Salvation – Personal or Corporate?

“Everything in the work of redemption is personal, individual, and prepared for each person. Everything has its own address and name and title. It is not a retail store where things are sold and, therefore, everyone can take according to his own choosing. It is a palace where gifts are distributed and the gift is designated, therefore, for each one for whom it is intended.” Abraham Kuyper, Particular Grace, p. 87.

In Reformed and Presbyterian circles in recent years there has been a laudable rediscovery of the importance of the covenant of grace and the church in the communication of God’s grace in Jesus Christ. Whereas many evangelical Christians place the primary emphasis on having a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ,” Reformed Christians recognize that fellowship with Christ ordinarily occurs through the fellowship of the church and its administration of the means of grace, the preaching of the Word of God, and the administration of the sacraments of baptism and holy communion. The church is the divinely-appointed “society,” to use Calvin’s expression, within which believers and their children are born again spiritually and nurtured in the Christian life. Rather than emphasizing as of first importance that individual sinners “make a decision for Jesus,” Reformed Christianity begins with the initiative of Christ in gathering and preserving his church by his Spirit and Word.

So far as the children of believers are concerned, the Reformed faith regards them as “Christians” or members of Christ by virtue of the covenant promise, which is signified and sealed to them in the sacrament of baptism. Such children are not regarded as “worldlings,” outside of the fellowship of Christ until they choose to believe and repent. Rather, they are regarded as members of the Christian church who are to be taught to live and act accordingly. Christian parents do not wait for their children to reach “the age of accountability” before they teach them to confess that their “only comfort in life and in death” is that they belong to their faithful Savior, Jesus Christ (Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 1). Relying on the covenant promise, they instruct their children in the Word of God and confidently anticipate that the Lord will confirm his promise in the lives of these children as they grow up and mature in Christ.

However, the covenantal and corporate nature of the gospel’s administration can easily be distorted into another error as egregious as that of evangelical individualism. If a key problem with evangelicalism is its individualism, a potential problem within contemporary Reformed Christianity is corporatism. By corporatism I mean the idea that any emphasis on the personal appropriation of God’s grace in Christ is unnecessary. Because God’s grace is communicated to believers through the church and her means of grace, our personal response to the gospel diminishes in importance. This idea can take various forms. For example, some Reformed people are sympathetic to the claim of N. T. Wright that “if you have the corporate, you get the individual thrown in.” This language seems to suggest that it is enough simply to know that a person is a member of the church through baptism. Soteriology is wholly subordinated to and exhausted by ecclesiology. To press the question whether a baptized member of the church responds properly to the sacrament in the way of faith and repentance is a secondary matter at best, perhaps a misguided individualism at worst. So long as we know a person’s identity through the sacrament of baptism, we need not emphasize too much the necessary, personal response that baptism requires. The sacrament of baptism becomes, in this approach, a kind of “saving ordinance” that assures a person’s election and favor with God, irrespective of his appropriation of the gospel through faith. In a similar way, there are those who decry the emphasis of classical Reformed theology on an ordo salutis, the way in which the grace of Christ becomes ours through the work of the Spirit of Christ in rebirth, conversion, and the like. So long as we see the big picture of the historia salutis, the history of the triune God’s saving work culminating in the person and work of Christ, we have everything that is important. Too much focus on the individual believer’s appropriation of God’s grace, particularly as this has been understood in the traditional categories of the ordo salutis, leads to subjectivism and an overly introspective view of the Christian life.

Though this is a rather simplistic description of the problem, I would like to propose that it is a striking illustration of what might be called a false dilemma, an unnecessary juxtaposition of things genuinely in harmony. Biblical and Reformed Christianity does not need to choose between the corporate and the personal, between historia salutis and ordo salutis. To borrow biblical language from another context, we do not need to “separate what God has joined together.” The real challenge to biblical Christianity in our day is not an emphasis on the believer’s personal response to the gospel, but an emphasis on Christian faith and life as a private or merely individual matter. However, in the confession and practice of Reformed churches historically, it has been rightly understood that the corporate and the personal are intimately conjoined, though remaining distinct. This can easily be illustrated by biblical and historical examples.
If we consider the preaching of the Lord Jesus Christ, as this is attested to us in the New Testament Gospels, it is hard to suppress the obvious truth that he regarded the personal appropriation of his message as of critical importance, whatever the nature of a person’s corporate identification with the covenant people of God. A few random citations from the Gospel of Matthew, which could be multiplied dozens of times over, will suffice to show this to be the case.

“For I say to you, that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:20).

“And when you pray, you are not to be as the hypocrites” (Matt. 6:5).

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven; but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven”(Matt. 7:21).

“The sons of the kingdom shall be cast out into outer darkness” (Matt. 8:12).

“But whoever shall deny Me before men, I will also deny him before My Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 10:33).

(Speaking of the Pharisees) “Every plant which my heavenly Father did not plant shall be rooted up” (Matt. 15:13).

“If anyone wishes to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me” (Matt. 16:24).

“Therefore, I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you, and be given to a nation producing the fruit of it” (Matt. 21:43).

The apostle Paul likewise, though he is sometimes commandeered today as though he had little, if any, interest in the personal questions of an ordo salutis, seems to be quite emphatic about the need to respond personally to the gospel. Consider only three texts, which could also be multiplied many times over.

“For it is not as though the word of God has failed. For they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel” (Rom. 9:6).

“I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me, and delivered Himself up for me” (Gal. 2:20).

“It is a trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all” (1 Tim. 1:15).

As these passages clearly suggest, the gospel of Jesus Christ, which is communicated through preaching and sacraments, does not dispense with but accentuates the need for a Spirit-authored response in the way of personal faith and repentance. However true it may be that God’s grace is communicated covenantally, and therefore corporately, the covenant is not merely a corporate matter. The covenant community is composed of persons, and among those persons there are some who break covenant through unbelief and impenitence, and there are others who keep covenant. It is impossible, therefore, to speak only of the corporate community and its objective means of grace when we speak of the communication of the gospel.

The historical confession and practice of the Reformed churches also confirm that this is the case. One of the more familiar catechisms of the Reformed tradition is the Heidelberg Catechism. This Catechism serves (among other functions) to instruct children in the faith who are members of the covenant community or church. What is striking about this catechism, however, is that it is pervasively covenantal (without using the term very often) and personal at the same time. There is not the slightest hint in the language of this catechism that the corporate inclusion of believers and their children renders superfluous a personal response to the gospel of Christ. Within the setting of the corporate people of God, this catechism teaches believers (as is customary in the classic symbols of the Christian tradition) to speak in the first personal singular while joining with the whole company of the faithful. Furthermore, in its treatment of the sacraments, this catechism insists that these means of grace are simultaneously the most corporate and personal acts imaginable. In Christian baptism, believers and their children are personally addressed (by name!). By means of baptism God condescends to give us a visible token or sign and pledge of our incorporation into Christ. Far from diminishing our personal responsibility, the sacrament accentuates it. Likewise, when believers are nourished at the table of the Lord, they do so only as they come with the “mouth” of faith, remembering, proclaiming and discerning the body and blood of Christ given for them. This sacrament signifies and seals that “[Christ’s] body was offered and broken on the cross for me, and His blood shed for me” (Lord’s Day 28, emphasis mine).

What I am suggesting, therefore, is that we ought not to play off the corporate and the personal, historia and ordo salutis. All sorts of mischief follow upon a failure to keep together these two sides of the one reality of the triune God’s saving work: the sacraments are separated from the Word of God and the required response of faith; the church or covenant community in its historical expression is simply identified with the company of the elect; the distinction between the church as God infallibly knows it (the so-called “invisible church,” or better, the “invisibility” of the church) and as it concretely exists as a mixed company of true believers and hypocrites is compromised; and an illegitimate presumptuousness grows regarding the salvation of all who are marked out covenantally as Christians. Reformed Christianity, though neither pietistic nor individualistic in its best expressions, never denies that God’s grace in Christ requires the intensely personal (albeit common among God’s people) confession: “That I am not my own, but belong, body and soul, to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ, who has fully satisfied for all my sins . . .”

This article was first published in the Chalcedon Report in January, 2003.

Dr. Cornelis P. Venema is the president of Mid-America Reformed Seminary in Dyer, IN. He is a contributing editor to The Outlook.