Mark Dever’s Union Conditioned on Faith

It is Well: Expositions on Substitutionary Atonement, by Mark Dever and Michael Lawrence, Crossway, 2010.

Dever and Lawrence are Calvinists who think they believe in effective atonement. But they will not let a God-centered view of election change their basic man-centered approach to “evangelism”. I commend them for having two categories of people; they address themselves both to Christians and to “non-Christian friends”. Unlike many Reformed folks who use the ambiguity of “the covenant”, Dever and Lawrence are Baptists who believe in election. But they give no evidence of believing in federal union. They do not seem to have any idea of some sinners being united by election in Christ, so that the sins of these elect were already imputed to Christ.

Nor do they seem to have any idea of faith being an benefit to the elect from Christ and His righteousness. Their man-centered approach makes the effectiveness of the atonement depend on faith given by God. They refuse to say that it is an effective atonement for the elect which results in faith by the elect in the true Christ revealed in the true gospel. This lack of attention to federal union is not caused by their being Baptists, nor by the absence of “the covenant” language. Rather, the problem is that they still have a gospel in common with Arminians.

On page 75, Dever asks: “But who did Jesus die for? Well, I think
Scripture is very clear on that. In Isaiah 53 we are told that the Servant would bear the sin of many and that he would justify many…That says to me that the Servant dies for and bears the iniquities of the very same ones he justifies.” This is the truth, but it not a truth that governs most of this book of sermons about the cross. Later on that same page (75), Dever refers to the sufficient and efficient formula, but never explains in what way he thinks the cross was enough for the non-elect (who all perish). Yes, “Christ knew those for whom he was laying down his life, and they were the same ones that the Father had elected”, but this statement does not rule out the idea that the death and the election were conditioned on foreseen faith. This statement lacks the antithesis to Arminianism.

To make that antithesis, we need to talk about a federal union before we talk about an union by faith, and we need to talk about faith being a benefit given to the elect because of Christ’s obedience even to death. Lawrence (on p 97) correctly objects to any reading of John 3:16-17 which thinks that Christ’s “death made salvation possible but stopped short of actually accomplishing it.” He rightly points out that “our faith does not accomplish salvation.” But of course every Arminian I know would agree that faith is not the cause of salvation. If the death of Jesus is sufficient to save the non-elect, then saving faith cannot be a result of Christ’s death. And when that is so, you are left with an evangelism in which union with “Christ” (the false one who died for everybody) because of faith becomes everything.

Dever describes mainline compromised Calvinism on p144. He writes,
“justification is not the same kind of merely objective act that
propitiation is…Christ’s giving of Himself satisfied the demands of the Father’s judgment against us. He did it alone; we played no part in it. Justification, however, includes us and our faith in a way that propitiation did not. We must believe in order to be justified. “

I agree that propitiation and justification are different, but I would deconstruct the difference as Dever locates it. Like most Calvinists, he and Lawrence have not considered the idea of a “justification
through faith” in which the regeneration and faith of the elect are the immediate result of God’s act of imputation. They have heard of federal union (which they may equate with eternal justification), but they see no other alternative to a justification conditioned on what God does in the elect sinner in causing that sinner to believe. (See the essays by Bruce McCormack and Carl Braaten about Calvin putting regeneration in first place before justification, or see Edward Boehl’s discussion of John Owen in his The Reformed Doctrine of Justification.) Yes, it’s true that the elect are only justified when they believe, but it is not being honest to the truth of eternal election in union with Christ to say that faith is the instrumental condition of justification. But it does make peace with Arminian evangelism .

Who are the we? Who are the us? The New Testament letters were written for those who were already believing the gospel. Of course this “mail for Christians” is also meant to be read and proclaimed to those who have not yet believed the gospel (elect and non-elect). And the pastors Dever and Lawrence, who first did these sermons in their Southern Baptist church, do a good job of making a distinction between Christians and non-Christian friends. But they refuse to talk to these friends about election or about how the effectiveness of the cross not only satisfies justices but causes the elect to believe. Instead, they tell non-Christians that they “can be” saved if they trust Jesus (even the false one who died without anybody’s sin being imputed to Him at the time). Instead, they write as if faith is the way to get sins imputed to Christ, as if the lost sinner is the one who is the imputer.

On page 200, they ask:”what will you do with your sins?” On page 213, they ask: “But did Jesus die for you? It depends. Do you know yourself to be unrighteous?” Is it adding to the gospel (and therefore a false gospel of additions) to tell sinners that making your faith to be the difference between saved and lost is unrighteousness, and that trusting the gospel means understanding and repenting of Arminian assumptions? My plea is not that the lost have to learn what an Arminian is before they can believe the gospel. My plea is that those who teach the gospel show how Christ’s death is effective for the elect by showing how the sins of the elect were imputed to Christ by God, and not by the sinner.

It is well and good to tell the sinner that if she understands herself to be self-righteous, then she has a substitute. But part of
self-righteousness is any idea that we cause Christ to become our
substitute because God make us believers. Rather, God makes the elect to become believers because the elect died in union with Christ, so that His death is their death. This book has no reference to II Cor 5:15 and its reference to Romans 6 makes “baptism” to be a symbol of our faith (instead of God placing the elect into Christ’s death). On this page (111, in the middle of a very interesting sermon on the irony of “better that one man die”), Lawrence writes out plainly the assumption: “through faith, sinners like you and me are brought into union with Christ so that our sins are credited to him.”

Why do I call this Arminian evangelism? Don’t the Arminians say that all the sins of all sinners have already been credited to Christ, and that this is ineffective? Well, no, they would not agree that it’s ineffective; they simply say that the whole thing is also conditioned on faith. While the Calvinist disagrees with the Arminian about the source of this faith, as long as the Calvinist does not talk of a federal union in which God has already credited the sins of the elect to Christ, they can share the same gospel. They can also agree not to mention that the non-elect sinner cannot believe the true gospel. They can very much agree not to mention that the non-elect CAN believe the false gospel that God loves everybody and that “Christ” died for everybody.

So not all is well in this book about the cross. There is ambiguity,
contradiction between the idea that the sinner decides if Jesus has died for her and the idea of assurance that “One has been sacrificed to pay your penalty.” (p23) But the non-Christian is not commanded to believe what may not be true. And even if a non-Christian is elect, and it is true that Christ died for her, that is not what we can or should be telling the non-Christian. We can certainly tell non-Christians about Christ’s effective death for the elect without telling them if they are elect or not. We don’t know if they are elect. We do know that Christ saves all for whom He died! Therefore it is not true or biblical to say that Christ “laid down his life for us if we would trust him”. Because the elect’s sins were credited to Christ by the Triune God, Christ died for them so that they would be placed into that death and so that they would believe the gospel.

On page 38, they write: an atonement needs to be made for you. No,this is not correct. An atonement has already been made. An atonement has already been made for the elect alone. It is not true to say to the unbeliever: “or you can trust that someone else has suffered for your sins and paid the penalty for them.” (p56) An unbeliever can believe that, and also believe that her believing is what made that penalty to be effective in her case, but if she does that, she is still in her sins, and still worshiping a false God who cannot save. But the true gospel tells sinners that God is the one who put Christ to death for the sins of the elect, and that this same Christ will return a second time “without sin”, all the future sins of the elect having been paid.

Again, I am not asking that evangelists explain to the lost what
Arminianism is. Rather, I am asking us to not proclaim an Arminian gospel. The Bible talks about “us” and “our” sins, but it never sounds Arminan or resorts to an Arminian logic. Let us try to do the same thing. When we tell people that God saves “as many as” (whosoever) has faith in Jesus, let us make sure that we tell them for whom Jesus died. Let’s NOT merely say: “there is no other qualification, no other work, no other standard to be met.” (p126). Faith is not what makes Christ’s death effective for us: the Holy Spirit is not the One who makes the atonement work.

Faith is not a qualification, but a result of Christ’s death, a benefit of Christ’s righteousness. (II Peter 1:1) It is true to say that “without trust we will know no benefit through his death” (p152), but it not the whole truth, and it becomes a lie when we do not rule out he idea that trust is what makes the death work. And we cannot rule out trust as what makes the death work, unless we teach that trust is a result given to the elect by the instrument of Christ’s death for the elect.

God has a non-elect. My worry is not that some of the non-elect will be saved. But neither should these pastors worry that the elect will not be saved if they told the truth that God has a non-elect and that God does not love all sinners. But Dever and Lawrence assure their non-Christian friends that “God wants you to wake up to the spiritual peril you are in”. (p153). But this is not true of all non-Christians who God has predestined to be listening to these sermons. Certainly God commands in God’s law what God has not ordained to happen. But God’s gospel does not include any idea that God “wants” things to happen that will not happen.

At this point you can bring out Spurgeon and the word “offer” and accuse me of letting predestination rule over the gospel. But in the gospel in which God is both just and justifier, the Lord Jesus Christ has already brought in a righteousness by which all those God loves will be justified. Contrary to what Dever says on p 155, God does not count faith as righteousness. It is the object of faith, Christ in his glorious person and effective death, who is alone the divine righteousness of the elect.

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6 Comments on “Mark Dever’s Union Conditioned on Faith”

  1. markmcculley Says:

    John Gill
    There is a federal union between Christ and the elect, and they have a covenant subsistence in him as their head and representative. The covenant flows from, and is the effect of the love, grace, and mercy of God; these are spoken of along with it as the foundation of it, Ps 89:2,3,33,34 Isa 54:10 … Rom 5:14 so the covenant of grace was made with Christ as the federal head of his spiritual offspring; and for this reason a parallel is ran between them in Rom 5:1-21 1Co 15:1-58 as if they had been the only two men in the world, the one called the first, the other the second man. Christ represented his people in this covenant, and they had a representative union to him in it; all that he promised and engaged to do, he promised and engaged in their name and on their account; and when performed it was the same with God, as if it had been done by them; and what he received, promises and blessings of grace, he received in their name, and they received them in him, being one with him as their common head and representative.

    There is a legal union between Christ and the elect, the bond of which is his suretyship for them, flowing from his strong love and affection to them. In this respect Christ and they are one in the eye of the law, as the bondsman and debtor are one in a legal sense; so that if one of them pays the debt bound for, it is the same as if the other did. Christ is the surety of the better testament; he drew nigh to God, gave his bond, laid himself under obligation to pay the debts of his people, and satisfy for their sins; who being as such accepted of by God, he and they were considered as one; and this is the ground and foundation of his payment of their debts, of his making satisfaction for their sins, of the imputation of their sins to him, and of the imputation of his righteousness to them. In short, it is the saint’s antecedent union and relation to Christ in eternity, in the several views of it in which it has been considered, which is the ground and reason of all that Christ has done and suffered for them, and not for others; and of all the blessings of grace that are or shall be bestowed upon them, and which are denied to others.

    The reason why he became incarnate for them, and took upon him human nature with a peculiar regard to them, was because they were children given to him; and why he laid down his life for them, because they were his sheep; and why he gave himself for them, because they were his church; and why he saved them from their sins, because they were his people, Heb 2:13,14 #Joh 10:14,15 Eph 5:25 Mt 1:21. In a word, union to Christ is the first thing, the first blessing of grace flowing from love and effected by it; and hence is the application of all others; “of him are ye in Christ Jesus”, first loved and united to Christ, and then it follows, “who of God is made unto us wisdom and righteousness, sanctification, and redemption”, 1Co 1:30.

    Union with Christ is the first fundamental thing of justification and sanctification and all. Christ first takes us, and then sends his Spirit; he apprehends us first; it is not my being regenerate that puts me into a right of all these privileges; but it is Christ takes me, and then gives me his Spirit, faith, holiness, &c.

  2. markmcculley Says:

    Louis Berkhof (from his systematic, p452)

    “It is sometimes said that the merits of Christ cannot be imputed to us as long as we are not in Christ, since it is only on the basis of our oneness with Him that such an imputation could be reasonable. But this view fails to distinguish between our legal unity with Christ and our spiritual oneness with Him, and is a falsification of the fundamental element in the doctrine of redemption, namely, of the doctrine of justification. ”

    “Justification is always a declaration of God, not on the basis of an existing (or future) 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 grace which we receive lies in the fact that the righteousness of Christ is freely imputed to us.”

  3. markmcculley Says:

    Lutheran Carl Braaten (Justification; the Article by which the Church Stands or Falls)
    begins with this quotation from McGrath:

    “One of the most significant developments in seventeenth-century dogmatics was the affirmation that faith was itself a cause of justification…it was stated that faith was logically prior to justification. This affirmation was interpreted to mean that justification was dependent on a change in man. Although justification is still defined forensically, it is understood to be predicated upon a prior alteration within man—namely, that he believes. Where Luther had understood justification to concern the unbelieving sinner, orthodoxy revised this view, referring justification to the believing sinner.” (2:48)

    The question whether they are in Christ because they are justified, or whether they are justified because they are in Christ, would have no meaning for Luther. Christ is our justification…We must not make a merit of one’s believing or a virtue of one’s faith… The gospel is the glad tidings of the divine love, not motivated from the outside, not caused by any human action, and certainly not characterized as a response of God contingent on human repenting and believing.

    A certain unclarity in Luther’s own manner of expressing himself could open the very door which Luther was trying to shut…A tension could arise between the role of God and the human role which then must be systematically “balanced”. Salvation would be conceived of as a synthesis of two factors, one divine and one human, with the priority always of course reserved for the divine, but the all-decisive finality conceded to the human.

    On the one hand, Luther could say that faith is a work which must be done by a human being, and on the other, that faith is not a human work at all, but a gift of the Holy Spirit. Both statements are true when seen from the right perspective. In any case, faith is an act. But how is it related to justification-as a means to an end, or as the effect of a cause? How is faith correlated to justification?

    The essential element in all false religion, Luther perceived is: “If I do this, God will be merciful to me.” It is misleading to say that, if I believe in Christ, God will be gracious to me, as if my believing is not already evidence of God’s grace, as if my faith is not itself created by the forgiving grace of God while I am still a sinner.

    The quid pro quo type of connection between faith and justification was certainly not what Luther meant to affirm by his assertion that faith justifies. But neither did Luther make it unmistakably clear that he did not mean that, unless one interprets his doctrines of predestination and the bondage of the will as the attempt to root out every possible misunderstanding about the correlation between justification and faith.

    John Calvin clearly saw that the Reformation could be betrayed by a secret agent working from within the article of justification to hand it back to the enemy. The publican may be the greatest Pharisee of them all by exchanging the humility of his faith for the justifying grace of God.

    Justification is not procured by faith as a human attitude or virtue (inner works) in lieu of justification by external works of piety. There is nothing at all that faith contributes in the way of completing a subjective process which culminates finally in justification. The relation between grace and faith is the other way around. Grace creates faith. It creates the means by which it shall be received. We need to become new creatures because we have no remaining capacity to trigger off the event which effects our justification.

    If faith is the prior condition of justification, how does a person get that necessary faith? The sinner’s will has inherently only the ability to resist, and is in fact converted while it is resisting.

  4. Kenneth Hurst Says:

    Well done Mark and thanks.

  5. markmcculley Says:

    The Southern Baptists (like Greg Gilbert, What is the Gospel) teach that Christ’s death makes salvation possible, and the difference depends on how you respond to this possibility. They tell you can be included if your faith “unites” you to Christ’s death. They tell you that grace and Christ’s death has no effect until you believe. But the true gospel does not leave out the offense of election, and explains that God’s love for the elect exists before Christ’s death, and that Christ’s death is what purchased faith for all for whom Christ died. But the Southern Baptist teach that the lake of fire will be filled with those for whom Christ died.

  6. markmcculley Says:

    Mark Jones–Man exercises faith in order to receive the saving benefits of Christ’s works of impetration… Good works a necessary part of our perseverance in the faith in order to receive eternal life. Good works are consequent conditions of having been saved.

    Nathan J. Langerak, –What Mark Jones means by “consequent conditions” is that they are new conditions of salvation imposed on the saved person because the person is now saved

    No benefits applied before faith is exercised? Is not faith itself applied before it is exercised? What about regeneration

    https://rfpa.org/blogs/news/the-charge-of-antinomianism-3-against-an-unconditional-covenant


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