Faith, Union With Christ, And The Means Of Grace (Part 1)

The Spirit who gives us new life also gives us true faith

“Catechism questions are not just opportunities for an answer. They are not just filling space. They often contain important truths. In Calvin’s catechisms the question is sometimes the answer. He asked long questions the answer to which was, “Yes, teacher.”

 

Since then we are made partakers of Christ and all His benefits by faith only, whence comes this faith?

The Holy Spirit works faith in our hearts by the preaching of the Holy Gospel, and confirms it by the use of the Holy Sacraments.

Students (seminary and catechism alike) have often asked me whether they need to memorize both the questions and the answers of the catechism. Heidelberg Catechism 63 is an excellent example of why it is important to learn both of them. Catechism questions are not just opportunities for an answer. They are not just filling space. They often contain important truths. In Calvin’s catechisms the question is sometimes the answer. He asked long questions the answer to which was, “Yes, teacher.” In those cases, to miss the question is to miss the whole enchilada.

The question here could not be more timely. The premise of the question concerns two issues that have roiled the North American Presbyterian and Reformed community since 1974: justification sola fide and union with Christ. Had we followed the Word of God as confessed by the Reformed and Presbyterian neither of these doctrines should have ever become complicated. If ever someone presents them to you so as to make them complicated, they are doing something incorrectly. Briefly, our understanding of God’s Word (follow the links above to copious resources) is that, in the act (Divine declaration) of justification the ground is the perfect, whole (active and passive) obedience of Christ imputed to the sinner. The sole instrument is faith knowing, agreeing, resting in and receiving Christ and his finished work. That’s it. The doctrine of union with Christ is not much more difficult (again, for more, follow the link above). There are three aspects to the doctrine of union with Christ. First, believers may be said to have been united to Christ in the divine decree from all eternity; second, believers were represented federally by Christ; and third, we are brought into mystical (i.e., Holy Spirit-ual or sometimes existential) union with through faith alone (sola fide). There has been no great controversy in the modern period (of which I am aware) over the first two aspects but there has been a revision proposed that has been widely adopted. It has even been suggested that the revisionist view is the normative, historic Reformed view. For more on this discussion see J. V. Fesko, Beyond Calvin: Union with Christ and Justification in Early Modern Reformed Theology (1517-1700) (2012).

For my part it seems abundantly clear that the Reformed churches intended to confess and teach that the same faith that is the “sole instrument” (Belgic Confession art. 22) of our justification and our union with Christ. It is through faith alone that we come into possession of Christ and his benefits. In other words, it is not regeneration that brings us into union with Christ.1 It is the Holy Spirit who regenerates us, i.e., grants to us new life. The Spirit who gives us new life also gives us true faith. Remember too that we are not discussing chronology. What is in question here is the logical order. Lest one think that the question of the logical order of salvation (the ordo salutis) is unimportant, it is not. The entire Reformation doctrine of justification and salvation sola gratia and sola fide was about the logical order of things. The Roman communion claims that God justifies those who are progressively sanctified and that we are sanctified by grace and cooperation with grace. This is a logical order. It is the wrong order, but order it is. The confessional Protestants (the Lutheran and Reformed) confessed a different order. We confessed then and we confess now that it is not the sanctified who are justified but it sinners who are justified, i.e., those who are not intrinsically, inherently righteous. That, we say, is the good news. We say that justification is not God’s recognition of our progressive sanctification but rather his definitive declaration of what is true of us. Christ’s actual, inherent, condignly meritorious righteousness (iustitia) is credited (imputed) to us and received through faith alone (sola fide). It is the justified who are, are a consequence of that once-for-all justification who are being graciously, gradually sanctified. Those who believe are also those who are united to Christ. Another way to put this is to say that there are no unjustified people are being sanctified or in union with Christ.

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