Friday, August 29, 2014

In Search of Union...

Do a word search for union in your bible and see what you come up with. I did one with my Concordance app (ASV) on my iPad and interestingly enough, though not surprisingly, didn't come up with one single
occurrence of the word. Yet union is a word that today litters Christian essays, articles, sermons, and books. I use the verb 'litters' not to belittle the proper use of the doctrine, but to highlight what I think is often its overuse as the supposed overarching meta-soteriological doctrine explaining salvation in the New Testament.

To me, it seems safest and most helpful to stick with bibilical language as much as possible. "Our union with Christ" or speaking of any particular blessing as coming to us "through union with Christ" aren't incorrect concepts per se. It's just that they are often used so broadly and freely that they are open to misunderstanding especially when not nailed down. As is often asked - what "union" are we talking about? Federal, legal, mystical...? What does one mean by "through union with Christ?"

I think it's similar in some ways to those who would insist that the doctrine of election be front and center when the gospel is preached. Only the elect 'hear' the gospel with ears of faith, yet they don't necessarily need to know up front how and why that is true in order to trust in Christ for forgiveness of sins. That said, the gospel doesn't claim that God sent Jesus to die for everyone and thus make it theoretically possible for everyone to be saved if only everyone would believe. Christ came for the elect. "All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out (John 6:37). Again, the biblical language should be our guide. See examples of gospel preaching in Acts. Is divine election present in the gospel? Indeed, it is the ground, yet most often in the background. 

The doctrine of our union with Christ is central in salvation. As John Calvin wrote,  "so long as we are without Christ and separated from him, nothing which he suffered and did for the salvation of the human race is of the least benefit to us" (Institutes 3.1.1). Yet as a doctrine it remains most often in the background not the foreground when Christ crucified is preached. In a word, faith isn't directly engaged by preaching "our union with Christ", especially when it isn't unpacked. That is how I'm presently thinking about this.

Unpacking "union with Christ" - from R. Scott Clark at Heidelblog:
There is also apparently some confusion about what is meant by “union with Christ.” This is understandable because the doctrine has three or four aspects and, in contemporary discussion, all participants have not always been as cautious as necessary to make sure we are talking about the same aspect at the same time in the same way.
Louis Berkhof (1873–1957) represented the mainstream of the Reformed tradition when he spoke of the “federal union” that all the elect have with Christ (Systematic Theology, 448). This aspect of union is relative to the eternal, pre-temporal (before time) “covenant of redemption” (pactum salutis) between the Father and the Son (and the Holy Spirit). According to Ps 110, John 17 and other passages, the Father gave to his Son a people and the Son volunteered to be their Mediator, their federal representative, and their Savior; i.e., to earn their salvation. This is one of the three or four aspects of our union with Christ. For more on this see the chapter on the “Covenant Before the Covenants” in Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry.
Berkhof wrote of a second aspect of our union with Christ, which he called the “union of life” (ibid). This union refers to the natural, organic relation that all humans have with the first Adam, who was the federal representative of all humanity (Rom 5). The corollary to our natural union with Adam, in whom we would have entered in glorious life had he (and we in him) obeyed the commandment of life (“you shall not eat”). In the covenant of redemption God constituted a union between the Son, who would be the Last Adam (1Cor 15) and his people. Implicitly, the Holy Spirit was a party to this covenant as that person who would apply redemption to the people given to the Son. The Second Adam (Rom 5), Jesus, fulfilled that covenant of works for all those whom he represented, for whom he died and for whose justification he was raised.
We might also speak of a third aspect of our union with Christ, which we might call decretal union, i.e., the union that exists between Christ and his people by virtue of God’s decree to elect, in Christ, some out of the mass of fallen humanity to redemption. Paul spoke to this aspect of our union with Christ when he wrote that we were chosen “in Christ” before the foundations of the world (Eph 1). This aspect is, of course, a corollary to the federal union and the union of life mentioned above.
The last aspect is mystical union (or sometimes referred to as “existential union”) and it refers to the subjective application of redemption purposed from eternity in the decree, covenanted among the Trinitarian person in the pactum salutis, accomplished by Christ in his active and suffering obedience, and applied to the elect by the Holy Spirit. Mystical union is, as Berkhof put it, that “intimate, vital, and spiritual” connection “between Christ and his people, in virtue of which He is the source of their life and strength, of their blessedness and salvation” (Systematic Theology, 449).
And also...
That faith which secures eternal life; which unites us to Christ as living members of his body; which makes us the sons of God; which interests us in all the benefits of redemption; which works by love, and is fruitful in good works; is founded, not on the external or the moral evidence of the truth, but on the testimony of the Spirit with an by the truth to the renewed soul (Systematic Theology, 3.68).

…The first effect of faith, according to the Scriptures is union with Christ. We are in him by faith. There is indeed a union between Christ and his people, founded on the covenant of redemption between the Father and the Son in the counsels of eternity. We are, therefore, said to be in Him before the foundation of the world.

…But it was also, as we learn from the Scriptures, included in the stipulations of that covenant, that his people, so far as adults are concerned, should not receive the saving benefits of that covenant until they were united to Him by a voluntary act of faith. They are ‘by nature the children of wrath, even as others.’ (Eph. ii.3) They remain in this state of condemnation until they believe. Their union is consummated by faith. To be in Christ, as to believe in Christ are, therefore , in the Scriptures, convertible forms of expression. They mean the same thing, and therefore, the same effects are attributed to faith as are attributed to union with Christ” (Ibid, 3.104)
 So says Charles Hodge (1797–1878), who taught at Old Princeton for about fifty years, on the relation between faith and union.


  1. And "in Christ" does not mean the same thing as "Christ in us". On top of that, there are various ways to be "in Christ". For example, the elect are in Christ by God's election before they are in Christ by God's legal justification (placed into Christ's death). We should not use the "union" word to avoid questions about the priority of righteousness imputed to Christ's indwelling by faith. Calvin's rejection of Osiander's errors took more than saying the word "union".

    The Bible does not put the word "union" front and center, because ---as you have verified----the Bible does not even use the word "union". But there is no equivalence (or analogy) to the word "election" because both the Old and New Testaments use the word "election" freely and explain the doctrine in detail. Only those who don't really believe the doctrine of election would want to hide it in the presentation of the good news.

    The Lord Jesus certainly talked to people about "election".

    Matthew 11: 25 At that time Jesus declared, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; 26 yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. 27 All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. 28 Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

    The very first sermon in Acts (addressed to all sorts of sinners) also explicitly talks about God's sovereignty, not only in the death of Christ, but also in the selection of those for whom Christ died. The promise is that the very same people for whom Christ died will be those who are called effectually by the gospel.

    Acts 2: 23 Though He was delivered up according to God’s determined plan and foreknowledge, you used lawless people to nail Him to a cross and kill Him.

    Acts 2:39 For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.”

    As many of you as God calls are elect. As many of your children as God calls are elect. As many of all who are far off as God calls are elect. Not more, not less. Jack, I am sure you agree that this "call" is not the external command and invitation of the gospel, but the effectual call which comes only to the elect for whom Christ died.

  2. John 3:16 teaches that Jesus died for the sins of those who believe. But many who are "Reformed" don't want to say it this way. They want to say, first, let's not get into the question of election now so soon. And second, they then want to day that the offer and command of the gospel means that Jesus died for all the sins of all sinners. As one Lutheran said recently, "it's a sin, so Jesus died for it."

    Many Reformed folks agree with the Lutheran that talking about the decree of election is not something which should be done when talking about the gospel. And yet they are confident that we should say that the death of Christ is enough to save all sinners, elect or non-elect, and to say this when talking about the gospel.

    John 3:16 does not say that God gave His Son for every sinner. John 3:16 says that God gave His son for the world. There is an Arminian formulation of “world” which assumes that it means “every sinner”. Is there a way to deny the Arminian formulation without talking about God's decree of election? Is there any need to deny the Arminian formulation when we are talking about the gospel?

    With Calvin, I would argue that God obtains what God desires. God desired and desires that those who won’t perish not perish. So they won’t. God gave His Son as the necessary (and sufficient, it’s enough without additional factors, it causes the means, the other factors) decisive reason that these persons will not perish.

    God commands all sinners to believe the gospel. But the gospel is not that God loves all sinners. But is it the gospel to say that God loves only some sinners, but not other sinners? Is that the gospel?

    I think it comes down to the question if "substitutionary atonement" is part of the gospel. Is there some other gospel in the book of Acts which leaves out the doctrine that all for whom Christ is the substitute must in justice be justified?

    The gospel invitation goes out freely, and hearers are invited to Christ.. The only question remains “what is the gospel”. Can we really be sure that the apostle Paul who wrote Romans 3-6 did not talk about the atonement in Acts? Are we to assume that the apostle Peter who wrote about Christ's death as God's loving atonement in his letters did not talk about this atonement in his preaching in Acts? We must not agree with the dispensationalists who teach that there are different gospels even in the New Testament.

  3. Anytime somebody talks about “union with Christ” we need to ask them to define it. They should not be allowed to list various aspects of “union” but then only use one of those aspects as their working definition. If they say that “union is by faith”, then they are identifying “union” with God’s effectual call that results in faith in the gospel.

    Marcus Johnson: William Evans argues that Berkhof’s soteriology is the logical conclusion of a federal theological trajectory, epitomized by Charles Hodge, in which union ceases to function as an umbrella category unifying all of salvation.

    mark: Johnson rejects “imputation priority” because he has already rejected the federal imputation of Adam’s guilt (see his chapter 2 on incarnation) and because he has already rejected what he calls a “mechanical transfer” of sins to Christ. I would say “the sins of the elect” but Johnson does not consider the doctrine of election in his discussion of imputation and justification. Election for him seems to be a secondary “apologetic doctrine” which he does not deny but which plays no part in his soteriology. (This is his accusation against those of us with “justification priority”, that the incarnation and the Trinity are no part of our gospel., p 41)

    Johnson: Both Horton and Fesko subordinate union with Christ to justification, indicating that they see union with Christ as reducible to sanctification.

    mark: Johnson denies the reality of legal imputation, and subordinates imputation as a secondary benefit of “union”, and then he reduces the idea of “union” to being only the personal presence of Christ in us because of our faith (given to us by the Holy Spirit).

    Johnson subordinates the work of Christ to the person of Christ, and then accuses those who disagree with him of dividing person and work. And then Johnson subordinates the imputation of Christ’s work to the work of the Holy Spirit, who Johnson thinks is the one who unites us to Christ’s person by creating faith in us.

    The effectual call only takes place by means of God's imputation of Christ's righteousness.. There are not two “unions” here, one which is by faith, and another which is the result of God’s legal imputation of Christ's righteousness.

    Present union with Christ is legal. The already justified Christ gives the Spirit. It is not the Spirit who gives Christ. It is not the Spirit who makes Christ’s work effective. It is not the Spirit who makes Christ present.

    We do not contemplate God’s gift of faith as getting us to Christ so that Christ may then justify us. Only the already elect in Christ for whom Christ died are placed by God the Father into Christ’s death and only then do they begin to have faith in and trust Christ.
    It is not effectual calling that causes righteousness to be credited to us It is not our hearing that causes imputation. God's imputation causes our hearing. It's not our faith which causes hearing. But hearing that causes our faith in the gospel.