Reforming Calvinism, pt. 14: Limited Atonement (Union with Christ)

In the last few entries in my series on Reforming Calvinism, I have been delineating an Evangelical Calvinist revision of the doctrine of ‘limited atonement’ that, in my opinion, preserves the best insights but eradicates the problematic aspects of the traditional view. I have proposed that in order to maximize the atonement’s efficacy in fully accomplishing human redemption, we must understand the atonement to be properly limited to one human being alone – Jesus Christ – who worked out ontologically within his own incarnate person the condemnation and destruction of sin, the purification from all corruption, and the resurrection from the dead. By limiting the atonement in this way, I argued that it has the paradoxical effect of ‘universalizing’ the atonement in a way Limited-Atonement-AVATARwhich the traditional view could never nor even wanted to do. Inasmuch as Christ accomplished his atoning work in the ontological depths of the humanity that he shared with all human beings, he accomplished redemption vicariously for all.

The final question that remains is this: if the atonement is properly limited to Christ alone, then how does anyone actually benefit from it? In order to answer this question, I would like to make use of the categories of de jure and de facto that I employed for my explication of the doctrine of election. What I have been saying with regard to a Christ-limited atonement refers specifically to the de jure aspect of human salvation. That is to say, the redemption that Christ accomplished, he vicariously accomplished de jure for all, but he accomplished it de facto only within himself. In other words, redemption has been utterly realized in Christ for every human being in principle, but only in one human being – Christ himself – in actual fact.

So how then does what Christ accomplished de jure for all become realized de facto in us as individual human beings?  I argued previously the necessity of understanding the atonement as vicariously accomplished for all due to the fact that Christ accomplished his atoning work in the nature and flesh that he assumed for all in his incarnation. It is therefore the divine-human hypostatic union of Christ himself in which our redemption was accomplished, and thus it is thus in union with Christ that we as individual human beings can participate by the Spirit de facto in that redemption. In order to understand how this occurs, it is important to explore in detail the nature of this union. For this, we turn to John Calvin who sets forth Scripture’s teaching on union with Christ in terms of three indivisible yet distinct aspects. Myk Habets helpfully explains (at length) Calvin’s view as follows:

Throughout Calvin’s theology three distinct but interrelated ‘unions’ are presented. The first is the incarnational union, the second, the unio mystica, and the third, a spiritual union…Calvin specifically cuts out any ‘extrinsecist’ notions of justification or reconciliation by positing justification as a benefit of union with Christ. Through participation in Christ we receive all the benefits of salvation, including Christ’s righteousness; which equates to the filial life. Calvin insists on the forensic nature of justification but is equally adamant that we are justified as a result of our union with Christ. This is affirmed when he writes, ‘You see that our righteousness is not in us but in Christ, that we possess it only because we are partakers in Christ; indeed, with him we possess all its riches’.

Christ is the mediating bond of union (Calvin’s first sense of ‘union’). The unio mystica is a personal union as men and women participate in a real way in Christ (Calvin’s second sense of ‘union’). This union is not without the Spirit who functions as the unitive bond of union with Christ (Calvin’s third sense of ‘union’). [Seng-Kong] Tan summarises Calvin’s position well:

Through the unitive operation of the Holy Spirit, Christ and the elect are brought into reciprocal relationship. The one is the humanward trajectory – Christ’s participation in us – where ‘he had to become ours and to dwell within us’; the other is the Christward movement – our participation in Christ – where we are said to be ‘engrafted into him’ [Rom 11.17], and ‘to put on Christ’ [Institutes 3.1.1]. (Tan, ‘Calvin’s Doctrine of Our Union With Christ) [1]

Before continuing, I would like to pause for a moment to comment on Habets’ summary of Calvin’s understanding of ‘union with Christ’ which, to repeat, involves three distinct yet indivisible elements. The first aspect, what Habets calls the ‘mediating’ or ‘incarnational’ union, is that which I have been explaining in these last few posts on the atonement. Christ accomplished his atoning work vicariously for all humanity inasmuch as he did it in the nature and flesh shared by all human beings that he assumed. When the Word became flesh, he established an ontological bond between himself and all other human beings that can never be broken or revoked without undoing the incarnation itself. As Habets articulates elsewhere in terms of ‘carnal union’:

[T]he carnal union establishes an ontological relation between Christ and all humanity…Without the Incarnation the estrangement between God and humanity would have continued to grow to such an extent that the alienation caused by sin would be complete so that humanity would disappear (along with the rest of creation) into nothingness. The Incarnation means that God refused to hold back his love for humanity and entered our alienated human existence to lay hold of it, bind it in union with himself, and heal it for all humanity. As a direct consequence all humanity is laid hold of by God and kept in existence by God.[2]

Thus, the ‘incarnational’ or ‘carnal’ aspect of union with Christ refers to the ‘downward’ movement of God to humanity in which the Son irrevocably united himself to humanity in his incarnation. It is in virtue of this incarnational union that Christ vicariously accomplished the atonement for all. This is the de jure aspect of human salvation: it has been utterly actualized in Christ for all in principle, yet not as a matter of fact in the actual existence of the rest of humanity. In order for the rest of humanity to partake de facto of the redemption accomplished in Christ, the second and third aspects of union with Christ – the unio mystica and the spiritual union by the Spirit – must be realized. Habets continues:

The fundamental basis of unio mystica for Calvin is to ‘put on Christ’ and to be ‘engrafted into him’…The most concise definition Calvin gives to the unio mystica is found in Institutes 3.11.10:

Therefore, that joining together of Head and members, that indwelling of Christ in our hearts—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…

This is not a rejection of the Reformation doctrine of imputation but its relocation into the context of participation. Imputation is correctly understood when viewed, ‘not just in terms of imputed righteousness but in terms of a participation in the righteousness of Christ which is transferred to us through union with him’. When salvation is viewed through the lens of the unio mystica – a personal participation in Christ – we discern that all the benefits he won for us are actually imputed and imparted to us simply because we are in Christ.[3]

What Habets articulates here is critical for understanding the de facto participation of humanity in the salvation wrought by Christ’s atoning work de jure. If, as Calvin saw clearly, the sum total of human salvation is located in Christ himself, then no part of that salvation can be experienced by any other human being apart from union with him. Although I will wait to explore this idea until my treatment of ‘irresistible grace’, Calvin apprehends the biblical teaching that the Spirit is the bond by which Christ unites or ‘engrafts’ us by faith to himself such that we partake of all of the saving benefits inhering in his person.

In one sense, therefore, we could say that while Christ accomplished our salvation de jure by assuming our humanity, we personally come to take part in that salvation de facto when we are likewise ‘assumed’ into his humanity by the Spirit. To borrow a phrase from Torrance, Christ accomplished our salvation de jure by making himself bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh, and we partake of that salvation de facto by becoming, by the Spirit, bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh. Thus, whereas the ‘incarnational’ aspect of union with Christ involves God’s downward movement to humanity in the Son’s incarnation, the ‘mystical’ aspect entails humanity’s upward movement to God through Christ by the Spirit. It is in this way, and in this way alone, that human beings can participate in the full effects of the atonement achieved in Christ.

Notice that I do not speak in terms of ‘redemption accomplished’ as opposed to ‘redemption applied’, the former referring to Christ’s atoning work in the past and the latter referring to the Spirit’s application of that work in the present. The reason that I avoid ‘application’ language but prefer to speak in terms of ‘participating in’ or ‘partaking of’ salvation in Christ is because ‘application’ can be taken to imply that Christ’s ‘sufficient’ work only becomes ‘effectual’ when we fulfill the conditions of faith and repentance by the Spirit. This, however, renders Christ’ atoning work either contingent or incomplete, for it effectively remains inert as a mere possibility until activated by our appropriation of it. I am convinced that Scripture teaches the exact opposite of this. I believe that Christ’s atoning work, as the book of Hebrews clearly states, is full, complete, and effectual, having been accomplished once and for all in history. In this way, redemption has been efficaciously achieved for all people in Christ himself. Inasmuch as Christ as the true imago Dei is the ontological ground and basis for the existence of all human beings in virtue of the incarnational union, redemption is the ultimate reality that defines their existence whether they believe it or not. Yet they will actually partake of it only if their union with Christ is fully realized through the Spirit.

From this, it should start to become clear how an Evangelical Calvinist revision of limited atonement should not necessarily terminate in universal salvation. The atonement does not save anyone in a mechanistic or automatic fashion. When we understand the atonement’s full efficacy to be limited to Christ’s person alone in virtue of the incarnational aspect of union, we also see how necessary it is for us to be united by the Spirit with him in a mystical or spiritual way. Although further explanation is required, we cannot say that this has occurred or will occur with respect to every single human being. Why not? What is to explain the reason for which some people are united to Christ by the Spirit while others are not? In order to answer this question, we must turn to the doctrine of ‘irresistible grace’, which we will consider in the next section of this series.

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Special thanks to Bobby Grow for inspiring this post.

[1] Habets, M., 2009. Theosis in the Theology of T.F. Torrance. Surrey; Burlington: Ashgate. pp.98-99.

[2] Habets, M., 2008. ‘The Doctrine of Election in Evangelical Calvinism: T.F. Torrance as a Case Study’ in Irish Theological Quarterly 73, p.339.

[3] Habets, M., 2009. Theosis in the Theology of T.F. Torrance. Surrey; Burlington: Ashgate. , pp.100-101

[4] Ibid., pp.104-105

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