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…
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:
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.
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.
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.