What do we mean when we make the distinction between the visible and invisible church? And what is the reason for this distinction? Starting around the 4th century - the expression "Visible Church" was refered to by theologians, not to a building, but to the members on the rolls of a local church. In other words, all persons who are members of a local church are considered to be a part of the visible church.
On the other hand, the invisible church refers to those persons who have actually been regenerated or quickened by the Holy Sprit, God's elect or true believers. Augustine referred to the church as a mixed body, a visible people, but this people has both tares and wheat, as described by Jesus. In other words, there is no such thing as a perfect church, and there will always people in the church there with bad motives or are there for the wrong reason. There will always be people who claim to love Christ but whose heart is far from Him. Many, Jesus says, will say on that day, did we not do this and that in your name? Jesus will then say, "I never knew you". These are descriptions of some people now sitting in your local church and Jesus says of them that he "never knew them!!!" Some persons are in church for show, to be seen by men as pious, others perhaps for a social club or to show of their ability to wax eloquent when discussing theology. These persons hearts are completely invisible to us, but of course, they are not invisible to God and only He can know who is truly regenerate, so we must be generous in our judgements.
The following is a detailed description of the orthodox doctrine of the visible and invisible church as explained by Pastor Brian Schwertley. It is well worth reading and quite helpful:
Perhaps the most succinct and the best statement of the church as invisible and visible is found in the Westminster Standards. Chapter 25, "Of the Church," 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 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" (sections 1, 2).
Reformed theologians emphasize that this distinction does not mean that God has two separate churches. Indeed, they assert that Jehovah has founded one church, that Jesus has only one bride, people, church, or body. Our Lord does not have two churches but only one. The terms "invisible" and "visible" are used to describe two distinct aspects of the one church; or, to put it another way, the church is considered from two different perspectives. It is not that there are two separate air tight categories with one group on heaven and another on earth. On the contrary, there is a great overlap between both categories. All genuine believers are members of the invisible church whether they are living in heaven or on earth, whether they are alive or dead (i.e., have died physically). Not all professing Christians, however, who are members of the visible church, are members of the invisible church. Some people who make a profession of faith and are baptized are hypocrites. Such people do not truly believe in Christ (thus are never truly united to Him by faith) and are not part of the invisible church. This reality will receive further elucidation below.
The term invisible as defined by the Reformed symbols and theologians does not mean that some Christians are invisible like ghosts floating around in the spirit realm. It refers to the fact that the invisible church cannot be fully discovered, distinguished or discerned by the eyes of men, by empirical means. There are a number of reasons why this statement cannot be denied. (a) No one has the ability to look into the human heart and see if a person is truly united to Christ and regenerated by the Holy Spirit. That reality is the reason that, historically, Presbyterian churches have admitted members upon a credible profession of faith. (b) The inward, effectual calling of the Spirit and the application of redemption to the human soul are all spiritual, unseen events. Further, the Holy Spirit gives genuine saving faith only to the elect. The counterfeit faith of unregenerate professors of religion often is indiscernible to mere mortals. We can only perceive outward signs, statements and actions. No person has the ability to determine or observe the whole body of God's elect irrespective of time (i.e., throughout human history prior to the last judgment) or place (i.e., there are many real believers in the world of which we are not aware). Williamson writes: "It is invisible to us because it has extension in both time and space. It reaches from one end of the earth to the other, and from the beginning to the end of the age. But it is invisible only to us. It is not invisible to God. He who infallibly discerns the hearts of men, knows them that are his. "The foundation of God standeth sure, having this seal: 'the Lord knoweth them that are his' (II Tim. 2:19)."Jesus prayed for the invisible church—the elect present and not yet born in John 17. "Christ is speaking of a special company which had been given to Him. The reference, then, is to the sovereign election of God, whereby He chose a definite number to be His 'peculiar people'—His in a peculiar or special way. These are eternally His: 'chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world' (Eph. 1:4); and by the immutability of His purpose of grace (Rom. 11:29), they are always His."
The visible church is designated "visible" because it is discernable by the senses, by empirical means. It consists of everyone who professes the true religion along with their children. Because men do not have the ability to see into the minds of men and read the human heart, anyone who professes Jesus Christ in credible manner (i.e., he has a knowledge of the gospel, he is orthodox in doctrine, he professes faith in Christ and repentance toward God, he is not as far as anyone is aware committing habitual or scandalous sins) is allowed to join the church along with his children. In the visible church there are genuine believers who are truly united to Christ and false professors or hypocrites who only taste of heavenly gifts but do not really partake of the Savior. Their relationship to Him is only outward. "On this account the church is compared to a floor, in which there is not only wheat but also chaff (Matt. iii. 12); to a field, where tares as well as good seed are sown (Matt. xiii. 24, 25); to a net, which gathers bad fish together with the good (ver. 47); to a great house, in which are vessels of every kind some to honour and some to dishonor,—2 Tim. ii. 20." People who are members of the visible church yet who never truly believe in Christ receive the outward privileges of membership (fellowship, the word, the sacraments and the guidance of church government), but are never regenerated, saved, forgiven, united to Christ and spiritually sanctified. The blood of Jesus never washes away their sins.
The visible church is set apart from the world by profession as well as its external government, discipline, and ordinances (e.g., the preached word and the sacraments). The members of the visible church have obeyed the outward call of the gospel, professing Christ, submitting to baptism and placing themselves under the preaching and authority of the local church. All such persons who obey the outward call of the gospel place themselves in covenant with God. They have separated themselves from the world and at least outwardly enjoy the privileges of being members of the visible church (e.g., the teaching of the word, godly guidance, the fellowship of the saints, etc.). While in a certain sense those who outwardly profess the truth participate in an external covenant with real responsibilities and privileges, it does not mean and theologically cannot mean that they truly participate in the saving merits of Christ. Such persons (for a time) are in the covenant but are never genuinely of the covenant. They participate in the covenant externally as professors of the true religion, but they never participate in the covenant of grace which flows from the eternal covenant of redemption...
It needs to be recognized that although God deals with the visible church as one church, as one people of God, the external administration of the church with the preaching of the word, the ordinances and discipline in the present and in the long run (e.g., after the final judgment, in the eternal state) only truly benefit the invisible church or the elect. While outward professors receive temporary benefits resulting from intellectual insights from the word, pressure to conform to God's law, the outward influence from a society of family-oriented, ethical people, etc., they receive greater damnation on the day of judgment for spurning the great light to which they were exposed under continual gospel preaching.
let us examine a few passages of Scripture that strongly support the traditional view of the church as visible and invisible:
a) 1 John 2:19-20: "They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; but they went out that they might be made manifest, that none of them were of us. But you have an anointing from the Holy One, and you know all things." In this passage John discusses certain persons who at one time had professed apostolic doctrine and were members of the church.
Note the Spirit-inspired analysis of the apostle John regarding this all too common situation. John says, "they were not of us." That is, they were never genuine members of the church. While it is true that they were baptized and professed the true religion, they were never united to Christ or saved. They were chaff on the same floor as wheat (Mt. 3:12), or tares among the wheat (Mt. 13:24-25). They were members of the visible church but never of the invisible church. In this context John uses the term "us" (emon) in the sense of true Christians.
The apostle makes two observations ...First, he says that true Christians or members of the invisible church cannot apostatize: "for if they were of us [i.e., true believers], they would have continued with us." The fact that these professing Christians departed from the church is empirical proof that they were never true Christians. "They went out that they might be made manifest, that none of them were of us." "The meaning here is that secession proves a want of fundamental union from the rest." Second, John says that true believers have received the Holy Spirit from Christ which secures them against apostasy or desertion: "But you have an anointing from the Holy One, and you know all things." True believers or members of the invisible church cannot fall away because they are baptized with the Holy Spirit and thus permanently abide in Christ (see 1 Jn. 2:27; 5:4). Our Lord concurs: "My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me. And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand" (Jn. 10:27-28).
1 Jn. 2:19-20 teaches: (1) the church is composed of true and false believers; and (2) the doctrine of perseverance. True Christians are united to Christ by the Holy Spirit and can never apostatize while those who are not baptized in the Spirit and not united to the Savior can. "Their presence in the visible church was temporary, for they failed in their perseverance. If they had been members of the invisible church, they would have remained with the body of believers."
b) Matthew 7:21-23: "Not everyone who says to Me, 'Lord, Lord,' shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, 'Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?' And then I will declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!'" After warning His disciples of the danger of false prophets, Our Lord warns them of the consequences of a false profession of religion. He describes people who profess Christ; who acknowledge His Lordship; who are even engaged in some type of Christian service; yet who never had a saving relationship to Jesus. These people were obviously members of the visible church. But, they were never truly united to the Lord or saved; they were never members of the invisible church.
This section of Scripture contradicts Arminianism, which teaches that if people accept Jesus as Savior they are truly saved but can later reject the faith and fall away. It also explicitly contradicts the Auburn teaching that people who profess Christ and are baptized are really united to Him, loved by Him and forgiven by Him even if they are not among the elect (individually) and thus eventually fall away. Note, Jesus says to all false professors of religion on the day of judgment, "I never knew you." Since God is omniscient, the word "knew" in this context does not refer to a mere intellectual knowledge (e.g., in John's gospel see: 1:47, 49; 2:24, 25; 21:17). Rather the term "knew" in this passage is used in the Hebraic sense of love, acknowledgment, friendship, intimate fellowship. Our Lord says that everyone in the visible church who is not really saved (i.e., they do not have true saving faith and the works that demonstrate the reality of that faith.) never, ever (i.e., for even a single moment) had a relationship or vital union with Him. There is no other way that the Savior's words can be interpreted without doing violence to the text of Scripture. Although Jesus' words are in complete harmony with the classic Protestant distinction between the visible and invisible church, they cannot be harmonized with the new Auburn theological innovations.
(c) Romans 9:6: "But it is not that the word of God has taken no effect. For they are not all Israel who are of Israel." In the epistle to the Romans, Paul explicitly recognized the two-fold aspect of the church when he explains why the majority of the old covenant people of God did not embrace their Messiah.
In order to properly understand Romans 9:6 we briefly need to consider the context. In Romans chapter 8 Paul elaborates on the major theme that all those who are in Christ shall never be condemned. Believers are delivered from the law by Jesus' death. They are freed from the pollution of sin by the indwelling power of the Spirit. The Spirit's power also guarantees a believer's resurrection and glorification. Christians have their assurance rooted in their union with Christ. There also is the comfort of the intercession of the Holy Spirit. Toward the end of the chapter the safety and assurance of believers is founded upon God's electing love from eternity. Here the apostle discusses the unbreakable chain of the order of salvation (ordo salutis) and the fact that "if God is for us, who can be against us?"
In chapter 9, as Paul turns his attention to the design of God in reference to Jews and Gentiles, he needs to answer the question: "What about Israel?" If election and perseverance are rooted in the eternal-unchanging love of God, how can the mass apostasy of the Jewish people be explained? They were God's people, the church, who received the word, the promises, the sacraments and ordinances. Does not God's rejection of the Jewish nation contradict the promises to Abraham and the perseverance promised in chapter 8? No, absolutely not! The apostle explains that it is to true Israel (i.e., the elect or the invisible church) that the promises are made. It is to these people only that God's eternal electing love is directed. There is national election—the nation of Israel or the visible church—and within Israel, the visible church, there is true Israel—the invisible church. The Jews who did not reject the Messiah are "a remnant according to the election of grace" (Rom. 11:5).
For Paul there is true Israel (the elect, the invisible church, the remnant) within national Israel (the visible church). In other words the elect or the invisible church is hidden in the visible church. Further, when describing why the church is composed of true Israel (i.e., real believers) and false Israel (i.e., hypocrites) the apostle turns our attention to the doctrine of election
Paul discusses the twin brothers Jacob and Esau. These twins were conceived at the same moment and were born only minutes apart. Both were covenant children born of the patriarch Isaac. Both received circumcision and were part of the visible church—the covenant people of God. Since Esau was circumcised does Paul argue that he was loved and forgiven by God? No. God hated Esau before he was even born (Rom. 9:11-13). Although Esau was a circumcised member of the visible church, he was never united to Christ, loved by God or forgiven. Instead, he was a vessel of wrath prepared for destruction (Rom. 9:22). Esau's circumcision was never efficacious because he was never regenerated and given the gift of saving faith. As Paul says, "For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but a new creation" (Gal. 6:15).
d) Another section of Scripture ... is 2 Peter 2. This chapter describes men who at one time were baptized, members in good standing and who had even become teachers. Peter, does not say that they were loved or forgiven but that they for a time "escaped the pollutions of the world" (2 Pet. 2:20). That is, they had an external reformation of behavior based on an intellectual knowledge of the word. Peter makes it crystal clear that these men were not united to Christ, regenerated, forgiven or saved because he says their natures were never, ever truly changed. He says, "But it has happened to them according to the true proverb: 'A dog returns to his own vomit,' and, 'a sow, having washed, to her wallowing in the mire'" (2 Pet. 2:22). A dog and a pig act according to their own nature. One can wash a pig and make it clean, but a pig is a pig. It will return to wallowing in the mud—in disgusting filth—because that is what pigs do. The apostle is saying that people who apostatize, who return to their former lifestyle, never had an interior work of the Holy Spirit. They were never regenerated and united to Christ. Their natures were never changed. The apostle is, in fact, teaching that if we could look at the hearts of those who apostatized, "we would discover that at no time were they ever activated by a true love of God. They were all this while goats, and not sheep, ravening wolves, and not gentle lambs." In other words the visible church contains not only real believers but also unsaved hypocrites.