I’ve just finished Marcus Peter Johnson’s One With Christ: An Evangelical Theology of Salvation, and somewhat surprisingly (and refreshingly) he concludes his survey with a chapter on the church, probing exactly this issue. Was Cyprian right? Can we be saved without the Church?
No. Johnson says this for three reasons:
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].
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.
A third reason it would be salutary for the evangelical church to affirm that there is no salvation outside the church is the historical significance of this affirmation …
On this last point, Johnson quotes a storming paragraph from Thomas Torrance, which is well worth reflecting on:
In the Apostles’ Creed the church is given a place within the articles of faith under faith in the Holy Spirit, and is bracketed together with the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. The doctrine of the church belongs to the doctrines of saving faith. It does not belong to the periphery of the faith, to some marginal area which is not important and where differences of opinion do not matter very much. On the contrary, it is essentially evangelical doctrine inseparably bound up with faith in the holy Trinity and with the saving operation of Christ through the Holy Spirit.
Cyprian was right.