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.”