Review: Union with the Resurrected Christ: Eschatological New Creation and New Testament Biblical Theology by G. K. Beale

G. K. Beale is rightly renowned for his skill at biblical theology, especially tracing the redemptive historical theme of creation-new creation. His work on the temple theme has fairly definitively demonstrated the connections between the creation order and the fundamentally religious orientation of humanity’s nature and status as God’s image bearer. The thrust of so much of his work has been to prove how the structures of our New Testament eschatology, as they find inauguration and fulfillment in Christ, were built into creation itself.

In his newest work, Union with the Resurrected Christ, Beale applies the fruit of that broad-scope redemptive historical work to how it relates to those joined to Christ. In other words, where his previous work, especially his New Testament Biblical Theology—focused on how the fulfillment of eschatological expectations begin and find their future hope in Christ—this work emphasizes how that reality comes to bear on those in union with Christ by faith.

This book is a wealth of exegetical riches, providing a lot of material that will take time to digest. As a preacher, I felt a bit overwhelmed at times thinking about how I might attempt to keep hold of all the information in this book to implement in sermons. It is one of those moments when you realize the value of having that extensive scripture index at the back of the book! The scope of this volume is immense though, dealing thematically with topics that range the whole canon.

Beale’s formula (I think formulas are highly valuable for making our thought patterns obvious) is fairly straightforward in approach. He takes a theme grounded in the creation narrative, examines how later Scripture confirms and elaborates that theme, considers how it has been unfulfilled in most of redemptive history, then posits its fulfillment in Christ and His work, especially in His risen exaltation as the focus of this work. Then, he thinks about what this fulfillment means for those in union with Christ. This simplicity, which is a notable strength, can be missed amidst the massive amount of detail that informs the methodological steps. Beale reaches profound depths in noticing linguistic and conceptual connections that bind some of the more eschatologically charged Old Testament passages to New Testament accounts related to Christ and His resurrection.

The first block of chapters, namely chapters 3–5, unwind themes related to Adam’s commission with astounding insight. As Beale explains connections between Adam, sonship, temple, image of God, kingship, priesthood, and their relation to Israel, then to Christ, I was struck by how thorough these connections are. Beale weaves together narrative threads that, although implicitly contained in some of our major Reformed categories of covenant theology, need further elaboration and extended thought—namely, how we might apply these insights to help God’s people today see how magnificent it is that we are witnesses to and included in the events of the climax and forward motion of history. We are living in the fallout of what Christ has accomplished, waiting for its completion.

Beale’s strength lies in developing that rich thematic tapestry of the historia salutis. This material is helpful, clear, and fruitful for more thought to see how the whole Bible holds together. He falters, however, when he addresses the ordo salutis. Notoriously, even excellent scholars in biblical studies struggle when it comes to theological construction, which proves to be the case here.

Beale’s attempts to develop his arguments along topical lines related to soteriological categories are often vague or confused. His defense of definitive sanctification provides the clearest example. He argues that definitive sanctification is a decisive, irreversible break with the world and transfer to the new creation. Fine, but it is never quite clear what this means in a concrete sense. If it is judicial, it is hard to see how this is not just another perspective on justification. If it is simply the first moment of progressive sanctification, does that first moment of the process really need its own doctrinal heading? After all, for anyone who has been a believer for more than a minute or two, some of our sanctification is in the past, readily explaining why we should not overthink the New Testament use of verbs for our sanctification that can be translated as past tense. All the more confusing, then, is how Beale draws 1 Corinthians 15:45–46, 51–54 into this discussion of definitive sanctification. Given that this passage is overtly and explicitly related to the resurrection at the last day throughout, its most obvious application is to the doctrine of glorification, which will certainly be that radical transformation and incorporation into every aspect of the new creation. Beale overplays his interpretive hand by implementing this text to defend an already vague concept.

Further, he appeals to several texts about being clothed in Christ to support definitive sanctification (Col 3:8–11; Eph 4:24–25). It is always good to run passages through new lenses to consider how they might further inform our doctrinal development. Nonetheless, Beale misses how the clothing metaphor is often related to forensic justification. For example, in Zechariah 3, the setting is clearly legal, taking place in the divine courtroom. In that context, God removes Joshua’s filthy garments and provides him with clean vestments. There, being newly clothed is legal. In Revelation 22:14, “those who wash their robes” are given “the right to eat from the tree of life” and to “enter the city by the gates.” The whole issue of a right to enter the new creation locates this use of the clothing metaphor again in the legal sphere, related to justification. Almost surely, this right to enter the city is related to Paul’s idea of “our citizenship is in heaven” where he marked that our full transformation to Christ’s glorious state happens at the last day, notably in light of the preceding discussion about having righteousness from Christ. Beale himself well defended that Philippians 3:8–10 is about imputed righteousness, which should show the connection to legal citizenship to heaven is grounded in justification, further informing John’s use of the clothing metaphor in Revelation 22.

Beale mounts a wonderful case for Christ’s righteousness as the ground for believers’ justification. He pulls together multiple threads about the Adamic background of the covenant of works (explicitly so) to form a great presentation of the last Adam’s work to procure the foundation of perfect righteousness needed for justification. His emphasis on how the Spirit justified Christ—pronounced Him righteous on the basis of His own perfect record—in His resurrection is a clear and needed accent to draw together our Reformed structure of the covenant of works in connection to how imputed righteousness grounds our own justification. In this particular sense, Beale makes a wonderful and helpful case regarding the doctrine of justification, proper, as that doctrine stands on its own.

On the other hand, when Beale attempts to relate this premise of justification on account of Christ’s perfect righteousness to the role of our works at the final judgment, this reviewer found his argument for final justification unsound and unsettling. The following remarks are highly critical, but I want to make some clarifications. Getting the doctrine of justification wrong could seem like a situation of “other than that Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the show?” Beale’s volume is still highly useful and contains many brilliant insights. Even on justification, if he had omitted his section trying to relate works to the final judgment, his explanation of the foundation of justification as Christ’s perfect righteousness is very strong. So, if readers were simply to skip pages, 365–77, the remaining objections I have for this book are mostly mutatis mutandis matters—which is almost inevitably the case in any book and certainly an experience I expect people to have with my own writings. So, despite the following critique for a specific yet significant problem, I am overall appreciative and supportive of this volume.

The problem seems to stem from Beale’s lack of clarity about the relationship of forensic and transformative benefits that we receive from the risen Christ. His ongoing metaphor is that the benefits of union with the resurrected Christ are like the facets of a diamond. From one perspective, this illustration is very helpful to show that all the benefits are grounded in Christ. On the other hand, the metaphor combined with occasional statements rejecting any “temporal” order between these benefits suggest that Beale wants to rehash the old “union with Christ vs. ordo salutis” debate. As far as I am aware, no responsible argument has contended for a temporal order of benefits, since their relationship to one another is logical—even then our glorification is certainly later in time than our regeneration, so a full denial of temporality makes very little sense.

Further, I thought we had basically moved on from this debate. Richard Gaffin, the champion of the union with Christ model, has plainly argued for a logically ordered relationship of Christ’s benefits.1 We are on better footing to follow Geerhardus Vos. Grounding his explanation in the way that Christ obtained saving blessings with an ordered relation in His own work, Vos explained: “the subjective application of the salvation obtained by Christ does not occur at once or arbitrarily…There are a multiplicity of relationships and conditions to which all operations of grace have a certain connection. If the change came about all at once, then not a single one of those would enter into the consciousness of the believer, but everything would be thrown together in a chaotic revolution.” The entailment is that “our first principle is that the judicial relationships are the basis on which the moral acts of re-creation rest in their entirety.”2 Vos of course had an eye for clarity in bringing biblical theology to bear in dogmatics.

Beale seemed to miss Vos’ point entirely, omitting clear lines concerning judicial and renovative categories if not blurring those categories. This problem is clear in his analysis of Romans 5:18. As Beale admits, most commentators interpret the genitive relationship in εἰς δικαίωσιν ζωῆς (eis dikaiōsin zoēs) as resultative “the justification unto life.” Beale, however, suggests that it might be “justification by life,” meaning that our judicial status comes from the renovating force of Christ’s resurrection life.3 Although there is a way to apply that idea, Beale’s use seems to cross the renovative and judicial wires in the believer. In other words, Beale does in fact have an order, but one in which renovation precedes judicial pronouncement of justification, which would take us back to pre-Reformation soteriology.

When coming to the issue of justification and final judgment itself, Beale argues that our good works are part of our “manifestive justification” and “not only part of a judicial process but also becomes evidence that overturns the wrong verdict of the world on believers’ faith and works done in obedience to Christ.”4 Some of Beale’s statements suggest that good works are evidence of justification, which is certainly true and would cause no problem if left at that. Other statements, however, suggest that works play a determinative role in the outcome of our salvation. For example, “We have seen that in my above discussion of already-not yet justification those who have been justified by faith in Christ still need the badge of good works at the time of the final resurrection and judgment in order to gain entrance to the new heaven and earth.”5 Some of the claims suggest that we can never have confidence that our faith was true until our works confirm it at the last day. Beale himself says that, in his estimation, “there is no simple answer” to whether someone can “be assured that they have a true saving relationship with God.”6 Given that Rome’s full ire pressed against the Protestant claim that we can have confidence in our salvation, Beale’s concession about the effect of his position is striking.7

Beale doubles down on his citation of certain Reformed sources to defend his view. J. V. Fesko has previously taken Beale to task concerning the citation of Francis Turretin, whom Beale claims taught second justification.8 In Union with the Resurrection Christ, Beale has simply repeated assertions from his earlier New Testament Biblical Theology without taking account of the criticisms that have been lodged against those arguments. Turretin was emphatic in rejecting second justification, stating that the last day includes a “declaration of the justification once made” and distribution of the reward “in accordance with the preceding justification.” He argued that the final public declaration of justification cannot be confounded with justification itself.9 Perhaps Beale is correct about Jonathan Edwards, and he can have Edwards. I personally find no helpful use for him in developing my own theology. Ironically, his meandering and confusing verbiage withers my affections.

Beale’s appeals to various texts are spurious. I am constantly astonished that New Testament scholars appeal to James 2 for evidence of justification by works at the last day. James is very clear that his examples of justification by works occurred “when he [Abraham] offered up his son Isaac on the altar” (2:21) and “when she [Rahab] received the messengers and sent them out by another way” (2:25). Those two events plainly happened in the distant past of the ancient Near East, patently not at the eschaton. It almost surely reads too much into the text to make James 2 about anything other than what happens within the Christian life of faith—not something after it at Christ’s return—and so the traditional Reformed view that James meant our justification before men as proof of our true faith remains more persuasive. Beale’s use of Romans 2:13 as about justification by works for believers at the last day takes no account of the passage’s wider context or, ironically, of the protological grounds for justification in the covenant of works which would far more readily explain why Paul argued this way in order to prove to Jews that they are condemned before God despite possessing God’s revealed law.

Beale’s concern to prevent people from professing faith but proceeding to live licentiously is admirable. Yet, I am not aware of anyone in a confessional church who denies that good works must necessarily follow justification as fruit and evidence of faith (WCF 16.2). Accordingly, he is right that good works must follow faith. He is wrong about what role they play, namely they do not serve as grounds to complete some supposed not yet aspect of our justification. Problematically, Beale’s advice to gain any measure of assurance is to trust Christ and get to working hard—since you never know if your trust in Christ is real after all. The Heidelberg Catechism 1 seems far safer: that my only comfort in life and death is that I belong to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ. As Beale points out repeatedly, we need the right empowering and motivation for good works in the Christian life. Gratitude for belonging to Christ rather than fearful doubt of whether we are His seems to fit the bill far better.

Unfortunately, Beale’s view of justification affects his doctrine of sanctification. His use of definitive sanctification greatly overshadows any emphasis on growth in the Christian life. At times, especially as he adopts the traditional Arminian view of Romans 7 as being about Paul before his conversion, he seems to rule out struggle in the Christian life altogether. The upshot would be that our decisive break with the world undoes any need to fight for holiness, suggesting to those who struggle that they likely lack that true saving faith.

These problems aside, the majority of this book is ripe for fruitful study. I have focused at length on problems that are not obvious throughout the book because they are issues that will be of interest to regular readers of this blog. In some respects, the points of disagreement that I have raised concerning a brief range of pages are simply my caveats on a holistically outstanding work. Beale has produced an amazing work to help us see the full scope of Scripture and the majesty of our union with Christ.


Notes

  1. Richard B. Gaffin Jr., “The Work of Christ Applied,” in Michael Allen and Scott R. Swain (eds.), Christian Dogmatics: Reformed Theology for the Church Catholic (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2016), 268–90.
  2. Geerhardus Vos, Reformed Dogmatics, 5 vol. (Bellingham, WA: Lexham, 2014–16), 4:1, 6.
  3. Beale, 335–36.
  4. This discussion summarizes and quotes from Beale, Union with the Resurrected Christ, 365–77.
  5. Beale, 371.
  6. Beale, 373.
  7. Council of Trent, Session 6, chapter IX.
  8. J. V. Fesko, The Theology of the Westminster Standards: Historical Context and Theological Insights (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014), 392–94.
  9. Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, trans. George Musgrave Giger, ed. James T. Dennison Jr., 3 vol. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1992–97), 16.9.7, 11; 16.10.5, 8.

© Harrison Perkins. All Rights Reserved.


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5 comments

  1. This was a helpful review, and I appreciated Harrison’s recommending the book for our profit. Based on his careful critique of Beale’s approach to justification, it sounds reminiscent of John Piper’s approach. Dr. Clark, I recall your having some sharp criticisms of Piper on this subject … would you have the same level of concern over Beale’s teaching on “final justification?” With justification being a first-order doctrine, do you sense a compromising of the gospel in Beale’s teaching? I appreciated the concerns you raised regarding Piper, which awakened me to concerns that I had never had in relation to his ministry, so your comments on Beale would be most helpful to me. Thank you.

    • Hi James,
      Having reviewed both authors (links below), I think they both have similar problems but get to those problems in different ways. I have reservations about how I understand Beale to relate justification, the final judgment, and good works. For Piper, I think the issue enters in how he defines faith, which sometimes affects his view about the last judgment but it’s not always clear. The result is the same: works seem to play a sort of role in determining the outcome other than being fruit and evidence.

      https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/reviews/what-saving-faith/

      Piper’s reply: https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/john-piper-response-faith/?amp

      I think they have both made mistakes concerning justification that are unhelpful. In my view, we should be very wary of saying someone has compromised the gospel. They seem to have posed things that I find inconsistent with the clearest presentations of the gospel though. I hope this helps!

  2. Yes, very helpful indeed.
    As for Edwards, it could not be said better – “his meandering and confusing verbiage withers my affections.”

  3. Dr. Clark,

    I, too, would like to ask you about your level of concern over Beale’s teaching on “final justification”.

    It seems quite similar to Piper’s concept of “final salvation”.

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