A Response to John Fesko's Review

Richard B. Gaffin, Jr.

Ordained Servant: March 2009

Union with Christ

Also in this issue

The Risk of Serious Debate

A Tale of Two Calvins: A Review Article

Covenant and Salvation: A Review Article

Using BibleWorks 8

Using Bible Works 8 with a Macintosh Computer

In the course of this review article my views come under scrutiny, eventually toward its close (16)[1] with the hypostatizing of a possible "Gaffin-school"(?!) reading of Calvin, a reading about which Dr. Fesko not only raises questions but expresses fairly substantial doubts. I recognize, and value, the constructive way in which he voices his reservations and certainly agree with his closing comments about the need for further discussion of the issues involved. I also appreciate the editor's initiative in offering me an opportunity to make some response. I do so not so much to argue a case in any adequate way (the space reasonably at my disposal precludes that) but primarily to clarify issues, something, it seems to me, much needed in the current climate of discussing the matters addressed in the review.

Recently, I have expressed my views more fully in a chapter, "Justification and Union with Christ (3.11-18)," in A Theological Guide to Calvin's Institutes: Essays and Analysis (2008), 248-69, to which I refer readers, especially, so far as this review is concerned, the section (252-60), "Union with Christ and Twofold Grace." Since Fesko is aware of this chapter (see fn. 4), I'm somewhat puzzled by his virtually ignoring it. It provides a much fuller and more recent statement of my views, including those he subjects to criticism, a statement, in my judgment, both clearer and more adequate.

1. Fesko (10) raises a question about my theological biography: Do my own views on the priority of union with Christ in the application of salvation antedate how I understand Calvin's view of that priority? He asks, "What came first, the chicken or the egg? Was Gaffin influenced by Calvin or did he later find his own understanding of the Pauline ordo in Calvin?"

This is not a question I had really thought about previously. Fesko is prompted to ask it apparently because in the Conclusion of my Resurrection and Redemption (= The Centrality of the Resurrection), from which he cites, I am silent about Calvin. Why? Because, as far as I can recall at a distance of some forty years now (the book, first published in 1979, is an editing down, without substantial changes, of my Westminster Seminary dissertation already completed in 1969), my no more than cursory reading of Calvin at that time, as part of the ancillary research in Reformed theology I was able to do for what is a study in Pauline theology, showed clearly enough that lacking in Calvin is the notion of an ordo salutis, with its attendant issues and problematics, as that idea is articulated and developed in subsequent Reformed theology. Consequently, he does not figure in the comparison the Conclusion draws between the ordo salutis in that later theology and my findings about the structure of Pauline soteriology.

I wish now, in retrospect, that I had read Calvin more carefully at the time because subsequently, especially when my major teaching responsibilities shifted from New Testament studies to systematic theology with the opportunity for studying him more carefully, I saw the deep, substantial continuity there is between the structure of his applied soteriology, notably in Book 3 of the 1559 edition of the Institutes, and what I had previously found and have had confirmed over the years in my ongoing study of Paul.

So, in answer to Fesko's chicken-and-egg question, no, the origin of my own understanding of the priority of union with Christ in the application of redemption was not originally influenced by Calvin. He, however, has certainly enriched and reinforced that understanding, and, as far as I can see, I have not been reading into him what is not there.

Fesko thinks I have done just that. He raises the question of the origin of my reading of Calvin, it seems, because he thinks it is likely wrong in important ways. That is clearly the drift of the review as a whole. Still, toward its close (17) he entertains the possibility that in our reading of Calvin, Garcia and I are correct. I appreciate this latter note of openness and hope, for my part, for a similar readiness to be corrected.

2. In footnote 10 Fesko critiques the following quote from me:

What is remarkable here is the "ordo" (!): Calvin discusses the change that takes place within the sinner, our ongoing inner renewal and personal transformation, before the definitive change effected in the sinner's legal status, our forensic standing coram Deo... All told, he treats sanctification, at length, before justification. Such an approach contrasts conspicuously with subsequent Reformed and Lutheran theology, where justification always (without exception?) precedes sanctification (Gaffin, "Biblical Theology," 176).

This passage (including the sentence Fesko elides) is admittedly not among the clearest things I've written. Along with my statement that for Calvin, "the relative 'ordo' or priority of justification and sanctification is indifferent theologically," 177, it has understandably occasioned problems for some. I apologize for that and wish I had been clearer. Still, it does seem to me that if the same scrutinizing attention some have given to the offending passage had been given to what I have written elsewhere in my article (and beyond), it would be fairly clear, for instance, that I do not have in view the actual application of salvation for Calvin or hold that for him sanctification precedes justification. (Thomas Wenger, in the article cited favorably in footnote 10[2] is convinced I'm also guilty of adopting the "central doctrine" approach to Calvin, of embracing the Calvin-against-Calvinist paradigm, and so presumably of distancing the Westminster Standards from Calvin. I'm quite at a loss how to account for such a misreading and hope that most other readers of my article will have no difficulty in recognizing how thoroughly groundless these charges are.)

I can perhaps further clarify the passage above by responding briefly to Fesko's three points of criticism in footnote 10. Taking the first two together, of course it's obviously anachronistic to suggest that Calvin thinks explicitly in terms of the notion of ordo salutis and related discussions that didn't emerge until well after his time. That's precisely the point I just made above (see also below). It is as well a major point in the article itself. So, I am hardly contradicting or overlooking it in the criticized quote.

Fesko suggests (elsewhere he is explicit[3]) that I have confused Calvin's ordo docendi with his ordo salutis. This is a helpful distinction, one which I should have been alert to and utilized. But, however unclearly I expressed myself, the former—Calvin's teaching order, his order of presenting material—is in fact my point. Note, for instance, that in the passage "ordo" is in quotes and with a parenthetical exclamation mark, signaling that I'm using it in a sense other than it has in the expression ordo salutis. Notice, as well, that the main controlling verbs in the sentences that Fesko quotes are Calvin "discusses" and "treats," and in the sentence he omits, "addresses." It was the farthest thing from my mind even to suggest that because in Book 3 of the Institutes Calvin discusses the life of ongoing sanctification before justification that therefore the former precedes the latter in the actual application of redemption.

As to Fesko's third point of criticism, does he really dispute that in subsequent presentations of the application of redemption, Reformed and Lutheran, we don't find, as we do in Calvin, an ordo docendi that treats sanctification before justification? At least that approach is not characteristic later. This difference is worth reflecting on. One reason, it seems, is that later discussions, unlike Calvin's, are so shaped by an ordo salutis notion not present in him that it would not occur, and likely seem strange and confusing, to deal with sanctification prior to justification.

3. Fesko perceives a major misunderstanding in the view he questions: it denies or at least fails to recognize in Calvin the priority of justification to sanctification. That perception prompts the following comments.

It should not be missed that the supporting material in Calvin that Fesko cites, as well as his discussion of it, has in view progressive sanctification, sanctification as an ongoing process in the life of the already justified believer. The progressive aspect, what is done in and by the believer in time and over time, is apparent, for instance, from the repetition or recurrence inherent in the plural "good works." Calvin is resolute in showing that, whether any one or together, good works have no place in producing the believer's justification; that role belongs exclusively to Christ's perfect righteousness, and only as it is imputed and received solely by faith.

This priority of justification to sanctification, if it needs to be said, is not at issue or in any way disputed by me (or Garcia; in my view he has been clear about that in his published writings and more than once in previous issues of Ordained Servant). For Calvin and, more importantly, in Scripture, justification is prior to sanctification in the sense that the latter, as a life-long and imperfect process, follows the former as complete and perfect from the inception of the Christian life. Furthermore, in God's sight the full forgiveness granted by the former covers the sins and imperfections of the latter. So, for instance, I would not only not hesitate but believe it quite important to say, as Fesko quotes Billings with approval (11), "a forensic notion of pardon is the necessary prerequisite for ... a life of sanctification." Given the clarification made above (point 2), I can't see that anything I have written even suggests otherwise. I hope that the future discussion Fesko envisions can proceed with the recognition that the priority, logical and temporal, of justification to progressive sanctification is not in dispute.

4. The quotations from Calvin that Fesko cites have in view, as just noted, sanctification as progressive, the justified believer's ongoing life of sanctification. But what about the initiation of that process, the beginning of sanctification? How in Calvin is the alpha-point of sanctification related to justification and how are both, in turn, in their interrelationship, related to union with Christ? With the question put that way, differences between Fesko's views and mine do emerge. Here I can do little more than address them briefly as matters for further reflection. My chapter mentioned at the outset provides some elaboration.

These differences may be focused, for the most part, by two interrelated affirmations: for Calvin, in the application of redemption, as all three (union, justification and sanctification in its initiation) occur simultaneously, a) the inception of union with Christ is antecedent to both justification and sanctification, and b) justification and sanctification, the latter in its inception, are coincidental. In what follows I hope to be as clear as I can and more precise about the simultaneous antecedence and coincidence involved in these two affirmations and the relationships they have in view. But first, a couple of general observations.

Calvin's writings are voluminous and no doubt, for all their remarkable clarity and power, contain inconsistencies (Calvin, after all, is not Scripture!). We need to be on guard in quoting him not to do so in a way that takes him out of context, both immediate and overall. Also, we should not fail to recognize that, as with any writer, he has a hierarchy of concerns (ascertaining that hierarchy is of course a matter for debate), in which some concerns are not only more central, controlling, and basic than others but also in any instance will be more or less adequately expressed, so that there may be points of tension.

Also, the affirmations above are historical; they state, as I see them, Calvin's views. But I also consider them to be faithful to what Scripture, especially Paul, teaches.

5. So far as the first affirmation is concerned, the antecedence (or priority) of union is quite plain in Institutes, 3.11.1. Here the way Calvin summarizes matters he has touched on previously also sets the direction for the entire lengthy discussion of justification as a topic that follows in the rest of this and the next several chapters (through chapter 18).

Let us sum these up. Christ was given to us by God's generosity, to be grasped and possessed by us in faith. By partaking of him, we principally receive a double grace: namely, that being reconciled to God through Christ's blamelessness, we may have in heaven instead of a Judge a gracious Father; and secondly, that sanctified by Christ's spirit we may cultivate blamelessness and purity of life.

Here the point is not simply that the "double grace" in view (justification and sanctification) is received in union with Christ (described as "partaking in him," as him being "given," "grasped and possessed"). Rather, we receive the former "by" the latter, not the latter "by" the former. Union is antecedent to this double grace in the sense that the former is the consequence of the latter; union carries with it justification and sanctification; being united to Christ "in faith" effects justification and sanctification. This passage can hardly be read to say that justification is the antecedent forensic ground of union or that union (or, as we will see, sanctification) is somehow a consequence of justification.

This antecedence is sounded already in the opening words of Book 3 of the Institutes, as sweeping as they are emphatic.

We must now examine this question. How do we receive those benefits which the Father bestowed on his only-begotten Son—not for Christ's own private use, but that he might enrich poor and needy men? First, we must understand that as long as Christ remains outside of us, and we are separated from him, all that he has suffered and done for the salvation of the human race remains useless and of no value for us. (3.1.1)

The last sentence here is hardly some throw-away line made in passing. Nor, in light of what Calvin says repeatedly elsewhere in places like 3.11.1, just noted, may it be read as saying no more than that union with Christ provides the eventual setting or context for saving benefits somehow received apart from or antecedent to that union. The sentence is too strongly charged for any such subordinating or maginalizing readings.

Furthermore, this sentence answers the question posed in the preceding sentence, the crucial question that drives all reflection on the application of salvation and may be fairly read as an equivalent to Luther's, "How do I obtain a gracious God?" Calvin's answer here stipulates what is "first," primary, what controls everything said throughout Book 3 about the application of redemption. That single most decisive factor is union. Everything depends on that all-or-nothing reality. I must have Christ or I have nothing, Calvin is saying. Absent that union, his work for me, including what he did for my justification, is simply "useless and of no value." Without union, the benefits that flow from it, including my justification, are nonexistent.

Justification is not union-producing, a uniting justification. Rather, union is justification-effecting, a justifying union. I am justified, I have Christ's righteousness imputed to me, by faith. How? Only by being united to him by faith. In that sense I am justified by faith because by faith I am united to Christ, not the reverse.

From the specific vantage point of faith and its role in justification, this antecedence is clear when he later writes (3.11.7, italics added), "faith of itself does not possess the power of justifying, but only in so far as it receives Christ." In fact, "before his righteousness is received Christ is received in faith." "Before" here is striking. It is hardly to be taken temporally, as if to say that one is united to Christ for a time without being justified, but it surely makes logical and effective priority or antecedence plain.

Then there is 3.11.10 to consider:

I confess that we are deprived of this utterly incomparable good [imputed righteousness; justification] until Christ is made ours. Therefore, that joining together of Head and members, that indwelling of Christ in our hearts—in short, that mystical union—are accorded by us the highest degree of importance, so that Christ, having been made ours, makes us sharers with him in the gifts with which he has been endowed. We do not, therefore, contemplate him outside ourselves from afar in order that his righteousness may be imputed to us but because [quia] we put on Christ and are engrafted into his body—in short, because he deigns to make us one with him.

How could the antecedence of union to justification be made any plainer? Calvin even uses causal language. Imputation is "because" of union, not the reverse.

A final instance here of that antecedence (as well as an indication of the coincidence of justification and sanctification we will presently consider) is 3.16.1 (last para.; emphasis added.):

Do you wish, then, to attain righteousness in Christ? You must first possess Christ; but you cannot possess him without being made partaker in his sanctification, because he cannot be divided into pieces [1 Cor. 1:13]. Since, therefore, it is solely by expending himself that the Lord gives us these benefits to enjoy, he bestows both of them at the same time, the one never without the other. Thus it is clear how true it is that we are justified not without works yet not through works, since in our sharing in Christ, which justifies us, sanctification is just as much included as righteousness.

It is important to be clear about the specific nature of the union in view in this passage, as well as in 3.1.1 and often throughout Book 3 and elsewhere. Briefly it is, as Calvin says, "mystical," an organic union, a "spiritual bond" (3.11.10), because it is by faith effected in sinners by "the secret energy of the Spirit" (3.1.1) and results in a union where, by the Spirit, Christ indwells the believer and they are in him. Calvin recognizes, of course, a predestinarian (or decretal) "in Christ" and a redemptive-historical "in Christ" (being contemplated in and represented by Christ in his once-for-all accomplishment of salvation). In view in our passages, in distinction, is the applicatory "in Christ," union as it does not exist prior to or apart from the exercise of faith. In discussing the issues Fesko raises we must guard against blurring or otherwise equivocating on these distinctions.

Fesko cites Calvin's often-quoted justification is "the-main-hinge-on-which-religion- turns" statement (3.11.1) to support the priority of justification to union (15). The issue here can be reduced to the relationship between this statement and the "Christ-outside-us, useless-and-of-no-value-for-us" statement in 3.1.1. So far as I can see, for reasons noted in the passages already looked at, there can be little question that the latter controls the former and provides the deeper and more fundamental perspective for Calvin on redemption applied. A "hinge" after all, as I have put it elsewhere (in the chapter cited above, 257), is not a "skyhook." To "turn," to function effectively, it needs to be anchored, and in this instance what anchors the hinge of justification and gives stability and permanence to our actual possession of it is our union with Christ.

Fesko (12) holds that Calvin's taking justification to be the main theme of Romans in his commentary counts as evidence against the priority of union. But taking justification as the letter's main theme and holding union to be prior are hardly incompatible. What would have to be shown additionally is that the commentary's teaching either asserts the priority of justification to union or denies that union is prior. Neither is the case as far as I can see, and Garcia, I believe, has provided positive evidence for the priority of union.

These comments do not, as some allege, "de-center" justification in Calvin. For him, justification is central, as central as the union with Christ to which it is inseverably tethered. To ask, whether in Calvin or in Scripture, which of the two in the application of salvation, union or justification, is "central" (or "more central," "more important") is an unhappy non-starter. It strikes me as somewhat like debating whether in its accomplishment Christ's death or his resurrection is central (more central). They are equally central ("of first importance," 1 Cor. 15:3-4), but they are that as the latter is the consequence of the former, not the reverse.

Nor, to address a related misconception, does giving union antecedence, as Calvin does, make that spiritual union the ground or judicial basis of justification. That exclusive ground in the application of redemption is Christ's finished righteousness imputed to us for justification solely by faith (as it unites us to Christ. Cf. Westminster Shorter Catechism 30). The nature of that Spirit-worked, faith-forged union is such that it does not destroy or blur the personal distinction between Christ and the believer. In union, his righteousness, as his actual personal accomplishment, remains his, not the believer's. In that sense, it is and remains an "alien" righteousness reckoned as ours. But it is that, alien, only as he, outside of us (extra nos), is, by his Spirit, in us and we in him.

Finally here, it strikes me that Fesko (and others) are not always clear that for Calvin (and in general) the relationship of justification to union and the relationship of justification to sanctification are not the same. To talk about the former relationship is not to be talking about the latter, as if union and sanctification (the Spirit's renovating work) are practically identical. Union, as I've tried to show, is broader and deeper than either justification or sanctification; the latter two, including their relationship, flow from the former. To put it another way, it needs to be appreciated that in Calvin (and Scripture) in the application of redemption the organic embraces both the forensic and the renovative, without compromising the purity of the former or being simply identified with the latter.

6. The coincidence, logical and effective, of justification and the inception of sanctification (the second affirmation above) is certainly not as emphatic in Calvin as is the antecedence of union to the "two-fold grace" of justification and sanctification. Still, this coincidence seems clear enough, for instance, in 3.11.1, where he says he has discussed "regeneration" (= sanctification) prior to justification, leaving the latter until now "more lightly touched upon." Why?

... because it was more to the point to understand first how little devoid of good works is the faith, through which alone we obtain free righteousness by the mercy of God; and what is the nature of the good works of the saints, with which part of this question is concerned.

The reason for treating sanctification before justification, he says, is because it was important for him, as pertinent for understanding justification, to make clear "how little devoid of good works" justifying faith is. Sanctifying faith, faith disposed toward holy living, is the same faith that justifies. Certainly, this does not mean that faith justifies because it sanctifies or as it functions in sanctification. He could hardly be more clear, repeatedly and emphatically, as he is elsewhere (e.g., in these chapters, 11.7; 14.17, 21; 18.8), about the role of faith, not works (or anything else), as the sole instrument in receiving justification. Faith's role in sanctification is different. But faith as justifying and faith as sanctifying are not different faiths, nor are these exercises somehow separable.

Calvin can hardly be read here as even suggesting that faith first justifies and, having done so, takes on sanctifying potential. In fact, such a reading is quite contrary to what he says. Calvin knows nothing of a justification that is first settled and then only subsequently is followed by sanctification. Rather, coincident with this settled and irreversible justification, at the moment it takes place and given with it, is a disposition to godliness and holy living, no matter how undoubtedly weak and sin-plagued that disposition and how imperfectly manifested subsequently.

It is misleading at best, then, to say, flatly and without any qualification, that for Calvin justification "causes" or is the "cause" of sanctification. Certainly, as noted earlier, it is the absolutely indispensable precondition of progressive sanctification. As justified, believers have "in heaven instead of a Judge a gracious Father." Lacking that knowledge, "you have neither a foundation on which to establish your salvation nor one on which to build piety toward God" (3.11.1). This—because ongoing sanctification is imperfect—is likely why Calvin calls it "second" in relation to justification and gives the latter the priority already noted. Similarly, the main-hinge-of-religion statement (discussed above) is made in the face of Rome's religion that grounds justification in an ever uncertain and unstable process of sanctification. In this section, however, sanctification's cause, to use that category, is "Christ's Spirit," flowing to the believer in union with him.

Fesko (13) offers a quotation to show the causal priority of justification. In that quotation, however, what "depends ... as the effect on the cause" is "the justification of works … on the justification of the person" (italics added). This is saying something different than that justification is the cause of sanctification. Similarly, in discussing the believer's good works in relation to justification, in 3.17.10 (elsewhere cited, by Wenger, to support causal priority) Calvin makes the point that, "so to speak, as effect to cause," "works righteousness" (the believer's good works) is related to faith as it justifies, and "ought to be included under faith and be subordinated to it" (Battles's translation, italics added).

There is some ambiguity here in the Latin, giving the possibility that what is said to effect works righteousness as its cause is either "free justification" or the composite expression "faith and free justification." The latter (note the order with "faith" first) seems more likely. Calvin's own 1560 French edition reads at this point:

Now if this righteousness of works as such proceeds from faith and free justification, we must not take it to destroy or obscure the grace on which it depends, but it ought rather to be included in it [the grace], and is related to it as fruit to tree. (my translation)

Here "the grace" almost certainly refers to the expression "faith and free justification" (again note the word order). Note also that cause-effect language is absent, having been replaced with the tree-fruit image. These considerations, it seems to me, show that the accent is on faith, as justifying, as the proximate source of the believer's works and Battles's translation is not far off the mark.

One can hardly say, however, that Calvin never uses causal language for justification in relation to the believer's good works and ongoing sanctification. For instance, there is the unambiguous and much more emphatic statement in 3.17.9, "They cannot deny that justification of faith is the beginning, foundation, cause, proof, and substance of works righteousness." A statement like this, however, does not stand alone or on its own. In its immediate and larger context its sense and relative weight for understanding Calvin's views as a whole will have to be determined together with that of the other considerations we have already noted. At any rate, the priority of justification in view here concerns the ongoing life of sanctification, not its initiation, a priority I affirm.

7. The preceding six points respond to Fesko's expressed concerns. I have little doubt about the pertinence of going on to say that the ongoing discussion he desires would be helped significantly by a common recognition of what John Murray, more recently, has referred to as "definitive sanctification."[4] This is the crucial soteriological truth that in the inception of the application of redemption, at the moment sinners are united to Christ by faith, they are delivered from sin's enslaving power, from bondage to sin as master. At issue here, as much as anything, is the sense of the rhetorical question in Romans 6:2, as it expresses the controlling theme of the passage (Rom. 6:1-7:6) on its negative side, "How can we who died to sin still live in it?" Despite the exegesis of some Reformed commentators, this death to sin is almost certainly not to the guilt that sin incurs and justification. In view, rather, is a definitive deliverance from sin's over-mastering power to being enslaved instead to God and righteousness. That Spirit-worked (7:6) deliverance, not justification, grounds and provides the dynamic for the believer's beginning to "walk in newness of life" (6:4), their being enslaved in their conduct to God and righteousness (vs. 16-22).

At any rate, with little question the latter view is Calvin's in his Romans commentary.[5] It is also intimated, it appears, in the key section in the Institutes we have already had occasion to consider, 3.11.1. The phrasing that describes the "double grace," received by being united to Christ by faith, is "namely, ... being reconciled to God ... and ... sanctified by Christ's Spirit ." Here, reinforced by the parallel syntax, "reconciled" (= "justified") and "sanctified" are coordinately definitive and settled realities. The latter, having been sanctified, is to the end that "we may cultivate blamelessness and purity of life." That is, the sanctification spoken of here in this way is not realized through that life-long process but is rather its antecedent ground.

8. For Calvin union with Christ, as noted above, is spiritual and organic in the sense of being Christ's Spirit-initiated indwelling of believers by his Spirit. This means in the application of salvation giving the spiritual antecedence or priority to the forensic or, to put it another way, recognizing that the spiritual in its antecedence has forensic as well as renovative significance. But that is not only what Calvin but subsequent Reformed theology has always taught. The standard ordo salutis presentation itself maintains the order: regeneration-faith-justification, an order that gives antecedence to the spiritual, indeed to the Spirit's renovating work: regeneration is causally prior to faith, which, in turn, is instrumentally prior to justification. To cite another related instance, the Westminster Confession of Faith's chapter (13) on sanctification states that those "regenerated ... are further sanctified." Without deciding the exact force of "further" (which can be plausibly read to say that sanctification begins with regeneration and so, in that sense, is prior to justification), here sanctification is clearly rooted in regeneration and, by the Spirit's work, flows directly from it. Neither in this or chapter 16 on good works is their any mention of justification as the cause of sanctification or even of justification at all.

Still with that observed, I want to make clear—and as emphatically as I can—that I share fully what I take to be the deepest concern of Fesko and others on the matters raised in his review, namely that nothing in us, whether done by the Spirit or anything else, be seen as constituting the ground or in any other way contributing to our justification and acceptance with God. Only Christ's righteousness, reckoned as ours solely by faith, secures that acceptance. I agree entirely that for our salvation and its security the forensic must have priority.

Here an issue for further reflection presents itself. Given what has been pointed out in this response about Calvin and especially the problems noted in the preceding two paragraphs, it seems to me most satisfactory (more so than I have thought in the past) to say that the antecedent forensic ground, on which the gospel of truly free and unmerited grace to sinners is staked, is found in the rich capital provided by the once-for-all accomplishment of our salvation. The truth, the gospel truth, as distinctive to Reformed theology as is its doctrine of regeneration—among those elements that give it its "isolation," as Van Til put it—is this: Christ's work does not provide a no-more-than-potential reconciliation for all that becomes actual only for those who believe, but effects the actual and completed reconciliation-justification of his people that each one of them eventually appropriates by faith. On the antecedent forensic basis of Christ's atonement, his wrath-propitiating obedience unto death, God, by the faith-creating call of the gospel effective in the power of the Spirit, unites sinners to Christ now exalted to his right hand and, in so doing, gives them a share in the benefits that flow from that spiritual union, both forensic and renovative, without confusion and without separation.

God justifies the ungodly, those who are "by nature children of wrath" (Eph. 2:3), because there in the cross of his Son "in wrath he has remembered mercy" (cf. Hab. 3:2). As now reconciled and propitiated, in his great love and rich mercy toward them (v. 4), he takes hold of them just when they were "dead in trespasses and sins" (vs. 1, 5) and unites them, by faith (v. 8), to Christ. In that life-union they share in all that he is and has secured as resurrected and ascended (vs. 5-6), including primarily ("a double grace"!) the reckoning of his perfect righteousness as theirs and their sharing in the renewing work of his Spirit.

This response has gotten longer than I intended at its outset. I hope, in bringing it to a close, that I have not tried in the space I've been given to say too much. I hope to have clarified misunderstandings of my views and not to have caused further misunderstanding. I hope, then, that in reading Calvin we can dispense with talk of an innovative "Gaffin-school," which does not strike me as particularly useful (even less so is including me among those styled the originators of a putative "new perspective" on Calvin). Whatever the contributions of my work over the years, as I view it on its historical-theological side at this point, it has largely been a matter of going back in the Reformed tradition, to note what has become obscured in large part in the more recent past for many of us. Certainly, on the confessional level, the views I have expressed on the application of redemption, however undoubtedly capable of being said better than I have here or elsewhere, are in accord with Westminster Larger Catechism 69: whatever benefits of redemption applied, including justification, "manifest" our (vital) union with Christ; and, similarly, Westminster Shorter Catechism 29-32: those benefits stem from the union produced by effectual calling; what makes that calling first of all effectual is that it effects being united to Christ by faith.

As to the "large pink elephant" of institutional difference Fesko mentions (19), I do fervently hope that the discussion we anticipate together may prove that this particular animal, like others of its species, is nonexistent.


[1] For easier reference I have numbered the paragraphs in the review, and referred to them in parentheses (I count 20). Also, where full citations are given in Dr. Fesko's review, short forms will be used in this response.

[2] Cf., more recently, JETS 51/3 (September 2008): 564ff.

[3] J. V. Fesko, Justification: Understanding the Classic Reformed Doctrine (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2008), 279, fn. 40.

[4] See esp. John Murray, Collected Writings, vol. 2 (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1977), 277-93.

[5] See Owen's apposite footnote in his translation J. Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans; translated and edited by John Owen (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1947/1849), 219.

Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, is professor of biblical and systematic theology, emeritus at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. Ordained Servant, March 2009.

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Ordained Servant: March 2009

Union with Christ

Also in this issue

The Risk of Serious Debate

A Tale of Two Calvins: A Review Article

Covenant and Salvation: A Review Article

Using BibleWorks 8

Using Bible Works 8 with a Macintosh Computer


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