Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Reply to the Joint Federal Vision Profession: Part 5: The Denial of the Visible/Invisible Church Distinction

articles in this series: part 1part 2part 3part 4part 5part 6part 7part 8

by Wes White
[Editor's note: This series was originally posted in 2011 at Johannes Weslianus, the former site of PCA Pastor Wes White. Reprinted with permission]

The Joint FV Profession (JFVP), written by Doug Wilson and signed by PCA Pastors Jeff Meyers and Peter Leithart, denies the classic Protestant distinction of the church into visible and invisible.

The JFVP on the Church
Of course, they claim to hold to this distinction, but they deny it by putting a different content into it. Instead of using it to define the difference between those who are truly members of the church and those who merely enjoy its outward communion, they define it as the Church at different times (the historical and the eschatological church).

In contrast to the Federal Vision, the Reformed Church has never taught that “the visible Church is the true Church of Christ” (JFVP, emphasis mine). *The* true church of Jesus Christ consists of only true believers.

Again, classic Protestants would not have said, “The one true Christian Church is visible and objective, and is the possession of everyone who has been baptized” (Ibid.). In contrast, Reformed theology teaches that the one true church is the bride of Christ and the body of Christ, and this can only be true of the elect who are united to Christ in grace and glory (WCF 25.1, WLC 65). This certainly does not consist in everyone who has been baptized, and it is dangerous to say that it does, as we shall see below.

To emphasize this further, the JFVP says: “We further affirm that the visible Church is the true Church of Christ, and not an ‘approximate’ Church.” Now, if all they meant was that that all who are baptized can be called members of the visible church, that would be fine. Instead, they say that they are members of *the* church of Jesus Christ, thereby collapsing the important Biblical distinction of the church into the true members of Christ and those who merely participate in its external communion.

The Reformed, Protestant View
Many Protestants today do not understand the importance of the visible/invisible church distinction. However, for classical Protestantism, this distinction was a vital one with profound implications for the salvation of sinners and the life of the church.

Classic Protestant theology defined the church as true believers in Christ. Thus, Martin Luther said, “He who does not truly believe . . . does not belong to the Christian Church” (note how Luther uses the phrase “the” Christian Church differently than the FV). Consequently, he adds, “If the Pope were not pious and holy, he could not be a member, much less the head of the holy Church.” Calvin speaks similarly, “To God alone must be left the knowledge of His Church, of which His secret election forms the foundation.” Similarly, Charles Hodge stated, “If a man is not justified, sanctified, and consecrated to God, he is not a saint, and therefore does not belong to the Church, which is the communion of saints” (Church Polity, p. 6) (Again, note the use of the church over against the FV).

However, these theologians also recognized that God had commanded that believers come together for joint profession, worship, and discipline. The problem is that in this external communion many gather who are not actual believers and do not possess forgiveness of sins, union with Christ, new life, and adoption. As a result, they followed the Bible in distinguishing the church as it appears from the church as it really is (see Mt. 13). This is often called the visible/invisible church distinction.

How the FV Tries to Get Around This
In contrast to this, the Federal Visionists want us to think of the church as that which is visible and objective consisting of all the baptized. All who are in this one true church of Christ possess what they call “regeneration” and the renewal of life in the new age. They reject the Protestant notion that the visible communion is an approximation of the church. All who are baptized, according to the FV, are the true church of Jesus Christ.

However, they still want to say that they hold to the visible/invisible church distinction. One way they do this is by saying that there is some difference between those who will remain in the church and those who will fall away from it. They cannot tell you what this difference is, but they believe it does exist. Consequently, they say that they are holding to the visible/invisible church distinction.

But this falls far short of the classic Protestant distinction. The classic Protestant distinction says there is a very clear distinction between the true members of the church and the false members. The difference is that those who are truly part of the church possess union and communion with Christ in grace and glory, which includes renewed life and regeneration. Those who fall away were never truly a part of the church (1 Jn. 2:19) and participated merely in its external communion (Rom. 2:28–29). Consequently, their view collapses and rejects the visible/invisible church distinction.

The second way they try to get around this distinction is by saying:

The historical Church generally corresponds to the visible Church — all those who profess the true religion, together with their children — and the eschatological Church should be understood as the full number of God’s chosen as they will be seen on the day of resurrection. (JFVP)

In other words, they see this as a distinction between the church militant and the church triumphant. The church as it now is and the church as it will be.

Besides the fact that the visible/invisible church distinction was always a very different distinction than the church militant/triumphant, this view is also unbiblical. The precise point of Jesus’ parables in Mt. 13 is not to show that there are those in the church who fall away but to show that there are those in the visible church and gathered by the Word who never truly belonged to the church. They were always tares. They were never wheat. They were children of the devil not children of Abraham (Jn. 8:37–44). They were not all Israel who were of Israel (Rom. 9:6). They did not truly belong to the Lord (2 Tim. 2:19–20). They were never known by the Lord (Mt. 7:21–23). They were wolves in sheep’s clothing (Mt. 7:15–20). They were false brothers (Gal. 2:4). They said they were Jews but were not (Rev. 3:9). They were those who seemed to have what they did not actually possess (Lk. 8:18). They were not of Christ’s sheep (Jn. 10:26–27). The Protestant distinction is the Biblical distinction. The FV distinction is not.

Significance of This Issue
This is not a mere abstract theological debate. It is very important that we think of the church as consisting of true believers. It is also important that we distinguish this community of believers from the external community of those who profess their faith and their children. Charles Hodge discusses this very issue in his book Church Polity on pages 32–35. I think that a few quotes from this book will illustrate the importance of this issue.

  1. “Membership in the Church being thus inseparably connected with salvation, to represent the Church as a visible society, is — 1. To make the salvation of men to depend upon their external relation, entirely irrespective of their moral character. 2. It is to promise salvation to multitudes against whom God denounces wrath. 3. It is to denounce wrath on many to whom God promises salvation. 4. It therefore utterly destroys the nature of true religion” (32). 
  2. “If by an external rite or outward profession, we are made ‘members of Christ,’ ‘the children of God,’ and ‘inheritors of the kingdom of heaven;’ or we are thus united to that body to which all the promises are made; and if our connection with the Church or body of Christ, can be dissolved only by heresy, schism, or excommunication, then of necessity religion is mere formalism, Church membership is the only condition of salvation, and Church ceremonies the only exercise of piety” (33).
  3. “This doctrine is no less destructive of morality than of religion. How can it be otherwise, if all the promises of God are made to men, not as penitent and holy, but as members of an external society; and, if membership in that society requires, as Bellarmin and Mr. Palmer, Oxford and Rome, teach, no internal virtue whatever? This injurious tendency of Ritualism is not a matter of logical inference merely. It is abundantly demonstrated by history . . . Ecclesiastical services have taken the place of spiritual worship. Corruption of morals has gone hand in hand with the decline of religion. The wicked are allowed to retain their standing in the Church, and are led to consider themselves as perfectly safe so long as embraced within its communion; and no matter what their crimes, they are committed to the dust ‘in the sure hope of a blessed resurrection’” (pp. 33–34).
Now, Rome has always denied that this will be the result, as the FV men will also do. However, this is the logical result of ritualism, and, as Hodge said, it has always been the practical result wherever such views have held sway.

The Reformed Church has confessed on the basis of the Word of God that there are those who gather with the true people of God in the visible communion of the Church who are not truly members of the Church of Jesus Christ. They confess this because the Bible teaches that the Church is the community of those who are saved. The Federal Vision teaches that there are people who are truly saved (as we have shown here) who fall away. Thus, they have no problem saying that there are those who are truly part of the saved community who later fall away from it.

Editor's note: Signers of the 2007 Joint Federal Vision Profession include:

Douglas Wilson (minister, CREC), Peter Leithart (minister, PCA), Jim Jordan (minister, teacher at large), Steve Wilkins (minister, PCA), Randy Booth (minister, CREC), John Barach (minister, CREC), Rich Lusk (minister, CREC), Jeff Meyers (minister, PCA), Tim Gallant (minister, CREC), Ralph Smith (minister, CREC), and Mark Horne (minister, PCA). Credentials were those held by the signers when the profession was released.


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