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. Continue reading “Union with Christ – An Analytic Attempt at Understanding”

Book Review: Matthew Barrett, Salvation by Grace – The Case for Effectual Calling and Regeneration (Phillipsburg, N. J.: P&R Pub., 2013).


This book is a abridged version of the author’s dissertation at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary; and, as one would suspect given the title, it is a defense of the Calvinistic, or Reformed, understandings of effectual (as opposed to general) calling and regeneration.

The book’s introduction effectively sets the stage for the importance of this area of study by rightly asserting that one’s understanding of calling and regeneration decides where one lands on the Calvinism/Arminianism divide. With this, he distinguishes three distinct views which conflict with the author’s case for calling and regeneration; that is, (1) Semi-Augustinians (cf. Jacob Arminius; John Wesley); (2) Semi-Pelagianism (cf. Clark Pinnock); and (3) a modified position, which seeks a middle way between the divide. These are then the three views which he will be in conversation with throughout the remainder of the book, with most of his attention given to (1) and (2), relegating thorough discussion of (3) to the seventh and last chapter of the book.

Chapter 1, “Monergism in the Calvinistic Tradition,” is a historical overview of the defenders of monergism in the face of competing claims. The author, as one might suspect, interacts with such important figures as Augustine, John Calvin, Pelagius, and others. Here, we see how the defenders of monergism connected the doctrine to justification, the Solas of the Reformation, and the glory of God.

Chapter 2, “Total Depravity and the Bondage of the Will,” continues to interact with historical discussions pertinent to the subject at hand with more trenchant interaction with the relevant texts of Scripture.

Chapters 3 and 4 provide the biblical foundations for effectual calling and regeneration, respectively. In the course of doing so, the author also interacts with and refutes such views as Hyper-Calvinism and ideas as resistible grace.

Chapter 5, “Arminian Synergism in Theological Perspective,” deals with the nuances and variations found in the broader category of Arminian synergism. Chapter 6 then provides an analysis and critique of Arminian synergism.

Chapter 7, “The Failure of Recent Attempts at a Middle Way,” interacts with authors who appear to affirm both Arminian and Calvinist views of calling and regeneration (or some combination of this approach). In essence, the author argues here that while some of the theological moves of these ‘middle ways’ are admirable, they fail to move past the Arminianism which they take care (albeit insufficiently) to distance themselves from.

This book is a comprehensive defense of effectual calling and regeneration written at an intermediate level. This would be a helpful book for the reader who is hoping to gain a thorough grasp of the arguments and issues surrounding monergism or for a seminary course dealing with the same. This would also be a good book to remind one already versed in the topic of the various nuances that accompany the subject. Despite its intermediate level of prose, it is accessible to the average lay reader who is willing to take their time (although they should probably do so with their Bible open). Beyond this, there are some helpful discussions even for the scholar or educated laymen (e.g., original sin; the relationship between effectual calling and regeneration; and, the role of faith in justification). We would highly recommend this book for these reasons.

A Plea for Wisdom: Proverbs and the Question of Application

The book of Proverbs (Prov) is one book of all the books of the Bible to which even the most biblically illiterate of Christians turns and is at least somewhat familiar. This book is commonly recognized to fall within the collection of literature in the Bible known as wisdom literature, alongside Psalms, Job, and Ecclesiastes (and, some would argue, the Song of Songs). Yet, given the misuse of various proverbs found in the book, it is our purpose to urge for the use of wisdom when reading the wise sayings found in the book of Proverbs.

I. Literary Form

It is commonly recognized that Proverbs contains a mixture of prose and poetry; and, more important for our purposes, it contains both longer exhortations and shorter sayings. Bruce Waltke distinguishes the former from the latter when he writes, “… the longer poems tend to contain enough extended discourse to protect themselves against misinterpretation; but the short sentence-sayings tend to express a truth that may seem like the whole truth, but in fact these sayings must be qualified by other sentence-sayings” (2004: 58). With this distinction in mind, the need for wisdom regarding the book becomes clearer; that is, it is required in order to properly interpret and apply the sentence-sayings contained within the book.

II. The Nature of the Shorter Sayings

The very nature of these shorter sayings, which are brief and incisive, necessitates the use of wisdom. Perhaps one example that most clearly illustrates this need is Prov 26:4-5, which reads, “Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes” (ESV). Although one could argue this is a clear contradiction, it is more likely (especially when one considers that they were placed next to each other) that this hints at the very nature of these shorter sayings.

While they are true, they are not true in a static, fixed, cemented sense. That is to say, context determines how these shorter sayings are to be interpreted and, most especially, applied (Longman 2006: 31-32). If one were to apply Prov 26:4-5 woodenly (i.e., irrespective of context), then we should not answer a fool “according to his folly,” yet, we, at the same time, should. Rather than solve this conundrum (we’ll leave this up to the wisdom of the reader), we’ll turn to some other examples of the need for wisdom when applying the shorter sayings. Continue reading “A Plea for Wisdom: Proverbs and the Question of Application”

A Redemptive-Historical Reading of the Song of Songs

In modern times, the Song of Songs has been interpreted in a manner that has moved away from the historically predominant position of interpreting the Song allegorically. This move away from an allegorical understanding has given prominence to two main interpretations: (1) an erotic love song (or collection of songs) (R. K. Harrison 2004, 1054-55) and (2) a song teaching wise dealings in marriage (Paul House 1998, 463-469). But, our contention, which we will argue below by building on the allegorical understanding, is that the Song should be interpreted redemptive-historically.

I. Literary Genre and Interpretation

Throughout the history of interpretation, the Song has been interpreted allegorically. Pre-Christian Jewish interpreters saw it as an allegory of Yahweh’s love toward Israel; similarly, Christian interpreters from the church fathers to as recent as Charles Spurgeon (d. 1892) have interpreted the Song as referring to Christ and his bride.

Now, the greatest strength of recent interpreters of the Song, who, in turn, eschew the allegorical understanding, is that there is no indication that the Song is meant to be understood as allegory. As E. J. Young (1960, 352) rightly points out, only that which is in the genre of allegory is to be interpreted allegorically (e.g., John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and C. S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia). Allegorical literature can thus be adequately described as an extended metaphor.

But, with this, allegorical interpretation of the Bible is distinct from allegory per se. The Quadriga method, deriving from the Alexandrian school of biblical interpretation (esp. Origen), understands there to be a fourfold method of interpretation with the allegorical level providing a deeper, “spiritual” understanding of difficult and hard texts. This level, or sub-method, was used especially with seemingly obscure or unpalatable Old Testament texts. This sub-method is to be rejected as it strongly tends toward subjectivism and therefore arbitrariness in interpretation.

Taken at face value, then, one can agree with recent interpreters that the Song is to be interpreted as either a love song or a song of wisdom in marriage (or both). But, one must ask, does this end the debate? Are we now to toss in the proverbial dustbin the long-standing allegorical interpretation of the Song? Despite voices to the contrary, we would argue against such a proposal. Continue reading “A Redemptive-Historical Reading of the Song of Songs”

Book Review: Hugh Martin, The Shadow of Calvary: Gethsemane, the Arrest, the Trial (1875; reprint, Banner of Truth, 2016).

hugh martin

A very helpful collection of sermons, starting with the Garden of Gethsemane and ending with Jesus’ Trial, which is rich in biblical insight and deep in pastoral and devotional application. I found myself deeply moved by this book on numerous occasions. It’s clear that the author meditated deeply on the gospel as revealed in the life of Christ.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone who both wants to meditate deeply on the life of Christ (who took on the form of a servant even to the point of death [Phil 2:7-8]) and be spiritually nourished, admonished and encouraged by this same life. Beholding the God-man Jesus Christ is food for the soul and poison for the flesh as Martin so powerful reminds us.

Book Review: John Owen, The Person of Christ: Declaring a Glorious Mystery – God and Man (1678; reprint, Christian Heritage, 2015).

person of christ - owen

John Owen is arguably the theological genius par excellence of English Puritanism. Whatever one thinks of this assessment, this is clearly the case with his work on Christology, entitled by him ‘Christologia.’ Here, the reader does not find a mere standard treatment of Reformed Christology; rather, what one finds is a treatment of the person of Christ that is doxologically rich, theological penetrating, and continually nuanced.

Beyond this, it is clear that there is an apologetic undertone to this volume. Owen does not make explicit which school or schools he is addressing, but, just as with most of treatments of Christology, he is concerned to demonstrate the importance of Christ’s divinity, humanity, and the hypostatic union. Yet, in doing so, he puts on display his genius and the warmth of his devotion to Christ by demonstrating the importance of these essential Christological truths to such areas as, e.g., God’s revelation of himself, the entire counsel of God, God’s working ad extra (in creation and redemption), and, God’s redemptive love.

It would be the recommendation of this reader that one take this book slowly (and indeed devotionally) with a willingness to work through parsing the oftentimes difficult theological prose, for, in doing so, the reader will be invited to enjoy with Owen the deep devotion to and love for Christ which so clearly exudes from his treatment of the person of Christ. Now, if one is looking for a basic understanding of Reformed Christology, this may not be the best starting place; but, after one is comfortable with those basics, this should be at the top of one’s list as it has the proper doxological aim and theological depth one would hope to find in a truly Christ exalting work on the person of Christ.

Book Review: Michael Horton, Covenant and Salvation: Union with Christ (Westminster John Knox Press, 2007).

Horton, new

The purpose of this book is to explicate an explicitly covenantal account of Reformed soteriology. The first part of the book deals the forensic aspect of salvation, which, in the main, boils down to justification for Horton. The second part deals with the renovative aspect of salvation.

Although this book is written in a relatively engaging manner, it is an advanced, scholarly work. That is to say, there are a variety of concepts and discussions which presuppose at least an intermediate level of understanding, at least in some places. As such, it proves to advance the discussion with regard to Reformed soteriology in numerous places, e.g., the relationship between regeneration and effectual calling; and, the place of theosis in Reformed soteriology.

One of the potential drawbacks of this book is that it is in many places largely polemical, arguing with such interlocutors as the New Perspective, the Finnish School, and Robert Gundry, to name a few. Of course, one would expect such interactions in a scholarly book, but, it can prove to be heavy, cumbersome reading at times, especially if these competing views are not in the purview of the reader. But, it must be stressed on the other hand that some of the issues he addresses in his polemical mode are extremely helpful for navigating the current contexts, especially regarding such issues as a proper reading of Pauline soteriology and the validity of affirming the imputation of Christ’s righteousness.

If one wants an introductory text to Reformed soteriology, this is not the book for you; but, if one wants to engage with a book which seeks to explicate the same in the face of competing contemporary voices, this is a must read. Moreover, although this text is arguably more polemical than constructive, when it is constructive, it, in this reader’s opinion, significantly contributes to and advances Reformed and more broadly evangelical soteriology.