Extra ecclesiam nulla salus est is an ancient Christian slogan that means, in English, “outside of the church there is no salvation.” So says the summary of the teaching of the ancient Latin church father Cyprian.1 A version of that view is confessed by all the Reformed churches in the Belgic Confession and the Westminster Confession:
Belgic Confession (1561) Art. 28:
We believe that since this holy assembly and congregation is the gathering of those who are saved and there is no salvation apart from it, no one ought to withdraw from it, content to be by himself, regardless of his status or condition.
WCF (1647-48) 25:2
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.
This is in response to a YouTube attack on these doctrines of the Reformed churches. Recently I had a question about that attack so I thought it would be helpful to post a brief explanation.
Andrew’s post in the combox gave me an opportunity to explain a bit further. I re-post it here for those who don’t read the comments:
Thanks for the encouragement.
First, the Belgic Confession, confessed by my federation of churches and by the Dutch Reformed churches since the 1560s, repeats the formula without modification. The debate in the 16th and 17th century was not whether there is a true church or whether there is salvation outside of the true church but which church it was, the evangelical (in 16th-century terms, the confessional Protestant and Reformed churches) or the Roman.
The Westminster divines added the qualifier “ordinary.” The question is whether this means, as it frequently does in 16th and 17th-century usage “by divine ordination” or “normally.” Nevertheless, the churches have recognized that were someone to come to faith on a desert island (say a bible washes ashore, the deserted fellow reads it and comes to faith) he would be apart from the visible church. That would be extraordinary or unusual. Ordinarily, the visible church being present, one is obligated to join himself to it.
Second, I did not write the Belgic or the Westminster Confession. So it is not my personal view that we are discussing (although I agree with the Belgic and the WCF).
Third, the churches are not saying that “if one goes to church, one will be saved.” That would be the very sacerdotalism from which the Reformation delivered us. Clearly there are those who attend church who do not believe.
Fourth, the churches are saying, however, that ordinarily, salvation is not possible outside the visible church. What does this mean?
Though I know what you mean we should not say “get saved.” Strictly, we (believers) were saved by Christ’s obedient, suffering life and death and resurrection, i.e., by God’s saving act in history. The Israelites did not “get saved.” They were saved by what God did by taking them out of Egypt, through the Red Sea, on dry ground.
God has chosen to administer salvation in one place: the visible, institutional church. Just as he chose to administer salvation in Noah’s ark and just as he chose to administer salvation through national Israel, so too he has chosen to give the keys of the kingdom (Matt 16) to the visible church (Matt 28:18-20).
Thus, those who willfully absent themselves from the true visible, institutional church (see Belgic Confession Art 29) have placed themselves in jeopardy. Think of it thus: if a man is willfully and impenitently committing murder and tells me “I am a Christian” I think I have a right to doubt his claim. Why? Because he’s an impenitent murderer! If a man tells me, “I don’t go to church, I belong to no church, I don’t need church. I have Jesus in my heart” and, if after instruction, he continues to persist in his abandonment of Christ’s church, then I doubt his claim to be a Christian.
There is the strongest possible moral necessity for those who profess the Christian faith to join themselves to the true visible, institutional church. It’s not a second blessing for the illuminati. It’s not just a “good thing” to do. It’s not optional. It’s necessary. It’s not the instrument of justification. That is faith alone. It’s not the ground of justification. That is Christ and his righteousness. The true visible church is, however, the place where God administers his salvation ordinarily (in both senses) such that one cannot absent himself from it without the gravest jeopardy.
Finally, I realize that the Reformed doctrine of the church is a great challenge to American religious sensibilities. It should be. We are missionaries here in a strange land full of radical Anabaptist, mystical, rationalist weirdness. We should not look like the prevailing practice of religion; not at all.
There’s a paper here.
Related HB Posts
- Why Membership Matters
- Fencing the Table and the Scandal of the Church
- Resources On Fencing The Lord’s Table
- How To Subscribe To Heidelmedia
1. Cyprian probably did not say these exact words but they do capture his intent and the theology received and confessed throughout the history of the church.