Next year will feature an important date. October 31st, 2017 is 500 years to the day after the reformer Martin Luther famously nailed the 95 Thesis to the church door in
an event that is traditionally known as the start of the Protestant
Reformation. Those of us looking back half a millennium to those heroic
reformers, from Luther and Calvin to Hubmaier and Sattler, see a cataclysmic
event, nothing less than the recovery of the Biblical Gospel, bringing it out
of the shadows of Roman efforts to bury the Gospel of Christ under layers of
ritual, superstition and authoritarianism.
A lot has changed over the last 500 years, much of it for the better. While the splintering and re-splintering of Protestant, evangelical Christianity is deplorable as is the rise of the church-state Protestant monster to compete with or even replace the Roman church-state monster, there has also been an incredible movement of the Holy Spirit. Millions upon millions, tens or hundreds of millions, have been saved by the Gospel of Christ, a Gospel of free grace apart from works. It is a Gospel that is not simply different from but the very antithesis of the religion promoted by
Rome. When you examine topics like
justification and the Holy Spirit, it is apparent that Rome and evangelicalism are not talking about
the same thing in spite of contemporary efforts to gloss over these differences for he purpose of political alliances.
There is one place where that clear and shining divider between the Kingdom and man-made religion is not as apparent and that is how the church is understood. Sure there is plenty of material that has been written over the centuries that highlight the Christian view of the church as opposed to the Roman view but in practice there is a lot that is the same. I was reminded of this in a link from Tim Challies that grabbed my attention right away. The title of the post is this question: Can We Be SavedWithout The Church?.
What a crazy and ultimately meaningless question. To be saved is to be in the church and you are in the church if you are saved. The two go hand and hand. When one is born-again he becomes part of the new creation in Christ, His Body we call the church. In other words it is impossible to be saved and not be part of the church but here is where it gets tricky. When someone is saved, born-again, regenerated they by definition become part of the church but one is not saved by becoming part of the church. Being baptized and showing up on Sunday don't save you. Regeneration precedes adoption although functionally they are happening at the same time. Being adopted into the family of God and becoming part of the church is a result of salvation, not a catalyst for salvation. So if you ask if someone can be saved and yet not be part of the church, of course the answer is no. The two are inseparable.
But that isn't what the question is asking in this post. What is being asked is this, can I be saved if I am not a participant in the ritual and practice of organized religion? That is easily answered in Catholicism. No you cannot. You cannot be a Catholic without the rituals involved in Catholic religion, the Mass, the confessional, the sacraments. As I have stated before, these sacramental rituals are given the power of justification and forgiveness specifically to be a means of controlling people. If an organized religious organization controls the means of access to God, then it controls you. If you step out of line, especially if you ask the wrong questions, you get cut off from the religion and therefore you believe you are cut off from God. So you keep your mouth shut and don't rock the boat and as long as you go to the confessional to spill the beans pretty much anything goes and can be covered by a few Hail Mary's and Our Father's. But is that true in evangelicalism, in Biblical Christianity? No but you might not realize that based on this post from Andrew Wilson.
is quoting Cyprian and an author named Marcus Peter Johnson with minimal thoughts of his own. The quotes from
Cyprian are pretty well known and are, as in this case, usually tossed out as
authoritative and deep without any interaction:
Extra ecclesiam nulla salus, said Cyprian of Carthage: "Outside of the Church, there is no salvation." Even more provocatively: "he cannot have God as Father who doesn't have the Church as Mother." Emphatic stuff.
Call me crazy but being a Christian who could be categorized as evangelical, fundamentalist, Reformed and Anabaptist means that I don't hold the opinions of Cyprian as authoritative and infallible. He said something, it is up to the Scriptures to affirm or deny in whole or in part what he said. I am not going to spend any time interacting with Cyprian because
Wilson doesn't either
except to remark that it is "emphatic stuff". Bill Clinton can get up
and say emphatically that his "wife" would make a great President but it doesn't make it so. Onward.
The first reason ... is that the proclamation of the gospel, the good news of salvation, is intimately bound up with the proclamation of the church. To proclaim the mystery of Christ includes the proclamation of the mystery of the church [he then cites and summarises Gal 3:26-28; Eph 3:1-12; 5:31-32; 1 Cor 6:15].
All well and good. Viewed through the linkage I briefly explained previously that salvation and the church are inextricably linked, that makes total sense, although the cause and effect make all of the difference. It is the second paragraph where we run into problems (bold type mine).
Our union with Christ provides a second reason ... It is important to point out that the Protestant Reformers affirmed that there is no salvation outside of the church precisely because there is no salvation outside of Christ. They were convinced that the church is the body of Christ, and that Christ is truly present in and through the church in the divinely ordained means of Word and sacrament. For them, a rejection of the extra ecclesiam would have meant a rejection of these dearly held, fundamental ecclesiological realities.
See how that is slipped in there. In one sentence you have a Biblical truth "the church is the body of Christ" but then they slide in the additional stuff, Christ is "truly", i.e. "only" present in the religious sacramental ritual of "communion" and the preached word, i.e. a sermon delivered by clergy. In that little fragment of a sentence you have the basis for a Protestant system that functions much like the Roman system, and in fact you see the definition of the church shift from the Body of Christ to religious organizations. The means of access to Christ, to be truly in communion with Him, is only found in the rituals of the institutionalized church and the church can only gather and properly function when an ordained cleric is officiating. Just a few words, not even a complete sentence, but it throws sand in the face of the foundations of the Reformation, or at least what the Reformation ought to have been.
What troubles me almost as much as assertions like the one Johnson makes and Wilson affirms is not just what it says but how unreservedly and blithely most Christians just accept it. That is the result of both a general inability of most Christians to read, interpret and apply Scripture on their own and at the same time the people who are subcontracted with the task of exegesis on behalf of the church are also vocationally incentivized to perpetuate the modified Roman ecclesiology that makes them indispensable to the church and therefore puts them in a position to demand a permanent salaried job within the church. We can't have the church without the "sacraments" and the sermon and we can't have the sacraments or sermon without the clergy and as the regular Christian is not qualified to officiate the sacraments and sermon we have to hire men with specific religious training to do both on our behalf. These same men reinforce the notion that they are indispensable to the genuine Christian life of a disciple.
Can one be saved apart from the church? If you define the church as the Bible does, the people of God distinct from any religious organization, then no, of course not. If you define the "church" as the people of God and a visible religious organization run by clergy, then yes you can. One doesn't have to be part of a "church" as a condition of salvation. If that were true then there wouldn't be any Christians in the Bible. The thief on the cross, the Ethiopian eunuch, Paul in the wilderness. All were saved and part of the church and in none of those cases was there a pastor giving a sermon and officiating the sacraments. Nowhere in the New Testament do we see described or commanded what we would recognize as a "worship service", not even in Acts 20: 7-12 which I have addressed on multiple occasions.
There are many benefits to communal worship, prayer and edification, even in the context of a very traditional institutional church. I would agree that Christianity is not intended to be lived out in isolation from other believers but that doesn't demand a specific, clergy-centered, event-driven religious organization. Don't let anyone tell you that you can't possibly be saved unless you join their little religious club. Jesus determines who is His and He died for a people, a nation within nations, a family of adopted sinners made new creatures, moving from dead sinners to children of God. He didn't die and rise again to provide full employment for seminary graduates.