The Church We Cannot See

“But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.”

- 1 John 2:19b

Often when we think about the Protestant Reformation, we think of doctrines such as justification by faith alone and the final authority of Scripture. These doctrines were repeatedly emphasized by the Reformers. What we may forget, however, is the doctrine about the church itself. For the Reformers, there could be no reform of the church without a return to a biblical understanding of the nature, mission, and marks of the church.

Reformers such as John Calvin retained a high view of the visible church—the institution consisting of those who have professed faith and their covenant children. Calvin frequently referred to the visible church as “our mother” because God brings us to spiritual life and cares for us through the visible church. Calvin did not mean that the visible church automatically conveys life and nurture; rather, since the church administers the Word and sacraments—the means through which the gospel comes to us—God ordinarily works through the church’s ministry to save and sustain His people. Our Lord remains sovereign—He does not save everyone who attends to the church’s ministry.

God does not ordinarily save people apart from the church’s administration of these means. In fact, the Lord still works through the church even when people are saved in ways that seem far removed from the visible church’s ministry. For example, consider the businesswoman who finds a Bible in her hotel room while she is traveling, reads it, and comes to faith in Christ. Even in this instance, the visible church has played a role. Prophets and Apostles, members of the visible church, wrote the Scriptures under divine inspiration. Other members of the visible church translated the original text, paid for the printing, and placed the Bible in her hotel room. So, the visible church is involved even when people are saved outside of her walls.

In any case, Reformers such as Calvin maintained that membership in the visible church, while essential, is insufficient for salvation. One must also be a member of the invisible church, which consists of all those who possess true faith in Christ. It is called the invisible church because we cannot see the hearts of the people in the pews next to us; only the Lord can. It is invisible to us, not to God. People can fall out of the visible church, as John says in today’s passage, but not out of the invisible church, for God preserves its members forever (Rom. 8:28–30).

Coram Deo

Except in those incredibly rare cases where people are unable to access or join a visible church, invisible church membership and visible church membership overlap. Men and women who refuse to join the visible church should have no assurance that they are part of the invisible church. If we love Christ, we will love and join the visible manifestation of His body in the visible church.

Passages for Further Study

Deuteronomy 10:12–22
Romans 9:6–8

First published in Tabletalk Magazine, an outreach of Ligonier. For permissions, view our Copyright Policy.