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A helpful theological distinction when considering the church is that of its visible and invisible nature. This is simply to state that the one church can be viewed from two different perspectives: God’s and ours. From God’s perspective, the church is synonymous with His elect. It is made up entirely of those who have been redeemed by Christ, have been regenerated by His Spirit, and live in vital communion with Him. This is “the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood” (Acts 20:28). But since we cannot see the heart of the person sitting next to us in the pew, we cannot judge if he is a member of this invisible reality. From our perspective, “the visible church . . . consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children” (Westminster Confession of Faith 25.2). But Jesus warned, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 7:21). In other words, what we see or hear does not always square with reality.

This visible/invisible distinction is important because it’s biblical. Judas belonged to the twelve disciples, Ananias and Sapphira were members of the church in Jerusalem, and all three belonged to the nation of Israel. Yet, Paul wrote, “Not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel” (Rom. 9:6). The distinction is also important because it makes sense of what the Scriptures affirm about the church. It is holy (1 Cor. 1:2) because the invisible church—the elect—is set apart by its union to Jesus Christ. False professions within the visible church do not and cannot change that.

Finally, this distinction is important because it forces us to think carefully about how the church does ministry. Our aim is that the visible church would more and more reflect the invisible church. That is, we want all who claim to know Christ to truly know Him. So, what should the church do both to protect its purity and to see false professors transformed into genuine converts?

preach christ

The most important ministry to that end is the clear preaching of Christ and Him crucified. Let us not forget that the gospel, of course, is necessary for Christians. It is not something we believe only to “get in” to the church or accept only moments before we die. The gospel is essential throughout the entirety of the Christian life. Faith and repentance are not one-time acts but are ongoing. We continually need to forsake sin and return to the God of grace in Jesus Christ. His mercies are new every day, and we need to hear of them every day.

Our aim is that the visible church would more and more reflect the invisible church.

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.

administer discipline

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.

anticipate glory

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.

Fighting Hopelessness

Beginning with Impossible

Keep Reading The Kingdom of God

From the November 2021 Issue
Nov 2021 Issue