Do the Standards Downplay Union with Christ?
Many consider the Westminster Standards an excellent summary of Reformed theology. At first glance, however, it appears that this legacy of 17th-century Puritanism has little to say about union with Christ. Do the Standards downplay the precious truth that we are in Christ? Or is there perhaps more in these documents than meets the eye?
Overview of Union in the Standards
The Confession of Faith contains no explicit reference to the nature of our union with Christ. It mentions it in passing (WCF 26.1) related to the communion of saints “united to Jesus Christ their Head.” Chapter 10, “Of Effectual Calling,” implies union without naming it.
The Shorter Catechism speaks of the Spirit “working faith in us, thereby uniting us to Christ” (WSC 30) in our effectual calling. In the end, we hear the simple message that faith unites us to Christ. Thus, as we “receive and rest upon him alone for salvation” (WSC 86), we are joined to him.
The Larger Catechism expands a bit upon the Shorter Catechism by telling us that the “union which the elect have with Christ,” comes as “the work of God’s grace.” Thus, we “are spiritually and mystically, yet really and inseparably, joined to Christ” (WLC 66). This comes within the context of our effectual calling (WLC 67) and in line with the Shorter Catechism.
Why don’t the Standards say more about how we are united to Christ? For starters, as consensus documents, the Standards sought to set forth the indisputable while allowing liberty for the debatable. Namely, is faith logically prior or consequent to union with Christ—or, in a sense, both? The Standards seem to indicate simply that faith leads to union with Christ. As true as this was, some argued that Christ unites himself to us, and from this arises our faith uniting us to him. Many theologians at the time had much more to say on union with Christ than we see in the Standards.
Puritan Commentary on the Shorter Catechism
A look at three 17th-century Puritan commentaries on the Shorter Catechism will help to illustrate such differences. On the one hand, in A Body of Divinity (1692), Thomas Watson (1620-1686) declares, “Faith unites us to Christ; and having union with his person we partake of his merits, and the glorious salvation which comes by him.” On the other hand, Thomas Vincent (1634-1678), in An Explicatory Catechism (1675), speaks of a two-fold union in which faith unites us to Christ, but only because he first unites himself to us:
“We are united unto Christ, 1. By the Spirit on God's part, whereby he draws us, and joins us unto Christ. John vi. 44, No man can come unto me, except the Father, which hath sent me, draw him. 2. By faith; on our part, whereby we come unto Christ, and lay hold on him. John vi. 35, He that cometh unto me shall never hunger, and he that believeth on me shall never thirst. Eph. iii. 17, That Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith.”
Similarly, John Flavel (c.1627-1691) in An Exposition of the Assembly’s Catechism (1688), posits a two-bond union with “The Spirit on God's part” uniting Christ to us; “And Faith on our part,” uniting us to Christ.
The 17th-century debate on this position helps to explain the non-specific discussion on union with Christ in the Standards. As Patrick Ramsey notes on the Larger Catechism, it’s “definition of effectual calling is broad” and “includes both the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit and the sinner’s personal act of faith. It thus allows for one to place union in connection with regeneration or with faith or with both.” In line with Ramsey’s observation, we can read chapter 10 in a new light. For example, WCF 10.1 says that the elect individual in effectual calling is “altogether passive therein, until, being quickened and renewed by the Holy Spirit, he is thereby enabled to answer this call, and to embrace the grace offered and conveyed in it.” While there is no direct reference to union, the passive and active aspects of effectual calling parallel the same in union with Christ.
Two Westminster Puritan theologians
For the more expansive position on union with Christ, let’s take a look at the writings of two theologians actually at the Westminster Assembly. First, Thomas Goodwin (1600-1680), in A Discourse Of Christ the Mediator (1692), argues that being “united” with Christ “is the first fundamental thing of justification, and sanctification, and all.” How does this take place? Goodwin attests, “Christ first takes us, and then sends his Spirit. He apprehends us first. It is not my being regenerate that puts me into a right of all those privileges, but it is Christ takes me, and then gives me his Spirit, faith, holiness, etc.”
Second, Edward Reynolds (1599-1676), in The Life of Christ (1631), speaks of the “union of the faithful unto Christ” by way of the Spirit as “we are begotten anew unto Christ.” From this union arises our faith in Christ and a “communion with him in all such good things as he is pleased to communicate.” For Reynolds, the concepts of passive union unto and active communion with Christ are inseparable yet distinct aspects of our union with him.
Two Puritans on the two ligaments of union
A helpful image in Puritan theology concerns the image of two “bands” or “ligaments” of union with Christ, like two fibrous bands of tissue connecting two bones or joints. John Flavel (c.1627-1691), in The Method of Grace (1681) argues,
“The Spirit must therefore first take hold of us, before we can live in Christ; and when he does so, then we are enabled to exert that vital act of faith, whereby we receive Christ. . . So that these two, namely, the Spirit on Christ's part, and faith, his work on our part, are the two ligaments by which we are knit to Christ… This is the bond of our union with Christ; that union is begun in our vivification, and completed in our actual receiving of Christ.”
Commenting on Flavel, Yuille affirms,
“In terms of sequence, Christ must take hold of us before we can take hold of Him. He makes that clear when He says, ‘No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him”’(John 6:44; see also John 6:65). The reason we cannot come to Him is this: our mind is darkened, our affections are hardened, and our will is enslaved.”
Similarly, The Puritan Nonconformist Rowland Stedman (1630?-1673), in A Treatise of the Mystical Union of Believers with Christ (1668), speaks of the “two great bonds or ligaments” of this union, the first “on Christ’s part” concerning God’s people being “apprehended” by Christ through the Spirit. The second, on “the Believers part,” is when they “apprehend the Lord Jesus Christ” by faith and “take him home, as it were, unto themselves.” In summary, “Being apprehended by him, they take hold of him; and so they are knit together.”
In the Reformed community today, we rightly emphasize faith uniting us to Christ from whom we receive the benefits of our salvation such as justification, adoption and sanctification. However, while we stress that faith itself is a gift, we do well to reflect more on the gracious nature of this union. Put simply, we would never join ourselves to Christ if he does not first join himself to us. The Puritan focus on the two-fold union with Christ protects this great Reformation doctrine in a wonderful way.
What a comfort it is to know that Christ came to me that I may come to him.
Bob McKelvey is an OPC minister. He received his PhD from Westminster (2004) with his dissertation published as 'Histories that Mansoul and Her Wars Anatomize': The Drama of Redemption in John Bunyan's Holy War (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2011). Connected to his passion for Bunyan studies, he wrote a children’s allegory (Illustrated by Jason Licht), Nutonius of Acornshire (Theozoia Books, 2017).
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 For a detailed discussion on Goodwin’s view, see Joel Beeke and Mark Jones, A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life (Reformation Heritage, 2012).
 For more detail, see J. Stephen Yuille , The Inner Sanctum of Puritan Piety: John Flavel's Doctrine of Mystical Union with Christ (Reformation Heritage, 2007 ), 32-39.