I’ve been struck lately with our confessional statement: “Out of [the visible church] there is no ordinary possibility of salvation” (WCF 25.2). Throughout history there have been a number of proponents who have stated as much. And while the Reformed don’t agree with the Roman Catholic understanding of this doctrine, it is, perhaps, surprising to read it. So what does our confession mean when we say that there is no ordinary possibility of salvation?
First, it is helpful to see the definition of the (visible) church. The same paragraph teaches that the church “consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and their children.” The church is nota boundary-less entity or filled with free floating individuals. Paul teaches that Christ is the head of his body the church (Col. 1:18). To be united to Christ necessitates that one be united to the body. And one is united to the body (i.e. the church) through their profession of faith (cf. Matt. 16:18; Acts 2:39, 41). One cannot, properly speaking, make a profession of faith without belonging to the church.
Second, it is helpful to see the duty of the church. The church exists to gather and perfect the saints (cf. Eph. 4:9–16). God has entrusted the church with the “ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God” (WCF 25.3). That is, God has entrusted the church with everything we need in order to grow up into the full stature of manhood in Christ Jesus (i.e. the ordinary means of grace). To use a simple analogy, the church is God’s seedbed where he administers his grace. To remove a flower from such a seedbed would result in death. And so to, to withdraw from the church or not belong to the church is to remove oneself from the very place God has promised to administer his grace.
Third, it is helpful to see the description of the church. We read in several informative passages how God views the church. We are told in Ephesians 5:25: “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” Similarly, Paul tells the elders in Ephesus that they must keep careful watch over the church of God because he has “obtained [it] with his own blood” (Acts 20:28). And we further read in Revelation that Christ will marry his sanctified and perfect and pure church. Thus, it is only those who are in the church who have any claim upon such love and mercy and grace.
Keeping these three things in mind helps us to understand the biblical language of the confession. Out of the church there is no ordinary possibility of salvation because God has sovereignly purposed to draw his people in all ages into union and communion with Christ through the ministry of the church.