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A Westminster Divine and Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus


The Way to Heaven
by John Philips (1585-1663)
edited by C. Matthew McMahon & Therese McMahon
Puritan Publications, USA, 2013
120 pp., Paperback $14.99
eBook $7.99
ISBN: 978-1-938721-95-3
eISBN: 978-1-938721-94-6



Some in our day claim that it is Roman Catholic or "extremist" to teach that outside the church there is no salvation (Latin: extra ecclesiam nulla salus), even though this is teaching of the historic Christian church, from the church fathers onwards, including the Reformers, their successors and the Reformation creeds: Luther's Larger Catechism, the Catechism of the Church of Geneva, Belgic Confession 28, Second Helvetic Confession 17 and Westminster Confession 25:2. Despite the provenance of the last-mentioned creed, some reckon that this doctrine is not really "British," but rather continental, foreign to "this sceptred isle."

John Philips' recently republished work should dispel all such erroneous notions. This book of 120 pages is a sustained argument that eternal life is only found in Christ's church, for it is, as its title proclaims, The Way to Heaven for those eternally elected by God, redeemed by Jesus Christ, irresistibly drawn by the Spirit and justified by faith alone.

John Philips or Phillips (1585-1663) was as British and, specifically, English, as one could be. Educated at Cambridge (B.A. and M.A.), he served pastorates in Suffolk and Kent. He ministered not only in England but also in Massachusetts in New England, then a British colony, before returning to (old) England. His wife, Elizabeth, was the sister of William Ames (1576-1633), a Congregationalist theologian, who laboured both in England and the Netherlands, where he observed the great Synod of Dordt (1618-1619). Philips began his ministry an Anglican or episcopalian, was a member of the largely Presbyterian Westminster Assembly and became congregational in his ecclesiology.

Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus

Philips (or his publisher, Felix Kingston of London) advertises and accurately summarizes the argument and content of The Way to Heaven in its original (1625) title page. The following six points are listed beneath the book's title, to which I have added comments in square brackets which further elucidate our author's reasoning:

  1. That salvation is only in the Church [the main thesis of the book]
  2. What the Church is [in which alone salvation is found]
  3. By what means men are added to the Church [in which alone salvation is found]
  4. The Author, or Efficient of this addition [to the Church in which alone salvation is found]
  5. The time and continuance of that work [of adding men to the Church in which alone salvation is found]
  6. The happiness of those that are added to the Church [and so enjoy salvation which is found only there] (6)

To this is appended the following pertinent biblical text: "This is the way, walk in it" (Isa. 30:21). The point is that the church is the way to heaven (as Philips' title puts it) for those justified by faith alone in Christ alone and so God's people must "walk in it" (6).

After his "Introductory Letter" (7-20), the English Puritan introduces his subject and makes some remarks on the (highly significant) text for his work: "And the Lord added to the Church daily such as should be saved" (Acts 2:47) (21-22), from which he draws "four remarkable observations:"

The first is the way to salvation; and that is, by being added to the Church.
The second is the Efficient Author of this addition, and that is the Lord God.
The third is the time and continuance of this work; and that is καθ᾽ ἡμέραν, daily, or from day to day.
The fourth is the happy end of such as are added to the Church, and that is salvation. They all, and they only, are such as shall be saved (22).

Turning to his "first observation," the English theologian presents his thesis: "it must be known and believed of all that desire salvation that the Regia via, the King of kings’ highway to heaven is the Church, without which Church, there is no salvation" (23).

To "demonstrate this truth," Philips turns first of all to the typology of "the ark of Noah, in which was most lively figured the Church of God. A type, twice alleged by Saint Peter, to this very purpose: to show that salvation is and only is in the Church" (23). This imagery has been judged by a few as popish when used by Prof. Engelsma in his Bound to Join, but it is cited as the first proof by a Westminster divine and referred to continually by him (e.g., 23, 46-48, 93, 104, 118-119). It is also found in Heinrich Bullinger's 1566 Second Helvetic Confession 17. Second, Philips explains the head-body union between Jesus Christ and His church (24).

Next, our author appeals to four other oft-recurring biblical pictures of the church: "This position, that salvation is to be had only in the Church, is not obscurely noted by those sacred families, so frequent in scripture, where the Church is resembled [1] to a house; [2] to a city, [3] to a mother, [4] to a vine" (24).

After treating each of these four in turn (25-30), the Westminster Assembly member identifies extra ecclesia nulla salus as a "divine truth" (46) or "doctrine" taught in the perspicuous Scriptures: "This doctrine of salvation in the Church only is not only thus illustrated by the bright-shining light of so many divine similitudes and parables, but is also warranted by evident and invincible reason, grounded on the word of God" (31).

Then Philips states two "undeniable" principles: first, "there is only one saving truth" which "truth is nowhere to be found but in the Church of God" (Isa. 16:2; I Tim. 3:15; John 16:13) and, second, "there are certain graces that accompany salvation (Heb. 6:9) which are the peculiar of the Church of God," namely, "The grace of election, the grace of vocation, the grace of justification, and the grace of sanctification; all of which jointly and independently have their period and end in glorification ... (Rom. 8:30)" (31-32).

This opening section of The Way to Heaven is remarkable in that at least once, and sometimes twice or three times, it is explicitly stated on each of its twelve pages (22-33), in varying formulations, that "salvation and freedom from eternal and utter ruin belongs only to the Church, the House of God, built firmly on the rock Jesus Christ" (25).

Next, Philips treats individually four steps in the ordo salutis or order of salvation: election, calling, justification and sanctification (33-42), showing how each is "such a property of the Church that it cannot possibly be separated from it" (34). "To conclude then, if there is no salvation without election, calling, justification, and sanctification; and none of these to be found, but only in the Church of God, it follows necessarily that there is no salvation out of the Church" (42).

So far we have considered the Westminster divine's arguments for extra ecclesiam nulla salus under two major heads: arguments from biblical images of the church (23-31) and arguments from the ordo salutis (32-42). Now we consider his third major head: arguments from the means of salvation, which are placed by God in Christ's church (42-45).

The Englishman explains the idea of the means of salvation and notes their ecclesiastical provenance:

There are certain means appointed of God to work and increase saving grace, which if they shall be found to be the prerogative of the Church, it cannot be denied, but that only there salvation is to be had; for in reason, the end cannot ordinarily be attained without the means leading unto it (42).

Philips enumerates four "means to effect and perfect man’s salvation:" "the written Word of God, called the Scriptures, the ministry of preaching the Word, the two sacraments of the New Testament, and prayer" (43). Quoting many apposite texts of God's Word, he proves that "these are the prerogatives of the Church" (43) and concludes, "Then we see that the means of salvation being only in the Church, salvation itself is only there, and not to be found elsewhere" (45).

On the basis of the foregoing (21-45), our Westminster divine makes four applicatory "remarks" (46). The first three expose errorists: people who think that those who lead "an outward civil life" may be saved in any religion, worldlings with no regard to the true religion and schismatics who "separate themselves from the society of the Church" over matters "merely adiaphorous or indifferent" (46-47).

The English Puritan's last and longest application is a forceful exhortation to join a true church:

This calls all men with a most forcible invitation, even as ever they desire to be saved, to enter timely into this straight gate that leads to life (Matt. 7:14). Many of the Egyptians and other strangers, when they saw the great works God did for his Church, and in what safe and happy condition the people were in, they were over; they left their own country alliance and friends, and joined themselves to the Jews (Exod. 12:38). This we should do—forsake all, and follow Christ (Mark 10:28); leave all societies for the communion of the saints; for the dove found no rest for the sole of her foot, but was fain to return into the ark again (Gen 8:9): so let a man compass the whole world, yet shall he never be able to find rest to his soul, until by entering into the Church, he take Christ’s yoke on him (Matt. 11:29) (48).

Three Objections

First, someone might object that Philips is teaching that there is no salvation outside the invisible church, the company of the predestinate. But even our consideration of The Way to Heaven so far excludes this, especially its treatment of the preaching and sacraments (43-45) which are found in the church institute, for "the roadway [to heaven] is to be joined with some visible orthodox congregation" (47).

The second "branch to be considered" in Philips' treatise, "what the Church is, where salvation is to be had" (49), is especially clear in answering this objection. The Westminster divine is careful "to distinguish the Orthodox and true Church from heretical assemblies" (56), sects or factions (49). The key issue for Philips is the marks or identifying characteristics of a true church. Our English theologian identifies two marks, faithful preaching and sacramental administration (55-58, 87-90), as do article 19 of The Thirty-Nine Articles (55) and John Calvin, though the latter also puts a high premium on proper church discipline.

Our Puritan also recalls the context of the theme text (Acts 2:47) for his book, for Peter's sermon on the day of Pentecost issued a call to repent and receive the sacrament of water baptism (Acts 2:37-38). The Westminster divine concludes, "The visible Church then, where whosoever will be saved must be reconciled, is the Congregation of the faithful" (59; cf. Acts 2:41-47).

After distinguishing two major uses of the word "church" in Scripture—the invisible church of all the elect and the visible church of particular, instituted congregations (52-56)—Philips concludes, "from hence we may derive the true definition of the Church, where they must be united that ever looked to be saved" (54). Then our theologian of old England and New England clearly declares that those who are saved are truly part of the church invisible and the church visible, and he helpfully repeats the key relationship between means and end:

It is out of all controversy that such [as are saved] must be the number of the elect (according to the first notion of the Church) as hath been shown before, upon the point of election, being the first grace, and fountain of all other graces accompanying salvation. But yet, because the elect are not subject to the eyes of men, but are only known to God, the sacred Scriptures direct us everywhere to the visible Church, according to the second notion: for whomsoever God does elect to the end, those he appoints to the means tending to that end. Such therefore as desire salvation, must join themselves to the visible Church ... (54-55).

Notice again the call to church membership: "the sacred Scriptures direct us everywhere to the visible Church ... Such therefore as desire salvation, must join themselves to the visible Church."

Second, a reader who is more familiar with fundamentalism or revivalism or modern evangelicalism (which are largely Anabaptist) than with the Reformed creeds and theology might think that Philips' ship is sailing near Rome. Far from it!

Philips engages in a lively polemic with the "Romish church" and its "Antichristian religion" (16), including its councils, publications and theologians, such as Cassander, Baronius, Bellarmine (especially), the Douay-Rheims Bible and Trent. This is evident throughout The Way to Heaven (e.g., 114-117) and especially in its lengthy second "branch" (49-105) which builds on the first "branch" which explained "that salvation is only to be found in the Church" by showing "what the Church is, where salvation is to be had" (105).

Our author shows himself a skilful controversialist particularly in his treatment of "a few" of "the manifold errors of the Romish church" (65). The English theologian ably refutes "a short catalogue" of thirteen of them (65-87), such as Rome's doctrines of papal authority, images, transubstantiation, private Masses, invocation of saints, etc., in order to give "a taste of the rest" which are also "palpably gross" (65).

Third, a reader with some grasp of Reformed soteriology with its sola fide but little knowledge of Reformed ecclesiology with its extra ecclesiam nulla salus might think that Philips is denying or compromising justification by faith alone. Not at all! Our Westminster divine is rock solid on this article of a standing or a falling church and especially deals with it in two different connections in The Way to Heaven (35-40, 108-111).

Philips gives this definition: "Justification, then, is an action of God, by which he, pardoning all sins, imputes righteousness to every true believer, out of his free grace and mercy, only on the merit of Jesus Christ" (36), which he then develops under six heads (36-39).

Head four unfolds the phrase "every true believer" as follows:

This righteousness is imputed to every true believer: for it is faith only by which we apprehend Christ with all his benefits ... It is here that faith only is said to justify, because it is the only instrumental cause of our justification, in that it alone doth apprehend Christ, by whom we are justified. Scriptures for this are plentiful, "from all things," says St. Paul in his sermon at Antioch, "from which ye could not be justified by the Law of Moses, by Christ, everyone that believeth, is justified" (Acts 13:39). And disputing the question of justification, he so determines it, "Therefore we conclude, that a man is justified by faith, without the deeds of the Law" (Rom. 3:28) (38).

Model Work

In various ways, The Way to Heaven presents a model of theological method. First, John Philips copiously quotes pertinent Scriptures. Second, he frequently appeals to the church's historic creeds: the Apostles' Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Athanasian Creed and The Thirty-Nine Articles, as well as the Book of Common Prayer. Third, he cites fitting instances in church history and felicitous passages from ecclesiastical authors, such as Cyprian, Hilary, Athanasius, Ambrose, Jerome, Augustine (especially), Leo, Gregory, Bede, Theophylact, Bernard of Clairvaux, Peter Lombard, Duns Scotus, Luther, Calvin, Chemnitz, William Fulke and others, as well as "secular" authors, such as Scipio, Seneca, Laurentius Valla, Erasmus and Polydore Virgil.

Our Westminster divine has a strong doctrine of God's sovereign grace (e.g., 32-42) over against man's alleged free will (116). He does not read into I Timothy 2:4 a frustrated divine desire to convert all men head for head; instead, he writes that "all men whom God will have saved, he will have 'to come to the knowledge of the truth' (I Tim. 2:4)" (31). Nor does Philips write of any futile wish in God to deliver absolutely everybody in II Peter 3:9, as if that explained why Christ has not returned. Rather, the Lord is adding to His church "daily, or from day to day … to the last day." Indeed, this divine work shall not fail until "the number of the elect is once complete." "This consideration of the time is of excellent use. It shows the patience of God, in waiting so long from day to day for conversion (II Pet. 3:9)" (117).

As befits one with a solid soteriology and ecclesiology, Puritan Philips explains that often elect believers are a "remnant," a minority even in the visible church (95-101). All "promises," "privileges," "prerogatives" and "benefits" of the church belong to those "effectually called," "the Israel of God, the Children of the Promise," says our Westminster divine, explicitly appealing to Romans 9 and citing Paul, Peter and Augustine in support:

That where many excellent privileges and comfortable promises belong to the Church, we must know that the sound and good heart only, and not the corrupt, is capable of those benefits. "I dare not," St. Augustine says, speaking of the prerogatives of the Church, "understand this, but of just and holy men." Therefore, St. Paul ties privileges to the true Israel of God, the Children of Promise (Rom. 9:4, 6, 8). And St. Peter, the promises, to them that are effectually called (Acts 2:39). By this we may see, both that the chief and most eminent, yes and the greatest number in the Church, if they lack true saving grace, have no right to the privileges and promises of the Church, though they live in the midst of it (99).

Note too that that these "comfortable promises belong to … the sound and good heart only, and not the corrupt … [who] have no right to the privileges and promises of the Church, though they live in the midst of it." Sounds very like Herman Hoeksema on the covenant!

As regards the sacraments, our English theologian agrees with Calvin's teaching on Christ's real, spiritual presence in the Lord's Supper (74) and on baptism as an "effectual seal" of the "covenant" 111-113). Philips opposes the Anabaptists' rejection of infant baptism (113) and warns against "neglecting so weighty a duty," arguing, "If the Jew, for the neglect of Circumcision was to be cut off, how shall the Christian be excusable (Gen. 17:14)? How shall he escape for the omitting of so great a Sacrament (Heb. 2:3)?" (114).

Our author also has some powerful applications to preachers and hearers (106-108), concluding with these words, "Set down then this resolution in your heart, with the faithful in the Psalm; 'I will hear what God the Lord shall speak: for he will speak peace unto his people, and to his Saints: but let not them turn again to folly' (Ps. 85:8)" (108).


Matthew McMahon and his wife, Therese, are to be commended for editing, updating and publishing this "very famous work" (5), John Philips' The Way to Heaven. Well done!

If this reprinting of the book is important, the occasion for its first printing is unusual and intriguing: the misconstrual of one of his funeral sermons, which report was seized upon by a censor, as Philips explains in part of his "Introductory letter" (10-18).

If misconstruals and one censor occasioned the publication of John Philips' The Way to Heaven by Felix Kingston in London in 1625, many misconstruals by many censors arose before and after the publication of Prof. Engelsma's Bound to Join by the RFPA in Jenison in 2010. Moreover, if the Westminster divine had lived in the twenty-first century and members of the British Reformed Fellowship in 2004 had asked him for instruction on joining a true church, he would have given essentially the same answer as Prof. Engelsma, except that the Puritan would have been more detailed on extra ecclesiam nulla salus than the Professor!

For more on extra ecclesiam nulla salus in the Christian and Reformation tradition, see Angus Stewart, "Bound to Join: Review and Defence."