Monday, March 24, 2014

Justification & Union with Christ: Clearing up the Confusion

From J. V. Fesko's article A More Perfect Union: Justification and Union With Christ:
Bishop and Pauline scholar N. T. Wright is well-known for his rejection of the doctrine of the imputed righteousness of Christ. He argues that everything that one would receive through imputation, one receives through union with Christ. Union with Christ makes imputation a redundancy. While Wright does not specifically state it in these terms, his rejection of imputation seems to rely upon the older tendency pointed out above, to subsume the order of salvation (ordo salutis) to union with Christ. Wright, for example, argues that the Reformed understanding of the order of salvation, while perhaps reflective of the Reformed tradition, is not necessarily reflective of Paul's theology. Rich Lusk, a former Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) and current Confederation of Reformed Evangelical Churches (CREC) pastor, has a similar understanding of the relationship between justification and union with Christ.
Lusk also sees a conflicting tension between the legal and relational categories in traditional Reformed theology: "The covenant of works construction strikes at the filial nature of covenant sonship. Adam was God's son, not his employee." Given the supposed incompatibility of the legal and relational, it should be no surprise that Lusk allows the believer's union with Christ to swallow legal aspects of the believer's justification:
"This justification requires no transfer or imputation of anything. It does not force us to reify "righteousness" into something that can be shuffled around in heavenly accounting books. Rather because I am in the Righteous One and the Vindicated One, I am righteous and vindicated. My in-Christ-ness makes imputation redundant. I do not need the moral content of his life of righteousness transferred to me; what I need is a share in the forensic verdict passed over him at the resurrection. Union with Christ is therefore key."
Here Lusk argues that union with Christ makes legal elements of the believer's justification redundant and unnecessary, specifically that of the imputed active obedience of Christ....
... The Reformed tradition bases the doctrine of the imputed righteousness of Christ, even his active obedience, on such passages as Romans 5:12-21 (WCF 6.3, 11.1; cf. Heidelberg Catechism, Q/A 60). Why, for example, does Paul contrast the disobedience of Adam with the obedience of Christ? Paul writes, "For as by the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man's obedience the many will be made righteous" (Rom. 5:19). As John Murray explains, "The parallel to the imputation of Adam's sin is the imputation of Christ's righteousness. Or to use Paul's own terms, being 'constituted sinners' through the disobedience of Adam is parallel to being 'constituted righteous' through the obedience of Christ." Clearly, Romans 5:19 restates what Paul has stated in the previous verse: "Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all" (Rom. 5:18).
There is no mistaking the parallel between Christ's obedience, which is righteousness, and the imputation of this righteousness to the believer. Commenting on the abiding significance of Genesis 15:6 and the imputation of righteousness, Paul writes: "That is why his faith was 'counted to him as righteousness.' But the words 'it was counted to him' were not written for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord" (Rom. 4:22-24). Note here the English Standard Version translates the Greek word logizomai as "counted," which the King James Version translates as "imputed." Here Paul taps into the ancient stream of the special revelation of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, to argue for the imputed righteousness of Christ, and arguably also has other passages such as Isaiah 53 in mind when writing these things: "Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities" (Isa. 53:11; cf. 2 Cor. 5:19-21).
We should also note, however, that in all of Paul's argumentation for his doctrine of justification and especially the imputed active obedience of Christ, he can write everything that we have surveyed, and at the same time also write without qualification or wincing: "There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus" (Rom. 8:1). If condemnation is the antonym for justification, then we can also reword Romans 8:1 to say, "There is therefore now justification for those who are in Christ Jesus" (emphasis added). In other words, a robust doctrine of justification that includes the imputed active and passive obedience of Christ is not antithetical to our union with Christ, nor is it superfluous. Rather, it is the legal aspect of our union with Christ. As A. A. Hodge explains, our union with Christ has a federal and representative character. Once again, what God has joined together, let man not separate. This brings us to one last element to consider, namely that justification is the ground of our sanctification...
...In terms of union with Christ and justification, Berkhof therefore explains that "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." What we must realize, then, is that the ground of our redemption is the work of Christ; correlatively, we should also recognize that the ground of our sanctification is our justification. In other words, apart from the legal-forensic work of Christ, received by imputation through faith, there is no transformative work of the Holy Spirit. Or, using the title of John Murray's famous book, apart from redemption accomplished, there can be no redemption applied (see WCF 11.3; Larger Catechism, Q/A 70).
The entire essay can be read at Modern Reformation.


  1. "That is why his faith was 'counted to him as righteousness.' But the words 'it was counted to him' were not written for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord" (Rom. 4:22-24)

    Does God count faith as the righteousness? Does God credit our faith (a gift from God to us) as the righteousness which saves us? In chapter 4 of his new P and R book on justification, Vickers describes Romans 4: “Paul contrasts two kinds of counting. In the first, wages are counted as the reward for works; in the second, faith is counted as righteousness. This immediately raises the important question: is faith in Christ a replacement for works? Just as works are rewarded with what is due, is faith rewarded with righteousness? This is not the way Paul describes it. God is contrasting two things, not simply swapping one thing for another thing.”

    Mark: I agree so far. The works are not rewarded with more works. The works are rewarded with wages. The faith is not rewarded with more faith. The faith is not rewarded by God counting the faith as works. But then comes the problem….

    Vickers writes--- “God counts one thing for what it is, but the other thing is received by grace AND IS COUNTED FOR SOMETHING ELSE.

    Mark: I agree with the contrast between works and grace, between works and faith. But I disagree that God counts faith as the righteousness. You could say that God “swaps” wages for works, or that God rewards for works, but you should NOT say that God “swaps” faith for righteousness.

    Remember his question: Is faith a replacement for works. Vickers wants to say no to that. But he can’t stay consistent in saying it. Vickers does think that God counts the gift of faith as the righteousness when he says that ( p 76) ‘faith is counted for something else”

    The Second London Baptist Confession (1689) addresses this question: “Those whom God effectually calls He also freely justifies, not by infusing righteousness into them, but by pardoning their sins, and by accounting and accepting them as righteous, not for anything wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ’s sake alone. They are not justified because God reckons as their righteousness either their faith, their believing, or any other act of evangelical obedience. They are justified wholly and solely because God imputes to them Christ’s righteousness. “

    Vickers on one hand seems to know that God does not count faith as the righteousness. Thus he makes important qualifications. “Faith must not be thought of apart from its object.” Good. “Justification is not because of faith but by faith.” Correct. And then Vickers uses some more confessional language about “instrumental means” of righteousness instead of faith being the righteousness, or being counted as a substitute or an equivalent for the righteousness. And he concludes, “if faith is the righteousness in question, then faith is a work.” (p 77)

    I agree with these qualifications, but they won’t help much because the Arminians and the Neo-nomians (Baxter, new law for righteousness) will all simply explain that faith however is NOT a work, and therefore they will argue that it’s just for God to count faith as the righteousness, and then they will begin to try to describe this faith as faith that works.

    Faith is a work. No, it’s not a work. The debate won’t take you very far. Even if the debate is about if faith comes from fallen man’s freewill contribution, the Calvinist accusation that says “well then it’s a work” does not do much because the Arminians will quickly explain that they never say it’s a work and that they know it’s not a work.

    In his concern about God accepting faith as the righteousness would make faith a work, Vickers is right to contrast faith and works, but he won’t get far as long as HE ALSO AGREES THAT GOD COUNTS SOMETHING (faith) FOR SOMETHING ELSE (righteousness). His reading of “imputation” in chapter 3 has falsely brought in the idea of God counting something for what it is not.

  2. Not that I care about the word "imputation". Use count, credit, reckon, declare, as you like, but the meaning comes down to two ideas. One, a simple analytic (forensic) declaration. We count God as just because God is just. God counts what Phinehas did as righteous because it was righteous. So all “imputing” has this “declaring what it is” idea to it. But two, in some cases, there is the idea of God ‘s sharing what belongs to one person or persons with another person or persons.

    Notice, I say, in some cases. In all cases, there is forensic declaring. But in some cases, God creates (appoints, constitutes) a legal solidarity between two persons, so that what one person has also gets used to arrive at a declaring about the second person. So it’s not only judge and defendant, but a third party. In the case of Christ’s righteousness, the righteousness is the wages due to Christ for his work.

    The righteousness of Christ is God’s analytic declaration about what was accomplished in Christ’s death and resurrection. I don’t care if you call this metaphorically Christ’s treasury of wages. The metaphor doesn’t bother me. Salvation is by work, not our works, but by Christ’s work. I don’t care if you accuse this of being “contract talk” and “legalism” (as the Barthians like the Torrances do).

    But it’s not only two parties, but a third party. God imputes sin to all humans when they are born (Christ the God-man excepted). God. Humans. The third party is Adam. And there are not only two parties (God and the elect) but Christ the third party, when His righteousness is imputed by God to the elect.

    Romans 4:6 just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works:

    Romans 4:6 does not say the righteousness of Christ, does it? So the "new perspective" says maybe “to whom counts righteousness” only means “ counts righteous” and maybe that only means “justifies”, so there is no legal sharing with a third party.

    If one wants to say that Christ’s death and resurrection have nothing to do with the counting in Romans 4, one can simply deny the third party. Leave Christ Crucified out of it.

  3. John Murray: We thus see that if we are to find the righteousness which supplies the basis of the full and perfect justification which God bestows upon the ungodly we cannot find it in anything that resides in us, nor in anything which God does in us, nor in anything which we do. We must look away from ourselves to something which is of an entirely different sort in an entirely different direction. What is the direction which the Scripture indicates?

    1. It is in Christ we are justified (Acts 13:39; Rom. 8:1; 1 Cor. 6:11; Gal. 2:17). At the outset we are here advised that it is by union with Christ and by some specific relation to him involved in that union that we are justified.

    2. It is through Christ’s sacrificial and redemptive work (Rom. 3:24; 5:9; 8:33, 34). We are justified in Jesus’ blood. The particular significance of this truth in this connection is that it is the once-for-all redemptive accomplishment of Christ that is brought into the centre of attention when we are thinking of justification. It is therefore something objective to ourselves and not the work of God’s grace in our hearts and minds and lives.

    3. It is by the righteousness of God that we are justified (Rom. 1:17; 3:21, 22; 10:3; Phil. 3:9). In other words, the righteousness of our justification is God’s righteousness. Nothing more conclusively demonstrates that it is not a righteousness which is ours. Righteousness wrought in us or wrought by us, even though it be altogether the grace of God and even though it be perfect in character [as the Roman Catholics say], is not a God-righteousness. It is, after all, a human righteousness. It the commanding insistence of the Scripture is that in justification, it is the righteousness of God which is revealed from faith to faith, and therefore a righteousness which is contrasted not only with human unrighteousness but with human righteousness. It is righteousness which is divine in quality. It is not, of course, the divine attribute of justice or righteousness, but, nevertheless, it is a righteousness with divine attributes or qualities and therefore a righteousness which is of divine property.

    4. The righteousness of justification is the righteousness and obedience of Christ (Rom. 5:17, 18, 19). Here we have the final consideration which confirms all of the foregoing considerations and sets them in clear focus. This is the final reason why we are pointed away from ourselves to Christ and his accomplished work. And this is the reason why the righteousness of justification is the righteousness of God. It is the righteousness of Christ wrought by him in human nature, the righteousness of his obedience unto death, even the death of the cross. But, as such, it is the righteousness of the God-man, a righteousness which measures up to the requirements of our sinful and sin-cursed situation, a righteousness which meets all the demands of a complete and irrevocable justification, and a righteousness fulfilling all these demands because it is a righteousness of divine property and character, a righteousness undefiled and inviolable.

  4. But John Murray adds this confusion---Murray--In Romans 8:3, the apostle had spoken of the impotence of the law. How then can the apostle construe the holiness of the Christian state as the fulfillment of the law's requirement? The fact, however, cannot be disputed and it is conclusive proof that the law of God has the fullest normative relevance in that state which is the product of grace. The dictating power in their lives is not the flesh but the Holy Spirit. By grace there is no antinomy between the law as demanding and the Holy Spirit as energising. "The law is spiritual". Romans 7:14