White Horse Inn Blog

Know what you believe and why you believe it

  • Home
    Home This is where you can find all the blog posts throughout the site.
  • Categories
    Categories Displays a list of categories from this blog.
  • Tags
    Tags Displays a list of tags that have been used in the blog.
  • Bloggers
    Bloggers Search for your favorite blogger from this site.
  • Team Blogs
    Team Blogs Find your favorite team blogs here.
  • Login
    Login Login form

Historical Claims Concerning Union with Christ

Posted by on in General
  • Font size: Larger Smaller
  • Hits: 229
  • Subscribe to this entry
  • Print

"Union with Christ is finally getting its just place as a central dogma in organizing the Reformed view of how we are saved." "Charles Hodge, among others, placed the forensic (especially justification) at the center, rather than union." "Reformed paradigm: justification and sanctification have their source in union; Lutheran paradigm: minor role for union, if anything, and sanctification has its source in justification."

These statements illustrate a type of exaggeration that I'd like to unpack very briefly, in part because there different nuances in this discussion that have pretty significant implications. Since my focus here is the historical claim about defining the Reformed consensus on this point, rather than exegesis.

  1. Union with Christ at the center

    Hunting down central dogmas that distinguish one tradition or school from others was a hallmark of 19th-century historians. Yet a host of specialists in Calvin and Reformed orthodoxy have shown conclusively that this is a wrong approach. It imposes our own constructs on historical views and, furthermore, there is no central dogma in Calvin, much less in Reformed theology. A central dogma is not just an important truth; it functions as a theory from which everything else is deduced.

    For Calvin and the whole Reformed tradition, Christ's person is the source of everything and his work is inseparable from Christ himself. Christ himself, not any one of his gifts, is the center and object of our faith. (That's Lutheran, too, by the way.) However, there's a big difference between something being important—even in tying together other important doctrines—and something being a central dogma. Many are discovering union with Christ, and that's great, but it has been there in our Reformed bloodstream all along. It is not something that was somehow buried after Calvin and then just uncovered recently in a particular school or circle of contemporary Reformed thought.

    Part of the danger is that some are using the "centrality" of union with Christ as a way of equalizing justification and sanctification or, in some extreme cases, to collapse both together with "union" as the whole. It's treated in most of our major systems—including Hodge's, though according to some he's a "Lutheran" in his prioritizing of justification. I devote the first chapter in my discussion of the application of redemption to union with Christ, so I readily acknowledge its importance. It is wonderfully true that faith clings to Christ for both justification and sanctification together: the double grace. This marvelous union influences Reformed thinking on a variety of topics, including the sacraments.

    However, union with Christ isn't treated as a distinct topic in any Reformed confession or catechism (including Calvin's), while justification and sanctification are considerable attention. Calvin called justification "the main hinge on which true religion turns," "the principal article," and of "most importance" in our understanding of salvation. Union with Christ is a way of relating everything from election to glorification, but is not itself a deductive center of the system. If Calvin thought so much of union with Christ and also treated sanctification as having its source in justification, what's all the fuss about?

  2. "Reformed: union with Christ; Lutheran: justification leading to sanctification."

    There is so much debate—in my view, confusion—over the historical theology of the "Lutheran" vs. "Reformed" paradigm that one hardly knows where to begin. I certainly can't do any justice to the arguments here. A lot of this goes back, I think, to the controversy in the 1970s at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, surrounding the teaching of Norman Shepherd.

    Rejecting the whole covenant of works-covenant of grace (i.e., law-gospel) scheme of federal Calvinism, and taught in the Westminster Standards, Dr. Shepherd also revised radically the confessional view of justification and justifying faith. Everyone who didn't agree with his revisions (although they were departures from the Reformed confessions) was labeled "Lutheran" by him and his supporters. "Union with Christ" became a way of upholding that everything is from Christ while confusing justification and sanctification at crucial points.

    Dr. Shepherd did resign from his post, and many who emphasize union as a central dogma do not follow him all the way. However, there is still a lingering notion that even on this important question that most historical theologians believe to have united the churches of the Reformation, Lutheran and Reformed views of justification are radically different. In the "Lutheran" paradigm, justification is the central dogma and sanctification flows out of it; in the "Reformed" paradigm, the mystical union has priority, with no logical dependence of sanctification on justification.

    If I may be so bold, this is an arbitrary construct that has no support in the primary sources. There is no point in a brief blog post to offer a syllabus of quotations, but everyone from Calvin, Vermigli, Knox, Bullinger, Zanchi, and Owen all the way to Berkhof held that while we receive all spiritual blessings in union with Christ, the forensic (Christ's mediatorial work and forensic justification) is the source or basis of personal renewal and sanctification. Vos expressly says that this is the emphatic Reformed position: "In Paul, the mystical is always subordinated to the forensic." Same as Berkhof, Hodge, et al..

    A case needs to be made for the new view that if we receive justification and sanctification together in our union with Christ, sanctification cannot have any relationship to justification. That case has not been made, in my view, but assumed. This means that any talk of sanctification being grounded in our justification is dismissed as "Lutheran." Ironically, many who have followed Norman Shepherd (directly or indirectly) along this path have jettisoned justification altogether. The Federal Vision controversy springs to mind.

  3. "Union" a distinctive feature of Reformed soteriology?

    At the height of the "central dogma" era of historians, Lutheran historical theologian Mathias Schneckenberger argued that the central dogma of Lutheranism is...union with Christ. That's right, union with Christ. In fact, the New Finnish School within mainline Lutheranism today goes so far as to dissolve justification in a version of union that is close to that of Osiander. (Osiander was a 16th-century Lutheran. Calvin devoted a whole section to refuting Osiander in the 1559 Institutes and Lutheran orthodoxy condemned his views.)

    Besides Paul, the medieval theologian Bernard of Clairvaux was a principal source of Luther's emphasis on the "marvelous exchange"—union with Christ along the lines of the marriage analogy. When Calvin talks about union, he often quotes Bernard and Luther. So much for the central dogma thesis in the general and the odd contention that union with Christ distinguishes Reformed from Lutheran theology.

Like any new discovery of a wonderful and biblically-grounded truth, the doctrine of union with Christ can put a lot of pieces of the puzzle together, but it can also swallow the horizon. That's true of justification as well, or sanctification, not to mention election and other precious truths. As wonderful and important as it is, this doctrine of union must not be understood as a way of relativizing the forensic basis of our salvation or of treating justification and sanctification as if they were related only to union but not also, within that union, to each other.

There are different nuances, emphases, and formulations between Lutherans and Calvinists, just as there are between representatives within these traditions. However, if our confessions are any indication, sharp contrasts, reductionisms, and exaggerations regarding "Lutheran" vs. "Reformed" paradigms is unhelpful, especially when they are often motivated by the old criticism of Reformation teaching, expressed by Schweitzer: "There is no motive for ethics in that system." Creating caricatures of Lutheranism as the foil for distortions of Reformed theology hardly leads to understanding of the Reformed consensus; it just makes for "schools" of idiosyncratic interpretations.

So I join those who are impressed with the importance and implications of union with Christ. However, with all historical interpretations of an important truth, the motto holds: "Look before you leap."


Overall Rating (0)

0 out of 5 stars

Leave your comments

Post comment as a guest

Your comments are subjected to administrator's moderation.
terms and condition.

People in this conversation

Load Previous Comments
  • Guest - mark mcculley

    Salvation by works is the problem.

    The unionists (Gaffin) say
    1.”definitive sanctification” and “progressive sanctification” are also by grace, not by works.
    2. But then they also say that the “grace-works” antithesis is removed once you are “united” and justified.
    3. And then finally they say that justification is not by a synergy, but that "sanctification" is by a synergy.

    p73, Gaffin, By Faith Not by Sight—”Here is what may be fairly called a synergy but it is not a 50/50 undertaking (not even 99.9% God and 0.1% ourselves). Involved here is the ‘mysterious math’ of the creator and his image-bearing creature, whereby 100% plus 100% =100%. Sanctification is 100% the work of God, and for that reason, is to engage the full 100% activity of the believer.”

    My concern is not about the motives of anybody. I have not been connected in any way with either seminary. I am concerned about the results of this kind of “unionism”.
    1. Justification is not seen as part of the “union”.
    2. “Union” is defined by antithesis so that “union” is not justification, not sanctification, not any of the benefits, but rather the presence of the person of Christ (naked, alone, without His benefits).
    3. “Union” is nevertheless conditioned on “faith”, and faith means not only Christ already indwelling but already a “break with sin”, and that “freedom from sin” is defined NOT IN FORENSIC TERMS but in ontological terms.
    4. The Holy Spirit’s work in us is read into Romans 6. Christ’s “break with sin” is read out of Romans 6.
    5. Justification is left out of “union”, and “sanctification” is put back into “union” and not seen as only a result.
    6. So supposedly sanctification is by grace also. But also sanctification is a synergy, where works by grace are different than works without grace, and thus sanctification by grace is by both grace and works.

    Beware of “mysterious math”.

    Like 0 Short URL:
  • Good food for thought, Mark. Without conceding anything to the "unionists", would you agree that:

    1. Sanctification (proper) is the monergistic renewal of the believer's nature, which God along can do. And yet...

    2. Scripture sometimes speaks of "sanctification" in a broader (less proper) sense, which would include BOTH God's "willing and working" AND the RESULTING "willing and working" of the believer?

    Just curious.

    Like 0 Short URL:
  • Guest - mark mcculley

    I am asking two things.

    1. I ask that we define “union”. It does no good to agree that “union” has various aspects (ie, it’s by election and it’s legal also) if we then go on from that to use the word “union” to mean something very close to “regeneration” or “definitive sanctification” or “break with the pattern of sin”.

    Supposedly, regeneration and sanctification and break with sin are all also results of “union”. So what is “union” and why does it come down in the end to assuming that it means the work of the Spirit in the elect sinner? (btw, we need to define words like “regeneration” and “sanctification” also).

    2. I am asking that we locate what we say in specific Biblical texts. For example, Romans 6 is certainly a key text on the relationship of justification and the Christian life. Many read Romans 6 as if it were saying: don’t worry about that two legal heads stuff in Romans 5, because there is another answer besides justification as to why we don’t sin, and that is “union”.

    Others (like Haldane and Smeaton) read Romans to say that the answer to the question about the Christian life is not something else besides legal identity with Christ’s death and resurrection. We read Romans 6:7 as saying that the answer continues to be “justified from sin”.

    We insist on that because Christ became dead to sin, was justified from sin, and that certainly was NOT “regeneration” or the monergistic work of the Spirit in Him. We insist on reading Romans 6 in terms of “sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law”.

    Others of course read Holy Spirit baptism into Romans 6. They don’t talk about Christ giving the Spirit (which is not in Romans 6). They talk about the Spirit giving Christ (which is also not in Romans 6). But it seems in no way acceptable to them to think of Romans 6 as still about justification and legal identification. They already have their minds made up that imputation is not a good enough answer to the question of Romans 6.

    God's word about the Righteousness of Christ creates hearing with faith. God’s legal imputation applies the righteousness Christ obtained for the elect to the elect

    But right now, I want some folks to tell me what that language means. What biblical texts are you thinking about? Does the Spirit “applying the work of Christ” make imputation secondary or even unnecessary? And when you say "sanctification", are you saying "by the blood" (Hebrews 10:10-14) or the work that creates initial faith in the gospel (II Thess 2:13) or something else besides those two biblical uses of the word....?

    Like 0 Short URL:
  • Guest - David R.

    Adam K,

    I agree with much of what you say, but I'm not sure the case can really be made that depravity is forensically grounded in guilt, as A.A. Hodge and others claim. I also don't really see this as clear in the Confession either. It seems more likely that guilt and depravity are two inseparable facets of sin, along the lines of WLC #25:

    Wherein consisteth the sinfulness of that estate whereinto man fell?

    A. The sinfulness of that estate whereinto man fell, consisteth in the guilt of Adam's first sin, the want of that righteousness wherein he was created, and the corruption of his nature, whereby he is utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite unto all that is spiritually good, and wholly inclined to all evil, and that continually; which is commonly called original sin, and from which do proceed all actual transgressions.

    Like 0 Short URL:
  • Jared,

    As I stated previously,

    Those who would make Union some kind of nebulous priority with no forensic priority within the ordo salutis are working within Cartesian causal terms and trying to overcome it with Schweitzer’s personal-relational dilemma (Lessing’s Ditch anyone?). The Reformed were using pre-critical uses of causality and thus could speak of varying kinds of causality without diminishing either the forensic or relational categories. The Reformers and their heirs have always said Justification is the Cause of Sanctification.

    Now, what does that entail or look like?

    Within Cartesian causality determinism is in view, but it can denote mechanisitic relationship, especially since there is an philosophical connection between Baconian science and Descartes’ Method. In as much as an act causes something by personal determination, it may be said to be deterministic rather than some impersonal force. But both have in common the idea that something is caused by a preceding force or natural law. Those who hear us using the terminology of causation with reference to justification and ordo, may hear us speaking of impersonal laws of nature in which justification is ‘stuff’ that has inherent within it transformative properties by which sanctification is formed within us.

    Thus, many like Tipton and Jim Cassidy think we are importing all of salvation into Justification and thus are returning to Rome. This is patently not the case as to how the Reformed have used the term 'cause'. ‘Cartesian’ most likely is referring to determinism since their is a personal force behind the cause and effect in view, but it need not delimit any mechanism ‘used’ in the process. It simply denies multiple forms of causation and the Reformed doctrine of concursus.

    As to the causal relationship between Just. and Sanct. This is where things definitely become difficult in that one may speak of varying relationships when different objects and subjects are in view. For instance, Warfield argued that faith has no direct relationship to sanctification in the Christian life but it is mediated through justification. (He argues these twin benefits are not simultaneous) So, when faith, justification and sanctification alone are in view there can be an instrumental relationship of justification to sanctification (faith as subject and sanctification as the object). (B. B. Warfield, “The German Higher Life Movement,” in Perfectionism, vol. 1, pp. 362-363)

    We could also say justification is the a necessary cause and condition for those who would be sanctified.

    Turretin argued that in relationship to the righteousness of Christ, faith is instrumental cause of justification. Christ’s righteousness is the meritorious/material cause of our justification, and the formal cause of sanctification. Turretin wanted to lodge this in the person and work of Christ (Institutes of Elenctic Theology, vol. 2, p. 633-ff). The guilt of sin and remission is given in justification and grants us eternal life only because of the alien righteousness of Christ. This act and declaration is not constitutive properly speaking but is instrumental in breaking the power of sin in our lives via adoption, which begins to take shape as we die to sin and live to Christ which is the fruit of sanctification. The Reformed distinguish “good works” from “sanctification” as fruit from its root. There is a legal and powerful priority with justification but the righteousness and legal power resides extra nos throughout in the work of Christ and then comes to us with justification and adoption. Thus, there is not one form of causality as in Cartesian or Rationalist schemes.

    If there is a material/meritorious cause of sanctification, it too resides in the righteousness of Christ who purchased legally the right as the second Adam to bestow a beginning of the eschatological life in this age by the sending the Spirit.

    The whole debate is really unnecessary but really is the fruit of Neo-Calvinism and schools like WTS attempting to become more sophisticated in theology without using scholastic categories (i.e. recasting the ordo in biblical theological categories). They find themselves bumping up against this causal language and it doesn’t jive with their preconceived philosophical beliefs they are unaware they possess, Or that they are attempting to speak against a COMMON enemy of Cartesian Determinism.

    Hope this fleshes out more what I was referring to.

    Like 0 Short URL:
  • Guest - mark mcculley

    from the Protestant Reformed Seminary Journal, April 2002, by David Engelsma

    "Against the interpretation of Calvin that has him teaching original guilt, albeit in embryonic form, however, stands Calvin’s commentary on Romans 5:12ff. He explains our relation to Adam in terms of Adam’s extending his corruption to us, which corruption constitutes our only guilt in the matter of Adam’s sin. Calvin explicitly rejects the doctrine of original guilt in the sense of our responsibility for Adam’s deed of disobedience.

    "There are indeed some who contend, that we are so lost through Adam’s sin, as though we perished through no fault of our own, but only, because he had sinned for us. But Paul distinctly affirms, that sin extends to all who suffer its punishment: and this he after wards more fully declares, when subsequently he assigns a reason why all the posterity of Adam are subject to the dominion of death; and it is even this—because we have all, he says, sinned. But to sin in this case, is to become corrupt and vicious; for the natural depravity which we bring from our mother’s womb, though it brings not forth immediately its own fruits, is yet sin before God, and deserves his vengeance: and this is that sin which they call original.

    Commenting on verse 17, which compares death’s reigning by Adam and our reigning in life by Jesus Christ, Calvin calls attention to a “difference between Christ and Adam”:

    "By Adam’s sin we are not condemned through imputation alone, as though we were punished only for the sin of another; but we suffer his punishment, because we also ourselves are guilty; for as our nature is vitiated in him, it is regarded by God as having committed sin. But through the righteousness of Christ we are restored in a different way to salvation."

    For Calvin, our sinning in Adam, as taught in Romans 5:12, is strictly that “we are all imbued with natural corruption, and so are become sinful and wicked.” The race becomes guilty for Adam’s transgression only by sharing in Adam’s depraved nature. Adam sinned. The punishment for Adam was, in part, the immediate corruption of his nature. But this is the nature of all his posterity (Christ excepted). All of Adam’s posterity are held responsible for the corrupted nature. Not sheer legal representation by a covenant head, but involvement in a corporate nature renders the race guilty before God. I am not responsible for Adam’s disobedience of eating the forbidden fruit. But I am responsible for the sinful nature with which God punished Adam for his act of disobedience.

    mcmark: I agree with Engelsma that "This view of original sin leaves Calvin with a huge problem. By what right did God inflict the punishment of a corrupt nature on Adam’s posterity? That the corruption of human nature was divine punishment on Adam, Calvin acknowledges. But it was as well punishment of Adam’s posterity. This, Calvin does not like to acknowledge. Rather, he likes to regard the depraved nature only as the guilt of Adam’s posterity. The question that exposes the weakness — serious weakness — of Calvin’s doctrine here is this: If I am not guilty for Adam’s act of disobedience, with what right does God punish me — not Adam, but me — with a totally depraved nature?

    Calvin’s explanation of the origin of the sin of the human race also has an important implication for the headship of Adam. Adam was head of the race, to be sure. But his headship consisted only of his depraving the human nature of which all partake. His was not the headship of legal representation. Adam did not stand in such a covenantal relation to all men, that, altogether apart from the consequent corrupting of the nature, all are responsible before God for Adam’s act of disobedience.

    In view of the apostle’s comparison between Adam and Christ in Romans 5:12ff. (“as by the offence of one … even so by the righteousness of one,” v. 18), Calvin’s explanation of the headship of Adam would mean that Christ’s headship also consists only of His being the source of righteousness to His people by actually infusing it into them. If Adam’s headship was not legal representation, neither is Christ’s headship legal representation. But this destroys the fundamental gospel-truth of justification as the imputation of Christ’s obedience.

    Calvin recognizes the danger. Therefore, in his commentary on Romans 5:17 Calvin proposes a “difference between Christ and Adam.” “By Adam’s sin we are not condemned through imputation alone,” but “through the righteousness of Christ we are restored in a different way to salvation.”

    The trouble is that Paul does not teach such a “difference between Christ and Adam.” Paul rather declares, “as by the offence of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation; even so by the righteousness of one the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life” (Rom. 5:18).

    If our guilt in Adam is not by imputation of a deed of disobedience, neither is our righteousness in Christ by imputation of a deed of obedience. The “difference between Christ and Adam” that Calvin injects into Romans 5:12ff. does not exist. Verse 18 teaches that the transgression of one man — Adam, according to verse 14 — was the condemnation of all men. In verse 19, the apostle states that the disobedience of the one man rendered many people sinners. The verb translated “made” by the King James Version means “constituted” in the sense of a legal standing of guilt before God the judge.

    One could translate: “By one man’s disobedience many were declared sinners.” Even so, the righteousness of one — Jesus Christ — was the justification of all whom He represented, and His obedience constitutes many people righteous.

    The comparison between the two covenant heads of the human race in history consists exactly of this, that both are legal representatives of others, Adam, of the entire human race, Christ only excepted, and Christ, of the new human race of the elect church. Because Adam was covenant (federal) head of the race, his act of disobedience was imputed to the race as their guilt. Because Christ is covenant (federal) head of the elect, His obedience is imputed to the elect as our righteousness.

    Like 0 Short URL:
  • Guest - David R.

    When, very recently on another blog, numerous citations from the Reformed tradition were provided affirming the priority of justification, and the request was made for some interaction, Jared's response was that the discussion should focus on exegesis rather than what the tradition has said, and that interaction with these Reformed voices should be delayed. Interesting that he is now posting citations and demanding interaction. Why the double standard?

    Like 0 Short URL:
  • Guest - Maggie

    And all this goes to show that the agnostics are right when they claim you can make the bible say whatever you want. You might as well follow Nostradamus. Thanks for demonstrating that Christianity is really just a farce.

    Like 0 Short URL:
  • Guest - Mike G

    Really, Maggie, and by that vague drive-by comment of yours, you're not adding to the 'farce'?

    Like 0 Short URL:
  • Guest - Anne

    I'm reading a book, called 'Danger in the Camp' regarding the Norman Shepherd theology -one of the subjects being confusion over sanctification/justification. It sounds like the same arguments regarding the Gaffin/Unionists discussions. Why hasn't anyone brought up the fact that Gaffin and Shepherd's theologies are very similar? No one questions their desire to change the order salute? I find it strange that WTS folks who were taught by Shepherd all those years (how many?) don't see the same problem repeating itself with sanctification smothering justification. They are both vital but the confusion is seriously dangerous. The phrases made that we are reforming theology - it's a process - is exactly what the NPP folks said. Maybe the book I'm reading isn't recommended by everyone? would appreciate thoughts on that as well?
    What is the crux of the matter? the cross? How can we be sanctified without first being pardoned? The Holy Spirit enables us to believe we're sinners & run to the cross...isn't sanctification the Spirit residing in us (In Christ) to transform us into Christ's image?

    Like 0 Short URL: