Justification and sanctification in union with Christ

Tullian Tchividjian has posted a series of stimulating blogs (Part One ,Two, Three, and Four), where he is in conversation with Michael Horton. I particularly liked this interaction on Union with Christ from the third blog post of the interview:

Tullian – Some say that union with Christ is the integrating structure for both justification and sanctification. In other words, we’re justified “in Christ” AND we’re sanctified “in Christ.”  Sanctification doesn’t depend on justification, but both depend on union with Christ. How would you respond?

Michael – There’s a long and noble history of “the marvelous exchange” in patristic and medieval theology that the Reformers picked up. Bernard of Clairvaux had an especially significant impact on Luther and Calvin, and both Reformers gave a lot of space to this theme of union with Christ as an analogy not only for justification but for all of the saving benefits we have in Christ.

Like Paul (think especially of the transition from Romans 6 to 7), Calvin emphasized that we cannot embrace Christ for justification without at the same time embracing him for our sanctification. We don’t just receive a gift, or even many gifts, but Christ himself by faith. We are united to him. He is the eschatological forerunner, head, Vine, and source for the new creation to which we now belong. The Spirit unites us to Christ by the gospel and the gospel is not only the good news that we are justified, but the good news that the Lord Christ has conquered the dominion of sin and we have been baptized into his death and resurrection. So the gospel is always the source of our sanctification, but the gospel includes freedom from both the guilt and tyranny of our sins.

But some among us suggest that because we receive justification and sanctification in union with Christ, there is no logical dependence of the latter on the former. I don’t find that anywhere in the relevant scriptural passages or in the exegesis offered by the Reformers, the confessions and catechisms, and the Puritans.  Reformed theology certainly teaches that justification provides the secure legal basis for our growing and maturing relationship with Christ (i.e., sanctification).  At the same time, we’re always returning to Christ for both.  So we have to resist the false choice between union with Christ or justification.  As much as Calvin referred to the former, he still calls justification “the main hinge on which religion turns,” “the primary article,” etc..  That runs straight through all of the great spiritual writings, sermons, and treatises of the Reformed tradition.

Peter serves as a pastor-teacher, at home and abroad, resourcing gospel-centred communities.

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