Category Archives: Justification

Union with Christ in American Theology

It is not difficult to find the rich teaching of union with Christ so beautifully displayed in John Calvin’s writings, but the theme is suspiciously absent in so much American reformed theology. Even where the phrase “union with Christ” has been used in the past it often refers to something quite a lot different (ie less) than Calvin intended.

But why?

This is the question behind William Evan’s book Imputation and Impartation: Union with Christ in American Reformed Theology (Paternoster, 2008).

For Calvin, union with Christ was “a matrix of realistic, personal, and forensic categories” (39). For him, “union with Christ may be described as the instrumental basis of both justification and sanctification.” In other words, “both justification and sanctification are subsumed under a more comprehensive reality—union with Christ. In this way Calvin avoids the problems of making justification dependent upon sanctification (and this robbing justification of its synthetic character) or of making sanctification a mere response to justification (thus rendering sanctification ultimately superfluous).”

However, for his unity of thought about the believer’s union with Christ, Calvin really never explained how the realistic, person, and forensic categories work together. More specifically, how is forensic justification mediated to the believer through personal/ontological union with Christ? Confusion over this point led to varying developments throughout the centuries.

Evans traces out the evolution of union with Christ in the writings of Jonathan Edwards, Samuel Hopkins, Timothy Dwight, Charles Hodge, A. A. Hodge, and Louis Berkhof. Increasingly union with Christ was split into two separate categories of legal/federal union (justification) and a spiritual/vital union (sanctification). The blame for the breaking apart of impartation and imputation from a cohesive union with Christ seems gets laid at the feet of a hardening ordo salutes. “Only when the traditional ordo salutis is eschewed can a truly forensic and synthetic doctrine of justification that is at the same time relational and dynamic be articulated” (265). In other words, by viewing justification singularly as a historical point in past history in the life of the Christian, a present tense dynamic of our present justification in Christ is lost.

On this point Evans commends Richard Gaffin’s argument in Resurrection and Redemption (P&R, 1987), 114–127. There Gaffin argues in part from Romans 8:34 and writes that “justification depends not simply on an action in the past experience of the believer but on his present relation to the person of the resurrected Christ” (133). Thus, for Gaffin, forensic justification is a present reality via the believer’s personal/ontological union with Christ.

This union of the union contradicts Berkof and the federal trajectory in reformed thought, writes Evans.

The federal trajectory reaches its logical conclusion in Berkhof. Justification and sanctification are completely separated from each other, even in the mind of God. The gratuity of justification has been preserved, but at a great cost, for the integration of Christian life and experience has been sacrificed. The linchpin of the Christian’s relationship with God—justification—has been wholly abstracted from the life of faith and from union with Christ.

Second, as the bifurcation of union with Christ became complete, the theme itself also became superfluous as an umbrella concept unifying justification and sanctification. To speak of a federal or legal union with Christ is simply to describe justification without remainder. Likewise, to speak of a vital union is to speak of sanctification. To the extent that the theme of union with Christ remains present in the successors of the Hodges and Berkof, it is largely vestigial.

The religious implications of this federal trajectory should also be carefully noted. There is, on this soteriological model, no real and complete forgiveness of sins, only an attenuated justification involving the satisfaction of a liability to punishment. The Christian can have no confidence that he or she really enjoys the favor of God, because the culpability and demerit of sin remain. Furthermore, with justification almost completely abstracted from the life of the church and from the ongoing economy of faith, the problem of assurance is only heightened. Finally, the bifurcation of forensic and transformatory categories made it virtually impossible to grasp the essential unity of salvation, and the Christian is left with an unstable dialectic tending toward legalism one moment, and antinomianism the next. (237)

The bottom line: “If justification is viewed as an ongoing participation, through the life of faith and the Spirit, in Christ’s justification, then the importance of the life of faith and all that relates to it is heightened, and it becomes possible to move beyond a preoccupation with the puncticular. What is important is not so much the initial act of faith, but the life of faith in Christ” (266).

In his book, Evans shows rather conclusively that the theme of union with Christ was split in American theological development, and there justification, a truth of inestimable importance and value, became abstracted from union with Christ.

Justification, The Future Become Present

George Eldon Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament (Eerdmans, 1993), pages 483–484:

Justification, which primarily means acquittal at the final judgment, has already taken place in the present. The eschatological judgment is no longer alone future; it has become a verdict in history. Justification, which belongs to the Age to Come and issues in the future salvation, has become a present reality inasmuch as the Age to Come has reached back into the present evil age to bring its soteric blessings to human beings. An essential element in the salvation of the future age is the divine acquittal and the pronouncement of righteousness; this acquittal, justification, which consists of the divine absolution of sin, has already been effected by the death of Christ and may be received by faith here and now. The future judgment has thus become essentially a present experience. God in Christ has acquitted the believer; therefore he or she is certain of deliverance from the wrath of God (Rom. 5:9) and no longer stands under condemnation (Rom. 8:1). …

Justification is one of the blessings of the inbreaking of the new age into the old. In Christ the future has become present; the eschatological judgment has in effect already taken place in history. As the eschatological Kingdom of God is present in history in the Synoptics, as the eschatological eternal life is present in Christ in John, as the eschatological resurrection has already begun in Jesus’ resurrection, as the eschatological Spirit is given to the church in Acts (and in Paul), so the eschatological judgment has already occurred in principle in Christ, and God has acquitted his people.

Simul iustus et peccator

B. B. Warfield (Works, 7:130):

Sin and Christ; ill desert and no condemnation; we are sinners and saints all at once! That is the paradox of evangelicalism. The Antinomian and the Perfectionist would abolish the paradox—the one drowning the saint in the sinner, the other concealing the sinner in the saint. We must…out of evangelical consciousness, ever see both members of the paradox clearly and see them whole.

HT: Zaspel, p. 488.

Adoption: Legal and Relational

Michael Horton, in his book Covenant and Salvation: Union with Christ, makes the point that the believer’s spiritual adoption carries both a relational emphasis and also a forensic/legal emphasis. “Before orphans can enjoy the love and care of a new family,” he writes, “they must be legally adopted” (248). Good point. Sometimes folks like us—who rightfully emphasize the forensic side of justification—can view God as a distant and impersonal Judge who does no more than declare the wicked innocent in a cold courtroom. Innocence and righteousness before that Judge is a gift of incredible grace, but it’s not the whole story. Justification entails a relational aspect that can go neglected. This harmony between the legal and the relational aspects of salvation is a harmony displayed in spiritual adoption. “Adoption, like justification, is simultaneously legal and relational” (247).

Justified

Here are two favorite quotes regarding how we can be assured of the reality of God’s justification.

The first is from Geerhardus Vos in his Grace and Glory: Sermons Preached in the Chapel of Princeton Theological Seminary (Solid Ground, 2007):

“Among all the realities of the invisible world, mediated to us by the disclosures and promises of God, and to which our faith responds, there is none that more strongly calls into action this faculty for grasping the unseen than the divine pronouncement through the Gospel, that, though sinners, we are righteous in the judgment of God. That is not only the invisible, it seems the impossible; it is the paradox of all paradoxes; it requires a unique energy of believing; it is the supreme victory of faith over the apparent reality of things; it credits God with calling the things that are not as though they were; it penetrates more deeply into the deity of God than any other act of faith.” (135)

The second is from Robert Kolb and Charles Arand in the The Genius of Luther’s Theology: A Wittenberg Way of Thinking for the Contemporary Church (Baker Academic, 2008):

“Those who see this form of forensic justification as merely a legal fiction do not share Luther’s understanding of the power of the Word of God. The reformer knew that from the beginning of the world, God determined reality by speaking. Therefore, he was certain that God’s word of forgiveness created a new reality in the life of the sinner. The reformer could not explain the mystery of evil and sin continuing in the lives of those God had claimed as his own in baptism. But he did not doubt that when God said, ‘Forgiven,’ the reality of human sinlessness in God’s sight was genuine and unassailable. God’s children must live with the mystery of the continuing sin and evil in their lives as they engage in the battle against their own sins. But they have no warrant to doubt that God has established the mightier reality of their innocence in his sight. And what he sees is real because he determines reality.” (154-155)

Justification and the Supreme Victory of Faith

“Among all the realities of the invisible world, mediated to us by the disclosures and promises of God, and to which our faith responds, there is none that more strongly calls into action this faculty for grasping the unseen than the divine pronouncement through the Gospel, that, though sinners, we are righteous in the judgment of God. That is not only the invisible, it seems the impossible; it is the paradox of all paradoxes; it requires a unique energy of believing; it is the supreme victory of faith over the apparent reality of things; it credits God with calling the things that are not as though they were; it penetrates more deeply into the deity of God than any other act of faith.”

Geerhardus Vos, Grace and Glory: Sermons Preached in the Chapel of Princeton Theological Seminary (Solid Ground, 2007), p. 135.

Justification by Resurrection

Paul writes in Romans 4:25 that Jesus was “delivered up for [διά] our trespasses and raised for [διά] our justification.” A stunning statement that locates our justification in the resurrection of Christ.

On this passage Geerhardus Vos (1862—1949) wrote:

“… it remains worth observing, that the Apostle has incorporated this idea of the resurrection in his forensic sceme. It seems a pity that in the more prominent associations of our Easter observance so little place has been left to it [the forensic]. The Pauline remembrance of the supreme fact, so significant for redemption from sin, and the modern-Christian celebration of the feast have gradually become two quite different things. Who at the present time thinks of Easter as intended and adapted to fill the soul with a new jubilant assurance of the forgiveness of sin as the guarantee of the inheritance of eternal life?” [The Pauline Eschatology (P&R 1930/1994) p. 153]

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Further study:

The Faith to See Justification

I recently stepped out of the daily routine for a few days of reading. I brought with me a tall stack of books (some old, some new) on the topics of practical theology, biblical theology, and systematic theology. My stack on biblical theology included a little book of sermons delivered by biblical theologian Geerhardus Vos, Grace and Glory: Sermons Preached in the Chapel of Princeton Theological Seminary.

The diverse sermons were captivating, revealing a warm pastoral side of Vos that I had never seen.

I should not have been surprised. I’ve found the sermons of theologians to be great entry points into their writings.

If you’ve never read John Calvin, for example, don’t start with the Institutes or even his commentaries–but first read his sermons (say, on the Beatitudes) and then you’ll see a man moved greatly by the things of God. To see these great men of faith behind the pulpit will help frame their thoughts when you begin listening to them from the lecture hall. Readers who neglect these sermon manuscripts and only go for the complex writings often cast Augustine, Martin Luther, Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, B.B. Warfield, and other theologians as overly intellectual and devotionally dry. Start with the sermons and then move into the deeper theological works. Such is true of Vos.

In a message on Hebrews, Vos takes up the topic of faith and addresses the reality of personal justification—that God has declared us perfectly righteous in his sight through the finished work of Jesus Christ. Vos is aware that we can often lose sight of our justification because we are more aware of our dumb, sinful actions, thoughts, and omissions than we are aware of the grace of God in having cleansed our sins forever. Vos reminds us that to “see” our justification is “the supreme victory of faith over the apparent reality of things.”

Vos writes,

In Romans and Galatians, faith is in the main trust in the grace of God, the instrument of justification, the channel through which the vital influences flowing from Christ are received by the believer. Here in Hebrews the conception is wider; faith is “the proving of things not seen, the assurance of things hoped for.” It is the organ for apprehension of unseen and future realities, giving access to and contact with another world. It is the hand stretched out through the vast distances of space and time, whereby the Christian draws to himself the things far beyond, so that they become actual to him. …

Among all the realities of the invisible world, mediated to us by the disclosures and promises of God, and to which our faith responds, there is none that more strongly calls into action this faculty for grasping the unseen than the divine pronouncement through the Gospel, that, though sinners, we are righteous in the judgment of God. That is not only the invisible, it seems the impossible; it is the paradox of all paradoxes; it requires a unique energy of believing; it is the supreme victory of faith over the apparent reality of things; it credits God with calling the things that are not as though they were; it penetrates more deeply into the deity of God than any other act of faith.

-Geerhardus Vos, Grace and Glory: Sermons Preached in the Chapel of Princeton Theological Seminary (Solid Ground) pp. 133, 135

So do we look at our lives by faith in the cross, or do we look at our lives merely by the sight of what appears on the surface? May we penetrate, by faith, into what God has declared true.

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Related post: Luther, God’s Word, and Justification.

Owen on the nature of saving faith

It was a joy to attend my first Ligonier Conference in Orlando this past week. The conference is well organized and very enjoyable and it was great meeting so many TSS readers. Thanks for the encouragement.

I want to pass along several highlights from the conference.

The first note I wanted to pass along was from a message by Dr Sinclair Ferguson. He said John Owen’s book, The Doctrine of Justification By Faith, Through the Imputation of the Righteousness of Christ; Explained, Confirmed, and Vindicated, is one of the best treatments on the topic of justification (vol. 5 of Works).

Ferguson especially centered his attention on chapter 15 (“Of Faith Alone”). Owen here makes the following observations about the nature of saving faith:

1. That faith whereby we are justified is most frequently in the New Testament expressed by receiving.

2. Faith is expressed by looking.

3. It is, in like manner, frequently expressed by coming unto Christ.

4. It is expressed by fleeing for refuge.

5. It is a leaning on God, or casting ourselves and our burden on the Lord.

I would recommend reading the (surprisingly short) chapter here.

Justification and Adoption: Sermon excerpt from C.J. Mahaney

I want to point you to an excellent sermon on Galatians 4:1-7 by C.J. Mahaney, titled God as Father: Understanding the Doctrine of Adoption. Here is one particularly helpful excerpt on the connection and distinctions between justification and adoption:

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cjmahaney.jpg… Notice God’s purpose was both to redeem and to adopt — “to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (v. 5).

I’m sure you will agree that redeeming us from slavery to sin and the penalty of sin would have been sufficiently astounding. But God’s purpose did not conclude with redemption, it culminated with adoption. He made slaves into sons through the death of His Son. And here in this phrase, and this passage, we encounter the deepest insights into the greatness of God’s love!

Now, historically in Covenant Life Church and Sovereign Grace Ministries, we have taught more on the doctrine of justification than we have on adoption. I don’t think we should ever teach less on the doctrine of justification. I do think we should teach more on the doctrine of adoption. Actually, the doctrine of justification must always remain primary because all saving benefits depend on justification by faith alone, through grace alone, in Christ alone. One can’t understand adoption apart from justification. Adoption depends on justification. Grasping justification positions us to fully appreciate adoption.

There are those who speak about the Fatherhood of God without reference to the Cross or the doctrine of justification. We cannot, we should not, and we must not, speak of the Fatherhood of God apart from the Cross and apart from the doctrine of justification.

So with those qualifying remarks let us distinguish between justification and adoption without separating justification and adoption. Let’s distinguish between them because they are not the same thing.

Understanding the differences is of critical importance to experiencing adoption. Dr. J.I. Packer helps us understand the difference and has written the following helpful remarks:

“That justification – by which we mean God’s forgiveness of the past, together with his acceptance for the future – is the primary and fundamental blessing of the gospel is not in question. Justification is the primary blessing, because it meets our primary spiritual need. We all stand by nature under God’s judgment; his law condemns us; guilt gnaws at us, making us restless, miserable, and in our lucid moments afraid; we have no peace in ourselves because we have no peace with our Maker. So we need the forgiveness of our sins, and assurance of a restored relationship with God, more than we need anything else in the world; and this the gospel offers us before it offers us anything else. … But contrast this, now, with adoption. Adoption is a family idea, conceived in terms of love, and viewing God as father. In adoption, God takes us into his family and fellowship – he establishes us as his children and heirs. Closeness, affection and generosity are at the heart of the relationship. To be right with God the Judge is a great thing, but to be loved and cared for by God the Father is a greater” [Knowing God, pp. 206, 207].

I love that last sentence – “To be right with God the Judge is a great thing.” I just want to say it is indeed “a great thing” to be right with God the Judge through the person and work of Jesus Christ. It is “a great thing” to be forgiven of sin. It is “a great thing” to be freed from fear of future wrath. It is “a great thing” to know this day that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. It is “a great thing” to know that on the final day there is no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus. To be right with God the Judge – that is “a great thing”!

But to be loved and cared for by God the Father is greater. Now they are inseparable. There is no greater apart from the great. The great precedes the greater. But it’s possible to understand the great and not comprehend and live in the good of the greater.

And if you are right with God the Judge — through the person and work of Jesus Christ — let me just say that is a “great thing”! But as incomprehensible as it is, there is something greater. The greater is to be loved and cared for by God the Father. That’s the greater. This is part of Paul’s burden in this passage, that we not only experience the great (“redeemed”) but the greater (“adoption”).

Do the words closeness, affection, and generosity describe your perception and experience of God? Do they? If not, perhaps you are more aware of your sin than you are the adopting grace of God.

In order to experience more of the love of God, the affection of God, the closeness of God, the generosity of God, I want to recommend that for a season you study the doctrine of adoption until you are assured and secure in the love of God. If you are unfamiliar with the gift of adoption, I want to encourage you to restrict your spiritual diet (if necessary and for a season) to this topic so that you might experience the greatness of God’s love. If you are a Christian and you are not convinced of God’s love for you then I would recommend you confine yourself to this topic. Confine yourself to your study to this passage and other passages that reference adoption. Confine yourself for a season of time to the study of the doctrine of adoption. Immerse yourself in extended study.

– C.J. Mahaney, sermon, “God as Father: Understanding the Doctrine of Adoption” (Dec. 2, 2007) 34:08-41:35.

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Shortly thereafter, C.J. recommended the following books for extended study:

I encourage you to listen to the full sermon audio here:

Or download the sermon MP3 here.

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