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WTJ 74 (2012): 33-58
JOHN FLAVEL ON THE PRIORITY OF UNION WITH CHRIST:
FURTHER HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE ON THE STRUCTURE OF
Wiiii.x R. Erv.vrs
relatively small but signihcant debate continues within a segment of the
Reformed community regarding priority within the structure of soteriology.
Although there is a much longer history, the context for the current debate
reaches back most immediately to various critiques of the New Perspective on
Paul and the Federal Vision. These movements emphasize union with Christ
while objecting to the doctrine of justihcation as historically understood within
Reformed theology. In particular, the role of imputation, whereby Christ’s righ-
teousness is attributed to the believer, is openly questioned.
The response from Reformed circles defending the traditional formulation of
the doctrine of justihcation has, generally speaking, followed along two lines.
One response continues to assert the central role of union with Christ as the
overarching principle in the application of redemption while arguing that impu-
tation is an essential aspect of this union when properly conceived.
response places greater emphasis on the priority of justihcation for the entire
structure of salvation and uniquely distinguishes this forensic dimension in rela-
tion to the other benehts of redemption.
These two responses in defense of the historic Reformed doctrine of justihca-
tion, with their differing emphases, have brought to the fore deeper structural
differences, which has become the occasion for this broader debate about
theological priority within Reformed soteriology. It should be noted that both
positions vigorously maintain that justihcation is God’s forensic, or legal, decla-
ration of a believer’s righteous status dependent entirely on the imputed
William R. (Rob) Edwards is the pastor of Mercy Presbyterian Church in Forest, Va.
See Richard B. Gafhn, Jr., By Faith, Not By Sight: Paul and the Order of Salvation (Waynesboro,
Ga.: Paternoster, 2006); Mark A. Garcia, “Imputation and the Christology of Union with Christ,” WTJ
68 (2006): 219-51; Philip G. Ryken, “Justihcation and Union with Christ” (paper presented at the
meeting of The Gospel Coalition at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, May 23, 2007).
See the essays in R. Scott Clark, ed., Covenant, Justication, and Pastoral Ministry: Essays by the
Faculty of Westminster Theological Seminary California (Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian & Reformed, 2007);
John V. Fesko, “A More Perfect Union? Justihcation and Union with Christ,” Modern Reformation 16,
no. 3 (2007): 32-35, 38, online at http://www.modernreformation.org/default.php?page=printfriendly
&var1=Print&var2=7 (accessed July 21, 2011).
2012_SPRING_WTJ_ISSUE.indd 33 12-03-28 10:32 AM
WESTMINSTER THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL 34
righteousness of Christ and received by faith alone. This is not at question. The
debate is about the broader structure of salvation, specihcally the relationship
between union with Christ and justihcation, along with the other benehts of re-
demption, particularly sanctihcation.
These differences include divergent readings in the area of historical theol-
ogy as well. Both positions appeal to the Reformed tradition, laying claim to
Calvin and the trajectory of Reformed theology as it developed into the seven-
teenth century. Individuals such as Richard B. Gafhn, Jr., Lane G. Tipton, Mark
A. Garcia, and William B. Evans argue that union with Christ is the organizing
feature in Calvin’s soteriology and the context within which all the benehts of
redemption, including justihcation and sanctihcation, are comprehended and
applied. Indeed, the various benehts are to be distinguished but are never sepa-
rated and are bestowed together in union with Christ. Others, including Michael
S. Horton, John V. Fesko, W. Robert Godfrey, and David VanDrunen, have argued
that there is greater distinction within Calvin regarding the doctrine of justihca-
tion and that it is given a certain priority among the other benehts and functions
as a basis for the outworking for the whole of salvation, claiming that this distinc-
tion is reuected in subsequent Reformed theology as well.
This article will further explore these historical-theological questions through
the writings of John Flavel (1627–1691), for whom union with Christ was a signih-
cant theme. Flavel was inuuential in his own time, both through his preaching
and in his published works, and his importance is evident through the following
century on both sides of the Atlantic.
Flavel was writing a century after Calvin
and a generation after the work of the Westminster Assembly. Although his pub-
lished work is primarily in the form of sermons, and is pastoral rather than
polemical, the changing theological environment of the late seventeenth century
For examples of these exchanges, see Mark A. Garcia, “Review Article: No Reformed Theology
of Justihcation?,” Ordained Servant Online, http://opc.org/os.html?article_id=66 (accessed July 25,
2011); along with W. Robert Godfrey and David VanDrunen, “Response to Mark Garcia’s Review of
Covenant, Justication, and Pastoral Ministry,” Ordained Servant Online, http://opc.org/os.html?article_
id=80 (accessed July 25, 2011). See also John V. Fesko, “A Tale of Two Calvins: A Review Article,”
Ordained Servant 18 (2009): 98-104; together with Richard B. Gafhn, Jr., “A Response to Fesko’s
Review,” Ordained Servant 18 (2009): 104-13. Also William B. Evans, “Déjà Vu All Over Again? The
Contemporary Reformed Soteriological Controversy in Historical Perspective,” WTJ 72 (2010):
135-51; along with the response from J. V. Fesko, “Methodology, Myth, and Misperception: A Response
to William B. Evans,” WTJ 72 (2010): 391-402; and a reply by William B. Evans, “Of Trajectories,
Repristinations, and Meaningful Engagement of Texts: A Reply to J. V. Fesko,” WTJ 72 (2010): 403-14.
Increase Mather, then president of Harvard, writes in his preface to Flavel’s England’s Duty
Under the Present Gospel Liberty, that Flavel’s “other books have made his name precious and famous
in both Englands” (Increase Mather, “To the Reader” in England’s Duty Under the Present Gospel Liberty,
by John Flavel [vol. 4 of The Works of John Flavel; Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1997], 16). Archibald
Alexander, hrst professor of Princeton Seminary, said, “To John Flavel I certainly owe more than to
any uninspired author” (James W. Alexander, The Life of Archibald Alexander [New York: Charles
Scribner, 1854], 47). His inuuence has been noted on individuals such as George Whiteheld and
Jonathan Edwards, who frequently quotes Flavel in The Religious Affections (see Iain Murray, “John
Flavel,” The Banner of Truth, no. 60 [September 1968], online at www.banneroftruth.org/pages/ar-
ticles/article_detail.php?1377 [accessed Nov. 16, 2011]).
2012_SPRING_WTJ_ISSUE.indd 34 12-03-28 10:32 AM
35 JOHN FLAVEL ON THE PRIORITY OF UNION WITH CHRIST
is evident in his work, allowing us to see more clearly the function of union with
Christ in his soteriological framework. Flavel’s proximity to Westminster, together
with developments within his own theological and ecclesiological context, make
his work a valuable vantage point from which to examine the differing conclu-
sions about the role of union with Christ in the Reformed tradition.
In what follows, I will hrst survey the historical-theological claims of each
position in the current debate in order to appreciate better the value of Flavel
for the discussion. Second, aspects of Flavel’s historical context will be explored
along with what may be gathered concerning his own perspective regarding his
standing within the Reformed tradition. Third, the function of union with Christ
in the application of redemption will be examined in his works, focusing in par-
ticular on the relationship between redemption accomplished and redemption
applied, and the relationship between justihcation and sanctihcation. Finally,
some concluding observations will be made concerning ways Flavel’s under-
standing of mystical union contributes to the current historical-theological
dispute, with the aim of showing that those emphasizing the priority of union
with Christ hnd a precedent in John Flavel.
II. Appeals to the Reformed Tradition
As stated above, both parties are conhdent that Calvin and the general thrust
of Reformed theology in the subsequent century supports their differing posi-
tions. The one hnds union with Christ to be the central soteriological reality
constituting the context for the application of every beneht of redemption.
The other points to evidence that justihcation is the key feature historically in
Reformed soteriology and seeks to demonstrate that it maintains priority in rela-
tion to the other benehts of redemption. In this section, the arguments for each
will be outlined together with support garnered from the primary sources,
beginning with those arguing for the priority of union with Christ.
1. The Priority of Union with Christ in Reformed Soteriology
Richard B. Gafhn, Jr., has written a number of articles that focus particularly
on Calvin and the work of the Westminster Assembly.
Several other scholars,
including William B. Evans, Mark A. Garcia, and Lane G. Tipton, have also made
contributions arriving at similar conclusions regarding the role of union with
Christ in the development of Reformed soteriology.
The opening paragraph in
See the following by Richard B. Gafhn, Jr.: “Biblical Theology and the Westminster Standards,”
WTJ 65 (2003): 165-79; “Union With Christ: Some Biblical and Theological Reuections,” in Always
Reforming (ed. A. T. B. McGowan; Leicester: InterVarsity, 2006), 271-88; “Justihcation and Union with
Christ,” in A Theological Guide to Calvin’s Institutes (ed. David W. Hall and Peter A. Lillback; Phillips-
burg, N.J.: Presbyterian & Reformed, 2008), 248-69; “Calvin’s Soteriology: The Structure of the
Application of Redemption in Book Three of the Institutes,” Ordained Servant 18 (2009): 68-77.
William B. Evans, Imputation and Impartation: Union with Christ in American Reformed Theology
(Eugene, Ore.: Wipf & Stock, 2009), 7-38; Mark A. Garcia, Life in Christ: Union with Christ and Twofold
2012_SPRING_WTJ_ISSUE.indd 35 12-03-28 10:32 AM
WESTMINSTER THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL 36
Book 3 of Calvin’s Institutes is frequently quoted, that “as long as Christ remains
outside of us, and we are separated from him, all that he has suffered and done
for the salvation of the human race remains useless and of no value to us.”
Gafhn, and others who follow him, this is a signihcant statement at the start of
Calvin’s comprehensive section on the application of redemption titled, “The
Way in Which We Receive the Grace of Christ.” Gafhn claims, “It is difhcult to
exaggerate the importance of this sentence for Calvin’s applied soteriology as a
It indicates from the start that apart from union with Christ there are no
benehts received from Christ. Pointing to this same statement, Tipton claims,
“Union with Christ therefore organizes the core of Calvin’s soteriology and
supplies the nuclear theological structure for the application of redemption.”
Mark Garcia, in his detailed study, addresses what he calls various “strata” of
union with Christ evident in the correspondence between Calvin and Peter
Calvin concurs with Vermigli’s description of three unions:
the hypostatic or incarnational union, the mystical union, and the spiritual
union. These three strata are interrelated aspects of union with Christ, encom-
passing redemption in its accomplishment, its application, as well as its outwork-
ing in the Christian life. In the hypostatic union, Christ shares our nature and
secures our redemption, but it remains unapplied apart from the other strata of
union. The mystical union, standing between the hypostatic and spiritual
unions, Garcia understands as “the dehnitive engrafting into Christ by faith
through the work of the Holy Spirit,”
and it is this “engrafting which forms the
context of the communication of Christ’s benehts.”
In other words, the mysti-
cal union is the starting point for the application of redemption. Following this,
the third stratum is a “spiritual union” described as the “fruit and effect of the
former” mystical union within which, in Garcia’s reading of Vermigli, the bene-
hts are communicated, including justihcation and sanctihcation.
Thus, union is central throughout the entire soteriological structure, begin-
ning with Christ’s union with our nature in the accomplishment of redemption,
followed by a mystical union wherein Christ and an individual are joined to-
gether by the Spirit through faith, and consequently the sharing of the various
benehts of redemption in what is described as a “spiritual union.” Garcia believes
these various strata demonstrate the distinction made by Vermigli and Calvin
between the accomplishment of redemption in the union of Christ with our
humanity, as well as the necessity of its application in the union of the believer
Grace in Calvin’s Soteriology (Eugene, Ore.: Wipf & Stock, 2008); Lane G. Tipton, “Union with Christ
and Justihcation,” in Justied in Christ: God’s Plan for Us in Justication (ed. K. Scott Oliphint; Ross-
shire: Christian Focus, 2007), 23-49.
John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion (ed. John T. McNeill; trans. Ford Lewis Battles;
2 vols.; LCC; Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), 1:537 (3.1.1).
Gafhn, “Calvin’s Soteriology,” 70.
Tipton, “Union with Christ and Justihcation,” 39.
Garcia, Life in Christ, 185-90, 273-87.
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37 JOHN FLAVEL ON THE PRIORITY OF UNION WITH CHRIST
with Christ by the Spirit and through faith, which then is the context in which
the believer receives everything from Christ for salvation.
Important to note here is the emphasis on the person of Christ who is pos-
sessed by faith, not his benehts directly. According to Calvin, it is when Christ is
“possessed by us in faith” that in “partaking of him, we principally receive a double
grace” understood in terms of justihcation and sanctihcation.
argues that for Calvin, “Both justihcation and sanctihcation are subsumed under
a more comprehensive reality—union with Christ.”
This is further demonstrated
where Calvin uses the language of “mystical union” specihcally in relation to
justihcation, describing how Christ “makes us sharers with him in the gifts with
which he has been endowed,” not in that “we 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.”
Thus the relationship established
between Christ and the believer in the mystical union is the basis for imputation,
and consequently, imputation serves as the ground for justihcation.
However, while this mystical union is prior to and the basis for sharing in ev-
ery beneht of redemption, Calvin carefully differentiates between justihcation
and sanctihcation within this union. Regarding this double grace of justihca-
tion and sanctihcation, Calvin says, “Although we may distinguish them, Christ
contains both of them inseparably within himself.”
These distinctions are de-
scribed in his commentary on 1 Cor 1:30, a verse which Garcia identihes as
Calvin’s “biblical short-hand for his unio Christi-duplex gratia soteriology.”
regarding justihcation and sanctihcation, Calvin describes how “these fruits of
grace are connected together, as it were, by an indissoluble tie” yet “are con-
joined in such a manner as to be, notwithstanding, distinguished from each
Calvin concludes with the comment, “What, therefore, Paul here ex-
pressly distinguishes, it is not allowable mistakingly to confound.”
hcation and sanctihcation remain inseparable in that both are received in
union with Christ, one must never be confused with the other as both are dis-
tinct benehts, the one addressing the need for imputed righteousness due to
the guilt of sin, the other the need for a new nature due to the corruption of
sin. Thus Calvin preserves the distinction between the forensic and the transfor-
mative, while maintaining that both are inseparable as aspects of union with
Christ. In sum, Gafhn claims, “This, at its core, is Calvin’s ordo salutis: union with
Christ by Spirit-worked faith.”
Calvin, Institutes, 1:725 (3.11.1); emphasis added.
Evans, Imputation and Impartation, 39.
Calvin, Institutes, 1:737 (3.11.10); emphasis added.
See Gafhn, “Justihcation and Union with Christ,” 261-62.
Calvin, Institutes, 1:798 (3.16.1).
Garcia, Life in Christ, 219.
John Calvin, Commentary on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians (trans. John Pringle;
vol. 20 of Calvin’s Commentaries; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), 93-94.
Gafhn, “Justihcation and Union with Christ,” 259.
2012_SPRING_WTJ_ISSUE.indd 37 12-03-28 10:32 AM
WESTMINSTER THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL 38
It is further argued that this soteriological framework built upon union with
Christ is not unique to Calvin but remains the emphasis in Reformed theology
as it developed into the seventeenth century. It is “not only what Calvin but
subsequent Reformed theology has always taught.”
In particular, Gafhn ar-
gues the same fundamental structure is found in the Westminster Standards,
especially as expressed in the catechisms.
This is evident most clearly in the
Larger Catechism where Q&A 66 speaks of “the union the elect have with
Christ . . . whereby they are spiritually and mystically, yet really and inseparably,
joined to Christ.”
Following this, Q&A 69 outlines “communion in grace” in
terms of “justihcation, adoption, sanctihcation, and whatever else, in this life,
manifests their union with him.” Important to note here is the relationship
between “communion” and “union.” They are not to be conuated. Commu-
nion is dehned in terms of the various benehts, including justihcation, adop-
tion, and sanctihcation. Yet underlying this communion in grace is a union
with Jesus Christ. Hence, sharing in these benehts is a manifestation of this
prior union with his person.
This distinction between union with Christ and communion in grace corre-
sponds to the distinction Garcia hnds in Vermigli between the mystical union
and spiritual union described above. Both refer to the relationship between the
believer and Christ in terms of a mystical union. But what is described in Vermi-
gli’s correspondence with Calvin as a “spiritual union,” understood as the partici-
pation in the benehts of redemption, the Larger Catechism calls “communion
in grace.” The point to note is how both describe a union with his person that
comes prior to the application of the various benehts. Gafhn believes, “Those
multiple benehts are in view as functions or aspects of union,” and concludes
that “in the Westminster Standards the heart of the application of salvation, un-
derlying all further considerations of ordo salutis questions, is being united to
Christ by Spirit-worked faith.”
2. The Priority of Justication in Reformed Soteriology
In contrast, those maintaining the priority of justihcation in the structure of
Reformed soteriology raise serious questions regarding the above formulation
of Calvin’s doctrine of union with Christ, believing it does not appropriately
distinguish the uniqueness of justihcation in relation to the other benehts of
redemption, and particularly sanctihcation. Fesko refers to a peculiar “Gafhn-
school of reading of Calvin” with its overarching emphasis on union with Christ,
Gafhn, “A Response to John Fesko’s Review,” 111.
Gafhn, “Biblical Theology and the Westminster Standards,” 174-75; Gafhn, “Union with Christ:
Some Biblical and Theological Reuections,” 280-82; Gafhn, “Calvin’s Soteriology,” 71.
Also see Shorter Catechism Q&A 30, which describes the “Spirit working faith in us, and
thereby uniting us to Christ,” as the starting point for the application of redemption, after which the
various benehts, including justihcation, adoption, and sanctihcation, are listed.
Gafhn, “Union with Christ: Some Biblical and Theological Reuections,” 82.
2012_SPRING_WTJ_ISSUE.indd 38 12-03-28 10:32 AM
39 JOHN FLAVEL ON THE PRIORITY OF UNION WITH CHRIST
which he describes as “an idiosyncratic reading of Calvin.”
Others have raised
similar concerns. Godfrey and VanDrunen refer to this as a “new interpretation
of Calvin on union” and believe it to be “historically suspect.”
R. Scott Clark
observes that Calvin’s “discussion of union with Christ as a locus proper is very
brief” and hnds this “remarkable given the elaborate constructions given to his
doctrine of union with Christ in some recent scholarship.”
Though union with
Christ is an important theme, it should not be made “the singularly determina-
tive element of Calvin’s soteriology.”
Instead, Horton contends, “Regardless of whether union temporally pre-
ceded justihcation, Calvin is clear that the latter is the basis for the former.”
According to Horton, therefore, justihcation holds the position of primacy in
Reformed soteriology. He argues that even as the Reformers spoke of the mysti-
cal union with Christ, they “still regarded imputation as the judicial basis of the
entire ordo salutis, refusing to collapse imputation into an essential union.”
fact, Horton sees parallels between Osiander, whose view of union with Christ
Calvin vigorously opposes, and anyone who would “make this incorporation the
basis for justihcation rather than vice versa,” because, he says, “they always end
up eliding the crucial distinction between Christ for us and Christ in us.”
concern is that prioritizing union with Christ inevitably leads to a distortion of
justihcation through its intermingling with the other benehts of redemption
when subsumed together under the category of union with Christ. What is in the
forefront throughout the Reformation, it is argued, is justihcation by faith,
which Calvin describes as the “main hinge on which religion turns.”
To support this claim, Horton references Calvin’s commentary on Eph 3:17
where he discusses the relationship between faith and the fellowship, or union,
we have with Christ.
Here Calvin says, “Most people consider fellowship with
Christ, and believing in Christ, to be the same thing; but the fellowship which we
Fesko, “A Tale of Two Calvins,” 103; and Fesko, “Method, Myth, and Misperception,” 394. For
a similar and even more critical assessment see Thomas L. Wenger, “The New Perspective on Calvin:
Responding to Recent Calvin Interpretations,” JETS 50 (2007): 311-28.
Godfrey and VanDrunen, “Response to Mark Garcia’s Review of Covenant, Justication, and
Pastoral Ministry.” Similarly, Wenger notes that in Calvin “none of his disputationes deal primarily with
union with Christ, nor is there a single chapter devoted to it in the entire Institutes” (Wenger, “New
Perspective on Calvin,” 327-28).
R. Scott Clark, “Do This and Live,” in Covenant, Justication, and Pastoral Ministry, 261 n. 103.
See also Horton’s lengthy footnote concerning Garcia’s reading of Calvin (Michael Horton, The
Christian Faith [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011], 594 n. 11).
Fesko, “A Tale of Two Calvins,” 103.
Michael S. Horton, Covenant and Salvation: Union With Christ (Louisville: Westminster John
Knox, 2007), 143.
Ibid., 147. For more on Calvin’s interaction with Osiander, while maintaining the priority of
union with Christ, see Garcia, Life in Christ, 197-252.
Calvin, Institutes, 1:726 (3.11.1).
Horton, Covenant and Salvation, 143.
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WESTMINSTER THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL 40
have with Christ is the consequence of faith.”
Although Calvin is not specihcally
discussing justihcation in this passage, his comment concerning faith is under-
stood by Horton as a reference to justihcation as it is uniquely possessed by faith.
Thus Horton points to what he believes is a distinction in Calvin between justih-
cation and union with Christ, where faith and its consequence in justihcation is
the foundation for the fellowship, or union, we have with Christ.
Distinguishing justihcation in this way also has implications for its relationship
to sanctihcation. Rather than envisioning justihcation and sanctihcation together
as distinct yet inseparable aspects of union with Christ, justihcation is separated
out as the ground for sanctihcation. It depends on the prior declaration of
righteousness in justihcation as its starting point. Horton points to Calvin’s com-
mentary on Rom 6:23 where, according to Calvin, “clothed with the righteous-
ness of the Son,” a reference to imputation, “we are reconciled to God, and we
are by the power of the Spirit renewed unto holiness.”
In this statement, Horton
believes Calvin is conveying a dependent relationship, not only where imputation
functions as the basis for justihcation, or reconciliation with God, but also oper-
ates instrumentally in sanctihcation.
Horton hnds here a clear order that must
be maintained, with imputation providing the judicial ground for reconciliation,
as well as functioning dynamically in a way that empowers sanctihcation.
Fesko also takes issue with Garcia’s reading of the correspondence between
Vermigli and Calvin described above. While there is no question concerning the
role of the hypostatic union, he challenges Garcia’s understanding of the mystical
and spiritual unions. As noted above, Garcia believes the mystical union joins the
believer to the person of Christ while the spiritual union conveys the benehts of
redemption, including justihcation and sanctihcation. However, Fesko contends
that the mystical union in Vermigli is the proper setting for justihcation while
the spiritual union corresponds to sanctihcation. He follows Duncan Rankin
who “correlates the mystical and spiritual unions in Vermigli as well as in Calvin
to justihcation and sanctihcation respectively.”
Thus, in Fesko’s view, these
distinct benehts are related to distinctions in union with Christ. In this reading
of Vermigli, mystical union is “a dehnitive event and therefore corresponds to
the doctrine of justification” while “the spiritual union corresponds to the
John Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul to the Galatians and Ephesians (trans. William
Pringle; vol. 21 of Calvin’s Commentaries), 262.
John Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans (trans. John Owen; vol.
19 of Calvin’s Commentaries), 243. Horton quotes from another translation of Calvin’s Romans com-
mentary which reads, “since we are clothed with the righteousness of the Son . . . we are reconciled
to God and renewed by the power of the Spirit to holiness,” communicating the sense of a causal
relation between justihcation and renewal (John Calvin, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans and
Thessalonians [ed. David W. Torrance and Thomas F. Torrance; trans. Ross MacKenzie; vol. 8 of
Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964], 138; quoted in Horton, Chris-
tian Faith, 594 n. 11); emphasis added.
Horton, Christian Faith, 594 n. 11.
J. V. Fesko, “Peter Martyr Vermigli on Union With Christ and Justihcation,” RTR 70 (2011): 40.
2012_SPRING_WTJ_ISSUE.indd 40 12-03-28 10:32 AM
41 JOHN FLAVEL ON THE PRIORITY OF UNION WITH CHRIST
doctrine of sanctihcation.”
The concern with Garcia’s reading, which places
justihcation and sanctihcation together within the spiritual union, is that it leads
to an undifferentiated relationship between these two benehts.
In this approach, union with Christ is only truly understood in relation to the
various benehts. These benehts dehne union with Christ, and their distinctions
are displayed in union with Christ. This is also seen in Fesko’s article on William
Perkins. Rather than distinguishing between union with Christ and communion
in grace with his benehts, Fesko believes that for Perkins, “union with Christ is
the ordo salutis.”
The two are not distinguished. To talk about union with Christ
is simply to talk about the ordo salutis and the various aspects of salvation within
it. Indeed, they are described as “synonymous” and “one and the same.”
Similarities are found in Godfrey and VanDrunen’s discussion of the West-
minster Standards. In contrast to Gafhn’s claims that union with Christ is the
“heart of the application of salvation” in the Westminster Standards, they point
out that “no chapter in the Westminster Confession of Faith is given to union
In reference to the Larger Catechism’s treatment of union with
Christ, so important for Gafhn, Godfrey and VanDrunen demur: “If anything,
WLC 69 warns us against starting with an abstract doctrine of union. . . . If we
want to understand union, then, we must look to our justihcation, adoption,
and sanctihcation. . . . These blessings show us what our union with Christ is.”
Again, the various benehts dehne the union, and justihcation holds the posi-
tion of priority in relation to them all. Godfrey and VanDrunen reference the
Confession’s statement that “good works . . . are the fruits and evidences of a
true and lively faith,” taking faith here as a reference to justifying faith, and
understanding good works within sanctihcation as an effect of faith, and hence
Fesko challenges those who maintain the priority of union with Christ to pro-
vide better evidence demonstrating their claims, particularly regarding the rela-
tionship of justihcation and sanctihcation within this union. If the reading of
Calvin emphasizing union with Christ as the organizing feature in his soteriology
is valid, it must also be clearly shown in subsequent formulations as the Reformed
tradition continued to develop into the seventeenth century.
The remainder of
this article will address this concern through the writings of John Flavel.
John V. Fesko, “William Perkins on Union with Christ and Justihcation,” Mid-America Journal
of Theology 21 (2010): 30; emphasis added.
Ibid., 30 n. 38, 34.
Godfrey and VanDrunen, “Response to Mark Garcia’s Review.”
Ibid. See WCF 16:2.
Fekso, “Methodology, Myth, and Misperception,” 394.
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WESTMINSTER THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL 42
III. John Flavel’s Doctrine of Union with Christ in Historical Context
John Flavel pastored, preached, and published during the rapidly changing
political, ecclesiological, and theological environment of the later seventeenth
century. His own career was marked by these shifts, from an established Presbyte-
rian minister during the Interregnum, to his ejection at the Restoration under the
Act of Uniformity of 1662, later licensed as a Congregational minister after the
Declaration of Indulgence in 1672, and hnally in the last years of his life and min-
istry experiencing the greater liberty that came with the Glorious Revolution.
Although his status frequently changed, his convictions did not. Flavel continued
to maintain the trajectory of the Reformation throughout his ministry.
Two of his later works particularly demonstrate this. One is his Exposition of the
Assembly’s Shorter Catechism, written just prior to his death and published posthu-
mously in 1692 in which he further expounds upon its teaching and draws out
its practical implications.
This work was initially used with his congregation in
Dartmouth in 1688 at his return there after the Indulgence of 1687. The second
work, containing sermons delivered in 1688–1689, is England’s Duty Under the
Here Flavel addresses fellow ministers of the gospel in the
new era of freedom, exhorting young and old to seek unity while also faithfully
adhering to the doctrines of the Reformation. As will be further described below,
both of these works include substantial statements concerning union with Christ
in the application of redemption.
Union with Christ has been described as the “nerve of puritan piety.”
nerve was struck in 1674 when William Sherlock, who at the time was rector of
St. George’s in London, wrote A Discourse Concerning the Knowledge of Jesus Christ,
and Union and Communion with Him. Sherlock argues that the metaphors in
Scripture describing union with Christ refer to nothing more than the relation-
ship Christians have with the church. He writes, “to abide in Christ is to make a
publick and visible profession of Faith in Christ, to be the members of his visible
Church” and “the Union of particular Christians to Christ consists in their
Union to the Christian Church.”
According to Sherlock, what is primary in
union with Christ is not the personal and soteriological but the public and eccle-
siological. Union with Christ does not describe the manner of personal
For biographical information on Flavel see James William Kelly, “Flavell, John (bap. 1630, d.
1691),” in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), online at
http://www.oxforddnb.com/index/101009678/John-Flavell (accessed Feb. 14, 2007). Also see
Anonymous, The Life of the Late Rev. Mr. John Flavel, Minister of Dartmouth (vol. 1 of The Works of John
John Flavel, An Exposition of the (Westminster) Assembly’s Shorter Catechism (vol. 6 of The Works of
John Flavel), 138-317.
John Flavel, England’s Duty Under the Present Gospel Liberty (vol. 4 of The Works of John Flavel),
R. Tudor Jones, “Union with Christ: The Existential Nerve of Puritan Piety,” TynBul 41 (1990):
William Sherlock, A Discourse Concerning the Knowledge of Jesus Christ, and our Union and Com-
munion with Him (London: J. M., 1674), 148-49.
2012_SPRING_WTJ_ISSUE.indd 42 12-03-28 10:32 AM
43 JOHN FLAVEL ON THE PRIORITY OF UNION WITH CHRIST
application of redemption but the outward association of the individual with the
Sherlock is quite clear in his rejection of a union with Christ in which a believer
receives anything directly from Christ’s person. He describes Christ’s own perfec-
tions but claims, “These personal perfections cannot pass out of his person to
There is no room for either imputation or impartation. Union
with Christ is “political” and “consists in our belief in his Revelations, obedience
to his Laws, and subjection to his Authority.”
Sherlock’s work reveals the shift-
ing theological landscape and the development of Latitudinarianism in the
The struck nerve elicited an immediate response from individuals such as
John Owen, Vincent Alsop, Henry Hickman, Samuel Rolle, Thomas Danson,
and Robert Ferguson.
Another to respond was Edward Polhill, who of Sherlock’s
book said, “When I read it, I thought my self in a new Theological World;
Believers appearing without their Head for want of Mystical Union, strip’d and
naked for lack of imputed Righteousness; the full treasures of Grace in Christ . . .
emptied out of his person, and transfused into the doctrine of the Gospel; as if
according to Pelagius all Grace were in doctrine only.”
Polhill’s sense of shock
and his description of this environment as a “new theological world” are telling
For an account of Latitudinarianism see Gerald R. Cragg, From Puritanism to the Age of Reason
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1950); Isabel Rivers, Reason, Grace and Sentiment: A Study
of the Language of Religion and Ethics in England, 1660–1780 (2 vols.; Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1991), 1:25-88; Dewey D. Wallace, Puritans and Predestination: Grace in English Protestant Theology,
1525–1695 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1982), 158-90.
For a summary of this controversy see Wallace, Puritans and Predestination, 170-73. The follow-
ing works are in response to Sherlock: John Owen, A Vindication of Some Passages in A Discourse Con-
cerning Communion with God (vol. 2 of The Works of John Owen; Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1997),
275-364; Vincent Alsop, Anti-Sozzo, sive Sherlocismus Enervatus: in Vindication of Some Great Truths Op-
posed, and Opposition to Some Great Errors Maintained by Mr. William Sherlock (London: Printed for
Nathanael Ponder, 1675); Henry Hickman, Speculem Sherlockianum, or, A Looking-Glass in which the
Admirers of Mr. Sherlock may behold the Man, as to his Accuracy, Judgement, Orthodoxy (London: Printed
for Thomas Parkhurst, 1674); Samuel Rolle, Justication Justied: or The Great doctrine of Justication,
Stated according to the Holy Scriptures, and the Judgment of Protestant Divines. By which several Fundamental
Truths, always owned by the Church of England, since the Reformation, are Explain’d Conrm’d, and Vindi-
cated from the Errors of Mr. William Sherlock. Also a Discourse in Answer to him concerning Acquaintance with
the Person of Christ (London: printed for the author, and are to be sold at B. Billing. at the Printing-
Press in Corn-hill, 1674); Thomas Danson, A Friendly Debate between Satan and Sherlock Containing a
discovery of the unsoundness of Mr. William Sherlocks Principles in a late book entituled A Discourse Concerning
the Knowledge of Jesus Christ &c., by this only Medium, that they afford the Devil the same grounds for his hope
of Salvation, that they do Mankind, and so subvert the Gospel, and transform Christianity into Mahumetanism
(London?: S.N., 1676); Robert Ferguson, The Interest of Reason in Religion with the Import & Use of
Scripture-Metaphors, and the Nature of the Union betwixt Christ & Believers; (with Reections on Several Late
Writings, especially Mr. Sherlocks Discourse concerning the Knowledge of Jesus Christ, &c.) Modestly enquired
into and stated (London: Printed for Dorman Newman, 1675).
Edward Polhill, An Answer to the Discourse of Mr. William Sherlock, Touching the Knowledge of
Christ, and our Union and Communion with Him (London: Ben Foster, 1675), “To the Reader,” un-
2012_SPRING_WTJ_ISSUE.indd 43 12-03-28 10:32 AM
WESTMINSTER THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL 44
and point to the essential function of union with Christ in Reformed soteriology.
It is worth noting in his list the various aspects of salvation lost apart from this
mystical union: there is no participation in the covenant of grace as believers are
separated from their head, there is no imputation of righteousness, nor any
other beneht of grace, as all of these are found in his person. As evidenced in the
overwhelming reaction against Sherlock among nonconforming ministers, this
rejection of mystical union was believed to be destructive to the entire theological
system and a radical change from the trajectory of the Reformation.
Although John Flavel did not engage in the controversy with Sherlock, there
are points where he directly addresses this new theological environment. This is
particularly evident as he discusses union and communion with Christ. Flavel
argues that this union is not just an “empty notion” or a “mere mental union . . .
but really exists extra mentem” although “the atheistical world censures all these
things as fancies and idle imaginations.”
In England’s Duty, as he discusses
communion with Christ, he similarly claims, “This atheistical age scoffs at, and
ridicules it as enthusiasm and fanaticism . . . but the thing is real, sure, and
He argues that this union is “a very great mystery, far above the un-
derstanding of natural men.”
Although Scripture provides metaphors for this
union, Flavel says they neither individually nor jointly give a full account of it.
In regards to the mystical union believers have with Christ, “There are no foot-
steps of this thing in all the works of creation.”
It should be no surprise that
there are aspects of redemption that remain mysterious. In the end, “Thus saith
the Lord is the hrm foundation upon which our assent is built . . . though we
cannot understand these things by reason of the darkness of our minds.”
clear that Flavel agreed with the assessment of Polhill and others regarding the
rejection of union with Christ and its implication for the structure of Reformed
soteriology. Indeed, Flavel states, “Destroy this union, and with it you destroy all
our fruits, privileges and eternal hopes at one stroke.”
The details of Flavel’s exposition of the Westminster Shorter Catechism
further reveal how he envisions his relationship to the Reformed tradition. Prior
to addressing matters related specihcally to the application of redemption, he
demonstrates the centrality of union with Christ as he discusses Q&A 16 of the
catechism regarding the covenant as it relates to the fall of Adam. One of the
inferences he draws from the universal fall of humankind in the sin of Adam is
the “wisdom of God in sending Christ in our nature” and the “necessity of our
union with Christ, in order to our participation of his righteousness and
John Flavel, The Method of Grace in the Gospel Redemption (vol. 2 of The Works of John Flavel), 35,
Flavel, England’s Duty, 236.
Flavel, Method of Grace, 150.
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45 JOHN FLAVEL ON THE PRIORITY OF UNION WITH CHRIST
Here are two themes Flavel returns to on a number of occasions,
examined further below, namely the relationship between the hypostatic union
and the mystical union. Following this, he gives the subtitle “Of our Union with
Christ” to a series of questions and answers he provides to express more thor-
oughly the meaning of Q&A 30 of the catechism concerning the Spirit’s applica-
tion of redemption.
The Spirit accomplishes the application, according to the
catechism, “By working faith in us, and thereby uniting us to Christ in our effec-
tual calling.” Flavel puts forth twelve more questions and answers to further
convey the sense of this application in union with Christ.
In these, Flavel stresses that “Christ’s redemption cannot proht us, except we
are in him.”
It is a union that is by “the Spirit on God’s part” and “faith on our
According to Flavel, it is only this union that “makes Christ and all that
he hath purchased become ours,” and becomes the “foundation and root of all
our spiritual and acceptable obedience.”
In these answers Flavel is referring to
both justihcation and sanctihcation, each as a “property of this union,” distinct
yet inseparable in that each is had in union with Christ.
In fact, as he comes to
Q&A 32 of the Shorter Catechism, which lists justihcation, adoption, and sancti-
fication as the various benefits, Flavel refers to these as “concomitants of
In other words, Flavel does not describe this list as an order of salva-
tion but as “concomitants,” or as the several benehts that accompany the union
with Christ effected in God’s call.
The point to note is that in Flavel’s outline of the application of redemption
described here, he is simply explicating his understanding of the Westminster
Shorter Catechism. He sees himself as maintaining the trajectory of the Reformed
tradition, and union with Christ is the central feature that provides the organiz-
ing structure in its soteriology. One can also discern echoes of John Calvin’s
opening paragraph of Book 3 of the Institutes in Flavel’s remark that this redemp-
tion accomplished by Christ “cannot proht us, except we are in him.”
point, Flavel provides 1 Cor 1:30 as a prooftext, that God has made Christ
“our wisdom and our righteousness and sanctihcation and redemption.” The
importance of this verse for Flavel in his discussion of union with Christ is another
similarity with Calvin.
It is the text for Flavel’s opening sermon in The Method of
Grace, his most thorough treatment of union with Christ, and is found frequently
in subsequent chapters.
The signihcance of this verse, according to Flavel, is
Flavel, Exposition of the Shorter Catechism, 171.
Ibid., 191. See Calvin, Institutes, 1:537 (3.1.1).
Garcia notes, “When Calvin wishes to clarify the distinct-yet-inseparable character of the saving
benehts . . . that come in union with Christ, he cites or refers to the language of this verse with
striking regularity” (Garcia, Life in Christ, 219).
Flavel, Method of Grace, 15, 36, 39, 40, 42, 85, 144, 146-47, 188, 216, 233.
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WESTMINSTER THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL 46
that it provides both “an enumeration of the chief privileges of believers, and an
account of the method whereby they come to be invested with them.”
method is union with Christ. In referencing Calvin’s commentary, Flavel leaves
no doubt as to the connection with Calvin at this point.
Flavel clearly believes
there is deep continuity between his theological formulations, with his emphasis
on union with Christ in the application of redemption, and those of the preced-
ing generation at the Westminster Assembly, and stretching back further still
into the previous century, as he worked to uphold the same soteriological frame-
work in his own changing theological environment.
IV. Union with Christ in the Works of Flavel
In considering Flavel’s works more broadly, union with Christ is a theme
found in his earliest to his last published sermons.
It is never far from his mind
as he considers the work of Christ and its application. This is seen not only in the
area of soteriology, but in his discussion of ecclesiology as well. In contrast to
Sherlock’s reduction of union with Christ to one’s relation to the church, Flavel
understands the ecclesiological imperative to unity as rooted in the indicative of
the union believers have with Christ by the same Spirit and a common faith.
Flavel says, “Union with Christ is fundamental to all union among the saints.”
is also union with Christ that provides the focal point for ministry. According to
Flavel, “The great aim and scope at all Christ’s ordinances and ofhcers, are to
bring men into union with Christ, and so build them up to perfection in him.”
Though present in many of his writings, his most thorough treatment of union
with Christ as it relates to the structure of soteriology is found in The Method of
There are a few important observations to make about this work. The hrst is
where it stands in relation to an earlier work by Flavel, The Fountain of Life Opened
Up: Or A Display of Christ in His Essential and Mediatorial Glory (1673). These works
are related to one another as redemption accomplished and redemption applied,
as can be discerned from their titles. Flavel writes in his epistle to the reader
introducing The Fountain of Life that “it was my purpose at hrst to have comprised
the second part, viz. The application of the redemption that is with Christ unto sinners,
in one volume . . . but that making a just volume itself, must await another season
See John Flavel, Husbandry Spiritualized: Or, the Heavenly Use of Earthly Things (vol. 5 of The Works
of John Flavel), 141-49. This work was hrst published in 1668 and contains two chapters, together with
two poems, on the agricultural metaphors for union with Christ. His later works where union with
Christ hnd clear expression are An Exposition of the (Westminster) Assembly’s Shorter Catechism and
England’s Duty mentioned above, as well as Gospel Unity Recommended to the Churches of Christ (vol. 3 of
The Works of John Flavel), 592-608; and A Coronation Sermon (vol. 6 of The Works of John Flavel), 545-63.
Both were initially published in 1689.
Flavel, Gospel Unity Recommended, 592.
Flavel, Method of Grace, 20.
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47 JOHN FLAVEL ON THE PRIORITY OF UNION WITH CHRIST
to see the light.”
This volume concerning application is The Method of Grace
published eight years later. Similarly, in its introductory epistle Flavel writes, “It
contains the method of grace in the application of the great redemption to the souls of
men, as the former part [referring to The Fountain of Life] contains the method of
grace in the impetration thereof by Jesus Christ.”
The signihcance of this is that
Flavel’s work on the application of redemption is not intended to stand alone.
His earlier treatment of the accomplishment of redemption focusing on Christ’s
person and work has theological priority. In other words, the true method of
grace begins with Jesus himself, as seen in Flavel’s comments above.
A second thing to note is the fuller title of this second work on the application
of redemption. It is The Method of Grace, In bringing home the Eternal Redemption,
Contrived by the Father, and accomplished by the Son through the effectual Application
of the Spirit unto God’s Elect; being the Second Part of Gospel Redemption: Wherein The
great mysterie of our Union and Communion with Christ is opened and applied. Lest
there be any doubt, Flavel makes clear that this work on application has both the
eternal plan and the redemptive-historical accomplishment in view, going so far
as to call the application the “Second Part of Gospel Redemption,” secondary to
its accomplishment as described in his previous work. Yet secondary does not
mean any less signihcant. Flavel is clear that “union with Christ by faith is as
necessary, in the place of an applying cause, as the death of Christ is, in the place
of a meritorious cause.”
Another item to note in Flavel’s title is his use of the word “method.” As he
describes the central features in the application of redemption, his concern is
not to present an order of salvation, an ordo salutis, although he deals extensively
with the various benehts of redemption such as justihcation, adoption, and sanc-
tification throughout the work. His overarching concern is to explain the
method of application, the method of grace, or the modus salutis summarized in
the title as “union and communion with Christ.”
This is similar to Flavel’s dis-
cussion of the Shorter Catechism, where union with Christ is the focal point and
the various benehts are referred to as “concomitants of vocation.” Again, the
central feature is union with Christ and the various benehts are the associated
blessings. Numerous summary statements throughout The Method of Grace make
this plain. Flavel says, “The effectual application of Christ principally consists in
John Flavel, The Fountain of Life: A Display of Christ in His Essential and Mediatorial Glory (vol. 1
of The Works of John Flavel), 24; emphasis original.
Note the error in the Banner of Truth edition which has “interpretation” rather than “impetra-
tion” (Flavel, Method of Grace, 12). The hrst edition has “impetration” (John Flavel, The Method of Grace
In bringing Home the Eternal Redemption, Contrived by the Father, and accomplished by the Son, through the
effectual Application of the Spirit unto God’s Elect; being the Second Part of Gospel Redemption: Wherein The
great mysterie of our Union and Communion with Christ is opened and applied [London: M. White, 1681],
b3; emphasis original). All other references to this work will be from the Banner of Truth edition
unless noted otherwise.
Flavel, Method of Grace, 313-14.
Similarly, Gafhn argues that in Calvin’s title to Institutes, Book 3, “The Way in Which We Receive
the Grace of Christ,” the “concern is with ‘the way’ (Latin: not ordo, but modus, ‘mode,’ ‘manner,’
‘method’)” (Gafhn, “Biblical Theology and the Westminster Standards,” 170).
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WESTMINSTER THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL 48
our union with him.”
Later he states, “Union with Christ is, in order of nature,
antecedent to the communication of his privileges.”
Flavel stresses regularly that
“Christ and his benehts go inseparably and undividedly together” and that none
can “receive his privileges, who will not receive his person.”
Flavel’s method of
application places the person of Christ constantly in the foreground.
1. The Hypostatic and Mystical Unions: Redemption Accomplished and Redemption Applied
This emphasis on Christ’s person is also seen as Flavel discusses the hypostatic
union and its relation to the mystical union. According to Flavel, “The greatest
honour that was ever put upon the human nature, was by its assumption into
union with the Son of God, hypostatically; and the greatest honour that can be
done to our persons, is by our union with Christ, mystically.”
Flavel is careful to
distinguish the two. The believer does not become one person with Christ as the
two natures of Christ are united in one person.
Yet he is also clear about the
essential relationship between them. Flavel describes the “reciprocal nature of
that communion which is between Christ and believers; we do not only partake
of what is his, but he partakes of what is ours.”
He states that “participation in
Christ’s benehts, depends upon the hypostatic union of our nature, and the
mystical union of our persons with the Son of God; in the hrst he partakes with
us, in the second we partake with him.”
The hypostatic union is related to the
mystical union as redemption accomplished is related to redemption applied. As
the hypostatic union of Christ’s two natures in one person is the central feature
in securing salvation, the believer’s union with Christ’s person is key to its appli-
cation. There can be no saving union with the person of Christ without Christ
being this person who is both God and man.
Yet, while there is a certain priority given to the hypostatic union, Flavel em-
phasizes the more immediate redemptive signihcance of the mystical union. In
fact, he believes the hypostatic union itself displays this intent in that “his per-
sonal union with our nature shows his desire after a mystical union with our
Thus the hypostatic union cannot fulhll its purpose apart from the
mystical union. In The Fountain of Life, he says of the hypostatic union that “by
this union with our nature alone, never any man was or can be saved. Yea, let me
add, that this union with our natures is utterly in vain to you, and will do you no
Flavel, Method of Grace, 49.
Ibid., 17. See also 67 and 103-4.
Flavel, Coronation Sermon, 557.
Flavel, Fountain of Life, 75.
Flavel, Method of Grace, 151.
Flavel, England’s Duty, 115. Elsewhere Flavel says, “What was done upon the person of Christ . . .
was also intended for a platform, or idea, of what is to be done by the Spirit actually upon our souls
and bodies” (Flavel, Method of Grace, 18).
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49 JOHN FLAVEL ON THE PRIORITY OF UNION WITH CHRIST
good, except he have union with your person by faith also.”
Similarly in The
Method of Grace, Flavel writes, “That honour which is done to our nature by the
hypostatical union, is common to all, good and bad, even they that perish . . . but
to be implanted into Christ by regeneration . . . is a peculiar privilege . . . and
only communicated to God’s elect.”
Through this emphasis on both the hy-
postatic and mystical union, Flavel does not lose sight of either the historical
accomplishment of redemption or the necessity of its personal application. He
maintains a balance while also preserving a focus on the person of Christ.
It is also important to note the role of the federal union in Flavel’s discussion.
He envisions the federal union, when considered in the application of redemp-
tion, to be an aspect of the mystical union. Rather than functioning as the primary
category in which union is understood, the federal or covenantal dimension of
union with Christ only becomes operative within the mystical union established
between Christ and the believer. He says of the mystical union, “Though it is
beneath the hypostatic union, yet it is more than a mere federal union.”
continues, “Christ’s coming into the soul, signihes more than his coming into
covenant with it.”
Thus the mystical union entails something greater than
covenantal representation as it joins a person to Christ. He speaks similarly else-
where regarding the federal union, that “such a union indeed there is betwixt
Christ and believers, but that is consequential to and wholly dependent upon
this,” referring to the mystical union.
For Flavel, limiting the concept of union
to the federal or covenantal detracts from the fullness of what is received in the
mystical union. It reduces salvation to representation and fails to capture the
fullness of what he describes as communion with Christ. The federal, or repre-
sentative, union is one beneht among others stemming from the mystical union.
Flavel continues to stress the person of Christ as he discusses the role of the
Spirit and faith in effecting this union. Flavel describes the mystical union as “an
intimate conjunction of believers to Christ, by the imparting of his Spirit to
them, whereby they are enabled to believe and live in him.”
Thus he refers to
the Spirit and faith as the “only two ligaments, or bands of union betwixt Christ
and the soul.”
As Flavel describes faith he repeatedly stresses its focus on the
person of Christ rather than upon his benehts. It is Christ who saves and there-
fore faith must apprehend him above all. “No saving beneht is to be had by
Christ without union with his person, no union with his person without faith.”
Thus, he says, faith “primarily confers their right to his person, and secondarily to
According to Flavel, this is why “union with Christ is, in order of
Flavel, Fountain of Life, 83.
Flavel, Method of Grace, 90. See also Flavel, Coronation Sermon, 557.
Flavel, England’s Duty, 212.
Flavel, Method of Grace, 38.
Ibid., 39, 84, 116. See also Flavel, Fountain of Life, 192, 452, 512.
Flavel, Method of Grace, 67.
Ibid., 103; emphasis added.
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WESTMINSTER THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL 50
nature, antecedent to the communication of his privileges.”
Before all else, it
is Christ that is received by faith. “First,” he says, “it is the bond of union.” And
then, “Secondly, it is the instrument of our justihcation.”
Faith is not primarily
understood in relation to justihcation, or any other beneht, but always hrst and
foremost as that which unites one to Christ.
Thus for Flavel, faith is never reduced to its function in relation to a particular
beneht, but must be understood in relation to Christ’s person. And it is because
of who he is as a person that faith conveys the right to the privileges he possesses,
such as his righteousness for justihcation. The reason this is important for Flavel
is that it makes his benehts indivisible in our reception. As Flavel says, “Christ is
offered to us in the gospel entirely and undividedly . . . and so the true believer
To focus exclusively on one beneht, such as justihcation, to the
exclusion of others, is “to separate in our acceptance, what is so united in Christ,
for our salvation and happiness.”
Faith properly understood as the bond of
union, receives “hrst his person, then his privileges.”
2. The Relationship between Union with Christ, Justication, and Sanctication
As faith unites the individual to Christ, it also brings one into communion
with his privileges, including justihcation and sanctihcation. For Flavel, union
and communion with Christ are distinct categories. The mystical union is the
relationship between persons, the believer and Christ, by the Spirit and through
faith. Communion with Christ then describes the participation in his benehts
that follows this union. Union must be prior to communion: “Take away union
and there can be no communion.”
Again, this distinction keeps the person of
Christ in the foreground. Salvation is hrst and foremost found in him.
Flavel describes the broader structure of salvation with “the design and end”
being “the communication of his benehts.” In other words, the application of
salvation is not complete apart from the various benehts bestowed. Yet he con-
tinues, describing how this end is achieved: “All communication of benehts
necessarily imply communion, and all communion as necessarily presuppose
union with his person.”
The order is clear. The mystical union is prior and
establishes a state of communion within which the various benehts of redemp-
tion are communicated to the believer.
The greatest of these benehts to which Flavel regularly returns are justihca-
tion and sanctihcation. He describes these as “two of the most rich and shining
Ibid., 35-36. Similarly, Flavel states, “Union with Christ is fundamental to all communion with
him. All communion is founded on union; and where there is no union, there can be no com-
munion” (Flavel, England’s Duty, 239).
Flavel, Method of Grace, 33.
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51 JOHN FLAVEL ON THE PRIORITY OF UNION WITH CHRIST
robes in the wardrobe of salvation.”
Where he discusses one, he soon describes
This emphasis on justihcation and sanctihcation is for two reasons.
First, it is because of what Flavel describes as the “two bars betwixt you and all
spiritual mercies, viz., the guilt of sin, and the hlth of sin.”
The two foremost
consequences of sin require this emphasis. But secondly, it is due to the manner
in which some seek to divide justihcation from sanctihcation. To those Flavel
replies, “Surely it is the greatest affront . . . to separate in our acceptance, what is
so united in Christ.”
It is because of who Christ is that these two benehts can-
not be divided from one another. Justihcation and sanctihcation are united in
him, and in union with Christ both are received through the communion we
have with him. According to Flavel, “The hypocrite . . . is for dividing,” but as
these “are undivided in Christ, so they are in the believer’s acceptance.”
structure of salvation, which begins with union and entails communion, will not
permit the severing of justihcation and sanctihcation.
Due to this order of salvation, with communion in his privileges following
union with his person, Flavel stresses not only the inseparability of the benehts,
but that they are also received immediately and simultaneously. He says, “by our
union with his person, we are immediately interested in all his riches.”
As he lists
the various benehts of redemption, including justihcation and sanctihcation, he
says, “they are all included in this general, the applying and putting on of
Again, similarly, they “are all truly and really bestowed with Christ upon
The structure of Flavel’s soteriology will not allow for their separa-
tion in reception any more than Christ himself can be divided. At the moment
one is united to Christ, all that is Christ’s is possessed in communion with him.
This does not mean, however, that the benehts themselves become indistin-
guishable. Although the manner of reception is the same, through union and
communion with Christ, the benehts themselves remain distinct and must not
be confused. Flavel is careful to make clear distinctions between justihcation and
sanctihcation. In regards to justihcation, the believer has communion with
Christ in his righteousness, but this righteousness is “not inherent in us, as it is in
him; but it is ours by imputation . . . and our union with him is the ground of the
imputation of his righteousness to us.”
Flavel believes this forensic dimension,
which includes imputation, is an aspect of the relationship established in the
Flavel, Fountain of Life, 192.
Ibid.; see also Flavel, Method of Grace, 19, 24-27, 92-93, 118, 146-47, 149, 210.
Flavel, Method of Grace, 210.
Ibid., 110. A similarity with Calvin may be noted in the language and imagery. Calvin says,
“Let then the faithful learn to embrace him, not only for justihcation, but also for sanctihcation, as
he has been given to us for both of these purposes, lest they rend him asunder by their mutilated
faith” (Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans, 294. See also Calvin, Institutes,
Flavel, Method of Grace, 41; emphasis added.
Ibid., 19; emphasis added.
Ibid., 24; emphasis added.
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WESTMINSTER THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL 52
mystical union as expressed in the analogy with marriage, where “Christ and
believers are considered as one person, in construction of law” as are husband
Immediately Flavel turns to sanctihcation, which he describes as a “communion
with Christ in his holiness.”
The difference is that in conveying sanctihcation,
Flavel says, “he takes a different method, for this is not imputed, but really imparted
Both justihcation and sanctihcation are had only in union with Christ,
but they are communicated “differently and diversly, as their respective natures
Justihcation by the imputation of Christ’s righteousness is in
answer to the guilt of sin, whereas sanctihcation through the imparted renovat-
ing work of the Spirit of Christ is in response to the hlth of sin.
come in union with Christ, each is communicated in a way that addresses the
particular dimension of sin it counters.
Flavel makes a further distinction between justihcation and sanctihcation
that corresponds to this difference between imputation and impartation. “All
believers are equally justihed,” he says, “but not equally sanctihed.”
faith, believers are brought “into a state of perfect and full justihcation.” Yet “it is
not in our sanctihcation, as it is in our justihcation.” Sanctihcation remains
incomplete in this life. Although “our justihcation is complete and perfect . . .
the new creature labors under many defects.”
This distinction, however, is
related to the beneht: the one addressing our standing before God and the
other the presence of sin in our lives. The overall method of grace through
union with Christ remains the same, though the particular manner of applica-
tion depends on the nature of the beneht and the aspect of sin it addresses.
Flavel recognizes that although sanctihcation is imperfect, in contrast to justi-
hcation, it has a dehnitive aspect that comes immediately upon union with
Christ. He refers to both “initial and progressive sanctihcation,” along with justi-
hcation, as examples of “all spiritual good things” that are found in Christ.
Flavel says, “Jesus Christ frees all believers from the dominion as well as the guilt
Although these are distinct benehts with differences in application,
Jesus accomplishes them all and each is possessed in union with him.
It should also be noted that these distinctions between the benehts leads Fla-
vel to describe differences in the way they are experienced as well. In particular,
he singles out justihcation as “the sweetest mercy.”
He refers to it as “a privilege
Ibid., 36 and 146.
Ibid., 25; emphasis original.
Ibid., 24-25, 36, 92-94.
Flavel, Fountain of Life, 192.
Flavel, Method of Grace, 273; emphasis original.
Flavel, England’s Duty, 215.
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53 JOHN FLAVEL ON THE PRIORITY OF UNION WITH CHRIST
of hrst rank,” even calling it “the ground of all our other blessings and mercies.”
Yet in context it is clear that Flavel is not implying that justihcation has a differ-
ent setting than the other benehts in the structure of salvation. The difference is
in the experience of it. He is not describing theological priority but the particular
conhdence, hope, and joy found in justihcation. Flavel provides several reasons
for calling it “the richest of all mercies.”
It is due to the method of pardon,
through the blood of Christ, that we might have forgiveness for sin. Also, because
of “the subjects of this privilege” whom he describes as “the most base, despised,
poor, and contemptible among men.” Another reason is found in “the latitude
and extent of the act of grace” in justihcation, as it follows innumerable sins.
Flavel freely magnifies the nature of justification, not because it functions
uniquely in the order of salvation, but because of the way it addresses us as great
sinners and provides full and immediate pardon.
These experiences are aspects of what Flavel calls “the act of communion” in
which we are participants in the grace found in Christ. The act of communion
depends on the “state of communion” in which we are granted the right to all that
is Christ’s through union with him.
Here is found the larger structure of Flavel’s
soteriology. He summarizes the whole, saying, “This communion or participation
in Christ’s benehts, depends upon the hypostatical union of our nature, and the
mystical union of our persons with the Son of God; in the hrst he partakes with us,
in the second we partake with him.”
Communion in every beneht of redemp-
tion depends on union with his person for the application of redemption, as the
union in his person with our nature is the ground for the accomplishment of
redemption. Flavel demonstrates consistency throughout his works. Union with
Christ is the bond between redemption accomplished and redemption applied,
that which brings one into communion with his person and allows for participa-
tion in his privileges. Application is necessary, the various aspects of salvation are
essential, but the person of Christ remains central throughout.
V. Observations Concerning Flavel and the Current Debate
John Flavel’s extensive discussion of union with Christ provides needed per-
spective in the current debate regarding priority in Reformed soteriology. His
own reading of the Reformed tradition as it came to him in the late seventeenth
century corresponds with those emphasizing the role of union with Christ as the
nexus between redemption accomplished and redemption applied. The rela-
tionship established with Christ in this mystical union is the central feature of
soteriology. The benehts of redemption are each necessary, remain distinct and
must not be confused, but are secondary to union with Christ in the application
Flavel, Method of Grace, 252 and 146.
Ibid., 145; emphasis added.
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WESTMINSTER THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL 54
of redemption. Faith is directed to Christ, the person who became one with
our nature; and in this relationship established by the Spirit, all of his blessings
Flavel’s emphasis on union with Christ is not unique. The way in which he
frequently returns to this doctrine demonstrates that he is heir to a tradition that
shares the same perspective. Other examples leading up to Flavel include Joseph
Hall’s Christ Mysticall; Or, The Blessed Union of Christ and his Members (1647). Soon
afterwards, John Brinsley, Presbyterian minister at Yarmouth, wrote Mystical
Implantation: Or, the great Gospel Mystery of the Christian’s Union, and Communion
with, and Conformity to Jesus Christ, Both in His Death and Resurrection (1652).
Another is Thomas Lye’s sermon titled “The True Believer’s Union with Christ
Jesus” delivered in 1659 in which he states, “Salvation for sinners cannot be
obtain’d without a purchase; this purchase is not signihcant without possession;
this possession not to be procured without application; this application made
only by union.”
After the Restoration, treatises on union with Christ continued
to appear, such as Rowland Stedman’s The Mystical Union of Believers with Christ
(1668), Edward Pearse’s The Best Match: Or the Soul’s Espousal to Christ, Opened and
Improved (1673), John Lougher’s A Treatise of the Soul’s Union with Christ (1680),
and Edward Polhill’s Christus in Corde: Or, The Mystical Union Between Christ and
Believers Considered (1680).
Some have recently suggested what seems to be too great of a divergence be-
tween Calvin and the Puritans of the seventeenth century regarding union with
Christ. For instance, Evans states that “Calvin’s stress on the substantial union
with the incarnate humanity of Christ increasingly drops out,” and he believes
that a devotional emphasis on communion with Christ eclipses the theological
signihcance of union with Christ in Reformed soteriology.
However, in view of
Flavel and others, such as those mentioned above, this appears to overstate the
case. Indeed there is development, including implications for the devotional
life, but the central soteriological function of union with Christ remains clear.
Also, it should be noted that the category of communion with Christ itself was
not hrst a matter of piety but descriptive of the manner in which the benehts of
redemption came to be applied and then experienced by the believer, being the
direct result of the mystical union with Christ’s person.
One other predecessor to Flavel worth citing is William Ames. Both Horton
and Fesko point to Ames and his inuuential work The Marrow of Theology as an
example in support of their emphasis on the priority of justihcation. For instance,
Horton quotes from Ames’s chapter on justihcation, with its broad description
Thomas Lye, “The True Believer’s Union with Christ Jesus,” in The Morning Exercise Methodized;
or Certain chief heads and points of the Christian religion opened and improved in divers sermons, by several
ministers of the City of London, in the monthly course of the morning exercise at Giles in the Fields. May 1659
(ed. T. Case; London: printed by E. M. for Ralph Smith, 1660), 377-78.
Evans, Imputation and Impartation, 80-81. See also Jonathan Jong-Chun Won, “Communion
with Christ: An Exposition and Comparison of the Doctrine of Union and Communion with Christ
in Calvin and the English Puritans” (Ph.D. diss., Westminster Theological Seminary, 1989), 351;
quoted in Evans, Imputation and Impartation, 78.
2012_SPRING_WTJ_ISSUE.indd 54 12-03-28 10:32 AM
55 JOHN FLAVEL ON THE PRIORITY OF UNION WITH CHRIST
beginning with God’s eternal decree, then in the work of Christ, also as it is
pronounced at the moment of faith, and lastly in our consciences through the
testimony of the Spirit.
Horton sees in this sweeping vision of justihcation evi-
dence that for Ames, “justihcation is not simply one doctrine among others; it
is the Word that creates a living union between Christ, the believer, and the
communion of the saints.”
Similarly, Fesko quotes Ames’s description of sanc-
tihcation as “the real change, wherein justihcation is manifested and its conse-
quences, so to speak, brought into being.”
Fesko believes Ames’s statement
gives priority to justihcation over sanctihcation in that the former is described
as the cause of the latter.
Neither draws out, however, the broader structure of Ames’s soteriology that
corresponds with what is found in Flavel. Prior to his description of the benehts,
Ames discusses calling at the start of his section on the application of redemp-
tion, saying, “The parts of application are two, union with Christ and partaking
of the benehts that uow from this union.”
This brings to mind Flavel’s distinc-
tion between union with the person and communion in his privileges. Ames
calls this “the hrst consideration in the application of redemption.”
cation, but union. Also, in his chapter on justihcation he is clear as he states that
those who have faith in Christ are “justihed by the union.”
justihcation as a “relative change” in that it concerns the believer’s standing
relative to God in contrast to the “real change” that is sanctihcation. Yet as the
“relative change” of justihcation is based in union with Christ, the “real change”
of sanctihcation is no less one of “the benehts that uows from this union,” where
what is declared in justihcation by virtue of union with Christ is made evident in
Once again, the benehts are distinct, but both are similarly
applied in the context of union with Christ. As one considers the various parts,
this larger framework must not be overlooked.
Finally, in view of Flavel’s doctrine of union with Christ, there is one overarch-
ing concern to highlight regarding those who aim to distinguish the primacy of
justihcation. In reading Flavel, the emphasis throughout is on the person of
Christ. This is seen in the many statements from Flavel quoted above. It is also
clear in the arrangement of The Method of Grace displayed in the totius operis that
begins the work and presents a diagram of its structure.
The hrst eight chapters
provide an overview of union and communion with Christ. Then Flavel begins
the second section with seven chapters on the person of Christ with motivations
William Ames, The Marrow of Theology (trans. John Dykstra Eusden; Grand Rapids: Baker,
Horton, Covenant and Salvation, 138.
Ames, Marrow of Theology, 167; quoted in Fesko, “Methodology, Myth, and Misperception,” 400.
Ames, Marrow of Theology, 157.
This Totius Operis is found in the hrst edition of The Method of Grace (London: M. White, 1681),
unnumbered page just prior to the hrst sermon.
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WESTMINSTER THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL 56
to come to him. Only after focusing on drawing people to the person of Christ
does Flavel detail the various benehts received from Christ by those who come to
him in faith. In the current discussion, this focus on the person of Christ is in
danger of being eclipsed by those who prioritize the beneht of justihcation in
the ordo salutis rather than union with Christ himself.
This potential to obscure the person of Christ is evident in three ways in the
present debate. First, at points the manner in which justihcation is emphasized
potentially confuses the distinct line between redemption accomplished and
redemption applied. For instance, as Fesko discusses Perkins he hnds that the
“mystical union is grounded upon the imputed obedience of Christ.”
sic always has theological priority, Fesko argues, because Christ’s obedience has
priority in the accomplishment of redemption. Thus justihcation, as forensic,
must have ultimate priority in the structure of salvation even over the mystical
union with the person of Christ. In Fesko’s reading, this means “justihcation
However, this description of justihcation tends to push it
out of the realm of redemption applied into the orbit of redemption accom-
Of course, it is not justihcation that secures salvation but Jesus. No
doubt Fesko would entirely agree. But in the attempt to prioritize justihcation
in this manner, the danger is that it becomes elevated in a way that actually
distracts from Christ and the fullness of what he has accomplished for salvation.
In Flavel’s scheme, the weight of his discourse remains on the person of Christ as
the one who justihes, sanctihes, and bestows all other benehts in communion
Secondly, this tendency for the person of Christ to be eclipsed in the prioriti-
zation of justihcation is evident in the description of faith. As seen above, Flavel
explains faith “hrst” as “the bond of union” which “primarily confers a right to
However, among those emphasizing the forensic aspect of salva-
tion in the current debate, faith is expressed primarily, almost exclusively, as it
relates to justihcation. For example, VanDrunen says that “faith alone, dened as
an extraspective trust in Christ and his atoning work, justifies” and that
Gafhn expresses this concern in several places (Gafhn, “Biblical Theology and the Westmin-
ster Standards,” 168; Gafhn, “Union with Christ: Some Biblical and Theological Reuections,” 280;
Gafhn, “Justihcation and Union with Christ,” 252-53; Gafhn, “Calvin’s Soteriology,” 72).
Fesko, “William Perkins on Union with Christ and Justihcation,” 27.
This confusion of categories where justihcation is potentially pushed into the realm of
redemption accomplished is seen as Fesko correlates the relationship between justihcation and
sanctihcation to the relationship between the “legal-forensic work of Christ” and the “transforma-
tive work of the Holy Spirit.” This makes it appear that justihcation and sanctihcation are bifurcated
at the point of the work of Christ in the accomplishment of redemption and the work of the Spirit
in its application. In fact, he explains that justihcation is the ground of sanctihcation in the same
way that “apart from redemption accomplished, there can be no redemption applied” (emphasis
original). This is not to say that Fesko would argue that justihcation should be understood as an
aspect of redemption accomplished, but his formulation tends in this direction. (See Fesko, “A
More Perfect Union?”)
Flavel, Method of Grace, 116 and 103.
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57 JOHN FLAVEL ON THE PRIORITY OF UNION WITH CHRIST
obedience “inevitably uows from justifying faith.”
The point in question is not
whether faith is the alone instrument in justihcation. The issue is whether this is
the alone function of faith. The depiction of faith by those emphasizing the
priority of justihcation appears to lead one to this conclusion. For instance,
Horton claims, “When considering the relation between faith (justihcation) and
the renewing gifts (sanctihcation) . . . [the Reformers] treat the former as the
basis for the latter.”
Faith is reduced to its function in justihcation. Again, the
danger is that Christ himself is no longer the central concern of faith, but the
beneht received from him. However, this stands in contrast to the role of faith as
understood by Flavel who clearly describes it as receiving “hrst his person, then
Thirdly, a last way this emphasis on justihcation tends to overshadow the person
of Christ is in the manner union and communion with Christ are conuated. As
described above in the Larger Catechism, communion in grace is dehned in
terms of the benehts received from Christ, including justihcation, adoption, and
sanctihcation, and “whatever else, in this life, manifests their union with him.”
This communion in the benehts presupposes a union with his person. This is
similarly seen in Flavel who distinguishes the mystical union from the commu-
nion in his privileges. However, this distinction is lost by those emphasizing the
priority of justihcation. In fact, union with Christ is no longer understood pri-
marily in terms of the relationship established with his person but becomes
synonymous with the ordo salutis and the various benehts of redemption.
Hence, Godfrey and VanDrunen claim, “If we want to understand union, then,
we must look to our justihcation, adoption, and sanctihcation.”
The danger is
that the benehts become primary and the person of Christ to whom we are
united by faith recedes into the background.
While not diminishing the signihcance of the above concerns, those prioritiz-
ing justihcation are rightly vigilant to maintain the distinctiveness of this beneht
in relation to the others within the application of redemption. It is essential not
to confuse justihcation with sanctihcation or faith with works. Both positions
share the same dehnition of justihcation, that it is grounded on the imputed
righteousness of Christ and received by faith alone. Yet it appears that in the
attempt to maintain this important distinction, some of the nuances of the Re-
formed tradition regarding the broader structure of soteriology have been
David VanDrunen, “Where We Are: Justihcation under Fire in the Contemporary Scene,” in
Covenant, Justication, and Pastoral Ministry, 49; emphasis added.
Horton, Covenant and Salvation, 198. Also, as noted above, see Horton’s interaction with
Calvin’s commentary on Eph 3:17, where as Calvin discusses faith, Horton believes he is speaking of
justihcation (Horton, Covenant and Salvation, 143).
Flavel, Method of Grace, 112.
John V. Fesko, “William Perkins on Union with Christ and Justihcation,” 30 n. 38, 34.
Godfrey and VanDrunen, “Response to Mark Garcia’s Review.”
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WESTMINSTER THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL 58
misread, as demonstrated through the examination of Flavel and his emphasis
on the mystical union. And this is not without considerable implication, particu-
larly seen in the tendency to overshadow the person of Christ in the application
of redemption when the beneht of justihcation is singularly distinguished as
described in the current debate.
Granting priority to union with Christ in historic Reformed soteriology does
not, as has been argued, turn it into a central dogma inconsistent with the theol-
ogy of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
The soteriological structure
within which the mystical union functions is more complex. The whole cannot
be reduced to the mystical union with Christ. As seen in Flavel, the hypostatic
union has priority as redemption accomplished has priority over redemption
applied. The mystical union follows, which preserves the focus on Christ’s per-
son in the application of redemption. Then contingent on the mystical union
comes communion with Christ in the various aspects of salvation. All three are
essential interlocking aspects of Reformed soteriology as evidenced in Flavel. It
might be said that this constitutes the true order of salvation on the larger scale:
the hypostatic union of the eternal Son with our humanity, the mystical union
between Christ and the believer established by the Spirit, and the communion in
grace with all his benehts, justihcation, and sanctihcation together included.
Reformed soteriology does not begin with justihcation, or any other beneht, but
with Jesus and therefore requires union as well as communion with him. In both
accomplishment and application, the privileges are secondary to his person.
This appears to be no new reading of Calvin, or a school of thought beginning
with Gafhn and associated with a few who follow him. Instead, those maintaining
the priority of union with Christ are standing well within the Reformed tradition,
evidenced not only in Calvin but stretching through the seventeenth century as
clearly found in the writings of John Flavel. As Flavel was a consistent advocate of
the Reformed tradition in the changing theological environment of the late
seventeenth century, so are those currently who maintain union with Christ as
the primary feature in the application of redemption, not to the exclusion of the
various benehts of redemption with their essential distinctions, but that each
might be rightly understood in relation to the person of Christ from whom we
receive them all.
Fesko, “William Perkins on Union with Christ and Justihcation,” 22.
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