Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Westminster Wednesday: Turretin on the Priority of Justification in Mystical Union

Firstly, I must say that I have benefited immensely from the conversations on the doctrine of union with Christ that have ensued over the Net in the course of the past few weeks (which actually has spanned many years already). I am grateful for the contributions of great Reformed minds on both fronts, especially those whom I have had closer contact with, such as Dr. R. Scott Clark, Jared Oliphint and, just recently, Ptr. Rob Edwards (the latter two from WTS, the former from WSC).

As Ptr. Edwards noted on a comment on a blog post of mine, my use of the terms "unionism" or "unionist" may not be quite the best denomination of the view that does not see the priority of justification in the ordo salutis, a view which he espouses. His sentiment arises from the fact that the view does not in fact consider union with Christ as the overarching doctrine upon which every other doctrine has its foundation. To this I offer my apology, as it was not my intention to imply that the aforementioned assumption was the ground of my coining of the term. I merely wanted an easy name for the view. So perhaps I may now safely use the terms without fear of incurring ire.

The comment by Ptr. Edwards on my blog was prompted by my having replied to a blog post by Dr. D. G. Hart on this issue of union with Christ in which I stated that the "unionist" may have the inclination of esteeming biblical theology over systematic theology, hence the adoption of the "unionist" view. I admit the hasty generalization of the statement. However, it does appear that the "major players" in Reformed orthodoxy did hold to the priority of justification on the issue of union with Christ, specifically mystical/existential union.

Both sides of the debate hold that there are 3 aspects to union with Christ: decretal, federal, and mystical/existential. The difference lies in fact that the "unionist" does not seem to accept the classic formulation of an ordo salutis and the priority of justification in mystical union. Calvin has been thrown around by both sides of the discussion, claiming his support for their respective views. Being in agreement with the "justificationists" (there, a nickname of our own), I now seek to throw some of Francis Turretin in the mix in an attempt to show that while our every benefit in Christ does indeed emanate from our decretal and federal union with Him, the application of these benefits subjectively in mystical/existential union is through the instrumentality of faith in justification, hence its priority.


On mystical union, Turretin writes:

"Further, as long as Christ is outside of us and we are out of Christ, we can receive no fruit from another's righteousness. God willed to unite us to Christ by a twofold bond—one natural, the other mystical—in virtue of which both our evils might be transferred to Christ and the blessings of Christ pass over to us and become ours. The former is the communion of nature by the incarnation. By this, Christ, having assumed our flesh, became our brother and true Goel and could receive our sins upon himself and have the right to redeem us. The latter is the communion of grace by mediation. By this, having been made by God a surety for us and given to us for a head, he can communicate to us his righteousness and all his benefits. Hence it happens that as he was made of God sin for us by the imputation of our sins, so in turn we are made the righteousness of God in him by the imputation of his obedience (2 Cor. 5:21)" (Institutes, Vol. 2, 16.3.5).

Here we find the raising to the foreground of the foundational truth that all that we are and have in Christ is precisely ours in Christ, i.e., by virtue of our federal union with Him, we are recipients of His benefits. Notice the usage of "surety" and "head," especially the latter, which denotes the federal headship of Christ and, in the context, speaks of federal union, which further language of "communion of grace by mediation" and "communicate to us his righteousness and all his benefits" imply a future application through means.

The double evil referred to prior points to mankind as sinful universally and man in his sin as sinning particularly, which further reinforces the idea of mystical union as occurring in the subjective realm existentially.

But how is this righteousness (viz. benefits of Christ) made to be ours existentially?


The righteousness of Christ is ours through its imputation. But what is the nature of this imputation?

Turretin states:

"For the foundation of imputation is either in the merit and dignity of the person, to whom a thing is imputed; or it is out of it in the grace and mercy alone of the one imputing. The first is the legal mode,the other is the evangelical. Hence we gather that this word is forensic. It is not to be understood physically of an infusion of righteousness, but judicially and relatively, of gratuitous acceptance in the judgment of God" (ibid., 16.3.7).

Here we find that the nature of the imputation of the righteousness of Christ is forensic, judicial, legal—the language of justification.

"Thus the imputation of righteousness is the foundation and meritorious cause of justification" (ibid., 16.4.5).

So if the imputation of the righteousness of Christ, with all its attendant benefits, is of a legal nature, and if it is the ground or cause by which we are justified, then it becomes apparent that the reception of all that we have in Christ is very closely linked to justification.

But lest we forget:

"From union with Christ depends the communion of all his benefits, of justification and of sanctification and of glory...Hence it is that, being united to Christ as our head and the first-begotten of God, his most perfect righteousness becomes ours by the imputation of God and the reception of faith, upon which depend both absolution from sins and the adoption or acceptation to life and the inheritance which is the right of sons" (ibid., 16.6.8).

Again, we find headship language in the context of union with Christ, consistent with federal union, as the dependency of our receiving of the benefits of Christ. But here we find mention of the means of reception in the existential realm, i.e. faith.


Turretin, speaking of the orthodox view on the relationship of faith to justification, declares:

"They teach that faith is the organic and instrumental cause of our justification and that justification is ascribed to it, not properly and by itself (inasmuch as it is a work or as if it was the righteousness itself by which we are justified before God; or as if by its own worth or by the indulgence of God it deserves justification in whole or in part), but improperly and metonymically (inasmuch as Christ's righteousness, which faith apprehends, is the foundation and meritorious cause on account of which we are justified). So that it is said to justify relatively and organically; relatively because the object of faith is our true righteousness before God; organically because faith is the instrument for receiving on our part and for applying to ourselves, that righteousness" (ibid., 16.7.5).

So the language of "justified by faith" is a metonymy of justified by the imputation of the righteousness of Christ; and, if as the preceding treatments indicate, the benefits of Christ are ours through imputation, then it follows that these benefits are ours by faith.

So if the imputation of the righteousness of Christ is faith, metonymically, and the former is of a forensic nature, then it must indeed follow that our reception of the righteousness of Christ, in mystical/existential union, is predicated on justification by faith.

On the causal nature of justification, Turretin adds (referring to sanctification as "regeneration"):

"Paul does not say that we are justified by regeneration (Tit. 3:5-7); nay, since he ascribes justification to the grace of God and takes away from works, he shows that he is unwilling to ascribe it to righteousness inhering by regeneration, which is rather the fruit than the cause of justification. But his intention is to point out how God will have us saved by two benefits which he bestows upon us—regeneration, of which the Holy Spirit is the author in us; and justification, which we obtain by Christ, by which we are made heirs of eternal life. That denotes the way of salvation [referring to sanctification - mine], this its cause [referring to justification - mine]" (ibid., 16.2.21, emphasis mine).


Given the data above, it does seem to appear that Francis Turretin himself was a "justificationist." While holding to the priority of union with Christ as the source of all our benefits in Him, the holding is a qualified one.

Universally, the Christian's ground of participating in the benefits of Christ is both decretal (election) and federal union (historia salutis); particularly, the ground is mystical/existential union predicated upon justification by faith.

Covenantally, it does make sense. How can the covenant-breaker (Covenant of Works) be made to be a partaker of the privileges of being in the Covenant of Grace without first having been declared in good-standing with the Covenant Lord through a forensic, legal pardon that is appropriated through justification by faith? If justification does not precede mystical union, then it follows that one under the Covenant of Works can indeed enjoy the benefits of the Covenant of Grace—a problematic proposition.


  1. it is because of the covenant of grace is a covenant made by God in Christ as the latter represents the elect; that is how others would explain it with regard to your question in the conclusion part...meaning the elect has been united to Christ even before the foundation of the world...

  2. That still begs the question. Are you willing to affirm that the elect are automatically born under the Covenant of Grace in an internal sense (discounting external membership through baptism) apart from the existential exercise of faith?

    As stated above, federal union does indeed mean that the elect are united to Christ insofar as He is their head (historia salutis), and yet there remains an existential application of this union, predicated upon justification by faith.

  3. Warren,

    First things first - congrats on the new addition! I'm sure he rightly gets the most press in your household these days, far and above theological minutiae. Very cool!

    Thanks for these exchanges, I know I have benefitted from the interaction, I hope at no cost to yourself. You bring up a great point towards the beginning on methodology that I think needs to be clarified by justificationists (I'll use the term with your same qualifications!). I constantly hear quotes from Clark, Fesko, Horton and yourself on occasion claiming that the justificationist position is the clear, orthodox, historical, Reformed, overwhelmingly obvious position on this matter. Examples:

    Clark: "...the Gaffin-Tipton-Evans approach deviates from the tradition (and the evidence that it does is overwhelming)...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..."

    Horton (before Tullian took this part down for now): "But some among us suggest that because we receive justification and sanctification in union with Christ, there is no logical dependence of the latter on the former. I don’t find that anywhere in the relevant scriptural passages or in the exegesis offered by the Reformers, the confessions and catechisms, and the Puritans. Reformed theology certainly teaches that justification provides the secure legal basis for our growing and maturing relationship with Christ (i.e., sanctification)."

    Fesko: "In this regard the Westminster Confession of Faith concisely explains why our good works, or more broadly our sanctification, cannot be the ground of our justification."

    I really appreciate you bringing Turretin into the mix and let me say from the outset that neither myself nor (and I think I can safely speak for them in this one regard) the unionists see any conflict between the union position and the Reformed confessions and much of the Reformed tradition (with exceptions like Berkhof and other places Gaffin mentions in R&R which don't serve to undermine the point of union fitting squarely in the tradition).

    I'm confused on a couple of points, which I'm sure is because of my shortcomings (this is not false modesty, I'm sure I'm missing something I should be getting). First, are you equating "faith" with "justification" at times? Your recent Hodge quote prompts this question. Union is faith-wrought; justification by faith alone is not an isolated justification external to our union with Christ. It is faith in Christ and what results is union and simultaneously its benefits...

  4. Also, do you and others believe that unionists claim that sanctification causes justification? Time and space is taken by many to demonstrate that sanctification isn’t logically prior to justification, yet I don’t see any arguing for that position. Unionists believe that the benefits are received simultaneously and that there is no logical priority among them (reasons being exegetical rather than abstracting them as concepts while also distinguishing between definitive sanctification and progressive sanctification - something I haven't seen dealt with in detail yet by justificationists).

    Also, unlike N.T. Wright’s notion of justification, no unionist wishes to collapse imputation into union, but rather seek to maintain imputation while also maintaining the justification that is imputed to be a benefit of union. I also think much confusion might be avoided by others if “union” is just taken as a shortcut term for those relevant occasions in Scripture that express “in Christ” “with Christ”, etc. While “mystical union” is a term that is used, I do fear that it creates confusion that union is this ethereal concept that we can’t really express accurately or precisely. Maybe those are false fears.

    No unionist you have mentioned would ever see a priority of biblical theology over systematic theology or vice versa, but would rather see systematics built organically and reciprocally on biblical theology and exegesis and biblical theology built organically and reciprocally on exegesis and systematic theology (see Silva’s article on “The Case for Calvinistic Hermeneutics”). It’s not at all the case that unionists are going against the tradition because we’re Biblicists unaware of the history of the tradition and/or its systematic formulations. That argument serves as a red herring for understanding the textual data that informs the biblical theology and systematics.

    I think I’d like to challenge justificationists very specifically and I’ll stick to the Westminster Standards and to Calvin (needing to be more informed on your Turretin quotes above): there is a very real difference between 1) understanding union-centrality (expressed by Gaffin, Tipton, etc.) as simply not found within these particular works in the tradition, 2) understanding union as compatible within these particular works within the tradition but not what the authors mean or intended, 3) understanding union as incompatible within these particular works within the tradition. #3 would be a very difficult case to prove and I would love to see efforts to do so because I get the sense this is what some justificationists truly believe. If #2 is believed, I have more sympathies given the difference between 16th and 17th c. expressions and 20th and 21st c. expressions. I do think that the natural read for much of the confession and much of Pauline language is that union is central and the benefits flow from that centrality.

    We can use the categories of decretal, federal, and mystical as far as they are helpful, but if they become unhelpful it’s worth dropping them for the sake of clarity and precision. We were in Christ before the foundation of the world, we were in Christ at the point of his resurrection, and we are in Christ at the timepoint of faith in the life of the individual believer (and not before). Tying all those aspects together is infinitely complex and ultimately mysterious, but methodologically we can say systematically what Scripture says, determine what may be a good and necessary consequence, and be settled with whatever mysteries result from that due theological diligence. Those categories shouldn’t cause confusion regarding the covenant of works/grace schema. Your last paragraph is solved by the simultaneity of union with its benefits. Faith-wrought union is logically prior, not temporally.

    At any rate, I hope these exchanges lead to theological understanding and cleanup where it needs to be on all accounts!


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