Here we get to the doctrine of the church, which is in some ways the linch-pin to this whole debate. How does one define the church?
Here Wilkins is guilty of nothing less than talking out of both sides of his mouth. On the one hand, he says that he “wholeheartedly affirm(s) this distinction as the Westminster Confession defines the invisible church.” He then proceeds to define the invisible church in a manner completely incompatibile with WCF 25.
First of all, he says that “the invisible Church does not yet exist though it is surely foreordained by God and will surely and certainly exist at the last day.” This completely vitiates the doctrine of the invisible church. WCF says explicitly that the the invisible church consists (note the PRESENT tense) of all the elect.
Then he says that “the category of ‘invisible church’ can lead us to all sorts of misunderstandings and misconceptions.” Well, this certainly sounds like “wholeheartedly affirming this distinction.” It’s a bit like saying, “I wholeheartedly believe in God, but there are significant problems with the category of ‘God.’ The qualification does away with the assertion.
The way he prefers to define the invisible church (and he agrees with Doug Wilson here) is as the eschatological church. But this is to erase the distinction as it is in place now. The WCF does not say “the invisible church will be in existence in the future.” It says “the invisible church consists.” By the way, it should be carefully noted that saying “invisible” and “eschatological” are not even remotely the same thing. The doctrine of the invisible church has always meant that there is a distinction within the church in the present between the elect and the non-elect. Saying “eschatological” erases that distinction. Now, Wilkins would probably say that he affirms the distinction within the church now. The problem is that he has no basis left for saying that. I have said before that the reason why the Reformers harped on this distinction is because the Roman Catholic Church kept asking the Reformers “Where was your church for the last 1500 years?” The only answer and defense that the Reformers could give was “we were the invisible church, existing by faith.” If that distinction is not in the present, then there is no justification for the Reformers to be the true church. So, in denying the WCF definition of the invisible church, Wilkins takes the rug out from under the Reformers. Therefore, it is not true at all that his “accusers are simply disagreeing with (his) argument rather than proving that (he) denies the WCF definition of the church.”
Wilkins assumes that which is to be proved when he takes this pot shot at %90 of the Reformed world: “Indeed, it seems to me that they are often the ones who deny the distinction between the ‘visible’ and ‘invisible’ Church in that they attribute those things the apostles say to be true of the visible Church exclusively to the invisible Church. The visible Church is denigrated as being nothing more than a pale and imperfect reflection of the ‘true’ church (which is, in their minds, the ‘invisible’ church, the abode of the elect).” I must confess that I lost my cool when I read this absolutely hideous slander. Which Reformed theologian did he have in mind who denigrates the Church? Which Reformed theologians are the ones denying the distinction? Presumably he is referring to the Central Carolina Presbytery. He just accused an entire Presbytery of heresy. Now, if you are a Wilkins supporter reading this, just put yourself for one minute in the place of one of Wilkins’s critics. What does this sentence sound like? I will leave that question hanging in the air for a minute. “Infuriating” is the word that comes to mind, however.
He contradicts himself again in just one sentence when he says, “It is important for us to recognize the fact of the mixed nature of the Church in history, but this does not mean that there is such a thing as an ‘invisible Church’ of which you must become a member.” Hello? And again, he misunderstands the position of those who hold to the distinction, when he accuses them of denying the creeds of the church (one holy catholic, etc. church). So anyone who says that one must become a member of the invisible church by faith denies the creeds of the church. So much for the PPT together document. In a single stroke, he has accused the majority of the Reformed world of heresy.
How in the world do the Calvin quotes support his position? They quite simply don’t. At the most, they support what I have already demonstrated (and am entirely comfortable with, by the way!); namely, that there is a general election (which includes *none* of the benefits given to the elect), and a special election. The quotation from Inst. 3.2.11 is taken grossly out of context. He is missing all sorts of qualifications that Calvin puts on such a statement, as anyone who is unbiased can tell. Time and time again in that section, Calvin distinguishes clearly between the elect and the reprobate within the church: “only those predestined to salvation receive the light of faith and truly feel the power of the gospel…almost the same feeling (but obviously not quite) as the elect…his goodness may be tasted without the Spirit of adoption…only in the elect does that confidence flourish…as God regenerates only the elect with incorruptible seed…that lower working of the Spirit…the reprobate never receive anything but a confused awareness of grace, so that they grasp a shadow rather than the firm body of it. For the Spirit, strictly speaking, seals forgiveness of sins in the elect alone.” And then, to cap it off, Wilkins doesn’t quote the remainder of the sentence, “Yet the reproabte are justly said to believe that God is merciful toward them, for they receive the gift of reconciliation, although confusedly and not distinctly enough. Not that they are partakers of the same faith or regeneration with the children of God, but because they seem, under a cloak of hypocrisy, to have a beginning of faith in common with the latter…they do not attain the full effect and fruition thereof. He does not show himself merciful to them, to the extent of truly snatching them from death and receiving them into his keeping.” These quotes heavily qualify the particular quote that Wilkins yanks out of context. All of what I have quoted comes from the very same section of the Institutes.