by William M Brennan


Justification and Union with Christ

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 to us."

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.

Fesko continues...

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 equation.

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.