Was Machen Wrong Not to Appeal to Union?

Writing on Gal. 2:19 (“For I through the law died to the law, that I might live to God”), a verse smack dab in a passage where Paul talks a lot about being “in” Christ, Machen writes the following:

The law . . . led men, by its clear revelation of what God requires, to relinquish all claim to salvation by their own obedience. In that sense, surely, Paul could say that it was “through the law” that he died to the law. The law made the commands of God so terribly clear that Paul could see plainly that there was no hope for him if he appealed for his salvation to his own obedience to those commands.

This interpretation yields a truly Pauline thought. But the immediate context suggests another, and an even profounder, meaning for the words. The key to the interpretation is probably to be found in the sentences, “I have been crucified together with Christ,” which almost immediately follows. “The law,” Paul probably means, “caused me to die to the law, because the law, with its penalty of death upon sins (which penalty Christ bore in our stead) brought Christ to the cross; and when Christ died I died, since he died as my representative.” In other words, the death to the law of which Paul here speaks is the death which the law itself brought about when it said, “the soul that sinneth it shall die.” Christ died that death, which the law fixes as the penalty of sin, when He died upon the cross; and since He died that death as our representative, we too have died that death; the penalty of the law is for us done away because theat penalty has been paid in our stead by the Lord Jesus Christ. Thus our death to the law, suffered for us by Christ, far from being contrary to the law, was in fulfilment of the law’s own demands. We are free from the penalty of death pronounced by the law upon sin not because we are rebels against the law, but because the penalty has been paid by Christ. (Machen’s Notes on Galatians, p. 159)

It is striking that Machen, a none too shabby Pauline scholar, preferred to use the language of representation or substitution rather than union with Christ. And instead of seeing union as the sub-text, Machen interprets this passage in what appears to be straightforwardly forensic categories.


27 thoughts on “Was Machen Wrong Not to Appeal to Union?

  1. Darryl

    I think I may not have expressed myself clearly enough on your last post. I’m not debating the forensic priority or emphasis in justification, to do so is to deny the doctrine. But you seem to want an “either / or” situation, which I for one, am not arguing for. Your approach here has been, and I don’t want to be offensive here at all, a little narrow.

    Paul is recalling to the Galatians his dealings with Peter after he had caved on the issue of eating with Gentiles. Paul is clear what he is dealing with – the very details of the justification “we who are Jews by nature … knowing that a man is not justified by works of the law but faith in Christ” (3:15-16). He’s not concerned with the bigger picture.

    However, even in Machen’s quotation he is arguing that the way in which we have access to the forensic transaction is by union! He writes “Paul probably means, “caused me to die to the law, because the law, with its penalty of death upon sins (which penalty Christ bore in our stead) brought Christ to the cross; and when Christ died I died, since he died as my representative … and since He died that death as our representative, we too have died that death; the penalty of the law is for us done away because that penalty has been paid in our stead by the Lord Jesus Christ. ” The forensic is clearly situated in the context of union. The whole concept of representation is a covenantal-union based idea.

    So I contest your idea that union isn’t a sub-text. It clearly is in Machen’s mind as he declares “when Christ died I died, since he died as my representative” (see comments on previous thread). And note, I affirm union is a sub-text and the forensic is the text in this part of Galatians.




  2. Was Calvin wrong not to appeal to forensic?

    “I confess that we are deprived of this blessing [justification] until Christ is made ours. 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.” -John Calvin. Institutes 3.11.10

    Or is it that both are important and it would be better not to disparage one in favor of another?


  3. Matt, would you say that it is a tad narrow to use union in a way that concludes if you don’t appeal to union you are Lutheran and so guilty of a defective soteriology?

    Jared, Calvin appealed to the foresnic aplenty, and didn’t think union sufficiently important to include it in the doctrine he taught to catachumens.

    Matt and Jared, I am not objecting to union. I am concerned that it has obscured the material principle of the Reformation.


  4. Darryl

    I don’t ever remember calling you Lutheran or accusing you of defective soteriology – you must have me confused with someone else? And my comments related to Machen’s take on things, with which I notice you didn’t engage. And an over-emphasis on justification (again, I’m not accusing anyone on this) may lead to a Lutheran perspective on various issues – which frankly isn’t the end of the world, but it’s not always right either ;). Is it not possible that in the emphasis of one particular doctrine the overall shape of our doctrine might change? (I suppose that is a question to both sides, if indeed the are sides).

    Now I understand you better – your concern for Reformation theology. That’s fine. But at the risk of sounding terribly like some people who neither you nor I like, does our theological development cease with the passing of the Reformation? You know I’m not advocating FV-like alterations to our doctrine, but can we not enhance and develop the understanding of such without contravening the doctrine of our heritage?

    I think I’m beginning to see your concerns more clearly, and frankly I agree with them. Justification is always the doctrine that suffers the most attacks. But that means we should examine the doctrine more and more, both narrowly and broadly in our attempts to understand it and defend it.

    Thanks for the stimulating thoughts.




  5. Matt, Thanks. You may be too young to have experienced the Shepherd controversy. But wasn’t he trying to improve the doctrine of justification? And wasn’t he “improving” it in a way designed to contrast Lutheran and Reformed soteriology? I think the answer is yes in both instances. And the reason why the OPC had to call for a study of justification was in part the influence of Shepherd.

    So my advice to you is that when trying to improve you also acknowledge this reality, not to mention the anti-Lutheran remarks in certain Presbyterian circles. I don’t think you have dismissed Lutheranism. But your arguments for union are like those who have dismissed Lutheranism. Do I see everything through that lens? Perhaps. Should I not? I’m open to correction.


  6. DGH: Matt, would you say that it is a tad narrow to use union in a way that concludes if you don’t appeal to union you are Lutheran and so guilty of a defective soteriology?

    Having just read Garcia’s piece in Ordained Servant, I would say that

    (1) He appears to be correct that the Reformed and Lutherans articulate the relationship of union and justification differently, but
    (2) Both camps get the cart and horse backwards in criticizing each other. The Lutheran doctrine of justification is not the problem; their doctrine of union is.

    That is, it’s not that Lutherans explain justification differently from us (“How are we justified? By Christ’s righteousness imputed to us through faith.”)

    Rather, they explain union differently from us. They fail to recognize that imputation *is* a part of union. By placing union post-justification, the Lutherans fail to recognize that “being in Christ” is not merely experiential but forensic also.



  7. “Calvin appealed to the foresnic aplenty, and didn’t think union sufficiently important to include it in the doctrine he taught to catachumens.”

    Calvin specifically appeals to being made “members of Christ” and benefits resulting from that (crucifixion with Christ, etc.) in his Catechism of Geneva. Again, you are saying union is not as (sufficiently) important. In defending the forensic, there is no need to depreciate union. Both are important, it is not that “union [is not] sufficiently important.” Also, if union is not important, why does it seem central to the WCF:

    Shorter Question 30. How does the Spirit apply to us the redemption purchased Christ?

    Answer. The Spirit applies to us the redemption purchased by Christ, by working faith in us, and thereby uniting us to Christ in our effectual calling.

    Larger Question 69: What is the communion in grace which the members of the invisible church have with Christ?

    Answer: 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, adoption, sanctification, and: Whatever else, in this life, manifests their union with him.”

    According to Westminster, our benefits, including Justification result from and are manifesting union. FV goes wrong in depreciating the forensic, but do you think that by saying union is not important (or sufficently important) you may be erring in the opposite direction?


  8. Jared, how exactly do you decide what is central? Could it be that you have a bias in looking for union as central? I mean, in the two quotations you give, effectual calling is a bigger deal (and has a whole chapter in the Confession; union does not). And in the Larger Catechism the idea is communion. Is that the same as union?


  9. Jeff, so do you think construing union differently constitutes a breach of the gospel? I mean, there are differences among the Reformed on how to construe union. It is hardly a settled point, the application of redemption being a fairly mysterious thing. So is union a doctrine with which Reformed should be polemical?


  10. Well, you know me. I would prefer a bit of latitude, keeping our powder dry for those things that really and truly are outside the pale. So on that account, No, we should not.

    In terms of “is it worth having clarifying intramural discussions over?”, I would say, Yes, a bit.

    That is: There are certain features that need to be non-negotiables.

    (1) That justification (in the sense of having peace with God; of no longer being a child of wrath or under condemnation) is forensic and immediate. THIS really was the sine qua non of the Reformation. Justification doesn’t wait, isn’t incomplete until life is over. It happens at the moment of faith.

    (2) That the equivalence

    Justification by imputation Justification by union

    is clear. Otherwise, we have two apparently different accounts of justification going on in the Standards (and in Scripture). It needs to be clear that these are one and the same.

    (3) And the consequence of (2), that justification logically implies all of the other benefits of salvation (and vice-versa).

    That is, the statement “Bob has been justified” implies “Bob has been adopted, is being sanctified, will persevere, will be glorified, was effectually called.”

    To use Matt’s language, salvation is a package deal.

    Within those boundaries, which are all amply attested in the Confessions, I don’t think we need to be polemical.

    What do you think?



  11. The Holy Spirit does not have an Article in the Confession, does that mean the Spirit is not as big of a deal as effectual calling? Come on, that reasoning is not sound.

    What is central is Christ, but union undergirds the discussion on redemption. In the Westminster LC question, communion is a reality that is manifesting the union the believer has with Christ. I did not say they are the same, but that the theme of union runs under much of the redemption theology of Westminster. I don’t think this is novel or radical to say. This seems to be how Paul applies the gospel to the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians, how Athanasius and Gregory N. described salvation, how Calvin talked about it, how Westminster, Sinclair Ferguson, Gaffin and John Murray and even Nevin talked about the basis of the believer’s benefits in Christ for “Christianity is grounded in the living union of the believer with the person of Christ.”

    So far, the reasoning seems to be

    1) Galatians (and Machen writing on Galatians) talks about forensic, therefore union isn’t as important
    2) Calvin doesn’t talk about union in his catechism (except that he did)
    3) Union doesn’t have an article in the WCF (but neither does the Spirit, so what’s the argument again?)

    This seems to me to be poor reasoning.


  12. Jared, would you say that “union is the center of Calvin’s thought”?

    (This question came up on the floor of Presbytery … the responder had written a paper on the issue)



  13. Darryl

    You are right – I am too young to remember the Shepherd controversy, but I am also to young to remember the Reformation, but I still know something about that! 😉

    Your argument carries the weight of history no doubt, but so then does mine. Had the Reformers stopped, in fear of creating a monster the Reformation would never have happened – so I for one am, in theory at least, open to developments WITHIN the parameters already determined. Surely you are as well? We don’t think the Holy Spirit stopped illuminating people after 17th century?

    And just as you don’t like the Lutheran accusations neither do I like the Shepherd accusations. Why is it that Shepherd’s name gets linked to everyone who disagrees with the “justification group”. Frankly it’s insulting and shallow. Theologians of the calibre we are talking about (you included) can surely differentiate friend from foe (and I know that works both ways – Kerux)?

    Norman Shepherd’s teaching is contra Scriptural and confessional – what I am arguing for (I think) has significant historical warrant and is within the bounds of both Scripture and Confession. Indeed I’ve not yet heard anyone argue that what I am saying is contra-confessional. I haven’t checked back the posting on the last Forensic Friday yet, but have my arguments been examined – again, I’m not the sharpest tool in the box, but I think they are worth discussing. Additionally my challenge to your understanding of Machen has also gone undiscussed. So instead of pulling out the “Shepherd” gun and shooting me with it, would it not have been better to sound that warning and engage with the argument?

    If I sound stroppy (a good British word – means ‘disgruntled’) I’m really not. But I do think that the measure by which you want to be measured (no Lutheran tag), you should measure others (no Shepherd tag) unless it is CLEAR they deserve it.

    I agree that this should not be about polemics – it is an in-house discussion, which from my perspective should be about growth in knowledge and grace (plenty of room for both as far as I am concerned). That is why I think there could be more to learn from each other, building upon, not changing what has been determined before.

    Can I ask one question: do you think there is a difference between the Lutheran and Reformed perspective when it comes to union, specifically when it comes to the doctrine of justification? I’m not asking about the Lutheran doctrine of justification (the contents of the doctrine, over which we all agree, at least to my knowledge we do), but about its relationship to union with Christ.

    Many thanks again.



  14. Matt, I’m sorry, but Shepherd is a reality and some of his biggest defenders are and were people who have been advocating union. And it does seem to me that when you say that justification and sanctification come at the same time without priority from union, then you have a justification (not an endorsement per se) but a justification for Shepherd’s obedient faith.

    At the same time, I am not troubled by the charge of Lutheranism, except when I hear that the person making the accusation thinks Lutheranism is compromised. I think there are differences between Reformed and Lutherans, but not on justification.

    One more point — Lutheranism is not in the same category as Shepherd. Lutherans are right about justification. Shepherd was not. To say they are both errors that need to be avoided is sloppy. (That’s not what you said. But I have heard it from unionists.)

    Regarding the development of doctrine, I think you are trying to have it two ways. On the one hand you are saying we need to have development of doctrine, so we need to revise our teaching in the light of union. And then you say that union has always been taught by the tradition. There is a tension between those points. I do think the emphasis now on union is novel. I do think that Luther and Calvin both taught union. I don’t see union taught much in the creeds. And I see it a little in the Standards. But the idea that it has always been there is to read the current Pauline theology back into the tradition. Fesko made this point well in his review for Ordained Servant of Garcia.

    On the matter of whether there is a difference between Lutheranism and Calvinism on union, I guess there is, but I’m still trying to figure out what difference it really makes, unless you’re trying to say like Shepherd, we must not be antinomian like the Lutherans. Personally, justification offers me great comfort, just as the Belgic Confession teaches. Union doesn’t do a lot for me. Effectual calling does more.

    As to your point above about Machen, I don’t mean to be literalistic, but Machen didn’t use the word union. And I am not sure what you mean by covenant union. Again, the systematicians teach us that there are three senses of union. I guess you mean federal. But at other times the use of union means mystical. Either way, Machen goes out of his way to say not that I died with Christ, but that he died in my stead. He died so that I don’t have to die for my sins. That’s a stress on the forensic and to insist he is talking about union here is it seems to me to miss the priority of the forensic.

    I know, one note Johnny. But that’s how you become the material principle of the Reformation.


  15. Jared, you are right that the Holy Spirit does not have a chapter. But the Holy Spirit is invoked almost everywhere. The same is not true of union.


  16. Darryl,

    Whoa there! You’ve jumped way too many steps of logic for me to stay with you. When have I ever sounded like Shepherd? I’ve already acknowledged (Forensic Friday) that there is a a logical priority of justification over sanctification. So how do we arrive at the Shepherd accusations?

    What strikes me Darryl is that you paint with a broad brush. You have not, in this instance, engaged with the discussion before you and examined the arguments. If you did, you would see that most of your statements are wide of the mark (at least concerning me). There is no tension at all in developing doctrine within parameters – None at all. We may not go broader but can we not go deeper and refine? Revision implies significant change – I’ve neither used that word nor suggested significant change – yet you speak as if I have.

    The charge of Lutheranism that I have heard is not on the matter of justification, it relates to my last question to you- the relationship between union and justification. I’ve not heard one person (outside the extremists – FV and Shepherdism) who advocates there is a difference with Luther on justification! That’s why I state again, you are painting with too broad a brush.

    And I’m sorry union doesn’t do much for you – it should – and if I can speak respectfully to you, given our stations in life, you need to look again at Scripture and see more of your Saviour, because in union what is His by right, is yours by grace, that’s what being “in Christ” means. That’s why Machen stated “when Christ died, I died” – THAT IS THE LANGUAGE OF UNION. Did I not happily concede that the forensic was the text and union the subtext – or did you miss that comment? And yes, you are being literalistic.

    I think we are having different conversations. We are on the same page on justification, we are on the same page on sanctification and the relationship between the two (I’m pretty sure on this). I’ve never argued against a logical priority of justification over sanctification. Maybe you are confusing me with someone else, or my position with theirs. It is beyond me why you can’t see that I’m not the foe in this, but someone walking the same path as you and seeking greater illumination. I’ve spoken clearly and carefully ( I think) but you don’t seem to be able to discern my position from the aberrant positions of today (maybe that’s my fault – I don’t know). I don’t know why you haven’t engaged more seriously with my arguments, instead you’ve sloganeered – “Shepherd this, FV that.” You couldn’t be further from the truth.

    I think my time on this subject has run its course, unless you want to cover some of the ground we already missed. Thanks for the time. Every blessing brother.

    Signing out



  17. Matt, you said bringing up Shepherd was insulting and shallow. You also said you that you may not be able to remember the Shepherd controversy. So I’m trying to remind you of the justification controversy that has persisted since the 1970s, and seen other fronts with FV and ECT since. What I find odd is that pro-union folk want to continue to write about Reformed soteriology as if Shepherd didn’t happen, as if the OPC didn’t have to call for a study committee. When I argue for a secular faith, I do try to suggest how I am not a liberal or a relativist. So if you take justification down a peg, or rearrange the doctrine, don’t you think you need to say that you’re not saying something that has been a problem. We don’t live in vacuums. I also think you should be aware that many who teach union argue against the priority of justification to sanctification. (BTW, I’m still curious how you can square your argument for the development of doctrine while also saying that union is not a new development.)

    I appreciate your counsel to me to see more of my savior. But with justification I thought I saw a plenty, and it has been unionists who have told me in so many words that my view of Christ is meager and inferior. That is what really concerns me about the teaching on union, as if those who don’t put union in the same place are inferior in their understanding of Christ or his benefits.

    Prior to my discussions with unionists I thought, along with Heidelberg, that I belonged to Christ. He wasn’t available to me simply on a sky hook, but I belonged to him, body and soul. And the reason was that he had fully paid for all my sins and set me free from the tyranny of the devil. Is that an impoverished view?

    Or how about when the Belgic Confession says of justification that Christ’s righteousness “is enough to cover all our sins and to make us confident, freeing the conscience form the fear, dread, and terror of God’s approach” (Art. 24), or that without justification “we would always be in doubt, tossed back and forth without any certainty, and our poor consciences would be tormented constantly if they did not rest on the merit” of Christ.

    Is it just me, or do you think that union resolves those kinds of basic Christianity 101 issues about the law, sin, guilt, condemnation, and death. I can see how it might but it is a fairly indirect thing and would take some explanation. Justification gets to the heart of the matter.

    So if counsel is good for the gander, I’d ask you to consider what an imcomparable breakthrough the doctrine of justification was. I’d also ask you to reconsider saying things that would suggest it needs to be developed, improved, or that there is a fuller understanding of the work of Christ out there.


  18. “Jared, you are right that the Holy Spirit does not have a chapter. But the Holy Spirit is invoked almost everywhere. The same is not true of union.”

    What is the Spirit’s role in regards to the salvation accomplished in Christ and us? Is it not uniting us to Christ and the spiritual blessings with which the Father has blessed us with “in Christ” (Eph 1:3)? Isn’t the Holy Spirit’s role accomplishing union? (Shorter Q29-31) The “Effect” in Effectual Calling seems to be union, am I wrong?


  19. Darryl

    Thanks for your comments. I would echo much of what you have said.

    I am aware of the Shepherd controversy and certainly it must play into our consideration of this issue, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that because one advocates a fuller and richer understanding of particular doctrine that one is demeaning or diluting another. That simply doesn’t follow.

    In response to your question regarding does union address issues such as sin, law, condemnation, judgment – I would say YES AND MORE SO! A caveat – (maybe two) – this is not the FV union, this is not Shepherd union, but a simple conjoining to my Saviour, wherein all that he is and has becomes mine. What an antidote to a lack of assurance – I was chosen in him before the foundation of the world; what an antidote my struggle with sin that in Christ, I am holy; and what an antidote to the crushing condemnation of God’s law – that I am righteous in God’s sight having been justified by faith. At the point of faith – my union with God is realized (by me) and thus, I agree with you, our focus must be on what happens to us there and then. Temporally speaking, faith has united me to Christ, I am reckoned righteous, I am sanctified, I am adopted into God’s family. Justification by faith has the central position in the presentation of the gospel, because it speaks to us as we are in the here and now. But once having been justified and temporally united to Christ, our horizons broaden significantly. I now know that I was blessed in Christ and chosen in him before the foundation of the world, I now know that all that I lost in Adam has been restored and improved in Christ, I know that my Saviour pleads at the throne of God on my account for he was like me, and is like me. This list goes on. I suppose what I’m saying is that what a wonderful lens justification is – through it we see the justice and mercy of God writ large on the cross of Christ. But there are other aspects of his person and work – there is more than simply justification, as central and as important as it is.

    Let me ask you this – by what right are you and other believers granted to sit down on Christ’s throne, as he sat down on his Father’s (Rev 3:21). Is it through justification?Well surely partly! But the fact that you are adopted into God’s family and are the younger brother of Christ has a whole lot to do with it as well. Here we see the doctrine of adoption, perseverance (in the context of revelation ‘overcoming’), the blessing in Christ in the heavenlies and implicitly we see a whole lot of other doctrines coming together – in what? In union, and yes WE DO SEE JUSTIFICATION THERE ALSO, maybe even a central feature. This, for me, comes back to a redemptive historical approach to the subject, and maybe, therein lies our problem. We are surely looking at the same thing, but perhaps from different angles.

    I accept your point – justification was the central soteriological message of the Reformation. No doubt, no disagreement. Can our understanding of justification be deepened? I’m certain it can – I many not well be the man to do that, and certainly Norman Shepherd or Doug Wilson are not the men to do it. But why should we not expect to learn more of God and God’s will as time passes? I don’t know why that should be such a problem, other than the fact that some have already poisoned that particular well. I know I’m sounding like a revisionists here, but there have been several hundred years of scholarship (for good and ill) since the reformation – would Calvin have expected no development (don’t read “change” here!) since his day (I know you can’t answer that, but as a historian I’m sure you’ve got a better feel for him than I have!).

    But the counsel for the gander is well taken: caution, extreme caution. Let’s do our theology under the scrutiny of others, remembering there is wisdom in a multitude of counselors.




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