In part 4 we saw that William Perkins taught that believers are given new life by the Spirit and by the same Spirit given faith and through that faith united to Christ. It is particularly useful to be aware of Perkins as we come to the Westminster Shorter Catechism.
It is good for us to close this series by considering the Shorter Catechism since as important as our theologians are, we do not confess their work. We confess God’s Word as summarized by the churches in the confessions and catechisms. The Shorter Catechism has a clear survey of the nature of union with Christ. It should clarify remaining questions.
Since the mid-1970s there has been a number of Reformed theologians who have sought to revise the Reformed doctrines of justification and union with Christ. Some have proposed the doctrine that sinners are accepted with God through faith and works. Yes, it has been put that baldly. “What?” You might object, “Didn’t we settle that in the Reformation?” Yes, for those of us who still believe what the Reformation believed, yes it is settled. Formally, the doctrine of the Reformed churches, as summarized by the confessions and catechisms, has not changed but under the surface, as a matter of history, that revision was accepted and defended by more than a few as the genuine “Reformed” doctrine (as distinct from the ostensibly, allegedly defective Lutheran doctrine). When objections were raised the view was reformulated to teach acceptance with God through “faithfulness.” Nothing was changed, however. The revised doctrine taught (and teaches) that we are justified through trust and obedience or cooperation with grace.
As part of this revision, it was proposed that we are brought into a conditional union with Christ by baptism and that we remain in union with Christ by cooperation with grace, i.e., by works. In this way, our perseverance and our assurance of salvation was placed in jeopardy in the name of achieving a truly and distinctly “Reformed” doctrine of justification (and union with Christ).
As we’ve seen, some have proposed a revision of the doctrine of union that disregards the idea of an ordo salutis arguing that a proper doctrine of union with Christ renders the idea a logical order of salvation invalid. All of Christ’s benefits, it is claimed, flow from existential, mystical union.
Thus, it behooves us to notice the logical and pedagogical order of salvation relative to mystical union with Christ in the catechism. In the questions leading up to this section the catechism has been summarizing the accomplishment of redemption by Christ. Questions 24–28 account for Christ’s triplex munus (threefold office): prophet, priest, and king.
Question 29 asks,
How are we made partakers of the redemption purchased by Christ?
We are made partakers of the redemption purchased by Christ, by the effectual application of it to us by his Holy Spirit.
As we saw in Perkins, in the Shorter Catechism, redemption is accomplished outside of us (extra nos), for us (pro nobis, by Christ alone (solo Christo) and applied to us the Holy Spirit.
Those who benefit from Christ’s work do so by “effectual application” worked by the Spirit. How does this work? The adjective “effectual” signals that we’re thinking about that which the Spirit does, as distinct from what is offered generally to all in the preaching of the Gospel.
Question 30 answers
The Spirit applieth to us the redemption purchased by Christ, by working faith in us, and thereby uniting us to Christ in our effectual calling (emphasis added).
So far there is no question about who applies Christ and his benefits to us: the Holy Spirit. The next question is how the Spirit applies Christ’s benefits to us. The answer is “by working faith in us.” In the context of the current discussions and confusion about the doctrine of union with Christ we must appreciate the simplicity and clarity of the Shorter Catechism. Once more: The Holy Spirit applies the redemption that Christ purchased, earned for us “by working faith in us.”
According to some accounts of mystical or existential union with Christ, we might have expected to see the catechism say, “through [mystical] union with Christ” but that is not what the catechism says. Union with Christ is not the instrument through which we apprehend Christ and his benefits, faith is.
There is a second aspect to this answer. There is a subordinate clause beginning with the word “thereby.” The clause says: “thereby uniting us to Christ.” To what does the “thereby” refer? Faith. How does the Spirit apply redemption? By faith. What else does faith do? It unites us to Christ. Not only is faith the instrument of justification it is also the instrument of union with Christ.
Remember, according to Perkins, there are multiple aspects of union with Christ. There isn’t any genuine disagreement over the decretal union or the federal (representative) union with Christ. The aspect over which there has been confusion has been mystical or existential union with Christ.
This is how the following questions characterize and describe the work of the Spirit in effectual calling:
Effectual calling is the work of God’s Spirit, whereby, convincing us of our sin and misery, enlightening our minds in the knowledge of Christ, and renewing our wills, he doth persuade and enable us to embrace Jesus Christ, freely offered to us in the gospel.
The Spirit convicts, renews, enlightens, and renews the heretofore spiritually dead, unregenerate will. The Spirit is said to “persuade and enable” the renewed faculties to “embrace Jesus Christ, freely offered to us in the gospel.” That embrace is faith. Those who’ve been given new life, who’ve been given faith, who by grace have embraced Christ through faith alone, receive “justification, adoption and sanctification, and the several benefits which in this life do either accompany or flow from them.”
Finally, it should be noted again that we have been considering the logical, not temporal order of salvation. This discussion has to do with how we should think and speak (and teach) about the work of the Spirit and the instrumental role of faith in justification and sanctification. We should think and speak of the Spirit working through the “due use of the ordinary means,” i.e., through the preaching of the Gospel of Christ’s actively obedient suffering, death, and victorious resurrection. We should think and speak of the Spirit creating new life in the elect, giving faith to those renewed, and through that faith conferring union with Christ, justification, adoption, etc.
Contrary to the way some are speaking today, faith is not simply the instrument of justification, it is also the instrument of union and if we are going to characterize the Christian life as a life lived in union and communion with Christ, then we must also characterize it as a life lived by faith. It is not that faith has only one function and that it fulfills its one function in justification and then is locked away in a box for safe keeping. If faith is the instrument of union and union is of the essence of the Christ life then faith is of the essence of sanctification just as it is of the essence of justification.
Historically, some Reformed folk have been tempted to place predestination in the foreground of Reformed theology. Our best theologians and certainly our confessional documents tend to treat predestination as a source of explanation for why things are the way they are but it remains in the background. For example, Theodore Beza (like Calvin) and the Reformed orthodox typically discouraged believers from asking, “Am I elect?” That’s the wrong question because we cannot know, in the abstract, if we are elect. It would require knowledge of God’s decree and such knowledge is hidden from us (Deut 29:29). The question we should ask is: “Do I believe?” The logic is thus: Only the elect believe, I believe, therefore I’m elect. That’s the Reformed faith.
Our theologians and ecclesiastical documents tend to treat mystical union in a similar way. Rather than asking, “Do I have mystical union with Christ?”—again, how, in the abstract would we know?—we should ask, “Do I believe?” The Reformed faith teaches: Believers have union with Christ. I believe. Therefore I have union with Christ. If we start with mystical union or if we focus on it we tend to lose Christ, who is the object of faith and the source of our life. After all, the point of mystical union is to connect us to Christ not to call attention to itself.