Defining Union With Christ

Anytime somebody talks about “union with Christ” we need to ask them to define it. They should not be allowed to list various aspects of “union” but then only use one of those aspects as their working definition.  If they say that “union is by faith”, then they are identifying “union” with God’s effectual call that results in faith in the gospel.

The effectual call only takes place by means of Christ’s justification.  There are not two “unions” here, one which is by faith, and another which is legal. The effectual call which results in faith is the gospel is a result of legal union with Christ in God’s imputation of righteousness.

Present union with Christ is legal. The already justified Christ gives the Spirit. It is not the Spirit who gives Christ. It is not the Spirit who makes Christ’s work effective. It is not the Spirit who makes Christ present.

We do not contemplate God’s gift of faith as getting us close to Christ so that he may justify us. Only the already elect in Christ for whom Christ died are baptised  (without water) by God the Father into Christ’s death and only then do they begin to have faith in and trust Christ.

It is not effectual calling that causes righteousness to be credited to us. It is union with Christ by means of righteousness imputed and forgiveness declared that creates the effectual call to fellowship and communion.

I Corinthians 1:9–”God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.”

I Corinthians 1:30–”God is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom and our righteousness and sanctification and redemption.”

Galatians 3:17–” in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham comes to the Gentiles, so that we receive the promised Spirit through faith.”

Romans 8:10–”the Spirit is life because of righteousness”

The Spirit does not give us life so that we can get righteousness. We trust Him who justifies the ungodly. Romans 4:5.

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7 Comments on “Defining Union With Christ”

  1. markmcculley Says:

    One With Christ (Crossway, 2013) by Moody Bible Institute professor Marcus Johnson, is a very question-begging book. It starts with an attack on “the merely forensic” and continually assumes that the forensic is based on the “reality of union.”. The phrase “more than merely” is repeated many many times.

    Johnson has no place for the justification of the UNGODLY. He has a “the person priority”. He teaches that “faith unites” because “faith is the presence of Christ”.

    But there are no new exegetical arguments, simply “union priority” asserted over and over again. It’s interesting for me to take these statements and simply reverse them, flip them, without me doing any less (or more) exegetical homework than Johnson has done.

    Johnson: Many have assumed that justification is a synthetic declaration that takes into account no prior relationship of the believer to the person of Christ. p 92

    mark: The “unionists” assume that justification is a legal fiction (as if) unless it’s an analytic declaration that takes into account an already existing personal relationship to Christ. They don’t talk about justification of the ungodly, but only about a justification of those united to Christ.

    Johnson: It is because of this union that the believer is justified.

    mark: it is because of God’s imputation that the believer is united to Christ.

  2. markmcculley Says:

    Johnson: The benefits of Christ’s saving work are received only insofar as Christ Himself is received. p 93

    mark: Christ Himself is received by the ungodly elect only insofar as these ungodly elect are imputed with Christ’s righteousness.

    Johnson: Justification is a legal benefit of a personal reality.

    mark: The personal indwelling of Christ is a benefit of the legal reality of God’s imputation.

    Johnson: God justifies us because we are joined to Christ.

    mark: God joins us to Christ when God imputes to us (while we are ungodly) the righteousness of Christ. God joins us to Christ because God imputes to us the death of Christ.

    Johnson: In Philippians 3, we are only imputed with righteousness because we are found in Christ. p 95

    mark: In Philippians 3, we are only found in Christ because of the righteousness imputed.

    Johnson: Berkhof thinks that justification cannot be the result of any existing condition in the sinner, not even an intimate, vital, spiritual, person union with Christ. This strikes me as enormously confusing. p 97

    mark: Johnson thinks that both the atonement and justification are fictions unless the incarnation means that all sinners are already in some kind of union with Christ before legal imputation. This strikes me as an universalism which removes the reality of God’s justice in giving Christ as a propitiation for sins legally imputed.

    Johnson: What exactly is this union which can be REDUCED to either justification or the results of justification? p 98

    mark: What is the reality of God’s imputation of righteousness to the ungodly elect if it’s not real apart from some other previous (and more than merely legal) connection?

  3. markmcculley Says:

    ohnson: William Evans argues that Berkhof’s soteriology is the logical conclusion of a federal theological trajectory, epitomized by Charles Hodge, in which union ceases to function as an umbrella category unifying all of salvation.

    mark: Johnson rejects “imputation priority” because he has already rejected the federal imputation of Adam’s guilt (see his chapter 2 on incarnation) and because he has already rejected what he calls a “mechanical transfer” of sins to Christ. I would say “the sins of the elect” but Johnson does not consider the doctrine of election in his discussion of imputation and justification. Election for him seems to be only an “apologetic doctrine” which he does not deny but which plays no part in his soteriology. (This is his accusation against those of us with “justification priority”, that the incarnation and the Trinity are no part of our gospel., p 41)

    Johnson: Both Horton and Fesko subordinate union with Christ to justification, indicating that they see union with Christ as reducible to sanctification.

    mark: Johnson denies the reality of legal imputation, and subordinates imputation as merely one benefit of “union”, and then he defines “union” as the personal presence of Christ in us because of our faith (given to us by the Holy Spirit). So Johnson subordinates the work of Christ to the person of Christ, and then accuses those who disagree with him of dividing person and work. And then Johnson subordinates the imputation of Christ’s work to the work of the Holy Spirit, who he thinks is the one who unites us to Christ’s person by creating faith in us.

    Johnson does not deny “union with Christ in election” (p 35) but he never ever says that any human is not elect and his doctrine of “union with Christ in the incarnation” (p 36) ignores election and focuses on the human nature of Christ as the human nature of every sinner. Having ignored any notion of Christ having died for the elect alone, Johnson announces that “the normal referent of the phrase union with Christ in this book is to subjectively realized EXPERIENTIAL union by the power of the Holy Spirit.” p 39

    Not denying the eternal election in Christ, Johnson insists that there is only one :union” (not two, as he describes the position of Horton, Fesko, and Berkhof), but then he takes his “one union” and agrees that it has different “aspects” of which election is one, and then he takes the “application of the union” as being his working definition of “the union”.

  4. markmcculley Says:

    Johnson: A truncated reading of John 14-17 where the sending of the Holy Spirit is interpreted as something other than Christ’s presence by the Spirit. This is reinforced by notions of Spirit baptism that fail to stress that the Spirit baptizes believers into Christ,” p 44

    mark: give me one Bible text that says that the Spirit is the baptizer. Romans 6 does not teach that. I Cor 12:13 does not teach that. Christ baptizes with the Holy Spirit. Christ is the baptizer (not with water but with the Spirit). In Romans 6, there is no Holy Spirit, and the one who baptizes the elect into Christ’s death is God (not the Holy Spirit apart from the Father or the Son).

    Johnson: Faith justifies only because faith unites us. p 99

    mark: faith is a gift given to the elect because of Christ’s purchase of faith by His work. Therefore, faith is not a condition for God’s imputation but a result of God’s imputation. Therefore, no elect person is ever justified apart from faith in the gospel, but no elect person has this faith before regeneration and no elect person has this regeneration before God’s imputation of Christ’s merits earned by Christ’s work.

    Johnson: Saving faith engrafts us to Christ

    mark: Since faith is a benefit of Christ’s work, how can we have this faith unless we are first engrafted into Christ by God’s legal imputation? II Peter 1:1— “a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who have obtained a faith of equal standing with ours by the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ”

    Johnson: Faith is nearly synonymous with life in Christ. p 100

    mark: Romans 8:10 But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. The righteousness of Christ is not imputed because of the personal presence of Christ mediated by the Holy Spirit. Life in Christ and the Spirit is because of God’s imputation of the righteousness.

    Johnson: Christ died FOR US, in our place, but he also crucified US WITH HIM. There is a convergence of the “for us” with the “with us”. Believers participate in Christ’s death. p 102.

    mark: My guess is that his presuppositions about the nature of the atonement are the biggest reasons for the moves he makes in this book about “union”. Without denying the forensic nature of Christ’s death, he wants to continue to use the words “penal substitution” but without that meaning that Christ really (actually) bore the specific sins of the elect.

  5. markmcculley Says:

    his banquet is a spiritual table at which Christ communicates HIMSELF to us with all his benefits. At that table he makes us enjoy HIMSELF as much as the merits of his suffering and death, as he nourishes, strengthens, and comforts our poor, desolate souls by the eating of his flesh, and relieves and renews them by the drinking of his blood.

    HC Q. 76. What is it then to eat the crucified body, and drink the shed blood of Christ?

    A. It is not only to embrace with believing heart all the sufferings and death of Christ and thereby to obtain the pardon of sin, and life eternal;a but also, besides that, to become MORE AND MORE UNITED to his sacred body, by the Holy Ghost, who dwells both in Christ and in us; so that we, though Christ is in heaven and we on earth, are notwithstanding “flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone”d and that we live, and are governed forever by one spirit,e as members of the same body are by one soul.

    In the context of Reformed theology, which was well established before Stoddard and Edwards, “renewal” did not mean that the sacrament was the means by which people were given new life (regeneration) but rather the conscious TAKING UP FOR ONE’S SELF self of the promises OFFERED in the Gospel and the restatement of the promises by the minister is part of the administration of the holy supper.

    Petrus van Mastricht, whom Edwards read, distinguished baptism as the sacrament of initiation of the supper as the sacrament of nutrition.

  6. markmcculley Says:

    McDermott on Edwards:

    “Edwards folds regeneration into sanctification, and suggests that justification depends upon both.”
    p 122

    “For Edwards, then, we are justified not because of our faith but by virtue of our union with Christ. God does not confer union with Christ as a reward for faith; faith is the very act of unition.”, p 123j

    mark: The “unionists” always say that union has priority but then they also make the exercise (or exercises of faith) the cause of union. What is the point of denying that God’s imputation is conditioned on the act (or acts) of faith, and then turning around and saying that God’s imputation is conditioned on “union”, and then saying that faith is the union?

    To repeat some of my 12 questions

    5. What does “union” mean? Is “union” non-forensic? Is “union” both forensic and non-forensic?

    6. Once you have defined “union”, will you consistently use the word “union” in the way you defined it? Will you be thinking of “union” only as a result “flowing from” faith?

    7. If “faith-union” is a result of faith, and if faith is a result of regeneration, where do faith and regeneration come from?

    8. Is the problem with saying that “sanctification” results from “justification” the fact that we are either justified or we are not? Are we not also either “united to Christ” or not?

    (Please define “union”. Do you mean “in Christ”? Or do you mean “Christ in us”? Is there a difference in those two phrases? Why do you say “union” when you could be saying “in Christ” and “Christ in us”? Does “union” mean “process justification”? Does “union” mean “justified but not yet justified justification”?

  7. markmcculley Says:

    God’s sovereignty—something happened to me, not my doing

    God’s atonement—something happened for me, but not in me, outside of me, at a distance from me—at another time and in another place

    God’s justification of the elect—Christ’s humanity is not always dying, but the value of His one time death is imputed by God to the elect

    our life does not come from God’s life imparted or infused into us

    our life comes from Christ’s death credited to us

    our life does not come from sacramental medicine or sacramental union

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