Justified on the Reality of Christ in Us

Posted on October 8, 2014 by

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We are justified by faith in Christ. But is that justification a mere legal fiction, as the Catholics object? Many look for the answer in the analogies of marriage and adoption. While these are good pictures, there is a more explicit answer: it is the spiritual union of Christ in the believer. But to really explain that answer will require some review of history—and one that is not usually taught, so you might find it interesting and useful.

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—a divine choice to put people in the categories of guilty or righteous—without regard to what people are in reality. The importance of reality has been all but lost, and this decline has resulted from abandoning the idea of a real union of the moral nature of all men within Adam when he sinned. To regain the reality, the Church must retrace her steps, and revisit the doctrine of the union in Adam. A return to reality must begin with a return to the Biblical realism that was implicitly contained in all the creeds and confessions of the early Reformed Church, and which flowed from Augustine, and ultimately from Scripture.

Mostly, I’m 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. The difference between Platonic realism and Biblical realism is as great as the difference between a “universal” and a spirit. The strongest objections to theological realism are actually objections to Platonic realism inappropriately applied to theology. When divested of 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] calls it) when it came to Adamic unity and depravity. Total depravity itself comes from the idea that souls are propagated in such a way as to have shared responsible existence with and in their progenitors. 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 philosophically undercut any possibility that the union with Adam had any real substance to it. Nominalism is the denial of any union of species within substantial 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 He 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. Realism says that you cannot be guilty unless you commit a crime, while nominalism says you are guilty if God says you are guilty, and no commission of crime is needed.

The effect of nominalism on theology was so gradual that the name itself was left behind and all but forgotten. Yet, the changes it wrought in theology over the centuries were deep and broad. The first change was to reinforce the idea of creationism as opposed to traducianism. Racial union was not something substantial within Adam himself, according to nominalism, but was, rather, something only within the all-observing Mind of God. The moral union with Adam 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, and was not an explicit realist, 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 (the shared existence of the moral nature or soul). Therefore, the realistic mode of thinking (the Augustinian principle) 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.”

There are certain truths about God, reality and justice that have been abandoned and need to be recovered. God is not disconnected from substantial reality: truth corresponds to reality, and God does not lie but is always a God of truth. If a man is to be condemned and sent to hell within substantial reality, and not merely seen within the mind of God as if he were in hell, then the crime for which he is sent there ought to be one that he has committed in reality and not merely one of which he is only seen within the mind of God as if he had committed.

Identification or representation that is merely of the mind, such as federal representation (in its usual, putative form that is found today, and not the implicitly realistic form found in the early Reformed Church), cannot be accurately called “real.” Reality exists even in the absence of any thoughts regarding it; whereas, federal representation is claimed to exist even in the absence of any reality regarding it. Realistic union is the most Biblical way to address and acknowledge the rightful place of reality in theology, because it acknowledges the reality of mankind’s inbeing in Adam when he sinned, as well as the reality of the believer’s inbeing in Christ.

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 recent 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. Rev. Keister also stated:

When God declares us His heirs, then there is no reason whatsoever that God can not transfer anything to us that originally belonged to His Son. It would be no more difficult than imagining a father changing his will.

If a father has one son in jail and one free, a change in his will cannot reverse the guilt or innocence of either son. But, If God puts the Spirit of His Son into my heart, making me “one spirit with Him,” then I by grace become a true son just as if I were His only Son (who is in me).

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]

Although I’m a Baptist, I love reading 19th century Presbyterians—especially those who were not in favor of the Princeton capitulation to nominalism led by Hodge—men such as William Shedd, Robert Dabney, Robert Landis, and Samuel Baird.

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. The Law requires that we live a perfectly righteous life from cradle to grave, and Christ did live exactly that. 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. As sinners, the Law also requires that we endure the complete wrath of God against sin, and Christ endured just that on the cross. 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 taken outside the gate in Jerusalem and hung on a 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 (through the life and death of Christ credited to me as if they were my human experiences, because the Man who experienced them lives in me and is forever joined to me in spiritual union)!

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.

Scripture does not portray the indwelling Holy Spirit—Christ within us—as merely a visitor but as united with us in identity. The true identity of a man is who he is in the inner man, and not the body he dwells in. When we are saved, Christ comes to dwell with that inner man in such a close union that we are said to be “one spirit with Him.” Not only is He said to be in us, but we now are said to be in Him. Not only is He where we are, but we are said to be credited with being where He is (“seated in heavenly places”). Because He is in us now, we are credited with all that He accomplished long ago (“crucified with Christ,” etc.). 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. 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.” To be immersed into the Spirit of Christ is to be plunged into that flood of sufficiency that all His human experiences provide.

Adam’s sin was imputed to us because it was ours, and not the other way around. It was ours because the moral nature of every man was in Adam and chose to sin when he did. That’s participation in the defining action of the head. Since the same immaterial nature in me was in Adam, then the ownership was passed down with the nature. What is needed is to view Christ’s headship in the same way but in the other direction. The shared nature of all men was propagated out of Adam, with the one becoming the many. But the children of God are propagated not by dispersion—from the union in one to become the many—rather, children of God are propagated by bringing the many (one at a time) into union with the One, Christ. Therefore, we as believers gain a retroactive participation in Christ’s defining acts by being united with the indwelling Person of Christ NOW. Nonetheless, our saving participation in Christ is a participation in what He has long ago accomplished—and that’s all that’s needed to save us.

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 G.P. Fisher called the Augustino-Federal theory, accepting a covenantal theology while still maintaining the reality of an immaterial participation in Adam’s sin. The Federal or Covenant headship is like like the shell of an egg. The substance within the shell is the immaterial union with the head. Without this spiritual substance, Federal headship is only a shell of truth. It works as far as it goes, but it offers no depth as to why it works—for that we must look to union with the head. But even that has been nominalized, so we must distinguish between a federal union and a real immaterial union.

Therefore, it’s only natural that our immaterial union with Christ should lose its prominence while the federal imputation is emphasized. And the fault lies with the Realists as well. The excessively philosophical and naturalistic terms that are characteristic of most realists have served to obscure this parallel relationship of union to identity. Viewing the union in Adam as a union of species and a union of nature has hindered the recognition of the parallel of spiritual unions, and provided a reason for objections by the nominalists. John Murray makes such an objection:

 The analogy instituted in Romans 5:12-19 (cf. I Cor. 15:22) presents a formidable objection to the realist construction. It is admitted by the realist that there is no “realistic” union between Christ and the justified. That is to say, there is no human nature, specifically and numerically one, existing in its unity in Christ, which is individualized in those who are the beneficiaries of Christ’s righteousness. On realist premises, therefore, a radical disparity must be posited between the character of the union that exists between Adam and his posterity, on the one hand, and the union that exists between Christ and those who are his, on the other… This sustained emphasis not only upon the one man Adam and the one man Christ but also upon the one trespass and the one righteous act points to a basic identity in respect of modus operandi. But if, in the one case, we have a oneness that is focused in the unity of the human nature, which realism posits, and, in the other case, a oneness that is focused in the one man Jesus Christ, where no such unity exists, it is difficult not to believe that discrepancy enters at the very point where similitude must be maintained. For, after all, on realist assumptions, it is not our union with Adam that is the crucial consideration in our involvement in his sin but our involvement in the sin of that human nature which existed in Adam. And what the parallelism of Romans 5:12-19 would indicate is that the one sin of the one man Adam is analogous on the side of condemnation to the one righteousness of the one man Jesus Christ on the side of justification. The kind of relationship that obtains in the one case obtains in the other. And how can this be if the kind of relationship is so different in respect of the nature of the union subsisting?[8]

There is indeed a realistic union between Christ and the justified. It is a union of spirit. The parallel has an inverse quality: the spirit of Adam is propagated to all, while the spirits of the many are collected back into one head, Christ. We are generated out of Adam and regenerated into Christ. The modus operandi is that of a shared personal identity. We are joined to Adam’s sin because we were joined to Adam at the time of his sin; but we are joined to Christ’s death because we are joined to Christ now.

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 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.

We all differentiate between the reality of what God thinks and the reality of what God does within the substantial world. Wouldn’t you agree that God’s justice would not have been satisfied if God merely accounted to Jesus suffering and death just as if He had died on the cross but without any actual suffering and death happening within substantial reality? There was a need for Him to actually come and die and not merely to be seen in the mind of God as if He had done so. God is a God of justice and truth. Justice requires truth, and truth must correspond to reality.

Prior to Christ’s death, believers were justified by faith as we are, but grounded on what Christ would do in the future. Therefore, while they were justified on God’s good credit, so to speak, justice was not yet satisfied in their case. That is why they did not go to heaven when they died, but instead went to sheol, separated by a great gulf from the place of torment. They did not suffer as unbelievers, but they were still, in a sense, captive to justice, waiting until that day when the Messiah would pay for sin, unite with them spiritually and bring them to heaven.

There must be a concrete reality to which the imputation answers, even if in the future. To ground His declaration of “now righteous,” the God who sees the future may indeed look to the future—but it is not true that He need not look to anything other than His own thoughts or decisions. Imputing is like writing a check: at some point, the funds must actually be deposited into the bank—not by “fixing the books” within God’s mind but by putting Christ within the believer in a union so close that the two become one new man in reality.

Our spiritual union with Christ occurs when we are joined to Christ by the Holy Spirit’s indwelling. Yes, God accounted the OT saints as righteous even without this real union with the risen Christ. But then, He went about to accomplish within reality what actually needed to be done in order to fulfill that accounting as true. But it is not as if all things were the same in the OT as in the New. As He says in Rom 3:25b-26, “…This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” In the case of the OT saints, “in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.” He “passed over” their sins while He waited to accomplish Christ on the cross. He passed over their sins until such a time as the victorious Christ could be united with them through the indwelling Holy Spirit. Prior to the cross, He was the Justifier but it had not yet been shown that He was just. After the cross, He was shown to be both just and justifier.

Ken Hamrick, 2014


[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 http://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, The Imputation of Adam’s Sin, (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1959), pp. 33-34

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