The Latin phrase, Extra ecclesiam nulla salus, means, “Outside the Church there is no salvation”. It refers to the Christian belief that the Church is essential to God’s plan of salvation. It sounds Roman Catholic. It is catholic (i.e. universal), but not Roman Catholic. In fact, this doctrine preceded, survived, and continued after the papal captivity of the Church, making it a truly universal doctrine.
Consider the following examples.
Cyprian (d. 258) the bishop of Carthage and early church father said it this way, “There is no salvation out of the Church”.1 Cyprian also said, “He can no longer have God for his Father, who has not the Church for his mother”.2 He found an analogy for the Church in Noah’s ark, saying, “If anyone could escape who was outside the ark of Noah; then he also may escape who shall be outside of the Church”.3
Martin Luther (1483-1546) taught that the Church was, “the company of believing people,” who, “have Christ in their midst”. For Luther the connection between Christ and the Church was so close that he was able to say, “Outside of the Christian Church there is no truth, no Christ, no salvation”. 4
John Calvin (1509-1564) wrote, “Beyond the pale of the Church no forgiveness of sins, no salvation, can be hoped for”.5 Like Cyprian, and Luther, Calvin saw a necessary connection between Christians and the Church. He built upon Cyprian’s concept of Christians as children with the Church as their mother, saying, “What God has thus joined, let not man put asunder: to those to whom he is a Father, the Church must also be a mother”.6
The Belgic Confession (1561)7 agrees with Cyprian, Luther, and Calvin. Speaking of the Church, it says, “Out of it there is no salvation” (28).
The Second Helvetic Confession (1566)8 likewise asserts, “None can live before God, which do not communicate with the true Church of God” (17.11). It too finds an analogy in Noah’s ark,
As there was no salvation outside Noah’s ark when the world perished in flood; so we believe that there is no certain salvation outside Christ, who offers himself to be enjoyed by the elect in the Church; and hence we teach that those who wish to live ought not to be separated from the true Church of Christ (17.11).
The Westminster Confession of Faith (1647), in agreement with centuries of Christian teaching, says,
The visible Church, 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; and of 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 (25.2).
Note that the Westminster Confession adds two important clarifications. First, the Christian Church is not restricted to a particular location or denomination. It is universal, consisting of all Christians throughout the world. Second, by adding the modifier, “ordinary”, the Confession allows for the exceptional possibility of salvation outside the Church. Salvation is ultimately the work of God almighty, and He is free, if He so chooses, to save apart from the Church. Yet, such would be an exception to the rule, a truly extraordinary occurrence. Though we admit that God can save apart from the Church, we have no confidence to assert that He will save apart from the Church.
The preceding quotes summarize a universal, historic, Christian belief. The Church is essential to God’s plan of salvation. The Church is not the savior of mankind, but it is the society in which God saves men. So much so, that we do not expect the salvation of those outside of it. But why do Christians believe this? The answer is: the means of grace. We know that salvation is by grace. And we know that grace is communicated by means. But we also know that the means of grace are given to the Church. And that outside the Church there is no access to the means of grace. We understand that without access to the means of grace, there is no access to grace. And without access to grace, there is no hope of salvation. Therefore, we conclude that outside the church there is no ordinary hope for salvation. In principle, it is the recognition of God’s practice of using means to accomplish His ends and entrusting those means to His people. While we recognize that God is free to work apart from the Church and without means, we also recognize that He has most often chosen to work in the Church and through means.
The following examples illustrate God’s work in the Church through means.
Even before the fall, God gave man a covenant, promising him life on the condition of obedience (Gen. 2:17). It was a gracious provision from the Creator to the creature, to be sure. But notice that the promise, eternal life, was not granted to Adam immediately, that is, apart from means. It was mediated to Adam by the tree of life (Gen. 3:22-23).
God saved Noah from his wicked generation, and from the cleansing waters of the flood. But God did not save Noah apart from means. The LORD provided Noah’s salvation through means of the ark (Genesis 6-8). After rescuing Noah from the flood, God established His covenant with Noah, and even provided Noah with a visible sign to seal His promise (Genesis 9:8-17). Noah and his family were saved in the ark. The rest of the world, outside of the ark, perished. God does not need a rainbow to remember His promise. But we do. And He tells us that when He sees it, He will remember His promise.
When God made His covenant with Abraham, He also gave Abraham the sign of circumcision as a seal of His promise (Genesis 17:10-11; c.f. Romans 4:11). God mediated the grace of His promise to Abraham, and generation after generation of Abraham’s descendants through the means of circumcision. The rest of the world did not receive that promise.
When Abimelech inadvertently threatened God’s promise to Abraham (Genesis 20), the judgment of God fell upon him. God graciously decided to spare Abimelech, but only by means of Abraham’s prayer for Abimelech. God did not tell Abimelech to pray for himself. He told Abimelech that Abraham, a prophet (20:7), would pray for him.
When Israel raised their voices against God, He sent serpents which bit and killed many of them. Coming to their senses, they asked Moses to pray to the LORD for them. Moses prayed and God provided a means of salvation, the bronze serpent, telling them to look upon it and live (Numbers 21:5-9). There was no healing power in the bronze serpent, except God’s promise, “anyone who is bitten and looks upon it shall live” (21:8).
God chose David to be His king over Israel, and sent His prophet, Samuel to anoint David (1 Samuel 16:1-23). When Samuel anointed David with oil, the Spirit of the LORD came upon him (16:13). The Holy Spirit does not live in a horn of oil, nor did He need Samuel to carry Him from Ramah to Bethlehem, but He did manifest His work by means of Samuel’s ministering.
In the New Testament, God’s Church expanded from a single nation to a worldwide kingdom, but His practice of mediating His grace through means and administering those means in His Church continued. We see the pattern continue in the book of Acts. God adds to the Church those who are being saved (Acts 2:47), because the Church is essential to God’s plan of salvation. It is the society in which He saves people. It is the earthly mother to His heavenly children. As the Westminster Confession says, “Unto this catholic visible Church Christ hath given the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God, for the gathering and perfecting of the saints…” (25.3). Christ has given His Church two very important tasks: gathering and perfecting His saints. He has also equipped His Church with the means to complete those tasks, namely the means of grace. Next time, God willing, we will define and discuss the Church’s means of grace.
Before we close, let us consider some implications that follow from what has been said so far.
First, since the Church is the only institution in the world to which Christ has given the means by which men are saved; it follows that the Church bears a tremendous responsibility in the administration of those means. The apostle’s question is fitting here, “How shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard?”(Romans 10:14). On the other hand, since the Church is the only institution to which Christ has given the means by which men are saved; it follows that the Church can offer men something that no other institution in the world can offer them.
Second, since the Church is God’s appointed sphere of salvation; it follows that Christians have the responsibility to join themselves to the Church, and to make “diligent use of all the outward means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of redemption”.9 Jesus taught us that if a brother will not listen to the Church, he is to be regarded as a heathen (Matthew 18:17). How much more is this true of a stranger who refuses the fellowship of the Church?
- Cyprian, Epistle 72,21(↩)
- Cyprian, On the Unity of the Church,6(↩)
- Martin Luther, Sermon for the Early Christmas Service; Luke 2:15-20, Wartburg Church, 1522(↩)
- John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.1.4(↩)
- Calvin, Institutes, 4.1.1(↩)
- The Belgic Confession was written by Guido de Bres (1522-1567), a student of Calvin. The Confession, along with the Canons of Dort, and the Heidelberg Catechism, is part of the Three Forms of Unity, the subordinate standards of Continental Reformed churches.(↩)
- The Second Helvetic Confession was written by Heinrich Bullinger (1504 -1575) successor to Ulrich Zwingli. It was adopted by the Swiss churches and several others throughout Europe.(↩)
- The Westminster Shorter Catechism, Question 85(↩)