Justification is Grounded on Union with Christ

The meaning of the word, justification, is clearly forensic (legal). But the deeper question remains: is that forensic verdict an accurate and true assessment of the believer when united to Christ, or is it a nominal and putative designation of a recategorization within God’s mind alone? The answer is found in our union with Christ. Are we joined to Christ in reality or in God’s mind alone? We are joined to Christ in reality to the extent that we gain His identity in the eyes of justice. In that sense, the “infused identity does make us subjectively righteous (when the subject is the whole man, consisting of both the man and Christ in union), but only insofar as we are joined to Christ and it is His righteousness – already accomplished in His human life – that is the only righteousness in view. However, when we are joined to Christ, we are not joined to the extent that either is lost in the other. The union is sufficient to make us one with Christ in the eyes of justice, but the righteousness that is now ours remains the righteousness that He lived and not any righteousness that we live out or accomplish – in that sense it is still an alien righteousness. This infused identity is the substance and reality which our prior justification had in view. Turretin[1] (T16, Q1, §§VII):

(2) Justification is opposed to condemnation: “Who shall lay anything to the charge of God’s elect? It is God that justifieth. Who is he that condemneth?” (Rom. 8:33, 34). As therefore accusation and condemnation occur only in a trial, so also justification. Nor can it be conceived how God can be said to condemn or to justify, unless either by adjudging to punishment or absolving us from it judicially.

Although justification occurs “only in a trial,” we do not stand alone in that trial. Christ stands in us. Failure to apprehend this fact of reality is what caused N. T. Wright to claim, “Righteousness is not an object, a substance or a gas which can be passed across the courtroom.”[2] The Holy Spirit can indeed move across the courtroom (and into the defendant) and carry the identity of Christ (and title to His righteousness) with Him. But the fact that must not be overlooked is that all of this does not happen only in some courtroom far removed from us, but rather, the believer is judged as he is in reality — right where he stands — as the piercing gaze of heaven’s Judge sees the Spirit of His Son inside him. Christ is the Intercessor within, standing in us on earth and reaching to heaven’s court.

Turretin continues (T16, Q1, §VIII): “Finally, unless this word is taken in a forensic sense, it would be confounded with sanctification. But that these are distinct, both the nature of the thing and the voice of Scripture frequently prove.” It is true that justification is distinct from sanctification. But, again, the forensic sense is not necessarily the putative, nominal sense. It is true that the righteousness that we gain by faith is Christ’s alone, and does not make the sinner righteous in himself when viewed apart from Christ; however, it is also true that we are so joined to Christ as to never be apart from Him. Scripture tells us that we are so joined to Him as to be “one spirit with Him.”

Turretin says (T16, Q2, §XV),

Legal justification takes place in no other way than by inherent righteousness, whether actual or habitual; gospel justification is to be sought not in us, but in another. This the apostle clearly teaches when he wishes ‘to be found in Christ’ (to wit, in the judgment of God) ‘not having his own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ’ (Phil. 3:9) (i.e., not an inherent righteousness, arising from an observance of the law and which is called ours because it is in us and is perfected by our actions, but the righteousness of God and Christ, imputed to us and apprehended by faith).

Turretin qualifies the phrase, “to be found in Christ,” with, “to wit, in the judgment of God.” This misses the force of the apostle’s meaning, by replacing the substance of a spiritual union with nothing more substantial than “the judgment of God.” We are in Christ because Christ really is in us. God’s judgment in finding us “in Christ” is an accurate and true judgment of our state within substantial reality. It is not a mere decision to put us into the category of “in Christ.” Thus, the righteousness of Christ is accounted to us because it really is in us, since Christ is in us. This righteousness is apprehended by faith insofar as it is faith that brings the indwelling Holy Spirit and union with Christ.

Turretin continues (T16, Q3, §XXIII):

What is imputed to anyone by a mere gracious acceptation, that is not really paid, but is considered as paid; but what is imputed on account of a true payment made by another supposes the thing to be paid. Now the imputation of the righteousness of Christ (of which we speak) is not to be understood in the first sense (the improper sense, for an imputation which takes place without any payment at all whether of the debtor or of the surety); but is to be understood in the latter sense inasmuch as it is founded in another’s payment (that of Christ the surety).

Unless the Surety and the debtor are so united as to become one man in the eyes of justice, it remains but a mere gracious acceptation that the payment of the Surety is accepted in the place of the debtor. Justice has no place for such gracious acceptation. Turretin (T16, Q7, §VIII), in denying that faith is considered our righteousness “by a gracious acceptation,” makes a comment here that is germane: “For in the court of divine justice (which demands an adequate and absolutely perfect payment), there cannot be room for a gracious acceptation which is an imaginary payment.” Just as there cannot be room in the court of divine justice for an imaginary payment, neither can there be room for an imaginary union on which to ground the efficiency and particularity of this payment. In order for the exacted payment to be applied to a particular sinner, there must be a real union between the two.

Turretin (T16, Q3, §XX):

Sixth, our justification is “a justification of the ungodly but to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness” (Rom. 4:5). A justification of the ungodly cannot be made by infusion, but by imputation. For although he that is justified does not remain wicked, but is renewed by the grace of Christ, he cannot be said to be justified by that renovation (which is the effect following justification, not the cause which precedes it). And faith, by which man is justified and is made righteous in Christ, does not prevent him from being and being called wicked in himself, inasmuch as he is opposed to the one working as he who has nothing upon which he can rely before the divine tribunal for his justification and so is “ungodly,” partly antecedently; partly with respect to justification; not however concomitantly, still less consequently.

Justification of the ungodly cannot be made by infusion, but it is made by an indwelling spiritual union. It is not the renewed morality of sanctification that justifies, but the renewed identity (the “new man”) that is formed from Christ and the believer. While the saved man has nothing of his own (apart from Christ) to offer as a meritorious righteousness, he has everything of Christ’s to offer as a meritorious righteousness, since the union entitles him to all of Christ’s human experiences and accomplishments.

Although justification is prior to union with Christ, it cannot be adequately understood apart from union with Christ. Rather, justification is grounded on the absolute certainty of the divinely promised salvific union with Christ for those of faith. Justification is legal (forensic), and thus it is seemingly putative. However, it is grounded in a union that is real and substantial, even when that union is in the future. Justification provides the initial legal judgment of our salvation, but the union with Christ provides the substance and reality of our salvation — the ground and basis for our justification.

Copyright © 2013 by Ken Hamrick.


[1] Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, (Phillipsburg: P & R, 1992)
[2] N. T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005), p. 98

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