Lane Tipton: Is It the Work of the Holy Spirit which Gives Reality to Imputation?
Lane Tipton, Biblical Theology and the Westminster standards, is one more attempt at talking about the “location of justification relative to union with Christ” (p 5, Westminster Theological Journal, 2013)
Tipon wants to put faith before God’s imputation of righteousness. Tipton also wants to put faith before “union with Christ”. Using confessional language( 11:4—“the Holy Spirit doth in due time apply Christ to them”), Tipton reasons that the Holy Spirit has priority over Christ in the event of imputation, since it’s faith that precedes both justification and “union”, and since the Holy Spirit is the one who gives faith.
On the way to his conclusuon, Lane Tipton uses the phrase “faith-union” which of course is NOT confessional. Instead of exploring any definition or distinction between Christ being in us or us being in Christ, Tipton simply stipulates that “union” is preceded by faith. First, this eliminates the alternative that God’s imputation precedes “union”. Second, it decides in advance what “union” is. For Tipton, “union” is assumed to be “union conditioned on faith” and this means there can be no union by imputation (even though he does not deny that Christ’s work is the basis for effectual calling). Thus Tipton begins with his conclusion, which is that effectual calling is not an immediate result of imputation but instead an immediate condition for God’s imputation.
Tipton then goes on to discuss Berkhof’s idea that something called ” active justification” precedes effectual calling and faith. I do not agree with either “eternal justification” or even the idea of some objective “active justification”. I don’t think we should equivocate with the word “justify”, so that sometimes we read it as “before our conscience” and other times we read it as “legally real before the tribunal of God”. When God imputed Christ’s righteousness to Abraham before Abraham was circumcised, that thought/imputation of God was not a “fiction” but a legal sharing at that time which immediately resulted in effectual calling, believing the gospel, and justification.
I anticipate my conclusion. Tipton does not completely think though the distinction between imputation and justification.
Tipton rightly criticizes the idea of justification before and without faith, but he doesn’t seem to have even heard the idea of an imputation that results in faith and justification. Tipton does not even consider the idea of an imputation before faith, despite what Mike Horton and Bruce McCormack have written about this issue.
But, remember the Westminster Confession! It doesn’t say “imputation before faith”. The Confession says “the Holy Spirit does in due time apply Christ to them”. Of course we should still think about what this ” apply Christ” means. If it means that the Holy Spirit gives the effectual calling and faith, without which there is no justification, then I agree. But Tipton seems to think the “Spirit applies Christ” rules out any idea of God’s imputation of Christ’s righteousness before this work of the Spirit. It does not.
Tipton does know about a difference between imputation and justification. Tipton correctly speaks of justification as “God’s legal declaration”, and knows this is something different from God’s “constitutive act” which is the basis for the declaration. But even so, Tipton argues that if the declaration “did not bring into view faith, by which alone righteousness is imputed, we would be left with a legal fiction.” (p 9)
I disagree that faith is that which imputes righteousness. We are not the one who make the imputation (the constitutive act). Our faith is not that which imputes. And Tipton does not say either of these things. He writes—“faith, by which righteousness is imputed”. I understand this to mean that God waits to impute, until the Holy Spirit gives faith. If that’s not what Tipton means, I would like to be shown what he did mean. But how can God be justifying the ungodly, if God only imputes righteousness to persons who are already effectually called and who are now believing the gospel?
Yes, the effectual call is not the same as “justification”, and we should not use the word “salvation” in an undefined way so as to confuse calling and justification. But Tipton has not shown that calling must precede imputation. Tipton has not shown that God’s imputation can’t be the real cause of calling.
But how could any of this “order stuff” be so important? First, it must be important to Tipton, because his entire essay is an exercise in talking about the Holy Spirit and faith being first, even to the extent that he assumes that “union” is “faith-union”. Second, it must be important because Tipton says that other readings of the Confession would result in a “legal fiction”. In other words, if I were to say that “union” is caused by God’s imputation, that would be “legal fiction” to Tipton. If I were to say that imputation is first, and not conditioned on effectual calling, that too would be “legal fiction” to Tipton. He insists that it’s work of the Spirit which is the conditional location of the real (non-fiction) and which must precede God’s imputation.
But to pay attention to Tipton’s notice of the difference between imputation and declaration, I quote from p 11—“The declaration of righteousness is not prior to the imputation of righteousness. either logically or temporally, because the declaration takes into account the constitutive act of imputation….” exactly so. You can make a declaration about God being just without any prior constitutive act, because analytically God is just. But you cannot make a declaration about an ungodly sinner being just without the prior act of God’s imputation of righteousness to that sinner.
But then Tipton continues to insist that effectual calling must precede the imputation: “and the transaction of imputation is situated within the broader reality of union by Christ by Spirit-wrought faith.” Notice the use of the word “reality”. Would God’s imputation not be real if it came before and resulted in the Spirit’s work? Is the Spirit’s work more real than Christ’s work? Is the Spirit’s work more real than God’s imputation of the merits of Christ’s work? Tipton is simply begging the question all over again, by assuming that there can be no “imputation-union” but only a ‘faith-union”.
Notice the language—“situated within the broader reality of union”. This is the old cake and eat it also. On the one hand, if you keep the notion “broad” (and undefined) enough, then you can say the order of application doesn’t matter so much (Barth, Anthony Hoekema, Sinclair Ferguson). But then on the other hand, it turns our that the order is important, because “union” has to come after faith and before imputation. It also turns out that “union” needs to be ‘concrete” and that turns out to mean that “union” is by the Holy Spirit, and according to Tipton, dogmatically not “union by imputation”.
And then we come to the inevitable conclusion, which began with John Murray’s idea about divine righteousness and which continued into Gaffin’s dogma about Christ being justified by His resurrection and us being justified also by Christ’s resurrection. As you read the quotation from Tipton, ask yourself two questions about his grand conclusion. First, is this Confessional language? Is this the way the Confession says it? We have moved well past the reference to “the Spirit applies Christ”. Second, is saying it this way the best way to say it, the only way to say it? Is it so important to say it this way that we need to be dogmatic in the way Tipton has been about faith being before “union” or ‘faith-union” being the meaning of “union”
Tipton, p 11—“If we want to locate the judicial ground for the believer’s union with Christ, we do not need to look to the forensic benefit of the believer’s justification.”
mark: Of course not, but we do need to look at Christ’s righteousness as the “judicial ground” . We do need to look to God’s imputation of that righteousness as the basis for “union”, indeed as that which is the real legal cause for calling and faith. Tipton knows the difference between imputation and declaration, knows the difference between the righteousness of Christ and justification as the benefit of that righteousness. But here he ignores the distinction. But there’s NO need to make the benefit of justification be the cause of the imputation of the righteousness. There IS every reason to say that God’s imputation is the “judicial ground” by which the elect are identified with Christ and by which Christ comes to indwell the elect.
Tipton, p 11—“It is not MERELY in the atoning death of Christ that we find the judicial ground for the believer’s justification (by faith alone in union with Christ). It is ALSO FOUND IN THE RESURRECTION OF CHRIST AS JUSTIFIED. IT IS THE GOD-APPROVED RESURRECTION RIGHTEOUSNESS OF CHRIST ALONE, imputed to me by faith alone, that stands at the tribunal of God.”
I must repeat. The righteousness is NOT imputed by faith. My faith does not impute the righteousness. Nor does God wait for my faith before God can impute Christ’s righteousness. But to the main question. What is imputed? The answer of Gaffin and Tipton ( I leave aside for now the question of John Murray) is that it’s not “merely’ the finished work which is imputed. It’s not “merely” the merits of Christ’s past obedience. According to them, the justified status of Christ is imputed.
But they have kept “within the bounds of the confession”. They have not denied the imputation of Christ’s finished work. When they say “not merely that”, they are also saying “that’s included also”. Unlike the federal visionists (or Michael Bird or N T Wright) who do deny imputation, the “unionists” are catholic enough not to deny it, but also catholic enough to include other “concrete realities” like the work of the Spirit transforming and renovating (“definitively”!) us so that we can one day be justified the same way Christ was, which also was by the reality of the Holy Spirit’s work
I ask again, is this the way Confession says it? If so, perhaps there’s nothing new or important to learn from the Gaffin/Tipton way of saying it. But IS IT the way the Confession says it?