If the gospel is necessary for the believer, how much more is it necessary for the unbeliever who has “no hope and [is] without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12)? The church’s preaching should reflect the pressing need every soul has to meet with the Savior. No congregation should assume that they have already obtained the goal (Phil. 3:12) and that the only ones who need the good news are those outside the church. Preaching the gospel isn’t just for the streets, revivals, conferences, or special events. Preaching the gospel is also for Sundays, because everyone in the pews needs it. And this week, by God’s grace, a lifelong member may just believe it for the first time.
The reality of the visible church as a mixed body of believers and unbelievers underscores the necessity for church discipline both to reclaim offending brethren and to purge “that leaven which might infect the whole lump” (WCF 30.3). Church leaders guard the flock and promote the pure name of Christ by keeping His church pure. Jesus Himself said of the unrepentant church member, “If he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (Matt. 18:17). Pastors and elders who don’t take discipline seriously run the risk of deepening the disparity between the visible and invisible church.
While the presence of sin among God’s people is discouraging, this distinction actually injects hope by affirming that there is more to the church than meets the eye. The words of John Newton in regard to personal sanctification are apt for describing the church as well: “I am not what I ought to be, I am not what I want to be, I am not what I hope to be in another world; but still I am not what I once used to be, and by the grace of God I am what I am.”
It has been said that the church on earth is like a grand building whose beauty is obscured by scaffolding. While the scaffolding mars the view of the structure, it does so only temporarily, and for a great purpose: renovation. By the indwelling Holy Spirit, the visible church has within her all the elements necessary for a splendid restoration, soon to be revealed (Rom. 8:23). Therefore, we have every reason to press on in ministry and to do so with hopeful confidence that no amount of sin or setback can defeat God’s people.
This glorious trajectory means that the visible church is where everybody needs to be. So we eagerly welcome those on the outside and actively encourage those on the inside. We embrace all who have professed faith in Christ, just as God embraces us, laying aside any suspicions or prejudices and counting them as family. At the same time, we recognize that our congregations may indeed have nonbelievers present, so we ensure that the gospel permeates everything we do. By reliance on the Spirit and firm faith in Christ’s promise to build His church, we as the visible church actively promote entrance into the invisible church.