“The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever” (John 8:35).
What does soteriological recapitulation mean, and how can this idea be helpful to the church? The purpose of this essay is to demonstrate several benefits the people of the New Covenant/Testament church can derive from this analogy. Some definitions and groundwork are necessary at the outset: ‘Soteriological’ refers to salvation as affected by Jesus Christ; ‘recapitulation’ refers to the restating, or in this context, the retracing of something. As a unit, the phrase refers to the retracing of the steps involved in salvation. But what steps are being retraced and by whom?
The idea is that one being saved through the various redemptive stages, e.g. foreknowledge, calling, justification, sanctification, etc. is walking steps being taken by the church at large from its early years, through its coming of age during the first advent of Christ, and on to full maturity at the end of time. In summary: throughout the maturing process the Christian retraces the church’s development from childhood to adulthood. The church under law (from Sinai to the rending of the temple curtain) is pictured as a child under guardians, and is analogous to the person subjected to the Law’s pedagogical mastery, being “held captive” and “imprisoned” as a child under guardians (Gal. 3:23); the church released from the “law for righteousness” (Rom. 10:4) is pictured as an adult and is analogous to the person blessed with the paracletic indwelling of God’s Holy Spirit, beholding the glory of the Lord (II Cor. 3:18), and set free to walk in freedom and in the good works which God has prepared (Eph. 2:10).
Paul writes this to the Galatian church: 3:23“Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. 24So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. 25But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian…4:1I mean that the heir, as long as he is a child, is no different from a slave, though he is the owner of everything, 2but he is under guardians and managers until the date set by his father. 3In the same way we also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world. 4But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son… 5to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons…7So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God” (ESV).
Paul identifies two periods of time: “before faith came” and “now that faith has come,” and establishes the transition point as the advent of Christ. Also, he identifies a parallel between a child (who does not differ from a slave) and the church under the law; and a parallel between an adult and the church “no longer under a guardian.” One may ask, “Since Paul says, ‘before faith came,’ does he mean that faith was not operative prior to Christ’s first advent?” By no means! The law did not restrain those under the Old Covenant/Testament from faith, but rather restrained them so that they would not wander from the fold of faith. In another place Paul wrote of Abraham that “his faith was ‘counted to him as righteousness’” (Rom. 4:22). Indeed, faith has been the operative mechanism of salvation throughout human history. So, what does “before faith came” mean? Paul’s intent appears to be an illustration of the stark distinction between the life of faith for a follower of God during the childhood of the church – living under the control of the law (likened to a child under guardians) and enslaved to the elementary principles of the world (Gal. 4:9; Col. 2:20); and the life of faith for a follower of God experienced in the adulthood of the church, enjoying the nurturing influence of the Holy Spirit (likened to one who has come of age) – a stark distinction indeed!
So then, how can this idea of soteriological recapitulation be helpful to the church? If we consider the history of the church as a template for the way in which God works in the life of a person throughout the process of salvation, then several benefits can be realized.
First, the preaching and teaching of ministers may more readily highlight the benefits and obligations of consecration, by which is meant the set-apart condition experienced by those who comprise the people of God; man, woman and child. This place of benefit, blessing, obligation and curse was experienced during the times of Noah, Abraham, and throughout Israel’s history; it is now experienced by the church of the New Covenant/Testament. Therefore, ministers may more readily highlight the many benefits enjoyed by the people of the church of God, which are summed up succinctly by Paul when he writes, “…to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises” (Rom. 9:4, ESV), while also highlighting to those in their care the weighty obligation of being named a member of God’s people. Those under the Law not only benefited from the rule of God, but when one was found unrepentant he or she “…died without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses” (Heb. 10:28). The author of Hebrews goes on to demonstrate the greater guilt and punishment upon the unrepentant under the New Covenant/Testament when he writes, “How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace” (vs. 29)? As Jesus says, “Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more” (Luke 12:48b, ESV).
Second, from this perspective we may be able to more fully grasp how unnatural it is for one who claims to be in Christ to remain in a state of infancy; or said positively: how natural is the expectation that with conversion comes growth and maturity. As the author of Hebrews candidly states, 5:12“For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, 13for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. 14But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil” (ESV). Indeed, the maturing process of the church is a latent exhortation to each member that he or she engage in pursuing, and encourage others in the pursuit of, personal growth and maturity through all the means of grace that God has provided.
Third, this analogy can remind us to avoid impatience – both with our self and others – during the process of spiritual maturation. By viewing the history of the church, we can see that God is consistently and patiently working out his perfect plan and promises to faithfully complete His work in each believer. Those newly converted are in need of milk and would choke on solid food. A new Christian may have sensitivities of conscience which those of greater maturity do not. As Paul reminds us in Romans nine, “Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him” (vs. 3, ESV). In addition, this perspective can comfort the believer beset with sorrow over sin by avoiding the false hope of immediate maturity and/or absolute perfection.
Fourth, with this analogy in view, elders may more freely warn those in their care to avoid the broad faithlessness and formalism of the Old Covenant/Testament church. As the author of Hebrews writes, “For good news came to us just as to them, but the message they heard did not benefit them, because they were not united by faith with those who listened” (Heb. 4:2). Those of the Old Covenant/Testament experienced first-hand the power and presence of God through the deliverance from Egypt, passage through the Red Sea, the encounter at Mount Sinai, and safety and sustenance in the desert; yet most failed to place their faith in God. By application, although we are nourished by the spiritual food and drink of Christ as those who passed through the Red Sea (I Cor. 10:5), although we have been marked with the sign of regeneration (now being baptism instead of circumcision), and although we receive the blessings which accrue to the people of God (Rom. 9:4, 5; Heb. 6:4, 5), let us not be found to have “…an evil, unbelieving heart, leading [one] to fall away from the living God.” (Heb. 3:12). This recapitulation analogy underlines how critical it is that no one rely upon religious experiences, covenant signs, family history, participation in the sacraments, etc., as the grounds for reconciliation with God and security in that relationship. What matters is a new creation (Gal. 6:11-16) by God’s Holy Spirit, manifesting itself in love and good deeds (Heb. 10:24). Indeed, one purpose for the communication of Israel’s history is “…as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did” (I Cor. 10:6.)
Fifth and finally, this recapitulation analogy can act as a preventative measure to avoid the error of carrying forms of the Old Covenant/Testament into the New – what Paul often calls ‘elementary principles’ (e.g. Col. 2:8, 20). When the New Covenant/Testament church perpetuates Old forms which do not belong – or creates strange elements from scratch, which carry their own collection of problems – the result can be to perpetuate a lack of both ecclesiastical and personal maturity resulting from the New Covenant/Testament church behaving as if it is still under guardians and managers instead of free to live as a faithful adult. To continue with shadows such as priests, sacrifices, holy objects and spaces, musical instruments, etc. destroys their typical meaning and short-circuits the lessons they were intended to teach. To continue with shadows obscures the freedom and access Christians enjoy in the New Covenant/Testament economy (Heb. 12:18-24; Gal. 4:21-31). It distracts our minds from the now-present realities which cast these shadows and obstructs our view of Christ behind forms no longer necessary or allowed.
Therefore, although the phrase – soteriological recapitulation – is complex, the idea can have great value to the church. It can remind each of us to pursue holiness and lay aside anything that hinders and entangles (Heb. 12:1). It can remind all of us to stir one another up to love and good works (10:24) while being patient with each other through this life-long journey of growth. For those who preach and teach it can embolden them to declare the Law and the Gospel in all their terror and beauty. And finally, it can remind us to avoid any forms and accoutrements of worship that would be destructive to the Gospel and are no longer necessary under the freedom, simplicity, and beauty of the New Covenant.