The Gateway Drug to the Gospel Coaltion

Peter Dietsch gets off to a great start about the importance of ecclesiology to being a Christian:

As you can hopefully tell from the language of the confession, the Westminster Divines had a decidedly high ecclesiology. I’ve found that a good way to test whether or not someone has a high ecclesiology (what they believe about the importance of the visible church) is to ask a question that try to ask of every candidate who comes before presbytery for ordination: “What do you think about this statement: 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.”

This question really strikes at the heart of what one believes about the importance of the visible church, whether or not they have a high ecclesiology. For, as the confession here teaches (and Jesus and the Apostles taught), the visible church is the institution through which God ordinarily confers salvation. The Great Commission to make disciples by baptizing and teaching Christ’s commands is given to the visible church (Matthew 28:18-20), preachers are sent to preach the gospel by the church (10:15), the sacraments are administered in and by the church (Acts 2:41-42; Matthew 28:19; Ephesians 4:4-6, 1 Corinthians 11:17-34), church discipline and the corporate sanctification of God’s people takes place in the church (Matthew 18:15-20; 1 Corinthians 5:1-13; 2 Corinthians 2:5-10).

But then he takes most of it back when he makes the invisible church more important than the visible:

More could be said and I could go on; however, as one who professes to have a high ecclesiology, I wish at this point to say how my high regard for the visible church was arrested and challenged this week. Being a baptized member of the visible church is important, but it of far greater importance that one be a member of the invisible church!

This point was struck home to me with particular impact this week as I’ve been preparing for the sermon this coming Sunday. The text for our sermon is from John 1:19-34. John the Baptist testifies before some Jews who come as a delegation from Jerusalem as to the nature of his ministry – why he is preaching and baptizing. He says that he is voice crying in the wilderness (John 1:23) and that he baptizes in order that Jesus might be manifested (or revealed) to Israel (John 1:31).

And then, in order to clearly delineate between his outward and temporary ministry and the inward and eternal ministry of Jesus, John the Baptist makes the point: I baptize with water, but Jesus who is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, He baptizes in the Holy Spirit (John 1:33).

Fine, but who is akin to Christ today? The Holy Spirit? But why does God give to the visible church the ordinances other than to connect the visible with the invisible, the Spirit’s call with the word preached?

Unto this catholic visible church Christ hath given the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God, for the gathering and perfecting of the saints, in this life, to the end of the world: and doth, by his own presence and Spirit, according to his promise, make them effectual thereunto. (WCF 25.3)

Folks who think they are members of the invisible church need the visible church to confirm that thought. Otherwise, they will think that visible church membership is optional and choosing the right one is merely a matter of preference.


15 thoughts on “The Gateway Drug to the Gospel Coaltion

  1. Great post, DGH…

    “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being. In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men.” John 1:1-4

    And how did sinners come to know this eternal One in whom was life and the Light of men?

    ” And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.” John 1:14

    The Word became visible. And the incarnate Word dwelt among men.

    He is the image of the invisible God Col. 1:15

    What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the Word of Life— and the life was manifested, and we have seen and testify and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was manifested to us— what we have seen and heard we proclaim to you also, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ. These things we write, so that our joy may be made complete. 1 John 1:1-4

    Christ is known in and through his visible church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all.


  2. Our confessional documents are indeed a treasure trove of some of the brightest minds Christendom has ever produced. I know Tillich is not orthodox, but this quote still came to mind:

    One of the great achievements of classical orthodoxy in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries was the fact that it remained in continual discussion with all the centuries of Christian thought. Those theologians were not untheological lay people ignorant of the meanings of the concepts which they used in biblical interpretation. They knew the past meanings of these concepts in the history of the church which covered a period of over fifteen hundred years. These orthodox theologians knew the history of philosophy as well as the theology of the Reformation. The fact that they were in the tradition of the Reformers did not prevent them from knowing thoroughly scholastic theology, from discussing and refuting it, or even accepting it when possible. All this makes classical orthodoxy one of the great events in the history of Christian thought.

    As did this quote:

    The divines considered themselves reformed Catholics and therefore did not want to isolate themselves from the rest of the church, but saw their broader engagement with other periods of history and other theological traditions as evidence of their catholicity. source

    Yes to upholding a high view of the visible church, in line with the reformers and divines. Thanks Jack and Darryl.


  3. As an avid reader of this blog, and one who regularly reads (with much appreciation and resonance) the writings of Dr. Hart – imagine my surprise to find something that I wrote being discussed here – and that in a negative light!

    Dr. Hart, thanks for the push back. Perhaps it is hard for you to tell from this one piece that I wrote, but one of the main things that I emphasize (over and over again) is the importance – the necessity even – of the visible church. To point to just a few: At Home in the Church, A Glorious Kingdom, Belonging in the Visible Church. This last one references a short preaching series I did last summer, “The Church and the Means of Grace.” Shoot, I even wrote a book on the vows of membership, emphasizing the importance of the visible church: Living Stones: Why Church Membership Matters.

    All that is to say: the article that you reference is one of the weekly emails that I send to my local congregation (picked up by The Aquila Report), and simply one part of my preaching and teaching as a local pastor. I write for my local congregation, not for the public at large – but these things get picked up and sent out now and again. So, I understand how you might get the wrong impression from the article.

    Still, you might believe that I “take most of it back” in what I wrote. I don’t think so, and I don’t believe what I wrote to be a gateway drug to the Gospel Coalition. What I was intending to emphasize was the distinction between the visible and invisible church in an effort to be true to the text that I was preaching from last week. As I said in my sermon this past Sunday on this text (John 1:19-34): I want to be known as a preacher who has a high ecclesiology, but more importantly I want to be known as a preacher who makes much of Christ.

    Commenting on this passage, J.C. Ryle makes a great point (in my estimation):

    “Let it be a settled principle in our religion that the baptism of which John the Baptist speaks here, is the baptism which is absolutely necessary to salvation. It is well to be baptized into the visible Church; but it is far better to be baptized into that Church which is made up of true believers. The baptism of water is a most blessed and profitable ordinance, and cannot be neglected without great sin. But the baptism of the Holy Spirit is of far greater importance. The man who dies with his heart not baptized by Christ can never be saved.”

    I do think that when we blur the distinction between the visible and invisible church, as those of the Federal Vision bent tend to do, we give a false sense of assurance to people based solely on their being baptized and their being members of the visible church. After all, we are justified not by our water baptism or our membership in the visible church, but by faith alone – which comes by hearing the word of Christ preached, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit. Certainly, I think that we all would agree that being baptized in the Holy Spirit is different than being baptized in water – and though they be related, the former is more important than the latter. In making this distinction, while recognizing and acknowledging the importance of water baptism and membership in the visible church, we guard ourselves and our hearers from a tendency toward sacramentalism and sacerdotalism.

    Anyway, hope that make sense.

    On a completely unrelated note: thanks for the recommendations and references to The Wire. I just finished watching the fifth and final season. Enjoyed it immensely!


  4. visible church membership is not optional because we have physical bodies?

    or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you; and we fellow citizens of God’s household ( Jesus Himself the corner stone ) in whom the whole building, being fitted together, is growing into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom we also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit.

    we, who are many, are one body in Christ and individually members one of another; even as the body is one, yet has many members, so also is Christ; God has placed the members, each one of them, in the body, just as He desired. The body is not one member, but many –feet, hands, eyes, ears and God has appointed in the church gifts. Now we are Christ’s body and individually members of it.

    Since there is one bread, we who are many are one body; for we all partake of the one bread and by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body and were all made to drink of one Spirit.
    and how will the world ‘see’ this visible body ? -He is perfecting us in unity, so that the world may know

    Eph 2:20-22;1 Cor 6:19;10:17;12; Roms 12; John 17:21-22


  5. Peter, thanks from chiming in.

    My quick response is that by giving too much weight to the invisible church (which does not have the ordinances according to the Confession) we may also give evangelicals a false sense of assurance.


  6. I have to say that a fear of sacerdotalism or even sacramentalism in the PCA(not CREC) or evangelicalism, of all places, is a strange concern.


  7. I am glad that Peter commented, as I was just about to defend his post along the same lines. The Confession is wonderfully balanced in this regard, and I think Peter’s article reflected that balance.

    It is akin to justification and sanctification (in some ways) — they must not be separated, but it is likewise critical that we distinguish them and give a priority of place to justification. So with the invisible/visible church. After all, think of all the saints we will meet in heaven who never made it out of the womb to be baptized in the first place.

    And so if we fail to make the distinction, we err as the Federal Visionists do (as Peter points out), and downplay the need for actual regeneration/conversion; hence paedo-communion, etc.

    If we fail to keep invisible/visible together, we err as many Evangelicals do, and neglect to confirm/seal our regeneration with visible church membership. But there is an important distinction and a priority of place to the invisible, which the Confession makes, and which Peter’s article accurately reflected, in my judgment.


  8. Chris, but a better analogy could be marriage (and biblical). And when a spouse experiences human frailty, it could be the institutional sense that preserves his or her life. If sinners are as frail as spouses, there is something to be said for accenting the visible, which can be done without tipping over into sacerdotalism (some of us high church Calvinists vigorously oppose paedo-communion). IOW, it may be that while in theory the invisible is prior to the visible, in experience the visible is often what God graciously provides because he know that we are made of dust.


  9. By giving too much weight to the one true visible church , we may also give Reformed confessionalists a false sense of assurance. For one thing, saying “the one true visible church” ignores the political reality of “voluntary association” and the existence of local churches. In this way we avoid asking how a local visible assembly can be “the true church” even though it is defective—for example, asking about the Romanists or the Lutherans or the Anglicans who teach automatic efficacy, or with the baptists, who add the “legalism” of “discipline” into the marks…

    I suppose it’s a relativist thing–why worry about the sacerdotalism of Leithart (no sacraments, no Reformation) or the other federal visonists in the PCA when the majority is so Zwinglian that they make a distinction between baptism that saves and water? Why worry about a little legalism here or there, in today’s world where the main problem is antinomianism?

    from the Common Book of Prayer—“Seeing now, dearly beloved brethren, that THIS CHILD is regenerate and grafted into the body of Christ’s Church”

    And the “charity of profession” demands that we nobly accept the defects of those who dissent—even though they do not practice the ordinances in truth according to the Confession, and even though they do not have even enough charity to say what simon says {“sacrament”) and to agree that that the “ordinances” are what God does because they are what ‘the true visible church” does,, nevertheless we are so catholic and so generous, we still think they have true but defective churches, and since we also do credobaptism (without crowding out infant baptism, which is the one baptism which more faithfully pictures the sovereignty of grace) and therefore accept the dissenters as members of the one true visible church, and therefore as also partakers of the Holy Spirit….

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Zrim,

    I don’t disagree. I’m pretty much Old Light on this, as far as I know. Just saying that it is logical to celebrate actually living forever in the New Heavens and New Earth more than one’s visible membership here on earth, which is temporary. So the marriage analogy breaks down a little, I think, on this theological score. Not every Scriptural analogy (e.g. Eph 5) can do everything. Just like how John 15 does not do all the FVers want it to.



  11. I am all for being “anti-liberal” but that does not mean being “anti-secular” and it certainly does not mean that we need to endorse new Christendom projects. Hauerwas, like Brad Gregory, hates both the Reformation and also the non-Magisterial idea of voluntary visible churches (plural) , Stanley willingly follows Leithart, Milbank, and Oliver O”Donovan into illusions of counter reformations so that one church tells the nations what should be done.

    Hauerwas more and more wants ( at least in theory) one catholic church where the ordained sacramentalists stand up front where you walk to receive salvation from them while they tell you what to do if you want to stay in the (one) covenant.

    To go toward Rome is to go from churches being important to one church being the gospel. Stan likes the pope for the same reason he likes Amish elders. If we want to go the other direction from Rome we need to do more than change seats on the bus heading that way. We need to get off the bus. That does not mean saying that visible churches are not important, but it does mean noticing that we only have churches (not one church)


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