Union with Christ

Michael S. Horton
Sunday, July 2nd 2006
Jul/Aug 2006

"God likes to forgive, I like to sin: what a great relationship!" In that line W. Robert Godfrey nicely captures the often hidden assumption that Christ came merely to save us from sin's guilt while leaving us under its slavery. Throughout church history, preaching and teaching have attempted to properly relate God's saving work for us and his saving work in us. Antinomianism is the view that we need not submit to God's law as the rule of life, since we are saved by grace alone, while legalism maintains that following God's law is not only the rule of life but the way to life. In short, while legalists confuse the law and the gospel, antinomians separate them and reject the former altogether, at least with respect to its authority in directing the lives of believers. Since our direction, ever since the fall, is to be "curved in on ourselves," as Augustine put it, our natural tendency is to trust our own inner righteousness (legalism) and our own inner light (antinomianism). However, the gospel is the answer to both: it calls us out of ourselves, to look to someone else both to save and rule over us. The Jesus who is Savior is also Lord; faith knows nothing of receiving him merely as prophet and priest but not as king. Thus, in his famous hymn, "Rock of Ages," Augustus Toplady wrote, "Be of sin the double cure: save us from sin's guilt and power."

Some people seem to stop at salvation from guilt. For them, Christ's high priestly role is not simply a glorious consolation but an apparent excuse for their continuing sins. They need not struggle with their temptations and transgressions because Christ has already struggled for them to victory. Others rush quickly over Christ's priestly office to the supposedly more practical question, What would Jesus do? Emphasizing his prophetic and royal offices, they may even sign off on a solid evangelical understanding of justification, but their real interest lies elsewhere. Eventually, whatever might be affirmed casually in relation to justification by grace alone through faith alone because of Christ alone, sanctification is, perhaps unwittingly, built on some other foundation. In other words, "getting saved" is attributed to justification, but "staying saved"-or at least growing in the Christian life "here and now"-is detached from justification "then and there." Thus, people may be saved by the gospel, but they are expected to be sustained by a diet of practical prescriptions for life.

To counter these misunderstandings, we have to turn to Paul's argument in Romans 5 and 6. Just when we think the good news is as good as it gets (justification), Paul tells us that there is more good news to come. It is not separate from the good news of justification, but follows upon it: God has not only seen to it that we will be justified by grace through faith because of Christ, but that we will be sanctified and glorified in this way as well.

To be sure, justification is a verdict-a once-and-for-all declaration that we are righteous before God only on account of Christ's obedient life, death, and resurrection, which we embrace through faith alone, while sanctification is a lifelong process of the Spirit's work within us. Thus, justification is a completed event, without degrees, perfect in every respect, while sanctification is incomplete in this life and each believer is at different places along that pilgrim way. There are clear differences between justification and sanctification and a lot of errors in church teaching and practice result from confusing them. Nevertheless, if we do not see sanctification as the necessary and inevitable outcome of justification, we will become at least theoretical antinomians; if we do not see justification as the fountain of sanctification, we will become legalists. God loves us too much to justify us while leaving us under the tyranny of another king whose dominion is sin and death, but he does not justify us by Christ alone through faith alone only to then condition our final salvation (glorification) on our own obedience (sanctification). We have been saved from the guilt of sin (justified); we are being saved from the tyranny of sin (sanctified), and we will yet be saved from the presence of sin (glorified). Yet all of these aspects of our wider salvation are based on our justification, not the other way around.

The theme before us is "union with Christ." In much of the evangelistic preaching and outreach familiar to many of us, the emphasis was on "getting saved" by "making a decision for Christ." This involved offering assent to a few propositions, such as "Jesus died for my sins and I accept him as my personal Savior." But this is more like a contract than a covenant (especially when we're led to "seal the deal" by signing a card or raising our hand). How much richer is the covenantal understanding that we find in the scriptures, as summarized by the Westminster Confession:

It pleased God, in his eternal purpose, to choose and ordain the Lord Jesus, his only begotten Son, to be the Mediator between God and man, the prophet, priest, and king; the head and Savior of his Church, the heir of all things, and judge of the world; unto whom he did, from all eternity, give a people to be his seed, and to be by him in time redeemed, called, justified, sanctified, and glorified. (WCF, ch. 8)

Union with Christ expresses a covenant-specifically, in the covenant of grace, a gift of inheritance; making a decision for Christ expresses a contract. If I am saved because I accepted Christ, then what happens when I fail to keep the stipulated terms? But if I am saved because of God's electing and redeeming grace "by which he made us accepted in the Beloved" (Eph. 1:6), then even the fact that I accepted and continue to accept Christ is due to the fact that I have been included by God in his eternal covenant mercies in Christ. In fact, Ephesians 1:1-13 repeatedly emphasizes this point with the prepositional phrase, "in Christ." Even my decision to accept Christ is effectual not because of some autonomous transaction on my part but because the Spirit has granted me repentance and faith to embrace Christ and all his benefits.

Romans 5: The Two Adams

Up to this point in Paul's argument in Romans, God's righteousness has been vindicated. How can God condemn even those who claim to follow God's law (the Jews) while justifying even those who are wicked (the Gentiles)? Paul answers this in two ways: First, by demonstrating that God's righteous law condemns everyone, both Jew and Gentile, and second, by announcing the good news of the righteousness that God freely grants to the unrighteous in Jesus Christ, through faith alone. By substituting Christ for the sinner, God has not only propitiated his just wrath so that there is no wrath left to pour out on those who are in Christ; he has justified those who are in themselves wicked by imputing Christ's righteousness to his heirs. In this way, God's law is upheld, his righteousness vindicated, his holiness proved-and at the same time, he has spared us from the consequences of our own sin. Just as everyone stands condemned by the law, Jew and Gentile alike, everyone who trusts in Christ alone stands justified. The law itself testifies to our righteousness before God because "in Christ" we are regarded as having perfectly fulfilled it. "Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have access by faith into this grace in which we stand and rejoice in hope of the glory of God" (Rom. 5:1-2). Even our trials in this life can only serve our salvation, since it is all secured for us in Christ alone (vv. 3-5).

None of this is due to a mere contract. Rather, it's a matter of covenant. Ancient Near Eastern civilizations knew nothing of individualism. To be sure, the individual had an important place, but it was within a larger web of relationships. Treaties or covenants were sworn not simply by individuals but by representatives on behalf of their people, much as a monarch or a congress in more recent times. It is difficult for us in a modern democracy to understand this outlook, but it is the whole framework of biblical thinking. We have trouble with original sin because it seems unjust for God to hold every person from the moment of conception accountable for Adam's transgression. Yet the Bible is full of such representative (covenantal) examples, such as the theft of Achan, for which God held all of Israel guilty (Josh. 7:1-15).

Paul unfolds this logic in chapter 5: Sin, condemnation, and death entered the world through one man, Adam. Yet the solidarity is so strong that he can say that we really were present with Adam in the garden, participating in his transgression (v. 12). Even those who have never committed exactly the same sin as Adam are gathered together with their covenantal head in that action (v. 14). Yet this is simply the bleak backdrop for the work of that other covenantal head: Christ, our Second Adam (vv. 15-21). Thus, there are two families on the earth: Adam's and Christ's. Those who are "in Adam" are under the domain of sin, death, judgment, and condemnation, while those who are "in Christ" are under the domain of righteousness, life, and justification. "Moreover the law entered that the offense might abound," Paul says (v. 20a). Although that sounds strange at first glance, remember the case that Paul has been making thus far: "Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in his sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin" (3:19-20). Apart from the law, there is no sin, since sin is a transgression of a law (5:13). So the law was given not in order to cause sin but in order to name sin as sin and to sweep it all into one heap, at one place, so that it could be dealt with once and for all. Christ is that place, Paul adds: "But where sin abounded, grace abounded much more, so that as sin reigned in death, even so grace might reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord" (v. 20b).

Romans 6: Shall We Continue in Sin?

Naturally, the logic of Paul's argument thus far raises a crucial question: "What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound?" (v. 1). Antinomianism apparently answers in the affirmative. To repeat Godfrey's line, "God likes to forgive; I like to sin: what a great relationship!" I have to admit that I have never really met a full-blown antinomian in this sense. Genuine believers cannot have such a casual attitude toward the sin that their Father hates, that cost their Redeemer his precious life, and that offends the Spirit who indwells them. However, all of us struggle to reconcile our hatred of sin with the fact that we so often yield to temptation. It is sometimes easy to slip a little bread and water under the door of indwelling sin, comforting ourselves with the assurance that we are, after all, saved by grace and God will forgive us. However, despite the strongest defense of free grace, Paul's answer is a decisive "no!" to the question he has raised.

On the other hand, legalists will have trouble with everything that Paul has said up to this point that even raises the question in the first place. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones once wrote to pastors that if they have never been accused of preaching antinomianism, they have never truly preached the gospel. That is a great point. After all, it is precisely because Paul has so clearly and forthrightly explained the gospel of justification apart from works that he even has to confront such a charge. (And it was not the first time or the last that the apostle would hear it!) Legalists are always too worried about people not behaving themselves to allow the gospel to have its full say. However, Paul is prepared to go all the way with the gospel and face the charges.

On the more legalistic side of the room, Paul's question might be answered with various threats. "Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound?" "No! Don't you know that if you do that the 'contract' will be declared null and void? You'll lose your salvation-or at least you'll lose all of your rewards and end up in the outer precincts of heaven?" (In his book, Eternal Security, Charles Stanley argues that while believers cannot lose their salvation, the place of "weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth" is not hell, but a place reserved for carnal Christians. At least in Roman Catholic teaching, purgatory is a different place than heaven.)

No, Paul neither accepts an affirmative answer to his question nor a legalistic response. His gospel of grace does not only go so far and then turn back to a principle of salvation by works when it comes to Christian obedience (sanctification). Instead, he just preaches more gospel!

How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it? Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we were buried with him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been united together in the likeness of his death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of his resurrection, knowing this, that our old man was crucified with him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin. For he who has died has been freed from sin. Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him, knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, dies no more. Death no longer has dominion over him. For the death that he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life that he lives, he lives to God. Likewise you also, reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (vv. 2-11)

Here we again encounter the distinction in the Greek language between the imperative and indicative moods. Indicatives tell us what has been done; imperatives tell us what we are to do. While the legalist replies to Paul's question with more imperatives, Paul replies with more indicatives! The apostle does not respond, "Do this or else!" Instead, he says, "Look, the gospel not only justifies, it regenerates and sanctifies. Anyone who is in Christ is the heir of everything that God has promised."

In other words, anyone who thinks that grace offers liberty for sin is actually not taking grace seriously enough. God has done far more in Christ than justifying the wicked. Precisely by justifying us, he has made every good and perfect gift that he has for us fully guaranteed in Christ. Every person who has been baptized into this Second Adam's death (which grants forgiveness) is also baptized into his resurrection life (new birth and sanctification). Who would want to be identified with a supposed "savior" who remained in the grave? How would that differ from being "in Adam"? No, says Paul, the good news is that we are not identified with a dead prophet, but with a living priest-king who triumphed over sin's guilt and power. The gospel is the answer to both: that is the point that antinomians and legalists miss in their own way.

Through the preaching of the gospel, the Holy Spirit grants faith to sinners and this faith not only justifies, it sanctifies. Every good work proceeds from this justifying faith that looks to Christ alone and draws upon our union with him. We must not find our justification in Christ and our sanctification somewhere else. We find everything-salvation from sin's guilt and power, the love of God and neighbor, the new life and ripening fruit of good works, the gifts of the Spirit, and the kingdom to come-in Christ alone. And it belongs to every believer, even the weakest, at every moment. As the Heidelberg Catechism instructs in Question 36, "How does the holy conception and birth of Christ benefit you?" Answer: "He is our mediator, and with his innocence and perfect holiness he removes from God's sight my sin-mine since I was conceived."

We are not justified by union with Christ, but by Christ's blood and righteousness. Nevertheless, everyone thus justified is united with Christ and therefore shares in his resurrection life, so that Christ is being formed in us and forming us to his image. The age to come has broken into this present evil age with Christ's resurrection from the dead as the firstfruits of the harvest. As our living head, he enjoys the perfect consummation of what we will all experience in our glorification. Thus assured of our participation in Christ, we struggle against sin because we already know that it is a defeated foe.

The imperatives must be drawn forth from the indicatives. In part, this is because unless our conscience is persuaded of God's good pleasure toward us, we cannot even will to love him and our neighbor, much less perform it. Once again, many (even evangelical scholars) today will say that this emphasis is the product of a Protestantism too overwrought with Luther's "troubled conscience." However, it is an emphasis of Scripture. When Jesus famously charged the accusers of the adulteress, "Whoever is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first," we read that

…those who heard it, being convicted by their conscience, went out one by one, beginning with the oldest even to the last. And Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst. When Jesus had raised himself up and saw no one but the woman, he said to her, 'Woman, where are those accusers of yours? Has no one condemned you?' She said, 'No one, Lord.' And Jesus said to her, 'Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.' (John 8:7-11)

The role of conscience is important in Paul's thinking, both in relation to God and fellow creatures (Acts 24:16; Rom. 9:1; 13:5; 1 Cor. 10:25; 1 Tim. 3:9; 4:2). So, too, the writer to the Hebrews explains that if the old covenant sacrifices in some sense sanctified the worshipers, "how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God? And for this reason he is the Mediator of the new covenant, by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions under the first covenant, that those who are called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance" (Heb. 9:13-15).

For the law, having a shadow of the good things to come, and not the very image of the things, can never with these same sacrifices, which they offer continually year by year, make those who approach perfect. For then would they not have ceased to be offered? For worshipers, once purified, would have had no more consciousness of sins. (Heb. 10:1-2)

Entering the Holy of Holies "by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way" that is none other than Jesus himself as our High Priest, "let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful" (Heb. 10:19-23). Peter adds that the baptism that now saves us is "not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God" by Christ's resurrection and ascension to the Father's right hand (1 Pet. 3:21).

Only that certain knowledge that God has already secured the whole of salvation in all of its stages, with Christ as the guarantor and guarantee, can create in us the faith that yields the fruit of peace, love, and good works. Once our consciences have been assured that God has made peace through Christ, the new life begins and a new obedience flows out of genuine love rather than out of self-interest and self-righteousness. On sanctification, the Belgic Confession declares,

In fact, if we had to appear before God relying-no matter how little-on ourselves or some other creature, then, alas, we would be swallowed up… We believe that this true faith, produced in man by the hearing of God's Word and by the work of the Holy Spirit, regenerates him and makes him a 'new man,' causing him to live the 'new life' and freeing him from the slavery of sin. Therefore, far from making people cold toward living in a pious and holy way, this justifying faith, quite to the contrary, so works within them that apart from it they will never do a thing out of love for God but only out of love for themselves and fear of being condemned. (Articles 23-24)

With this justifying faith as its root, however, sanctification is assured. Otherwise, we are thrown back on ourselves. "So we would always be in doubt, tossed back and forth without any certainty, and our poor consciences would be tormented constantly if they did not rest on the merit of the suffering and death of our Savior" (Belgic Confession, Article 24).

The moral law continues to command us but can no longer condemn us. It is only on the basis of this gospel indicative, then, that Paul can go on to issue this imperative: "Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body, that you should obey it in its lusts. And do not present your members as instruments of unrighteousness to sin, but present yourselves to God as being alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God (Rom. 6:12-13)." Yet even here Paul insists on letting the indicative have the last word: "For sin shall not have dominion over you, for you are not under law but under grace" (Rom. 6:14).

Photo of Michael S. Horton
Michael S. Horton
Michael Horton is editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation and the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido.
Sunday, July 2nd 2006

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

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