Union with Christ – An Analytic Attempt at Understanding

I remember when I first came across the idea that there is a debate with regard to union with Christ and the ordo salutis. I had written a paper on the theme of peace in Romans and when a friend had read it, he had one theological critique, namely, that I made justification the ground for union with Christ. This led me then to investigate further what exactly he was talking about. In this process, I discovered that there were two different views of how union with Christ related to the other benefits in Reformed thought. The first argued that justification (or forensic union) was logical prior to, or, at the very least, the cause of union with Christ (renovative union) (cf. Horton 2007: 129). The second argued that union with Christ was logically prior to and the cause of all other soteric benefits, including justification (cf. Letham 2011). For ease of reading, we will designate the former the WSC position and the latter the WTS position after the institutions which hold to these respective views. In light of this, our purpose here is to offer some further thoughts that will hopefully bring clarity to the subject

I. The Ordo Salutis and Union with Christ

It is commonly recognized in the Reformed ordo salutis, which presents the logical order of how salvation (with all that entails) occurs in the life of the believer (for a helpful visual of this, see Tim Challies’ representation), that regeneration logically precedes justification. The argument can be stated in this way: because humans are dead in and enslaved by their sin and can only do evil continually, they must be born again by the Spirit of God before they are able to place faith in Christ to be justified. To reverse the order of justification and regeneration is to capitulate to a non-Reformed understanding of soteriology (and, indeed, anthropology).

Yet, one must ask: if regeneration (which should be understood as falling within the category of renovative union) logically precedes justification, then how can justification be, at the very least, the cause of union with Christ? Perhaps putting it in logical fashion will demonstrate this problem more clearly:

(1) If regeneration, a renovative act, precedes faith, resulting in justification.

(2) Then renovative union logically precedes forensic union.

(3) Therefore, justification is not the logical ground of union with Christ.

(4) Therefore, renovative union is logically prior to forensic union.

But, the astute reader would recognize that, given this schema, an additional consequence arises.

(5) Thus, given (4), the subjective change in the believer entailed by regeneration is logically prior to and the ground of forensic union.

Putting (5) more boldly, we can say that the Reformed ordo, given the WSC position, results in something close to the Roman Catholic position which essentially asserts, using Reformed categories, that righteousness is infused in the believer at regeneration, resulting in justification.

Of course, the WSC position would not endorse the logical entailments of their position as outlined above for they would not be comfortable grounding the forensic union in the renovative nor would they be comfortable with the non-Reformed (or Reformational) consequences of such entailments. This would, in turn, leave them with two choices: either (1) abandon the logical priority that forensic union has in relation to renovative union, or, (2) abandon adherence to the traditional Reformed ordo.

But this raises the question—can the WTF position escape from the logical consequences that ail the WSC position? In order to answer this question, our theological parameters must be broadened, and, it is to this that we now turn.

II. The Totality of Christ

 At this point, we will attempt to rearticulate what exactly is occurring in the ordo in order to gain a clearer sense of how to relate the ordo to union with Christ. But, before doing so, a few concepts need to be defined more clearly.

Regeneration is that act whereby an individual is made a new creature by the Spirit of God, being freed from the bondage of sin and brought into newness of life. Put in biblical terms, a regenerate individual has been given a new heart with new affections turned to God rather than to the ‘gods’ we make ourselves. Effectual calling is that act whereby the Spirit of God, by the communication of the word of God (esp. the gospel), brings an individual into newness of life. (This latter concept is to be distinguished from general calling, i.e., the proclamation of the gospel to all people.) Now, the reader will recognize that regeneration is inseparable from, and, indeed, synonymous with effectual calling, at least as we’ve defined them.

Regeneration/effectual calling precede and give rise to, what theologians call, ‘saving faith.’  Saving faith is that instrument whereby a person is justified—forgiven and declared righteous,  being imputed with Christ’s righteousness—and is distinguished from mere mental assent. Rather, it is placing trust in an object, namely, Jesus Christ.

So, with these concepts in mind, we will attempt to rearticulate the ordo in order to make sense of it in a way that incorporates union with Christ.

Christ calls an individual to himself by speaking to him, communicating the truth of his gospel. Christ does this by speaking through an ambassador, who is an individual already united to him who is his head. This ambassador, therefore, stands in the stead of Christ himself, and, upon proclaiming the words of God and the gospel of Christ, speak as if Christ himself is speaking. Thus, Christ is drawing near to the individual whom he is effectually calling by his Spirit; with the Spirit being in perichoretic union to him.

Christ, speaking really and truly through his ambassador, draws near to the person lost and dead in sin, and, by drawing near, by the Holy Spirit, makes the person pass from death to life.

Of course, a number of things come to the forefront with this rearticulation. For Christ to be able to draw near to and effectually bring a person to himself, out of the bondage of sin and the reign of death, he must have already known this person, as it were. Putting it differently, he could not have drawn near to someone, in turn, drawing them near to him, if this whole reconciliatory event was conditioned upon the individual’s response. This response must have been secured by something outside of the individual; indeed, this response is a gift given to the individual.

In light of this, it is important to recognize the difference between effectual calling and the instrument that is faith. It is Christ who effectually calls one to himself, i.e., he has already drawn near to the individual, which is demonstrated by the person placing faith in Christ. That is, it is the effectual working of the Spirit of Christ which produces faith; the latter cannot arise without the former. Thus, the effectual means (Christ’s calling) is greater than and thus produces the instrument of faith in the person who is being united to Christ; the former, as cause of the latter, cannot be reduced to the same.

Now, at this point, the WSC position may not see how this differs from their position. They also affirm the unconditional nature of election resulting in the effectualness of calling, giving rise to a faith that is secured by something outside of the individual. Yet, one problem remains with their construal in relation to these truths.

They may argue that their placement of forensic union before renovative union still stands because it is the one who has died and risen from the dead that is calling them. That is to say, the one who has substituted himself for them, becoming a curse, conquering death, and rising from the dead, is the one who is calling them.

But, there is something that is being missed. What of the Old Testament (OT) saints? Were they unregenerate, and, consequently, unsaved? Were there no regenerate persons before Christ’s death and resurrection? Was everyone resigned to the second death, a death which is everlasting, before Christ’s work on the cross? Clearly, all parties would emphatically answer: no.

So, what we have then are individuals who are effectually called (regenerated) by God through his gospel before the death and resurrection of Christ (Ps 51; Isaiah 6:1-7; Zech 3; Jude 5; cf. 1 Peter 3:19-20). Now, the gospel was hidden and obscure, and Christ was yet to be revealed as the incarnate Son of God, yet this does not discount the fact that God drew near to his people, drawing them near to him, based not on anything within them or any condition which they needed to meet, but for his own name’s sake.

What does this then say regarding the WSC position and our prior rearticulation? If the requirements necessary (i.e., Christ’s death and resurrection) for securing the forensic union had not taken place in the OT, then how can it be the logical ground for union with Christ and all other salvific benefits? Rather, we would suggest a more adequate schema.

The OT saints, upon hearing the gospel, albeit in seed form, placed their faith in the person of the Son of God, who has always been the redeemer of God’s people (cf. Jude 5), and he is the same one who drew near to them, calling them from life to death. They put their trust in the one person who would later meet the requirements necessary to secure their justification. In sum, they were united by faith to the person of the Christ, who later took on flesh, died on a cross and rose from the dead, and, as such, this union is the ground for all soteric benefits, including justification and sanctification.

But, before we conclude, we will turn to another area.

III. The Totality of Death and the Person and Work of Christ

 At this point, we would argue that the WSC positon oversimplifies the totality of death especially as it relates to Christ’s person and work.

It is clear that the penalty for sin, namely, death is far reaching and holistic. Death does not merely incorporate the physical realm, nor is it only relegated to the spiritual realm. Rather, the entire human is consumed with the death—both inwardly and outwardly. Every individual is spiritually dead apart from Christ, being alienated from the very source of spiritual life, namely, God. Every individual is physically dead, awaiting the completion of this when they pass from life on this earth.

Due to the totality of death, spiritual and physical death cannot be so easily separated. Both are travesties in the sight of God; both reflect a fallen, cursed creation. Indeed, it is the totality of death which Christ addresses in his person and work.

Romans 4:2 is a good example of this. Paul says that Christ was “raised for our justification.” Here, Paul connects Christ’s resurrection, his overcoming physical death (caveat: he wasn’t spiritually dead), to our justification. Put differently, he connects, in WSC terms, renovative union with forensic union; in fact, he makes the former the cause of the latter. Moreover, it’s likely what he is driving at is that by his resurrection he overcame the penalty for sin—death—resulting in our justification. (Now, of course, his subsequent glorification, ascension and exaltation further point to this, especially as we consider our union with Christ.)

In sum, the totality of death and the totality of redemption wrought by the person and work of Christ support our contention for it is the incarnate Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, who came as a servant, under the law, and died on the cross, raising from the dead, being glorified, ascending to the Father’s right hand who draws near to us, drawing us near to him, undoing both internally and externally, forensically and renovatively, that which we deserve for our sin. The totality of death requires the total solution which Christ, in his person and work, provides.

IV. Conclusion

We will conclude by, in the spirit of our initial section, laying out logically what we have already said.

(1) Christ draws near to us by those who are united to him.

(2) Christ calls us to himself by his Spirit.

(3) Christ’s calling is not contingent upon human responses for these are given to the one called.


(4) Christ drew near to OT believers in the same way.

(5) Christ did thus before he fulfilled the requirements necessary for forensic union.


(6) It is the person of Christ who is drawing near to us that we are united to by faith.

(7) Our union with Christ logically precedes and is the ground of all other soteric benefits.

But, we must ask, does this avoid the logical entailments, noted above, of the WSC position? Does the WTS positon on union with Christ in light of the Reformed ordo reduce to something akin to the Catholic ordo? Let us again lay this out logically.

(1′) Christ is the one who effectually calls the one whom he already knew (i.e., predestined).

(2′) Christ is the one who, by his Spirit, secures the response of faith as a gift.

(3′) Christ is the one who justifies by his work, whether done in the past or in the future.

(4′) Therefore, it is Christ, in perichoretic union with the Spirit, and by his death and resurrection, who gives the benefits of redemption.

(5′) Therefore, it is union with the Son of God which is the ground for all subsequent soteric benefits.

(6′) Therefore, the need for distinguishing forensic from renovative union is made void for it is by virtue of our union with the person of Christ that we receive both renovative and forensic benefits.

Also, in light of our discussion of death, a few other logical entailments of our position should be fleshed out.

(7′) The totality of death includes the spirit and body of the human being.

(8′) The totality of Christ’s person and work effectively undoes the engulfing effects of death.

(9′) Given (7′)-(8′), the penalty of sin–death–and its answer–salvation–are complex events.

(10′) Therefore, given (9′), salvation is not reducible to one particular event but rather to the person, namely, Christ, who accomplished this event.

This leaves us, in the final analysis, with:

(11′) Therefore, given (4′)-(6′) and (10′), the forensic and renovative benefits of salvation, while necessarily distinguished, are inseparably connected to and procured by our union to Christ.

In conclusion, in light of the Christocentric nature of salvation, and the all-absorbing nature of death apart from Christ, the WTS position on union with Christ makes better sense of the priority of union with Christ than does the WSC position by taking account the broader biblical-theological contours surrounding the topic and avoiding the logical entailments of the WSC position.


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