Justification and Union with Christ
When we think about the doctrine of salvation, one of the more important topics to explore is the relationship between union with Christ and justification by faith. In fact, if we have a poor connection between these concepts, our understanding of salvation will be lacking. John Murray has written, “Union with Christ is really the central truth of the whole doctrine of salvation not only in its application but also in its once-for-all accomplishment in the finished work of Christ.”[i] While Calvin considered justification “the main hinge on which all religion turns,” he also believed that God’s grace comes to us a part of the double grace (justification and sanctification) which flows from our union with Christ. [ii]
When the Christian becomes saved, they become a partaker in Christ and all the benefits of Christ. Our union with Christ began before the foundation of the world as the individual is elected in Christ (Eph. 1:4). He has predestined us to adoption in Jesus Christ (Eph. 1:5). Although elect from before the world began, we enter into creation as condemned sinners (Eph. 2:1-3) and need to experience the grace of God in the application of redemption (Eph. 2:4-6). We are saved by grace through faith. (Eph. 2:8). John Calvin summarized this well:
First, we must understand that as long as Christ remains outside of us, and we are separated from him, all that he has suffered and had done for salvation of the human race remains useless and of no value for us. Therefore, to share with us what he has received from the Father, he had to become ours and dwell within us. For this reason, he is called “our Head” [Eph. 4:15], and “the first-born among many brethren” [Rom. 8:29]. We also, in turn are said to be “engrafted into him” [Rom. 11:17], and to “put on Christ” [Gal. 3:27]; for, as I have said, all that he possesses is nothing to us until we grow into one body with him.”[iii]
Paul often uses the phrase “in Christ” as a way of describing our union with Christ. The believer is united to Christ and placed in connected relationship to him. The relationship is sometimes called a “mystical union” by theologians to identify that it is not a physical connection but a spiritual one. It is a type of union analogous to a marriage covenant but with a deeper connection as the benefits Christ achieved now become realities in which the believer participates. We receive what he has won. What was accomplished in the cross and resurrection is now applied. One of those benefits flowing to us through our union is our justification.
In Galatians 2:16-20, Paul argues against those who are denying the gospel by appealing both to justification by faith and our union with Christ:
(16) yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified. (17) But if, in our endeavor to be justified in Christ, we too were found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not! (18) For if I rebuild what I tore down, I prove myself to be a transgressor. (19) For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. (20) I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
There are a number of things that we can point out here in this passage. First, a person is justified through faith in Jesus Christ. There is no small debate in New Testament studies on how to understand the Greek phrase that is literally “faith of Christ.” However, setting all that aside, Paul is clear that his audience has “believed in Jesus Christ.” It is by trusting in Christ that one receives the benefits of Christ. One is declared righteous (the meaning of the word “justification”) because one does not trust themselves or seek to be righteous by obeying the law but because the person has looked to Jesus Christ.
Second, Paul’s audience initially believed in Jesus Christ but then decided to return to a lifestyle of keeping the law and looking for their status before men (and God) based on their keeping the Law. Even Peter, was more concerned about how it looked before men that he was eating with “Gentile sinners” [who didn’t get circumcised and keep law thus being ceremonially impure]. Thus, he turned back to living by the law and functionally undermined what he believed he had in Christ. By “going back,” he showed he was a transgressor. But if Christ died for sins, then aspects of our relationship to the Law are severed. Christ has paid the penalties of breaking the Law (Gal. 3:10-13).
Third, Christ died to Law. The covenant of the Law is fulfilled in Jesus Christ. The curse is borne and washed away from us. Paul says “For through the law I died to the law.” The law’s curse was effectively and finally put on Christ. We do not live under the Old Testament Law anymore. Instead of living under every and all aspects of the Old Testament Law, we are now made alive in Jesus Christ—to live for him and obey him. It is our union with Christ that the benefits in his dying and rising that I become a partaker of what Christ has done. The Law’s curse is removed. Christ in his obedient faithfulness to God has fulfilled all that God required and God raised him up.
Fourth, Paul shows the connection between union with Christ and justification when he writes, “justified in Christ.” When we are believing in Christ with our trust in him, we are coming to him with acknowledge that all we need for our relationship with God is found in him. Righteousness is not found in the obeying and keeping the Law, status doesn’t come in the ceremonies. Righteousness is found in Christ. Why did Christ die to the penalties of the Law if we could have found righteousness in the Law (Gal. 2:21)?
Paul speaks of Christ as the one “being raised for our justification” (Rom. 4:25). Christ’s resurrection was his vindication. He is the Righteous One. To quote Isaiah 53:11 “Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities.” The suffering servant is the Righteous One. His life but especially his anguish on the cross where he trusts his Father is righteous accomplished. The Father is satisfied both in the Son’s payment but also in the Son’s righteous human trust. Out of the Son’s work, many are “justified.” Christ stood and acted on their behalf and now this verdict come upon the children that he stood for. Just as Christ died for sin, so we died for sin. Just as Christ was raised to righteousness, so now we have the righteous verdict declared upon us.
The legal verdict that was given to Christ is now declared upon us. Theologians call this the “imputation of Christ’s righteousness.” It means that there is a reckoning, an account is given. What was counted as Christ’s is not transferred, like in accounting, to us. A verdict is rendered on us “righteous” because it was rendered on Christ and given to us. We are connected to Christ because of our union.
There is more to our union than just receiving our justification. But there would also be no justification upon the believer in Christ is there was not this deep and close intimate union between Jesus and the believer that is established by God. I am in Christ and Christ is in me. The Holy Spirit has taken the work of Christ and given its benefits to us. He takes Christ and gives him to us. We get a number benefits from this union. We are adopted, justified, sanctified, transformed, and glorified, to name the key ones. Justification and adoption are legal rulings. Other benefits are transformative and continually applied progressively. But all that I have in salvation comes to me ultimately because I am in union with my Savior. What he has done for me is given to me so that not one drop of Christ’s blood is spilt without it being for us and for our salvation.
We should be careful not to think of what we have in salvation without realizing that we possess Christ. All the benefits come to us in Christ. His righteousness covers me because I belong to him. Christ is our treasure above all else. All that I have flows from him.
Tim Bertolet is a graduate of Lancaster Bible College and Westminster Theological Seminary. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Pretoria, South Africa. He is an ordained pastor in the Bible Fellowship Church. He is a husband and father of four daughters. You can follow him on Twitter @tim_bertolet.
[i] John Murray Redemption Accomplished and Applied (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1955) 161.
[ii] John Calvin Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.11.1
[iii] John Calvin Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.1.1