Dr. Ray E. Heiple, Jr.
It is Not Enough to Say That You Know Him
Not everyone who says to Me, “Lord, Lord,” shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Matthew 7:21 NKJ
Question 61 of the Larger Catechism, asks, “Are all they saved who hear the gospel, and live in the church?” It gives the answer, “All that hear the gospel, and live in the visible church, are not saved; but they only who are true members of the church invisible.” Last week we considered the possibility of salvation apart from knowing and believing in Jesus Christ. This week we examine the difference between the visible and invisible church.
Ordinarily, the only way to be saved is to hear and believe in the gospel of Jesus Christ. God only imputes the righteousness of Christ to those who trust in Him for that righteousness. Likewise, God only forgives the sins of those who believe in Christ for that forgiveness. Does that mean that everyone who hears and professes faith in Christ is saved? What about those who not only hear and profess, but who also live outwardly upright lives within the only body that Jesus ever purchased with His own blood to save: the church (Acts 20:28)? Here is where theologians, at least as far back as Augustine (354 – 430), have made a very important distinction that it is crucial for the church to maintain. The one and only Church of Jesus Christ, consisting of millions of organized congregations around the world under various denominations, which professes and teaches the Biblical way of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, observing the sacraments more or less purely, is composed of true and false believers. In other words, the church, as it is manifested on earth, is not pure. Not everyone in the church who professes to know Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, really and truly knows Him.
Augustine described the presence of unbelievers within earthly Christian communions through the use of the terms “visible” and “invisible.” The visible church consists of all professing believers with their children who are members in good standing in Bible-believing churches. They claim to have a saving knowledge of God, and this claim has the backing of the elders of Christ’s Church, who have judged them to have given and maintained a credible profession of faith. However, within this body, not everyone is truly as he claims to be. Some members of the visible church do not truly believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and are members only outwardly.
Judas Iscariot is the classic example of one who was merely within the visible communion of the Church. Judas enjoyed the prayers, the ministry of the word, and the relational fellowship of Christ and His saints, but he was never really a believer. His communion was only outward and visible. What looked to be true on the outside was false and a lie because it was never also true on the inside. Thus, Jesus declared early on in His ministry that He Himself had chosen the twelve, and one of them was a devil (John 6:70). Likewise, in the passage quoted above, Jesus declares of those who claim to know Him and even call Him “Lord, Lord,” as if they intimately know Him, that He will one day say to them, “I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!” (Matt. 7:23).
Thus it is not enough to be a member of the visible church. Christians must also be members of the invisible church. The invisible church consists of those members of Bible-believing churches who not only make and maintain a credible profession of faith in Christ, but their profession is true! The invisible church is called invisible because we cannot see the heart. True believers are infallibly known only by God. Hence, the distinction made by Augustine is not meant to denigrate the visible church, as if it were optional. By no means! Jesus came to build the church (Matt. 16:18); He died for the church (Eph. 5:25); He saves people and adds them to His church (Acts 2:47). The church alone is His house, His body, His bride. And this church is visible! It has visible officers, sacraments, works, and gifts. To claim that you are a true member of Christ and refuse to be a part of the visible church is a contradiction. Our Confession summarizes the Biblical teaching on the necessity of the church when it rightly proclaims that outside of the visible church “there is no ordinary possibility of salvation” (WCF 25.2). Not everyone in the church is saved, but if you hope to be saved you had better be in the church!