Sunday, February 26, 2017

The Doctrine of the Believer’s Union with Christ as Source of All Spiritual Blessings

The Doctrine of the Believer’s Union with Christ as Source of All Spiritual Blessings
An Argument for Pneumatological-Realism as the Proper Framework for the Two-Fold Grace of Union with Christ 

“Union with Christ is the central truth of the whole doctrine of salvation.”-John Murray[1]
Some doctrines of Scripture are peripheral. That is not to say that they are in any way unimportant, but some theological issues must take a back seat to others. Of those issues that are not peripheral, there are a few that stand front and center. Without a proper understanding of those doctrines, much, if not all, of a person’s theology will become warped and weak. Those front-and-center, foundational doctrines are the ones that often create the most debate, dissension, and discussion. This is perfectly logical since they are the doctrines that the enemy is going to attack and the Spirit is going to promote. The doctrine of the believer’s union with Christ is one of these essential doctrines. It has been said that “(o)nce you have your eyes opened to this concept of union with Christ, you will find it almost everywhere in the New Testament,”[2] and this is undoubtedly true. Lane Tipton argues convincingly that “Jesus Christ, as crucified and resurrected, contains within himself—distinctly, inseparably, simultaneously and eschatologically—every soteriological benefit given to the church” and that “there are no benefits of the gospel apart from union with Christ.”[3] John Frame argues that union with Christ “is an exceedingly broad topic…[that] underlies all the works of God in our lives: election, calling, regeneration, faith, justification, adoption, sanctification, perseverance, and glorification. All of these blessings are “in Christ.”[4] It is imperative that believers come to the “climactic realization of the covenantal bond between God and his people, the Triune God and his church, that centers on union with Christ…a union with the exalted Christ.”[5] This “climactic realization” also takes into account the fact that there “is no gift that has not been earned by Him,”[6] including the believer’s salvation from beginning to end and in every sense of the word. That is why this paper will set forth an understanding of the doctrine of union as it relates to justification and sanctification that lines up with the Westminster Standards, the theology of Calvin, and, most importantly, the Scriptures themselves. Specifically, the thesis of this paper is as follows: The doctrine of the believer’s union with Christ, rightly understood as the source of all the believer’s spiritual blessings, has been argued in the history of Reformed Theology in a number of ways including the approach which sees union with Christ undergirding each soteriological benefit (e.g. justification, sanctification, glorification, etc.) directly, simultaneously yet distinctly, and, while other approaches have advocates from within Reformed Theology, the position of “unio Christi-duplex gratia”[7] is most consistent with that of Calvin and of Paul.

Importance of Union with Christ
The fact that the believer’s union with Christ is a doctrine of great importance requires little defense. However, recognizing just how important this doctrine has been considered throughout church history is a worthwhile endeavor, if for no other reason than to justify the immense time, effort, and scholarship that has been recently invested into these debates. John Murray summarizes the centrality of the doctrine of union when he writes, “if we did not take account of (the doctrine of union), not only would our presentation of the application of redemption be defective but our view of the Christian life would be gravely distorted.”[8] As if that were not strong enough, he adds, “(n)othing is more central or basic than union and communion with Christ.”[9]
Westminster Standards
Richard Gaffin has argued that the doctrine of the believer’s union with Christ is a central concern in the framework of the Westminster Standards. Speaking on the centrality of union in the soteriological framework of the Westminster Standards, Gaffin noted that the catechism is structured around the basic distinction of redemption accomplished (in questions 21-28) and redemption applied (in questions 28 and following)[10], and critical to this structure is the doctrine of the believer’s union with Christ. The Westminster Larger Catechism explicitly affirms the validity and importance of this doctrine of union with Christ. Question 29 asks, “How are we made partakers of the redemption purchased by Christ?” [11] The Westminster divines answer clearly emphasizes the importance of union for the believer: “We are made partakers of the redemption purchased by Christ, by the effectual application of it to us, by his Holy Spirit.”[12] If this affirmation were not sufficient, the answer to question 30 makes explicit what was simply implied: “Q. 30. How doth the Spirit apply to us the redemption purchased by Christ? A. The Spirit applieth to us the redemption purchased by Christ, by working faith in us, and thereby uniting us to Christ in our effectual calling.”[13] To borrow language made famous by John Murray, the redemption accomplished by Christ is applied by the Spirit through the believer being united to the Savior.
Calvin
The Westminster divines were not diverging from their reformed theological heritage in any shape, form, or fashion by placing such an emphasis on this doctrine. Some of the most memorable and edifying portions of John Calvin’s writings either explicitly or implicitly deal with the doctrine of the believer’s union or a fruit thereof. In expounding on the folly of disregarding any aspect of the believer’s union and the resulting benefits of the believer’s union with Christ, Calvin memorably noted that the work of Christ is of no benefit to any as long as Christ remains outside of them[14]. He did not stop there. He added,
We know, moreover, that he benefits only those whose “Head” he is [Eph. 4:15], for whom he is “the first-born among brethren” [Rom. 8:29], and who, finally, “have put on him” [Gal. 3:27]. This union alone ensures that, as far as we are concerned, he has not unprofitably come with the name of Savior. The same purpose is served by that sacred wedlock through which we are made flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone [Eph. 5:30], and thus one with him. But he unites himself to us by the Spirit alone. By the grace and power of the same Spirit we are made his members, to keep us under himself and in turn to possess him.[15]

In preaching on the Epistle to the Ephesians, Calvin stated that, “We should be satisfied with the benefits of our Lord Jesus Christ, and that when we are grafted into his body and made one with him by belief of the gospel, then we may assure ourselves that he is the fountain which never dries up, nor can ever become exhausted, and that in him we have all variety of good things, and all perfection.”[16] To say that Calvin placed a significant importance on the fact that by faith the born again believer is united to the risen and reigning Christ is not an overstatement in the least bit.
Paul and John
“Union with Christ” is a doctrinal phrase that, much like “Trinity,” the reader will be hard-pressed to discover in Scripture, at least explicitly. It is (also, much like “Trinity”) a doctrine that informs and undergirds the whole of Christian revelation. The doctrine of the believer’s union with Christ finds its most persistent, consistent, and clear expression in the letters of Paul. In fact, it is so prevalent that, without exaggeration, it can be said that, “union with Christ, rather than justification or election or eschatology, or indeed any of the other great apostolic themes, is the real clue to an understanding of Paul’s thought and experience.”[17]
            The manner in which Paul addresses the doctrine of union can be split into two categories: places where he speaks of the believer being “in Christ” and places where he addresses the fact that Christ is in the believer. Places where Paul speaks of the believer being “in Christ” include:
·         1 Corinthians 15:22[18]-For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.
·         2 Corinthians 5:17-Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.
·         2 Corinthians 12:2-I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows.
·         Galatians 3:28- There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
·         Ephesians 1:4- even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love
·         Ephesians 2:10- For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
·         Philippians 3:9[19]- and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith
·         1 Thessalonians 4:16- For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first.
Passages where Paul uses the language of Christ in the believer include:
·         Galatians 2:20- I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
·         Colossians 1:27- To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.
·         Romans 8:10- But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness.
·         2 Corinthians 13:5-Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you? —unless indeed you fail to meet the test!
·         Ephesians 3:17- so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love,
The language of “in Christ” and “Christ in” is not limited to the Apostle to the Gentiles. The Apostle John also used this language in his Gospel:
·         John 6:56- Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.
·         John 15:4-7- Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.
And in his letter:
·         1 John 4:13- By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit.
Many of these passages will be examined further below. However, it is necessary from the outset to see that the doctrine of the believer’s union with Christ is not a theological novelty and that it is crucial to the teaching of Scripture.
Implications of Union
The fact that the doctrine of union is a critical teaching of the church should be firmly established. And, just like any significant doctrine, there has been and continues to be significant debate regarding aspects of it and its application. That there would be divergence among those who followed after Calvin in this area is not too surprising given the complexity of the doctrine. There are at least three distinct forms of the doctrine found within the Reformed camp that would claim allegiance to either Calvin’s position on union or, if not Calvin’s union explicitly then Calvin’s doctrine as a whole. William Evan’s has labelled these the bifurcation model, Pneumatological realism, and Pneumatological-incarnational realism[20].
The bifurcation model of union[21], where union with Christ is “bifurcated into a ‘legal’ or justifying union and a ‘vital’ or sanctifying union”[22] is advocated by many associated with Westminster California, especially in the writings of Michael Horton. Horton argues for a union doctrine that focuses on “the priority of the forensic and causal character of justification in effecting sanctification / transformation.”[23]
The second model that professes allegiance to the teaching of Calvin is what Edgar calls Pneumatological realism. This is the position held to by, among many others, Geerhardus Vos, W.G.T. Shedd, and, more recently, Richard Gaffin. This model heavily emphasizes the priority of mystical union. Vos argued that the “entire ordo saludis…is bound to the mystical union with Christ.”[24] Fundamental to this position is the “redemptive-historical association of Christ and the Holy Spirit.”[25] Vos goes as far as to say that the “pneumatic life of the Christian is a product and a reflex of the pneumatic life of the Christ.”[26] In this model, the reception of the Spirit is “forensically significant” because “(j)ust as Christ is the justified one by virtue of his Spirit-wrought resurrection and resurrection life, so also the believer is justified by the reception of this same Holy Spirit who is the Spirit of Christ.”[27] Gaffin argues with Vos against the Lutheran model of making union a subsidiary blessing of justification and, as noted by William Evans, “insists that this spiritual union also communicates both the transformative and the forensic benefits of salvation.”[28] Gaffin writes that, “both, the forensic and the transformative, justification and sanctification, are functions or manifestations of the relational. Concretely, both are manifestations or aspects of union with Christ. Christ “in us” continues to be, and is as such also, Christ “for us.” In union with us Christ has a significance that is decisively forensic as well as powerfully transforming.”[29] This model seems more in line with Calvin and, significantly more importantly, with the Scriptures, but has not been spared criticism of its own, both in regards to its allegiance to Calvin and its interpretation of Scripture.
A third model is Pneumatological-incarnational realism. This modern movement claims allegiance to Calvin and is advanced by William Evans, Robert Letham and others, although the label appears to be that of Evans. Moving one step beyond Vos and Gaffin, advocates of Pneumatological-incarnational realism insist that “this 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.”[30] None of these positions are without confusion or concern, to one degree or another. It is the claim of this paper that the second model, labeled by Evans as Pneumatological realism, is the one most in-line with the Westminster Standards, the teachings of Calvin, and the Scriptures, and will be contrasted specifically with the model most closely associated with Westminster California.
Union and Justification in the Ordo Saludis

At the risk of over-simplification, it can be argued that the differences between the above positions center on where the believer’s union with Christ fits in the ordo saludis and how the doctrine of the believer’s union with Christ relates to the doctrine of justification. Specifically, the debate hinges on whether justification is a resulting blessing of union with Christ or whether justification is the cause and catalyst of the believer’s union with Christ.
Westminster Seminary California has contributed much to the cause of Christ in general and this theological debate in particular. Multiple members of the faculty have written in regards to the topic, but the most prominent and, arguably, most accessible is Michael Horton. Certain comments from his writings, especially his volume entitled Covenant and Salvation: Union with Christ, are worth noting.[31]
Drawing heavily on speech-act theory, Horton argues for a forensic ontology in which the declaration of the believer’s righteousness produces righteousness in the believer. The believer becomes righteous by means of divine fiat. Much like creation where God said “Let there be” and there was, Horton argues that God’s proclamation of the believer’s righteous status creates the reality of sanctified believer. On speech-act theory Horton writes,
Contemporary communicative theory helps us to see the how language actually works in ways often overlooked in modernity. We use words to get things done. Of course, sometimes that includes referring, describing, proposing, and asserting, but we do a host of other things through speech, such as promising, warning, surprising, questioning, comforting, and so forth. The event of one’s writing, uttering, or otherwise signifying something is called the locutionary act. What we do through such signifying is referred to as the illocutionary act (or force). That which is brought about in the hearer as a result is its perlocutionary effect.[32]

For Horton, “justification produces faith, mystical union, and sanctification”[33] through the simultaneously locutionary (communicative) act of the Father proclaiming the believer to be justified, the illocutionary act of seeing the Son in the place of the sinner, and the perlocutionary effect of effectual calling. Many criticisms have been levelled against this position. The most concerning is the seeming reversal of faith and justification in the ordo saludis.
Again, what remains at the heart of the issue is the preeminence of justification and whether justification has any sort of causative or creative power. Michael Horton repeatedly speaks of justification as the “source” and “basis” for salvation.[34] He writes that “(justification) is the forensic basis of union with Christ and is therefore the source of our calling, sanctification, and glorification.”[35] Horton is adamant that “we never leave the theme of justification…[and] we are always returning to our justification in Christ as the source”[36] of “regeneration, sanctification, and glorification” and, based on other comments, one would have to assume union as well. It is “in the wake of justification [that] (the believer) discover(s) Christ’s victories over the powers, the hope of creation’s complete renewal, new birth, the church, and other benefits of participation that could not be ours on any other basis.”[37]
Statements that speak of justification as the “forensic basis” of union with Christ are ambiguous enough simply to be concerning, but to look and see justification as the “source” of regeneration, calling, sanctification, and glorification runs contrary to the Westminster Standards, to Calvin, and to Paul. Horton continues, saying that “(f)orensic justification through faith alone is the fountain of union with Christ in all of its renewing aspects.”[38] It is the assertion set forth in this paper that the exact opposite is the case; union with Christ is the fountain through which all Spiritual blessings flow, including justification.
Horton continues and speaks of justification as “ontological source”: “justification should be seen more clearly not merely as ontologically different from inner renewal, but also as the ontological source of that change (regeneration in both its broader and narrower senses),”[39] and that he shares the “concern to see forensic justification as the communicative source of the new creation as a whole.”[40] So as not to confuse, Horton makes clear that the “source” he speaks of in other passages is of the ontological variety, and it is the source of every aspect of salvation. Horton again asserts that “(w)hile union with Christ and the sanctification that results from that union are more than forensic, they are the consequences of God’s forensic declaration.”[41] Lee Gatis’s apprehensions about this language and the seemingly misappropriation of Calvin are appropriate: “To say that one of the benefits of union with Christ is the basis for the union itself, or that it is logically prior to the union in and through which it is received does not seem to make good sense of Calvin.”[42]
It is difficult to imagine this appropriation of speech-act theory in regards to justification not creating a situation where justification is, to one degree or another, a legal fiction. To imbue the declaration of righteousness with causative powers temporally or logically prior to actual imputation creates a situation where God is declaring something to be what it is not. Lane Tipton, addressing this very topic in conversation with Horton, emphasized the fact that “(t)he declarative act of God is consequent to and dependent upon imputed righteousness.”[43] “Consequent to and dependent upon” is an incredibly helpful and important phrase. Any declaration that God makes in regards to believer’s justification presupposes and takes into account imputed righteousness received by faith. It is a very shaky foundation to posit any sort of declaration of the believer’s righteousness that is logically prior to the imputation of Christ’s righteousness received by faith. This means that any discussion of declaration as cause, source, base, etc., logically or temporally prior to imputation received by faith and the believer’s union with Christ, is troublesome to say the least. It is simply a declaration without an imputation which is, for all intents and purposes, a legal fiction[44].
In fairness, Dr. Horton is not treading on virgin soil. His argument is simple: When God says “Let there be” there is. And when God proclaims the sinner as justified, the sinner is justified. When he says “Your sins are forgiven,” they are forgiven. Contrary to the causative power of the declaration creating a legal fiction, Horton cites Louis Berkhof to argue why it is necessary for the declaration to precede the imputation:
The mystical union in the sense in which we are now speaking of it is not the judicial ground, on the basis of which we become partakers of the riches that are in Christ. It is sometimes said that the merits of Christ cannot be imputed to us as long as we are not in Christ, since it is only on the basis of our oneness with Him that such an imputation could be reasonable. But this view fails to distinguish between our legal unity with Christ and our spiritual oneness with Him, and is a falsification of the fundamental element in the doctrine of redemption, namely, of the doctrine of justification. Justification is always a declaration of God, not on the basis of an existing condition, but on that of a gracious imputation, —a declaration which is not in harmony with the existing condition of the sinner. The judicial ground for all the special grace which we receive lies in the fact that the righteousness of Christ is freely imputed to us.[45]

But, in regards to historical Reformed Theology, it would seem that Calvin stands opposed to Berkhof and Horton both, and even Berkhof is unclear on the issue. Berkhof later adds that the “sinner is declared righteous in view of the fact that the righteousness of Christ is imputed to him.[46] It is difficult to see how the two statements go together. This same sort of ambiguous tension exists in Horton and in any who seek to properly maintain the preeminent place of union in the ordo saludis but want to speak of justification as practically more than a forensic declaration. Calvin does not distinguish between degrees or types of union. He certainly does not argue for justification begin the cause, basis, or ontological source of union. Being in Christ is being in Christ and that status is the basis for all of the good gifts the believer receives, including the gifts of justification and imputation. This is why Calvin famously said that we “must understand that as long as Christ remains outside of us, and we are separated from him, all that he has suffered and done for the salvation of the human race remains useless and of no value for us.”[47] His point is as clear as it is forceful. Apart from union with Christ, there is no salvation in any sense. There is no justification. There is no imputation. There is no hope because there is no faith. “Therefore, to share with us what he has received from the Father,” Calvin continues, “he had to become ours and to dwell within us. For this reason, he is called “our Head” [Eph. 4:15], and “the first-born among many brethren” [Rom. 8:29]. We also, in turn, are said to be “engrafted into him” [Rom. 11:17], and to “put on Christ” [Gal. 3:27].”[48] To share with the believer what he received from the Father, Christ has to be united to that person and that person has to be united to him. “For…all that he possesses is nothing to us until we grow into one body with him…(and) we obtain this by faith.”[49]
Forensic Justification
To declare that justification is exclusively forensic should not cause much of a stir in Reformed circles. Forensic justification has been a staple of Reformed soteriology since the time of the Reformation, and the understanding of justifications as exclusively a forensic declaration has been nearly as ubiquitous. John Murray says so with characteristic directness: “justification is always forensic and does not refer to any subjective change in man’s disposition.” [50] R.C. Sproul succinctly and clearly explains the Reformed understanding of this issue when he writes that, “(f)orensic justification means we are declared righteous by God in a legal sense. The ground of this legal declaration is the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to our account.”[51] Calvin wrote that a person is “said to be justified in God’s sight who is both reckoned righteous in God’s judgment and has been accepted on account of his righteousness. Indeed, as iniquity is abominable to God, so no sinner can find favor in his eyes in so far as he is a sinner and so long as he is reckoned as such.”[52] Calvin’s use of “reckoned as such” emphasizes the forensic nature of God’s justifying work.
Forensic justification is a crucial distinctive of the Reformation because it counters the Roman error of conflating justification and sanctification and guards against the heresy of justification by faith and works. John Frame offers a helpful rebuttal of this Roman error when he notes how important it is “to distinguish between justification and sanctification, though Roman Catholic theology makes them overlap.”[53] Frame distinguishes by noting that “in justification, God declares us righteous; in sanctification, he makes us righteous.”[54] This is why it is important to recognize that justification is exclusively forensic. “It is about our legal status, not our inner character. For the important thing is that in justification God justifies the ungodly, those who by their inner character are wicked.”[55] This is contrary to Roman Catholicism and much contemporary thought where God justifies people “because he likes our inner character”[56] even if that “inner character” is the result of what “(God) he himself has done within us (our “infused” righteousness).”[57] Rather, God “justifies us only because of Christ.”[58]
Francis Turretin wrote extensively on the doctrine of forensic justification. In affirming that justification is “always used in a forensic sense”[59] in regards to calling and faith, Turretin is quick to express the care that is necessary when addressing this doctrine that is “of the greatest importance in religion.”[60] If this doctrine is “adulterated or subverted,” Turretin argues, “it is impossible to retain purity of doctrine in other places.”[61] Turretin offers the following five reasons why justification is exclusively forensic:
1.      The passages which treat of justification admit no other than a forensic sense (cf. Job 9:3; Ps. 143:2; Rom. 3:28; 4:1–3; Acts 13:39 and elsewhere). A judicial process is set forth and mention is made of:
·         an accusing “law,” of “accused persons” who are guilty (hypodikoi, Rom. 3:19),
·         of a “hand-writing” contrary to us (Col. 2:14),
·         of divine “justice” demanding punishment (Rom. 3:24, 26),
·         of an “advocate” pleading the cause (1 Jn. 2:1),
·         of “satisfaction” and imputed righteousness (Rom. 4 and 5),
·         of a “throne of grace” before which we are absolved (Heb. 4:16),
·         of a “judge” pronouncing sentence (Rom. 3:20)
·         and (of) absolving sinners (Rom. 4:5).
2.      Justification is opposed to condemnation: “Who shall lay anything to the charge of God’s elect? It is God that justifieth. Who is he that condemneth?” (Rom. 8:33, 34) As therefore accusation and condemnation occur only in a trial, so also justification. Nor can it be conceived how God can be said to condemn or to justify, unless either by adjudging to punishment or absolving us from it judicially. …
3.      The equivalent phrases by which our justification is described are judicial: such as
·         “not to come into judgment” (Jn. 5:24),
·         “not to be condemned” (Jn. 3:18),
·         “to remit sins,”
·         “to impute righteousness” (Rom. 4),
·         “to be reconciled” (Rom. 5:10; 2 Cor. 5:19) and the like.
4.      This word ought to be employed in the sense in which it was used by Paul in his disputation against the Jews. Yet it is certain that he did not speak there of an infusion of righteousness (viz., whether from faith or from the works of the law, the habit of righteousness should be infused into man), but how the sinner could stand before the judgment seat of God and obtain a right to life (whether by the works of the law, as the Jews imagined, or by faith in Christ). And since the thought concerning justification arose without doubt from a fear of divine judgment and of the wrath to come, it cannot be used in any other than a forensic sense (as it was used in the origin of those questions which were agitated in a former age upon the occasion of indulgences, satisfactions and remission of sins).
5.      Finally, unless this word is taken in a forensic sense, it would be confounded with sanctification. But that these are distinct, both the nature of the thing and the voice of Scripture frequently prove.[62]

Recognizing justification as exclusively forensic precludes any speech of justification being transformative. This also precludes any speech of justification being a source or cause of transformation. Dr. Horton affirms the exclusively forensic nature of justification. “If union with Christ were, like justification, exclusively forensic, then…”[63] However, Horton then concludes the paragraph in a way that seemingly undermines the exclusively forensic nature of justification: “A forensic justification brings everything else in its wake.” [64] Any speech of justification causing something removes the affirmation of justification as the exclusively forensic, declarative act of God, no matter how passionately the position is vocally affirmed. Beyond that, it ventures much too close to the Romanist error of justification as inner-renewal and ventures perilously close to double justification. Recognizing that union with Christ is the source of justification, not the other way around, rectifies this error, especially since union with Christ is unquestionably transformative. This is one reason that Lane Tipton adamantly expresses the need of recognizing that justification does not temporally or logically precede union with Christ. “Justification is a forensic benefit of union with Christ, and, as such, the benefit of justification manifests Spirit-wrought union with Christ by faith. This needs to be explicit: the believer’s justification is never applied apart from or prior to union with Christ by faith alone.[65] So if union with Christ is the basis for all the believer’s blessings, it would be beneficial to explicitly explore what “in Christ” actually means. What does it mean to be united to Christ, to be in union with him?

What is Union?
Union with Christ cannot be regarded as a fruit of justification. Justification is exclusively forensic and any idea of declaration preceding imputation is a legal fiction. Additionally, justification is a fruit of the believer being united to Christ or, to quote the Apostle Paul, being found “in Christ.” Paul and John’s use of “in Christ” was briefly mentioned above, but what exactly is meant by this phrase and others similar to it? What are Paul and John saying, and what are reformed theologians meaning when they use this language and speak of union with Christ?
A Three-fold Distinction
Richard Gaffin and Anthony Hoekema have each argued that we should see union with Christ “extending all the way from eternity to eternity.”[66] From Ephesians 1:4 to 1 Corinthians 15:22, the salvation of the believer is all about being united to the Savior. Gaffin offers the following three-fold distinction of in Christ that is incredibly helpful. These distinctions must not be seen as divisions or different unions. They are different aspects or dimensions of one, single union. It is crucial that these divisions are maintained without any sort of equivocation, whether that is denying an aspect or blending aspects together.
First is the predestinarian aspect of union. This is the aspect of union spoken of in Ephesians 1:4. The roots of this aspect of union with Christ are in divine election and predate creation itself. In this sense, the believer can look back to eternity past and see that, in this predestinarian sense, he was united with Christ before time began. Hoekema explicitly argues the fact that union with Christ “has its roots in divine election.”[67] The Pauline statement of “(h)e chose us in him” further implies that “our election (that is, our being chosen by God to be saved) should never be thought of apart from Christ.”[68] The uniting of Christ with a chosen people was “planned already in eternity, in the sovereign pretemporal decision whereby God the Father selected us as his own.”[69] In this sense, Christ himself was elect because he was “chosen to be our Savior before the creation of the world (1 Pet. 1:20) (and) Ephesians 1:4 teaches us that when the Father chose Christ, he also chose us. He decreed that Christ would have a people who belonged to him from eternity to eternity. ”[70] In other words, those chosen in eternity past to love and serve the Lord were “never contemplated by the Father apart from Christ or apart from the work Christ was to do for them—they were chosen in Christ.”[71] Union with Christ is not an afterthought in the mind of God. God did not predestine a people to salvation and then work out the logistics. Or, as Hoekema puts it, “God did not decide first to save his people from their sins, and then later to bring in Christ as the executor of that salvation. Union with Christ is not something “tacked on” to our salvation; it is there from the outset, even in the plan of God.”[72]
Second is the redemptive-historical aspect of union. The basis of this aspect of union with Christ is the redemptive work of Christ. A great passage that summarizes this redemptive-historical aspect of salvation as is specifically relates to union is in Romans 6:1-14[73]. In this passage, Paul specifically highlights the believer’s solidarity with Christ in regards to all aspects of salvation. This redemptive-historical focus is the aspect of union that leads Paul to speak of being “buried with him”[74] and “baptized into death,”[75] so that “just as Christ was raised,” the believer is able to “walk in newness of life.”[76] Being “united with him in a death like his,”[77] the believer is “united with him in a resurrection like his.”[78] Emphasizing the redemptive-historical basis of union, Hoekema argues that union with Christ “has its basis in Christ’s redemptive work.”[79] Since the Father has chosen and presented a people to his Son in need of redemption and destined to be redeemed, “Christ came to earth to carry out this redemptive work for his people.”[80] For this reason, “(w)e must therefore never think of Christ’s work of redemption apart from the union between Christ and his people which had been planned and decreed from eternity.”[81]
Finally, there is the existential aspect of union. This is the actual, applicatory, experiential union with Christ that is established with God’s people in experienced time. This is the aspect of union that allows Paul to speak of Andronicus and Junia as “in Christ before me” (Romans 16:7). This aspect is no more real than any other. However, this experiential aspect of union is where the objective reality of God’s desires is subjectively applied to the individual believer in order that it reap the massive benefits in day-to-day experience. The implications of Paul’s note about those “in Christ before (him)” in Romans is not that there was a time before he was predestinarianly united to Christ and not that there was a time that there was a time that the work of Christ was, from God’s perspective, irrelevant to Paul; the implication of his statement is that there was a time when Paul experienced reality as a “child of wrath” and “enemy of God” until this union with Christ was applied to his actual experience.
Salvation, from beginning to end, is in Christ
Recognizing all of these facets helps to illustrate how the believer’s union with Christ is from the beginning (predestinarian) to the end (existential/experiential and eternal). In regards to how believers experience this salvation, the entirety of that aspect has to be viewed in regards to the believer’s union with Christ. In addressing this truth, Hoekema distinguishes eight ways that this salvation is, from beginning to end, in Christ.
First, we are initially united with Christ in regeneration. There is a transition that occurs where the child of wrath is born again into a child of the King. What affects this transition? It is nothing other than being united to the living Christ. Ephesians 2 shows that this regeneration occurs “in Christ:” “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:4-5, 10). Paul contrasts the unbeliever’s state as “dead in our trespasses” and the new status of the believer as “created in Christ Jesus.” The shift is in union—what the person is “in.” “It is therefore at the moment of regeneration that union between Christ and his people is actually established. This union is not only the beginning of our salvation; it sustains, fills, and perfects the entire process of salvation.”[82] Richard Gaffin offers a helpful idea from the works of Calvin as it relates to a person coming into union with Christ: “Union with Christ, then, is forged by the Spirit’s working faith in us, a faith that ‘puts on’ Christ (citing Gal. 3:27), that embraces Christ as he is offered to faith in the gospel.”[83]
We “appropriate” and remain in this regenerate life of union with Christ through faith.[84] Both Galatians 2:20 and Ephesians 3:16-17 are excellent examples of the role of faith in relation to union. “It is important,” Hoekema adds, “to remember that the only way in which we can appropriate union with Christ is by faith.”[85] Even though it is the Spirit who “brings us into this living union, we can only grasp and continue to enjoy this union by faith…Through faith we actualize and experience our having been made new creatures in Christ.”[86]
Again, justification can rightly be considered “the main hinge on which religion turns.”[87] It also has been argued that justification is the article by which the church stands and falls. This doctrine has been of great importance and warranted much debate and discussion throughout church history (especially since the Reformation) for good reason. Justification is a huge, important, critical issue. And it is greatly important that the believer realize that justification is dependent upon union with Christ. Justification is “that act of God by which he imputes (or credits to the account of) believers the perfect satisfaction and righteousness of Christ in such a way that all their sins are forgiven and they are considered perfectly righteous in the sight of God.”[88] In both of Paul’s letters to the church in Corinth, Paul emphasizes the doctrine of justification as it relates to union (1 Cor. 1:30; 2 Cor. 5:21), as he does in the letter to the Philippians (Phil. 3:8-9).
As prevalent as the doctrine of justification has been at least since the time of the Reformation, the doctrine of sanctification has been just as long. Justification and sanctification are inextricably linked and, just as justification is “in Christ,” believers are sanctified through union with Christ. “Sanctification in the progressive sense may be defined as that work of God by which the Holy Spirit progressively renews the life of the believer and enables him or her to live to the praise of God. This aspect of our salvation, too, can only be experienced in union with Christ”[89] A beautiful example of this truth comes from the words of Christ in John 15. In that chapter, Christ combines the terminology of the believer in Christ with the terminology of Christ in the believer to illustrate the necessity of union in “bearing fruit” (i.e. sanctification): “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:4-5).
Union with Christ is the means by which believers are preserved in their faith. We persevere in the life of faith in union with Christ (John 10:27-28; Rom. 8:38-39). The next section will address facets of union with Christ, and one of those is the fact that it is indissoluble. This fact is based on numerous realities, but the very fact of it is what preserves the believer and allows him to persevere. “The Bible teaches that true believers are so preserved by God that they are enabled to persevere in the life of faith to the end. This blessing of perseverance, however, can only be experienced in union with Christ.”[90]
The doctrine of union with Christ even speaks to how the believer experiences the end of his life. The men who framed the Heidelberg Catechism knew that people created in the image of God yet separated from him because of sin incessantly sought the comfort that was originally forfeited by the first Adam and reclaimed by the Second. For this reason, their catechism begins with a question in regards to what is the only (true and lasting) comfort for the believer in life and in death. In response to this question the catechist is instructed to respond with some of the most beautiful words ever written:
That I, with body and soul, both in life and in death, am not my own, but belong to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ, who with His precious blood has fully satisfied for all my sins, and redeemed me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me, that without the will of my Father in heaven not a hair can fall from my head; yea, that all things must work together for my salvation. Wherefore, by His Holy Spirit, He also assures me of eternal life, and makes me heartily willing and ready henceforth to live unto Him. [91]

In life, the believer is united to Christ; he is not his own. In death the believer is united to Christ; he is not his own. By being brought into union with Christ, the believer shares in every blessing that Christ has procured. And the framers of the catechism saw this as a source of comfort and hope, as the only source of comfort and hope (Romans 14:8; 1 Thessalonians 4:16; Revelation 14:13).
The reason that the catechism can point a believer’s heart to union with Christ in regards to death is because that union with Christ also applies to what happens after death. The believer who dies “in Christ” will be raised “in Christ.” In one sense, believers have already been raised with Christ but there remains a resurrection yet to come that spurs the believer on to greater and greater hope. All believers will be raised to eternal life with Christ (Col. 3:1; 1 Cor. 15:22). “Since Christ, who is our Head, was raised from the dead, we who belong to him will also be raised in the physical sense. But we shall be resurrected in Christ—in fellowship, in union with him.[92]
Paul writes in Colossians 3:4 that, “When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.” All believers will be eternally glorified with Christ. “Future glory, in other words, will be nothing other than a continued unfolding of the riches of union with Christ.[93] From beginning to end, regeneration to glorification, salvation is in union with Christ.
Facets of Union
In Redemption Accomplished and Applied, John Murray describes multiple facets of the believer’s union with Christ. In it, he notes that he is speaking of a union with Christ that “has its source in the election of God the Father before the foundation of the world and it has its fruition in the glorification of the sons of God.”[94]
The first facet he speaks of is the fact that this union is Spiritual. This union is effected by the work of the Holy Spirit. To say that this union is Spiritual is not to say that it is non-physical, immaterial, or ephemeral. This Spiritual union with Christ stems from the relationship between the glorified Christ and the Holy Spirit.
It is also mystical. This is a word that often experiences quite a bit of dissonance between connotative and denotative meaning, so it must be noted that when “we use the word “mystical” in this connection it is well to take our starting-point from the word “mystery” as it is used in the Scripture.”[95] For the simple fact that we are “liable to use the word to designate something that is completely unintelligible and of which we cannot have any understanding”[96] and that this is contrary to the manner in which it is used in Scripture, Murray notes that Paul’s usage in Romans 16:25-26 “sets the points for the understanding of this term.”[97] In this passage, Paul speaks of “the revelation of the mystery hid from times eternal, but manifested now through the Scriptures of the prophets according to the commandment of the eternal God and made known unto the obedience of faith among all nations.”[98] John Murray summarizes Paul’s point that a mystery is “something which eye hath not seen nor ear heard neither hath entered into the heart of man but which God has revealed unto us by his Spirit and which by revelation and faith comes to be known and appropriated by men.”[99]
This mystical, Spiritual (i.e. affected by the Spirit) union is one that is life-giving. It is vital. Just as Paul points out in Colossians, “When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. For the believer, Christ is life” (Colossians 3:4). And the only way to have life is to be united to this only life-giving source. John Murray puts it this way, “It is out of the measureless fullness of grace and truth, of wisdom and power, of goodness and love, of righteousness and faithfulness which resides in him that God’s people draw for all their needs in this life and for the hope of the life to come.”[100]
This union is triune, and, just like the relationship between the Trinity, it is an indissoluble union; it extends from eternity to eternity. Paul’s words in Romans 8:38-39 are especially comforting and encouraging: “For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Nothing is able to separate the believer from the love of Christ because the believer has been united to Christ. In being united to Christ, the believer is united to the Father. And in being united to the Father and to the Son, the believer is united to the Spirit. So that this union with Christ is a union with the eternal, omnipotent, omnibenevolent, triune God. This is “mysticism on the highest plane.”[101] This is not a mysticism of “vague unintelligible feeling or rapture.” It is “the mysticism of communion with the one true and living God, and it is communion with the one true and living God because and only because it is communion with the three distinct persons of the Godhead in the strict particularity which belongs to each person in that grand economy of saving relationship to us.”[102] This leads Murray into a doxological outburst in which all believers can join:
Believers know the Father and have fellowship with him in his own distinguishing character and operation as the Father. They know the Son and have fellowship with him in his own distinguishing character and operation as the Son, the Saviour, the Redeemer, the exalted Lord. They know and have fellowship with the Holy Spirit in his own distinguishing character and operation as the Spirit, the Advocate, the Comforter, the Sanctifier. It is not the blurred confusion of rapturous ecstasy. It is faith solidly founded on the revelation deposited for us in the Scripture and it is faith actively receiving that revelation by the inward witness of the Holy Spirit. But it is also faith that stirs the deepest springs of emotion in the raptures of holy love and joy. Believers enter into the holy of holies of communion with the triune God and they do so because they have been raised up together and made to sit together in the heavenlies in Christ Jesus (Eph. 2:6). Their life is hid with Christ in God (Col. 3:3). They draw nigh in full assurance of faith having their hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience and their bodies washed with pure water because Christ is not entered into holy places made with hands but into heaven itself now to appear in the presence of God for them (Heb. 9:24).[103]

When mentioning the triune nature of the believer’s indissoluble union, another three-fold aspect of the doctrine of union comes to mind. Union with Christ is union with the three-fold office bearing Christ. Calvin notes that “in order that faith may find a firm basis for salvation in Christ, and thus rest in him, this principle must be laid down: the office enjoined upon Christ by the Father consists of three parts. For he was given to be prophet, king, and priest.”[104] The Westminster Confession speaks of this three-fold office in chapter VIII:
It pleased God, in his eternal purpose, to choose and ordain the Lord Jesus, his only begotten Son, to be the Mediator between God and man; the Prophet, Priest, and King; the Head and Saviour of his Church; the Heir of all things; and Judge of the world: unto whom he did from all eternity give a people to be his seed, and to be by him in time redeemed, called, justified, sanctified, and glorified.[105]

The Westminster Shorter Catechism offers some insight on each of these roles. In being united to Christ who is prophet, the believer is united to a Christ who “executeth the office of a prophet, in revealing to us, by his word and Spirit, the will of God for our salvation.”[106] In being united with a Christ who is priest, the believer is united to a Christ who “executeth the office of a priest, in his once offering up of himself a sacrifice to satisfy divine justice, and reconcile us to God; and in making continual intercession for us.”[107] And in being united to a Christ who is king, the believer is united to a Christ who, “executeth the office of a king, in subduing us to himself, in ruling, and defending us, and in restraining and conquering all his and our enemies.”[108] In commenting on the Westminster Confession, Chad Van Dixhoorn speaks of one of the “great wonders of the incarnation and our salvation” being the very fact that “the all-glorious and only begotten of the Father could humble himself and become a man.” But even on top of that it is “another wonder that at the same instant he took to himself new titles and works as our mediator which give us even more scope for praise than we ever had before.”[109] Christ was “promoted as a prophet greater than Moses himself…declared an eternal high priest… established as a king of Zion (whose) kingdom shall never end.”[110] Van Dixhoorn emphasizes the benefits to the believer of Christ as prophet, priest, and king: “As prophet, he is our teacher. As priest, he is our mediator and only hope. As king, he is our defender and ruler.”[111]
The fact that this union is with the Christ who is prophet, priest, and king is an important distinction to bear in mind when looking forward to the pragmatic, every-day, applicatory aspects of the doctrine of the believer’s union with Christ.
In seeing what union is, it is also important to see what it is not. The believer’s union with Christ is not an ontological union. The believer does not become Christ and Christ does not become the believer. It is not a hypostatic union like the union between Christ’s humanity and divinity. Also, it is not a psychosomatic union. The believer’s union Christ is a mental agreement and an experiential reality, but it not merely a mental agreement or experiential reality.
What about Sanctification
So, this naturally leads to the topic of sanctification. Union with the risen and reigning Lord, the Christ who is prophet, priest, and king bears great consequence when discussing the doctrine of sanctification. Sinclair Ferguson offers a compelling argument as to why the believer’s union with Christ is the foundation of sanctification. Ferguson argues that if believers are united to Christ, “then we are united to him at all points of his activity on our behalf.” [112] If this is the case, Ferguson continues, then,
We share:
            * in his death (we were baptized into his death),
            * in his resurrection (we are resurrected with Christ),
            * in his ascension (we have been raised with him),
            * in his heavenly session (we sit with him in heavenly places, so that our life is hidden with Christ in God), and we will share
            * in his promised return (when Christ, who is our life, appears, we also will appear with him in glory) (Rom. 6:14; Col. 2:11-12; 3:1-3).[113]

Ferguson’s point is clear but he proceeds to make it explicit: “(Union with Christ), then, is the foundation of sanctification in Reformed theology.”[114] To guard against anything that would deny God the glory due to him, Ferguson clarifies that this union is rooted, “not in humanity and their achievement of holiness or sanctification, but in what God has done in Christ, and for us in union with him.”[115] The fact that union is rooted in union should not be overlooked. Neither should Ferguson contrast of the small picture that dominates the minds of humans far too often from the big picture that God himself views reality through: “Rather than view Christians first and foremost in the microcosmic context of their own progress, the Reformed doctrine first of all sets them in the macrocosm of God’s activity in redemptive history. It is seeing oneself in this context that enables the individual Christian to grow in true holiness.”[116]
Duplex Gratia
Of first importance when examining the relationship of justification and sanctification in relation to union with Christ is the idea of the unio Christi-duplex gratia framework of salvation. According to Calvin, by “participation in him” (i.e. union with Christ) apprehended and possessed by faith, believers receive a two-fold grace: a shift from having a judge to having a Father (justification) and then a devotion to innocence and purity of life (sanctification: the “second grace”). So the basic framework of unio Christi-duplex gratia is that the believer’s union with Christ is the source of a two-fold, distinguishable yet inseparable blessing of both justification and sanctification. Using righteousness synonymously with justification, Calvin responds to the contention that justification by faith is antithetical to good works and holy living by pointing out that “as Christ cannot be torn into parts, so these two which we perceive in him together and conjointly are inseparable—namely, righteousness and sanctification.”[117]
As diligent as Calvin was to reject any sort of bifurcation of justification and sanctification, he was just as apt to reject any teaching that would conflate the two. He wrote in his Institutes that although we “may distinguish (justification and sanctification), Christ contains both of them inseparably in himself.”[118] If the believer desires to “attain righteousness on Christ… (he) must first possess Christ; but (he) cannot possess him without being made partaker in his sanctification, because (Christ) cannot be divided into pieces.”[119] And because it is “solely by expending himself that the Lord gives (the believer) these benefits, he bestows both of them at the same time, the one never without the other.”[120] In this way, Calvin makes it explicitly clear that the believer is “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.”[121] Note again Calvin’s emphasis that it is the “sharing in Christ” that leads to justification; it is not justification that leads to sharing in Christ (i.e. union with Christ). Also note his parallel emphasis of the distinguishable yet inseparable gifts of justification and sanctification.
Calvin was adamant that righteousness (justification) and sanctification were distinguishable and inseparable gifts of God bestowed upon a believer through and due to the believer’s union with Christ. As Lee Gatis puts it, “For Calvin then, justification and sanctification are distinct yet inseparable, and simultaneously bestowed on us in union with Christ by faith. In Christ (that is: being united to Christ), the sun, we have both light and heat, justification and sanctification, distinguishable but together.”[122] Cornelius Venema compares the distinction Calvin offers as analogous to the Chalcedonian Christological settlement which spoke of the two natures of Christ as being “without confusion” and “without separation.” He distinguishes justification and sanctification as “distinct in conception” yet “inseparable in reality” seeing to the fact that they are “simultaneously bestowed and necessarily conjoined benefits of our union with Christ through the operation of His Spirit.” Cornelius Venema helpfully points out that, “(f)or Calvin, justification and sanctification must be conceptually distinguished lest they be confused and our relation to God adversely affected…. Unless the difference between justification and sanctification is carefully maintained, the goodness and mercy of God will be seriously impugned and the assurance of faith will be threatened.”[123] At first blush, this could seem like an overreaction or a hyperbolic attempt on Venema’s part to make his case. However, hopefully by this point, Venema’s alarming tone is recognized as justified and not in the least bit exaggerated. Venema additionally reminds the reader of the parallel danger facing a robust, biblical, Reformed recognition of the relationship between justification and sanctification. “Though Calvin emphasized the conceptual distinction between justification and sanctification for these reasons, he was equally concerned to emphasize the second part of the Christological formula, ‘without separation.’ Though justification and sanctification are conceptually distinct, they are inseparable in reality.”[124]
Definitive Sanctification
In recognizing that justification and sanctification are each blessings and benefits of being united to Christ, it is not too shocking to speak, in that context, of sanctification as, like justification, having a definitive aspect. Definitive sanctification is a benefit of a more basic reality—that is union with Christ. Gaffin explains that “for Paul sanctification is not only a process involving us in our activity but is also and first of all ‘definitive sanctification,’ a decisive, definitive, once-for-all act of God, underlying our activity.”[125] When the topic of sanctification is discussed, generally people view it as “that process by which the believer is gradually transformed in heart, mind, will, and conduct and conformed more and more to the will of God and to the image of Christ until at death the disembodied spirit is made perfect in holiness and at the resurrection his body likewise will be conformed to the likeness of the body of Christ's glory.”[126] And this is a perfectly well-constructed view of sanctification. However, it is not exhaustive. “(I)t is a fact too frequently overlooked that in the New Testament the most characteristic terms used with reference to sanctification are used not of a process but of a once-for-all definitive act.”[127]
Gaffin adds to this distinction. He helpfully makes clear the truth that sanctification is a process involving us in our activity, but sanctification is not only that. Sanctification certainly involves the believer “work(ing) out (his) salvation”[128], and is, in that sense, a progressive work. But the progressive aspect does not preclude the definitive aspect, and the definitive aspect is, in a very real sense, first of all a “decisive, definitive, once-for-all act of God” that underlies the progressive aspect. Believers are called to grow into holiness because, by way of union with Christ, believers are holy and are thus made willing and able to, by the power of the Spirit, become holy as he is holy and as they are themselves objectively holy. As Gatis points out in summarizing Calvin, “In Christ by faith we obtain both a new life and a new legal status. Christ is the source of both; the legal change does not create the life, or vice versa.”[129]
Role of Good Works
This understanding of the duplex gratia of union with Christ and definitive sanctification is crucial for a proper understanding of the role of good works in the life of the believer. Much ink has been spilt (and many more twitter feeds filled) with debate and dissension over the role and necessity of good works in the life of the believer. Are Christians bound by the law in any sense? Are law and gospel antithetical? How do imperatives and indicatives function in the life of the believer? A proper understanding of the doctrine of union with Christ can shed light upon this subject that has often remained in the murk. John Calvin absolutely saw a positive place for good works. Contrary to the Lutheran strand of the Reformation, and significantly contrary to Luther, Calvin argued for a positive, non-meritorious, saving place for good works in the life of the believer.
For many who have been properly indoctrinated contra Rome, it hits the ear as the sourest of notes to hear of a “saving” aspect of good works. One could easily picture Luther thundering loud, humorous, and borderline-vulgar invectives and epithets at the bearer of any phrase resembling in any way the idea of “saving aspect to good works.” And many are not far behind him. However, that visceral repulsion is a case of baby with the bath water in regards to Rome. The key to properly understanding Calvin’s position, and that of Reformed Theology and of the Scriptures, is to not lose sight of the fact that good works have a “non-meritorious, saving place” in the life of the believer. Good works to not merit us a place in God good graces, but a place in God’s good graces is indistinctively accompanied by good works, through which God saves his chosen, redeemed, regenerate, united-with-Christ people.
Calvin is not alone. You see this sort of understanding is echoed, to one degree or another, in the writing of John Owen, Francis Turretin, Jonathan Edwards and Anthony Burgess.
Owen wrote of the doctrine of the gospel as “a doctrine of holiness[130] that teaches, requires, and commands; “this the mysteries and grace of it lead unto; this the precepts of it require; and this the great example of its Author, proposed in it unto us, doth enjoin.”[131] Owen’s position is made even more explicit when he says that without this obedience, “we can have no interest in any of its promises. No unholy person hath any ground to expect the least advantage by the gospel, here or hereafter.”[132] A believer without a manifested holiness, a saint without obedience, a justified person without a sanctified existence are all fundamentally contradictory realities. It is a mirage, a counterfeit, and the saddest of all hypocrisies because when “all things come to their issue, and shall fall under eternal judgment according to the gospel, all other pleas and pretenses will utterly and forever fail them who are ‘workers of iniquity.’”[133]
Francis Turretin offers a helpful framework for works. Turretin emphasized the three-fold manner in which to view the necessity of good works. Good works can be viewed “with reference to justification, sanctification, or glorification.”[134] Good works are related to justification “not antecedently, efficiently, (or) meritoriously.”[135] Rather, good works are related to justification “consequently and declaratively.”[136] Good works are related to sanctification “constitutively because they constitute and promote it”[137] and to justification “antecedently and ordinatively because they are related to it as the means to the end; yea, as the beginning to the complement because grace is glory begun, as glory is grace consummated.”[138]
He continues,

This very thing is no less expressly delivered concerning future glory. For since good works have the relation of the means to the end (Jn. 3:5, 16; Mt. 5:8); of the “way” to the goal (Eph. 2:10; Phil. 3:14); of the “sowing” to the harvest (Gal. 6:7-8); of the “firstfruits” to the mass (Rom. 8:23); of labor to the reward (Mt. 20:1); of the “contest” to the crown (2 Tim. 2:5, 4:8), everyone sees that there is the highest and an indispensable necessity of good works for obtaining glory. It is so great that it cannot be reached without them (Heb. 12:14; Rev. 21:27).[139]

Anthony Burgess provides more support for a positive view of good works. Burgess posited thirteen reasons that good works are necessary for (but not meritorious of) eternal salvation. Mark Jones helpfully compiled these in his book Antinomianism:
1.      “They are the fruit and end of Christ’s death” (Titus 2:14).
2.      “There is an analogical relation between good works and heaven insofar as God has appointed the way (good works) to the end (heaven).”
3.      “There is a promise made to them” (1 Tim. 4:7–8).
4.      “They are testimonies whereby our election is made sure” (2 Peter 1:10).
5.      “They are a condition, without which a man cannot be saved. So that although a man cannot by the presence of them gather a cause of his salvation; yet by the absence of them he may conclude his damnation: so that is an inexcusable speech of the Antinomian, Good works do not profit us, nor bad hinder us.”
6.      “They are in their own nature a defence against sin and corruption” (Eph. 6:14–16).
7.      “They are necessary by a natural connexion with faith, and the Spirit of God.”
8.      “They are necessary by debt and obligation. . . . We cannot merit at God’s hand, because the more good we are enabled to do, we are the more beholding to God. Hence it is, that we are his servants.”
9.      “By the command of God” (1 Thess. 4:3).
10.  “They are necessary by way of comfort to ourselves. And this opposes many Antinomian passages, who forbid us to take any peace by our holiness.”
11.  “They are necessary in respect of God, both in that he is hereby pleased, and also glorified.”
12.  “They are necessary in regard of others” (Matt. 5:16).
13.  “Holiness and godliness inherent is the end of our faith and justification.”[140]

Jonathan Edwards adds to the idea of the necessity of good works for eternal salvation. Edwards makes the argument that it is “necessary” to “prosecute the business of religion, and service of God, with great earnestness and diligence”[141] and to make that service the “main business of their lives.”[142] Edwards argued that “(a)ll Christ’s peculiar people, not only do good works, but are zealous of good works…They who are God’s true servants, give up themselves to his service, and make it as it were their whole work, therein employing their whole hearts, and the chief of their strength.”[143] He continued to affirm the necessity of good works for the believer when he argued that, “Christians in their effectual calling, are not called to idleness, but to labour in God’s vineyard, and spend their day in doing a great and laborious service. All true Christians comply with this call, (as is implied in its being an effectual call,) and do the work of Christians.”[144] In regards to the necessity of good works in order to enter into the eternal, glorified state, Edwards was explicit in his affirmation. “Without earnestness there is no getting along in that narrow way that leads to life; and so no arriving at that state of glorious life and happiness to which it leads. Without earnest labour, there is no ascending the steep and high hill of Zion; and so no arriving at the heavenly city on the top of it.”[145]
Mark Jones has also spent much time examining these issues and offers the following that summarizes the issue well:
Good works were necessary for Jesus if he was to be justified, and he believed the promises that God made to him. At his resurrection, he was publicly vindicated/justified (1 Tim. 3:16) and sanctified (Rom. 6:10). Good works are likewise necessary for our salvation—though, unlike the case with Jesus, not for our justification. Herein is the crucial difference between us and Christ.[146]

What all of these men are saying is that good works are a necessary precondition of the believer’s eternal inheritance. If the believer has been “prepared beforehand” for these good works and they are the means by which we adorn the Gospel to unbelievers and experience the conforming work of the Spirit in our own life, good works are necessary, good, and incredibly beneficial.
Mark Garcia goes as far as arguing that Calvin viewed the conditional language in Paul’s Epistle to the Romans is a replication principle for the believer. The Spirit reproduces in the believer, who is united to Christ, the basic profile of the Savior. Christ suffered before he entered into glory; so will the believer. Christ perfectly obeyed the Father and then entered into glory (Philippians 2:6-11); so will the believer.
Suffering à Glory
Obedience à Reward
It could be said that the ordo saludis is a reflection of the historia saludis, but it is not a mimicking. This replication principle is not an issue where one sees another and seeks to imitate the other. This principle is based on the truth that the believer is united to the Savior—in his suffering and then in his glory, in his obedience and then in his reward. Garcia is quick to note Calvin’s emphasis in interpreting Paul here; God will “sanctif(y) those whom he has previously resolved to glorify” and “will also crown their good works” but this is most certainly “not on account of any merit.” [147]
Why does it matter? Pastoral Benefits of Union with Christ as source of all spiritual blessings
Studying the history of Christian doctrines and investigating Scripture to the point of minutia is a worthwhile endeavor, but the usefulness is not always readily apparent. An obvious and perfectly fair question to ask at this point is, “Why does this all matter?” What makes focusing on the doctrine of union with Christ and how it relates to justification a benefit to the church and to the world? How does it honor God?
The doctrine of the believer’s union with Christ keeps the focus of the believer’s salvation on Christ from beginning to end. The believer does not get to focus on himself, and he does not get to focus on any single aspect or benefit of salvation. The believer does not even get to glance at himself without his sight being filtered through the person and work of Christ with whom he is united.
The doctrine of the believer’s union with Christ expels the Lordship debate. The discussion of whether a person has to know Christ as lord if he knows him as savior makes no sense in the context of union. Christ cannot be divided into parts; he is lord and savior. When union with Christ is viewed in its rightful position as the source of the two-fold grace of justification and sanctification, the Lordship debate is superfluous.
The doctrine of the believer’s union with Christ guards against the polar errors of legalism and antinomianism. The believer being united with Christ is the necessary indicative in which the Bible’s imperatives are rooted. Apart from the objective truth that the believer is united with Christ, the commands of Scripture are either viewed as a path to merit God’s favor or as antiquated rules of a time gone by. The doctrine of the believer’s union guards against these errors.
In this way, the doctrine of the believer’s union with Christ defeats pride. Any successes are rightly understood as the outworking of the Spirit of Christ within the believer. The doctrine of the believer’s union with Christ defeats pessimism. Not only does being united with Christ cause the believer to be willing to obey God, it makes him able as well. The doctrine of the believer’s union with Christ encourages the believer. Not only is he assured of his willingness and ability to live and obey God, he is assured of the fact that he will spend eternity loving and obeying God.
Conclusion
Herman Bavinck commented on the overwhelming focus of John Calvin’s soteriology by pointing out that “what keeps coming back in Calvin is the idea that there is no participation in the benefits of Christ other than by communion with his person.”[148] This truth is as clear as it is vital. And that is not just in regards to the writings of Calvin. Calvin’s focus was based on the overwhelming amount of “in Christ” language that filled the pages of the New Testament.
This participation found in communion is the duplex-gratia of union with Christ. The believer’s union with Christ is rightly understood as the source of all spiritual blessings, including justification and sanctification. The argument for a forensic justification that causes union (or causes anything) is fallacious. Justification without imputation, which itself is the result of being united to Christ, is a legal fiction. The believer does not have justification prior to or apart from union. The Westminster Longer Catechism question 69 makes this clear.
69. What is the communion in grace which the members of the invisible church have with Christ?
The communion in grace which the members of the invisible church have with Christ, is their partaking of the virtue of his mediation, in their justification, (Rom. 8:30) adoption, (Eph. 1:5) sanctification, and whatever else, in this life, manifests their union with him. (1 Cor. 1:30)[149]

Union as a benefit of justification is contrary to the Westminster Standards, Calvin, and Paul. Each of these sources treat union with Christ as the source of all the believer’s blessings, including justification. For this reason and for many other reasons, the doctrine of union with Christ is a teaching of Scripture that brings comfort to all believers and encourages a greater love for the Lord, for the brethren, and for the world. A comment from John Calvin on this doctrine is a good place to end:
Therefore, that joining together of Head and members, that indwelling of Christ in our hearts—in short, that mystical union—are accorded by us the highest degree of importance, so that Christ, having been made ours, makes us sharers with him in the gifts with which he has been endowed. We do not, therefore, contemplate him outside ourselves from afar in order that his righteousness may be imputed to us but because we put on Christ and are engrafted into his body—in short, because he deigns to make us one with him. For this reason, we glory that we have fellowship of righteousness with him. [150]



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[1] John Murray, Redemption: Accomplished and Applied (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, UK: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1955), p. 170.

[2] Anthony A. Hoekema, Saved by Grace (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1994), p. 64.

[3] Lane. G. Tipton. “Union with Christ and Justification.” In Justified in Christ: God’s Plan for Us in Justification, edited by K. Scott Oliphint, 32;34. Fearn, Ross-shire: Mentor, 2007.

[4] John Frame, Systematic Theology. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2013), loc. 2399.

[5] Richard Gaffin, “A Biblical Overview of Union with Christ.” Presentation at Alive with Christ: Saving Union with Christ, The Fall Seminar on Reformed Theology, Ringoes, NJ, November 12, 2013. Accessed May, 2016. http://reformedforum.org/rfs10/

[6] G. Vos. “The Doctrine of the Covenant in Reformed Theology.” In Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation: The Shorter Writings of Geerhardus Vos, edited by R. B. Gaffin. (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1980), p. 248.

[7] Mark Garcia, Life in Christ: Union with Christ and Twofold Grace in Calvin’s Theology. (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2008).
[8] John Murray, Redemption: Accomplished and Applied. (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, UK: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1955), p. 161.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Gaffin, “A Biblical Overview of Union with Christ.”

[11] The Westminster Shorter Catechism: With Scripture Proofs, 3rd edition. (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1996).

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion 1 & 2, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, vol. 1, The Library of Christian Classics (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011).

[15] Ibid., p.541.

[16] John Calvin, Calvin. Sermons on the Epistle to the Ephesians. Translated by A. Golding. (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1973).

[17] James Stewart, A Man in Christ. (Harper and Brothers, 1955), p. vii.

[18] All Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version unless otherwise noted, Standard Bible Society, 2001.

[19] Verse 8 adds important context to this verse:
Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith (Philippians 3:8-9).
[20] William B. Evans, “Three Current Reformed Models of Union with Christ” in Presbyterion Vol. XLI Numbers 1-2. (St. Louis, MO: Covenant Theological Seminary, 2015).

[21] Explored in-depth in subsequent sections.

[22] Evans, William. “Deja Vu All Over Again? The Contemporary Reformed Soteriological Controversy in Historical Perspective” in Westminster Theological Journal 72:1. (Philadelphia: Westminster Theological Seminary, 2010), p. 146.

[23] Evans, “Three Current Reformed Models of Union with Christ,” p. 16.

[24] Geerhardus Vos, The Pauline Eschatology (Princeton, NJ: Geerhardus Vos, 1930), p. 149.

[25] Evans, p. 20.

[26] Geerhardus Vos, The Collected Articles of Geerhardus Vos (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2013), digital.

[27] Evans, p 23.

[28] Ibid., p. 24

[29] Richard B. Gaffin, By Faith, Not by Sight: Paul and the Order of Salvation (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2006), p. 41.

[30] Evans, p. 27.

[31] Horton has reiterated, in writing and interviews, his priority of the doctrine of union and sought to clarify his position. However, due to the prominence of the position he states, even if it does not necessarily properly convey his current opinion, I felt it appropriate to include his published statements which, for all intents and purposes, treat justification as a causal agent(“produces,” “source,” “ontological basis,” etc.) of union with Christ.

[32] Michael Horton, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), pp. 118–119.

[33] Ibid., p. 18.

[34] Michael Horton, Covenant and Salvation: Union with Christ. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2007), p. 128.

[35] Ibid., p. 129.

[36] Ibid., p. 130.
[37] Ibid., pp. 130-131.

[38] Ibid., p. 143.

[39] Ibid., p. 198.

[40] Ibid., p. 203.

[41] Ibid., p. 143.

[42] Lee Gatiss, “The Inexhaustible Fountain of All Good Things: Union with Christ in Calvin on Ephesians,” Themelios 34, no. 2 (2009): pp. 199–200.

[43] Lane Tipton, “Union with Christ,” Presentation on The Reformed Forum: Christ the Center #200. October 28, 2001. Accessed May 2016. http://reformedforum.org/ctc2000/

[44] Dr. Horton and Dr. Tipton credit the terminology of “legal fiction” in regards to declaration without imputation to Dr. Robert Strimple.

[45] L. Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans publishing co., 1938), p. 452.

[46] Ibid.

[47] Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion 1 & 2, p. 537.

[48] Ibid.

[49] Ibid., p. 537.

[50] Murray, p. 39.

[51] R.C. Sproul, Grace Unknown: The Heart of Reformed Theology, electronic ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2000), p. 61.

[52] Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion 1 & 2, p. 726.

[53] Frame, loc. 2525.9.

[54] Ibid.

[55] Ibid.

[56] Ibid.

[57] Ibid.

[58] Frame, loc. 2526.

[59] Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, ed. James T. Dennison Jr., trans. George Musgrave Giger, vol. 2 (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1992–1997), p. 633.

[60] Ibid.

[61] Ibid.
[62] Ibid., p. 635.

[63] Michael Horton, People and Place: A Covenant Ecclesiology. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2008), p. 134

[64] Ibid.

[65] Biblical Theology And The Westminster Standards Revisited: Union With Christ And Justification “Sola Fide” -- By: Lane G. Tipton

[66] Gaffin Lecture

[67] Hoekema, p. 56

[68] Ibid.

[69] Ibid.

[70] Ibid., p. 57.

[71] Ibid.

[72] Ibid., pp. 56–57.

[73] What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace (Romans 6:1-14).

[74] Rom 6:4

[75] Rom 6:3

[76] Rom 6:4

[77] Ibid.

[78] Rom 6:5

[79] Hoekema, p. 57.

[80] Ibid.

[81] Ibid.
[82] Ibid., p. 60.

[83] Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., “Justification and Union with Christ,” in A Theological Guide to Calvin’s Institutes: Essays and Analysis (Calvin 500 Series; ed. David W. Hall and Peter A. Lillback; Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian & Reformed, 2008), p. 259.

[84] Ibid.

[85] Hoekema, p. 60.

[86] Ibid.

[87] Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion 1 & 2, p. 726.

[88] Hoekema, p. 61.

[89] Ibid., p. 62.

[90] Ibid., p. 63.

[91] Heidelberg Catechism, Revised Edition. (Cleveland, OH: Central Publishing House, 1907), p. 19.

[92] Hoekema, p. 64.

[93] Ibid.

[94] Murray, p. 164.

[95] Ibid., p. 166.

[96] Ibid., p. 167.

[97] Ibid.

[98] Romans 16:25-26

[99] Murray, p. 167.

[100] Ibid., p. 171.

[101] Ibid., p. 172.

[102] Ibid.

[103] Ibid., pp. 172–173.

[104] Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion 1 & 2, p. 494.

[105] Westminster Assembly, The Westminster Confession of Faith: Edinburgh Edition (Philadelphia: William S. Young, 1851), pp. 50–51.

[106] The Westminster Shorter Catechism: With Scripture Proofs, 3rd edition. (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1996).

[107] Ibid.

[108] Ibid.

[109] Chad Van Dixhoorn, Confessing the Faith: A Reader’s Guide to the Westminster Confession, (Edinburgh, UK: Banner of Truth Trust, 2014), p. 108.

[110] Ibid.

[111] Ibid.

[112] Sinclair Ferguson. “The Reformed View.” Christian Spirituality: Five Views of Sanctification. Ed. Donald Alexander. (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1989), p. 54.

[113] Ibid.

[114] Ibid.

[115] Ibid.

[116] Ibid.
[117] Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion 1 & 2, p. 732.

[118] Ibid., p. 798.

[119] Ibid.

[120] Ibid.

[121] Ibid.

[122] Gatiss, p. 200.

[123] Cornelius Venema, Union with Christ, the “Twofold Grace of God,” and the “Order of Salvation” in Calvin’s Theology. Calvin for Today (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books), 2009.
[124] Ibid.

[125] Gaffin, By Faith, Not by Sight: Paul and the Order of Salvation, p. 77.

[126] John Murray, “Definitive Sanctification.” Christ Our Sanctification, ed. John Hendryx. (Tigard, OR: Monergism Books, 2012).

[127] Ibid.
[128] Gaffin, By Faith, Not by Sight: Paul and the Order of Salvation, p. 77.

[129] Gatiss, p. 201.

[130] John Owen, The Works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold, vol. 7 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, n.d.), p. 162.

[131] Ibid.

[132] Ibid.
[133] Ibid.

[134] Turretin, p. 705.

[135] Ibid.

[136] Ibid.

[137] Ibid.

[138] Ibid.

[139] Ibid.

[140] Anthony Burgess, Vindiciae legis: or, A vindication of the morall law and the covenants, from the Errours of Papists, Arminians, Socinians, and more especially Antinomians (London: T. Underhill, 1646), 37-46. Compiled by Mark Jones and published in Antinomianism: Reformed Theology’s Unwelcome Guest? (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2013),

[141] Jonathan Edwards, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 1 (Banner of Truth Trust, 1974), 315.

[142] Ibid.

[143] Ibid.

[144] Ibid.

[145] Jonathan Edwards, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 1 (Banner of Truth Trust, 1974), 315.

[146] Jones, p. 76.
[147] John Calvin and John Owen, Commentary on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), pp. 89–90.
[148] Herman Bavinck, John Bolt, and John Vriend, Reformed Dogmatics: Sin and Salvation in Christ, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006), p. 523.

[149] The Westminster Larger Catechism: With Scripture Proofs. (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1996).
[150] Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion 1 & 2, p. 737.