Union with Christ: It's Not That Difficult

Revised from 10 Jan 07 on the Old HB:

Someone sent me these quotes and they’re worth posting.

To set the ground of imputation in a clearer light, we must observe […] that the elect, before the righteousness of Christ is imputed to them for justification of life, are so closely united to him by faith, as to be one body, and which is still more indivisible, or indissoluble, one spirit with him, nor are they only united, but he and they are one, and that by such an unity or oneness, in which there is some faint resemblance of that most simple oneness, whereby the divine persons are one among themselves.  But in virtue of this union or oneness, which the elect have with Christ by faith, they are accounted to have done and suffered whatever Christ did and suffered for them.” (Herman Witsius, Economy of the Covenants 1, p. 403, para 31)

Far from diminishing our own obedience, then, the covenantal approach I have been advocating affirms that the ‘alien righteousness’ of Christ’s active obedience is only ‘alien’ in the sense that it is not the outcome of our own obedience. But in an important sense, it is not alien at all: it is just as truly ours as if we had fulfilled our original mandate, since all that is Christ’s belongs to us in the baptismal reality of both a legal and organic union. (Michael S. Horton, Lord and Servant, 230-231)

There are three aspects to our union with Christ: the decretal, federal/legal, and the vital or mystical (sometimes described as “existential.”) The latter is logically premised on the former. The elect have a legal or federal union with their head, Christ, in the covenant of redemption (pactum salutis). Thus Heidelberg Catechism Q. 54 says: 

…from the beginning to the end of the world, the Son of God, by His Spirit and Word, gathers, defends and preserves for Himself to everlasting life a chosen communion in the unity of the true faith…. 

Christ their head, i.e., the legal, federal representative of all the elect, i.e., all who have ever believed, believe, or shall believe, accomplished their righteousness by his active and passive obedience fulfilling his promise to the Father. 

The question is when, relative to the ordo salutis, do the elect come into possession of vital union? Do they believe and are they sanctified because they have vital union or do they have vital union because they’ve been regenerated? Do the benefits of Christ flow logically from vital union do we come into vital union because we’ve been regenerated, been given faith, and thus become united to Christ? The last way is the best way to put things. We should be careful here. Remember Berkhof’s admonition:

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 (Systematic Theology, 452).

There is no question whether, in some respect, the benefits of Christ flow from union. The useful thing here is to remember what is in question. There’s no question whether we have a decretal union or a federal union prior to faith. We were elect “in Christ,” from all eternity. Christ acted as our federal head before we existed. We come into possession of Christ and his benefits by faith alone and the same Spirit who operated through the gospel to make us alive, to give us faith, also creates that vital union.

Solus Christus. In view of that union, God the Spirit regenerates (i.e., awakens from death to life) the elect by working through the preaching of the Holy Gospel (the means of grace; media gratiae; see Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 65) and creates faith in them (see HC Q. 21, BC 22-23, WCF 11, WLC 70-74) and through that faith, vital union.

Sola gratia. True faith, thus created by the Spirit through the Word, receives, rests, and relies in Christ and his finished work. Thus the Belgic Confession says:

And faith is the instrument that keeps us in communion with him and with all his benefits. When those benefits are made ours they are more than enough to absolve us of our sins (Art. 22)

Sola fide. The grace of mystical or vital union is nurtured in the visible covenant community, in true congregations (Belgic Confession, Articles 28-29), through the preaching of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments (HC 65; Westminster Shorter Catechism 88).

None of these, so united to Christ shall or can be lost. They shall persevere, because they belong to Christ “body and soul.” Nothing can separate them from their Savior nor break that union which exists by the will of God and the work of the Spirit. This is what we confess in Canons of Dort 1.7:

Election is the unchangeable purpose of God, whereby, before the foundation of the world, He has out of mere grace, according to the sovereign good pleasure of His own will, chosen from the whole human race, which had fallen through their own fault from the primitive state of rectitude into sin and destruction, a certain number of persons to redemption in Christ, whom He from eternity appointed the Mediator and Head of the elect and the foundation of salvation. This elect number, though by nature neither better nor more deserving than others, but with them involved in one common misery, God has decreed to give to Christ to be saved by Him, and effectually to call an draw them to His communion by His Word and Spirit; to bestow upon them true faith, justification, and sanctification; and having powerfully preserved them in the fellowship of His son, finally to glorify them for the demonstration of His mercy, and for the praise of the riches of His glorious grace….

Union with Christ is not some arcane doctrine discovered in the 20th century, nor is it some Gnostic secret that unlocks mysteries heretofore unknown to the Reformed churches. This is the stuff we’ve confessed all along and it isn’t any more difficult now than it was then.

If we make a distinction between these three aspects of union and properly relate the third aspect of union to our doctrine justification sola fide everything is well. If we try make the vital aspect of union do what only faith can do, then we’ve created an unnecessary problem.

We cannot have a doctrine of vital union that has Christ justifying the godly, that says that  we’re forensically sanctified by virtue of “existential” union before we’ve believed. Where is faith in this formulation?

If faith and the rest of the ordo is nothing more than the fruit of existential union, then why not have us justified because we’re elect? Because such a doctrine is unbiblical. We’re justified through faith. We’re united to Christ vitally/existentially through faith. Progressive sanctity flows logically, necessarily from that faith and union.

The doctrine of union is a glorious thing but, like the doctrine of election, it’s meant to work in the background of our soteriology. It’s a complement to our doctrine of justification, not a competitor.

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  1. Dr. Clark,

    I made some comments here when you posted on this subject a couple of months ago. Since then I’ve done some reading and reflection on this subject. My conclusions (I think) are basically in accordance with what you’ve laid out in this post. I think the following from A.A. Hodge’s Outlines is particularly helpful: “It [union] was established in the purpose and decree of God, and in the covenant of the Father with the Son from eternity, Eph. i., 4; John xvii., 2, 6…In God’s appointed time with each individual of his chosen, this union is mutually established, 1st. By the commencement of the effectual and permanent workings of the Holy Spirit within them…thus laying in their natures the foundation of the exercise of saving faith. 2d. Which faith is the second bond by which this union is established, by the continued actings of which their fellowship with Christ is sustained, and its blessed consequences developed, Eph.iii., 17.”

    He then goes on to say that the first consequence of this “mutual” (or to use your term, vital) union is: “They have a community with him in his covenant standing, and rights. Forensically they are rendered ‘complete in him.’ His righteousness and his Father is theirs.” As you pointed out, I think the key is to keep in mind the distinct between the three aspects of union. Failing to do so can lead to belief in eternal justification (i.e., when vital union is confused with election, which leaves no place for faith) or denial of imputation, where the basis for justification can get confused with righteousness wrought in the believer.

    A question for you: Would you say that effectual call, regeneration & faith (in short, the work of the Spirit) are themselves benefits that flow from federal union? In other words, how would you answer the question: “How can union precede faith, if faith is instrumental to union? Owen said: “That we should be blessed with all spiritual blessings in Christ, and yet Christ not be ours in a peculiar manner before the bestowing of those blessings on us, is somewhat strange. Yea, he must be our Christ before it is given to us for him to believe.” So is Christ being “made ours” before faith mean the same thing as union in the legal forensic sense? (which gives the grounds for regeneration & faith, with vital union – and actual appropriation of justification, adoption, etc. – following faith?) I think this relates to your comment that the vital aspect of union is grounded in the decretal or federal aspects.

    (As a side note, I can’t say I entirely agree with your comment that “it’s not that difficult.” It certainly took a bit of thinking on my part! But perhaps that says more about the state of education within the church than of the complexity of the doctrine).

    Thanks for the helpful post!


  2. Mike, where did you get that quote from Owen? Just curious.

    I agree about it not being simple. These are tough issues for me too.

    Thanks again, Dr. Clark, for this.

  3. Hi Ben, I got it from an essay (dissertation) discussing Owen’s thoughts on union and justification on johnowen.org by Matthew W. Mason. I found it quite helpful. Here’s his take on the issue of union before faith:

    “Owen seems to conceive of some kind of forensic union with Christ prior to faith, perhaps better described as an imputation of Christ. This imputation occurs when, at the time of his choosing, God proceeds to justify a sinner on the basis of the antecedent decretal union. It consists in the Father reckoning him to us, and giving him to us, and with him faith. However, full, reconciling union does not happen until, on the basis of the imputation of Christ, the sinner believes.”

  4. Dr. Clark,
    Why do you say that there are three aspects of union when it seems like the decretal and the federal/legal seems like they’re one and the same? Isn’t God’s eternal decree of election (decretal) part and parcel of the pactum salutis (federal)?

    Or, do the three aspects of this union correspond to the economic roles of the Persons of the Godhead, i.e. decretal – Father, federal – Son and, vital or mystical – Holy Spirit?

    • Joel,

      I guess the question would be the definition of the word “aspect” in this usage: “a particular part or feature of something.” The federal and decetal features are related but distinct.

  5. Michael Horton really needs a better editor. “an unity” is a mistake. The initial sound of the word unity is the y consonant (not that it matters but the initial sound in the word oneness is the w consonant).

    See the very first entry (Choice Between a and an) from the The Oxford Dictionary of American Usage and Style:


    This modern distinction is clearer in A Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage (also published by Oxford)


    • Oops! My bad! Horton’s work is not in dispute here. Herman Witsius’ is. If it’s old enough then it’s grandfathered in like the American Constitution.

  6. Hi Dr. Clark,

    “There are three aspects to our union with Christ: the decretal, federal/legal, and the vital or mystical (sometimes described as “existential.”) The latter is logically premised on the former.”

    What do the pronouns latter and former here refer to exactly? Does latter refer to existential and former to mystical?

    • Perhaps it would be better to have said, “the last is premised on the first two.” I meant to say that we come into existential union with Christ by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.

      That’s what I understand to be the traditional Reformed view

  7. Dr. Clark

    I was wondering if you could clarify a couple issues I have regarding mystic union.

    LC #66 indicates our union with Christ is a result of our effectual calling; however, in WCF 11.4 says we are not “are not justified, until the Holy Spirit doth, in due time, actually apply Christ unto them.”

    1.) The LC says our “union with Christ” results from effectual calling. Is this referring to the mystic union or legal union since our effectual calling is prior to faith.

    2.) The WCF says the HS applies Christ to us. Is this idea synonymous to mystic union? In my understanding the LC and WCF teach something contrary to each other.

    3.) Do you disagree with Vos in the following quote since he seems to indicate we become conscious of the mystic union by faith, but implies mystic union is prior to faith? “One is first united to Christ, the Mediator of the covenant, by a mystical union, which finds its conscious recognition by faith. By this union with Christ all that is in Christ is simultaneously given. Faith embraces all this too; it not only grasps justification, but lays hold of Christ as Prophet, Priest, and King, as his rich and full Messiah.” Vos, Geerhardus. “Doctrine of the Covenant in Reformed Theology” in Redemptive-History and Biblical Interpretation edited by Richard B. Gaffin, Jr. p 256.

    I am not trying to argue with you but to better understand this issue. I believe you are in agreement in your previous post with what Calvin says in 3.1.1.

    Thank you in advance for any help.



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