In his masterful two-volume work, The Church of Christ, James Bannerman explores the various ways the word “church” is used. For example, “the term Church is used in Scripture to denote the whole body throughout the world of those that outwardly profess the faith of Christ.” One of the ways Bannerman connects ecclesiology to soteriology and the gospel is through (not surprisingly) union with Christ.
Bannerman recognizes the reality of the invisible/visible church distinction, which affirms that some people within the visible church on earth are not elect; that apostasy exists. He then uses John 15 as exegetical warrant to apply this invisible/visible distinction within ecclesiology to individual soteriology and the kinds of union with Christ described by Christ himself, recorded by John in chapter 15. For discussions surrounding the relationship between ecclesiology and soteriology, this distinction gets overlooked too often. Bannerman:
[O]ur Lord likens the relation between Himself and His Church to the union subsisting between the vine and the branches. “I am the true vine,” said He, “and my Father is the husbandman. Every branch in me that beareth not fruit He taketh away; and every branch that beareth fruit He purgeth it, that it may bring forth more fruit.” “I am the vine, ye are the branches.” “If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered.” It is plain that in such language our Lord recognised a twofold union to Himself,—one, a living union, like that of the fruitful branch in the vine; the other, a dead or mere external union, such as the unfruitful branch in the vine, that was cast forth and withered; and such precisely is the two-fold connection with Christ, exemplified in the case respectively of the invisible and the visible Church. Those who are united to the Saviour by a living union,—unseen indeed of men, but known to Him,—constitute that society of believers spoken of in Scripture as the spiritual or invisible Church of Christ. Those, on the other hand, who are united to the Saviour by an external union of outward profession and outward privileges, known and seen of men, numbering among them the true believers in Christ, but not exclusively made up of true believers, constitute the visible Church. “The visible Church,” says the Confession of Faith, “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, together with 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.”
James Bannerman, vol. 1, The Church of Christ: A Treatise on the Nature, Powers, Ordinances, Discipline, and Government of the Christian Church (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1868), 10-11.
Put as simply as possible, we see three categories:
- Visible unbelievers (outside the church) and invisible (non-elect) unbelievers (not on the vine)
- Visible believers (inside the church) yet invisible (non-elect) unbelievers (united on the vine, but dead)
- Visible believers (inside the church) and invisible (elect) believers (united on the vine, alive)