Justification And Union With Christ

The mystical union in the sense in which we are now speaking of it is not the judicial ground, on the basis of which we become partakers of the riches that are in Christ. It is sometimes said that the merits of Christ cannot be imputed to us as long as we are not in Christ, since it is only on the basis of our oneness with Him that such an imputation could be reasonable. But this view fails to distinguish between our legal unity with Christ and our spiritual oneness with Him, and is a falsification of the fundamental element in the doctrine of redemption, namely, of the doctrine of justification.

Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 452. (HT: Brian Chang)


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  1. I’m hesitant here. If mystical union isn’t the foundation upon which legal union is built, then can’t we speak of a justification apart from Christ? Wouldn’t we be bound to “legal fiction” categories?

  2. And I’m not trying to start an argument here. I’m just curious as to whether Berkhof’s categories are consistent with Calvin’s emphasis upon the centrality of union and the duplex gratia.

  3. Or are some of the current emphases consistent with Berkhof and Calvin. I don’t accept the premise that Calvin said anything different from Berkhof.

    Christ’s righteousness is the legal basis of our justification. The question is how we come into relation to Christ and how we come into possession of the benefit of justification.

    Notice how Berkhof sets up things. As I’ve listened to and read some of what regard as the revisionist approaches to union (and Calvin’s doctrine of union, which the proponents frequently set against Calvin’s doctrine of union, so now we’re back to Calvin v the Calvnists) I don’t see how faith actually functions in their system. We confess sola fide not sola unio. The Reformation was built on sola grata et sola fide not on union with Christ.

    As to “legal fiction,” your question gets right to the heart of my concern with some of the newer formulations. If we try to satisfy the “legal fiction” complaint via “union,” then we’ve conceded the very question of the Reformation to Rome! Our answer to Rome is this: You want inherent righteousness? Christ’s righteousness is inherent and his inherent, perfect righteousness is imputed to us. To try to satisfy Rome, implicitly, on their grounds, albeit via union, is to concede the question in principle.

    This is why, when it comes to “existential union” to use Dick Gaffin’s phrase, Calvin did not see himself as teaching anything different from Luther. Notice The Protestant connected union, in this sense, to faith.

  4. Thanks Dr. Clark. I figured your answer would be as such, just wanted to make sure as I’m working through these issues. I disagree with you in fundamental respects, and don’t think the union as the central soteriological category contradicts sola fide in any way. Instead, I think that sola fide is better and more Biblically understood when seen in light of union with Christ and the simultaneity of justification and sanctification within the ordo. Union and the duplex gratia are bestowed sola gratia, sola fide and in no other way. Anyway, we disagree here but I don’t consider you a Reformed revisionist, and I don’t think myself or Gaffin or Garcia or Lilback fit that description either.

  5. Dr. Clark,

    Can you explain where in Scripture a distinction is made between our “spiritual union” with Christ and our “legal unity” with him? I’m not sure I see this distinction in union made in the NT – although “in Christ” entails both a legal and a “mystical” aspect. My understanding is that in God’s mind we were in some sense always “in Christ” since we were chosen in him before the foundations as it says in Ephesians 1. But by faith we actually partake of Christ and from that union “springs forth” the benefits of justification, adoption, sanctification, etc. I don’t see how saying that justification and sanctification comes from the “same” union with Christ necessarily means a confusion of the one with the other. On the one hand we say that we died to the Law, and that Christ lives with reference to us (i.e., his righteousness is imputed to us) in respect of the Law. On the other hand, with respect to sanctification, we say we are dead to sin and alive to God in Christ. So there is a distinction in our standing with God – our relation to him as Judge versus Master – but both are based on our union with Christ. That is not to say that our union is the “grounds” of our justification (which I agree is solely the imputed righteousness of Christ), but how we appropriate it, which in turn depends on faith given by grace.

    I admit that this an area that is a bit unclear to me and I don’t (yet) see a whole lot of clarity in Scripture. Please let me know where I’ve erred in my understanding. BTW, I find this blog to be incredibly helpful.



  6. SP,

    Can you explain to me exactly how sola fide and union relate? Are we justified by faith alone or by union?

    I quite agree and have argued here that we have to distinguish between the decretal aspect of union (e.g. Eph 1), the federal/legal aspect (Rom 5), and the “existential” (Gaffin’s term) aspect. I think that Berkhof is essentially speaking of the latter aspect.

    Failure to make these distinctions leads the very problems that Berkhof identified in the 1930s, chiefly, the loss of the doctrine of justification.


    I quite agree that saying that the benefits of Christ flow from union, in the decretal and legal or federal aspects is important. If you want to see a historical approach to this question see my book on Olevianus or Cornel Venema’s book on Calvin. Both of them deal with this at length.

  7. Thanks, Dr. Clark. I think I was confused because I read the quote as suggesting that there are “two” unions – one legal, and one spiritual. Berkhof’s quote makes more sense if he is speaking of the “existential” aspect. In that regard, I agree that making a distinction between “legal unity” and “mystical union” is important and Biblical. Legally speaking, we were “in Adam” with respect to original sin, but because of faith now “in Christ” and declared righteous because of Christ’s obedience (Romans 5). In the legal aspect our certificate of debt (the decrees against us) was nailed to the cross (Colossians 2:14); in the existential, our old selves were crucified with Christ (Romans 6:6; Galatians 5:24).

  8. Mike Y.,

    If you get the chance, it is worth reading the Berkhof quote in its context in his chapter on mystical union. The “legal unity” Berkhof has in mind not only includes what is experienced by the believer as the soteriological blessing of justification (redemption applied), but goes even farther back to the covenant of redemption, the intra-Trinitarian covenant in which Christ became the legal Surety for his people from all eternity past, therefore guaranteeing, by his promised obedience, to enact their justification from the very beginning of God’s redemptive plan. It is important that we not lose sight of how mystical union is rooted in legal unity in this sense.

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