The Act & Habit of Faith in Relation to Union with Christ

I've been meaning to write a book on important theological distinctions and how they can be of practical use to ministers and lay Christians. In the past I've discussed the distinction between God's absolute power and God's ordained power. Today I want to talk about the distinction between the act and the habit of faith in relation to union with Christ.

The act-habit distinction is pretty much the same concept as the act-power distinction. God grants the power, but we perform the act. So John Flavel: "though faith (which we call the condition on our part) be the gift of God, and the power of Believing be derived from God; yet the act of believing is properly our act..."

In other words, it is insufficient to merely possess the habit of faith in order to be justified; we must also produce an act of faith to be justified. True, the habit of faith enables us to believe; but we must really believe (i.e., it is our own act).

Peter Bulkeley argued that "the habit is freely given us, and wrought in us by the Lord himself, to enable us to act by it, and to live the life of faith; and then we having received the gift, the habit, then (I say) the Lord requires of us that we should put forth acts of faith." 

We are passive when God grants us the habit of faith. But upon receiving the habit of faith, we are then able to believe, and are therefore "active." How does this relate to union with Christ? 

Goodwin's The Object and Act of Justifying Faith is helpful in answering this question. In it, he speaks of the act of the will completing the union between Christ and the believer, which makes believers "ultimately one with him." 

However, as the bride, we are simply confirming a union that has taken place. So, contrary to the common view of marriage, which requires the consent of both partners since a man (usually) cannot marry a woman against her will, there is a spiritual union on Christ's part to the elect that does not require assent from the sinner "because it is a secret work done by his Spirit, who doth first apprehend us before we apprehend him." 

That is to say, Christ establishes a union with the elect sinner by "apprehending" him and then giving the Spirit to him. But this union is only complete ("ultimate union") when the sinner exercises faith in Christ. 

"It is true indeed the union on Christ's part is in order of nature first made by the Spirit; therefore Phil. 3:12, he is said first to 'comprehend us before we can comprehend him'; yet that which makes the union on our part is faith, whereby we embrace and cleave to him.... It is faith alone that doth it. Love indeed makes us cleave to him also, but yet faith first." (Note: The learned Bishop Davenant also argues the act and habit of faith precede the act and habit of love).

Goodwin is at his finest when he speaks of Christ "taking," "apprehending," and "comprehending" the sinner. Christ "takes hold of us before we believe" and "works a thousand and a thousand operations in our souls to which our faith concurs nothing...Christ dwells in us and works in us, when we act not and know not our union, nor that it is he that works." Before the new believer is aware, our Lord unites us to Himself ("takes hold of us") and works in us. 

As Witsius says, "By a true and real union, (but which is only passive on their part,) [the elect] are united to Christ when his Spirit first takes possession of them, and infuses into them a principle of new life: the beginning of which life can be from nothing else but from union with the Spirit of Christ...Further, since faith is an act flowing from the principle of spiritual life, it is plain, that in a sound sense, it may be said, an elect person is truly and really united to Christ before actual faith.

Witsius sounds very much like Goodwin and Owen in insisting that the elect are united to Christ when Christ's Spirit "takes possession of them" and regenerates them. And he likewise affirms that union precedes actual faith. But then he makes a similar point to Goodwin's, namely, that a "mutual union" inevitably follows from the principle of regeneration:

"But the mutual union, (which, on the part of an elect person, is likewise active and operative), whereby the soul draws near to Christ, joins itself to him, applies, and in a becoming and proper manner closes with him without any distraction, is made by faith only. And this is followed in order by the other benefits of the covenant of grace, justification, peace, adoption, sealing, perseverance, etc."

Not only is the "mutual union" emphasized by the act of faith in the sinner, but also by the fact that the benefits of the covenant of grace (e.g., justification) flow out of this union.


1. The faith that justifies is really our faith, which is why we are justified. The act of faith becomes the instrumental cause whereby we receive the righteousness of Christ. Our act does not justify, but our act of faith is necessary for God to justify us.

2. The faith that justifies is, however, enabled by the power (habitus) that God freely (graciously) grants to us, apart from works. 
Hence, we avoid the antinomian error whereby Christ believes for us; and we avoid the legalist error whereby we contend that faith is not a result of the natural capacity of man. And we hold that justification is an act of God that can never be revoked because the habit is formed by God himself so that he may impute to us Christ's righteousness because our act of faith is the instrument which enables us to receive full justification (WCF 11.2). 

In relation to union, we hold that Christ, in his grace, first takes a hold of us and then enables us to take a hold of him in the act of believing. When this is done, and only when this is done, are we justified and ultimate union takes place. But we only unite ourselves to Christ because he first united himself to us. 

There are a lot of other distinctions related to the doctrine of justification that warrant further discussion. But I am constantly amazed at how the most sophisticated theologians that I have read have done me the most pastoral good. That's why Seminaries might do well to have their best theologians in the PT departments!


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