Volume 34 - Issue 2

The Inexhaustible Fountain of All Good Things: Union with Christ in Calvin on Ephesians

By Lee Gatiss


July 10, 2009 was the 500th birthday of the acclaimed French Reformer John Calvin. For many the mention of his name immediately calls to mind an image of a stern, bearded systematician whose compassionless logic and doctrine of predestination represent all that is bad about theology.

We should be satisfied with the benefits of our Lord Jesus Christ, and that when we are grafted into his body and made one with him by belief of the gospel, then we may assure ourselves that he is the fountain which never dries up, nor can ever become exhausted, and that in him we have all variety of good things, and all perfection.1

July 10, 2009 was the 500th birthday of the acclaimed French Reformer John Calvin. For many the mention of his name immediately calls to mind an image of a stern, bearded systematician whose compassionless logic and doctrine of predestination represent all that is bad about theology. Yet those who have spent any time getting to know Calvin’s work firsthand will hardly recognise this clichéd caricature (apart from the fact that he did have a beard). The man whose most famous work, The Institutes, claims to contain “almost the whole sum of piety” and begins by extolling the value of knowing God, was a devout and passionate man with a touchingly pious personal motto: “My heart I offer you, O Lord, promptly and sincerely.” It is a shame that this sentiment is not the first thing that comes to mind when we remember this great servant of God.

Whilst election is not, of course, an unimportant theme in Calvin’s work, the subject of this article—union with Christ—is a much more pervasive one. It is undoubtedly the key idea in his teaching on the way we receive the grace of Christ. While refuting Osiander, one of his German Lutheran opponents, Calvin says, “that joining together of Head and members, that indwelling of Christ in our heart—in short, that mystical union—are accorded by us the highest degree of importance.”2 Calvin’s application of the gospel is summed up in what he says about union with Christ. Here more than anywhere we hear the heartbeat of the preacher who is committed not to cold abstract theologising but a personal, passionate, and pious relationship with his Lord and Saviour. So to celebrate his birthday we could do a lot worse than return to Calvin’s biblical emphasis on the believer’s union with Christ to encourage us in presenting a Christ-centred gospel to the alienated and relationally-hungry inhabitants of the twenty-first century. In the process, we will also find a doctrinal resource of immense value in refuting false teaching, both ancient and modern.

The title of this article reflects Calvin’s lovely and oft-repeated emphasis on Christ as the inexhaustible fountain of all good things, from whom—by means of our union with him—we draw our life, our righteousness, and our sanctification.3Though this language may be common in Calvin, it was, however, no common or merely conventional thing for him. He is amazed by it—indeed he says that union with Christ “ought to ravish our minds in astonishment,”4 and the vocabulary he uses to describe it is accordingly rich and varied.5So we dive in expecting to be seduced by what Calvin says about our intimate relationship with Christ. We will listen to what he says under three headings: the necessity of union with Christ, the benefits of that union, and the importance of “closing the gap” between us and God (which has particular reference to the pastoral and doctrinal errors addressed by this doctrine).

We will particularly concentrate on Calvin’s work on Ephesians, as seen in his commentary and sermons on that book.6 The Apostle Paul’s letter itself contains the “in Christ” formula several times, and more than one locus classicus for the doctrine of union (such as Eph 5:28–32). This furnishes Calvin with many exegetically warranted opportunities to discuss union with Christ. It also furnishes us with over 850 pages of opportunities to examine his regular pastoral use of it, his exegetical workings, and the links he makes between union and other doctrinal loci.

While many may know him just as a systematic theologian, Calvin’s commentaries and sermons take up far more space in his collected works than the Institutes. As a biblical commentator, he was “unique and extremely illuminating . . . an endlessly fresh and eye-opening interpreter.”7 Yet when Calvin reviewed his life’s work on his deathbed, “he talked more about his sermons than anything.”8 Between 1541 and 1564 he is estimated to have preached around 4,000 sermons about thirty-five to forty minutes long, without notes but not without preparation, twice on Sundays and once or twice midweek.9 The forty-eight sermons on Ephesians were first preached ten years after his commentary was published, on Sundays from May 1558 to March 1559.10 In contrast to the mere thirty or so references to union doctrine in the commentary,11 around 90 percent of the sermons mention and make use of it in some way.12 It seems to be one of his default ways of speaking about the blessings and benefits of the gospel.13

It is significant that these sermons were preached at the same time as Calvin was revising the Institutes for the very last time. Richard Muller suggests that “significant editing sometimes occur[s] in strata of the Institutes that follow a series of sermons.”14 The same effect can be observed as a result of Calvin’s work on his commentaries.15 In my view, a good case can be made that union language becomes much stronger and more important in the final 1559 edition of the systematic work precisely because Calvin was preaching on Ephesians.16 Certainly we can say that near the end of his life the mature Calvin held the doctrine of union with Christ to be both vital and exceedingly precious.

1. The Necessity of Union

We begin, then, by looking at our need of union with Christ, as Calvin expounds it. In the Institutes he begins Book 3 by saying Christ’s work is “useless and of no value for us” if we are separated from him: “all that he possesses is nothing to us until we grow into one body with him.”17 Yet the situation outside of Christ is much worse than merely missing out on blessings proffered to us as a result of his suffering. Calvin sees things much more radically. Preaching on “you have put off the old man” in Eph 4:22, he says,

For we know that there are (so to speak) two fountain-heads of mankind, that is to say, Adam and our Lord Jesus Christ. Now with regard to our first birth we all come out of the fountain of Adam and are corrupted with sinfulness, so that there is nothing but perverseness and cursedness in our souls. It is necessary for us then to be renewed in Jesus Christ, and to be made new creatures.18

Fundamental to Calvin’s thought regarding our need for union with Christ is our preexisting union with Adam. It is true that “while we are out of Christ, all is under the dominion of Satan,”19 yet more importantly it is this relationship with Adam (nowhere mentioned by name in Ephesians itself) which separates us from God and renders us liable to his judgment. This makes renewal “in Christ” an absolute necessity for us. As Calvin says in the very next sermon on Eph 4:23–26, again utilising the fountain motif,

when our father Adam was once fallen, and had become alienated from the fountain of life, he was soon stripped stark naked of all good. For being separated from God, what could he be but utterly lost and hopeless? Can we find either life, or righteousness, or holiness, or soundness, or uprightness out of God?20

Note that we are implicated in Adam’s fall and our nature is affected by it, just as Calvin establishes in Institutes 2.1 (followed by the Reformed tradition generally).21 Hence Calvin sees the human plight from the angle of separation from God which makes us devoid of all good, both righteousness and holiness, and also from the angle of our union with Adam. He goes on to prescribe the remedy for such separation in terms of union with Christ, saying, “just as Adam ruined us and plunged us with himself into the abyss of death, so we are new created by God in the person of our Lord Jesus Christ . . . we must rise again in him if we would live indeed . . . we must be new[ly] created in Jesus Christ.”22 As Edmondson rightly summarises, for Calvin, “Adam’s fall and the resultant alienation of humanity from God form the primary context for speaking of Christ as Mediator,”23 so also does it form the primary context for speaking of our need for union with him.24

The same basic idea of our desperate spiritual need for union with Christ is also communicated in other ways throughout the Sermons, without reference to Adam. So preaching on “they were at that time without Christ” in Eph 2:11, Calvin declares, “since we can have neither life, nor soul health, nor righteousness, nor anything else that is allowable, except in Jesus Christ, it is just the same as saying that we have nothing but utter wickedness and perdition in ourselves.”25 Again, in his sermon on Eph 6:19–24, he asks, “what is the reason that we are so corrupted in our nature that we are void of all goodness and filled with all kinds of vices, and in short, we are altogether detestable, except that we are utterly estranged from our Lord Jesus Christ who is the fountain of all goodness?”26 Our evil works and nature in God’s sight are due to our estrangement from Christ and necessitate a reunion as the only way to regain what was lost. Not only does separation from God equate to spiritual death,27 but it also ruins any physical blessings we may possess: “they would all be converted to evil, if we were not members of our Lord Jesus Christ.”28

Interestingly, Calvin also sees that God himself has a need, in some way, for union with us. Commenting on the church as Christ’s “fullness” in Eph 1:23, Calvin boldly asserts that it is “the highest honour of the Church, that, until he is united to us, the Son of God reckons himself in some measure imperfect . . . not until we are along with him, does he possess all his parts, or wish to be regarded as complete!”29 Not that this strictly challenges his self-sufficiency or aseity as such, but rather it is “as if a father should say, ‘My house seems empty to me, when I do not see my child in it.’ A husband will say, ‘I seem to be only half a man when my wife is not with me.’”30

So in summary, Calvin teaches that as spiritual descendents of Adam we are estranged from God. To escape his curse and be renewed with all spiritual life and health we must be united to God by Christ. Until that union is achieved with all his people, Christ regards himself as being without his fullness; yet this must be a gracious, unmerited impetus on his part since in our natural state we show no inclination towards him.

2. The Benefits of Union

Lane G. Tipton argues biblically that “Jesus Christ, as crucified and resurrected, contains within himself—distinctly, inseparably, simultaneously and eschatologically—every soteriological benefit given to the church” and that “there are no benefits of the gospel apart from union with Christ.”31 That is certainly the view that Calvin espouses in his work on Ephesians.

To begin with, Christ received all good things from his Father for us, “with the condition that if we are truly members of his body, all things that he has belong to us.”32 Not only so but “the Father has not given him some particular portion only, but in such a way that all of us may so draw from his plenitude that we can not lack anything, for he is the fountain that can never be drained dry.”33 Later Reformed emphases chime in well with this: Vos insists, for instance, when discussing union with Christ and the ordo salutis, “There is no gift that has not been earned by Him”;34 and Horton, when outlining the covenant of redemption concludes, “The mutual giving between the persons of the Trinity extends outward ad extra to their acts of giving to creatures: gift-giving between them is the ground for the gifts from them to us.”35

Yet according to Calvin what we are offered is not merely gifts but Christ himself. God “has joined himself to us in the person of our Lord Jesus Christ, and in him we are made partakers both of him and all his benefits.”36 Indeed, as he goes on to note later when speaking of “growing up into Christ” (Eph 4:15–16), “we cannot possess the good things of our Lord Jesus Christ to take any profit from them, unless we first enjoy him. And that is the very reason why he gives himself to us.”37 Thus, at the end of one sermon Calvin arrestingly presents Christ as inviting his hearers, “I am yours, possess ye me.”38

Moreover, this is not something to be, as it were, hoarded by the congregation alone; such union is part of the grace which Calvin regularly prays will be given “not only to us but also to all peoples” as he concludes many of his sermons.39 Christ offers us, in union with himself, all that we need for perfect happiness, all we can wish for, everything necessary for our joy and contentment.40 He has all power and strength in him and can give it to us, as Calvin points out when Paul refers to that key Ephesian theme of power in 1:19 and 6:10.41 Indeed, all Christ’s possessions belong to us in faith-union, in such a way that “once we are possessed of our Lord Jesus Christ, we may well give up all other things as superfluous and profitless.”42

2.1. Benefits Together

Controversy between Reformed and Lutheran scholars often centres around the relation of union with Christ to justification in the ordo salutis. Many have conceived of justification as the basis for union; Gaffin, Tipton, and Lillback have all convincingly shown that this is not in keeping with Calvin’s particular way of relating the benefits of union and that this has traditionally been a more Lutheran move.43 As Garcia summarises it, “the Lutheran and Reformed strands of the Reformation . . . adopted distinguishable understandings of the justification/sanctification relationship.”44 So it is surprising to find some, such as Michael Horton, arguing for that more Lutheran conception as if it were Calvin’s. Horton writes that justification “is the forensic basis of union with Christ” and “the forensic origin of our union with Christ, from which all of our covenantal blessings flow.”45 Continuing the theme, he goes on to say that “Christ alone is the basis for justification and union, but the act of justification is logically prior to union.”46 He cites Berkhof in support of what he calls the “classic Reformed interpretation” of the relationship between union and justification,47 but also claims the patronage of Calvin himself:

Regardless of whether union temporally preceded justification, Calvin is clear that the latter is the basis for the former: “Most people regard partaking of Christ (Christi esse participem) and believing in Christ as the same thing. But our partaking of Christ (participatio quam habemus cum Christo) is rather the effect of believing (fidei effectus).” . . . Forensic justification through faith alone is the fountain of union with Christ in all of its renewing aspects.48

Since he is quoting from Calvin’s commentary on Eph 3:17 here (and utilising the fountain metaphor too, no less) it is especially important for us to assess this claim. Horton appears to have inverted Calvin’s teaching, missing the fact that for Calvin justification is a benefit of union with Christ and not the basis for it. As the quotation he uses from Calvin says, it is faith which effects our partaking of Christ, not justification (which is not mentioned in the quotation he gives, or its context, or the text being commented on).49 To say that one of the benefits of union with Christ is the basis for the union itself, or that it is logically prior to the union in and through which it is received does not seem to make good sense of Calvin. Strangely, perhaps the clearest expression of this is in Institutes 3.16.1, which Horton himself quotes:

Although we may distinguish them [justification and sanctification], Christ contains both of them inseparably in himself. Do you wish, then, to attain righteousness in Christ? You must first possess Christ; but you cannot possess him without being made partaker in his sanctification, because he cannot be divided into pieces. Since, therefore, it is solely by expending himself that the Lord gives us these benefits to enjoy, he bestows both of them at the same time, the one never without the other. Thus it is clear how true it is that we are justified not without works yet not through works, since in our sharing in Christ, which justifies us, sanctification is just as much included as righteousness.50

Both this and the preceding paragraph in Calvin make it clear that justification and sanctification are both received at the same time. Moreover it is explicitly our “sharing in Christ” which is said to justify us. For Horton’s interpretation to be accurate that would have to be the other way around—“our justification, which unites us to Christ.” This, however, would not only prove Horton’s point about the relationship of union and justification but also (in the context of that sentence) confound justification and sanctification, which Calvin is always extremely careful to avoid. Of course justification is important—“the main hinge on which religion turns”51—but that does not mean it is prior to or more basic than union theologically.52 Luther himself declared that if the article of justification stands, the church stands but that if it falls, the church falls;53 and yet for him “the question on which everything hinges” was the bondage of the will.54 We need not always read such language absolutely.55

For Calvin then, justification and sanctification are distinct yet inseparable, and simultaneously bestowed on us in union with Christ by faith.56 In Christ, the sun, we have both light and heat, justification and sanctification, distinguishable but together.57 Union with him can be said to justify us or, indeed, to be the fountain of our justification, but not vice versa. We can also see this illustrated in Calvin’s work on Ephesians. The term “righteousness” can often be used interchangeably with “justification,” especially in forensic contexts.58 So when Calvin says that “out of Christ there is no righteousness” and that righteousness “is offered to us in Christ by the gospel,” we see here that a right standing with God is one of those blessings offered to us in union with Christ.59 If justification is taken to be synonymous with forgiveness of sins then perhaps Eph 1:7 itself could convince us that this is a blessing obtained in Christ and not something upon which that union is based.60 Other synonyms and antonyms for justification are also used by Calvin in relation to union.61

This would seem to imply very strongly that for Calvin justification, the imputation of righteousness, does not take place prior to union, but is in fact one of the manifold blessings obtained in union itself.62 As he says in his refutation of Osiander, “Just as one cannot tear Jesus Christ into pieces, so also these two are inseparable since we receive them together and conjointly in him, namely, righteousness and sanctification.”63 Indeed, as Gaffin has suggested by examining the structure of Book 3 of the Institutes, “the relative ‘ordo’ or priority of justification and sanctification is indifferent theologically” to Calvin.64 Precisely because both are given simultaneously in union with Christ it does not matter if one treats sanctification before justification (as Calvin so startlingly does) or vice versa: neither has logical or temporal priority on his model. In Christ by faith we obtain both a new life and a new legal status. Christ is the source of both; the legal change does not create the life, or vice versa.

2.2. Benefits to Come

In another sense, the benefits received in union with Christ are not perfected at the point of faith. Ephesians itself bases imperatives upon the doctrine of union: in Eph 4:25 Paul exhorts his readers to speak the truth “for we are members one of another.” This presupposes the existence of a spiritual unity among believers in the church which binds them to one another even as it binds them to Christ (Eph 1:10; 4:1). In the same way, Calvin often bases exhortations upon the union of Christ with his people: “Seeing that we are members of our Lord Jesus Christ, it is fitting that we should link together in true unity, or else we shall, as much as in us lies, tear his body in pieces.”65

Calvin also often links union with Christ to rule by Christ, to make it clear that cleaving to him requires submission to his governance: “we must learn to allow ourselves to be ruled and to be held in check by the hand of the Lord Jesus Christ, that thereby we may show ourselves to be true members of his body.”66 We also can be said to submit to him in order that we might partake of his benefits,67 and be motivated to mortification by our union with him.68 Conversely, we are warned that sin cuts us off from Christ, our ungodliness threatening and hindering our union.69

In addition, although believers are already said to be joined to and incorporated in Christ by their present faith, there remains a future aspect to our union with Christ. We do not have the full enjoyment of all the riches in Christ which are communicated to us, yet one day we shall be filled to the full “when he has joined us perfectly to him.”70 This is something for which Calvin occasionally prays at the end of a sermon. So, for instance, at the end of the sermon on Eph 2:8–10, he prays that God would increase his grace in us “until he takes us away out of this world and joins us with our Lord Jesus Christ, who is the fountain of all perfection, that we may also be perfect in him.”71 That future consummated union with God is seen as a godly aspiration: “having him as our Head, we all reach out to God, and aspire to him, desiring nothing but to be one with him.”72 Yet the future is assured precisely because of our present union with Christ by the Spirit.73

The question naturally arises, “Why does God not join us to himself in perfection immediately?” Calvin’s reflection on this in the sermon on Eph 4:6–8 is that God designs by this delay to teach us humility and dependence on him, and yet also to show us that we ought to value other people within the body.74 This latter emphasis is a reminder that God “sends forth his spiritual benefits and good among us by such channels as he thinks good,”75 for as he says elsewhere, “faith cannot be without humility, and God tests it in making mortal men to be the means by which he communicates himself to us.”76

3. Closing the Gap in Union

3.1. Roman Catholic Errors

We now turn to another controversial aspect of union with Christ, the way in which union closes the gap between God and us. This will bring us into areas of conflict with Lutheran and Roman Catholic theologies particularly. Calvin’s doctrine was a matter of some controversy in his own time of course, and he always wrote and preached with that in mind. The most palpable polemical context for his sermons is, naturally, the ongoing battle with Roman Catholicism. He will often write or speak against “papist” doctrines or practices,77 but his big issue with Roman doctrine is the distance it puts between Christ and his people. He inveighs against “the folly of popedom in conceiving patrons, advocates, and mediators towards God”; “the papists have,” he says, “imagined themselves to be separated from our Lord Jesus Christ, not knowing that he has become our brother in order that we might have intimate access to him.”78

So rather than viewing God as standing afar off and remaining aloof from us so that we must run to patron saints or to Mary, “we must go straight to our Lord Jesus Christ,” or in effect we are saying “Jesus Christ is nothing to us, neither do we have access or approach to him.”79 Ironically, Calvin presents the doctrine of union with Christ as the only true way to be united with the saints of old, who together with us are conjoined to Christ by faith.80 To interpose them somehow in between Christ and his living people was, however, simply to deny that a true, vital union existed between them.

3.2. Protestant Errors

One of the main areas of contention between the Reformers and Rome was always the sacraments. Yet interestingly, Calvin’s main argument on this score in the Ephesians work is not against transubstantiation but against the sacramentology of other Protestants (such as Lutherans and those who held the Supper to be a mere commemoration) because of their concomitant errors regarding our supposed distance from Christ. The link between union and the sacraments is of course the operation of the Spirit as the bond of our union with Christ,81 and to speak of the Spirit brings the trinitarian nature of Calvin’s doctrine into view. Union with Christ is union with the Father in Christ by the Spirit.82 The distance between each member of the trinity and the church has been closed: the Father dwells in us by the Spirit,83 and Christ comes to us by his (the Spirit’s) power.84 All three members of the trinity are at work in union since “it is by the power of the Spirit, and not by the order of nature, nor in any common fashion, that we are of the bone and of the flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ. And the reason why we are members of his body is that God his Father has ordained and established him as our Head.”85 The role of both the Father and the Spirit is to ensure that any gap between us and Christ is closed.

The link between pneumatology and sacramentology in Calvin’s thought appears numerous times, quite apart from explicit discussion of the sacraments themselves. So on several occasions he comments that the Spirit’s dwelling in us enables us to live by Christ’s substance, that his body and blood flow to us by the Spirit’s power.86 In John 6:56 Christ says, “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him” making this a key passage for the doctrine of union. It has often been seen as referring to the Lord’s Supper directly,87 and for Calvin there is certainly a link. Yet it is at the level of union with Christ that the connection is seen: “in the sixth chapter of John, [Christ] discourses copiously and professedly on that mystery of sacred conjunction of which He afterwards held forth a mirror in the sacraments.”88 That is, for Calvin John 6 is not about the sacraments per se,89 but both John 6 and the sacraments are about union with Christ; and the way that he sees the eating and drinking to be taking place in both is through the Spirit. Through his instrumentality we live by Christ’s substance, so that he is anything but distant and detached from us: “the supper ought to serve as a ladder in the search for our Lord Jesus Christ. It is meant to confirm us in the assurance that he dwells in us and that we are made one with him.”90

This means that Calvin has no time for mere commemorationism. In 1539 he added a section to the Institutes concerning the sense in which Christ’s body is life-giving, and it is full of references to Ephesians: “the flesh of Christ is like a rich and inexhaustible fountain that pours into us the life springing forth from the Godhead into itself,” he says, quoting in support Eph 1:23; 4:15–16; 5:30, 32.91 He makes reference to a “commemoration only” view in his commentary also, labelling it “egregiously mistaken.”92 Many of the references on this point are to passages in Eph 5, which Calvin held to be important not just for understanding marriage but also for grasping the Lord’s Supper.93 It is interesting to note that when concerned theologically with our potential isolation from Christ, Calvin should find such riches in a passage about marriage which was itself instituted precisely because “it is not good that man should be alone” (Gen 2:18).

Not only is Calvin against mere memorialism but he also writes and speaks against a Lutheran sacramentology/christology.94 This again is raised in connection with the distance of Christ from his people. For example, he comments on Eph 4:10, “When we hear of the ascension of Christ, it instantly strikes our minds that he is removed to a great distance from us; and so he actually is, with respect to his body and human presence. But Paul reminds us, that, while he is removed from us in bodily presence, he fills all things by the power of his Spirit.”95 In the sermon on this same passage, he says, “Jesus Christ is not so locked up in any one place but that we may feel him present, and that he dwells in us, and that he fills all things [but] not with his body as some have crudely imagined.”96 He has some pastoral sensitivity to the reasons why some may feel the need of such a doctrine, namely the felt remoteness of Christ. This gulf is bridged by his doctrine of union, carefully stated to guard against the Lutheran doctrine of the ubiquity of Christ’s body: “He is gone up to fill all things,” he preaches, “not with his body, but with his benefits and gifts. For however great the distance may be between our Lord Jesus Christ and us, as far as heaven and earth are concerned, yet nevertheless he does not cease to dwell in us, but will have us also to be one with him.”97

3.3. The Incarnation

There is another sense in which Christ has closed the gap between us and God, yet not in an inherently salvific way. Calvin also speaks, of course, about the incarnation itself as a union of Christ with us. So as he begins to speak about Eph 5:28 and how we are of the flesh and bones of our Lord, he says that Jesus “has taken a nature that is common to us, by which he has made himself intimate with us.” In that sense he is bone of our bones.98 It could sound as if Christ has saved us in the incarnation itself when Calvin preaches, “we are all knit together in the person of our Lord Jesus Christ. That is because he took our nature upon him and by that means abolished and took away the malediction that was in Adam.”99 So writes Trevor Hart:

The Incarnation is the Atonement. God and man have been reconciled in their personal union in Christ. The relationship between them has been restored and renewed. “Atonement” is not simply a consequence of something that Christ does, which pertains to us individually and independently of him. Nor is the Incarnation to be considered a mere prerequisite of some atoning act or other. The two things stand and fall together, for they are one and the same.100

Yet this union of two natures in Christ, when Calvin unpacks it further elsewhere, is definitely not inherently salvific; God and man have not been reconciled by incarnation but by the atonement as a distinct (yet inseparable) act of God. Calvin makes this patently clear in his exposition of Ephesians. In the commentary, for example, he unpacks Eph 5:30–31 by saying, “‘We are bone of his bone, and flesh of his flesh,’ (Gen. ii.23) not because, like ourselves, he has a human nature, but because, by the power of his Spirit, he makes us a part of his body, so that from him we derive our life.”101 In his preaching on Eph 5:28–30 he unravels these things further. He says of Christ: “he could not be the mediator between God and us, unless he had been of our nature.” Why not?

For he could not have atoned for the offences through which we were bound to endless damnation, unless he had clothed himself with our body . . . so it was necessary for our Lord Jesus Christ to be our flesh in our body. . . . However, there is another matter to note . . . it is not intended that we should be so bold as to think to approach Jesus Christ, as though we were linked to him of ourselves and of our own nature, but that is done in the power of his Holy Spirit, and not in the substance of his body.102

The point here is that Christ’s mere possession of a human nature like ours (Christmas) does not enable us to approach him or link us to him savingly. Yet it was a necessary prerequisite to our salvation (Easter), something he had to do in order to make atonement for us. The saving union by which we obtain all his benefits is not a merely natural thing, but a sovereign act of God’s Holy Spirit. As Calvin goes on to say, “it is by the power of the Spirit, and not by the order of nature, nor in any common fashion, that we are of the bone and of the flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ . . . [it] is done specially when he so works by the power of his Holy Spirit that he is our Head, and we are gathered together in him and have a heavenly status.”103

So, to put it pithily, Christ takes our flesh and bones so that we might become bone of his bones and flesh of his flesh. Christ unites himself with humanity physically, in order to redeem his elect completely. Or in other words, faith union for Calvin is like marriage, and “Between a man and his wife there is a far closer relation; for they not only are united by a resemblance of nature, but by the bond of marriage have become one man.”104 One can, after all, marry only someone who shares one’s nature, and not a dog or a cat (in England at least). Yet one does not, obviously, marry everyone who shares one’s nature! So a shared human nature does not in and of itself constitute a marriage, just as (contra Hart) the incarnation is not the atonement or the resurrection or the ascension. Yet it is a necessary step towards those events in the historia salutis which make possible our incorporation in Christ in the ordo salutis. So to conclude, the pastoral application of the incarnation and union doctrine Calvin outlines is related again to the idea of closing the gap between God and man.

4. Conclusion

We have seen then that Calvin’s work on Ephesians contains much of great interest and usefulness regarding the doctrine of the believer’s (and the church’s) union with Christ. What is latent in the commentary is often made patent in the sermons, which in turn had an effect on Calvin’s more systematic presentation in the Institutes. Union with Christ is presented as an essential part of our salvation, made necessary by our natural and damning union with fallen Adam. It encourages us to flee to Christ, the fountain of all perfection and goodness, to drink deeply from his blessings and benefit from all his riches which are ours distinctly, inseparably, and simultaneously in him. In its pastoral application we see that, for Calvin the scholar-pastor, to speak of our marriage to Christ by faith was a powerful and effective means of bringing Christ close to his people that they might be guarded from false teaching and encouraged to cleave to him who was the source of their life—their wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption (1 Cor 1:30).

For those seeking a way to present the good news to a new generation, for whom the jargon of the institutional church is a foreign tongue, this emphasis in Calvin is something worth recovering and exploring in our own ministry. We have often said that Christianity is about relationship and not religion, and everybody understands relationships. While not everything can be squeezed into this mould, Calvin’s use of the doctrine of union with Christ shows it can be an immensely rich and useful way of expressing the truths of the gospel and working through theological problems. Neglecting it can lead to some serious errors both doctrinally and practically. Yet getting it right helps tremendously in making the connections between what Christ has done in history and what he can do for us (at both individual and corporate levels), connections we often find difficult to make in a way that is both biblically accurate and comprehensible to our peers. For Calvin, who wished the grace of the gospel to be granted “not only to us but also to all peoples,” it would be a fine legacy if his teaching on union were to aid us, 450 years after he preached on Ephesians and finished his immortal Institutes, in playing our part in that great commission.

  1. ^ J. Calvin, Sermons on the Epistle to the Ephesians (trans. A. Golding; Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1973), 355.
  2. ^ J. Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (ed. J. T. McNeill; trans. F. L. Battles; Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), 737 (3.11.10).
  3. ^ He is fond of alluding to Col 1:19 and 2:3 (e.g., Sermons, 118, 380, 396), but his own “fountain” image is pervasive (e.g., Sermons, 124, 169, 220, 320, 355, 402, 404, 606, 616, 703). There is a mixture of the two ideas in Institutes of the Christian Religion: 1536 Edition (ed. and trans. F. L. Battles; London: Collins, 1986), 57.
  4. ^ Sermons, 615.
  5. ^ E.g., in his Commentary: spiritual union (324), fellowship (262), intercourse (262, 323), and gathered together in Christ (271). In his Sermons:
    communication (511), engrafting (615), head-members relation (291), clothed with him (194), partakers of him (205), joined to him (222), cleaving to him (227), made one with him (282), he dwells in us in a secret union (290), we live in him (615), we put on Christ (333), incorporated into him (501), linked to him (595), and God has conjoined himself with us (616).
  6. ^ The Commentary is Commentaries on the Epistle of Paul to the Ephesians in Calvin’s Commentaries (vol. 21; trans. W. Pringle; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993).
  7. ^ J. Haroutunian, ed., Calvin: Commentaries (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1958), 15.
  8. ^ J. D. Currid, Calvin and the Biblical Languages (Fearn, Ross-Shire: Mentor, 2007), 11.
  9. ^ Currid, Calvin and the Biblical Languages, 22–26.
  10. ^ Published in French (1562) and English (1577). De Greef, The Writings of John Calvin, 112–14, gives the date of the first sermon as May 15, 1558; the English edition claims May 1 (Sermons, viii). See R. C. Zachman, John Calvin as Teacher, Pastor, and Theologian (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006), 147–72.
  11. ^ For the most developed, see Commentary, 220–25 (Eph 2:1–7), 322–25 (Eph 5:28–33). Calvin often passes over a union text without comment: in Commentary, 207 (1:13), he supplies a verb which removes a possible reference to union, and on 235 (2:13), 245 (2:22), 309 (5:8), and 334 (6:10), he declines to comment on it, despite significant textual warrant.
  12. ^ Only five of forty-eight sermons fail to mention it (4:31–5:2; 5:11–14, 15–18; 6:1–4, 10–12).
  13. ^ See where the text does not itself utilise union language, e.g., Sermons, 181, 205, 240, 313, 438, 640.
  14. ^ R. A. Muller, The Unaccommodated Calvin: Studies in the Foundation of a Theological Tradition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 115.
  15. ^ On the relationship between Books 1 and 2 and Calvin’s commentaries on the Gospels and OT historical books, see S. Edmondson, “The Biblical Historical Structure of Calvin’s Institutes,” SJT 59 (2006): 1–13. On Book 3 and the 1556 Romans commentary, see M. A. Garcia, Life in Christ: Union with Christ and Twofold Grace in Calvin’s Theology (Carlisle: Paternoster, 2008), 90.
  16. ^ A separate article would be needed to prove this hypothesis. But note Ephesians quotations in 2.12.5 (added in 1559), as well as the major new section in 3.1.1 concerning union in which the first scriptural allusion is Eph 1:22 (or 4:15). See also the note on 340 of the Battles translation (2.6.1) on how soteriology is introduced in a new chapter by “this radical in Christo passage.”
  17. ^ Institutes 3.1.1.
  18. ^ Sermons, 426. See Commentary, 294–95.
  19. ^ Commentary, 309.
  20. ^ Sermons, 436. See Commentary, 220, and Ephesians references in 3.24.10.
  21. ^ On this see John Murray, The Imputation of Adam’s Sin, reprinted in Justified in Christ: God’s Plan for Us in Justification (ed. K. Scott Oliphint; Fearn, Ross-shire: Mentor, 2007), 203–94 (esp. 219–20 for criticism of Calvin and 223–41 on two ways of conceiving union with Adam).
  22. ^ Sermons, 436–37. See Adam-Christ contrasts on 153, 194, 206, 334, 508, 601; Commentary, 198, 225, 229.
  23. ^ S. Edmondson, Calvin’s Christology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 30.
  24. ^ See also 1 Cor 15:22 in Sermons, 601.
  25. ^ Sermons, 172. See Commentary, 219.
  26. ^ Sermons, 702–3.
  27. ^ Sermons, 128.
  28. ^ Sermons, 571.
  29. ^ Commentary, 218.
  30. ^ Sermons, 123. Brief comments in Commentary become a fuller exposition in Sermons.
  31. ^ L. G. Tipton, “Union with Christ and Justification,” in Justified in Christ: God’s Plan for Us in Justification (ed. K. Scott Oliphint; Fearn, Ross-shire: Mentor, 2007), 32, 34.
  32. ^ Calvin, Sermons, 116–17.
  33. ^ Sermons, 704.
  34. ^ G. Vos, “The Doctrine of the Covenant in Reformed Theology,” in Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation: The Shorter Writings of Geerhardus Vos (ed. R. B. Gaffin; Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1980), 248.
  35. ^ M. S. Horton, Covenant and Salvation: Union with Christ (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2007), 138.
  36. ^ Sermons, 289.
  37. ^ Sermons, 403, 401. See Commentary, 240, 262; Institutes 3.2.24. See also H. Bavinck, Our Reasonable Faith (trans. H. Zylstra; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1956), 399 who concludes that the benefits cannot be separated from Christ’s person.
  38. ^ Sermons, 404.
  39. ^ Sermons, 21. See 475, 505, 591 for links to future consummated union. See also 49, 126, 184, 241.
  40. ^ Sermons, 73, 267, 269.
  41. ^ Sermons, 108, 653.
  42. ^ Sermons, 76, 249.
  43. ^ Gaffin, “Biblical Theology and the Westminster Standards,” 173; Tipton, “Union with Christ and Justification,” 42–45; P. A. Lillback, “Calvin’s Development of the Doctrine of Forensic Justification: Calvin and the Early Lutherans on the Relationship of Justification and Renewal,” in Justified in Christ: God’s Plan for Us in Justification (ed. K. Scott Oliphint; Fearn, Ross-shire: Mentor, 2007), 51–80.
  44. ^ Garcia, Life in Christ, 252.
  45. ^ Horton, Covenant and Salvation, 129, 138–39.
  46. ^ Covenant and Salvation, 147.
  47. ^ Covenant and Salvation, 147–48, citing L. Berkhof, Systematic Theology (rev. ed.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 452.
  48. ^ Covenant and Salvation, 143; quoting Calvin, Commentary, 262.
  49. ^ Justification is mentioned once in the Commentary (230). The verb “justify” does not occur in the theological sense, while “justified” and “justifies” occur once each (outside quotations of 1 Cor 6:11 and Rom 8:30). None of these have any relevance to Horton’s point.
  50. ^ Institutes 3.16.1. See Covenant and Salvation, 142.
  51. ^ Institutes 3.11.1.
  52. ^ See R. B. Gaffin, “Justification and Union with Christ,” in A Theological Guide to Calvin’s Institutes: Essays and Analysis (ed. D. W. Hall and P. A. Lillback; Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 2008), 257.
  53. ^ D. Martin Luthers Werke (90 vols.; Kritische Gesamtausgabe; Weimar: H. Böhlau, 1883– ), 40:3.352.3.
  54. ^ E. G. Rupp and P. S. Watson, Luther and Erasmus: Free Will and Salvation (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1969), 333.
  55. ^ Calvin even refers to faith as the chief of all spiritual benefits in Sermons, 28. I am grateful to Dr. Horton, whom I greatly admire and respect, for friendly email and face-to-face discussions on all this.
  56. ^ Garcia calls this a unio Christi-duplex gratia soteriology (Life in Christ, 3).
  57. ^ Institutes 3.11.6.
  58. ^ Calvin takes “righteousness” in Eph 4:24 as ethical rather than forensic, and he rules out an imputed righteousness sense in 6:14.
  59. ^ Commentary, 223, 228.
  60. ^ See Sermons, 295, for the equation of justification and forgiveness. See also the citation of similar passages (Phil 3:8–9; 2 Cor 5:19–21; 1 Cor 1:30) by D. A. Carson, “The Vindication of Imputation: Of Fields of Discourse and Semantic Fields,” in Justification: What’s at Stake in the Current Debates? (ed. M. Husbands and D. J. Treier; Leicester: Apollos, 2004), 72.
  61. ^ Sermons, 44, 172, 380.
  62. ^ See Sermons, 220, for our righteousness as flowing only from “the fountain of all good” in Christ, and 559 for several benefits obtained “in our Lord Jesus Christ,” including “full righteousness.”
  63. ^ Institutes 3.11.6, from Garcia, Life in Christ, 2n3 (a slightly different translation from Battles, 732).
  64. ^ Gaffin, “Biblical Theology and the Westminster Standards,” 177.
  65. ^ Sermons, 333. Note Calvin’s standard image of tearing Christ in pieces. For other exhortations see Sermons, 293, 326, 443.
  66. ^ Sermons, 119. See 595 for the related idea of following Jesus and 292, 357, and 705 for the indwelling Spirit who reigns over us (through the word); 327 links “joined together” language with Christ reigning over us.
  67. ^ E.g., Sermons, 572, 573 of wives.
  68. ^ E.g., Sermons, 575, 673.
  69. ^ Sermons, 360, 495.
  70. ^ Sermons, 109–10. See 403.
  71. ^ Sermons, 168–69. See prayers on 316, 475, 505.
  72. ^ Sermons, 336. See Institutes 3.2.24.
  73. ^ See Sermons, 154, 468.
  74. ^ Sermons, 339–40.
  75. ^ Sermons, 120. See 402 and Commentary, 288.
  76. ^ Sermons, 215. See the idea that God sends blessings “from the inexhaustible fountain of his liberality” to us through people “as rivulets” (“Catechism of the Church of Geneva,” in Calvin, Treatises on the Sacraments [trans. H. Beveridge; Fearn: Christian Heritage, 2002], 70–71).
  77. ^ E.g., Sermons, 204.
  78. ^ Sermons, 113.
  79. ^ Sermons, 119, 123.
  80. ^ Calvin sees angels, patriarchs, prophets, and holy kings as our companions in union with Christ, as well as other living Christians. See Sermons, 113, 117, 120, 223–24.
  81. ^ See Institutes 3.1.1.
  82. ^ See Commentary, 205, and union with the Father on 220, 235.
  83. ^ Sermons, 333. See Commentary, 270.
  84. ^ Sermons, 291, 355, 579–81, 603. See Commentary, 262, 291.
  85. ^ Sermons, 602.
  86. ^ See the idea of living by Christ’s “substance” in Sermons, 356, 360, 404. See Commentary, 324.
  87. ^ See the helpful discussions in L. L. Morris, The Gospel according to John (2d ed.; NICNT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 331–33, and D. A. Carson, The Gospel according to John (Pillar New Testament Commentary; Leicester: IVP, 1991), 277–78.
  88. ^ Quoted in R. S. Wallace, Calvin’s Doctrine of the Word and Sacrament (Edinburgh: Scottish Academic, 1995), 198. See Commentary, 323, and Sermons, 578, 614.
  89. ^ See on John 6:53 in Commentaries on the Gospel according to John in Calvin’s Commentaries: Volume XVII (trans. W. Pringle; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993), 265.
  90. ^ Sermons, 581. See also 403. Baptism is not so prominent, though see Sermons, 193, 330.
  91. ^ Institutes 4.17.9. He quotes the passages themselves. We cannot rely on citations of biblical texts found in modern translations of the Institutes since the majority do not appear in Calvin’s originals. See Muller, Unaccommodated Calvin, 141.
  92. ^ Commentary, 323.
  93. ^ Calvin was not alone in ascribing great importance to Eph 5. See H. Zanchius, Of the Spirituall Marriage betweene Christ and the Church, and every Faithfull Man (Cambridge: John Legate, 1592). Interestingly Zanchius speaks similarly to Calvin, “God has set and established all good things in Christ alone the Mediatour, so that unlesse they be communicated, and come from Christ as from the fountaine, none can be made partaker of them” (132–33).
  94. ^ See Garcia, Life in Christ, 149–95.
  95. ^ Commentary, 276.
  96. ^ Sermons, 353 (emphasis mine), 355.
  97. ^ Sermons, 346 (emphasis mine). See also 357 and Institutes 4.2.24.
  98. ^ Sermons, 600–601.
  99. ^ Sermons, 206. See also 391.
  100. ^ 100 T. Hart, “Humankind in Christ and Christ in Humankind: Salvation as Participation in Our Substitute in the Theology of John Calvin,” SJT 42 (1989): 83–84. See also J. B. Torrance, “The Incarnation and ‘Limited Atonement,’” Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology 2 (1984): 32–40.
  101. ^ Commentary, 323–324 (emphasis mine).
  102. ^ Sermons, 601 (emphasis mine).
  103. ^ Sermons, 602.
  104. ^ Commentary, 322.

Lee Gatiss

Lee Gatiss is associate minister of St. Helen’s, Bishopsgate in London and editor of The Theologian: The Internet Journal for Integrated Theology ( In Autumn 2009 he plans to begin a PhD at Cambridge University in seventeenth-century biblical interpretation.

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