Union With Christ in the Heidelberg Catechism, Part 1

There has been much debate in Reformed Christendom over the last few decades over the nature of our Union with Christ, especially as it relates to the ordo and historia salutis

It is important to note before we close, that this Engrafting into Christ by faith, by which we receive all His benefits by faith, is a personal, vital, mystical, existential Union.  We will have much more to say on this in the next post, but it must be pointed out here that the only Union contemplated in the Catechism and by its commentators has been vital Engrafting Union throughout. It cannot be a so called “Federal Union” that exists between Christ and His members prior to regeneration, for it is always and everywhere stated to be a Union by true faith.

 

Are all men, then, saved by Christ as they have perished in Adam?

No; only such as by true faith are engrafted into Him, and receive all His benefits. (Heidelberg Catechism Q/A 20)

There has been much debate in Reformed Christendom over the last few decades over the nature of our Union with Christ, especially as it relates to the ordo and historia salutis. I have no intention here to rehearse the debate, nor even to definitively pick a side, especially given the overlap and fuzziness of the multiple positions. It would appear, in brief, that the most exercised combatants in this debate are either those who style themselves defenders of Justification by Faith alone contra those who would have vital, mystical, or existential Union with Christ as the source of faith, justification, and regeneration (the supposed error of Norman Shepherd), and those on the other hand who see themselves as defending the central role of Union with Christ against those who would reduce Christianity to a religion of Justification by Faith, with multiple Christ Unions accounting for the various benefits of salvation, each following upon the other in tidy Reformed ordo fashion (the supposed “Lutheran” position).

In this post and the next, it is rather my intention to simply see where my Confessions stand on the topic of Union with Christ, especially the Heidelberg Catechism, which has the most to say about it. In particular, Q/A 20 (above) speaks to the issue in a straightforward manner. So, in this present post, I intend to break down each phrase of the answer, fleshing out the intended meaning by looking to the rest of the Catechism and consulting the writing of its author(s), Zacharias Ursinus and (possibly) Caspar Olevianus. Most attention will be payed to Ursinus’ Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism (CHC), an invaluable window into the mind of the Catechism’s primary author.

In the following post I intend to take the same approach, but toward Heidelberg Q/A 53, to discuss the agency of the Holy Spirit in Union, with specific attention to the ordo salutis and the doctrine of Regeneration as used by the Heidelberg Catechism and its author(s).

“as they have perished in Adam”

In Questions 3 through 19, the Catechism has demonstrated that all of mankind is in a state of sin and misery, having fallen in Adam, and that the only possible redeemer must be one who is both true God and true and sinless man.  This perfect God/man mediator is our Lord Jesus Christ.  So, the question arises, is every man then saved in Christ as they have perished in Adam? Ursinus and Olevianus here see a parallel between the guilt and corruption accrued to mankind through our “first parents” and the solution to both the guilt and the corruption that is found in Christ. Ursinus writes,

[…]by the death of Christ, who is the second Adam, we obtain a twofold grace: we mean justification and regeneration. It follows, therefore, that we must all have derived from the first Adam the twofold evil of guilt and corruption of nature, otherwise there had been no necessity for a twofold grace and remedy. (CHC, pp. 99-100)

And Olevianus,

I believe that whatever is and is called sin—whether it be original sin in the form of that transgression in Adam’s loins and the consequent corruption that I carry around in the flesh, or actual sin in the form of the wicked thoughts, words, and deeds that arise out of original sin—I believe, I say, that through faith, by which I am and remain engrafted into Christ, all of that is forgiven me by the gracious goodness of God. (An Exposition of the Apostles Creed, pp. 133-134)

Throughout the Catechism, and throughout Reformed thought in general, the twofold evil of (1) guilt, by which we are condemned and under the wrath of God upon our very entrance into the world, and (2) the corruption which we all inherit from our first parents, leading to all forms of actual sin in our personal thoughts, words and deeds, are paralleled and answered by the twofold grace and double benefit found in Christ; viz. Justification, answering to (1), and Regeneration, answering to (2). These are the “benefits” found in Christ.

“all His benefits”

Together with this twofold grace found in Christ, the Catechism speaks of various other “benefits,” “treasures,” and “gifts.” In Q/A 36 we see the “benefit” of Christ’s holy conception being His ability, as mediator, to cover our sins with His own innocence and holiness; in Q/A 43 we see the “benefit” of His sacrifice to include the crucifixion of our Old Man; in Q/A 45, we are told that the “benefit” of the resurrection of Christ includes not only our justification, but also the resurrection of the New Man within us; and the “benefit” of His ascension includes His intercessory advocacy, the sure pledge of our flesh in heaven, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

In his Commentary on the article of the Creed “the communion of saints,” Ursinus defines communion as a “participation in all the benefits of Christ,” listing these several benefits as follows:

The same reconciliation, redemption, justification, sanctification, life and salvation, belong to all the saints by and for the sake of Christ. They have in common all the benefits which are necessary for their salvation.

But, just as the fall in Adam includes primarily and summarily the twofold evil of both condemnation and corruption of nature, so the benefits to be found in Christ are likewise primarily and summarily twofold, Justification and Regeneration.

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