Some people belong to the invisible Church, but are not members of a local visible church. Many people belong to a visible church but are not true believers at all and are thus not in the invisible Church. We must be members of both, by faith in Christ and by confessing Christ. (Norman L. Jones, Study Helps on the Heidelberg Catechism, p. 121)

Now that my third and fourth children are studying through the Heidelberg Catechism in preparation for public confession, my annoyance with the above quoted claim has—well, tripled and quadrupled. I had simply marked “FALSE” on the Venn diagram attending these statements in my first two children’s study guides, but now I am fortunate enough to also contribute to a blog. (Thank you Paul!) And it seems, after asking around, that these statements represent a more common sentiment than I had originally thought. I hope to quickly show below that this is not at all what the Catechism teaches, and more importantly that it is not the teaching of the Scriptures.

The Catechism question under consideration is the following:

Q 54: What do you believe concerning the “Holy Catholic Church”?

A: That, out of the whole human race, from the beginning to the end of the world, the Son of God, by His Spirit and Word, gathers, defends and preserves for Himself unto everlasting life, a chosen communion, in the unity of the true faith; and that I am, and forever shall remain, a living member of the same.

The complaint here is not that Norman Jones is arguing for a distinction between the Visible Church and the Invisible Church. This distinction must be acknowledged, for only “the Lord knows those who are His” (2 Tim. 2:19); and we know that some go out from us, showing that they were never one of us (1 Jn. 2:19). Take for example Simon the Sorcerer who “believed; and when he was baptized continued with Philip” (Acts 8:13). We see that he believed, confessed, and was baptized, even continuing for some time with Philip the Evangelist himself. But when the Apostle Peter saw his true heart, he declared to Simon: “I see that you are poisoned by bitterness and bound by iniquity” (8:23). Certainly there is a Visible Church, containing both regenerate believers and hypocrites. Thus we inescapably have the distinction. But, as I have said, the complaint here is not with the distinction as such (if rightly understood), but with the claim that there are some that are members of the Invisible Church who are not members of the Visible Church.

There are three important reasons that I think the claim is untenable:

First, the author of the Catechism, Zacharias Ursinus, plainly disagrees with Norman Jones’ interpretation. We read,

The invisible church consists of those who are chosen unto eternal life, who are also regenerated, and belong to the visible church. It lies concealed in the visible church, during the whole of the struggle, and conflict which is continually going on in this world between the kingdom of light and darkness. (Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, p. 521)

And,

The difference which exists between the visible and invisible church is very nearly the same as that which exists between the whole and a part; for the invisible church is concealed in the visible, as a part in the whole, which is also corroborated by the declaration of the Apostle, where he says, “Whom he did predestinate, them he also called” (Rom. 8:30). (p. 522)

Second, the Catechism’s answer to Question 54 itself should make this clear. The Catechism states that the “holy catholic Church” consists of those who are gathered by the Son of God, through His Spirit and Word. In what sense could we say that one is a member of the Church if he has not been gathered into the community of the Church? Paul tells us this “gathering” is the very mystery of God’s will revealed in the Gospel:

[…]having made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure which He purposed in Himself, that in the dispensation of the fullness of the times He might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth—in Him. (Eph. 1:9-10)

Note, this is not just a mystical heavenly gathering, but a gathering “on earth” as well. And how is the human portion of this cosmic gathering carried out? By community-creating contact with visible humans.

“whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? (Rom. 10:13-14)

And this calling is to create a unified People in Spirit, faith, and Sacrament:

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism. (Eph. 4:4-5)

Is this done through mystical means, such that one is “gathered, defended and preserved” outside of ordinary means? On the contrary; it is by real communal participation within the visible Body of Christ and through tis ministry:

And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; that we […] may grow up in all things into Him who is the head—Christ— from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love. (Eph. 4:11-16)

One enters the holy catholic Church through the visible, flesh and blood means of ministers of the Word and sealing of the Sacraments. And we see that this was indeed the means of building the Church from the very beginning of the Apostolic ministry. In Acts chapter 2, we read:

Then those who gladly received his [Peter’s] word were baptized; and that day about three thousand souls were added to them. And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers. […] So continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved. (vv. 41-47)

The Lord added daily to the Church those who were being saved, by means of the Word and the Sacraments. There is no membership in the Church, visible or invisible apart from the “communion of saints,” the very next article of the Creed.

Third, the meaning of the New Testament word translated “Church,” viz., ekklésia, itself means “to call out from and into.” To be in the Church is to be called out from the world and into the Body of Christ. Ursinus tells us that the very distinction of “Visible” and “Invisible” comes from the nature of this calling.

“Whom he did predestinate, them he also called.” (Rom. 8:30) This calling, however, which God addresses to men is two-fold, inward and outward. Paul declares that the inward call is made according to the purpose of salvation. The elect are called in both respects, while hypocrites have nothing more than the mere external call. It is in respect to this outward call that the visible church is termed the church of the called, in which hypocrites are also found; while the invisible is called the church of the elect. (pp. 522-523)

The Visible Church is the “church of the called,” in all times and in all places joined as one. But not all who are called outwardly into the Visible Church receive the inward and effectual call of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 1:23-25).  But note well: all in the Church have been called into the Visible Church, though some are found to be hypocrites, having received and responded to only to the outward call. As we read in the Catechism,

Q 65: Since, then, we are made partakers of Christ and all his benefits by faith only, where does this faith come from?

A: The Holy Spirit works it in our hearts by the preaching of the Gospel, and confirms it by the use of the Holy Sacraments.

There is no category in the Scriptures, or in the Catechism, for Invisible Church members who have come to faith apart from the preaching of the Gospel and the confirmation of the Sacraments; that is, who are not members of the Visible Church. The presence of hypocrites within the Church does not thereby create a corresponding category of members of the holy catholic Church who are yet aliens to its visible ministry and community.

To conclude: one of my favorite passages from one of my favorite theologians, Caspar Olevianus:

Let us then see what the kingdom of Christ is, which begins in the faithful in this world and is also called, with the same meaning, “the kingdom of God” and “the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 3:2; Luke 4:43; 7:28). The kingdom of Christ in this world is the administration of salvation by which Christ the King Himself outwardly, through the gospel and baptism, gathers to Himself and calls to salvation a people or visible church (in which many hypocrites are mixed). To those in this congregation who have always been His elect, He Himself administers and bestows that salvation to which He calls them. He makes the outward call efficacious, granting them the repentance and faith by which they respond to the One calling them. Those He calls in this way He also justifies, not imputing their sins to them. And those He justifies He also glorifies, purging them daily more and more of their sins, and training, forming, and perfecting them in all godliness, righteousness, and eternal life so that the glory of Christ the King may shine in them. To that end He uses the public, domestic, and private dispensation of His Word and sacraments by suitable ministers, as well as the diligent administration of His discipline, as it relates not only to repentance and ceremonies but also to one’s whole life. (An Exposition of the Apostles’ Creed, p. 10)

[Note: this all is by no means a claim that God cannot save through extra-ordinary means; but it is to claim that He has not revealed much of anything about that to us, nor how it might occur. “The secret things belong to the Lord, but those things which are revealed belong to us and to our children forever (Deut. 29:29).]

6 Responses

  1. Barbara Roberts

    My story is rather unusual. I was converted by reading a book which explained the gospel. The book was “The Cross and the Switchblade.” Christ came alive to me off the pages of that book.

    About a week after this I confessed with my mouth that I knew Christ as my Lord and Saviour. I did this while I was sitting in a train on the London underground with tears pouring down my face ( I didn’t know the name for it but I was crying tears of repentance). A very young woman came down the
    aisle towards me and asked me, “Have you received Jesus as your Lord and Savior?”. I said “Yes.” And on down the aisle she walked. Go figure. Good is good!

    It was nearly 14 years later that I got to an evangelical church. Those years in the wilderness were the worst time in my life… and I’d had *lots* of hard times before I was born again.

    So this thing of the visible church and the invisible church is something I understand and have given a lot of thought to. Those early encounters I had with the invisible church were through a book and a young woman. I never to my knowledge had any encounters with members of the invisible church until 14 years later.

    And when I started attending services of the visible church, I had a lot of learning to do. Learning the truths and nuances of the faith that I had not grasped at my conversion. And learning (painfully, excruciatingly) how many hypocrites there are in the visible church and the ways the hypocrites think and behave! That was a giant learning curve too!

    Reply
  2. Josh

    In modern evangelicalism, biblical church membership is a thing of the past. It is rare to find a church that actually has a biblical membership in place. Today, there are so many professing Christians who “go to” church every single week, but they don’t know their elders, their elders don’t know them, there is no church discipline, etc. If you asked them if they are “members” of the church they attend, most of them would say No.

    So here’s my question…Would you consider people like this to be members of the visible church? If a person attends a church, listens to a sermon and goes home, but they aren’t submitting to their leaders like Hebrews 13:17 tells Christians to…would they still be considered a member of the visible church?

    Reply
    • Brad Mason

      That is a very hard question that I am not sure I can answer. I’m inclined to say they are members of the visible church, but their particular church’s membership process is out of whack and way too informal. But the other side of me says that, though they are administering sacraments and carrying out some sort of discipline, are they administering and disciplining Biblically? And if not, are they at a “church” as all, according to Belgic 29? Tough one indeed. Though I think I lean toward the former option.

      Reply
  3. James Miller

    I don’t remember seeing the specific Venn diagram above, but I have seen many similar about the Visible and/vs Invisible Church. I’m trying to remember what it looks like in GI Williamson’s WSC commentary, whether he uses the “elect not in the visible church” language.

    I always understood, perhaps more despite than because of my teachers, that the non-overlapping section of the Invisible Church circle was referring to the saints who have died, not so much those saved through extraordinary means. It would be interesting to explore how they are united with the Visible Church.

    Reply

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