The Church Visible and Invisible

church mission

A common distinctive of Protestant ecclesiology is to distinguish between the invisible and visible church. What this distinction is meant to communicate is that within any church gathering, there will be a varied assortment of people: some will be true believers; but others will be unbelievers, professing believers, hypocrites, etc. What we see, what is visible, is a bunch of baptized professing Christians. However the reality is that only a segment are truly regenerate, united to Christ, part of Christ’s body. But this group is not perceptible to the eyes; ergo, the invisible church verses the visible. We cannot see who’s who.

Many do not like this distinction between visible and invisible because it creates an impression what’s really important is the invisible, spiritual body of believers. The visible, ecclesial, hierarchical, sacramental, is really irrelevant to the Christian life. What really matters is the heart, that I love Jesus. Another issue brought up is that this theology creates a sort of disdain for the sacraments. “Well I know he was baptized, but until I see fruit I’m still not sure he’s the real deal!”

Douglas Wilson, while understanding the distinction, proposes that we designate another term for this reality. He suggests calling it the “historical church” verses the “eschatological church”. There are those who are in the church now in history, verses those true believers who will be in the church in eternity. What this does get away from the anti-establishment anti-sacramental stuff. And while at times I understand and even like his suggestion, I still think the visible/invisible distinction is important. And actually, that distinction is there in the scriptures.

Turretin explains the distinction from scripture in his Elenctic Theology, volume 3:

It is one thing to be in the church by a visible communion and to use the same profession and the same sacraments; another to be of the internal and invisible communion of the church and to be bound together by the same bond of faith and Spirit. I grant that [unbelievers] are in the church in the former sense, but I deny that they are in the latter. Christ denies it “Ye are of your father the devil! (Jn 8:44); “Ye are not of my sheep” (Jn 10:26). John denies it, “They were not of us” (1 Jn 2:19). And as “all are not Israel, who are of Israel (Rom 9:6), i.e., they who will spring from Israel according to the flesh still are not the true Israel according to the Spirit, to whom the promises are made; thus neither are all who are in the church of the church (pp 21)

Turretin first brings out the Pharisees. The Pharisees, for all intents and purposes were part of God’s people Israel: they participated in the sacraments, sacrifices, worship, they taught and led; and yet Christ calls them children of the devil. They were in Israel but not truly Israel. Paul’s distinction of the two types of Israel from Romans 9 is also telling: there were those who were part of Israel by birth but not by faith, and so they were members merely externally. The point here is that there are those who are in the visible assembly only; but they do not have true faith, and so they are not part of the church truly. They have merely the external membership which does not save.

Paul accounts for this when he says in Romans 2:28-29

For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God

Paul says that a true member of the church is one who is circumcised of the heart, not just the flesh. That is not to say that he degrades the sacramental aspects of church life. He says in Romans 3:1 that to be externally circumcised is of benefit “in every way”. We don’t want to do away with the visible aspects of church practice. The point here is to say that it’s possible to participate in church life without actually having a heart change. This means that your membership is only skin deep. It hasn’t reached the recesses which matter the most. This is the reality: true church membership is that membership which participates in both the invisible and visible aspects of church life. It receives the sacraments and experiences spiritually what they convey.

What “Unconditional Election” does not mean


There are many misunderstandings of the doctrine commonly called “unconditional election”. This doctrine, as defined by the Westminster Confession, says that God, out of the “good pleasure of his will, hath chosen in Christ, unto everlasting glory, out of his free grace and love alone, without any foresight of faith or good works, or perseverance in either of them, or any other thing in the creature, as conditions, or causes moving him thereunto; and all to the praise of his glorious grace”. In other words, before we “had done nothing either good or bad” (Rom 9:11) to deserve salvation, before the foundation of the world, God set out to save some. And he did this to the “praise of his glorious grace” (Eph 1:4), so that salvation would “depend not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy” (Rom 9:16).

What this means, is that the why of our salvation is not ultimately rooted in our great faith or intellect or good works, but rather in God’s gracious choice to save. We are all lost in sin, unable and unwilling to love God, and God, out of his mercy, chose to call some to himself in Christ. The point of election is that grace would be undiluted grace, from beginning to end.

However, there are many who would object to this doctrine, because they would say that if God has elected some to salvation, and they will be saved no matter what, then there is no point to evangelism or prayer. Why share the gospel is the elect will be saved in any case? Why pray if God has already decided? Why do anything, if it’s all been determined? Why not just wait for the elect to be saved?

But this is a misunderstanding of this doctrine. It’s important to understand that unconditional election does not mean that personal responsibility is pointless. It may perhaps seem that way, but biblically, this is not how election is portrayed. God’s sovereignty in salvation, and man’s responsibility in believing, go together in the scriptures.

What is missing in these objections is the logical connection between God’s election to save, and his outworking of that election. In other words, just because God elects some to salvation before the foundation of the world, they aren’t actually saved before the foundation of the world. That is just when God decided to save sinners. What this means, is that God’s election must be accomplished within time, and by certain means. Prayer and evangelism are two of those means. God foreknows our prayers for someone’s salvation, and decides beforehand to answer them. God also decides to use our evangelism as the means to get the gospel to lost sinners.

In other words, while God’s election determines that someone will be saved, the outworking of that salvation happens through a myriad of means. What this means, is that we are called to preach the gospel, and pray, and labor for sinners, and trust that God is using our labor to accomplish the salvation of his elect. We don’t know who will be saved, or who will positively respond to the gospel, but we do know that if someone does respond with faith, that the faith they have is a gift of God (Eph 2:8-9), and is a result of God’s election (and of course, it is all at the same their faith as well).

Paul himself says this in 1 Thessalonians 1:4-5: “For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction”. Paul does not say, “God has chosen you, and so we didn’t preach the gospel, because what’s the point?” He says “we know God has chosen you, because of the fact that you responded to the gospel we labored to preach“. In other words, God accomplishes his election through our preaching of the gospel.

Thomas Schreiner expounds on this principle, saying

What must be noted here… is that God’s election of some does not invalidate the call the believe. When the gospel is proclaimed, those who preach do not summon the hearers to consider whether they are elect or chosen by God. Rather, they consistently call upon their hearers to repent and believe. One could object that the summons to believe is completely unnecessary, for God has promised to save only the elect… But the Calvinist responds that the preaching of the gospel is the means God uses to bring his own to faith. On a Calvinist scheme, the need to believe in order to be saved is no minimized in the least even though God has chosen who will believe from the foundation of the world. Belief is a condition to be saved, but God through his grace has promised to fulfill that condition in the lives of the elect. Still, such a promise does not eliminate the urgency of believing when the gospel is proclaimed. Those who hear must believe and repent to be saved, and they are summoned to respond with the utmost urgency.

So, election does not mean that personal responsibility is irrelevant, or that evangelism is pointless. Rather, God uses those things to accomplish what he set out to do before the foundations of the world. To be sure, there is mystery is this. And while we may not completely understand this doctrine, it is a doctrine rooted in God’s sovereign love, for our good and his glory.