Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Current Distortions of Biblical Justification

How disheartening it is to see both of these saving doctrines misunderstood or even denied in the evangelical church today. I refer in part to evangelical leaders who embrace a doctrine of justification that is hard to distinguish from the Roman Catholic position that we are accounted righteous by infusion rather than imputation. I refer also to advocates of the New Perspective on Paul who believe that the Reformation doctrine of justification was mistaken in fundamental ways. To use J. I. Packer’s analogy, Atlas has shrugged.

These distortions take a number of different forms, which I mention only briefly. Some evangelicals are simply saying that justification is by grace, and leaving it at that. By avoiding saying that justification is based on grace alone or received by faith alone, they are able to make common cause with Catholicism, which has always said that justification is by grace. Other evangelicals want to say the same thing about Judaism at the time of Christ. It was not a religion of legalistic works-righteousness, they say, but a religion of grace. Therefore, the Reformers were mistaken to see Paul as standing against a religion of works rather than faith. Others are saying that justification is not so much about our standing before God as it is about our relationship to the church as a covenant community. Or they say that justification does have something to do with our standing before God, but our real and ultimate justification will only take place on the last day, when our good works will serve as part of the basis for (and not simply the evidence of) our righteousness before God. Thus our present justification is only provisional, which has the unhappy result of turning salvation into probation.

It is sad that these misunderstandings of biblical justification are having an influence on the church, especially at the seminary level, where any theological confusion will be multiplied many times over. It is sad but also strange—strange because these theologians are setting justification in opposition to union with Christ, whereas the Reformation position has always been that these doctrines are inseparable.

As a case in point, consider John Calvin, who said that our union with Christ “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.” In other words, for Calvin it is the doctrine of union with Christ that provides the very context for justification by imputation. Calvin made this explicit when he said that God does not absolve us “by the confirmation of our own innocence but by the imputation of righteousness, so that we who are not righteous in ourselves may be reckoned as such in Christ.” John Owen said the same thing more succinctly, but equally emphatically: “The foundation of imputation is union.”

This is taken from Justification and Union with Christ by Phillip Ryken.


  1. "The very people who are united to Christ are the ones who are also declared righteous." Since these doctrines, union and justification, are "inseperable", can you reiterate your distinction of legal vs. covenental union?

  2. For those of you who are reading this, Faris and I have a pre-existing conversation.

    I do not have distinction between legal vs. covenental union. The distinction I have maintained is a distinction between a legal and vital union. As I understand it. legal and covenantal would be the same thing.

    Dr. Ryken has this same distinction. In this same article he states, "It is on the basis of our spiritual and covenantal union with Christ that our sins are imputed to him and his righteousness is imputed to us."

    So, the quote you posted could be rightly understood as. "The very people who are united (vitally) to Christ are the ones who are also declared righteous."

    I have a few questions for you, are all people baptized united to Christ? Are all people who are united to Christ saved?

    If you say yes to the first question and no to the second, how is this different from mine?

  3. You're right about me mislabeling the two types of union. I meant to say legal and vital or covenental and vital. Though I'm not sure how you can have a non-vital covenantal union or a non-covenantal vital union.

    I haven't read Dr. Ryken other than what is here. Is he saying that there are two types, a spiritual and a covenantal union? In the previous sentence he uses the phrase, "a true and covenantal connection to Christ." Are you suggesting that he means to say that there is a true connection and a covenantal connection? or that the one connection is both true and covenantal?

    The questions you have asked me depend upon whether or not there are one or two types of union. If there are two types of union then my answers will be yes,no as you have said. If there is only one type of union then my answers will be yes,yes.

    For us to answer those questions we have to know beforehand how many unions there are.

    The question lurking in the back of my mind, is why we would ever want to say that we can be joined to, united to, or put on Christ in a non-salvific way.

  4. Before I respond, I want to make it very clear that I am by no means and expert on these issues. I am student and am just trying to figure these issues out.

    Now on to the comments, you saw exactly what I was hitting at, namely, that in your view there is only one kind of union with Christ, salvific. If this is the case we have only two options as I see it: 1) the baptist view that only the elect are united to Christ by faith without any respect to baptism, or 2) the Roman Catholic view of baptismal regeneration, that all baptized individuals are saved without any respect to faith.

    I am trying to find a middle ground by allowing for two types of union. One that has in view baptism and the other that has faith in view. This seems to me to be the only way to handle all the biblical date. (John 15 and Galatians 3:27)

    Further, it seems to me, based on the way you answer my questions, that your view would lead to the RC view. You said that baptism does unite all person baptized to Christ and that the only way to be united is salvificly. Thus, all person baptized are saved. I am not sure if you saw this implication, but it is not one that the Reformed Church has held and not a conclusion that, based on past conversation, you would want to hold.

    So, we have a dilemma on our hands and my distinctions are an attempt to solve the dilemma. It maybe the case that my distinction is unbiblical. I am open that that! But at least it does solve this problem. You could also solve the problem with the two view listed above, both of which I have a hard time with biblically.

  5. I intentionally did not answer your question because I feared you would paint me into an RC corner. The question, "Are all people who are united to Christ saved?" is not going to mean the same thing to you that it does to me. Thus I wanted to settle the union question before moving to its alleged implications.

    Of course I am going to reject the RC and Baptist understanding outright. However, just because a single union might lead here or there does not mean it necessarily follows that I must choose between the RC or Baptist view.

    That being said, I do understand your reservations, but I don't understand your ease to make a union that is non-salvific. This seems more distressing to me than affirming John 15 and Gal 3:27 as a vital union and working within that realm rather than jettisoning those verses to a different type of union.

    I will grant that your view solves one problem but I'd emphasize the one it creates.

    Now that we have this figured out we can move on to other things. Btw, did you say for certain whether Dr. Ryken explicitly is affirming the two types of union?

  6. I tried really hard to not "paint you into an RC corner." I know you are not Roman Catholic and you have made that very clear in our personal correspondence. I am sorry that I did this. Please forgive me.

    I will attempt, again, my point without making you a RC. If I fail again, please have mercy on me. What I was trying to say is that your view would lead to the RC view, but is not the RC. Or put another way, I do not see how your view is not the RC view, other than you simply saying, “I do not hold the RC view on this issue.”

    It would be best for me, if you could outline who your view is distinct from the RC view on union not just baptism. In this outline could you please explain what the difference is between a baptized non-elect person and a baptized elect person with regard to union with Christ. Are they both united in the same way? How does faith work into your understanding of union with Christ? Does the union change in any respect when a person, who is baptized, has faith, i.e. was baptized without faith and then after some time exercises faith?

    As for Ryken, I have no idea if he holds to the distinction I am setting forth. But at times he speaks in ways that would lead me in that direction. See the passage I sited above. He may mean that as the same union in two ways (i.e. the same reality expressed in two distinct ways) or he may mean a distinct union express in two different ways. If it is the former he is not holding the view I am working with, but if he means the latter, then he is hold the view I am setting forth.

    Before we get lost in all the fine details, I would like to point out that Ryken is lifting up high and proud the doctrine of union with Christ. And even more, he makes union with Christ the foundation for imputation. You speak often about this and say that no one on the “other side” holds this view. Well, at least there are two of us!!!! :)


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