Saturday, April 2, 2011

Union Then Faith or Faith Then Union?

R. Scott Clark writes, "Historically and confessionally considered, however, the Reformed have taught that this third aspect of union, existential or vital or personal union with Christ is the consequence of faith, which is the consequence of Spirit-wrought new life...God justified the ungodly, not those sanctified definitively by union with Christ. It is the justified who are united to Christ. Existential union, like many other benefits of the covenant of grace, comes through faith in Christ."


  1. This is a total confusion of categories. We follow Christ's pattern of being justified through our union with him in his resurrection. Union does come through faith, but that doesn't exclude the fact that justification and the other benefits are benefits from union with Christ when saved by grace through faith. Clark needs clarity and exegetical work, not just perpetual appeals to historical quotes.

  2. Could Clark's position be best explained by his appeal to the notions of federal/legal union as differentiated from vital/mystical union, wherein the former is forged in the Covenant of Redemption, while the latter predicated upon the point-in-time application of the former through regeneration and the subsequent justification by grace through faith?

  3. Clark is just working with completely different categories that I'm comfortable with. Bifurcating union into federal/mystical completely fails to understand Spirit-wrought union with the resurrected Christ and the benefits that Christ gains through his resurrection (justification, sanctification, adoption) being ours as well through that union. It is not "forensic union" and it is not mystical. There's just no exegetical case for either of those. Keep at it, bro. And in all sincerity, the two books I recommended are tremendously more helpful than what I can comment on here.

  4. Jared,

    I'm a historian. It's what I do. History may not interest you but it's important because it influences the way we read Scripture (no one reads Scripture in a vacuum) and how Reformed folk understand themselves.

    I don't imagine that I (or you any any of us) am the first person to think about what Scripture says about union. So, as a historian, the first point I'm trying to make is a historical point. Let's clear the decks. The Reformed, confessional way of speaking about what Dick Gaffin calls "existential union" is that it is a benefit of faith. We have a decretal union with Christ (Eph 1) and we have a federal (representative) union (Rom 5).

    As to exegetical theology, I don't see the prima facie case from Scripture that makes me think that the Reformation and the Reformed churches (who have read the Bible!) got union wrong.

    Let's look for some prima facie evidence that makes us want to overturn the Reformation. Let's look for the word "union" in the ESV, in this context. It doesn't occur. It doesn't even occur in the Vulgate (just for fun). So let's look at the LXX. The LXX doesn't even translate the Heb text of the 4 OT passages in which the ESV uses "union" (in re marriage) as "union." In other words, there's no obvious (i.e., prima facie) overwhelmingly explicit OT doctrine of union with Christ (or the Lord or Yahweh etc) coming in the NT and further there's no clear, established vocabulary for it in the OT or NT.

    Now, quite agree with Calvin in Book 3 (I know he's a dead, so what did he know? But let's humor him just for fun) that there certainly is a doctrine of union and it is essential to Christian theology but let's keep in perspective (as Calvin did).

    When Paul says σ&upsiolon;ν χρ and εν χρ he's speaking to the vital, Spirit-wrought relationship that exists between the ascended Christ and the believer. The existence of that relationship, however, doesn't obliterate his FORENSIC doctrine of justification. The same Apostle taught both a LEGAL doctrine of justification by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone AND a doctrine of personal, vital, existential union with Christ.

    How do we relate these two? We do it as Paul did it. It is the elect who are made alive, who believe, and it is believers who've been united (in this sense) with Christ.

    You seem to want to do away with systematic theology in favor of biblicism. That hasn't worked since before the Council of Nicea and it won't work now. We need to employ ALL the tools in our kit: history, biblical theology, AND systematics in order to sort through these questions.

  5. Ad hominem sarcastic responses are just not shocking from him anymore. They've become standard.

    "History may not interest you" - there is nothing whatsoever in what I wrote to indicate even the possibility that I don't care about history. Clearly I was prioritizing rather than dichotomizing.

    "I don't imagine that I (or you any any of us) [<- really?] am the first person to think about what Scripture says about union." - Again, is there anything whatsoever that would indicate that I think any party involved is the first person to think about union? Is that even a possible implication from what I wrote?

    "overturn the Reformation" - you can't get more over-dramatic while also assuming that "the Reformation" (which was theologically monolithic, I suppose?) unilaterally agrees with your conception of the place and priority of union.

    "Let's look for the word 'union' in the ESV, in this context. It doesn't occur." - Failing to allow for the possibility of the word/concept distinction is one thing, but an exegetical method that first goes to the ESV term, then works backward to the LXX to argue for an OT soteriology? I'll let that speak for itself.

    "How do we relate these two? We do it as Paul did it. It is the elect who are made alive, who believe, and it is believers who've been united (in this sense) with Christ." - Gaffin and Tipton wouldn't disagree with anything there or in the preceding paragraph. How on earth are those points arguing for the *prioritization* of justification as a benefit over union with the person of Christ? Of course it doesn't obliterate the forensic because justification is a forensic benefit of that Spirit-wrought union. There is such an obvious misunderstanding here of how Gaffin and Tipton understand Paul.

    "You seem to want to do away with systematic theology in favor of biblicism." - Really? I want that? I want to do away with ST? That's the implication you get from what I wrote? I'll again let that speak for itself.

    There's a lesson to be learned here. The exegetical evidence was not presented, except for a couple references to Eph 1 and Rom 5, and nothing specific regarding either of those chapters. I had to spend the whole time pointing out false implications that the actual issue gets lost in addressing the topic. I'll let the readers and listeners of what you say discover for themselves whether that's the exception or the rule.

  6. Jared,

    1) I wasn't being sarcastic! Perhaps I should have asked first, but I took it that you were saying, in effect, "Who cares about the Reformed tradition?" Well, I do. We should. There's a reason that the Gaffin-Tipton-Evans approach deviates from the tradition (and the evidence that it does is overwhelming).

    2) Maybe you missed the qualifier? Prima facie evidence would be some strong, clear evidence that demands that one re-think a view. Take, e.g., the OT doctrine of propitiation. The OT consistently teaches that God's wrath has been turned away. The OT has a term for this. Take, e.g., the OT teaching on "covenant." It has a term for this. The OT doesn't have a term for "union" with God. As I acknowledged, that doesn't mean that the doctrine isn't present, but it does mean that the same level of or degree of evidence isn't present. That's significant. My point is that if we're going to overturn the Reformation--that's not drama that's what Bill Evans is proposing!--then we should at least have that sort of evidence but we don't.

    What we do have is a series of inferences. The difficulty I have is that they aren't "good and necessary" inferences but rather inferences that rely on unproven assumptions.

    3) Bill Evans has argued for "decisive break with ordo salutis thinking." If you'll read the quote and the exchange with Bill you'll see that he doesn't seem to realize for what he's asking but the Reformation was about the ordo salutis. The medieval church had come to teach that we are accepted by God because we're justified and we're justified, they said, by grace (baptism and Spirit-wrought sanctity, i.e., condign merit) and cooperation with grace. That implies an ordo salutis. The Reformation rejected the notion that we are justified on the basis of what is wrought in us and taught unequivocally that we are justified on the basis of what has been done FOR US, outside of us, and imputed to us.

    The contemporary move back to "in us" (via union) is truly concerning because it seeks to move the "in us" to a logical place that is prior to the "for us" and frequently seems to substitute "union" for faith and thus to marginalize the biblical and confessional doctrine of justification in favor of a 19th-century doctrine of existential union with Christ.

    Your demand for an all-out exegetical defense of the confessional view assumes the wrong burden of proof. It doesn't lie with those who confess what the Reformed church has always confessed: Those who are elect (Eph 1:3-14) are those who are "in Christ" from all eternity and it is they (Rom 9) who have been brought to faith and through that faith (Rom 6) are "in Christ" and "with Christ" (union with Christ).

    There is prima facie evidence that Dick's revision of this doctrine has unhappy effects. For decades he supported Norm Shepherd's doctrine of justification through faith and works. There's a connection there. I'm happy that he repented of his support for Norm's doctrine but now there's a tension between his doctrine of justification (as expressed in the OPC study committee report) and his earlier views and his doctrine of existential union which has God justifying the sanctified (by virtue of existential union that logically precedes faith) rather than the ungodly, as Paul teaches (Romans 4:5, "And to the one who does not work but xbelieves in* him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness").

    If you want more detailed discussions of union with Christ you can find them here:

  7. Q. 69. What is the communion in grace which the members of the invisible church have with Christ?

    A. The communion in grace which the members of the invisible church have with Christ, is their partaking of the virtue of his mediation, in their justification, adoption, sanctification, and whatever else (benefits), in this life, manifests their UNION with him.

  8. I appreciate Dr. Clark's having brought the critical implications of a deviant notion of the ordo salutis and the priority of faith to the foreground.

    I also think that putting existential union before justification by faith betrays a "revivalist" notion of conversion, wherein it appears to be posited that the Holy Spirit effects conversion apart from the ordinary means of grace. Luther said that the whole of the Christian life is one of repentance and Calvin concurred by saying that conversion is effected in stages. All this points to faith as progressively wrought in the unbeliever through the preaching of the Law and Gospel (via Bible studies, Sabbath day preaching, etc.), and plays up the import of faith-creation. How is existential union wrought apart from the means of grace, and what else do the means of grace effect but faith-creation?

  9. Dr. Clark,

    Why does affirming that justification happens within the context of union (per WLC 69) require that God justifies the godly? If justification, adoption, and sanctification occur simultaneously with the context of Spirit-wrought faith-union, why must you insist that sanctification precedes justification?

    Being the biblicist and people-pleaser that I am, I can find a wealth of prima facie support for maintaining that justification happens within the context of union with Christ (Gal 2:17; Rom 6:23; 8:1; 1 Cor 1:30; Eph 1:3; et al). How else would his righteousness come to believers anyway? It's only through faith-union. And being the Reformed lover of history that I am, Calvin didn't teach anything different. His duplex gratia formulates justification and sanctification and distinct, yet inseparable and simultaneous benefits.

  10. Regarding Calvin, his prioritization of faith in this quote is worth noticing:

    "The method by which so great a benefit is obtained is also expressed. What a remarkable commendation is here bestowed on faith, that, by means of it, the Son of God becomes our own, and “makes his abode with us!” (John 14:23.) By faith we not only acknowledge that Christ suffered and rose from the dead on our account, but, accepting the offers which he makes of himself, we possess and enjoy him as our Savior. This deserves our careful attention. Most people consider fellowship with Christ, and believing in Christ, to be the same thing; but the fellowship which we have with Christ is the consequence of faith. In a word, faith is not a distant view, but a warm embrace, of Christ, by which he dwells in us, and we are filled with the Divine Spirit." (Commentary on Eph. 3:17)

  11. "The mystical union in the sense in which we are now speaking of it is not the judicial ground, on the basis of which we become partakers of the riches that are in Christ. It is sometimes said that the merits of Christ cannot be imputed to us as long as we are not in Christ, since it is only on the basis of our oneness with Him that such an imputation could be reasonable. But this view fails to distinguish between our legal unity with Christ and our spiritual oneness with Him, and is a falsification of the fundamental element in the doctrine of redemption, namely, of the doctrine of justification. Justification is always a declaration of God, not on the basis of an existing condition, but on that of a gracious imputation, — a declaration which is not in harmony with the existing condition of the sinner. The judicial ground for all the special grace which we receive lies in the fact that the righteousness of Christ is freely imputed to us." — Louis Berkhof, 'Systematic Theology', 452.

    Echoing Calvin, Berkhof points to the fact that justification is not grounded on an "existing condition of the sinner," i.e. prior union, but is solely based on the classic formulation: by grace, through faith.

  12. Covenantally, the prioritization of union also doesn't seem to make sense. It's as if the covenant-breaker is made to be cozy with the offended party even before the former meets the covenant stipulations. In this case, meeting the covenant stipulations is putting faith in Christ, in the merits of His active and passive obedience, with justification ensuing from the imputation of these merits. Once having been made right with the offended party, the full benefits of the covenant can now flow and be enjoyed by the once covenant-breaker.

  13. Underdog,

    Didn’t Dr. Clark just say "The Reformation rejected the notion that we are justified on the basis of what is wrought in us and taught unequivocally that we are justified on the basis of what has been done FOR US, outside of us, and imputed to us.”? When did faith become the basis upon which we were justified? I know that the two are intrinsically connected - don’t get me wrong. But by calling faith the “merit” of salvation in the new covenant makes the new covenant one of grace AND works (if only formally)!!

    It all comes down to the question: “How does God declare us righteous on the basis of Christ’s righteousness without it being a legal fiction?” There are two answers to that in this comment seciton: faith and union. Faith alone does not resolve that tension. It does not answer the question, to rephrase, “On what basis are we declared righteous on the basis of what was accomplished by and for Christ?” HOW was Christ raised for OUR justification, and not only for his own if the declaration precedes oneness? If we answer, “Grace” in favor of prioritizing justification, we miss the fact that the person of Christ IS the grace we receive (Jn. 1:17; 1 Cor. 1:4; Eph. 2:7).

    And Berkhof has no echo of Calvin in his statement. Calvin is not making an “ordo” formulation; he is making a distinction between fellowship and faith. Furthermore, Calvin is speaking of the role of faith in the life of the BELIEVER. He’s commenting on Eph. 3:17, and 16-17 say “that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith...” Fellowship IS a product of faith, which is anteceded by union - “Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.” (Rm. 6:7) - There you have it! Union, faith, new life. And I would LOVE to hear a response to Mark’s beautiful explanation of union and ordo.

  14. Paul,

    Don't equivocate on basis and means. The basis of justification is Christ's active and passive obedience. The means by which we are justified, as a result of the imputation of Christ's merits, is by grace through faith. As I've said above, the "unionist" thought somehow fails to grapple with the Holy Spirit's use of means in the economy of redemption. Is this union forged apart from the preaching of the Law and the Gospel? If not, then is not the preaching of the Word's chief function to create faith? So then faith is actually precedent. Unionist thought blurs covenantal thought, as I've also said above.

    This talk of "legal fiction" is precisely what's tackled when it is asserted that God justifies the ungodly. God justifies the sinner not because he is already just (or in union with Christ) but by declaring him to be so by grace through faith. Again, covenantally-speaking, declaring the covenant-breaker as just when it is reckoned that he is already inside the covenant, in good-standing, is tautological. The covenant-breaker is first declared just and in good-standing within the covenant before he gets to enjoy the covenant privileges.

    Calvin regarded conversion as progressive, as did Luther. There is a sense of course wherein conversion is epochal, but if conversion is repentance and faith, then this goes on throughout the course of the Christian life. Therefore, Calvin's Ephesians commentary does not merely apply to a believer per se, but also to the unbeliever that is in the process of conversion.

  15. Underdog,

    Don’t equivocate Christ and the church. The means by which CHRIST is justified is his active and passive obedience. And when you say “The means by which we are by grace through faith” you respond exactly how I predicted you would respond in the text of my first post: by an appeal to grace. Again: Christ IS the grace (Jn. 1:17; 1 Cor. 1:4; Eph. 2:7), so in a biblical sense, by appealing to the “by grace through faith” formula, you affirm the priority of union. Let’s have this conversation in exegetical terms and THEN confessional ones.

    In your discussion of legal fiction, you don’t actually solve the forensic conundrum. You must reckon with Mark’s statement about the simultaneity of justification and sanctification as blessings which flow from union. God does justify the ungodly on the basis of Christ’s righteousness because of union. If I am not united to Christ, his righteousness cannot be counted mine. If God declares the ungodly righteous OUTSIDE of Christ, HE is unrighteous. The priority of justification remains a legal fiction. The covenant-breaker is not only ungodly, but unrighteous. Any declaration otherwise, by God or man, is arbitrary without union (Rom. 8:1 - obvious priority of union here). We can talk about imputation of sin and righteousness all day long, but without the mechanism of union, imputation cannot take place. Any reckoning of one party on the basis of a separate party who is not somehow one with the former party is a false reckoning - a fantastical imputation. You still haven’t answered my question, "On what basis are we declared righteous on the basis of what was accomplished by and for Christ?” without affirming the priority of union (“by grace [the person of Christ] through faith”)

    Progressive conversion aside, just look at the words of Eph. 3:16-17. “that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith...” Order: (1) “his Spirit [is] in your inner being" - "so that" (2) "through faith" (3) "Christ may dwell in your hearts." If existential union is THROUGH the Spirit (Rom. 8:11), how does the Spirit “in [our] inner being” and yet not simultaneously uniting us to Christ? The Spirit clearly comes first here, (“so that” makes this priority explicit - whether the purpose of the Spirit is Christ dwelling or the believer believing, the Spirit being in the inner being comes first). So, how does the Spirit’s being “in your inner being” function progressively? Are we...progressively regenerated?

  16. Click on the link and listen to the following audio:

    Around 46:50, Gaffin says, "what faith does is effect union with Christ."

    Then I believe he cites Calvin as saying, "faith can be seen as the bond of union between ourselves and Christ."


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