The Reformed Doctrine of the Church by Herman Bavinck

The Reformed doctrine of the church, while largely agreeing with that of the Lutherans, nevertheless displays some peculiarities that are not insignificant. In the first place, the institution of the church occupies a somewhat different place in it. Luther indeed viewed the church as the communion of saints, but nevertheless looked for its unity and holiness more in the objective institutions of office, Word, and sacrament than in the subjective fellowship of believers, which often leaves so much to be desired. Thus in his thinking the church increasingly became a divine institution whose task it was to realize the unity and holiness of believers. Melanchthon, thinking along the same lines, in the Loci communes of 1543 described the church as “the gathered company of those who are called” and said that “we should not dream of a chosen people anywhere but in this visible gathered company.” Later Lutheran dogmaticians observed a point of difference in the fact that according to their doctrine the elect are not to be found “outside of the gathered company of those who are called,” and according to the Reformed they could also occur outside that circle. And it is really a Reformed doctrine that, though God ordinarily grants the benefits of Christ by means of Word and sacraments, he is not bound to this method and, be it very rarely, also grants salvation outside the institution of the church.

In the second place, the Reformed linked the church most intimately with election and therefore frequently construed its invisibility differently from the Lutherans. Initially Zwingli indeed applied invisibility to the universal church, which is spread out over the whole earth and for that reason cannot be empirically observed by anyone, as opposed to the “particular” church, which is present and visible at a certain location. But in later years he took the invisible church to mean the body of elect people, an object of faith, as in the Apostles’ Creed, which only becomes visible at Christ’s parousia. In distinction from this position he called the universal and particular church a visible (visibilis, sensibilis) gathering of believers, in which there may also be hypocrites. In his Exposition of the Christian Faith (1531), striking a somewhat different note, he says that the church of believers on earth is invisible insofar as it only includes true believers, and visible insofar as all belong to it who name the name of Christ the whole world over.

Calvin aligns himself with this usage. When in the Institutes of 1543 he for the first time uses the term “invisible church,” he means by it all the elect collectively who are known only to God; subsequently he characterizes the church as “the whole multitude of humans spread over the earth,” a multitude that is visible and also includes hypocrites, yet is also invisible and an object of faith to the extent that we cannot know who in it are the true believers. The church, accordingly, could up to this point already be called invisible in three senses: (1) as the universal church because a given individual cannot observe the church in other places and other times; (2) as the gathered company of the elect, which will not be completed and visible until Christ’s return; (3) as the gathered company of the elect and called, because in the church on earth we cannot distinguish the true believers.

Later on still other viewpoints were added in terms of which the church could be called invisible: because it is not of this world; because Christ as its head, and hence also the church itself as his body, is invisible; because the major part of it is in heaven; because temporally and locally it may at times be deprived of the administration of the means of grace; because in times of persecution it goes into hiding in deserts and caves; because while it is observable in its external confession, it cannot be observed in the internal faith of the heart; finally, because the church is never just present at one place or time but spread out throughout the ages and nations. And by contrast, the church was called “visible” because it manifests itself in its confession and conduct, or acts institutionally with its offices and ministries, or because it not only contains true believers but also hypocrites. Among the Reformed, the confessions and the study of dogmatics proceeded now from one view and then again from another.

Some highlighted the church as the communion of all the elect and called this “the invisible church.” However, since the elect who have not yet been born or called can only be called potential members of the church, others dropped this idea of the church and proceeded from the church as the gathered company of all those who are chosen and called.59 In that case, however, theologians immediately had to make a further distinction between true believers and hypocrites and therefore proceeded to speak of the church in a strict and a broader sense, of being of the church and being in the church, or also occasionally of the invisible and the visible church. In connection with the corruption that began to infect the church, this practice led to the distinction between two circles or groups of people in the one church,61 and it prompted many theologians in the eighteenth century to posit the existence, side by side, of an external [covenant] and an internal covenant. This led to separating the external and the internal form of the church, and to preaching the doctrine that “ungraced” people, if they lived inoffensive lives, could also be true members of the church and make a legitimate claim to its goods and benefits. Others, opposing this dichotomizing trend, tried in vain to maintain the unity of the church by saying that the invisible and the visible church were two sides of the same thing.63 Doctrine and life increasingly went their own separate ways. And this was all the more serious for the Reformed view of the church since it identified the essence of the church much less with its institutional aspects than the Lutherans. For—and that is the third distinction, one which will later come out more clearly—the Reformed, while they also looked for the mark of the true church in the proper administration of Word and sacrament, usually added to it the exercise of church discipline and a Christian lifestyle. While election is the foundation of the church, it only manifests itself in faith and good works.

Herman Bavinck, John Bolt, and John Vriend, Reformed Dogmatics: Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation, vol. 4 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 288–291.

The Church as the “People of God”

[490] The word קָהָל (qāhāl), ἐκκλησια (ekklēsia), by virtue of its derivation from verbs that mean “to call together,” already denotes a gathering of people who come together for some purpose, especially a political or religious purpose, or, even if at a given moment they have not come together, are nevertheless mutually united for such a purpose. Under the Old Testament dispensation Israel was the people that had been called together and convened for God’s service. In the New Testament, the people of Israel have been replaced by the church of Christ, which is now the “holy nation, the chosen race, the royal priesthood” of God. The word “church” (kirk, kerk, kirche, chiesa), used to translate ἐκκλησια, does not express as clearly as the original this character of the church of Christ. It is probably derived from κυριακη (kyriakē; completed by οἰκια [oikia, house] being understood) or κυριακον (kyriakon; completed by οἰκον [oikon, house] being understood) and hence originally meant, not the congregation itself, but its place of assembly, the church building. Today we use the word in the sense of the building or of the worship service (“church starts at 10:00 a.m.”) or of the organized group of congregations (the Roman Catholic or the Anglican Church). In the word “church” the meaning of the New Testament word ἐκκλησια has been obscured. In certain periods the sense that “church” is the name for “the people of God” has almost totally eroded.

Observations on translating ἐκκλησια:

This is also the reason why ἐκκλησια is often translated in the Dutch (and German) language by gemeente (Gemeinde) instead of kerk (Kirche). As with the English word “community,” this communicates more effectively the church as a fellowship of believers, a communion of saints. However, since gemeente also serves as a civic term to denote local government entities (gemeentehuis = city hall; gemeenteraad = city council; English language parallel: “community center”), the word kerk has become the preferred translation and standard usage. Dutch law, in a deliberate effort to disestablish the national Dutch Reformed Church in the nineteenth century, began to use the term kerkgenoostschap or “church society.” This underscores the voluntary character of the church and its role as a social institution, but does so at the expense of its identity and its unity as the body of Christ created by the Holy Spirit.

Finally, it is not advisable to replace the word “church” in the sense of “the people of God” with the expression “kingdom of God.” The difference between the two, after all, is not insignificant. In the first place, “the kingdom of God,” with which Jesus’s preaching begins, is an eschatological term for the messianic kingdom with all its benefits. Also, to the extent this kingdom is already present on earth in human hearts as a result of regeneration, forgiveness, and renewal, it consists rather in spiritual benefits than in a fellowship of persons. The kingdom of God is or becomes above all the possession of the poor in spirit, the pure in heart, the “children,” and consists in peace, joy, and delight engendered by the Holy Spirit. For that reason it is not—at least on earth—organized. In principle it exists wherever the spiritual benefits of Christ have been granted and is nowhere completed on earth. The church, however, is especially a this-worldly term, a fellowship of persons equipped with offices and ministries that function in the visible world as the gathered people of God. The church, accordingly, is the means by which Christ distributes the benefits of the kingdom of God and lays the groundwork for its completion. And to advance the coming of that kingdom in the course of its journey through time, it absorbs all sorts of elements that are impure and actually do not belong to it (such as hypocrites and the “old” Adam in believers), whereas the kingdom of God, consisting in [spiritual] goods, is pure and uncontaminated and encompasses only what is regenerate. Christ has been given to be the head of the church precisely in order that in the end God might publicly appear as king of his people and be all things in all people.

Now there is no doubt that according to Scripture the characteristic essence of the church lies in the fact that it is the people of God. For the church is a realization of election, and the latter is election in Christ to calling, Justification, and glorification (Rom. 8:28), to being conformed to the image of God’s Son (8:29), to holiness and blessedness (Eph. 1:4ff.). The blessings granted to the church are primarily internal and spiritual in character and consist in calling and regeneration, in faith and Justification, in sanctification and glorification. They are the goods of the kingdom of heaven, benefits of the covenant of grace, promises for this life and, above all, for the life to come.

On these grounds, the church is the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:27; Eph. 5:23; Col. 1:18), the bride of Christ (2 Cor. 11:2; Eph. 5:32; Rev. 19:7; 21:2), the sheepfold of Christ who gives his life for the sheep and is known by them (John 10), the building, the temple, the house of God (Matt. 16:18; Eph. 2:20; 1 Pet. 2:5), built up out of living stones (1 Pet. 2:5) on Christ as the cornerstone, and on the foundation of apostles and prophets (1 Cor. 3:17; 2 Cor. 6:16–17; Eph. 2:20–22; Rev. 21:2–4), the people, the possession, the Israel of God (Rom. 9:25; 2 Cor. 6:16; Heb. 8:10; 1 Pet. 2:9–10). The members of the church are called branches of the vine (John 15), living stones (1 Pet. 2:5), the elect, the called, believers, beloved, brothers and sisters, children of God and so forth. By contrast, those who are not really such are viewed in Scripture as chaff (Matt. 3:12), weeds among the wheat (13:25, 38), bad fish in the net (13:47), people without a wedding garment at the wedding (22:11), called but not chosen (22:14), bad branches in the vine (John 15:2), non-Israel though descended from Israel (Rom. 2:28; 9:6), evildoers who have to be put away (1 Cor. 5:2), vessels of dishonor (2 Tim. 2:20), such “who went out from us because they were not of us” (1 John 2:19), and so forth. All this makes it incontrovertible that in its essence the church is a gathering of true believers. Those who do not have an authentic faith may externally belong to the church; they do not make up its essential character. Though they are in the church, they are not the church.

All this is further confirmed by the manner in which Scripture speaks of the communion of saints. Believers have one Lord, one baptism, one God and Father of all, and similarly they have one Spirit (Eph. 4:4–6), in whose fellowship they live, by whom they are regenerated, baptized into one body, and united with Christ (John 3:5; 14:17; Rom. 8:9, 14, 16; 1 Cor. 12:3, 13; 2 Cor. 1:22; 5:5; Eph. 1:13; 4:30; 1 John 2:20). And in this oneness the Spirit does not undo the diversity that exists among believers but rather maintains and confirms it. Just as in creation and providence the Spirit adorned and completed all things in their way and in Israel granted an array of natural and spiritual gifts,103 so on the day of Pentecost he communicated himself with all his charismata to the church of Christ. In a broad sense these charismata also include the benefits of grace imparted to all believers (Rom. 5:15–16; 6:23), but in a more restricted sense denote those special gifts that are granted to believers in a variable measure and degree for each other’s benefit (Rom. 1:11; 1 Cor. 1:7; 2 Cor. 1:11; 1 Tim. 4:14; 2 Tim. 1:6; and particularly Rom. 12:6–9 and 1 Cor. 12:12ff.). Of all these gifts the Holy Spirit, who takes them all from Christ (John 16:13–14; Eph. 4:7), is the distributor. He apportions to each one individually as he wills, not arbitrarily but in connection with a person’s measure of faith, with the position a person occupies in the church and the task to which that person is called (Rom. 12:3, 6; 2 Cor. 10:13; Eph. 4:7; 1 Pet. 4:10), so that every gift is “a manifestation of the Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:7).

These gifts are very numerous. Paul mentions several and intends by no means to list them all. Catholic scholars love to speak, with an appeal to Isa. 11:2–3, of seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, as they do of seven deadly sins, seven virtues, and seven beatitudes. But these seven gifts of the Spirit do not include the actual charismata that are cited by Paul and discussed in Catholic theology under the heading of “the freely given graces” (gratiae gratis datae). And these cannot be limited to a mere seven. To those enumerated by Paul, one can also add those of prayer and thanksgiving, admonition and consolation, communicativeness and hospitality, and so forth. It is therefore hard to classify them. Some clearly bear a supernatural character or are given only at the time of or after a person’s conversion; others tend to be more like natural gifts that have been heightened and sanctified by the Holy Spirit. The former were more prominent in the early days of the church; the latter are more characteristic of the church in its normal historical development. But whatever these gifts may be, they all serve the good of the church. Whatever benefits God bestows on the community of saints, they in turn should share with one another. The Holy Spirit does not distribute the charismata to the members of the church for their own benefit but for the benefit of others. They must not be buried or neglected but used “readily and cheerfully for the benefit and enrichment of the other members”;107 they serve for the upbuilding of the church (1 Cor. 14:12; Eph. 4:12) and are subordinate to love, which is the most excellent gift. This love, after all, surpasses the universal love of one’s neighbor; it is love for the brothers and sisters, the members of the household of faith. Jesus calls this love a new commandment (John 13:34–35; 15:12; 17:26). The reason is that love in Israel was not purely spiritual in character but intertwined with blood ties, and the love he now brings about among his disciples for the first time is completely pure, unmixed with other things, and free from earthly attachments. The members of Jesus’s church are mutually brothers and sisters (Matt. 12:48; 18:15; 23:8; 25:40; 28:10; John 15:14–15; 20:17; Rom. 8:29; Heb. 2:11; and so forth). They are children of one family. God is their Father (Eph. 4:6). Christ is their eldest brother (Rom. 8:29). The Jerusalem that is above is their mother (Gal. 4:26). And in that light they must serve each other with all their spiritual and natural gifts. The church is a fellowship or communion of saints.

[491] As long as we hold on to this as the church’s essence, the idea of the church does not produce any unmanageable difficulties. In that case the church can always be defined in a broader or stricter sense as the gathered company of believers. In its broadest sense it embraces all who have been saved by faith in Christ or will be saved thus. When it is so defined, Adam and Eve before the fall do not yet belong to it, for at that time they did not yet need a Savior. Nor can the angels be counted as members of it, although this has been done by many theologians; for while Christ is indeed the Lord of angels and has by his cross reconciled all things, including angels and humans, to God and to each other, angels were not created in God’s image, did not fall, and have not been redeemed by Christ, and so are not members of the church that Christ gathers to eternal life. Believers, according to Heb. 12:22, do come to the community with its myriad angels, but these are clearly distinguished from “the festive assembly and church of the first-born” (v. 23). The members of the church are only people who have been saved by faith in Christ. Belonging to it, accordingly, are all the believers who lived on earth from the time of the paradisal promise to this very moment and were taken up, not into the limbus of the ancestors or purgatory, but into heaven (12:23). Belonging to it are all the believers who still live on earth now. And belonging to it, in a sense, are also those who will later, even to the end of the ages, believe in Christ. For the church, even taken in its broadest sense, is not a Platonic state that exists only in the imagination and never becomes a reality, but is a company of people that has the guarantee of its existence, now and in the future, in God’s decree, in the firm security of the covenant of grace, the mediatorship of Christ, and the promise of the Holy Spirit.

At any given moment, then, the majority of its members are not on earth, for from the time of paradise [Eden] to the present, many thousands and millions have already been taken up into heaven and daily, from moment to moment, their number is increased (the church triumphant). There are also many who do not yet believe or have not even been born yet but who will nevertheless, with infallible certainty, come to believe. Hence the church as the gathering of believers who at a given time live on earth (the church militant) is only a small part of the church taken in its broadest sense. Still it is well, and also necessary, to hold on to the connectedness between the church on earth now and that of the past and the future. For it is one single gathering, one ἐκκλησια (ekklēsia), composed of those who are enrolled in heaven and who will one day stand before God as a bride without spot or wrinkle. And the maintenance of this unity of the whole church heightens the sense of community, steels one’s nerve, and stirs a person to fight for it. If we further limit ourselves to the part of the church that is now on earth (the church militant), then it can again be taken more broadly or more narrowly. We can associate it with all the believers who are now present in all the churches, among all nations, and in all countries (the church universal), with the believers in one country or in a given province of that country (Acts 9:31; the national or provincial church), or with all the believers living in a certain place—city, town, or village (the particular or local church). In this connection it must be noted that the universal church is antecedent to the particular or local church. The church of Christ is an organism in which the whole is prior to the parts. It has its origin in paradise (Gen. 3:15), or, as it concerns the time of the New Testament, in Jerusalem (Acts 1:8). For as long as it alone was the church, the church of Jerusalem was the universal church of Christ on earth, and the churches that before long arose alongside of it were not autochthonous but came into being from action taken in Jerusalem through the preaching of the apostles and evangelists.

Church Distinctions

Up to this point the meaning of the term “church” is plain and clear. But now we encounter two difficulties. The first consists in the fact that this scriptural concept of the church is applied to concrete, historically existing distinct groups of persons, in which there are always unbelievers as well. In the Old Testament, the entire nation was called the people of God, although far from everything that was called Israel was of Israel. In the churches of the New Testament, though to a much lesser extent, there was also chaff amid the grain and weeds among the wheat. And after the apostolic period, though the churches over and over became worldly, corrupt, and divided, we still call all of them churches. Theology, like Scripture, has at all times acknowledged this fact and, following Scripture, consistently stated that the basic nature of the church was determined by believers, not unbelievers. Augustine illustrated the presence of unbelievers in the church with the scriptural image of chaff and grain, or with that of body and soul, the outer and the inner person, bad “humors” in the body: in the body of Christ unbelievers are a kind of “bad humors.”111Scholastic and Roman Catholic theologians spoke in similar terms. Bellarmine, for example, though he attempted to show that unbelievers are also members of the church, did not get beyond asserting that they are members “in some fashion”; they only belong to the body, not to the soul of the church. The good are the interior part of the church, the bad are the exterior part; unbelievers are “dead” or “arid” members, who are bound to the church only “by an external connection”; they belong to the kingdom of Christ as far as their profession of faith is concerned, but to the realm of the devil so far as it concerns their perverse lifestyle. They are children of the family on account of the form of their piety, but strangers on account of their loss of virtues. While there may not be two churches, there are in fact two parties in the church.113 And the Roman Catechism says that in the church militant there are two kinds of people, and that according to Scripture there are bad fish in the net and weeds on the field and chaff on the threshing floor, foolish virgins among the wise and unclean animals in the ark. In theory, this is not very different from the doctrine of the Reformation, but practically, things in the church looked very different toward the end of the Middle Ages. And Rome also consistently fosters the idea that external membership, a historical faith, observance of the commandments of the church, and submission to the pope constitute the essence of the church.

Rising up against this view, the Reformation posited the distinction between the visible and invisible church. Of nominal Christians Augustine had already stated that though they seem to be inside, they are separated from it by an invisible bond of love. Actually Rome cannot object to this distinction and does in fact itself accept it inasmuch as it distinguishes two kinds of people, two parties, in the church. Bellarmine speaks of “hidden unbelievers,”116 and Mohler praises Luther when he conceives of the church as a communion of saints and says that believers, the invisible ones, are the bearers of the visible church. But the distinction between the visible and the invisible church can be variously construed.118 The majority of these views, however, are to be rejected or at least do not come up for discussion in dogmatics. The church cannot be called invisible because Christ, the church triumphant, and the church that will be completed at the end of the ages cannot now be observed; nor can the church be called invisible because the church on earth cannot be seen by us in many places and countries, or goes into hiding in times of persecution, or is sometimes deprived of the ministry of the Word and sacraments. The distinction between the visible and invisible church can only be applied to the church militant and then means that the church is invisible with respect to its spiritual dimension and its true members. In the case of Lutherans and the Reformed, these two meanings have fused and cannot be separated from each other. The church is an object of faith. The internal faith of the heart, regeneration, true conversion, hidden communion with Christ (and so forth) are spiritual goods that cannot be observed by the natural eye and nevertheless give to the church its true character (forma). No human being has received from God the infallible standard by which one can judge someone else’s spiritual life. “The church makes no judgment concerning the most private things.” The Lord alone knows those who are his. Thus it is possible—and in the Christian church has always been a fact—that there was chaff amid the wheat and there were hypocrites hidden among true believers. The word “church,” used with reference to the militant church, the gathering of believers on earth, therefore, always and among all Christians, both Catholic and Protestant, has a metaphorical sense. It is so called, not in terms of the unbelievers who exist in it, but in terms of the believers, who constitute the essential component of it and determine its nature. The whole is called after the part. A church is and remains the gathered company of true Christ-believers.

[492] So conceived, no one can take exception to the distinction between the visible and invisible church. Rather, it should be generally acknowledged. But there is still another difficulty associated with the idea of the church. The gathered company of believers on earth is not only structured charismatically but also institutionally. It is not only itself the possession of Christ but also serves to win others for Christ. It is a gathered company (coetus) but also the mother of believers (mater fidelium); an organism but also an institution; a goal but also the means to that goal. The relationship of the church as organism to the church as institution can only be discussed in the next section, which deals with the government of the church. For just as the idea of the state is hard to describe and only becomes clear when in it the people and the government are distinguished and treated separately, so one can only offer a good definition of the church if one guards against equating the gathering of believers with its organization as an institution.

Many theologians, however, relate the distinction between the church as organism and the church as institution to that between the invisible and the visible church and imperceptibly accord to the latter a meaning that does not belong to it. On the one side are those who not only describe the church in terms of its [normative] idea, or its spiritual essence (the church triumphant), but also describe the church militant on earth as the gathering of the predestined or elect (Wycliffe); or of the perfected (thus Pelagius, according to Augustine; and the Anabaptists, according to Calvin;122 and numerous others). Others include those who have never fallen (Novatian), or those members of the church who participate in the Lord’s Supper (communicants, as many people in North America mark the boundary of the church). On the other side are the Roman Catholics, who shift the church’s center of gravity from the gathering of believers to the hierarchical institution, to “the external and supreme monarchy of the whole world,” and look for its characteristic essence in the “teaching church” (ecclesia docens) rather than in the “listening church” (ecclesia audiens). And this is the direction taken by all those who, in order to hold on to unbelievers and hypocrites at least to some degree as true members, describe the church as the gathering of those who are called (Melanchthon, Löhe, Kliefoth, and so forth) or of the baptized (Münchmeyer, Delitzsch, Vilmar, and so forth).

Both of these views are one-sided and fail to do justice to the basic nature of the church. Given the first position, the church becomes totally invisible, remains an idea, and has no corresponding reality. Election by itself does not yet make a person a member of the church on earth. The elect who have not yet attained to faith do indeed belong to the church as it exists in the mind and decree of God. They can even be said to belong potentially to the church, but actually they are not yet members of it. Nor can the church be described as the gathering of the perfected, or of the nonfallen, or of communicants, for believers in this life do not reach perfection and are not safeguarded against every fall by the promises of God, and churches are not limited to the number of communicants.

The second of the two positions described above is equally out of alignment with the basic nature of the church. For external membership, calling, and baptism are no proof of genuine faith. Many are called who are not chosen. Many are baptized who do not believe. Not all are Israel who are of Israel. So, whereas the former group fails to arrive at a visible church, the latter neglects the invisible church. The two positions only come fully into their own when the church is conceived of as a gathering of believers. For it is genuine faith that saves persons and receives the forgiveness of sins and eternal life. While that faith is a matter of the heart, it does not remain within a person but manifests itself outwardly in a person’s witness and walk (Rom. 10:10), and witness and walk are the signs of the internal faith of the heart (Matt. 7:17; 10:32; 1 John 4:2). Granted, a person’s faith and witness are also often far from always in agreement. In the case of the children of believers, for example, there is faith that is not manifested in deeds, a confession that consists in saying “Lord, Lord” and is not born of true faith. Still, the advantage of defining the church as the gathering of believers over its description as the gathering of the called and the baptized is that it maintains precisely that on which everything depends, both for the individual and the whole church. Our being called and baptized is not decisive, for those who believe and are baptized will be saved, and, conversely, those who do not believe, even though they were called and baptized, will be condemned (Mark 16:16).

From this it follows that the distinction between the church as institution and the church as organism is very different from that between the visible and the invisible church and may not be equated with it. For both “institution” and “organism” describe the church in terms of its visible aspect. In this connection, one must also not forget that the institution and the organism of the church, when they assert themselves in the visible realm, have an invisible spiritual background. For office and gift, the administration of the Word and the sacraments, brotherly love and the communion of the saints, are all grounded in the operations of the glorified head of the church through the Holy Spirit. We must therefore repudiate the notion that the institution was mechanically added as something accidental and external to the church as the gathering of believers. Yet when thinking of the church as institution and as organism, we primarily have in mind the church in terms of its visible aspect; that is, in terms of the offices and ministries with which it is equipped and of the communion of saints as that is manifested in “brotherly” love. And in precisely these two ways the church becomes outwardly visible. Therefore the view that the church only becomes visible in the institution, the offices and ministries, the Word and the sacraments, and in some form of church government is correct. Even when all these things are removed from the screen of our mind, the church is still visible. For every believer manifests his or her faith in witness and walk in every sphere of life, and all believers together, with their faith and lives, distinguish themselves from the world. In heaven there will no longer be ecclesiastical offices and ministries, preaching of the Word and administration of the sacraments, yet the church will be fully visible. Visibility and invisibility therefore distinguish the church from a completely different perspective than institution and organism. The latter distinction tells us in what ways the church becomes visible and knowable to us; the former teaches us that this visible manifestation has an invisible spiritual aspect to it, which is known only to God.

This analysis automatically implies that the visible and the invisible church are not two distinct churches. The objection had already been lodged against Augustine by the Donatists and was later repeated by Roman Catholics against Protestants. But this accusation is based on misunderstanding. Rome itself acknowledges, as we saw earlier, that there are two kinds of people in the church, that the church is composed of two groups. Though Rome attempts to demonstrate that unbelievers “in some fashion” belong to the church, it shrinks from saying that they constitute the essence of the church. In reality, therefore, Rome faces the same difficulty as the Reformation. For the idea that hypocrites “in some fashion” belong to the church is not a point in dispute. Protestants also acknowledge that they are in the church and belong to the church just as rotten branches belong to the vine and chaff to the wheat. Protestants deny, however, that these hypocrites define the true character of the church (its forma), for it is true faith alone that saves and incorporates us into Christ. Unbelievers, accordingly, are not the essence of the church; they are not the church. The invisible and the visible church, therefore, are definitely not terms collectively describing the unbelievers and believers who exist in the church. According to the Lord’s command, discipline must be maintained in the church both with respect to doctrine and life, but every attempt to split believers from unbelievers and vice versa and to create a little church (ecclesiola) within the ecclesia is in conflict with the Lord’s command. Matthew 13:30 does not contradict this, for the field intended there is not the church but the world (v. 38).

What follows from all this is that we are limited to noting people’s witness and walk, and we neither can nor may judge their hearts. Unbelievers, therefore, no more constitute the essence of the visible church than of the invisible church. In neither of these respects do they belong to the church, even though we lack the right and the authority to separate them from believers and to cast them out. Even stronger: we can also say that the old Adam that still survives in believers does not belong to the church. This is not to agree with Schleiermacher when he locates the essence of the church in the operations of the Holy Spirit, for the church is not a gathering of operations but of persons. It is people who have been regenerated and brought to faith by the Holy Spirit, who as such, as new persons, constitute the essence of the church. Still, the church is a gathering of believers, and everything that does not arise out of true faith but from the old Adam does not belong to the church and will one day be cast out. For this reason the visible and the invisible church are two sides of one and the same church. The same believers are viewed in the one case from the perspective of the faith that dwells in their heart and is only known with certainty to God; and in the other case they are viewed from the perspective of their witness and life, the side that is turned toward us and can be observed by us. Because the church on earth is in process of becoming, these two sides are never—not even in the purest church—identical. There are always unbelievers within and believers outside the church. Many wolves are within and many sheep are outside the sheepfold. The latter occurred in the Old Testament, for example, in the case of Naaman the Syrian and is still true today of all who for one reason or another live outside the fellowship of organized (“instituted”) churches and yet have true faith. But all this in no way detracts from the fact that the essence of the church consists in believers alone.

The Marks of the Church

[493] If the church is in essence a gathering of true Christ-believers and these are known only to God, the important question arises by what marks we can know the church. Roman Catholic Christians especially object to the Reformation idea of the church because it undermines the certainty of the church and hence the salvation of their souls and opens the door to doubt, division, and indifference. Bellarmine states it with the utmost clarity: “It is necessary that we be agreed with infallible certainty as to which gathered company of humans is the true church of Christ, for since the traditions of Scripture and all dogmas clearly depend on the testimony of the church, unless we are very certain which is the true church, everything else will consequently also be uncertain as well.” Now this is impossible if only genuine faith makes us truly a member of the church, for we can never know this with certainty. A conjectural knowledge is insufficient. At this point we need infallible certainty, for “we are all bound, at the risk of eternal death, to join the true church and to persevere in it.”124 The true church must therefore be as clearly visible and palpable “as the assembly of the people of Rome, the kingdom of France, or the republic of the Venetians.” For that reason Bellarmine does his very best to prove the truth of the Roman Catholic Church, listing no fewer than fifteen marks:

1.The very name

2.The antiquity

3.The long duration

4.The multitude and variety of the believers of the Catholic Church

5.The succession of its bishops

6.Its agreement in doctrine with the ancient church

7.The unity of its members among themselves and with their head

8.The holiness of its doctrine

9.The efficacy of its doctrine

10.The holiness of life of the early fathers

11.The glory of its miracles

12.The light of prophecy

13.The confession of its adversaries

14.The unhappy fate of those who oppose the church

15.Temporal happiness

Roman Catholic theologians, following this model, usually reduce the fifteen marks to four, which in the Nicene Creed are denominated the unity, sanctity, catholicity, and apostolicity of the church.

It is noteworthy, furthermore, that in a real sense Rome has no marks or criteria by which the true church can be known. These, after all, presuppose a standard that is above the church and by which it may be judged by everyone. And Rome does not have such a standard, for Scripture depends on the church, and the church is itself the highest standard for doctrine and life. In the case of Rome, accordingly, the marks of the church are nothing but the indications or properties in which the church manifests itself. Proofs for the church are the same as those for Christianity itself, for to Rome the two are one. And these proofs, though they do not make the proposition that the Roman Catholic Church is the true church “evidently true,” they make it “evidently credible.” Vatican I declares the same:

God, through his only begotten Son, founded the church, and he endowed his institution with clear notes to the end that she might be recognized by all as the guardian and teacher of the revealed word. To the catholic church alone belong all those things, so many and so marvelous, which have been divinely ordained to make for the manifest credibility of the Christian faith. What is more, the church herself by reason of her astonishing propagation, her outstanding holiness and her inexhaustible fertility in every kind of goodness, by her catholic unity and her unconquerable stability, is a kind of great and perpetual motive of credibility and an incontrovertible evidence of her own divine mission.

The truth of the church, accordingly, is not absolutely demonstrable to everyone. If it were, the church would not be an article of faith, and faith would not be free and meritorious. Added to the witness that proceeds from the church, according to the [First] Vatican Council, there has to be “the effective help of power from on high.” In saying this, Rome actually takes the same subjective position as the Reformation. The arguments, however strong, cannot actually move a person to faith. It is God’s Spirit alone that can persuade a person inwardly and with full assurance of the truth of divine revelation. The deepest ground for faith, also in the case of Rome, is not Scripture or the church but the “interior light.” Rome, with its infallible church and its infallible pope, fundamentally has no advantage over the churches of the Reformation, for the church and the pope, however visible, still remain “articles of faith.”

Accordingly, the marks that Rome cites for the true church are in no respect clearer and stronger than the pure administration of the Word, which is recognized as a mark of the true church by the Reformation. Some of the marks listed by Bellarmine are of very subordinate value. The gifts of miracles are absolutely inadequate proof for the truth of the doctrine someone proclaims (Deut. 13:1–2; Matt. 7:22–23; 24:24; etc.). In most cases the unfortunate fate of the enemies and persecutors of the church is only legend, as also Roman Catholics acknowledge,133 and the earthly prosperity of the church is always temporary, alternates with persecution and oppression, and can equally well be advanced against the truth of the church (Matt. 5:10; 16:24; John 16:33; Acts 14:22; 2 Tim. 3:12). With reference to other marks, everything depends on the sense in which they are understood. The qualification “catholic” has also been adopted by Protestant churches and as such no more constitutes an argument for the truth of the Roman Catholic Church than the name “Christ,” which false Christs appropriate for themselves (Matt. 24:24), or the name “Israel” or “Abraham’s seed,” on which the Jews prided themselves (John 8:33; Rom. 9:6). Antiquity, historical continuity, and unbroken succession not only characterize Rome but also other churches, the Greek Orthodox, for example, and as such no more prove anything with respect to the truth of the Roman Catholic Church than they did with respect to that of the Jewish community in Jesus’s day. Unity and catholicity are claims of Rome that cannot undo the fact that millions of Christians live outside of its communion. There is not just one church but many churches, not one of which embraces all believers. The other marks (agreement with the teaching of the apostles, the holiness of its doctrine, the transforming power which proceeds from it, the saintly lives of many of its confessors) absolutely do not apply only to Rome but also to many other churches and are subject to the same objections as those that Roman Catholics advance against the Protestant marks (to be discussed later).

In this the Roman Catholic Church indeed boasts of its unity and points with self-satisfaction at the division present in Protestantism. But it pays a heavy price for this self-congratulation. In the first place, it is increasingly forced to transfer its definition of the essence of the church from the gathering of believers to the institution of the hierarchy and ultimately to the pope. The pope has better grounds for declaring: “The church? That’s me!” than Louis XIV had for saying “L’état c’est moi” (the state, that’s me). “Where the pope is, there is the church” (ubi papa, ibi ecclesia). If in thinking of the church we bring to mind not just the institution but also and primarily the gathering of believers, as we should, then the divisions in the Roman Catholic Church are no fewer than those in Protestantism. The only difference is that Rome, banking on the strength of a celibate hierarchy, permits all kinds of schools of thought and opinions to flourish side by side, and deprives its members, even the most unbelieving, of the energy and love of freedom and truth to break with the church and their own untrue position.

In the second place, Rome pays for its self-congratulatory pleasure with the heavy price of the position that outside the church there is no salvation (extra ecclesiam nulla salus). The teaching of Scripture that salvation is bound up with faith in Christ was soon—in the struggle against schism and heresy—understood to mean that everyone who wanted to partake of salvation in Christ had to be connected with the bishop. Those who want to be saved must seek refuge in the holy churches of God.136 “It is the Catholic Church alone that maintains true worship. Here is the fount of truth, the domicile of faith, the temple of God in relation to which, if anyone does not enter it or departs from it, a person estranges himself from the hope of life and eternal salvation.” The church fathers often employed the image of the ark for the church, and especially Cyprian used it to leave no doubt that “apart from the church there is no salvation.”138 Augustine held the same view: “It is clear that one who is not among the members of Christ cannot possess Christian salvation.” Outside the church a person can participate in all things; “but he can never obtain salvation except in the catholic church.”140 Councils and popes have confirmed this doctrine. The Fourth Lateran Council (1215) declared in its opening chapter that there is one catholic church of believers “outside which no one at all is saved.” Trent testified in its fifth session [June 17, 1546] that without the catholic faith it is impossible to please God.142 Boniface VIII declared that submission to the pope is “necessary to salvation.” Eugenius IV taught that apart from the catholic church no one could obtain eternal life. And Pius IX, in his allocution of December 9, 1854, declared that “we must maintain on the basis of faith that outside of the apostolic Roman church no person can be saved.”145 By its very nature, therefore, Rome has to be intolerant. It cannot acknowledge any churches other than itself. It is itself the only church, the bride of Christ, the temple of the Holy Spirit.

Yet for Rome, too, the facts have proved to be too powerful. Thousands, in fact millions, of people have over the centuries broken fellowship with the church of Rome: Novatians, Donatists, Greek Christians, Arians, Monophysites, Monotheletists, many medieval sects, and in the sixteenth century more than half of Christendom. And though, by its Counter-Reformation, Rome has won many people back, of the 500 million Christians now living it can barely claim a half and is declining rather than growing in numbers. In the face of these facts it cannot be maintained that outside the Roman church there is no salvation. Even for Roman Catholics themselves it is hard to remain true to this doctrine; many are inclined to make concessions. They distinguish between those who deliberately, intentionally, obstinately, and therefore culpably leave the church and those who, swept along and misled by others, are “in good faith” outside the church and still belong to the church, that is, to the soul of the church, in solemn intent, desire, and spirit. In the same spirit “the chair of St. Peter” rejected the thesis of Baius. “Purely negative unbelief even among those to whom Christ has not been preached is a sin,” and in his allocution of December 9, 1854, Pius IX declared: “It must be considered certain that those who labor in ignorance of true religion, even if this ignorance is invincible, cannot be faulted on this account.”

[494] For Protestantism, the doctrine concerning the marks of the true church had a totally different meaning. As a result of the Reformation, the unity of Western Christianity had been broken once and for all, and different churches came on the scene either side by side or in opposition to each other. The Reformers had to argue that the church of Rome was not the true church and that the churches of the Reformation fit the scriptural description of the nature of the church. Their Reformational act presupposed that the church was not trustworthy in and of itself (αὐτοπιστος, autopistos), that it could stray and depart from the truth, and that there was a higher authority to which it too had to submit. And that authority could be nothing other than Scripture, the Word of God. All the Reformers, therefore, unanimously returned to Scripture, regarded it alone as the standard of the church, and in keeping with this standard determined the marks by which the true church was to be distinguished from the false church. In the specification of those marks there were indeed some differences. In his work Of Councils and Churches, Luther listed seven: the pure administration of the Word, of baptism, of the Lord’s Supper, and of the keys of the kingdom; the lawful choice of ministers, public prayer and education, and the cross; but elsewhere he only mentioned two: the pure administration of the Word and sacraments. Melanchthon and later Lutheran theologians148 did the same. Only Melanchthon in his Examen ordinandorum added a third and rather hierarchical mark: “obedience owing to the ministerium with respect to the gospel.” Among the Reformed, some, such as Beza, Sohn, Alsted, Ames, Heidanus, and Maresius, specified only one mark: the pure administration of the Word. Others, such as Calvin, Bullinger, Zanchius, Junius, Gomarus, Mastricht, and Marck (et al.), two marks: the pure administration of Word and sacraments. Many, such as the Gallic, Belgic, and First Scotch Confessions, as well as Hyperius, Martyr, Ursinus, Trelcatius, Walaeus, Amyraldus, Heidegger, and Wendelinus, added as a third mark: the proper exercise of discipline or holiness of life. However, Alsted, Alting, Maresius, Hottinger, Heidanus, Turretin, and Mastricht (et al.) rightly commented that this was more a difference in name than in substance and that actually there is only one mark, the one and the same Word, which is variously administered and confessed in preaching, instruction, confession, sacrament, life, and so forth.

That the Reformation rightly sought the key mark of the church in the Word of God cannot be doubted on the basis of Scripture. Without the Word of God, after all, there would be no church (Prov. 29:18; Isa. 8:20; Jer. 8:9; Hos. 4:6). Christ gathers his church (Matt. 28:19), which is built on the teaching of the apostles and prophets, by Word and sacrament (Matt. 16:18; Eph. 2:20). By the Word he regenerates it (James 1:18; 1 Pet. 1:23), engenders faith (Rom. 10:14; 1 Cor. 4:15), and cleanses and sanctifies [the church] (John 15:3; Eph. 5:26). And those who have thus been regenerated and renewed by the Word of God are called to confess Christ (Matt. 10:32; Rom. 10:9), to hear his voice (John 10:27), to keep his Word (John 8:31, 32; 14:23), to test the spirits (1 John 4:1), and to shun those who do not bring this doctrine (Gal. 1:8; Titus 3:10; 2 John 9). The Word is truly the soul of the church. All ministry in the church is a ministry of the Word. God gives his Word to the church, and the church accepts, preserves, administers, and teaches it; it confesses it before God, before one another, and before the world in word and deed. In the one mark of the Word the others are included as further applications. Where God’s Word is rightly preached, there also the sacrament is purely administered, the truth of God is confessed in line with the intent of the Spirit, and people’s conduct is shaped accordingly. Even Rome cannot deny that the Word of God is the mark of the church. Gerhard cites numerous church fathers who say this plainly and clearly. Thus Tertullian states: “Those are the true churches that adhere to what they have received from the apostles.” In earlier times, says Chrysostom, it could be shown in various ways which was the church of Christ, but since heresies have crept in, this can only be demonstrated by means of the Scriptures. In any case, those Scriptures are simple and true so that by using them it can easily be determined which doctrine is true. Augustine repeatedly speaks in this vein: “Between us and the Donatists the question is: Where in the world is the church? What are we going to do? Are we going to seek it in the words of Donatus or in the words of his head, the Lord Jesus Christ? I think that we ought to seek it in the words of him who is the truth and who knows his own body best, for he knows who are his own.”

Herman Bavinck, John Bolt, and John Vriend, Reformed Dogmatics: Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation, vol. 4 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 296–313.