Pastoral Perspectives

Visible Church vs. Invisible Church

If you were present at worship service last Sunday, you would have heard me speak on the visible vs. the invisible church. There is much more that I would like to say so I’m going to use this perspective to continue my discourse. John Calvin described the invisible church as

“…that which is actually in God’s presence, into which no persons are received but those who are children of God by grace of adoption and true members of Christ by sanctification of the Holy Spirit… [it] includes not only the saints presently living on earth, but all the elect from the beginning of the world.” (Institutes 4.1.7)

Calvin continued in contrasting the invisible church with the visible church scattered throughout the world.

“In this [visible] church there is a very large mixture of hypocrites, who have nothing of Christ but the name and outward appearance…” (Institutes 4.1.7)

Simply put, every member of the invisible church is saved while the visible church consists of individuals who are saved and others who are unsaved. The invisible church is the church which will come into being when Christ comes again for his bride; it consists only of the elect – those who have been chosen. The visible church is the community of believers on earth and it includes both the good and evil, elect and hypocrites. Thus not everyone in the visible church is saved. One of the biblical passages that Calvin used to support such an understanding was Matt 7.21-23:

21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ 23 And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’ 

As I have mentioned in last Sunday’s sermon, we should not go around trying to figure out who is in or out of the invisible church. This knowledge belongs solely to God. If we see a worshipper lacking interest in reading the bible, irregular in church attendance, lethargic in his service, unfriendly and selfish, we cannot be too quick to say that that person does not belong to the invisible church. We have to remember that we don’t have the right to judge others in this way; we leave that prerogative to Christ who judges their hearts justly. Only he is able to see through their motives and intentions. Even if we know of people who have left church and are no longer interested in matters pertaining to the Christian faith, we still cannot make the conclusion that they have not been chosen. Again, that knowledge belongs to God. Our part is to keep on praying for these people and continue to reach out to them with the Gospel.

Justin Bieber, a young pop star, recently said: ‘It doesn’t make you a Christian just by going to church…Like I said, you don’t need to go to church to be a Christian. If you go to Taco Bell that doesn’t make you a taco…’ Well, Bieber got part of it right. It is true that just by going to the visible church does not make you a genuine Christian but I would also like to say to him that if he doesn’t even belong to the visible church – the Christian community where the Word is preached and sacraments administered, he definitely cannot be part of the invisible church.

As much as we should not look around to figure out who is in or out, we should take a hard look at ourselves and examine whether we are part of the invisible church. It will really be very sad if we stand in the Lord’s presence at the end of the day only to hear from him that he never did know us. Although we are saved by faith but faith without works is dead. We are not saved by good works but we are saved for good works. Good works must include a change in our character because our doing springs from our being. If we profess to be a Christian, do we fear God? Do we take God’s Word seriously? Do we only obey according to our convenience? What are we like the other days of the week? Are we merely Sunday Christians? Are we hypocrites in that we say one thing and do another? Are we self-centred? Is our god the other trinity – me, my, myself? Do we find ourselves feeling troubled over the above questions, maybe even feeling guilty, especially when each time we take three steps forward, we find ourselves taking two steps back? Or are we simply not bothered at all because we couldn’t care less?

If you belong to the formal, I think it means that the Holy Spirit is still working in your life and I pray that you will co-operate with him as he nudges you along. If you belong to the latter, there is a possibility that you are not in the invisible church, that you are not saved, that your faith is dead. It is my prayer that as you continue to be part of the visible church, through the preaching of God’s Word and the administering of the sacraments (yes, even some baptised Christians may not be in the invisible church), through the fellowship of God’s people and their godly counsel, you who are weeds will become wheat. In Matthew 13.24-30, the Master didn’t want his servants to eradicate the weeds first but to let them grow alongside the wheat. Only during harvest time will the weeds be bundled up to be burned in fire while the wheat will be gathered into the barn. Calvin was of the opinion that some who look like weeds in the visible church can eventually turn into wheat (albeit a miracle must take place but God’s mercies can take care of that!)

For the rest of us, I don’t want you to be paranoid and start doubting your salvation. Yes, we should be all the more diligent to make our election sure but that is really the process of sanctification. We work out our salvation rather than work for our salvation. If we understand the Gospel and how much God loves us, and let that truth become our motivation in living out our Christian faith – loving God, obeying him, loving people, making disciples, yielding to the Spirit’s guidance and whenever we fail to do so, sincerely confessing our sins and repenting from our evil ways, then the grace of God that justifies us will be the grace that sanctifies us and it will be the same grace that perfects us. We should not be worried whether we have been chosen or not. We have been! Some of us worry that if we have not been chosen, we will still eventually fall away even if we are zealous in our relationship with God right now. God is not a sadist. We can be sure that we will not find ourselves reaching almost the top of the ladder towards our heavenly home only to see God pushing the ladder away and saying: ‘Sorry bro, you have not been chosen!’

Let’s sojourn on with confidence that ‘he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion in the day of Jesus Christ’ (Philippians 1.6). And we hold on to the promise in Jude 24-25 with praise in our hearts: Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.’

Rev Lee Kien Seng

November 1, 2015