The Role of the Holy Spirit in Justification

By Ken Hamrick

We are justified by faith in Christ. But is that justification a mere legal fiction, as the Catholics object? While many look for the answer in the analogies of marriage and adoption, there is a more explicit answer: it is the spiritual union of Christ in the believer, effected by the Holy Spirit. The role of the Holy Spirit in justification is a badly neglected topic. To address this will require some review of history—and one that is not usually taught.

An Historical Overview
Over the course of the last several centuries, the importance of reality in Christian theology has been eclipsed by the importance of position. Imputation and justification have come to be seen as mere exercises within God’s mind. This eclipse has resulted from abandoning the idea of a real union of the moral nature of all men within Adam when he sinned, which was the realism that was implicitly contained in all the creeds and confessions of the early Reformed Church.

In this article, I will mostly be referring to Biblical realism—that Biblical principle of shared identity based on immaterial union, to which philosophical realism (with all its excesses) came to be applied. Biblical realism is the recognition of a shared personal identity, effected by immaterial (spiritual) union or singularity of immaterial origin, which is sufficient in itself to account for the headships of Adam and Christ. More broadly, Biblical realism is a paradigm from which God’s judgments and justice are dependent upon substantial reality—a reality which He may sovereignly change but cannot justly ignore. It was from this paradigm that the principle of realistic union was arrived at. Although explicit theological realists have most commonly employed the terms and constructs of Plato’s realism in expounding principles of Biblical realism, such use of Plato is neither necessary nor beneficial. When divested of unnecessary Platonic constructs, Biblical realism yields an understanding of justification, rebirth and atonement that is vastly superior to all other systems, and solves many longstanding theological problems.

The early Reformed Church was under the sway of “a realistic mode of thinking” (as George P. Fisher[1] describes it) when it came to Adamic unity and depravity. To be spiritually propagated out of Adam is also to have acted in Adam—and this is exactly the original idea of being “in Adam.” The idea of soul propagation (“traducianism”) was first taught by Tertullian, and then came down through Hilary of Poitiers and Ambrose of Milan to Augustine. Although Augustine was hesitant to commit himself to any philosophical explanation of traducianism, he gave many excellent arguments for it and none against it. More often than not, in Augustine, this comes out as the moral nature of all men deciding to sin in Adam and then being propagated to all men with the guilt inhering.

However, between Augustine and Luther came Rosceline’s nominalism, which is the denial of any union of species within reality, relegating all such unions to mere perception of union in the mind. In theology, this is the denial of any union of immaterial nature of mankind in Adam, and the relegation to a mere union in God’s chosen perception. In the broad picture, it is the diminishment of substantial reality—a paradigm from which God’s judgments and justice have no standard other than His own sovereign will. Realists say that God does something because it is right, while nominalists say that what God does is right merely because it is He who does it. Thus, the realists look for a substantial union of the immaterial nature of men in order to ground within reality the justice of passing the penal consequences of Adam’s sin onto His posterity. Nominalism, on the other hand, results in an empty representationism, “constituted” by decree or covenant alone, since God’s justice needs no grounds within substantial reality—all that His justice needs is His own will.

The first effect of nominalism on theology was to reinforce the idea of creationism as opposed to traducianism. Adamic union was not something substantial within Adam himself, according to nominalism, but was entirely a matter of how God chose to view us in the situation. Therefore, there was no objectively existing entity of human nature that sinned in Adam and was immaterially propagated to mankind. Rather, all that exists are individuals, and the soul is created out of nothing in every case. Nominalism’s influence in the Church ensured that special creation of the soul would be the prevalent view (as it is to this day).

Although Calvin disliked traducianism, he and most who followed him were not ready to abandon that “realistic mode of thinking” that was the essence of Augustine’s doctrine. So they inconsistently held onto the idea that all men shared a responsible existence in Adam, by virtue of the [moral] “nature” of all men existing in and propagated from Adam. This they held even while maintaining that the soul is specially created out of nothing in every case. As Fisher explains it, “the great majority of the theologians [prior to the eighteenth century] who adopted the theory of a covenant coupled with it the Augustinian principle. That is to say, they maintained the Augustino-federal or semi-federal doctrine…”

Eventually, in Turretin for example, there is an attempted reconciliation in the idea that special creation of the soul is according to the natural laws which God set up at creation, such that God creates the child’s soul with the nature of the parents as part of what is considered natural propagation. By glossing over the supernatural nature of a creation out of nothing, and emphasizing terms that tend to imply propagation from the substance of the parents (such as communication of depravity, etc.), they effectively taught that depravity is propagated just as humanity is propagated. While this might explain (albeit poorly) inherited depravity, it does nothing to explain the kind of union in Adam that involves a sharing of the responsibility for his sin.

It was further reasoned that if men were responsible for realistically participating in Adam’s first sin, then they would also be responsible for his subsequent sins, as well as all the sins of every progenitor between Adam and the individual. Therefore, the realistic mode of thinking was eventually dropped in favor of the nominalistic federal representation. What began with the idea of men being held justly responsible for a sin that we all owned by our shared action in Adam became the idea that men are sovereignly held responsible for a sin that is as alien to us as is the righteousness of Christ. As Robert Landis[2] pointed out, while the early Reformed Church taught that Adam’s sin was imputed to us because it is ours, the later (current) federal view teaches that Adam’s sin is ours because it is imputed to us.

The Reality versus the Federal Construct
The answer is to apply the old realistic mode of thinking regarding Adamic union to our union with Christ. The union of believers with Christ is spiritual, and not merely legal or “federal.” This union happens within substantial reality, and does not exist only within the mind of God. Rom. 6:3, “Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death?” and, 1 Cor. 6:17, “But he who is joined to the Lord is one spirit with Him.” It is not speaking of water baptism, but baptism into the Spirit, which happens at the point of saving faith. To be spiritually baptized into Christ is to be joined to Him so that the new believer and Christ are one spirit, and the result of this is that the new believer is joined to (or, baptized into) His death. As the spirit is the core of a man, it is the core of a man’s identity. When the Holy Spirit indwells the man, He creates a new man by joining the spirit of the man to the Spirit of Christ. They are not joined to the extent that either is lost in the other, but they are joined to the extent that the man’s new identity is in Christ and his old identity is no longer valid in the eyes of justice. In fact, the believer is so identified with Christ that he is considered to have been crucified with Him. Gal. 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me, and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.”

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[3] (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.”[4] 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.

Lane Keister, in a 2014 article, entitled, “Why Imputation is Not a Legal Fiction,”[5] stated:

In most marriages, property entails joint ownership. Now, if a woman comes into the marriage with a debt (like a college debt), the husband assumes that debt. It becomes their debt (it can also be described as his debt), even though the husband did not incur that debt. Similarly, whatever money the husband brought into the marriage doesn’t belong just to him anymore, it also belongs to her, even though she did not earn it. So, by virtue of the marriage union between husband and wife, the debts and the assets are transferred.
In a very similar way, when the believer becomes united to Christ by faith, a new legal situation results with transfers happening.

The problem with most nominalistic [federal] analogies is that they work with financial but not criminal debt. No husband is criminally liable for the wife’s crimes. Only financial debts are transferable. Rev. Keister also stated:

Now, let us be clear here. The Protestant doctrine should never be formulated in such a way that union with Christ, for instance, has an internal change happening in the believer that thereby becomes the basis for the imputation. Christ’s righteousness is the basis for the transfer, not anything that happens in the believer. It happens by the instrumentation of faith.

I disagree. Union with Christ does indeed happen within the believer, and is an internal change—from the absence of Christ to His presence, and from alienation to union with Him. This union occurs as a fact of substantial reality and it happens within the believer—and it is the only solid ground of our justification. Faith is only instrumental for the purpose of bringing this vital, salvific union.

Samuel J. Baird, pastor of the Presbyterian Church, Woodbury, NJ, from 1849-1865, and author of The Elohim Revealed, saw that “a real inbeing” in Christ was the ground of imputed righteousness, just as “a real inbeing” in Adam was the ground of imputed sin. He also understood why the idea of a shared identity through spiritual union with Christ is so consistently ignored. He states:

If the imputation of Christ’s righteousness be founded in a real inbeing in him, wrought by the uniting power of his Spirit in regeneration,—if it is thus that we are brought within the provisions of the covenant of grace to our justification, it follows, (we will venture the word,) incontestably, that the imputation to us of Adam’s sin, is founded in a real inbeing in him, by natural generation, by virtue of which we come under the provisions of the covenant of works, to our condemnation. But this, according to our reviewer [Charles Hodge], is “simply a physiological theory,” involving “a mysterious identity,” which he cannot admit. Hence the necessity of ignoring the doctrine, in its relation to justification.[6]

He also states:

We have seen the zeal with which the position is maintained, that the doctrine of imputation “does not include the idea of a mysterious identity of Adam and his race.” By parity of reason it should not include the idea of a mysterious identity between Christ and his people. And accordingly, in the system presented in the review [by Charles Hodge, of Baird’s book, The Elohim Revealed], the relation which in the Scriptures and our standards, the mystical union sustains to justification is ignored, and the doctrine represented as complete without it, and to the exclusion of it. “Christ in the covenant of redemption, is constituted the head and representative of his people; and, in virtue of this federal union, and agreeably to the terms of the eternal covenant, they are regarded and treated as having done what he did and suffered what he suffered in their name and in their behalf.” According to our understanding of the Scriptures, it was provided in the eternal covenant that the elect should be actually ingrafted into Christ by his Spirit, and their acceptance and justification is by virtue of this their actual union to him. “This principle is not to be so understood as though the character thus conveyed were the meritorious cause of the relations predicated; as if the believer were justified by the personal righteousness which he receives through the power of Christ’s Spirit given to him. On the contrary, the union, which is constituted by virtue of the transmission of the nature, itself conveys a proprietary title in the moral and legal relations of the head; whilst the efficient principle which thus unites, is also fruitful in effects appropriate to the nature whence it flows. Thus, the sin of Adam, and the righteousness of Christ are severally imputed to their seed, by virtue of the union, constituted in the one case by the principle of natural generation, and in the other, by ‘the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus,’ the Holy Spirit, the principle of regeneration. At the same time, the power by which the union is in these cases severally wrought produces likeness to the head.” [The Elohim Revealed, p. 317][7]

Our righteousness comes not from our good works but from our gaining of a proprietary title to the righteousness of Christ who is in us. We died to our old identity and gained one in Christ, and now we have gained His human experience to our credit, just as if we had lived His life from manger to grave. Now that we have Christ inside us, no failure on my part can ever again incur God’s wrath, since the critical gaze of Justice is ever met in me by the Christ of the cross—the full wrath endured already—just as if it had been me who was hung on that tree 2000 years ago. His blood does not cleanse us only at conversion, but ever cleanses us as we go along—and this is exactly how it cleanses!

It is because of Christ’s human nature that we are able to be joined to Him. It is His humanity that allows the mutual identity—that allows His experiences to be credited to us. This union is unhindered by any misfitting of different natures. Christ took on the nature of a man specifically to be able to identify in union with men and thus to save them. Otherwise, there could be no identifying union, since His divinity alone and our sinful humanity alone could never be united (darkness has not union with light). The fitting together of the human and divine natures was taken care of by Christ’s incarnation. Through the divine nature of the Holy Spirit, the Person of Christ is put in us, and to that Person inseparably belongs both His humanity and His divinity. To be joined to Christ in us is to be joined to all that He is, both His human and His divine natures.

The Reformed emphasis on the putative forensic aspect of justification comes out of a resistance to the Catholic works-justification; but the realism-to-nominalism trajectory has eroded the union-with-Christ aspect. Often, union with Christ is seen mainly as a chosen perception in God’s mind and the actual indwelling is relegated to a lesser importance. As Baird criticized Hodge (and those like him):

[…]The relation which in the Scriptures and our standards, the mystical union sustains to justification is ignored, and the doctrine represented as complete without it, and to the exclusion of it. [Hodge:] “Christ in the covenant of redemption, is constituted the head and representative of his people; and, in virtue of this federal union, and agreeably to the terms of the eternal covenant, they are regarded and treated as having done what he did and suffered what he suffered in their name and in their behalf.”

And do we not see the results of such a trajectory when the best explanation we can come up with in the face of Catholic arguments is to appeal to the analogies of marriage and adoption? The “realistic mode of thinking” that became Augustinian (or natural) headship was gradually abandoned only as the truth was corrupted. It was brought back at the Reformation, and then gradually abandoned again, and—as I see it—as the truth was corrupted again. But since the Reformers did not fully abandon the nominalism of Catholicism from the start, then the erosion began from the beginning. At least Augustine consistently held his realistic principle, since he often defended the prospect of propagation of the soul; while most of the Reformers were implicit realists but were explicit creationists. But according to Landis, most of them were simply agnostic toward the question and were happy to leave it to mystery while accepting the Scriptural revelation that Adam’s sin was ours in a real, substantial way that put our ownership of it logically prior to its imputation.

Nominalism may have served well to mark us off from Catholicism, but it will never win many Catholics. It is a denial of the significance of reality to the justice of God, which is inherently contradictory, since the very idea of justice is wrapped up in truth, and truth must correspond to reality to be truth. Instead, answer Catholics with the truth that Christ is in the believer in a union so close and so real as to identify the believer with the personal identity of Christ—and give the believer a just right to the ownership of all of Christ’s human deeds, both righteous life and atoning death. All their arguments against legal fiction will fall away at that.

The same objections to justification apply to atonement. One man cannot die in the place of another (unless the two men can somehow be made one within substantial reality). The real “concrete” union of Christ within the believer is not some adjunct or afterthought but is the very foundation of all of salvation. Without the reality of Christ in us, the reality of Christ’s righteousness or His suffering our penalty cannot save us.

If you ask me to give you the money I borrowed from you, and I reply that I’ve already paid you in my mind, would you be satisfied with that? Why is it that when a man lusts after his neighbor’s wife, he’s guilty of committing adultery with her in his heart but she’s not made guilty by that sin? The fact is that while thinkers may incur guilt for thinking what they should not, no Thinker can make anyone else guilty merely by thinking—or righteous, for that matter. Reality exists regardless of any thoughts (or lack thereof) regarding it. And yes, I’m saying that this applies to God as well. If it did not, Christ would not have needed to die. God could have just chosen to view Him as if He had died. Or, God simply could choose to impute Christ’s righteousness to those who believe without any need for the cross.

But the fact is that instead of merely viewing reality in His mind as if it matches what His justice requires, God actually does what is necessary to change reality to suit His justice. Rather than merely viewing believers AS IF we had the righteousness of Christ, God actually puts Christ Himself within the believer, joining the two into one new man who has full title to all of Christ’s human experiences (including His death and resurrection).

When the Reformed church moved off this foundation of Augustine, and abandoned the idea that a just condemning imputation demands a real participation in the crime, they left behind the importance of substantial reality to justice—and with it, much of the ability to see the substance in God’s federal or covenantal methods. That’s why leaving it behind took some time, as they first transitioned into what Fisher called the Augustino-Federal theory. Therefore, it’s only natural that our immaterial union with Christ should lose its prominence while the federal imputation is emphasized.

My objection is to what the theology of the Western Church became as it moved away from Augustinian realism and toward a contractualized (nominal) federalism. By moving back from that, a deeper understanding of the mystical union within us can be found by parallel. Christ is not merely interceding at the right hand of God in heaven, but rather, He is the Intercessor WITHIN, standing in us on earth and reaching to the court of heaven!

It’s not that imputation itself must be fiction; but rather, it must look to a ground in reality—whether eventual or current—upon which it may consist in truth. Imputation happens only within the mind and not within substantial reality. Even a man may impute guilt or righteousness to another man merely by accounting him so. When a jury finds a defendant guilty, they have imputed guilt to him. It is agreed that God in reality accounts to us Christ’s righteousness. What seems to be in dispute is whether or not God can look to something other than His own thoughts on which to ground that accounting.

The Holy Spirit Effecting a Retroactive Reality as Seen in Sanctification
The objection that the spiritual (or, mystical) union of Christ and the believer cannot be the cause of the believer gaining credit for (or, an interest in) Christ’s accomplishments, because such a transfer would require that the union exist prior to the accomplishments, confuses generation with regeneration. We have an ownership in what Adam did because we were in union (or, in singularity) with him while he did it. But what is missed is that we are not generated (or, propagated) out of Christ; rather, we are regenerated (or, united) into Christ. We gain an ownership in what Christ did not because we were in His loins when He did it; but rather, we gain an ownership in what He did because we gain the very Spirit of Christ to indwell and become part of our very being. We were not in singularity with Christ on the cross, but the Christ to whom we are now joined was in singularity with the Christ who was crucified, since He is one with Himself.

John Murray’s treatment of sanctification, particularly his essay, “The Agency in Definitive Sanctification,” makes some surprising inroads toward this.[8] 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.[9]

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.”[10] 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?[11]

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.[12]

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.[13]

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”.[14]

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 having been in Christ, 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 real 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.

Murray concludes that the answer to the second question is that “death to sin and newness of life refer to events which occur in the life history of the believer.”[15] 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.[16]

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.[17]

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.[18]

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 reality because we have gained Christ Himself in us.

Are We Saved by Christ in Heaven or by Christ in Us?
The Church long ago embraced the idea that what happens within substantial reality is not necessary to how God views a man. As this idea gradually worked its way into Christian theology, God’s focus (as perceived) was quietly removed from the lives of men. The all-consuming faith lived out by the saints of old is all but forgotten, washed away by a tide of imputational believers. As the focus of God was seen to be on His putative view of us and our putative view of Him, a false separation developed between God and the reality of our lives.

A faith in a legal verdict in the court of heaven, far removed from our reality, is a faith with little power to change our reality. It is no wonder that such a faith is fed to the sheep with the correlating idea that real righteousness is unattainable, and so we should be satisfied—as God is—with our imputed righteousness. The polar extremes of a failing human righteousness on one side and the perfect righteousness of God on the other are held out as the only alternatives, leaving many in a contented complacency.

Was it only from sin’s penalty that Christ redeemed us, or were we redeemed from sin’s power as well? If this redemption was wrought on a cross two thousand years ago, and the penalty removed by the Judge’s gavel in the court of heaven, then where and how does any of this impact my life and my actions on a daily basis? Is my faith limited in focus to events far removed from my reality? Thanks be to God who is more than a God who imputes—He is a God who consummates! His method is not that of an accountant who cannot see past his books. Rather, His method is that of a Holy Spirit who fills our hearts and lives, becoming one with us in spirit and identity. The imputation in the court of heaven is not putative and nominal, but is firmly grounded on the reality of Christ indwelling the sinner so that the two become one new man in Him.


[1] G. P. Fisher, “The Augustinian and the Federal Theories of Original Sin Compared,” Discussions in History and Theology (New York: Scribner’s, 1880), pp. 355-409
[2] Robert W. Landis, The Doctrine of Original Sin, (Richmond: Whittet & Shepperson, 1884)
[3] Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, (Phillipsburg: P & R, 1992)
[4] N. T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005), p. 98
[5] Lane Keister, “Why Imputation is Not a Legal Fiction,” published 8-18-2014 at 11:23 a.m., at https://greenbaggins.wordpress.com/2014/08/18/why-imputation-is-not-a-legal-fiction/
[6] Samuel J. Baird, A Rejoinder to The Princeton Review, upon The Elohim Revealed, (Phila.: Joseph M. Wilson, 1860), p. 34
[7] Ibid., pp. 32-33
[8] John Murray, Collected Writings of John Murray, vol. 2, pp. 285-293
[9] Ibid., p. 286
[10] Ibid., p. 287
[11] Ibid.
[12] Ibid., p. 289
[13] Ibid., pp. 289-290
[14] Murray, The Imputation of Adam’s Sin, p. 21
[15] Murray, Collected Writings, p. 291
[16] Ibid., pp. 291-292
[17] Murray, Collected Writings, pp. 292-293
[18] Ibid., 293

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