Category Archives: Union with Christ

The King who became to us wisdom from God

Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”

via Passage: 1 Cor 1 (ESV Bible Online).

How did Jesus become wisdom from God to us? One way to explain this would be to appeal to the truth of the incarnation. Jesus was, we could reason (and properly) wisdom become flesh and dwelling among us.

But I don’t think the incarnation is what Paul has in mind. If we  take the terms as related to one another–wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption–then we need to understand that more than the incarnation must be in view.

Do understand this, consider Solomon. He needed wisdom because God had made him king. He asked for it and God granted it to him. His wisdom wasn’t for himself alone. It was so that he could not only rule Israel, but represent Israel to others. Because Solomon was wise, Israel was considered wise. As he taught this wisdom to others it became more and more actually experience in the growth of faithful Israelites, but it was also reckoned as theirs by virtue of Solomon’s office as their covenant head.

And so Jesus, having learned obedience through the things that he suffered and accepting the Lord’s discipline so that he could grow wise, was granted kingship over all creation. With that office, he was granted the Spirit’s wisdom. He represents all humanity, especially those who believe (the rest end up opposing humanity, including their own), as their wisdom. With this representation as the elevated and enthroned king of the universe equipped with wisdom comes the actual gift of wisdom in the experience of his people. Thus Paul:

When one of you has a grievance against another, does he dare go to law before the unrighteous instead of the saints? Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? Do you not know that we are to judge angels? How much more, then, matters pertaining to this life! So if you have such cases, why do you lay them before those who have no standing in the church? I say this to your shame. Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to settle a dispute between the brothers, but brother goes to law against brother, and that before unbelievers? To have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you.

To lack the wisdom to regulate our own affairs in the Church is an insult to Christ who is the wisdom of God to us, and to our own destiny.

Repost: Called by the Gospel to Unity

A sermon on Ephesians 4.1-7

I may have told you all before about a friend of mine who was a ruling elder in a Presbyterian Church. They received as new members a mother and adult son who had recently come to affirm the Reformed Faith as the proper expression of the Gospel according to the Scriptures.

It turned out that the young man had actually had the opportunity to suffer for the sake of the Gospel. He was a student in a Bible college and he started to listen to a radio program on Reformed Theology. As he became convinced of what he was hearing, his brothers in Christ who taught and ran the college expelled him from school and refused to give him his transcripts. His years of studying and the money he paid to do so were all stolen from him, all in the name of Jesus.

So like Paul, this young man had suffered for the Gospel.

But all did not go well with this young man and his mother as time went by at their new Presbyterian Church. My friend noticed that they hadn’t been in Church for a while. After some visitation, the elders discovered that the young man had decided that this Church was too compromised for him to attend. What made him think so? Well, real Gospel preaching means that the pastor always presents sermons that first present the Law and its requirements. Then, after showing how the Law condemns and we can never be good enough, the preacher presents the Gospel of how Jesus died in our place.

Now, I know the pastor did in fact preach the Bible and did preach the Gospel. But because he did not follow that precise pattern in every sermon, this young man viewed the Church as unworthy of his attendance, and he simply stopped going on Sunday orany other day. Not only did he cease attending that particular church, but also in the name of faithfulness to the Gospel, he stopped worshiping at any church because one couldn’t be found that was faithful enough for him.

That’s one story. Here is another.

I’m at a conference for people from Reformed and Presbyterian Churches. I meet a man who lives in the same state that I do. He tells me he’d like to get me to visit his and a few other families to lead in some sort of worship. They have been praying for some help in planting a Reformed Church in their area.

Oh, I’m sorry that there’s not one there yet, I say. Where do you go to Church now?

Well, it turns out, they don’t go to Church at all. They are not members of any church in the area because there are no Reformed or Presbyterian Churches. That is this man’s application of the Gospel as he understands it–that he and his wife and children “worship” in their home without being members of a local congregation or gathering every Lord’s Day to worship at one.

So the practical result of these families allegiance to the Gospel in all its purity is a refusal to attend public worship in Church.

It was only a few months later that our congregation was visited by a family I had never met before. They introduced themselves as Christians and ones who embraced the doctrines of the Reformation. I discovered later that they had visited many times but also dropped out of sight for months or years at a time.

Where did they go to Church, I asked? Well, normally they don’t. They just worship in their living room with Daddy giving a message to his wife and children.

So again we have a man refusing to associate and lead his family in membership of another church. We have a man refusing to worship with the Church in the name of a correct understanding of the Gospel.

You and I were called by the Gospel. In Baptism, in our hearing of the Gospel preached by one another and by representatives, in our regular participation in public worship, in our regular partaking of the Lord’s Supper, we are being drawn by the good news, the Gospel, that Jesus is Lord.

And the Gospel does not entail the kind of behavior that is often perpertrated in the name of the Gospel. In fact, the Gospel is often opposed to the kind of behavior that is displayed in the name of the Gospel.

The Gospel is our calling with which we have been called. It is the voice of the Lord. And it calls us to one hope, as Paul says in verse 4. What is that hope? Paul stated it early on in his letter to the Ephesians, back in chapter 1 he wrote that God made “known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” That’s the purpose, that’s the plan, and that’s our hope. And the fact that God is accomplishing this plan in what Jesus has done–that’s the Gospel.

So when Paul talks about what Jesus has done in coming among us incarnate as a Human and suffering and dying and rising again and ascending into heaven, he continues to present us with the fact that God has brought us together in unity. Ephesians 2.13 and following:

now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.

And so with that description of what Christ has done for us and in us by the Spirit inhabiting us as one dwelling place, Paul then speaks of the Gospel that he has been called to proclaim to the nations. Ephesians 3.6-10:

This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel. Of this gospel I was made a minister according to the gift of God’s grace, which was given me by the working of his power. To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things, so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.

That’s the Gospel that calls us. Paul says he’s been given the mystery and he says that he has been given the Gospel. Plainly the mystery is the Gospel. The Gospel calls us to reconciliation in Christ by the Spirit. Thus, to walk in a manner worthy of that call–to live the way the Gospel deserves–entails that we walk “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace”

Last week I pointed out that to be delivered from sin is to be graciously placed on a new path, a new walk. Paul has begun here to list the specific route we must take. He told us earlier, back in chapter 2 about this walk in vague terms.

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

Well, good works can mean anything. And depending on our circumstances, we need to be open-minded about what those good works might entail. But Paul has some more specific ideas in mind, ideas based on the content of his Gospel.

The Gospel entails reconciliation between God and man and between man in man and the end to the divisions that were put in place in the Law of Moses. Before Christ came, only the Israelites could take part in Passover, only the Levites could approach the furnishing of the Tabernacle, only the priests could bring offerings to the alter and enter the Holy Place, and only the high priest could go beyond the holy place to enter the Holy of Holies. There were barriers between God and man that were simultaneously also divisions between different groups of people.

But now the dividing wall has been broken down. When Christ died on the cross the veil in the Temple was ripped in two from top to bottom. Reconciliation was declared. And that reconciliation, that bond of Peace, which is Jesus through the Spirit, demands specific sorts of good works.

Jesus Christ has made us one so we must adopt a manner of living that allows us to live as one. Look at verse 2. Living as one with sinners means we’re going to have to be humble. Living as one with sinners means we need to learn to be gentle. Living as one with sinners entails a need for patience. Living as one with sinners demands that we be willing to bear other’s weaknesses out of love.

The Call of the Gospel demands that we eagerly pursue these things—that we are eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit and the bond of peace.

Why should we pursue these things? Notice that the idea is not that we’re trying to attain to a unity and bond of peace but that we already have them and we want to grow in them rather than try to weaken in them. Because we are one we need to live as one. That’s called going from the indicative to the imperative—from statements about who you are and what you have to statements about what you now must do and how you now must live.

We have this bond of unity we have because we are all under one Lord—as Paul states in verse 5—which makes us one kingdom united by his rule and under his protection. Paul has stressed the Lordship of Christ already. For example, in chapter 1, verse 20 and following, he states that God not only raised him from the dead but also enthroned him at his right hand in heaven and put all things under his feet. In chapter 2, he states that all of us who believe—irrespective of where we’re from, or what color we are, or anything else—are enthroned with Christ. Our exaltation is through faith and nothing else.

Now, if we remember that Christ is a title designating Jesus as God’s promised King in the line of David, it makes sense that the rule of Jesus entails the unity of his people no matter what nation or culture they are from. Thus, Paul writes the Romans in Chapter 10, verse 12: “For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call upon Him.”

The one faith we share is trust and allegiance to one king. We have more in common with Iraqi Christians than we have with our own nonchristian family members. That’s what Paul is saying here. If Jesus is God’s king, then all other dominions and rulers and other sources of identity must take, at most, second place.

That’s one reason why Paul speaks of baptism as something that breaks you off from your old identity in your nation and family and culture of your birth and puts you in a new family—the Kingdom of Jesus Christ. First Corinthians 12.12-13:

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks—slaves or free.

And Galatians 3.27-29:

For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.

Now that sounds real mysterious but it can at least partially be understood in a commonsense way: Baptism is a ritual that officially entrusts us to the governance and royal protection of King Jesus. It enrolls us in his entourage. It therefore at least relativizes all our other relationships. Our primary loyalty must be to our King Jesus and our identity must be found in our relationship to him.

We belong to Jesus. Let nothing else obscure that most basic fact. We are a congregation that belongs to God through Christ Jesus. We are his. He is ours. God loves us. God saved us. God sent his son to die and live for us. God’s son now reigns in the heavens and we are his royal court.

We belong to King Jesus. That is the Gospel. That’s a dangerous thing to teach and proclaim. Paul has again reminded the Ephesians that he is a prisoner of the Lord. Both Caesar and the synagogue rulers have a problem with Paul’s declaration that Jesus is Lord and Christ and that nothing else can matter. They want Caesar-worship or circumcision to matter more.

And we face that trial in ways that are just as important, even if the consequences we suffer are rather trivial in comparison to what Paul faced in his day.

I think of our school children. If you compare the time they spend gathered corporately with the body of Christ in worship or discipleship to the time they spend through out the week as members of classes and teams I think it must be very easy to forget that their identity comes first from Christ and not from their peers and teachers. It is very easy to make Christianity simply a support for another group identity, whether that of the member of the class of some year, or a band member, or a member of the football team, or anything else. Paul reminds us to zealously pursue a corporate identity as a church—a unity that requires love and suffering on behalf of one another.

We face that trial in other ways. It is very easy to forget about the members of one’s congregation and allow one’s relatives to be the only people you spend time with. You’re not doing anything spiteful by doing so. It comes naturally to all of us. But you know there may be people in town or in this church who are new and have little family around and Paul is telling you that you need to be “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit. If you’re not proactive in hospitality and in befriending new people, that unity will be weakened rather than maintained.

Zeal for the Gospel should not result in schism and infighting and holier-than-thou attitudes, nor should it result in apathy for others in the congregation while you get most of your affirmation from other relationships. We need to pray for strength to eagerly work toward maintaining the unity of the Spirit in Christ.

We all serve one Master. For his sake let us love one another.

RePost: Justification and Union Again

I blogged a few years ago:

There is simply no getting around it: the marriage picture is a picture of precisely what Reformed Theology has taught both in Calvin and in the Westminster Confession and Catechisms. And it is imputation.

The marriage picture I was defending was as follows:

So Scripture is teaching us that the faith which saves is not a work. It has no spiritual value in itself. Strictly speaking, the true Christian church does not teach justification by faith. It teaches justification by Christ. Where does the faith come in? It is simply the uniting with, joining with, becoming one with, the Lord Jesus Christ. Being married to Christ, all that is His becomes His bride’s, the believer’s. A wife becomes a co-heir of all that belongs to her husband simply by being his wife, by her union with him in marriage. That is the fact: she is his wife. There is no virtue or merit in that. She simply possesses what now belongs to her by that relationship. Marriage is not a virtue that deserves a reward, but a relationship that brings the husband’s possessions along with him.

That is the meaning of the word “reckons” or imputes or credits. The justified one “does not work, but trusts God who justifies the wicked.”

Wait a minute! Was I defending that particular statement?

Maybe this was the statement I was defending,

Allow me to illustrate. Suppose a woman is in deep, deep debt and has no means at her disposal to pay it off. Along comes an ultra wealthy prince charming. Out of grace and love, he decides to marry her. He covers her debt. But then he has a choice to make about how he will care for his bride. After canceling out her debt, will he fill up her account with his money? That is to say, will he transfer or impute his own funds into an account that bears her name? Or will he simply make his own account a joint account so it belongs to both of them?

In the former scenario, there is an imputation, a transfer. In the second scenario, the same final result is attained, but there is no imputation, strictly speaking. Rather, there is a real union, a marriage.

I would suggest the first picture (the imputation picture) is not necessarily wrong, though it could leave adherents exposed to the infamous “legal fiction” charge since the man could transfer money into the woman’s account without ever marrying her or even caring for her. It could become, as Wright has said, “a cold piece of business.”

The second picture (the union with Christ picture) seems more consistent with Paul’s language, and for that matter, with many of Calvin’s statements. It does not necessarily employ the “mechanism” of imputation to accomplish justification, but gets the same result. Just as one can get to four by adding three plus one or two plus two, or just as one can get home by traveling Route A or by Route B, so there may be more than one way to conceive of the doctrine of justification in a manner that preserves its fully gracious and forensic character.

The only problem I had with this was the use of the word “impute” as if it was an intrinsically a transfer term. The first statement I quoted was much more in line with the Greek word by suggesting that “reckon” was as good a term as “impute” or any other.

The author of the first quotation was John Gerstner. The second was Rich Lusk.

So, other than using “impute” as exclusively a transfer term, is there anything else different about Rich Lusk’s approach? Yes. Lusk doesn’t defend Thomas Aquinas as an orthodox teacher about justification. Also, Lusk doesn’t argue that the works of believers merit eternal rewards. Gerstner does.

Which is no doubt why Gerstner is criticized so much lately. A bunch of the NAPARC denominations have issued statements condemning his views on merit. And the PCA even erected a study committee. Finally, R. C. Sproul himself stood up at the General Assembly and begged the court to agree with the committee and defend the Gospel of free grace by denying that believers could ever merit eternal rewards.

Oh, wait a minute. I got confused again. None of that ever happened.

If justification by faith alone is not an ongoing justification then it is not justification by faith at all (Part 3)

Here is the Belgic Confession, Article 22:

The Righteousness of FaithWe believe that for us to acquire the true knowledge of this great mystery the Holy Spirit kindles in our hearts a true faith that embraces Jesus Christ, with all his merits, and makes him its own, and no longer looks for anything apart from him.

For it must necessarily follow that either all that is required for our salvation is not in Christ or, if all is in him, then he who has Christ by faith has his salvation entirely.

Therefore, to say that Christ is not enough but that something else is needed as well is a most enormous blasphemy against God — for it then would follow that Jesus Christ is only half a Savior.  And therefore we justly say with Paul that we are justified “by faith alone” or by faith “apart from works.” [Romans 3.28]

However, we do not mean, properly speaking, that it is faith itself that justifies us — for faith is only the instrument by which we embrace Christ, our righteousness.

But Jesus Christ is our righteousness in making available to us all his merits and all the holy works he has done for us and in our place.  And faith is the instrument that keeps us in communion with him and with all his benefits.

When those benefits are made ours they are more than enough to absolve us of our sins.

So this is traditional Protestantism: faith keeps us in a justified state.

And then this from the famous American theologian of the 1800s, Charles Hodge, when he is writing about baptism:

…the benefits of redemption, the remission of sin, the gift of the Spirit, and the merits of the Redeemer, are not conveyed to the soul once for all.  They are reconveyed and reappropriated on every new act of faith…

The benefits of redemption would include justification.

The real question is: Why would anyone argue against this point? Why deny that the ongoing or continual state of being reckoned righteous is by the ongoing or continual faith?

Some people seem to think that justification is no longer “forensic” if it is continued by faith. I use quotation marks here because I don’t think the word is being used right to arrive at this conclusion. But set that aside. The argument proves too much. If ongoing faith cannot be the means of being continually justified, then why should initial faith be any different? We end up without any justification by faith at all.

It is true that I can think of no precedent for faith being required to receive a judicial verdict or status. Certainly God’s condemnation does not have to be received by faith.

The solution is found in the Belgic Confession, as well as in John Calvin and Westminster, and in John Murray and in John Gerstner

In other words, it is just Reformed Theology.

As I wrote a while back:

Have you ever known any official verdict pronounced by judge and jury that only applied to the person over whom the verdict was announced if he or she received it by faith?

When God condemns the wicked is that verdict received by faith?

The whole idea of receiving a forensic declaration “by faith”–if that is all we know about the situation–destroys the very idea of a forensic justification.

So how can justification be God’s judicial act and yet be received by faith?

Union with Christ is the only thing that keeps these two together.

God doesn’t pronounce an audible sentence every time a person is converted. Rather, he publicly justified Jesus by raising him from the dead. (1 Tim 3.16; Romans 8.1ff; See more here.)

All people who entrust themselves to God through Jesus–who confess that Jesus is Lord and believe God raised him from the dead–belong to Jesus and share in the verdict pronounced over Jesus.

Jesus got the verdict he deserved after suffering a condemnation he did not deserve so that we might receive a vindication we don’t deserve and escape a condemnation we do deserve.

Jesus is the incarnation of God and, by his resurrection, the incarnation of God’s verdict, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

All who are joined to Jesus (which is by faith alone) have his status as pronounced by his resurrection.

See also:

So justification by faith alone is really true, both at the first conversion and in ongoing faith.



If justification by faith alone is not an ongoing justification then it is not justification by faith at all (Part 2)


Abraham is not alone in the story of his justification. According to the Westminster Shorter Catechism, “Justification is an act of God’s free grace, wherein he pardoneth all our sins, and accepteth us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone.” By that definition, Cornelius was justified before Peter preached to him.

As I have written:

In Acts 10.1-4 we have the introduction to the story of the gospel being preached to the Gentiles:

At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of what was known as the Italian Cohort, a devout man who feared God with all his household, gave alms generously to the people, and prayed continually to God. About the ninth hour of the day he saw clearly in a vision an angel of God come in and say to him, “Cornelius.” And he stared at him in terror and said, “What is it, Lord?” And he said to him, “Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God.”

Obviously, Cornelius is already regenerate and justified as we define those terms in our theological parlance. As Francis Turretin observes:

Although a Gentile by birth, Cornelius was yet a proselyte by religion. Although he could not believe that the Messiah had come and was that Jesus whom Peter preached, yet he could believe with the Jews from the oracles of the prophets that he would come. Thus he is not to be reckoned among the Gentiles, but among the patriarchs who looked for salvation from a Redeemer nor yet manifested. Hence by the advent of Peter, he did not receive a beginning, but an increase of faith.

We find the same thing in the case of Lydia,

And on the Sabbath day we went outside the gate to the riverside, where we supposed there was a place of prayer, and we sat down and spoke to the women who had come together. One who heard us was a woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple goods, who was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul. And after she was baptized, and her household as well, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay.” And she prevailed upon us (Acts 16.13-15).

Lydia was, according to our theological definitions gleaned from the Bible as a whole, regenerate and justified before she ever met Paul. Paul worshiped with her because they worshiped the same God. God’s opening of her heart I think proves the necessity and reality of God’s effectual call by analogy and a forteriori argument, but the event shows first that even regenerate, justified, persons only pursue holiness and “increase of faith” by the Spirit’s monergistic work.

Just like Abraham was justified by faith before hearing about Christ, so was Cornelius. He needed to hear the good news but he was already a believer. Peter himself, by entering Cornelius’ house, was acknowledging that Cornelius was already right with God.

You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation, but God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without objection…. Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.

Nevertheless,  Peter describes what happened after he proclaimed the story of Jesus, thus

Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith.

Given the importance of this counsel to issues in Romans and Galatians, it is quite certain that “cleansed… by faith” is the same as justified by faith.  What Turretin calls not “a beginning, but an increase of faith,” Peter declares to have justified.

So, again, the similarity with Abraham is obvious. Both were justified believers. Both were given a message. Both believed that message. Both are described as justified by that believing in that instance.


If justification by faith alone is not an ongoing justification then it is not justification by faith at all (Part 1)

After these things the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision: “Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” But Abram said, “O Lord GOD, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “Behold, you have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir.” And behold, the word of the LORD came to him: “This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir.” And he brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” And he believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness.

So we read in Genesis 15 that Abra[ha]m was justified by faith.

Just like he had already been justified by faith before this event.

Thus we read in Hebrews 11:

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God.

Not only do we have here a clear statement that Abraham had the faith “counted… to him as righteousness” before the events in Genesis 15, but he and his son and grandson also had the same afterward.

No surprise here. Paul himself describes Abraham’s faith not as a moment of conversion but as the belief that characterized his life:

Is this blessing then only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? We say that faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness. How then was it counted to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised. He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well, and to make him the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.

For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith. For if it is [exclusively] the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression.

That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring—not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all, as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”—in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. In hope he believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations, as he had been told, “So shall your offspring be.” He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead (since he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. That is why his faith was “counted to him as righteousness.” But the words “it was counted to him” were not written for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.

The “footsteps of the faith” were the footsteps began at least when Abra[ha]m left Ur in response to God’s call (Genesis 12.1-3). Paul deliberately quotes from both Genesis 15 (“so shall your offspring be”) and and an event many years later in Genesis 17 (“I have made you the father of many nations”). Further, the “no distrust made him waver” does not seem to refer to only one event, but an ongoing trust. So too, “he grew strong in faith as he gave glory to God.”

So Abraham (I’m dropping the silly brackets) was justified by faith alone that night recorded in Genesis 15.6 and he was justified by faith alone before and after.


Hodge’s position against Mercersberg, Real Union or Legal Fiction 3


Two years after the publication of Mystical Presence, Hodge reviewed it. He explained the delay saying:

We have had Dr. Nevin’s work on the “Mystical Presence” on our table since it’s publication, some two years ago, but have never really read it, until within a fortnight. We do not suppose other people are quite as bad, in this respect, as ourselves. Our experience, however, has been that it requires the stimulus of a special necessity to carry us through such a book. [Princeton Review, April 1848. Also found in Essays and Reviews Selected from the Princeton Review (New York, Robert Carter, 1857), p. 341. Since this work is probably more accessible in libraries than back issues of the Princeton Review, and can actually be checked out, I will henceforth cite from it as ER.]

With that inauspicious beginning, Hodge proceeds to perform what can only be called a “hatchet job” on Nevin. The inaccuracies and unkindnesses are amply apparent to anyone who bothers to read the book and then the review. However, because the issues raised are predominately sacramental, other aspects of theology involved in the discussion have received relatively scant attention. Despite Nevin’s attempts to defuse the issue, one of Hodge’s major accusations is that he denies both the Reformed doctrine of justification and that of Original Sin, by denying imputation:

Here we reach the very life-spot of the Reformation. Is justification a declaring just, or a making just, inherently? This was the real battleground on which the blood of so many martyrs was spilt. Are we justified for something done for us, or something wrought in us, actually, our own? It is a mere playing with words, to make a distinction, as Mr. Newman did, between what it is that thus makes us inherently righteous. Whether it is infused grace, a new heart, the indwelling Spirit, the humanity of Christ, his life, his theanthropic nature; it is all one. It is subjective justification after all, and nothing more. We consider Dr. Nevin’s theory as impugning here, the vital doctrine of Protestantism. his doctrine is not, of course, the Romish, teres atque rotundus; he may distinguish here and discriminate there. But as to the main point, it is a denial of the Protestant doctrine of justification. He knows as well as any man that all the churches of the fifteenth century held the imputation not only of what was our own, but of what though not ours inherently, was on some adequate ground set to our account; that the sin of Adam is imputed to us, not because of our having his corrupted nature, but because of the imputation of his sin, we are involved in his corruption. He knows that when the doctrine of mediate imputation, as he teaches it, was introduced by Placaeus, it was universally rejected. He knows moreover, that, with regard to justification, the main question was, whether it was a declaratory act or an effective act, whether it was a declaring just on the ground of a righteousness not in us, or a making just by communicating righteousness to us.[ER, pp 385-386]

Here we see Hodge manifesting his distinctive idea that immediate imputation is the only view that may be considered Reformed. This probably seems believable now, for through Murray and Westminster Seminary, this view has become the received opinion. But at the time this was considered by many theologians of impeccably orthodox credentials to be a rather innovative and narrow view, as well as a mistaken one. There is no point in trying to elaborate Hutchinson’s fine description here. Suffice it to say that, for Hodge, corruption and lack of original righteousness were inflicted on each of Adam’s descendants because God first declared him liable to punishment for what Adam did. Parallel to this, the elect receive the benefits of salvation, only because God declares us judicially worthy of being rewarded for what Christ has done.

Related to his immediate imputation, a theme that ran through Hodge’s entire review was that there were two incompatible views among the Reformers concerning the sense in which the body and blood of Christ were received in the Supper. “Some of them said it was their virtue as broken and shed, i. e., their sacrificial virtue; others said, it was a mysterious supernatural efficacy flowing from the glorified body of Christ in heaven…”[ER, p. 343] The former view was the true view, according to Hodge, both of the Bible and of the Protestant system of doctrine. The other view withered away as an unrelated and incompatible idea.

Nevin’s response appeared in the newly begun Mercersburg Review (Vol II, no. 5) in September of 1850. Nevin confined himself to the historical question of what Reformed creeds and confessions actually taught regarding the Lord’s Supper, and demonstrated that Hodge’s historical appeal was arbitrarily selective and question-begging.

[Sadly and wrongly, he also repudiated the doctrine of the decrees, and attempted to portray it as an idiosyncracy of Calvin. As Bard Thompson and George H. Bricker put it: ‘”In one instance Nevin was taken in by Hodge. Hodge convinced him–mistakenly it would seem–that Calvin’s doctrine of election was finally incompatible with Calvin’s churchmanship and sacramental interest. As a result, Nevin deciphered a way to extricate the German branch of the Reformed Church from this ‘inward conflict’ that beset the rest of Calvinism. Melanchthon, he noted, rejected Calvin’s doctrine of the decrees as “a metaphysical abstraction,” yet agreed in the main with Calvin’s view of the Lord’s Supper. Thus, with just enough assist from history, Nevin proceeded to nominate the gentle Melanchthon as the founder of the German Reformed Church, and to insist that ‘through his favorite pupil, Ursinus,’ the spirit of Melanchthon ‘pervades every page . . . of the Heidelberg Catechism.’ The German Church, therefore, is ‘better situated theologically . . . for the right apprehension and utterance of the true Reformed doctrine of the holy sacraments’” (MP, p. 13).]

Original sin was not mentioned, but Nevin maintained that, not only was there no contradiction between the “sacrificial virtue” and the “mysterious supernatural efficacy flowing from the glorified body of Christ in heaven,” but that the former required the latter.

Justification, to be real, must also be concrete–the force and value of Christ’s merit brought nigh to the sinner as a living fact. Strange, that there should seem to be any contradiction here, between the grace which we have by Christ’s death, and the grace that comes to us through his life. Could the sacrifice of Calvary be of any avail to take away sins, if the victim there slain had not been raised again for our justification, and were not now seated at the right hand of God our Advocate and Intercessor? Would the atonement of a dead Christ be of more worth than the blood of bulls and goats, to purge the conscience from dead works and give it free access to God? Surely it is the perennial, indissoluble life of the once-crucified Redeemer, which imparts to his broken body and shed blood all their power to abolish guilt… Abstract it [the sacrifice of Christ] from this, and it becomes in truth a mere legal fiction. The atonement, in this view [Nevin’s] is a quality or property of the glorified life of the Son of man.[MP, pp. 400-401]


The Mercersburg Movement, Real Union or Legal Fiction 2


The best overview of the Mercersburg movement is probably the horribly-named Romanticism in American Theology. The only problem here is that Nichols seems to project his own views of the reliability and authority of Scripture upon Nevin–at least he doesn’t provide much evidence for what he claims is Nevin’s view. A better source would be from “The Library of Protestant Thought” in which one volume is The Mercersburg Theology (New York: Oxford University Press, 1966), which is edited by Hastings. By far the best way to acquaint oneself with them is to read the books by Nevin and Schaff for oneself. The following introduction relies primarily on the introductory material in Jack Martin Maxwell’s Worship and Reformed Theology: The Liturgical Lessons of Mercersburg (Pittsburg: The Pickwick Press, 1976), which contains a concise summary of the history of Mercersburg in it’s introductory material. (Henceforth: WRT).

The “Mercersburg Movement” was principally begun and propagated by John Williamson Nevin and Philip Schaff, professors at the German Reformed Mercersburg Seminary. After years as a Presbyterian quite committed to the teaching he had received at Princeton, Nevin began a shift in theology which involved a new understanding of the historic development of doctrine and a corresponding vision of the Church as a growing entity, a respect for the ancient and medieval Church, a more thoroughgoing awareness of and loyalty to the sacramental theology of the sixteenth-century reformers. This shift seems to have started with his exposure to the tracts of the Oxford movement and German philosophy and theology, fueled by an opposition to “new measures” revivalism which he apparently (and ironically) picked up from Charles Hodge.[WRT, pp. 11-15] When Philip Schaff left his homeland in Germany and joined Nevin, the Church historian found a person with whom he shared a common vision.

The Mercersburg Theology stressed the centrality of the incarnation. As we will see, Nevin insisted that the atonement was necessary for salvation, but he violently rejected the idea that the incarnation was simply for the purpose of the atonement, which would render it as simply a means to an end. Rather, the incarnation was an end in itself, whether or not sin necessitated the atoning death and justifying resurrection of Christ. Through union with Christ, man can have union with God [WRT, pp 25-26. However, Maxwell writes: “Nevin contended that as man is in and identified with Adam’s guilt, so he is in and identified with Christ’s perfect life; and this latter identification results in a “mystical union.” This reverses Nevin’s thought. It is because the Holy Spirit gives one “mystical union” with Christ, that one “is in and identified with Christ’s perfect life.”].

The Church is the continuation of Christ’s life on earth through the agency of the Holy Spirit. The Church is not simply a collection of believers, but the mystical body of Christ, the mother of all believers. Nevin discarded the categories of “visible” and “invisible,” discussing instead the “actual” Church (present) and the “ideal” Church (eschatological). The ideal exists as a seed in the actual, and inexorably takes shape in history until the resurrection [WRT, pp 29-30].

The mystical union between Christ and His Church made the sacraments quite important in the Mercersburg view. Nevin promoted a return to Calvin’s doctrine of the Lord’s Supper as the means by which the Church’s union with Christ is nourished and strengthened. In defending this view, he touched on almost all the distinctives of the Mercersburg Theology.

Nevin never set out to specifically discuss the imputation of Adam’s sin. (This is probably the main reason no one ever thought to evaluate his views in the context of nineteenth-century Presbyterian controversy. Those who study Nevin are not the sort of people prone to care enough about Reformed orthodoxy to keep track of the other doctrinal debates between Old Princeton, the Southern Presbyterians, etc.) Rather the imputation of Adam’s sin is mentioned as an aside to his discussion of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, which in turn was only mentioned by Nevin to explain why the Reformation Tradition found it so important to affirm our union with Christ and the importance of Christ’s real presence in the Lord’s Supper. The Mystical Presence: A Vindication of the Reformed or Calvinistic Doctrine of the Holy Eucharist sets forth Nevin’s views on the sacrament, and covers all these (for his purpose in the book) subsidiary issues. Not only is Mystical Presence Nevin’s most thorough treatment (and one that articulated views which remained essentially unchanged for the rest of his life), but it was also the presentation to which Hodge responded.

Thus, the best way to explain Nevin’s view of the imputation of Adam’s sin is to first briefly set forth from this work his beliefs concerning the importance of union with Christ and the imputation of his righteousness, as well as the nature of this union.

The Importance of Union with Christ

Nevin would emphatically agree with the Liberal catchphrase, “Christianity is a life, not a doctrine.”[See The Mystical Presence and Other Writings on the Eucharist, vol 4 of Lancaster Series on the Mercersburg Theology, Bard Thompson & George H. Bricker, ed. (Philadelphia, Boston: United Church Press, 1966), p. 216ff. Henceforth: MP]. Yet just as emphatically, he would insist that only by proclaiming Christianity as a life and not a doctrine can supernatural Christianity be set apart from rationalistic naturalism. Socinians, by reducing Christianity to a moral message, throw “the man back always upon himself, his own separate powers and resources, the capabilities of the flesh as such, to perfect his nature and make himself meet for heaven.”[MP, p. 186] Likewise, in Pelagianism, “we are thrown back again, upon such material in the way of life, as the subject of it may be found to possess in his own nature, when brought under the action of this divine process of education” [MP p. 187].

So far, this is rather standard fare. But Nevin takes a further ingenious step: What about those who claim that salvation depends on the supernatural enlightenment of the Holy Spirit? Of such a view, he says:

To the force that belongs to the truth itself in its relation to the human mind, it may join the influence’s of God’s Spirit, graciously interposed to clothe the truth with effect. Such agency we often hear attributed to the Spirit, by those who at the same time reject altogether the thought of any immediate change wrought by it in the nature of the human soul itself. God’s grace in this form, they say, is brought to bear on the soul, mediately only, by the intervention of his word which he uses instrumentally for the purpose, infusing into it light and power. But surely those who talk in this way do not stop at all to consider the exact sense of their own words. What do they mean, when they speak of the Spirit, as infusing light and power into the truth? Can he do so (apart from a direct influence on the soul itself) in any other way than by so ordering the presentation of the truth to the mind, that it shall be placed in the most favorable position for exerting the power which belongs to it in its own nature? But what is this more than such moral suasion, as may be exercised over the spirits of men in a merely human way, by appeals addressed to the understanding and will? The order of influence at least remains the same, though it may be exhibited under a divinely exalted form [MP, pp. 187-188].

This view, though partially supernaturalistic, still falls back into naturalism on the crucial issue of salvation, and still does not escape the error of Socinianism and Pelagianism:

In this view, the process of salvation, in the midst of all the high-sounding terms that may be employed to describe it, falls back again to the standpoint already noticed. It is a salvation by the power simply of truth, presented in the form of doctrine and precept. This truth includes the supernatural facts of the gospel, the mission, sufferings, death, and resurrection of Christ–the outward apparatus in full, if we may use the expression–of the Christian redemption; and along with this we have the “moral suasion” of the Holy Spirit, which according to the unintelligible hypothesis, invests the whole representation with a more than natural evidence and power. All turns at last, however, on the way in which the mind thus addressed, may be wrought upon and moved to act, in the use of such resources and capabilities as are already comprehended in its nature [MP, p. 188. Though it is outside the bounds of this paper, it would be interesting to investigate to whom Nevin was particularly responding. I can’t help noticing a similarity between the view Nevin repudiates and the view of regeneration ascribed to Hodge by Dabney. According to Dabney, Hodge reduced the work of the Spirit in regeneration to enlightenment of the mind, and was virtually guilty of Pajonism. See “Hodge’s Systematic Theology” in Discussions: Evangelical And Theological vol 1 (London: Banner of Truth, 1890, 1967), pp. 231-253)].

Even affirming regeneration through the power of the Holy Spirit is not enough to escape the problem. It remains if the union with the Spirit does not also involve intimate mystical union with Christ’s new humanity, if “Christ dwells in his people by his Spirit–but in the way only of representation, not in the way of strict personal inbeing on his own part” [MP, p. 195].

The same Spirit, it is said, that works in Christ works also in us, fashioning us as we are into the same image. But how does he work? By supernatural influence, it may be said. But is not this to fall back again to the theory of a merely moral union with Christ, by the power of the truth only; which we have found already to be under its highest form, but Pelagianism in disguise? Is Christ in us at last only by the divine suasion of his Spirit? [MP, pp. 197-198].

Nevin goes on to consider the only supernaturalistic alternative which avoids mystical union: “The Spirit, it may be said, creates new life in the believer.” Yet this involves insuperable difficulties: “But what now is this new life? Something, of course, that was not in the man before. From where, then, does it come? Is it the proper life of the Spirit himself–the life of God–directly extended to the soul? This would be to repeat the mystery of the incarnation, in the case of every new believer… From where, then, we ask again, comes this new life by the Spirit? Is it an absolute creation out of nothing…? Instead of one great miracle, then, in Christianity–the new creation in Christ Jesus–we should have miracles of the same order without number or end. Every believer would be a new creation, not in Christ Jesus, but in himself…” [Ibid].

This conception of regeneration, then, makes it not an ingrafting into Christ, but some sort of merely moral transformation, as if man could be saved through some sort of change in his own fallen condition. Because man is totally depraved and has fallen irrevocably in Adam, there is no miracle which can correct the problem of man’s sin and guilt–except to send God as a new man, the second Adam, to provide a new source of life to conquer the death spread from the old man, and then give that life to men dead in their sins.

The Imputation of Christ’s Righteousness

Nevin has not yet exhausted the attempted alternatives to the mystical union with Christ. American protestants, realizing that the suasion of the Spirit is not enough to give them a truly supernatural soteriology, think they have yet another option:

Here we are brought, then, to stand upon higher and more orthodox ground. The doctrine of imputation is introduced, to meet the demand now mentioned. The work of Christ is no longer thought of as a mere display for moral effect; it is something to be appropriated and made available in the person of the believing sinner himself, for the purposes of salvation. Mere doctrine will not answer. The case calls for an actual personal participation in what Christ has done and suffered to take away sin and reconcile man to God. By imputation. we are told. As the guilt and fall of Adam were reckoned to his posterity, though not theirs in fact, so the righteousness of Christ, and the benefits of his mediatorial work generally are, in virtue of the terms of the new covenant, made over to all who believe in his name, and accounted to be theirs as truly as though all had been wrought out by them, each for himself, in truth. Their justification in this view is a mere forensic act on the part of God, which is based altogether on the work of Christ, and involves as such in their case no change of character whatever, but only a change of state. God regards them as righteous, though they are not so in fact, and makes over to them a full title to all the blessings comprehended in Christ’s life. At the same time, he regenerates them by his Spirit, and puts them thus on a process of sanctification, by which in the end they become fully transformed in their own persons, into the image of their glorious Savior [MP, pp. 188-18].

This imputation appears to escape the problem of naturalism in Nevin’s mind. Nevertheless, it is an insufficient explanation because it is flatly impossible. “The imagination that the merits of Christ’s life may be sundered from his life itself, and conveyed over to his people under this abstract form, on the ground of a merely outward legal constitution, is unscriptural and contrary to all reason at the same time” [MP, 192].

The judgment of God must ever be according to truth. He cannot reckon to anyone an attribute or quality that does not belong to him in fact. He cannot declare him to be in a relation or state that is not actually his own, but the position merely of another. A simply external imputation here, the pleasure and purpose of God to place to the account of one what has been done by another, will not answer. Nor is the case helped in the least by the hypothesis of what is called a legal federal union between the parties, in the case of whom such a transfer is supposed to be made; so long as the law is thought of in the same outward way, as a mere arbitrary arrangement or constitution for the accomplishment of the end in question. The law in this view would be itself a fiction only, and not the expression of a fact. But no such fiction, whether under the name of law or without it, can lie at the ground of a judgment entertained or pronounced by God [MP, pp. 190-191].

In explaining why a “bare” legal imputation is not enough, Nevin knew that the accusation would be made that he was denying justification by Faith. He (futilely) attempts to cut off this line of attack: “Do we then discard the doctrine of imputation, as maintained by the orthodox theology in opposition to the vain talk of the Pelagians? By no means! We seek only to establish the doctrine; for without it; most assuredly, the whole structure of Christianity must give way” [MP, 190].

Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us, writes Nevin, when the Holy Spirit actually gives us union with Christ. If we have union with Christ we possess all that is His. His active and passive righteousness count for us because “He is joined to us mystically” [MP, p. 192]. Christ’s righteousness is truly imputed, and justification is truly forensic and declarative, but the basis is not simply God’s imagination that we are justified, but “our actual insertion into Christ himself” [MP, p. 192].

The Nature of the Union

How are we united to Christ and to Adam? What does Nevin mean by “mystical union”? In what sense is the incarnation so all important to this union, so that this union, though with His whole Person, especially involves his humanity? This question becomes more acute when we realize that Nevin is insisting on following Calvin that in the Eucharist we partake of Christ’s flesh and blood without any transfer of particles or physical presence involved! All this relates to the point of this study: How is this union with Christ parallel to our union with Adam? And how does this union with Adam undergird the imputation of Adam’s sin to his posterity?

Nevin explains himself by making the rather bold claim that a living organism is not reducible to material particles. He uses the relationship of an acorn to an oak tree to prove this idea [MP, p. 156]. We classify an acorn and the tree which grows from it as a single organism–the seed becomes the tree. Yet, the tree is exponentially more massive than the acorn, and has obviously acquired mass from the soil around it. Indeed, it is easily possible that the old oak tree does not contain a single material particle which was present in the acorn. Yet the lack of identical material particles means nothing. The life of the acorn is the same life which animates the leaves on the tree. The branches are connected to the root by a shared life which cannot be reduced to material particles. Furthermore, in thinking this way, it becomes apparent that to limit the life of the acorn to the single oak tree is quite arbitrary–for the oak bears acorns from its life which grow themselves into other trees. “Still, in the end, the life of the forest, in such a case, is nothing more than an expansion of the life that lay involved at first in the original acorn” [MP, p. 156].

Thus, the life of Christ’s flesh and blood is not found in any physical particles, but in an animating force or “law.” A “clear distinction” must be made between

the idea of the organic law, which constitutes the proper identity of a human body, and the material volume it is found to embrace as exhibited to the senses. A true and perfect body must indeed appear in the form of organized matter. As a mere law, it can have no proper reality. But still the matter, apart from the law, is in no sense the body. Only as it is found to be transfused with the active presence of the law at every point and in this way filled with the form of life, can it be said to have any such character. . . The principle of the body as a system of life, the original salient point of its being as a whole, is in no respect material. It is not bound of course, for its identity, to any particular portion of matter as such. If the matter which enters into its constitution were changed every hour, it would still remain the same body. . . A real communication then, between the body of Christ and the bodies of his saints, does not imply necessarily the gross imagination of any transition of his flesh as such into their persons [MP, p. 151].

Thus, by the mediation of the Holy Spirit, we can truly and really participate in the life of Christ. We can be united with His flesh and blood. This is an ultimately mysterious identity, yet it is the same sort of mystery which confronts us in all living beings.

The Imputation of Adam’s Sin

At this point we can easily see how Nevin understands the unity of the human race with Adam. Nevin is quite certain that, just as a “mere outward imputation” would be impossible in the case of Christ’s righteousness, so would it be in the case of Adam’s sin.

Can we conceive of any constitution, for instance, in virtue of which it could have been proper or possible for the Divine Mind, thus to set over to the account of mankind the apostasy of angels, which kept not their first estate, the two natures being relatively to each other what they are at this time? If all depended on the arbitrary pleasure of God, the force of a mere outward arrangement constituting one the representative of another without further relation, we cannot see why the transfer of guilt might not take place from angels to men, as well as from Adam to his posterity. The very fact that our whole reason and feeling revolt against the thought of the first case, serves only to show that the proceeding must rest upon some deeper ground in the other [MP, p. 191].

In the case of Adam’s sin, the analogy of the acorn and the oak tree can be more literally applied. We are all Adamites. Our bones are Adamite bones; our flesh Adamite flesh; and our very life a true continuation of Adam’s life. The fact that the billions of individual human beings are made up of material particles other than those which originally constituted Adam when he was first created is utterly irrelevant. For all we know Adam himself, at the time of his death, may have been constituted by a completely different set of particles from those which constituted him 920 years earlier. The fact is that we all grew out of him and are no less a part of him, in one sense, than a branch is part of a tree.

It is interesting that Louis Berkhof wrote in objection to “the realistic theory” that: “Every man is conscious of being a separate personality, and therefore far more than a mere passing wave in the general ocean of existence” (Systematic Theology [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1941], p. 241). I doubt that Nevin was a realist, but he would probably respond that every man is a separate personality and a “wave” of a sort. Indeed, Nevin’s “law” sounds quite similar to the “wave form” which provides the backdrop to Tim Powers’ science fiction ghost story, Expiration Date (New York: TOR, 1996):

And he remembered the old notion that after some number of years every cell in a human body had been replaced, every atom, so that the body is just a wave form moving through time, incorporating just for a little while the stuff of each day; only the wave itself, and none of the transient physical bits, makes the whole trip. Even a scar would be no more significant than a wobble still visible in an ocean wave long after the wave had passed the obstruction that caused it, while the water molecules that had actually sustained the impact were left comfortably behind” [p. 147].

By his fall, Adam became corrupted in his nature, and all his children who come from his nature share in that corruption. What he did freely, Adam’s children continue to do spontaneously and naturally. They inherit his sin and his guilt.

Just as he expected some to accuse him of denying justification by Faith, Nevin knew others would accuse him of denying the Reformed doctrine of the imputation of Adam’s sin. Thus, he took the space to argue that the Westminster Standards are not guilty of reducing original sin to a “mere outward imputation.” On the contrary, “The language of the catechism is literally and strictly correct. We sinned in Adam, and fell with him, in his first transgression.” Furthermore, question eighteen of the Shorter Catechism does not define original sin as only “the guilt of Adam’s first sin,” but lists a threefold definition which also includes “the want of original righteousness” and “the corruption of his whole nature.”

Nevin admits that “the friends of the catechism, in their attempts to vindicate its doctrine at this point, have not always planted themselves on the proper ground for its defense,” because they have rested their case on “a merely external imputation” which can give us “only a quasi interest in the real fact that it represented” at best. But in so doing they are not only failing to defend the doctrine, but inadequately stating what the catechism actually claims [MP, p. 191].


Real Union or Legal Fiction, part 1

(For what it is worth, this paper won the Aiken Taylor Church History Award of the Presbyterian Church in America.

If one is blessed to discover George P. Hutchinsons’s monograph on Original Sin in nineteenth-century Reformed thought,[The Problem of Original Sin in American Presbyterian Theology (Nutley, NJ: P&R, 1972)] no student of American presbyterianism can fail to be fascinated. What once seemed to be a monolithic certainty while sitting in the standard theology class is suddenly uncovered to reveal a great deal of variety that had formerly been hidden from view. John Murray writes on page iv of the foreword: “Mr. Hutchinson has done a great service by setting forth in lucid terms the viewpoints of the leading protagonists in the dispute, particularly from the time of Jonathan Edwards to the present. ….it fills what has been a conspicuous blank in historical presentation and assessment (emphasis added). From this I gather that my own experience of sudden and gratifying illumination upon reading Hutchinson was not merely idiosyncratic.

Hutchinson’s account of the controversy between Henry B. Smith of the “new school”; Archibald Alexander and Charles Hodge of Princeton Seminary; William G. T. Shedd, Samuel J. Baird, and James H. Thornwell of the “realistic school”; and Robert W. Landis and Robert L. Dabney of what Hutchinson calls the “agnostic school” is simply must-reading for anyone who wishes to understand the issue. I realize that one would like to be able to read the doctrine out of the Scriptures, but the fact is that most of what is said about the imputation of Adam’s sin is more an explanation and/or defense of what the Bible teaches, not simply a reproduction of it. The theologian has to decide which explanation is the best. A direct appeal to the Bible is often not possible in this case, and the historic concerns are thus more important than they might be for other issues.

But Hutchinson’s account is not a complete reading. In the nineteenth century there was another American theologian who held distinctive views regarding the imputation of Adam’s sin. John Williamson Nevin of “the Mercersburg movement,” aroused the ire of Charles Hodge on more than one occasion because of his theological writings. Nevin was a member of the German Reformed Church, so perhaps Hutchinson decided that he was outside his scope. Nevin was raised a Presbyterian, however, and served as a Presbyterian minister for many years before accepting the call of the German Reformed Church. “Nevin had consulted President [Archibald] Alexander of Princeton and other leading Presbyterians. They encouraged him to view the move as simply a transfer from one to another branch of the Reformed Church. The synod he was entering, as Nevin put it, consisted simply of ‘German Presbyterians,’ just as the one he was leaving might be called the ‘Scotch Reformed.’ The platform on which he would teach at Mercersburg was that on which he had stood at Princeton and at Allegheny, old-school Calvinistic orthodoxy” [James Hastings Nichols, Romanticism in American Theology: Nevin and Schaff at Mercersburg (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1961), pp. 35-36. Henceforward RAT].

Furthermore, Nevin was Charles Hodge’s best student, and taught his classes for the two years Hodge was in Europe, though Nevin had only just graduated [RAT, pp 16-17]. His close connection with Presbyterianism, as well as the merit of his ideas in themselves, make him worth listing with the other schools.

My hope for this paper is that it will serve as a sort of appendix to Hutchinson’s book. For reasons of space and because of inherent relationships which will hopefully become clear, the discussion will center on Nevin’s conflict with Hodge.[6] Then similarities will be emphasized between Nevin’s alternative to Hodge and Dabney’s alternative.


While they don’t come to Christ “truly,” do the non-elect ever respond to the Gospel by the work of the Spirit?

the authors … either assumed or made explicit a distinction which the FV either denies or ignores: the distinction between a purely external relation to the covenant of grace and an internal relation to the covenant of grace.

via What’s Going On in the Siouxlands Presbytery (PCA)? « Heidelblog. (emphasis added)

Let’s be very clear here: whatever R. Scott Clark means by “purely external relation,” if he means that it excludes a real work of the Holy Spirit, then he is misleading his readers.

The “authors” being mentioned here include the Westminster Assembly.  Thus:

Others, not elected, although they may be called by the ministry of the Word, and may have some common operations of the Spirit, yet they never truly come unto Christ, and therefore cannot be saved

This is from the Westminster Confession of Faith chapter ten on effectual calling.  Obviously, those not elected are not effectually called, but some are called.  Judas was called to Christ and he responded to the call and did miracles by the power of the Spirit but he was never truly (“effectually” called) and he thus never persevered in following Christ, never “truly” came to him.  The prooftexts for those who “never truly come to Christ” include those a reference to Judas

John 13:18. I speak not of you all: I know whom I have chosen: but that the scripture may be fulfilled, He that eateth bread with me hath lifted up his heel against me.

So how do we describe Judas’ relationship with Christ, in which he followed Christ for a time but eventually decided to find his prosperity on the other side?  Many, Reformed and not, have gone to Romans 2 and Paul’s language about the Jew who is one “secretly” or “inwardly” and the one who is not.  That seems perfectly fine to me and I doubt Moon or Lawrence would have a problem with it.

But Romans 2 also says something about the Spirit which has led to a problem:

For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter.

I think it is pretty clear from the context that “by the letter” means merely having been assigned to possess the Scriptures.  See Romans 2.27 (which the ESV obscures by using the term “written code”; the NASB is better: “letter of the Law”) and 3.1.  Thus the Spirit would lead the true Jews to actual faith and obedience.

But this gets people confused and leads them to assume that “external” is some sort of precise scientific term that rules out the presence of the Spirit in those who respond in some way to the Gospel but who are not effectually called.  Whatever the Westminster Confession allegedly ought to teach according to some, it in fact teaches the very opposite.  There are shared workings “common operations” between the elect and some non-elect.  While some may go to church purely and only because they want better business connections, others may truly be drawn by the Spirit and for a time enjoy His gracious fellowship.  Thus the Westminster’s prooftext for the statement.

Heb. 6:4­-5. For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted of the heavenly gift, and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost, and have tasted the good word of God, and the powers of the world to come …

The trailing dots are in the original. God’s spirit is at work both in elect persons who respond to the Gospel and truly come to Christ and the same Spirit is at work in non-elect who respond to the calling of the Gospel, but not “effectually”–they never truly come to Christ. We can talk about differences in their union with Christ, but claiming one group doesn’t have the Spirit, never was enlightened, never tasted the heavenly gift, and never tasted the word of God and the powers of the world to come, is a claim that the Bible and the Westminster Confession tells us is off limits.

For this (along with many other reasons) Clark has zero basis for claiming anyone denies a distinction in the covenant of Grace between those who persevere according to God’s sovereign choice and those who “fall” (Heb 6.6) from the heavenly gift they have been made the eat, who fall from the light they have been made to see, who fall from participation in the communion of the Spirit, who fall from the Gospel message, who fall from the powers of the next world.  The point, as the author of Hebrews says himself, is only to exhort the congregation to

hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.

For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has spurned the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace? For we know him who said, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge his people.” It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

But recall the former days when, after you were enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to reproach and affliction, and sometimes being partners with those so treated. For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one. Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised. For,

“Yet a little while,
and the coming one will come and will not delay;
but my righteous one shall live by faith,
and if he shrinks back,
my soul has no pleasure in him.”

But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls.

We need to exhort people to not throw away their confidence, which has a great reward, to remember the need for endurance so that they will do the will of God and received what is promised.

We need to exhort our congregations not to doubt, but to remember they are adopted by God:

Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons?

“My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord,
nor be weary when reproved by him.
For the Lord disciplines the one he loves,
and chastises every son whom he receives.”

It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.

Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed. Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled; that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal. For you know that afterward, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears.

Kind of interesting isn’t it?  You would think the preacher of Hebrews, in the spirit of “Bobsled sovereignty,” would tell them to find the Esaus and get rid of them because there is nothing that can be done about them.  But no.  “lift up drooping hands and strengthen weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed.”  “See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God.”

Preaching like the author of Hebrews is not and cannot be a violation of the Westminster Standards, a deviation from covenant theology, or a departure from the Reformed Faith.

Nor can it be heresy to agree with the Apostle Paul. He declares to the entire congregation that, “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it” (First Corinthians 11.27). And what is the basis of Paul’s claim? “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit” (First Corinthians 11.12, 13). Deny Paul’s claim and you are not only going against the Word of God, but you are completely undermining the ethics of the church community in First Corinthians 11.12ff.

So, however, we explain the differences (and there are real qualitative differences whether we can fully explain them or not), the relationship between the non-elect and Christ is not purely external as opposed to Spiritual (i.e. by and of the Holy Spirit).