The Church Militant, Latent, and Triumphant

The terms church militant, triumphant, and latent are used to describe a threefold distinction in the church of Christ. The one church of Christ can be described as she exists throughout history in three different states. A threefold distinction in the church was often used by the medieval church theologians. However, they spoke of the church militant, triumphant, and dormant. According to Rome, the church dormant was that aspect of the church that supposedly suffered in purgatory between their death and final glorification. With the Reformation’s rejection of works righteousness and its attendant doctrine of purgatory, the reformers spoke of the church militant and triumphant. A proper understanding of the definition of the church also requires that we speak of the church latent.

The description of the church as militant, triumphant, and latent follows from the understanding of the church as the complete number of the elect that make up Christ’s universal body. Christ is the head. The church is his body. That church is composed of the total number of the elect that God appointed to salvation in eternity. Rome made the church the pope and his hierarchy. The church is wherever the pope is. The church, then, is basically synonymous with the Roman Catholic institution. Arminianism, with its doctrine of man’s free will, defines the church as those who accept the offered salvation and persevere to the end. Man’s will defines the church.

The Reformed faith, following men like John Hus and John Wycliffe, brought the definition of the church back to scripture. The church is the company of the predestinated. Election is the heart of the church. The church cannot be understood apart from the doctrine of election, and election cannot be understood apart from the doctrine of the church. Election appoints individuals out of the human race to salvation as the church. By means of election God determined the body of Christ, the church, and gave to each individual his place in that universal body. The gathering of the church is the gathering of the elect. Election controls the gathering of the church. Election determines when and where those elect are gathered and brings to pass all that is necessary for their gathering into communion with Christ by faith. No church or denomination or religious organization at any point or time in history exhausts the church. The church will only be seen in her fullness in the new heavens and earth when God reveals the innumerable multitude gathered throughout history from all nations.

The understanding of the church as the company of the predestinated is found in the Reformed creeds. The Heidelberg Catechism in Lord’s Day 21 says about the church, “That the Son of God, from the beginning to the end of the world, gathers, defends, and preserves to Himself…a church chosen to everlasting life.” The Belgic Confession in Article 27 refers to the church in the perilous times of Ahab, that “the Lord reserved unto Him seven thousand men, who had not bowed their knees to Baal,” a remnant that the apostle Paul in Romans 11:5 calls “a remnant according to the election of grace.”

The Reformed creeds, in their understanding of the church as a “chosen church” and an elect remnant, simply base themselves on scripture. Referring to the church of God in the Old Testament, Moses teaches Israel in Deuteronomy 7:6 that “the Lord thy God hath chosen thee to be a special people unto himself.” In the great New Testament book of the Bible on the church, the apostle Paul teaches the church in Ephesians 1:4–5 that she has been “chosen…before the foundation of the world” and “predestinated…according to the good pleasure of his will.” The church is one great, innumerable multitude chosen to salvation and gathered into fellowship with Christ throughout history.

When we speak of the church militant, we are speaking of that aspect of the church that is alive on the earth at any one time in history, is joined to Christ by faith, and is fighting the good fight of faith in the world against sin, Satan, and the whole world. The church is a warring church. She has been called out of the world to which she belongs by nature. She has been called into communion with Christ by faith. Enmity with the world is the result. To be the friend of God is to be the enemy of the world, sin, and Satan. The love of God demands that she hate the world. So the character of her life in the world of sin and darkness is one of constant warfare. The Heidelberg Catechism describes the life of the church militant in its explanation of the church’s petition, “deliver us from evil,” in Lord’s Day 52: “since our mortal enemies, the devil, the world, and our own flesh cease not to assault us, do Thou therefore preserve and strengthen us by the power of Thy Holy Spirit, that we may not be overcome in this spiritual warfare, but constantly and strenuously may resist our foes…”

The church triumphant means that aspect of the church that throughout history has finished their course of warfare on the earth and is glorified in heaven—some in soul, a few in body and soul, such as Elijah and Moses. The church triumphant is living and reigning with Jesus Christ in conscious glory in heaven.

The truth of the church triumphant is closely connected with the doctrine of the intermediate state. The intermediate state is the state of the saints after physical death and before the final resurrection. The false doctrine of soul sleep denied that there was such a thing as the church triumphant. According to that false doctrine, when the saints die their souls enter a state of unconscious existence until the final resurrection. Rome denied that the church triumphant included most believers. Most believers entered purgatory at their death to suffer punishment and to pay for their sins. The Reformed faith teaches that the saints at their death are immediately taken up to be with Christ in glory. The body of the saint goes into the grave, and the soul of the saint is resurrected to heavenly glory. Christ assured the thief on the cross that he would be with Christ in Paradise that day. That word of Christ also refutes the Roman Catholic fiction of purgatory. If there was a man that needed purgatory, surely it was the thief on the cross, but he went immediately to be with Christ.

The book of Revelation pictures the intermediate state of believers in many places in the book, but especially in Revelation 20:4–5: “And I saw thrones, and they sat upon them, and judgment was given unto them: and I saw the souls of them that were beheaded for the witness of Jesus, and for the word of God…and they lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years.” John sees the souls of those who had been beheaded for Christ’s sake. The church of Christ in her warfare in the earth always suffers some form of martyrdom for Christ’s sake. We are killed all the day long in many different ways. At the end of earthly life the believer is taken up to live and reign with Christ. The church triumphs over sin, death, the world, and the devil and his hosts in this life. She enjoys conscious glory and perfection in soul with Christ in heaven. This state lasts until the coming of Christ, when the whole elect church, gathered and glorified body and soul by the wonder of the resurrection, becomes the church triumphant.

Controversial is whether or not there is such a thing as a church latent. The church latent is that aspect of the elect body of Christ that is not yet born, or that is not yet gathered into communion with Christ by faith. Not denying the truth of election, some argue that the church can only refer to those that are joined in communion with Christ by faith, whether on the earth or in glory. Others deny that there is a church latent because they deny the truth of election.

Although the words church latent are not used in scripture, the concept of the church latent is found in scripture. For instance, God spoke to the apostle Paul during his mission labors in Corinth in Acts 18:9–10: “Be not afraid, but speak, and hold not thy peace: for I am with thee, and no man shall set on thee to hurt thee: for I have much people in this city.” The people in that city were the Lord’s people. They were the Lord’s people by virtue of divine election. That divine election constituted them as members of God’s church from eternity. They had eternal and real communion with Christ by election, though they were not yet members of Christ in time by faith. The Lord’s election of them demanded that they be gathered into communion with Christ by faith, that is, that the eternal reality of their communion with Christ be made temporal reality in their union with Christ by faith. This is the church latent in every age.

There is one elect church in every age. The church latent becomes the church militant. The church militant becomes the church triumphant until finally all God’s church has been gathered and glorified, and together that church, as an innumerable throng, gives glory to God and to the Lamb in the new heaven and new earth, world without end.


Originally published June 2020, Vol 79 No 6