As the third volume of Horton’s series on covenant theology, this volume is perhaps of special interest because it is most clearly focused on issues surrounding soteriology – issues such as law and gospel, imputation, justification, union with Christ, ordo solutis, etc. Consistent with the rest of the series, Horton seeks to develop the implications of a classic Reformed understanding of covenant with reference to these issues and in conversation with various modern streams of thought. I found this format engaging and educational, and appreciated many of his insights, especially in regard to imputation, law and gospel, and glorification. However, I thought his presentation of union with Christ and justification could have been nuanced further so as to do justice to its use in Calvin and Reformed theology.
Horton’s thesis in this regard is that “justification is exclusively juridical, yet it is the forensic origin of our union with Christ, from which all of our covenantal blessings flow.” (139) What is perplexing in this is not the forensic nature of justification but his insistence that justification is the ground of union with Christ rather than union with Christ being the ground of both the forensic and renovative benefits of salvation. The motivation for this insistence is laudable – to keep justification from being grounded in any way in ontological or moral changes in us. Horton seems to identify the concept of “union with Christ” solely with these renovative, progressive aspects of our salvation, and thus denies that it can be logically prior to forensic justification.
That way of speaking of “union with Christ” is surely current in some circles both now and in the past. But it does not seem necessary or accurate to understand the Reformed use of “union with Christ” in solely renovative terms. In fact, I would suggest, to do so is to miss the particular genius of Calvin’s logic concerning the distinction and inseparability of the forensic and renovative benefits of salvation. Calvin, typically, in answering the charge that a purely forensic justification would make the real renovation of life unnecessary, explained the necessity of both because of their inseparability in the person of Christ, to whom we are united by faith. The logic is this: Do you have justification? It is only because you are united to Christ by faith — and if you are united to Christ, you have sanctification too, for both are in Christ and Christ can not be torn apart. Some of the quotes Horton cites are themselves clear statements of this line of thought. For instance, he quotes Calvin:
Although we may distinguish them [justification and sanctification], Christ contains both of them inseparably in himself. Do you wish, then, to attain righteousness in Christ? You must first possess Christ; but you cannot possess him without being made partaker in his sanctification, because he cannot be divided into pieces [1 Cor. 1:13]. Since, therefore, it is solely by expending himself that the Lord gives us these benefits to enjoy, he bestows both of them at the same time, the one never without the other. Thus it is clear how true it is that we are justified not without works yet not through works, since in our sharing in Christ, which justifies us, sanctification is just as much included as righteousness. (Insitutes, 3.16.1)
Horton’s conclusion on the basis of this quote is, “Calvin recognizes here that justification need not be confused with sanctification by means of an all-encompassing ontology of union in order to recognize the inseparability of both legal (forensic) and organic (effective) aspects of that union” (emphasis his). Now, it may be true that Calvin would object to an ontological concept of union with Christ, but the problem would not be that it is “all-encompassing” of “legal” and “organic” aspects of salvation. In fact, the very key to his logic here is the logical subordinance of both justification and sanctification to union with Christ. Read more…