RPM, Volume 15, Number 14, March 31 to April 6, 2013

John Owen on Union with Christ and Justification

By J. V. Fesko

J. V. Fesko is Academic Dean and Associate Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology at Westminster Seminary California, Escondido, California.

1. Introduction

C. S. Lewis argues that we should prefer old books over new books because every age has its own outlook. By reading old books, we can learn from the past and possibly correct errors in our own outlook.1 When rummaging in the historical-theological past, one giant figure who stands out among a field of Lilliputians is John Owen (1616-83), who is perhaps the most significant English theologian and certainly on a very short list for premier Protestant divines from Europe from the seventeenth century.2 Owen has been called the "finest theological mind England ever produced."3 Owen's reputation has been cemented in the history of theology due to his extensive writings on a host of doctrinal topics, evidencing a wide breadth of knowledge, history, reading, exegesis, philosophical astuteness, and theological acumen. 4

But what is of particular interest for this essay are Owen's views on union with Christ and the doctrine of justification. There is much discussion at present over these doctrines coming from many different corners in the various fields of theological study: historical, systematic, exegetical, and biblical. 5 What commends an investigation on these subjects is that Owen spent a good part of his writing career engaged in debate over these two doctrines. The seventeenth century was a period where antinomianism was on the rise, and the pendulum swung hard in the opposite direction and yielded a neonomian reaction. 6 Historically, antinomians were charged with the belief that the moral law was in no way binding upon the redeemed sinner whereas neonomians were accused of erroneously combining faith and works in a person's justification. Works such as Tobias Crisp's (1600-43) Christ Alone Exalted and Edward Fisher's (fl. 1625-55) Marrow of Modern Divinity were labeled antinomian, and the likes of Richard Baxter (1615-91) fired off numerous responses throughout his writing career. 7 Between the Scylla of antinomianism and the Charybdis of neonomianism, Owen set forth his own understanding of union with Christ and justification.

Recent claims, however, about Reformed Orthodox theologians like Owen maintain that they did not have a doctrine of union with Christ. In his analysis of Reformed Orthodoxy, Charles Partee argues, "Calvin is not a Calvinist because union with Christ is at the heart of his theology-and not theirs."8 Others, such as William Evans, claim that Reformed Orthodox theologians greatly restructured the earlier formulations of John Calvin (1509-64) and distorted the Reformer's union with Christ model of redemption with the imposition of the foreign category of the ordo salutis.9 Calvin was indifferent regarding the respective order of benefits-justification need not precede sanctification because both were given to the believer in their union with Christ. While examining Calvin's relationship to the broader Early Modern Reformed tradition is beyond the scope of this modest essay, examining Owen's views on union and justification will demonstrate that the aforementioned claims are incorrect. 10 This essay proves that Owen embraces both union with Christ but at the same time gives priority to the doctrine of justification over sanctification, that is, that he holds to an ordo salutis.

Owen gives priority in this sense: a person can say that they are sanctified because they are justified, but a person cannot say that they are justified because they are sanctified. In other words, Owen maintains the classic hallmark of Reformed theology: justification and sanctification are distinct but inseparable benefits of union with Christ, but a person's sanctification (the fruit of which is good works) is not in any way mixed or confused with their justification. Justification logically comes before sanctification because good works are the fruits and evidences of justification, not its antecedent cause. Moreover, justification is a complete act whereas sanctification is an inaugurated but nevertheless incomplete process.

This priority is expressed through the ordo salutis or the golden chain (as it was more commonly known). While some think that maintaining such a priority is at odds with the doctrine of union with Christ, Owen sees no such conflict. 11 The reason Owen sees no conflict is that he has a full-orbed soteriology that is rooted in the pre-temporal pactum salutis between the Father and the Son. Key to comprehending Owen's views is recognizing the proximate and ultimate sources of the believer's redemption.

To prove this thesis, the essay proceeds at the logical beginning of Owen's soteriology with the pactum salutis. This doctrine in many ways sets the stage for what follows. We then move on to discuss the relationship between union with Christ, justification, and sanctification. Finally, the essay shows how Owen assembles the individual parts as a whole while maintaining the priority of the forensic in redemption. Along the way, the essay compares Owen's views with other views of the period. And though perhaps transgressing the line dividing history from theology, the essay concludes with some observations about the importance of Owen's doctrines of union with Christ and justification vis-à-vis contemporary discussions of the same.

2. The Pactum Salutis

Among the many adjectives that can be applied to Owen's theology is the term covenantal. 12 This term certainly applies to Owen's soteriology. From the earliest days of the Reformation, Reformed theologians employed the covenant concept in their theology, but by the seventeenth century the pactum salutis was beginning to feature more commonly in the theological systems of the Reformed orthodox. The pactum salutis is the covenant made among the members of the Trinity to bring about the redemption of fallen man through the covenant of grace. In general terms many Reformed theologians held to a threefold division of the pactum salutis, the covenant of works, and the covenant of grace. 13 The covenant of works was the original covenant made with Adam at creation. Concerning the doctrine of the covenant, Owen writes in the preface to Patrick Gillespie's (1616-75) book on the pactum salutis, "For the doctrine hereof, or the truth herein, is the very center wherein all the lines concerning the grace of God and our own duty, do meet; wherein the whole of religion does consist." 14

Regarding the pactum salutis (or covenant of redemption), Owen explains that there are five characteristics:
1. the Father and the Son mutually agree to the common goal of the salvation of the elect (Heb 2:9-10; 12:2; Zech 6:13; 13:7; Ps 55:14; Prov 8:22-21);
2. the Father as principal of the covenant requires the Son to accomplish all that is necessary to secure the redemption of the elect-to do the Father's will (Mic 6:6-7; 1 Pet 1:18; Heb 10:4; Rom 3:25; Phil 2:6-7; Gal 4:4; Rom 8:3; Heb 10:9; Isa 49:5; John 14:28; Isa 53:10);
3. the Father promises to reward Christ for accomplishing his will (Isa 42:4; Ps 16:10; 89:28; Heb 5:7; Isa 53:10-11; Heb 12:2; Isa 42:1-4; Heb 7:28);
4. the Son accepts the work given to him by the Father (Ps 40:7-8; 16:2; Isa 50:5; Phil 2:6-8); and
5. the Father agrees to accept the Son's work upon its completion (Isa 49:5-6; Ps 2:7 Acts 13:33; Rom 1:4; Ps 2:8; John 17:1, 4-6, 12-16; Heb 9:24).

Evident from the cornucopia of texts that Owen cites and exegetes is the basic idea that Scripture shows that the Father and Son agreed to redeem the elect. Owen believes this agreement was covenantal in nature. 15 Within these basic characteristics are the ground of Owen's doctrines of union with Christ and justification. 16

For Owen, as for most Reformed theologians, the doctrine of election is never considered abstractly; it is never a bald choice on God's part. Rather, election is always coordinated with the other loci, such as Christology, pneumatology, and soteriology. 17 For example, in the Savoy Declaration (1658), a confession for which Owen was one of the chief architects and which therefore reflects his theology, states,

It pleased God, in his eternal purpose, to choose and ordain the Lord Jesus his only-begotten Son, according to a covenant made between them both, to be the Mediator between God and man; the Prophet, Priest, and King, the Head and Savior of his church, the Heir of all things and Judge of the world; unto whom he did from all eternity give a people to be his seed, and to be by him in time redeemed, called, justified, sanctified, and glorified. 18

In Owen's case, as well as for other Reformed orthodox theologians, election is coordinated with the pactum salutis, which entails these other doctrinal loci. Owen believes that the whole of redemption, justification, and reconciliation is predicated upon the work of Christ, which is agreed upon in the pactum, but is not effectual until its actual execution in history. A person does not lay hold of Christ's accomplished work until they are united with him and share in the communion of his benefits through the work of the Spirit. 19

Owen rejects the doctrine of eternal justification and believes that the pactum is something distinct from its execution in time and history. Again, the Savoy Declaration states, "God did from all eternity decree to justify all the elect, and Christ did in the fullness of time die for their sins, and rise again for the justification: nevertheless, they are not justified personally, until the Holy Spirit does in due time actually apply Christ unto them."20 Rather, the pactum establishes Christ as the federal representative of his people as the second Adam, which establishes a forensic foundation for all that follows in the redemption of the elect. Owen writes, "This, I say, was the covenant or compact between the Father and the Son, which is the great foundation of what has been said and shall farther be spoken of about the merit and satisfaction of Christ. Here lies the ground of the righteousness of the dispensation treated of, that Christ should undergo the punishment due to us." 21

3. Union with Christ and the Ordo Salutis

Grasping Owen's doctrine of the pactum is cardinal in understanding how he prioritizes the forensic element in redemption. But we must first understand what Owen believes about union with Christ before we can proceed. Owen, like most Reformed theologians, holds to the doctrine of union with Christ. 22 Owen believes that all of the benefits of redemption flow from the believer's union with Christ. 23 Union with Christ, writes Owen, "is the cause of all other graces that we are made partakers of; they are all communicated to us by virtue of our union with Christ. Hence is our adoption, our justification, our sanctification, our fruitfulness, our perseverance, our resurrection, our glory." 24 Union with Christ, therefore, is the all-encompassing doctrinal rubric that embraces all of the elements of redemption.

But this is not to imply that for Owen union is merely an intellectual concept. Rather, union with Christ is a spiritual conjugal bond effected by the Holy Spirit, the goal of which was love: "There is love in the person of the Father peculiarly held out unto the saints, as wherein he will and does hold communion with them." 25 But Owen's doctrine of union does not preclude him from distinguishing the different elements comprehended by union (justification, sanctification, adoption, etc.).

Owen sees no problem with affirming both union with Christ and articulating an ordo salutis. Owen explains that Paul never speaks about the necessity of sanctification, regeneration, or renovation by the work of the Spirit antecedently to the believer's justification. Owen is careful to preclude including the believer's good works from any role in regeneration, renovation, and justification. Owen declares that Paul does not intimate any order of precedency or connection between the things that he mentions, but only between justification and adoption, justification having the priority in order of nature: "That, being justified by his grace, we should be heirs according to the hope of eternal life." All the things he mentions are inseparable. No man is regenerate or renewed by the Holy Ghost, but withal he is justified;-no man is justified, but withal he is renewed by the Holy Ghost.26

Owen carefully safeguards the doctrine of justification because Paul states that God justifies the ungodly (Rom 4:5), which means that the believer's justification has to be antecedent to his sanctification. Owen explains, "It is necessary that we should be sanctified, that we may be justified before God, who justifies the ungodly, the apostle says not in this place, nor any thing to that purpose." 27 Sinclair Ferguson summarizes, "For Owen, then, such order as there is in the ordo salutis would seem to be: Effectual Calling; Regeneration, Faith; Repentance; Justification; Adoption; and Sanctification." 28 Ferguson goes on to comment that for Owen, divine election finds its outworking in the ordo salutis, which all coalesces in the believer's union with Christ.29

4. Justification and Sanctification

As we look more intently into Owen's doctrine of justification, other reasons surface as to why he gives priority to it. The priority of justification is especially evident when it is compared and contrasted with the doctrine of sanctification. Owen believes that the doctrine of justification is of the greatest importance, even siding with Martin Luther (1483-1546), who writes, "Amisso articulo justificationis, simul amissa est tota doctrina Christiana [If the article of justification is lost, the whole of Christian doctrine is lost]." Owen then comments, "And I wish he had not been a true prophet, when he foretold that in the following ages the doctrine hereof would be again obscured."30 By the time Owen wrote his treatise on justification (1677), there was a confessional corpus of definitions that had codified the doctrine, whether in the Gallican Confession (1559), the Belgic Confession (1561), the Thirty-Nine Articles (1563), the Irish Articles (1615), or the Westminster Confession (1647).

One of the key elements of the Savoy Declaration that Owen saw to was explicitly referring to the imputation of the active and passive obedience of Christ:

Those whom God effectually calls, he also freely justifies, not by infusing righteousness into them, but by pardoning their sins, and by accounting and accepting their persons as righteous; not for anything wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ's sake alone; nor by imputing faith itself, the act of believer, or any other evangelical obedience to them, as their righteousness; but by imputing Christ's active obedience to the whole law, and passive obedience in his death for their whole and sole righteousness, they receiving and resting on him and his righteousness by faith; which faith they have not of themselves, it is the gift of God (emphasis).31

Owen holds that justification is by faith alone, includes the forgiveness of sins, includes the imputed active and passive obedience of Christ, and is a once-for-all definitive act. 32 Beyond these basic points, how does the priority of justification emerge in comparison with sanctification in Owen's theology?

Owen believes that nothing less than perfect righteousness can withstand the scrutiny of God's judgment before the divine bar. Reflecting upon Ps 130:3 ("If thou, Lord, shouldest mark iniquities, O Lord, who shall stand?"), Owen is convinced that the believer's inherent righteousness (read sanctification) cannot withstand the demands of God's justice required for justification: "If no man can stand a trial before God upon his own obedience, so as to be justified before him, because of his own personal iniquities; and if our only plea in that case be the righteousness of God, the righteousness of God only, and not our own; then is there no personal, inherent righteousness in any believers whereon they may be justified."33

Owen gives three reasons that inherent righteousness is imperfect and therefore unsuitable for a believer's justification. First, there is a contrary principle of habitual sin that abides within the believer so long as they dwell in this world. Owen explains, based upon Gal 5:17, that none of the faculties of the soul are perfectly renewed as long as a person lives in the world. Second, inherent righteousness is defective because sin clings to every act and duty, whether internal or external. The believer's good works are but "filthy rags" (Isa 64:6). Third, inherent righteousness is lacking because of actual sins (in contrast to original sin). 34

For these three reasons, Owen gives priority to justification over sanctification. Owen establishes the bedrock of salvation, therefore, upon the imputed righteousness of Christ:

If it be a perfect righteousness that is imputed unto us, so it is esteemed and judged to be; and accordingly are we to be dealt withal, even as those who have a perfect righteousness: and if that which is imputed as righteousness unto us be imperfect, or imperfectly so, then as such must it be judged when it is imputed; and we must be dealt withal as those which have such an imperfect righteousness, and no otherwise. And therefore, whereas our inherent righteousness is imperfect (they are to be pitied or despised, not to be contended withal, that are otherwise minded), if that be imputed unto us, we cannot be accepted on the account thereof as perfectly righteous without an error in judgment. 35

So for Owen, the imputed perfect righteousness of Christ is the ground of the believer's justification and salvation because imputation, not inherent righteousness, gives right and title unto eternal life. 36 Owen's position contrasts with Baxter, who argues that the believer's final justification at the consummation is based upon their good works. 37

The priority of justification prominently emerges when Owen explains the relationship between justification and the final judgment: "Some affirm that the apostle excludes all works from our first justification, but not from the second; or, as some speak, the continuation of our justification." 38 Though Owen does not name names here, he has the views of the Roman Catholic Church, Jacob Arminius (1560-1609), and Baxter in mind. Rome, Arminius, and Baxter all hold that justification is an ongoing process where the believer's sanctification plays a role in their final justification. 39

Elsewhere, Owen acknowledges that the Roman Catholic Church holds to a double justification, a first and second. The first justification infuses a habit of grace or charity in baptism, and the second is consequent of the first and based upon the good works that proceed from this infused habitual grace. Owen mentions the Council of Trent (1546) by name. 40 He objects to such a formulation because it turns sanctification into justification: "The whole nature of evangelical justification, consisting in the gratuitous pardon of sin and the imputation of righteousness, as the apostle expressly affirms, and the declaration of a believing sinner to be righteous thereon, as the word alone signifies, is utterly defeated by it."41

If Owen rejects double justification, how does he explain the relationship of justification to the final judgment? Owen distinguishes between the nature and essence of justification and the manifestation or declaration of it. The former occurs in this life, the latter on the day of judgment. In this life when a person is justified, they know of it in their heart, but there is no formal external evidence of it before the church and the world. At the final judgment, the believer's justification will be publicly declared and made manifest before the church and world. But Owen is careful to stipulate, "Yet is it not a second justification: for it depends wholly on the visible effects of that faith whereby we are justified, as the apostle James instructs us; yet is it only one single justification before God, evidenced and declared, unto his glory, the benefit of others, and increase of our own reward." 42 For Owen, there is only one justification grounded upon the imputed perfect righteousness of Christ. To introduce a second or final justification, in his mind, introduces the believer's sanctification (hence confusing them); the believer's good works are always ill suited for the scrutiny of judgment before the divine bar. 43

5. Relating the Parts to the Whole

Thus far we have surveyed Owen's soteriology and recognize that he affirms the pactum salutis, union with Christ, the ordo salutis, and the priority of justification over sanctification. How does Owen relate all of these different elements within his soteriology? Does union with Christ or justification retain chief place in Owen's theology? Or has Owen presented an irreconcilable soteriology that cannot be sorted out? In some cases, historians must rely upon implication and interpretation of a theologian's soteriology in order to relate the individual parts to the whole. But this is not the case with Owen because he addresses these issues in a number of places.

Owen can explain the causes of justification in a very traditional manner by employing Aristotelian distinctions. Owen explains that the supreme moving cause of justification is God; the meritorious cause is Jesus Christ and his mediatorial work; and the instrumental cause is faith. 44 When we dig a little deeper into the particular elements of justification such as imputation, Owen looks to union with Christ:

God has appointed that there shall be an immediate foundation of the imputation of the satisfaction and righteousness of Christ unto us; whereon we may be said to have done and suffered in him what he did and suffered in our stead, by that grant, donation, and imputation of it unto us; or that we may be interested in it, that it may be made ours: which is all we contend for. And this is our actual coalescency into one mystical person with him by faith. 45

To be sure, Owen does not confuse justification (the forensic) with sanctification (the transformative), but rather states that a person must be in union with Christ to partake of the forensic benefit of imputation. Owen clearly states this point: "Our actual interest in the satisfaction of Christ depends on our actual insertion into his mystical body by faith, according to the appointment of God." 46 Elsewhere, Owen bluntly asserts, "The foundation of the imputation asserted is union." 47

A question quickly arises: How can Owen consider union with Christ to be the foundation of the forensic benefits (which implies that union takes priority over both justification and sanctification as the more fundamental category) and yet still assert the priority of justification over sanctification? Has Owen inextricably impaled himself upon the horns of a dilemma? Owen is not confused, but rather addresses imputation anthropologically or from the vantage point of the application of redemption. Owen explains that concerning union and imputation, "Hereof there are many grounds and causes . . . but that which we have immediate respect unto, as the foundation of this imputation, is that whereby the Lord Christ and believers do actually coalesce into one mystical person." 48

Here, the broader context of the seventeenth-century justification debates provides some interpretive assistance, as Owen likely has the views of Baxter in mind. Baxter redefines union with Christ in such a manner as to exclude the imputation of Christ's righteousness as well as his indwelling through the Holy Spirit. Baxter's view is a political rather than mystical union. 49 In opposition to Baxter (though Owen does not mention him by name), Owen writes,

That there is such a union between Christ and believers is the faith of the catholic church, and has been so in all ages. Those who seem in our days to deny it, or question it, either know not what they say, or their minds are influenced by their doctrine who deny the divine persons of the Son and of the Spirit. Upon supposition of this union, reason will grant the imputation pleaded for to be reasonable; at least, that there is such a peculiar ground for it as is not to be exemplified in any things natural or political among men.50

Owen does not believe he is asserting anything distinctively Reformed by promoting imputation as founded in union, but rather something that the universal church has affirmed in every age. But one should not therefore stop the investigation and conclude that Owen believes that union is more foundational to justification and sanctification. What of Owen's statement about the "many grounds and causes" of imputation?

Owen is not content to define union with Christ and justification strictly in terms of the applicatio salutis or redemption considered anthropologically. When one steps back to the bigger picture beyond the application of redemption, Owen explains how imputation occurs prior to its application to the believer through union with Christ:

The imputation of sin unto Christ was antecedent unto any real union between him and sinners, whereon he took their sin on him as he would, and for what ends he would; but the imputation of his righteousness unto believers is consequential in order of nature unto their union with him, whereby it becomes theirs in a peculiar manner: so as that there is not a parity of reason that he should be esteemed a sinner, as that they should be accounted righteous. 51

Owen is not guilty of doublespeak when he writes that imputation is both antecedent to union and consequent to it. Rather, we come full circle to our starting point and Owen's doctrine of the pactum salutis.

When Owen discusses the origins of union with Christ, he reaches back to the pactum salutis: "The first spring or cause of this union, and of all the other causes of it, lie in that eternal compact that was between the Father and the Son concerning the recovery and salvation of fallen mankind." 52 The incarnation, the assumption of human nature, was designed in the pactum salutis. Within the terms of the pactum, the Father predestined the Son as the incarnate God-man unto grace and glory unto two ends: (1) what was specific to his own person and work and (2) what he was to communicate to the church. As such, the Father designated Christ as head of the church and committed the elect of God, according to the terms of the pactum, unto Christ to be delivered from sin, the curse of the law, and death.53 Owen summarizes the work of Christ within the architecture of the pactum under the idea that Christ was made "the surety of the new covenant." Quoting and commenting on Heb 7:22, Owen writes, "'Jesus was made a surety of a better testament.' This alone, of all the fundamental considerations of the imputation of our sins unto Christ, I shall insist upon, on purpose to obviate or remove mistakes about the nature of his suretiship, and the respect of it unto the covenant whereof he was the surety." 54

Owen then goes on to discuss in great exegetical detail the nature of Christ's role as surety of the covenant. Owen argues that even though the term egguos (surety) appears in only this one place in the NT, one occurrence is just as authoritative as twenty. To define and understand the term, Owen digs into the Septuagint and Hebrew OT. He notes that the term occurs in Prov 6:1 : "My son, if thou be surety for thy friend, if thou hast stricken thy hand with a stranger." According to Owen, the Hebrew OT term érev is translated by the Septuagint as egguaw. Owen cites Prov 17:18 and 20:16 as other occurrences of these lexemes. He then explains, "érev originally signifies to mingle, or a mixture of any things or persons; and thence, from the conjunction and mixture that is between a surety and him for whom he is a surety, whereby they coalesce into one person, as unto the ends of that suretiship, it is used for a surety, or to give surety." 55 Owen illustrates this point from Gen 43:9 , Judah's words to his father Jacob concerning Benjamin: "I will be surety for him ; of my hand shalt thou require him." Owen explains, "In undertaking to be surety for him, as unto his safety and preservation, he engages himself to answer for all that should befall him; for so he adds, 'If I bring him not unto thee, and set him before thee, let me be guilty for ever.'" 56

All of this lexicographical and exegetical spadework leads Owen to conclude, "A surety is an undertaker for another, or others, who thereon is justly and legally to answer what is due to them, or from them." 57 Given that Christ's suretiship is legal in nature and involves the imputation of the sins of the elect to Christ and the imputation of Christ's righteousness to the elect as a stipulation of the pactum salutis, Owen rests redemption upon the forensic. For Owen, therefore, the legal elements of redemption are ultimately foundational for the transformative. Or stated another way: the proximate source of the believer's redemption is union with Christ with its dual benefits of justification and sanctification. Justification has priority, however, over sanctification because at its core is the perfect and complete imputed righteousness of Christ, the ultimate cause of which is Christ's voluntary acceptance and promise to be covenant surety for the elect in the pactum between the Father and the Son.

6. Conclusion

Owen cuts a careful path between the dangerous poles of antinomianism and neonomianism. With great precision he skirts the dangerous Scylla of antinomianism by arguing that the believer is in union with Christ, which ensures that the believer will yield the fruit of good works because of Christ's indwelling presence. At the same time, Owen also successfully navigates by the treacherous Charybdis of neonomianism because he argues that the believer's justification, title, and right to eternal life is grounded upon the imputed righteousness of Christ. The imputation of Christ's righteousness is not something that the believer earns through their obedience but is something he received-something that has been agreed upon in a mutual covenant between the Father and the Son in eternity past, long before the believer ever existed. For Owen, though, this covenant in eternity past is not merely a bald choice by God but rather involves a number of different doctrinal loci, Christology, pneumatology, soteriology, as well as their subsets, such as union with Christ and the ordo salutis. The doctrine of the pactum salutis provides the answer as to how Owen gives ultimate priority to the forensic and proximate priority to union with Christ. For Owen, the ground of redemption is found in the imputed righteousness of Christ.

Owen's views, though perhaps striking an odd chord to contemporary ears, were quite mainstream and mundane within the early modern Reformed context of the seventeenth-century. And contrary to the claims of some historians, Owen holds the doctrines of union with Christ and the ordo salutis together without a raised eyebrow despite the purported incompatibility between the two.

Owen's "old" ways can inform present discussions about union with Christ and justification among the various theological disciplines. Richard Muller has noted that, as a group, systematic theologians do not read historical documents.58 Theologians construct their doctrines in ignorance of the past or only mine the past looking for opinions that will promote their own formulations. The same can be said of biblical scholars and especially those within the NT guild. For NT scholars, the history of interpretation usually starts somewhere in the early nineteenth-century with little to no attention given to the previous eighteen hundred years of church history. For all of his claims to offer a revolutionary understanding of justification, N. T. Wright sounds all too much like Richard Baxter. 59

It seems more than incumbent upon scholars, regardless of one's field of specialty, to investigate what the church has said on any one subject before offering one's own reading and interpretation of Scripture. Might there be something to learn from theologians of the past? In this one case, Owen presents a wealth of theological grist to consider and evaluate when it comes to the doctrines of union with Christ and justification. Owen offers a more satisfying account of union with Christ and justification. Unlike some NT scholars who explain justification only from Pauline texts, Owen's doctrine stretches from Genesis to Revelation, from eternity past to the consummation; integrates theological loci-theology proper, Christology, pneumatology, anthropology; and is coordinated with the doctrine of the covenant.

Lewis is correct: we need the breeze of ages past blowing through our minds as we seek to understand Scripture. We do not forge our theology upon the anvil of individualism. God has given the Scriptures to the church, and hence all exegesis and theology should be performed in dialogue with the church. That is how Owen forged his doctrines of union and justification.


1. C. S. Lewis, "Introduction," in St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation: De Incarnatione Verbi Dei (New York: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1996).

2. Carl R. Trueman, John Owen: Reformed Catholic, Renaissance Man (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007), 1. Trueman elsewhere cites a biography of Owen: Peter Toon, God's Statesman: The Life and Work of John Owen (Exeter: Paternoster, 1971); cited in Carl R. Trueman, The Claims of Truth: John Owen's Trinitarian Theology (Carlisle: Paternoster, 1998), 1n1.

3. Carl R. Trueman, "John Owen as a Theologian," in John Owen: The Man and His Theology (ed. Robert W. Oliver; Darlington: Evangelical Press, 2002), 43.

4. Trueman, "John Owen," 44-51. His writings have been collected in The Works of John Owen (ed. William Goold; 24 vols.; Edinburgh: Johnstone and Hunter, 1850-53).

5. In Luther studies, e.g., the Finnish reading of Luther has become popular (cf. Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson, Union with Christ: The New Finnish Interpretation of Luther [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998]). Likewise, in Calvin studies books and essays on the Genevan's doctrine of union with Christ multiply (e.g, Evans, Imputation and Impartation; Partee, John Calvin; Cornelis Venema, Accepted and Renewed in Christ: The "Twofold Grace of God" and the Interpretation of Calvin's Theology [Göttingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 2007]; Mark A. Garcia,Life in Christ: Union with Christ and Twofold Grace in Calvin's Theology [Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2008]; J. Todd Billings, Calvin, Participation, and the Gift: The Activity of Believers in Union with Christ [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007]; Julie Canlis, Calvin's Ladder: A Spiritual Theology of Ascent and Ascension [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010]). In systematic circles, books on union with Christ continue to surface (see, e.g., J. Todd Billings, Union with Christ: Reframing Theology and Ministry for the Church [Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011]; Michael Horton, Covenant and Salvation: Union with Christ [Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2007]; Robert Letham, Union with Christ: In Scripture, History, and Theology [Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed: 2011]). And in biblical studies, New Perspective advocates such as N. T. Wright have argued that union with Christ is key to Paul's soteriology, something that earlier Reformed theologians seemed to have missed (Travis Tamerius, "Interview with N. T. Wright," Reformation and Revival 11:1 [2002]: 129; N. T. Wright, "New Perspectives on Paul," in Justification in Perspective: Historical Developments and Contemporary Challenges [ed. Bruce L. McCormack; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006], 255-56).

6. For the historical context of the antinomian controversies, see Theodore Dwight Bozeman, The Precisianist Strain: Disciplinary Religion and Antinomian Backlash in Puritanism to 1638 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003); David R. Como, Blown by the Spirit: Puritanism and the Emergence of an Antinomian Underground in Pre-Civil-War England (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004); David D. Hall, ed., The Antinomian Controversy, 1636-38: A Documentary History (Durham: Duke University Press, 1990).

7. Tobias Crisp, Christ Alone Exalted (London: John Bennett, 1832); Edward Fisher, The Marrow of Modern Divinity (London: G. Calvert, 1645); see, e.g., Richard Baxter, Confession of His Faith: Especially Concerning the Interest of Repentance and Sincere Obedience to Christ, in our Justification and Salvation (London: 1654); idem, Aphorismes of Justification with Their Explication Annexed: Wherein Also Is Opened the Nature of the Covenants, Satisfaction, Righteousness, Faith, Works, etc . (Hague: Abraham Brown, 1655); idem, Of The Imputation of Christ's Righteousness to Believers (London: Nevil Simons and Jonathan Robinson, 1676); idem, A Treatise of Justifying Righteousness in Two Books (London: Nevil Simons and Jonathan Robinson, 1676).

8. Charles Partee, The Theology of John Calvin (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008), 27.

9. So William B. Evans, Imputation and Impartation: Union with Christ in American Reformed Theology (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2008), 43-83.

10. For the relationship between Calvin and the later Reformed tradition, see Richard A. Muller,The Unaccommodated Calvin: Studies in the Foundation of a Theological Tradition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001); idem, After Calvin: Studies in the Development of a Theological Tradition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).

11. So Evans, Imputation and Impartation, passim.

12. Sebastian Rehnman, Divine Discourse: The Theological Methodology of John Owen (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002), 156-57.

13. For a brief survey of Owen's views on the covenants, see Sinclair Ferguson, John Owen on the Christian Life (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1987), 20-32. For the origins of the pactum salutis, see Richard A. Muller, "Toward the Pactum Salutis: Locating the Origins of a Concept," Mid-America Journal of Theology 18 (2007): 11-65. For contemporary treatments of the threefold covenant division, see R. Scott Clark and David VanDrunen, "The Covenant before the Covenants," in Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry (ed. R. Scott Clark; Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 2007), 167-96; Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (1932-38; repr., Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 211-18, 265-304; Geerhardus Vos, "The Doctrine of the Covenant in Reformed Theology," in Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation (ed. Richard B. Gaffin Jr.; Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1980), 234-70; Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology (3 vols.; repr., Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 2:117-22, 354-77; Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics (4 vols.; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003-2008), 3:193-232.

14. John Owen, "Preface" to Patrick Gillespie, The Ark of the Covenant Opened: or, A Treatise of the Covenant of Redemption Between God and Christ as the Foundation of the Covenant of Grace (London: Thomas Parkhurst, 1677), n.p. See also Sebastian Rehnman, Divine Discourse: The Theological Methodology of John Owen (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002), 162.

15. Owen, Vindiciae Evangelicae, 12:507.

16. Ibid., 12:500-507.

17. See, e.g., Richard A. Muller, Christ and the Decree: Christology and Predestination in Reformed Theology from Calvin to Perkins (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1986).

18. Trueman, John Owen, 105-6; A Declaration of the Faith and Order Owned and Practiced in the Congregational Churches in England: Agreed upon and Consented unto by Their Elders and Messengers in Their Meeting at the Savoy, October 12, 1658 , 8:1, in Jaroslav Pelikan and Valerie Hotchkiss, eds., Creeds and Confessions of Faith in the Christian Tradition (3 vols.; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 3:112. The Savoy Declaration was the Independent (or Congregational) revision of the Westminster Confession of Faith. It was revised by 120 representatives from congregational churches in England at London's Savoy Palace in 1658. The Congregationalist theologians agreed with the doctrine of the Westminster Confession but revised its Presbyterian polity (Pelikan and Hotchkiss, Creeds and Confessions, 3:104-5).

19. Owen, Vindicae Evangelicae, 12:507. See also idem, The Doctrine of the Saints' Perseverance, 11:336-43; Trueman, Claims of Truth, 145.

20. Savoy Declaration, 11:4, in Creeds, 3:115; cf. Trueman, Claims of Truth, 212-13; idem, "John Owen'sDissertation on Divine Justice: An Exercise in Christocentric Scholasticism," CTJ 33 (1998): 103; Hans Boersma, A Hot Pepper Corn: Richard Baxter's Doctrine of Justification in Its Seventeenth-Century Context of Controversy (Vancouver: Regent, 2004), 103-5.

21. Owen, Vindicae Evangelicae, 12:507.

22. For a brief survey of Owen's doctrine of union, see Ferguson, Christian Life, 32-36. For contemporary treatments of union with Christ from a Reformed perspective, see Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 447-53; Michael Horton, The Christian Faith (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 587-619; John Murray, Redemption, Accomplished and Applied (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1955), 161-74.

23. Owen, Communion with God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, 2:8-9, 16.

24. Owen, An Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews, 21:149-50.

25. Owen, Communion, 22, 54.

26. Owen, The Doctrine of Justification, 5:133.

27. Ibid.

28. Ferguson, Christian Life, 35.

29. Ibid., 36.

30. Owen, Justification, 5:67.

31. Savoy Declaration , 11:1, in Creeds, 3:115; also Trueman, John Owen, 105-6.

32. Cf. Owen, Justification, 5:87, 89, 96, 110, 217, 219.

33. Ibid., 5:225.

34. Ibid., 5:234-35.

35. Ibid., 5:172-73.

36. Ibid., 5:173, 267.

37. Baxter, Justifying Righteousness, 7; idem, Confession of Faith, 296; cf. Boersma, Hot Pepper Corn, 273-327, esp. 290-99, 315-16; J. I. Packer, The Redemption and Restoration of Man in the Thought of Richard Baxter (Vancouver: Regent College, 2003), 241-65, esp. 252-53, 257-63.

38. Owen, Justification, 5.284-85.

39. Council of Trent , Session 3 (13 Jan 1547), in Creeds, 2.826-39; Baxter, Justifying Righteousness, 7; idem, Confession of Faith, 296; Jacob Arminius, The Works of James Arminius (ed. James Nichols and William Nichols; 3 vols.; 1825-75; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), 2:407. One should note, however, that despite the similarities between Trent, Baxter, and Arminius, there are dissimilarities among these three, especially between Trent and the two Protestants, Baxter and Arminius. Baxter and Arminius, e.g., disagreed with the idea that baptism was the instrument of justification. Both Baxter and Arminius believed their own positions were different from the Roman Catholic doctrine (see, e.g., Arminius, Works, 19:11, 2:258).

40. Owen, Justification, 5:137-38.

41. Ibid., 5:138.

42. Ibid., 5:139.

43. Ibid., 5:140.

44. Ibid., 5:360.

45. Ibid., 5:218.

46. Ibid., 5:218.

47. Ibid., 5:209.

48. Ibid.

49. Richard Baxter, Of the Imputation of Christ's Righteousness to Believers (London: Nevil Simmons, 1676), 55; cf. Boersma, Hot Pepper Corn, 234-41.

50. Owen, Justification, 5:209.

51. Ibid., 5:354.

52. Ibid., 5:179.

53. Ibid., 5:179-80.

54. Ibid., 5:181. For Owen's extended treatment of the pactum and Christ's role as covenant surety, see his Hebrews, "Federal Transactions between the Father and the Son" (Exercitation 28), 19:77-97.

55. Owen, Justification, 5:181. Owen's lexical claims seem generally accurate in the light of the most recent lexicographical studies. Cf. BDAG 271; Johan Lust, Erik Eynikel, and Katrin Hauspie, eds., Greek-English Lexicon of the Septuagint: Revised Edition (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2003), 167; HALOT 1:876-77.

56. Owen, Justification, 5:182.

57. Ibid., 5:182.

58. Richard Muller, "Reflections on Persistent Whiggism and Its Antidotes in the Study of Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century Intellectual History," in Seeing Things Their Way: Intellectual History and the Return of Religion (eds. Alister Chapman, John Coffey, and Brad S. Gregory; Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2009), 137.

9. Paul Helm has offered an in-depth comparison of Baxter and Wright. See, e.g., "Analysis 15-Baxter's Soup and Wright's Soap," http://paulhelmsdeep.blogspot.com/2008/analysis-15-baxters-soup-and-wrights.html (accessed August 3, 2011).

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