Geerhardus Vos (1862-1949) was a Dutch Reformed theologian who taught at the theological college of the Christian Reformed Church (later Calvin Seminary) and most famously at Princeton Theological Seminary. Though typically neglected by mainline (i.e., liberal and Barthian) writers because of his commitment to confessional orthodoxy and to the historicity of the faith, Vos was nevertheless a pioneer of the contemporary study of “Biblical Theology.” In this passage he addressed the issue of the “center” of Paul’s theology. His words remain relevant, especially for those who fancy themselves his theological descendants.
Naturally the problem becomes most accentuated where it touches the center of Paul’s teaching. This, we may still insist, is the doctrine of justification. Recent attempts to dislodge it from this position, and to make the mystical aspect of the believer’s relation to Christ, as mediated by the Spirit, entirely coordinated with it—so that each of the two covers the entire range of religious experience, and becomes in reality a duplicate of the other in a different sphere—we cannot recognize as correct from the apostle’s own point of view.1 In our opinion Paul consciously and consistently subordinated the mystical aspect of the relation to Christ to the forensic one. Paul’s mind was to such an extent forensically oriented that he regarded the entire complex of subjective spiritual changes that take place in the believer and of subjective spiritual blessings enjoyed by the believer as the direct outcome of the forensic work of Christ applied in justification. The mystical is based on the forensic, not the forensic on the mystical.
“The Alleged Legalism in Paul’s Doctrine of Justification,” The Princeton Theological Review 1:161-179. . See also John Fesko, Justification, ch’s 10-11.
While union with Christ and the sanctification that results from that union are more than forensic,they are the consequences of God’s forensic declaration. Both justification (“Let there be….!”) and inner renewal (“Let the earth bring forth…!”) are speech-acts of the Triune God…Like ex nihilo creation, justification is not a process of transforming an already existing state of affairs. In other words it is a synthetic rather than an analytic verdict.
Horton points us to Calvin’s comments on Eph 3:17,
By faith we not only acknowledge that Christ suffered for us and rose from the dead for us, but we receive him, possessing and enjoying him as he offers Himself to us. This should be noted carefully. Most consider fellowship with Christ and believing in Christ to be the same thing; but the fellowship which we have with Christ is the effect of faith.
(Quoted in Fesko, Justification, 278-79).
One cannot help but observe that much of the recent literature in the confessional Reformed community that pits imputation against union with Christ has unwittingly imbibed from the theology of the historical-critical school. Some have embraced the presuppositions espouses by theologians such as Schweitzer and Ritschl and have placed an antithesis where there is none (ibid, 280).