Semi-Pelagianism And Faith As The Instrument Of Existential-Mystical Union With Christ

William Perkins (1558-1602), in his 1595 Exposition of the Apostles’ Creed, on the question of effectual call, wrote:

Againe, if the Vocation of every man be effectual, then faith must be common to all men either by nature, or by grace, or both: now to say the first, namely, that the power of believing is common to all by nature, is the heresie of the Pelagians, and to say it is common to all by grace, is false. All men have not faith, saith Paul. 2. Thess. 3. 2. nay many to whom the Gospel is preached, doe not so much as understand it and give assent unto it; Satan blinding their minds that the light of the glorious Gospel of Christ should not shine unto them, 2. Cor. 4. 4. And to say that faith is partly by nature and partly by grace, is the condemned heresie of the semi Pelagian: for we cannot so much as thinke a good thought of our selves, 2. Cor. 3. 5.

This understanding of the teaching of Pelagius, who denied that “in Adam’s fall sinned we all, i.e., he denied that either Adam or Christ were federal representatives, who denied the doctrine of original sin, who made sin a matter of imitation so that we become sinners when we sin, is the common property of the majority of the Western, Augustinian tradition.

Further, Perkins spoke for the entire Reformation when he distinguished between full-blown Pelagianism and “semi-Pelagianism” which admits the federal relationship and original sin but which tends to downplay the effects of sin. As Perkins observed, semi-Pelagianianism also affirmed the necessity of grace but just as it watered down the effects of sin so it weakened the necessity of and the power of grace. Like Pelagius, for the semi-Pelagians, which included some of Augustine’s opponents in the early 5th century and much of the medieval church, faith is “partly by nature and partly by grace.” The semi-Pelagian view is that grace helps but it is not decisive. The free exercise of the human will, or in some cases, the human intellect or affections is decisive and essential for faith, justification, and salvation. According to semi-Pelagianism, from a Pauline and Protestant point of view justification is no longer by grace alone, through faith (trusting) alone, but now through grace and works (our cooperation with grace).

There is, thus, a good lot of Pelagius in semi-Pelagianism. This is why the Synod of Dort condemned the Arminian (Remonstrant) doctrines of having brought “again out of hell the error of Pelagius.” (Rejection of Errors, 2.3). If one reads Pelagius’ commentary on Romans one sees that the Synod had a point. Pelagius and semi-Pelagius weren’t that far apart.

With that background in mind one can imagine how surprised I was to hear the claim that  it is semi-Pelagian to teach that faith is the instrument of mystical or existential union with Christ is “semi-Pelagian.”

Above we saw that, according to William Perkins, semi-Pelagianism asserts that the will (or other faculties) are able to operate in salvation partly on the basis of nature, i.e., they are not entirely dependent upon grace. In contrast, the Reformed argue that all humans are, by virtue of our union with the first Adam in his disobedience and sin (his violation of the covenant of works; see Westminster Confession of Faith chapter 7), dead in sins (Eph 2). In the providence of God our corrupted faculties are able to function toward civil good or civil righteousness but not for spiritual good or righteousness before God. This is the doctrine of total or extensive depravity (corruption). As the colonial Puritans put it: “In Adam’s fall sinned we all.” As Pauline and Augustinians we understand that sin brings death. Hence, Paul teaches that we “dead in sins and trespasses” (Eph 2:1).

The Reformed ordo salutis (the logical order of the application of redemption) has typically taught that God the Spirit works through the preaching of the gospel to give new life to the elect, and having done, gives them faith in Christ and through that faith resting and receiving Christ, regenerated believers are justified and united to Christ.

Nevertheless, despite this apparently simple and straightforward account of the faith, there seems to be genuine confusion about

  • whether there is or should be an ordo salutis;
  • what the Reformed ordo salutis is;
  • where, in the Reformed ordo salutis, the doctrine of union with Christ should appear.

Definitions
There is also apparently some confusion about what is meant by “union with Christ.” This is understandable because the doctrine has three or four aspects and, in contemporary discussion, all participants have not always been as cautious as necessary to make sure we are talking about the same aspect at the same time in the same way.

Louis Berkhof (1873–1957) represented the mainstream of the Reformed tradition when he spoke of the “federal union” that all the elect have with Christ (Systematic Theology, 448). This aspect of union is relative to the eternal, pre-temporal (before time) “covenant of redemption” (pactum salutis) between the Father and the Son (and the Holy Spirit). According to Ps 110, John 17 and other passages, the Father gave to his Son a people and the Son volunteered to be their Mediator, their federal representative, and their Savior; i.e., to earn their salvation. This is one of the three or four aspects of our union with Christ. For more on this see the chapter on the “Covenant Before the Covenants” in Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry.

Berkhof wrote of a second aspect of our union with Christ, which he called the “union of life” (ibid). This union refers to the natural, organic relation that all humans have with the first Adam, who was the federal representative of all humanity (Rom 5). The corollary to our natural union with Adam, in whom we would have entered in glorious life had he (and we in him) obeyed the commandment of life (“you shall not eat”). In the covenant of redemption God constituted a union between the Son, who would be the Last Adam (1Cor 15) and his people. Implicitly, the Holy Spirit was a party to this covenant as that person who would apply redemption to the people given to the Son. The Second Adam (Rom 5), Jesus, fulfilled that covenant of works for all those whom he represented, for whom he died and for whose justification he was raised.

We might also speak of a third aspect of our union with Christ, which we might call decretal union, i.e., the union that exists between Christ and his people by virtue of God’s decree to elect, in Christ, some out of the mass of fallen humanity to redemption. Paul spoke to this aspect of our union with Christ when he wrote that we were chosen “in Christ” before the foundations of the world (Eph 1). This aspect is, of course, a corollary to the federal union and the union of life mentioned above.

The last aspect is mystical union (or sometimes referred to as “existential union”) and it refers to the subjective application of redemption purposed from eternity in the decree, covenanted among the Trinitarian person in the pactum salutis, accomplished by Christ in his active and suffering obedience, and applied to the elect by the Holy Spirit. Mystical union is, as Berkhof put it, that “intimate, vital, and spiritual” connection “between Christ and his people, in virtue of which He is the source of their life and strength, of their blessedness and salvation” (Systematic Theology, 449).

Ordo Salutis
The debate that has arisen in the last few decades has raised questions about whether we should speak of an ordo salutis. Some contemporary writers have called for us to make a “decisive break with the ordo salutis thinking.” Such a proposal, however, is quite radical in comparison to the Reformed tradition. The existence and necessity of a logical order of the application of redemption seems clear in Romans 8:29–30:

For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.

When we speak of a “logical order” all that is meant is this: God’s decree of predestination is logically prior to vocation or effectual calling. Thus, those whom God the Spirit effectually calls, are the elect. Those who believe and through faith alone are justified are those whom God has elected in Christ and effectually called. The sanctified and glorified are those whom God elected in Christ, effectually called by the Spirit, and justified through faith alone.

That’s the ordo salutis or the logical order of the application of redemption. This is why all the Reformed theologians since the beginning of the Reformation have taught this basic order of the application of redemption. Indeed, the entire Reformation conflict between Rome and the Protestants may be said to have been over the logical order of the application of redemption. The medieval Western church taught and the Roman communion teaches that justification is God’s recognition of our sanctification through the infusion of medicinal grace, through “charity poured into the heart” and cooperation with grace, the combination of which is said to create inherent justice.

The Reformation, however, taught and teaches that God justifies sinners by his unmerited favor (grace) on the basis of Christ’s perfect (condign) righteousness accomplished for us and imputed to us and received through Spirit-wrought faith alone. The Reformation was built upon the logical order of the application of redemption taught by Paul in Romans.

Covenant Theology
Thus far everything seems fairly clear. The historic Reformed view is opposed to semi-Pelagianism and on the Reformation doctrine of election (shared by all the magisterial Reformers) and justification sola gratia, sola fide. It is built on the Pauline order of the application of redemption and a particular understanding of the history of redemption and covenant theology taught by the Reformed theologians and reflected to varying degrees in the Reformed confessions.

Whence the difficulty and confusion? Part of the explanation lies in the discomfort that some began to have with traditional covenant theology. The traditional Reformed view of mystical union, as represented by Berkhof, is built upon the traditional covenant theology (covenant of redemption, covenant of works, and covenant of grace). That scheme was subject to criticism in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries by Lutherans, Socinians, and the Remonstrants (Arminians).  In the twentieth century, that scheme also came under sustained assault by Barthians and by the modern “biblical theology” movement which, unlike the older and more orthodox biblical theologians (e.g., Caspar Olevianus, Johannes Cocceius, Geerhardus Vos, B. B. Warfield, and John Murray) thought of dogmatic or systematic theology as an enemy of a true account of the faith. They sought to overcome traditional distinctions and spoke disparagingly of “scholastic” or “systematic” theology as derived from ideas foreign to Scripture and imposed upon Scripture. There was even a proposal by a notable Reformed writer, in the early 1970s, to replace the categories and vocabulary of systematic theology which those of “biblical theology.”

Others, under the influence of the “biblical theology” movement (dominated in the 20th century by Barthians), came to reject the covenant of redemption (before time) and the covenant of works before the fall. In this scheme the covenant of grace swallowed up everything. According to G. C. Berkouwer (1903–96), this is what happened in the theology of Karl Barth (d. 1968). The decree of election, which seems to have included everyone) obliterated the distinction between law and gospel, and between the covenants of works and grace. Berkouwer himself came to reject the covenant of redemption as a speculative assault on the doctrine of the Trinity. That criticism has been echoed in contemporary, otherwise confessional, Reformed circles. Thus, two parts of the foundation of the historic and confessional Reformed understanding of union with Christ were weakened and the way was opened for new proposals based on either a rejection of the ordo salutis or a re-ordering it.

Where Does Faith Fit?

That faith which secures eternal life; which unites us to Christ as living members of his body; which makes us the sons of God; which interests us in all the benefits of redemption; which works by love, and is fruitful in good works; is founded , not on the external or the moral evidence of the truth, but on the testimony of the Spirit with an by the truth to the renewed soul (Systematic Theology, 3.68).

…The first effect of faith, according to the Scriptures is union with Christ. We are in him by faith. There is indeed a union between Christ and his people, founded on the covenant of redemption between the Father and the Son in the counsels of eternity. We are, therefore, said to be in Him before the foundation of the world.

…But it was also, as we learn from the Scriptures, included in the stipulations of that covenant, that his people, so far as adults are concerned, should not receive the saving benefits of that covenant until they were united to Him by a voluntary act of faith. They are ‘by nature the children of wrath, even as others.’ (Eph. ii.3) They remain in this state of condemnation until they believe. Their union is consummated by faith. To be in Christ, as to believe in Christ are, therefore , in the Scriptures, convertible forms of expression. They mean the same thing, and therefore, the same effects are attributed to faith as are attributed to union with Christ” (Ibid, 3.104)

So says Charles Hodge (1797–1878), who taught at Old Princeton for about fifty years, on the relation between faith and union. We should note that he distinguished between different aspects of our union with Christ. In the quotation above, he named explicitly “federal union” and distinguished implicitly between what we might call “decretal union” and federal union. He also connected his doctrine of mystical union to the doctrine of the covenant of redemption (see the previous post).

His main focus, and the aspect of union in view in this series, however, was mystical (or existential) union. According to Hodge, faith, by the operation of the Holy Spirit, unites us to Christ, i.e., the mystical aspect of union is an effect of faith but its relation to faith is so close that the one may be said to be the other.

We should also observe that he described faith as a voluntary act, i.e., as an act of the will. To be sure, Hodge incorporated other faculties of the soul in the act of faith, but he did describe it as voluntary. Was his doctrine of mystical union semi-Pelagian? It would have been had he taught that we believe before we are regenerated (given new life) or if he had written that regeneration (so defined) is the result of faith but he did not. In the section of his Systematic Theology preceding faith he taught that faith is a consequence of regeneration.

In Hodge’s ordo salutis (the logical order of the Spirit’s application of redemption to the elect) mystical (or existential) union is not said to exist until faith. Faith is not a result of mystical union. Rather, mystical union is, as Hodge said, “the first effect of faith.”

“The proximate effect of this union, and consequently the second effect of faith is justification.” In Hodge’s ordo it is those who are mystically united to Christ by faith who are justified. “Faith,” he wrote, “is the condition on which God promises in the covenant of redemption, to impute unto men the righteousness of Christ. As soon, therefore, as they believe, they cannot be condemned. They are clothed with a righteousness that answers all the demands of justice” (Ibid, 3.105).

I would be happier had Hodge reversed these order of justification and union since, Hodge’s order has it that it is those who are as yet unjustified who are considered to be in mystical union with Christ but the point of this series to gain some clarity about the instrumentality of faith in Reformed theology relative to union. It should be clear that, in Reformed theology, regeneration precedes faith and faith precedes mystical union.

What Is The Nature Of Our Mystical Union?
William Perkins on Mystical Union:

The benefits which we receive by this Mystical union are manifold. For it is the ground of the conveyance of all grace. The first is, that by means hereof every Christian as he is a Christian or a man regenerate, hath his beginning and being in Christ, howsoever as he is a man he hath his being and subsisting in himself, as Paul saith, 1. Cor. 1. 30. Ye are of God in Christ. And, Eph. 5. 30. Ye are members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones.(An exposition of the symbole or creed of the apostles, according to the tenour of the scripture, and the consent of orthodox Fathers of the Church, 1595; Works 300.)

His first job under this heading is to sort out the nature of our mystical union, i.e., the nature of the connection between the believer and Christ and its importance. We cannot benefit from Christ’s work until we are mystically united to him. This was Calvin’s point in Institutes 3.1. “Regenerate” here apparently refers to the Spirit’s work of raising to life the spiritually dead.

How (will some say) can this be? After this manner: The comparison is taken from our first parents. Eve was made of a rib taken out of Adams side, he being cast into a slumber: this being done, Adam awaked and said, This now is bone of my bone, and flesh of my flesh. Gen. 2. 23. Christ was nailed on the cross, and his most precious blood was shed, and out of it arise and spring all true Christians: that is, out of the merit of Christ’s death and passion, whereby they become new creatures.

Our mystical union with Christ is intimate. It is interesting in this section, however, that Perkins did not say, as we might have expected him to say, that the Spirit is the source of union. Of course it’s true that the Spirit raises the spiritually dead and grants them new life. Here, however, he turns to the work of Christ for us before turning to his work in us. We are new creatures because of Christ’s death.

Secondly, every one that believes in Christ by reason of this union hath an unspeakable prerogative: for hereby he is first united to Christ, and by reason thereof is also joined to the whole Trinity, the Father, the Son, and the holy Ghost, and shall have eternal fellowship with them.

Were this text being published now there would be comma after “Christ” in order to make his logic clear. We should understand Perkins to be saying, “everyone who believes in Christ, by virtue of this union, has a great benefit: union with Christ, and thus with the whole Trinity.”

In other words, when Perkins thought of the source of our spiritual life, he connected it closely to the objective work of Christ for us. When he thought of coming into possession of union with Christ, he thought of Spirit-wrought faith. We have the intimate union (and communion) with Christ, by grace alone, through faith alone.

Thirdly, sundry men, specially Papists, deride the doctrine of justification by imputed righteousness: thinking it is absurd, that a man should be just by that righteousness which is inherent in the person of Christ: as if we would say, that one man may live by the soul of another: or be learned by the learning of another. But here we may see, that it hath sufficient foundation.

The importance of the forensic, objective aspect of salvation and justification appears again. Notice how that, as soon as Perkins thinks of the application, he turns back to that which is applied. Notice too that he’s concerned that the reader understand that this is a Protestant doctrine. The ground of our acceptance with God is not our union with Christ— Bernard of Clairveaux had a strong doctrine of union with Christ but he did not have a Protestant doctrine of justification on the basis of the imputation of Christ’s (condign) merit.

Implicitly here too is his answer to the frequent criticism that the Protestants teach justification on the basis of a “legal fiction.” Perkins was saying, in effect, “Nonsense!” The ground of our justification is not fiction. It’s the only actual, real, condign merit that has ever been achieved: that of Jesus. By faith we are united to that Jesus and thus benefit by what he accomplished for us.

For there is a most near and straight union between Christ and all that believe in him: and in this union Christ with all his benefits according to the tenor of the covenant of grace, is made ours really: and therefore we may stand just before God by his righteousness; it being indeed his, because it is in him as in a subject; yet so, as it is also ours; because it is given unto us of God.

The medieval and Tridentine Roman church taught (falsely) that we are accepted by God on the basis of the Spirit’s work in us and our cooperation with that grace. The ground of our acceptance with God was said to be “inherent righteousness” (iustitia inhaerens) or sometimes “charity poured forth into our hearts.” This is what some Romanist apologists are now calling the “Agape” model, as if exchanging the Latin “caritas” (charity) for the Greek Agape makes a substantial difference.

In contrast to the Romish doctrine, Perkins wanted to be clear that, relative to acceptance with God, Christ’s righteousness is truly extra nos (outside us) but he himself does not remain so. Again, one hears Calvin saying: If Christ remains outside of us, he is of no benefit to us. By virtue of Sprit-wrought union with Christ, we become bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh.

On the other hand, in some contemporary accounts of mystical union it almost seems as if mystical union is everything and faith has become a mere technicality to be affirmed formally and then locked away. Having fulfilled its function faith goes away and mystical union now is said to do what for Perkins and most other Reformed writers faith was thought to do. In Perkins, however, we do not find that mystical union swallows up or replaces the forensic doctrine. Rather, Spirit-wrought faith and mystical (Spirit-wrought) union complement each other and faith plays an essential role in justification, in union, and in the Christian life that flows from our mystical union with Christ.

What Does The Church Say?
William Perkins taught that believers are given new life by the Spirit and by the same Spirit given faith and through that faith united to Christ. It is particularly useful to be aware of Perkins as we come to the Westminster Shorter Catechism.

It is good for us to close this essay by considering the Westminster Shorter Catechism since as important as our theologians are, we do not confess their work. We confess God’s Word as summarized by the churches in the confessions and catechisms. The Shorter Catechism has a clear survey of the nature of union with Christ. It should clarify remaining questions.

Since the mid-1970s there has been a number of Reformed theologians who have sought to revise the Reformed doctrines of justification and union with Christ. Some have proposed the doctrine that sinners are accepted with God through faith and works. Yes, it has been put that baldly. “What?” You might object, “Didn’t we settle that in the Reformation?” Yes, for those of us who still believe what the Reformation believed, yes it is settled. Formally, the doctrine of the Reformed churches, as summarized by the confessions and catechisms, has not changed but under the surface, as a matter of history, that revision was accepted and defended by more than a few as the genuine “Reformed” doctrine (as distinct from the ostensibly, allegedly defective Lutheran doctrine). When objections were raised the view was reformulated to teach acceptance with God through “faithfulness.” Nothing was changed, however. The revised doctrine taught (and teaches) that we are justified through trust and obedience or cooperation with grace.

As part of this revision, it was proposed that we are brought into a conditional union with Christ by baptism and that we remain in union with Christ by cooperation with grace, i.e., by works. In this way, our perseverance and our assurance of salvation was placed in jeopardy in the name of achieving a truly and distinctly “Reformed” doctrine of justification (and union with Christ).

As we’ve seen, some have proposed a revision of the doctrine of union that disregards the idea of an ordo salutis arguing that a proper doctrine of union with Christ renders the idea a logical order of salvation invalid. All of Christ’s benefits, it is claimed, flow from existential, mystical union.

Thus, it behooves us to notice the logical and pedagogical order of salvation relative to mystical union with Christ in the catechism. In the questions leading up to this section the catechism has been summarizing the accomplishment of redemption by Christ. Questions 24–28 account for Christ’s triplex munus (threefold office): prophet, priest, and king.

Question 29 asks,

How are we made partakers of the redemption purchased by Christ?

We are made partakers of the redemption purchased by Christ, by the effectual application of it to us by his Holy Spirit.

As we saw in Perkins, in the Shorter Catechism, redemption is accomplished outside of us (extra nos), for us (pro nobis, by Christ alone (solo Christo) and applied to us the Holy Spirit.

Those who benefit from Christ’s work do so by “effectual application” worked by the Spirit. How does this work? The adjective “effectual” signals that we’re thinking about that which the Spirit does, as distinct from what is offered generally to all in the preaching of the Gospel.

Question 30 answers

The Spirit applieth to us the redemption purchased by Christ, by working faith in us, and thereby uniting us to Christ in our effectual calling (emphasis added).

So far there is no question about who applies Christ and his benefits to us: the Holy Spirit. The next question is how the Spirit applies Christ’s benefits to us. The answer is “by working faith in us.” In the context of the current discussions and confusion about the doctrine of union with Christ we must appreciate the simplicity and clarity of the Shorter Catechism. Once more: The Holy Spirit applies the redemption that Christ purchased, earned for us “by working faith in us.”

According to some accounts of mystical or existential union with Christ, we might have expected to see the catechism say, “through [mystical] union with Christ” but that is not what the catechism says. Union with Christ is not the instrument through which we apprehend Christ and his benefits, faith is.

There is a second aspect to this answer. There is a subordinate clause beginning with the word “thereby.” The clause says: “thereby uniting us to Christ.” To what does the “thereby” refer? Faith. How does the Spirit apply redemption? By faith. What else does faith do? It unites us to Christ. Not only is faith the instrument of justification it is also the instrument of union with Christ.

Remember, according to Perkins, there are multiple aspects of union with Christ. There isn’t any genuine disagreement over the decretal union or the federal (representative) union with Christ. The aspect over which there has been confusion has been mystical or existential union with Christ.

This is how the following questions characterize and describe the work of the Spirit in effectual calling:

Effectual calling is the work of God’s Spirit, whereby, convincing us of our sin and misery, enlightening our minds in the knowledge of Christ, and renewing our wills, he doth persuade and enable us to embrace Jesus Christ, freely offered to us in the gospel.

The Spirit convicts, renews, enlightens, and renews the heretofore spiritually dead, unregenerate will. The Spirit is said to “persuade and enable” the renewed faculties to “embrace Jesus Christ, freely offered to us in the gospel.” That embrace is faith. Those who’ve been given new life, who’ve been given faith, who by grace have embraced Christ through faith alone, receive “justification, adoption and sanctification, and the several benefits which in this life do either accompany or flow from them.”

Finally, it should be noted again that we have been considering the logical, not temporal order of salvation. This discussion has to do with how we should think and speak (and teach) about the work of the Spirit and the instrumental role of faith in justification and sanctification. We should think and speak of the Spirit working through the “due use of the ordinary means,” i.e., through the preaching of the Gospel of Christ’s actively obedient suffering, death, and victorious resurrection. We should think and speak of the Spirit creating new life in the elect, giving faith to those renewed, and through that faith conferring union with Christ, justification, adoption, etc.

Contrary to the way some are speaking today, faith is not simply the instrument of justification, it is also the instrument of union and if we are going to characterize the Christian life as a life lived in union and communion with Christ, then we must also characterize it as a life lived by faith. It is not that faith has only one function and that it fulfills its one function in justification and then is locked away in a box for safe keeping. If faith is the instrument of union and union is of the essence of the Christ life then faith is of the essence of sanctification just as it is of the essence of justification.

Historically, some Reformed folk have been tempted to place predestination in the foreground of Reformed theology. Our best theologians and certainly our confessional documents tend to treat predestination as a source of explanation for why things are the way they are but it remains in the background. For example, Theodore Beza (like Calvin) and the Reformed orthodox typically discouraged believers from asking, “Am I elect?” That’s the wrong question because we cannot know, in the abstract, if we are elect. It would require knowledge of God’s decree and such knowledge is hidden from us (Deut 29:29). The question we should ask is: “Do I believe?” The logic is thus: Only the elect believe, I believe, therefore I’m elect. That’s the Reformed faith.

Our theologians and ecclesiastical documents tend to treat mystical union in a similar way. Rather than asking, “Do I have mystical union with Christ?”—again, how, in the abstract would we know?—we should ask, “Do I believe?” The Reformed faith teaches: Believers have union with Christ. I believe. Therefore I have union with Christ. If we start with mystical union or if we focus on it we tend to lose Christ, who is the object of faith and the source of our life. After all, the point of mystical union is to connect us to Christ not to call attention to itself.