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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.