Union and Communion (4)

In my last article, I noted that one theological use of the doctrine of union and communion with Christ is that it provides the framework to understand the proper role of faith in justification. Another theological use is that it helps us to understand and so answer the common objections to imputation.
One very important component of justification is the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the believer. As the Westminster Standards explain, God doesn’t justify us on the basis of something that we have done, including our act of believing in Christ. Nor does God justify us on the basis of something that has been done in us, that is, our being made righteous by the work of the Holy Spirit. Rather, God justifies us “only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us.” To use a common metaphor, we are justified because we are clothed with the righteousness of Christ.
Not everyone agrees with this teaching, however, and the objections lodged against it are admittedly plausible.
First, it seems irrational. Ezekiel Hopkins noted that Roman Catholics (“Papists”) argued that it is “utterly impossible to become righteous through the righteousness of another, as to become healthful through another’s health, or wise by another’s wisdom.” Similarly, James Ussher addressed this same objection when he asked, “But how can Christ’s Righteousness be accounted ours? Is it not absurd to say that we are justified by Christ’s Righteousness, as that a Man should be fed with that Meat another eats? Or be warmed with the Clothes another weareth?”
Second, it seems unjust. God says that he will not acquit or justify the wicked (Ex. 23:7). Justifying the wicked and condemning the righteous are alike detestable to God (Prov. 17:15). Indeed, God pronounces a curse upon those who acquit the guilty for a bribe (Isa. 5:23). And yet God justifies the ungodly on the basis of Christ’s imputed righteousness? How is this not unjust? Are human judges supposed to do what God says and not what he does? Imputation seems contrary to the standards and dictates of divine justice.
Third, it seems untruthful. If we are justified on the basis of another’s righteousness then it seems that the judgment made in our favor is not according to truth. God considers something to be true that in fact is not true, namely, that the unrighteous are righteous. John Owen said that Roman Catholics (“Papists”) and others constantly cried out “that we affirm God to esteem them to be righteous who are wicked, sinful and polluted.” In short, imputation is a legal fiction.
The answer to the above objections is multifarious, but one aspect of it is the connection imputation has with union and communion with Christ. Ussher responded to the charge of absurdity by appealing to union with Christ. Christ’s righteousness that is accounted ours “is in Christ…the second Adam” and it is communicated to all who are “united as Members unto him.” And this should not “seem strange” since justification in Christ by Christ’s righteousness is comparable to our condemnation in Adam by Adam’s sin. Hopkins also referenced our union with Christ in reply to the charge of irrationality. He noted that the analogy with health and wisdom is off base because righteousness may be used in a “physical sense” (inherent righteousness) or in a forensic sense. To be healthy requires one to be personally, or physically healthy, but to be righteous doesn’t if it is used in a judicial sense. Thus, the personal (physical) and perfect righteousness of Christ, “who is our Surety, may become ours, and be imputed to our Justification” because by faith “we have a right and title to it; which right and title accrue unto us, by the promise and covenant of God, and our union to our Surety.”
The charges of injustice and legal fiction, which are similar, are likewise in part addressed by union and communion with Christ. Thomas Manton said that “none are accounted or accepted as righteous but those that indeed are so” because “God’s judicial acts are not grounded upon a fiction, but upon a truth.” This is why both Ezekiel Hopkins and John Owen were adamant in articulating that “Imputed Righteousness in not God’s accounting us righteous when we are not so (Hopkins).” It is not a “a naked pronunciation or declaration of any one to be righteous (Owen),” so that all that is required to justify “the most profligate sinner” is for God to “reckon him righteous (Hopkins).” Justification has to be based upon truth and reality. According to Owen and Hopkins this requires a communication, a grant or donation of Christ’s perfect righteousness (all that Christ did on behalf of his people) to the believing sinner (logically) before and for the purpose of his justification. In other words, God can’t judicially declare someone righteous who is not truly righteous and so Christ’s righteousness must truly become the sinner’s in order for him to be justified. However, and this is a key point, the communication of Christ’s righteousness unto justification does not become the believing sinner’s personal or inherent righteousness. It remains Christ’s personal righteousness. Nonetheless, it becomes “ours really and truly, in a law sense…it is our righteousness juridically (Hopkins).” The phrase “imputed righteousness” is typically used to refer to this and distinguish it from inherent righteousness by infusion. And it is this imputed righteousness of Christ that is the sole basis for our justification.
Stating the matter in this way, however, does not fully answer the charges. It is one thing to say that Christ’s righteousness truly becomes the righteousness of the believer, it is another thing altogether to show the justness of it. How is it right for God for justify us on the basis of someone else’s righteousness? In the words of John Owen, what is the “just and sufficient foundation” for imputation? That foundation is none other than union with Christ, that is, “our actual coalescency into one mystical person with him by faith (Owen).” And as we have noted previously, union with Christ leads to communion with him and all his benefits, including “communion with him in his merits, which are as fully imputed unto us for justification, as if his sufferings had been by us endured (Reynolds).” We mustn’t think of imputation as occurring between two strangers for then it would be susceptible to the charge of a legal fiction. Rather, imputation occurs between two parties that have become one legally and spiritually (1 Cor. 6:17). God, therefore, is not unjust to impute his righteousness to us “because [we] are mystically one: and this mystical union is a sufficient ground for imputation (Hopkins).”
Patrick Ramsey