John Calvin’s Distinction Between the Visible and Invisible Church

John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Philadelphia, 1960), Book IV, Chapter 1, pp. 1016, 1021-1024.


But because it is now our intention to discuss the visible church, let us learn even from the simple title “mother” [Footnote 10] how useful, indeed how necessary, it is that we should know her. For there is no other way to enter into life unless this mother conceive us in her womb, give us birth, nourish us at her breast, and lastly, unless she keep us under her care and guidance until, putting off mortal flesh, we become like the angels [Matthew 22:30]. Our weakness does not allow us to be dismissed from her school until we have been pupils all our lives. Furthermore, away from her bosom one cannot hope for any forgiveness of sins or any salvation, as Isaiah [Isaiah 37:32] and Joel [Joel 2:32] testify. Ezekiel agrees with them when he declares that those whom God rejects from heavenly life will not be enrolled among God’s people [Ezekiel 13:9]. On the other hand, those who turn to the cultivation of true godliness are said to inscribe their names among the citizens of Jerusalem [cf. Isaiah 56:5; Psalm 87:6]. For this reason, it is said in another psalm: “Remember me, O Jehovah, with favor toward thy people; visit me with salvation: that I may see the well-doing of thy chosen ones, that I may rejoice in the joy of thy nation, that I may be glad with thine inheritance” [Psalm 106:4-5 p.; cf. Psalm 105:4, Vg., etc.]. By these words God’s fatherly favor and the especial witness of spiritual life are limited to his flock, so that it is always disastrous to leave the church.  

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(The visible church: its membership and the marks by which it is recognized, 7-9)


“How we are to judge the church visible, which falls within our knowledge, is, I believe, already evident from the above discussion. For we have said that Holy Scripture speaks of the church in two ways. Sometimes by the term “church” it means that which is actually in God’s presence, into which no persons are received but those who are children of God by grace of adoption and true members of Christ by sanctification of the Holy Spirit. Then, indeed, the church includes not only the saints presently living on earth, but all the elect from the beginning of the world. Often, however, the name “church” designates the whole multitude of men spread over the earth who profess to worship one God and Christ. By baptism we are initiated into faith in him; by partaking in the Lord’s Supper we attest our unity in true doctrine and love; in the Word of the Lord we have agreement, and for the preaching of the Word the ministry instituted by Christ is preserved. In this church are mingled many hypocrites who have nothing of Christ but the name and outward appearance. There are very many ambitious, greedy, envious persons, evil speakers, and some of quite unclean life. Such are tolerated for a time either because they cannot be convicted by a competent tribunal or because a vigorous discipline does not always flourish as it ought. Just as we must believe, therefore, that the former church, invisible to us, [Footnote 14] is visible to the eyes of God alone, so we are commanded to revere and keep communion with the latter, which is called “church” in respect to men.


Accordingly, the Lord by certain marks and tokens has pointed out to us what we should know about the church. As we have cited above from Paul, to know who are His is a prerogative belonging solely to God [2 Timothy 2:19]. [Footnote 15] Steps were indeed thus taken to restrain men’s undue rashness; and daily events themselves remind us how far his secret judgments surpass our comprehension. For those who seemed utterly lost and quite beyond hope are by his goodness called back to the way; while those who more than others seemed to stand firm often fall. ‘Therefore, according to God’s secret predestination (as Augustine says), “many sheep are without, and many wolves are within.” [Footnote 16] For he knows and has marked those who know neither him nor themselves. Of those who openly wear his badge, his eyes alone see the ones who are unfeignedly holy and will persevere to the very end [Matthew 24:13]—the ultimate point of salvation.

But on the other hand, because he foresaw it to be of some value for us to know who were to be counted as his children, he has in this regard accommodated himself to our capacity. And, since assurance of faith was not necessary, he substituted for it a certain charitable judgment whereby we recognize as members of the church those who, by confession of faith, by example of life, and by partaking of the sacraments, profess the same God and Christ with us. [Footnote 17] He has, moreover, set off by plainer marks the knowledge of his very body to us, knowing how necessary it is to our salvation.


From this the face of the church comes forth and becomes visible to our eyes. Wherever we see the Word of God purely preached and heard, and the sacraments administered according to Christ’s institution, there, it is not to be doubted, a church of God exists [cf. Ephesians 2:20]. [Footnote 18] For his promise cannot fail: “Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them” [Matthew 18:20]. But that we may clearly grasp the sum of this matter, we must proceed by the following steps: the church universal is a multitude gathered from all nations; it is divided and dispersed in separate places, but agrees on the one truth of divine doctrine, and is bound by the bond of the same religion. Under it are thus included individual churches, disposed in towns and villages according to human need, so that each rightly has the name and authority of the church. Individual men who, by their profession of religion, are reckoned within such churches, even though they may actually be strangers to the church, still in a sense belong to it until they have been rejected by public judgment.

There is, however, a slightly different basis for judgment concerning individual men and churches. For it may happen that we ought to treat like brothers and count as believers those whom we think unworthy of the fellowship of the godly, because of the common agreement of the church by which they are borne and tolerated in the body of Christ. We do not by our vote approve such persons as members of the church, but we leave to them such place as they occupy among the people of God until it is lawfully taken from them.

But we must think otherwise of the whole multitude itself. If it has the ministry of the Word and honors it, if it has the administration of the sacraments, it deserves without doubt to be held and considered a church. For it is certain that such things are not without fruit. In this way we preserve for the universal church its unity, which devilish spirits have always tried to sunder; and we do not defraud of their authority those lawful assemblies which have been set up in accordance with local needs.  

Footnote 10: Note that the church, here called “Mother,” is the visible church, and that the mother function of the church, bearing and nourishing believers, is necessary to salvation. Cf. Cyprian, Letters 4. 4; lxxiii. 21 (CSEL 3. 2. 477, 795; tr. ANF V. 282, 384); Augustine, Enchiridion 17. 65; “the church, . . . without whom there is no forgiveness of sins” (MPL 40. 262 f.; tr. LCC VII. 377); Augustine, Sermons lvi. 4, 5 (MPL 38. 379; tr. LF Sermons I. 69 f.); First Epistle of John 3:1 (MPL 35. 1998; tr. NPNF VII. 476). In Comm. Ephesians 4:13, Calvin says, “The church is the common mother of all the godly, which bears, nourishes, and brings up children to God, kings and peasants alike; and this is done by the ministry.” Cf. Wendel, Calvin, p. 224.

Footnote 14: The concept of the invisible church of all the elect is present in Augustine and was habitually employed by Wycliffe. Cf. Augustine, City of God, passim; On Baptism III. xix. 26 (MPL 43. 152; tr. NPNF IV. 445); Wycliffe, De ecclesia, Wyclif Society edition, p. 37: “Universitas fidelium praedestinatorum”; so also Hus, De ecclesia 1, ed. S. H. Thomson, pp. 2 f., 8; tr. D. S. Schaff, The Church by John Hus, pp. 3, 6; J. T. McNeill, “Some Emphases in Wyclif’s Teaching,” Journal of Religion VII (1927), 452 IT.; Unitive Protestantism, pp. 25 f. The idea is also familiar to such conciliarists as Dietrich of Niem (see LCC XIV. 150 f.). Luther employs similar language frequently, e.g., in his Preface to Revelation (Sammtliche Schriften XIV [St. Louis, 1898]; tr. Works of Martin Luther VI. 488). Other citations from Luther and Zwingli are found in OS V. 12, note 1. Cf. J. Courvoisier, La notion d’Eglise chez Bucer, pp. 68 fl.; Wendel, Calvin, pp. 225 f.; H. Strohl, La Pensge de la Reforme, pp. 174-181; McNeill, Unitive Protestantism, pp. 39-45; Augsburg Confession, articles vii, viii.

Footnote 15: Section 2, above.

Footnote 16:  Augustine, John’s Gospel xlv. 12 (MPL 35. 1725; tr. NPNF VII. 253 f.).

Footnote 17:  Cf. Luther, Enchiridion piarum precationum (1529) (Werke WA X. ii. 394). Cf. section 20, note 30, below.

Footnote 18:  Cf. Augsburg Confession, art. 7, where the church is defined as “the congregation of saints in which the gospel is rightly taught and the sacraments are rightly administered.” Important as discipline is for Calvin, he does not distinctly make it one of the notae, or marks, by which the church is recognized, as does Bucer, Scripta Anglicana, p. 36. Cf. Wendel, Calvin, p. 228. The First Scots Confession, chapter xviii, makes discipline the third “mark,” as does the Belgic Confession, art. xxix.

Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, The Library of Christian Classics, XX-XXI. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960.

Bob Vincent