Sunday, April 03, 2016

Ecclesiology or the Doctrine of the Church in the Westminster Standards

The Visible Church

According to the Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter XXV Paragraph 2, “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.”

The Westminster Larger Catechism is even more concise:

Question 62: What is the visible church?

Answer: The visible church is a society made up of all such as in all ages and places of the world do profess the true religion, and of their children.

The visible church is so called because we can actually see how many members there are in a particular church. But we cannot know how many of these members are born again, or genuinely saved. “There is only one [visible church]. But it includes many branches (often called denominations) and is made up of a very large number of particular congregations.”[1] Therefore, according to the Westminster Standards, the visible church includes the various Christian denominations in the world, and consists of an immense number of local congregations. Nevertheless, there is only one visible Church.

With respect to time, the visible Church “includes believers of all ages of the world’s history, from the time of Adam and Eve to the end of the world. All people of every age who professed faith in the true religion are included in the visible church.”[2]

Included within the visible Church is the Old Testament church - national Israel - and the New Testament church. It even includes believers living before the time of Abraham, such as Abel and Noah. The visible Church is in no way limited to the nation of Israel, or to any gentile nation on the planet. “It includes people in all places of the world, wherever the light of the gospel has penetrated the world’s darkness and some people have professed the true religion.”[3]

Hodge summarizes the doctrine of the visible Church laid out in the Westminster Standards, “These sections [of the Confession of Faith] teach that there is . . . a catholic or universal visible Church, consisting of those of every nation who profess the true religion, together with their children.”[4]

As indicated by the Reformed definition of the visible Church, there is obviously no distinction whatsoever between the nation of Israel and the Church. The visible Church includes believers from the nation of Israel and the gentile nations, from the time of Adam to the end of the age.

The Invisible Church

The Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter XXV Paragraph 1 also states, “The catholic or universal Church, which is invisible, consists of the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ the Head thereof; and is the spouse, the body, the fullness of Him that filleth all in all.”

The invisible Church is essentially the entire body of the elect. This is clearly defined by the Larger Catechism:

Question 64: What is the invisible church?

Answer: The invisible church is the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one under Christ the head.

The Larger Catechism teaches that all the elect of all ages are included in the invisible church. The invisible church is so called simply because we cannot see exactly who belongs to this church. Neither do we know the exact number of elect whom the Father has given to the Son. Vos writes:

“Are Old Testament saints who died in faith, from Abel to the time of Christ, members of the invisible church? Yes. Christ has only one spiritual body, and the redeemed of all ages - both Jews and Gentiles - are members of it.”[5]

The invisible Church is a collective body embracing all the elect, from both the Old Covenant dispensation and the New Covenant administration. Once again, there is no distinction between the elect of national, ethnic Israel, and those from the New Testament church. The hermeneutical distinction between Israel and the Church is a sine qua non of Dispensationalism, not Reformed theology.

The Westminster Standards teach “that there is a collective body, comprising all the elect of God of all nations and generations, called the Church invisible. The fact that there is such a body must be believed by every person who believes that all men, of every age and nation since Adam, who received Christ and experienced the power of his redemption, are to be saved, and that all who reject him will be lost.”[6]

Reformed Ecclesiology

Reformed theologians see the Church as having its beginning in the Old Testament. The Church has existed since the time of Adam, and her existence extends through the patriarchal period, to the Mosaic Period, and into the current New Testament church age.[7] “In the Patriarchial Period the families of believers constituted the religious congregations; the Church was best represented in the pious households, where the fathers served as priest.”[8]

But during the Mosaic Period, “the whole nation [of Israel] constituted the Church; and the Church was limited to the one nation of Israel, though foreigners could enter it by being incorporated into the nation.”[9] In the New Testament period, God expanded the promises of the gospel to all the nations, which include Jews and Gentiles. Under the New Covenant administration, the national boundaries of Israel were dissolved to include the whole world. Wild olive branches are being grafted onto the original olive tree (Rom. 11).

Hoeksema explains, “[The Church] is not limited to any particular nation, tongue, or tribe, but embraces all the nations of the world and transcends all human relationships. The church is neither Jew nor Greek, neither German nor American, neither British nor Russian. It swallows up all natural distinctions into one, holy, catholic fellowship. Such is the meaning of the confession [in the Apostles’ Creed], “I believe a holy, catholic church.’”[10]

The Reformed creeds are unanimous on this understanding of the Church. According to the Reformed teachings on ecclesiology, “the New Testament Church is essentially one with the Church of the old dispensation. As far as their essential nature is concerned, they both consist of true believers, and of true believers only. And in their external organization both represent a mixture of good and evil.”[11]

However, the Reformers do recognize certain changes between the Old and the New Covenant administrations. Worship in the New Testament is no longer localized in Jerusalem. Animal sacrifices are abolished, and replaced with spiritual sacrifices. By virtue of the accomplished, redemptive work of Jesus Christ, “the Church was divorced from the national life of Israel and obtained an independent organization. In connection with this the national boundaries of the Church were swept away. What had up to this time been a national Church now assumed a universal character. And in order to realize the ideal of world-wide extension, it had to become a missionary Church, carrying the gospel of salvation to all the nations of the world. Moreover, the ritual worship of the past made place for a more spiritual worship in harmony with the greater privileges of the New Testament.”[12]

This Reformed understanding of the Church is succinctly described in the Belgic Confession of Faith, Article 27:

“We believe and profess one catholic or universal church, which is a holy congregation of true Christian believers, all expecting their salvation in Jesus Christ, being washed by His blood, sanctified and sealed by the Holy Ghost. . . . This church hath been from the beginning of the world, and will be to the end thereof; which is evident from this, that Christ is an eternal King, which without subjects He cannot be. . . . Furthermore, this holy church is not confined, bound, or limited to a certain place or to certain persons, but is spread and dispersed over the whole world; and yet is joined and united with heart and will, by the power of faith, in one and the same Spirit.”

According to Reformed ecclesiology, the dispensational, hermeneutical distinction between Israel and the Church is unwarranted.[13] It must be emphasized that the Reformed understanding of the term “Israel” has no association with anti-Semitic sentiments or “liberal” protestant hermeneutics.[14]

There are Reformed theologians who believe in a future conversion of a large number of Jews to Christianity. But even to concur with a future, mass salvation of elect Jews (Rom. 9-11), or the reception of a Jewish remnant into true, spiritual Israel does not necessitate an a priori or an a posteriori acceptance of the Christian Zionistic expectation – a belief in the re-establishment of a Jewish, Davidic Kingdom on Earth.[15] The concept of an earthly, Jewish kingdom cannot be found in the soteriological polemic of Paul in Romans 9-11.[16]

Reformed theologians do not believe that the Church has replaced Israel. The Church is, in fact, Israel (1 Pet. 2:9, Gal. 6:16, Rom. 2:28-29). She is the mature, adult, spiritual Israel of God. According to Romans chapter 11, Israel and the Church both belong to the same olive tree, i.e. there is only one people of God, and God deals with both Israel and the Church as one people (Eph. 2:11-22).[17] After all, there is only one olive tree, not two.[18]

Charles Alexander reminds us that national Israel has not been completely forsaken; a remnant remains according to God’s election of grace:

“All of earthly Israel were not cast away – only the unbeliever. “Some of the branches”. What could be plainer than this, that the apostle is speaking of individual believers throughout this great chapter? “Some of the branches” my brethren; not all of them were broken off. The holy stock was not uprooted, just “some of the branches”. Even though history has proved that the old stock was well nigh stripped of its natural branches, there still remained a remnant according to the election of grace.”[19]

If the Church has truly replaced Israel spiritually, Paul would have described the cutting down of the original olive tree in Romans chapter 11,[20] and the planting of a wild olive tree. Natural olive branches can subsequently be grafted onto the wild olive tree. On the other hand, if Israel and the Church are distinct (as Dispensationalists claim), Paul would have described two olive trees i.e. the planting of a wild olive tree beside the natural one, and not the grafting of wild olive branches onto the original olive tree.

Frame aptly writes,

“The church, composed of Jews and Gentiles (with, of course, their families as equal members of one body), was the “Israel of God” (Gal 6:16). The olive tree of Abraham continued, but with some old (Jewish) branches broken off and some new (Gentile) branches grafted in (Rom 11:11–24). The church received the titles of Israel: “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God” (1 Pet 2:9f.; cf. Exod 19:6; Tit 2:14).”[21]

Professor David Engelsma points out that,

“As the true Israel of God, the church is God’s one and only wife. Jehovah God does not have two wives, as premillennial dispensationalism, both traditional and progressive, necessarily teaches. Since the Old Testament teaches that Israel was the wife of God and since the New Testament teaches that the church is the wife of God in Jesus Christ and since dispensationalism teaches that Israel and the church are two different peoples, dispensationalism holds that God has two wives. For dispensationalism, God is the original bigamist.”[22]

God, indeed, has only one people. Jesus Christ has only one bride - the Church. Our God is not a bigamist, and it is a serious error to insinuate that He is.

According to Reformed ecclesiology, elect Jews and Gentiles are one in Christ. The Church, consisting of both Jews and Gentiles, is the true spiritual Israel in the New Covenant administration.[23]

Who, then, is a true Israelite? The rightful child of Abraham is no longer identified via ethnicity or genealogical descent (Gal. 3:7), but by faith in the Messiah. “Not ancestry but faith, not human achievement but God’s gift, calling, and election, acknowledged in Jesus, son of Abraham, son of David, Son of God.”[24]

Concerning the identity of Israel, David Holwerda writes:

“Who then is Israel? The answer is never simply a matter of ancestry. Consequently, the central issue in the New Testament is not really Jew versus Gentile. Instead, Israel is the people chosen by God and called to respond in faith and obedience. Israel is the people on whom the Lord sets his love (Deuteronomy 7:7). Such also is Matthew’s teaching. Jesus, a literal descendant of Abraham, himself a Jew, is the Israel who is the object of God’s love. He is chosen by God and responds in perfect obedience, fulfilling the law and the prophets (Matthew 5:17) and all righteousness (3:15). Since Jesus is the corporate representative of Israel, God now recognizes as Israel all who respond in faith and obedience to the presence and will of God revealed in Jesus. Of course, the first to so respond are in fact Jews.”[25]

Contrary to dispensational preconceptions and notions, the New Testament Church is not a Gentile organization. The NT Church is, in fact, a very Jewish organization. Its Messiah is Jewish, and it is founded entirely by Jews. The first converts of the Christian Church were all Jews. Even the apostles were Jews, and most, perhaps all, of the New Testament writers were also Jews. The grafting of wild olive branches onto the original olive tree does not turn it into a wild olive tree. The truth is: there is only one olive tree. The dispensational distinction between the nation of Israel and the Church is clearly not founded upon Scripture.


[1] Johannes G. Vos, The Westminster Larger Catechism: A Commentary, ed. G. I. Williamson (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co, 2002), 136.
[2] Ibid., 137.
[3] Ibid.
[4] A. A. Hodge, The Confession of Faith (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1869), 312.
[5] Vos, The Westminster Larger Catechism: A Commentary, 142.
[6] Hodge, The Confession of Faith, 311. For a more extensive treatment of the doctrine of the Church in the Reformed creeds, see Herman Hoeksema, Reformed Dogmatics, 2d ed., vol. 2 (Grandville, MI: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 2005), 186-192.
[7] For more information on Reformed ecclesiology, study the systematic theology of Reformed theologians. For example, see Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1941), 553-658; Hoeksema, Reformed Dogmatics, 179-421; and Robert L. Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, 2d ed. (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1998), 805-976.
[8] Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 570.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Hoeksema, Reformed Dogmatics, 193.
[11] Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 571.
[12] Ibid.
[13] See Mathison’s book Dispensationalism: Rightly Dividing the People of God? for an introduction to the issue of “distinction between Israel and the Church.” I strongly recommend this easily accessible book.
[14] There are some who accuse non-dispensationalists of being “anti-Semitic.” They usually mean “theological anti-Semitism” rather than racial “anti-Semitism”. True anti-Semitism is defined as prejudice against Semitic people simply because they are Semites. Occasionally, this allegation is part of their defamatory tactics and ad hominem attacks. Old Testament prophecies related to national Israel have been fulfilled in (1) the return of the Jews after their exile into Assyria and Babylon, (2) the first-century establishment of the Jewish church, and (3) the First Advent of Jesus Christ. See William Hendriksen, Israel and Prophecy (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House Co, 1968), 16–31. The first century church was made up almost exclusively of Jews. Later, Gentile believers were grafted into an already existing Jewish Church (Rom. 11:19). These believers, consisting of Jews and Gentiles, are the true “Jews” (Rom. 2:28–29), the true “circumcision” (Phil. 3:3), the true “seed of Abraham” (Gal. 3:7, 29), the “children of promise” (Gal. 4:28), the “commonwealth of Israel” (Eph. 2:12, 19). There are also those who refer to amillennialists as being “anti-Israel,” while they reserve the term “pro-Israel” for themselves. Such terms are not helpful in the current theological dialogue between Dispensationalists and Reformed theologians. Terms such as “pro-Church” and “anti-Church” can likewise be coined to refer to Reformed and Dispensational theologians respectively. Just as amillennialists are not “anti-Israel,” Bible Presbyterians would admit that they are not “anti-Church.”
[15] See David A. Rausch, “Christian Zionism,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House Co, 1984), 1201-1202, for more information on Christian Zionism. For a thorough assessment of the theological emphases of Christian Zionism, see Stephen Sizer, Christian Zionism: Road-map to Armageddon? (Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 2004), 106-205. For an accessible critique of the Christian Zionistic expectation of an earthly Jewish Kingdom in the Millennium, see Stephen Sizer, “An Alternative Theology of the Holy Land: A Critique of Christian Zionism,” The Churchman 113, no. 2 (1999); available from; Internet; accessed 10 October 2005.
[16] An excellent discussion of Romans chapter 11 is found in O. Palmer Robertson, The Israel of God, Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co, 2000), 167-192. Also see Anthony Hoekema, The Bible and the Future (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1979; Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co and Cumbria, UK: The Paternoster Press, 1994), 196-201.
[17] See David Holwerda, Jesus and Israel: One Covenant or Two? (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1995), 1-112. It gives an in-depth analysis of the Reformed position on Israel and the church.
[18] To understand what Reformed theologians really taught about ethnic Israel, see Fred Klett, Calvin, Hodge, Murray, Vos, Edwards, Henry: What Do They Say about the Jewish People? [article on-line]; available from; Internet; accessed 10 October 2005. Do not accept the dispensationalist’s “straw man” (e.g. “Replacement” Theology, anti-Semitism) as the genuine Reformed position on Israel.
[19] Charles D. Alexander, “Romans Eleven and the Two Israels: An Exposition of Romans 9-11” (Unpublished lecture notes, n.d.), 15.
[20] For a good primer to the meaning of “all Israel” in Romans 11:26, see Herman Bavinck, The Last Things: Hope for This World and the Next, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House Co, 1996), 104-107.
[21] John M. Frame, “Toward a Theology of the State,” Westminster Theological Journal 51, no. 2 (1989): 220.
[22] David J. Engelsma, “A Brief Study of Jeremiah 3 on Divorce,” Protestant Reformed Theological Journal 39, no.2 (2006): 15.
[23] True spiritual Israel now consists of both elect Jews and Gentiles. For an excellent book collating all Old Testament passages which were addressed to ethnic Israel, and subsequently quoted in the New Testament to refer to the Church, see Charles D. Provan, The Church Is Israel Now (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 1987), 49-64.
[24] Holwerda, Jesus and Israel, 57.
[25] Ibid., 56-57.

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