The Corporate Component of Conversion
If your doctrine of conversion is missing the corporate element, it’s missing an essential piece of the whole. A covenant head comes with a covenant people.
VERTICAL FIRST, HORIZONTAL INSEPARABLY SECOND
That’s not to say we should put the corporate element out front. One might think of N. T. Wright’s well-known line about justification being “not so much about soteriology as about ecclesiology; not so much about salvation as about the church” (What Saint Paul Really Said, 119). This is a clear example, in Douglas Moo’s almost-as-well-known line, of backgrounding what the New Testament foregrounds, and foregrounding what the New Testament backgrounds (cited in D. A. Carson, “‘Faith’ and ‘Faithfulness’”).
There can be no true reconciliation between humans until individual sinners first reconcile with God. The horizontal necessarily follows the vertical. Ecclesiology necessarily follows soteriology. Which is to say, the corporate element must not come first, lest we lose the whole thing.
But it must come. Indeed, the corporate component must remain within the structure of the doctrine of conversion itself. Our corporate unity in Christ is not just an implication of conversion, it’s part of the very thing. Being reconciled to God’s people is distinct from but inseparable from being reconciled to God.
Sometimes this gets lost in our emphasis on the mechanics of conversion, as when our doctrinal discussions about conversion don’t move beyond the relationship of divine sovereignty and human responsibility or the necessity of repentance and faith. However, a full-orbed understanding of conversion should also include an account of what we’re moving from and to. To be converted involves moving from death to life; from the domain of darkness to the domain of light. And it involves moving from people-less-ness to belonging to a people, from being a stray sheep to belonging to the flock, from being something that’s dismembered to being a member of the body.
Notice Peter’s parallel statements:
Once you were not a people, but now you are God's people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. (1 Peter 2:10)
Receiving mercy (vertical reconciliation) is simultaneous to becoming a people (horizontal reconciliation). God has mercy on us by forgiving our sins, and a necessary consequence of that is inclusion in his people.
CORPORATE NATURE OF THE COVENANTS
Indeed, the corporate element of our conversion can be seen by looking no further than the covenantal structure of the Bible. It’s true that all the Old Testament covenants find their fulfillment in the seed (singular) of Abraham. Jesus is the new Israel. Yet it’s also true that everyone united to Christ through the new covenant also becomes the Israel of God and the seed (plural) of Abraham (Gal. 3:29; 6:16).
In other words, a covenantal head by definition brings with him a covenantal people (see Rom. 5:12 ff.). To belong to the new covenant, then, is to belong to a people.
Not surprisingly, the Old Testament promises of a new covenant are therefore promised to a people: “And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more” (Jer. 31:34). The new covenant promises forgiveness (vertical), and it promises a community of brothers (horizontal).
VERTICAL AND HORIZONTAL IN EPHESIANS 2
The entire story is put on display wonderfully in Ephesians 2. Verses 1 to 10 explain forgiveness and our vertical reconciliation with God: “By grace you have been saved.” Verses 11 to 20 then present the horizontal: “For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility” (v. 14).
Notice that the activity of verse 14 is in the past tense. Christ has already made Jew and Gentile one. There is no imperative here. Paul is not commanding his readers to pursue unity. Instead, he’s speaking in the indicative. It’s what they are because God has done it, and God did it in precisely the same place he accomplished the vertical reconciliation—in the cross of Christ (see also the relationship between indicative and imperative in Eph. 4:1-6).
By virtue of Christ’s new covenant, corporate unity belongs to the indicative of conversion. To be converted is to be made a member of Christ’s body. Our new identity contains an ecclesial element. Christ has made us ecclesial persons.
Here’s an easy way to see it. When mom and dad go down to the orphanage to adopt a son, they bring him home and place him at the family dinner table with a new set of brothers and sisters. To be a son is not the same thing as being a brother. And sonship comes first. But brotherhood follows necessarily.
That is to say, conversion signs you up for a family photo.
PERSONAL APPLICATION: JOIN A CHURCH
What’s the application for our lives? Simple: join a church!
You’ve been made righteous, so be righteous. You’ve been made a member of his body, so join an actual body. You’ve been made one, so be one with an actual group of Christians.
CORPORATE APPLICATION: GET THE MECHANICS RIGHT
What does this mean for our churches? It means that getting the aforementioned mechanics of conversion right in our doctrine is hugely important. We want strong conceptions of both divine sovereignty and human responsibility; both repentance and faith. Imbalances here will lead to an imbalanced and messed up church. What you put into the pot of conversion will become the soup of the church.
If your doctrine of conversion lacks a strong conception of God’s sovereignty, your preaching and evangelism will risk becoming manipulative and man-pleasing. Your approach to leadership is more likely to become pragmatic. You will risk burning out yourself and your congregation with an over-burdened schedule. Your membership practices will become entitlement or benefits based (like a country club). Your practices of accountability and discipline will mostly vanish. You will put holiness at risk. The list goes on.
If your doctrine of conversion lacks a strong conception of human responsibility, you are more likely to poorly steward your own gifts, as well as your people’s gifts. You will more likely be tempted toward complacency in evangelism and sermon preparation. You may be less likely to communicate love and compassion toward those who are hurting. You might come across to others as severe or pat. You might suffer from a weak prayer life, and so forfeit all the blessings that could be yours. You will put love at risk. The list goes on.
If your doctrine of conversion lacks a strong conception of repentance, you will be quick to offer assurance of salvation, and slow to ask people to count the cost of following Christ. You will more likely tolerate worldliness and divisiveness in the church, and your church members just might tolerate these things because many of them will remain in the shallows of the faith. Nominalism will also be more common, because grace will come cheap. In general, the church will like to sing about Christ as Savior, but not much about Christ as Lord, and it won’t look much different than the world.
If your doctrine of conversion lacks a strong conception of faith, you will have a church filled with anxious, self-righteous, man-pleasing legalists. The more self-disciplined members of the church will feel self-deceivingly good about themselves, while the less-disciplined members will quietly hide away their secret sin and steadily learn to condemn themselves and resent others. Transparency will be rare; hypocrisy common. Outsiders and prodigals will feel not feel the warmth and compassion of true grace. Cultural preferences will be confused with law. The church will like to sing about the marching orders of Christ the King, but not so much about a blood-stained Lamb, a Lamb slain for them.
I’m broad-stroking, of course. Things don’t fall out quite this neatly. But the basic idea in all of these examples trades on the tight connection between conversion and the church. If conversion necessarily involves a corporate element, or, more concretely, if individual conversions necessarily produce a united people, then everything else that you stick into your doctrine of conversion will dramatically affect what kind of church you get.
Do you want a healthy church? Then work on your doctrine of conversion, and teach all sides of it to your people. Make sure, furthermore, that the structures and programs of your church cohere with this multi-faceted and powerful doctrine.