We frequently struggle with holding corporate and individual realities and demands in balance. Salvation is described in both individual and corporate terms going back to the nation of Israel and culminating in the New Covenant in descriptions of the Church as the bride of Christ and the New Jerusalem, the city of God coming down out of heaven.
How do these realities fit together? In one sense, the individual seems to take priority: in the end, everyone will stand before the judgment seat of Christ and receive justice for the deeds done in the body. Since we die alone, it stands to reason that we stand before God by ones.
And yet, so often, the exhortations, the indictments, the accusations come in the form of the second person plural: the King James “ye” and the southern “ya’all”.
In Ezekiel’s prophecy, Israel is a valley full of dead men’s bones, and she must be resurrected and reborn. Nicodemus is told the same thing, and Jesus assumes he knows what this means and explains that He has come to save the whole world, holding the two realities still closely together. Evangelicals tend to emphasize the individual side of this and at best give lip service to the corporate side.
In John’s epistles, there is no dichotomy between love of neighbor and love of God. There cannot be one without the other. What is true of an individual must necessarily result in a corporate reality, and on the flip side, the corporate reality is only possible by means of individuals.
We might want to describe the relationship between the two realities like eggs and an omelet: you gotta have eggs to make an omelet. But that doesn’t quite seem right. That leans the necessity in only one direction. You definitely need eggs to make an omelet, but you don’t need omelets to make eggs. That puts the omelet before the egg.
In the garden, Adam was held primarily responsible for the sin at the Tree, but it was a group effort. Eve was deceived and took the fruit, and Adam ate with her. In salvation, therefore, it makes sense that while there must be individual choices, decisions, and acts of obedience and faith, it cannot be a purely individual reality by nature. Otherwise the Fall has not really been reversed. Salvation is the undoing of the Fall, the reversal of the curse, and therefore, salvation must be a group reality, a shared joy.
One conclusion to draw from the inextricable connection between our individual salvation and our corporate sharing of salvation is a pastoral one: to call sinners to repentance is necessarily to summons them to care about the people sitting next to them. To call a man, woman, or child to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ is to call them to begin to love their neighbors, brothers, sisters, parents, and children. This is witnessed in the household conversions in the New Testament, and meshes with the big picture.
For an evangelist to proclaim the good news is to proclaim a King who has a Kingdom. To join the Kingdom is to be saved, but to join the Kingdom is to be saved into a family. And to be saved into a family is to be saved for the sake of the family. There are always the exceptions, the desert island conversions, the thief on the cross provisos, but the normal means of grace is a crowd of witnesses, a restored humanity.
And this means that we really must revise our conceptions of the judgment seat of Christ. While the individual must be judged and the sheep and the goats must be separated, the judgment will also consist of a wedding: at the consummation of Christ’s marriage to His bride, the Church, the New Jerusalem will fully descend out of heaven to be established in the earth.
In other words, the individual’s evaluation and judgment will be bound up with the finished project. Are you in the bride, are you in the city? Spots and wrinkles and unclean things will be cast out, but the evaluation of the individual is not alone, is not only by ones. It’s by myriads, it’s by the exhaustive knowledge and wisdom of the God who can count the ocean of saints that no man can number, fitting together, flowing together, built up into the mature man.
Unsurprisingly then, individual and corporate salvation should be understood in a similar way to the doctrine of the Trinity. There cannot be one God apart from the three persons, and the three persons do not exist apart from the oneness they share. And since salvation really is nothing more or less than being mercifully incorporated into the life of the Triune God, it should not seem strange to consider it in a similar fashion.
This means that so much of our salvation is bound up with living out the joy of that calling, preparing for that wedding, calling each other to greater faithfulness, practicing for the wedding feast. While salvation includes you, it cannot end with you. In other words, “individual salvation” is an oxymoron, all by itself an internal contradiction, even a Trinitarian heresy.