Letham’s Book on Union with Christ

Union with Christ: In Scripture, History, and Theology, by Robert Letham, Presbyterian and Reformed, 2011

“Space prevents me from recent discussions of the relationship between union with Christ and justification.” (p 82). This book is so disappointing. Letham does not use his space is a wise and helpful way. He merely keeps begging the question and repeating himself. “Faith-union is by faith” seems to be his conclusion, and that is not a very useful explanation of anything.

Even though Letham relies on Evans and Garcia, he avoids interaction with recent discussions by Fesko, Horton, and McCormack on the priority of forensic justification. Letham persists in saying that “union” is “more basic” with indifference to the specific arguments.

Letham contents himself with a couple potshots at folks like Wayne Spear. He takes sides with John Knox against the Anabaptists and what he calls “the neo-Zwinglianism of William Cunningham, Robert L. Dabney, and latterly Wayne Spear.” (p 120) Even in this, Letham begs the question. His view is “robust”; his opponents (with whom he disdains to interact) are “gnostic” (p139)

See for example, his discussion of Hodge: “the focus was on the forensic, on justification and the atonement. The gospel was to be clear and comprehensible. An unfortunate split had occurred in Reformed thought.In part, it explains how the doctrine of union with Christ suffered eclipse.” (p122)

Letham sits too high above the controversies to attend to the contested details, and this helps him to think that his own view of union is “the doctrine” of union. This pose does not help him to be clear and comprehensible, but perhaps it means that he worships a God who is “more than” we find revealed in Scriptures.

“The Holy Spirit baptizes all believers into one body.” (p 50) But what biblical text says this? Letham quotes I Cor 12:13 correctly–”in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body.” The text does not say that the Holy Spirit is the baptizer, or the “more basic” agent, but Letham simply presumes this notion throughout his book.
Since the Spirit gives faith to the elect, Letham thinks this faith has to be that which unites the elect to Christ, and thus he insists on the tradition that says it’s the Spirit who unites the elect to Christ.

Election “in Christ” was not by the Spirit, but this does not keep Letham from giving the Spirit the priority. The following quotation from Letham summarizes his basic assumption: “Not only is Christ our substitute and representative, acting in our place and on our behalf, but we are one with him. The work is ours because we are on the same team. If the goaltender makes a blunder, the whole team loses the game…In a similar way, Christ has made atonement and won the victory for his team, while in turn the Holy Spirit selects us for his team.” (p 53)

I don’t need to say anything about the Torrances or Karl Barth here. You don’t need to have read Evans and Garcia to follow. The Holy Spirit is NOT choosing individuals to be on the team in some different way than the Trinity has already elected individuals.

The Holy Spirit is NOT selecting individuals to be on the team in a way that the Son has not. Even though individuals are chosen in Christ, God in Christ already (before the ages) elected individuals to be saved from God’s wrath, and the Holy Spirit does not do that now. Christ already elected (before the ages) those individuals who will be saved.

But the direction of Letham’s thought is to get us not to think about individuals but only about “the church” (the team). Letham thinks of the atonement as what happens when the Spirit “unites” us to Christ. Instead of some idea of an reconciliation which was obtained by Christ “back then and there”, Letham is substituting a notion of “union” as more basic than substitution, as something more decisive than atonement,and justification.

Instead of defining “union” as the legal receiving of righteousness “in Christ” (by imputation, Romans 5:11, 17), Letham simply assumes that “union” is by faith. In this way, Letham makes the Father’s present legal application of what Christ did to be much less basic than the Holy Spirit’s present work. Letham plays down the legal act of justification and gives the priority to the Holy Spirit “selecting the team”.

Substitution is the death and resurrection of Christ for certain specific sinners, so that these elect sinners do not die for their own sins. But does not the New Testament use the word “with” and not only the word “for”? And does not that mean that the “with” is more basic and has priority? Or as Letham says in the quotation above: don’t deny substitution BUT “not only” that?

Yes, Christ died “for sin” and yes, this was for the sins of the elect. But Christ was incarnate and incarnation is with all humanity and does not that mean that, in some more important sense, all humanity died with Christ? II Corinthians 5:14-15, “For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one died for all, therefore all have died, and he died for all, that those who live would no longer live for themselves but who for themselves for him who for their sake died and was raised.”

We can think about a “for” which is not substitution. I can score a goal for my team, without any idea that I am the only one playing the game. I score the goal for the sake of others on my team, and not only for myself, but that does not mean they do nothing and I do everything. In II Corinthians 5:14-15, it is not the “for” which get us to the idea of substitution. What gets us to substitution is “therefore all died”.

It is a mistake to reference the “died with” to a “faith-union” given by the Holy Spirit. But Letham’s idea is that the Holy Spirit selects and unites some to “the church” by using water baptism as a “laver of regeneration”. (p 103) Letham’s idea is that the Holy Spirit “pours the power of Christ into” believers. (p 103)

The idea of “therefore all died”, the idea of “union with Christ’s death” is NOT that the Holy Spirit becomes the agent of that death, and selects who will be on the team. . The Romans 6 idea of “died with Christ”, the II Corinthians 5:15 idea of “therefore all died” is that Christ died to propitiate God’s wrath because of ALREADY IMPUTED SINS (Romans 4:25, on account of sins). This death is eventually credited by God to all the elect.

The elect do not (and did not) die this kind of death. Their substitute replaced them and died it for them. Christ alone, in both His Deity and His Humanity, by Himself, without the rest of humanity, died this death. Christ the Elect One, without the elect, died this death that God’s law required.

Letham rightly asks questions about the priority of regeneration to justification. (p 74) There is no such thing as a regenerate person who is not yet justified. But then Letham puts faith in priority to justification and thus puts his idea of “union” in priority to justification. But what is this “faith-union” if not regeneration?

If the Spirit is the one who connects us to redemptive history, then legal imputation has to take second place. But Letham has his own “bifurcations” (p 122) Letham simply assumes that his own doctrine of union is “integrated” the right way.

The way we are one with Christ is that Christ is our legal substitute. I do not deny that the Son baptizes in the Spirit or that the Spirit indwells the justified sinner, but this gift by the Son is based on a legal union with Christ’s death and that legal union has logical priority.

Christ has priority over “the church”. The church belongs to Christ; Christ does not belong to the church. Christ gives the Spirit; the Spirit does not give Christ. The elect belong to Christ because the Father gave the elect to Christ, and also because Christ died for and in the place of, instead of the elect. This is what “died with Christ” means.

Christ will give the elect to the Father. Letham worries some about Calvin’s comments on I Corinthians 15:27 and the handover of the Kingdom to the Father. Letham worries that Calvin sounds Nestorian (handing over the humanity to the divinity) in this regard. (p39, 114)

For my part, I worry that Letham is not attending to discontinuity in redemptive history. I am thinking not only of the handover of the kingdom in I Cor 15 (see also John 17) but of the difference between the elect’s sins being punished at the cross and the new view that this punishment only works once the Holy Spirit “selects the elect” and then “unites” them to Christ.

Make no mistake. I do not equate the propitiation and justification. Though the decree is from before the ages, neither the propitiation or justification is from before the ages. And the propitiation is not yet our justification, because in time we come to share legally in Christ’s death What Christ obtained for the elect has to be legally imputed (not by the Spirit) to the elect so that they are justified in time. Redemptive-historical distinctions do not mean that we should confuse “union with Christ” with the propitiation.

The propitiation already happened. And “union with Christ” is the legal application (imputation) of that propitiation when God the Trinity “places individuals into Christ’s death”. This is God’s legal act, and not the church acting it as if were God when it baptizes with water. If that makes Letham call me a Gnostic or an Anabaptist or a pietist or an individualist, so be it.

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

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12 Comments on “Letham’s Book on Union with Christ”

  1. markmcculley Says:

    John Gill: The bond of union is not the Holy Spirit. The mission of the Spirit into the hearts of Cod’s elect, to regenerate, quicken, and sanctify them, to apply the blessings of grace to them, and seal them up to the day of redemption, and the bestowing of his several gifts and graces upon them, are in consequence, and by virtue of a previous and antecedent union of them to the Person of Christ.

    They do not first receive the Spirit of Christ, and then by the Spirit are united to him; but they are first united to him, and, by virtue of this union, receive the Spirit of him… A person is first joined, glued, closely united to Christ, and then becomes one Spirit with him; that is, receives, enjoys, and possesses in measure, the same Spirit as he does, as the members of an human body do participate of the same spirit the head does, to which they are united: he that is joined unto the Lord, is one spirit (1 Cor. 6:17).

    The case is this; Christ, as the Mediator of the covenant, and Head of God’s elect, received the Spirit without measure, that is, a fullness of the gifts and graces of the Spirit: These persons being united to Christ, as members to their Head, do, in his own TIME receive the Spirit from him, though in measure. They are first chosen in him, adopted through him, made one with him, become heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; and then, as the apostle says, Because ye are sons, God hath sent forth the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, crying, Abba, Father (Gal. 4:6).

  2. markmcculley Says:

    The only reason God would not count my sins against me is NOT because of my faith but because of Christ’s righteousness (His death which satisfied the law for the elect). To give the forensic the priority is to give first place (logically) to what Christ did outside us.

    I think both Calvin and Luther want to do that. Neither wants to locate the righteousness in what Christ by His Holy Spirit is doing in us. And yet Luther points to faith as Christ’s presence already in us, and puts this faith before justification, and that tends to put our minds on the faith and not on the object of faith (as if we could have Christ first without the benefits of His work)

    Since Luther has an universal atonement, he inherently cannot think that the atonement is decisive, and by default thus makes faith to be the deciding factor. By agreeing to the temporal priority of faith, Calvin at least seems inconsistent in making the righteousness of Christ the only basis of justification.

    At the end of the day, the logical priority of Christ’s atonement as the reason a person is justified is most important. We can disagree with the Finnish view about the early Luther giving first place to Christ within. We can point to Calvin’s refutation of Osiander to make distinctions between various confusing definitions of “union”. While all Lutherans put faith before justification, most of them still put “union” after justification (contrary to the Finnish view)

    So I can disagree about the temporal order and also about the definition of “union”, but that does not mean that everybody wants to do what NT Wright and Mark Seifrid do– deny imputation of Christ’s righteousness as the basis of justification.

    But to the extent that Gaffin and others put imputation in second place, and think the Spirit giving faith to be the bond of union, they tends to put the accent on “sanctification” as one of the “benefits of union”.

    Woe is me, because I do not feel the grateful “sanctification” flowing out of me. As Ellul said in another context, after all has been said, nothing has been done. Those who put the accent on the “necessary works which result from union” may reassure the Romanists and the moralists that the gospel is not antinomian, but are their theories any more productive of grateful Christian obedience than those of us who are more concerned about “dead works”?

    It seems that neither party in the debate has much to be confident about in terms of the way we perform. What shall we say to these things? Thank God that I am more “gospel awake” than you are?

    Our performance (I mean yours also) should drive back to the gospel of a synthetic righteousness, a righteousness which is not in us but which God imputes to us, a righteousness which Christ earned outside of us, and only earned for the elect. But I would say that….

    One of my motives for thinking about the definition and timing of “union” is to keep the focus on the good news that Christ died only for the elect, and that it’s this death which saves all for whom Christ died. Contrary to Letham, the Holy Spirit does not “select the team”. I think there is a tendency in those who prioritize “union” to collapse the atonement (and even election) into justification.

    Because nobody is justified until imputation, many supposedly “Reformed” sermons would give you the impression that Christ has not already died for the elect before the “union”. They may give lip-service to union by election, or to the idea of the sins of the elect imputed to Christ at the cross, but when they say “union” they tend to mean faith, and the impression is given that atonement happens only at justification.

    But another concern would be that people on my side of the discussion collapse justification and atonement the other way back. I mean if imputation of the righteousness is before faith, why not say that the imputation of the righteousness was at the same time as the atonement?

    I would agree that John Gill has done this very thing. They have made a distinction between two justifications, one objective at the cross, and the other merely subjective to our conscience. But I reject this notion, and affirm that there is no justification without faith. “Imputation before faith” is not to be equated with “justification before faith”. We have to keep our eyes on what is being imputed. Imputation is not being imputed. Faith is not being imputed. Christ’s righteousness is imputed, and the result of that is justification.

    Another way that has been said is that “imputation” is both the “legal transfer” and the “declaration that the person is now justified.” Both are included, and this justification does not happen without faith in the gospel happening at the same time. Romans 8:10–”the Spirit is life because of righteousness.”

  3. 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”.

  4. markmcculley Says:

    Donald Mcleod, p 202, the Person of Christ, IVP, 1998–

    The hypostatic union did not by itself secure the theiosis of every human being. In fact, the hypostatic union did not by itself secure the theiosis of even our Lord’s human nature. He was glorified not because He was God incarnate but because he finished the work given him to do (John 17:4).

    It is perfectly possible to be human and yet not be in Christ, because although the incarnation unites Christ to human nature it does not unite him to me.

  5. markmcculley Says:

    “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” does not 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.

  6. markmcculley Says:

    a–: you take issue with his emphasis on faith-union, an obvious theme of the book, but do not explain why this is wrong

    mark—is faith a condition of union, or is faith a result of union? You don’t say. If you think that faith is a condition before union, then from what does faith result?

    a–you say, “The way we are one with Christ is that Christ is our legal substitute. I do not deny that the Son baptizes in the Spirit or that the Spirit indwells the justified sinner, but this gift by the Son is based on a legal union with Christ’s death and that legal union has logical priority.” This reveals either a misunderstanding of Letham’s point or an opinionated disagreement.

    mark: I am glad that you see the alternatives. I do understand Letham. I disagree with Letham on this important point. I make arguments for my opinion, not only in my review but in other essays I have written. But like you, Letham ssems to assume the point without making arguments for it.

    a: Letham stands with the vast majority of scholars who think that union with Christ by faith precedes justification precisely because it is by virtue of our union with Christ that we receive the benefits of said union. This is almost tautological, but it is important.

    mark: I don’t disagree that those united with Christ receive the benefits. I don’t deny distinctions between Christ’s person and Christ’s work and the benefits of Christ, but I don’t prioritize the order of union (as you do) to suggest that somehow we have faith before Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us. If we can have faith before we have Christ’s personal presence, and if we can have Christ’s personal presence before we have the benefit of Christ’s righteousness imputed to us, why then do we ever even need Christ’s righteousness imputed to us?

    a– Letham, inter alia, see justification as just one of a plethora of benefits that flow from our union with Christ; others would include sanctification and glorification. This is the only way to make sense of the New Testament’s emphasis on resurrection language.

    mark: That is not true. You (along with the new Gaffin majority) simply assume that it is true. There were many before Gaffin who read Romans 4:24 and 25 as teaching that the resurrection of Christ happened in the past because the legally merited justification of all the elect was made sure by Christ’s death as a completed satisfaction of the law. Check out Smeaton, for example. You are being dogmatic in a way that is not helpful, because you are not interacting with what I wrote in my review, but merely repeating the majority view. Are you fearful that somebody else might read what I wrote, or is it your hope that I will read the other books you have read on “union”? Have you read Smedes, Billings, Horton, Torrance, Marcus Johnson. Constantine? I do hope you have read something else besides Evans and Garcia.

  7. markmcculley Says:

    Mark Karlberg— “The priority for Gaffin is union with Christ, what is the “absolutely necessary, indispensable context for justification. Gaffin contends that union with Christ must be kept central and controlling.,,, Contrary to Gaffin’s teaching, justification is not contingent upon sanctification, perseverence in holiness, or any of the other benefits accruing from union with Christ. The reformers were right in speaking of good works as the fruit of saving faith. Justification rests exclusively on the
    finished work of Christ. Gaffin prefers to speak of the ongoing work of Christ.”

    MK–”For someone to rely wholly on Christ’s finished work at the cross, Gaffin warns, he has then cut himself off from the ‘whole Christ’ from the Christ who now is working out the benefits of atonement. What is obscured in Gaffin’s formulation is the fact that the application of salvation has already and completely been secured by Christ in his work of reconciliation. There is nothing future to be attained by Christ.”

    MK–”Gaffin speaks repeatedly of the irreducible benefits of union with Christ. What does this mean? I take it that the point Gaffin is wanting to make is this: We are not to isolate (i.e., discriminate) one benefit among others, nor are we to give one benefit special weight in the application of redemption. (Of course, Gaffin does give special weight to the benefit of union with Christ. And he is free to do so because matters of ordo ­ are “indifferent theologically” to him…

  8. markmcculley Says:


    Bill Evans—-”If good works play a role in whether one makes it to the pearly gates then there is some sort of connection to justification….Conspicuous by its absence in Phillips’ post is any mention of the believer’s union with Christ…. “in Christ” we receive what Calvin called the duplex gratia or “double grace” of justification and transformation of life. For this reason, we must not say, as Phillips seems to, that the necessity of good works pertains only to sanctification and not to justification….

    Bill Evans—”This rootedness of justification in union with Christ has implications for our understanding of justification itself. To be justified in Christ is to be so joined with Christ that his own resurrection justification applies also to us. He was, as Paul declares in 1 Timothy 3:16 in reference to the resurrection, “justified in the Spirit”, and for this reason he was “raised for our justification” (Romans 4:25). All this, of course, implies that justification is both forensic and relational—it is a legal judgment that is received through union with Christ.”

    mark: of course, which is why Evans thinks Horton and Godfrey and Hodge just do not “get it”.

    Bill Evans—”Many Reformed theologians have sought to protect the gratuity of justification by temporally sequestering it from transformation of life so as to underscore that justification cannot depend upon sanctification … But the result here is the same as the first, in that justification is abstracted from the ongoing life of faith. Thus it is that a good deal of conservative Reformed theology has been more or less unable to give a coherent account of the Christian life…..Much more satisfactory is the EARLY REFORMED CONCEPTION of the believer’s participation in Christ’s resurrection justification that has been more recently RETRIEVED by Geerhardus Vos, Richard Gaffin, and others….”

  9. markmcculley Says:

    only some sinners are God’s children, that God is not the Father of most sinners

    so 1. redemptive Fatherhood is about election (love)
    and 2. for those the Father loves and gives to the Son, there is necessary that righteousness, that death which propitiates God, Father and Son and Spirit, that death which is offered by the Father as priest (hand over) and the Son as priest (lay it down when I want to)

    I John 4: 10 In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.

    Not that he loved us because he sent His son to be the propitiation for us, but because he loved us he sent His son for us

    election and propitiation are not the same thing, a distinction
    but where there is election, there will be propitiation

    no love without propitiation

    the Father is judge, and needs the propitiation
    the Father is priest, and gives the needed propitiation

    Many want to place election after the decree to make the propitiation, so that the propitiation will not be restricted to the elect. They think of election as something that causes the elect to believe, but they will not teach a propitaition only for the elect.

    But election (to be) in Christ is first! The death of Christ is not the cause of God’s election in love. God’s election in love is the cause of the death of Christ. Jesus Christ is first. Jesus, the incarnate, the ever lasting Son of God in the flesh, is the beginning of election by being Himself the first object of election. “All things were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things.”

  10. markmcculley Says:

    Torrance argued for an “active obedience” in which Christ repented for us, believed for us, was born again for us, was converted for us, and worships for us. “We must think of him as taking our place even in our acts of repentance” (The Mediation of Christ, p 95)

    Donald Macleod responds—There is a great discontinuity between Christ and sinners. They were sinners and Christ was not. He could not trust in God’s forgiveness because he had no need of forgiveness. He could not be born again because he required no changed of heart. He could not be converted because His life demanded no change of direction.

    If we move from the idea of Jesus as a believer to the idea of Jesus as the one who is believed IN, does Jesus believe, vicariously, in Himself?….It is not his faith that covers the deficiencies of our faith (as it is given to us by God). It is Christ’s death that covers the deficiencies of our faith…Our faith is not in the Son of God who believed for us, but in the Son of God who gave Himself for us.

    p 214, Donald Macleod, Christ Crucified, IVP, 2014—-Christ never fell, had not guilt, and knew no sin. Human nature as individualized in Christ was not fallen. Christ did not suffer from the disease of sin. In what sense then did Christ heal human nature by becoming the patient and taking the disease? As Christ faced temptation and suffering, Christ did so with a mind unclouded by sin…

    Human nature after the cross remains as it was before the cross. If Christ healed our humanity by taking our humanity, then Christ was crucified by the very nature he had healed….

    According to Torrance, Christ condemned sin by saying no to the flesh and living a life of perfect faith, worship and obedience. But this would mean that the condemnation of sin did not take place on the cross, but in the daily life of Christ. But Romans 8:3 says that it not Jesus but God the Father who condemns sin in the flesh. While it was indeed in the flesh of his Son that God condemned sin but it was not only in his Son as incarnate, but in his Son as a sin-offering.. God condemned sin by passing judgement on his Son.

    Theosis (participation in the divine nature, II Peter 1:4) is NOT the reason for God being reconciled to us. We are justified as ungodly (Romans 4:5), not as partakers of a nature which has been united with the divine.

  11. Terrence Thiessen–Evans finds three primary models on offer in Reformed circles:

    in the bifurcation model, the operative categories are “forensic, spiritual and virtual.” Michael Horton gets significant attention here, and Evans avers that he “does speak of a union with Christ’s humanity, but he clearly means a sharing in the transforming benefits of Christ’s work” (9). Evans is concerned about an “overloading of the forensic” in this model,

    The pneumatological realism was initially put forward by Geerhardus Vos and has been championed in the more recent work of Richard Gaffin, Jr. In Vos’s redemptive-historical emphasis, “reception of the Holy Spirit communicates both the forensic and the transforming benefits of salvation,” but there is “no reference to the mediation of the humanity of Christ per se to the believer” (16). Evans is concerned that, in this model, union with Christ is framed “entirely in terms (the work of the Holy Spirit) that most people associate with sanctification and the transformatory,” and he questions that this provides “sufficient foundation for the forensic” (18). The language in this model “never gets beyond the notion of the Spirit doing something in the believer like what the Spirit did in Christ,” so that “the redemptive experience of Christ is seen more as paradigmatic than as constitutive of the believer’s experience” (18-19). Though representatives of this model cite Calvin, Evans does not hear from them Calvin’s insistence that “union with Christ cannot be reduced to the benefits of salvation or to the work of the Holy Spirit as a sort of redemptive-historical representative. Rather, he insisted that the Spirit unites the believer to Christ, and in particular to the ‘substance’ of his incarnate humanity” (19).
    pneumatological-incarnational realism insists that the relationship of union with Christ involves a realistic connection with Christ’s incarnate humanity through the Spirit and not merely the reception of the Spirit” (20). This position was put forward by Calvin, defended by John Nevinand John Adger in the 19th century, and more recently developed by T. F. Torrance and by Evans himself. He suggests that this is the direction in which Letham moves” (21) in this work that I have been going through for some time on this blog; that assessment sounds correct to me. Among the challenges Evans sees for proponents of this approach, however, are: (1) avoidance of philosophical captivity or dependence, particularly in a Platonic direction; (2) the risk of conflating Christ and the believer; (3) preservation of a robust emphasis on the justification of the ungodly as forensic and synthetic.
    My reflection on Scripture with the help of these contributions from Letham, Larsen and Evans has led me to think that I have been inclined to conceptualize our union with Christ in an insufficiently realistic way. The influence of a symbolic orientation within my Baptist context has contributed to my natural resistance to greater realism in regard to our participation in God’s nature, through union with Christ by the Spirit. For quite a few years, I have emphasized the foundational nature of union with Christ for our entire experience of salvation, and the centrality of Christ’s role as second Adam has become more clear in my thinking. I sense that I still have work to do in this regard before I’m settled, but I feel that I am being prodded in a beneficial direction, both by Scripture and tradition. If movement takes place within my own theology, as a result of a more realistic understanding of our union with Christ, I suspect that greater change might occur in my ecclesiology than in my soteriology.

    As Easter approaches once again, it has been refreshing to reflect on the significance, to you and me personally, of Christ’s death and resurrection, and to appropriate anew the amazing reality that I have died and risen again with Christ, that I am seated in the heavenlies with him, that Christ lives in me and that my own life is only authentic and fruitful to the extent that I live in him. Christmas gave us a healthy focus on the mystery of God the Son’s uniting himself with our nature, but the Easter season pushes us to an even more personal awareness of the special relationship into which Christ inducts us when he baptizes us with his Spirit and makes us participants in the divine nature, daily working to transform us into the image of the Son himself.


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