Monday, July 11, 2011

Justification and Union with Christ

This article, particularly section III-C, is one of the more enlightening articles I've read in recent memory on the subject of justification (written by a non-Calvinist, no less!). From what I've read, the relevance of a believer's union with Christ to justification is relatively under-emphasized. Understanding union to be the means by which Christ is able to act on our behalf as penal substitute and righteous representative - and hence, that union with Christ is a precondition for justification - is, I think, a powerful rebuttal to a vogue argument in Roman Catholic circles; viz. the Protestant view of justification implies nominalism. From the article:

The meaning of [justification] is clearly forensic. But the deeper question remains: is that forensic verdict an accurate and true assessment of the believer when united to Christ, or is it a nominal and putative designation of a recategorization within God’s mind alone? We are joined to Christ to the extent that we gain His identity in the eyes of justice. In that sense, the infused identity does make us subjectively righteous (when the subject is the whole man, consisting of both the man and Christ in union), but only insofar as we are joined to Christ and it is His righteousness–already accomplished in His human life–that is the only righteousness in view. However, when we are joined to Christ, we are not joined to the extent that either is lost in the other. The union is sufficient to make us one with Christ in the eyes of justice, but the righteousness that is now ours remains the righteousness that He lived and not any righteousness that we live out or accomplish–in that sense it is still an alien righteousness. This infused identity is the substance and reality which our prior justification had in view.

We can say we have been crucified with Christ, buried with Christ, and raised with Christ (Romans 6:1-11) when in us is the Spirit of Christ who unites us to Him (Romans 8:9-11). This is indeed an "infused identity" - we are, inherently and intrinsically, new creatures in Christ.

Obviously, this is not to suggest the ground of our justification is merited by anything we have accomplished, nor is it correct to speak of the basis of justification as infused righteousness. These are antithetical to the gospel. Rather, our union with Christ or infused identity is what makes justification compatible with realism, as the imputation (legal charge) of the righteousness merited by Christ to our account and the non-imputation of our sin due the penalty Christ paid for us is made possible by the fact we are in Christ and He in us. This union is real, not merely forensic. The Father therefore justifies believers who are ungodly in themselves yet - due to their union with Christ - righteous in Christ. Such justification is not a "legal fiction."

A few citations of Turretin as Reformed precedent for this view will be a fitting close: our legal and mystical union, [Christ] becomes one with us, and we one with him. Hence he may justly take upon him our sin and sorrows, and impart to us his righteousness and blessings. So there is no abrogation of the law, no derogation from its claims; as what we owed is transferred to the account of Christ, to be paid by him.

...when the sin of another is said to be imputed to any one, it is not to be understood that the sin is, purely and in every sense, foreign to him but that, by some means, it pertains to him to whom it is said to be imputed; if not strictly his own, individually and personally, then (communiter) conjointly, on account of community between him and its proper author. For there can be no imputation of the sin of another, unless it is based upon some special union of the one with the other.


MikeD said...

Perhaps you can help me understand what you mean by the contrast between the terms "real" and "forensic" in the statement, "This union is real, not merely forensic." Perhaps the term "real" could mean "personal" or "infused"? Perhaps in your answer you can anticipate the objector as noting that God's legal declarations are as real as anything else, indeed, even more! Thanks for your time and, FWIW, I look forward to great things from you in the future.

Ryan said...


It might be better to give an example of what I'm trying to avoid (link).

You see that on the one hand, Horton says people are "united to [Christ] through faith" and on the other that "[union with Christ takes] root in the forensic soil of justification, from which it derives its effective power as well as its legal basis." It is the latter formulation that I wish to avoid. I think some Reformed theologians play too fast and loose with the doctrine of union with Christ. I think J. V. Fesko is another example. I don't say these things lightly, because I greatly respect their work as a whole. I own their books and rarely find something else with which I disagree or from which do not benefit.

But we have to take passages such as Proverbs 17:15 as seriously as Romans 4:5. It seems to me that Protestant doctrine of God's forensic declaration of a one's righteousness (justification) is not the legal fiction - a lie - Roman Catholics allege it is only if said person is united with Christ. Christ can be righteous representative and penal substitute only if we are in Him and He is us. To expand on how we are united to Christ:

Romans 6:4 We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.
5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.

Colossians 2:12 having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.

Romans 8:9 You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.
10 But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness.
11 If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.

Being buried with Christ in baptism - a metonymy for regeneration - we are raised with Christ through faith. That is what occurs to and in us that unites us with Christ.

To be more specific as to why this is the case, regeneration and conversion are effected by the operation of the Spirit of Christ in us. If we have the Spirit of Christ, we literally have the mind of Christ in whom is hidden all the treasures of knowledge (1 Corinthians 2:16, Colossians 2:3). This Spirit-begotten faith is the first step in the restitution of the image of God (Colossians 3:10) because faith is the first knowledge a person comes to in his life (see here for an expanded treatment on what knowledge and the image of God are and how they relate). Hence, it makes sense that we are conformed more to the image of Christ - sanctified - when we grow in knowledge; it is by knowing the truth God knows that we participate in the divine nature (2 Peter 1:3-4). This is why faith consummates real union with Christ and why God can justly justify the ungodly.

I hope that clarified my position. Thanks for the encouragement!

MikeD said...

Thanks for the clarification. I too was puzzled by some of Horton's formulation as recently discussed on Christ the Center. On the other hand, I am not to fond of Gaffin's view either for I do think that it tends to a form of covenantal nomism. I also say that with caution and respect seeing that much of their work is commendable. Again, for clarity, are you saying that Horton and Fesko are "play[ing] too fast and loose with the doctrine of union with Christ," in that they do not give it enough priority relative to the individual benefits of redemption? Or is it just that they seem to downplay the regenerative act of God, and therefore the subjective change in our minds as being reconstituted in the image of God? I ask this because I saw this comment recently on Biblical Realist with, " seems, by your citation of Romans 6, you would agree regeneration must precede justification. Question: would this not make regeneration an instrumental cause of justification as much as faith and, thus, call into question sola fide?" Perhaps this is going far afield, but we all agree (I think!) that regeneration precedes faith but this in no way negates justification through belief alone, right?

As for the Roman accusation of legal fiction, of course it is nonsense seeing that the ground of justification is complete righteousness as defined by the law and truly wrought by Christ. Having a righteousness, but not our own...

I too have for some time appreciated Robbin's and Clark's view that our union with Christ is legal and intellectual, especially opposed to the existential and experiential nonsense as purported by so many. I found your elaboration on union particularly cogent, especially your take on 2 Peter 1:3-4, which as I'm sure you know, many would label as blurring the supposed Creator/creature distinction.

Incidentally, I we have a friend in common, Stephen Macasil. I have not talked with him in a bit, but be sure to give us a holler if you are in Cali anytime.

Ryan said...

I think Gaffin has his own problems too. I'm sure you've read this.

What I meant by "fast and loose" was that they seem to use it in a multiple number of biblically unwarranted and confusing ways. The phrase has no definitive meaning, so often times its use is incoherent. In addition to the above example, see the comment section here for one of my early [failed] attempts to wrap my head around what Fesko/Horton believed. Ken's quotation in particular illustrates the confusion I had and have as to what Fesko thinks union with Christ entails:

"Therefore, the transformative is founded upon the forensic; union with Christ, though undergirding the whole ordo salutis, is grounded upon justification" (pg. 90).

If you would like, I can put together fuller quotes from the book when I get the chance. Anyways, I do not find this to be coherent or compatible with Romans 6:4-5 et. al. If we were in Christ from eternity, eternal justification would follow. Further, if union with Christ is grounded upon justification (i.e. is "forensic"), then on what basis could Christ have been our representative/substitute, concepts which are themselves prerequisite for justification?

"Perhaps this is going far afield, but we all agree (I think!) that regeneration precedes faith but this in no way negates justification through belief alone, right?"

Yes. I was struggling to come to grips with some objections which came to mind as I was working through the idea of the OP. The fact that the blog author in question is not a Calvinist didn't help me much :) However, I think I've come up with an answer to that question:

1. We might say that everything prior to our justification is in some sense a necessary precondition for our justification. Physical birth is a precondition for justification. So that regeneration is a precondition does not ipso facto mean it is instrumental in the same sense faith is.

2. Why, then, is faith the sufficient condition to instrumentally cause justification? As I alluded to in my prior post - and this should be much easier to understand given your familiarity with Clark/Robbins - faith is the first [set of] proposition[s] which one knows. As such, it is the first point at which we have the mind of Christ and participate in the divine nature. It is integral to the consummation of whatever union we may have said to have had. Regeneration may unite us in a death like Christ's, but faith alone unites us in a resurrection like Christ's, and resurrection is intimately connected with justification (Romans 4:25, John 5:24, 29). In fact, Fesko makes the intriguing argument that our resurrection at the parousia is our public justification made on the same basis, Christ's merits, as the inner resurrection-justification believers have already experienced (link to a sample of his argument). Regardless, I think sola fide is compatible with this renewed emphasis on union with Christ.

"Incidentally, I we have a friend in common, Stephen Macasil. I have not talked with him in a bit, but be sure to give us a holler if you are in Cali anytime."

I appreciate the offer and will do so if/when God sees fit to send me your way.