Some have proposed that Sola Ecclesia should be added to our 5 solae: Sola Fide, Sola Gratia, Solus Christus, Solo Deo Gloria, and Sola Scriptura. One could argue that the concept of Sola Ecclesia, “through the Church Alone,” is purposed to secure the salvation of future generations by safeguarding the Truth of God’s Word within Church. However, we find at least one clear refutation of this argument in the life of the thief on the cross. In fact, it is difficult to understand how the Church functioned in the thief’s life at all. Most theologians hold that the church was established at Pentecost. Thus, the thief’s salvation was only attended by Christ, not the Church. There was no other interpreter, no other intermediary. The thief’s impression of Christ and his comprehension of His identity as the Savior was interpreted for him from above–that is, by the Holy Spirit. Jesus said to His apostles that they knew the Holy Spirit (Jn 14:17). Even while Jesus was with them in the flesh, the Holy Spirit labored, persuading them of the Truth. When Christ said, “[b]lessed are you, Simon Barjona: for flesh and blood has not revealed it unto you, but my Father who is in heaven,” it is clear that He meant that the Holy Spirit revealed the Truth to him (Mt 16:17). The thief found himself in the same position as Peter; there was no established Church that was able to interpret for him what the Truth was exactly. If the Church was founded at Pentecost, then it played no role whatsoever in the thief’s salvation, yet again seemingly setting him aside as a strange outlier instead of in the mainstream of Christian experience. But, of course, this isn’t so. You’re saying to yourself, “but Jesus was still in the flesh at the time of the salvation of the thief—that is why he is so unique.” Is Christ then Himself absent from us? Or is He present by the Holy Spirit? Did He not say that He would manifest Himself to us (Jn 14:21). What He did not say is that the Church would manifest Him to those who seek Him. He said He would do it Himself.
In Job’s life, the “assembly” failed him: they were unable to provide him with the answers he sought and to guide him to salvation (Job 32:15). Instead, Job is entirely dependent on the appearance of God—a theophany—and He Himself carefully explains what Job did not understand. The assembly failed Job. But God never fails, and wherever the Church fails, Christ Himself will arise and set it aright. What’s more, like Job, the apostles saw God: they beheld the glory of the Only Begotten of the Father (Jn 1:14). Even today, we can hear the Word He taught in the streets of Jerusalem by opening our bibles. There is no need for a specific body to be the interpreter of tradition of the scripture because understanding the scriptures can only come from God (Lk 24:45). The Lord Jesus came alongside and opened the understanding of his disciples to the meaning of the scriptures. That’s what happened then, and that’s how it happens now. The scripture is self-authenticating: the scriptures are shown to be the scriptures by the Holy Spirit and we understand them by His power alone. Therefore, the notion that there could be a man or a body of believers that could determine for others what the Truth is cannot hold up against an understanding of what it means to be born again of God. Did the word of God originate with them? Or did it come only to them? No! There is no interpreter of scripture except the Holy Spirit Who authored it by His grace (1 Cor 14:36).
Consider yet another case: that of John Smyth and Thomas Helwys. These men of God found that the Church had so perverted its way that they could not find another believer who could baptize them into the faith that they held so ardently. The church failed them not just with respect to the Gospel, but also in respect of the ordinances. Again and again we have seen that as the church begins to stumble, at that moment, men arise called by God to do the work of the Gospel in the world. Such were John Smyth and Thomas Helwys. The Church failed. But the Holy Spirit moved in these men to awake out of sleep, to preach the Gospel in Truth and deliver the ordinances to the people of God.
Finally, we remember Jonah. The entirety of Jonah’s reconciliation with God took place within a great fish: when he went in, he was at enmity with God by iniquity, but, when he came out, he was reconciled to God by His grace. How could this be? It was within the fish that he cried out to God, and it was within the same fish that he received his pardon. No Church. No Churchmen. Just the Lord. Imagine, if you can, a man who is born and place directly into a box. Within that box, he is provided with all that he needs. He lives and dies in this box. Is Christ unable to reach him? Is the Truth unavailable to him? Or do we have a God that can work outside the confines of the established Church to save whosoever would believe in His Son Jesus? I believe that we serve just such a God for Whom nothing is impossible.
Therefore, we find that this is yet another case of man’s self importance seeking to reach farther than his ability can take him. By mere hubris and in the gall of bitterness, men have sought to displace God, to make themselves out to be the sole interpreters of the scriptures. They have forgotten that the scriptures have an Author Whose name is God Almighty, and we all serve the One Who taught each and every one of us of Christ His Son: “…they shall teach no more every man his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, Know the LORD: for they shall all know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith the LORD” (Jer 31:34).