The Invisible Church
They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; but they went out that they might be made manifest,
that none of them were of us.
1 John 2:19 NKJV
Question 64 of the Larger Catechism, asks, “What is the invisible church?” It gives the answer, “The invisible church is the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one under Christ the head.” Last week we looked at how the church cannot fall. This week we consider the Scriptural teaching that not all those within the visible church are truly converted to Christ, but only those to whom theologians refer as “the invisible church.”
Augustine of Hippo (354-430 A.D.) is often credited as the first theologian to develop the Reformed distinction between the “visible” and the “invisible” church. The Bible clearly teaches that no true Christian can ever lose his salvation: God is the author and the finisher of our faith (Heb. 12:2); and He who began a good work in you will be faithful to complete it (Phi. 1:6). The initiating and the keeping of a dead sinner in the new life that is the Christian faith are not by the strength or “freedom” of man’s sin-loving mind, but by the grace of the Holy Spirit. God’s elect are known to and chosen by Him from before the foundation of the world (Eph. 4:1; Rev. 17:8). Furthermore, Christ will never lose or forsake one of His own, but He will keep them to the end, making them a part of His glorious body (John 6:39; Phi. 3:21).
The observable manifestation of this body of Christ is called the visible church, which consists of all those who credibly profess the true religion, along with their children. Jesus came to build His Church, and He is clearly doing that as we can see those who claim to believe in Him worship Him and follow His teaching in their lives. However, how do we explain the fact that some of those who profess to believe in Christ for a time, renounce their faith, leave the Church, and never return? Do we accept the testimony of these, now unbelievers – that they really did lose their faith – and thereby reject the Word of God, which clearly teaches that none can ever lose their faith? How do we explain the fact that not everyone who professes to believe in Christ and follow Him continues in that profession and life until death?
Well, we do not have to find a way to explain it, as the Scripture clearly teaches us exactly what is going on when someone “leaves” his faith. The verse at the head of this article is one of those places. In the larger context of this verse, John is warning Christians to beware of certain false teachers, whom he calls “antichrists,” who actually began as members of good standing in apostolic (what we would call Bible-believing) churches. John acknowledges that these false teachers truly did go out from the fold of Christian churches: “They went out from US.” But John tells us the reason why they eventually went out: he says they went out, not because they lost the faith that they truly did possess for a while. No. John says they went out from us “but they were not of us.” That is, even though they outwardly, visibly left the fold of the Church, they never were, truly, really, and sincerely in their hearts part of the Church. For John makes it very clear, “If they had been of us”; that is, if they had truly and sincerely been converted to Christ in their hearts, “they would have continued with us.” Notice how matter-of-factly the Scripture here declares that no true believer can ever fall away from Christ and lose his faith!
Accordingly, when you see a believer forsake his “faith” or when you see a professing believer comfortably embrace a lifestyle contrary to the Word of God, you must understand that this person (if he never repents and returns to Christ) was never truly a believer. For if he truly belonged to Christ he would have remained with Christ! In fact, the reason why some leave the Church, according to this verse, is so that “they might be made manifest that none of them were of us.” In other words, they fell away so that their true colors could be seen. They were always false, even though for a time, we could not see it. The truth of a man’s profession cannot be infallibly seen by us. Man cannot see the heart. Thus, in this world where “all men are liars” the exact extent of the true Church will always remain, to the limited eye of man, invisible. But even though some may appear to fall away, 2 Tim. 2:19 ensures us “the solid foundation of God stands” for “the Lord knows those who are His,” and He will keep them forever. Amen!