The Ordo Salutis: Union with Christ

I indicated in the introduction to this series that there was an ordo docendi to the ordo salutis. My comment had the placement of union with Christ in mind.  Where does it belong?  Do we place it at the end of the list of benefits as John Murray did in his understandably famous Redemption Accomplished and Applied and there explain, as he did, that all the blessings of the ordo are to be viewed as belonging to us in Christ?  Or to do we attempt to place it at the beginning and couch every benefit in its shadow?  Or do we place it within the ordo at the most theologically sensible point?  I have chosen the latter.

So, where might we place this doctrine in the ordo? Well, the answer to that is not an easy one.  For example, what does Paul mean when he writes in Ephesians about God’s having chosen us “in him before the foundation of the world”? Does that mean that we were united to Christ in eternity?  If so, then what do we then make of Ephesians chapter 2 wherein we are said to have been dead in our sins?  If we were dead “in sin” how could we have been alive “in Christ”?  What is more, in Romans 16:7, Paul says that his fellow workers Andronicus and Junia “were in Christ before me” indicating that there was a time when he was not in Christ.  So, how do we understand these verses?

Well, we must understand that there is a difference between God’s decree and the exercise of the decree in creation. For example, a decree to create does not constitute the creation itself.  Thus, according to God’s decree He chose some to salvation before the foundation of the world. The fact that he decreed to save them in Christ does not change the efficient cause of the decree.  In other words, the efficient cause of the decree was God’s effectual call and the Holy Spirit’s work of regeneration in space and time.  Thus, for Paul, there was a time when we were dead in sin, lived in the desires of the flesh and walked according to the Prince of the power of the air.  And yet, because God is rich in mercy, He made us alive together in Christ (Eph. 2:4) Notice, the decree was carried out on time. It is in history that we move from wrath to grace.

However, that still doesn’t help us to situate the doctrine of union with Christ in the ordo itself.  Where does it best fit?  Again, that’s a difficult question but perhaps the best fit is immediately following regeneration. Of course, there is a sense in which effectual call, regeneration and union with Christ happen in an instant.  However, a Biblical logic would argue for God’s effectual call (I Cor. 1:9) to be acted upon by the Spirit in the work of regeneration (Titus 3:5) which would produce a union between once dead sinners who are now alive in Christ.   

The story of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is known to a good many around the world.  However, let me simply take a slice of the story in order to illustrate the point. Remember that Snow White had fallen asleep by eating the apple of the wicked witch.  Thus, in her deathly slumber she was waiting for “love’s first kiss” to break the spell.  When the prince finally arrived his kiss wakened her. Now, until that kiss Snow White was “dead” in sleep.  But once he kissed her she was alive.  In a similar way before effectually calling and regeneration we were dead in sin. However, when the Spirit regenerated us we too were made alive.  Thus, it is upon being made alive that the awakened sinner begins to exercise faith and repentance, which are what theologians call conversion. 

So, if we are talking about our salvation in terms of decree, as Paul is in Ephesians 1:4 then we must understand that were it not for Christ we would not be elect.  Our salvation from beginning to end is for Him and through Him.  However, if we are thinking about the Biblical logic of the gospel’s application in the life of a person in time and space, then there was a time when we were outside of Christ.  Let us praise God for life in the Son.

Jeffrey A Stivason (Ph.D. Westminster Theological Seminary) is pastor of Grace Reformed Presbyterian Church in Gibsonia, PA.  He is Professor-elect of New Testament Studies at the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, PA. Jeff is also an online instructor for Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, PA. He is the author of From Inscrutability to Concursus (P&R), he has contributed to The Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia (Eerdmans) and has published academic articles and book reviews in various journals. Jeff is the Senior Editor of Place for Truth (placefortruth.org) an online magazine for the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals.