Forensic Friday: Vos Weighs In

To [Paul’s] view the resurrection with all that clusters around it, has behind it a still more potential principle, a principle from which in fact it springs, and in whose depths it lies anchored. And this deeper principle is that of the acquisition of righteousness, a forensic principle through and through, and yet no less than the resurrection a transforming principle also. It is especially by considering the nexus between Christ and the believer that this can be most clearly perceived: in the justification of Christ lies the certainty and the root of the Christian’s resurrection. For the supreme fruit of Christ’s justification, on the basis of passive and active obedience, is nothing else but the Spirit, and in turn the Spirit bears in Himself the efficacious principle of all transformation to come, the resurrection with its entire compass included. (The Pauline Eschatology, p. 151)

In our opinion Paul consciously and consistently subordinated the mystical aspect of the relation to Christ to the forensic one. Paul’s mind was to such an extent forensically oriented that he regarded the entire complex of subjective spiritual changes that take place in the believer and subjective spiritual blessings enjoyed by the believer as the direct outcome of the forensic work of Christ applied in justification. The mystical is based on the forensic, not the forensic on the mystical. (“‘Legalism’ in Paul’s Doctrine of Justification,” in Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation, ed. Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., p. 384)


52 thoughts on “Forensic Friday: Vos Weighs In

  1. Darryl

    Thanks for this. I wanted to get one thing clear though – are you arguing for the primacy of justification in the ordo, or something else?

    The only reason I ask is that the second quotation from Vos is often used to argue the case. But to use that article to prove such a point is to stand Vos on his head. He writes, in the same publication you quoted, but from the article “Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation”,

    “The Christian knows that he is a party in God’s covenant and as such he has all things and spans at any one moment the whole orbit of grace, both in time and for eternity. By faith he is a member of the covenant, and that faith has a wide outlook, a comprehensive character, which not only points to justification but also to all the benefits which are his in Christ. Whereas the Lutheran tends to view faith one-sidedly – only in its connection with justification – for the Reformed Christian it is saving faith in all the magnitude of the word. According to the Lutheran, the Holy Spirit first generates faith in the sinner who temporarily still remains outside of union with Christ; then justification follows faith and only then, in turn does the mystical union with the Mediator take place. Everything depends on this justification, which is losable, so that the believer only gets to see a little of the glory of grace and lives for the day, so to speak. The covenant outlook is the reverse. One is first united to Christ, the Mediator of the covenant, by a mystical union, which finds its conscious recognition in faith. By this union with Christ all that is in Christ is simultaneously given. Faith embraces all this too; it not only grasps the instantaneous justification, but laid hold of Christ as Prophet, Priest and King, as his rich and full Messiah. … Therefore faith may not be confined within the limited circle of one piece of the truth and its gaze fixed on that all the time; it must have in view, freely and broadly, the whole plan of salvation.” (p256)

    In the “Legalism” article Vos is arguing against those who want to co-ordinate the “subjective spiritual blessings enjoyed by the believer” with justification (p384) – to overlap them and conflate them. He is arguing against those who are confusing the mystical/subjective aspects of justification (“those being” Paul Wernle and Arthur Titius) with the objective. As someone recently pointed out to me “Whatever Titius is doing with the mystical, Vos thinks his notion must be subordinate to the forensic. On the other hand, Vos understands that justification is a benefit of Spirit based faith-union with the mystical Christ. What Vos understands as mystical is different in every way from what he is assessing in Titius.”

    However in the “Redemptive History …” article Vos is quite clear that justification is a benefit of union “one is first united to Christ, the Mediator of the covenant, by a mystical union … by this mystical union all that is Christ’s is simultaneously given. Faith embraces this too; it not only grasps the instantaneous justification but lays hold of Christ…”. Vos is arguing two different issues in the “Redemptive History…” and “Alleged Legalism…” articles.




  2. Maybe Vos was reading Owen about the importance and logical priority of union with Christ? Or maybe it was Calvin? Or Bavinck? Hmmm!


  3. Matt, thanks for the question and supplementary quotations. What I am concerned about is the importance of justification for what Murray called, the crux of the Reformation — namely, how am I right with God. I have said a number of times that I don’t really have a dog in the fight of the order of the ordo. I have also said that I find it very ironic that the historia salutis, which was supposed to remedy a fixation on the exact order of the ordo, has left us with an order that must be followed to be Reformed.

    But back to the import of justification. It was at the heart of the Reformation for both Lutherans and Reformed because the only righteousness that can satisfy God is Christ’s, and the only way to receive is by faith as opposed to works.

    Now, I guess you could answer how am I right with God by saying “you’re right with God by being united to Christ.” But mystical union does not have the specificity that justification does, nor has mystical union been the way that the church has answer the question about being right with God.

    So my concern is a view of union that decenters justification in our understanding of salvation, and that maps out the ordo in ways that leads some to say that Lutheranism is defective in its teaching on salvation. This is what I see happening and why Lutheran has become an epithet in Reformed circles.


  4. Bob, hmmmm indeed. So here we have two sets of quotes from Vos, one about the priority of the forensic and one about the priority of mystical union. But you conclude that Vos teaches the logical priority of union along with Calvin, Bavinck, et al. Now I understand how you have read all the divines and find them so congenial. Whenever one writes something that seems to conflict with you, you simply chalk them up as agreeing with you. Hmmmm.


  5. Bob – don’t understand you, sorry.


    Thanks for the clarification – that’s helpful.

    I agree, apart from worship the Reformation was about justification, and I haven’t heard many people, either preachers or lay persons declare that they are right with God by being mystically united to Christ. I wouldn’t object to that answer at all, in fact I like it.

    It seems to me that this whole discussion tends to be all union, or all justification. Surely there is a happy medium. Justification is clearly part of a “package” of blessings which come to us through union (or through effectual calling as per Shorter Catechism). Yet the issue of man’s right standing before God is centred (British spelling) on justification, is it not? The two positions should be held together, rather than in opposition to each other or in tension. How can we separate (I don’t mean make a distinction) bride and groom? Righteousness is a huge concept in Scripture and that can’t be denied. But righteousness is only part of the blessings of redemption and restoration that the Father bestows on us in Christ (Eph 1:3).

    Is this fair?



  6. Sounds fair to me! 🙂

    In partial defense of DGH here, there are two points to consider:

    (1) If we were to further stipulate that being united to Christ (as in, being joined to his body “in some sense”) happens at baptism, then naked Union with Christ could lead to baptismal regeneration.

    (2) Or, if we were to stipulate that justification has more than one aspect, not complete until the Judgment, AND that Union with Christ should be viewed flatly, not distinguishing forensic aspects from experiential aspects, then we open the door to covenantal nomism: come in (to Christ) by faith; stay in by obedience.

    Both of these have been suggested in different ways at different times.

    Over against these, it is helpful to think of union and imputation as complementary doctrines: that being united to Christ implies imputation, and imputation means that the righteousness of Christ is mine — i.e., I am united to Him, federally speaking.

    So that at the moment of faith, justification is a done deal. “Staying in” is non-optional; it is guaranteed by our union.

    In this sense, justification has a temporal priority over sanctification and adoption.

    At the same time, union is the mechanism by which justification occurs. It all fits together.



  7. Jeff

    I agree with the general thrust of your comments. Although…

    1) the kind of union we are discussing is union through faith and not the baptismal font (at least that is the kind of union I am discussing – and I am not denying some kind of union at baptism, just not the kind of ‘ordo union’ under discussion here).

    2) Union incorporates both objective and subjective aspects it to it. We don’t need to flatten out union and have a ‘distinctionless’ union. And the blessings of union include a complete justification in the here and now.

    All that to say that my position is not arguing for any of the extremes, either sacramental union or partial justification. You are right – it all fits together.



  8. In case anyone is confused, I consider (1) and (2) to be Bad Things, which is why I don’t think that the doctrine of union alone is enough to guard against problematic doctrines. The doctrine of union is to be taken together with imputation, and union comes through faith.


  9. As I asked at the Heidelblog site, is Vos saying that justification is BASED ON the mystical union? Or is he just arguing against any temporal separation (that he sees in Lutheranism)?


  10. Matt, my take both historically and personally is that ordo questions are a much lower priority in understanding what’s at stake in salvation than justification and the question of a right standing before God. This may explain why almost none of the 16th c. Reformed creeds mention union. That suggests that the Reformation would not have been fought for the sake of union.

    You might respond that that was then and this is now. But given the controversies among conservative Protestants over justification in the last thirty years, I’m not sure how remote the lessons of the sixteenth century are.

    But again, a related concern is that a certain view of union is being read back into the sixteenth century and is also being used to read people out of the Reformed tradition.

    Sorry, but I can’t concede that justification is “only part” of the package of redemption. Does it mean I don’t acknowledge that salvation includes more than justification? It doesn’t. But it also means that I can’t see that Paul would write Romans or Galatians in defense of union.


  11. Matthew (and Jeff and Vern):

    You said, “the kind of union we are discussing is union through faith….”

    That is what you are discussing, but I don’t think that is what Vos is discussing. Though he used the label “mystical,” the context of the article (if it’s the same article that’s available online under the title “The Doctrine of the Covenant in Reformed Theology”, which contains the exact same passage) shows that he is discussing federal (or legal) union, not vital union. There’s no dispute that this unity is prior to justification since all believers were elect in Christ from eternity in the intratrinitarian Covenant of Salvation.

    Since Vos used the word “mystical” to describe this union, I know it won’t be easy to convince you, but I’ll give it a shot. First, look at how he uses the term “mystical union” in other places in the article. The term first appears on page 10 of the Internet version:

    “But the covenant of redemption also has meaning for the application of salvation. It provides the guarantee that the glory of God’s works of redemption shall be impressed upon the consciousness of the elect and be actively expressed through their lives. This can happen only when the application of Christ in its entirety occurs because of and in union with Christ. Only when the believer understands how he has to receive and has received everything from the Mediator and how God in no way whatever deals with him except through Christ, only then does a picture of the glorious work that God wrought through Christ emerge in his consciousness and the magnificent idea of grace begin to dominate and to form in his life. For the Reformed, therefore, the entire ordo salutis, beginning with regeneration as its first stage, is bound to the mystical union with Christ. There is no gift that has not been earned by Him. Neither is there a gift that is not bestowed by Him that does not elevate God’s glory through His bestowal. Now the basis for this order lies in none other than in the covenant of salvation with Christ. In this covenant those chosen by the Father are given to Christ. In it He became the guarantor so that they would be planted into His body in order to live in the thought-world of grace through faith.”

    Here, I think, it is obvious that he is equating “mystical union” with us being planted into Christ in eternity, not in Christ be planted in us in time.

    The word “mystical” appears again in the very next page when Vos quotes Heppe (with approval) for his summary of an Olevianus:

    “The promise and oath-swearing, by which God gave Himself to us as our God, and the adoption as children of God and heirs of eternal life, were made to Christ, who is the Seed of Abraham, and to all those who are implanted into this Seed (De Subst., p. 2). As a result of His guaranty, the Mediator forms an ideal unity with the elect and, when He became flesh and suffered, this suffering could count as a ransom for His body. The resurrection of the Lord is a real acquittal (actualis absolutio) of all those who belong to Him….Heppe draws the following conclusion from his overview: “From this it appears that the doctrine of redemption in Olevianus has its actual center of gravity in the doctrine of the pactum and consilium salutis (treaty and counsel of salvation) between Father and Son, and in the doctrine which rests upon it, namely, the planting of the elect in Christ, or in the mystical body of Christ. . . . This relationship is one already established in eternity, and of such a nature that from eternity the Father looks upon the Son in no other way than as the Word to be made flesh, and then in union with the elect, believers, who form his mystical body” (pp. 218f.).”

    Vos here doesn’t use the precise phrase “mystical union,” but he is talking of a union that is formed, just as above, by the placing of the elect in the mystical body of Christ in eternity. Again, it’s clear that the union that is the focus of this essay is the legal or federal union established in the Covenant of Salvation. The word “mystical” only appears twice more in the article, and that’s in the passage that you cited above.

    The passage that you cited makes more a lot of sense if we interpret the union as the eternal union created when the elect where given to Christ. The Reformed view, Vos is arguing, is superior to the Lutheran view because it engenders assurance of salvation by being rooted in an act of divine fiat in eternity, rather than a mere reception of grace in time. It also gives more glory to God by grounding our salvation in a covenant executed by God through God and for God. Finally, it has in view all the benefits that Christ has acquired for us because it arises from God’s plan of salvation, which includes sanctification and glorification.

    Vos’s argument has to rely on the fact that Reformed theology has introduced not just a different order of union, but an entirely different kind of union or different way of thinking about union. Otherwise, what’s the argument? If it’s simply a matter of timing, how does a believer’s being united to Christ before justification cause him to consider also his adoption, sanctification, and glorification more than if the union occurred after justification?


  12. RL,

    I agree with your analysis. By speaking of union as I have, I’ve been talking about the appropriation of that union, as WLC 66 talks about.

    The union begins in eternity past; is appropriated at the moment of faith; and continues on.

    DGH: But it also means that I can’t see that Paul would write Romans or Galatians in defense of union.

    Oh, but he did. Rom 6 – 8 is a defense of the idea that being justified in Christ carries implications beyond forgiveness – it entails also a transformation (by the Spirit).

    Likewise in Galatians, the argument is, having begun by the Spirit, you should now continue by the Spirit (not the flesh or the Law) because all who have been baptized into Christ (by faith) have clothed themselves with Christ.

    The problem is that you’re pushing justification apart from union, saying, “If they emphasize J, then they aren’t emphasizing U.” I suspect you’re doing that because of the recent conflicts over it. But in the Reformed confessions and in the Reformed theologians, justification is never pitted against union. Rather, union is the mechanism of justification.

    So when Luther argues for justification as central, he argues

    “Now Christ is in the faithful, although they have and feel and confess sins, and with sorrow of heart complain thereof, therefore sins do not separate Christ from those that believe.”

    “Faith’s substance is our will; its manner is, that we take hold on Christ by divine instinct; its final cause and fruit, that it purifies the heart, makes us children of God, and brings with it the remission of sins. ”

    and so on. Even though Luther did not use the word “union”, he used the concept: we are justified in Christ, by taking hold of Christ.



  13. Darryl

    Perhaps my “only part of a package” idea is not so helpful in this discussion. Are we arguing for a temporal priority of justification to union (by ‘we’ I don’t mean me and you, but is the discussion about temporal priority ) or a priority of importance. I’m happy with the latter but not a temporal priority. I agree that Paul didn’t write his ‘justification’ epistles about union, though clearly union is no small matter for him in said epistles.

    If the discussion is over the temporal priority of then we must acknowledge justification to be part of the “spiritual blessings” given to us in Christ. Union, in a temporal discussion must take priority it seems . Union with Christ is the basis of our justification, not the other way around – the only way God can be both just and the justifier of sinners is if His justice is fully satisfied first, and the only way that can happen is by penal substitution. But penal substitution is ‘a legal fiction’ unless the the rightful victim can be identified with the substitutee, ie.union, in a way that is both substantial and legitimate as far as the law is concerned.

    Also, how does the threefold expression of union (a la Gaffin) play into this discussion?

    RL – thanks, I need to spend more time on your post and the articles.



  14. Matthew, please don’t spend time on my post. It’s sloppy and probably not that helpful. But I have a question related to your last comment. Why isn’t God’s election enough to identify a believer as the appropriate recipient of penal substitution? Is it not substantial? Is it not legitimate?


  15. RL

    Election is part of union -at least Paul argues for such in Ephesians 1:4 “He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world”. So in that respect election is part of union – the eternal element. Election guarantees me a place “in Christ” as he died on the cross, it does more than “identify” me as an appropriate recipient of penal substitution. Does that make sense?

    I’m wondering if this is where some of the fuziness (at least in my own mind) is concerning these issues. Gaffin’s (at least I think it is his) 3 fold union is helpful, and I’m wondering whether we are all singing from the same sheet – are we using union in the same sense, (I’m not talking the extremes of union thinking here – I’m dead against the FV and other craziness out there), but I do wonder whether some of this discussion is sidetracked by different conceptions of union?



  16. Matt, which union is the basis for justification? And where does the language of “basis” come from? I’m not trying to be jesuitical, but union is the basis for justification is a pretty cavernous bumper sticker. What I am concerned about is the logical priority of justification to sanctification. With union as the hub of all benefits coming immediately, unionists deny that priority. (I’m happy with the OPC’s report on justification which asserted the priority of justification to sanctification. And the reason is that it recognizes justification’s importance.)

    Jeff, Paul surely addresses more than justification, but Calvin for instance says that Romans is about justification (and this is the guy who supposedly makes union central). Also, in terms of priority, Paul treats justification before sanctification.


  17. Darryl

    Well that’s fine – you’ll get no argument from me on the priority of justification to sanctification – I completely agree.

    As for “union” we are clearly talking saving union and not simply a federal union (in the covenant but not of the covenant).

    However when I talk about the basis or foundation, I’m looking at it from a redemptive historical perspective. Adam had more than righteousness in the garden – he was united to the Triune God manifested in his communion with the 2nd Person of the Trinity in the garden sanctuary. His union was full: knowledge, righteousness, holiness, environment etc etc. God is not just about returning us to that state of righteousness, but to a full and complete relationship in a suitable environment. Thus union is the big picture from beginning to end. That is why the new heavens and new earth passage of Rev 21:-22:5 speaks so prominently of relationship. Now I’m not denying they speak in terms of righteousness and many parts of Scripture testify to the righteous status of the saints in glory. But the climax of redemptive history (this will set the cat among the pigeons) – the new heaven and new earth is primarily (not exclusively) described in relational terms. Now the relationship include and encompasses righteousness – I’m not ignoring it , but it is bigger than righteousness.(Clearly there is much more BT to put into this but that is it in a nutshell). Our election before the foundation of the world secures us in Christ.That “in Christness” therefore has a logical priority to its constituent parts.

    Now as a “unionist” (good job I’m Welsh not Irish) I do not recognize the criticism (at least for myself – though I’m prepared to admit my ignorance of the bigger picture) that emphasizing union with Christ denies a logical priority of justification over sanctification.(Vos, Berkhof and AA Hodge to name but a few, who I think are unionists and yet acknowledge this construction). What it does deny is that justification is the fountainhead of all spiritual blessings. No, the fountainhead is union of which justification is a part, albeit a centrepiece of union.

    And union is a somewhat broad concept? Does the Gaffin construction help us clarify these issues? That is a genuine question not an attempt to make a point.




  18. Come on, Jeff. Have the courage of your convictions. When you say ‘union’ you mean ‘ritual water baptism.’ It’s called paint-by-numbers Christianity. It’s a favorite approach of those who disdain regeneration by the Word and the Spirit.


  19. Matt,

    I have no problem with the relationship language. I think covenant theology is necessarily concerned with relationships. God uses covenants to establish and define his relations with man. So let’s agree, for the sake of argument, that broadly speaking the goal of the entire plan of salvation is union between God and his chosen people — “You shall be my people, and I will be your God.” How does recognizing union with God as the goal of redemptive history prove that union is the fountainhead of justification?

    I think it proves the opposite. If union is the goal, then human sinfulness is the obstacle that God has to be overcome to achieve that goal. That means that human sinfulness must be dealt with before union can be established. There’s so much talk of righteousness because our unrighteousness stands in the way of our union with God. Apart from justification, my relationship to God is that of an enemy. I am condemned. I am under wrath. I need to be justified. I achieve a peace with God through justification (Rom 5:1 “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God. . . .”).

    Wouldn’t it be really, really bad for me to be united to God (in any metaphysical, mystical, participatory sense) before I had peace with God?

    If our union with God precedes our justification, why must we be justified at all? In other words, if union is the goal and that goal can be achieved without justification, justification seems superfluous.


  20. Jeff,

    I know you hold the Standard in high esteem. So please tell me how you reconcile your view with Question 30 of the Shorter Catechism, which clearly and unambiguously teaches that union follows faith:

    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.

    The emphasis on “thereby” was added by me because it seals the argument. Let’s use our dictionary and plug the definition of “thereby” into the answer and see what we get. The Random House Dictionary offers “by that” or “by means of that.” The American Heritage Dictionary adds “because of that.”

    Here’s what we get:

    The Spirit applieth to us the redemption purchased by Christ, by working faith in us, and [by that] uniting us to Christ in our effectual calling.


    The Spirit applieth to us the redemption purchased by Christ, by working faith in us, and [by means of that] uniting us to Christ in our effectual calling.


    The Spirit applieth to us the redemption purchased by Christ, by working faith in us, and [because of that] uniting us to Christ in our effectual calling.

    “That” could refer back to either the Spirit’s application to us of our Christ won redemption or to the Spirit’s working faith in us. If it refers to the former, the answer teaches that the application to us of our Christ won redemption is either the cause or the instrument of union. If it refers to the latter, the answer teaches that faith is either the cause of the instrument of union. Either way the flow is from faith to union, not from union to faith (which is what you contended in an earlier thread).


  21. RL, I don’t understand the question. I’ve been saying that union occurs through faith. So WSC 30 is saying exactly what I’m saying.

    Apparently, something I’m saying appears at odds with that … what is it?


  22. Or put another way, RL, I don’t remember ever contending that the flow is from union to faith; and if I did, I immediately retract it.

    The mechanism is this:

    Effectual calling causes faith, which leads to immediate union with Christ, one aspect of which is justification.



  23. Jeff,

    It was this line from the John Murray thread: “No, the issue at stake is, when we receive justification by faith, do we receive it by being “in Christ”, or do we receive it by some other mechanism (for example, by God imputing faith to us as righteousness?)”

    I read the “it” to refer back to faith. You apparently meant it to refer back to justification. My bad.

    So you see a chain that runs: faith—>union—>justification. And union is the “mechanism” of faith. What distinction are you attempting to draw between instrument and mechanism? Or are you contending that union is an instrument of justification?


  24. I think on an application level an effect of justification is union with Christ. But, as Murray, James Boice points out, union with Christ is from eternality.

    Boice says the doctrine of the mystical union of the Christian with Jesus Christ is important to understanding Romans 5:12-21.

    I think the following is the big picture of union with Christ:

    James Boice explains, “Here I quote from the best statement of these themes I know: a chapter on ‘Union with Christ’” from Murray:


    “The fountain of salvation itself in the eternal election of the Father ‘in Christ’ (Eph. 1:3, 4)…We are not able to understand all that is involved, but the fact is plain enough that there was no election of the Father in eternity apart from Christ. And that means that those was will be saved were not even contemplated by the Father in the ultimate counsel of his predestinating love apart union with Christ—they were chosen in Christ. As far back as we can go in tracing salvation to its fountain we find ‘union with Christ; it is not something tacked on; it is there from the outset.”


    “It is also because the people of God were in Christ when he gave his life a ransom and redeemed them by his blood that salvation has been secured for them; they are represented as united to Christ in his death, resurrection, and exaltation to heaven (Romans 6:2-11; Eph. 2:4-6; Col. 3:3-4)


    “We could not think of such union with Christ as suspended when the people of God become the actual partakers of redemption are created anew in Christ.”


    “Finally, it is in Christ that the people of God will be resurrected and glorified” (1 Cor. 15:22)

    James Boice also says, in short:

    1. The source of our justification is the grace of God” Rom 3:24
    2. The ground of our justification is the work of Christ v. 25
    3. The means of our justification is faith vv. 25-26
    4. The effect of our justification is union with Christ. “This ides is not stated explicated in our passage, being held for Paul’s latter unfolding of the full nature of the gospel. But it does come later. It is the grounds of the benefits of salvation unfolded in Romans 5:1-11and of our victory over sin explained in Romans 5:12-8:17.”



  25. RL: I read the “it” to refer back to faith. You apparently meant it to refer back to justification. My bad.

    No problem. Yes, the “it” meant justification.

    By “mechanism”, I mean the word in its scientific sense: a description of the process. So a mechanism is not a machine, an instrument. Rather, it is simply a description of how it happens.

    How does justification happen?

    Effectual calling –> faith –> union, which includes forensic (justification) and experiential (sanctification, adoption, etc.).

    So that “justification by imputation” and “justification by (forensic) union” are synonyms, two different ways of explaining the same thing.

    Have a good rest of Sunday!


  26. dgh: What I am concerned about is the logical priority of justification to sanctification. With union as the hub of all benefits coming immediately, unionists deny that priority.

    (1) This is a valid concern. We want to maintain at all times that justification is not logically dependent upon sanctification in any way. The road out is to recognize two different aspects of union, corresponding to two different verbs. The forensic aspect of union corresponds to imputation, while the experiential aspect corresponds to the indwelling HS — that is, infusion.

    (2) You’ve conflated temporal priority (“coming immediately”) with logical priority, and those two are traditionally treated as separate things. So the simultaneity of union (in time) has no direct bearing on logical priority.



  27. Jeff:

    As I understand the forensic aspect of union, it occurred in eternity. This aspect corresponds to the me-in-Christ union that is the Father’s choosing the elect in the Son and appointing him the task of representing the elect (as a federal head, a Second Adam) for whom he would offer himself as an atoning sacrifice and also satisfy the requirements of the covenant of creation.

    With this forensic aspect of union achieved before the foundation of the world, the only things that must play out in history are Christ’s executing the plan and the elect receiving the benefits won by Christ. Before conversion, I didn’t need more union with Christ to be justified. I already had the requisite union. Though I knew nothing of it, Christ had always been my federal representative, and I had always been one of his chosen people. What I needed was simply receive the benefits that he obtained for me. My redemption had been won for me. It now needed simply to be applied to me. One benefit of redemption — a completely extra nos benefit — is justification. So I was justified at conversion, but the union that achieved justification (the forensic union) happened in eternity. All I needed to be justified was the empty hand of faith!

    Now, I’m not saying that justification is the sole benefit bestowed at conversion. It’s not. And I’m not denying that a new vital aspect union is made at conversion. It is. This is the Christ-in-me union that renovates, renews, and sanctifies me. But even this vital union (and all its benefits) is rooted in justification.


  28. >Effectual calling causes faith, which leads to immediate union with Christ, one aspect of which is justification.

    Translation as Jeff *really* wants to write that:

    “Effectual calling (which is not so-called ‘regeneration’ by the Word and the Spirit, but a good, ordained, pastor from a Federal Vision or the Roman Catholic Church itself collaring you in some way) causes ritual water baptism, which engenders a conditional faith, or faithfulness, yet leads to immediate union with Christ which is good even if you will eventually fall away; and finally one little, almost really insignificant element in this union is something nit-picking theologians call ‘justification.’ Don’t worry about that too much, you just need to make sure you are faithful at all times and to the correct degree. Our church will have some suggestions to help you along those lines. How much do you make a year?”


  29. Christian

    I think you must be commenting on the wrong thread – no-one seems interested in what you have said. Either that or you have the gift of interpretation.



  30. Darryl and RL

    Thanks for the continuing conversation.

    I understand where you are coming from but the biblical data suggests otherwise. Granted human sin is the problem and needs dealing with – no argument there, but sin did not enter the world and force God to come up with a “plan B”. I know you don’t believe that. Union and salvation was determined in eternity (Eph 1:4). Paul can write this and still maintain that he was by nature a “child[ren] of wrath”. Yet he states that he was united “in Christ” before the foundation of the world. So union precedes the reality of sin and union is still a reality (not even a hypothetical reality, but a real reality – if that is not a tautology?) We were in Christ before the world was created – that means something tangible (and here I’m not interested in denying the central importance of justification and its relationship to union, rather I’m trying to flesh out the concept of eternal union). Suffice to say, that in response to your comment regarding being united prior to having peace with God, we simply have to let Scripture speak for itself. You were united to God (Eph 1:4) even while you were yet a child of wrath. A paradox? (I don’t know – I’m open to correction on this, it is something of a mystery to me. If we are still children of wrath what does that eternal union look like, what does it mean? Is it a real union although knowable only by God? Certainly a sinner before his conversion would have little or no concept of it. The list of questions is endless! But the fact of eternal union seems irrefutable.)

    Here, I think Gaffin’s understanding of union is useful – the threefold distinction of eternal union (Eph 1:4), redemptive historical union (Rom 6:1-7) and existential union (Eph 1:13-14). Scripture, I believe, teaches the three aspects of the same union – that is important – they are not different unions but aspects of the one free choice of God. Now the eternal union is the foundational union – the decretive underpinning of the latter two. Concerning this eternal election (Eph 1:3-14) John Murray wrote “election is logically and causally prior to all blessings bestowed. In other words, that in accordance with which all spiritual blessing is bestowed [of which Paul states the redemption and forgiveness of sin is a part – Eph 1:7] and is in the possession of the believer, is something that antedates all history, namely election. This order cannot be reversed”. He continues “The blessings mentioned, at least most of them, are blessings bestowed, and therefore in actual possession. We ask the question: what is the origin of this relationship? The answer is given in verse 4 – ‘chosen in him before the foundation of the world”. (Collected Writings, Vol II, p 126-128). The sphere of election is “in Christ” that’s the language of union. Now if we were elected in Christ and have been blessed with “every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” it stands to reason that the decree of election (“in Christ”) is the foundation of the other aspects of union and all other spiritual blessings.

    Having been united from eternity it seems that Paul argues that we were also “united in the likeness of his death” (Rom 6:5). In order to participate in Christ’s life, death and resurrection we must have be united to him. For him to be our penal substitute there must have been at the time as real a union with the Savior as we have naturally with Adam. Otherwise our union and our justification become a legal fiction. It is only through our union with the Saviour as he hung upon the cross that we have access to his work. The one side of the great exchange takes place at the cross – when Christ bore our sins, the other element of it comes with faith. (it seems). Paul argues this also in Rom 5:6 “for while we were still without strength, Christ died for the ungodly”. There is a clear temporal connection here – Paul indicates that there was a time past when we were without strength, but he explains that time past by describing it as a time when “Christ died”.

    Now the circle is not yet complete. Union is not complete until God works faith in us. This is Gaffin’s existential union – union, of which we consciously become participants. We cannot be right / at peace with God until we “trusted in Christ” (Eph 1:12), “having heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation” (1:13) and having been “sealed by the Holy Spirit of promise” (1:14). (I’m not trying to provide a comprehensive ordo here – just following Paul’s reasoning in Ephesians). Unless the Holy Spirit regenerates and then applies all the blessings of faith, our salvation and thus our union is incomplete.

    Another way to look at it is by an analysis of Romans 8:29-30 which I take to be a basic ordo but in the form of synecdoche. Eternal union is spoken of in terms of foreknowledge and predestination. Pre-faith temporal union is described in terms of calling. Temporal faith based union is spoken of in terms of justification and post-faith eternal union is described as glorification. But in this part-for-whole ordo I do agree with you that we see a priority of importance and even a logical priority of justification over the other aspects of temporal faith based union (adoption, sanctification, perseverance etc). Paul chose justification to represent all the benefits of faith-based-union for good reasons, for its pivotal role in closing the circle of salvation and union as we enter into it in time.

    So Darryl and RL this is why I am happy speaking of union as a foundational concept. The big picture is, surely, union in which justification is situated. Justification is, to use a modern phrase “front and centre” of our presentation of the gospel, but it is not alone in our presentation of the gospel, nor from a systematic perspective is it the big picture. The reformation was right to focus on justification (and so are we especially in light of all the modern attacks upon it) but the Reformers task was not to set out justification in its relationship to union (something I think Luther may have miscued) but to fight for the truth of justification in the context of how a man might be right with God. I trust you understand that I am not arguing against the centrality and importance of justification –please don’t misunderstand me.

    As ever, brothers, thanks for the interaction and spirit of this discussion.



  31. RL: Before conversion, I didn’t need more union with Christ to be justified. I already had the requisite union.

    I understand (I think) what you’re saying, but WSC 30 argues against your words.

    If I understand, what you’re saying is that our forensic union begins at the point of God identifying us as his people — which happens before the creation of the world. And that’s true.

    But our union is appropriated at the moment of faith. Thus WSC 30:

    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.

    We notice (WSC 32) that justification is a part of that applied redemption — compare also WLC 69.

    And in the literature, the same is true. Take Hodge for example:

    Hodge, Outlines, p. 378: 6. How is this union between Christ and the Christian established?

    It was established in the purpose and decree of God, and in the covenant of the Father with the Son from eternity, Eph. i. 4; John xvii. 2,6. Nevertheless the elect … are born and continued “by nature children of wrath, even as others,” and “strangers from the covenants of promise,” Eph. ii. 3,12. In God’s appointed time, with each individual of his chosen this union is established mutually:
    1. By the commencement of the effectual and permanent workings of the Holy Spirit within them … 2.Which faith is the second bond by which this mutual union is established …

    Reymond (pp.736ff.) is similar, and to my recollection Berkhof, but I don’t have a paper copy in front of me and the Web link is broken.

    So you can see that while the union itself does not need improving by our faith; yet still, it is not properly and completely established until faith.

    Or put another way, an unguarded view of your words might conclude that you’re arguing that we are justified from all eternity, that there is no transition from being children of wrath to children of God — and that view has definitely been rejected.



  32. Matthew, does it make any difference that I had little to no interest in what you’ve been writing as well?

    Seriously, this endless indulgence in this nursery level drivel the FVists and their quasi-FVists and the sort-of-FVist supporters (and all the in-between categories) by people – maybe not yourself – who know better is weird.

    Everybody who has come to understanding of the truth and confronts the false teachers bluntly gets kicked off the blogs (we are called mean, see GreenBaggins blog for a good example of this) and the vain merry-go-round continues endlessly.

    The Bible tells you something about answering fools.


  33. Christian, I would prefer that you back off the vitriolic rhetoric. A blog is supposed to be a forum for discussion, not a way to roast others. I do allow for snark, but it is different from vituperation.


  34. You’re all endless fools getting taken by these federal visionaries and their satanic mocking of biblical doctrine.

    Remember: when people so doggedly deny the truth it’s because they are doing things in the darkness that they value more than the truth and that the light exposes.


  35. Christian : I’m surprised that you are still coming to the party, after all we “fools” (unbelievers according to Proverbs) are just FV stooges. Don’t you belong over at God’s Hammer?

    I can’t honestly speak for the others on this thread (they are able themselves), but just to set the record straight: I don’t have anything to do with the FV, and have withstood it since I first discovered it. Shine the light by all means, but shine it on the right subject if you don’t mind!


  36. Sirs,

    Please excuse the interruption, but I a seeking some clarification.

    What kind of union is it and what constitutes the union? When I hear of Gaffin’s existential union, I think existential = being. What being are we united to and what kind of union is that?

    Anyone care to clarify?


  37. Jeff, I’m not sure I’d hang my hat on the order of elements in WSC 30. It is one of the more confusing questions there are, if you are looking simply at ordo questions. Faith, then union, then effectual calling. Huh?

    And then WSC 31, conviction, then enlightenemnt, then renewal, then persuasion, then enablement. Wow!


  38. It’s confusing in that the terms are used differently.

    Calvin speaks only of “mystical union”, by which he means that it is *not* an infusion of God’s substance into us (contra Osiander, Inst. 3.11), but instead an identification of Christ with us, and us in Him.

    The Westminster Catechisms use similar language, but shortens it to “union.”

    Later theologians distinguish between “forensic union” — that which is legally true of us in Christ, reckoned to us because we are in Him — and “vital” or “experiential” union — that which we experience because of the Spirit of Christ dwelling in us.

    However, the term “vital” is sometimes used to encompass both parts. Sometimes “mystical” is used to refer only to the “experiential” part of union (hence the confusion).

    As far as Gaffin’s “existential union”, I don’t know.

    In short, our “union” consists of our being (a) identified with Christ; and (b) indwellt by Christ, through His Spirit. It specifically does not consist of partaking of His substance (theosis).



  39. Perry

    The existential union that Gaffin and others speak of is the union that comes through faith. Faith apprehends Christ and thus apprehends the work of Christ for the believer. The believer, being justified in the sight of God, by faith, is reckoned no less righteous than Christ himself. (That means that no amount of “works” can make him right before God – the believer has imputed to him Christ’s righteousness). The other blessings which then stem from faith include adoption, sanctification, perseverance and glorification. Putting it simply – what Christ has, is given to us (not his deity clearly).

    Does that make sense?


  40. My humble attempt to harmonize Vos on the forensic and mystical (rather than pit them against each other):

    “Whereas the Lutheran tends to view faith one-sidedly – only in its connection with justification – for the Reformed Christian it is saving faith in all the magnitude of the word. According to the Lutheran, the Holy Spirit first generates faith in the sinner who temporarily remains outside of union with Christ; then justification follows faith and only then, in turn, does the mystical union with the Mediator take place. Everything depends on this justification, which is losable, so that the believer only gets to see a little of the glory of grace and lives for the day, so to speak. The covenantal outlook is the reverse. One is first united to Christ, the Mediator of the covenant, by a mystical union, which finds its conscious recognition in faith. By this union with Christ all that is in Christ is simultaneously given. Faith embraces all this too; it not only grasps the instantaneous justification, but lays hold of Christ as Prophet Priest and King as his rich full Messiah.”

    -Geerhardus Vos. Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation. pg 256

    “In our opinion Paul consciously and consistently subordinated the mystical aspect of the relation to Christ to the forensic one. Paul’s mind was to such an extent forensically oriented that he regarded the entire complex of subjective spiritual changes that take place in the believer and subjective spiritual blessings enjoyed by the believer as the direct outcome of the forensic work of Christ applied in justification. The mystical is based on the forensic, not the forensic on the mystical.”

    – Geerhardus Vos. Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation. pg 384

    The Mystical and Forensic in Paul and Vos

    Within the same volume of Vos’ writings, we find these two quotations. Vos affirms both that the mystical is subordinate to the forensic AND that mystical union precedes forensic justification in the believer. Is Vos contradicting himself? Did Vos change his mind? Or can Vos hold both these positions simultaneously?

    First, Vos declares that in the ordo salutis, the mystical union is prior to, and even the source of, the benefits of redemption including forensic justification. Justification is found “in Christ,” and is part of the spiritual blessings given to the believer in union with Christ (Eph 1:3). Although they come simultaneously, there is a logical priority to union with Christ before justification in Reformed soteriology, which avoids the “legal fiction” charge leveled against Lutheranism by Roman Catholics. This also seems to best conform to the language of Scripture about the benefits of redemption being rooted in union with Christ.

    So how does the second quote on subordination of the mystical to the forensic not contradict this? Because the second quote is dealing with how the Gospel is accomplished and communicated. Vos is addressing the proclamation in totality of Christ’s Gospel to the Church. In declaring the gospel, Vos says that the mystical is subordinate to the forensic and the mystical depends upon the forensic. This is certainly true in that if the forensic is the accomplishment of salvation by Christ in regards to the Law. Christ obeys the law in life, and takes the penalty of the law in death. This is an accomplishment in history rather than in the believer and so is often called the historia salutis. The mystical, on the other hand, is the application of the accomplishment of salvation in the Spirit uniting the believer to Christ (enumerated in the ordo salutis). Therefore, Christ must accomplish salvation in history before it may be applied to us. The application by Spirit in uniting us to Christ depends upon the accomplishment of Christ fulfilling the law. The ordo salutis depends on the historia salutis. The mystical depends upon the forensic.

    There is, however, another context where we would bring the mystical aspect to the surface as of utmost importance. Paul in 1 Corinthians 6:16-17 brings the mystical union to the forefront when addressing the context of the use of prostitutes by members of the church. Paul applies union to rebuke his audience that their conduct was inconsistent with the mystical salvation that belongs to believers: i.e. the body of Christ cannot be united to a prostitute. Yet, Vos’ broader point (about the subordination of the mystical to the forensic) still remains true. Even this mystical aspect depends upon the accomplishment of the forensic/legal demand that Christ fulfills for His church. Paul begins 1 Corinthians with the defense of his preaching of the accomplishment of salvation by Christ’s crucifixion (1 Corinthians 2:1-2). Paul must first establish the priority of the historical accomplishment of Christ (historia salutis) before the implications and benefits that come from union with Christ (ordo salutis).

    In this way, Vos is not contradicting himself and we ought not fight between two different Voses. Rather, we ought to acknowledge that in the application of salvation to the believer, mystical union establishes justification. However, the basis of this mystical union applied to us is Christ’s accomplishment forensically of salvation outside of us and is logically prior to us or the application of salvation to us. If we discuss the relation of the historia salutis and ordo salutis, then the forensic precedes and is necessary before any talk of the mystical can occur. But if we discuss specifically the ordo salutis by itself, then the mystical precedes, because it applies, the forensic.


  41. It is asserted that Paul placed priority on forensic over mystical as the framework for salvation. What about Ephesians 5, and Paul’s emphasis on marital/real/ontological union with Christ; how is this subordinating the mystical/marital to the forensic? As far as logical priority it seems that we would have to place ‘mystical’ prior to the forensic, insofar as God’s life is the basis for all aspects of salvation. If we want to place this discussion in a set of “absolute decrees” which Christ meets the conditions of in time, then the real metaphysical this poses is that it makes God’s life predicated to be what it is by creation/time (or voluntarism).

    I’m not denying the forensic component of salvation, at all — one would have to deny Paul. Just that saying Paul frames things forensically vs. mystically vis-a-vis “union” is to set up a false dilemma for Paul.


  42. Bobby, if Paul had written an epistle explaining union the way he did justification, then maybe we wouldn’t have confusion over union. It sure looks like Reformed and Lutherans agree on justification. The reason is that Paul wrote explicitly about it.


  43. Bobby,

    Why isn’t marital also forensic. I know, I know, relationships are supposed to be about warm fuzzy feelings and all, be marriages then (and now) were covenantal. That means laws, stipulation, and regulations. I don’t see in Paul’s mind this sharp distinction between relationships and stipulations that so many moderns want to read into it.

    I know it may make the congregation giddy to think of themselves as climbing up on stage and lighting the unity candle with Christ, but the prerequisite is that they are adorned in his own imputed righteousness (justification). Call him old fashioned, but I think Christ is into white weddings. Seriously, isn’t that what Ephesians 5 is all about?


  44. Matt, I don’t think I have any objection to your understanding of union as communion or fellowship between God and man. But don’t you think that is a fairly novel use of union? I agree that communion between God and his people is the big idea of Scripture and in that setting justification finds pershaps a smaller canvass. But when folks go to WLC 66-69 or WSC 29-31 and look at union in relation to faith, effectual calling, etc., are they really using union in the sense you describe?

    Again, it would be really helpful of advocates for the import of union could come up with a glossary, let alone an ST that incorporates the doctrine adequately.


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