Justification (1): Justification and Natural Union with Christ

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This is the first post in a series about the Orthodox view of justification.

In this post I will build off of the assumption (argued for in my post on natural consequences titled “Death and Natural Union”) that Pauline language of “in Adam” and “in Christ” includes natural union, and not just covenantal union.  I will draw out the implications of this idea with respect to justification and try to answer objections to it.  This is a long post, but if you want to get a grasp of the Orthodox view of justification and how it relates to Christology, then take a look.

If it is true that death is a natural consequence of sin, then union with Adam seems to be natural.  To be “in Adam” does not mean to have Adam as the federal head of your covenant; it means to share in the human nature originally posessed by Adam. 

If union with Adam–being “in Adam”–is natural, then what does this mean for our union with Christ?  In 1 Corinthians 15:22 Paul says that “as in Adam all are dying so in Christ all will be made alive”.  If the “in Adam” that leads to death is a natural union, then this seems to imply that the “in Christ” that leads to life will be a natural union.  Consequently all men have union with Christ in virtue of their common humanity; his resurrection is causally related to the resurrection of the righteous and the unrighteous, in virtue of their common humanity that they share and which Christ predestined to resurrection in his own rising.  One might make a similar argument from parallelism with Romans 5: the many are made sinners through Adam, they are condemned through him, and they die through him.  The many are also given life and justification through Christ.  Consequently all men (the many) are given spiritual life and justification through Christ.

At this point it might be objected that there are some significant problems.  How could all human beings be justified?  After all, some will be in hell; to be free from guilt by having Christ’s righteousness imputed to you and yet still be in hell seems like an awful strange thing.  But this assumes that justification is fundamentally an imputation of legal credit apart from a change in one’s ontology (including moral dispositions).  There doesn’t seem to be particularly good reason to think this, as far as I can tell.  And this view is implied to be false by the argument above about our having natural union with Adam and Christ.  This is because whatever it means, justification has to be applicable to all men in some sense.  And if justification is an imputation of legal credit apart from a change in one’s ontology, then surely it wouldn’t apply to all men.

One major meaning for justification that Peter Leithart has drawn attention to recently in his article “Justification as Verdict and Deliverance” is that of “deliverance from the power of sin, death, and the devil”.  It is a freeing from slavery to those forces that control our lives and prevent us from sharing in God’s kingdom.  Leithart points out that many of the Psalms speak of justification in terms of a deliverance, where God vindicates his servant by saving him from his enemies.  Similarly, Paul seems to use justification many times to speak of being freed from the power of sin and death (Romans 4:25, 5:21, 6:7, 8:1-4, 31-39, etc.).  In these verses, justification is not a legal transfer; it is an ontological liberation from the control of hostile forces.  If we run with Leithart’s meaning and apply it to natural union, then on this view saying that all men are justified in Christ makes perfect sense: human nature is freed from corruption and death by Christ’s death and resurrection (Romans 4:25).  Consequently, whereas before death was permanent it is no longer permanent (Romans 5:14, 17, 8:38, 1 Corinthians 15), and whereas before some of each human being’s actions missed the mark and fell short of the glory of God (3:23, 5:19, 7:14-25) now we can attain to the glory of God (5:2, 8:1-39; 5:5 in conjunction with 13:10).

This still leaves the problem of what to do with people who are not saved.  Surely they aren’t justified too?  Here is where the person/nature distinction comes in handy.  Saying that human nature partakes of God’s uncreated righteousness and is consequently liberated from the power of sin and death does not imply that each particular human person will align himself or herself with the righteousness that has entered human nature.  Natural union makes personal union possible; but it does not accomplish it wholesale.  Natural union with Christ will result in the resurrection of all men–their liberation from bondage to decay by God’s liberating/justifying righteousness, and their attaining to God’s glory (Romans 8:21, 30).  It has also resulted in God making open the possibility of resisting the power of sin in a way that goes further than what those who were worthy under the old covenant could do.  But whether or not a particular person resists the power of sin and personally appropriates God’s righteousness is a question of personal action, not natural constitution.

Yet again it might be objected that it is obvious that the meaning of justification is that God imputes legal status to a sinner apart from a change in their constitution, and so takes away the guilt of sin.  This is obvious because the Greek word for justification is a legal term, and so it has to mean something legal.  Consequently, it concerns the law court, and the declaration of “not guilty” that believers have in Christ.  But this seems to assume that Paul holds to the same philosophy of law as the Reformers and late-scholastic nominalists.  It assumes that justice is primarily an extrinsic relation between things.  In the case of God and man, for man to be just means for God to regard him as just, or not guilty.  But why think that Paul has this theory of law?  Why not assume that he thinks of justice as a matter of the constitution of a thing?  Plato thought of justice in terms of a kind of moral harmony of the parts of a being.  It would need to be argued out that Paul thinks of justice in the Reformed way before one could make objections to the idea that righteousness involves the constitution of a thing based on the fact that Paul thinks of righteousness in legal terms.

Also, one might argue against this view as follows: Paul seems to say that the righteousness whereby we are righteous is God’s righteousness (2 Corinthians 5:21).¹  This implies that righteousness is a divine quality of God, that can be had apart from any created thing.  But if this is so, then surely righteousness is not just a matter of legal status, but of constitution.  Justice is something that is had between the persons of the Trinity; in fact, an Orthodox theologian would say that righteousness (justice) is a divine energy.  So it doesn’t seem safe to say that the justice (righteousness) that we have is anything other than a matter of our being constituted righteous in Christ.

A final objection is this: there are specific passages where Paul teaches the imputation of Christ’s righteousness.  Consequently justification is a matter of our legal status before God.  These passages cannot be treated in detail here.  But consider the possibility that the language of imputation could have a different meaning than what is sometimes ascribed to it.  Does imputation necessarily happen apart from a recognition of the actual qualities of a thing?  If Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us, then does this rule out the possibility that we actually are constituted as having the righteousness of Christ?  I can think of no reason to agree with this based on the word “imputed” alone.  Why not think that we are considered to have Christ’s righteousness (imputed) because we actually have it?

I have argued that if death is a natural consequence of sin and not a punishment for the guilt of sin inflicted by God, it makes most sense to think of union with Adam as natural and not just covenantal.  If union with Adam is natural, then we would expect union with Christ to be natural.  So if death is a natural consequence of sin, this indirectly leads us to the conclusion that union with Christ is natural.  Consequently, if this read is correct, the benefits of Christ’s life and death overflow to all men in virtue of their common humanity which has been liberated from its bondage to sin and death by Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection.

Later posts will have to treat other texts that relate justification to union with Christ, as well as issues with the meaning of “imputation”, “righteousness”, etc.  Also I will move on to deal with texts related to the relationship between faith and works.

¹ Whereas for Luther, the righteousness of Christ is a merited, created righteousness.  It is not the uncreated righteousness whereby God is righteous.

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One Response to “Justification (1): Justification and Natural Union with Christ”

  1. Natural Consequences (4): Death and Natural Union « The Well of Questions Says:

    […] Justification (1): Justification and Union with Christ « The Well of Questions – September 10, […]

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