The Larger Catechism #64-65

The Larger Catechism

Questions 64-65

 

64.       Q. What is the invisible church?

A. The invisible church is the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one under Christ the head. [268]

65.       Q. What special benefits do the members of the invisible church enjoy by Christ?

A. The members of the invisible church by Christ enjoy union and communion with him in grace and glory. [269]

Scriptural Defense and Commentary

[268] Ephesians 1:10. That in the dispensation of the fulness of times he might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth; even in him. Ephesians 1:22-23. And hath put all things under his feet, and gave him to be the head over all things to the church, Which is his body, the fulness of him that filleth all in all. John 10:16. And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd. John 11:52. And not for that nation only, but that also he should gather together in one the children of God that were scattered abroad. [269] John 17:21. That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. Ephesians 2:5-6. Even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ, (by grace ye are saved;) And hath raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus. John 17:24. Father, I will that they also, whom thou hast given me, be with me where I am; that they may behold my glory, which thou hast given me: for thou lovedst me before the foundation of the world.

The Invisible Church

Having spent some time on the nature and benefits of the visible church, we now will consider the definition and benefits of being part of the invisible church. We have already noted how the Bible tends use the word “church” in broad and narrow ways. Local churches are mentioned (church in Laodicea) and the divines have defined those uses as denoting the “visible” church. It also uses the term in a broader sense, to represent all the true people of God — “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph. 5:25). The church is His body (Eph. 1:22) and this specific body is the one for whom He died.

As noted in question 61 (“Are all they saved who hear the gospel, and live in the church?”), only the “true members of the church invisible” are saved. Therefore, it is incumbent upon us all to see to it that we are truly members of the church invisible. Once again, we must state emphatically that true members of the invisible church are ordinarily members of the visible church though true members of the visible church are not always members of the invisible church.

Johannes Vos says that the church is invisible because “we cannot see exactly who — or how many there are who — are members of it. Only God knows the full number, and their exact identity.” (142) Ultimately, only God knows and His judgment is the only thing that counts. Each member of the visible church should earnestly make their calling and election sure (cf. 2Pet. 1:10).

There are some who are uncomfortable with this distinction and believe it has created problems in the modern church. D. Wilson, said, “How many times have we heard someone claim his membership in the invisible church as his grounds for disparaging the church he ought to be joining?”[1] This happens but not as much as Wilson lets on. People have always abused orthodox doctrines for perverse ends and some have abused the visible/invisible distinction to justify bad behavior. We ought not to throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater.

Wilson said in another place the following, “Modern evangelical Protestants have tended to say that the invisible Church is the real one, which is why we tend to have such a low view of the churches we can actually see.” [2] Most evangelicals do not even know anything about the visible/invisible church. They tend to repudiate any doctrine of the church or are simply clueless about the existence of any ecclesiology— the problem is not in the distinction within ecclesiology but rather the absence of any ecclesiology. At best, the distinction is a convenient excuse and not the cause for the low view of the church. I’m convinced that this error is due in part to the neglect of faithful teaching on this matter.

Wilson and his ilk offer an odd way of correcting this perceived problem. To highlight the importance of the visible church, they end up collapsing the invisible into the visible. He says we need to simply believe that the baptized person is objectively in the covenant and that is good enough, stay in the visible covenant and you have your assurance.[3] The person finds his assurance in his baptism. He thinks we ought not to consider the marks in our own lives or even to see if we are elect.[4]

The solution is worse than the perceived problem. The net effect is that they end up denying what is taught in question #61 — a doctrine so scriptural and evidential.[5] One does not focus on the fact he is baptized and is a member in good standing but if one has faith or does not have it. He threw out the invisible church and now the visible church is the sole focus that he says is his way of “recovering the objectivity of the covenant.”

The Elect: Have Been, Are, or Shall Be

The High Priest prophesied that Christ’s death would gather people together — “He might also gather together into one the children of God who are scattered abroad.” (Jn. 11:52) Jesus prayed for “those who will believe in me through their [the disciples’] word” (Jn. 17:20). He has other sheep (Jn. 10:16) that have to be brought into His fold. It was always assumed that people present during Jesus’ death as well as those after His death and resurrection would become His. They are the elect whom the Father gave to the Son (Jn. 17:2). They are the true members of the church invisible.

The invisible church includes those who have already died (remember Moses and Elijah appearing with Jesus in the Mount of transfiguration), those who truly believe right now and those who will believe sometime in the near and distant future.

Who they are will become apparent as the gospel is preached. The Lord will draw them in through the preaching of the gospel. Our responsibility is to preach and pray and God will bring the sheep into the fold. It is a fixed number (cf. Rev. 7) but that number is known only unto God. This is the way He has always worked.

The Priority of Election in the Bible[6]

If what we have stated so far is theologically accurate, then can this also be proved biblically? In the end, this is more important. We believe that the Bible itself prioritizes election in the visible church. The early theologians rightly perceived what the Bible so clearly teaches.

Most divines recognize that the church in its more visible and institutional form began with Abraham.[7] That is not to say that God did not have a people for Himself until Abraham, but instead, a more formal covenantal and visible family was set apart with Abraham. Stuart Robinson called it “an ecclesiological covenant.” In other words, a particular family was set apart from the rest of the families, whereas previous covenants did not separate so visibly from the rest. Furthermore, the covenant made with Abraham became an organizing theme for all subsequent covenants, even the New Covenant.[8] Even if such an analysis may not be conceded by all, it cannot be denied that the Abrahamic covenant dominates the Old Testament as well as the New Testament. Many references to Abraham and the covenant God made with him fill the Bible (both in the Old and New Testament).[9] It is the pattern which Paul follows in Romans 4 and Galatians 3 & 4. We are told in Gal. 3:8 that the Gospel we are taught was previously preached to Abraham. In Rom. 4:11, Paul says that Abraham was a “father of all who believe.” So the Abrahamic covenant is very important in understanding God’s way of dealing with His people.

What covenantal feature do we learn from Abraham and subsequent patriarchs? Geerhardus Vos emphatically states, “The first outstanding principle of divine procedure with the patriarchs is the principle of election. Hitherto the race as a whole had been dealt with.”[10] Though that is not the only element that was significant in the Abrahamic covenant, it is nonetheless a significant feature.

From this election the visible church grew and expanded through Abraham’s seed. Yet the entire subsequent generations were not co-extensive with God’s election. In this particular visible church God reveals that He continues to elect; in other words, God chooses some within His visible covenant community.  God told Isaac that the older would serve the younger. Paul, commenting on the story, cites Mal. 1:2, 3, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated” (Rom. 9:11-13).  That principle never abated. As the visible church apostatized under Ahab’s rule, God still preserved a people for himself, “a remnant chosen by grace” (Rom 11:5; cf. 1Kings 19:18). From Abraham’s call to the election within that line of the covenant, we continue to see the priority of election in God’s dealing with the visible church.

Paul summarizes this remnant theme by unequivocally stating, “For they are not all Israel who are of Israel nor are they all children because they are the seed of Abraham” (Rom. 9:6-7). What makes the difference? Paul states that it is “God’s purpose of election” (Rom. 9:11).

Calvinists understand and appreciate the theme of election in the Bible. But we tend to recognize it only in terms of our soteriology (our doctrine of salvation). We must also see it ecclesiologically, in terms of how God deals with His visible church. We must not rip the truth from its context. God adds to the visible church but even within the visible church, there is a remnant according to God’s election.

The church is called “the body of Christ” (Rom. 7:14; 1Cor. 12:27), “the church of God” (Acts 20:28; 1Cor. 1:2; Gal. 1:13), “the church of the living God” (1Tim. 3:15), “household of God” (Eph. 2:19; 1Tim. 3:15; 1Pet. 4:17), “people of God” (Heb. 4:9), whom Christ has purchased with His blood. At the same time, we read that some members of the church went out from the church because they were not really of the church (1Jn. 2:19). One Reformation divine succinctly observed that we need to distinguish between two things, “to be in the church, and to be of the churche.”[11] Or more clearly, “All who are in the church are not therefore of the church.”[12] Paul warns against those who will rise up from among the Ephesian church to twist the gospel in order to draw away the disciples (Acts 20:30). Jude speaks of wicked men who have “crept in unnoticed” (Jude 4) while Peter writes about the false prophets who rose up among them (2Pet. 2:1). In Amos 9:10, God speaks of “all the sinners of my people” (כֹּ֖ל חַטָּאֵ֣י עַמִּ֑י; LXX, πάντες ἁμαρτωλοὶ λαοῦ μου) and in Revelation our Lord rebukes the church in Pergamum because they had “some there who hold the teaching of Balaam” (Rev. 2:14-15). So in both Testaments, the church was a mixed church; not everyone in the visible church is considered God’s elect. God’s covenant people in the New Covenant were never co-extensive with the elect or, to put it another way, the invisible church is not co-extensive with the visible church.[13]

Union and Communion

Lastly, the LC also states that believers derive benefits from this membership. If you look at the verses cited, they teach us the simple truth of Eph. 1:3. Believers are blessed with everything in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus — all the benefits spoken of are “in Him,” that is, in union with Him. Believers are truly united to Him (union) and as a result they really fellowship with Him (communion). The latter cannot happen without the former.

The catechism states, “The members of the invisible church by Christ enjoy union and communion with him in grace and glory.” We enjoy these benefits come to us through our union with Him. The phrase “grace and glory” is in one sense a reference to the benefits we derive here on earth (all the graces in our union with Him) and the benefits we derive when the end comes  or when we are glorified with Him (glory) – yet, communion in glory is not exclusively at the end, see LC 82-83. All those benefits are spelled out in the subsequent questions.


[1] D. Wilson, “The Church: Visible or Invisible,” in The Federal Vision, ed. S. Wilkins and D. Garner (Monroe, Louisiana: Athanasius Press, 2004), 266.

[2] Proponents of the “Federal Vision” have so suggested. For example, D. Wilson, “Reformed” Is Not Enough (Moscow, Idaho: Canon Press, 2002), 70.

[3] Cf. “Reformed” Is Not Enough, 106.

[4] “Reformed” Is Not Enough, 130.

[5] He believes the Confession needs to be improved in this area,  “Reformed” Is Not Enough, 74. His solution opens the way to Rome.

[6] Taken from my essay “Covenant Community” with a few changes.

[7] This can be seen in S. Robinson, Discourses of Redemption (Richmond: Presbyterian Committee of Publication, 1866), 75ff.; T. Peck, Notes on Ecclesiology, 28ff.; E. Morris, Ecclesiology: A Treatise on the Church and Kingdom of God on Earth (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1898), 20ff.; J. Mason, Essays on the Church, 28ff.; D. Bannerman, The Scripture Doctrine of the Church (rpt., Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1955), 3-43; P. Fairbairn, The Typology of Scripture (rpt., Grand Rapids: Zondervan, nd), 1:287-296.

[8] Robinson, The Church of God, 50-52.

[9] Stuart Robinson says that there are around one hundred references to the Abrahamic covenant compared to some eight to ten references to the covenants made with Adam and Noah, see his Discourses of Redemption, 76.

[10] G. Vos, Biblical Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1959), 89.

[11] Wolfgang Musculus, Common Places of Christian Religion, translated by Iohn Man (London: Imprinted by Henry Bynneman, 1578), 613 (emphasis added).

[12] W. à Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service, translated by B. Elshout (Ligonier, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1992-95), 2:13.

[13] The Roman Catholic NT scholar Rudolph Schnackenburg aptly summarizes this point in The Church in the New Testament, 156: “Even the New Testament people of God as it is assembled in the Church, and continues to assemble, is not yet identical with the community of the elect which enters into the perfect kingdom of God….” Not everything Schnackenburg says is safe but he can be quite perceptive and helpful.

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