October 3, 2005

Ephesians 2:4-6 and Real Union

NKJ Ephesians 2:4 But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, 5 even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), 6 and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus,

Several days ago, Steve Costly and I were discussing Eph. 2:5 with another friend. Our High Calvinist friend read this passage as referring to what happened when Jesus died, rather than what happened when we were converted. Is Paul referring to a merely decretal or federal union idea in this text when it says we were "made us alive together with Christ"? Or does he have real union in view? Our friend stated that Richard Gaffin held his view (as well as Geerhardus Vos), but I read him otherwise. Here's the section from Gaffin's book Resurrection and Redemption:

The single problem to be faced now in this and related passages concerns the temporal reference of the verb "to raise with" and other closely associated verbs in the aorist tense. Specifically, do they refer solely to what took place in the historical experience of Christ or do they apply as well to what has happened in the actual life experience of the individual believer? Note that this question does not posit a disjunction. For, in view of the significance of Christ’s resurrection as the "firstfruits," a reflection on solidarity with him in his emergence from the tomb can hardly be eliminated from these expressions. The issue then is whether something more is in view. Is Paul referring as well to a specific occurrence in the actual experience of the believer?

Within Reformed exegesis, opinion is divided along geographical lines, so far as representative figures are concerned. The Dutch exegetes emphasize the presence of the redemptive-historical aspect to the exclusion of individual experiential considerations. Ridderbos, for instance, comments on verses 4-6: "From the final words it appears unmistakably that Paul again thinks christologically and redemptive-historically and not in terms of anthropology and the ordo salutis." On the other hand, British-American interpretation, while recognizing an allusion to the solidarity with Christ in his historical work, maintains that Paul’s distinguishing interest here is the transformation of the individual.

While the language employed surely reflects Paul’s redemptive-historical outlook in these verses, the conclusion that he is describing what has taken place for believers existentially is difficult to avoid. The enlivening and resurrection spoken of refer directly to the death mentioned in verse 5a. Clearly this "being dead" is not solidaric involvement with Christ in his death, for it is "being dead in transgressions." In view is the actual, existential deadness of Paul and his readers. The verses immediately preceding confirm this point. Verse 5a together with verse 4 resumes the thought begun in verse 1 which was temporally interrupted. Verses 2 and 3 are a parenthetical insertion, expanding on the transgressions in verse 5. Specifically, they provide an extended description of the former moral depravity and guilt of Paul and his readers. Among other things, they "walked" or conducted themselves according to the standards of this evil (cf. Gal. 1:4) age, according to the spirit of disobedience (v. 2); they "walked" in the lusts of the flesh, by doing the desires of the flesh (v. 3). Such language requires that the deadness mentioned in verse 5 not only involves but refers primarily to individual moral depravity. Consequently, the enlivening and resurrection (vv. 5f.), which took place when they were dead as just defined, at least includes the initial experience of transformation and ethical renewal.

Further, in verse 10, the enlivening and resurrection with Christ mentioned in verses 5f. are described as being "created in Christ Jesus" (cf. II Cor. 5:17). The express purpose of this new creation in Christ is "good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them." "Walking" here is a key word, specifying the integrating theme in this section (vv. 1-10). Having begun with a reference to a "walk" in trespasses and sins, Paul ends by mentioning its counterpart, a "walk" in good works. Accordingly, the decisive pivot of this experiential reversal, effecting this about-face in "walk," is being raised with Christ.

Conclusion. In verse 6, resurrection with Christ refers to the transition in the actual life history of the individual Christian from being by nature an object of wrath (v. 3) to becoming a recipient of God's mercy and love (v. 4). While the apostle's perspectives are certainly heilshistorisch, his primary interest is decidedly heilsordelijk.

Resurrection and Redemption: A Study in Paul's Soteriology (Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1978), pages 41-43.

It's good to remind readers of this blog about one of the issues Peter Toon described in his definition of Hyper-Calvinism. He says they put "excessive emphasis on acts belonging to God's immanent being – the immanent acts of God, eternal justification, eternal adoption, and the eternal covenant of grace." This is not the complete definition, but this is a part of it.

What he is saying is that their minds automatically leap back into (and emphasize) those immanent acts of God in systematic theology and biblical interpretation. This is not only true of hypers, but of high Calvinists as well. When some of them read Eph. 2:5, they automatically assume that "with Christ" refers to our virtual union with him in the first century. It seems odd to them to see the "with Christ" (a dative of association) timing as referring to when we are converted. In Ephesians 2, Paul is talking about REAL UNION with Christ. The entire context bears that out. Our conversion is spiritually typified in what happened to Christ when he died, but the timing of "with Christ" references real union.

The same thing can be said of John 17:9. Jesus says he prays for those "given" to him. The higher Calvinists automatically leap back into the immanent acts of God and think of the "given" (or giving) back in the the eternal decrees. It seems strange to them to see it as referencing the timing of conversion or discipleship. Jesus is actually saying that he is praying for those "given" to him by the Father WHEN THEY BELIEVED IN HISTORY and became his disciples (He's thanking and praying to the Father about his existing disciples who believe). He's not talking about the giving of non-existent people back in the eternal decrees. That may be in view in other passages, but not in 17:9. The contrast between those "given" and the "world" is between believers and unbelievers. It's not contrasting elect and non-elect.

While it's true that all those who believe in history were ultimately given to Christ back in eternity, that's not the point of the John 17 passage. It's the same problem that occurs with Eph. 2:5 and Romans 5:9 (as if Paul is saying the elect were "justified" when Christ died) as well. The minds of some interpreters immediately slip into the decretal (or atemporal for some) realm. This is what Peter Toon is talking about above.

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