Justification (5): Piper, Wright, Schreiner, Thielman, Imputation, and Union with Christ

Towards the end of my justification study last fall I delved a bit to the Piper versus Wright debate.  Although our move cut this study short, I remember my initial impression being that Wright had kind of a scolding, “I’m so misunderstood” tone, which I didn’t find very endearing.  I didn’t think he showed as much concern as Piper did for carefully exegeting texts, and his recurring comparison of his view to heliocentrism and his opponents’ to geocentrism seemed condescending.  I also found myself continually getting annoyed at a certain sloppiness of logic and language in his writing.  Again and again I would read that salvation was “about” things – Abraham, covenant, story, new creation, etc. – with too many specifics left in the dark.  At times a lack of emphasis on a particular theme by Piper seemed to be equated with a denial of that theme – so I was told, for instance, that because Piper has not explicated the role of the Holy Spirit in his writings on this controversy, he is “sweeping jig-saw puzzles back into the box.”  And underneath it all there seemed a steady current of false dichotomies, leaving us to choose, for example, between Luther’s question (“how can I find a gracious God?”) and a God-centered biblical narrative.

At the same time as all this, however, I’ve found his book The Resurrection of the Son of God so helpful, and I vaguely had the sense that, though I increasingly find Luther’s struggle towards justification to be the dominant struggle of my life, there are legitimate insights that the New Perspective has to bring to the table.

Enter the most recent edition of the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, which contained articles from Wright, Tom Schreiner, and Frank Thielman, based off their addresses at the November 2010 ETS meeting in Atlanta.  Once again I was struck by the difference in tone between Wright and his opponents, but especially Schreiner, whose piece was clear, charitable, and helpful.  Though I wished he had drawn this out a bit more, I was especially struck by his connecting the doctrines of imputation and union with Christ:

“Sometimes scholars say that those who defend imputation are importing an abstract and alien notion onto the text. But the charge can be reversed, for when believers are united with Christ, they receive all of who Christ is, both in his life and his death, both in his obedience and his suffering, both in the precepts he obeyed and in the penalty he endured” (JETS 54.1, 34).

I’ve already been convinced of imputation because of verses like Romans 4:22-24, as well as a biblical concept of righteousness (with its active and passive components), and finally because of my practical need of it in my near daily fights with accusing thoughts.  But I’m now wondering how the doctrine of union with Christ solidifies the concept of imputation and sets it in a new grounding.  There are a thousand things involved in the New Perspective that I don’t have the ability to get into, but this is one thing I’d like to explore more – how imputation fits within a more general framework of union with Christ, as well as Christ’s active and passive obedience.

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  1. It seems to me that the Reformed construal of Christ’s active and passive obedience is grounded fundamentally in a faulty Christology: namely, that Christ is a divine-human person — the ‘person of the mediator’ (Calvin), a composite person constituted ‘out of’ the two natures, divine and human. The historic, conciliar position on Christology is that Christ is an exclusively divine person who assumed a human nature. I bring this up because I know that you desire to remain faithful to the theology of the early ecumenical councils (that’s from your theology page).

    It’s kind of strange to think that Christ needed to merit God’s favor, or that anyone needs to merit God’s favor, for that matter.

  2. Fascinating Gav. I’m interested too in how union w/ X fits with justification. I hope to learn more from you on this!

  3. Romans 5:11 “We rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the atonement.”

    Romans 8:10–”But if Christ is IN YOU, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life BECAUSE OF RIGHTEOUSNESS.

    Galatians 4:5-6 –”to redeem those who were under the law, so that we would receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!”

    Imprecise “union” talk can be very dangerous. SOME theologians (Kevin Dixon Kennedy, Torrance) are using the concept of “union” to say that the atonement which really matters is the application of Christ’s death. Therefore, no double jeopardy, they say, unless somebody for whom Christ died has been “united to Christ.” In other words, SOME OF THEM TEACH THAT CHRIST DIED ALSO FOR THOSE WHO WILL PERISH.

    It’s one thing to say that Christ’s death will be effective, and another to say WHY Christ’s death must be effective. Christ’s death saves not only because of God’s sovereign will but also because of God’s justice.

    Although John Owen taught that God only imputed the sins of the elect to Christ, Owen did not teach that all the elect were justified as soon as Christ bore those sins. Owen taught with Romans 6 that the elect must come into legal union with Christ’s death. Until the elect are “placed into” that death, they remain under the wrath of God.

    But SOME use “union” talk to change the meaning of the atonement and accuse the rest with thinking there is no need for faith. If the substitution for sins has already been made, they say, then all for whom it was made should logically already be justified. If the righteousness has already been obtained, then all for whom it was earned should logically already be justified by it. This is the claim made by SOME who use “union” to make the application of the atonement to be the atonement.

    But it’s clear that Owen did not teach justification apart from faith. It’s also clear that Owen did not teach that faith was a mere recognition that we were already justified. (See Carl Trueman’s various books and essays on John Owen). “Unionists” should not ignore Owen’s careful distinction between the atonement and the legal application of the atonement. Some unionists do, some don’t
    Some “unionists” locate the efficacy of the atonement not in Christ’s propitiation itself but only in the efficacy of regeneration and faith to unite people with that propitiation. This is their argument: “you can’t say that there’s double jeopardy until after a person has been married to Christ by faith. Then, and only then, they say, could you say that a person was dying for the same sins twice.”

    But otherwise, it is claimed, you can teach everybody that “Christ is dead for you” without that meaning that Christ has died for your sins, because according to them, Christ’s death for sinners is not the same thing legally as Christ’s death to pay for the specific sins of sinners. So, again according to them, it’s the “union” which designates for whose sins Christ died.