Posted by: Grover Gunn | August 12, 2007

The Visible Church as the Saints

Another issue in the Federal Vision debate is what Paul means when he writes to a church and refers to the members as the saints. Now we know that not every member on every church roll is going to end up in heaven. Some of those who call themselves Christians are going to fall away. As we read in 1 John 2:19, “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.” If that is the case, then what does Paul mean when he refers to all the members of a local church as saints?

The answer consistent with Reformed theology is that Paul was addressing everyone in the church according to their outward profession. He assumed in general that people’s outward profession was consistent with their true inner spiritual condition, but he knew this wasn’t always true in every case. The members of the visible church are saints in the more significant sense of the word if indeed they truly do have the saving faith relationship with Jesus which they profess to have.

The new answer some Federal Vision proponents are giving is that everyone in the visible church really is saved. Every member on the church roll, head for head, without exception, is elect, regenerate, justified and adopted. Yet not all will persevere in this salvation. Some will fall away and lose their election, their regeneration, their justification, their adoption.

Which is it? Are only the individually elect in the local church ever truly regenerate? Or are all in the local church regenerate, and only the individually elect among them will persevere in their regeneration? Let’s see if we can find out by examining Paul’s epistle to the Romans. Paul wrote to those at Rome whom he referred to as the beloved of God called to be saints. He thus addressed each of them as the Christian each person professed to be. Then in Romans 8:9, Paul said that those to whom he was writing were not in the flesh but in the Spirit, and then he made a qualification. He didn’t say that everyone in the church without exception was “not in the flesh but in the Spirit” with the qualification that only some would persevere in this condition. He said they were not in the flesh but in the Spirit “if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. Now if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is not His.”

So here is one example. I can’t say that everyone in the visible church without exception is not in the flesh but in the Spirit. This is true only of the regenerate in the visible church. I believe that this same basic pattern also holds for the justification mentioned in Romans 8:30, the ordo salutis passage. Paul there says that all who are justified will be glorified. If everyone in the visible church without exception has a Romans 8:30 justification, then everyone in the visible church without exception is going to be glorified.

Romans 8:30 also mentions calling. The same word is also used in Scripture to refer to all who hear the gospel. Some who are called in that sense are never even members of the visible church. Here is a case where the same word in the Bible can be used in reference to different theological concepts. So instead of saying that everyone in the visible church is called with the same calling with only the elect persevering in that calling, we should say that everyone in the visible church is called with an external calling but only the regenerate in the visible church have been called with an efficacious internal calling.

We could analyze other words relating to salvation and discuss the word’s meaning as a theological term and the various meanings of the word in the New Testament in various contexts. For example, the word sanctify and its cognates can refer to the covenant child’s membership in the visible church or to the Spirit’s progressive work of deliverance from sin in the regenerate heart or perhaps even to the legal concept of justification.

The major point, however, is that not everyone in the visible church has the same salvation with the difference between the elect and non-elect being that only the elect will persevere in that salvation. No, the non-elect never have the same salvation, even temporarily, which the elect possess. Again, as we read in 1 John 2:19, “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.”

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