Realism & Retroactive Identity in Christ

By Ken Hamrick

John Murray’s treatment of sanctification, particularly his essay, “The Agency in Definitive Sanctification,” makes some surprising inroads toward grasping the believer’s retroactive, realistic identification with Christ.[1] He does not go as far as to acknowledge that the reality of the spiritual union of Christ in the believer brings a title to all that Christ accomplished just as if the believer had accomplished it. Instead, he prefers to call it a mysterious “divine constitution.” But he does recognize the “tension” between the historical objectivity of Christ dying and rising again, and the fact of the believer subjectively dying to sin and rising to new life in Christ—and that the two are often spoken of in the New Testament as if they were one and the same events. The believer did not die to sin until coming to Christ in faith; and yet, the power of that dying to sin is firmly grounded in the once-and-for-all quality of Christ’s death—as if the historically objective death of Christ somehow became an historically objective fact of the believer’s life once he came to Christ.

Murray says of Paul’s argument in Rom. 6:3:

It is baptism into Jesus’ death that makes valid the pivotal proposition, ‘We died to sin.’ Then Paul proceeds to identify believers with Christ in his burial and resurrection (Rom. 6:3-5). This means, therefore, that not only did Christ die, not only was he buried, not only did he rise from the dead, but also all who sustain the relation to him that baptism signifies likewise died, were buried, and rose again to a new life patterned after his resurrection life. No fact is of more basic importance in connection with the death to sin and commitment to holiness than that of identification with Christ in his death and resurrection.[2]

The baptism to which Paul here refers is not a baptism that “signifies” a sustaining of a relationship with Christ (a baptism into water), but a spiritual baptism (a baptism into the Spirit of Christ) that itself secures and sustains that relationship. Our lives are brought not merely into the pattern of Christ’s resurrection life, but into a real, spiritual union with His life—the two becoming one. Murray astutely observes, “The truth is that our death to sin and newness of life are effected in our identification with Christ in his death and resurrection, and no virtue accruing from the death and resurrection of Christ affects any phase of salvation more directly than the breach with sin and newness of life.”[3] He goes on to ask two important questions:

There are two questions, therefore, which require some discussion. First, what is this efficiency, in reference to sanctification, residing in the death and resurrection of Christ? And, second, when did believers die with Christ and rise again to newness of life?[4]

These questions drive one to the heart of the matter. Murray answers the first:

We are compelled to reach the conclusion that it is by virtue of our having died with Christ, and our being raised with him in his resurrection from the dead, that the decisive breach with sin in its power, control, and defilement has been wrought, and that the reason for this is that Christ in his death and resurrection broke the power of sin, triumphed over the god of this world, the prince of darkness, executed judgment upon the world and its ruler, and by that victory delivered all those who were united to him from the power of darkness, and translated them into his own kingdom. So intimate is the union between Christ and his people, that they were partakers with him in all these triumphal achievements, and therefore died to sin, rose with Christ in the power of his resurrection, and have their fruit unto holiness, and the end everlasting life.[5]

What Murray misses is the fact that believers were not united with Christ at the time of His death, but that we were retroactively made partakers with Him in His death when we were put in Him by Him being put into us. But Murray does acknowledge the “tension” between what was accomplished at the time of Christ’s death and what Christ’s death accomplishes at the time of a believer’s conversion:

The second question with which we are concerned in this connection is: When did believers die with Christ to sin, and rise with him to newness of life? It might appear unnecessary to ask this question because, if they died with Christ and rose with him in his resurrection, the time can only be when Christ himself died and rose again. And since Christ himself died once for all and, having risen from the dead, dies no more, it would appear necessary to restrict our death to sin and entrance upon newness of life (after the likeness of Jesus’ resurrection) to the historic past where Jesus died and rose from the dead. There is the tendency to posit such a severe restriction because it appears to guard and support the interests of objectivity, which on all accounts must be maintained in connection with the death and resurrection of Christ. But there are other considerations which must not be discarded. It is to be noted that Paul, in one of the passages where this making alive with Christ is so prominent, speaks of the same persons as being dead in trespasses and sins, as having at one time walked according to the course of this world, as having conducted their life aforetime in the lusts of the flesh, doing the will of the flesh and of the mind, and says that they were children of wrath even as others (Eph. 2:1-4). And not only so—he says that it was when they were dead in trespasses that they were made alive together with Christ (vs. 5). Furthermore, it is too apparent to need demonstration, that the historic events of Calvary and the resurrection from Joseph’s tomb do not register the changes which are continuously being wrought when the people of God are translated from the power of darkness into Christ’s kingdom of life, liberty, and peace. We are thus faced with the tension arising from the demands of the past historical, on the one hand, and the demands of the ethico-religious, on the other. And we cannot tone down the considerations which weigh in both directions.[6]

Murray’s conclusion is starkly similar to what he concluded elsewhere regarding the “tension” between Adam’s sin as an individual and the solidarity of the race:

How can Paul say that “all sinned” and then that one sinned and refer to the same fact? As we attempt to answer this question there is one error we must avoid. We must not tone down the singularity or the universality. Paul’s language is eloquent of both. The only solution is that there must be some kind of solidarity existing between the “one” and the “all” with the result that the sin contemplated can be regarded at the same time and with equal relevance as the sin of the “one” or as the sin of “all”.[7]

The tension that Murray senses between the subjective now and the objective past is the same as that between the act of one and the act of the many in solidarity with the one (whether the one is Adam or Christ). Because we are partakers of the moral, spiritual nature of the one, then we are made participants in the act of the one. When it comes to the solidarity in Adam, this is more straightforward and easily understood. But when it comes to our solidarity in Christ, it is not so easily understood, since there is a retroactive quality, in that we are first without union with Christ and without any claim to participation in His act. It is only upon our coming to Christ in faith that we are joined to Christ, and that union with His nature makes us participants in all that He did—even though He did it long before we were united to Him. A spiritual nature has being and moral agency. Moral agency is necessary for sin or righteousness. All sinned in Adam because the moral agency of all men was in Adam, chose to sin in Adam, and was propagated out of the spiritual substance of Adam. Therefore, the moral agency in every man was the same moral agency that was in Adam and chose to sin. This is moral and existential identification by propagative dispersion.

But in the case of Christ and believers, the believer’s innate moral agency did not participate in Christ’s life, death or resurrection. Nonetheless, when Christ indwells the believer in spiritual union, the moral agency of Christ Himself becomes as much a part of the believer as his own innate moral agency—Christ becomes as much a part of his existence as the believer himself. The two become one new man in Christ. Now owning this new spiritual nature—new moral agency—based on the substantial reality of Christ in him, it becomes an undeniable fact of truth and reality that the moral agency in the believer is that same moral agency that was in Christ when He chose to walk in perfect righteousness and die as an atonement for sin, rising again to new life. This is far more than a mere “divine constitution” by which God chose to see believers as if we were in Christ when He did these things. We really were in Him when He did these things to the extent that He really is in us now in saving union. To the extent that anyone doubts or denies the reality of our new ownership of all of Christ’s human deeds, he doubts or denies the reality of our current spiritual union with Christ in us. If He is really in us and is really joined to us, then we really have a legitimate claim to a participation in all of His deeds—even if long prior to the union. As a believer in Christ, “I” no longer refers only to my innate moral, spiritual nature. Being now joined to Christ, “I” will forever refer to Christ and I in union. This is moral and existential identification by propagative annexation. Born out of Adam unto sin and death—reborn into Christ unto life and righteousness.

James Denney denied the legitimacy of such a complete identification with Christ:

[…] [Christ] achieves, in short, ‘purgation of sins’ (i. 3). This is the evangelical truth which is covered by the word ‘substitute,’ and which is not covered by the word ‘representative’; and it is the consciousness of this truth that makes the Evangelical Church sensitive and even jealous of a too free and easy use of the ideas that Christ becomes one with us in all things, and we in all things one with Him. There is an immense qualification to be made in this oneness on both sides—Christ does not commit sin, and we do not make atonement. The working in us of the mind of Christ toward sin, which presumably is what is meant by our identification with Him in His death, is not the making of atonement, nor the basis of our reconciliation to God; it is the fruit of the Atonement, which is Christ’s finished work.[8]

Denney fails to appreciate that identification with Christ is far more than “the working in us of the mind of Christ toward sin.” It is the very life and person of Christ indwelling us in spiritual union. Christ’s finished work was to provide an atoning sacrifice that is able to atone for the sins of anyone who comes to Him in faith, but it was not the actual atoning for the sins of any who have not yet come to Him in faith. Providing the atoning sacrifice was His finished work; but applying that sacrifice to believers is a work that must be finished by the Holy Spirit. Both works are needed as the basis upon which we are reconciled with God. Denney continues:

Seeberg’s elaborate essay on the death of Christ in Hebrews is an admirable illustration of the confusion which results from the hazy use of words like ‘identification,’ Zusammenschluss, etc., or the idea (to call it an idea) that Christ and the Christian are one person, and that this is what makes access to God and forgiveness of sins possible. It leads to expressions like this: ‘Forgiveness of sins therefore presupposes that the life of him who has experience of it comes to have the standing of a life which has passed sinless through death.’ The forgiveness of sins may come to this in the end; it may beget a life which shares in Christ’s victory over sin and death; but it is surely a subversion of the very idea of forgiveness to say that it presupposes it. A life that has passed sinless through death, whatever else it may know, knows nothing of forgiveness; and therefore forgiveness, whatever it may be, is not a participation in any part of such a life’s experience, whether by the method of ‘identification’ or by any other.[9]

In other words, Denney objects that, since Christ never experienced forgiveness, then the forgiveness which the believer experiences cannot be due to his full identification with the life experiences of Christ—in particular, “a life which has passed sinless through death.” A sinless life knows nothing of forgiveness, so how then can the forgiveness of the believer presuppose that the believer now owns Christ’s experience of having a life that has “passed sinless through death?” Denney’s confusion seems to be in thinking that such a complete identification would leave the believer without any ownership of his own experiences. Identification with Christ is not obliteration of the believer’s identity, but the joining of the two. Christ’s experience of a perfectly righteous life from cradle to grave answers the law’s positive requirements relating to the believer’s need for a perfectly righteous life; while Christ’s atoning death answers the law’s penal requirements relating to the believer’s need to fully suffer God’s wrath for his own sins. Christ did experience both of these, and so forgiveness can now be experienced by those who could not otherwise experience it.

Murray concludes that the answer to the second question (“When did believers die with Christ to sin, and rise with him to newness of life?”) is that “death to sin and newness of life refer to events which occur in the life history of the believer.”[10] Murray states:

The apostle constantly interweaves the most explicit references to the death and resurrection of Christ as once-for-all historic events with the teaching respecting actual, experiential death to sin on the part of the believer. His arguments for the decisive and irrevocable breach with sin, and translation to new life, are bound up with the once-for-allness of Jesus’ death. ‘For in that he died, he died to sin once for all’ (vs. 10). This sustained introduction of the once-for-all past historical in a context that clearly deals with what occurs actually and practically in the life-history of individuals makes inevitable the interpretation that the past historical conditions the continuously existential, not simply as laying the basis for it, and as providing the analogy in the realm of the past historical for what continues to occur in the realm of our experience, but conditions that latter for the reason that something occurred in the past historical which makes necessary what is realized and exemplified in the actual life-history of these same persons. It is necessary to stress both aspects, the past historical and the experiential in their distinctness, on the one hand, and in their interdependence, on the other. The experiential must not be allowed to obscure the once-for-all historical, nor the once-for-all historical so to overshadow our thinking that we fail to give proper emphasis to the way in which its meaning and efficacy come to realization in the practical life of the believer.[11]

As Murray rightly notes, this objective-subjective historical-contemporary “tension” is also found in the idea of atonement:

Christ expiated the sins of his people in the offering of himself once for all—he purged our sins and sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high (cf. Heb. 1:3). But sins are not actually forgiven until there is repentance and faith. Christ propitiated the wrath of God once for all when he died on the tree. But until we are savingly united to Christ we are children of wrath, even as others. We are reconciled to God by the death of Christ, and reconciliation is an accomplished work, but we are not at peace with God until we are justified. Admittedly it is difficult to define the precise relations of the past historical to the continuously operative in these cases. To put it more accurately, it is difficult to determine how the finished action of Christ in the past relates itself to those who are contemplated in that action prior to the time when that past action takes effect in their life history. But this difficulty in no way interferes with the distinction between the finished work and its actual application. Any added difficulty there may be in connection with our present topic arises, not from what is intrinsic to the subject, but from our unfamiliarity with this aspect of our relation to the death and resurrection of Christ.[12]

It seems that Murray senses that there is an answer to this tension that is yet out of reach to him. That answer—that fully resolves the tension—is the shared identity of the spiritual union found in Biblical realism. What saves us is not that we were “contemplated” in Christ’s death at the time of His death (or prior to it); but what saves us is having our life joined to Christ’s life in such a way that we can no longer be contemplated in any way that does not include contemplating the Christ in us and all that He accomplished. Only when I am joined to Christ am I joined to His death—and only then is God’s wrath propitiated in my case, only then am I reconciled to God, and only then are my sins atoned for—and yet, that atonement, reconciliation, and propitiation were accomplished on the cross 2000 years ago! But Murray does not grasp the realistic union involved—neither in Adam nor in Christ—and so he is left with merely a “mysterious […] divine constitution:

[…]And since his people were in him when he wrought victory and executed judgment, they also must be conceived of, in some mysterious manner that betokens the marvel of divine conception, wisdom, reckoning, and grace, yet really in terms of a divine constitution, as having died to sin also, and as having been raised up to newness of life. It is this fact that is basic and central. The mysteriousness of it must not be allowed to impair or tone down the reality of it in God’s reckoning, and in the actual constitution established by him in the union of his people with Christ.[13]

Having denied the existence of a real, substantial, spiritual union of mankind in Adam when he sinned, the nominalistic representationists such as Murray must strenuously emphasize the supposed “reality” and “constitution” of God’s “reckoning”—as if such an emphasis might be strong enough to overshadow the need for an actual, substantial reality on which to justly ground such a reckoning. And when they come to the Christ-side of the parallel, they have already discarded the key to understanding it. Murray understands that the believer must somehow have been in Christ when He wrought victory, in order for the believer to partake of the benefits of what Christ accomplished; but failing to understand the retroactive identification involved in the reality of being united to the Spirit of Christ who indwells the believer, Murray is left with believers being “conceived of” by God “in some mysterious manner […] yet really in terms of a divine constitution, as having died to sin also, and as having been raised up to newness of life.” Murray senses the need for this “divine constitution” to be an actual reality in order for the salvation achieved to be a reality, but he is forced to insist on the “reality” of nothing more substantial than a “reckoning”—hence the descriptions such as “mysterious” and “a marvel.”

Prior to our faith in Christ, it was not a fact of reality that we were in Christ when He died. Rather, we are brought into Him as He is brought into us by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Having thus been brought into Christ, who we are comes to include who He is and was, so that it is only now a fact of reality that in Him we died and rose again—because only now is it true that who we are includes Him who died and rose again. We have gained a saving unchangeable fact of realty because we have gained Christ Himself in us!

Copyright © 2017 by Ken Hamrick. All rights reserved. Adapted from an unpublished draft, Mechanics of Atonement: Restoring Reality to Imputation.


[1] John Murray, Collected Writings of John Murray, vol. 2, pp. 285-293

[2] Ibid., p. 286

[3] Ibid., p. 287

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., p. 289

[6] Ibid., pp. 289-290

[7] Murray, The Imputation of Adam’s Sin, p. 21

[8] James Denney, The Death of Christ: Its Place and Interpretation in the New Testament, (A. C. Armstrong and Son: New York, 1904), p. 237.

[9] Ibid., pp. 237-238

[10] Murray, Collected Writings, p. 291

[11] Ibid., pp. 291-292

[12] Murray, Collected Writings, pp. 292-293

[13] Ibid., p. 293

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