No salvation outside the church?
“And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.” So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.” (Acts 2:40-41, ESV)
“And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.” (Acts 2:47, ESV)
“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.” (Westminster Confession of Faith Ch. 25.2)
“We believe, since this holy congregation is an assembly of those who are saved and out of it there is no salvation, that no person of whatsoever state or condition he may be ought to withdraw himself to live in a separate state from it; but that all men are in duty bound to join and unite themselves with it, maintaining the unity of the Church; submitting themselves to the doctrine and discipline thereof; bowing their necks under the yoke of Jesus Christ; and as mutual members of the same body, serving to the edification of the brethren, according to the talents God has given them.
“And that this may be more effectually observed, it is the duty of all believers, according to the Word of God, to separate themselves from those who do not belong to the Church, and to join themselves to this congregation wheresoever God hath established it, even though the magistrates and edicts of princes be against it; yea, though they should suffer death or any other corporal punishment. Therefore all those who separate themselves from the same or do not join themselves to it, act contrary to the ordinance of God.” (The Belgic Confession of Faith, Article 28, “Every One Is Bound To Join Himself To The True Church”)
Our Reformed and Presbyterian forefathers in the faith taught that outside the visible church there is no ordinary possibility of salvation. They also taught the biblical gospel of justification by faith alone, apart from works. Are these two teachings contrary to each other, or at least in tension with one another? Is the high ecclesiology (= doctrine of the church) taught by our forefathers in the faith in tension with their emphasis on sola fide (= justification by faith alone)? Were they talking out of both sides of their mouths; or, worse, were they guilty of distorting or compromising the biblical gospel in favor of a false gospel? Over at Dr. R.S. Clark’s website “Heidelblog” there is a lively discussion on this very issue. On one of his blog posts I offered the following comments:
“In what sense is the church “necessary” for salvation? Obviously not in the sense that the church itself saves (a blasphemous and heretical notion!). (Only Christ saves, by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, apart from works, including the “work” of church membership.) But in the sense that Christ has entrusted to His visible church the objective, external means by which the elect are brought to justifying faith (especially the Word, for “faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God”) and preserved in faith (by the Word, sacraments and prayer).
“The reason there is no “ordinary” possibility of salvation outside of the visible church (as the historic Reformed confessions so clearly affirm) is because Christ has entrusted the objective means of salvation (gospel Word and sacraments) to the visible church, not to the parachurch or to unaccountable, self-appointed preachers or para-church “ministries.” The Word (especially as it is preached) is the objective means the Spirit ordinarily uses in conferring salvation (for faith cometh by hearing the Word); and faith is the subjective means by which the sinner receives and rests upon Christ alone as He is offered to us in the Word. So there is no contradiction between a proper (biblical-reformational) conception of there being “no ordinary possibility of salvation outside the church” (on the one hand), and justification by faith alone (on the other hand). (Keep in mind as well that “salvation” is a broader term than “justification,” for the salvation package includes not only justification, but also regeneration, effectual calling, conversion, adoption, sanctification, perseverance, and ultimately glorification.)
“Is a sinner automatically and irreversibly justified before God the moment he hears and receives the gospel with faith in Christ alone? Even if such a sinner is not a member of the visible church at the moment of his conversion? Absolutely yes! But if a sinner claims to be justified by faith in Christ but has no desire to be united to his brothers and sisters in the visible fellowship of Christ’s true church, do we have warrant for questioning the genuineness of such a sinner’s professed faith? Again, absolutely yes! No one here is teaching that we are justified by faith PLUS church membership. At the same time, those who are justified are also sanctified and desire to live in obedience to God under the Lordship of Jesus Christ. True justifying faith bears fruit in obedience. Stubbornly insubordinate “believers” who are unteachable and unwilling to submit to godly leadership in the visible church (as commanded in places such as Heb. 13:17) – such submission involving some form of church membership – demonstrate that they are unregenerate and hence lacking in justifying faith. “Believers” who go the “unchurch” route and become “self-feeders” (or perhaps join the large ranks of disconnected, serial church-hoppers) are either ignorant of their scriptural duty to be connected to a visible expression of the Body of Christ, or they are hypocrites and frauds who need to be called to repentance.”
Also, check out Dr. Clark’s post “On Churchless Evangelicals (Pt 1)” here: http://heidelblog.net/2013/04/on-churchless-evangelicals-pt1/