The Ordo Salutis within Federal Theology
In my posts so far, I’ve been attempting to provide an objective summary of the debate between WTS and WSC on the issue of justification and union with Christ. I have more posts in store in which I hope to summarize some of the other contributors to the debate, particularly John Fesko and Michael Horton. But before I do that, I want to get my own perspective on the table. I assume it is already clear that my sympathies lie with the WSC school of thought, but I want to state it more explicitly.
I hope I am not interpreted as rejecting the concept of mystical or vital union with Christ. Rather, following Reformed thought as clarified in the 17th century, I hold to a broader understanding of union with Christ that includes both a legal and a mystical dimension. Union with Christ is not reduced to the mystical or experiential side, but is grounded in a broader conceptual scheme, namely, federal theology.
Federal theology holds that there are two overarching covenants in Scripture, the covenant of works under the federal headship of the first Adam and the covenant of redemption under the federal headship of the Second Adam (aka the pactum salutis). Both covenants are covenants of the works variety, involving an eschatological reward contingent upon the passing of a probation. But where the first Adam disobeyed, the second Adam obeyed, passed the probation, and earned eternal life for his people. Just as we were condemned “in Adam,” so we are justified “in Christ” (1 Cor 15:22; Rom 5:18-19). Just as the sin of the first federal head was imputed to us via an immediate imputation that did not involve mystical union with him, so Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us by an immediate imputation that precedes and grounds mystical union. Our mystical union with Christ is a later phase of our broader legal, federal, and representative union. Our mystical union with Christ is grounded in our federal union with Christ.
Within this broader view of federal union with Christ, the imputation of Christ’s righteousness is the engine that leads in front and pulls all the benefits of the ordo salutis in its wake. In particular, the renovative benefits (regeneration, sanctification and glorification) follow as necessary effects or consequences of the imputed righteousness of Christ. Note that I did not say the renovative benefits follow as necessary effects or consequences of justification, but as necessary effects of the imputed righteousness of Christ. The reason I avoided the term “justification” is because that usually refers to “justification by faith,” that is, the sinner’s experience of being accepted by God by faith, and that is under the aegis of vital union. If justification is by faith, and if regeneration is the cause of faith, then regeneration is prior to justification in the subjective sense. But the imputation of Christ’s righteousness is under the aegis of the legal or federal union, and that federal union is prior to and grounds the vital union and all the renovative benefits that flow from vital union.
Here is a rough sketch of the ordo salutis as I see it. I’m not claiming it is scientifically precise and perfect.
- Imputation (or active/objective justification)
- Regeneration, which creates faith and establishes vital union with Christ by the Spirit
- Passive/subjective justification by faith
- Progressive sanctification
The details can be massaged, but the main thing I want to affirm is that imputation (or active/objective justification) is the legal foundation of vital union and all subsequent events in the application of salvation. We must first be legally regarded in the court of divine justice as those who, in federal union with our Head, have fulfilled the probationary works principle. Righteousness is the basis of life. “The Spirit is life because of righteousness” (Rom 8:10). “Those whom he justified he also glorified” (Rom 8:30). When the probation of the covenant of works is fulfilled, in principle the reward has been earned and one now has a right to the eternal inheritance. We receive that right when we are reckoned as righteous, as law-fulfillers in federal union with the one who fulfilled the law in our place. That is imputation. As a result, we now have a right to the reward. The reward is life in all its fulness, ultimately the glorification of the body. But that reward is applied to sinners in a progressive manner, beginning first with their regeneration. Regeneration is the cause of faith, and by that faith we come to conscious reception and enjoyment of the righteousness of Christ and are subjectively justified. From that point onward, progressive sanctification ensues until we depart this life. Finally, at the resurrection, we are glorified. Indeed, we could say that regeneration and progressive sanctification are the inaugurated form of glorification. But that whole package of regeneration-sanctification-glorification is the renovative blessing of life that is earned by meritorious law-keeping and probation-passing. We must first be righteous before we can live. We must first receive the imputation of righteousness before we can enjoy the reward of righteousness. Christ has achieved for us the “justification that brings life” (Rom 5:18 NIV 1984).
I recognize that this sketch is controversial. I freely admit that Calvin didn’t put things precisely this way. It’s not explicitly stated this way in the Reformed confessions (although one could argue that it is implicit at points). I wouldn’t claim that this sketch of the ordo salutis is the only Reformed view. Nevertheless, I do think it is the logically consistent ordo salutis that flows from the clarity provided by the 17th century federal theology. Here a few quotes showing that the above ordo is not novel:
“Regeneration and consequently faith are wrought in us for Christ’s sake and as the result conditioned on a previous imputation of his righteousness to that end” (A. A. Hodge, Outlines of Theology, 518).
“It is evident that a sinner cannot be regenerated and perform holy acts [such as faith], until in some sense his guilt is removed and his obligation to punishment remitted. In a word, he must be pardoned before he can be renewed and exert holy energies [like faith]—not consciously pardoned, but pardoned representatively in Christ …. The ordo salutis is clearly settled by a strict construction of the federal scheme” (John L. Girardeau, “The Federal Theology: Its Import and Its Regulative Influence”).
“Before the elect receive faith, they have already been justified. Indeed, they receive this faith precisely because they have already been justified beforehand …. [Maccovius] treats the benefits in the following order: active justification, regeneration, faith, passive justification, good works” (Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 3.583).
“The mystical union in the sense in which we are now speaking of it is not the judicial ground, on the basis of which we become partakers of the riches that are in Christ …. The judicial ground for all the special grace which we receive lies in the fact that the righteousness of Christ is freely imputed to us …. Active or objective justification … is justification in the most fundamental sense of the word … a divine declaration that, in the case of the sinner under consideration, the demands of the law are met … in view of the fact that the righteousness of Christ is imputed to him …. This active justification logically precedes faith and passive justification” (Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 452, 517).
“God imputes Christ to the elect sinner in a forensic union, on the basis of which, God grants the sinner faith. Through this faith, the believer is mystically united to Christ” (Matthew W. Mason, “John Owen’s Doctrine of Union with Christ in Relation to His Contributions to 17th Century Debates Concerning Eternal Justification,” Ecclesia Reformanda 1 : 68).