We concluded our preceding article with the observation that the Reformed view of the church, although agreeing principally with the Lutheran conception of the same, nevertheless does reveal certain peculiarities or differences which are not unimportant. In the first place, the Reformed conception, with respect to the institute of the church, declares that, although the Lord ordinarily bestows the benefits of Christ by means of the Word and of the sacraments, He is nevertheless not bound to them and, be it rarely, also bestows salvation outside of the institute of the church.
A second distinctive peculiarity of the Reformed conception of the church is that it connected the church very intimately with the doctrine of election and therefore conceived of the invisibility of the church somewhat differently than the Lutherans. It is true that Zwingli first applied the invisible aspect of the church to the church universal which was scattered over the whole earth and could not be discerned empirically by anyone, in contrast to the church as particular which was present in a definite place and could be seen. Later, however, he understood the church invisible to refer to the communion of the elect, as it is the object of faith in the 12 Articles of faith and would be visible only in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. And in distinction from it he called the church universal and the church particular a visible gathering of believers in which also hypocrites are present. He declares that the church upon the earth is invisible insofar as it consists only of the true believers, and visible insofar as all, including the unbelievers, belong to it.
Calvin adapts himself to this terminology. However, before we turn to the writings of the reformer of Geneva, let us first call attention to the writings of Ursinus, to his explanation of the Heidelberg Catechism. The reader will recall that we stated that it was truly the Reformed position that, although the Lord ordinarily bestows His salvation and the benefits of Christ by means of the Word and of the sacraments, He is nevertheless not bound to them, and, be it rarely, also bestows His salvation outside of the institute of the church. In his explanation of the Heidelberg Catechism, explaining Question 54 of Lord’s Day 21 (the Lord’s Day on the holy catholic church), he asks the question: “Is there any salvation out of the Church?” And this is his answer, and we quote: “No one can be saved out of the Church; 1. Because out of the church there is no Savior, and hence no salvation. ‘Without me ye can do nothing’ (John 15:5). 2. Because those whom God has chosen to the end, which is eternal life, them he has also chosen to the means, which consist in the inward and outward call. Hence, although the elect are not always members of the visible church, yet they all become such before they die.”—end of quote. Notice that Ursinus in this answer writes that the elect are not always members of the visible church, but that they all become such before they die. This certainly implies that the Lord can and does save some of His elect at the moment of their death, and that He does this sovereignly without the regular means of the Word and of the sacraments. And what must we say of the elect of God who die in their infancy?
We also wish to quote Ursinus as he writes on the subject of the church invisible and visible, setting forth the Reformed position that the invisible church is the church as consisting only of the elect, whereas the visible church is the church as it also consists of unbelievers and as it reveals itself in the midst of the world as also consisting of hypocrites. In his explanation of Question 54 of Lord’s Day 21, and asking the question: “How manifold is the Church?” he writes as follows, and we quote: “The church is either true, or false. When we speak of the church, however, as false, we do not use the term in a proper, but in an improper sense; and mean by it every assembly which arrogates unto itself the name of the Christian Church, but which, instead of following it, rather persecutes it. The true church is either triumphant, which even now triumphs with the blessed angels in heaven, and which will at length obtain a complete triumph after the resurrection; or militant, which in this world fights under the banner of Christ against the devil, the flesh and the world. The church militant is either visible, or invisible. When spoken of as visible, it means an assembly of persons, who embrace and profess the entire and uncorrupted doctrine of the law and gospel, and who use the sacraments according to the appointment of Christ, and profess obedience to the teachings of God’s Word. The visible church consists of many who are regenerated by the Holy Spirit through the Word unto eternal life, and many also who are hypocrites and unregenerated, but who nevertheless consent to the doctrine, and conform to the external rites of the church. Or, the visible church may be defined to be the assembly of those who assent to the doctrine of God’s Word, among whom there are, however, many dead members, or such as have not been regenerated. ‘Not every one that saith unto me Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven’ (Matt. 7:21). We may here also appropriately cite the parable of the wheat and tares, and that of the net, which gathered of every kind, the good and the bad. The invisible church consists of those who are chosen unto eternal life, who are also regenerated, and belong to the visible church. It lies concealed in the visible church, during the whole of the struggle, and conflict which is continually going on in this world between the kingdom of light and darkness. It is likewise called the church of the saints. Those who belong to this church never perish; neither are there any hypocrites in it; for it consists only of such as are chosen unto eternal life, of whom it is said: ‘No man shall pluck my sheep out of my hands.’ ‘Nevertheless the foundation of God standeth sure, having this seal, The Lord knoweth them that are his’ (John 10:28, II Tim. 2:19).
“It is called invisible, not that the men who are in it are invisible, but because the faith and piety of those who belong to it can neither be seen, nor known, except by those who possess it; and also because we cannot with certainty distinguish the godly from those who are hypocrites in the visible church.
“Furthermore, the church, both visible and invisible, is either universal or particular. The universal visible Church consists of all those who profess the doctrine of God’s Word, in whatever part of the world they may be. The particular visible Church comprehends those who, in any particular place, profess this doctrine. The visible church is universal in as far as it has respect to the profession of one faith in Christ, one doctrine and worship; and it is particular in as far as it has respect to place and diversity of rites and ceremonies. So also the invisible church is universal, inasmuch as all the elect of whatever place they may be, and in whatever time they may have lived, have one faith; and it is particular as in this, or that place, they have the same faith. All the particular churches are parts of the universal church; and the different parts of the visible, belong to the universal church. And it is of this universal invisible church of which this article of the Creed properly speaks, saying, I believe in the Holy Catholic Church. These properties are also attributed with great propriety to the church, because it is holy, and because it is here that we find the true communion of the saints with Christ, and all his members. The difference which exists between the visible and invisible church is very nearly the same as that which exists between the whole and a part; for the invisible church is concealed in the visible, as a part in the whole, which is also corroborated by the declaration of the Apostle, where he says, ‘Whom he did predestinate, them he also called’ (Rom. 8:30). This calling, however, which God addresses to men is two-fold, inward and outward. Paul declares that the inward call is made according to the purpose of salvation. The elect are called in both respects, whilst hypocrites have nothing more than the mere external call. It is in respect to this outward call that the visible church is termed the church of, the called, in which hypocrites are also found; whilst the invisible is called the church of the elect.”—end of quote from Ursinus in his Explanation of the Heidelberg Catechism.
It is evident from this quotation from Ursinus that this co-author of our Heidelberg Catechism, when speaking of the distinction between the church invisible and visible, means that the church invisible is the church of God as consisting solely of the elect, whereas the church visible is the church as it manifests itself in the midst of the world, as consisting of elect and reprobate, of the wheat and the tares.
This same distinction is also maintained by Calvin. Calvin writes on this subject in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book IV, Chapter I. In chapter I, paragraph II, he writes: “That article of the Creed, in which we profess to believe THE CHURCH, refers not only to the visible Church of which we are now speaking, but likewise to all the elect of God, including the dead as well as the living. The word BELIEVE is used, because it is often impossible to discover any difference between the children of God and the ungodly, between his peculiar flock and wild beasts.” And in paragraph VII he writes: “From what has been said, I conceive it must now be evident what judgment we ought to form respecting the Church, which is visible to our eyes, and falls under our knowledge. For we have remarked that the word CHURCH is used in the sacred Scriptures in two senses. Sometimes, when they mention the Church, they intend that which is really such in the sight of God, into which none are received but those who by adoption and grace are the children of God, and by the sanctification of the Spirit are the true members of Christ . . . . But the word CHURCH is frequently used in the Scriptures to designate the whole multitude, dispersed all over the world, who profess to worship one God and Jesus Christ, who are initiated into his faith by baptism, who testify their unity in true doctrine and charity by a participation of the sacred supper, who consent to the Word of the Lord, and preserve the ministry which Christ has instituted for the purpose of preaching it. In this Church are included many hypocrites, who have nothing of Christ but the name and appearance; many persons ambitious, avaricious, envious, slanderous, and dissolute in their lives, who are tolerated for a time, either because they cannot be convicted by a legitimate process, or because discipline is not always maintained with sufficient vigor. As it is necessary, therefore, to believe that Church, which is invisible to us, and known to God alone, so this Church, which is visible to men, we are commanded to honor, and to maintain communion with it.” From this quotation of Calvin it is evident that the Reformer of Geneva also maintained the distinction between the church visible and invisible in the sense that the invisible church is the church as consisting solely of the elect, whereas the visible church consists of both elect and reprobate.