Last time we saw that, according to William Perkins, semi-Pelagianism asserts that the will (or other faculties) are able to operate in salvation partly on the basis of nature, i.e., they are not entirely dependent upon grace. In contrast, the Reformed argue that all humans are, by virtue of our union with the first Adam in his disobedience and sin (his violation of the covenant of works; see Westminster Confession of Faith chapter 7), dead in sins (Eph 2). In the providence of God our corrupted faculties are able to function toward civil good or civil righteousness but not for spiritual good or righteousness before God. This is the doctrine of total or extensive depravity (corruption). As the colonial Puritans put it: “In Adam’s fall sinned we all.” As Pauline and Augustinians we understand that sin brings death. Hence, Paul teaches that we “dead in sins and trespasses” (Eph 2:1).
The Reformed ordo salutis (the logical order of the application of redemption) has typically taught that God the Spirit works through the preaching of the gospel to give new life to the elect, and having done, gives them faith in Christ and through that faith resting and receiving Christ, regenerated believers are justified and united to Christ.
Nevertheless, despite this apparently simple and straightforward account of the faith, there seems to be genuine confusion about
- whether there is or should be an ordo salutis;
- what the Reformed ordo salutis is;
- where, in the Reformed ordo salutis, the doctrine of union with Christ should appear.
There is also apparently some confusion about what is meant by “union with Christ.” This is understandable because the doctrine has three or four aspects and, in contemporary discussion, all participants have not always been as cautious as necessary to make sure we are talking about the same aspect at the same time in the same way.
Louis Berkhof (1873–1957) represented the mainstream of the Reformed tradition when he spoke of the “federal union” that all the elect have with Christ (Systematic Theology, 448). This aspect of union is relative to the eternal, pre-temporal (before time) “covenant of redemption” (pactum salutis) between the Father and the Son (and the Holy Spirit). According to Ps 110, John 17 and other passages, the Father gave to his Son a people and the Son volunteered to be their Mediator, their federal representative, and their Savior; i.e., to earn their salvation. This is one of the three or four aspects of our union with Christ. For more on this see the chapter on the “Covenant Before the Covenants” in Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry.
Berkhof wrote of a second aspect of our union with Christ, which he called the “union of life” (ibid). This union refers to the natural, organic relation that all humans have with the first Adam, who was the federal representative of all humanity (Rom 5). The corollary to our natural union with Adam, in whom we would have entered in glorious life had he (and we in him) obeyed the commandment of life (“you shall not eat”). In the covenant of redemption God constituted a union between the Son, who would be the Last Adam (1Cor 15) and his people. Implicitly, the Holy Spirit was a party to this covenant as that person who would apply redemption to the people given to the Son. The Second Adam (Rom 5), Jesus, fulfilled that covenant of works for all those whom he represented, for whom he died and for whose justification he was raised.
We might also speak of a third aspect of our union with Christ, which we might call decretal union, i.e., the union that exists between Christ and his people by virtue of God’s decree to elect, in Christ, some out of the mass of fallen humanity to redemption. Paul spoke to this aspect of our union with Christ when he wrote that we were chosen “in Christ” before the foundations of the world (Eph 1). This aspect is, of course, a corollary to the federal union and the union of life mentioned above.
The last aspect is mystical union (or sometimes referred to as “existential union”) and it refers to the subjective application of redemption purposed from eternity in the decree, covenanted among the Trinitarian person in the pactum salutis, accomplished by Christ in his active and suffering obedience, and applied to the elect by the Holy Spirit. Mystical union is, as Berkhof put it, that “intimate, vital, and spiritual” connection “between Christ and his people, in virtue of which He is the source of their life and strength, of their blessedness and salvation” (Systematic Theology, 449).
The debate that has arisen in the last few decades has raised questions about whether we should speak of an ordo salutis. Some contemporary writers have called for us to make a “decisive break with the ordo salutis thinking.” Such a proposal, however, is quite radical in comparison to the Reformed tradition. The existence and necessity of a logical order of the application of redemption seems clear in Romans 8:29–30:
For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.
When we speak of a “logical order” all that is meant is this: God’s decree of predestination is logically prior to vocation or effectual calling. Thus, those whom God the Spirit effectually calls, are the elect. Those who believe and through faith alone are justified are those whom God has elected in Christ and effectually called. The sanctified and glorified are those whom God elected in Christ, effectually called by the Spirit, and justified through faith alone.
That’s the ordo salutis or the logical order of the application of redemption. This is why all the Reformed theologians since the beginning of the Reformation have taught this basic order of the application of redemption. Indeed, the entire Reformation conflict between Rome and the Protestants may be said to have been over the logical order of the application of redemption. The medieval Western church taught and the Roman communion teaches that justification is God’s recognition of our sanctification through the infusion of medicinal grace, through “charity poured into the heart” and cooperation with grace, the combination of which is said to create inherent justice.
The Reformation, however, taught and teaches that God justifies sinners by his unmerited favor (grace) on the basis of Christ’s perfect (condign) righteousness accomplished for us and imputed to us and received through Spirit-wrought faith alone. The Reformation was built upon the logical order of the application of redemption taught by Paul in Romans.
Thus far everything seems fairly clear. The historic Reformed view is opposed to semi-Pelagianism and on the Reformation doctrine of election (shared by all the magisterial Reformers) and justification sola gratia, sola fide. It is built on the Pauline order of the application of redemption and a particular understanding of the history of redemption and covenant theology taught by the Reformed theologians and reflected to varying degrees in the Reformed confessions.
Whence the difficulty and confusion? Part of the explanation lies in the discomfort that some began to have with traditional covenant theology. The traditional Reformed view of mystical union, as represented by Berkhof, is built upon the traditional covenant theology (covenant of redemption, covenant of works, and covenant of grace). That scheme was subject to criticism in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries by Lutherans, Socinians, and the Remonstrants (Arminians). In the twentieth century, that scheme also came under sustained assault by Barthians and by the modern “biblical theology” movement which, unlike the older and more orthodox biblical theologians (e.g., Caspar Olevianus, Johannes Cocceius, Geerhardus Vos, B. B. Warfield, and John Murray) thought of dogmatic or systematic theology as an enemy of a true account of the faith. They sought to overcome traditional distinctions and spoke disparagingly of “scholastic” or “systematic” theology as derived from ideas foreign to Scripture and imposed upon Scripture. There was even a proposal by a notable Reformed writer, in the early 1970s, to replace the categories and vocabulary of systematic theology which those of “biblical theology.”
Others, under the influence of the “biblical theology” movement (dominated in the 20th century by Barthians), came to reject the covenant of redemption (before time) and the covenant of works before the fall. In this scheme the covenant of grace swallowed up everything. According to G. C. Berkouwer (1903–96), this is what happened in the theology of Karl Barth (d. 1968). The decree of election, which seems to have included everyone) obliterated the distinction between law and gospel, and between the covenants of works and grace. Berkouwer himself came to reject the covenant of redemption as a speculative assault on the doctrine of the Trinity. That criticism has been echoed in contemporary, otherwise confessional, Reformed circles. Thus, two parts of the foundation of the historic and confessional Reformed understanding of union with Christ were weakened and the way was opened for new proposals based on either a rejection of the ordo salutis or a re-ordering it.