gatherings whereby she manifests herself externally to the world. The unconverted are not members of the external, visible church. Believers only constitute the true church. They alone are members of the church, regardless of how one views them.

Cited in Church Membership: De Jure or De Facto?

Murray applies this to the question of baptism.

The resolution of the anomaly, that there are some who, from the standpoint of administration, rightly receive the sign and seal of that which in reality they do not possess, is not to be sought along the line of the distinction between an external covenant relationship and the internal spiritual relationship but rather in the consideration that there is a discrepancy between the secret operations and purposes of God in his saving grace, on the one hand, and the divinely instituted method of administering the covenant in the world, on the other. In other words, the administration of the rite that is the sign and seal of the covenant has to be conducted not in accordance with God’s secret operations and infallible purposes of grace but in accordance with certain requirements which fallible men may execute and apply. The divine method of administering the covenant in the world is that God commits to fallible men the ordinances of administration. These ordinances have to be dispensed in accordance with requirements which fallible men may apply. But the requirements that may be applied by men are not the measure of God’s secret and efficacious operations of grace. To be very specific, baptism is not administered by revelation of God’s secret will. It is properly administered when certain conditions of divine prescription, conditions with reference to which fallible men are in a position to judge, have been fulfilled. This is the divine institution. (52)

Of course, as Bannerman warned, Murray’s view of the church, “if consistently carried out… deprive[s] the infants of professing Christians of their right to be regarded as members of the Church.” But Bannerman’s warning here comes in the same section where he addresses the Romish view of the church. Thus we may paraphrase Murray’s rebuke of Bannerman’s polemic accommodation.

 It is very easy to fall into this kind of accommodation when we begin to apply the distinction between the church as invisible and the church as visible. And, indeed, it may appear to be necessary in order to avoid other pitfalls of the Baptist doctrine of the church. In the esteem of the present writer this appears rather conspicuously in James Bannerman’s excellent work, The Church of Christ. His definition of the visible church is framed in terms that do not appear to be supported by New Testament usage (cf. op. cit. Vol. I, pp. 29ff). The terms in which Bannerman develops the distinction between visible and invisible and frames his definition of the visible church seem to provide us with a very simple and effective polemic against the Baptists. The controversy with Baptists must, of course, be unabated, but it does not appear to be sound to conduct this controversy on the basis of a definition which does not find its counterpart in the Biblical usage with reference to the church.

What About Abraham?

Of course Murray goes on to argue for infant baptism on the basis of the Abrahamic Covenant. But so did the Congregationalists. And, as older Presbyterians warned, their argument ultimately failed (both theoretically and practically) because of their definition of the church.

Murray argues:

The basic premise of the argument for infant baptism is that the New Testament economy is the unfolding and fulfillment of the covenant made with Abraham and that the necessary implication is the unity and continuity of the church…

With reference to circumcision it must be fully appreciated that it was not essentially or primarily the sign of family, racial, or national identity. Any significance which circumcision possessed along the line of national identity or privilege was secondary and derived. Its primary and essential significance was that it was a sign and seal of the highest and richest spiritual blessing which God bestows upon men… [W]e have no authority whatsoever to say that circumcision was simply the sign of an external relationship…

What was the Abrahamic covenant in the highest reaches of its meaning?  Undeniably and simply: “I will be your God, and ye shall be my people” (cf. Gen. 17:7; Exod 19:5, 6; Deut 7:6; 14:2; Jer 31:33). In a word it is union and communion with Jehovah, the God of Israel… Baptism, which is the sign of the covenant under the new economy as circumcision was under the old, bears essentially the same import as did circumcision.

Congregationalists made this argument in the 17th century. Here is how Presbyterian Samuel Rutherford responded:

[T]here was no more required of the circumcised but that they were Abraham’s seed according to the flesh, and by that same reason, there is no more required of infants that they may be baptized but that they be born in the Christian church.  For the Christian baptism, and the Jewish circumcision in substance are all one (Rom. 6:4; Col. 2:11; Jer. 9:26; Jer. 4:4; 1 Pet. 3:21,22)…

If the root be holy, so also are the branches (Rom. 11:16).  Now this holiness cannot be meant of personal and inherent holiness, for it is not true in that sense.  If the fathers and forefathers be truly sanctified and are believers, then [it would follow] are the branches and children sanctified and believers.  But the contrary we see in wicked Absalom born of holy David, and many others.  Therefore, this holiness must be the holiness of the nation, not of persons.  It must be a holiness because of their elected and chosen parents (the patriarchs, prophets, and the holy seed of the Jews), and so [it must be] the holiness federal, or the holiness of the [external] covenant.

If then the Jews in Paul’s time were holy by covenant (howbeit for the present the sons were branches broken off for unbelief), how much more then (seeing God has chosen the race and nation of the gentiles and is become a God to us and to our seed), that the seed [of those in the covenant] must be holy with a holiness of the chosen nation and an external holiness of the covenant, notwithstanding that the father and mother were as wicked as the Jews who slew the Lord of Glory…

If external profession be sufficient (without a longer examination) to baptize the aged by the apostolic practice (as we see in Simon Magus, Acts 8:13, and in Ananias and Saphira, Acts 2:38-39,44-45, compared with Acts 5:1-2): then the profession of faith in the forefathers is enough for us to judge their forefathers within the covenant and consenters to the covenant.  For when many thousands at once are said to enter into covenant with God (as is clear, Deut. 29:10-13; Josh. 24:24,25; 2 Chron. 15:9-12), they could not give any larger proofs or evidences of their faith of the covenant than a solemn assembling together and a verbal oath (or saying, ‘Amen’, or ‘So be it,’ as Deut. 27:14,17), after which they were reputed to be in the covenant, and so their seed also [were reputed to be] in the covenant…

The proposition he [the Congregationalist] proves from Gen. 17:10, ‘This is my covenant… and every man-child amongst you shall be circumcised,’ and Rom. 4:11, ‘He received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of faith.’  The assumption, he and others, prove [this way]: because murderers, drunkards, swearers, and whose children we baptize, declare themselves not to be Christians (nor faithful, nor saints by their wicked life) and so not within the covenant.  This argument also the Separatists use.

Answer:

…If the former be said it will follow that God speaks (Gen. 17) only to Abraham and his sons by faith (according to the promise) and only to believers.

But God speaks to all Abraham’s sons according to the flesh:

Because [otherwise] God should speak an untruth: that He were a God by real union of faith to all that are commanded to be circumcised.  For He commanded thousands to be circumcised to whom He was not a God by real union of faith. 

Therefore these words must import that nothing is more required for the church to confer the seal of the covenant without sin, but that the children be descended of parents professing the truth and faith, though the parents (indeed, as concerning any real union of faith) be plain strangers to the covenant [inwardly], and are members of the church only as an arm of wood is a member of the body.  Which being true, as it must be said, the assumption [of the Separatists] is weak and sick.

For the question is: what is it to be externally within the covenant?

It is not to see all known sins, to be a chosen people, a people taught of God [inwardly], as this argument would say.

1. For then God would not have commanded Joshua (Josh. 5) to circumcise all Israel because their fathers were externally within the covenant.

2. For their fathers were a generation of unbelievers who knew not God, who tempted Him, grieved his holy Spirit in the wilderness, and professed themselves by their murmuring never to be truly within the covenant [inwardly].

Then to profess the doctrine of the covenant is but to be born Jews, avow the Lord in external profession and swear a covenant with Him (Deut. 29), [even] when the heart is blinded and hardened (Deut. 29:4).  And so by this it is clear that Joshua had commandment of God to give the seal of the covenant to their children, who [the parents] were as openly wicked against the Lord, as murderers, drunkards, swearers, etc.

3. This argument [of the Separatists] will prove that circumcision could lawfully be given to none but the children of parents within the covenant, that is, professedly known to be faithful, holy, and separated from the profane world in the judgment of charity. This has no warrant of the Word.  For:

1. The children of the most wicked were circumcised (Josh. 5:2 [see also verses 6-7]). We desire to know whom God forbade to be circumcised that were carnally descended of Abraham?  Or show us example or precept thereof in the Word.

2. What God required in the parents, whose infants the church might lawfully and without sin circumcise, was that they were born Jews. O, says Mr. Best, they were behooved [required] to be members of the church, whose infants might lawfully be circumcised.  I answer: that is ignotum per ignotius [unknown per the unknown].  Show me one person being a born Jew whose child the Lord forbid to circumcise?

3. What is it to be a member of the Jewish Church? Is it to be a visible saint and taught of God [inwardly]?  I [admit this to be] true: that was required indeed to make men acceptable before God.  But to make one a visible member of the visible Jewish church, nothing was required but to be a born Jew, profess God’s truth, and keep from external ceremonial pollutions.  I mean: to be a member of the visible church, [is] to keep external and church communion with the rest of God’s people...

So they cite scriptures that by no force of reason do speak for them, as Rom. 4:11 and Rom. 11:16, which say nothing but that ‘if the root be holy’ with the holiness federal and of the external profession, then so are the branches.  But the place speaks nothing of true inherent holiness: for then all holy parents should have holy and visible saints coming out of their loins, which is against scripture and experience…

By this our divines lose their best argument against Anabaptists: namely, that children of Christians are to be baptized by that same warrant that infants under the Law were circumcised.  But none was circumcised but a member of the visible church under the Law.  Now this you gainsay, who would have all clean and unclean baptized; and so you leave your pattern.

Answer:

We leave our pattern in no sort.  For all were circumcised that were born of circumcised parents within the church of the Jews.  So all are to be baptized that are born of Christians and baptized parents professing the faith.

But, say they: drunkards, murderers, sorcerers, swearers, and ignorant atheists, both fathers and mothers, whose children you baptize, do not profess the faith, for in works they deny and bely their profession.

Answer:

1. Then you will have the children of none to be baptized but those whose parents are sound and sincere professors in the judgment of charity. But so Joshua failed who circumcised the children of all professing themselves to be Abraham’s sons carnally, though Joshua knew and was an eye witness that their fathers did deny and bely their profession.  And John baptized the seed of all (Matt 3) that professed the faith of the Messiah, although he knew them to be a generation of vipers.

They often require that one of the parents be a believer or else the child cannot be clean, nor lawfully baptized.  They repose on that place (1 Cor. 7:14):

‘For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband; else’ (that is, if both were unbelievers) ‘were your children unclean’ (that is not within the covenant) ‘but now are they holy.’

And they allege Theodore Beza and David Pareus for this.

Answer:  But they mistake the word ‘unbelieving.’  For by ‘unbelieving’ in that place (as the Professors of Leyden do well observe[15]) is meant infidel gentiles that are without the church and profess not Christ [not unbelievers within the visible chuch], as is clear from the text

On the Baptism of the Children of Adherents

In other words, Rutherford explains that Scripture is clear the “Jewish church” was not “the communion of the saints and the congregation of the faithful.” Rather, the “Jewish church” was made by the promise of God to Abraham’s sons according to the flesh establishing an external covenant.  To be part of the “Jewish church” was “[T]o be born Jews, avow the Lord in external profession and swear a covenant with Him (Deut. 29), [even] when the heart is blinded and hardened (Deut. 29:4).” Therefore, if Murray correctly recognizes that the New Testament defines the church as “the communion of the saints and the congregation of the faithful” then “By this our divine loses his argument against Anabaptists: namely, that children of Christians are to be baptized by that same warrant that infants under the Law were circumcised.”

In sum, Murray is correct that paedobaptism’s “definition of the visible church is framed in terms that do not appear to be supported by New Testament usage.” Therefore it cannot “justify us in regarding the infants of professing Christians as entitled to share the communion and privileges of the Church.”

à Brakel (the baptist) on the Visible/Invisible Church

 In 1700, Dutch theologian Wilhelmus à Brakel published The Christian’s Reasonable Service. Volume 2 (starting on book pg. 5) discusses the visible/invisible church distinction at length. à Brakel was a leader in the Dutch Further Reformation which was a response to “the declension or absence of a living faith” in the Netherlands.

Someone in a Covenanter (referring to the English and Scottish Presbyterianism of the 17th century) Facebook group recently posted this asking for help reconciling it with their view of the visible/invisible church consisting of different memberships. Referring to Brakel, they said “The weird thing is that it almost seems like an argument a baptist would use.” It’s worth noting that paedobaptists consistently return to this view whenever they are faced with the inevitable degradation and corruption of the church that occurs when their “external covenant” view is applied consistently (see Hodge and Erskine as other examples).

I’ve added this excerpt in full to the Church Membership: De Jure or De Facto? post.


        We wish to establish at the outset that there are not two or more churches, but only one Christian church. This one church we now wish to consider together.
This one church is made up of all the elect who have been called from the beginning of the world and are yet to be called until the end of the world. They are Christ’s peculiar people (Titus 2:14). “ To the general assembly and church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven ” (Heb 12:23); “ … Christ also loved the church, and gave Himself for it ” (Eph 5:25). This one congregation is partially in heaven, and is called the church triumphant, to which reference is made in Rev 7:9 – 16. This, however, is not the subject of discussion here. This congregation exists also partially upon earth and is called the church militant. It is the church militant which is the subject of this chapter. One can view this church either in its entirety, dispersed throughout the entire word, or as individual congregations in a nation, city, or village. As such one can refer to the church of England, of the Netherlands, or of Rotterdam.

Clarification of the Invisible/Visible Church Distinction
This one church in its militant state upon earth manifests itself at times more openly in her public assemblies, confession, and holiness. She is then called the visible church. At other times she is more hidden from the eyes of the world by prevailing errors, ungodliness, or persecutions. Then she is referred to as the invisible church (Rev 12:14).
This militant church can be viewed either in her internal, spiritual frame, or in her public gatherings. Her internal, spiritual frame, which consists of faith, a mystical union with Christ, and the spiritual life of the soul, is invisible and cannot be observed with the physical eye. The gatherings where God’s Word is heard and the sacraments are used, as well as her public profession in times of prosperity, are public and visible. Thus, in some respects the church is visible, and in some respects invisible. However, one may not divide the church into a visible and invisible church. One and the same person is invisible as far as the soul, will, intellect, and affections are concerned, and he is visible a s far as his body and motions are concerned. As one person cannot be divided into an invisible and a visible person, one may not divide the church into a visible and invisible church, for then it would seem as if there were two churches, each being a different church.
One may also not divide the church into a visible and invisible church as far as the members themselves are concerned, as if the one had different members from the other. Then all the elect, that is, those who truly have been called and converted, would mentally be separated from all others in the church and constitute the invisible church, whereas converted and unconverted together, gathering in one church, and having only in common the external call, historical faith, confession of the truth, and the external use of the sacraments, would constitute the visible church. This is, in our opinion, an erroneous view, generating many confusing thoughts and expressions concerning the church. When a speaker or writer refers to the church, one will then be in doubt as to whether he is speaking of the so – called invisible or visible church.
We maintain that one may not separate the visible and invisible church in such a manner, for, first, I do not find that the terms visible and invisible church are used in God’s Word with that connotation, nor do I find the description of such a distinction.
Secondly, this distinction is founded upon a false supposition — as if the unconverted are truly members of the church with equal right, that is, in its external and visible gathering, and therefore have a right to use the sacraments, something which we deny expressly below. If the unconverted are not members of the church, even when she is visible, the aforementioned distinction is of necessity irrelevant.
Thirdly, such a distinction infers the existence of two churches which are essentially different from each other. From a spiritual perspective true believers constitute the church by reason of a true, spiritual, and believing union with Christ and with each other. If t he unconverted, together with the converted would constitute a church on the basis of equal rights, this would have to be of an essentially different nature, whereby members of distinctly different natures would constitute one body and one church, even though the unconverted are not spiritually united to Christ and believers. If there are two essential manifestations, there must also be two essentially different bodies and churches, whereas we confess that there is but one church.
Fourthly, if in this respect there were a visible and an invisible church, one consisting only of true believers (due to a spiritual union) and one consisting of converted and unconverted together by way of an external union, then believers would simultaneously belong to two churches, one being invisible and the other visible. They would thus be in one church to which salvation is not promised, and in another to which salvation is promised. To hold such a view is as absurd as to propose the existence of two churches.

Objection # 1: There is a twofold calling, the one being internal and the other external. There is also a twofold faith: a saving, and a historical or temporal faith. There is a twofold holiness, the one being external and the other in truth, and there is a twofold participation of benefits, the one being external and the other an internal participation in the real benefits. Consequently, there is also an external and internal church.

Answer : (1) From this proposition it must be concluded that there are two churches, which is contrary to the Bible.
(2) The external call, historical or temporal faith, external holiness, and external participation in external privileges, do not constitute true membership of the church, which is spiritual in nature. Consequently, such a church cannot be the true church of Christ.

Objection #2: We do not think of two churches when we speak of an external or visible church, and of an internal or invisible church. Rather, we understand this to refer to a twofold perspective of the same church.

Answer : (1) If one maintains that the one church consists of different members from the other, there being a different manner of being united to her, one is not proposing that there are two aspects of the same church. Rather, it is only being indicated that there are two essentially different churches, with two types of members essentially different in nature which make up the church, and two ways whereby one can be united to her.
(2) The external relationship neither makes one a true member of the church, nor constitutes an external church, just as an external relationship with a corporation or business does not make one a true member and partner of it. It also does not cause the corporation or business to be viewed in a different perspective.
(3) No external relationship to the church gives the unconverted the right to use the sacraments, and thus unconverted and converted together cannot constitute an external church. There is no true church of Christ unless all who are members of it have a right to partake of the sacraments.
(4) If one understands the differentiation between the external and internal church to be but a twofold view and perspective of one and the same church, and does not hold to a twofold membership relationship, all is well and our proposition is confirmed: The differentiation between an external and internal church on the basis of membership and relationship is not good. One and the same church, consisting of true believers only, can either be viewed in reference to her internal spiritual condition, or in reference to her external manifestation in the world. This is what we have stated.

From that which has been said it is now evident in what manner we view the church in this treatise: We speak of a church consisting of true believers only, which on earth wars against her enemies and for the faith, being at times more and at times less visible to the human eye. As far as her internal, spiritual frame is concerned, she is invisible; but she is visible in reference to her public assemblies and members.
As we shall now consider the matter itself, we shall first give a description of the church, and subsequently give an explanation of all her elements.

The Church Defined
The church is a holy, catholic, Christian congregation, consisting of true believers only, who by the Holy Spirit have been called through the Word of God, are separate from the world, and are united to their Head and each other with a spiritual bond, and thus are united in one spiritual body. All of this is manifested by a true confession of Christ and of His truth, and in striving against their and Christ’s enemies, doing battle with spiritual weapons under the command of their Head Jesus Christ to the glory of God and their salvation. Let us now consider the individual elements of this description.
The church is first of all a congregation. One individual person does not constitute a church or a congregation. The church is referred to as a house, “Ye also, as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house ” (1 Pet 2:9); as a flock, “… and there shall be one fold, and one Shepherd ” (John 10:16); as a body, “… and gave Him to be the head over all things to the church, which is His body ” (Eph 1:22 – 23); as a nation, “ But ye are … an holy nation ” (1 Pet 2:9); and as a kingdom , “ … who hath called you unto His kingdom ” (1 Thess 2:12). However, one stone does not constitute a house, one sheep does not constitute a flock, one member is not a body, one person is not a nation, one person is not a kingdom — and thus also one pope doe s not constitute a church, which papists claim to be the case.

The True Church: A Congregation of True Believers
The church is a congregation of true believers. The unconverted, even though they have made confession of faith, have been accepted into the fellowship of the church, live without offense, and have been admitted to the use of the sacraments, the unconverted, I repeat, are not true members of the church. This is so whether the church is viewed in her internal, spiritual condition or in her public gatherings whereby she manifests herself externally to the world. The unconverted are not members of the external, visible church. Believers only constitute the true church. They alone are members of the church, regardless of how one views them.
This is clearly stated in articles 27 – 29 of the Belgic Confession of Faith, which read as follows:

Article 27
We believe and profess one catholic or universal Church, which is a holy congregation of true Christian believers, all expecting their salvation in J esus Christ, being washed by His blood, sanctified and sealed by the Holy Ghost. This Church hath been from the beginning of the world and will be to the end thereof; which is evident from this, that Christ is an eternal King, which, without subjects He ca nnot be. And this holy Church is preserved or supported by God against the rage of the whole world; though she sometimes (for a while) appears very small, and in the eyes of men, to be reduced to nothing, as during the perilous reign of Ahab when neverthel ess the Lord reserved unto him seven thousand men, who had not bowed their knees to Baal. Furthermore, this holy Church is not confined, bound, or limited to a certain place or to certain persons, but is spread and dispersed over the whole world; and yet i s joined and united with heart and will, by the power of faith, in one and the same spirit.

Article 28
We believe, since this holy congregation is an assembly of those who are saved and out of it there is no salvation, that no person of whatsoever state or condition he may be, ought to withdraw himself, to live in a separate state from it; but that all men are in duty bound to join and unite themselves with it, maintaining the unity of the Church, submitting themselves to the doctrine and discipline there of; bowing their necks under the yoke of Jesus Christ; and as mutual members of the same body, serving to the edification of the brethren, according to the talents God has given them.

And that this may be the more effectually observed, it is the duty of a ll believers, according to the Word of God, to separate themselves from those who do not belong to the Church, and to join themselves to this congregation, wheresoever God hath established it, even though the magistrates and edicts of princes be against it ; yea, though they should suffer death or any other corporal punishment. Therefore all those, who separate themselves from the same, or do not join themselves to it, act contrary to the ordinance of God.

Article 29
We believe, that we ought diligent ly and circumspectly to discern from the Word of God which is the true Church, since all sects which are in the world assume to themselves the name of the Church. But we speak not here of hypocrites, who are mixed in the Church with the good, yet are not of the Church, though externally in it; but we say that the body and communion of the true Church must be distinguished from all sects who call themselves the Church.

It is first of all evident that the Belgic Confession of Faith makes no mention of an invisible church which would consist, by way of mental deduction, of none but believers only, in distinction from a visible church which would consist of both converted and unconverted. This we have rejected earlier. Rather, it speaks of a church, existing and gathered upon earth, which is more or less visible. Anyone who attentively examines the words of the confession will readily discern this, for it makes mention of that church 1) in which hypocrites are to be found (Article 29), 2) to which one ought to join himself, “wheresoever God hath established it,” subjecting oneself to its instruction and discipline (Article 28), 3) against which are magistrates and the edicts of princes, and the joining of which could result in death or any other corporal punishment during times of persecution (Article 28), and 4) which one can distinguish from other sects. All of this can only be applicable to the visible church as she gathers to hear God’s Word and use the sacraments.
Secondly, the confession states that this church, which is more or less visible, consists only of true believers, when 1) it describes the church as “a holy congregation of true Christian believers, all expecting their salvation in Jesus Christ, being washed by His blood, sanctified and sealed by the Holy Ghost” (Article 27), 2) it declares that “hypocrites, who are mixed in the church with the good, yet are not of the church, though externally in it” (Article 29).
This confirms the conviction of the Reformed church that only believers are members of the church, while the unconverted are not members of the church, though they be externally in it.

Objection: The confession speaks of that church outside of which there is no salvation. Salvation can, however, be obtained outside of the visible and external church. Many are saved, even though they are neither baptized nor partake of the Lord’s Supper — yes,who are as yet in the Roman Catholic Church. The confession therefore speaks of the invisible church, which consists of believers only, and thus not of the visible church.

Answer : (1) At the time of the Reformation, when there was fierce persecution, many did not dare join themselves to the congregations of believers, thus pretending (as many still do) that salvation can be obtained in every religion. This the confession here refutes.
(2) It is an obvious truth that there is no salvation outside of the church; he who does not have the church as his mother, does not have God as His Father, for the church alone has the truth and preaches the truth, without which no one can be converted and saved.
(3) The confession does not state that no one can be saved unless they have been accepted as a member, are baptized, and attend the Lord’s Supper, but rather that apart from the church there is no salvation, and that outside of her neither the way of salvation is taught nor the means unto salvation are to be found.
(4) Unbaptized converted persons are saved by means of the church, which puts God’s Word at their disposal and proclaims that Word to them. If someone from the realm of popery is converted, this does not occur by way of papal doctrine, but by the Word of truth which the papacy has still allowed to remain in the church.

We have thus demonstrated that the Belgic Confession of Faith declares that only true believers are members of the church, and that the unconverted within the church are not members.
The truth of the aforesaid is established by the following arguments:
First, an external covenant between God and man, of which the unconverted would be partakers, has not been established either in the Old or New Testament. Consequently, there is also no external church of which unconverted persons are members. The first proposition has been proven exhaustively in chapter 16; the second proposition is then certain, since the church is founded upon the covenant. As the covenant is, so is the church.
Secondly, all true members of the church are entitled to the use of the sacraments, whereby the benefits of the covenant are sealed to them. The bread and wine are the communion of the body and blood of Christ, which is broken and shed for the forgiveness of sins (cf. Rom 4:11; 1 Cor 10:16; Matt 26:26 – 28). The unconverted, however, have no right to use the sacraments, since they have neither part nor lot in the sealed benefits, and they thus eat and drink judgment to themselves. The Form for the Administration of the Lord’s Supper states: “All these, while they continue in such sins, shall abstain from this meat (which Christ hath ordained only for the faithful), lest their judgment and condemnation be made the heavier.” Thus, the unconverted are not members of the church.
Thirdly, the very essence of the church, which gathers in an external form, is union with Christ and each other by the Holy Spirit. “For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body … and have been all made to drink into one Spirit” (1 Cor 12:13). The Form for the Administration of the Lord’s Supper speaks of this when it quotes 1 Cor 10:17, “For we being many are one bread, and one body: for w e are all partakers of that one bread.” It further states, “that we by the same Spirit (which dwelleth in Christ as in the head, and in us as His members), might have true communion with Him; … besides, that we by this same Spirit may also be united as members of one body in true brotherly love.” The unconverted, however, do not have this Spirit. “These be they … sensual, having not the Spirit” (Jude 1:19). Since the unconverted do not have the Spirit, they are none of Christ (Rom 8:9). Thus, they are no members of the church, for her members are mutually united by the Spirit and are Christ’s.
Fourthly, the name “church” is not applicable to the unconverted. The church is called, “… the house of God” (1 Tim 3:15); a spiritual house, built up of lively stones (1 Pet 2:5); the fold of Christ (John 10:16); “… the kingdom of His dear Son” (Col 1:13); “the congregation of the saints” (Ps 89:5);  “… the assembly of the upright” (Ps 111:1). The apostle, when writing to the congregation, denominates them as those “that are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints” (1 Cor 1:2); “holy brethren, partakers of the heavenly calling” (Heb 3:1). All of this, however, cannot be stated concerning the unconverted. Thus, they do not belong to the church, and consequently are not members of her.
Fifthly, this is also evident in 1 John 2:19: “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us.” Those who went out were the unconverted, who prior to their departure were in the church but nevertheless did not belong to the church. Thus, the unconverted, even though they are in the church, are not of the church, and therefore are no members of her.

Objections Answered Concerning Membership in the True Church

Objection #1: It is evident that a large multitude of unconverted persons associate with the church, are accepted as her members, remain members there, and partake of the sacraments. Therefore they are members of the church indeed.

Answer : (1) It is one thing to associate with the church and to be accepted as members, and another thing to be true members. The latter does not proceed from the first, for the acceptance of men as members is performed by men, who see only what is before their eyes and cannot judge according to the heart, leaving this to Him who knows the hearts. Regeneration or the probability of regeneration has not been established as a rule by which the elders of the church accept members. Rather, they are judged by their confession of the truth and their response to this truth, and by the manifestation of a life which does not contradict their confession. The rest is left to them and to the Lord.
(2) It is one thing to join the church externally, and it is another thing to speak of an external church. Even though they are externally in the church, this does not mean that there is an external church of which they are bonafide [de jure] members. Membership in an external church to which the promise of salvation is not annexed is not their objective, but rather a church as being a fellowship within which they may be saved. To this church they apply themselves, but only externally, and not in truth with a converted and believing heart. Therefore they are no members, even though men view them as such externally. They are thus within the church as a poisonous fruit which is attached to a good tree with good fruits. They are therefore within the church as strangers, who for some time dwell in a house, but whom no one deems to be family members. Because of this external association with the church there is also an external relationship to the Lord Jesus as King of His church, as well as her true members, and they enjoy the external privileges of the church. Their entrance into the church, and the church’s acceptance of them does not make them true members of the church. Such can only come about by faith and repentance.

Objection #2: On a threshing floor both wheat and chaff are to be found. The church is the threshing floor, and both chaff and wheat are in an identical relationship to the threshing floor. In like manner the unconverted and the converted belong to the same church.

Answer : There is no argument over the fact that both good and evil men are to be found in the church. We are not proposing, however, the chaff to be a “member” of the threshing floor, that is, the church. Chaff is present on the threshing floor as chaff and not as wheat. All who are in the church are not therefore of the church.

Objection #3: Consider Matt 13:24 – 25, 47. On the same field good fruit and tares were to be found, and the same net contained good and bad fishes. Thus, in the church both the good and the evil are equally members of the church.

Answer: The field does not represent the church, but the world (vs. 38), upon which both good and evil men reside. The fish net which gathers all fish, is examined by the fishermen, and only the good fish are placed in the barrels. One must keep the objective of the parable in view, which is not to show who are true members of the church, but what the end will be of the good and the evil. This passage is therefore not applicable here.

Objection #4: One could object by referring to 2 Tim 2:20: “But in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and of silver, but also of wood and of earth; and some to honour, and some to dishonour.” The house is the church, and the vessels are the members of the church. Among these members are also the unconverted, who are referred to as vessels of dishonor.

Answer: (1) The vessels in a house are not household members. Likewise the vessels of dishonor — the unconverted — are not members; they do not truly belong to the household.
(2) Again, one should not become entangled in details, but take note of the objective, which is to demonstrate who are the good and the evil within the church, a fact we readily admit. Not one word is mentioned here, however, whether or not they are true members of the church. Even if they are in the church, they are not therefore of the church.

Objection #5: If one maintains that only the converted are members of the church, one proposes that there is a pure church upon earth, which is contrary to the Bible and experience. [This is the poor objection every baptist hears from Presbyterians]

Answer: (1) True believers themselves are still subject to many impurities, and are far from being perfect.
(2) By maintaining that only true believers are members of the church, we do not claim that there are no unconverted in the congregation, but that they are not present as true members there. There neither has been nor will ever be a church upon earth in which there are no unconverted, that is, those who merely travel along; yes, the latter are generally in the majority. There is a significant difference between being in the church, and being of the church.

Objection #6: If only the truly converted are true members of the church, the true church which we need to identify is not recognizable, since one cannot be certain of the conversion of others.

Answer : One ought not to identify the church by regeneration, but by the true doctrine, and the sanctification of the confessing members conjoined with this true doctrine. These two are identifiable, and wherever these two are present, the true church is to be found. Whether someone possesses these two in truth or in pretense is a personal matter, however, and is not to be a distinguishing mark for the church for others. It thus remains certain that only true believers who congregate upon earth are members of the church, it being more or less visible. The unconverted are therefore not members of the church, though they be externally in her.

Church Membership: De Jure or De Facto?

January 28, 2015 13 comments

When Presbyterians are first introduced to 1689 Federalism, often one of their first responses is “Oh, so you deny the visible/invisible distinction of the church?” To which we respond “No.” For example, Chris Villi says:

In one of the key statements of the book, Denault writes, “The Scriptures do not provide any possibilities of being visibly in the New Covenant without participating effectively in its substance” (p. 153). This assertion represents one of the most fundamental errors of Baptist theology. Essentially, Denault is arguing that everyone in the New Covenant is truly saved and that it is impossible for an unbeliever to be connected to the New Covenant in any sense. Denault notes that, for Particular Baptists, the New Covenant “did not have an external administration in which the non-elect were to be found” (p. 86).

Again, the denial of the possibility of unbelievers in the visible church is one of the most problematic aspects of the federalism espoused by Denault. Is it really possible to guarantee that there are no non-elect people associated with the visible church? Even more, can this idea of “regenerate membership” in the visible church be defended as biblical? Given that 1689 federalists have always been convinced that true believers cannot lose their salvation, the very existence of a New Testament command for church discipline and excommunication contradicts their position.

http://www.jesuspaidinfull.com/Documents/CVilli_1689_Federalism_Paper.pdf

Yet our confession clearly states in chapter 26:

1._____ The catholic or universal church, which (with respect to the internal work of the Spirit and truth of grace) may be called 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 fulness of him that filleth all in all.
( Hebrews 12:23; Colossians 1:18; Ephesians 1:10, 22, 23;Ephesians 5:23, 27, 32 )

2._____ All persons throughout the world, professing the faith of the gospel, and obedience unto God by Christ according unto it, not destroying their own profession by any errors everting the foundation, or unholiness of conversation, are and may be called visible saints; and of such ought all particular congregations to be constituted.
( 1 Corinthians 1:2; Acts 11:26; Romans 1:7; Ephesians 1:20-22 )

3._____ The purest churches under heaven are subject to mixture and error; and some have so degenerated as to become no churches of Christ, but synagogues of Satan; nevertheless Christ always hath had, and ever shall have a kingdom in this world, to the end thereof, of such as believe in him, and make profession of his name.
( 1 Corinthians 5; Revelation 2; Revelation 3; Revelation 18:2; 2 Thessalonians 2:11, 12; Matthew 16:18; Psalms 72:17;Psalm 102:28; Revelation 12:17 )

De Jure and De Facto

So where is the confusion coming from? It’s the difference between de jure and de facto.

de jure

[Latin, In law.] Legitimate; lawful, as a Matter of Law. Having complied with all the requirements imposed by law.

De jure is commonly paired withde facto, which means “in fact.” In the course of ordinary events, the term de jure is superfluous. For example, in everyday discourse, when one speaks of a corporation or a government, the understood meaning is a de jure corporation or a de jure government.

A de jure corporation is one that has completely fulfilled the statutory formalities imposed by state corporation law in order to be granted corporate existence. In comparison, a de facto corporation is one that has acted in Good Faith and would be an ordinary corporation but for failure to comply with some technical requirements.

de facto

[Latin, In fact.] In fact, in deed, actually.

This phrase is used to characterize an officer, a government, a past action, or a state of affairs that must be accepted for all practicalpurposes, but is illegal or illegitimate. Thus, an office, position, or status existing under a claim or color of right, such as a de factocorporation. In this sense it is the contrary of de jure, which means rightful, legitimate, just, or constitutional. Thus, an officer, king, orgovernmentde facto is one that is in actual possession of the office or supreme power, but by usurpation, or without lawful title

In From Paedobaptism to Credobaptism, W. Gary Crampton explains how this relates to covenant theology and the church:

The covenant that God made with Abraham included physical or national as well as spiritual promises. Paul confirms this in Romans 9-11: a man could be an Israelite (de jure) in the physical sense without being one in the spiritual sense… (86)

The fact is that in the Old Covenant era, unbelieving Jews by right (de jure) were a part of the nation of Israel. But in the New Covenant community it is different. As the author of Hebrews citing Jer 31:31-34 writes, the New Covenant is “not like the covenant” that God made with the Old Testament fathers (8:9). In the New Covenant they “shall all know Me from the least of them to the greatest of them” (8:11). In the New Testament era, says Jesus, “they shall all be taught by God” (John 6:45; compare Isaiah 54:13). As stated by John Owen, it is the “church of elect believers,” consisting of both “Jews and Gentiles, with whom this covenant is made and established, and unto whom the grace is actually communicated.”… (28)

Again, this is in no way to assert that every member of the New Testament community, the visible church, is truly converted. There may well be a Simon the magician (Acts 8:off), a Diotrephes (3 John 9-10), or a Demas (2 Tim 4:10) in the church. Far too often this is the case. But they are members de facto, not de jure. (88)

Westminster Assembly member Samuel Rutherford argued that because the New Covenant and the Old Covenant are the same Covenant of Grace, those who had a de jure Old Covenant membership have a de jure New Covenant membership, and thus a de jure visible church membership.

That our mind may be known in this, we propose these distinctions to be considered by the learned and godly reader:

1.  There is an inherent holiness and there is a federal holiness, whereby some are holy by covenant (that is, have right to the means of salvation), which right Turks and pagans have not.

2.  People or persons are two ways within the covenant:

i. Truly, and by faith in Christ, and according to the election of grace.

ii.  In profession, because the word of the covenant is preached to them as members of the visible church.

3.  There is a holiness of the covenant, and a holiness of covenanters, and there is a holiness of the nation, flock and people, and a holiness of the single person.

4.  There is a holiness of election in God’s mind, and a real holiness real of the persons elected.

5.  There is a federal or covenant holiness, de jure, such as goes before baptism in the infants born in the visible church, and a holiness de facto, a formal covenant holiness after they are baptized…

If the root be holy, so also are the branches (Rom. 11:16).  Now this holiness cannot be meant of personal and inherent holiness, for it is not true in that sense… If then the Jews in Paul’s time were holy by covenant (howbeit for the present the sons were branches broken off for unbelief), how much more then (seeing God has chosen the race and nation of the gentiles and is become a God to us and to our seed), that the seed must be holy with a holiness of the chosen nation and an external holiness of the covenant, notwithstanding that the father and mother were as wicked as the Jews who slew the Lord of Glory.

On the Baptism of the Children of Adherents

The difference between 1689 Federalism and Westminster is that Presbyterians believe that unbelievers who profess faith have a right to be members of the visible church (because the visible church is separate from the invisible church) while Baptists believe they do not have a right to be members of the visible church (because it is only a manifestation on earth of the invisible church). We both agree that they are members of the visible church. In denying an external administration to the New Covenant, we deny any right (de jure) of false professors to the visible church. (For clarification on this point, see Who Should be Baptized – Professors or Believers?)

“The Church” in Scripture

Note the definition above of de jure mentions that “In the course of ordinary events, the term de jure is superfluous. For example, in everyday discourse, when one speaks of a corporation or a government, the understood meaning is a de jure corporation or a de jure government.” This is precisely how we understand the Bible’s discussion of the church. John Erskine, an 18th century Scottish Presbyterian, does an excellent job of defending and explaining this:

We have seen in the first dissertation, that under the Old Testament, men destitute of inward piety were really in covenant with God, and had a just claim to certain external covenant blessings. In the course of the argument, several Scriptures have been occasionally illustrated, which represent the nature of the Christian dispensation, as in these respects diametrically opposite to that of the Sinai covenant.

Many however maintain, that an external covenant subsists under the Gospel, by which professors of Christianity, though inwardly disaffecled to God and goodness, are entitled to certain outward blessings, and church privileges. The common distinction of the church into visible and invisible, or at least the incautious manner in which some have explained it, has contributed not a little to the prevalence of this opinion. But let us impartially examine, whether it has any solid foundation in the sacred oracles; and for this purpose enquire whether the proofs of such an external covenant under the Old Testament, will equally apply to gospel times…

Under the Old Testament, a nation was in covenant with God, many of whom were inwardly disaffected to him. Now, those only who the spirit and temper of Christ, are true members of his church…

[W]e may define the Christian church, a society of persons effectually called; or a company of penitents, united by faith and love to Christ as their head, and to one another as members of his mystical body, and on every proper occasion outwardly discovering this union. Now, if the church of Christ is a society of persons who obey the gospel call, it is evident, hypocrites are no members of that church. For the gospel calls to a humble penitent reliance upon Christ, not to a bare profession of Christianity: and invites us to fellowship with Jesus 1 Cor 1:9 and a right to his kingdom and glory 1 Pet 5:10 not to any external society and advantages. The outward call of the gospel constitutes none members of the church save those who comply with it…

He who makes a credible profession is accounted a member of the church because, from such profession, as an evidence, we judge that he professes the proper condition of church membership, not because such profession is itself that condition. So that we reckon none members of the visible church without reckoning them members of the invisible church likewise, or in other words, without reckoning them united to Christ by a true and lively faith, and entitled to heaven through his perfect righteousness…

If there is an external church, essentially different from the internal, and consisting of different members, then Christ has two churches in the world, and is the head of two mystical bodies. But if the same persons, and none else, are members of the visible and invisible church, then hypocrites are really members of neither, though from our ignorance of their hypocrisy, they may be accounted such. (67-72)

Visible/Invisible a Matter of Perspective

As Erskine said, there is only one church with one membership. If there are two different bodies with two different memberships, then there are two different churches. There is only one church, but it can be perceived in two different ways: from God’s eyes and from man’s. Because men are not God, we must make a judgment as to who is and who is not part of the church. (And that judgment should be one of charity). But our mistaken judgment that someone is part of the church does not actually make them part of the church.

From the Second Helvetic Confession of Faith (1566):

CHAPTER XVII

Of The Catholic and Holy Church of God,
and of The One Only Head of The Church

[…]

WHAT IS THE CHURCH? The Church is an assembly of the faithful called or gathered out of the world; a communion, I say, of all saints, namely, of those who truly know and rightly worship and serve the true God in Christ the Savior, by the Word and holy Spirit, and who by faith are partakers of all benefits which are freely offered through Christ.

[…]

THE CHURCH APPEARS AT TIMES TO BE EXTINCT. Yes, and it sometimes happens that God in his just judgment allows the truth of his Word, and the catholic faith, and the proper worship of God to be so obscured and overthrown that the Church seems almost extinct, and no more to exist, as we see to have happened in the days of Elijah (I Kings 19:10, 14), and at other times. Meanwhile God has in this world and in this darkness his true worshippers, and those not a few, but even seven thousand and more (I Kings 19:18; Rev. 7:3 ff.). For the apostle exclaims: “God’s firm foundation stands, bearing this seal, `The Lord knows those who are his,’ ” etc. (II Tim. 2:19). Whence the Church of God may be termed invisible; not because the men from whom the Church is gathered are invisible, but because, being hidden from our eyes and known only to God, it often secretly escapes human judgment.

NOT ALL WHO ARE IN THE CHURCH ARE OF THE CHURCH. Again, not all that are reckoned in the number of the Church are saints, and living and true members of the Church. For there are many hypocrites, who outwardly hear the Word of God, and publicly receive the sacraments, and seem to pray to God through Christ alone, to confess Christ to be their only righteousness, and to worship God, and to exercise the duties of charity, and for a time to endure with patience in misfortune. And yet they are inwardly destitute of true illumination of the Spirit, of faith and sincerity of heart, and of perseverance to the end. But eventually the character of these men, for the most part, will be disclosed. For the apostle John says: “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would indeed have continued with us” (I John 2:19). And although while they simulate piety they are not of the Church, yet they are considered to be in the Church, just as traitors in a state are numbered among its citizens before they are discovered; and as the tares or darnel and chaff are found among the wheat, and as swellings and tumors are found in a sound body, And therefore the Church of God is rightly compared to a net which catches fish of all kinds, and to a field, in which both wheat and tares are found (Matt. 13:24 ff., 47 ff.).

WE MUST NOT JUDGE RASHLY OR PREMATURELY. Hence we must be very careful not to judge before the time, nor undertake to exclude, reject or cut off those whom the Lord does not want to have excluded or rejected, and those whom we cannot eliminate without loss to the Church. On the other hand, we must be vigilant lest while the pious snore the wicked gain ground and do harm to the Church.

The discrepancy between the visible and invisible church lies entirely in our misperception – our incorrect judgment.

17th century Irish theologian James Ussher held the same belief.

Sith God doth not reveal the covenant of grace, nor afford sufficient means to salvation to the whole world, but only to the Church: explain here what you mean by the Church?

We speak not here of that part of God’s Church which is triumphant in glory; who, being in perfect fruition, have no need of these outward means of communion with him, (Rev. xxi; xxii; xxiii;) but the subject here is the Church militant. And that we consider also, as visible, in the parts of it: consisting of diverse assemblies and companies of believers, making profession of the same common faith: howbeit many times, by force of persecution, the exercise of the public ordinances may for a time be suspended among them.

But are none to be accounted members of this Church, but such as are true believers, and so inseparably united unto Christ their head?

Truly and properly none other. (1 John 2.19) Howbeit because God doth use outward means with the inward, for the gathering of his Saints; and calleth them as wel to outward profession among themselves, (Acts 2.42. Cant.1.7) as to inward fellowship with his Son, whereby the Church becomes visible: hence it is, that so many as partake of outward means, and join with the Church in league of visible profession, are therefore in humane judgement accounted members of the true Church, and Saints by calling, (1 Cor 1.1) until the Lord (who only knoweth his) do make known the contrary. As we are taught in the Parable of the Tares. Mat. 13.24 & Mat. 13.47, &c. and of the draw net, and the threshing floor, where lieth both good corn and chaff.

Body of Divinity

In a 1997 WTJ article, Stuart R. Jones explains

The notion of a church known only to God plays a significant role in early Reformed confessions and leads to the epistemological problem calling for church marks… The problem of others knowing the church is not inability to penetrate the hidden counsel of God, but the fact that “we are often mistaken in our judgment.”

Commenting on Ussher, he notes

God’s ownership here relates to those who have “inward fellowship with his Son.” The church becomes visible by “outward profession among themselves.” This is not a Platonic church of the elect manifesting themselves in material space. This is a community which arises from a hidden life source, but making a confession that is not hidden… Ussher’s statement easily lends itself to the viewpoint interpretation of visible-invisible church.

Stuart explains Ussher’s connection to the Westminster Confession.

It is well known that the Westminster Assembly relied heavily on the Irish Articles of 1615 as a base formulary in its work. Philip Schaff has set the two creeds in parallel tables and noted that Archbishop Ussher (or Usher), the main author of the Articles, had a friend named Dr. Doyle who belonged to the committee which framed the Confession.9 Since one of the first tasks of the Assembly was to revise the Thirty-Nine Articles, it is significant that the Irish Articles provide a more direct basis for the Confession…

The determination of the Confession’s framers [ at 25.1] to be concise, suggests that the “whole number of the elect” formula was a shortened way of expressing the views of Ussher, without recourse to many words. This would have been understood at the time.

Wilhelmus à Brakel

 In 1700, Dutch theologian à Brakel published The Christian’s Reasonable Service. Volume 2 (starting on book pg. 5) discusses the visible/invisible church distinction at length. I will quote it in full because he makes the same argument we are presenting here.

        We wish to establish at the outset that there are not two or more churches, but only one Christian church. This one church we now wish to consider together.
This one church is made up of all the elect who have been called from the beginning of the world and are yet to be called until the end of the world. They are Christ’s peculiar people (Titus 2:14). “ To the general assembly and church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven ” (Heb 12:23); “ … Christ also loved the church, and gave Himself for it ” (Eph 5:25). This one congregation is partially in heaven, and is called the church triumphant, to which reference is made in Rev 7:9 – 16. This, however, is not the subject of discussion here. This congregation exists also partially upon earth and is called the church militant. It is the church militant which is the subject of this chapter. One can view this church either in its entirety, dispersed throughout the entire word, or as individual congregations in a nation, city, or village. As such one can refer to the church of England, of the Netherlands, or of Rotterdam.

Clarification of the Invisible/Visible Church Distinction
This one church in its militant state upon earth manifests itself at times more openly in her public assemblies, confession, and holiness. She is then called the visible church. At other times she is more hidden from the eyes of the world by prevailing errors, ungodliness, or persecutions. Then she is referred to as the invisible church (Rev 12:14).
This militant church can be viewed either in her internal, spiritual frame, or in her public gatherings. Her internal, spiritual frame, which consists of faith, a mystical union with Christ, and the spiritual life of the soul, is invisible and cannot be observed with the physical eye. The gatherings where God’s Word is heard and the sacraments are used, as well as her public profession in times of prosperity, are public and visible. Thus, in some respects the church is visible, and in some respects invisible. However, one may not divide the church into a visible and invisible church. One and the same person is invisible as far as the soul, will, intellect, and affections are concerned, and he is visible a s far as his body and motions are concerned. As one person cannot be divided into an invisible and a visible person, one may not divide the church into a visible and invisible church, for then it would seem as if there were two churches, each being a different church.
One may also not divide the church into a visible and invisible church as far as the members themselves are concerned, as if the one had different members from the other. Then all the elect, that is, those who truly have been called and converted, would mentally be separated from all others in the church and constitute the invisible church, whereas converted and unconverted together, gathering in one church, and having only in common the external call, historical faith, confession of the truth, and the external use of the sacraments, would constitute the visible church. This is, in our opinion, an erroneous view, generating many confusing thoughts and expressions concerning the church. When a speaker or writer refers to the church, one will then be in doubt as to whether he is speaking of the so – called invisible or visible church.
We maintain that one may not separate the visible and invisible church in such a manner, for, first, I do not find that the terms visible and invisible church are used in God’s Word with that connotation, nor do I find the description of such a distinction.
Secondly, this distinction is founded upon a false supposition — as if the unconverted are truly members of the church with equal right, that is, in its external and visible gathering, and therefore have a right to use the sacraments, something which we deny expressly below. If the unconverted are not members of the church, even when she is visible, the aforementioned distinction is of necessity irrelevant.
Thirdly, such a distinction infers the existence of two churches which are essentially different from each other. From a spiritual perspective true believers constitute the church by reason of a true, spiritual, and believing union with Christ and with each other. If t he unconverted, together with the converted would constitute a church on the basis of equal rights, this would have to be of an essentially different nature, whereby members of distinctly different natures would constitute one body and one church, even though the unconverted are not spiritually united to Christ and believers. If there are two essential manifestations, there must also be two essentially different bodies and churches, whereas we confess that there is but one church.
Fourthly, if in this respect there were a visible and an invisible church, one consisting only of true believers (due to a spiritual union) and one consisting of converted and unconverted together by way of an external union, then believers would simultaneously belong to two churches, one being invisible and the other visible. They would thus be in one church to which salvation is not promised, and in another to which salvation is promised. To hold such a view is as absurd as to propose the existence of two churches.

Objection # 1: There is a twofold calling, the one being internal and the other external. There is also a twofold faith: a saving, and a historical or temporal faith. There is a twofold holiness, the one being external and the other in truth, and there is a twofold participation of benefits, the one being external and the other an internal participation in the real benefits. Consequently, there is also an external and internal church.

Answer : (1) From this proposition it must be concluded that there are two churches, which is contrary to the Bible.
(2) The external call, historical or temporal faith, external holiness, and external participation in external privileges, do not constitute true membership of the church, which is spiritual in nature. Consequently, such a church cannot be the true church of Christ.

Objection #2: We do not think of two churches when we speak of an external or visible church, and of an internal or invisible church. Rather, we understand this to refer to a twofold perspective of the same church.

Answer : (1) If one maintains that the one church consists of different members from the other, there being a different manner of being united to her, one is not proposing that there are two aspects of the same church. Rather, it is only being indicated that there are two essentially different churches, with two types of members essentially different in nature which make up the church, and two ways whereby one can be united to her.
(2) The external relationship neither makes one a true member of the church, nor constitutes an external church, just as an external relationship with a corporation or business does not make one a true member and partner of it. It also does not cause the corporation or business to be viewed in a different perspective.
(3) No external relationship to the church gives the unconverted the right to use the sacraments, and thus unconverted and converted together cannot constitute an external church. There is no true church of Christ unless all who are members of it have a right to partake of the sacraments.
(4) If one understands the differentiation between the external and internal church to be but a twofold view and perspective of one and the same church, and does not hold to a twofold membership relationship, all is well and our proposition is confirmed: The differentiation between an external and internal church on the basis of membership and relationship is not good. One and the same church, consisting of true believers only, can either be viewed in reference to her internal spiritual condition, or in reference to her external manifestation in the world. This is what we have stated.

From that which has been said it is now evident in what manner we view the church in this treatise: We speak of a church consisting of true believers only, which on earth wars against her enemies and for the faith, being at times more and at times less visible to the human eye. As far as her internal, spiritual frame is concerned, she is invisible; but she is visible in reference to her public assemblies and members.
As we shall now consider the matter itself, we shall first give a description of the church, and subsequently give an explanation of all her elements.

The Church Defined
The church is a holy, catholic, Christian congregation, consisting of true believers only, who by the Holy Spirit have been called through the Word of God, are separate from the world, and are united to their Head and each other with a spiritual bond, and thus are united in one spiritual body. All of this is manifested by a true confession of Christ and of His truth, and in striving against their and Christ’s enemies, doing battle with spiritual weapons under the command of their Head Jesus Christ to the glory of God and their salvation. Let us now consider the individual elements of this description.
The church is first of all a congregation. One individual person does not constitute a church or a congregation. The church is referred to as a house, “Ye also, as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house ” (1 Pet 2:9); as a flock, “… and there shall be one fold, and one Shepherd ” (John 10:16); as a body, “… and gave Him to be the head over all things to the church, which is His body ” (Eph 1:22 – 23); as a nation, “ But ye are … an holy nation ” (1 Pet 2:9); and as a kingdom , “ … who hath called you unto His kingdom ” (1 Thess 2:12). However, one stone does not constitute a house, one sheep does not constitute a flock, one member is not a body, one person is not a nation, one person is not a kingdom — and thus also one pope doe s not constitute a church, which papists claim to be the case.

The True Church: A Congregation of True Believers
The church is a congregation of true believers. The unconverted, even though they have made confession of faith, have been accepted into the fellowship of the church, live without offense, and have been admitted to the use of the sacraments, the unconverted, I repeat, are not true members of the church. This is so whether the church is viewed in her internal, spiritual condition or in her public gatherings whereby she manifests herself externally to the world. The unconverted are not members of the external, visible church. Believers only constitute the true church. They alone are members of the church, regardless of how one views them.
This is clearly stated in articles 27 – 29 of the Belgic Confession of Faith, which read as follows:

Article 27
We believe and profess one catholic or universal Church, which is a holy congregation of true Christian believers, all expecting their salvation in J esus Christ, being washed by His blood, sanctified and sealed by the Holy Ghost. This Church hath been from the beginning of the world and will be to the end thereof; which is evident from this, that Christ is an eternal King, which, without subjects He ca nnot be. And this holy Church is preserved or supported by God against the rage of the whole world; though she sometimes (for a while) appears very small, and in the eyes of men, to be reduced to nothing, as during the perilous reign of Ahab when neverthel ess the Lord reserved unto him seven thousand men, who had not bowed their knees to Baal. Furthermore, this holy Church is not confined, bound, or limited to a certain place or to certain persons, but is spread and dispersed over the whole world; and yet i s joined and united with heart and will, by the power of faith, in one and the same spirit.

Article 28
We believe, since this holy congregation is an assembly of those who are saved and out of it there is no salvation, that no person of whatsoever state or condition he may be, ought to withdraw himself, to live in a separate state from it; but that all men are in duty bound to join and unite themselves with it, maintaining the unity of the Church, submitting themselves to the doctrine and discipline there of; bowing their necks under the yoke of Jesus Christ; and as mutual members of the same body, serving to the edification of the brethren, according to the talents God has given them.

And that this may be the more effectually observed, it is the duty of a ll believers, according to the Word of God, to separate themselves from those who do not belong to the Church, and to join themselves to this congregation, wheresoever God hath established it, even though the magistrates and edicts of princes be against it ; yea, though they should suffer death or any other corporal punishment. Therefore all those, who separate themselves from the same, or do not join themselves to it, act contrary to the ordinance of God.

Article 29
We believe, that we ought diligent ly and circumspectly to discern from the Word of God which is the true Church, since all sects which are in the world assume to themselves the name of the Church. But we speak not here of hypocrites, who are mixed in the Church with the good, yet are not of the Church, though externally in it; but we say that the body and communion of the true Church must be distinguished from all sects who call themselves the Church.

It is first of all evident that the Belgic Confession of Faith makes no mention of an invisible church which would consist, by way of mental deduction, of none but believers only, in distinction from a visible church which would consist of both converted and unconverted. This we have rejected earlier. Rather, it speaks of a church, existing and gathered upon earth, which is more or less visible. Anyone who attentively examines the words of the confession will readily discern this, for it makes mention of that church 1) in which hypocrites are to be found (Article 29), 2) to which one ought to join himself, “wheresoever God hath established it,” subjecting oneself to its instruction and discipline (Article 28), 3) against which are magistrates and the edicts of princes, and the joining of which could result in death or any other corporal punishment during times of persecution (Article 28), and 4) which one can distinguish from other sects. All of this can only be applicable to the visible church as she gathers to hear God’s Word and use the sacraments.
Secondly, the confession states that this church, which is more or less visible, consists only of true believers, when 1) it describes the church as “a holy congregation of true Christian believers, all expecting their salvation in Jesus Christ, being washed by His blood, sanctified and sealed by the Holy Ghost” (Article 27), 2) it declares that “hypocrites, who are mixed in the church with the good, yet are not of the church, though externally in it” (Article 29).
This confirms the conviction of the Reformed church that only believers are members of the church, while the unconverted are not members of the church, though they be externally in it.

Objection: The confession speaks of that church outside of which there is no salvation. Salvation can, however, be obtained outside of the visible and external church. Many are saved, even though they are neither baptized nor partake of the Lord’s Supper — yes,who are as yet in the Roman Catholic Church. The confession therefore speaks of the invisible church, which consists of believers only, and thus not of the visible church.

Answer : (1) At the time of the Reformation, when there was fierce persecution, many did not dare join themselves to the congregations of believers, thus pretending (as many still do) that salvation can be obtained in every religion. This the confession here refutes.
(2) It is an obvious truth that there is no salvation outside of the church; he who does not have the church as his mother, does not have God as His Father, for the church alone has the truth and preaches the truth, without which no one can be converted and saved.
(3) The confession does not state that no one can be saved unless they have been accepted as a member, are baptized, and attend the Lord’s Supper, but rather that apart from the church there is no salvation, and that outside of her neither the way of salvation is taught nor the means unto salvation are to be found.
(4) Unbaptized converted persons are saved by means of the church, which puts God’s Word at their disposal and proclaims that Word to them. If someone from the realm of popery is converted, this does not occur by way of papal doctrine, but by the Word of truth which the papacy has still allowed to remain in the church.

We have thus demonstrated that the Belgic Confession of Faith declares that only true believers are members of the church, and that the unconverted within the church are not members.
The truth of the aforesaid is established by the following arguments:
First, an external covenant between God and man, of which the unconverted would be partakers, has not been established either in the Old or New Testament. Consequently, there is also no external church of which unconverted persons are members. The first proposition has been proven exhaustively in chapter 16; the second proposition is then certain, since the church is founded upon the covenant. As the covenant is, so is the church.
Secondly, all true members of the church are entitled to the use of the sacraments, whereby the benefits of the covenant are sealed to them. The bread and wine are the communion of the body and blood of Christ, which is broken and shed for the forgiveness of sins (cf. Rom 4:11; 1 Cor 10:16; Matt 26:26 – 28). The unconverted, however, have no right to use the sacraments, since they have neither part nor lot in the sealed benefits, and they thus eat and drink judgment to themselves. The Form for the Administration of the Lord’s Supper states: “All these, while they continue in such sins, shall abstain from this meat (which Christ hath ordained only for the faithful), lest their judgment and condemnation be made the heavier.” Thus, the unconverted are not members of the church.
Thirdly, the very essence of the church, which gathers in an external form, is union with Christ and each other by the Holy Spirit. “For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body … and have been all made to drink into one Spirit” (1 Cor 12:13). The Form for the Administration of the Lord’s Supper speaks of this when it quotes 1 Cor 10:17, “For we being many are one bread, and one body: for w e are all partakers of that one bread.” It further states, “that we by the same Spirit (which dwelleth in Christ as in the head, and in us as His members), might have true communion with Him; … besides, that we by this same Spirit may also be united as members of one body in true brotherly love.” The unconverted, however, do not have this Spirit. “These be they … sensual, having not the Spirit” (Jude 1:19). Since the unconverted do not have the Spirit, they are none of Christ (Rom 8:9). Thus, they are no members of the church, for her members are mutually united by the Spirit and are Christ’s.
Fourthly, the name “church” is not applicable to the unconverted. The church is called, “… the house of God” (1 Tim 3:15); a spiritual house, built up of lively stones (1 Pet 2:5); the fold of Christ (John 10:16); “… the kingdom of His dear Son” (Col 1:13); “the congregation of the saints” (Ps 89:5);  “… the assembly of the upright” (Ps 111:1). The apostle, when writing to the congregation, denominates them as those “that are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints” (1 Cor 1:2); “holy brethren, partakers of the heavenly calling” (Heb 3:1). All of this, however, cannot be stated concerning the unconverted. Thus, they do not belong to the church, and consequently are not members of her.
Fifthly, this is also evident in 1 John 2:19: “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us.” Those who went out were the unconverted, who prior to their departure were in the church but nevertheless did not belong to the church. Thus, the unconverted, even though they are in the church, are not of the church, and therefore are no members of her.

Objections Answered Concerning Membership in the True Church

Objection #1: It is evident that a large multitude of unconverted persons associate with the church, are accepted as her members, remain members there, and partake of the sacraments. Therefore they are members of the church indeed.

Answer : (1) It is one thing to associate with the church and to be accepted as members, and another thing to be true members. The latter does not proceed from the first, for the acceptance of men as members is performed by men, who see only what is before their eyes and cannot judge according to the heart, leaving this to Him who knows the hearts. Regeneration or the probability of regeneration has not been established as a rule by which the elders of the church accept members. Rather, they are judged by their confession of the truth and their response to this truth, and by the manifestation of a life which does not contradict their confession. The rest is left to them and to the Lord.
(2) It is one thing to join the church externally, and it is another thing to speak of an external church. Even though they are externally in the church, this does not mean that there is an external church of which they are bonafide [de jure] members. Membership in an external church to which the promise of salvation is not annexed is not their objective, but rather a church as being a fellowship within which they may be saved. To this church they apply themselves, but only externally, and not in truth with a converted and believing heart. Therefore they are no members, even though men view them as such externally. They are thus within the church as a poisonous fruit which is attached to a good tree with good fruits. They are therefore within the church as strangers, who for some time dwell in a house, but whom no one deems to be family members. Because of this external association with the church there is also an external relationship to the Lord Jesus as King of His church, as well as her true members, and they enjoy the external privileges of the church. Their entrance into the church, and the church’s acceptance of them does not make them true members of the church. Such can only come about by faith and repentance.

Objection #2: On a threshing floor both wheat and chaff are to be found. The church is the threshing floor, and both chaff and wheat are in an identical relationship to the threshing floor. In like manner the unconverted and the converted belong to the same church.

Answer : There is no argument over the fact that both good and evil men are to be found in the church. We are not proposing, however, the chaff to be a “member” of the threshing floor, that is, the church. Chaff is present on the threshing floor as chaff and not as wheat. All who are in the church are not therefore of the church.

Objection #3: Consider Matt 13:24 – 25, 47. On the same field good fruit and tares were to be found, and the same net contained good and bad fishes. Thus, in the church both the good and the evil are equally members of the church.

Answer: The field does not represent the church, but the world (vs. 38), upon which both good and evil men reside. The fish net which gathers all fish, is examined by the fishermen, and only the good fish are placed in the barrels. One must keep the objective of the parable in view, which is not to show who are true members of the church, but what the end will be of the good and the evil. This passage is therefore not applicable here.

Objection #4: One could object by referring to 2 Tim 2:20: “But in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and of silver, but also of wood and of earth; and some to honour, and some to dishonour.” The house is the church, and the vessels are the members of the church. Among these members are also the unconverted, who are referred to as vessels of dishonor.

Answer: (1) The vessels in a house are not household members. Likewise the vessels of dishonor — the unconverted — are not members; they do not truly belong to the household.
(2) Again, one should not become entangled in details, but take note of the objective, which is to demonstrate who are the good and the evil within the church, a fact we readily admit. Not one word is mentioned here, however, whether or not they are true members of the church. Even if they are in the church, they are not therefore of the church.

Objection #5: If one maintains that only the converted are members of the church, one proposes that there is a pure church upon earth, which is contrary to the Bible and experience. [This is the poor objection every baptist hears from Presbyterians]

Answer: (1) True believers themselves are still subject to many impurities, and are far from being perfect.
(2) By maintaining that only true believers are members of the church, we do not claim that there are no unconverted in the congregation, but that they are not present as true members there. There neither has been nor will ever be a church upon earth in which there are no unconverted, that is, those who merely travel along; yes, the latter are generally in the majority. There is a significant difference between being in the church, and being of the church.

Objection #6: If only the truly converted are true members of the church, the true church which we need to identify is not recognizable, since one cannot be certain of the conversion of others.

Answer : One ought not to identify the church by regeneration, but by the true doctrine, and the sanctification of the confessing members conjoined with this true doctrine. These two are identifiable, and wherever these two are present, the true church is to be found. Whether someone possesses these two in truth or in pretense is a personal matter, however, and is not to be a distinguishing mark for the church for others. It thus remains certain that only true believers who congregate upon earth are members of the church, it being more or less visible. The unconverted are therefore not members of the church, though they be externally in her.

John Murray

John Murray wrote a brief essay titled The Church: Its Definition in Terms of ‘Visible’ and ‘Invisible’ Invalid. His purpose was slightly different than ours, but his observations are pertinent to our discussion.

It has been common to make a sharp distinction between the church visible and the church invisible and with this distinction to apply definitions by which the differentiation can be maintained. This position calls for examination in the light of Scripture…

[T]he actions of God by which men are made members of the body of Christ are of such a character that they are imperceptible to men… So from many angles our human limitations have to be recognized and these may be expressed by speaking of the church as invisible. At least the term ‘invisible’ has been used to draw attention to these obvious facts…

The distinction between the church visible and the church invisible is not well-grounded in terms of Scripture, and the abuses to which the distinction has been subjected require correction…

A rapid survey of the New Testament usage will show how frequently the term ‘church’ designates what is visible. The church is the assembly or fellowship of the people of God, constituted by the call of God, a people formed for himself to show forth his praise and to bear witness to him in the performance of prescribed functions…

God gave Christ ‘to be head over all things to the church’ (Eph 1:22), ‘Christ is the head of the church’ (5:23), ‘Christ loved the church and gave himself for it’ (5:25; cf. 3:10, 21; 5:24, 27, 29, 32; Col 1:18, 24)… It might seem that in these latter passages the ‘church invisible’ is in view and that only to the church as such can the various properties belong… [I]t is impossible to dissociate the church visible from the relevance and application of the various propositions in these contexts. Hence, even in those passages in which the concept of the ‘church invisible’ might appear to be present, the case is rather that there is no evidence for the notion of the ‘church’ as an invisible entity distinct from the church visible…

Strictly speaking, it is not proper to speak of the ‘visible church’. According to Scripture we should speak of ‘the church’ and conceive of it as that visible entity that exists and functions in accord with the institution of Christ as Head, the church that is the body of Christ indwelt and directed by the Holy Spirit, consisting of those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be saints, manifested in the congregations of the faithful, and finallt the church glorious, holy and without blemish.

Consistency

Charles Hodge, when challenged by Episcopalians and Romanists to consistently apply the Jewish model of the church, argued

…if the Church is the coetus sanctorum, the company of believers; if it is the body of Christ, and if his body consists of those, and of those only, in whom he dwells by his Spirit, then the Church is visible only in the sense in which believers are visible.

He says the Church is visible in so much as:

(1) it consists of men and women, in distinction from disembodied spirits or angels..

(2) Its members manifest their faith by good works… Wherever there are true believers, there is the true Church; and wherever such believers confess their faith, and illustrate it by a holy life, there the Church is visible

(3) …believers are, by their “effectual calling,” separated from the world… The true Church is visible throughout the world, not as an organization, not as an external society, but as the living body of Christ; as a set of men distinguished from others as true Christians…

 

The scriptural and Protestant doctrine of the visibility of the Church is, therefore, a corollary of the true doctrine of its nature. If the Church is a company of believers, its visibility is that which belongs to believers. They are visible as men; as holy men; as men separated from the world as a peculiar people by the indwelling of the Spirit of God…

 

When Protestants say the Church is invisible, they only mean that an inward and consequently invisible state of mind is the condition of membership, and not that those who have this internal qualification are invisible, or that they cannot be so known as to enable us to discharge the duties which we owe them. When asked, what makes a man a Christian? we say true faith. When asked whom must we regard and treat as Christians? we answer, those who make a credible profession of their faith. Is there any contradiction in this? Is there any force in the objection, that if faith is an inward quality, it cannot be proved by outward evidence?

Implications for Covenant Membership

Erskine continues by explaining how this relates to covenant membership:

What then are the covenant blessings, that belong to unconverted professors of Christianity? Surely, not the spiritual blessings infallibly connected with salvation, for in these, believers only have an interest. Not outward prosperity, that being no where promised in the covenant of grace, either to the visible, or to the invisible church. Not the sacraments, which, unless as signs and seals of spiritual blessings, are of little value. Not the call of the gospel, for they have no more benefit by it, than infidels, and the openly profane. A strange covenant indeed, which confers only an empty unmeaning title, but from which the persons in covenant derive no advantage!…

I should do injustice to my argument, if said nothing of some passages of Scripture, from which, those who read without due attention, may be apt to conclude, that hypocrites are true members of the church. The church seems compared to a field, where tares grow up with the wheat, to a threshing floor, where good grain is mixed with the chaff, to a net which draws bad fish as well as good, and to a feast where a guest comes, not having on the wedding garment, Matth. xiii. throughout, and xxii. Must we not conclude from these Scriptures, that hypocrites are members of the church?—By no means. Unless we must also infer, that chaff is good grain, and that tares are wheat, because they often happen to be mingled together. There is no occasion for an inference thus dishonourable to sacred writ. These parables represent to us, not the nature of the church, but her condition in this world where hypocrites are mingled with Christians, breathe the same air, worship in the same temple, and make the same outward profession…

It deserves our notice, that the apostle does not speak of some of the church as within and others as without, and thus give countenance to the distinction of a visible and an invisible church, but speaks of all the members of the church as within, and of the world as without. All then who belong to the church, are within, or members of the church invisible. Some are so, truly, and in the eyes of God ; others, only apparently, and in the eyes of men. The first have a title to be within. The second have no title. If we reckon them within, it is only, because their profession being credible, we charitably believe it sincere, and that consequently they are united to Christ. And hence, so soon as we find, from their course of life, that their profession was deceitful, it becomes our duty, to renounce communion with them…

The greater part of modern Christians, have, I acknowledge, in their sentiments of the nature of the church, widely deviated from Scripture and antiquity. And the fiction of a visible church, really in covenant with God, and yet partly made up of hypocrites, has almost universally prevailed.

Theological Dissertations II: The Character and Privileges of the Christian Church

Charles Hodge went on to draw conclusions for covenant theology as well.

Much of the most plausible argument of Romanists is derived from the analogy of the old dispensation. That the Church is a visible society, consisting of the professors of the true religion, as distinguished from the body of true believers, known only to God, is plain, they say, because under the old dispensation it was such a society, embracing all the descendants of Abraham who professed the true religion, and received the sign of circumcision… The Church exists as an external society now as it did then; what once belonged to the commonwealth of Israel, now belongs to the visible Church…

The fallacy of this whole argument lies in the false assumption, that the external Israel was the true Church…

It is to be remembered that there were two covenants made with Abraham. By the one, his natural descendants through Isaac were constituted a commonwealth, an external, visible community. By the other, his spiritual descendants were constituted a Church. The parties to the former covenant were God and the nation; to the other, God and his true people. The promises of the national covenant were national blessings; the promises of the spiritual covenant, (i.e. of the covenant of grace) were spiritual blessings, reconciliation, holiness, and eternal life. The conditions of the one covenant were circumcision and obedience to the law; the condition of the latter was, is, and ever has been, faith in the Messiah as the seed of the woman, the Son of God, and the Savior of the world. There cannot be a greater mistake than to confound the national covenant with the covenant of grace, and the commonwealth founded on the one with the Church founded on the other.

When Christ came “the commonwealth” was abolished, and there was nothing put in its place. The Church remained. There was no external covenant, nor promises of external blessings, on condition of external rites and subjection. There was a spiritual society with spiritual promises, on the condition of faith in Christ. In no part of the New Testament is any other condition of membership in the Church prescribed than that contained in the answer of Philip to the eunuch who desired baptism: “If thou believest with all thine heart, thou mayest. And he answered and said, I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.” (Acts viii. 37). The Church, therefore, is, in its essential nature, a company of believers, and not an external society, requiring merely external profession as the condition of membership.

The New Covenant is our union with Christ. If someone is not united to Christ, they are not part of the New Covenant, period. Therefore the New Covenant establishes the church, which is defined as those who are united to Christ. The visible church is not a separate entity from the invisible church with a different foundation and establishment. The visible church is just that: the visible manifestation of the church (which is singular). LBCF 26.5 says that Christ commands those who have been effectually called to walk together in particular societies/churches. Paragraph 6 says “the members of these churches are saints by calling…” Someone who has not been effectually called is not commanded to be a part of the visible church and they have no right to membership in the church. Their lack of faith nullifies any claim to membership in the church. The issue is simply our ability to know their heart. The New Covenant does not establish a right to membership in the visible church to those who are not united to Christ.

Void Membership

Consider the concept of a void marriage:

A void marriage is a marriage which is unlawful or invalid under the laws of the jurisdiction where it is entered. A void marriage is “one that is void and invalid from its beginning. It is as though the marriage never existed and it requires no formality to terminate.” https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Void_marriage

Annulment is a legal procedure for declaring a marriage null and void. Unlike divorce, it is usually retroactive, meaning that an annulled marriage is considered to be invalid from the beginning almost as if it had never taken place… A void marriage is a marriage which has no legal recognition (was not legally valid in the first place, i.e. is void ab initio). https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Annulment

If someone has made a false profession, their church membership is void ab initio. False professors are never part of the church, though we may mistakenly consider them such. “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.” (1 John 2:19 ESV) “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven… then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me'” (Matt. 7:21-23).

Thus the 1689 Federalism position regarding church membership is expressed by Samuel Renihan (recall the Second Helvetic Confession’s language of traitors in a state):

10. The objective nature of the covenant, and the subjective nature of profession of faith produce a robust Baptist ecclesiology and doctrine of baptism. The church is the kingdom of Christ, established and governed by his covenant and filled with his people, born again by the power of the Holy Spirit. Election and regeneration are objective realities of the covenant effected by God himself. But how is the visible church to be governed? How are the children of God identified? The newborn cry of a child of God, no matter their age, is faith in Jesus Christ. And by one’s doctrinal and practical profession of faith individuals are admitted or removed from the church.

11. Because we believe that faith is the gift of God (Ephesians 2:8) and that all those who call upon the name of the Lord will be saved (Romans 10:13), we have scriptural reasons to presume that all professing believers are true children of God. But because a profession of faith is subjective, there will be false believers in our midst. What is their relation to Christ’s covenant? Objectively, there is none. They do not belong to Christ, supposing they never repent and believe. However, they are held accountable for their treason. When a spy is discovered, a country should not release him to his own land under the false notion that they do not have authority over him. Quite to the contrary, the spy is accountable to the laws of the land in which he committed his crimes. So also, false believers are not released without action. They are accountable to the King, Jesus Christ, and they are to be removed from the body of Christ by excommunication. The warning passages of Scripture cause the sheep to flee to Christ and the goats to flee from Christ.

12. Admitting and removing individuals based on profession of faith in turn produces an identical proleptic value for joining and leaving the church. Those who join the kingdom of Christ claim salvation in him while those who are expelled are declared outside of salvation, both according to human judgment operating with scriptural criteria and commands.

The Case for Credobaptism (The Alliance for Confessing Evangelicals)

The Necessary Implication of the Visible/Invisible Distinction

Far from rejecting the visible/invisible church distinction, we have actually found that the view presented here is the only logical possibility. If one denies this view, if one denies the distinction is one of viewpoint, one ends up with two different churches. Thus Presbyterianism is built upon an unresolved tension that the 17th century Congregationalists, including baptists, resolved.

Recently, advocates of the false gospel known as Federal Vision have pointed out this problem. Doug Wilson’s observation is worth noting (though his solution is utterly disastrous).

A problem is created when we affirm a belief in two Churches at the same moment in time, one visible and the other invisible. Are they the same Church or not? If they are, then why are “membership rosters” different? If they are not, then which one is the true Church? We know that Christ has only one Bride. The natural supposition is that the invisible Church, made up of the elect, is the true Church. But this leads to a disparagement of the visible Church, and eventually necessitates, I believe a baptistic understanding of the Church.

“Reformed” is Not Enough

The Half-Way Covenant

October 24, 2014 2 comments

Half-Way Covenant, religious-political solution adopted by 17th-century New England Congregationalists, also called Puritans, that allowed the children of baptized but unconverted church members to be baptized and thus become church members and have political rights. Early Congregationalists had become members of the church after they could report an experience of conversion. Their children were baptized as infants, but, before these children were admitted to full membership in the church and permitted to partake of the Lord’s Supper, they were expected to also give evidence of a conversion experience. Many never reported a conversion experience but, as adults, were considered church members because they had been baptized, although they were not admitted to the Lord’s Supper and were not allowed to vote or hold office.

Encyclopedia Brittanica

Due to statements like the above, and because of the very name, I have always been under the impression that the position known as “the Half-Way Covenant” was invented by New England Congregationalists as a response to societal pressures. However, that is not really accurate. The following Wikipedia article is also representative of what I have previously read, but it is also quite inaccurate (notice the lack of citations):

The Half-Way Covenant was a form of partial church membership created by New England in 1662. It was promoted in particular by the Reverend Solomon Stoddard, who felt that the people of the English colonies were drifting away from their original religious purpose. First-generation settlers were beginning to die out, while their children and grandchildren often expressed less religious piety, and more desire for material wealth.

Full membership in the tax-supported Puritan church required an account of a conversion experience, and only persons in full membership could have their own children baptized.[citation needed] Second and third generations, and later immigrants, did not have the same conversion experiences. These individuals were thus not accepted as members despite leading otherwise pious and upright Christian lives.

In response, the Half-Way Covenant provided a partial church membership for the children and grandchildren of church members. Those who accepted the Covenant and agreed to follow the creed within the church could participate in the Lord’s supper. Crucially, the half-way covenant provided that the children of holders of the covenant could be baptized in the church. These partial members, however, couldn’t accept communion or vote.[1]

Puritan preachers hoped that this plan would maintain some of the church’s influence in society, and that these ‘half-way members’ would see the benefits of full membership, be exposed to teachings and piety which would lead to the “born again” experience,[citation needed] and eventually take the full oath of allegiance.[citation needed] Many of the more religious members of Puritan society rejected this plan as they felt it did not fully adhere to the church’s guidelines, and many of the target members opted to wait for a true conversion experience instead of taking what they viewed as a short cut.[who?]

Notice how this conflicts with the Brittanica article. Solomon Stoddard did not promote the Half-Way Covenant. He promoted an idiosyncratic position that admitted everyone to the Lord’s Supper as a converting ordinance, which is a different issue.

The Half-Way Covenant was specifically about baptism. New England Congregationalists, in forging the new path of Congregationalism, made a bold step in requiring a profession of saving faith (a demonstration of a work of grace in their lives) for membership. The reformed tradition only required profession of the true religion (“historical faith”). The question that arose was what to do with the children of people who had been baptized as infants into the church, but never made a profession of saving faith. Should these children be baptized?

When our churches were come to between twenty and thirty years of age, a numerous posterity was advanced so far into the world, that the first planters began apace in their several families to be distinguished by the name of grand-fathers ; but among the immediate parents of the grand children, there were multitudes of well disposed persons, who, partly thro’ their own doubts and fears, and partly thro’ other culpable neglect, had not actually come up to the covenanting state of covimunicants at the table of the Lord. The good old generation could not, without many uncom fortable apprehensions, behold their offspring excluded from the baptism of Christianity, and from the ecclesiastical inspection which is to accom pany that baptism; indeed, it was to leave their off-spring under the shepherdly government of our Lord Jesus Christ in his ordinances, that they had brought their lambs into this wilderness.

When the apostle bids churches to “look diligently, lest any man fail of the grace of God,” there is an ecclesiastical word used for that “looking diligently;” intimating that God will ordinarily bless a regular church-watch, to maintain the interests of grace among his people: and it was therefore the study”\ of those prudent men, who might he call’d our seers, that the children of \ ‘ the faithful may bo kept, as far as may be, under a church-watch, in i expectation that they might be in the fairer way to receive the grace of ! God; thus they were “looking diligently,” that the prosperous and pre vailing condition of religion in our churches might not be Res unius ailalis, — “a matter of one age alone.”

Moreover, among the next sons or daughters descending from that generation, there was a numerous appearance of sober persons, who professed themselves desirous to renew their baptismal-covenant and submit unto the church-discipline, and so have their houses also marked for the Lord’s; but yet they could not come up to that experimental account of their own regeneration, which would sufficiently embolden their access to the other sacraments. Wherefore, for our churches now to make no ecclesiastical difference between these hope ful candidates and competents for those our further mysteries, and Pagans, who might happen to hear the word of God in our assemblies, was judged a most unwarrantable strictness, which would quickly abandon the biggest part of our country unto heathenism. And, on the other side, it was feared that, if all such as had not yet exposed themselves by censurable scandals found upon them, should be admitted unto all the priviledges in our churches, a worldly part of mankind might, before we are aware, carry all things into such a course of proceeding, as would be very disagreeable unto the kingdom of heaven.

Cotton Mathers’ Magnalia Christi Americana

The magistrates of Connecticut and Massachusetts called for a synod to answer the issue. The synod’s answer was what has become known as the half-way covenant: the children of non-communicant members may be baptized. But the important point to understand was that the ministers did not see themselves as inventing or creating anything new. They were simply explaining and clarifying what had always been their position, and what had always been the reformed position. What was new was their requirement for a profession of saving faith in the first place.

What is interesting is the debate that ensued after the synod’s declaration. Increase Mather, son-in-law of John Cotton, objected to the report. He was born in New England and graduated from Harvard, but then studied in England and was a pastor there from 1658-1661. As a non-conformist he was forced to flee back to New England. It appears that this second generation of congregationalists did not share the reformed assumptions of their previous generation. Increase’s father Richard Mather was at the head of the synod’s report. The two were in disagreement, which was expressed via public written exchanges.

Increase could not understand, how someone who showed no signs of faith should be considered a Christian and thus should have their children baptized. His confusion stemmed from the new beliefs of the Congregationalist/Independent movement in New England. Separatists in England, in reaction to the Church of England, took steps towards a “pure church” concept by separating from the Church of England so they could administer their own discipline. Congregationalists, typically not Separatists (disavowing the Church of England), furthered this concept of the gathered church by requiring a profession of saving faith (conversion experience) prior to admitting a member to the Lord’s Supper (thus becoming a “communicant” member as opposed to a regular member). This has sometimes been referred to as a “church within a church”. (See Visible Saints: The History of a Puritan Idea)

This led to obvious conflict in Increase Mather’s understanding of membership. Eventually, he could not answer the logic flowing from the presuppositions regarding baptism itself and he humbly changed his mind, admitting that non-communicant members may have their children baptized.

The “Half-Way Covenant” was not an invention or a liberalizing tendency in New England churches. It was the historic reformed position. Rejection of this position is actually lamented by Presbyterian historians:

In view of the extensive acceptance of the Presbyterian theory of church order in the British Islands it is surprising that so long a period elapsed before it took root in any of the British colonies in America. Up to the time of Cromwell’s accession to power and even after that event the central and probably the largest body of the English Puritans were Presbyterians with moderate Episcopalians like Ussher and Reynolds forming the right wing while Independents and Baptists were the left. While the Pilgrim Fathers who settled the Plymouth colony were Independents on principle the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay colony were largely Presbyterians in theory before their emigration. But the suppression of the attempts to set up the Genevan order in England in 1591 through the hostility of Archbishop Whitgift and its partial suspension in Scotland by the Compromise of 1586 and by the Articles of Perth in 1618 had prevented any practical application of Presbyterian principles within Great Britain. It was merely a theory and in the case of the English Puritans it was subject to the influence of that general tendency to pure individualism which dominated the whole Puritan movement From Anglican to Presbyterian from that to Independent and from that to Baptist ending often in Seekerism or Quakerism is the gamut through which the active spirits of the time easily ran.

In laying the foundations of church order in the absence of precedence and traditions and not uninfluenced by the proximity of the pronounced Independents of Plymouth the Puritans of New England drifted into arrangements which were midway between Presbyterianism and Independency with a strong leaning toward the latter. Not that there was no resistance to this. “The New England way,” as it was called, excited some sharp criticism among the Puritan divines in England and in 1637-39 there was a prolonged correspondence between them and their brethren on the subject, not entirely to their satisfaction. But the two tendencies struggled for the mastery for nearly seventy years, the Presbyterian finding able supporters in John Eliot (“The Divine Ordinance of Councils” 1665) and the Mathers.

Dr HM Dexter felicitously describes the New England way as a Congregationalized Presbyterianism which had its roots in one system and its branches in another and says that the Massachusetts churches differed locally from the almost Presbyterianism of Hingham and Newbury port to the pronounced Independency of Plymouth. But he is not so happy in his statement that the system was essentially Genevan within the local congregation and essentially other outside it. The absence of regularly constituted sessions for the administration of church discipline and the refusal of baptism to the children of baptized persons who were not communicants marked the local congregation as un Presbyterian. The latter rule was a rejection of the judgment of charity accepted by all the Reformed churches. It was one of the moot points between the two parties in the Westminster Assembly and in 1662 the severer rule had to be relaxed even in New England by the Half Way Covenant. On the other hand the high authority claimed and exercised by synods called by the civil magistrate of which six met during the seventeenth century shows that even outside the local congregation the New England way was not so entirely other than Genevan. We hear of no more such synods when the Congregational principle had attained supremacy in Massachusetts and the church order had taken the shape indicated in the writings of Rev John Wise (“The Churches Quarrell Espoused” 1710) who completed what John Cotton and his associates had begun.

A History of the Presbyterian Churches in the United States

Commenting on the above quote, Gordon Clark notes:

This emotional pietism, as it demanded a particular type of experience for regeneration, tended to view the ideal church as consisting entirely of regenerate persons sharing such an experience. The logical result is the Baptist position; but in Presbyterianism it stopped short at requiring the faith of the parents who wanted their children baptized. But if it did not result in Baptists practices, it involved a change in the theology of baptism.

-Sanctification, p. 65

(Side note: The Massachusetts synod insisted their principle only applied to the “next parent” and not to grandparents or ancestors, for “If we stop not at the next parent, but grant that ancestors may… convey membership unto children, then we should want a ground where to stop, and then all the children on earth should have right to membership and baptism.” To which Gordon Clark responded “Does the Bible require or prohibit baptisms to the thousandth generation? If it does, and if a generation is roughly thirty years, a thousand generation from the time of Christ would include just about everybody in the western world. Then the church should have baptized the child of an intensely Talmudic Jew whose ancestor in 50 B.C. was piously looking for the Messiah. Or, George Whitefield should have baptized Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and Tom Paine, as children, because one of their ancestors played a small role in the Reformation. Strange as this may seem to many, it ought to have been done if the Bible so teaches.”)

All of that is just a very long winded way of saying that you should read Cotton Mather’s account of the debate, including the arguments from Increase Mather against the practice, and the response that he could not ultimately refute. It sheds great light on the question of baptism. You can read it in Volume II of Cotton Mathers’ Magnalia Christi Americana (p. 276), as well as Ch. 3 S. 6 of the Memoirs of Increase Mather (p. 17).

The Answer of the Elders and Other Messengers of the Churches, Assembled at Boston in the Year 1662, The Results of the Three Synods (Boston, 1725).

Quest. I. Who are the Subjects of Baptism?

The Answer may be given in the following Propositions, briefly confirmed from the Scriptures.

I. They that according to Scripture, are Members of the Visible Church, are the Subjects of Baptism.

2. The Members of the Visible Church according to Scripture, are visible Believers, in particular Churches, and their Infant i. e. Children in Minority, whose next Parents, one or both, are in Covenant.

3. The Infant-seed of Confederate visible Believers, are Members of the Church with their Parents, and when grown up, are personally under Watch, Discipline and Government of that Church.

4. These adult Persons, are not therefore to be admitted to full Communion, meerly because they are and continue Members, without such Qualifications, as the Word of God requireth thereunto.

5. Church-Members who were admitted in minority, understanding the Doctrine of Faith, and publickly professing their assent thereto; not scandalous in Life, and solemnly owning the Covenant before the Church, wherein they give up themselves and their Children to the Lord, and subject themselves to the Government of Christ in the Church, their Children are to be baptized.

6. Such Church-Members, who either by Death, or some other extraordinary Providence, have been inevitably hindred from publick acting as aforesaid, yet have given the Church cause in judgment of Charity, to look at them as so qualfied, and such, as had they been called thereunto, would have so acted; their Children are to be baptized.

7. The Members of Orthodox Churches, being sound in the Faith, and not scandalous in Life, and presenting due Testimony thereof; these occasionally coming from one Church to another, may have their Children baptized in the Church whither they come, by virtue of communion of Churches: But if they remove their Habitation, they ought orderly to covenant and subject themselves to the Government of Christ in the Church where they settle their abode, and so their Children to be baptized. It being the Churches duty to receive such unto Communion, so far as they are regularly fit for the same.

Here is a highlight of the ensuing debate:

Apology — VI. The application of the seal of baptism unto those who are not true believers, (we mean visibly, for De Occultis non Judical Ecclesia* The church passes no Judgment on the secrets of the heart) is a profanation thereof, and as dreadful a sin as if it man should administer the Lord’s Supper unto unworthy receivers; which is (as Calvin saith) as sacrilegious impiety, as if a man should take the blood or body of Christ and prostitute it unto dogs. We marvel that any should think that the blood of Christ is not as much profaned and villified by undue administration of baptism, as by undue administration of the Lord’s Supper.

In a private letter to Increase Mather, Mr. Mitchell summarized the debate:

“Please to consider which of these three propositions you would deny:

1, The whole visible church under the New Testament is to be baptized.
2, If a man be once in the church, nothing less than censurable evil can put him out.
3, If the parent be in the visible church, his infant child is so too.”

Increase could not answer the question.

Know, then, that Mr. Michael, partly by the light of truth fairly offered, and partly by the force of prayer for the good success of the offer, was too hard for the most learned apologist [Increase]; who, after he had written so exactly on the anti-synodalian side, that, finding that Scripture and reason lay most on the other side, not only surrendered himself a glad captive thereunto, but also obliged the church of God, by publishing unto the world a couple of most nervous treatises, in defence of the synodical propositions. The former of these treatises was entitled, ” The First Principles of New England, concerning the Subject of Baptism, and Communion of Churches:” wherein, because the anti- synodists commonly reproached the doctrine of the synod, as being no less hew than the practice of it, he answers this popular imputation of innovation and apostacy, by demonstrating, from the unquestionable writings of the chief and first fathers in our churches, that the doctrine of the synod was then generally believed by them: albeit the practice thereof had been buried in the circumstances of the “new plantation.”