The Fight About “Union with Christ” is a Fight for Judging Saved and Lost

To get at the error of sacramentalism, we need to do more than talk about associations with Romanism. That’s like criticizing Billy Graham for his associations instead of his false gospel. He runs with those with false gospel because he has false gospel.

“Reformed” people like J I Packer and Timothy George associate with Romanist sacramentalists because they themselves are sacramentalists. We need to talk about the errors of John Calvin, Warfield, and all “mystical catholic” people who define the Lord’s Supper as something God does instead of as the human obedience of Christians.

We need to oppose ecclesiastical anti-nomianism which equates tolerance of sacramentalism with spiritual revival and reformation. The fight about sacramentalism is a fight about politics, because it’s a fight about judging saved and lost.

Sacramentalists want to hand out grace without judging saved and lost. The majority culture of the state and the powerful always opposes any attempt for “sects” to judge who is saved. This is why the Reformers kept on killing the Anabaptists the Romanists also killed.

Ecclesiastical antinomians want to say that “sacrament” is a secondary issue and not a gospel issue. But when you refuse the political responsibility of judging saved and lost in terms of knowing and believing the gospel, then you have opened the way for assuming that everyone handed out the sacrament (or listening to the “minister’s” sermon) is a Christian. To not judge by the gospel is to compromise the gospel.

What we believe about who’s in the church has everything to do with the politics of evangelism. Do we see everyone with whom we talk as already Christians who simply need to know more (of what we know)? Or do we see that even Christ’s sheep are not yet all justified yet?

Do we think of church as one universal church which includes saints now living in heaven (to whom we pray or not, is not the only issue) or do we think of local fellowship around a table which is closed to those who do not yet obey the gospel?

In these days, to be more ecumenical means not only to be more tolerant of Rome and “sacramentalism” but also to be more open to “deification”. The way down this path usually begins with II Peter 1:4 (become partakers of the divine nature) and ends up replacing justification by Christ’s death with “union with Christ”.

Just as the word “sacrament” is left undefined or given multiple definitions, so also the idea of “union with Christ” is left undefined or given various (unbiblical) definitions in ecumenical discussions.

What does it mean to be in Christ, and how is it different from Christ indwelling us? This is the kind of question we need to begin asking. Does this indwelling in Christ have anything to do with being handed the sacrament? Certainly Calvin thought so.

We need to read Calvin on this, to see what he did and did not believe. Calvin, for example, only believed in an union with the humanity of Christ, and did not teach an union with God defined as creatures indwelling the Creator, even though that is left an open possibility in undefined ecumenical discussion. But Calvin’s anti-rational streak, which cannot explain and refuses to explain, becomes very mystical when it comes to “sacrament”. (See Bruce McCormack and Michael Horton essays in Tributes to Calvin).

Does the Bible teach that God effects “union with Christ” by means of water, or with bread and wine? NO. My opinion is that we baptists will never get away from that sacramental idea until we get away from the idea that “union with Christ” is about regeneration. As long as our categories for judging saved and lost are “regenerate” and “unregenerate”, we will be assuming (even if we don’t define it at all) that “union” means regeneration and that union/regeneration precedes justification.

1. We need to define what we mean by “regeneration”. Since the Bible word is “new birth”, we need to think about this new birth in terms of “effectual calling” by the power of the Holy Spirit with the word of the gospel. We need to get away from the idea that “regeneration” is a “change in substance or nature” and then a time gap between that and the hearing of the gospel.

2. We need to define “in Christ” in terms of justification. Although the Bible does teach that the sheep are always in Christ by election, Romans 16 teaches that some of the sheep are in Christ before other of the sheep. This change is not a first of all a change of regeneration or birth but legally a change of state before God. To be in Christ in this way is to be justified. Union with Christ is justification, legal union with Christ and His work and His benefits. Immediately after this legal change, the sheep are born again and believe the gospel, but “union” does not precede justification, because union IS justification.

3. God justifies the ungodly. God does not justify because of faith. God does not justify because God knows that God is going to regenerate and change the person. God changes the person because God has justified the person. The change from a belief in the false gospel to the true gospel is evidence of justification, but it is never the reason for God justifying.

Romans 6:17 “But thanks be to God, that you were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were called…”

Roman 6:20 “When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. What fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed?”

As long we define union as regeneration and judge saved and lost by regeneration, we will be tempted to ignore the gospel of justification and judge by morality and immorality.

Romans 6 describes two legal states, one of which is “free from righteousness”. We tend to judge people (even ourselves) to be saved on the evidence of morality. But God sees that morality as something to be ashamed of, when those moral people are still in their sins, still not yet justified.

Romans 6 defines the “in Christ” in terms of legally being placed into the death of Christ. Union with Christ is justification. Instead of a “sacrament” which makes you a participant in Christ ( understood in many places as indwelling even the deity of God!), our hope as the justified is that God has counted the death of Christ as our death.

Is this unbalanced? Why do I pit regeneration against justification? Well, I could ask you, why do you always draw the line between the regenerate and the unregenerate? Why don’t you draw the line between the justified and the condemned? Why don’t you judge by if a person knows and believes the gospel?

I am not denying the new birth or the absolute necessity for it. I am only saying that the new birth is not “union with Christ”. I am only say that the “new creation” has to do with a change in legal state, and not first of all with a change of substance or nature.

II Corinthians 5:14 “one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live would no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sakes died and was raised. From now on, we regard no one according to the flesh (judging by morality or immorality or by other non-gospel standards)….If anyone is in Christ, there is a NEW CREATION. The old has passed; the new has come.”

“Those who live” means first of all those who are justified. The category of “we died” is not about a change of substance or nature but about an imputed legal reality. So also the category of “those who live” is also not about a change of substance or nature but about an imputed reality, legal life because of justification.

The “new creation” (or “new man”) is not first of all about regeneration or birth but about a legal change of identity, a legal before and after. It’s not gradual; it’s an either or. The new is not effected by a “sacramental feeding on Christ” but by God’s imputation of what God did in Christ in His death and resurrection.

Christ is here, yes, but not in some different way because of water or bread and wine. And also, Christ is not here, not yet, and we believe and obey and hope, waiting for the day when Christ will be here. He is not now coming down from heaven as He will someday, and we are not now going to heaven, no matter what the “minister of the sacrament” might say.

So how then are we in Christ? We are in Christ legally. The old has passed. The legal verdict has already been declared. One day, at the resurrection, there will be visible evidence of that verdict. But no “sacrament” is a sign from that we in particular have been justified. Even if our children were to eat the “sacrament” with us, still that’s no seal that either we or our children have been justified or that God is our God.

What is the gospel? Judge justified and lost by the gospel.

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7 Comments on “The Fight About “Union with Christ” is a Fight for Judging Saved and Lost”

  1. markmcculley Says:

    Are these “secondary issues”? 1. Christians overcome evil with good, and submit to “them”, instead of becoming part of one culture (with no us and them) which does what common sense dictates, that is, try to overcome evil with evil? Does “pacifism” have anything to do with the separation of those who trust the Risen one from those who don’t?

    2. Christians look forward to the second coming of Jesus to earth, and see death as the enemy and not as the solution to our problems with sin and mortality. Does “conferred immortality” have anything to do with the rejection of the idea of inherent freewill?

    • David Bishop Says:

      Are these secondary issues? Not at all. I think it best we allow Scripture to define the nature of a secondary issue, and probably in particular, 1 Corinthians. After all, it would seem to me that no one in the New Testament was more caught up in secondary issues than were the Corinthians.

      Does “pacifism” have anything to do with the separation of those who trust the Risen one from those who don’t? No, of course not. The point of contention lies specifically with trust in the Risen One.

      However, had you asked does pacifism have anything to do with separating those who trust the Risen One, then I would’ve said someone is in deep trouble. I would have said so, because the separation then would have been over secondary issues, and it’s what the Corinthians were doing. Or is it one’s contention that all who don’t hold to pacifism are lost? But if those who do not hold to pacifism are not lost, then why do some seek separation from them that are not lost? See where the trouble begins? Those who continue to hold to separation over secondary issues can eventually find themselves toiling in legalism.

      But I agree here with your essay. You make some good points. Malcolm Smith is one of those who defines the union as regeneration. Of course he’s also a big sacrament guy, though for different reasons than you list here. All the same your points remain valid. It’s my opinion salvation can and probably should be summed up as being God graciously justifies His elect. Everything that happens afterward maybe can’t be called secondary in the classic sense, but it certainly is secondary when it comes to the question of who is saved and who isn’t.

      • markmcculley Says:

        Thanks for your comment, David. Christians who are not pacifists are not trusting the risen one as they should. They do not practically trust God for resurrection as they would have to if they refused to kill to defend themselves.

        I have no doubt that pacifism separates true Christians, but I also see no way true Christians can fellowship without making certain decisions about how to fellowship.

        For example, a choice to baptise infants is also a choice to not define baptism by human obedience and faith. A choice to kill no matter what God says about it is antinomianism.

        It’s a Roman Catholic idea that all true Christians have to be in one universal church. The New Testament speaks of a final gathering of the elect, but until Resurrection Day, the NT assumes local assemblies of Christians.

        Show me where the NT teaches that all the saved people in one location are obligated to meet together. Is that idea your legalism, or is it a NT mandate? How does a legalist decide where one geographical location ends and another one begins, so that it would be ok for true Christians to meet here instead of there?

        The new birth is not secondary, but it’s a result and not a condition of justification. In other words, the new birth cannot be secondary because it is absolutely necessary, but necessary for a different reason than justification is necessary.

  2. markmcculley Says:

    I would like to talk more about union with Christ (or even baptism into Moses). But consider these quick thoughts on infant water

    There are many different arguments for paedobaptism, some of which contradict each other. Of course neither of these things prove it wrong. 1. There can be several different arguments for a right thing. 2. there can be a bad argument for a right thing.

    To be simple, we can divide the arguments into two:
    1. Augustine (and before him): infant water takes away original sin (defined mostly as corruption not as guilt).
    2. Zwingli: infants were included in the Abrahamic covenant, so unless there is an explcit change, they are included in the covenant of grace, which is all the covenants lumped into one. Surely God is not less gracious in the new covenant than in the old.

    But just to explore the differences a little more: what do paedobaptists say about faith and baptism?

    1. Romanists say that water infuses faith into the infant. But unless you are talking to a Romanist, I would not bring this up, since the Deformed will rightly say that’s not them.

    2. Lutherans will say that infants have faith. Of course they have to define faith in a magical way, the way that Calvinists who claimed to have been saved as Arminians do–faith as an experience without an object/content.

    3. Westminster Presbyterian guys will says that the water has efficacy, but not necessarily at the time of baptism, so that it kicks in after a time gap. I like to ask them: effective to do what, effects what? “Means of grace” means what?

    4. Dutch Reformed (Protestant Reformed, Kuyper, Hoekema)-presumptive regeneration, knowing that not all infants are elect, but assuming in charity that they are.

    5. Federal vision folks tend to stress that their infants have faith before baptism. I mean, didn’t John the Baptist jump in his mom’s womb?

    6. And then there is Zwingli, who I like the best, who is most consistent, who says that since circumcision had nothing to do with faith, then infant baptism has nothing to do with faith, but it’s a matter of politics, not letting the church and state get divided up into sects, not separating true Christians from one another.

    Also part of this is that you can get cut off and cursed from the covenant that baptism puts you in. Meredith Kline sounds a little like Zwingli, at least in the judgment emphasis. As in, it must be a “sacrament”, because what else can get even a true Christian killed if they do it wrong?

    Of course, most paedobaptists don’t like Zwingli, and they want sacraments to be “partaking of the divine nature”. Without saying “infusion”, they do point to water as not only sign but seal.

    Seal was for Abraham, who was justified, and then circumcised after faith. But no seal for infants.

  3. markmcculley Says:

    Should we start asking for a definition of regeneration, because as you say, regeneration is just as necessary as justification, but for a different reason?

    I like definitions of both justification and regeneration. In some of the standard Calvinist-lite definitions of justification, they use the word “sanctification” to say what justification is not. I don’t like that explanation, because 1. They equate sanctification with change in the person instead of definitive imputed holiness, (Heb 10:14, sanctified by the blood, I Cor 1:30) 2. They end up saying that justification is by faith and sanctification is by works, and then other people (Dan Fuller) respond by saying that sanctification is by faith also, that therefore sanctification and justification are the same. 3. And then others (Gaffin, Garcia) end up saying that both justification and sanctification are the result of union, which is regeneration, which they think has happened when an Arminian believes the false gospel.

  4. markmcculley Says:

    Brandon Adams — historic Presbyterianism was very different than modern Presbyterianism. Modern Presbyterianism will consider a non-communicant member who has reached the “age of discretion” and does not profess saving faith in Christ to be a covenant breaker and thus excommunicated. That was not the historic position. Instead, non-communicant members could remain members of the church without making any credible profession of saving faith. That was only required for communicant membership (access to the Lord’s table). Thus everyone in a nation was required by law to profess the true religion (known as “historic faith”) but they were not required by law to profess saving faith. Therefore the covenanters did not see themselves as judging “the world” with these laws. They were judging the church.

    With which presumption will we start?

    –will we exclude from the new covenant those who were in the Abrahamic covenant, or only “include more” ( now females and unmarried males)

    –will we include the spouse and the slaves and the teenage children of a father, or even the grandchildren of those with parents who were cut off from the covenant?

    All or nothing–if we want to include instead of exclude, why not let’s water everybody (not only infants from some families) , including all the adults who come our way–then we can begin to teach them the commands of the covenant (how could we teach anybody God’s law until after they were in the covenant?) and thus we can teach these included disciples that God has promised all of them them saving faith….less narrow, more generous and capacious

    And all we need for that is a common enemy scapegoat—those who refuse to be magistrates, we can accuse them all of wanting to take over as magistrates—and thus find unity between ourselves by excluding fanatics loyal only to one kingdom.

    every inclusion is also an exclusion

  5. markmcculley Says:

    what does it mean to say “The Father is God as God in Himself”

    Is the Son after His incarnation not God as God is in HImself?

    Did God the Father give His Son or did God the Father give Himself as He is Himself?

    maybe the Son as Creator is our Lawgiver, but is the Son as Redeemer our lawgiver?

    I Peter 1: 15 But as the One who called you is holy, you also are to be holy in all your conduct; 16 for it is written, Be holy, because I am holy. 17 Address as Father the One who judges impartially based on each one’s work, you are to conduct yourselves in fear during the time of your temporary residence.

    John 5: 22 The Father, in fact, judges no one but has given all judgment to the Son…

    John 5: 30 “I can do nothing on My own. I judge only as I hear

    John 12:47″As for the person who hears my words but does not keep them, I do not judge him. For I did not come to judge the world, but to save it. 48 There is a judge for the one who rejects me and does not accept my words. That very word which I spoke will condemn him at the last day. 49 For I did not speak of my own accord, but the Father who sent me commanded me what to say and how to say it.

    John 3:1 7 For God did not send His Son into the world in order to condemn the world, but in order that the world be saved through Him.18 Anyone who believes in Him is not condemned, but anyone who does not believe is already condemned, because he has not believed in the name of the One and Only Son of God.

    Acts 17: 30-31 God has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

    Romans 2: 2 We know that God’s judgment on those who do such things is based on the truth. 3 Do you really think—anyone of you who judges those who do such things yet do the same—that you will escape God’s judgment?

    Romans 2: 16 There will be the day when God judges what people have kept secret, according to my gospel through Christ Jesus.

    2 Timothy 4:1 “I charge you therefore before God and the Lord Jesus Christ, who will judge the living and the dead at His appearing and His kingdom”

    Luke 12: 10 “Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man, it will be forgiven him; but to him who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit, it will not be forgiven”.

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