For some, saying that outside the church there is no salvation is self-evident to the point of being redundant. If all those who are saved or will be saved make up the true church—the Body of Christ—then of course those who are outside the church are not saved. Saying, “excluded from the church” is simply another way of saying “unsaved.” Once individuals are saved, they are also included in the church.
However, some understand the idea in a different way. Roman Catholic theology holds to extra Ecclesiam nulla salus (“outside the church, no salvation”). Salvation is only available through the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) because the RCC is where Christ dwells and is the dispenser of the grace of Christ. It is through the sacraments of the RCC that are under the control of the RCC and administered by priests within the RCC that one can access the grace of Christ necessary for salvation.
Thomas Aquinas taught that outside the church there is no salvation: “The unity of the Church exists primarily because of the unity of faith; for the Church is nothing else than the aggregate of the faithful. And because without faith it is impossible to please God, for this reason there is no room for salvation outside the Church. Now the salvation of the faithful is consummated through the sacraments of the Church, in which [sacraments] the power of the Passion of Christ is effective” (Exposition Primae Decretalis ad Archdiaconum Tudertinum, ed. by Fr. R. Verardo, Opusculum Theologica, Vol. I, Marietta, Turin, 1954, p. 425).
In 1302, Pope Boniface VIII issued a papal bull in which he emphatically declared the doctrine of extra Ecclesiam nulla salus: “The Church is one, holy, catholic, and also apostolic. We believe in her firmly and we confess with simplicity that outside of her there is neither salvation nor the remission of sins. . . . It is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff” (Unam Sanctum, Papal Encyclicals Online, www.papalencyclicals.net/bon08/b8unam.htm, accessed 6/16/22).
In the early twentieth century, Pope Leo XIII continued to affirm the Catholic doctrine there is no salvation outside of the Roman Church: “This is our last lesson to you: receive it, engrave it in your minds, all of you: by God’s commandment salvation is to be found nowhere but in the Church; the strong and effective instrument of salvation is none other than the Roman Pontificate” (“Allocution for the 25th Anniversary of His Election,” February 20, 1903, Papal Teachings: The Church, Benedictine Monks of Solesmes, St. Paul Editions, 1962, ¶ 653).
And this from Pope John Paul II in 1981: “The mystery of salvation is revealed to us and is continued and accomplished in the Church . . . and from this genuine and single source, like ‘humble, useful, precious and chaste’ water, it reaches the whole world. . . . We have to be conscious and absorb this fundamental and revealed truth, consecrated by tradition: ‘There is no salvation outside the Church.’ From her alone there flows surely and fully the life-giving force destined in Christ and in His Spirit” (“Radio Message for Franciscan Vigil in St. Peter’s and Assisi,” October 3, 1981, L’Osservatore Romano, October 12, 1981).
All of the above shows that the Roman Catholic Church sees itself as the sole proprietor of salvation, and outside of the Church there is no salvation.
In recent years, the doctrine of extra Ecclesiam nulla salus has been softened to a degree. Current Catholic teaching would allow an exception for those who are inculpably ignorant, that is, those who did not know about Christ or the RCC and therefore did not knowingly reject either. Another exception is made for those who have a deficient understanding of the truth but act according to their best understanding of the truth. Some Protestants would be placed in this category as would people of other religions the world over. Given the current state of affairs, it seems that the teaching of “outside the church there is no salvation” would only apply to willful heretics.
Evangelicals would prefer the saying “outside of Christ there is no salvation,” meaning that apart from faith in Christ, no one can be saved. This would include people who have never heard of Christ. They are not judged for failing to believe in One of whom they have never heard but for failing to obey God’s law revealed to them. According to Romans 1, no one has ever lived up to God’s law as revealed. Therefore, all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). “All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law” (Romans 2:12). Therefore, all need to hear the gospel. Without believing the good news, no one can be saved.