It is not difficult to find the rich teaching of union with Christ so beautifully displayed in John Calvin’s writings, but the theme is suspiciously absent in so much American reformed theology. Even where the phrase “union with Christ” has been used in the past it often refers to something quite a lot different (ie less) than Calvin intended.
This is the question behind William Evan’s book Imputation and Impartation: Union with Christ in American Reformed Theology (Paternoster, 2008).
For Calvin, union with Christ was “a matrix of realistic, personal, and forensic categories” (39). For him, “union with Christ may be described as the instrumental basis of both justification and sanctification.” In other words, “both justification and sanctification are subsumed under a more comprehensive reality—union with Christ. In this way Calvin avoids the problems of making justification dependent upon sanctification (and this robbing justification of its synthetic character) or of making sanctification a mere response to justification (thus rendering sanctification ultimately superfluous).”
However, for his unity of thought about the believer’s union with Christ, Calvin really never explained how the realistic, person, and forensic categories work together. More specifically, how is forensic justification mediated to the believer through personal/ontological union with Christ? Confusion over this point led to varying developments throughout the centuries.
Evans traces out the evolution of union with Christ in the writings of Jonathan Edwards, Samuel Hopkins, Timothy Dwight, Charles Hodge, A. A. Hodge, and Louis Berkhof. Increasingly union with Christ was split into two separate categories of legal/federal union (justification) and a spiritual/vital union (sanctification). The blame for the breaking apart of impartation and imputation from a cohesive union with Christ seems gets laid at the feet of a hardening ordo salutes. “Only when the traditional ordo salutis is eschewed can a truly forensic and synthetic doctrine of justification that is at the same time relational and dynamic be articulated” (265). In other words, by viewing justification singularly as a historical point in past history in the life of the Christian, a present tense dynamic of our present justification in Christ is lost.
On this point Evans commends Richard Gaffin’s argument in Resurrection and Redemption (P&R, 1987), 114–127. There Gaffin argues in part from Romans 8:34 and writes that “justification depends not simply on an action in the past experience of the believer but on his present relation to the person of the resurrected Christ” (133). Thus, for Gaffin, forensic justification is a present reality via the believer’s personal/ontological union with Christ.
This union of the union contradicts Berkof and the federal trajectory in reformed thought, writes Evans.
The federal trajectory reaches its logical conclusion in Berkhof. Justification and sanctification are completely separated from each other, even in the mind of God. The gratuity of justification has been preserved, but at a great cost, for the integration of Christian life and experience has been sacrificed. The linchpin of the Christian’s relationship with God—justification—has been wholly abstracted from the life of faith and from union with Christ.
Second, as the bifurcation of union with Christ became complete, the theme itself also became superfluous as an umbrella concept unifying justification and sanctification. To speak of a federal or legal union with Christ is simply to describe justification without remainder. Likewise, to speak of a vital union is to speak of sanctification. To the extent that the theme of union with Christ remains present in the successors of the Hodges and Berkof, it is largely vestigial.
The religious implications of this federal trajectory should also be carefully noted. There is, on this soteriological model, no real and complete forgiveness of sins, only an attenuated justification involving the satisfaction of a liability to punishment. The Christian can have no confidence that he or she really enjoys the favor of God, because the culpability and demerit of sin remain. Furthermore, with justification almost completely abstracted from the life of the church and from the ongoing economy of faith, the problem of assurance is only heightened. Finally, the bifurcation of forensic and transformatory categories made it virtually impossible to grasp the essential unity of salvation, and the Christian is left with an unstable dialectic tending toward legalism one moment, and antinomianism the next. (237)
The bottom line: “If justification is viewed as an ongoing participation, through the life of faith and the Spirit, in Christ’s justification, then the importance of the life of faith and all that relates to it is heightened, and it becomes possible to move beyond a preoccupation with the puncticular. What is important is not so much the initial act of faith, but the life of faith in Christ” (266).
In his book, Evans shows rather conclusively that the theme of union with Christ was split in American theological development, and there justification, a truth of inestimable importance and value, became abstracted from union with Christ.