If we took a photograph of this moment we’d have a record of who was participating in the fellowship of the church. We could do a head count. But will everyone in that photo be in heaven? Theologians have puzzled over how best to describe the overlap between those who are participants of the church we can behold, and who are members of the church we can’t see. The terms visible and invisible church have been formulated to articulate this reality.
That terminology shouldn’t make us think that Jesus has two churches. That would certainly be contrary to Scripture. Nor should we think that the visible church is the “fake church” and the invisible one is the “true church.” We know that only those who are members of the true church will inherit eternal life.
According to Scripture there’s both chaff & wheat on the threshingfloor of the Kingdom of God. There are both goats & sheep in the Lord’s flock. In the end, He will separate out the goats for everlasting damnation (Mt. 25). Not all who participate in the true church in its visible expression are a part of the true church in its eternal manifestation.
A helpful aid in understanding all this is to think of an infant in a cradle. He’s not yet what he shall be. In many respects he will leave a trail of immaturities behind him. At each developmental stage he will presently have attributes which are soon to be cast off forever. But from infancy to the glory of grey-bearded wisdom, he remains the same individual. The church is not yet what she shall be.
This doctrine comes with an important warning against hypocrisy. Don’t play act faith in Christ. Don’t pretend to love the saints next to you. Here is Christ’s body & blood shed for you; so, live diligently to be reckoned as a member of Christ’s body.
So come in faith and welcome to Jesus Christ…