Thursday, 23 July 2009

Justification: Understanding the Reformed Doctrine - Part 14 Legal Union and Mystical Union

How does one relate 'union with Christ' to 'justification'? That question has caused no small debate in Reformed circles. Fesko points out those, like N.T Wright and Rich Lusk, who argue that the doctrine of union with Christ makes the imputation of Christ's righteousness redundant. He explains:
We may summarize this current trend in some portions of the Reformed community as a rejection of the imputed righteousness of Christ because the filial aspect of God's relationship to his people is primary. Justification of the believer, therefore, is reached, not through imputation, but through union with Christ. (p269)
Fesko notes that the filial and forensic categories are not antithetical, but complementary and interconnected (p274). He cites examples such as Paul's language of adoption, where we see a legal concept tied to a relational one. To pit the legal against the filial aspects of union, seems to be an analogous argument to that of the man who won't marry his girlfriend because he "doesn't need a piece of paper to prove his love."

Other, more moderate Reformed re-workings of union, includes the work of men like Richard Gaffin of Westminster Theological Seminary Philadelphia, who attempt to make mystical union with Christ the centre of Paul's theology. A recent video by WTS Associate Systematic Theology Professor Lane Tipton affirmed this position. He was concerned that some make the forensic aspect of salvation so central that it "eclipse(s) the person of Christ. You first possess Christ and then in Christ you are justified." (about 3minutes and 10 seconds in). Fesko quotes Berkhof:
...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 [emphasis mine], but on that of a gracious imputation - a declaration which is not in harmony with the existing condition of the sinner. ( Berkhof, ST p452 quoted on p278)
Fesko then quotes Calvin (who seems anachronistically to disagree with Tipton's take on Calvin!):
By faith we not only acknowledge that Christ suffered for us and rose from the dead for us, but we receive Him, possessing and enjoying Him as He offers Himself to us. This should be noted carefully. Most consider fellowship with Christ and believing in Christ to be the same thing: but the fellowship we have with Christ is the effect of faith. (John Calvin Ephesians 3:17, quoted on p279)
Why is it important to see the forensic aspect of union as foundational? What's the problem with pitting mystical union first? Isn't it quibbling over words? The problem with it is that it subtly undermines the Reformed doctrine of God justifying the ungodly. God doesn't justify someone because they are in mystical union with Christ. That would be to justify on a pre-existing condition of the sinner. No, God justifies the ungodly by imputing righteousness to them. God "calls into existence the things that do not exist (Rom. 4:17)". I'll leave the last word with Fesko:
This conclusion [i.e. the priority of forensic union] plays a key role in the differences between the Reformed and Roman Catholic understanding of justification and salvation. For the Reformers, salvation came about because of the declaration of righteousness in justification, whereas for the Roman Catholic Church, even to this day, it is inverse: transformation precedes the declaration, the transformative is the judicial ground for the forensic. (p280)


Anonymous said...

Great thoughts!

Nick Mackison said...

Thanks Timothy. The Fesko book is gold.

Michael F. Bird said...

Sadly, I haven't read Fesko yet, but I intend to. A few thoughts:
Are you/Fesko saying that the forensic aspect of union is the logically prior condition (prior to mystical union)? If so, how does forensic union differ from mystical union? Or do you mean that imputation must precede union with Christ? The bigger problem I have is that Paul's in-Christ language dominates his references to justification, e.g. Gal. 2.15-17, 19-21, 2 Cor 5.21, Phil 3.7-8, etc. So however way you swing it, justification follows from union. I would also say that imputation is a logical corollary of union too and not vice-versa! Finally, if anyone thinks that Calvin put imputation prior (logically or sequentially) to union, then they are pushing a big rock up a big hill to prove it.

Otherwise, thanks for the post, most interesting!

Anonymous said...


Yeah, I definitely need to get a hold of it. It sounds great from all the posts you keep doing.


I think what is being said is that there needs to be a distinction between the legal basis of justification from the means by which it comes to us in the ordo salutis.

I am pretty sure everyone agrees that Union with Christ is caused by faith and is the means by which we receive Christ and His benefits. The problem is lack of distinction between the legal basis (union) for justification and the basis for our Mystical union.

The legal basis is alien righteousness alone, imputed to us by faith alone not on the basis of any filial relationship (contra Rome). The way we get it is, I believe, I different issue but is mystical union with Christ.

Otherwise, I think your reservations are correct. I may be misunderstanding the question entirely. Let me know if I am.

Would you say that's fair, Nick?

- Timothy M.

Nick Mackison said...

Mike, great to see you on the blog.

For Fesko the issue is, does God justify the ungodly or his friends? Legal union with Christ and mystical union are different aspects to the union package.

At the risk of teaching my Granny to suck eggs, legal union is God reckoning the blood/righteousness of Christ to us and from this flows the mystical union. The quote from Calvin on Ephesians, I think, bears this understanding out.

Anonymous said...

Can someone explain why the historia salutis has turned us into would be dispensationalists regarding the ordo? Are you a post-union, pre-justification, simultaneously sanctified, definitively adopted, effectual calling Calvinist?


Nick Mackison said...

Welcome Mr. Old Life.

I had to read that about 10 times and then think on it for 10 minutes before I understood it! Still waiting for the electric shock treatment to correct my mild retardation.

When you put it like that, it does make the Gaffin position look a bit daft.

Anonymous said...

Nick, I'll be expecting a formal apology on your blog in the very near future. For you to imply any difference between Dr. Gaffin and me?!! Why I never.

Nick Mackison said...

I don't mean to cause trouble between you and Gaffin, it's just that I overheard him tell a room full of hisotrians that he could take you in an arm wrestle. That's what I heard. Not trying to cause trouble, just reporting the facts...

Anonymous said...

"would be dispensationalists"... I about lost it with the next question.

- Tim

Charlie J. Ray said...

If justification is by faith alone and apart from works, then it follows that the "mystical" union is not based on "transformation" but on simply believing the Gospel. To say that salvation is based on a transformational mystical union is to base salvation on the inherent righteousness of the believer rather than the alien righteousness of Christ. Romans 10:1-4 clearly says that Christ is the end of the law for righteousness. Westminster has been moving away from the classical Reformed standards for years and this is just further evidence of that.

Sanctification is always imperfect and therefore can never be the basis for salvation. Good works simply testify that we have a valid profession of faith before me. However, good works never make the believer acceptable to God nor do they merit anything whatsoever from God. Even our faith is a gift of God so how could faith earn favor with God?

The most sinful Christian is saved while the holiest Pharisee is lost.

Charlie J. Ray said...

Gaffin is another one who teaches works righteousness.