As we saw previously, when we examined the Biblical
basis for vicarious atonement, union with Christ is an essential component
to a proper understanding of soteriology. As we shall see, union with
Christ is no less essential to a proper understanding of justification.
A defect in Reformed Soteriology that has come to my attention as I
studied the question of the relationship between justification and union
with Christ, is the tendency to make justification the source of sanctification.
Note the following from Westminster Seminary Professor, J. V. Fesko:
In terms of union with Christ and justification, Berkhof therefore
explains that "justification is always a declaration of God, not
on the basis of an existing condition, but on that of a gracious imputation-a
declaration which is not in harmony with the existing condition of the
sinner. The judicial ground for all the special grace which we receive
lies in the fact that the righteousness of Christ is freely imputed
These expressions taken from Berkhoff, "not on the basis of an
existing condition" and "not in harmony with the existing
condition of the sinner." are far too general to be intelligible
and really result in misleading assumptions. Justification is not on
the basis of any existing condition of righteousness found in the sinner.
To that we must heartily agree. And if that is all he meant we would
have no problem. However, that is not all he means by the expression
"an existing condition." He really means any condition whatsoever.
He goes too far. To say that justification is not on the basis of any
condition found in the sinner is unscriptural. In fact, justification
IS on the basis of an existing condition; the condition of union with
Christ. The redeemed sinner must first experience the existing condition
of Union with Christ before justification can occur. To reverse this
order is to espouse an Arminian soteriology.
What we must realize, then, is that the ground of our redemption
is the work of Christ; correlatively, we should also recognize that
the ground of our sanctification is our justification. In other words,
apart from the legal-forensic work of Christ, received by imputation
through faith, there is no transformative work of the Holy Spirit. Or,
using the title of John Murray's famous book, apart from redemption
accomplished, there can be no redemption applied (see WCF 11.3; Larger
Catechism, Q/A 70) .
This is the Arminian order and implies that saving faith is the result
of justification when clearly Scripture puts it precisely the other
way around! Morton H. Smith, (my professor of Systematic Theology at
Greenville Seminary) taught that regeneration and sanctification are
one. That is, regeneration is the beginning of our sanctification. It
is a spiritual rebirth. In regeneration we are brought to life again
spiritually. We were dead in sin but now we are alive.
Sanctification is the continuation of the regenerative process that
began when we were quicken by the Holy Spirit and brought into Union
with Christ. In fact we can refer to regeneration and sanctification
as "definitive" and "progressive" sanctification.
At the point in time when sanctification commences, we find that we
have faith in Christ. Faith is the result of this definitive sanctification
and justification is the result of this faith. Thus, sanctification,
which results in our union with Christ, is the ground of our justification
and not the other way around. Fesko has the process backwards.
The problem seems to be due to a de-emphasis on the part of the Holy
Spirit in the process. Fesko alludes to the title of John Murray’s
famous book, Redemption Accomplished and Applied when he says, “using
the title of John Murray's famous book, apart from redemption accomplished,
there can be no redemption applied.”
But Murray’s emphasis with respect to the “accomplished”
side of things focused on the ground of redemption not the application
of it. Justification, just as much as sanctification, falls under the
“applied” side not the “accomplished” side of
The biblical order in which God accomplished
salvation is the Father sends the Son, the Son obeys the Father and
lastly, the Spirit applies the Son’s work to the lost. But with
respect to the application of that accomplished
work of redemption, the order is just the reverse, First comes the Spirit,
then the Son, and finally the Father. That is, regeneration (sanctification)
by the Holy Spirit initiates salvation, followed by Union with Christ
and imputation of his works, and then finally Justification by the Father
on the basis of that union and imputation.
Fesko adds, "The judicial ground for all the special grace
which we receive lies in the fact that the righteousness of Christ is
freely imputed to us." Once again Fesko is too vague. If by
"all the special grace" he means all the blessing we are legally
entitled to because of Christ's work imputed to us we agree. But we
cannot agree that "all the special grace" God gives us is
grounded in a legal act of justification because the greatest special
grace of all, definitive sanctification, the new birth, or being born
from above, is not grounded in any legal act but quite the reverse.
It is that special grace that precedes the forensic declaration and
in fact regeneration is the ground of forensic justification
The new birth is not given to us on the basis of any judicial
ground. It is true that the legal (judicial) ground is founded
upon "the righteousness of Christ freely imputed to us" but
that simply means that our union with Christ avails us of his acts on
our behalf as the basis for our legal standing with God. It is on the
basis of our union with Christ that we receive every special grace including
the special favor of justification. If justification results in sanctification
then faith must follow justification for faith is the product of regeneration
and regeneration is definitive sanctification.
If were to put it in terms that a Reformed Christian can understand,
in terms of an ordo salutis, it would be as follows,
1. Definitive sanctification (regeneration)
2. Union with Christ (entering into the Covenant of Grace by faith,
the product of the new birth.)
3.Justification by the imputation of Christ's passive and active obedience
as part of our Union.
4.Ongoing or progressive sanctification as a result of our union with
Christ (not as a result of our legal standing).
So justification and sanctification are related to each other like spokes
on a wheel. Both have their source in the hub, which is union with Christ.
But neither is the source of the other. The work of the Holy Spirit,
which brings us into union with Christ is the source of our salvation.
Progressive sanctification and justification both flow from that.