The Application of Salvation Gained Through Christ
“The Appropriation of Salvation”
In this chapter we will deal with “the appropriation of salvation”. For some readers it will be immediately clear what is meant by this expression, yet others may raise their eyebrows. To the latter it is only just a strange, somewhat old-fashioned sound. “Appropriation” is an old expression for “handing something over, taking possession”; “to appropriate” means “making something your own, receiving something”. “Salvation” is a summary word for the complete deliverance that God brings about in Christ. Prof. Dr. W.H. Velema describes what “appropriation of salvation” implies when he writes, “...to provide an answer to the question of how man gets to share and gets to keep this salvation. We can also put it this way: which experiences the Holy Spirit will give to man who will share in the salvation and who will continue to share in this”.
A quote from Calvin may help us to understand the framework of the appropriation of salvation more clearly: “All that Christ has done unto the salvation of the human race is of the least benefit to us unless he communicates to us the blessings which he received from the Father. He must become ours and dwell in us. We are said to be ingrafted into him and clothed with him. And this concerns the secret working of the Holy Spirit, for he is the bond who connects us powerfully unto Christ” (Institutes III, 1, 1). Calvin underlines that salvation, namely the forgiveness of sin, righteousness and eternal life, are to be applied as the eternal treasures which he obtained through the Spirit. The Holy Spirit accomplishes this by grafting us as shoots in the Vine who is Christ (John 15). He cares for the “unio mystica cum Christo”, the mystical in the sense of the inner and hidden unity with Christ, so that he lives in us and we live in him.
A Three-Sided Subject
We can add to this that where the Holy Spirit is working in an appropriating way, man himself starts to appropriate the salvation by faith. Primarily the work of appropriation is ascribed to the Holy Spirit, but we need to add at the same time that the believers makes it his own by faith, as fruit and work of the Holy Spirit. Prof. Dr. W. van ’t Spijker calls these three distinguished aspects of the appropriation: “Christ, who gives us again life which he acquired; the Spirit, who makes us share in what we have in Christ; but also the believer himself, who through the Spirit appropriates himself, by faith, that what has been promised to us in the gospel. The one does not contradict the other.” Indeed, the exalted Christ works through his Spirit. On the other hand, the Holy Spirit glorifies Christ. Without the Spirit, believing is impossible, yet the Holy Spirit does not believe for us and in our stead. Like a gold chain, it is all interconnected.
Not only did people write about the topic of the appropriation of salvation during the Reformation and the “Further Reformation” [somewhat akin to Puritanism and Pietism, trl.], in the churches in the Netherlands it is a very timely topic as well. During the last decades many representatives of various churches belonging to the “Reformed persuasion” have had discussions. This pertains to the Christelijke Gereformeerde Kerken [CGK], the Nederlands Gereformeerde Kerken [NGK], and the Gereformeerde Kerken in the Netherlands (Liberated) [GKV]. While seeking for ecclesiastical unity the different levels of emphasis that were evident in the preaching and the pastoral care constituted a stumbling block until now, although in principle they appeared to be close together. As fruit of the mutual discussion Deputees for the Unity of Reformed Confessors in the Netherlands [CGK] and the Reformed Committee for Collaboration [NGK] they came to a “Common declaration in respect to the appropriation of salvation.” Hopefully this consensus will offer future perspectives toward ecclesiastical union.
Perspectives On Preaching
The attention to the appropriation of salvation had as consequence that the special work of the Holy Spirit gets a clearer accent. We have seen that the Spirit, in the specific work of making and maintaining the connection with Christ and the believer, executes this by means of the Word. The close connection between Word and Spirit is however not an automatism, and the Word is not charged in a mystical way with the Spirit. The fact that I, as church member and also otherwise, come to encounter this Word regularly, does not imply that it is self-evident that I have received the Spirit in his saving work for me, and that I am guided and led personally by the Spirit of God. We need to respect God’s sovereignty and absolute power, without taking away any of our own responsibility. For we are called to pay attention to how we are hearing, and to note well the great salvation which is being proclaimed to us.
This enormous gravity and this serious consideration of eternity are lacking in any kind of preaching where the necessity of the appropriation of salvation is bypassed, and where regeneration and repentance are presumed as it were for the church members. This concerns a serious derailment. For through a one-sided preaching where the need for personal repentance and of the application of the Spirit are missing, there souls are being misled for eternity. A kind of covenantal optimism comes to the fore, where it is assumed that everything will be all right because you have been baptized and you go to church. In theory this argument may well be rejected, but in practice such a superficial approach happens all too often.
The preaching needs to provide spiritual guidance, so that there will be food for the sheep of Jesus’ flock in their various circumstances and conditions. In the call to faith and to daily repentance the marks of the true Christian will need to be addressed, as long as these are not identified as the basis of the certainty of faith, for Christ is indeed the only ground of faith. With this as our proviso, there is legitimacy to speak about the marks of the Christians (see Belgic Confession, art. 29). When the characteristics of faith life are being dealt with, then this provides a testing opportunity to the congregation to search whether they are in the path of faith. This does not mean that the setup of the sermon is bound as if in a straightjacket, where always the same marks are noted in the exact same order, and where the text of Scripture is subjected to a certain schematic. It is noteworthy how, in circles where people identify themselves as experiential, there can be an intellectual and detached approach in the preaching about the way of salvation, as if it concerned a spiritual schedule. In the right preaching there should be no legalistic imperative system, with a classification of the hearers and a kind of systemizing of the ways that the Holy Spirit takes with people. Where the Spirit of the Lord is active, there is freedom.
Perspective On the Congregation
The necessary attention for the appropriation of salvation has consequences also for our perspective on the congregation. As far as the address to the congregation is concerned, this is never determined by hypocrites and unbelievers who are in their midst. Election may not suppress the covenant. The opportunists and hypocrites, who sadly dwell among them, do not determine the essence of the Lord’s church. The address or greeting therefore needs to direct itself to the believing core of the congregation. When subsequently a good distinction is made between faith and unbelief, between repentant and unrepentant, the danger of covenant automatism will not easily get a grip. Those members of Christ’s church who live as hypocrites need to be admonished through revealing proclamation, and receive serious warnings to seek repentance.
There are “two kinds of children of the covenant”. God’s promise and the experience of faith are two different matters. All church members — or covenant people — have received God’s promises, but that does not mean that they are all sincere believers. Faith is a personal matter. Only in the way of regeneration and repentance will they indeed share the salvation that is promised. We need to watch out for an objectification of faith. It is not a mere intellectual assent and acceptance of things as they stand. It concerns a personal relationship with God in Christ, in which man is involved with heart and soul.
The mortal state of the covenant child needs to be recognized. There is a differentiation between the baptized and the non-baptized “child of Adam” because the former lives under the covenant, thanks to the merciful love of God, as heir to all God’s promises. The “Abraham position”, the great privilege of being a child of the covenant of grace, does not take the place of the “Adam position”. Baptized children may not be presumed to have been regenerated. By nature they are children of wrath, sharing in the condemnation of Adam, unable to enter God’s kingdom unless they have been born again. But they are sanctified in Christ, and therefore baptized as members of Christ’s church. This means that regeneration has been promised to them, and that they may humbly and boldly plead on what has been given to them in Christ, in the way of regeneration and repentance that will become theirs through the Spirit.
Perspective on the Pastoral Care
Also for the pastoral work the question about appropriation of salvation carries permanent significance. Dr. W. Verboom has pointed out that the question of how people are sharing in the salvation of God through Jesus Christ threatens to get lost more and more from our view. In our current literature about pastoral care it appears to be a thing of the past. The trend appears to be: “We should no longer occupy ourselves with the personal appropriation of salvation that Jesus Christ brought about, but we need to bring salvation — understood in its broader context — into the world.” But Verboom counters, with an appeal to Scripture and confessions: “when reconciliation is the central message of the preaching, with its appeal: be reconciled to God (2 Cor. 5:20), then there can be no other way or the appropriation of salvation receives a legitimate place. Congregation members who have grown up in the reformed tradition will recognize Luther’s question with a dual prong: How do I get a gracious God, and how do I get a gracious God? When we neglect these two questions in our pastoral care we do not merely do injustice to the biblical message, but we also ignore the deeper questions in the hearts of people. In that case, we do not do justice to man as God’s creature”.
Appropriation and Church Life
Very briefly, following what Van ’t Spijker has contributed, I want to mention two more aspects. The professor from Apeldoorn emphasizes that the division of churches, who yet share the same confession, contributes to individualization, and how this impedes the appropriation of salvation. “The churches, in this fragmented world, should be looking for the unity of the appropriation, in the unity of the church of Christ, under the wholesome authority of Christ, being moved by the power of his Spirit.”
Appropriation and the Future
We also need to speak of the appropriation under the sign of the great future of Christ. The Belgic Confession ends in article 37 with the radiant words: “Therefore we look forward to that great day with a great longing to enjoy to the full the promises of God in Jesus Christ our Lord”. Then the appropriation of salvation will be completed, and God will receive eternal glory and honour.