Three weeks ago, I wrote about my dad passing away and the opportunity to baptize him two days before he passed. If you haven’t read about that, you should start here: https://gregarnett.wordpress.com/2020/06/26/a-lifetime-of-planting-seeds/ I am absolutely overjoyed that I got to baptize my dad but it got me thinking about something that many don’t think about very often. It got me thinking about the doctrine of the visible church and the invisible church.
You may never have heard of that doctrine or it may have been a long time since you were in confirmation class. If you’ve been in my confirmation class, you’ve heard me teach that the visible church is countable. It might not be easy to count and you might have to be in several places at the same time, but it would be possible to count heads of those in the visible church. Some examples would be St. Paul Lutheran church members, all of the people in the Christian churches in Caro on a certain Sunday, or total membership of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Haiti. Those are all countable. Sadly, the visible church is also made up of true believers and hypocrites, which God will sort out at the final judgement. The invisible church is not seeable by human eyes but is known by God, and includes true believers from all time and every location. The invisible church includes Moses, Rahab, King David, Peter, Mary Magdalene, and Paul. Revelation 7:9-10 puts it this way, “After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.’” (NIV)
When I baptized dad on June 11th, he entered into the invisible church. In the aftermath of his death and funeral, I wondered about him being a member of the visible church as well. It could have been argued that it didn’t matter because he was already gone but for the sake of those who are still here, it did matter. Plus, there is the official red book! The “red book” is the official church record where we record baptisms, weddings, funerals, and other official church ceremonies.
Curious about this, I brought it to our Board of Elders. I shared the story of baptizing my dad and made the motion that we posthumously receive my dad as a baptized member of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Caro, Michigan. Even though dad didn’t live here in Caro, I was the one who baptized him and then officiated his funeral. It made sense that St. Paul is where he would be officially recorded as a member.
Being entered into St. Paul’s red book does not automatically make someone a member of the invisible church. There is a higher authority book that does that. It’s called the “book of life” and is mentioned in Revelation 3:4-6 where Jesus is talking to the church of Sardis. He says, “Yet you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes. They will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy. The one who is victorious will, like them, be dressed in white. I will never blot out the name of that person from the book of life, but will acknowledge that name before my Father and his angels. Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”
There you have it in one short passage, the visible church and the invisible church. There were those who were members of the church of Sardis (visible church) but not all of them were members of the invisible church. Jesus promises to the members of the invisible church that he will never blot their name out of his book of life. He then ends with, “Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” (vs. 6) That’s us! We need to have ears to hear and we need to seek to be members of both the invisible church through faith and also of the visible church because that is where God’s word is preached and the sacraments are administered. I am grateful that my dad became a member of both.