A Sixth Sola?

John R. Muether
Thursday, August 2nd 2007
Jul/Aug 1998

Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus. There is no salvation outside the Church. In the good old days of American religious warfare these were perhaps fighting words for many Protestants, as they smacked of the mysterious and repressive haughtiness of Catholic sacerdotalism. Today, claims of the Church's exclusivity seem quaint and inconceivable, not least among Roman Catholics themselves, who are given to speak of even atheists being "anonymous Christians," and Eastern Orthodox and Protestant communicants as "separa-ted brethren." Such incredulity testifies to Americans' ignorance of church history, because the statement goes back to the ancient Church. Nor are such claims the exclusive property of Rome, because they were frequently invoked by the Reformers. Beyond historical illiteracy, such claims' incoherence betrays the biases of our anti-ecclesiastical age.

It was Cyprian, the third century bishop, who is generally credited with the formulation, "outside of the Church there is no salvation." He compared the Church in the world to the ark in the flood. "If there was any escape for one who was outside the ark of Noah, there will be as much for one who is found to be outside the Church." Since there was only one ark, so there is only one Church, and it was the Christian's only hope. (The ark/Church relationship often survives in church architecture even where it does not survive in churchmen's memories.) For Cyprian, extra ecclesia nulla salus literally meant that salvation was impossible outside of membership in the institutional Church.


As the doctrine of the church developed in medieval Catholicism, salvation took on a sacerdotal character. Viewed as the perennial incarnation of Christ, the church was the automatic dispenser of the gift of salvation through its sacraments. By themselves, the sacraments granted salvation to the partaker ex opere operato.

The Reformers were quick to reject sacerdotalism. God alone is the actor in our salvation. He works salvation in his elect, through the redemptive work of Jesus Christ, the one mediator between God and man, and the efficacious power of the Spirit working directly upon human souls. Contrary to medieval Catholic dogma, there was nothing mechanical or magical about the instrumentality of the church. In short, the sacerdotal confusion of the mediation of Christ with the mediation of the church was a denial of solus Christus.

Their reform of the doctrine of the Church, however, did not prompt the Reformers to jettison Cyprian's formula. Instead, they sought to recover it, freeing it from the abuses of sacerdotal interpretation. In his Large Catechism, Martin Luther wrote, "But outside the Christian church (that is, where the Gospel is not) there is no forgiveness, and hence no holiness…. Therefore they remain in eternal wrath and damnation…. Outside of [the Christian church] no one can come to the Lord Jesus." Cyprian's teaching was put in no less striking terms by Calvin in his Catechism:

Minister: Why do you subjoin the forgiveness of sins to the Church?
Child: Because no one obtains it, unless he has previously been united with the people of God, cultivates this unity with the body of Christ up to the end, and thus testifies that he is a true member of the Church.
Minister: You conclude from this that outside the Church there is no salvation but only damnation and ruin?
Child: Certainly. Those who disrupt from the body of Christ and split its unity into schisms, are quite excluded from the hope of salvation, so long as they remain in dissidence of this kind.

While rejecting the claim that the church functions as a subject of salvation, the Reformers still upheld the instrumentality of the Church. Christ has faithfully served the Father's purpose to call out a people to himself, and the benefits of his redemption are extended among the Church that the Father has called and the Spirit has blessed. So Ursinus comments in his Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism: "outside the church there is no Saviour, and hence no salvation." Similarly, in the Second Helvetic Confession of 1562 we read: "we deny that those can live before God who do not stand in fellowship with the true Church of God, but separate themselves from it."

The Invisible Church?

Simply put, there can be no Christian life apart from the Church, according to the Reformers. No one can come to faith alone nor live by faith alone. Our faith is not from the Church, it is a gift from God (Eph. 2:8). But it comes through the Church, through whom the wisdom of God is made known (Eph. 3:10).

But what did the Reformers mean by the Church? It is rightly claimed by low church Protestants that the Reformers developed the distinction between the visible and invisible Church in part to refute the sacerdotal claims of Catholics. The invisible (to us), universal Church is "the whole number of the elect" from all ages (WCF 25.1), the "church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven" (Heb 12:23). The visible Church consists of confessing Christians and their children (WCF 25.2). The latter, of course, contains sinners and hypocrites, and is thus always, in this age, an imperfect embodiment of that Church visible only to God.

This distinction is often misunderstood, and contemporary interpreters in evangelical circles make more of it than the Reformers intended. The Reformers never suggested that the visible Church was of little or no importance. As the manifestation of the invisible Church to the world in time and place, the visible Church, though imperfect, remains the true Church, because it displays the marks of the Church. And it is the only Church that we can see and with which we can have fellowship. We have no Gnostic recourse to any other church than the visible Church.

Further, since the elect are in the invisible Church, to say that outside the invisible Church there is no salvation, is simply to say that outside of salvation there is no salvation. So to apply Cyprian's formula to the invisible Church is to render the expression a mere tautology. Lest we make that mistake, the tie to the visible Church is made explicit in the Westminster Confession of Faith:

"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" [emphasis added].

The Confession's clarification is accompanied by the qualification: "no ordinary possibility of salvation." What does "ordinary" mean? Does the Confession create a loophole in the Reformed teaching on the Church's necessity through which one could drive busloads of crusade-attending evangelicals? By no means. "Ordinary" must be understood in a precise way, and light is shed on this from the Westminster Shorter Catechism, Question 88:

Q. What are the outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicateth to us the benefits of redemption?
A. The outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicateth to us the benefits of redemption are, his ordinances, especially the Word, sacraments, and prayer; all which are made effectual to the elect for salvation.

The Divines speak of the means of grace as "ordinary means" of salvation. They are "ordinary" in the sense that this is how God is pleased to work in his elect. They are the Christian's regular diet, the diligent pursuit of which God has promised to bless. Thus, "ordinary" is not a qualifier that expands options for the Christian. We are not free to pursue other means of salvation. Rather, it is to protect the freedom of the Spirit of God to operate extraordinarily, when and where he chooses. It guards us from assuming that his grace is on tap, to be released in a uniform and predictable way at the command of the church, as the sacerdotalists claim.

To be sure, there are cases of individuals who are saved and yet are not united to the visible Church (we need only think of the penitent thief on the cross). But the Confession understands these situations as exceptional, and no Christian ought to presume to be the recipient of God's extraordinary operation. We have only the outward and ordinary means, which he dispenses only through his Church. For the Westminster divines, the Church remains as essential an instrument for the salvation of God's people as the Word, Sacraments, and prayer. A. A. Hodge comments: "God requires every one who loves Christ to confess him in the regular way of joining the community of his people and taking the sacramental badges of discipleship."

The Church Our Mother

To explain the centrality of the Church, Cyprian also employed the metaphor of the motherhood of the Church. "You cannot have God for your Father," he wrote, "unless you have the Church for your Mother." This image also was embraced by the Reformers, especially by Calvin:

"[L]et us learn even from the simple title "mother" how useful, indeed how necessary, it is that we should know [the church]. For there is no other way to enter life unless this mother conceive us in her womb, give us birth, nourish us at her breast, and lastly, unless she keep us under her care and guidance until, putting off mortal flesh, we become like the angels. Our weakness does not allow us to be dismissed from her school until we have been pupils all our lives. Furthermore, away from her bosom one cannot hope for any forgiveness of sins or any salvation. (1)

Calvin's recognition of human weakness and frailty, nurtured and attended by an enduring and all-embracing mother, carries important implications for the Church today that are frequently overlooked. Consider, for example, the current emphasis on the doctrine of adoption in Christian counseling. The line of reasoning goes much like this: "Yes, you have been abused, by your family, by your friends, even perhaps by your church. And you may have reason to conclude that no one is trustworthy. That is what God wants you to learn. God is teaching you that no one is trustworthy. You must distrust people in order that in your brokenness, when you learn that everything else will fail you, you can understand that God alone is to be trusted. And so, orphan, go home to Father, and live like sons and daughters."

Is this the biblical doctrine of adoption? What is dangerously reductionistic in this logic is the implication that adoption is the act of joining a single-parent family. Yet the very chapter of Paul that includes the principle proof text for adoption (Gal 4:5-7) argues also for the motherhood of the Church: "But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother" (v. 26). Calvin comments on this verse: "The Church is the mother, and she has the milk and the food that the Father has provided to nourish his adopted children." He concludes: "This is why the Church is called the mother of believers. And certainly, he who refuses to be a son of the Church desires in vain to have God as his Father. For it is only through the ministry of the Church that God begets sons for Himself and brings them up until they pass through adolescence and reach manhood."

Current thinking on adoption, in short, is too often laced with the individualistic and antinomian assumptions of our age. To choose simply to live on your own (as an orphan) or to trust in God alone (as a son) is to distort the biblical picture, because, as Calvin put it, we are sons also of the Church. We are to trust in God alone, but that trust is never alone. It is among the community of believers, the Church of Christ, under whose discipline that trust is cultivated and nurtured. In other words, just as sanctification is a consequence of justification, so also is adoption by the Church a consequence of our adoption by God. "Jerusalem is our mother," and it is her duty to feed her children. God has entrusted to her the spiritual growth of his people.

To be sure, most American Christians will make some begrudging acknowledgement of church membership, even submitting to the baptism of the church. But increasingly they are drawn to lower common denominator parachurch institutions that draw their loyalties away from the Church. For example, one of the promises of a Promise Keeper is "supporting the mission of the church." But that support is undermined when one also promises to reach "beyond any racial or denominational barriers to demonstrate the power of biblical unity." In its implicit moral equivalence of the evils of racism and denominationalism, Promise Keepers restricts the mission of the Church by preventing the Church from cultivating spiritual maturity through theological reflection.

This inclusive, "big tent" ecclesiology finds fuller expression in Westminster professor John Frame's recent book, Evangelical Reunion. Because we live in post-denominational times, Frame suggests that we must realign our priorities by establishing "trans-denominational loyalties." He writes: "Presbyterians ought to be good Christians first and good Presbyterians second, without neglecting either loyalty." This logic is to pit our Father against our mother. We have no Church beside the visible Church. It is her doctrine and worship we must uphold, and it is her peace and purity that we must maintain. And so a Presbyterian can be a good Christian only by being a good Presbyterian. In the same way, a Lutheran can be a good Christian only by being a good Lutheran. Good Christians are good churchmen.

Parachurch organizations have flourished in the fertile soil of American individualism. In Thomas Luckmann's words, American Protestantism is an "invisible religion," liberated from social attachment and devoid of institutional expression. (2) The depressing polling data that confirms this is all too familiar to us. While 95% of Americans believe in God, 44% of them are neither members nor regular attendees of any church, and further, even those who attend church have increasingly tenuous commitments, switching churches like brands of laundry detergent. As the Gallup organization concluded, "large majorities churched and unchurched agree that 'one should arrive at their religious beliefs independent of any church or synagogue.'" (3) Church attendance becomes incidental to the Christian life, resulting in what some have called "churchless Christianity."

It is often in the pursuit of an "Acts 2 Christianity," a spontaneous and Spirit-filled Christian life, that contemporary Christians react against the stifling "organizationalism" of today's churches. But ironically, that is to miss the very message of the story of Pentecost. Consider the masses that came to faith on that day. They were baptized and added to the Church (Acts 2:41), and then they immediately devoted themselves to the life of the Church, falling into the rhythm of observing the outward and ordinary means of grace (2:42). This is no Spirit-quenching institutionalization, but a manifestation of the order and unity in the Church that only the Spirit can provide.

Ecclesiastical Docetism

As we noted, the Reformers embraced the centrality of the Church without the sacerdotal errors of Rome. Still, we must concede that a high and necessary view of the Church will inevitably be mistaken for sacerdotalism in our low-church evangelical subculture. Indeed, if we are taking the Church as seriously in our day as Calvin and the Reformers did in theirs, we should expect that the false charge of sacerdotalism will gain currency.

On the other hand, those who level that charge ought to reflect on whether they are docetics. Duke University theologian William Willimon has observed that fundamentalists and liberals both share an embarrassment over the visible Church, and he rightly labels this impulse as docetic. In its ancient manifestation, Docetism claimed that Christ did not take on a fully human nature, but he only appeared human. In its modern form, docetics claim that the church is not really the body of Christ. Modern docetics would claim to love Christ all the while despising his body.

God's gathering of his people-the Church-lies at the heart of our identity as Christians. He has decreed to save a people for himself for the revelation of his glory. And he has foreordained all the means by which such is to be accomplished. It is to the Church that Christ has entrusted this ministry for the gathering and perfecting of the saints. It is the Church that God graciously endows with the means of grace, and he is especially pleased to make the preaching of the Word an effectual means of accomplishing that end.

And it is the Church which has the structure and location where theological reflection is to take place. As Richard Lints has argued, theology belongs to the Church, and either will abandon the other only at great peril. It is the Church, and only the Church, that is the definer and defender of orthodoxy, through its creeds and confessions-not Christian radio or television, not the academy, not the Evangelical Theological Society or even the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals.

The Christian life is the ecclesial life. The Bible lets us imagine no other. Faith in Christ inevitably prompts life in the Church. As the Belgic Confession puts it, the Church is "an assembly of those who are saved, and outside of it there is no salvation" (Art. 28). Thus "no person of whatsoever state or condition he may be ought to withdraw from it, content to be by himself." If we refuse to submit to its doctrine and discipline, we simply have no reason to think that we are saved.

Christians who seek to recover the theology of the Reformers in order to lead the Church into a modern Reformation are wise to reappropriate the "five solas" of the sixteenth century. In our anti-ecclesiastical context, we would do well also to consider a sixth sola. For any effort to renew our doctrine of God our Father, outside of whose love there is no salvation, will prove futile unless it is accompanied by a renewal of our doctrine of the Church our mother, outside of whose nurture there is no salvation. Sola Ecclesia.

1 [ Back ] John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.1.4.
2 [ Back ] See Luckmann's, The Invisible Religion: The Problem of Religion in Modern Society (New York: Macmillian, 1967).
3 [ Back ] George Gallup, Jr. and Jim Castelli, The People's Religion: American Faith in the 90s (New York: Macmillan, 1989), 138.
Thursday, August 2nd 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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