The Theologian - The internet journal for integrated theology


Justification & Union With Christ

by Ro Mody


“Therefore the Christ who is grasped by faith and who lives in the heart is the true Christian righteousness, on account of which God counts us as righteous and grants us eternal life.”
Luther on Galatians 2:16



In English the words “justification”, “vindication” “righteousness,” and “justice” all have different meanings. However in both Hebrew and Greek these 4 concepts all have the same root- sdq in Hebrew and dikai in Greek. The ultimate usage is both relational and legal

Creation and The Last Judgment: Establishing the Rights of the Creator and Judge.

God is the creator. It is this that establishes his rights over creation. God as creator has the right to receive glory, honour, and praise, and to expect obedience from his creation; that his creation will be right before him (Rev 4:11). However “in Adam” all have sinned (Romans 5:12-21). This creates a profound dilemma; how are the creator’s rights to be restored over his creation. Is.45:8; Ps 85:4-13: 96; 97; 98 make quite clear  that God will judge his rebellious creation with righteousness, equity, and truth. He will be vindicated in his contention with a rebellious creation.

At the moment God is patient (2 Peter 3:8-9) but God is the judge of all creation and at the last judgment on the last day, God will re-establish His rights as Creator and Judge so that He may be proved right when He speaks and justified and vindicated when He judges (Ps. 51:4; Romans 3:4)


Justification as a Legal Concept

Justification is closely bound to concepts of ruling and judging by which right order is established. It is important to note here that in Biblical society there are only two-parties in a law court or law suit: the one who accuses another of wrong-doing against him and the one defending. One party  will comes out of this law-suit vindicated or justified, the other condemned. The King /Ruler is expected to intervene on the side of the one in the right (cf. 1 Kings 3:16-28).

It is of fundamental importance to note that the people of God expect the re- establishment of justice/righteousness over creation to be the work of God alone (Is.45:8;54:14-17; Jer 23:6). The people of God also expect God’s saving judgment for their cause against their oppressors (Ps 31:2; 40:-10; 71:15; 89:14-18; 143:11).

This however raises an acute problem.  Since even the people of God and their rulers/kings have rebelled against God and broken his Laws how are God’s people to be justified/vindicated in God’s contention and law-suit against humanity in general and the people of God in particular? This is both a relational and legal issue since God is our creator, ruler, legislator, and judge and it is His Laws we have broken, and have personally offended him leading to his wrath (Ps.95).

Remember that there are only 2 parties in this court: if humanity is vindicated/justified then God leaves the court condemned and sent to hell. If God is justified/vindicated then humanity leaves the court condemned.  Remember too that the Psalmist assumes that God will justify /vindicate the Psalmist of his sins (Ps 32:1-10) while at the same time saying that it is God who will be justified and that the psalmist is guilty (Ps 51:1-6; 143:1-20. In addition God himself has said that he will forgive sin AND not clear the guilty  (Ex.34:6-7.) How can it be that God will forgive and condemn at one and the same time? How can both God and the people of God be justified/vindicated at one and the same time?

Thus if justification is a relational and legal concept which results in the vindication of one party and the condemnation of the other party, how can both God and the people of God to be justified/vindicated? It is rather like suggesting that in the US Presidential election there can be 2 winners, 2 Presidents. Justification thus becomes the profoundest of theological problems.



The answer to this question; “ how can both God and the people of God be justified/vindicated?” which the New Testament gives is both startling and profound: Union With Christ, the Son of God. That Christ unites himself to his people in deep and unbreakable unity which effects justification in the application of his atoning death. Union with Christ is at the heart of the doctrine of the atonement and salvation.  Now while there is more to union with Christ that union with Christ by faith, faith is central to justification.

What Paul argues is that union with Christ is made actually real in our lives by faith. While we may be elected in eternity through our union with Christ (Eph.1:3-5) nevertheless in time we live under the wrath of God, that is under the threat of his condemnation, before we come to faith. Thus in Col 1:21-23 the Colossians when they were unbelievers were alienated from God. But now if they continue to believe they will be without blemish and accusation (i.e. justified). In 1 Thess 1:9-10 the implication is that it is by their repentance and faith that the Thessalonians escape from the coming wrath. Further in 2 Thess 1:9-10,unbelievers will suffer God’s retribution but believers will not (cf. 1 Peter 2:4-10). Thus it is faith, that is, knowledge assent, and trust in Jesus Christ and his work which is the sole means and instrument of justification.

In Eph 2 Paul makes it clear that before coming to faith his readers were objects of wrath and separated from God (vv. 3&12). It is in coming to faith that they are saved(v8). In 3:17 Paul Prays that Christ may dwell in the Ephesians’ hearts by faith. Faith here means that Christ is made present within the believer. Calvin says on this verse  “by faith we not only acknowledge that Christ suffered for us and rose from the dead for us, but we receive him, possessing and enjoying him as he offers himself to us…Christ is not viewed from afar, but to be received by the warm embrace of our minds, so that he may dwell is us.” In Col 2:6-7 Paul parallels “receiving Christ” that is, coming to faith in Christ, with living in Christ. Clearly given what Col 1:4-6 says, Paul is talking about the Colossian’s faith. Faith then receives Christ . In 1 Cor 1:9 it is God’s effectual calling that brings the Corinthians into union with Christ

It is the sole means and instrument of justification precisely because faith unites the true people of Christ to their Lord and Justifier. Works, however good, do not justify because they do not unite the believer to Christ. Rather it is the presence of Christ within the believer which enables good works to be done (Eph.2:10).

For Paul to be “in Christ” and “with Christ” is to be united to Christ by faith. Thus in the key passage of Galatians 2:15-21. In v17 Paul says that “we seek to be justified in Christ”. But how is that justification achieved? this is explained in v20. Union with Christ means union in the crucifixion and separation from the world but this union is actualized by Paul’s faith in Christ (taking pistis Iesou as an objective genitive). It is this faith-union which enables Paul to receive the Son of God’s love and the benefits of his self-giving death. Further it is faith that allows all the benefits of being justified to be received. Thus Gal 3:14 states that it is by faith that the promise of the Spirit is received. Indeed in v22 all the Abrahamic promises are received by faith and in vv 26-28 it by faith that one is made a son of God, baptized into Christ and united to other believers from whom one had previously been separated.

If one looks at Gal 5:4-6 we see that in v4 looking for justification by the Law alienated one from Christ, that is one is not united to Christ. But by faith in v5 Paul eagerly awaits the hoped-for righteousness, (that is, the verdict of justification/vindication of the last day.) Indeed in v6 the only thing that will count in that last day law-court is union with Christ by faith expressing itself in love. Clearly then faith is the effective instrument that unites the believer to Christ in this life.

Have look at what Luther says from The Freedom Of A Christian from the handout, starting with the third benefit of faith…

Calvin says this in the Institutes 3.11.7 “We compare faith to kind of vessel; for unless we come empty and with the mouth of out soul open to seek Christ’s grace, we are not capable of receiving Christ…faith even though of itself it is of no worth or price, can justify us by bringing us Christ, just as a pot crammed with money makes a man rich” There is, according to Calvin a joining together between Head and Members, an indwelling of Christ even a Mystical Union between Christ and His Church (Institutes 3.11.10).

What both Luther and Calvin argue is that believers union with Christ is far closer than the union between a husband and wife, a head and a body so that God and humanity are no longer two antagonistic parties in legal contention with one another but rather in Christ both are united. The cause of the tight, profound and indissoluble union is God’s election and love. In faith then, Christ is actually and truly present with us and in us making Christ’s atoning death for us effective.



The Imputed Righteousness Of Christ?

Traditionally in Protestant theology, the non-imputation of sins (the forgiveness of sins) is one part of justification and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness (Christ’s active perfection and obedience being credited to the believer)is the other part of justification. These are conceptually separate (see Grudem).

Thus the non-imputation of sins gets you to  a place where you are forgiven but not yet righteous. You now need positively Christ’s righteousness to be justified.

This, however is open to a number of objections.

Firstly it is claimed the NT does not teach the imputation of Christ’s active righteousness.

Secondly it is a somewhat abstract concept with no reality since no-one actually is forgiven his sins but does not have Christ’s righteousness imputed to them.

Thirdly, if sins are forgiven one is surely vindicated before God and hence justified, in which case where does Christ’s imputed righteousness come into it?

While Luther does talk about the non-imputation of sins and being in Christ and having his righteousness, he does not talk about the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. Calvin, too, seems to have doubts on whether there are 2 parts to justification (see Institutes 3.11.11) suggesting that the forgiveness of sins is the whole of justification because in this way a man is imputed righteous.


The Biblical Position

What is the Biblical position on the matter? If we turn to the OT we have some key background material. In Jeremiah 23:5-6 (cf. 33:14-16). Here the Branch, the Davidic Messiah is righteous, he will execute justice, and his name is Yahweh Sedeq. He is clothed in God’s righteousness, the fact that he is righteous judge who will be vindicated. But his righteousness means safety, at the least, for his people. In 33:16 they possibly are called Yahweh Sedeq.

In Isaiah 45:24-25 Righteousness is found in Yahweh and  in Yahweh the people of God are found righteous. In Isaiah 61:10-62:2 the anointed one is arrayed in a robe  of righteousness and as a result Zion’s righteousness/vindication will become apparent to the nations. This prepares the ground for righteousness to be found in Christ; the Davidic Messiah’s righteousness.

Turning to the NT, even if we leave the Johannine material about the Son sharing the Father’s prerogatives of rule and judgment to one side (cf. John 5) Paul himself makes clear the Son’s deity and his obedience to the Father and  his right to judge/justify.

In the Christ hymn in Phil 2 Christ is in the form of God. It is precisely because of Christ’s obedience to the Father that he is Super-exalted and vindicated by the Father. In Col 1:19 and 2:9 the Father is pleased to have all the fullness of Deity dwell in the Son. Thus Christ is appointed as judge (Acts 17:31) and the proof is that Christ has been vindicated by his resurrection. If Christ is the righteous and vindicated  divine judge then to have the righteousness of God is also to have the righteousness of Christ since Christ, by being the obedient Son of God, acts as God’s righteous ruler and judge.

We now turn to Romans 1:16-17 and the matter of dikaiosune theou. Here the OT background of God’s creation rights and his vindication is important. In Paul’s quotation of Hab 2:4   the believer is vindicated/justified before God. leading to eternal life. The righteousness of God then, is as Seifrid says (p.47), God’s vindicating act in the gospel which leaves both God and believer justified. God’s creation rights are upheld and the believer is cleared/not condemned and hence saved.. This has been achieved through Christ’s act of righteousness for us (Romans 5:12-21). Consequently the righteousness of God and is an act NOT an attribute.

Yet because the righteous Christ is the place of justification, and the believer is in Christ the believer has Christ’s righteousness., that is, in Christ he too comes within the scope of  Christ’s righteous act. Paul uses Hab 2:4 and Gen 15:6 in Romans 1:17; 4:3 and Gal 3:6,11 not to say that faith is the only meritorious act but rather through faith the believer is clothed with the righteousness of God.

In 1 Cor 1:30  Paul says that Christ is our righteousness and 2 Cor 5:21 we are made the righteousness of God in Christ. Thus in Phil 3:9 Paul says that through faith in Christ we have the righteousness of God, that is, in Christ through faith-union we too can be found vindicated by God’s act in Christ.

Here then Trinitarian relations are crucial .The Father acts to establish his vindication in the obedience of the Son. By obeying the Father the Son himself is vindicated against the rebellious humanity who crucified him, and in him believers are also vindicated, having or being clothed with the righteousness of God; God’s great act of vindication.

Have a look again at what Luther says in Freedom Of A Christian.  Calvin says in the Institutes 3.11.23 “You see our righteousness is not in us but in Christ, that is, we possess it only because we are partakers in Christ…For in such a way does the Lord Christ share his righteousness with us that in some wonderful manner he pours into us enough of his power to meet the judgment of God.”

We can conclude that the NT never talks about believers being imputed with Christ’s righteousness because Christ’s righteousness is not an abstract attribute, but an act of saving justice and vindication. By being united to Christ, the Son of God through faith, the believer has Christ and hence all that Christ does, including execution of the righteousness of God. It is not wrong to talk about the imputation of Christ’s righteousness as long as we remember that it depends upon the relationship between the Father and Son and Christ’s personal relational union with the believer. The righteousness of Christ is not a separate part of justification, rather faith-union means that we possess Christ and hence have the benefits of his saving righteous act and effects the non-imputation of sins.

Therefore God justifies/vindicates the ungodly (Romans 4:5) because believers are found in Christ, the righteous and vindicated one. God is vindicated because “God was in Christ” and his work on the cross reconciling the world to Himself, not counting believers’ trespasses (2 Cor 5:18). Christ’s atoning death is where God’s justice is demonstrated and vindicated. But here the Father and the Son are not 2 unrelated or hostile parties, but rather united in eternity, the one divine substance, and mutual in-dwelling. Through the Son’s love and obedience to the Father and the Father’s love, exaltation, and vindication of the Son., the Father and Son are united. Christ’s and the believer’s union is actualized by faith. Consequently both God and believers are justified and vindicated because both parties are found in  the righteous Christ .It is because of union with Christ (both on the Father’s and believers’ parts) that the theological problem of having two justified parties is solved; or rather in Christ the distinction between God and believers as 2 separate parties disappears.

(This treatment is not complete without considering the Holy Spirit’s work within the Trinity and in uniting the believer to Christ, although there is no space here to do that).



If faith unites the believer to Christ then it means that the vindication/justification of the believer may take place. Precisely because the believer is in Christ that the non-imputation of sins can take place. No longer are God and the believer two antagonistic parties in contention against one another-they are united to one another through faith-union.

This then means the believer’s transgressions and sins are imputed or reckoned or placed upon Christ’s head and Christ  pays the punishment as the substitute for the believer. Consequently both God and the Believer can be justified / vindicated  in Christ. God is justified/vindicated because his justice has be borne by Christ and Christ has been vindicated because he is God’s obedient Son unjustly condemned by humanity.  For the believer, he is justified/vindicated in Christ. The believer is cleared of transgression and sin, because his sins have the imputed or placed upon Christ. Consequently the believer does not have his sins imputed to him; he is forgiven, and he is justified/vindicated. All this is made effective by faith-union with Christ.

Thus the confidence of the Psalmist in Ps.32, 51, 130, 143 of the non-imputation or non- reckoning of sins, the forgiveness of sins, is fulfilled by the atonement and faith-union with Christ. This is seen in Isaiah 53 and Romans 4. In Is.53:11 either by the righteous servant’s knowledge or knowledge of him the servant will justify/vindicate the many by carrying their iniquities. Note this servant is righteous, that is blameless, justified / vindicated  before God even though he was condemned in a human court (vv7-9). He bore the sins of the many in order that they many may be justified/vindicated.

In Romans 4:1-9 Paul uses Abraham as the archetypical example of justification by faith alone. Works may account  for boasting amongst humanity but can not justify/vindicate before God (vv2&4) because they do not deal with man’s rebellion against God and his contention against humanity. Consequently Paul in v7 quotes Ps.32:1-2 to clinch his point that it is  through faith that one receives the non-imputation of sins, that is the forgiveness of sins This has been made effective because God has justified/vindicated himself and believers through making Christ as a hilasterion (3:21-26).

In 4:23-25 Paul applies the example of Abraham to his Roman readers. The readers who believe in Christ’s resurrection will be reckoned as justified/vindicated because Christ was delivered up on the cross on account of their sins and raised for their justification/vindication. Christ has dealt with their sins and that means that because of their union with Christ they will enjoy vindication leading to resurrection life with Christ. Christ is resurrected here precisely because believers’ justification/vindication is in Christ: Christ has to rise in order for those united to him may enjoy their fruits of their justification: resurrection life.



The position I have outlined on justification cannot be described as “a legal fiction” or “mere imputation” because at its heart lies a loving, rich and profound personal relational union, between the Father and the Son, as one union and  between Christ and his bride, the Church, as the other union. However if one believes that union with Christ is at the heart of the atonement, justification and all the benefits of salvation then certain conclusions follow. One is committed to be a 5 point Calvinist, but most specifically  to limited atonement. If it is only through union with Christ that the non-imputation of sins through the atonement can take place, then logically Christ’s death only atones for those with whom he is in union. Hence the atonement is limited by intent to those whom God elects in eternity to be united to his Son.

There is a further implication, one could argue that belief in a universal penal substitutionary atonement would be unbiblical and immoral.


Universal Atonement: Unbiblical and Immoral?

The traditional Liberal charge against penal substitution is that it is unbiblical and immoral. The charge that it is unbiblical is based on Ex 34:7 where God quite clearly says he will not acquit the guilty. Further Eze 14:12-21 and 18 make sustained critiques of the morality of substitution. The point here is clear, Israel can not rely upon righteous men like Noah, Job, and Daniel to be forgiven for their sins, nor can an individual rely upon family members for righteousness; each person will be judged  according to their own righteousness or unrighteousness by God.

What Ezekiel establishes is that even close family relationships can not establish the morality of substitution-if one has offended God one has to bear the punishment. Extending the principle to Christ’s atonement, it raises the whole question as how can it be just for an innocent Jesus, a 1st century Palestinian Jew to bear the punishment for the sins of a 21st century English person who does not care for or is interested in Jesus? If these are 2 unrelated parties then universal penal substitutionary atonement can not be either biblical or moral. It is only if the atonement is limited to those who are united to Christ by faith so that there are not 2 unrelated parties can penal substitution be biblical and moral.



Justification is the vindication of the rights of the creator whom we have offended and the vindication of the people of God. Both vindications are effected in Christ. On God’s side because Christ is the Father’s obedient Son. Through Christ God is vindicated and through faith -union with Christ the people of Christ are vindicated. The vindication of the people of God is achieved because Christ bears the punishment for his people’s sins. This is not unbiblical nor immoral because Christ and believer are not 2 unrelated parties but rather united in a deep and indissoluble bond.

Justification and union with Christ is indeed at the heart of the gospel, and is the truth of the gospel. It is indeed ,as Luther said, the article upon which the standing church stands, and the falling church falls, or as Calvin said it is the hinge upon which religion turns. Upon it depends God’s rights and glory and our salvation. It ought to fill us with wonder, adoration, and praise leading to a life of faith, hope and love, and joy and assurance.


  1. The Bible esp. Genesis 15, Psalms 2, 32, 51, 110, 90-100, 130, 143, Is 53, Hab 2, Rom 1-11, Galatians, Phil 3., 2 Cor 5
  2. Luther The Freedom Of A Christian LW 31:333-377
  3. Luther Commentary On Galatians LW 26&27
  4. Luther 2 Kinds Of Righteousness LW 31:292-306
  5. Calvin Institutes Of the Christian Religion, Book 3, Chapters 11-18.
  6. Seifrid Christ Our Righteousness (Leicester:Apollos:2000)
  7. Braaten / Jenson  Union With Christ (Grand Rapids:Eerdmanns:1998)
  8. P.Jensen The Benefits Of Union with Christ (Briefing,18/08/99,18/09/99,223/4)
  9. Smedes Union With Christ (Grand Rapids:Eerdmanns:1983)


About the Author

Revd. Ro Mody is a graduate of Oxford, Cambridge, and Middlesex Universities. He is currently studying for a PhD at Aberdeen.