Doctrine of Salvation (Part 5)

February 09, 2014     Time: 00:43:21

We’ve been talking about the Doctrine of Salvation, and today we are turning to a new subsection on our so-called mystical union with Christ. This is a wonderful lesson, I think, which will be of real encouragement to every regenerate believer.

But before we do so, I promised to give some time for any discussion from last week’s lesson on the doctrine of election, and the contrast between Calvinist and Arminian views, and then my proposed Molinist solution to the problems.


Question: A couple of points for clarification from last time. The issue of the term “all.” Sometimes I think the term “all” in Scripture is not inclusive but is “all” without distinction but not “all” without exception. I think that is one clarifying principle. The other is God’s will came up relative to election or non-election and so forth. I think of God’s will in terms of four aspects. There is his absolute will which is purpose. He’s got a prescriptive will which is Scripture. He’s got an emotive will like God’s not willing that any should perish but some do. And then he’s got a permissive will for believers where he’s got a path for you to walk but he’ll give you a certain amount of rope before he takes action to bring you back to it. So he’s got a permissive will. So I see those four aspects, and this can hopefully shine some light or background.

Answer: Yes. All right, your question opens a can of worms but let’s try to address it briefly in light of what I’ve already said. The first point that you made with respect to the word “all” – I think where this becomes relevant is with respect to these texts about God’s universal salvific will where Scripture says God is not willing that any should perish but that all should reach repentance.[1] Again, it says God wants all persons to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth.[2] The Arminian and the Molinist takes those passages at face value – “all” means literally everyone. God wants everyone to be saved. The Calvinist is the one who has to make the distinction that you have suggested – that “all” may not mean literally everyone but just all types of people or without distinctions among people, but God doesn't literally want all people to be saved or else they all would be saved. Here I confess I find the Arminian-Molinist interpretation to be much more plausible. It takes the passage at face value and it is so consistent with the love of God, that God’s love would be extended to all persons, that he would want all to be saved. So my own view would be that we ought to take these passages as meaning universal unless there were some other consideration that would drive us away from that and I don’t think that there is, as I’ve explained.

With respect to the second point that you make: the different ways in which we can talk about God’s will – his absolute will, prescriptive will, emotive will, permissive will. It seems again to me that these distinctions are important but that they only make sense within an Arminian-Molinist point of view because they presuppose libertarian freedom. If you don’t think that human beings have the freedom to do other than God absolutely wills then the distinction between God’s absolute will and his permissive will collapses. I don’t see how the Calvinist can make a serious distinction between God’s prescriptive or absolute will and his permissive will because he is the only agent who acts unilaterally. He determines everything that will happen.[3] So the distinction between permission and prescription just collapses, it seems to me, on Calvinism, whereas on Arminianism or Molinism God does will in this absolute sense that all persons be saved but universalism isn’t true because there is the permissive will of God; namely, he permits some people to reject him and his grace and so separate themselves from him forever despite his absolute intention that they be saved. So, as an Arminian-Molinist, I would agree with the distinctions that you are making there, and I think they only make good sense on the view that people have libertarian freedom.

Question: I know we ended the last class, we were talking about whether we can resist God’s will or his calling, which was part of the big differentiation between the two. So the main one that I thought of was Jonah. God calls Jonah to go to Nineveh, Jonah basically says “no” and he goes in the opposite direction. Then God uses his middle knowledge and knows “If I cause a storm, he gets thrown over the boat, I have him swallowed by a fish, he is going to use his free will to change his mind and go to Nineveh. And my will will be done through his free will.” To me, that makes sense on an Arminian standpoint, right? Jonah had the ability to resist God’s will, but then God used middle knowledge to get him to do his will after all. But under the Calvinist, it seems like they would have to say, “No. When God called Jonah to go to Nineveh, he never intended for Jonah to actually go to Nineveh. He actually intended for Jonah to say no to him so that he could increase Jonah’s faith in the long run by making these things happen and him doing it later.” To me that just sounds kind of manipulative, almost kind of dishonest and deceptive in a way. It is like “I am telling you to do this, but I am going to make sure you don’t do my will right now. And you resist it so I can have other purposes.” Is that what they would believe?

Answer: I think you’ve accurately characterized the difference between them. I think the Jonah story is a good illustration of freedom within God’s sovereign direction and ability to change the circumstances knowing, for example, that the sailors would freely throw him overboard in the storm, that he would be swallowed up by this fish, that he would, if then delivered, obey God and proclaim the message of judgment to Nineveh. All of that makes, I think, very good sense on a libertarian view. But on the other view I think you are absolutely right. You’d have to say that God is just basically pulling the strings to make the puppet move in a certain way. That would include disobedience and the rest of the story. So yes, I think you have contrasted them well.

Question: The Molinist perspective, which is very, very appealing, a Calvinist and some also open theists have this objective in common – it’s this grounding objective. I have a response to this. It is an epistemic one. We wouldn’t have the capacity to know how exactly God could ground this and exactly know what they would choose, if it is a future contingency, if he is not actually determining it.

Answer: Let me interrupt at this point and say that that was discussed when we did our study of divine omniscience. When we looked at the attributes of God and talked about middle knowledge and objections to it. So what we are doing here is simply discussing contrasting views of providence given that you have Molinism or Calvinism. So I don’t want to answer that question because it would rehearse old material. But I’ll just refer you to the Defenders classes on Doctrine of God and the subsection on divine omniscience. We talk about it there.

Question: Can you respond to the accusation: Could Lazarus have chosen not to be risen from the dead? There is an accusation by Calvinists that regeneration is something like Lazarus’ rising from the dead. Jesus uses this as an object lesson. I am the resurrection and the life. Lazarus was monergistically brought back from the dead. Where does this parallel break down?[4]

Answer: I have often heard this by Reformed thinkers as well. I think it was Cornelius van Til who said, “It does no good to place the life-giving potion next to the casket.” Right? The corpse can’t get up and take it. As congenial as that analogy is, it is reasoning from an illustration that isn’t in Scripture. The Scripture does present the Gospel as something to which unregenerate people can respond under the drawing and convicting power of the Holy Spirit. So when a person is said to be dead in trespasses and sins, that doesn’t mean he is comatose, that his rational faculties have ceased to function or that he can’t respond to the convicting and drawing of the Holy Spirit. It is wrong to impose an illustration or an analogy on Scripture without warrant, I think. So I would say that the Scripture does present the Gospel as something to which spiritually dead people – that is to say, people who are alienated from the life of God – can respond, either positively or negatively in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Question: This is just a comment. Again, an analogy is not an argument but it seems to me (I think this has been said before but) if election or predestination is purely individual and it’s not, as a result of that, salvation is not offered to all people, I think we have a serious problem with Scripture and consistency. The analogy is this. In law you could write a will today and you could leave a gift to your grandchildren – even if you don't have any grandchildren. What you are doing is creating an open class and the membership is to be determined by later events. Then when you have grandchildren and you pass away, they each receive a gift. Fifty years from now your grandkids could say that you chose to give them a gift. So you have the corporate nature of the election process then you have the individual results. To carry the analogy one step further, your grandchildren, your heirs, could renounce the gift and say, “I don’t want it.” There is a legal doctrine that lets you do that. An heir can renounce a gift. So it seems to me that is an analogy that helps.

Answer: Yeah, that’s a wonderful analogy for corporate election that you have given us. I would hold to a corporate doctrine of election end of story if it weren’t for passages like Acts 13:47-48 where you do seem to have contemplated a kind of individual election that presses me forward to go with a Molinist doctrine. I think the corporate doctrine is correct that we enunciated and for which you provided a wonderful illustration. But I would want to go further with the Molinist view in order to secure those passages in Scripture where it does seem to have an individual in mind, like Paul, for example, who says God set him apart before he was born and called him at the right time knowing, I think, that he would not be disobedient to the heavenly vision as he says to Agrippa but would respond positively.

Question: In the last class, right toward the end, we were talking about Congruism which I believe you support.

Answer: No, did you say that I support?

Followup: Is that correct?

Answer: No, it wouldn’t be what I support. Congruism is a subset or a particular school of Molinism that comes very, very close to Calvinism. I was simply informing you about it without defending it. I am not saying it is false, but I haven’t taken a position on that. Let me just reiterate what that is for those who don’t recall from last time. Some followers of Molina after he was gone developed the idea called Congruism which says that for any possible creature, any possible person, that God might create, there is a congruent grace that God might offer to that person that is so apt, so suited, to that person that it would win a free affirmative response from that person.[5] So there is no person who is unsaveable; whom God cannot save. God knows the congruent grace that is so perfectly suited to any person he might create as to win that person’s free response.

Followup: I guess what I am trying to understand is you talked about two options. Let’s say there is a scale of Molinism between Congruism and maybe Neo-Molinism on one side or something like that. Where do you come down on the side of Molinism?

Answer: Well, these are issues on which I think it would be imprudent to be dogmatic. I think it is good to keep your options open. So I guess I would say I don’t know if there is a congruent grace for every possible person. It seems to me that there are some possible persons who wouldn’t be saved under any circumstances that God might place them in. They would just be so intransigent that they would separate themselves from God; they would reject God in any world in which God might create them. But, you could say that, no, there is a congruent grace for everybody and so there would be a feasible world that God might create in which a person is saved. But maybe that wouldn’t be the same world in which somebody else was saved. Maybe they wouldn’t be compossible together. Do you see what I mean? The world in which a grace is congruent for Joe might not be a world in which there is a congruent grace for Jim or Susie. So although there is a congruent grace for every possible person, that doesn't mean there is a feasible world available to God that involves this much salvation without some freely rejecting him and being lost. It may be that a world of universal salvation having a significant number of people in it isn’t available to God. That is the idea. Again, I don’t have any views on that except to say it is defensible and this can help to defuse any sort of objection to Christianity like this: if God is all-loving and all-powerful then why isn’t everybody saved? He ought to be able to create a world in which everybody freely responds to his grace and is saved. One can respond to that in the way that I just have, and thereby remove the teeth of the objection by showing a possible scenario in which God is all-powerful and all-loving and yet some people freely reject him and are lost.

Question: This might be redundant but the question is: could you please tell me the difference between a free agent – I hear scholars speak of the difference between a free agent – and free will.

Answer: I don’t think that there is a difference.

Followup: You don’t think there is?

Answer: No. Somebody who sees a difference between those two is defining his terms, I think, in an idiosyncratic way. You would need to ask that person, “How do you distinguish between that?” It would seem to me that a person endowed with free will is a free agent. Right? That’s what a free agent is. It is someone who has free will.

Followup: If I told you that R. C. Sproul is the one that makes that distinction.

Answer: Ah-ha.

Followup: That is why I am asking.

Answer: Do you know how he . . .

Followup: No, I have not – that is why I am asking – I haven’t researched it yet.

Answer: Here is what I am thinking.

Followup: I know he is a Calvinist.

Answer: The Calvinist – and he is a Calvinist – will sometimes say, “Yes, we are free in the sense that we are not coerced into doing what we do. We do it voluntarily.” But they would say we don’t have freedom of the will because what we will is determined by God. So they would say that freedom is compatible with determinism. Now, that sounds funny to . . .

Followup: I think that is a hard line, isn’t it?

Answer: That’s the typical Reformed view.[6]

Followup: But I believe that the Bible teaches . . . well . . . my conclusion when I study the Bible is that you do not trump God’s sovereignty. Your free will, my free will, if God has a plan and a purpose he is going to carry that out. If he makes promises and speaks his word and his word is truth and I stand in the way of bringing that about, God’s sovereignty trumps my free will.

Answer: Yes. Now, with respect to God’s promises, I certainly agree with that. But come back to the distinction that someone made a moment ago between God’s absolute will and permissive will. It does seem to me that I think we want to say that God’s absolute will is that everybody be saved. As a loving God, he wants everyone to be saved. He doesn’t want anybody to go to hell. But I think human freedom trumps that.

Followup: I think that is just a picture, in my opinion; a picture of his compassion for people. But I don’t see God up in heaven wringing his hands saying, “Please be saved. Please be saved.” I think he knows; the foreknowledge.

Answer: Oh, I agree with that! Certainly. That is not the issue. We all agree with foreknowledge. But if you don’t think that God is pleading with people, read Ezekiel 38 where God says, “Why will you die? I have no pleasure in the death of anyone says the LORD, God. Turn back! Turn back from your wicked ways. Why will you die?” He’s pleading with Israel to turn to him, lest he destroy them. And he says, “I don’t want to destroy you. I don’t take any pleasure in the death of the wicked. But that the wicked turn from his way and live.” If you don’t think God pleads with people, I don’t know how you can make sense of Ezekial 38.

Followup: I don’t have a problem with that. I think he does plead. I think he does do that. But I think ultimately he knows who is going to choose him and who is not.

Answer: Right, we all agree with that.

Followup: Ultimately, I don’t see him pleading in that sense; that he doesn’t know.

Answer: No, no. Nobody said that, except for the open theist that was mentioned obliquely here a moment ago. But the Arminian, the Molinist, the Calvinist, all think that from the foundation of the world, God knew who would be saved and who would be lost. So it is all within his sovereign plan as it unfolds. We’ve emphasized that this happens according to his foreknowledge. But the question is the one that someone raised: do you think that God has an absolute, salvific will that everyone be saved, or is his will really, “No, I really want to send some people to hell and save others?”

Followup: I don’t think that has to be contradictory. I don’t get it. I don’t get it. Because there is so many Scriptures in the Bible that say that God . . . in John when Jesus was praying in the garden, he was praying for those who would be saved. He wasn’t praying for the people he knew would never be saved. He was specifically praying for those people who he knew would be saved and then there is other Scriptures that talk about being molded. God creates some out of clay to be molded for divine salvation and others not.

Answer: Yes, well, we talked about that. That is Romans 9 where it says that God determines who will be saved and who will not be saved and no one has the right to gainsay God’s choice. But what we suggested there is that those whom God has chosen to save sovereignly is those who have faith in Christ Jesus. It is like that promulgator of his will – he has the right to will his inheritance to whomever he wants. It is his to dispose of as he wills. But he has willed to guarantee it or bequeath it to his grandchildren who don’t even exist yet, but they have the ability to accept it once they are born or to reject it. So I think that the concerns that you have are concerns that are shared by the Arminian, the Molinist, and don’t serve to motivate a Calvinistic view.

Mystical Union

Having said that, let us now turn to the doctrine of the mystical union of the believer with Christ.[7]


In speaking of our mystical union with Christ we are not talking about the total absorption of the believer into deity as you have, for example, in Hinduism where the individual returns like a drop of water to the ocean and is reabsorbed into The All, into The Totality of Being, and really ceases to exist as an individual entity. We are not talking about that kind of mystical union that you have in pantheism. Rather, what we are talking about here is the wonder of a personal relationship and identification of the regenerate believer with Jesus Christ. It is rather like the marriage relationship that Paul describes in Ephesians 5 where he says that the man and the woman become one flesh. Yet, they still exist as two individual persons. It is not as though they merge into one person. They are two distinct persons but they are so closely united together that they become identified with one another as a unit.

I think this notion of our union with Christ is the primary meaning of the phrase “having a personal relationship with God.” When we say that coming to know Christ brings you into a personal relationship with God, we are not speaking primarily of the subjective experience of fellowship with God. Some people who don’t have that sort of intimate fellowship with God or who have their Christian experience come and go as emotions and times change will sometimes say, “Where is this personal relationship with God that I am suppose to have in becoming a Christian?” What they fail to understand is that this personal relationship with God is not primarily a subjective experience. It is primarily an objective relationship into which you come and in which you stand whereby you are identified with Christ regardless of the shifting sands of experience and emotion. It is primarily an objective reality, not a subjective experience.

In both the Gospels and in Paul’s epistles we have a great deal of discussion of salvation consisting in our union with Christ. As regenerate Christians we are identified with Christ.


Look first at the Gospels. Let’s turn to the Gospel of John 15:1-8 where Jesus gives the parable of the vine and its branches. He says,

I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch of mine that bears no fruit, he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. You are already made clean by the word which I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If a man does not abide in me, he is cast forth as a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you will, and it shall be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be my disciples.

Here Jesus describes the relationship between himself and his disciples as the relationship between a vine and its branches.[8] There is this identification between the two and a deep union between the two. He says “abide in me and I in you.” It is the one who is abiding in Christ and Christ then abiding in him who is united with and identified with Christ and therefore is a fruitful disciple of Christ. So in the parable of the vine and the branches I think we see this close identification or union that the believer has with Christ. Not a union that obliterates our individuality but one that unites us intimately with Christ and he with us so that we become fruitful.

Another example would be over in John 17:20-23. This is the high priestly prayer of Jesus that was referred to a minute ago.

I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word, that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. The glory which thou hast given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and thou in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that thou hast sent me and hast loved them even as thou hast loved me.

Now, many times this passage is appealed to as teaching the unity of the church of Jesus Christ. Christ is praying that his followers would be so united, so unified together, that the world would see that they are indeed followers of Christ. But even more fundamentally, this is a prayer for unity of the believer with God the Father and God the Son. Verse 21 says, “that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us.” So the fundamental union here is not the union among believers horizontally so to speak, it is that vertical union of the believer with God the Father and God the Son. As the Father is in the Son and the Son is in us, we are then in God the Father and in God the Son. There is a unity between the believer and the Godhead that comes through knowing Christ.

Finally, Luke 10:16. Jesus tells his disciple, “He who hears you hears me, and he who rejects you rejects me, and he who rejects me rejects him who sent me.” Here again you see that unity between the believer with Jesus and then Jesus with the Father. So the person who rejects the preaching of the disciples is said to reject Christ. It is not just the disciples he rejects; he rejects Christ because Christ is so intimately unified with his disciples. And he who rejects Christ rejects God because Christ is intimately one with God. So in this passage as well I think you see the kind of mystical union between the believer and Christ and the Father as we are identified with him and personally related to him.

In the Gospels, there are many different examples of this sort of union. For example, Jesus says in the Gospels, “I am the light of the world.” But then he also says to the disciples, “You are the light of the world.” They are the light of the world insofar as they are united with Christ who is the light of the world.[9] So they can also be said to be the light of the world. We’ve already seen the parable of the vine and its branches.[10] The vine isn’t something that is distinct from or devoid of the branches. The branches are part of the vine. They are unified and identified with the vine. Also, the example that we just saw in Luke 10: how people treat Christians is how they treat Christ. So Jesus says that even someone who gives a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in my name gives it unto me. He gives it to Christ insofar as he ministers to Christ’s children. So there are these examples of this close, close identification in the Gospels that the believer has with Jesus Christ as we abide in Christ and he abides in us.


In the Pauline epistles, this notion of union with Christ becomes a central theme. Paul uses the expression “in Christ” or “in Christ Jesus” one hundred and sixty four times in his epistles. And it is a marvelous Bible study to look at all that we have “in Christ” according to Paul. Insofar as we are in Christ we are heirs to an incredible number of blessings and privileges. For example:

1. In Christ we are said to be chosen. Ephesians 1:4, Paul says, “even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him.” So in Christ we are chosen.

2. In Christ we are called. 1 Corinthians 7:22, Paul says, “For he who was called in the Lord as a slave is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a slave of Christ.” Calling, regardless of your circumstances, is said to be in the Lord or in Christ insofar as you are in Christ you are called.

3. We are foreordained or predestined in Christ. Ephesians 1:11-12, “In him, according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to the counsel of his will, we who first hoped in Christ have been destined [or foreordained] and appointed to live for the praise of his glory.” So we are predestined or foreordained in Christ.

4. We are created to good works in Christ. Ephesians 2:10, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”

5. In Christ we are sealed. Ephesians 1:13-14,

In him you also, who have heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and have believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, which is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.

Here he says in Christ you are sealed with the Holy Spirit for the day of inheritance.

6. In Christ we are justified. Galatians 2:17. Paul is speaking here in the context of being justified by faith in Christ rather than by works of the law and he says, “But if, in our endeavor to be justified in Christ, we ourselves were found to be sinners, is Christ then an agent of sin? Certainly not!” The phrase I wanted to focus on here is that phrase “justified in Christ.” It is in Christ that we have justification.[11]

7. Similarly, as we are in Christ, we are sanctified. 1 Corinthians 1:2, Paul says, “To the church of God which is at Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours.” Again, the key phrase in this verse is sanctified in Christ Jesus.

8. We are crucified with Christ. Romans 6:1-11,

What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.

For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the sinful body might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For he who has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him. For we know that Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

Here Paul explains that it is in Christ we are crucified with Christ. We are united with him in his death in dying to our old sin nature so that we might live in resurrection life, a sanctified life pleasing to God.

Well, we will continue with the list next time. But just to summarize, look at already what the regenerate believer has insofar as we are in Christ. In Christ we are chosen, called, foreordained, created to good works, sealed with the Holy Spirit, justified, sanctified, and co-crucified with Christ. There is more to come, and we’ll look at that next time.[12]

[1] cf. 2 Peter 3:9

[2] cf. 1Timothy 2:4

[3] 4:59

[4] 10:05

[5] 15:08

[6] 19:59

[7] 25:02

[8] 30:12

[9] cf. John 8:12; Matthew 5:14-16

[10] 35:01

[11] 40:00

[12] Total Running Time: 43:20 (Copyright © 2014 William Lane Craig)