It seems to me that many of the debates over such movements as the Auburn Avenue theology find their origin in the fact that there are some radically different ways of approaching the concept of salvation. If you try to interpret one paradigm within the frameworks provided by the others you will often end up with something resembling a bizarre heresy. Few people consciously adopt one particular paradigm over the rest and so remain, for the most part, ignorant about the assumptions that they import into their understanding of salvation. It is at this stage that a hermeneutic of self-suspicion becomes extremely important.
I will briefly try to outline what I see to be the two prominent ways of viewing salvation that seem to me to underlie many of the debates about such things as baptismal regeneration. Over the past two years I have been undergoing a shift between these two paradigms.
Most popular evangelical theologies of conversion are generally built around an understanding of conversion as first of all a private and individual decision, with incorporation into the Church seen as a secondary thing. The important thing is the saving of ‘souls’. ‘Souls’ are non-corporeal and abstracted from community. For many, salvation means little more than that the soul will go to heaven when the body dies.
Within such a theology ‘salvation’ becomes increasingly identified with that which happens ‘inside’ a person. Many Christians talk about salvation primarily as something we receive and possess. ‘Salvation’ is a substance, object or a correct status relative to an abstract and absolute legal standard that we are given.
Within such a theology — where the individual is elevated above the corporate — an abstract legal concept of God and salvation will generally take precedence over other views of God and salvation. God is the god of the contract, the god who operates in terms of systems of merit. The Law provides the stipulations of this contract. The Law is an abstract and absolute system of justice or code of ethics which we must obey perfectly or be condemned eternally. God is characterized primarily as the strict Judge, as one of unyielding justice who stands in detached judgment over us. It is with the framework of the legal contract that any individualistic theology or philosophy will generally frame forms of relationship between different parties.
Such a theology may have a place for intense ‘communion with God’ following justification. It can place considerable stress on individual subjective religious experience. Ironically, however, this focus on experience often serves to eclipse the God who is to be experienced. The focus of the Christian faith can become the individual’s experiential response to God, rather than God Himself. Such a theology throws us back upon our own response, and fails to draw attention to the Response that God has already provided in Jesus Christ. A doctrine of God is enshrined in every understanding of salvation; as James Torrance observes, such an understanding has clear unitarian leanings.
Within such a theology, the sacraments are subjectivized to fit in with the conception of salvation. If salvation is fundamentally about something that happens ‘inside’ us, the sacraments can be thought of in one of two ways. Either they become magical rites that pump me full of ‘salvation stuff’ in some mystical manner or they become empty vessels to be given content by my faith. It is my faith that gives Baptism its meaning, or my subjective remembrance and pious meditation that gives substance to the Supper.
As the ‘means of grace’ are increasingly downplayed, the mediatorship of Christ will be downplayed with them. The focus will be almost exclusively upon my possession of new life in my soul. As the means of grace are gradually emptied of their efficacy, I will be thrown back upon my own response to grace and will find myself crippled by assurance problems. I will have focused upon Christ in me
so exclusively that there is no longer any Christ to be found outside of myself (i.e. meeting me graciously in the Word and sacraments). When the prospect in my heart looks bleak I will have nowhere to turn. If my communion with God is understood as fundamentally direct and unmediated by ‘externals’ such as the sacraments, it will not be long before I find that my faith has nothing sure left outside of itself to hold onto.
Within such a theology there is an emphasis upon such things as ‘imputed’ righteousness, ‘imputed’ righteousness here being understood as something which is ‘put to our account’ by means of some extrinsic legal transaction. We should not be surprised to see extrinsic legal transactions playing a prominent role in any individualistic soteriology.
Within such a theology ‘regeneration’ is seen as essentially the change that takes place inside an individual’s heart by means of the work of the Spirit of God. The Christian is one who has been given new life in his ‘soul’. This new life is possessed and comprehended by the soul. This theology also shapes the theology of the atonement to a great degree, as I have argued in the past.
Salvation is often regarded as distinct from the ‘relationship with God’ that follows after it. As salvation is fundamentally something that takes place ‘inside’ the individual, ‘joining a church’ becomes a mere ethical or religious duty. With its individualistic bias, such a theology thinks of the Church as that which exists for the chief purpose of enabling individual Christians to fulfill their individual vocations. When someone says ‘the will of God’, it is the will of God for the individual that instantly springs to mind. Within such a theology sola Scriptura
naturally implies that only Scripture can have authority over the individual and so Church tradition should be treated with great suspicion when we come to interpret God’s Word.
Within such a theology one’s personal
Bible study, personal
quiet time, personal
relationship with God, etc. are all granted priority over the Church’s engagement with Scripture, meditation and prayer and the communion with God that is enjoyed in corporate worship.
Within such a theology, redemptive history is downplayed because redemptive history has few immediate implications for the salvation of individuals. Redemptive history is treated as little more than a series of stories that give us pictures of Jesus, a few good and bad moral examples and some decontextualized texts that make for good evangelistic sermons.
Within such a theology regeneration, justification, adoption, sanctification and glorification are, at their foundation, events to be put in the correct order within an ordo salutis
. Within such a theology such issues as the bringing of Jews and Gentiles together in the Church is of relatively minor import.
In contradistinction to this conception of salvation stands a view of salvation that regards salvation as fundamentally relational. Salvation is not something that should be regarded as the ‘property’ of an individual (any more than a husband or wife is the ‘property’ of their spouse), nor as something which is bounded by subjective experience. Rather, salvation is situated in restored relationships.
It is man’s life that needs to be saved and man’s life is not limited to a part of his make-up labeled the ‘soul’. Man’s life is something that is forged by community. If man’s life is to be saved, it must be saved within community. While many who follow the first model tend to see man’s true existence as something that is fundamentally individual and ‘internal’, this way of thinking sees man as a being in relationship. For man to be saved involves being reconstituted in a new matrix of relationships.
As a human being, my true identity is not found by stripping away all my relationships; rather, my identity is found in my relationships — both to God and my fellow human beings.
Within the biblical teaching on salvation, the central focus is not upon some amazing experience in my heart or upon blessings of Christ abstracted from His Person and ‘put to my account’. In the biblical teaching on salvation, the accent is placed upon the reality of belonging to something that is far larger than anything that can be comprehended by our own experience. The New Life of salvation is something that far exceeds and transcends my mere ‘religious experience’ or the quickening work of God in my soul.
The biblical teaching on salvation, it seems to me, speaks far more about the concept of our being ‘in Christ’ than it does upon Christ’s being ‘in us’. Whilst both certainly have expression, the biblical seemingly places a far greater emphasis upon relational belonging when explaining salvation than it does upon personal possession.
Even where the NT does teach about Christ being ‘in us’, it is worth recognizing that the focus of the context is almost invariably primarily upon the Church as a whole as the dwelling place of the Spirit of Christ rather than merely upon Jesus living in the hearts of individuals (e.g. Romans 8:9; 2 Corinthians 13:5; Galatians 4:19). Christ certainly does dwell in us as individuals by the Spirit, but this biblical teaching should never be used to negate the fact that we are indwelt by the Spirit precisely as members of the body of Christ, which is the Church.
In the past, for example, I have argued against the intense internalizing of the concept of the Spirit’s guidance. The Spirit leads us as the Church and within the Church. Those who want to confine the Spirit’s guidance by the walls of the human heart fail to follow the biblical teaching on the subject.
As I have already suggested, I believe that the biblical teaching on conversion gives greater emphasis to ‘belonging’ than it does to the individual’s ‘possession’ of saving blessings. Our new life is not fundamentally found ‘inside’ us, but is found hidden in Christ in God; Christ is now our true life (Colossians 3:3-4). Our status (chosen before the foundation of the world, justified, sanctified, adopted, etc.) is not something that we possess as abstract individuals; rather, our status is that of being ‘in Christ’. As we are ‘in Christ’ — belonging to Him — all that is true of Him becomes true of us.
The union that I here describe is no mere extrinsic and legal union. We are not elect merely because we as particular individuals were placed in some sort of forensic relationship with Christ in ‘eternity past’ (whatever that means). Rather, we are elect because we have been brought into a living relationship with the Elect One — the One chosen before the foundation of the world — in history. Our relationship with Christ is primarily personal and organic, rather than merely extrinsic and forensic.
It should be clear that if we are to see Christ as the life of the saved people of God, the life of salvation cannot be confined to the heart of the human individual. Salvation is something far bigger that we are called to participate in. The life of salvation certainly indwells us in various ways (e.g. Galatians 2:20; Ephesians 3:17), but we also dwell in it.
As the Source of the new life of salvation is always found extra nos
, and we only share in His life by means of continually participation, salvation involves our continual looking beyond ourselves. Our salvation is never something that is ultimately inherent in ourselves, but is always found in Another. Salvation, consequently, involves a continual relationship of dependent faith in Jesus Christ, in whom our true life is now found. Our new saved existence is not to be found by navel-gazing, but by looking to Christ, who is seated at the right hand of God.
Any theology of salvation that does not see salvation as something that transcends the mere forensic status and heart condition of the individual will be prone to leave people with assurance problems. If we understand our personal salvation in terms of participation in a salvation that transcends our own experience we will be less tempted to place faith in faith.
Within this paradigm God is not seen merely as some detached Judge. God created mankind in gracious covenant within Himself — we ought not separate nature and grace.
God is the God of the covenant. The Law is not an abstract code of ethics; the Law is the covenant document that binds God to His people and vice versa. The concept of justice, judgment and righteousness that results from such a view of the relationship that God bears with mankind is radically different from that which results from the model I described earlier.
It is hard to overemphasize the effect that such distinctions will have upon your understanding of justification and salvation.
Salvation should not be distinguished from new relationships with God and each other. We are not first ‘saved’, to enjoy new relationships with God and each other as something secondary. Salvation is
new restored relationships with God and each other.
Within popular evangelicalism there are some who treat our lives as if they were merely envelopes that required a change of address — to be directed to a new (eternal) destination. Once the address has been changed it doesn’t really matter what the envelope contains. Some seem to think that it would be nice if the One who has changed our address and sent us to His heaven would open the envelope to find something nice inside. However, the contents of the envelope really have nothing to do with its destination.
There is some significant truth contained in this analogy. Nevertheless, it seemingly ignores the fact that salvation is a new relational matrix in which we are reconstituted. There is a far closer connection between the way that we must live and the new status that we enjoy than the ‘envelope’ analogy seems to allow for. Both are relational.
When Scripture talks about people being saved it sees salvation as being established within a new community. Man’s ‘soul’/life is saved by its being renewed in fellowship with its Creator and by being reestablished in communion with fellow human beings. Salvation is not primarily something that happens ‘in’ man. Rather, salvation involves our coming out of ourselves and entering into a new matrix of restored relationships. Salvation is all about belonging to Christ’s new family/nation/man of the Church. Such belonging will certainly affect us ‘inside’ (the internal/external distinction needs to be treated with extreme suspicion, in my opinion); nevertheless, this interior effect is a result of the relationship. The relational character of salvation must always retain the priority.
The greatest expression of salvation on earth is found in the Church. The Church is central to God’s relationship with His people. In the (visible!) Church we become members of the body of Christ. We are built together as a dwelling place for the Spirit. We are established as the new family under God the Father.
If we want salvation — a new relationship with God — the Church is the place to be. The Church is not the ‘salvation soup-kitchen’ doling out ‘salvation stuff’ to needy souls. The Church is rather the shape that God’s salvation takes; the place where God and His people are brought together in fellowship. At its heart, my personal salvation is about my belonging as a living member to the new realm of the Church. Being a member of the body of Christ in the visible Church as part of the community in which the Spirit of God dwells should never be reduced to the idea of salvation as merely ‘asking Jesus into my heart.’ My belonging to the realm of salvation that is present in the Church should take priority to any merely individual accounts of salvation.
I believe that we need to recapture the sense of salvation as a relational belonging. Our salvation is found in the fact that our lives are hid with Christ in God (Colossians 3:3-4). The new man is essentially a corporate reality (Colossians 3:9-11). The goal of evangelism should be to make people part of the Church. Should it not be to get them to ask Jesus into their hearts? Well, Jesus is known in the Church. As the apostle John writes in 1 John 1:1-3:—
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life; (For the life was manifested, and we have seen it, and bear witness, and shew unto you that eternal life, which was with the Father, and was manifested unto us;) That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you, that ye also may have fellowship with us: and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ.
The ‘life’ which John proclaims is the life of Jesus Christ. This ‘life’ is also the life of those who belong to Jesus Christ (Colossians 3:4; Galatians 2:20). John’s goal is that people be brought into the fellowship enjoyed by himself and other Christians in the Church, because the Church is the place where fellowship with God is truly known.
Becoming a member of the Church is not to be seen as an afterthought following salvation. Rather becoming a part of the Church is central to salvation itself. Continuing in fellowship in the Church should not, therefore, be perceived merely as some religious duty. It is integral to our salvation — our belonging to Jesus. We need to recover the centrality of the Church in our evangelism.
If we downplay the importance of community we will fail to see why denying table-fellowship to Gentiles in Galatians 2 struck at the very heart of the gospel. We will fail to see why Paul’s focus on justification is almost always in the context of speaking about Jews and Gentiles being brought together. We will fail to see how Paul can so closely align being in the Church with being in Christ. We will also fail to understand the great significance given to Baptism in such passages as Acts 2:38; 22:16; Romans 6:1ff, Galatians 3:27; Titus 3:5; 1 Peter 3:21, etc.
Salvation is ultimately about being transferred from one relational matrix — the world — to another relational matrix that is most fully expressed in the Church.
I think that there is a danger of too closely identifying the birth of faith in the human soul with ‘salvation’. This seems to result from the first paradigm that I have described. Whilst salvation should certainly be worked out in us, I believe that faith is that which brings us to Christ to seek salvation. Christ is primarily to be found within His Church, in which He dwells by the Holy Spirit.
The eschatological force of the word ‘salvation’ should also be taken into account. I think that it is imperative that we conceive of salvation in this eschatological sense. If we do not, salvation will tend to become overly internalized and Gnostic, rather than being grounded in the death, resurrection, ascension and coming return of our Lord Jesus Christ.
I will comment on this in a bit more detail shortly.
It is within Baptism that we are translated from the one relational matrix to the other. Our theology of conversion should, therefore, give a central place to Baptism. Conversion is not primarily a change in the individual human heart, but the movement from one relational matrix to another that occurs in water Baptism.
It is interesting to observe the absence of any mention of the Church and the sacraments in many of the traditional forms of the ordo salutis
: if salvation is something that takes place ‘inside’ man, ‘externals’ like the Church and the sacraments will be radically relativized. If we believe, however, that man’s identity is forged by relationships and is not merely something inherent in each individual, Baptism becomes extremely important and the internal/external distinction is called into question.
I believe that a Trinitarian view of God leads us to believe in being as communion. This will lead us to challenge the common notion that my true identity is unchanged by the event of Baptism. If my true identity is a relational identity, Baptism utterly transforms it. I may reject God’s definition of my identity in Baptism. However, I can never totally destroy it. Baptism has placed me in a new relational realm and this realm still serves to define who I am, even if I am an apostate.
At this stage it might be worthwhile making a few comments about infant Baptism.
If we give a primacy to ‘belonging’ to the new relational matrix of the Church in our understanding of salvation, infant Baptism is nowhere near as problematic as it is in the first paradigm I delineated. In the first paradigm salvation is something that is fundamentally ‘internal’. Consequently, Baptism is usually given its content, to some degree or other, by the internal reality. In the absence of the internal reality, Baptism almost becomes meaningless.
Repentance and faith are both, in some sense, necessary for proper Baptism. They do not give Baptism its efficacy, but without repentance and faith the efficacy of Baptism brings no benefit. How then can infants repent and show faith? Well, just as salvation is primarily an external reality (fellowship with God in the Church) that we need to enter into fully ourselves, so faith is often something that is first more external and only gradually ‘internalized’.
The child born into a household that gives its allegiance to Jesus Christ does not have some sort of autonomous existence. Rather, the child’s identity is constituted by those relationships. Any child growing up needs to internalize the loyalties that are at the outset external to them. The child is brought up in a relational context and the child’s character as an individual develops out of the matrix of these relationships. Before the child can ever think in terms of his individual identity, his identity is formed by belonging to others. It is through the attainment and internalization of language from the linguistic context in which he is brought up that the child becomes capable of thinking of himself as an individual.
Things are much the same with regard to salvation. The baptized person is baptized as an infant in the kingdom of God (irrespective of their biological age). As a result of their participation in the life of the Church, the spiritual infant gains the ability to ‘internalize’ communion with God to a greater degree and to internalize the faith which characterizes the life of the Church. ‘Belonging’ precedes ‘possession’ in important respects. The baptized person is baptized as someone who belongs to the people of faith (either by personal faith or by belonging to a believing household). They are passive in Baptism. Baptism isn’t primarily about our action, by about God’s claiming of us, about our being made part of His household.
Faith and repentance are in some sense presumed by Baptism. A person who is coerced to be baptized is not truly baptized. Those who are truly baptized submit to Baptism on some level or other. Baptism embodies a rejection of the kingdom of Satan as part of being brought into the eschatological kingdom of God. As the passive infant — whose identity has already been constituted within a believing and penitent community (human life is an altogether ‘social’ life) — is baptized they are drawn further into the life of repentance and faith which they are called to mature in and internalize over time.
If Baptism is withheld the child is being constituted in a life other than the life of repentance and faith
. They are being trained in a life of doubt and unbelief. Faith is primarily something that is expressed in a particular way of living together, a way of living together in which even infants can play a role. One of the problems with Baptists is that they keep looking for an adult faith from children and childlike faith from adults. Each person is called to have faith appropriate to their years. The infant’s faith is primarily a passive one of belonging to God within a believing community (cf. Psalm 22:9-10; 71:5-6). However, this belonging and being entrusted to Jesus Christ ought to deeply mould the character of the infant, until the child begins to express more ‘active’ dimensions of faith. Faith is, of course, multifaceted.
As Peter Leithart and others have observed, in their own way, children play an extremely active role within the Church. Children in the Church, given their vulnerability and the length of time it takes for them to grow to maturity, play the prophetic role of calling the rest of the Church to self-sacrifice and other such virtues. It is in their passivity that infants play their most active role in the Church. The mere presence of a severely disabled child can edify the body of Christ far more than many able and active pastors. Such a child prophetically calls the Church to expressions of love and mutual support and draws members into closer fellowship with one another.
All of this is just as relevant to the mentally disabled and the senile. If being an ‘active’ member of the Church is essential, what do we do with the outcasts, the widows, the weak and the vulnerable? Are they somehow ‘lesser’ members than the strong? If this is the case, the Christian faith will become a faith for the strong and self-sufficient. This seems to be quite opposed to the biblical teaching that instructs us that the weakest members of the body are the most necessary (1 Corinthians 12:22). God has put the weak, the vulnerable and the passive in the Church for a reason. The members in the Church are all differentiated from each other. We do not all have to fit into one model. What I am arguing is that infants do have a place as members of the body of Christ. How can the Church be the place where humanity is restored if it excludes infants, the mentally disabled and the senile from membership?
Alexander Schmemann has observed that the faith that Baptism is founded upon is not our faith, but the faith of Jesus Christ. In Baptism we are initiated into the faith of Jesus Christ as we are baptized in His faithful death. The focus in Baptism, consequently, is not upon our response to God, but upon the one perfect Response that God has provided for us in Jesus Christ. It is this Response that constitutes the life of the Church. Our confidence in worship and assurance of salvation are found in the fact that we are living out of the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.
Faith here is understood, not so much as the response of each abstract individual to God, but as the true response of humanity as a whole to God that has taken place in Jesus Christ. Faith must be understood against this eschatological backdrop if it is to be understood correctly (e.g. Galatians 3:23-25).
As we live out of the faithfulness of Jesus Christ, having our lives moulded by His self-giving, His faithfulness becomes increasingly embodied in our lives as our new animating principle. Baptized infants (whether biologically infants or not) are those who have been newly planted within the realm of this animating principle, a principle which, by God’s grace, will become increasingly realized and mature in their own lives over time.
The common evangelical emphasis upon the priority of individual internal conversion will also lead to a downplaying of redemptive history. The history of redemption in history is about God’s formation of a people renewed in fellowship with Himself. The salvation of a people
— the Church — is the central theme of the NT and not the theme of the salvation of individuals. The NT teaches us that in Christ the people of God have been brought to full maturity (Galatians 4:1ff). The NT teaches us again and again that the division between Jews and Gentiles has been broken down. The Church has been established as a royal priesthood and a holy nation. The Church is being established as the dwelling place for God Himself (Ephesians 2:19-22). In the NT salvation is all about belonging to this new community. Pentecost is the goal of everything from Bethlehem to Calvary.
The instinctive evangelical response to all of this is: What does this have to do with my personal salvation? What they forget is that their individual salvation is subordinate to God’s greater purpose of forming a people in relationship with Himself in Christ. This is the work that God has been engaged in throughout Scripture. In Scripture God is seeking to man in a filial relationship with Himself. In man’s infancy in the ‘kinder-garten’ he rebelled. God, in His grace, persisted and sought to raise this son as Israel, the new humanity. Israel persisted in disobedience as he grew up under the guardianship of the Law. In Christ God decisively dealt with the rebellion of His son. Christ was Israel’s Messiah and died as the representative Israelite so that Israel and the nations might enter into the full blessings of filial maturity, being given the house keys (the keys of the kingdom), full table rights (seen at the Lord’s Supper) and full inheritance of authority and rule. This is what NT salvation is all about. Salvation is the continuing event of participation in this reality. This is why the Church and the sacraments are so important.
Justification, sanctification, glorification, election, adoption and regeneration are all realities to be understood against this bigger redemptive historical picture and should not be confined to the ordo salutis
as some timeless mode of salvation. In the apocalyptic events of His death, resurrection, ascension and in Pentecost, Christ has ushered in a new era in redemptive history and established the new realm of the Church, in which we experience the salvation He has accomplished in partially realized form.
Much more could be said, but in essence the difference between these two paradigms is the difference between my theology two years ago and my theology today. If I had to point to one thing that prompted me to begin rethinking my theology, I would have to say that it was John Barach's 2002 AAPC talk on 'Covenant and Election'. It was after listening to that talk that my whole theology gradually started to unravel. For the first time I caught a glimpse of a different way of looking at many of the theological problems I had wrestled with.