Gaffin’s Thesis on Union with Christ
To understand this debate, we have to start with Dr. Gaffin and seek to understand his position on union with Christ. In this post, I am making my best effort to provide a fair and impartial description of his view as I understand it. Hopefully, if Dr. Gaffin or anyone who studied under him and agrees with his view were to read this description, they would say it is an accurate summary of his thesis on union with Christ. At least that’s my hope! If any readers think I have misrepresented his view, I would like to hear from them. They can use the comment section below.
For this description, I’ll be relying primarily on this article by Gaffin: “Union with Christ: Some Biblical and Theological Reflections,” in Always Reforming: Explorations in Systematic Theology, edited by A. T. B. McGowan (IVP, 2006). Hereafter I’ll refer to it as AR (for Always Reforming), followed by the page number. If you don’t have access to the AR book, Gaffin’s 2002 Inaugural Address, available online, is substantially the same, being an earlier version that he later edited and shaped into the AR essay. However, the original version doesn’t contain the critique of Federal Vision advocate Rich Lusk (which I mention below).
(Some of my readers will clamor that I shouldn’t ignore the more recent chapter contribution by Gaffin that was published in 2008: “Justification and Union with Christ,” in A Theological Guide to Calvin’s Institutes. Don’t worry, I’ll address that important essay in the next post. In this post, I want to get Gaffin’s central theological thesis on the table, before looking at the secondary issue of whether and to what extent Calvin supports it.)
We should start by defining what Gaffin means by “union with Christ.” This is a major terminological issue that surfaces repeatedly and can be a source of confusion unless we keep Gaffin’s definitions in view. Gaffin distinguishes three aspects of union with Christ (AR, 275): (1) predestinarian union, (2) redemptive-historical union, and (3) existential union.
Predestinarian union is just what the term implies. It is a union in the mind and decree of God, as Paul himself says: we were “chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world” (Eph 1:4). Redemptive-historical union has to do with the fact that when Christ died and rose again, he did so as our representative, and so Paul can say we “died with Christ” (Rom 6:8) and were “raised with Christ” (Col 3:1). Redemptive-historical union has to do with our involvement in redemption accomplished. Of course, our involvement is still at this point based on the decree of God and Christ’s appointment as our representative who died and rose again for us. We did not yet exist, but were contemplated in God’s mind so that Christ’s death and resurrection were reckoned as ours.
But now we come to existential union. Existential union is the union (or that aspect of the broader union) that has its inception at effectual calling and marks the beginning of the application of redemption to the elect. The distinction between redemption accomplished and redemption applied is very important to Gaffin. He even refers to the third aspect of union as “applicatory” union. The distinction between redemption accomplished and applied is firm, yet these are not three different unions but three aspects of the same union. But the third aspect of union with Christ, referred to as existential, mystical or vital union, is the one that is of the greatest concern to Gaffin.
As in many theological debates, it is critical to be clear in our use of terminology, otherwise confusion is inevitable. In this particular debate, when the phrase “union with Christ” is used without qualification, you have to ask yourself which aspect or historical moment of union is in view. More often than not, especially for Gaffin and his colleagues, the term is being used in a restricted sense to denote the third aspect of union—the existential, applicatory, vital or mystical union.
(An additional complication is that in historical usage going back to 17th century, the term “mystical” can sometimes be used in a broader sense, rather than in the narrow existential sense that is Gaffin’s focus. For example, John Owen speaks of Christ and the church/elect, coalescing into “one mystical person.” But he is using that phrase to refer to what Gaffin would call the redemptive-historical union. This is clear because Owen goes on to argue that this union is the foundation for the imputation of the sins of the elect unto Christ so that on the cross he might satisfy the justice of God. See his famous treatise, The Doctrine of Justification by Faith, chs. 8-9, in Vol. 5 of his collected works.)
Let’s zero in on this narrow third union or aspect of union. What is existential union according to Gaffin? Existential union is defined as a Spirit-wrought faith-bond. The Spirit unites us to Christ in a vital bond of union and communion that is experienced in time by each individual elect person beginning the instant they are effectually called. One piece of exegetical evidence for this existential union (which I have heard Gaffin quote in audio lectures) is Rom 16:7. In this verse, Paul extends his greetings to Andronicus and Junia and notes that they “were in Christ before me,” implying that prior to their conversion they (and Paul) were not “in Christ,” but after their conversion, by the Spirit’s effectual working, they became united to Christ in a mystical, vital, and existential faith-bond. The key phrase for Gaffin is “union with Christ by Spirit-wrought faith.”
Having defined what Gaffin means by “union with Christ,” Gaffin then makes the claim—and this is the crux of his thesis—that all the benefits of salvation, summarized as forensic and renovative benefits, i.e., justification and sanctification, are enjoyed by believers only in terms of existential or vital union with Christ. A key proof text for this interpretation is 1 Cor 1:30: “Because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption.” The two benefits, justification and sanctification, are distinct yet inseparable and simultaneous, and both flow from union with Christ.
Further, there is no prioritization, whether chronological or logical, between the two benefits. Priority is given to union with Christ, but within that union the benefits themselves are equally basic. Gaffin writes that faith “entails a disposition to holiness without particular reference to justification, a concern for godliness that is not to be understood only as a consequence of justification.” He goes on to say that, for Calvin, the relative order or priority of justification and sanctification “is indifferent theologically,” because union with Christ by faith is prior to both and has “controlling soteriological importance” (AR, 284).
We must acknowledge that for Gaffin the two primary benefits of salvation in Christ, though equally basic, inseparable, and simultaneous, are in fact distinct. Justification is a forensic benefit granted by imputation, and sanctification is a renovative benefit in which the Spirit both breaks the dominion of sin (definitive sanctification) and transforms us into the image of Christ (progressive sanctification). Justification involves the imputation of the righteousness of Christ on the legal ground of the active and passive obedience of Christ, as well as a declaration of righteousness that has the righteousness of Christ alone in view. Sanctification, by contrast, is a change wrought in us by the Spirit. By making this distinction between justification and sanctification, Gaffin wants to maintain a Protestant position on justification and wants to put clear water between his view and that of the Roman Catholic Church, which denies forensic imputation and essentially collapses justification and sanctification into a single renovative and progressive work of the Spirit within us.
In his AR essay, Gaffin is very clear about this. He strongly criticizes Federal Vision advocate Rich Lusk, who had argued that union with Christ “makes imputation redundant.” Gaffin takes Lusk to task for this and argues that this is “troubling and, I judge, more disturbing to a biblically sound doctrine of justification than the view which ignores or obscures union.” He thinks Lusk’s view is more disturbing because “it leaves us unclear about what is absolutely essential to our justification,” namely, the truth that Christ’s finished, imputed righteousness, established by his obedience unto death, is “the exclusive ground” of our acquittal before the bar of God’s justice. By saying it is the “exclusive” ground, Gaffin means that even “Spirit-worked righteousness,” though integral to our salvation, is excluded from being the ground of our acceptance before God. (See AR, 286-87).
Nevertheless, as clear as Gaffin is on this, he insists on granting mystical union priority over justification. And so, as a result, he argues that the forensic imputation of righteousness is something that takes place “within” vital union with Christ. “There is no imputation without union or antecedent to union” (AR, 286). He adds, imputation is “realized in union with Christ” (AR, 286) and is “a facet” and “an integral aspect” of that union (AR, 287). Going back to my opening comments about the importance of defining our terms, it is crucial to keep in mind that although Gaffin does not add the descriptor “vital” or “existential,” that is what he is referring to when he says “there is no imputation … antecedent to union.” There is no imputation antecedent to vital union, that is, the Spirit-wrought faith-union.
(If there is any doubt about this, his former student and now successor to the Krahe Chair, Lane Tipton, made it clear when he said in his 2012 Inaugural Address, “No aspect of forensic justification comes to believers (logically or temporally) prior to union with Christ by faith” [WTJ 75 (2013): 10].)