In Sunday school last week, Bob asked a great question: “Why must union with Christ precede regeneration?”
There is a certain causal order to the application of our salvation, and I was arguing that in some sense union with Christ must precede regeneration. Why? Because Christ Himself is the sole source of spiritual life, and until we are vitally attached to Him by the Spirit, we remain in spiritual death.
- “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ” (Eph. 2:4-5).
- “And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him” (Col. 2:13).
Ralph Erskine describes Christ as “the root and fountain of all spiritual life, having it so superabundant in himself, that he conveys it to all his members.” Through His inspired word, the Spirit effectually draws us to Christ, causing Godward life to pulsate in our souls, leading us to willingly and joyously repent and believe (WCF 10.1-2). Thomas Boston explains that because the Holy Spirit is “a Spirit of life, a Spirit of faith, and one with Christ,” His coming into the soul cannot but result in the soul being “quickened, changed, regenerated, and really united to Christ passively, in so far as the Spirit is Christ’s Spirit.”
But at the same time, the Scriptures speak of faith as being causally prior to our union with Christ. Faith is the hands of the soul by which we are receive Christ clothed in all of His saving benefits and are wed to Him.
- “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me” (Jn. 15:4).
- “…so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith…” (Eph. 3:17).
Upon the basis of texts like these, Erskine defines faith as a “uniting grace, that unites the soul to Christ.” He explains, “God, the giver of faith, hath given it this office of joining the soul to Jesus.”
So there is some sense in which union with Christ precedes regeneration and faith, but there is another sense in which regeneration and faith precede union with Christ.
That is why our Scottish forefathers coined the term unition wherein we are passively wed to Christ unto regeneration and faith in distinction from union wherein we actively embrace Christ as regenerated and come to experience communion with Christ as our justification, adoption, and sanctification. In this way, the order of salvation looks like this:
Effectual calling > Passive Unition > Regeneration > Faith > Active Union > Communion in Saving Benefits
As Erskine explains, “If ever ye have embraced Christ, Christ has embraced you first; for there is a mutual embracing betwixt Christ and the believer, and it begins on Christ’s side; he first grips the soul by his Spirit, before the soul grips him by faith.”
This is simply saying what Calvin said so many years before. There are two bonds to our union with Christ: the Spirit and faith. While both are necessary, the one necessarily precedes the other. As the Spirit of Christ takes hold of us, He causes our quickened souls to cry (in the words of Erskine), “O! he is infinitely fairer than the sons of men, he is as the apple-tree among the trees of the wood, the chiefest among ten thousand, white and ruddy, his countenance is as Lebanon, excellent as the cedars; his mouth is most sweet, yea, he is altogether lovely. O! this is my Beloved, this is my Friend: if I had ten thousand hearts and hands to give he should have them all. I am well pleased with his person; well pleased with the contract he has made, and signed with his blood; well pleased with all the promises, which I see to be yea and amen in him; well pleased with his law: I will follow him withersoever he goes.”
Yours in Christ,