Believes there is No Salvation outside the Church
Where's the Church in our Passion reading? Not one disciple is mentioned. Barabbas, Simon of Cyrene, and 2 criminals are. One we know joined the Church; one we know didn't; one we think so; one we hope so, but the real question is what about you? Why? Because a Creed for the 3rd millennium believes there's no salvation outside the Church.
That there is no salvation outside of the Church is a teaching confessed already in the early church, but be clear on what it means. First let's say what it doesn't mean. It doesn't mean what the Roman Catholic Church historically taught, and neither does it mean what they are teaching now. As usual the pendulum has swung from one extreme to the other.
Historically Catholicism said if you weren't under the pope you couldn't be saved. "'We declare, state, define, and pronounce that it is altogether necessary to salvation for every human creature to be subject to the Roman Pontiff" said Unam Sanctam in 1302. ( http://www.newadvent.org /cathen/ 15126a.htm). They now say "all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body" (Catechism, 846). There is salvation not only outside of the Catholic Church, which is correct, but outside of the Christian church altogether. I quote: "Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience - those too may achieve eternal salvation" (847). They specifically mention Muslims: "The plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator, in the first place amongst whom are the Muslims" (842).
You could argue that Barabbas probably acknowledged the Creator, Simon of Cyrene was sincere, and both moved by grace did their best, so they were saved. But the Catholics aren't the only ones erring in this article of faith. So do we when we think as long a person has their name on a roll they are a member of the church and have salvation. On Judgment Day Jesus doesn't check the rolls of this or any other church to determine who is saved. The original error of the Catholic was that you had to be in their visible organization to be saved. That error persists among us when we think church roll equals heavenly roll, or when we think salvation is found in a visible institution with a budget, a constitution, bylaws, and a building.
If the Church of which we speak when we say there is no salvation outside of it is not a particular church like Catholic or Lutheran; and if being a member of the Church is not the same as having your name on some visible church's rolls; and if there is no salvation in the walls, constitution, and organization called a church, just what does it mean to say there is no salvation outside of the Church?
Listen to what we confess in our 3rd millennium Creed: only in the Church does the Spirit call, gather, enlighten, sanctify, and keep people with Jesus Christ. It's true: Jesus is condemned for all sinners. It's true: He takes up the cross for all humanity. It's true: He was the growing and thriving green tree that was destroyed for the sake of all dry trees. But nowhere else on earth is the Holy Spirit calling sinners to salvation in Jesus' name, gathering them under the cross for safety, enlightening them with Faith, or giving them the holiness Christ won, except in the Christian Church.
How can you folks who have grown up confessing "in this Christian Church He daily and richly forgives all my sins," look for forgiveness anywhere else but here? How many fights have I had over the decades with members who acted like their spouse, child, cousin, friend, grandchild had forgiveness of sins though they never went to church? Why do you contradict your own creed? You say it's inside the Christian Church that there is forgiveness not outside of it. I shouldn't be so hard on you. I've heard confessional Lutheran pastors argue for churchless Christianity.
All arguing for churchless Christians go to the same place. The person was baptized, was confirmed. At one time they confessed the faith, so even though they've spent a lifetime outside the calling, gathering, enlightening, sanctifying, and keeping of the Spirit they can nevertheless be counted inside the Church. Do you know what I've found? Those trying to defend someone else having faith almost always end up destroying their own. Second, such an argument forgets last week's sermon. Faith is not a thing once given that remains with you and as long as you aim it toward God you're saved. The Holy Spirit working in Word and Sacrament creates and keeps faith. Apart from them you can have manmade faith but not saving faith.
What about our Passion reading? Doesn't Jesus say, "Father forgive them for they know not what they do?" Yes, Jesus is pleading for forgiveness for all people everywhere. He's pleading for forgiveness for the Roman who holds the nine inch spike and the other Roman swinging the hammer. He's pleading for forgiveness for those lifting His crucified body upright as the full weight of His body pulls on the nail holes. He's pleading for forgiveness for all as God's wrath against every one of our sins we try to forget and the sins of others we won't forget washes over Him like hot lava.
Well then, if Jesus did this for Roman soldiers who could give a fig about who they were crucifying, if Jesus did this for the Jews who made fun of His suffering, if Jesus did this even for ungodly, enemies as Romans 5 says He most certainly did, then certainly He did it for my loved one, my friend, and even for my Hindu neighbor and Muslim co-worker who don't go to church and were never baptized or confirmed. Yes, yes, a billion times yes. The Body of Christ suffers damnation and death on the cross for all. In the Body of Christ salvation is for all. So where is His Body? Ephesians 1 answers: "God placed all things under Jesus' feet and appointed Him to be head over everything for the Church, which is His body."
The Body of Christ on the cross won salvation for all; the Body of Christ on earth today, the Church, distributes salvation to all. There is no forgiveness of sins either daily or richly outside of Jesus' Body, and there is no eternal life either. While our Creed confesses that on the Last Day the Spirit will raise all the dead, we also confess that He only gives eternal life "to me and all believers in Christ." The rest are raised to eternal dying.
Get it through your head. There's no eternal life in your heart, life, feeling, body, or soul, so stop looking for it there. Eternal life is outside of you in the Body of Christ. Since the Fall we find only death in our bodies, souls, lives, and minds. God the Son came into a body to win everlasting life for us. Being God He could not die. Being perfect Man He didn't deserve to die. But die He did. He died the death you know you deserve: shamed, blamed, guilty as hell, and painful in the extreme. This not only pleased the Father it satisfied His wrath, so the Father raised Jesus. The risen Jesus sent the forgiveness of sins and the eternal life He won with His body for the world out into the world in the preaching, teaching, baptizing, absolving, and communing of His Church, His Body on earth.
A 3rd Millennium Creed confesses that there is no salvation outside of the Church, which is the Body of Christ, and it confesses there is only One Body, one Church. We don't say, "I believe in holy Christian Churches" but "the" holy Christian Church. You will say, "That's ridiculous. There are over 20,000 Christian denominations, and you expect me to believe there is only one Church?" First, that is what all Christians everywhere confess in the Apostles' Creed. It is an ecumenical creed; that means all Christians confess it. Second, that is what Holy Scripture teaches: Ephesians 4 says, "There is one Lord, one Faith." Third, as a Russian proverb has it, "'The walls of separation do not reach up to heaven" (Oxford History of Worship, 743).
Fourth, look at the Passion reading. Look at all the opinions of who Jesus was. Pilate thought Him an innocent man. The Jewish leaders thought Him an enemy. Simon of Cyrene thought Jesus was someone who ruined His plans. The women thought Jesus worthy of pity, and the criminals that He was one of their own. Did all of these conflicting opinions destroy the fact that there was only one Jesus? Did all of the different opinions mean the true Jesus couldn't be known?
Fifth, disabuse yourself of the notion that it's only our time that has a dizzying array of churches. When Paul died the church was divided though he struggled against schism and heresy all his ministry. Ignatius went to his martyr's death with the church hopelessly torn by Gnosticism. When Constantine turned to the church for a source of unity for his empire he found to his shock the church of Africa had been split by the Donatist controversy. After conquering the East he found the church torn apart by the Arian controversy. A person who looked into becoming a Christian in Rome about 150 A.D. found himself in the same place a person today does. He had to ask himself, "Where is the true church" (The Lonely Way, II, 185-7)?
Our Lutheran Confessions say that the article of faith that there is only one holy, Christian Church is given us so we don't despair (AP VII/VIII 9-10). Don't despair because you see so many conflicting churches. The Body of Christ, the one holy, Christian Church, is still on earth. It can never be divided and it won't be removed till Her Head, Christ, descends with a shout of triumph. Wherever the Gospel is preached purely; wherever the Sacraments are dispensed as Christ directed, there you find His Church. In this Church you find the Spirit calling, gathering, enlightening, sanctifying and keeping. In this Church you find sins daily and richly forgiven. In this Church you find eternal life given to the dead.
That's the thing with the true Church. The world has a habit of counting it dead, done for. There was no one on earth from Good Friday to Easter morning who thought anything other than the Body of Christ was dead and gone. But like the physical Body of Christ, His Spiritual Body, the Church, has the habit of rising again just as Her enemies are gloating and Her members despairing. Let us not despair at the apparent dividedness, weakness, or deadness of the Body of Christ that those outside of Her rejoice in; let us rejoice in the certain salvation we always have inside of Her. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Midweek V (20130313); 3rd Article, Passion Reading V