Biblical Theology Articles

Biblical Theology and the Westminster Standards

Richard B. Gaffin, Jr.

If it is fair to view Geerhardus Vos as the father of Reformed biblical theology, then we are now at a point several generations later where we can begin assessing something of the lasting impact of that theology, particularly within Reformed churches [1]. The following reflections, no more than partial, are an effort at such an assessment.

Among pastors, teachers, and others more or less conversant with the biblical-theological work of Vos, my perception is that a fairly sharp difference of opinion presently exists. On the one side are those enthusiastic about biblical theology (or redemptive-historical interpretation of Scripture) and who see themselves in their own work as building on the insights of Vos and others, such as Meredith Kline and Herman Ridderbos. Others, however, question the value of biblical theology, if they have not already concluded that it has introduced novelties detrimental to the well-being of the church. Still others are at various points in between these clashing outlooks, often wondering what to think.

While I would certainly include myself among the first group just mentioned, the “enthusiasts,” some of the reservations voiced by the second deserve to be taken seriously. One among these is the concern that biblical theology, despite its avowed intention to serve systematic theology, is in fact undermining doctrinal stability by diminishing interest and confidence in the formulations of classic Reformed theology. This is seen to have the further deleterious effect of weakening cordial commitment to the Reformed confessions and so, inevitably, of impairing their proper functioning, so necessary for the church’s well-being.

This concern, if substantiated, would certainly be cause for alarm. In my view, however, it is largely misplaced. In fact, as I hope to help show here, a deep compatibility exists between the Westminster Standards and biblical theology. While my comments have these Standards primarily in view, they are largely applicable as well, I take it, to other Reformed confessions, like the Three Forms of Unity, although I make no effort to show that here.


I begin with two observations of a more general sort pertaining to the often alleged or perceived novelty of biblical theology. Without for a moment wanting to slight the epoch-making value of Vos’s work, for which my admiration continues undiminished, we misunderstand him if we fail to recognize his continuity with those who came before him. Contrary to the impression occasionally left by some, it is not as if the church were stumbling about in interpretive darkness until he burst onto the scene, lightening-like, toward the close of the nineteenth century. In fact, already in the second century in the first great struggle for its existence, the battle with Gnosticism, the church had impressed upon it indelibly the controlling insight, as much as any, of biblical theology, namely, that salvation resides ultimately not in who God is or what he has said, but in what he has done in history, once for all, in Christ. Virtually from its beginning on and more or less consistently, the church has been incipiently biblical-theological.

Narrowing the scope to Reformed theology, Vos himself has observed:

. . . it has from the beginning shown itself possessed of a true historic sense in the apprehension of the progressive character of the deliverance of truth. Its doctrine of the covenants on its historical side represents the first attempt at constructing a history of revelation and may be justly considered the precursor of what is at present called biblical theology [2].

This provides a particularly clear indication, present frequently throughout his work, of the substantive continuity he saw between his own work and earlier Reformed theology and so how those who build on that work ought to view theirs, as well as what they (and others) should expect of it by way of continuity with the past. The Reformed confessions, and the theological framework they entail, particularly thinking on the covenant, far from being hostile, are quite hospitable toward-in fact they anticipate-giving greater, more methodologically self-conscious attention to the redemptive-historical substance of Scripture.

The preceding paragraph raises at least two questions. First, is Vos right? Or does his work, despite his intention, perhaps set in motion factors of which he was unaware but which we at a distance are now able to see are in tension or even conflict with Reformed theology and its confessions? Second, if he is right, are there perhaps, nonetheless, elements in that theology and its confessions at odds with their own underlying covenant-historical disposition? With these and attendant issues on the horizon, I will consider, as a test case, the role of the ordo salutis in the Westminster Standards.


In his magisterial book on Paul’s theology, Herman Ridderbos observes repeatedly and on a variety of topics, sometimes explicitly, more often implicitly, that the apostle’s interest is primarily the history of salvation (historia salutis), not the order of salvation (ordo salutis) [3]. This distinction, its formulation apparently original with Ridderbos, [4] signals not only what Paul’s controlling concern is, redemptive-historical, but also what it is not. Why the negative as well as the positive? In large part because of his perception, expressed already in the opening pages, that increasingly since the Reformation preponderant interest within Lutheran and Reformed theology and church life has shifted to the personal appropriation of salvation, to questions of ordo salutis, and so moved away from where it was for Luther and Calvin, like Paul and following him, on salvation as revealed once for all in Christ’s death and resurrection (historia salutis) [5].

This perception has validity, as long as what is primarily the case is in view, both for Paul and the Reformation tradition. As he proceeds, however, Ridderbos tends to leave the impression on a variety of topics that Paul has little or no interest in issues of ordo salutis. This has the effect, as I will try to show, of unnecessarily widening the difference between Paul and Calvin, on the one hand, and subsequent Reformed theology, on the other.

At this juncture it may be helpful to make a clarifying comment about the expression ordo salutis, at least as I am using it here. It can have two distinct senses, one broader, the other more specific. The latter, more technical sense is the more common and has in view the logical and/or causal, or even temporal “order” or sequence of various discrete saving acts and benefits, as unfolded within the actual life of the individual sinner [6]. It may also be used, however, without having yet settled on a particular “order” or even that there is one in the sense just indicated, to refer, more generally, to the ongoing application of salvation, in distinction from its once-for-all accomplishment. Understood in this sense, the historia salutis/ordo salutis distinction reformulates the classic Reformed distinction between redemption accomplished and applied, but in a way that accents the redemptive-historical nature of the accomplishment (impetration) and so the need to keep that in view in discussing issues of application (individual appropriation).

It is important not to confuse or otherwise equivocate on these two senses of ordo salutis. The narrower concept is subject to the criticism of tending in effect, in some instances more than others, to focus on ordo at the expense of salutis, of being so preoccupied with various acts of application in their logical/causal and even temporal sequence and interconnections that salvation itself, in its wholeness, becomes eclipsed, of so concentrating on the benefits of Christ’s work in their variety and mutual relations, that he, in his person and work, recedes into the background. However, in making such criticisms, particularly from a redemptive-historical perspective, we must avoid the opposite extreme of depreciating all ordo salutis issues as unnecessary or even inappropriate. In fact, it is not putting it too strongly, the integrity of the gospel itself stands or falls with the ordo salutis in the broader sense, equivalent to the application of salvation (applicatio salutis) and distinct from its accomplishment.

That necessity can be highlighted by briefly noting Karl Barth’s rejection of the notion of ordo salutis [7]. This dismissal, perhaps the most resolute and sweeping to date, turns on his idea of Geschichte (“historicity” or “historicness”), involving the undivided contemporaneity of salvation as a single event, the radical simultaneity of all its aspects (in this sense often termed “the Christ-event”). Such a notion plainly leaves no place for the distinction between accomplishment and application, for a salvation in history, finished 2000 years ago and as such having its own integrity, yet distinct from its ongoing appropriation in history. Accordingly, Barth rejects any notion of ordo salutis, maintaining that it leads inevitably to psychologizing distortions of Christian existence.

Furthermore, as Barth’s idea of Geschichte leaves no room for the accomplishment/application distinction and so for any ordo salutis notion, it involves a radical recasting of the work of Christ. For one, it excludes as well a temporal distinction or sequence between the two states of Christ; Barth denies their historical before and after, that in history Christ’s exaltation followed his humiliation [8]. He sees, quite rightly, that the distinction between accomplishment and application is given with the historical sequence of humiliation followed by exaltation. To affirm or deny the latter is to affirm or deny the former; they stand or fall together.

Barth’s view, it should be clear, involves a radical departure from biblical revelation, one that strikes at the very heart of the gospel. If Christ’s state of exaltation is not separate from and subsequent to his state of humiliation, if his being “highly exalted” and “given the name above every name” did not follow, temporally, his “obedience unto death” (Phil 2:8-9), that is, if it is not the case that the incarnate Christ was for a time in the past, in history, actually exposed to God’s just wrath on the sins of his people, but now, subsequently and permanently, for all eternity future, is no longer under God’s wrath but restored to his favor under conditions of eschatological life, then, as Van Til tirelessly pointed out in critiquing Barth’s theology, “there is no transition from wrath to grace in history.” [9] But if there is no transition from wrath to grace in history, then there is no gospel and we are, as the apostle says, in the most pitiable condition of still being “in our sins” (1 Cor 15:17-19). The gospel, the salvation of sinners, stands or falls with the historical before and after of Christ’s humiliation and exaltation.

Accordingly, with that before and after, with the historical distinction between these two states, is given the irreducible distinction between redemption accomplished and applied, between historia salutis and ordo salutis, where neither one may be allowed to diminish or eclipse the other. No matter how much we may wish to be preoccupied with the redemptive-historical dimensions of the gospel as being cosmic, corporate, socio-political (I write with an eye to the current evangelical absorption, too often insufficiently critical in my judgment, with the work of some associated with the New Perspective on Paul), the question of application, of the ordo salutis in the more general sense, may not be suppressed or otherwise evaded: How does the then and there of Christ’s transition from wrath to favor relate to the here and now of the sinner’s transition from wrath to grace? How do Christ’s death and resurrection, then and there, benefit sinners, here and now? What are those benefits and what is the pattern (ordo) in which they are communicated to sinners?


From Barth I turn to Calvin and for two closely related reasons. In an especially instructive and edifying way, unparalleled in the Reformed tradition as far as I have seen, he shows the absolute necessity of ordo salutis concerns and at the same time has led the way in pointing to an ordo salutis faithful to the historia salutis, to an appropriation of salvation that honors the redemptive-historical structure and substance of Scripture [10].

Book 3 of the Institutes is titled, “The Way in Which We Receive the Grace of Christ: What Benefits Come to Us from It, and What Effects Follow.” This title plainly shows that Calvin understands himself to be concerned throughout with the application of salvation (“the grace of Christ”), its “benefits” and consequent “effects” (in their irreducible plurality and diversity, as he will go on to show). All told, his concern is “the way” (Latin: not ordo, but modus, “mode,” “manner,” “method”), in which “we” (believers) “receive” this grace, in which this salvation is appropriated by “us.” With this concern restated in the opening words of 3.1.1, the very next sentence reads: “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 done for the salvation of the human race remains useless and of no value to us.” [11] In my opinion, on the matter at hand no more important words have been written than these. Incisively and in a fundamental way, they address both the necessity and nature of application, the basic concerns of an ordo salutis. So far as necessity is concerned, to put it somewhat provocatively, Calvin is saying something like, “the redemptive-historical Christ, at least the Christ of redemptive history as often conceived, is not enough”; in fact, he says, this Christ is “useless and of no value to us”!

Certainly this Christ, his death and resurrection, including his ascension and Pentecost, as the culmination of redemptive history, are the heart-core of the gospel. They are “of first importance,” as Paul says (1 Cor 15:3); he and other New Testament writers make that abundantly clear. That centrality is not at issue here. But to punctuate the gospel, particularly its proclamation, with a full stop after Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension (allowing for his future return) does not do the gospel full justice, as “the power of God unto salvation,” and as it involves “the revelation of the righteousness of God” (Rom 1:16-17). In fact, as Calvin intimates, such a parsing of the gospel misses an integral component, something absolutely essential.

Or as later Reformed theology affirmed aphoristically: “Without application, redemption is not redemption” [12] Herman Bavinck makes a sweeping and quite striking observation to put the importance of application in proper perspective. Taking in the entire activity of God in history, he says, there are just three great initiating works: the creation of the world, the incarnation of the Word, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit [13]. In other words, seen in a most basic profile, the work of the triune God consists in creation, and, given the fall, redemption accomplished/historia salutis and redemption applied/ordo salutis.

Subsequently, in the course of his lengthy treatment of the ordo salutis as a topic, Bavinck makes another statement worth weighing: “In his state of exaltation there still remains much for Christ to do.” [14] This statement is surely faithful to Scripture (e.g., Rom 8:33-34; Heb 7:25, 8:1-2) and the Reformed confessions (e.g., Westminster Shorter Catechism, 23-26; Larger Catechism, 42-45, 52-55; Belgic Confession, 26; Heidelberg Catechism, 46-47, 49-51). We may ask, however, whether, with its implications, it has been developed in those confessions as it might, or functioned in the theology and life of the church as it should. All told, the “it is finished” of the cross is true, preciously true; it points to the end of his humiliation and, together with his resurrection, to remission of sin and entitlement to eschatological life as definitively achieved and secured. But it is only relatively true, relative to the “much,” as Bavinck says, that it remains for the exalted Christ to do.

It should be apparent, then, that Christ is not only active in redemption accomplished but also in redemption applied; the one just as much as the other is his work. In fact, from the perspective of his present exaltation the distinction between redemption accomplished and applied, between historia salutis and ordo salutis begins to blur. The way it is often put, that accomplishment is Christ’s task, application the Holy Spirit’s, is helpful but can also be misleading. The latter, no less than the former, is Christ-centered.

The question, then, is not only, as I put it earlier, how the once-for-all “there and then” of Christ’s work relates to the “here and now” of my/the church’s present life, but also, how the “there and now” of his (present) activity relates to the “here and now” of my life, or, given that the ascended Christ indwells the church by his Spirit, that, in fact, he is also present with the church as “the life-giving Spirit” (1 Cor 15:45), [15] how does the “here and now” of his activity relate to the “here and now” of my life?

The second sentence of Book 3 of the Institutes, quoted above, not only highlights the necessity of ordo salutis concerns but also their essence. The pivotal, absolutely crucial consideration, the heart of the matter, put negatively as Calvin does here, is that Christ not remain “outside us” (extra nos), that we not be “separated from him” (ab eo). Or, expressed positively, as he presently does, that “we grow into one body [in unum] with him.” Here Calvin has in view the union that exists between Christ and the believer, referred to repeatedly and in a variety of ways throughout Book 3 and elsewhere in his writings. This union is the reality he sees to be central and most decisive in the application of redemption.

It is essential to be clear about this union, about its nature and scope, especially since it is easy to equivocate on or otherwise overlook irreducible distinctions, or to make wrong distinctions, in discussing union with Christ. Expressed categorically, the union of which Calvin speaks here is neither “predestinarian,” in the sense of election in Christ “before the foundation of the world” (Eph 1:4-5), nor “redemptive-historical,” being contemplated in him and represented by him in his work, as the last Adam, in “the fullness of time” (Gal 4:4). Rather, in view is union, he immediately specifies, as it is “obtained by faith” (fide), union as it does not exist apart from or prior to faith but is given with, in fact is inseparable from faith; as it has been categorized, union that is “spiritual” and “mystical.”

This mention of faith, and the key role accorded to it, prompts Calvin, still within this opening section (3.1.1), to touch on what would become a central question in subsequent discussions about the ordo salutis, namely the origin of faith, giving rise eventually in Reformed theology to the doctrine of regeneration in a narrower sense. We observe, so Calvin, “that not all indiscriminately embrace that communion with Christ which is offered through the gospel.” Why? Not because of some differentiating factor on our side. The answer is not to be found by looking into ourselves or contemplating the mystery of human freedom and willing. Rather, consistent with his uniform teaching elsewhere about the total inability of the will due to sin, we must “climb higher” and consider “the secret energy of the Spirit” (arcana Spiritus efficacia). Faith is Spirit-worked, sovereignly and efficaciously.

The union Calvin has in view is forged by the Spirit’s working faith in us, a faith that “puts on” Christ (citing Gal 3:27), that embraces Christ as he is offered to faith in the gospel. Faith is the bond of that union seen from our side. “To sum up, the Holy Spirit is the bond by which Christ effectually unites us to himself.”

This, in a nutshell, is Calvin’s ordo salutis: union with Christ by (Spirit-worked) faith; being and continuing to be united with Christ by faith, faith that, through the power of the Spirit, “embraces Christ, freely offered to us in the gospel” (Westminster Shorter Catechism, 31). This “ordo” is at once simple as well as profound and comprehensive, because on matters of application it keeps the focus squarely on Christ-on Christ specifically as crucified and resurrected, on Christ who is what he now is as he has suffered and is now glorified. It does not lose sight of the various “benefits” and “effects” of salvation (see the title of Book 3), in all of their multiplicity, but recognizes, as he goes on to show, that these have their place only within union with this presently exalted Christ, as they are its specific outworkings, its inseparable as well as mutually irreducible manifestations. It is an “ordo,” I take it, that captures, better than other proposals, the essence of “the great eschatological ordo salutis” [16] taught in the New Testament, especially by the apostle Paul.


Subsequent, post-Reformation theology, in this regard, represents something of a shading of Calvin. We must be on guard against overstating this as a criticism. Certainly, in the area of application important advances took place in developing specific doctrines of grace, for instance, the doctrine of regeneration in the aftermath of the emergence of Arminianism. But a prevailing tendency down to the present has been to be preoccupied with the various benefits of Christ’s work, and their interrelations-logical, causal, and sometimes even temporal, [17] ordo in this sense-so that while Christ himself is certainly there, the danger is that he fades, more or less, into the background, and where to put union with Christ-spiritual, mystical union-in the ordo salutis remains something of a conundrum. Ironically, the better the biblical doctrine is understood-union as an all-encompassing reality that resists being correlated as one benefit among others, like a link in a chain-the more clearly this conundrum surfaces. This is the case particularly within the Reformed tradition [18]. Lutheran theology senses no problem here, since union is put after justification, as one of its attendant benefits, an “effect” or “fruit” or “result” of justification [19].

Where, then, do the Westminster Standards fall within this assessment of post-Reformation developments? Three observations are in order. First, in distinction from positions no doubt held by a number of the framers, the Standards themselves do not spell out a particular ordo salutis (of causally concatenated acts or works of God). Within the bounds of what they do teach, an explicitly articulated ordo salutis is left an open question. The Standards do not foreclose that issue for those who subscribe to them [20].

Second, such indications as the Standards do contain point to a position close to Calvin’s. That can be seen most easily from two parallel sections of the Larger and Shorter Catechisms [21]. At question and answer 58 the Larger Catechism begins to take up “the application” of “the benefits which Christ hath procured.” Following questions dealing primarily with the visible church/invisible church (the elect) distinction and the “special privileges” of the former (59-64), question 65 asks about the “special benefits” of the latter, with the answer: “The members of the invisible church by Christ enjoy union and communion with him in grace and glory.” This answer structures the basic flow all the way through question and answer 90: union with Christ (66-68); communion in grace with Christ (69-81); communion in glory with Christ (82-90). Within the scope of the application of redemption to the elect, then, union and communion with Christ are seen as most basic, encompassing all other benefits.

Answer 66 describes this union as being “joined to Christ,” and specifies that the union in view is effected “spiritually and mystically, yet really and inseparably.” The next two answers also refer to this union, as the goal of effectual calling, as being “draw[n] . . . to Jesus Christ” (67) and “truly com[ing] to Jesus Christ” (68). Then we come to answer 69, which, in addressing “the communion in grace which the members of the invisible church have with Christ,” speaks of “their justification, adoption, sanctification, and whatever else, in this life, manifests their union with him (emphasis added).

So far as I can see, answer 69 is the most forthright assertion in the Westminster Standards on ordo salutis issues as usually discussed, and what is noteworthy is that union with Christ is clearly not put in series with the other benefits mentioned, like one link in a chain. Rather, those benefits “manifest” being united with Christ; that is, the former are functions or aspects of the latter.

Shorter Catechism questions and answers 29-32 are to the same effect, though less clearly. Answer 29 brings into view “the effectual application” of redemption. Answer 30 is properly read as expressing the essence of that application: taking place in effectual calling, it is the Spirit’s “working faith in us, and thereby uniting us to Christ.” Answer 31 reinforces that the union in view (“to embrace Jesus Christ”) is the goal of effectual calling.

Question and answer 32 enumerate the present benefits of redemption applied, but are silent about union with Christ. This omission is somewhat surprising and unlike the parallel in Larger Catechism 69. In light of the latter as well as their own immediate context, a better wording might have been: Question: “What benefits do they that are united to Christ partake of in this life? Answer: “They that are united to Christ do in this life partake of justification, adoption, and sanctification, and the several benefits which . . .” (changed wording in italics) [22].

We may conclude, then, that in the Westminster Standards the heart of the application of salvation, underlying all further consideration of ordo salutis questions, is being united to Christ by Spirit-worked faith, a union providing for multiple other benefits, without any one benefit either being confused with or existing separately from the others. This is essentially Calvin’s “ordo salutis,” though not as clearly elaborated as one might wish.

Third, in the light of these observations, I offer for further reflection and testing the following thesis on the overall relationship between biblical theology and the Westminster Standards. The predominant concern of biblical theology, as it has in fact developed, has been the once-for-all accomplishment of salvation; for the Standards, the predominating concern is its ongoing application. Both, biblical theology and the Standards, share both concerns, accomplishment and application, but with different emphases. In terms of the historia salutis/ordo salutis distinction, the former is biblical theology’s major focus, the latter, its minor focus; for the Standards these foci are reversed. Both, biblical theology and the Standards, have the same dual or elliptical concern but with differing accents. These respective accents need not be seen as mutually exclusive; they are not antagonistic but complementary. At least for the large area of soteriology, of the salvation revealed in Christ in both its once-for-all accomplishment and its ongoing application, there is no good reason why biblical theology cannot work compatibly within the theological framework of the Standards, to enrich that framework and at points perhaps improve its formulations without fear of undermining it. The same may be said, as far as I can see, of the other areas covered in the Standards.


Calvin’s approach to ordo salutis issues, provided for as well, as we have just seen, in the Westminster Standards, has multiple strengths. Here I highlight two that emerge as he deals with the application of redemption in Book 3 of the Institutes, both chosen for their bearing on the doctrine of justification and its biblically faithful maintenance today.

First, the basic flow of Book 3 is instructive. Chapter 1, as already noted, introduces union with Christ by Spirit-created faith; chapter 2 further treats faith (its “definition” and “properties”); chapters 3-10 take up “regeneration by faith” and the Christian life (“regeneration” used here in a broader sense, equivalent to sanctification in subsequent theology); chapters 11-18 then focus on justification by faith (followed by chapters on Christian freedom, prayer, election, and the final resurrection). What is remarkable here is the “ordo”!: Calvin discusses the change that takes place within the sinner, our ongoing inner renewal and personal transformation, before the definitive change effected in the sinner’s legal status, our forensic standing coram Deo. He addresses the removal of the corrupting slavery of sin before considering the abolition of the guilt it incurs. All told, he treats sanctification, at length, before justification. Such an approach contrasts conspicuously with subsequent Reformed and Lutheran theology, where justification always (without exception?) precedes sanctification.

Why does Calvin proceed as he does? More importantly, what enables him to take this approach without compromising or minimizing the Reformation doctrine of justification, but rather, in taking it, to provide one of the classic discussions of that doctrine? One can only admire what Calvin has achieved in structuring the first 18 chapters of Book 3 as he did. Here is a truly impressive theological coup.

The constantly echoing charge from Rome at that time (and ever since) is that the Protestant doctrine of justification, of a graciously imputed righteousness received by faith alone, ministers spiritual slothfulness and indifference to holy living. In responding to this charge, subsequent Reformed and Lutheran theology, concerned at the same time to safeguard the priority of justification to sanctification, especially against Rome’s reversal in suspending justification on an ongoing process of sanctification, has asserted, more or less adequately, that justifying faith is never alone in the person justified; as the alone instrument of justification it is a working, obedient faith, in the sense that it is “ever accompanied with all other saving graces” (Westminster Confession 11:2).

Calvin’s approach is different. He counters Rome’s charge, masterfully and, in my opinion, much more effectively, by dwelling at great length (133 pages) on the nature of faith, particularly its inherent disposition and concern for holiness, distinct from the issue of justification and before beginning to discuss justification. He concerns himself extensively with sanctification and faith in its sanctified expressions, largely bypassing justification and without having yet said virtually anything about the role of faith in justification. He has taken this approach, he says in a transitional passage right at the beginning of chapter 11 (the first on justification), because “It was more to the point to understand first how little devoid of good works is the faith, through which alone we obtain free righteousness by the mercy of God.” Calvin destroys Rome’s charge by showing that faith, in its Protestant understanding, entails a disposition to holiness without particular reference to justification, a concern for Godliness that is not to be understood only as a consequence of justification.

Calvin proceeds as he does, and is free to do so, because for him the relative “ordo” or priority of justification and sanctification is indifferent theologically. Rather, what has controlling soteriological importance is the priority to both of (spiritual, “existential,” faith-) union with Christ [23]. This bond is such that it provides both justification and sanctification (“a double grace”), as each is distinct and essential. Because of this union both, being reckoned righteous and being renewed in righteousness, are given without confusion, yet also without separation.

To illustrate Calvin uses a metaphor that seems hard to improve on (3.11.6): Christ, our righteousness, is the Sun, justification, its light, sanctification, its heat. The Sun is at once the source of both, so that light and heat are inseparable. But only light illumines and only heat warms, not the reverse; both are always present, without the one becoming the other. Or as he puts it elsewhere, Christ “cannot be divided into pieces.” [24]

There is no partial union with Christ, no sharing in only some of his benefits. If believers do not have the whole Christ, they have no Christ; unless they share in all of his benefits they share in none of them. Justification and sanctification are inseparable not because God has decided that subsequent to forgiving sinners and extrinsic to that forgiveness, he will also renew them. Rather, they are inseparable because of who Christ is and the nature of our union with him. Calvin calls justification “the main hinge on which religion turns,” [25] but clearly it is that for him only as that hinge is firmly anchored, and religion pivots, within the believer’s union with Christ [26].

Second, prominent in Protestant, especially Lutheran, development of the doctrine of justification is the notion of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness as an “alien” righteousness; the righteousness that justifies is apart from us, it is not our own but Christ’s, not of our own doing but his. At issue here is the concern, not only understandable but necessary, not to confuse Christ’s righteousness, as the sole ground for justification, with anything that takes place within the sinner, the concern not to obscure that justifying righteousness is perfect and complete, apart from anything the believer does, in what Christ has done, once for all, in his finished work. In that sense, to speak of “alien righteousness” is surely defensible.

At the same time, we should recognize, a definite liability attaches to this expression. “Alien” suggests what is remote, at a distance; it can easily leave the impression of an isolated imputative act, without a clear relationship to Christ and the other aspects of salvation. In this regard, I have the impression that some Reformed thinking on justification centers on a line, focused on the individual sinner, that moves from my eternal election to its realization and documentation in history by my faith, produced by regeneration, that receives justification. On this view Christ and his work are surely essential but recede into the background, along with other aspects of salvation.

A different tone is heard in Calvin. In expressing himself on justification, including imputation, he always, explicitly or implicitly, relates it to union with Christ. Perhaps his most pointed statement on imputation in this regard is the following:

Therefore, that joining together of Head and members, that indwelling of Christ in our heart-in short, that mystical union-are accorded by us the highest degree of importance, so that Christ, having been made ours, makes us sharers with him in the gifts with which he has been endowed. We do not, therefore, contemplate him outside ourselves from afar in order that his righteousness may be imputed to us but because we put on Christ and are engrafted into his body-in short, because he deigns to make us one with him. For this reason, we glory that we have fellowship of righteousness with him [27].

Here there is no mingling of Christ’s righteousness with some presumed righteousness of our own. But, at the same time, that righteousness, as imputed, is, in an absolutely crucial sense, anything but “alien.”

Such remarkable and compelling words, I dare say, could only be written by someone with the ordo salutis intimated in Institutes, 3.1.1, and who has also incisively anticipated subsequent insights into the redemptive-historical substance of Scripture and the gospel, particularly the soteriology of the apostle Paul. These words are no less timely today, when, perhaps as never before, the notion of imputed righteousness is either misunderstood or rejected [28]. Only as we maintain imputation as a facet of what Calvin calls our “fellowship of righteousness” (iustitiae societatem) with Christ, as an integral aspect of our union with Christ crucified and exalted, will we do so in a fashion that is more compelling and fully cogent biblically.

As added value, doing that will provide a much more effective response to the persisting misunderstanding of Roman Catholics and others that the Reformation doctrine of justification renders sanctification unnecessary. It will also help the heirs of the Reformation to keep clear to themselves something they have not always or uniformly appreciated, namely how integral, no less essential than justification, to the salvation accomplished and applied in Christ sanctification is, involving as it does the pursuit of that “holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Heb 12:14).

In fact, from Rom 8:29-30, to take but one instance briefly, it is fair to say that in our salvation our sanctification is strategically more ultimate than our justification. For there sanctification, seen as culminating in our glorification, is the goal aimed at, all told, in our predestination. Further, sanctification, in view as our being “conformed to the image of his Son,” contemplates and effects the even more ultimate end, “that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.” Such is the stake the exalted Son has in sanctification-we may stress, the personally involved, intimately engaged stake: his own ever-accruing glory in the midst of that brotherhood comprising those, freely justified, who are being conformed to his image.

That all-surpassing glory, as much as anything, ought to be the constant and controlling preoccupation of the church in all matters of ordo salutis.


[1] Vos (1862-1949) was Professor of Biblical Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary from 1893 until his retirement in 1932.
[2] Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation: The Shorter Writings of Geerhardus Vos (ed. R. B. Gaffin, Jr.; Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2001 [1980]), 232.
[3] H. N. Ridderbos, Paul: An Outline of His Theology (trans. J. R. de Witt; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975), e.g., pp. 14, 45, 63, 91, 177 n. 53, 205-6, 211, 214ff., 221-22, 268, 365, 378, 404.
[4] I have not found it earlier than in his 1957 essay, “The Redemptive-Historical Character of Paul’s Preaching,” in When the Time Had Fully Come (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1957), 48, 49. It is apparently not present in pertinent discussions in Herman Bavinck, Vos, or G. C. Berkouwer, although Vos, The Pauline Eschatology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979/1930), ch. 2 (“The Interaction Between Eschatology and Soteriology”), clearly anticipates it.
[5] Ridderbos, Paul, 14.
[6] The first occurrence of ordo salutis, apparently, is in this sense, in the 18th century within emerging pietism from where it is taken over and eventually becomes widely current in both Lutheran and Reformed orthodoxy. A precursor is present already at the time of the Reformation in Bullinger, who speaks of the dispensatio salutis [“dispensing” or “administering of salvation”]. While that expression does not take hold, the basic area that Bullinger (and later ordo salutis thinking) has in view, the application of salvation, is a major concern for other reformers, like Luther and Calvin, as well as subsequent Reformation orthodoxy, and increasingly in the period after the Synod of Dort, Reformed theology focuses on the “ordo” aspect. The reference to Bullinger is cited by G. C. Berkouwer, Geloof en rechtvaardiging (Kampen: Kok, 1949), p. 24 [omitted from the ET, Faith and Justification (trans. L. B. Smedes; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1949), 26]; cf. O. Weber, Foundations of Dogmatics (trans. D. L. Guder; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983), 2:336-38; and W. H. Velema, Wet en evangelie (Kampen: Kok, 1987), 125-28.
[7] K. Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/2 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1958), 502-03; IV/3 (1962), 505-6.
[8] Church Dogmatics IV/2, 502. Correlatively and most radically, he denies as well the historicity of the fall, in the sense of the historical sequence of creation (a time of original beatitude at the beginning of human history where sin was not yet present) and fall.
[9] “The present writer is of the opinion that, for all its verbal similarity to historic Protestantism, Barth’s theology is, in effect, a denial of it. There is, he believes, in Barth’s view no ‘transition from wrath to grace’ in history. This was the writer’s opinion in 1946 when he published The New Modernism. A careful consideration of Barth’s more recent writings has only established him more firmly in this conviction” (C. Van Til, Christianity and Barthianism [Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1962], vii). A search of the phrase “transition from wrath to grace” in The Works of Cornelius Van Til (CD-ROM; New York: Labels Army Co., 1997) indicates 74 occurrences in 59 different books and articles; almost all refer to its denial, and of these the large majority have in view Barth’s theology, either explicitly or implicitly. The phrase itself (as pointed out to me by Robert Strimple) is taken over from G. C. Berkouwer’s similar, though more muted criticism; see his The Triumph of Grace in the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1956), 257 (“. . . the transition in history from wrath to grace is obscured”), 380 (“. . . there is no real place for a transition from creation to the fall and, in the fallen world, from wrath to grace”); cf. also 234-36, 370.
[10] C. Graafland, “Heeft Calvijn een bepaalde orde des heils geleerd?” in Verbi Divini Minister (ed. J. van Oort; Amsterdam: ton Bolland, 1983), 109-27, concludes: “. . . so strongly did Calvin put Christ and faith as the work of the Holy Spirit at the center that a particular order or sequence in the application of salvation remains subordinate to that emphasis. In that sense Calvin’s theology is not to be termed an ordo salutis theology, and he would have never been able to summarize his theology, as W. Perkins did his, under the title, ‘the golden chain of salvation’” (p. 127) [“. . . Calvijn zo sterk Christus en het geloof als werk van de Heilige Geest in het centrum heeft gesteld, dat een bepaalde orde of volgorde in de applicatie van het heil duidelijk daaraan ondergeschikt blijft. Calvijns theologie is in die zin geen heilsordelijke theologie te noemen en hij zou, zoals b.v. W. Perkins, zijn theologie nooit hebben kunnen samenvatten onder de titel: ‘de gouden keten des heils’”].
[11] J. Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (ed. J. T. McNeill; trans. F. L. Battles; 2 vols.; LCC; Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), 1:537.
[12] “Dempta applicatione, redemptio non est redemptio”; quoted in H. Bavinck, Gereformeerde Dogmatiek (Kampen: Kok, 1976), 3:520.
[13] Bavinck, Dogmatiek, 3:494.
[14] Ibid., 3:571; cf. 3:573.
[15] I take it that careful exegesis has settled that the reference here is to the Holy Spirit. See, building on Vos, Ridderbos, and John Murray among others, my “‘Life-Giving Spirit’: Probing the Center of Paul’s Pneumatology,” JETS 41 (1998): 573-89, esp. 575-82, and The Centrality of the Resurrection (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1978; repr., Resurrection and Redemption: A Study in Paul’s Soteriology [2d ed.; Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1987]), 85-87. See also, e.g., 2 Cor 3:17; Rom 8:9-10; 1 Cor 6:17.
[16] Adapting the language of Ridderbos, Paul, 200.
[17] A glaring instance, not unknown among some Reformed teachers and pastors, is to maintain that a person, as a grown child or adult, may be regenerate for some time, before becoming a believer. John Murray’s trenchant classroom comment on this (as I recall it): biblically considered, the notion of a regenerate unbeliever is a “monstrosity”!
[18] Two instances where the problem is palpable but not really addressed or resolved are A. A. Hodge, “The Ordo Salutis: or, Relation in the Order of Nature of Holy Character and Divine Favor,” The Princeton Review 54 (1878): 304-21; and, more recently, J. Murray, Redemption-Accomplished and Applied (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1955). Murray is clear that union with Christ “is in itself a very broad and embracive subject” (p. 201) and “underlies every aspect of redemption both in its accomplishment and its application” (p. 205). But how, in application specifically, (“spiritual,” “mystical”) union is related to other aspects in the ordo he maintains is not made clear.
[19] So, e.g., J. T. Mueller, Christian Dogmatics (St. Louis: Concordia, 1934), 320, 381; F. A. O. Pieper, Christian Dogmatics (4 vols.; St. Louis: Concordia, 1951, 1953), 2:410, 2:434 n. 65, 3:8 n. 9, 3:398; see also the survey volume of H. Schmid, The Doctrinal Theology of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (3d rev. ed.; Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1961), 481ff. (note, though, the observation of Hollaz concerning the respect in which mystical union “logically precedes justification,” 481), 407-9, and the table of contents, 11.
[20] Sequencing such as “. . . effectually called unto faith in Christ by His Spirit working in due season; . . . justified, adopted, sanctified, and kept by His power, through faith, unto salvation” and “. . . effectually called, justified, adopted, sanctified, and saved . . .” (Confession of Faith 3:6), as well as “. . . called, justified, sanctified, and glorified” (8:1), no doubt reflects the ordo adopted by many, perhaps all, of the Divines. But that ordo is not being confessed as such; 3:6 is in the chapter dealing with the divine decree and 8:1 in the chapter on the mediatorial person and work of Christ. Nor are there instances of similar extensive sequencing present in those chapters that deal with the application of redemption. (I am indebted to Robert Strimple for drawing my attention to the phrasing in 3:6.) Some semblance of an ordo might also seem to be implied by the sequence of pertinent chapters in the Confession and questions and answers in the Catechisms, but a comparison of the three documents also reveals differences in ordering. The Standards do not stipulate, at least as a matter of confession, a single, uniform sequence of benefits in the application of redemption.
[21] I make no claim for a complete survey of the Standards here, although I hope not to have overlooked anything important or counterindicative. [22] LC 69 and SC 32 also differ in perspective: in the former, justification, adoption, sanctification, and whatever other blessings, all “manifest” union with Christ, while in the latter these other “several benefits” are said to “either accompany or flow from” justification, adoption, and sanctification (cf. SC, Q. 36). Both perspectives are true, but that of the LC is more basic and controlling.
[23] “Let us sum these [“benefits of God”] up. Christ was given to us by God’s generosity, to be grasped and possessed by us in faith. By partaking of him, we principally receive a double grace: namely, [justification and sanctification]” (Institutes, 1:725 [3.11.1]).
[24] Institutes, 1:798 (3.16.1); elsewhere, most notably perhaps in his opening comments on Romans 6, he speaks of those who “shamefully rend Christ asunder” (perperam . . . Christum discerpere), when “they imagine that gratuitous righteousness is given by him, apart from newness of life” (Commentaries on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans [trans. J. Owen; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1948], 217; my thanks to Mark Garcia for pointing me to this and other places in Calvin where this expression occurs).
[25] Institutes, 1:726 (3.11.1).
[26] For a recent treatment on union with Christ and justification in Calvin, reaching similar conclusions, see C. B. Carpenter, “A Question of Union with Christ? Calvin and Trent on Justification,” WTJ 64 (2002): 363-86, esp. 371-84.
[27] Institutes, 1:737 (3.11.10), emphasis added. Note that this statement occurs in a context where he is intent on refuting Osiander’s view that justifying righteousness consists of the believer’s “essential righteousness.” In other words, the root of that serious error, a false understanding of union, does not lead Calvin to tone down on his own understanding of union in relation to justification but rather to assert that union most emphatically.
[28] E.g., the recent sweeping rejection of R. H. Gundry, “Why I Didn’t Endorse ‘The Gospel of Jesus Christ: An Evangelical Celebration’ . . . even though I wasn’t asked to,” Books & Culture, (January/February 2001): 6-9; see the helpful response of J. Piper, Counted Righteous in Christ: Should We Abandon the Imputation of Christ’s Righteousness? (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2002).

This article is a slight re-working of his inaugural lecture given at the seminary on 16 October 2002 and of a chapter in P. A. Lillback, ed., “The Practical Calvinist: An Introduction to the Presbyterian & Reformed Heritage. In Honor of Dr. D. Clair Davis” (Fearn, Ross-shire: Christian Focus [Mentor], 2002), 425-41.

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