Still Asking for Clarity about what “Union” Means

I am asking two things.

1. I ask that we define “union”. It does no good to agree that “union” has various aspects (ie, it’s by election and it’s legal also) if we then go on from that to use the word “union” to mean something very close to “regeneration” or “definitive sanctification” or “break with the pattern of sin”.

Supposedly, regeneration and sanctification and break with sin are all also results of “union”. So what is “union” and why does it come down in the end to assuming that it means the work of the Spirit in the elect sinner? (btw, we need to define words like “regeneration” and “sanctification” also).

2. I am asking that we locate what we say in specific Biblical texts, and not in traditional confessions of faith. For example, Romans 6 is certainly a key text on the relationship of justification and the Christian life. Many read Romans 6 as if it were saying: don’t worry about that two legal heads stuff in Romans 5, because there is another answer besides justification as to why we don’t sin, and that is “union”.

Others (like Haldane) read Romans to say that the answer to the question about the Christian life is not something else besides legal identity with Christ’s death and resurrection. We read Romans 6:7 as saying that the answer continues to be “justified from sin”.
We insist on that because Christ became dead to sin, was justified from sin, and that certainly was NOT “regeneration” or the work of the Spirit in Him. We insist on reading Romans 6 in terms of “sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law”.

Others of course read Holy Spirit baptism into Romans 6. They don’t talk about Christ giving the Spirit (which is not in Romans 6). They talk about the Spirit giving Christ (which is also not in Romans 6). Others talk about the sacramental water of the church. But it is no way acceptable to them to think that Romans 6 is still about justification and legal identification. They already have their minds made up that imputation is not a good enough answer to the question of Romans 6.

Yes, I know the Confessions say that the Spirit applies the work of Christ. Since I think God’s legal imputation applies the righteousness Christ obtained for the elect to the elect, I don’t think I agree with the Confession’s language. But right now, I want some folks to tell me what that language means. What biblical texts are you thinking about? Does the Spirit “applying the work of Christ” make imputation secondary or even unnecessary?

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13 Comments on “Still Asking for Clarity about what “Union” Means”

  1. David Bishop Says:

    I would like to know that too.

  2. markmcculley Says:

    John 17: 21 that they all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also be in us, so that the world believes that you have sent me. 22 The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they be one even as we are one, 23 I in them and you in me, that they become perfectly one…

    you (Father) in me (Son

    I (the Son) in them (the elect)

    therefore, you (Father) in them (the elect) –because Father in the Son who is in them

    What texts say that the Holy Spirit unites us to Christ, or to God?

    Were we already united to the Spirit when the Spirit supposedly united us to Christ?

    Who unites us to the Spirit?

    Is being baptized with the Spirit something different from being united to the Spirit?

    the Spirit does NOT baptize us into Christ, the Spirit does not unite us to Christ

    John 14: 16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper,[ to be with you forever, 17 even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.18 “I will not leave you as orphans; I (Christ) will come to you.

    Christ comes to us with the Spirit

    only in that way does the Spirit come to us with Christ

    Christ is the uniter, Christ is the baptiser with the Spirit

  3. markmcculley Says:

    Jonathan Edwards “He That Believeth Will be Saved”, Sermons of JE, 115: “We can’t be saved without being good…All whose hearts come to Christ will be good, and if men aren’t good, their hearts never will come to Christ…They whose hearts come to Christ, they are joined to Christ, and so they belong to him and therefore are saved for his sake.”

    Douglas Sweeney, “Justification by Faith Alone?, in Jonathan Edwards and Justification, ed Josh Moody, 2012, Crossway, p 148—-“God
    requires all His people to cooperate with Him to increase in sanctification. They accomplish this, however, as they abide in the
    Lord, letting God govern their hearts and bear divine fruit in their lives. For Edwards, there are levels of grace and laurels for the godly.”

    mark: Edwards was not talking about Christ’s obedience, but about our obedience. It becomes confusing because of his talk about “real” union. Edwards is saying that the “personal union” between Christ and the elect who are justified (based in part on their future perseverance) means that they are “really” one so that what Christ does in them is no different from what Christ did for them. What Christ does in them makes them fit for what Christ did for them, so in the end there will be no “justification of the ungodly”.

    McDermott: “for Edwards,God has decided that at the moment when a person trusts in Christ, that person becomes so really united with Christ’s person, that imputation is not merely legal but based on God’s perception of a new real fact, which is the new moral character of the person called Christ who now includes (by real union) what used to be the sinner.”

    Edwards seems to agree with Osiander (and the early Luther) that the righteousness of Christ which justifies us is not legal foundationallyl but instead the presence of Christ indwelling our faith.

    the tradition of Jonathan Edwards tends to identify regeneration and effectual calling as the “real union” and also to identify this “application” with the atonement itself. What many Calvinists mean by definite atonement is that the “real union” makes the atonement definite. Thus they make the Spirit’s work to be the real difference instead of Christ’s death.

    Edwards in his book on justification asks “whether any other act of faith besides the first act has any concern in our justification, or how far perseverance in faith, or the continued and renewed acts of faith, have influence in this affair?” When Edwards answers that no other acts are required, Edwards means that works after justification should not be considered separate from the initial act of faith. Edwards thought of perseverance as a part of the original act of saving faith, “the qualification on which the congruity of an interest in the righteousness of Christ depends, or wherein such a fitness consists.”

    By virtue of “union” with Christ, faith —Edwards claims– “is a very excellent qualification” (p. 154), “one chief part of the inherent holiness of a Christian”

    “The act of justification has no regard to anything in the person justified BEFORE THIS ACT. God beholds him only as an ungodly or wicked creature; so that godliness IN the person TO BE justified is not ANTECEDENT to his justification as to be the ground of it” (p. 147)

    justification finds its primary ground “in Christ,” in Christ’s righteousness, and its secondary or derivative ground “in us,” that is, in faith defined as a disposition, as a “habit and principle in the heart” (p. 204).

    Faith AFTER justification, along with the works and love that result from faith, is described as “THAT IN US BY WHICH WE ARE JUSTIFIED” (p. 222 ).

  4. markmcculley Says:

    p 167, Marcus Johnson, One With Christ, Crossway—”I am referring to the application of redemption in space and time. Some of the benefits of our union with Christ occur above and beyond time (our election in Christ, for instance).

    Johnson writes on the same page: “in salvation God has included us in Jesus Christ, and with this in mind, we are free to discuss his benefits in any order we want…”

    mark: This is a bit slippery. I don’t think the real concern is the order in which we discuss the benefits (even though Gaffin does worry about that when he reads Calvin’s Institutes looking for support for his central thesis). The concern is not about our discussion, but about the logical order, and nobody is more concerned about this than the “unionists”.

    They may say— if you get the person of Christ in there, use any order you want. But they don’t mean it. They are attempting a deception. Because if you don’t agree with them about “union” priority, then they will accuse you of putting the person “in the background”. ( see Gaffin in Always Reforming, ed McGowan, p 280).

    But no way are they saying “use any order you like”! They forbid us putting anything before “union”. But what this comes to is them forbidding us putting God’s legal imputation in front of “union”. They contradict “any order you like” when they themselves put ‘faith” (and the Holy Spirit) before “union”.

    But besides God’s imputation to the elect of Christ’s death, there is Christ bearing the sins of the elect. The death of Christ is not timeless, but comes after imputation to the OT elect and before imputation to the NT elect. But before either Christ’s death or any imputations, first there was election before the ages.

    What’s interesting to me is that Marcus Johnson won’t even allow election to be a cause or condition or source of the “union”. He writes of election as the “benefit” of “union”. But this is more confusion, added to earlier agreement that election is one aspect of “union”, and then his announcement that his book is not about that sense of “union”, but instead about “the application of union”. Johnson proceeds to call the application of union “the union”.

    Even though Marcus Johnson will allow faith and the Holy Spirit to come before “union”, he does not directly call faith a cause or a condition or a source of the “union”. Perhaps he would agree that faith and the work of the Spirit are also “benefits” from the “union”. But even if he does, he still insists that faith must come before “union”.

    But he also insists that God’s imputation is a benefit and a result of “union”, and therefore must come after “union”, Johnson will not say that faith come after “union”, but insists instead that faith comes before “union”.

    I suppose Johnson would have to agree that election comes before “union”, since election comes before time, and Johnson’s topic is the “application of union” which is an event in time. But nevertheless he calls even election a ‘benefit” of “union”.

    I find all this very curious, especially in light of Gaffin’s accusations that those of us without an “union priority” put the person of Jesus into the background. I think that’s Gaffin’s way of saying that those of us who disagree with him about the order of application are inherently people who don’t think enough about redemptive history, about the “biblical theology” which focuses on what God has done in Christ apart from us. In other words, Gaffin thinks “union priority” is “redemptive-historical priority”.

    But where is God’s election in redemptive history? i think Gaffin (with Johnson and other unionists) has managed to put election “into the background”. Election is not denied, but if election becomes a benefit of the “union”, then “union” has been defined as some kind of Holy Spirit “application” which must precede God’s imputation. This means that not only God’s election but also God’s imputation have been “put into the background”.


    Jonathan Gibson, “The Glorious, Indivisible, Trinitarian Work of Christ”, From Heaven He Came, p 355—Interestingly, this verse has been neglected in Constantine Campbell’s otherwise comprehensive treatment of union with Christ (PAUL AND UNION WITH CHRIST, Zondervan, 2013)

    14 For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; 15 and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.

    p 352—”Some conclude that the efficacy of Christ’s work occurs only at the point of faith, and not before. This ignores the fact that union with Christ precedes any reception of Christ’s work by faith. It is union with Christ that leads to the efficacy of Christ’s work to those who belong to Him.”


    Justification in Galatians”, p 172, Moo’s essay in the Carson f (Understanding the Times)—Nor is there any need to set Paul’s “juridicial” and “participationist” categories in opposition to one another (see Gaffin, By Faith Not By Sight, p 35-41). The problem of positing a union with Christ that precedes the erasure of our legal condemnation before God ( eg, making justification the product of union with Christ; see Michael Horton, Covenant and Salvation: Union with Christ, Westminster John Knox, 2007, p 147) CAN BE ANSWERED IF WE POSIT, WITHIN THE SINGLE WORK OF CHRIST, TWO STAGES OF “JUSTIFICATION”, one involving Christ’s payment of our legal debt–the basis for our regeneration–and second our actual justification=stemming from our union with Christ.”

    mark: No way! so they don’t deny election or legal atonement or legal imputation, but in the end they continue to make “actual justification” the result of “union” which is for them a “faith-union”. They still get faith first (and not God’s imputation of Christ’s righteousness) in the “real justification” . Calling Christ’s death (and resurrection?) not only “the legal payment” but the “first justification” doesn’t change the fact that they start by saying there is no order of application and then turn around and make the Holy Spirit’s gift of faith first in the order of application.


    The second and truly decisive justification for Moo consists of union with Christ that produces good works. Good works factor into the decisive justification. Any doctrine of justification that appeals to Gaffin’s theology is heretical.

    It is one thing to affirm that justification presupposes union with Christ. It is another, and heretical thing, to explain justification as union with Christ. Justification is the legal verdict of God the judge, from the heavenly bench, declaring the guilty sinner–me!–guiltless with regard to offenses against the law and righteous with regard to obedience to the law exclusively for the sake of the atoning death and perfect obedience to the law of Jesus Christ, my substitute. Justification is not union with Christ; it is the Judge’s declaration of innocence.

    To me the quotation of Moo confirms that the entire Protestant world of renowned scholarship has gone astray and is the purveyor of heresy with regard to the truth that spells the difference between a standing or a falling church.

    There are not two stages of justification, one excluding works, the other including works. If there are two stages of justification–one now and the other on judgment day–both are by faith alone, all our works being excluded, except that our good works, which we performed in gratitude for justification without our works, are fruit and evidence of free justification.

    Christ’s work for us and outside of us is the sole ground and content of our righteousness with God, now and in the day of judgment. This is my comfort. This is my assurance of my salvation. This is my salvation. This is the glory of God in the salvation of sinners.

    The true church, the remnant, again lives in a religious environment in which it has all the nominal church, especially the scholarship of the church, against it, as in the days of Luther. All the nominal church, including the scholars and scholarly institutions, taught justification as a work of God making people good with their cooperation. It is our calling and privilege to stand with the Reformation regard to the very same truth: justification by faith alone apart from all our works, particularly our good works, indeed our very best works.
    God being gracious, I intend to do so with my feeble powers and in my isolated circumstances.We may and must echo Luther’s confession because it was not a confession that originated with him, great and noble as he was. It was the confession bound upon him by the Spirit of Jesus Christ, the Spirit of the truth. That Spirit does not leave Himself without human witness today.
    And I find myself doing so with something of Luther’s anger–a holy anger. The issue is not merely academic. They rob God of His glory in His main work. They send guilty sinners into the divine courtroom to be condemned. They corrupt the pure gospel of grace of the Scriptures. They lead the churches back to the darkness of Rome. They do so deliberately, knowingly, and deceptively. Let them be accursed! Damn them! David J. Engelsma

  8. markmcculley Says:

    Gospel Reformation Network Affirmations and Denials

    Article IV – Union with Christ and Sanctification
    • We affirm that both justification and sanctification are distinct, necessary, inseparable and simultaneous graces of union with Christ though faith.
    • We deny that sanctification flows DIRECTLY from justification, or that the transformative elements of salvation are MERE consequences of the forensic elements.

    my questions

    1. Who is the Gospel Reformation Network? Is it a conference of friends who think alike, or does it agree to certain confessions, and does it have ecclesiastical and sacramental authority?

    2. Why is it a problem to deny that “sanctification” flows from justification, as long as “sanctification” result (flows)?

    3. Is the problem that “justification” is defined, but that “sanctification” and “union” are not?

    4. What does “sanctification” mean in Hebrews 10:10-14?

    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”?)

    9.When you deny that “sanctification” is a “mere consequence” of the forensic, did you mean to deny that “sanctification” is a consequence of the “merely forensic”? What do you have against “merely” or any “sola” which points to Christ’s earned outside righteousness imputed to the elect?

    10. Is the point of the Gospel Reformation Network denial that “union” is not forensic or is the point that it is not “merely forensic”? Is this a question-begging point?

    11. If “sanctification” is “more than” than a “mere consequence”, does that mean that “sanctification” is also more than a result of “union”, so that “sanctification” is in someway identical to “union”, or at least a necessary “condition” for “union”?

    12. Does “union” flow from merely the transformative elements? If union is transformation, and union must come before justification, how is it that God is still justifying the ungodly?

    13. If becoming children of God only means being born again so that we are freed from the power of corruption, what is the need for those who are no longer ungodly to be justified or adopted?

    14. Is “union” a cause or a result of sacramental efficacy? It’s too late now to tell us that the order of application does not matter so much, since you insisted on denying that “justification” was a result of “sanctification”.

  9. markmcculley Says:

    True union with Christ is the work of the Holy Spirit which creates faith in Jesus
    to which a asked: How does union, as those chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world by our God and Father (Eph. 1:3-4), fit in here? Isn’t that elective union the material cause of union effected by the Spirit in our effectual calling? Sometimes it seems that union with Christ is said to originate at the moment of faith without regard to what Berkhof calls our legal union
    to which b asked: Could it be that neither the atonement or justification (based on God’s imputation of the atonement) are truly at the center of most Reformed theology, because despite formal agreement with election as having determined for whom Christ died, the emphasis is on the Holy Spirit as the agent and bond of “union”?

  10. markmcculley Says:

    Jonathan Gibson, “The Glorious, Indivisible, Trinitarian Work of Christ”, From Heaven He Came, p 355—Interestingly, this verse has been neglected in Constantine Campbell’s otherwise comprehensive treatment of union with Christ (PAUL AND UNION WITH CHRIST, Zondervan, 2013)

    14 For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; 15 and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.

    p 352—”Some conclude that the efficacy of Christ’s work occurs only at the point of faith, and not before. This ignores the fact that union with Christ precedes any reception of Christ’s work by faith. It is union with Christ that leads to the efficacy of Christ’s work to those who belong to Him.”

  11. markmcculley Says:

    where does the Bible speak of impartation or incorporation?

    Since faith is not the righteousness of Christ, then we should not speak of “justifying faith” because what God uses to justify sinners is Christ’s death. Faith in Christ’s death is not Christ’s righteousness. Christ’s death is Christ’s righteousness, and Christ’s death is the object of faith.

    Calvin–Although we may distinguish them, Christ contains both of them inseparably in himself. Do you wish, then, to attain righteousness in Christ? You must first possess Christ; but you cannot possess him without being made partaker in his sanctification, because he cannot be divided into pieces (1 Cor. 1:13). …We are justified not without works yet not through works, since in our sharing in Christ, which justifies us, sanctification is just as much included as righteousness (Institutes, 3.16.1).

    Colson–Calvin did not hesitate to attribute both legal and relational, or forensic and ontological, realities to our union with Christ. Jesus both imputes and imparts grace when he incorporates us into himself through the Spirit. These benefits belong to us because we are members of the Beloved, Jesus Christ.

    mark- Colson is saying that regeneration is relational and ontological. Colson is assuming that “union” is relational and ontological. Colson is begging the question by not defining incorporation? Why is “incorporation” not forensic but “relational and ontological”? What is the difference between “impartation” (in us) and “incorporation” if you assume that becoming members of Christ (in Christ) is not forensic? If we do begin to “possess the Benefactor” before God’s imputation of righteousness, why do we even need God’s imputation of righteousness? If we are already members of Christ and have Christ in us before God justifies us, how could justification be of the ungodly and why would we need justification?

    Colson–While God’s justification of the ungodly certainly compels our obedience (2 Cor. 5. 14-15), this paradigm obscures the relationship between our sanctification and the living Jesus. By prioritizing justification in the cause-and-effect chain , it makes sanctification a secondary link contingent upon justification.

    Colson–Three things happen: (1) grace becomes synonymous with justification, not all the benefits we receive in union with the resurrected Christ, (2) grace becomes a motivational resource that encourages sanctification, not the life-giving power of the Holy Spirit that enables sanctification, and (3) sanctification loses its radically Christo-centric orientation, becoming a step in a formula distantly related to Christ. This unnecessarily shackles God’s grace to forensic categories.

  12. markmcculley Says:

    Williams Evans– Number Ten: You define the “gospel” primarily in terms of freedom from the condemnation of sin (justification) rather than freedom from both the condemnation and the power of sin (justification and sanctification).
    Number Nine: You are much more much more concerned about legalism than antinomianism.
    Number Eight: You view sanctification as a more or less optional add-on to justification (or maybe as an evidence of justification, though you are concerned that even that concession to necessity might be potentially legalistic) rather than as grace parallel to justification that comes with our union with Christ and that is essential to the walk of faith and the path of salvation.
    Number Seven: You sense a tension between the Christ pro nobis (Christ for us) and the Christ in nobis (Christ in us).

  13. 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

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