Salvation Must Take a Social Form
I recently finished reading Peter Leithart’s book The Baptized Body which means those of you who are tired of all the Leithart posts can just go ahead and skip this one. For those of you who aren’t tired of Leithart, I’m glad you’ve stuck around. There were a lot of things that stood out to me in The Baptized Body but one of the most profound topics was the social nature of salvation that Leithart drew out in the third chapter of the book.
Now, the fact that Leithart argues for a social structure to salvation does not mean that Leithart is in agreement with what has been historically known as “The Social Gospel” (aka Liberalism). Rather, Leithart shows that the historical events of the Gospel have brought about the fulfillment of God’s initial mandate given to Adam by dealing with the problems of sin and the Fall. Leithart shows the overarching emphasis of this mandate and its connection to the work of Jesus through a redemptive historical lens in this quotation:
God’s purpose in Adam was to form a race on earth that would worship Him in truth and subdue and rule the earth in faithful obedience to Him. God intended to lead Adam’s race to maturity, from glory to glory. Sin interrupted and presented an obstacle to that purpose, but sin didn’t change God’s purpose. From the first gospel promise to Adam and Eve outside Eden, through Abraham and the patriarchs, Moses and the exodus, the judges and kings, to the final climactic act of salvation in Jesus, God’s purpose has been the same: He was going to deal with sin in order to form a race on earth that will worship Him in truth and subdue and rule the earth in faithful obedience to Him. (pg. 57)
Salvation, according to the New Testament writers can be understood in a transfer of race. Individuals are brought out of Adam’s race and brought into the race of the second Adam, Jesus. Paul makes this very clear in his repetition of the phrase “in Christ” throughout his letters. Another clear example can be found in Paul’s imagery of saved individuals being transferred from the kingdom of darkness (Adam’s race) and into the kingdom of light (Jesus’ race) in Colossians 1:13. Further, Peter speaks of the people of God as a royal nation and a kingdom of priests in 1 Peter 2:9.
What these writers are describing is the reality that salvation has appeared in and through the person and work of Jesus Christ and this salvation takes a socio-historical form. Those who are brought into the fold of Christ are transferred from Adam’s race into the race of the second Adam who, in turn, fulfills the mandate to worship God in truth and subdue and rule the earth in faithful obedience that was given to the first Adam.
The implications of this understanding are myriad. One of them is the fact that we cannot (in any sensical way) say that “salvation is here” if we do not believe that this new race is also already in existence. If we do not believe that the church, as the body of Christ, is this new human race, the race of the new Adam, then we cannot say that salvation has truly arrived. That is because salvation, is about restoring mankind, in Christ, to its original God-given mandate.
While all this certainly does not mean that salvation has arrived in an eschatological sense it must (at least) mean that salvation has arrived in a historical sense. Here’s how Leithart makes the connection:
Given the way God created us, salvation for the human race must take a social form. Were God to save individuals from within the human race and restore them to individual fellowship with Himself, He would not be saving human beings as they were created. He would be saving “egos” but not creatures who say “we.” If He delivered us from individual sins without delivering us from the sinful ways we treat one another and the world, He would not be saving us from sin at all. If God is going to restore the human race to right order, He must form a society of the saved. If God were to delay the formation of this race until the end of time, then salvation would be delayed until the end of time. If there is no society of the saved in history, then there simply is no salvation in history. Salvation is still a distant, longed-for possibility. If salvation doesn’t take form in history, a social form in history, the gospel is untrue. If there is no community of the saved, salvation has not actually occurred at all. (pg. 58)
If Christians begin to think this way about salvation then there is a strong chance the vitality and centrality of the church would not be overlooked as it so often is in our individualistic culture.
Food for thought.