Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary

23 Jan 2013

Union with Christ or Justification as the Heart of the Gospel?


The recent tiffs over the role of personal obedience and activity in sanctification is symptomatic of a much deeper theological struggle that has intensified in the last decade, viz., the definition of union with Christ and the relationship of that union with justification in a Reformed ordo salutis. The debate has long pitted against each other some of the most brilliant minds in Reformed scholarship, and continues to do so today.

In the nineteenth century, no less a Reformed stalwart than Charles Hodge regarded John Calvin’s view of union with Christ as incompatible with the bedrock Reformation principle of justification sola fide and solus Christus (see Bill Evans, Impartation and Imputation, p. 1). Hodge’s concern is easy to spot. If justification occurs after the believer’s transformative union with Christ, then justification must be a result of the believer’s transformation, and to that degree is not by faith alone in the work of Christ alone. As a result, Hodge deduced that the doctrine of justification must be prioritized as the fountainhead of all subsequent soteriological blessings.

In the 20th century, many Reformed thinkers (most visibly, John Murray) detected something of a post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy in Hodge’s reasoning, and argued that transformative union is the logical source of the faith upon which justification rests and also the energy that fuels sanctification. These argue, together with Calvin, that it is union with Christ, and not justification, that is the fountainhead of all soteriological blessings. Current proponents of this view include, among others, Richard Gaffin, William Evans, Mark Garcia, and Robert Letham.

In the aftermath of the havoc wrought by Federal Visionism, New Perspectivism, and New Finnish revisionism, however, other Reformed thinkers have concluded that Charles Hodge’s assessment was correct—and devastatingly prophetic: by elevating union, they argue, these new “isms” have decimated the doctrine of justification by faith and threaten the very essence of the Christian faith. The solution to these problems, they conclude, is the restoration of justification to its proper place of priority. The most visible champion of this model today is Michael Horton, and with him figures such as R. Scott Clark and John Fesko (Constantine Campbell’s new work, Paul and Union with Christ has drawn tentative endorsements from both sides of the debate, but after reading Campbell’s exegesis of several key texts, I would place his work in this camp as well).

So which is it? Is justification by Christ extra nos (outside of us) the heart of the Gospel, or is participation in Christ intra nos (inside of us) the heart the Gospel? It seems best to say that the internal disposition of faith that results in justification is itself the product of a logically prior union with Christ. This union, as such, is the fountainhead of a duplex beneficium of both (1) forensic benefits (justification, adoption, incorporation, etc.) and (2) experimental benefits (regeneration, sanctification, etc.). These two classes of benefits are effectively independent in that neither can properly be said to cause the other (sanctification neither causes justification nor is it caused by justification), but neither can these benefits, under any circumstances, be disjoined.

12 Responses

  1. Dr. Snoeberger,

    Greatly appreciate this blog! This particular post, however, raises more questions for me than it answers.

    Are you stating that one must be in union with Christ before possessing the “internal disposition of faith?” In other words, must God place me in Christ before I can believe in Christ? Even granting a strong view of total depravity and complete inability, why would “union with Christ” be necessary to produce saving faith? Cannot regeneration or effectual calling effectively bridge the chasm of inability/depravity, lead to justification, and result in union with Christ?


  2. Mark Snoeberger


    This is the tip of a huge discussion, and I’m glad we’re starting it. Many dispensationalists (in whose ranks I categorize myself) tend to see union with Christ as primarily connected with participation in the people of God (1 Cor 12:12–13, etc.)–a legal placement into the body that occurs within the ordo salutis together with other legal benefits such as justification and adoption.

    While union with Christ surely includes in its scope these forensic benefits, I’ve developed something of a growing concern that the forensic benefits do not exhaust the NT data on union. For instance, 2 Corinthians 5:17 tightly connects being “in Christ” with the new birth of regeneration, incorporating it its scope the death of the old man and the birth of the new. 1 Corinthians 2 further connects union with Christ (the possession of the “mind of Christ” in v. 16) with the efficaciously illuminating work of the Holy Spirit (v. 14).

    Perhaps my biggest tension with the forensic view of union is 2 Peter 1:3–4, where our union is described in the highly experimental terms, “partakers of the divine nature.” This terminology, which comes as close as any in Scripture to suggesting a kind of “deification,” suggests that union with Christ involves the believer’s enjoyment of the communicable attributes of God, which in turn supply the energy necessary for him to add to his faith goodness, knowledge, self-control, and so forth.

    This all being the case, there seems to be a strong suggestion that the energy of the efficacious call that produces faith unto justification is not reducible to a bare or independent life principle that is coaxed out of someone who remains otherwise spiritually dead, but rather involves the believer’s possession of new life in Christ.

    For a fuller treatment of my understanding of union with Christ, I’d point to John Murray’s Redemption Accomplished and Applied, part 2, chap. 9.

    1. Dr. Snoeberger:

      Thanks for a quick reply. I share your sentiment that union with Christ tends to be massively under-emphasized and agree with the textual connections that you’ve shown, which demonstrate that union with Christ cannot be relegated to the legal aspects of our salvation. To your list, I’d add Ephesians 2:10, which states that we are God’s workmanship created *in Christ Jesus* for good works.

      However, I’m still not tracking with you when you state: “…the internal disposition of faith that results in justification is itself the product of a logically prior union with Christ.”

      If this is the case, in your view, when does this logically prior union with Christ take place? Does it take place at election? Or is it simultaneous with effectual calling? I am not comfortable with the concept of an individual, who is in union with Christ, but has yet to exercise faith in Christ.

      In quickly rereading Murray, I found this paragraph:

      “We do not become actual partakers of Christ until redemption is effectually applied. Paul in writing to the believers at Ephesus reminded them that they were chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world, but he also reminded them that there was a time when they were “without Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (Eph. 2: r2) and that they were “by nature children of wrath even as others” (Eph. 2 :3). Although they had been chosen in Christ before times eternal, yet they were Christless until they were called effectually into the fellowship of God’s Son (i Cor. i :9). Hence it is by the effectual call of God the Father that men are made partakers of Christ and enter into the enjoyment of the blessings of redemption. Only then do they know the fellowship of Christ.”

      Maybe I am reading Murray through the lens of my own view, but it seems that even though he speaks of a before-time election of men to be in Christ (which I would affirm), that their *actual* union with Christ occurs at effectual calling. In my view, this would place union with Christ as a simultaneous event with the miracle of conversion in which the sinner responds to the gospel call in repentant faith (as opposed to a prerequisite for that conversion).

      Am I misunderstanding you or the issues involved?

      Blessings, Dave

  3. With the hope of advancing a fruitful dialogue, I’d like to offer a clarification of sorts, especially with regard to the view of union with Christ held by Gaffin and Garcia (and Lane G. Tipton, though you didn’t mention him). I appreciate the introductory nature of this post, nonetheless it’s important to distinguish Gaffin and Garcia from Bill Evans and Robert Letham. Though in conversation with the former group, Evans and Letham are advancing individual proposals that have taken on distinct characteristics. Grouping these views together simply because they identify union with Christ as the context in which justification occurs is becoming increasingly unhelpful and confusing.

    For Gaffin, et al (Die Gaffinschule?), existential/ordo salutis union with Christ is not transformative per se, but neither is it forensic. It is the salvific context in which forensic and transformative benefits are applied to believers. Specifically, it is the Spiritual bond that believers have with Christ by faith—and as such it is faith-union with Christ. Union with Christ is not the source of faith; it is the bond established by Spirit-wrought faith.

    This comes to bear upon your conclusion that union with Christ must precede the other benefits of the ordo salutis, and especially upon the statement that regeneration is logically subsequent to union (point 2 in your duplex beneficium). For Gaffin, et al, union with Christ cannot possibly be the source of regeneration, since existential union with Christ is faith-union and faith depends upon the Spirit’s work of regeneration. Quite simply, no faith, no existential union. To place regeneration before faith-union is to espouse a semi-Pelagian ordo salutis (faith before regeneration). Ironically, this is a problem for Protestant theologians who identify justification as the source/fount of the ordo salutis—if indeed they hold to justification by faith alone. Justification, which is by faith, precedes regeneration in that scheme.

    Recognizing this problem, some have argued for a sense or type of justification that is not by faith. For them, a declaratory or objective justification precedes regeneration. But a later subjective sense of justification, now by faith, comes after regeneration. Though he rejected Louis Berkhof’s use of this distinction, Michael Horton seems to argue along these lines in his response to Lane G. Tipton on Christ the Center episode 207 ( Regrettably, this type of justification has nothing to do with the Reformed doctrine (or Scripture for that matter). In what sense can we speak about the justification of a sinner, that is, the declaration of his acquittal in time, without yet considering the imputed righteousness of Christ which is received by faith alone? Such a declaration is legal fiction. If a sinner does not yet have faith, he cannot yet be declared righteous, because he possesses no righteousness.

  4. Mark Snoeberger

    Dave, like so many discussions of the ordo salutis this discussion is about logical and not chronological priority. While there is a sense in which we are elect “in Christ” before the foundation of the world, the discussion at hand is about the believer’s union with Christ in time. I am proposing that by the work of Spirit-union, a new creature in Christ (that is, a believer) springs into being and via the instrumentality of faith is justified all in one instant. I would concur implicitly with A. H. Strong on this point when he writes, “Union with Christ logically precedes both regeneration and justification; and yet, chronologically, the moment of our union with Christ is also the moment when we are regenerated and justified” (793).

    That being said, there is a logical priority that may be observed. Since justification is “by faith” (Rom 3:28 etc.) and faith is impossible for someone “after the flesh” (so, e.g., Rom 8:6–8), we can offer at least a preliminary ordo:

    1. Efficacious Grace/Illumination
    2. Faith
    3. Justification

    I would argue, with most Reformed thinkers (but not, say, Erickson and Demarest), that the efficacy of efficacious grace is more, however, than a bare, disconnected life principle. It is the bestowal of a new mind, new affections, and new intentions that were previously absent—in short, it consists in the new nature of regeneration. And so I would amend the above to read:

    1. Regeneration
    2. Faith
    3. Justification

    Here’s where my original post enters in. If in fact being a “new creature” is a result of our being “in Christ” (so 1 Cor 5:17), it is arguable that regeneration itself flows out of our union with Christ (so Strong, above). As such, union with Christ emerges as something of a fountainhead from which both forensic and transformative benefits accrue to the believer as its duplex beneficium.

    Having argued thusly, one might at this point expect Murray, like Strong, to place union with Christ in his ordo just prior to regeneration. But he demurs. Instead he is content to identify union with Christ as the mystical sphere within which every benefit of salvation accrues. This same kind of hesitation is seen in Murray’s disciples and grand-disciples today, and this has resulted in considerable nuance. Kudos to Camden for noting this and for observing that this is a very complex issue, not just a matter of “A” versus “B.”

  5. Mark Snoeberger

    Thanks, Camden, for your comments. This issue is not, as you rightly suggest, a binary one. There are a multiplex of nuanced subviews on the table, and I thank you for your gracious efforts at sorting these out.

  6. Dr. Snoeberger:

    Thanks for taking the time to interact with me. Obviously, I would fall more in line with the Demarest/Erickson/Saxon line of thinking, but am thankful to understand the nuance of your position with more accuracy.


  7. In my earlier comment, “To place regeneration before faith-union is to espouse a semi-Pelagian ordo salutis (faith before regeneration).” should be “To place faith-union before regeneration is to espouse a semi-Pelagian ordo salutis (faith before regeneration).” Terrible mistake.

  8. Camden:

    If God’s gracious and effectual calling of an elect sinner is that which logically produces the said faith-union, how exactly is this teaching “semi-Pelagian?”


  9. Paul

    Both views join justification with sanctification which =’s false gospel of sanctification by faith alone or sanctification by justification. In both cases, sanctification finishes justification in some way. If justification is linear, or the “golden chain of salvation” with sanctification in the middle, everything in sanctification is a work (even faith) which finishes the “race” without disqualification.

    These guys can quibble for additional centuries all they want to about how this works, but the results are the same.

  10. Good post and discussion.

    I am finishing up Dr. Constantine Campbell’s book on Paul’s understanding of union with Christ now and I think it is rather helpful in pointing out a couple of things relevant to this discussion. First, the textual statements about union with Christ in the Pauline writings fall into a number of categories so terms such as “in Christ” are more elastic than we often appreciate. As such, Campbell (and others) argue that it may not be appropriate to talk about any meaningful theological center in at least Paul’s writings (be it justification or union). He does argue, however, that “union” may be understood to be like a web upon which Paul’s thought is built. He sees union as the connective tissue of Paul’s teaching. I agree that in the end he seems to lean toward justification as the primary systematic element but within the broad context of a wide range of particular meanings for the concept of union.

    As Dr. Snoeberger pointed out, this is about logical rather than chronological priority and both views raise a number of theological difficulties. This is clearly an intramural debate and it seems to me that neither view necessarily leads to innovative “isms”.

  11. Now that I am home and have access to the book I wanted to offer Campbell’s view in his own words. Here are a few quotes…

    “… the findings of this study thus far seem to accord with the suggestion that justification occurs as an outworking of union with Christ. This can be claimed by virtue of the fact that union with Christ language is employed in an instrumental fashion with respect to justification, as observed above; justification occurs through and in Christ.” (pg 396)

    later, speaking of imputation specifically he says:

    “Is it necessary to pit union with Christ against imputation? Is it not possible that the two concepts might cohere and in fact belong together? It is my contention that imputation is a theological concept that might properly be understood as an outworking of union with Christ; through their union with Christ, his righteousness is imputed to believers.” (pg 400)

    “The instrumental facet of ‘in Christ’ language means that justification occurs as an outworking of union with Christ, and the two concepts out not be set against each other, but rather, must be understood in their relatedness. The justification of believers stems from their participation in the death and resurrection of Christ; his vindicating resurrection becomes the vindication and righteousness of those united to him.” (pg 405)

    He recognizes justification as the foundational theological or systematic element but he sees this as flowing from union. Essentially he argues that the theological terminology overlaps the metaphorical terminology and that we are justified precisely at the logical point we are united with Christ. This seems to be in agreement with the view of Calvin and Luther rather than Hodge that union entails justification as well as the other soteriological blessings that follow.