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Thursday, November 24, 2011

Robert Letham: Union with Christ: In Scripture, History, and Theology

Book Review: Robert Letham, Union with Christ: In Scripture, History, and Theology


Excerpt from review:

The second insight is Letham’s much-appreciated stress on the soteriological import of the incarnation of the Word of God, reminding us that the very theo-logic of salvation is wrapped up in the mystery of the incarnate God-man. The incarnation shows us in the clearest possible way that God’s redemptive intention is to join us to himself through the life-giving humanity of Jesus Christ. The incarnation, in Letham’s words, “is the indispensable basis for our union with Christ. Since Christ has united himself to us in the incarnation, we can be united to him by the Holy Spirit” (40). When evangelical theology loses sight of the saving significance of the incarnation, it is bound to myopically stress forensic, substitutionary understandings of salvation at the expense of the personal, participatory reality that undergirds them. Marcus Johnson (Ph.D. St. Michaels College, University of Toronto) is assistant professor of theology at Moody Bible Institute, Chicago, IL.





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26 comments:

Anonymous said...

I didn't have to leave the introduction of this book to be encouraged. He states that in being united to Christ we are united to the entire Trinity. Amazing!

Anonymous said...

http://markmcculley.wordpress.com/2011/11/18/does-the-holy-spirit-select-the-team-lethams-new-book-on-union-with-christ-2/

Made me think of you. Remarks?

Reformed Apologist said...

“Space prevents me from recent discussions of the relationship between union with Christ and justification.” (p82). This is why this book is so disappointing. Letham does not use his space is a wise and helpful way. He merely keeps begging the question and repeating himself.”

It sounds like the complainer wants Letham to be answering a question that is not germane to the subject of the book.

Even though Letham relies on Evans and Garcia, he avoids interaction with recent discussions by Fesko, Horton, and McCormack on the priority of forensic justification.

Obviously this person has not read the book, or at least not carefully. Letham doesn’t rely heavily on Evans and Garcia. In fact, Garcia is mentioned maybe a couple of times and not always favorably. As for not interacting with Horton, Fesko etc., why would he given the purpose of the book? Obviously this person has an agenda and wants to see Letham deal with it. Letham obviously had something else in mind, doing the church a service by discussing Union in scripture, history and theology, which he did with great clarity and profundity.

I won’t bother to critique the rest of the slurs against the book. The critique only demonstrates that paper doesn’t resist ink.

BTW, the book is absolutely brilliant on many levels. Only one with a partisan bent can think otherwise.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the reply.

As for partisanship, he is an Owenite. This might more light. I am not well-versed in the debate, but my understanding of the Owenite argument is that if union with Christ is necessary for redemption, as opposed to the cross only, then the legal efficacy atonement is undermined, double jeopardy only comes into play once a person is united with Christ, and the government theory of the atonement gets a hat tip.

I read this article. Correct me I am misunderstanding you, but you would say that the atonement is efficacious, though not because said efficacy is necessitated by penal substitution but by election, as revealed elsewhere in scripture? And if this is indeed your view would you mind commenting on Tom Nettles' arguments (quoted in McCulley article). Appreciate your insight. Happy new year.

Reformed Apologist said...

The atonement is no sooner undermined because redemption must be applied by the Spirit than the decree of the atonement is undermined by the actual atonement. The decree of the cross contemplates not only the work of the cross but also its application. To say that redemption can occur apart from union with Christ makes union with Christ superfluous. Scripture teaches us that we are baptized into Christ’s death and that apart from being baptized into Christ’s death sinners remain estranged from the person and work of Christ. Being robed in Christ’s righteousness presupposes and requires being united to him in his work and person. We must let revelation be our guide, not theories that defy revelation. Revelation teaches that prior to the application of redemption, elect sinners are considered children of wrath just the like the rest. Remember too that Christ did not merely come to pay the penalty for sin but to deliver sinners from its bondage, which also requires union with Christ by the Spirit - for Jesus is not merely the sinners justification, he’s the sinners sanctification too.

Reformed Apologist said...

I don't think that guy is an "Owenite." Rather, I think he believes that one need not be united to Christ to be saved, which Owenites do not affirm.

The point of my post to which you linked is that union with Christ is not a logical necessity of the cross - it's a revealed necessity born out of God's desire, but that has nothing to do with the person who thinks that union is not necessary for redemption. Payment does not logically imply reception of payment. Notwithstanding, God's word reveals that all for whom Christ died will by grace receive the reconciliation.

Anonymous said...

"Payment does not logically imply reception of payment."

Then in what sense would you say that justification, propitiation, etc, were accomplished at the cross? Doesn't accomplishment necessitate application?

Reformed Apologist said...

Justification was not accomplished at the cross. Justification does not occur without imputation of perfect righteousness to the sinner, which happens in union and certainly not before one's birth.

Anonymous said...

Correct me if I'm wrong then, but it sounds like given your position (which I have no argument against) then there is really no meaningful place for the double-payment argument against indefinite atonement. You would argue for definite atonement solely on the basis of passages like John 10?

Reformed Apologist said...

I think we might be talking about two different things. It is true that if Jesus was punished for a particular sinner who ended up dying for his own sins, then two payments would be made for the same sinner. (I'm allowing of course the impossibility that a sinner can satisfy his debt before God.) But that would not be "double jeopardy," which has to do with the same person being tried twice for the same crime. In other words, that Jesus paid for my sins does not logically imply that I don't have to pay for my sins. After all, why should a judge be required to accept another's sacrifice on behalf of an unrepentant, ungrateful sinner who could care less that a payment was made? Now then, we know that God's elect don't have to pay for their sins (and it's not because they're grateful for the work of the Substitute). Rather, we know this based upon God's revelation - that it is God's intention to apply redemption to all those for whom redemption was accomplished. (Now of course along with that application comes gratitude in the sinner.)

Having said that, we might be able to apply a double jeopardy argument to those who are already united to Christ, for to be united to Christ is to receive all the benefits of Christ's redemption no less than had we ourselves somehow accomplished redemption. Once we're baptized into Christ's work, redemption is ours - and this is key, no less than had we somehow paid for our own sin. Accordingly, I might be willing to argue for eternal security for those in Christ based upon a double jeopardy principle because once we're united to Christ existentially, what is Christ's becomes ours no less than had we ourselves earned it. Whereas prior to being united to Christ we are not partakers of redemption - though God has revealed that the design of the cross is to secure salvation for the elect. Notwithstanding, until we were united to Christ - Ephesians teaches that we remained children of wrath just like the rest.

Lastly, I would argue for definite atonement first and foremost by the design and intent of the OT sacrifices, which I don't see polemicists often doing. OT sacrifice was intended for those with whom God had established his covenant, and not the gentiles for instance. It was for the elect within Israel. In the like manner, the cross is intended for those who were given to Christ by the Father before creation, and not the world. I think John 17 settles the matter even more so than John 10.

Thoughts?

Anonymous said...

I think I understanding your argument: Christ dying for one's sins does not logically imply God's reception of that payment. Hence the need for union with Christ, which is not necessitated from payment alone but will occur by God's design.

I see how this kill the notion that limited atonement is deducible from the bare concept of substitution, but does it really affect this classic argument against unlimited atonement? (Indeed, it was this argument that convinced me.)

1. If unlimited atonement then Christ propitiated for every person's sins (according to the Arminian interpretation of 1 John 2:2)
2. Some people will be in Hell (a place of God's wrath)
3. ~Unlimited atonement

After all, who denies that God will accept Christ's payment? No debate there between Calvinists and Arminians, right?

However, the above argument assumes that propitiation was actually made at the cross though not applied until time of conversion. Though earlier you implied that propitiation was not accomplished at the cross, I think.

Please correct me if I'm totally confused...

Reformed Apologist said...

"I see how this kill the notion that limited atonement is deducible from the bare concept of substitution, but does it really affect this classic argument against unlimited atonement? (Indeed, it was this argument that convinced me.)"

Yes, I think the two stand and fall together and that that argument against U.L. is weak and unworthy. In any case, I think we should be persuaded of limited atonement because of verses such as those we touched upon in John and the intent we find grounded in OT sacrifices.

We shouldn't conclude "~Unlimited Atonement" because of a some sort of double jeopardy, but that is what I think you are trying to suggest by your three step argument. You already agreed that we cannot conclude limited atonement purely based upon the bare concept of substitution. Accordingly, how can you conclude limited atonement (or as you put it, the negation of unlimited atonement) solely based upon a purely logical argument that does not allow for some to perish though Christ died for them? In other words, you just acknowledged that substitution for certain men doesn't in and of itself disqualify the possibility of those same men going to hell, and that we need revelation for that argument. Your three step argument can at best imply limited application of redemption (not limited atonement), and to keep that conclusion Calvinistic you'd have to introduce premises pertaining to unconditional election and irresistible grace, lest you end up with limited application of redemption due to man's alleged free will (i.e. man being the factor that causes himself to differ from another, hence "limiting" the application to less than all for whom it was intended).

You go on to say that Arminians and Calvinists agree that God accepts the atonement of Christ as substitutionary. What I take by that is that he accepts it as payment for sin. Notwithstanding, the payment must be applied to sinners, which both Arminians and Calvinists also agree upon. The difference is that (i) Calvinists appreciate that the atonement was only for the elect and that (ii) all for whom Christ died will receive by grace the reconciliation.

Finally, I never denied that God was rendered propitious at the cross. That his wrath was spent on behalf of the elect doesn't logically necessitate by virtue of a substitution concept that those for whom it was spent will receive the gift, though indeed they will and we know that by his revealed word.

Let's talk rather than write. I think we're too far apart.

Reformed Apologist said...

Keep in mind, we are dealing with a God who works in perfect harmony, so naturally the Father accepts the Son's vicarious sacrifice and the Spirit applies it according to the divine intention. It was the design of the atonement to secure eternal salvation for all it was intended. The point, however, is that substitution as a concept does not presuppose the necessity of acceptance of the payment. Again, a judge is not required purely by virtue of substitution to accept payment for another. However, given that God sent the Son and the Trinity works in harmony, we may conclude Limited Atonement, but in doing so we are employing revelation to inform our thinking, not mere logic.

Anonymous said...

So would you say that all imputation of sin occurs after union with Christ? When Christ said, "It is finished," he was simply referring to successful substitution?

Reformed Apologist said...

There are two imputations - ours to Christ and His to ours. Ours to him occurred at the cross, but His to ours occurs in our life.

Substitution as a concept does not presuppose the necessity of acceptance of the payment, which you seem to accept. That being true would suggest that many arguments for Limited Atonement are invalid. Those arguments entail the premise that if and only if Christ died for a sinner the sinner will ultimately be saved. The conclusion being that only those who will be saved did Christ die in their stead. Yet if substitution as a "bare concept" does not imply necessary salvation, then we must arrive at Limited Atonement not logically but theologically.

Anonymous said...

Thanks.

Limited atonement is of interest to me right now because I have been dialoguing with certain particular baptists who say that a non-efficacious atonement is a false gospel. Sounds like you deny the efficacy of the atonement.

Incidentally a particular baptist wrote this to me during a discussion we had about a week ago. His comments make more sense to me after our conversation. You are welcome to share your thoughts of course, though I understand the gist of your contention.

Kevin Kennedy, from one of the Southern Baptist Seminaries claims that those who teach substitution only for the elect should agree that the elect can go free before they are converted and believe the gospel. He wants to put those who teach effective atonement in that box, so they can then deny that the death of Christ is the effective difference between saved and lost.

This is not only a tactic against definite atonement. This is what many “Calvinists” have sincerely come to believe—if the cross has no efficacy to set free before faith and without faith, then the cross has no legal efficacy by itself. They locate the efficacy, the reality of “atonement” not in propitiation, not in Christ’s bearing the sins of the elect, but only in the efficacy of “regeneration” and an “union with Christ” which is not legal but is instead transformation by the Spirit.

These folks don’t think there’s any “double jeopardy” until after a person has been married to Christ by faith. Then, and only then, they say, could you say that two persons were dying twice for the same sins of one person. So “union with Christ” comes to mean that you can stop counting, that you can stop talking about imputation when you talk about the justice and righteousness of God.

These folks have confused the accomplishment of atonement with the application of the atonement.Not only have they minimized the legal application of the atonement, they have collapsed accomplishment and application into one, as if there were no atonement before justification.

Thus the attempt to put John Owen in a box. Either say that the justification was at the atonement, or agree with them that the atonement is not until the justification.

And thus they stand in front of churches, elect and non-elect, and teach everybody that “Christ is dead for you”. But according to them, that “died for you” doesn’t necessarily mean that Christ has died to propitiate God for your sins.


You did say, however, that God is propitiated at the cross. So are you saying that propitiation does not require union with Christ? I would think that our sins being imputed to Christ requires some kind of union.

Anonymous said...

Another particular baptist I've talked to:

Not one elect sinner for whom Jesus Christ effectually died for will ever perish. Christ's accomplishment of redemption insures their eternal salvation. The merit of the life and death of Christ ALONE is the only saving difference between saved and lost or heaven and hell. In other words the merit of His Person and work is BY ITSELF is what does the saving and His life and death is EFFECTUAL in and of itself. His precious blood and righteousness automatically excludes everything else as the ground of justification and acceptance to God. The Lord Jesus Christ's whole work resulted in the justification of His people. Christ, as Mediator of the Everlasting Covenant of Grace, brought in and established an everlasting righteousness which is imputes to His people and makes them to be accepted by the Father on that very basis.

These guys don't believe justification occurred at the cross or in eternity by the way; they simply make a distinction between the accomplishment and application of the atonement. They are also adamantly opposed to faith being a condition for the application of justification. Faith happens at the same time but there is no logical connection between the two. Even the idea of faith as "instrument" or "appropriator" of justification is heretical. This doesn't do justice to "justification by faith" IMO, but if you disagree with them they insist that you are putting human conditions on justification and are unregenerate.

Do you believe faith is a condition for justification? (Not in a meritorious sense but in a logical sense.)

Reformed Apologist said...

Limited atonement is of interest to me right now because I have been dialoguing with certain particular baptists who say that a non-efficacious atonement is a false gospel. Sounds like you deny the efficacy of the atonement.

If what you mean by efficacy is what you've been saying all along, then of course the atonement is "non-efficacious" for you have made imputation through union superfluous for justification. The trajectory of what you've been saying is men can even be glorified without being united to Christ's work just as long as the Savior died for them according to definitive atonement. As the Westminster standards teach, even elect infants dying in infancy are united to Christ etc.

You did say, however, that God is propitiated at the cross. So are you saying that propitiation does not require union with Christ? I would think that our sins being imputed to Christ requires some kind of union.

Propitiation occurs prior to union with Christ for union cannot occur until man's conception in the flesh and spirit and it requires being baptized into the Savior's work.

Reformed Apologist said...

They are also adamantly opposed to faith being a condition for the application of justification. Faith happens at the same time but there is no logical connection between the two.

Seems very confused to me. Logical conditions need not even be causes. If one is never justified apart from faith, we may say that faith is a necessary condition for justification. Faith, by their standard it would seem, always occurs with justification, making faith a necessary condition but not necessarily an instrumental cause - again by employing their terms as set forth by you.

Even the idea of faith as "instrument" or "appropriator" of justification is heretical. This doesn't do justice to "justification by faith" IMO, but if you disagree with them they insist that you are putting human conditions on justification and are unregenerate.

A necessary condition need not be meritorious, especially when God effects the condition irresistibly.

Do you believe faith is a condition for justification? (Not in a meritorious sense but in a logical sense.)

Yes, just as the the people you just described do too. They just don't know what a logical condition is. Either you misrepresented them by accident or else they're confused.

Anonymous said...

"Propitiation occurs prior to union with Christ for union cannot occur until man's conception in the flesh and spirit and it requires being baptized into the Savior's work."

Two observations. First, Paul said we died "with him" (2 Tim. 2:11). Why would this not imply union at the cross? Second, if imputation presupposes union, then there could be not imputation of our sins to Him at the cross if we weren't united with Him at the cross.

Fesko: In fact, we may say that there are three phases of our union with Christ, the predestinarian "in Christ," the redemptive-historical "in Christ," the union involved in the once-for-all accomplishment of salvation, and the applicatory "in Christ," which is the union in the actual possession or application of salvation. These three phases refer not to different unions but rather to different aspects of the same union.

Let me know what you think.

Reformed Apologist said...

It's hard for me to believe that anyone would want to suggest that we died with Christ before we were born. For if that were true, then we would be dead to sin and alive in Christ before conversion(!), which Scripture denies in too many places - again Ephesians 2. Moreover, the verse you quoted comes from this passage: "Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory. The saying is trustworthy, for: If we have died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him; we deny him, he also will deny us; if we are faithless, he remains faithful" Every bit of that occurs in the experience of the believer (the enduring, the obtaining, the dying, the living, the reigning, the denying), and not at the cross. No case can be made for dying with Christ apart from existential union in the experience of the believer.

"Second, if imputation presupposes union, then there could be not imputation of our sins to Him at the cross if we weren't united with Him at the cross."

Not so. The imputation to our account presupposes that we are living in the world - just like the imputation of sin to Christ's presupposes that he had come in the flesh. We must be alive to receive the imputation, just as Christ had to take on flesh in order to be credited with our sin. Imputation presupposes that the person receiving the imputation is in the flesh. To be baptized / united to someone or something, one must first be alive.

Re: Fesko, he is simply equivocating over the term union, for he says there are different aspects of the same union, but then he refers to a particular "union" at the cross, which obviously cannot be the same union as the entire union to which he places all three supposed aspects of union within, hence the equivocation. He uses union two different ways with two different meanings in the same discourse. But aside from that, Fesko certainly does not make the unorthodox mistake of saying that we were baptized into Christ's death at the cross, for even he acknowledged in the statement the application of redemption in the life of the believer, something you apparently are denying, or at least questioning very strongly.

I'm afraid you have headed down a wrong path on this matter. The doctrine you are toying with denies the plain teaching of Scripture, that we are united to Christ by grace through faith, which means we were not justified at the cross but rather after regeneration by the Spirit. It also sounds as though the doctrine you first suggested you were trying to defeat you are now actually wanting to defend. For that reason, I have no more time for this since you seem not to be a sincere seeker of the truth but rather a defender of an unorthodox teaching. Unless you would like to talk on the phone, I think this discussion has pretty much run its course as I think the error has been refuted well enough in this forum, but I will discuss the matter with you if you so choose.

Best wishes.

5-point Calvinist said...

Well said!These guys are hyper-Calvinists and heretics. They are not protecting the doctrine of limited atonement at all. They are actually crucifying it. The L in TULIP teaches that the purpose and design of the cross was to secure the salvation of the elect and only the elect. Also it means that Jesus suffered vicariously on their behalf and for them only. The efficacy of the atonement does not mean the elect do not have to be effectually called in order to be saved. The effectual nature of Limited Atonement simply means that justice has been satisfied; middle ground of enmity has been removed; and wrath has been propitiated. It does not mean that men are pardoned anymore than it means they are glorified. They still have to be reconciled to God in Christ.

J.L. said...

Reformed Apologist:

I think "Anonymous" was maybe getting hung up on this statement from your other post on Owen... If Jesus' death atoned for everyone's sins, then everyone would go to heaven. P* So since Arminians affirm the antecedent, you can use that premise against universal atonement. So piggybacking off Anon's argument...

1. P*
2. Some people aren't in heaven
3. not P*

Reformed Apologist said...

Although that is true, the argument presupposes that which only revelation affords, that the payment for sin will be applied because God's intent and purpose is to do so and, also, the Trinity works in harmony. The debate over Limited Atonement must come from the intent of the atonement, which God will bring to pass, and not the notion of substitution as an abstract principle; simply because substitution need not always be accepted by the person for whom substitution is made, nor must it be accepted by a judge.

Accordingly, although it is true we may not simply argue without begging the question:
1. P*
2. Some people aren't in heaven
3. not P*

P* is pregnant with meaning that must not only be informed by Scripture but defended by it.

Anonymous said...

This is Mark McCulley. You could talk to me if you wanted, but it seems you would rather make assertions about what I haven't read and what I don't know. Let me put on record that neither John Owen nor I teach a justification of the elect before the imputation of Christ's death to those elect.

Reformed Apologist said...

1. Your comments indicate you haven't read Letham. e.g. Garcia comment

2. Although my criticism is severe, you've apparently misunderstood it. Your claim that you don't think that sinners are justified before imputation is not the issue. The issue is you think (and you think Owen thought) that sinners are justified prior to being united to Christ; you think that legal imputation takes place outside of existential union, in our having been eternally chosen in Christ, which is a clear departure from Reformed confessions, something you do seem to admit. You index imputation of Christ's perfect righteousness to the logical moment of eternal election. You have written, "The regeneration of the elect does not satisfy God’s justice. [true, but not disputed] Nor is it the Holy Spirit’s application of benefits from Christ’s death which appeases God’s wrath. [true, but not disputed] God’s wrath has already been appeased or not, and justification is what happens when the elect are legally joined to that death There is no “union” which is more “real” than this legal counting. The legal counting is based on the elect being eternally united to Christ by election and by Christ’s real death for their sins alone." [false, and very disputed]

In other words, if men were imputed with Christ's benefits in the past prior to conversion, Spirit wrought union with Christ would become superfluous.