Throughout church history, whenever justification by belief alone is proclaimed the charge of “legal fiction” is heard. God cannot declare someone righteous who has nothing righteous within himself. This false theology will take a variety of forms, but the recurring theme is that we are made righteous by what Christ does in us, not declared righteous because of what Christ did for us. Modern proponents of this view take the form of N.T. Wright and NPP or Federal Vision, for example.
The response is to emphasize the priority of what Christ does outside of us as the foundation of the gospel. This often takes the form of giving priority to justification over sanctification, or even saying that justification is the source or cause of sanctification. For example, John Robbins argues:
Our own consciences demand justice and cannot be pacified unless God’s fellowship with us is grounded on justice… Sanctification is living a life of fellowship with God. Justification is its legal basis, and without justification no fellowship with a holy God can exist… There is a direct relationship between the guilt of sin and the power of sin. If the guilt of sin is removed, the power of sin is broken. This is Paul’s point in Romans 6:14…
The way of justification by faith alone is the only way of receiving the Spirit of God. To be justified means to be declared righteous. It means that God not only regards us as righteous, but also can proceed to treat us as righteous. How does he treat the forgiven sinner as righteous? By giving him the gift of the Holy Spirit. Nothing more and nothing less than perfect righteousness is necessary for the outpouring of God’s Spirit. As every believer has this perfect righteousness imputed to him, he may on this one infallible basis have the Holy Spirit imparted to him.
The obvious problem, however, is that we are not justified until we believe, and we do not believe until we have been born again by the Spirit. Therefore our justification cannot be the cause of what God does in us, and in fact, our justification must be, in some way, dependent upon what God does in us.
Active & Passive Justification
This is nothing new. It has been an ongoing dilemma. In his commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, Ursinus explains:
IV. WHAT IS OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS BEFORE GOD?
The righteousness with which we are here justified before God, is not our conformity with the law, nor our good works, nor our faith; but it is the satisfaction which Christ rendered to the law in our stead…
V. HOW DOES THE SATISFACTION OF CHRIST BECOME OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS, SEEING THAT IT IS WITHOUT US?
At first view it seems absurd that we should be justified by any thing without us, or by something that belongs to another. It is necessary, therefore, that we should explain more fully how the satisfaction, or obedience of Christ becomes ours; for unless it be made ours, or be applied unto us, we cannot be justified by it, just as little as a wall can be white, if whiteness be not applied, or fixed upon it. We remark, then, that there are two ways in which the satisfaction of Christ is made over unto us: 1. God himself applies it unto us, that is, he makes the righteousness of Christ over unto us, and accepts of us as righteous on account of it, as if it were ours. 2. We apply it also unto ourselves when we receive the righteousness of Christ through faith, that is, we rest assured that God will grant it unto us, that he will regard us as righteous on account of it, and that he will free us from all guilt. There is, therefore, a double application; one in respect to God, and another in respect to us. The former is the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, when God accepts of that righteousness which Christ wrought out, that it might avail in our behalf, and accounts us as righteous in view of it, as much so as if we had never sinned, or had at least fully satisfied for our sins. The other side of this application which has respect to us, is the act itself of believing, in which we are fully persuaded that it is imputed and given unto us. Both sides of this application must necessarily concur in our justification; for God applies the righteousness of Christ unto us upon the condition, that we also apply the same unto ourselves by faith. For although any one were to offer another a benefit, yet if he to whom it is offered does not accept of it, it is not applied unto him, and so does not become his. Hence without this last application the former is of no account. And yet our application of the righteousness of Christ is from God; for he first imputes it unto us, and then works faith in us, by which we apply unto ourselves that which is imputed; from which it appears that the application of God precedes that which we make, (which is of faith) and is the cause of it, although it is not without ours, as Christ says, “Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you.” (John 15:16)
This became known as the difference between active and passive justification and can be seen in various reformed theologians through history, with Berkhof providing a clear recent example:
This [objective/active justification] is justification in the most fundamental sense of the word. It is basic to what is called subjective justification, and consists in a declaration which God makes respecting the sinner, and this declaration is made in the tribunal of God. This declaration is not a declaration in which God simply acquits the sinner, without taking any account of the claims of justice, but is rather a divine declaration that, in the case of the sinner under consideration, the demands of the law are met. The sinner is declared righteous in view of the fact that the righteousness of Christ is imputed to him. In this transaction God appears, not as an absolute Sovereign who simply sets the law aside, but as a righteous Judge, who acknowledges the infinite merits of Christ as a sufficient basis for justification, and as a gracious Father, who freely forgives and accepts the sinner. This active justification logically precedes faith and passive justification. We believe the forgiveness of sins…
Passive or subjective justification takes place in the heart or conscience of the sinner… When the Bible speaks of justification, it usually refers to what is known as passive justification. It should be borne in mind, however, that the two cannot be separated. The one is based on the other. The distinction is simply made to facilitate the proper understanding of the act of justification. Logically, passive justification follows faith; we are justified by faith.
Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), 517
This position lends itself very readily to the idea of eternal justification. Since God “chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him” (Eph 1:4), and active justification occurs in God’s tribunal and precedes our faith, then we must have been justified from all eternity. Our subjective justification is merely our believing/realizing this to be true. Tobias Crisp (17th century) argued:
A man is justified, and that by Christ alone, but it is not known to him, it is an unseen thing. Well, how shall he see this, and know that it is so? The Text saith, Faith is an evidence, Faith gives evidence to this thing, Faith makes it known, by Faith we come to apprehend it… he is first justified before he believes, then he believes that he is justified.*
First generation particular baptist William Kiffin agreed. In a foreword to fellow particular baptist Samuel Richardson’s Justification by Christ Alone (1647; these two men were signatories of the First London Baptist Confession, and likely had a hand in editing it), Kiffin said:
[T]here is an aptness in men to miscarry in the knowledge of this rich grace of God. Some being apt to conceive that there is no Justification of a creature in no sense before and without faith, and so make Faith a joint-partner with Christ in the business of Justification… That the Scripture holds forth justification by faith in a sense is very clear, but yet under no other consideration, but by way of evidence, Heb. 11:1, 2.
In the essay, Richardson argues
[T]he elect were ever in the love of God, and did ever so appear to Him as just and righteous in and by Christ… Justification in the conscience is not justification itself, but only the knowledge of it. It is necessary to our comfort. Justification depends not upon our knowledge of it, nor assurance of it.
18th century particular baptist John Gill republished Tobias’ sermons in 1791 with explanatory notes throughout. Gill adds the following note to the previous quote:
*Justification before faith, though caviled at by many, is certain; since God justifies the ungodly, and since faith is the fruit and effect of justification, and the act which is conversant about it, and the object must be before the act; and besides justification took place at the resurrection of Christ; yea, from all eternity, as soon as he became the surety of his people; and which has been embraced, affirmed, and defended by Divines of the greatest note for orthodoxy and piety, as Twisse, Pembla, Parker, Goodwin, Ames, Witsius, Maccovius, and others. (See my Doctrine of Justification, p. 36-38, 42-47, 50, 54).
Because this was a point of dispute, the 1646 Westminster Confession of Faith addresses it very clearly (with the Savoy and LBCF following it):
God did, from all eternity, decree to justify the elect; and Christ did, in the fullness of time, die for their sins and rise again for their justification; nevertheless they are not justified until the Holy Spirit doth, in due time, actually apply Christ unto them. (XI.4)
(On a personal note, this paragraph in the Confession helped pull me back from embracing eternal justification several years ago.)
Justified at the Cross?
Note Gill’s mention of justification at the cross. The Confession identifies three key points in time: 1) God’s decree 2) Christ’s satisfaction 3) our regeneration and faith. This is typically referred to as decretal union (Eph 1:4), federal/legal union (Romans 6:6), and vital/mystical union (1 Cor 6:17).
Gill’s argument is not easy to refute. Anyone recognizing the biblical truth that Christ’s death was a penal substitutionary atonement limited to the elect has to wrestle with the implication that we were justified at the cross (also here and here), or more specifically, as Gill says, at Christ’s resurrection (which was God’s declaration of Christ’s successful obedience/fulfillment of his covenant). In fact, neonomian Richard Baxter accused Owen, and thus orthodox reformed theology, of necessarily teaching eternal justification because of his doctrine of limited atonement.
Samuel Richardson’s essay was actually arguing that we are justified at the cross.
The time when He washed their sins away, which was then when He shed His blood…
The sum of all is, that Jesus Christ, by once offering the Sacrifice of Himself when He was upon the cross, took away, put to an end, blotted out and utterly destroyed all the sins of His people for ever, and presented them just, righteous and holy, without spot, before God…
All The Elect Were Made This Way Upon the Cross. All the elect were made these by Christ upon the Cross. Therefore, they were then justified. They were justified before they believed…
The material and instrumental cause is Jesus Christ by His death, in dying for us…
We say the same; only the difference betwixt us is, when the time of Justification is. It seems by your discourse that you judge that time to be after we believe. We judge that we were justified by Christ upon the Cross…
Objection: Evermore say the godly learned Schoolmen (we call not the Papists in) put a difference between God’s decree, and the execution of it. Answer: So do we, but not because they say so: if the Scriptures be clear, why call you in any at all, we will not believe men: therefore spare that labor when you write again. We do not say, we were actually justified from all eternity; we say we were in the knowledge and love of God from all eternity: we say we were actually justified in time when Christ upon the Cross presented us holy to God without spot, etc., Eph. 5:27.
How did Owen resolve this extremely knotty issue that has perplexed reformed theologians from the beginning, and continues to today? One of the best things I have read on this issue is a paper written by Matthew W. Mason titled The Significance of the Systematic and Polemical Function of Union with Christ in John Owen’s Contribution to Seventeenth Century Debates Concerning Eternal Justification. I highly recommend reading it to unpack the details of what I will touch on.
Owen affirms these three basic stages of our relationship to Christ, but he nuances them very carefully, arguing that the union is truly the third, mystical union:
The principal foundation [of the imputation of sin to Christ] hereof is, — that Christ and the church, in this design, were one mystical person; which state they do actually coalesce into, through the uniting efficacy of the Holy Spirit. He is the head, and believers are the members of that one person, as the apostle declares, 1 Corinthians 12:12,13. Hence, as what he did is imputed unto them, as if done by them; so what they deserved on the account of sin was charged upon him.
-The Doctrine of Justification (PDF 232)
Note that Gill says “from all eternity, as soon as he became the surety of his people.” In Chapter 8 of The Doctrine of Justification, Owen discuses at length the nature of Christ’s suretyship and how it relates to union, and thus imputation. “This, then, I say, is the foundation of the imputation of the sins of the church unto Christ, — namely, that he and it are one person; the grounds whereof we must inquire into.” (235) He then lists the various ways Scripture refers to this union: husband and wife (Eph 5:25-32), head and members of a natural body (1 Cor 12:12), political head (Eph 4:15; Col 2:19), vine and branches (John 15:1-2), Adam’s federal headship (Romans 5:12). He concludes “And the Holy Ghost, by representing the union that is between Christ and believers by such a variety of resemblances, in things agreeing only in the common or general notion of union, on various grounds, does sufficiently manifest that it is not of, nor can be reduced unto, any one kind of them.” (236)
Owen notes that “The first spring or cause of this union, and of all the other causes of it, lies in that eternal compact that was between the Father and the Son concerning the recovery and salvation of fallen mankind.” Notice he does not call this itself our union with Christ, but rather the first spring or cause of that union. He continues:
[6.] On these foundations he undertook to be the surety of the new covenant, Hebrews 7:22, “Jesus was made a surety of a better testament.” This alone, of all the fundamental considerations of the imputation of our sins unto Christ, I shall insist upon, on purpose to obviate or remove some mistakes about the nature of his suretiship, and the respect of it unto the covenant whereof he was the surety. And I shall borrow what I shall offer hereon from our exposition of this passage of the apostle in the seventh chapter of this epistle, not yet published, with very little variation from what I have discoursed on that occasion, without the least respect unto, or prospect of, any treating on our present subject. (238-39)
Owen analyzes the lexical meaning of surety in both Greek and Hebrew and concludes:
bræ[; originally signifies to mingle, or a mixture of any things or persons; and thence, from the conjunction and mixture is between a surety and him for whom he is a surety, whereby they coalesce into one person, as unto the ends of that suretiship, it is used for a surety, or to give surety. And he that was or did bræ[;, a surety, or become a surety, was to answer for him for whom he was so, whatsoever befell him.
And after analyzing various passages (Proverbs 6:1; 17:18; 20:16; 27:13; Neh 5:3; Gen 43:9; 44:32,33; Job 17:3; Philemon 1:18; Is 36:8; Eph 1:4) he concludes “A surety is an undertaker for another, or others, who thereon is justly and legally to answer what is due to them, or from them; nor is the word otherwise used.” (240)
Note: Owen is here explaining that our mystical union with Christ, whereby we coalesce into one person, is a legal union. In doing so, Owen corrects the distinction we saw above between our decretal, legal, and mystical unions. He says the first is the source of our union, but is not itself our union. Mason explains:
In contrast to Crisp and Saltmarsh, he insists that although prior to the cross the elect are beloved, elected, and ordained to eternal life, their actual condition, which they share with all people, remains unchanged by the decree of election alone… God’s eternal purpose is not the same as the mighty act of his power. God’s decrees guarantee the certain futurition of the events decreed, but they do not accomplish their actual existence. In so distinguishing God’s decrees from his actions, Owen stands in the western catholic mainstream…
Owen offers an exegetical argument. Scripture places all humans, prior to faith, in the same condition: guilty and under God’s wrath (citing Rom. 3:9, 19; Eph. 2:3; Jn. 3:36). Commenting on this, he explicitly addresses the claims of advocates of eternal justification: ‘The condition of all in unregeneracy is really one and the same. Those who think it is a mistaken apprehension in the elect to think so, are certainly too much mistaken in that apprehension.’ (45-46)
Owen then combines the second two unions, arguing that the mystical union is our legal union with Christ. But if this second union (legal/covenant) has been used by others to separate our mystical union from Christ’s satisfaction, and thereby separate our justification in time from his satisfaction, how does Owen avoid this problem?
At the time of Christ’s death, he and the elect are one mystical person, not in the sense that they have already been knit together by the Spirit, but only in the plan and intention of God. As Christ died, God knew for whom he was dying, and so counted their sin to Christ as though they were already one person. Yet, only at the point of faith are the elect actually inserted into Christ’s mystical body; thus, only then is his suffering and obedience imputed to them. In all of this, the integrating factor is the will of God…
Owen, however, acknowledges that full, mystical union occurs at the point of faith. Prior to that, the relationship between Christ and the elect exists in the intention and will of God, but does not exist as an actual union. (48-49)
The imputation of sin unto Christ was antecedent unto any real union between him and sinners, whereon he took their sin on him as he would, and for what ends he would; but the imputation of his righteousness unto believers is consequential in order of nature unto their union with him, whereby it becomes theirs in a peculiar manner; (V, 449)
Owen explains this by distinguishing between the Covenant of Redemption and the Covenant of Grace.
But yet some will not distinguish between the covenant of the mediator and the covenant of grace, because the promises of the covenant absolutely are said to be made to Christ, Galatians 3:16; and he is the prw~ton dektiko>n, or first subject of all the grace of it. But in the covenant of the mediator, Christ stands alone for himself, and undertakes for himself alone, and not as the representative of the church; but this he is in the covenant of grace. (V, 251)
In dying on the cross, Christ was fulfilling the Covenant of Redemption agreement with the Father (and thereby purchasing his people), but he is not the federal head of the church in the Covenant of Redemption. He is the federal head of the church in the Covenant of Grace. Mason explains:
According to Owen, although God’s will toward the elect was not changed upon the death of Christ, for he is immutable, Christ’s death nevertheless changed the status of the elect. On the basis of Christ’s merit, founded on God’s free engagement in the covenant of redemption with his Son, God is obliged to deliver them from the curse ipso facto. Therefore, because of Christ’s satisfaction, God is able to make out the benefits Christ purchased, without any other conditions needing to be fulfilled. In particular, Christ also purchased the condition of the covenant, faith; hence, from the time of the atonement, the elect have an absolute right to justification. Nevertheless, although they have a right to justification, they do not yet have a present enjoyment of it. To establish this, Owen makes a number of distinctions…
[T]here are two different kinds of right to something: ius in re and ius ad rem. Ius in re is the right a father has to his estate: it is a present possession, of which he cannot justly be deprived. Ius ad rem is the right a son has to his father’s estate; he does not yet possess it, but he will do on his father’s death. Upon the death of Christ, the elect do not yet have a right to justification in re. However, they do have a right to justification ad rem and sub termino. Thus, they have an absolute right, with no further conditions required, Christ having done all that is necessary for their justification. Nevertheless, they are not yet in possession; (49-51)
So on the cross, Christ is acting on our behalf, or with us in mind, but he is not yet legally ours as our covenant head, and therefore we do not yet have the benefits of his death. Owen:
No blessing can be given us for Christ’s sake, unless, in order of nature, Christ be first reckoned unto us… God’s reckoning Christ, in our present sense, is the imputing of Christ unto ungodly, unbelieving sinners for whom he died, so far as to account him theirs, and to bestow faith and grace upon them for his sake. This, then, I say, at the accomplishment of the appointed time, the Lord reckons, and accounts, and makes out his Son Christ, to such and such sinners, and for his sake gives them faith, etc. (X, 626-27)
Thus, Christ is, in some sense, given to sinners before they believe, ‘Else why is faith given [to one sinner] at this instant for Christ’s sake, and not to another, for whom he also died?’ Faith, purchased by Christ, is given to the sinner for Christ’s sake, and so Owen ‘cannot conceive how any thing should be made out to me for Christ, and Christ himself not be given to me, he being “made unto us of God, righteousness”, 1 Corinthians 1:30’. Again, ‘That we should be blessed with all spiritual blessings in Christ, and yet Christ not be ours in a peculiar manner before the bestowing of those blessings on us, is somewhat strange. Yea, he must be our Christ before it is given to us for him to believe’. Thus, it seems that for Owen some kind of union with Christ takes place [logically] prior to faith. (52)
Unconditional Covenant of Grace
This view places Owen in a very interesting position. One of Crisp’s arguments for eternal justification was that faith is not a condition of union, but a fruit of it.
faith is not the instrument radically to unite Christ and the Soul together, but rather is the fruit that follows and flows from Christ the root, being united before hand to the person that do believe… Is faith the gift of Christ or no?… Doth Christ beget faith in us by vertue of our being united unto him? and shall this faith beget that union of which it was but a fruit? From whence shall persons that do believe before they are united unto Christ, receive this faith of theirs?
Crisp argues that John 15:4-5 demonstrates that faith is a fruit of union with Christ, the Vine, and thus must follow union with him. If faith came before union, the branch would bear fruit before being in the Vine, which directly contradicts Christ’s words…
Crisp’s point is simple. Owing to the bondage of the will, no-one can exercise faith in and of themselves. At Calvary, Christ effectually merited salvation for the elect, and this necessarily includes the gift of faith. The elect receive every spiritual blessing in Christ, including the blessing of faith, otherwise whence is faith? Thus, it would seem that, on Crisp’s Reformed assumptions about human inability and the receipt of all blessings in Christ, faith must be a gift of God that follows and rests upon union with Christ. (29)
Much of Crisp’s position was based on the nature of the New Covenant.
For Crisp, the New Covenant is different from other biblical covenants because the others all have stipulations, conditions on both sides. However, on humanity’s side, the New Covenant is entirely unconditional. All conditions having been met in Christ, the justified sinner has no part to play in his salvation, and faith is not the condition of the covenant.
Samuel Richardson agreed with Crisp.
That faith or any thing in us is not a cause, means, or condition, required to partake of the Covenant of Grace, justification or salvation, but only fruits and effects of the Covenant…
If faith be a condition required to partake of the Covenant of Grace, then there is a condition required. The Covenant of Grace is not absolute, nor free. If it be said, “God gives what he requires.” I answer, that makes the condition easy to be performed. But still, if faith be as a condition required, there is a condition. But the Covenant of Grace is absolute and free,and unconditional on our part. And that this appears:
Why The Covenant of Grace Is Absolute And Free Is Seen From Psalms 89:20-28.
1. Because the Covenant of Grace is not made with man, but is only between God and Christ: “Thou spakest in a vision to thy holy One, thou saidst, I have laid help upon one that is mighty, I have exalted one chosen out of the people. My faithfulness and my mercy shall be with him: I will make him my first born, higher than the Kings of the earth. My mercy will I keep for him, my Covenant shall stand fast with him,”i Psal. 89:24, 27, 28. So that all the conditions of the covenant did only belong to Christ to perform; seeing Christ had undertaken it, and he only was engaged to it, and he did it to the utmost, which was, that Christ “should be made a sacrifice for sin, and he should see his seed, and prolong his days: and the pleasure of the Lord should prosper in his hands,” Isa. 53:10,11. See also Psal. 89:35-37…
Faith is a fruit of the Covenant, and a branch of the Covenant, but not a condition on our part to perform.
In response to this, many reformed theologians argued that faith was the condition of the covenant of grace (the condition of entering it).
Faith is the necessary antecedent [prior] condition—the causa sine qua non—of the covenant. Many Antinomians denied that faith was an antecedent condition of the covenant, and thus they held to a personal justification either from eternity or from the time of the death of Christ.
Beeke, Joel R.; Jones, Mark (2012-10-14). A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life (Kindle Locations 12208-12210). . Kindle Edition.
One example is found in Obadiah Sedgwick (1599/1600-1658) “one of the most respected and influential of the English Presbyterians of the seventeenth century. He was a leading member of the Westminster Assembly and took a prominent part in its debates.”
That faith which brings us into the covenant is that faith which doth unite us unto Christ, which makes us one with him: And we being thus united to Christ, we are thereupon, and therefore in the Covenant: Faith considered as justifying, doth not bring us into the Covenant; for our justifying follows our being in the Covenant, we must first be in the Covenant before we can have Righteousnesse and forgiveness of sins. Neither doth faith as drawing any grace from Christ bring us into the Covenant; Forasmuch as all the fruits of communion are consequences unto us being first in the Covenant. But it is faith considered only as uniting us unto Christ which brings us into the Covenant…
3. Our interest in the Covenant necessarily follows from this union with Christ. Being brought by faith into Christ, you are now in the Covenant: And that I shall clear unto you thus…
Though Faith be the only condition as to entrance in the Covenant, yet this faith will bring you to holiness as a fruit of the Covenant…
If faith be the condition of the Covenant, If faith be necessary to bring us into the Covenant; Then no unbeliever is yet in the Covenant, for no unbeliever hath faith…
We saw above that Owen sided with Crisp on the question of faith and union: union logically precedes faith. Where did Owen fall on the question of the conditionality of the covenant? Surprisingly, Owen sided with Crisp.
John Owen (1616–1683) argued that berith could refer to a single promise without a condition, as in the Noahic covenant (Gen. 6:18; 9:9). According to Owen, this idea is no doubt present in the New Testament when the writer to the Hebrews calls the covenant a “testament,” and in a “testamentary dispensation there is not in the nature of it any mutual stipulation required, but only a mere single favor and grant or concession.”
Beeke, Joel R.; Jones, Mark (2012-10-14). A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life (Kindle Locations 12158-12161). . Kindle Edition.
In his exposition of Hebrews 8:10, Owen elaborates. First, we see his agreement with Crisp that the New Covenant is different from other biblical covenants. Owen specifically contrasts the Old Covenant with the New Covenant on the question of conditionality. In doing so, he was consciously rejecting “the opinion of most reformed divines” as articulated in the WCF which sees the Old and New as two administrations of the same Covenant of Grace (for which he gives rigorous argument in his comments on Hebrews 8:6-13).
Wherefore these three verses give us a description of that covenant whereof the Lord Christ is the mediator and surety, not absolutely and entirely, but as unto those properties and effects of it wherein it differs from the former, so as infallibly to secure the covenant relation between God and the people. That covenant was broken, but this shall never be so, because provision is made in the covenant itself against any such event… the covenant which God would now make should not be according unto that, like unto it, which was before made and broken.
He then explains that there are no antecedent conditions of the New Covenant on our part.
[I]n the description of the covenant here annexed, there is no mention of any condition on the part of man, of any terms of obedience prescribed unto him, but the whole consists in free, gratuitous promises…
It is evident that there can be no condition previously required, unto our entering into or participation of the benefits of this covenant, antecedent unto the making of it with us. For none think there are any such with respect unto its original constitution; nor can there be so in respect of its making with us, or our entering into it… It is contrary unto the nature, ends, and express properties of this covenant. For there is nothing that can be thought or supposed to be such a condition, but it is comprehended in the promise of the covenant itself; for all that God requireth in us is proposed as that which himself will effect by virtue of this covenant.
Owen finally states his opinion in words very similar to Crisp.
It is evident that the first grace of the covenant, or God’s putting his law in our hearts, can depend on no condition on our part. For whatever is antecedent thereunto, being only a work or act of corrupted nature, can be no condition whereon the dispensation of spiritual grace is superadded. And this is the great ground of them who absolutely deny the covenant of grace to be conditional; namely, that the first grace is absolutely promised, whereon and its exercise the whole of it doth depend.
Unto a full and complete interest in all the promises of the covenant, faith on our part, from which evangelical repentance is inseparable, is required. But whereas these also are wrought in us by virtue of that promise and grace of the covenant which are absolute, it is a mere strife about words to contend whether they may be called conditions or no. Let it be granted on the one hand, that we cannot have an actual participation of the relative grace of this covenant in adoption and justification, without faith or believing; and on the other, that this faith is wrought in us, given unto us, bestowed upon us, by that grace of the covenant which depends on no condition in us as unto its discriminating administration, and I shall not concern myself what men will call it.
The covenant of grace, as reduced into the form of a testament, confirmed by the blood of Christ, doth not depend on any condition or qualification in our persons, but on a free grant and donation of God; and so do all the good things prepared in it.
In short, faith is not the condition of entering the covenant, but is rather a fruit of it.
Crisp argued, from this point, for eternal justification because
this union with Christ is not effected in time; rather the elect are united to him from before creation, for although redemption was accomplished in time, the elect were chosen in Christ before time. Therefore, the elect, being united to Christ from eternity past, are justified from eternity past; actual justification is collapsed into the decree of election, and this on the basis of union with Christ. (Mason, 30)
As we saw above, Owen rejects this view of union with Christ. Owen’s solution is that we are mystically united to Christ when the New Covenant (Covenant of Grace) is made with us. And it is not made with us until the effectual call.
Entering the New Covenant
The covenant may be considered as unto the actual application of the grace, benefits, and privileges of it unto any personal whereby they are made real partakers of them, or are taken into covenant with God; and this alone, in the Scripture, is intended by God’s making a covenant with any… He thereby underwent and performed all that which, in the righteousness and wisdom of God, was required; that the effects, fruits, benefits, and grace, intended, designed, and prepared in the new covenant, might be effectually accomplished and communicated unto sinners. (V, 253)
According to Owen, the New Covenant is not made with anyone who is not a full partaker of its blessings.
The greatest and utmost mercies that God ever intended to communicate unto the church, and to bless it withal, were enclosed in the new covenant. Nor doth the efficacy of the mediation of Christ extend itself beyond the verge and compass thereof; for he is only the mediator and surety of this covenant. (Hebrews 8:6)
Where there is not some degree of saving knowledge, there no interest in the new covenant can be pretended… Persons destitute of this saving knowledge are utter strangers unto the covenant of grace; for this is a principal promise and effect of it, wherever it doth take place. (Hebrews 8:11)
[A]ll with whom this covenant is made are effectually sanctified, justified, and saved… The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ in the new covenant, in its being and existence, in its healing, repairing efficacy, is as large and extensive as sin is in its residence and power to deprave our natures. — This is the difference about the extent of the new covenant, and the grace of it: Some would have it to extend unto all persons, in its tender and conditional proposition; but not unto all things, as unto its efficacy in the reparation of our natures. Others assert it to extend unto all the effects of sin, in the removal of them, and the cure of our natures thereby; but as unto persons, it is really extended unto none but those in whom these effects are produced, whatever be its outward administration, which was also always limited: unto whom I do subscribe. (Hebrews 8:10)
Returning to union with Christ:
The foundation of the imputation asserted is union. Hereof there are many grounds and causes, as has been declared; but that which we have immediate respect unto, as the foundation of this imputation, is that whereby the Lord Christ and believers do actually coalesce into one mystical person. This is by the Holy Spirit inhabiting in him as the head of the church in all fullness, and in all believers according to their measure, whereby they become members of his mystical body. That there is such a union between Christ and believers is the faith of the catholic church, and has been so in all ages. (V, 272)
Union with Christ is the principle and measure of all spiritual enjoyments and expectations… Because it is itself, in the order of nature, the first truly saving spiritual mercy, the first vital grace that we are made partakers of… It is the first and principal grace, in respect of causality and efficacy. It is the cause of all other graces that we are made partakers of; they are all communicated unto us by virtue of our union with Christ…
Our union with him is the ground of the actual imputation of his righteousness unto us; for he covers only the members of his own body with his own garments, nor will cast a skirt over any who is not “bone of his bones, and flesh of his flesh.” And so he is “of God made unto us righteousness,” 1 Corinthians 1:30. Hence also is our sanctification, and that both as to its principle in a new spiritual nature, and as unto its progress in fruitfulness and holiness. The principle of it is the Spirit itself of life, holiness, and power. This God sheds on us through Jesus Christ, Titus 3:6, or on the account of our interest in him, according to his promise, John 7:38,39. And for this cause is he said to be “our life,” Colossians 3:4, because in him lie the springs of our spiritual life, which in and by our regeneration, renovation, and sanctification is communicated unto us. And its progress in fruitfulness is from thence alone (Hebrews 3:14)
Recall Owen’s list of ways in which our union with Christ is described. He listed Romans 5:12ff. Our union with Adam is legal, and so is our mystical union with Christ. We are born under Adam, as our federal head. We do not come under Christ’s federal headship until we are born again, at which point we become part of the mystical body, of which Christ is the head, and we therefore pass from wrath to grace.
Notwithstanding this full, plenary satisfaction once made for the sins of the world that shall be saved, yet all men continue equal to be born by nature “children of wrath;” and whilst they believe not, “the wrath of God abides on them,” John 3:36; — that is, they are obnoxious unto and under the curse of the law. Wherefore, on the only making of that satisfaction, no one for whom it was made in the design of God can be said to have suffered in Christ, nor to have an interest in his satisfaction, nor by any way or means be made partaker of it antecedently unto another act of God in its imputation unto him. (V, 281)
Finally, this mystical union is accomplished by the Spirit, but this work of the Spirit is a blessing of the New Covenant, and therefore it logically depends upon our legal union with Christ as head of the New Covenant.
God communicates nothing in a way of grace unto any but in and by the person of Christ, as the mediator and head of the church…. Whatever is wrought in believers by the Spirit of Christ, it is in their union to the person of Christ, and by virtue thereof. (III, 626)
In the words of the Holy Spirit:
For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel
after those days, declares the Lord:
I will put my laws into their minds,
and write them on their hearts,
and I will be their God,
and they shall be my people.
(Hebrews 8:10 ESV)
This finds confirmation in John Murray’s understanding of the effectual call as establishing our union with Christ, from which all the blessings flow.
It is calling that is represented in Scripture as that act of God by which we are actually united to Christ (cf. 1 Cor. 1:9). And surely union with Christ is that which unites us to the inwardly operative grace of God…
[T]here is good warrant for the conclusion that the application of redemption begins with the sovereign and efficacious summons by which the people of God are ushered into the fellowship of Christ and union with him to the end that they may become partakers of all the grace and virtue which reside in him as Redeemer, Saviour, and Lord…
[I]n the teaching of Scripture it is calling that is given distinct emphasis and prominence as that act of God whereby sinners are translated from darkness to light and ushered into the fellowship of Christ. This feature of New Testament teaching creates the distinct impression that salvation in actual possession takes its start from an efficacious summons on the part of God and that this summons, since it is God’s summons, carries in its bosom all of the operative efficacy by which it is made effective. It is calling and not regeneration that possesses that character. Hence there is more to be said for the priority of calling…
Sanctification is a process that begins, we might say, in regeneration, finds its basis in justification, and derives its energizing grace from the union with Christ which is effected in effectual calling…
It is by calling that we are united to Christ, and it is this union with Christ which binds the people of God to the efficacy and virtue by which they are sanctified.
- John Murray. Redemption Accomplished and Applied (Kindle Locations 963-967). Kindle Edition.
And in WLC 66
Q. 66. What is that union which the elect have with Christ?
A. The union which the elect have with Christ is the work of God’s grace, whereby they are spiritually and mystically, yet really and inseparably, joined to Christ as their head and husband; which is done in their effectual calling.
Therefore Richardson and others err when they argue “All the elect were ever in this Covenant, for they were ever in Christ” and thus their argument for eternal justification fails while their argument for an absolute unconditional covenant stands.
Imputation vs Declaration
In what we have seen above, Owen makes a very careful distinction between the imputation of Christ as ours and our subsequent declaration as righteous (justification). George Hunsinger has a very helpful chapter in The Ashgate Research Companion to John Owen’s Theology titled Justification and Mystical Union with Christ: Where Does Owen Stand? He notes
A good case that Calvin based his idea of imputation on union with Christ has been made recently by Richard B. Gaffin Jr*. Gaffin distinguished between the “imputation of righteousness” and the “reckoning of righteousness.” lmputation arose from the “underlying and controlling” idea of union. Imputation was therefore antecedent to being reckoned righteous by God [justified]. The believer was reckoned [declared] as righteous, because of already being righteous through mystical union. Imputation involved what Gaffin called a ”juridical transfer” of Christ’s righteousness to the believer, and declaration took place on that basis.
*Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., “Justification and Union with Christ,” in A Theological Guide to Calvin’s Institutes: Essays and Analysis 248-69
[According to Owen] To be “reputed” righteous, he said, was not the same as having Christ’s righteousness be “imputed” to us. “To be reputed righteous and to have righteousness imputed, differ,” explained Owen, “as cause and effect.” Imputation was set forth as something prior to being declared or reckoned righteous. The view that Gaffin found in Calvin, as previously mentioned, would seem to have been Owen’s view as well. Being imputed righteous and being reckoned righteous were not the same. Imputation was the cause, of which being reckoned righteous was the effect. Owen continued:
For that any may be reputed righteous ‐ that is, be judged or esteemed to be so ‐ there must be a real foundation of that reputation, or it is a mistake, and not a right judgment; as any man may be reputed to be wise who is a fool, or be reputed to be rich who is a beggar. Wherefore, he that is reputed righteous must either have a righteousness of his own, or another antecedently imputed unto him, as the foundation of that reputation. Wherefore, to impute righteousness unto one that hath none of his own, is not to repute him to be righteous who is indeed unrighteous; but it is to communicate a righteousness unto him, that he may rightly and justly be esteemed, judged, or reputed righteous.
A clearer statement of how imputation and declaration were related would be hard to imagine. Declaration was clearly a consequence of imputation, and imputation was clearly the foundation of declaration. One could not be reputed as righteous unless one really were righteous. Imputed righteousness was logically antecedent to being reckoned as righteous before the divine tribunal. Only as one was indeed righteous, because righteousness had already been communicated, could one then, on that basis, “rightly and justly be esteemed, judged, or reputed righteous” before the judgment seat of God.
A few pages later this interpretation is confirmed. lmputation was “not a naked pronunciation or declaration of any one to be righteous,” insisted Owen, “without a just and sufficient foundation, for the judgment of God declared therein. God declares no man to be righteous but him who is so; the whole question is how he comes to be!” Declaration without a prior imputation would be meaningless. Only imputation as a prior transaction could provide declaration with a “sufficient foundation.”…
Imputation through mystical union was the prior basis of justification. Along with Calvin and the mainstream of the Reformed tradition, Owen espoused the moderate view of forensic justification.
I highly recommend reading the whole chapter wherein Hunsinger distinguishes between the “moderate view of forensic justification” wherein “declaration of acquittal was not the cause but the consequence of imputation” and the “thoroughgoing forensic doctrine.” He notes “Let this typically Lutheran view of imputation by declaration be called the unqualified or thoroughgoing forensic doctrine. It was thoroughgoing, because every phase of it could be set forth in terms of a courtroom setting.”
Hunsinger’s one great error is that he does not adequately understand Owen’s doctrine of mysitcal union as legal covenant union. Thus he draws some incorrect conclusions. He says
Just as participatio Christi counteracted the notion that imputation was merely a legal fiction, so imputation counteracted the notion that saving righteousness depended on regeneration. Mystical union was the precondition for the grace of imputation, and imputation was the precondition of acquittal. Calvin’s doctrine of justification was not forensic in the thoroughgoing sense, because Calvin understood imputation to depend on participation, not merely on pronouncement.
This is correct so far as it goes, but it must be kept in mind that Owen defined participation as being in the New Covenant. That is, participation is legal, not something in distinction from legal (as Hunsinger suggests).
Returning to our original comments regarding “legal fiction,” we can see that when people identify our legal union with Christ as effective at the time of his satisfaction (“historia salutis”) then they often wind up viewing that legal union as insufficient grounds for our justification. What is necessary, they will say, is the participatory. Without our participation in Christ, his work outside of us is legal fiction. However, if we recognize the truth of Owen’s account of Scripture, we are in no position to claim the legal union is insufficient. We are legally united to Christ in the effectual call and that union is sufficient to provide us with everything we have in Christ.
Mason does not draw out the full implications of Owen’s view of the New Covenant, as we have above, but he notes “Owen seems to conceive of some kind of forensic union with Christ prior to faith, perhaps better described as an imputation of Christ.” (53) This use of “forensic” as equivalent to “legal” is common in discussions about union with Christ and the ordo salutis. Because of this, “justification” is often used synonymously with “legal.” But this is inaccurate. Forensic is a sub-category of legal that has to do with court-room verdicts. Something may be legal while not being forensic. The forensic (court room) is grounded in the legal. Covenants are, by definition, legal. They are not forensic. In an effort to emphasize the legal foundation of our salvation in Christ’s work outside of us, many argue for the logical priority of our justification. But this introduces a labyrinth of logical contradiction into the ordo. However, this difficulty is resolved when we recognize that our mystical union is our covenant union and thus our legal union. The charge of legal fiction is not answered by appeal to our inherent participation via the Spirit, but by appeal to the legal union that is established between us and Christ in the effectual call. It is therefore not a legal fiction because Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us on the basis of a legal union, and we are declared righteous (justified) on the basis of that imputed righteousness, apart from all our works.