In part one we defined the church as the assembly set apart by God to be his treasured possession (Deut. 7:6). We also learned that the Bible speaks of the church in two different senses. Sometimes it refers to the whole company of the elect. This is what we call the invisible church. Other times it refers to those throughout the world who profess the true religion and their children. This is what we call the visible church. Not all members of the visible church are members of the invisible church, and not necessarily every member of the invisible church becomes a member of the visible church prior to his death. But while deathbed conversions may be possible, they are clearly extraordinary in God’s work of salvation. The visible church “is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation” (WCF 25.2, emphasis added).
So what precisely is the visible church and why is it so important?
The historic Protestant tradition defines the visible church according to three marks:
- The Word rightly administered.
- The sacraments rightly administered.
- Church discipline rightly administered.
These three marks are comprehended in the Westminsterian term “the true religion” (WCF 25.2). They are defining characteristics of the church. All three are equally important, but there is a functional hierarchy among them. The Word is primary. The sacraments are secondary. Church discipline is tertiary. We see this hierarchy in both the historia salutis (i.e. the “history of salvation” or salvation accomplished) and the ordo salutis (i.e. the “order of salvation” or salvation applied).
In the historia salutis God has given his people sacraments as signs and seals of his covenant (i.e. his Word). Moreover, the actions God institutes as sacraments are prescribed as such in that same covenant. The sacraments are meaningless apart from what they signify and seal, namely the covenant promises, and they have no being apart from their institution. This is why their significance should be taught and words of institution should be read during their administration.
In the ordo salutis the covenant promises are applied to us by faith alone, and "faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ" (Rom. 10:17). Saving faith comes through the Word. It does not come through the sacraments (cf. Rom. 4:10-11). The sacraments are the means God uses to confirm the faith already created by the Word. [This doesn't mean the covenant sign can only be applied to believers. After all, Isaac was circumcised before faith. It means that the covenant sign only fulfills its function as a seal when it is joined to faith.]
With respect to church discipline, we see the same. Discipline is only rendered according to the Word, and it presupposes the prior covenant promises signified and sealed through the sacraments and received by faith alone.
Therefore looking at the three marks of the church through the lens of the historia salutis and the ordo salutis, we see a clear hierarchy among them. The Word is primary. The sacraments are secondary. Church discipline is tertiary. All three are necessary in their proper order.
The visible church is the place of the means of grace whereby the triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—creates and confirms saving faith in the hearts of sinners unto eternal life. First, saving faith is created and confirmed by the administration of the Word. Second, it is further confirmed by the administration of the sacraments. Third, it is further confirmed by church discipline. Therefore church membership is of vital importance.
But can’t a person just attend the visible church and receive these benefits without becoming a member? In part three we will take a closer look at the first and second marks of the church, getting to the very heart of membership.