When discussing salvation, the Catholic Church sometimes uses the term “extra ecclesiam nulla salus.” This is a Latin phrase meaning “outside the Church there is no salvation.” In Scripture, the word “church” means “called out ones,” and it refers to believers / saints (Acts 2:47), i.e., all those who are saved, throughout the world (Ephesians 5:23; Colossians 1:17-18), and sometimes it refers to the local assembly of believers (1 Corinthians 1:2; Galatians 1:2; Revelation chapters 1 and 2).
If the biblical definition of “the church” is what is meant in this Latin slogan, then it is somewhat redundant. It is like saying that there are no Christians outside Christianity. But that is self-evident. But what does the Catholic Church mean by “the Church” in this context? Are they referring to all true believers, no matter what denomination or group you belong to? No, when they say “the Church” here, they mean only the Catholic Church, the organization / institution headed by the Vatican in Rome, the supposed “One True Church.” They are claiming that no one outside the Catholic Church can be saved. If there is any doubt about this definition, here are just a few official Catholic sources to prove the point:
- In the Lateran Council (A.D. 1215), Pope Innocent III wrote about the Catholic Church: “One indeed is the universal Church of the faithful, outside which no one at all is saved…” (Emphasis added)
- On November 18, 1302, Pope Boniface VIII wrote in a papal encyclical / bull called “Unam Sanctam”: “Furthermore, we declare, we proclaim, we define that it is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff [the pope].” (Emphasis added)
- In 1441, at the Council of Florence, Pope Eugene IV, in the papal bull, “Cantate Domino,” wrote: “It [the Catholic Church] firmly believes, professes, and proclaims that those not living within the Catholic Church, not only pagans, but also Jews and heretics and schismatics cannot become participants in eternal life, but will depart ‘into everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels’ (Matt. 25:41), unless before the end of life the same have been added to the flock… ”
- The Catechism of the Catholic Church, teaches the same concept, but in a softer, less abrasive, more ecumenical language, “reformulated positively.” CCC #846, quoting the dogmatic constitution Lumen Gentium (LG 14), says: “Basing itself on Scripture and Tradition, the Council [Vatican II] teaches that the Church, a pilgrim now on earth, is necessary for salvation…” (Emphasis added)
In the past, the Catholic Church has hurled many anathemas (declarations of condemnation) toward Protestants and other non-Catholics. But it seems that today it is not as blunt as it used to be, but is more concerned now about using ecumenical, “separated brethren” language that is not as offensive. However, the point remains. They are clearly telling us that one needs to be a member of the Catholic Church to make it into Heaven. They’re not saying that all Catholics are saved, but that only faithful Catholics are.
However, in all fairness, the Catholic Church does also teach that a non-Catholic can still possibly be saved, if he is “invincibly ignorant” about the Church, “through no fault of his own” (CCC #847). We can agree with the concept that a person who has never heard of Jesus Christ (and perhaps never will) can still be saved if he reaches out for God (Acts 17:26-27; Romans 1:18-20). But these people are the exceptions to the rule. We don’t have a problem with these exceptions. But we do have a problem with the Catholic Church claiming that the norm is that no one is saved apart from the Catholic Church. That’s an extraordinary claim, and as we’ve said many times before, extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. But biblical proof of this teaching is not to be found.
Catholicism’s concept of “extra ecclesiam nulla salus” exists because of their belief that they are the “One True Church,” as mentioned earlier. And why do they say this? Mainly because they believe:
- The Catholic Church has all the right sacraments.
- The Catholic Church has “Sacred Tradition.”
- The Catholic Church has a leader in the pope who unifies its people, backed by apostolic succession.
- The Catholic Church has the “four marks of the true church,” and therefore, the fullness of the truth.
But we would respond in this way:
1) Concerning the sacraments, it is (supposedly) through these that one can obtain and maintain eternal life, especially baptism, the Eucharist, and confession to a priest. For the Catholic, the sacraments are inseparably tied into salvation (CCC #1129). But there are some major problems with this system of salvation by works. See here:
2) Concerning “Sacred Tradition,” not only does this teaching have some special problems, it has an identity crisis, as well. See here:
3) Concerning the concept of a pope, there is nothing in Scripture that teaches there is such a person or such a position in the church. Furthermore, the Catholic Church’s concept of “apostolic succession” is not scriptural either, and it is morally and historically unsustainable. See here:
4) Concerning the “four marks of the true church,” the Catholic Church cannot claim either the fullness of the truth, nor can it claim all four marks. Actually, they cannot even claim one of the marks in the way they define them. See here for a four-part series of articles addressing this topic:
In conclusion, this idea that there is no salvation outside the Catholic Church is a trap; it is just as much a trap as Eve’s temptation in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:1-6). The temptations may not be the same, but the end result is: spiritual death (Genesis 2:16-17).
When a person joins the Catholic Church, he is hoping to obtain eternal life, but if he is faithful to the Church’s teachings, he will only have a system which attempts to gain salvation through faith plus works - a network of bondage that enslaves its members from cradle to grave. It is a method in which there is no power to save. It is precisely the type of system that the Apostle Paul warned us about in Galatians 1:8-9, one which condemns the individual because it attempts to add our pitiful, imperfect works to the perfect, complete, and absolutely sufficient work that Jesus did on the cross (Romans 5:9; Hebrews 9:11-14; 10:16-20).
The bottom line is that “No Salvation outside the Catholic Church” is an arrogant and unscriptural concept that has burdened and entangled millions of souls. So, dear friend, what will you do? Will you give in to the many unproven claims of the Catholic Church… or will you submit to the simple gospel of Jesus Christ, which is the power of God unto salvation (Romans 1:16)?