I Belong (5): Comfort in the Visible Church

Church. Think about that word. Church. What is it? What does it mean? Does it refer to a building where people meet to worship God? Does it signify the public worship of God? Does it mean the one organized and global body of believers prior to the Reformation? Does it represent the elders or leadership of a particular body of believers? Is it a verb describing the process of teaching and discipling unbelievers? I think it’s safe to say the word church means different things in different contexts. Would you agree?

With this in mind, we need to think very carefully about the word church in the Bible and in the world today. And I hope these simple thoughts help you think rightly about Christ’s church and belonging to it. If we think rightly about Christ’s church, we can find great comfort in belonging to Christ and his beloved church.

How would you think about the difference between a true Christian worshiping God from the heart in a local church and a self-righteous hypocrite who is unregenerate, doesn’t truly believe, and is simply going through religious motions in the same church? Think about Judas. Take a look at John 13:21-30. You’ll notice that none of the disciples suspected Judas would betray Jesus or that he was the “son of destruction” (Jn. 17:12). Eleven of the disciples were truly united to Christ by faith, learning from him, and following him. One was covert fraud. And from the outside, no one could tell the difference, at least initially. So, in one sense, Judas was a disciple, and in another sense, Judas was not a disciple.

The same is true of the church. There is an external or visible and internal and invisible way to think about church. You can see a local church. In that local church are people who confess Christ together. Among those people confessing Christ are people who are truly united to Christ by faith alone. Yet, alongside them are self-righteous hypocrites who have only the appearance of godliness (2 Tim. 3:5).

Consider from Matthew 7:15 that there are false prophets in the church that look like sheep but are actually ravenous wolves. Consider that according to Matthew 7:21-23, people will confess the Lord and do works in his name but will perish on Judgment Day because they didn’t truly know Christ and were workers of lawlessness. Consider the parable of the sower and its explanation in Matthew 13. Some people receive God’s Word with joy but only endure for a little while because they have no root. Consider the parable of the weeds and its explanation in Matthew 13. The sons of the kingdom and sons of the devil coexist in the world and the church. Consider 1 John 2:19 which explains that some in the church don’t endure in the faith. Consider 1 John 4:20 which explains that some will confess “I love God” but hate their brethren thus proving their confession a lie.

It is true and sobering that there will be self-righteous hypocrites among those who confess Christ. They are part of the community of faith, part of the church, but do not actually trust in or love Christ and cannot always be identified.

So, in one sense self-righteous hypocrites belong to the church. In another sense, they do not belong to the church. Make no mistake, we should never be unnecessarily skeptical toward those who confess Christ in our church, but how should we think about the church when it comes to the distinction between true believers like the disciples and self-righteous hypocrites like Judas?

Theologians have rightly distinguished between the invisible church and the visible church. The invisible church refers to all believers truly united to Christ from Adam and Eve until the return of Christ. We could call them the elect, and someone’s election status is unknown to us in a conclusive way. Eleven of the disciples were part of the invisible church or elect, Judas was not, and from the outside it was indiscernible. Westminster Confession of Faith 25:1 explains it this way:

The catholic or universal church, which is invisible, consists of the whole number of the elect, who have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ its Head; and is the spouse, the body, the fullness, of Him who fills everything in every way. [1]     

We thought about the invisible church a bit in episode 95.

Today, let’s think more about the visible church. Judas was part of the visible church; he was considered part of the covenant community of faith. There are weeds among the wheat! The visible church is a mixture of justified and condemned, righteous and unrighteous, saved and unsaved, sincere and hypocritical, etc. Westminster Confession 25:2 is very helpful at this point. It says:

The visible Church, which is also catholic or universal under the Gospel (not confined to one nation, as before under the law) consists of all those throughout the world, that profess the true religion; and of their children: and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation. [2]

The visible church is also catholic or universal. There are local churches in various countries throughout the world. Local churches in the US, Canada, Australia, Great Britain, Germany, and the Philippines together with one voice confess the true religion. These local churches are the visible expression of the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ on earth. King Jesus reigns over, rules, governs, cares for, and provides for his people in and through these churches. This is the visible church.  

Belonging to a local church is essential for you and me. It is a non-negotiable if you truly love Christ, because to love Christ is to love the church of Christ, and this next part is really important to think about because God uses means inside local churches to save His people from their sins and misery. And here is where your comfort is found in belonging to a local church. Outside the Word and sacraments ministry of local churches throughout the world “there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.” That may sound extreme, but simply consider the means God uses to save people. What means does God use to save people and strengthen their faith? Word and sacraments, right?

Westminster Confession 25:3 is so clarifying. It says:

To this catholic visible Church, Christ has given the ministry, Scriptures, and means of grace of God, for the gathering and maturing of the saints, in this life, to the end of the world: and does, by His own presence and Spirit, according to His promise, make them [meaning “the ministry, Scriptures, and means of grace of God] effectual [or effective] to the saints. [3]

Now, I’ll expand a bit on this next time, but ask yourself this question. Why does God want me to belong to a local church? Why is it absolutely necessary for me to belong to a local church? And that’s what this series is answering, however, here’s a start. You need to belong to a local church because through a local church your Lord and Savior Jesus Christ serves, strengthens, saves, and sanctifies you. Only through the local church does Christ give you the gracious and wonderful gifts of Word and sacraments ministry. He not only gives you these gifts but by His own promised presence and Holy Spirit, He makes these gifts effectual meaning He gives you true grace through them as you receive them by faith. God is working through His ordained means of grace. Preaching is effectual and comforting. Your baptism is effectual and comforting. The Lord’s Supper is effectual and comforting. Even prayer is effectual and comforting. All of this is done together with others who confess Christ in local churches. And the Word and sacraments ministry of a local church is given to you as a precious gift from God to serve, strengthen, save, and sanctify you. The more grace and comfort you expect to receive from the Word and sacraments ministry in your church, the more you will receive – that is if you belong to a good church.

You will not find true comfort for your soul outside the visible church. Belong. Belong for the glory of God, and belong for your deepening comfort in Christ.    

[1] The Confessions of Our Faith, Fortress Edition, ed. Rev. Brian W. Kinney (Fortress Book Service & Publishers, 2007), 45. 

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

Scripture quotations are from the ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved. May not copy or download more than 500 consecutive verses of the ESV Bible or more than one half of any book of the ESV Bible.

About the author

Jonathan Shirk

Welcome to the online home of Jonathan Shirk, family man, Reformed pastor, author, podcaster, and small town theologian. Whether you're from a small town or big city, may this website help you find deeper comfort and joy in the gospel.

View all posts