Ordo Salutis and Union with Chirst

Critically discuss the relationship between union with Christ and the ordo salutis.

Ordo Salutis

The term ‘Ordo Salutis’ (Latin for order of salvation), is a term employed by theologians in an attempt to describe the logical relationship between the various elements of salvation. Typically the elements are seen as election, regeneration, faith, repentance, justification, sanctification, glorification and so forth.[1]

Inasmuch as is possible an ordo salutis, “seeks to establish on the basis of Scripture, a pattern common to all believers.”[2] This pattern can be said to be true for all believers regardless of their awareness or conscious experience of it. For example a person might understand themselves to be regenerate and in the process of being sanctified without any notion of their justification. Their justification is none the less a fact according to an ordo salutis.

Often an ordo salutis is viewed much like a domino effect where a preceding aspect must topple before later aspect can follow suit.[3]

The process of formulating an ordo possesses a degree of subjectivity which is governed by a wider theology. A preconception towards a particular cause of salvation has as much an impact on an ordo as the elements themselves. A consensus is therefore hard to reach owing to the fact that an ordo salutis is implied rather than explicitly stated in Scripture.[4]

By way of example, a typically Reformed ordo would place election preceding faith. Faith is seen as an effect of election rather than a cause of it, as would be the case in a typically Arminian ordo. Thus, in the Reformed ordo there is a sense in which an individual is saved so that faith may be observed.  Conversely, in the Arminian ordo the sense is that faith is exercised in order that salvation may be observed.

The practice of formulating an ordo has tended to be the predominant means by which salvation has been understood since the reformation.[5] This is probably owing to the fact that reformed theology has been conducted in a time which coincides with the Age of Enlightenment, when rationalism, logic and order were paramount. John Calvin, father of reformed theology, is often seen to have been the first to apply an ordo of sorts in his teachings.[6] His influence on the direction future generations took can not be underestimated.

Two principal Scriptures are cited when either justification or formulation of an ordo is attempted, Romans 8:29-30 and Ephesians 1:1-14. Romans provides the clearer precedent for attempting an ordo. Paul’s language suggests that each act on the part of God is conducted in sequence. Predestination or election is seen as preceding all the other elements and presumably taking place outside of time. While in time a calling, is followed by justification and glorification. The calling aspect is often expounded to mean effectual calling, understood as that effort of the Holy Spirit through which an outward appeal of the gospel was combined with the effectual call of the Spirit.[7]

This basic outline is expanded upon by other passages which suggest a similarly logical relationship between those events mentioned here by Paul and others such as adoption, sanctification and perseverance.

Thus a general consensus for an ordo salutis can be outlined:

Pre-Time:

  • Election (often called predestination)

In-Time:

  • Effectual Calling – Regeneration – Repentance – Faith (Inseparable)
  • Justification
  • Adoption
  • Sanctification
  • Perseverance
  • Glorification (Final)

Some of these terms clearly belong nearer the end of the ordo while others are required to be closer to the start. Some are interchangeable, while yet others are inseparable. It must also be stressed that the order is logical rather than temporal.

Reference to the first chapter of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians suggests that the entirety of the ordo occurs outside of time, but unfolds in historical redemption. That while a believer is said to be justified at the point of election, this is not realised until a specific time in their earthly lives.

Union with Christ

If ordo salutis can be said to be the articulation of salvation from history, Union with Christ is its modern equivalent. If ‘black is the new white’; ‘Union with Christ is the new ordo salutis.’[8]

In its simplest form union with Christ can be understood to mean the joining of Christ and His Church. As with the ordo salutis this is seen clearly in the first chapter of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians with the repeated phrase ‘in Him’. It is in Christ that the believers now find themselves. Additionally Paul majors on the concept of union in Romans 5 & 6, equating believers currently being ‘in Christ’ to the believers previous state of being ‘in Adam.’[9]

There are 5 broad ways in which the Bible describes this union:[10]

1) Incarnational Union – The Word of God having taken on flesh has united humanity to Himself. Union is achieved between humanity and God because the two have been united in the one person of Christ. “In becoming man Christ united Himself with the human race.”[11]

This is a corporate idea in which the individual is included. However this Incarnational union alone does not provide us with the full union that the redeemed enjoy and Paul refers to in Romans and Ephesians.

2) Covenantal Union – This is the marriage of God and His people. Just as Hosea uses the language of marriage to describe the relationship between Yahweh and Israel, Paul uses the language of marriage in Ephesians 5 to describe the union between Christ and His Church.

Marriage serves as a picture for the greater reality of Christ being wed to His bride, the Church. Just as a husband and wife can be said to have become one flesh, so Jesus and the redeemed are one.

3) Sacramental Union – Where baptism initiates union, communion continues it. These two sacraments as commanded by Christ are seen as seals to the union the redeemed are partakers of.

Baptism acts as a symbol and seal that the believer has died, been buried and has risen again with Christ. The communion shows that the believers continued life is sustained by feeding on Christ.

4) Experiential Union – Through life, trails and experience a believer becomes more like Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. Through temptations and suffering the Holy Spirit transforms believers into the likeness of Christ. The union is therefore by a shared experience.

5) Mystical/Spiritual Union – As the Holy Spirit indwells all believers it means that they are united to God. And Christ has sent the Holy Spirit to dwell in his people, believers can truly be said to be united with Christ.[12]

Each of the 5 aspects contributes to a totality of what the Bible describes as being united with Christ. As with the ordo salutis, a believer’s lack of knowledge of each aspect does not diminish their applicability to them. Union for the believer exists from eternity to eternity[13] but becomes a reality at the point at which they hope in God for their salvation[14]and the Holy Spirit works faith and repentance in them.[15]

The Westminster Theological Seminary theologian, Gaffin, places such a high emphasis on the idea of union that he argues that both the goal and means of salvation is this union and that salvation can only be understood in the context of union. He further states that Paul’s theology is dominated by this theme of union with Christ.[16]

How are the two related?

The question of how the ordo salutis and union with Christ are related, if at all, has gathered growth during recent decades. There are, broadly speaking, three ways in which the relationship can be viewed.

Firstly[17] salvation can be viewed purely in light of the ordo salutis and as we have seen this has historically been the case in Reformed theology. It is not so much that union with Christ is considered an incorrect motif, but rather that it is neglected in favour of the rational, logically arranged, enlightenment endorsing ordo salutis or simply substituted to mean effectual calling.[18]

The problems with this historical approach manifest themselves most clearly in the plethora of ordos that exist. As the Biblical support for any particular ordo is minimal the entire process can be seen to be highly subjective.

However a more grave criticism of this approach is the apparent absence of union with Christ. While it is understandable how the onset of modernity has led reformed theology to have such an emphasis, in light of recent scholarship in the area it is unforgiveable to continue blindly with an ‘ordo alone’ mentality. Unless an understanding of salvation includes some understanding of union with Christ it can not be said to be wholly Biblical.

Secondly[19] the exact opposite of the first position could be adopted. Salvation could be seen as solely union with Christ. Union with Christ becomes a synonym for salvation and a strict ordo salutis is abandoned. Within this framework the different stages of the ordo are simply ‘benefits’ of the union rather than discrete acts. The aspects of the ordo are a direct result of being united to Christ.[20] They are, all at once, terms which can immediately be associated with a believer by virtue of being in Christ. Gaffin suggests that justification and sanctification are simply manifestations of union.[21]

Crucially this approach devours the various aspects of the ordo into the union.  Most strikingly, a believer’s righteousness can not be seen to be imputed as any forensic understanding of the various aspects is lost.[22] A believer’s justification is not through means of imputation but a sharing in Christ’s righteousness. As such this view of ‘union alone’ can no longer be thought of as a reformed theology.

The third[23] stance is to understand the ordo as taking place within the union. It is almost as if union with Christ is introduce as a new stage in the ordo salutis, but is perhaps better thought of as, “the dominant motif in any formulation of the application of redemption and dominate feature of any “order” of salvation.”[24] The ordo salutis takes place in union much like a fish resides within water.

Robert Letham expresses this understanding of union with Christ as “the foundation of all the blessings of salvation. Justification, sanctification, adoption and glorification are all received through our being united to Christ.”[25]

Furthermore, “The whole process of the application of salvation to us by the Holy Sprit (what has been known as ordo salutis – the order of salvation) fits in here as part of what it means to be united with Jesus Christ.”[26] Essentially union with Christ isn’t actualised until the Holy Spirit works faith and repentance in a believer.

Perhaps one difficulty associated with this stance is a relegation of the distinctiveness of union. It must be very careful to not simply reduce union to a mere additional stage in the ordo, but maintain it’s altogether different nature.

Conclusion:

The Bible is clear that in salvation there are different aspects even if they are received by the believer or take place at one and the same time. Terms such as justification, glorification, regeneration must be maintained as they are Biblical terms, which teach Biblical truths about the believer and the salvation they receive through the work of Christ and the Holy Spirit. Some sort of understanding of an ordo must be preserved therefore in order to reflect the instances in Scripture where such a progression is implied. Additionally the importance of having clearly defined and understood terms to express our salvation is indescribable and a loss of such terms would be detrimental to the Church. Without such terms confusion would reign over the role of God and man in salvation as well as the various benefits and ends to which it is designed.

The Bible is equally as clear with regards the union of a believer with Christ as a major facet of salvation. To continue to ignore this in the way that reformed history has tended to do would be to read the Bible with only one eye open.

As with many major themes in Scripture there is a healthy tension which must be maintained. The third perspective seems to maintain this tension more favorably than the other two as it seeks to describe the ordo salutis within a framework of union. Additionally this seems to be the method employed by Paul in both his letters to the Church in Rome and Ephesus.

God must act first in whichever form is chosen to express redemption.[27] The weight of Scripture is that salvation is primarily an act of God and any attempt to describe or define it must bear witness to this fact.[28]


[1] Sinclair B Ferguson, “Ordo Salutis,” NDOT 480.

[2] Ferguson, NDOT 480.

[3] Andrew T.B. McGowan, “Justification and the ordo salutis,” Foundations (Spring 2004): 6.

[4] McGowan, “Justification and the ordo salutis,” 7.

[5] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2006), 486.

[6] McGowan, “Justification and the ordo salutis,” 7.

[7] McGowan, “Justification and the ordo salutis,” 8.

[8] McGowan, “Justification and the ordo salutis,” 6.

[9] Richard B. Jr. Gaffin, By Faith, not by Sight: Paul and the Order of Salvation (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2006), 36.

[10] J. P. Baker, “Union with Christ,” NDOT 697-9.

[11] Robert Letham, The Work of Christ (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1993), 79.

[12] Gaffin, By Faith, not by Sight, 39.

[13] Gaffin, By Faith, not by Sight, 37.

[14] Letham, Work of Christ, 80.

[15] Letham, Work of Christ, 81.

[16] Gaffin, By Faith, not by Sight, 36.

[17] This is the relationship understood in the historical Reformed Church.

[18] McGowan, “Justification and the ordo salutis,” 11.

[19] This is the view of the Neo-Orthodox such as Barth or Hart.

[20] Karl Barth, The Doctrine of Reconciliation (Church Dogmatics IV Part 3:2; Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1988), 520-554.

[21] Gaffin, By Faith, not by Sight, 41.

[22] McGowan, “Justification and the ordo salutis,” 16.

[23] This is the view of those from the Westminster Theological Seminary stream.

[24] Ferguson, NDOT 480.

[25] Letham, Work of Christ, 80.

[26] Letham, Work of Christ, 80.

[27] Letham, Work of Christ, 77.

[28] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 493-4.

Bibliography

Baker, J. P. “Union with Christ.”  Pages 697-699 in New Dictionary of Theology. Edited by Sinclar B Ferguson and David F. Wright.  Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1988.

Barth, Karl. The Doctrine of Reconciliation. Church Dogmatics IV Part 3:2. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1988.

Bavinck, Herman. Reformed Dogmatics. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2006.

Ferguson, Sinclair B. “Ordo Salutis.”  Pages 480-481 in New Dictionary of Theology. Edited by Sinclar B Ferguson and David F. Wright.  Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1988.

Gaffin, Richard B. Jr. By Faith, not by Sight: Paul and the Order of Salvation. Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2006.

Letham, Robert. The Work of Christ. Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1993.

McGowan, Andrew T.B. “Justification and the ordo salutis.” Foundations (Spring  2004): 6-18.

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