Monday, September 4, 2017

Michael Horton on Union with Christ...

"Union with Christ is not to be understood as a “moment” in the application of salvation to believers. Rather, it is a way of speaking about the way in which believers share in Christ in eternity (by election), in past history (by redemption), in the present (by effectual calling, justification, and sanctification), and in the future (by glorification). Nevertheless, our subjective inclusion in Christ occurs when the Spirit calls us effectually to Christ and gives us the faith to cling to him for all of his riches...
"The motif of mystical union has often been presented as an alternative to the forensic (legal) motifs of redemption, especially vicarious substitution and justification. Since Albert Schweitzer, the thesis has repeatedly been advanced, refuted, and then advanced again that justification is a “subsidiary crater” in Paul, while the real central dogma is mystical union. Reginald Fuller notes, “Attempts have been made to pinpoint some other center or focus for Pauline theology, such as ‘being in Christ’ (Schweitzer) or salvation history (Johannes Munck).” However, “Romans, the most systematic exposition of Paul’s thought, clearly makes justification the center.” Not only in Paul but in the pre-Pauline creedal hymns we find this affirmation (2Ti 1: 9 and Tit 3: 4– 5)...
"Like Schweitzer, a variety of contemporary trends in Pauline studies as well as Reformation scholarship are driven by the presupposition that mystical participation in Christ stands over against a forensic emphasis on Christ’s alien righteousness imputed to believers. 3 Through the interpretive lens of union with Christ we can move beyond the false choice of a legal, judicial, and passive salvation on one hand and a relational, mystical, and transformative participation in Christ on the other. Nevertheless, as I argued in relation to Christ’s atoning work, the integral unity of these motifs is possible only because the latter is grounded in the former. As Geerhardus Vos expressed it,
In our opinion Paul consciously and consistently subordinated the mystical aspect of the relation to Christ to the forensic one. Paul’s mind was to such an extent forensically oriented that he regarded the entire complex of subjective spiritual changes that take place in the believer and of subjective spiritual blessings enjoyed by the believer as the direct outcome of the forensic work of Christ applied in justification. The mystical is based on the forensic, not the forensic on the mystical.
"In Romans 5, the covenantal union of humanity in Adam is contrasted with Christ’s covenantal headship, and then in chapter 6 we encounter his most explicit description of union with Christ in his death and resurrection (Ro 6: 1– 23; cf. 1: 3– 4; 4: 25; 1Co 15: 35– 58). Though they have been “in Christ” in God’s electing grace from all eternity (Eph 1: 4, 11; 2Ti 1: 9), their actual union with Christ occurs in time through the work of the Spirit. Throughout the Pauline corpus we encounter this emphasis on union with Christ."
[bold emphasis added]

Horton, Michael S. (2011-01-04). The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way (Kindle Locations 14544-14565). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.


  1. “Regeneration and consequently faith are wrought in us for Christ’s sake and as the result conditioned on a previous imputation of his righteousness to that end” (A. A. Hodge, Outlines of Theology, 518).

    “The mystical union in the sense in which we are now speaking of it is not the judicial ground, on the basis of which we become partakers of the riches that are in Christ …. 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 …. Active or objective justification … is justification in the most fundamental sense of the word … a divine declaration that, in the case of the sinner under consideration, the demands of the law are met … in view of the fact that the righteousness of Christ is imputed to him …. This active justification logically precedes faith and passive justification” (Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 452, 517).

    “God imputes Christ to the elect sinner in a forensic union, on the basis of which, God grants the sinner faith. Through this faith, the believer is mystically united to Christ” (Matthew W. Mason, “John Owen’s Doctrine of Union with Christ in Relation to His Contributions to 17th Century Debates Concerning Eternal Justification,” Ecclesia Reformanda 1 [2009]: 68).

  2. If people who use the word "union" don't tell us if they are talking about being in Christ or Christ being in us, how can we possibly know if they are identifying the new birth by the Holy Spirit (and indwelling) as what it means to be "in Christ"?

    Lee Irons. "We were reconciled to God through the death of his Son” (Rom 5:10). It wasn’t through regeneration or through our faith-bond with Christ or anything wrought in us, but “through the death of his Son” that we were reconciled to God. “He has now reconciled [you] in his body of flesh by his death” (Col 1:22).

    Another locution used by Paul in connection with reconciliation highlights the priority of the objective. Paul says God reconciled us to himself: “Through him to reconcile to himself all things” (Col 1:20). “Who through Christ reconciled us to himself … In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them” (2 Cor 5:18-19). Then, having emphasized God’s work in reconciling us to himself, he moves to the gospel call: “We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (2 Cor 5:20). Objective reconciliation occurs first, even before our conscious experience of it by faith, as a sovereign action of God reconciling us “to himself,” and then, when we hear the word of reconciliation and believe in Christ, we become subjectively reconciled.


    Bill Evans—”Many Reformed theologians have sought to protect the gratuity of justification by temporally sequestering it from transformation of life so as to underscore that justification cannot depend upon sanctification … But the result here is that justification is abstracted from the ongoing life of faith. Thus it is that a good deal of conservative Reformed theology has been more or less unable to give a coherent account of the Christian life….

    Mark Jones– “The position that faith followed imputation was not typical of Reformed thought in his day but rather was associated with antinomianism….Any view that posits faith as a consequence of imputation (John Cotton) is not the typical Reformed position.

    Evans-- Bruce McCormack takes Calvin to task for saying that justification flows from mystical union with Christ. This, according to McCormack “would seem to make justification the effect of a logically prior ‘participation’ in Christ that has been effected by the uniting action of the Holy Spirit.” This, he says, is a problem from a truly Reformational standpoint in that “the work of God ‘in us’ is, once again (and now on the soil of the Reformation!) made to be the ground of the divine forgiveness of sins.” (Bruce McCormack, “What’s At Stake in the Current Debates over Justification,” in Justification: What’s at Stake in the Current Debates, ed. Mark Husbands and Daniel J. Treier [IVP, 2004], pp. 101

    Does God’s imputation depend on first God regenerating us? Isn’t regeneration also a benefit from Christ’s righteousness? Did Christ die to purchase regeneration for the elect? Or does the Holy Spirit give us faith in order to make the death of Christ work?

    Calvin (3:2:10)–”Christ, having been made ours, makes us sharers with Him in the gifts with which he has been endowed.”

    Bruce McCormack—”The problem with such statements is that one of the ‘gifts’ Calvin speaks of–regeneration–is very difficult to distinguish conceptually from that ‘union’ which is supposed to give rise to BOTH justification AND REGENERATION

  4. Just curious, Romans 6 says union is by baptism. How do Reformed interpret this. The by/through is an instrumental cause in the Greek. We’re buried with Him “by” baptism. Likewise Acts 2:38 seems to indicate forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit are a result of baptism. Other than just saying this is sacramental language what exegetical arguments to reformed employ for their view. Luther also held to election and sola fide and saw no incongruity with them and baptismal regeneration. Luther argued God regenerates via means sola fide.

    1. Hello coramdeo,
      You ask some rather large questions that are difficult to answer in a comment box. As inicated in this post, it is important (imo) to keep in view we we are meaing by the word 'union.' This link is an example of how Reformed think concerning union.

      Likewise, defining baptism is something that goes beyond adequately doing in a few sentences. This link, as a start, expresses what I think is biblical -

      Also, I believe WCF 28: Of Baptism is an accurate breakdown of the Reformed understanding of baptism even though much unpacking is needed. There are plenty of scripture references offered by the Westminster divines along with this chapter of the confession.

      I'd be interested in hearing any specific concerns or questions re: the above.

  5. The most practical use of the word "union" for most Reformed is that it allows them to have an universal atonement which is then more narrowly distributed and imputed, because nothing legal happens until after regeneration (the word regeneration being used to show that the Holy Spirit gives some of the people for whom Christ died the person of Christ and His benefit). In other words, the Spirit gives Christ, instead of Christ giving the Spirit. And thus what happens in us gets the priority.

    Broad brush, I know you would say Jack, but I think accurate---not Christ's death outside of us, but rather "the cross in us giving us power and new disposition"

    Letham---"Union with Christ in the Theology of John Calvin', p 80, In Christ Alone: Perspectives on Union, ed by Clark and Evans---"Horton seems to imply that God's speech-act of imputation brings about faith, which would be more of a case of justification by decree. It would also suggest that imputation effects union with Christ, which in turn would mean that imputation occurs before and without union. The fact that "imputation is the main hinge on which religion turns" is different than it being prior to union.

    The Torrance/ Gaffin/ Tipton/ Evans steam roller continues to beg the question. Since they know "real union" (regeneration and indwelling, the Spirit applying Christ) is first, then if Mike Horton dosn't agree with that, he has got to be not only wrong but in danger of antinomianism, they suggest.

    Traill--- Christopher Fowler --"he that will not be Antichristian must be called an Antinomian.

    Mark Jones– “The position that faith followed imputation was not typical of Reformed thought but rather was associated with antinomianism....Any view that posits faith as a consequence of imputation (John Cotton) leads to antinomianism.

  6. Mark Jones ----Petrus van Mastricht---"We received once before the right unto eternal life through the merit of Christ alone. But God does not want to grant the possession of eternal life, unless there are, next to faith, also good works which precede this possession, Heb. 12:14; Matt. 7:21; 25:34-36; Rom. 2:7, 10.”

    In his introduction to the second edition of Gaffin’s By Faith Not by Sight, Mark Jones suggests that anybody who has a different order of salvation than Gaffin has is antinomian.

    Mark Jones—”The Lutheran view that justification precedes sanctification..ends up attributing to justification a renovative transformative element.”

    Mark McCulley– that’s the same accusation which Tipton made.
    Mark Jones is dogmatic that “union” precedes imputation, and that “faith” precedes “union”. Does that not end up attributing to “union” a renovative transformative element? Does that not end up attributing to “faith” a renovative transformative element? Either Jones is equating “union” with the effectual call, or Jones is saying that faith is before “union”.

    Is Christ’s atonement for everybody imputed only to some people on the basis of the Spirit’s work of giving some people faith?