We’ve been going through an old list of questions and answers contained in the Westminster Larger Catechism published in 1648. This week we’re going to start looking at questions about God’s church.
In the Bible the word ‘church’ can refer to two types of churches – commonly known as the ‘visible’ and the ‘invisible’ church.
This week we’ll look at the ‘visible’ church and next week we’ll turn to the ‘invisible’. So what is the ‘visible’ church? It is a society made up of people who profess to be believers in Christ. In other words, a ‘visible’ church is a ‘local’ church.
There are many references in the New Testament to ‘visible’ churches. For example, when Paul writes to the ‘church’ in Corinth, he is referring to a particular group of people who follow Christ and live in Corinth. In his opening remarks in 1 Corinthians, Paul writes: ‘To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ–their Lord and ours’ (1 Corinthians 1:2).
So does that mean everyone who hears about Jesus and is in the visible church is saved? No. Jesus warns that many people will profess his name but are not truly saved. He says: ‘Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!” (Matthew 7:21-23).
Paul also warns that many who claimed to be Israelites were not actually Israelites: ‘For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. Nor because they are his descendants are they all Abraham’s children. On the contrary, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” In other words, it is not the natural children who are God’s children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham’s offspring’ (Romans 9:6-8). Being born a descendant of Abraham didn’t make you a true Israelite. You needed to believe in the Lord yourself.
So belonging to a ‘visible’ church is a good thing to do. The New Testament expects Christians to be part of a local church – there is no category for a lone ranger Christian.
But just because you are part of a local church, that doesn’t mean you are a Christian. People can’t see into your heart and know whether you truly believe in Christ. They may accept you into membership based on your profession, but inevitably, some false professors will slip in unnoticed.
So are you a member of a local church? Good. But are you a believer in Christ? Because it doesn’t matter what local church you belong to on judgement day. If you don’t believe that Christ died for your sins, you will be punished eternally. Believe in Christ today and become a member of a ‘visible’ church – not to be saved, but because you are saved.