A More Perfect Union?

J. V. Fesko
Wednesday, May 2nd 2007
May/Jun 2007

Marriage is the union between a man and a woman where the two individuals become one flesh, as the Apostle Paul tells us in the fifth chapter of Ephesians. The marital union, however, is a relationship that points to the greater relationship between Christ and the church. Typically, Reformed theologians have described the relationship between Christ and the church in terms of the believer's mystical union with Christ. Louis Berkhof gives us a typical definition of union with Christ: "That intimate, vital, and spiritual union between Christ and his people, in virtue of which he is the source of their life and strength, of their blessedness and salvation." Union with Christ is also called mystical because, as A. A. Hodge explains, "It so far transcends all the analogies of earthly relationships, in the intimacy of its communion, in the transforming power of its influence, and in the excellence of its consequences." While there is an exception to every rule, the doctrine of the believer's union with Christ is universally accepted in the Reformed community. Where disagreement lies, however, is the nature of the relationship between the doctrines of union with Christ and justification by faith alone. What is the doctrine of justification? We find a good concise definition in the Westminster Shorter Catechism: "Justification is an act of God's free grace, wherein he pardons all our sins, and accepts us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone" (Q/A 33).

Dispensing with the inerrancy and unity of the Bible's teaching, nineteenth-century Protestant liberalism was fond of not only pitting Jesus against Paul but also pitting Paul against himself. There was a legal-forensic Paul who gave us the doctrine of justification and the mystical-relational Paul who emphasized union with Christ. At the end of the day, the "relational" Paul won out. Now, such conclusions are only natural for one with liberal assumptions about the Bible. However, it might surprise some that we can find similar patterns in conservative Reformed circles. I first want to survey some of the recent claims concerning the supposed incompatibility of the so-called legal and relational, or justification and union with Christ. Then we will offer a positive formulation of the proper relationship between the two doctrines.

Disharmony between 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.

Recall, in the historic Reformed understanding of justification, the believer receives the forgiveness of sins on account of Christ's suffering not only on the cross but throughout his life, which theologians have called his passive obedience. The term passive obedience comes from the Latin word, passio, which means suffering. At the same time, the believer also receives the imputation, the accrediting, of Christ's active obedience, Christ's fulfillment of the law on behalf of the believer. Christ's active obedience is also called his righteousness; hence theologians will talk of the imputation of Christ's righteousness or his active obedience. It is this legal element of justification that Lusk argues is redundant and unnecessary. These conclusions seem to be based upon his understanding that a believer is a son, a relational concept, and that our redemption is more comprehensively understood in terms of our union with Christ rather than the doctrine of imputation, a supposed legal category. In this regard, it appears as though Lusk has tried to suggest a better way to understand the doctrine of justification and in so doing offers what he and others believe is a more perfect understanding of our union with Christ.

There are multiple problems with such an understanding of the relationship between the doctrines of justification and union with Christ. We can address these problems and, more positively, set forth the historic Reformed understanding of the relationship between justification and union with Christ.

Positive FormulationThe Biblical Data

We find a host of New Testament references primarily in Paul's letters that refer to the believer being "in Christ." There are some twenty-five occurrences of this phrase in Paul's epistles alone. One of the most explicit passages of Scripture where we find the doctrine of union with Christ comes in Ephesians 5. Paul writes that the husband and the wife, when viewed through the lens of marriage, are one single entity, one body, and likens marriage to Christ's relationship to the church. There are other images in the Scriptures that relate to the believer's union with Christ: the vine and the branches (John 15:5); the foundation of the temple (1 Pet. 2:4-5), and as head and body (Eph. 4:4-6). Looking at some of the other biblical data, we also find that union with Christ undergirds multiple aspects of our redemption, such as our predestination (Eph. 1:4), justification (Rom. 8:1), sanctification (1 Cor. 1:30), and glorification (1 Cor. 15:22). How do we interpret and relate these references?

Union with Christ and the Order of Salvation

Historically Reformed theologians have recognized that union with Christ is not merely one aspect of the order of salvation but is the hub from which the spokes are drawn. One can find such conclusions in the theology of Reformed luminaries such as John Owen, Herman Witsius, and Thomas Boston, to name a few. That union undergirds the whole of the order of salvation is evident from Paul's book-end statements that we were chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world and that only those who are in Christ will be raised from the dead and clothed in immortality. In fact, we may say that there are three phases of our union with Christ, the predestinarian "in Christ," the redemptive-historical "in Christ," the union involved in the once-for-all accomplishment of salvation, and the applicatory "in Christ," which is the union in the actual possession or application of salvation. These three phases refer not to different unions but rather to different aspects of the same union.

Given these conclusions, it is no wonder that the Westminster Larger Catechism states that justification, adoption, sanctification, and whatever other benefits flow from Christ to the believer manifest the believer's union with him (Q/A 69). When we see that our being found "in Christ" underlies the whole order of salvation, including the legal portions, such as justification and adoption, hopefully we begin to see how the Reformed understanding of the relationship between justification and union are not in any way at odds or redundant. From here, we can identify three concepts that we must understand to have a proper understanding of the relationship between union with Christ and justification: (1) that the legal aspects of our redemption are relational; (2) justification is the legal aspect of our union with Christ; and (3) that justification is the ground of our sanctification.

Justification and Union with ChristThe Legal Is Relational

We should make two important observations concerning the relationship between justification and union with Christ. First, there is the unchecked assumption that just because justification is legal in character therefore means that it is not relational. For some unknown reason, whether in the theology of nineteenth-century liberalism or contemporary expressions from Lusk, for example, both think that the so-called legal and relational are incompatible. Yet, we must understand that there are such things as legal relationships. Or, in terms of our redemption, there are legal aspects of our relationship with God. For example, Paul tells us that we have received "the Spirit of adoption as sons" (Rom. 8:15; cf. Gal. 4:5; Eph. 1:5). Here is a clear instance where we see the wedding of the so-called legal and relational categories-adoption is a legal term but is also bound with it is the idea of sonship, a relational term. However, rather than see adoption as legal and sonship as relational, we should understand that the legal and filial are both relational.

One finds the same concepts inseparably bound in the person and work of Christ. Jesus was at the same time God's Son and born under the law (Gal. 4:4). Christ was obedient, not to an abstract arbitrary law, but to the personal and relational will, the law in its legal demands, of his heavenly Father (Phil. 2:5-11). We must not uncritically adopt the nineteenth-century liberalism's opposition between the legal and the relational. That opposition in itself rested on liberalism's rejection of original sin, divine wrath, and a propitiatory sacrifice of Christ. Not only are the legal and relational found together in the Bible, as we have seen, but even from common experience we know the two are compatible. Every day people enter the covenant of marriage and do so recognizing that the legal bond is one that is also relational. A husband, for example, can fulfill the legal requirements of marriage and do so out of love. In the same way, Christ fulfilled the legal-relational aspects of our redemption in love for us, his bride.

Justification Is a Legal Aspect of Our Union

If we recognize the two points that we have established thus far, namely that union with Christ undergirds the whole order of salvation, and that the legal aspects of our redemption are relational, then we must realize that justification is a legal aspect of our union with Christ. We say that justification is a legal aspect of our union because we should also note that there are legal overtones to adoption as we have already observed. Nevertheless, if we recognize that justification is the legal aspect of our union with Christ, then to eliminate aspects of the doctrine of justification, such as the imputation of Christ's active obedience, something both Wright and Lusk do, is to undercut the legal aspect of our union. It seems that both Wright and Lusk reject the imputation of Christ's active obedience as being unnecessary, superfluous. What lies behind such conclusions, however, is the idea that the Reformed tradition has invented whole-cloth the doctrine of the imputed righteousness of Christ and created a redundant structure, one that can be discarded in favor of a more "biblical" construction. Such an opinion, however, fails to recognize that it is Paul who is able to hold together both the imputed righteousness of Christ and union with Christ without problem, hesitation, or embarrassment.

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.

Justification Is the Ground of Our Sanctification

Why does Paul insist upon the imputed active obedience of Christ in our justification? Why is this necessary aside from the fact that the Scriptures teach its necessity? The answer lies in the nature of our justification. We must recognize that the ground of our justification is not our sanctification, or the transformative aspect of our union with Christ. To base our justification in our sanctification is to change the judicial ground from the work of Christ to the work of the believer. The good works of the believer, even those that are the result of the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit, are at the end of the day imperfect. In this regard the Westminster Confession of Faith concisely explains why our good works, or more broadly our sanctification, cannot be the ground of our justification:

We cannot, by our best works, merit pardon of sin, or eternal life, at the hand of God, by reason of the great disproportion that is between them and the glory to come, and the infinite distance that is between us and God, whom by them, we can neither profit nor satisfy for the debt of our former sins; but when we have done all we can, we have done but our duty, and are unprofitable servants; and because, as they are good, they proceed from His Spirit; and as they are wrought by us, they are defiled, and mixed with so much weakness and imperfection, that they cannot endure the severity of God's judgment. (WCF 16.5)

It is only the obedience of Christ, therefore, that can be the ground of our justification, not only the obedience that he offered in his vicarious suffering throughout his entire earthly ministry, his passive obedience, but also his perfect law-keeping that he offered on our behalf to his Father, his active obedience.

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).


One cannot help but observe that much of the recent literature in the confessional Reformed community that pits imputation against union with Christ unwittingly repeats a false antithesis from nineteenth-century liberalism. While those within the confessional Reformed community undoubtedly hold to a strong commitment to the inspired nature of the Scriptures, this commitment is inconsistent with any assumption that there are competing models of redemption in Paul, the legal and the relational. In seeking to create a more perfect understanding of union with Christ, some have torn apart what God has joined together. If Paul's epistles are inspired by the Holy Spirit, then it seems important that we follow the apostle in the construction of our own theology of justification as it relates to union with Christ. Namely, it is imperative that we hold together imputation and union with Christ, the legal-forensic and the transformative, all of which are relational. Let us not separate what God has joined together.

1 [ Back ] In his article, Dr. Fesko cites Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology: New Combined Edition (1932-38; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), p. 449; A. A. Hodge, Outlines of Theology (1879; Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1991), p. 483; see e.g., Albert Schweitzer, The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle (1931; Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1998), p. 223; Albrecht Ritschl, The Christian Doctrine of Justification and Reconciliation (1902; Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2004), p. 94; see Travis Tamerius, "Interview with N. T. Wright," Reformation and Revival, 11/1 (2002), p. 129; N. T. Wright, "New Perspectives on Paul," in Justification in Perspective: Historical Developments and Contemporary Challenges, Bruce L. McCormack, ed., (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006), pp. 255-56; Rich Lusk, "Private Communication 27 May 2003," cited in James B. Jordan, "Merit vs. Maturity: What Did Jesus Do for Us?" in The Federal Vision, Steve Wilkins and Duane Garner, eds., (Monroe: Athanasius Press, 2004), p. 155; Rich Lusk, "A Response to 'The Biblical Plan of Salvation,'" in The Auburn Avenue Theology: Pros and Cons. Debating the Federal Vision, E. Calvin Beisner, ed. (Ft. Lauderdale: Knox Theological Seminary, 2004), p. 142; see references in A. T. B. McGowan, "Justification and the Ordo Salutis," in Justification in Perspective: Historical Developments and Contemporary Challenges, Bruce McCormack, ed., (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006), pp. 156-57; Richard B. Gaffin, "Union with Christ: Some Biblical and Theological Reflections," in Always Reforming: Explorations in Systematic Theology, A. T. B. McGowan, ed., (Leicester: Apollos, 2006), p. 275; John Murray, The Imputation of Adam's Sin (Phillipsburg: P and R, 1959), p. 76; Hodge, Outlines of Theology, p. 482; and Berkhof, Systematic Theology, p. 452.
Wednesday, May 2nd 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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