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Johnson’s “One with Christ” Overcomes the Signal-to-Noise Ratio

With the recent flood of books on union with Christ, it’s difficult to know what is worth your time. Some books become redundant while others get lost in the mix. One book worthy of attention is Marcus Peter Johnson’s One with Christ: An Evangelical Theology of Salvation (Wheaton: Crossway, 2013). This book interacts with the current Reformed and evangelical scholarship on union with Christ. Johnson offers much to consider even in just the first few chapters. Here is a particularly pointed section that gives a good sense of his position regarding the relationship of union with Christ to justification and sanctification:

Justification is, by classical Protestant definition, a declaration of righteousness for the one who is in Christ. Justification is conceptually distinguished from sanctification by its forensic nature, and it is crucial that we make this distinction if we are to remain evangelical and Protestant. Justification is not about God making us righteous, it is about God declaring us righteous. This declaration rests not on our holiness or transformation (the subject of sanctification), but on the merits of Christ’s life and death that are imputed to us. This is the theological and pastoral essence of the doctrine. Justification simply must not be confused with sanctification.

It may strike us as rather strange, then, when we read in the works of theologians who are Reformed, evangelical, and Protestant that “sanctification is the inevitable effect of the justifying verdict,” that “sanctification is the effect of justification,” or that “the legal aspect of our union with Christ is the ground of the transformative aspect of our union.”† This kind of language is confusing because if justification “effects,” “grounds,” “produces,” “brings in its wake,” or “actualizes” sanctification, in what way is this different from saying that justification “includes” sanctification? This way of stating the relation between justification and sanctification begins to blur the line between a Protestant understanding of justification, in which God declares the sinner righteous, and a Roman Catholic understanding, in which God makes a person righteous. To assert that justification effects or produces sanctification appears to obscure the material principle of the Protestant doctrine of justification by implying that justification contains transformative realities.

The great comfort and assurance that the doctrine of justification provides the church lie precisely in the fact that our acceptance with God is secured by God’s forensic declaration of our right standing. The fact that justification is a forensic reality, not a transformative reality, is all-important. This, I believe, all evangelical Protestants would resolutely affirm. Why, then, do many theologians in the tradition, who otherwise rightly insist on the forensic nature of justification, go on to claim that justification “produces” or “effects” sanctification—effectively making justification something other than justification?

The answer, in short, is that when justification is removed from the larger, more basic, personal reality of whom it is a part (Jesus Christ), and is made to carry the whole weight of salvation, one must deduce from it, rather than from him, how to think of Christ’s benefits. Thus, a “legal union with Christ” is made to perform the saving and sanctifying work that only Jesus Christ himself can be to us; justification is forced to be more than it is. But justification is not meant to carry that burden.

† The first two quotes are from Horton, The Christian Faith, 611. The other is from Fesko, Justification, 277. Horton and Fesko, whose works cited here are both otherwise valuable, are hardly the only examples. They are following in a federalist tradition that so prioritizes justification (“legal union with Christ”) that every other benefit of salvation, including personal/spiritual/vital/actual union with Christ, is subordinated to it. Berkhof writes, “The judicial ground for all the special grace which we receive lies in the fact that the righteousness of Christ is freely imputed to us” (Systematic Theology, 452).

Marcus Peter Johnson, One with Christ: An Evangelical Theology of Salvation (Wheaton: Crossway, 2013), 112–113.

Johnson also includes extended treatments on how union with Christ relates to the imputation of Adam’s sin and the corresponding imputation of Christ’s righteousness in justification. Johnson charts a course between what he calls “federalist” and “realist” approaches to imputation by offering a third way, which he calls, “Christological realism.” Johnson incorporates elements from an atypical mix of theologians such as Luther, Calvin, Augustus Strong, Murray, Gaffin, Letham, and T.F. Torrance. I hope to offer more substantial critical comments on the book in the future. But at this point allow me to commend this book for thoughtful consideration.

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