I’m speaking here of the visible church. Many Christians think of the invisible church as being very important. To be mystically united to Christ by faith is very important and essential for salvation. In fact, a person may not be said to be saved or regenerate, unless he or she is a member of the invisible church. If this distinction and language sounds a bit confusing, perhaps it will help to have some definitions. The first two paragraphs of chapter 25 of the Westminster Confession give definitions of the visible and invisible church:
WCF 25.1 The catholic or universal Church, which is invisible, consists of the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ the Head thereof; and is the spouse, the body, the fulness of Him that filleth all in all.
WCF 25.2 The visible Church, which is also catholic or universal under the Gospel (not confined to one nation, as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children: and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.
Simply put, we may say that the invisible church includes all of those who were, are, or will be regenerated (the Confession uses the word ‘elect’). Another way to speak of this invisible church is to say that it includes all true believers. The visible church includes all those who say they are trust in Christ and also includes their children. Another way to speak of this visible church is to say that it includes all those who are on the church role. The confession seeks to use precise and biblical language, while I’m trying to simplify for clarity, but hopefully you get the idea.
The Importance of the Visible Church
As you can hopefully tell from the language of the confession, the Westminster Divines had a decidedly high ecclesiology. I’ve found that a good way to test whether or not someone has a high ecclesiology (what they believe about the importance of the visible church) is to ask a question that I’ve asked many candidates who come before presbytery for ordination: “What do you think about this statement: The visible church is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.”
This question really strikes at the heart of what one believes about the importance of the visible church, whether or not they have a high ecclesiology. For, as the confession here teaches (and Jesus and the Apostles taught), the visible church is the institution through which God ordinarily confers salvation. The Great Commission to make disciples by baptizing and teaching Christ’s commands is given to the visible church (Matthew 28:18-20), preachers are sent to preach the gospel by the church (Romans 10:15), the sacraments are administered in and by the church (Acts 2:41-42; Matthew 28:19; Ephesians 4:4-6, 1 Corinthians 11:17-34), church discipline and the corporate sanctification of God’s people takes place in the church (Matthew 18:15-20; 1 Corinthians 5:1-13; 2 Corinthians 2:5-10).
The Greater Importance of the Invisible Church
More could be said and I could go on; however, as one who professes to have a high ecclesiology, I want to make sure that we have the proper balance and priorities in thinking about these things. Being a baptized member of the visible church is of great importance, but it of the utmost importance that one be a member of the invisible church!
Consider the teaching of John 1:19-34. John the Baptist testifies before some Jews who come as a delegation from Jerusalem as to the nature of his ministry – why he is preaching and baptizing. He says that he is voice crying in the wilderness (John 1:23) and that he baptizes in order that Jesus might be manifested (or revealed) to Israel (John 1:31).
And then, in order to clearly delineate between his outward and temporary ministry and the inward and eternal ministry of Jesus, John the Baptist makes this point: I baptize with water, but Jesus who is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, He baptizes in the Holy Spirit (John 1:33).
This is a great reminder (and sometimes a point of correction) for those of us who have a high ecclesiology, who value the work and worship of the visible church. It is good and proper and biblical to make much of the visible church. But it is far better, and far more important, to make much of the invisible church – to make much of Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
Outside of the visible church there is no ordinary possibility of salvation, but outside of the invisible church there is no possibility of salvation whatsoever. For man baptizes in water, but God our Savior “saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and the renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by His grace we would be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life.” (Titus 3:4-7).