This is a summary of my interpretation (or adaptation?) of the ritualistic framework for soteriology that I’ve learned from reading Peter Leithart’s materials. I favor it, because I think it does a good job modeling ordinary human social and developmental reality and the perspective from which the biblical authors were writing.
This soteriological framework is fundamentally sociological. Salvation ordinarily occurs in a context. It takes a social form. It’s a community with a past and a future—its history and destiny. It has an objectivity that comes before the individual who is initiated into it and who internalizes it via ritual. Salvation takes the form of the Church, the Family and Household of God prepared by God for God. The Church is the community and context of salvation outside of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.
In this sociological framework, induction and participation in this social environment is grounds for being named according to its character and benefits. It is the community of those who are the called, the adopted, the justified, the sanctified, and the glorified.
Holy Baptism at the Lord’s Font is our rite of initiation in this community. And covenant renewal worship culminating at the Lord’s Table, feasting on the Lord’s Supper is our rite of renewal in this community. These rites formalize our relationship with Christ and our identity in Christ in a manner similar to that of other ordinary human social rituals.
The development of individual faith in this context begins with the Faith. One is brought into the Faith, and the Faith is inculcated into the one through the regular ministry of the Word and the Sacraments. This is a common ancient understanding of what it means to be a believer. A faithful one is he who is abiding in the Faith.
In this framework, salvation works from the outside in. The grace of God gets at a man from the outside in through the Gospel preached into the ears, the water poured on the skin, the bread and wine consumed in the mouth, the love of the brethren bestowed in daily life in fellowship.
And, in fact, it’s the freedom of God in his invisible mysterious ways that determines in what way these graces and blessings will impact the individual. A man is like the earth that drinks in the rain falling upon it. And it’s the freedom of God that determines what sort of growth that ground will yield. Are these graces and blessings nurturing life and perseverance? Or are they feeding hardness and apostasy? Time will tell as God wills.
In my view, the difference between this ritualistic framework and a standard systematic theological framework (e.g. the Three Forms of Unity or the Westminster Standards) is that the latter framework restricts itself to the individual’s subjective appropriation of salvation. It limits the scope of the substance to the “internal” world of the individual. It makes the attribution of participation in the benefits of salvation generally improper to apply to those not internalizing salvation unto eternal life. A standard systematic view will speak of such people (i.e. the presumptuous reprobate) as mere “external” or “legal” participants. This isn’t wrong according to its own logical construction and its accuracy regarding decretal election and salvation applied to the individual. But it doesn’t reckon well with the biblical language about those who apostatize. Such souls are spoken of in ways that indicate significant participation in the blessings and person of Christ.
This ritualistic sociological framework enables those who believe in Reformed decretal soteriology to maintain decretal election unto preservation while acknowledging a real and significant participation by those who do not persevere but apostatize. I think this view comports better with the notion of “those who were once enlightened, who tasted the heavenly gift, and had become partakers of the Holy Spirit, and had tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come” but fell away. Indeed, all such blessing wasn’t internalized and didn’t save such a soul to the end. But a profound participation occurred, because such attribution indicates as much. And that’s because the apostate’s prior participation was in the communal life of salvation. That communal participation rightly deserves to be called (and is called in Scripture) a participation in salvation.
This sociological framework gives weight to the threat of excommunication, whether it’s the excommunication imposed by duly ordained authorities upon a congregant who’s in serious and recalcitrant sin, or the subtle and slow self-excommunication of a man who comes to believe he no longer needs to participate in the life of the Church to be in good standing and spiritual health with God.
Given this sociological framework, various scriptural statements regarding the efficacy of baptism make sense in light of one’s initiation into the communal context of salvation:
- Baptism saves
- Baptism justifies
- Baptism washes away sin
- Baptism unites with Christ
- Baptism clothes in Christ
- Baptism regenerates
These effects don’t need to be explained by appeals to “baptism” as a metonym or a code word indicating something else, nor to a magical power in the water that doesn’t always stick, nor to charitable presumption and attribution as the way of satisfying conformity with a theology of decretal election and perseverance. Baptism straightforwardly does these things because the fundamental frame of reference is induction into the society of salvation where the reality is inculcated in the individual.
This sociological and ritualistic framework has a lot of explanatory power. I hope you’ve gained something from considering it. And I’m grateful to Peter Leithart for teaching it.