Quotable Church History: “Outside the church no salvation”
This is the second in a series on famous quotes from church history. We’re looking at who said these famous words, in what context, and whether it’s biblical.
Today’s notable quote is found in article 28 of the Belgic Confession,
We believe since this holy assembly and congregation is the assembly of the redeemed and there is no salvation outside of it, that no one ought to withdraw from it, content to be by himself, no matter what his status or standing may be.
We’re especially focussing on those words in italics: “there is no salvation outside of it.” These words (or words similar) are not unique to the Belgic Confession. You’ll find this notion expressed in other Reformed confessions like the Second Helvetic of 1566 (ch.17) and the Scottish Confession of 1560 (ch.16). The idea is also expressed by John Calvin in Institutes 4.1.4, “Furthermore, away from her [the church’s] bosom one cannot hope for any forgiveness of sins or any salvation…” However, none of these are the original source for the saying. In fact, the saying dates back to the early church.
Especially in scholarship the saying is often referred to in its Latin form: extra ecclesiam nulla salus [outside the church no salvation]. It’s often attributed to the church father Cyprian (200-258). Certainly Cyprian uses the expression in his book On the Unity of the Catholic Church. However, the original source is slightly earlier. Origen (185-254) used these words in a sermon on Joshua 2. Rahab and her family had to remain within their house if they were going to be saved during Jericho’s destruction. Origen explains this as a reference to the church: “Outside this house — which means outside the church — there is no salvation.” Not only Cyprian adopted this expression, but also Augustine. From the church fathers, it was also taken up into the Reformation’s teaching about the church.
But is this a biblical teaching? It must be said: the extra ecclesiam quote has sometimes been understood in an unbiblical way. It has been used by the Roman Catholic Church to claim that salvation depends on membership in their organization. It has been understood by some Reformed people to mean that salvation does not exist outside of their own particular church or federation of churches. In other words, if you are not a member of this church, then you are definitely lost. That makes salvation conditional on the right church membership. That goes not only beyond what the Scriptures teach, but against. The Bible teaches salvation in Christ alone (John 14:6, Acts 10:43, 1 Tim.2:5).
However, there is a biblical way to understand these words. These words, as used by the Belgic Confession and other Reformed confessions, should be understood in a normative sense. The norm is that Christians experience salvation through the ministry of the church of Jesus Christ — especially through the preaching of the good news. That is how God has ordained salvation to proceed. Because that’s the norm, no one should ever forsake or ignore the church. Her ministry is not superfluous, but necessary. Article 28 of the Belgic Confession appeals to Matthew 16:18-19 as a proof-text here. Christ entrusts the keys of the kingdom to Peter as the representative apostle. The keys of the kingdom are given to the church through the apostles. Binding and loosening happen through these keys: the preaching of the gospel and the administration of church discipline. Salvation is realized through the ministry of the church, not ordinarily outside of it.
This ancient saying is included in our confessional heritage to remind us that the church is not optional. While our salvation is not based on our church membership, our salvation is ordinarily mediated to us through the church’s ministry. The church and its ministry of Word and sacrament is where God has promised to be present to bless his people with life and growth in Christ. If that’s where he has promised to be present, why would you want to be anywhere else?