Books Soteriology

Union with Christ and Representation

The doctrine of election cannot be understood biblically and theologically if it is abstracted from its being in Christ. . . . it cannot be severed from the gospel, and it is the root and foundation of all the other ways in which union with Christ is worked out in human history and in the experience of the faithful. It is as far from fatalism as could be imagined. (Robert Letham, 66)





Robert Letham deals with “Representation” in the fourth chapter of  Union with Christ: in Scripture, History and Theology.

A restatement of  Letham’s presentation

Letham sees a legal aspect to union, in Christ’s fulfilling the law on our behalf, as our representative (i.e., Christ’s “active obedience”) and covenant head. Romans 5:12-21 and 1 Cor 15:20-23 are key texts indicating parallel corporate solidarities, between Adam and his natural descendants, and Christ and those “in him.” Christ fulfilled the law, not merely externally, like a substitute, but “we were in him as he did it,” because of our union with him (59). In this way, Christ “underwent for us the penalty of the broken law (“passive obedience”), suffering as “the just for the unjust to bring us to God” (1 Pet 3:18; cf. Rom 3:35; 4:25; 5:8; Heb 10”1-14; 1 Pet 2:21f.) (59).

Jesus was perfectly qualified for his role as our savior through his representation, because of both his deity and humanity, (constituting him the only one who could serve as Mediator between God and humankind, though Letham does not make that point himself). “Christ’s substitutionary and representative work is effected for us and consequently in us,” by the Spirit’s uniting us to Christ through faith.

In regard to Christ’s atoning work, Letham sees him as both substitute and representative. Behind the New Testament language of substitution “lies the OT sacrificial ritual in Levitus 4-5, in which a man offered an animal sacrifice: the pronouncement ‘he is guilty’ was followed by the sprinkling of the altar with the blood of the slain animal and the declaration ‘he is forgiven’’ (61). The New Testament also uses representative language, sometimes in the same passage where substitutionary language is used. But, “as both substitute and representative, Christ is seen as distinct from those who benefit from what he did” (62). Consequently, the language of “union” takes us further than either substitution or representation. Because Christ is distinct from us as our representative, his action is not ours, we are not “merged with Christ,” and we do not undergo a change of essence (63). But, because of our union with Christ, which was “established in the eternal counsels of God” (64), and which is effected by the Spirit,  “the wrongs done by the guilty parties have become Christ’s as well,” and “the righteousness of the One who bears the punishment actually belongs to the other, since both are regarded as one.” This point addresses many of the objections that have recently been leveled against the doctrine of substitutionary atonement (63-64).

Letham has an extensive discussion of the way in which the doctrine of election, in Reformed theology, is inextricably connected with the union of God’s people with Christ. John Calvin taught Christians to seek assurance of their election in their communion with Christ. Discussing Eph 1:4, Hieronymous Zanchius posited that “the Father did not elect as the Father but as God, since election is a work common to the whole Trinity,” and God’s people were elected in Christ as the God-man. The Son was predestined and appointed to the office of Mediator, and the decree encompassed “his taking human nature into union in the incarnation” (67). Jesus was chosen, according to his human nature, to the great honor of being the Mediator, on account of the union with the Logos,” by which “he was to be born the Son of God, the Mediator and Savior of the elect,” and all the elect “were foreknown, loved, chosen, and predestined to be given the Spirit of adoption and regenerated in the Son” (68). The Westminster Confession observed a “marked disparity between election and preterition (passing by),” in that “the latter is directly connected with the sin of the nonelect and is in perfect accord with God’s justice,” whereas election is a “matter of free grace and love” (71-72; citing WCF 3,5-7).

Letham concludes this chapter with a look at the manner in which justification relates to union with Christ. Justification is “only through faith because it is only by Christ and his obedience,” and faith itself is God’s saving gift through the Holy Spirit’s work of regeneration. But the ground upon which God declares believing sinners righteous is not their faith but Christ’s obedience, and hence the believer’s union with Christ is critical to justification (73-74). It is because Christ is the only ground of justification that faith is its only instrument, though that faith is never alone but works through love (74-75; citing WCF chap. 11). Letham argues that Thomas Torrance’s complaint that the Westminster Assembly did not sufficiently relate justification to union with Christ, thereby departing from the teaching of Calvin and of the Scottish Reformers, is best answered by examination of the Westminster Larger Catechism which makes the relationship very clear (77-79; citing WLC 65-90).

My reflections on Letham’s construction

Affirmation and expansion

I concur with Letham that the New Testament uses the language of substitution and representation interchangeably at some points. This appears to me to indicate that the distinction some theologians have made recently between representative and substitutionary atonement is unhelpful, and it does not significantly modify the traditional doctrine of substitutionary atonement.

I appreciate the way in which Letham demonstrates the advance made (beyond representation and substitution) by the truth of the New Testament doctrine of union. As I read that section, I was reminded why I prefer to speak of “incorporated guilt or righteousness” rather than “imputed guilt or righteousness,” as has sometimes been done in the Protestant tradition. Imputation connotes too external a relationship to effectively describe the one which grounds the justification of those who believe in Jesus. This is not to deny a certain biblical legitimacy to the language of imputation, but it is ancillary to incorporation, which is central, particularly in regard to the righteousness God gives to sinners in Christ, through faith.

I enjoyed the review of Zanchius’s discussion of the election of Christ and our election in Christ, including the point that election was a work of the Godhead. Recognition of economic distinctions within the Trinity’s operations is important, but must not be overstated. And I think that Zanchius is correct to relate the intent of the atonement to election in Christ, but this need not exclude recognition of additional gracious intention(s) in the atonement, from which all human beings benefit. There is no conflict between the general and particular intent of the atonement, which grounds both its sufficiency and its efficacy.

I value the distinction made in the Westminster Confession between election and preterition, and it is on this account that I consider myself a single predestinationist, and that I regard the difference between single and double constructions to be significant. I recognize that Arminians challenge this, because God’s passing by of the nonelect is as deliberate a divine act as is God’s gracious election of his people in Christ. But I view the distinction as a soteriological counterpart to the distinction between the things God effects and those he permits, within the doctrine of providence. That too, of course, is a distinction whose significance is generally denied by synergists. I post that one must be consistently either monergistic or synergistic, but a monergism that arises from biblical exegesis must make this sort of distinction, in order to allow for the authenticity of human moral agency. This is essential to compatibilism.


I doubt the correctness of Letham’s proposal that Jesus “would inherit Adam’s guilt and the corrupt nature conveyed by natural generation,” if he had been “born by the identical procedure as the rest of the race” (58). Even if traducianism is correct, and new human souls are brought into being through natural reproduction (which I think is probably the case), this does not provide us with a good explanation of universal sinfulness. Nor do I think it wise to view the virginal conception of Christ as the means by which he was preserved sinless in his incarnation.  Particularly given the focus of this chapter, I think Letham would have been much better to stay with the concept of representation (and corporate solidarity) as the framework for universal sinfulness. Jesus was not guilty because he was represented in Adam, and he did not, therefore, have the tendency toward sin that results from our being cut off from God’s goodness by our guilt.


As in earlier chapters, I was listening for the way in which Letham unpacks the significance of Christ’s union with all of humanity (his representative humanness), as distinct from his union with the body of which he is saving covenant head. I heard nothing explicit in this regard, in this chapter. Why not? In an earlier post, I noted with approval that Letham does not make the incarnation, in which the Word took upon himself the nature of humans, the means of salvation. This chapter even more clearly ties Christ’s saving effectiveness to his obedient life and representative death. But Jesus was also the representative human being, the ideal according to which image all other humans were created. Yet, as Letham rightly notes (60), it is the union with Christ which is effected by the Spirit through faith that effects our salvation.

In his first summary point, Letham states that “union with Christ is based on Christ’s being our covenant head and is established by his sharing our nature” (83). Is that a reference to two things or does Letham see them as one, coextensive, form of union? I suggest that we should view them distinctly, thereby grounding God’s broad and narrow intentions in the atonement. The second Adam takes the nature of the first, who was created in the image of the second, and it is on this account that the grace of God toward sinners, which is grounded in the atoning work of Christ, is communicated in non-saving ways to all of Adam’s descendants (i.e., “common grace”). But Christ was appointed head of a new humanity, God’s true covenant people (circumcised in heart), who are a subset of Adam’s descendants.

I wonder: would Letham affirm my suggestion that the Word’s union with all humanity, in taking their nature upon himself, grounds the universal sufficiency of Christ’s saving work, but that its particular efficacy is brought about only by the further work of the Spirit, who unites those God chose in Christ to Jesus in a distinctive way, as body with the new covenant Head? This explains, I believe, why the incarnation does not bring about universal salvation, even though Christ’s death satisfies the just demands of God in such a way that nothing more would have been necessary for the whole race to be saved.

In a footnote, Letham charges that Hugh Martin’s discussion of union “verges on tritheism, at least in forms of expression if not intent, when he talks of the will of the Father, the will of the Son, and—by implication—the will of the Holy Spirit” (64n13). Letham observes that “classic Trinitarian theology has maintained that the three have one will, since will is a predicate of nature rather than of person” (64 [emphasis mine]). I question the legitimacy of Letham’s concern at this point. I speak as Martin does because I think that this best represents what is going on in a text like Lk 22:42 where Jesus prays to the Father: “Not my will but yours be done.” Christologically, at least speaking in terms comprehensible in the twenty-first century, I am a monothelite. I do not find helpful the suggestion that the struggle Luke describes was between the human and the divine wills of Christ. In my reading of the concerns addressed by the third council of Constantinople (681), I think that I agree substantively with their conclusion, but I do not think that the way in which they used “will” at that time, associating it with nature rather than person, communicates their intent effectively in our day. So I do not believe that monothelitism, when expressed today, represents monophysitism. In our time, “will” is best associated with person rather than nature. Jesus had one will because he was one person, and his will was distinct from the will of the Father, because of the personal distinction within the Godhead. Instead of our fostering tritheism by speaking of a distinction between the will of the Father and the will of the Son, I believe that we would foster modalism if we were to say, in our context today, that there is only one will in the Godhead. To preserve, and properly communicate, the doctrine affirmed by the Church’s tradition, we now need to change its language.

I was intrigued by Amandus Polanus’ statement that, in the election of Christ, “God, from eternity, designated his only-begotten Son to be also Son of God according to his human nature, and head of angels and humans” (69, cf. 70). Paul refers to the election of angels (1 Tim 5:21), and I understand that to be concerning those who remained in obedience, by God’s preservation, but isn’t it peculiar to speak of their election in terms of headship, in parallel with the election of human beings, particularly if Calvin and Polanus are correct (which I think is true) that Jesus was elect according to his human nature when appointed to his mediatorial role as the God-man? Given that election is so closely related to union with Christ, and that the incarnation of the Word as human is so foundational to our union with Christ as body to Head, and the emphasis in Hebrews 2 upon the Son’s having taken upon himself the nature of humans, not of angels, does Polanus not muddy the waters somewhat?

Since our election in Christ is effected by the Spirit’s work uniting us to him, so that we die and rise again with him, and since the elect angels never sinned, and hence needed no redemption, is their election not categorically different from ours? Letham cites Herman Bavinck, who suggested that inclusion of the angels in election indicated the conviction that election and the blessings that follow from it also embrace the renovation of the cosmos (72; citing Reformed Dogmatics 2:404-5). I agree that renovation of the cosmos is a fruit of Christ’s atoning work, as it addresses the effects of human sin, but I still doubt the plausibility of identifying the election of angels with cosmic restoration, because angels are not renovated. The best I can do right now, in explanation of Paul’s reference to “elect angels,” is to consider their perseverance in goodness to have been secured in Christ. If we look at the situation from that perspective, the election of angels was not a matter of renovation necessitated by the fall, but their persistence in obedience was an aspect of the grace of God, toward his moral creatures, which was grounded in the eternal election of the Son. Since Scripture does not explicitly say this, however, it must remain conjectural.

Earlier posts in this series: Part 1, Part 2.


By Terrance Tiessen

I am Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Providence Theological Seminary, Canada.

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