What We Believe

The Ark of Safety: Is There Salvation Outside of the Church? by Ryan M. McGraw. Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage, 2018, 125 pages, $10.00, paperback.

This little book is part of The Exploration in Reformed Confessional Theology series, intended to “clarify” some of the more “controversial” confessional statements found in the Reformed doctrinal standards. These books look at controversial issues from four vantage points: textual matters dealing with the variations in confessional texts, the historical background to confessions and to the issues at hand, the theological doctrine and its biblical support, and the pastoral point of view as far as how the issue affects God’s people.

The Ark of Safety is concerned with Westminster Confession of Faith 25.2,

The visible church, which is also catholic or universal under the gospel (not confined to one nation, as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children: and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.

The very last part of article 25.2, “out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation” is the particularly “controversial” part of the statement addressed by the author, Ryan M. McGraw. He is the Morton H. Smith professor of Systematic Theology at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.

The Ark of Safety is the church. In an absolute sense, the invisible church. As a general rule with few exceptions, there is no salvation outside of the visible church. We expect very few outside of the visible church to be saved, in comparison with what the Bible would indicate is the “norm” for the vast majority of the redeemed. McGraw summarizes the historical development of the distinction between the invisible church (all true believers) and the visible church (all who profess the Gospel and their children). Bullinger, Ames, the Belgic Confession, Calvin, and Ursinus all recognized on some level, even if only a preliminary level, this distinction. All saw the necessity of the church, some emphasizing the invisible almost exclusively, and others more clearly speaking of both the invisible and the visible church. No one is saved outside the invisible church, and the necessity of the means of grace (particularly the preaching of the Gospel) is so critical that few are saved without the visible church. Owen, Turretin, à Brakel and Witsius are also examined as to their own statements regarding the necessity of the church, and how their views related to this visible and invisible distinction.

In the Westminster Confession provision is made for elect infants dying in infancy and those elect so mentally handicapped from birth that they are unable to comprehend the Gospel intellectually (WCF 10.3). However, those in pagan lands are not included in this exception (WCF 10.4).

Part two of the book deals with theology. It asks the question, “Is WCF 25.2 Biblical?” First, the Old Testament is examined as far as a “church within the church,” that is, those within national Israel who manifested faith and repentance and not just adherence to outward ordinances only. Perhaps something of the distinction between the visible and invisible church can be seen in the old covenant in seed form. Both Isaac and Ishmael are in the visible church, if one considers circumcision. However, Ishmael is not the seed of the promise. Jeremiah 31:31–34 is seen as a prophecy of the coming new covenant and of the relative difference between “old and new covenants.” “The difference between the old and new covenants is more in degree than in substance” (66), which seems to be in accord with WCF 7.5–6. The percentage of those in the visible church who are also part of the invisible church is much higher in the new covenant than in the old covenant.

McGraw follows up with two chapters on the New Testament, “The Visible Church in the New Testament” and “The Invisible Church in the New Testament.” As far as the visible church, he demonstrates that the New Testament manifests an important expansion of the visible church, as the gospel is taken forth to all nations. He shows that baptism is the sacrament of admission to the visible church, dealing with the theological parallels between baptism and circumcision. As he concludes the chapter on the visible church in the New Testament, at the very least we see it is the visible church that brings the gospel to sinners. Baptism is part of our message, and baptism puts one into the visible church. He concludes this chapter with Westminster Larger Catechism 63, which stresses the place and importance of the visible church in the new covenant, and with Ephesians 5:25, which speaks of Christ loving the church and giving himself for her. The church is the Israel of God (Gal. 6:16) and the members are the true circumcision (Rom. 2:28–29). “Since there is one church with visible and invisible aspects, we cannot undermine one without losing the other” (83).

In the chapter entitled “The Invisible Church in the New Testament”, the author especially works with Romans 9–11, and “the reality of hypocrisy and apostasy” in the visible church of both the old and new covenants, and how this distinction between “visible” and “invisible” helps us to understand this reality in light of promises that those in Christ will persevere. After a section reminding us that in the New Testament this invisible church manifests itself, at this time, in the visible church, this chapter concludes with a call to love Christ’s church both in its invisible and visible aspects (100). There is no salvation apart from the invisible church; therefore, ordinarily, salvation is not experienced apart from the visible church, which is the outward and physical manifestation of the invisible.

Part three of the book is “Practice: Why Is WCF 25.2 Important?” This final chapter summarizes the ordinary necessity of the visible church: a necessity of means (the church brings lost sinners the gospel according to Christ’s command and the Holy Spirit’s empowerment), and a necessity of precept. We are commanded to unite in worship, which leads to the perfection of the saints (e.g. Eph. 4:13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ,” …). We are commanded to love, serve, comfort, and reprove one another, and to express genuine unity in our worship and daily practice. How can this be anything other than merely theoretical, except within the context of the visible church? “The church visible is necessary by divine command” (112). Chad Van Dixhoorn’s very useful illustrations are referenced:

A repentant thief on a cross, a Muslim convert to Christianity who has not yet discovered other believers, or a man stranded on the desert island with only a Bible, each has plausible reasons for not being a part of the church. But people who claim to be believers and refuse to join the church in the face of clear biblical instruction and providential opportunity to do so, should deeply worry us. They are like people who say they are in love but refuse to get married. (112)[1]

I highly recommend this little book as a scholarly and very readable explanation of WCF 25.2, cited above. For any outside of our tradition who question the biblical support for such a statement, or for our own folks who might wonder if this statement contradicts “salvation by grace alone,” this is an excellent tool.


[1] Chad Van Dixhoorn, Confessing the Faith: A Reader’s Guide to the Westminster Confession of Faith, (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2014), 341.

Allen C. Tomlinson is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and serves as pastor of the First Church of Merrimack (OPC) in Merrimack, New Hampshire. Ordained Servant Online, March 2020.

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