Posted by: reformedmusings | August 26, 2007

Union With Christ

Regardless of who you read, Federal Vision ascribes baptized reprobates in the Visible Church having “union with Christ” and thus being “in Christ.” This post will explore what “union with Christ” really means in the Standards and the Scriptures.

As an example of what Federal Vision holds about union with Christ, lets visit Wilkins’ essay in The Federal Vision (page 58):

In fact, covenant is a real relationship, consisting of real communion with the Triune God through union with Christ. The covenant is not some thing that exists apart from Christ or in addition to Him (another means of grace)-rather, the covenant is union with Christ. Thus, being in covenant gives all the blessings of being united to Christ. There is no salvation apart from covenant simply because there is no salvation apart from union with Christ, and without union with Christ there is no covenant at all.

Because being in covenant with God means being in Christ, those who are in covenant have all spiritual blessings in the heavenly places. Union with Christ means that all that is true of Christ is true of us. This seems clear by how the apostles address the churches. [his italics, my bold]

Remember that Wilkins is including the baptized reprobates in the visible church in this description. So all that is true of Christ is true of the reprobates in the visible church. On the next page and a half, Wilkins provides a laundry list of graces given to everyone in the visible church at Corinth as an example, including baptized reprobates, that includes things like sharing in Christ’s “wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption”; “sanctification and justification in the name of Christ by the Spirit of God”; “confirmed to the end blameless in the day of Christ”; “they have been bought with a price”, etc. In orthodox Reformed theology, these are, of course, blessings and graces only given to the elect in Scripture and hence in the Standards.

I feel obligate to refer back to Phil 1:6 and say that Wilkins is saying here that God starts a good work in the baptized reprobates that he never intends to complete in them. Phil 1:6 clearly ties perseverance inseparably to the rest of the benefits of real union with Christ. So, is God lying in Phil 1:6 and other places like Romans 8:28-30? I think that’s a fair question to ask Federal Visionists.

One of Wilkins’ problems is that he doesn’t like the “judgment of charity” that Paul and all of us use routinely in our assemblies and which I’ll mention again below, so he takes every promise that Paul makes only to the elect in the churches and applies them to everyone in the visible church. I’ve dealt with that in a number of previous posts that you can reach through this one.

Note Wilkins’ use of the term “the covenant.” As I’ve pointed out before, this usage of the term doesn’t appear in the New Testament. Federal Vision advocates claim to be more Scriptural than orthodox Reformed folks, but yet they use one of their core terms in a way that is not used in the New Testament. Go figure.

On the orthodox side, from the PCA Ad Interim Study Committee’s report on the Federal Vision on pages 2214:

1. Union with Christ

The Westminster Standards only speak of a “union with Christ” as that which is effectual; or to say it another way, as that which is saving and belongs to the elect (LC 65, 66). This is the “work of God’s grace” whereby 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” (LC 66; SC 30). This “thereby” of the catechism’s statement is important: it conveys that the Spirit uses faith to unite believers to Christ (cf. WCF 26:1).

This union is such that believers are “spiritually and mystically, yet really and inseparably, joined to Christ as their head and husband” (LC 66). There is no sense in which believers are made “in any wise partakers of the substance of his Godhead, or be equal with Christ in any respect” (WCF 26:3). Rather, it is a spiritual union, whereby Christ is head and husband of all who are eternally saved, both singly as individuals and corporately as the church (WCF 25:1). Not only is this union spiritual, it is real and inseparable; the union attested in our Standards cannot be lost (LC 79). Confusing this “union with Christ” with visible membership in the body of Christ through outward profession or sacramental expression is a serious error and endangers our church’s faithful testimony to the Gospel essential of justification by faith alone. From this union with Christ, believers in the invisible church have a “communion in grace” in which they share all the benefits of redemption. By virtue of “Christ’s mediation,” “justification, adoption, sanctification, and whatever else, in this life, manifests their union with him” are applied to believers (LC 69; cf. SC 32, 36). The Standards, taken as a whole,view union with Christ as the umbrella category under which the individual aspects of Christ’s redemption fit. And yet, union with Christ does not make justification or the other benefits redundant.

Interestingly, the Standards use different terms when talking about how baptism relates tounion with Christ: they speak of baptism serving as “a sign and seal…of [our] ingrafting into Christ” (WCF 28:1; LC 165; SC 94). Water baptism does not effect this on its own, nor does it do so necessarily at the time of administration (WCF 28:5). Rather, baptism serves to exhibit and confer the gracious promises of the Gospel to the elect recipient in God’s appointed time (WCF 28:6). Further, baptism serves sacramentally to “strengthen and increase [our] faith” (LC 162); this is why we are urged to “improve” our baptisms (LC 167).

As a refresher, let’s visit the Larger Catechism Question 66:

Question: What is that Union Which the Elect Have with Christ?

The union which the elect have with Christ is the work of God’s grace, whereby they are spiritually and mystically, yet really and inseparably, joined to Christ as their head and husband; which is done in their effectual calling.

Note that there is no comparable question for the non-elect, whether or not they have been baptized into the visible church. If anyone thinks that the Divines merely overlooked the idea, recall that they did include separate questions on the benefits of membership in the visible and invisible churches. The reason that the Divines did not address the “Union Which the Non-elect Have with Christ” is that they don’t have one of any significance. We’ll see this clearly in a few paragraphs.

It is also interesting to note that Question 67 concerns effective calling. Are 66 and 67 linked? You bet. In fact, John Brown of Haddington entitled the first Chapter of Book V of his systematic theology: “Of Union with Christ, and Effectual Calling.” (The Systematic Theology of John Brown of Haddington. (Reformation Heritage Books, Grand Rapids. 2002), originally published in 1782). Why do I pick John Haddington’s work? Because according to the systematic’s introduction:

Brown felt that Reformed systematic theology should emphasize the historical activity of God in time rather than His eternal decrees.

This sound like what the Federal Vision folks say about their goals. But unlike Federal Vision advocates, Brown believed with orthodox, Reformed scholars:

That activity was grounded pre-fall in the covenant of works and post-fall in the covenant of grace. Consequently, Brown’s theology is organized around the doctrine of the covenant.

As I’ve stated before, I think that John Brown of Haddington’s perspective is important because it shows how the orthodox Reformed faith has always considered the covenants important, but does so without inventing new ones like Federal Vision’s “objective covenant.”

The subtitle of the Book V is “Of the Principal Blessings of the Covenant of Grace, Union with Christ,; Justification; Adoption; Sanctification; Spiritual comfort, and Eternal Glorification.” Why do I mention this? Because this is the progression of Romans 8:28-30. John Brown starts this chapter with:

The general benefit which Christ, by his humiliation, procures and bestows in his exaltation, is our REDEMPTION or SALVATION, which includes the whole of our deliverance from the broken law, from sin, Satan, the world, death, and hell,-our full title to, and possession of grace and glory, to all eternity: Or, it includes the change of our spiritual state, in union to Christ, justification through his blood and adoption ito his family, which is perfected in the very first instant; and the change of our nature and condition in regeneration sanctification, consolation, and eternal glory, which is perfected by degrees, Rom. viii.30. [italics in original]

No allowance there for the non-elect in the general benefits of Christ. On the very next page, he addresses those generally in the visible church:

There is an apparent union between Christ and all the members of the visible church, which is formed by their receiving common gifts and influences from him, and their making an open profession of his truths and service;–which is easily broken, John xv. 2,6 Mat viii. 12. [italics in original]

Note that the baptized non-elect do not have a real union as Wilkins and others posit, but an apparent one. Apparent means “looks like but isn’t real.” So what are those common gifts and influences? Back on page 551 under his discussion of church fellowship, John Brown writes:

REAL SAINTSHIP is not the distinguishing criterion of the members of this visible church on earth. None, indeed, without it, can honestly offer themselves to church-fellowship. but, for the mere want of it, they cannot be refused admission. 1. God alone can judge men’s heart. Deceivers can counterfeit saintship, and often believers doubt of, or deny their real grace, 1 Sam. xvi. 7. Rev. ii. 23. 2. God himself admitted many whose hearts were unsanctified, as members of the Jewish church, Deut. xxix. 3, 4, 13; John vi. 70. 3. John Baptist and the Apostles, in order to baptism, required no more than outward appearances of faith and repentance, Matth. iii. 5, 7. Acts ii. 38. v. 1-0. viii.13-23. 4. Many that were admitted members in the churches of Judea, Corinth, Philippi, Loadicea, Sartis, &tc. were unregenerated, Acts v. 1-10. viii. 13-23. 1 Cor. v. xi. xv. Phi. iii. 18, 19. Re. iii. 5, 15-17. 5. Christ compares the gospel church to a floor, on which the corn and chaff are mingled together;-to a net, in which good and bad fishes are inclosed;-to a field, in which tares grow up with the wheat, Matth. iii. 12. xiii. 24, 47. [his italics]

Brown’s point 1 above we call the “judgment of charity,” which Wilkins in particular has openly rejected, as have most Federal Vision advocates. In the rest of John Brown’s discussion of the church, he does not imbue the non-elect in the visible church with any benefits other than those laid out in the Larger Catechism:

Q. 63. What are the special privileges of the visible church?

A. The visible church hath the privilege of being under God’s special care and government; of being protected and preserved in all ages, notwithstanding the opposition of all enemies; and of enjoying the communion of saints, the ordinary means of salvation, and offers of grace by Christ to all the members of it in the ministry of the gospel, testifying, that whosoever believes in him shall be saved, and excluding none that will come unto him.

Back on page 345 discussing objections to doctrine of effectual calling, Brown writes of the non-elect in the visible church:

2. Ministers, being utterly uncertain who are elected, and who not, must invite men in general to Christ, and leave it to the Holy Ghost, who knows all things, to determine such as are elected to believe, to the saving of their soul. 3. By the general invitations of the gospel, many reprobates obtain common gifts and graces, -have many sins prevented,-obtain much temporal happiness,-and are rendered remarkably useful to the elect.

Nowhere are saving or saving-like graces assigned to the non-elect, such as justification, adoption, sanctification, or forgiveness of sins, like the Federal Visionists claim. This is covered nicely in the PCA study report:

Likewise, the stance of Federal Vision proponents raises concerns for officers who subscribe to the Westminster Standards. While the Committee would agree that the Standards use “union with Christ” as an umbrella category for “Christ’s mediation,” the way Federal Vision proponents collapse the distinct benefits of this mediation (i.e. justification, adoption, sanctification) into “union with Christ” creates significant confusion. Similarly, Federal Vision’s appeal to “the biblical usage” of justification as a way to collapse forensic and transformative categories also confuses doctrines that our Standards rightly distinguish (i.e., justification and sanctification).

Nevertheless, the truly problematic claims of the Federal Vision proponents come when some suggest that “Christ’s active obedience” is not transferred to his people or that imputation is “redundant” because it is subsumed in “union with Christ.” Such claims contradict the position of the Westminster Standards and strike at the vitals of the system of doctrine contained there. Further, to strike language of “merit” from our theological vocabulary so that the claim is made that Christ’s merits are not imputed to his people contradicts the position of the Westminster Standards (WCF 17:2; LC 55; 174).

Finally, the claim of some FV proponents that all those who are baptized with water are savingly “united to Christ” flatly contradicts the Westminster Standards. The position of our Standards is that union with Christ occurs only to those who are effectually called (or who are the elect; LC 66-68).

All this collects into the following Declarations accepted by the 35th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America:

2. The view that an individual is “elect” by virtue of his membership in the visible church; and that this “election” includes justification, adoption and sanctification; but that this individual could lose his “election” if he forsakes the visible church, is contrary to the Westminster Standards.

3. The view that Christ does not stand as a representative head whose perfect obedience and satisfaction is imputed to individuals who believe in him is contrary to the Westminster Standards.

4. The view that strikes the language of “merit” from our theological vocabulary so that the claim is made that Christ’s merits are not imputed to his people is contrary to the Westminster Standards.

5. The view that “union with Christ” renders imputation redundant because it subsumes all of Christ’s benefits (including justification) under this doctrinal heading is contrary to the Westminster Standards.

6. The view that water baptism effects a “covenantal union” with Christ through which each baptized person receives the saving benefits of Christ’s mediation, including regeneration, justification, and sanctification, thus creating a parallel soteriological system to the decretal system of the Westminster Standards, is contrary to the Westminster Standards.

While this post contains all the conclusions that I intended, it doesn’t include nearly all the data I wished to have here. I wanted to use Charles Hodge’s commentary on Ephesians, Robert Haldane’s on Romans, some A.A. Hodge, and others. Time permitting, I hope to extend this post with those references at a later time.


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