Friday, 20 July 2012

The Origins of Life: Calling, union with Christ and regeneration

This snappy title is not guaranteed to attract the crowds but accurately tries to describe what this brief post is about.

For some time, and for some reason I cannot now recall, I have been interested in a matter which is not of earth-shattering importance but which has a certain attraction for those who love systematic theology and particularly the mysterious stages of the origins of the Christian life. If we are intrigued by how life in the universe began, should we not be at least as interested in how our personal spiritual lives began?

In what order do we place effectual calling, regeneration and union with Christ? Effectual calling and regeneration have often been treated as virtually or actually the same thing, or the same thing from different viewpoints. Union with Christ (and here we are talking about experiential or actual union with Christ, not union with Christ in eternity) is sometimes seen as the fruit of faith, sometimes its origin. How do we sort it out?

I shall begin with writings of Dr Lloyd -Jones. In his sermons on doctrine in 'God the Holy Spirit' (the second of three volumes) he has several sermons dealing with the issues of calling, regeneration and union with Christ. In one of them, 'A Child of God and in Christ' he writes: 'Regeneration and union must never be separated. You cannot be born again without being in Christ; you are born again because you are in Christ. The moment you are in him you are born again...Regeneration and union must always be considered together and at the same time because the one depends upon the other and leads to the other; they are mutually self-supporting.' He then goes on to look at how the union is established and says that logically (but not chronologically) union should be put first.'We are regenerated because of our union with Christ; it is from him we derive our life; it is from him we derive everything'. He then says of the origin of the union, firstly, it is a work of the Holy Spirit, quoting Eph 2:5 - God 'hath quickened us together with Christ'. 'So in the effectual call, in our regeneration and in all that we have been considering, the main work is done by the Holy Spirit'. Secondly, he looks at the role of faith. Our faith 'helps to sustain the union, to develop it and to strengthen it...It is only as faith becomes active that we become aware of the union and of our regeneration...'

Dr Lloyd Jones therefore appears to see the Holy Spirit through the effectual call bringing us into union with Christ and at that point we are regenerated. Faith begins to operate and 'strengthens' and 'develops' union with Christ, it does not originate it.

Similarly on page 112 of his second volume on Ephesians, dealing with Eph 2:4-7, he again says:'We have already seen that what makes us Christians is our union with Christ. This doctrine of our union with Christ is absolutely vital. The first thing to which it leads is regeneration, as we have already seen'.

This seems to be right. The use of Eph 2:5 supports it. 1 Peter 1:3 where Peter says we are 'born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Christ from the dead' again seems to support the idea of our spiritual life coming through Christ and union with him. Regeneration is the beginning of spiritual life and it is surely wrong to see any spiritual life coming to God's people, who after all have been elected in eternity in Christ, outside Christ. The work of the Holy Spirit is after all to take what is Christ's and declare it to us (John 16:14). This taking of what is Christ's must include regeneration. Regeneration is not an independent work of the Holy Spirit apart from Christ. As Dr Lloyd Jones says, we derive everything from him.

John Murray in 'Redemption Accomplished and Applied' affirms that even the elect remain 'Christless' until we are effectually called into fellowship with him (p 165). In his essay on 'faith' however he describes justifying faith as 'the initial and primary act of faith in Jesus Christ by which in our effectual calling we are united to Christ' ( p 129). So does faith effect union with Christ? This seems to go against Lloyd Jones who by insisting that regeneration is effected by union with Christ must be placing faith after union with Christ, as faith (as all parties here agree) follows regeneration. However, in discussing effectual calling (p 93) Murray says, that it is 'calling that is represented in Scripture as that act of God by which we are actually united to Christ. And surely union with Christ is that which unites us to the inwardly operative grace of God. Regeneration is the beginning of inwardly operative saving grace.'

This latter statement seems to be consistent with Lloyd Jones' position, and I take Murray's statement about faith uniting us to Christ as being rather the conscious awareness of union with Christ, the grace that sustains and strengthens union with Christ, as Lloyd Jones says, but which itself is the fruit of regeneration which itself only comes in union with Christ and is therefore prior to faith.

The blessings of special grace, says Louis Berkhof, 'can be received and enjoyed only by those who are in union with Christ...Every spiritual blessing which believers receive flows to them out of Christ' (Systematic Theology, p. 447). This is not eternal union with Christ, but actual. God elects us in Christ, calls us in Christ to actual union with Christ and in that calling we are regenerated, the first exercise of the regenerate person being saving faith and repentance.

What of the distinction between logical and chronological order? I see the point; we cannot separate chronologically these acts of God at the beginning of the spiritual life. Yet I fail to see how any 'order' in the finite world can be without some time sequence. Can anything be logical in order but not chronological? They may be inseparable but I cannot see how they can be anything but in a certain order - which, to my small time-bound mind at least, must be, for want of a better word, chronological.