Sometimes I hear people argue that the Church has changed its teaching about the statement, “outside the Church there is no salvation.” To speak in non-theological terms, the modern Church allows an exception to this for those who are ignorant of the Gospel through no fault of their own. They can be saved if they try their best to serve God and do not knowingly commit a mortal sin and die unrepentant. (Yes, I know, that’s not technically an exception. But meh.) This is called “invincible ignorance,” and the claim is that this is a modern invention. The early Church and the medieval Doctors didn’t believe that, according to some people.
Also, the modern Church allows for the “the Church” to be understood broadly to include all people of good will who have not knowingly rejected the Church. The claim is that this, too, is a modern invention which the early Church and the medieval Church didn’t believe.
Several passages of the Bible can be used to defend the idea that non-Catholics can be saved if they try to serve God and that God forgives invincible ignorance.
The Bible on Invincible Ignorance and the Possibility of Salvation for Non-Catholics
“The times of ignorance God overlooked.” - Acts 17:30
“Sin is not counted where there is no law.” - Romans 5:13
“When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.” - Romans 2:14-16
“How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? … However, they did not all heed the good news; for Isaiah says, ‘Lord, who has believed our report?’ So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ.” - Romans 10:14-17
[Note: in verses 18-21 Paul says he is talking about Jews who have heard (verse 18) and understood (verses 19-21) the Gospel, but rejected the Gospel obstinately (verse 21). This supports the possibility of invincible ignorance because it bases the responsibility of the Jews on their hearing and understanding the Gospel. Therefore, not hearing the Gospel or not understanding it would have excused them.]]
“If I had not come among them, they would have no sin.” - John 15:22
“If I had not done among them the works no one else did, they would not be guilty of sin.” - John 15:24
“In truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons, but in every nation he who fears him and works righteousness is acceptable to Him.” - Acts 10:34-35
In the next two posts I will cite Church Fathers and Medieval Doctors who taught the same thing.