Vos on Union and Justification

Following the theme of the last post, I thought I would post another quotation from Vos on the relationship between Union with Christ and Justification.  Same book Shorter Writings, same article Doctrine Of  The Covenant In Reformed Theology, but different page – 256. This, I think, is a much overlooked section in Vos’s writing. I’ll let him speak for himself:

“The Christian knows that he is a party in God’s covenant and as such he has all things and spans at any one moment the whole orbit of grace, both in time and for eternity. By faith he is a member of the covenant, and that faith has a wide outlook, a comprehensive character, which not only points to justification but also to all the benefits which are his in Christ. Whereas the Lutheran tends to view faith one-sidedly – only in its connection with justification – for the Reformed Christian it is saving faith in all the magnitude of the word. According to the Lutheran, the Holy Spirit first generates faith in the sinner who temporarily still remains outside of union with Christ; then justification follows faith and only the, in turn doe the mystical union with the Mediator take place. Everything depends on this justification, which s losable, so that the believer only gets to see a little of the glory of grace and lives for the day, so to speak. The covenant outlook is the reverse. One is first united to Christ, the Mediator of the covenant, by a mystical union, which finds its conscious recognition in faith. By this union with Christ all that is in Christ is simultaneously given. Faith embraces all this too; it not only grasps the instantaneous justification, but lyad hold of Christ as Prophet, Priest and King, as his rich and full Messiah.  … Therefore faith may not be confined within the limited circle of one piece of the truth and its gaze fixed on that all the time; it must have in view, freely and broadly, the whole plan of salvation.”

Vos notes the pastoral implications of this position are that “The Lutheran lives as a child who enjoys his father’s smile for the moment; the Reformed believer lives as a man, in whose consciousness the eternal glory of God throws its radiance” (Vos, Shorter Writings, 256).

8 Responses

  1. Joseph Randall

    Hey Matt,

    I found this citation from Vos to balance out what you posted. What do you think?

    It’s in “The Alleged Legalism in Paul’s Doctrine of Justification”
    The Princeton Theological Review 1:161-179. [1903]

    “Naturally the problem becomes most accentuated where it touches the center of Paul’s teaching. This, we may still insist, is the doctrine of justification. Recent attempts to dislodge it from this position, and to make the mystical aspect of the believer’s relation to Christ, as mediated by the Spirit, entirely coordinated with it — so that each of the two covers the entire range of religious experience, and becomes in reality a duplicate of the other in a different sphere — we cannot recognize as correct from the apostle’s own point of view . . . In our opinion Paul consciously and consistently subordinated the mystical aspect of the relation to Christ to the forensic one. Paul’s mind was to such an extent forensically oriented that he regarded the entire complex of subjective spiritual changes that take place in the believer and of subjective spiritual blessings enjoyed by the believer as the direct outcome of the forensic work of Christ applied in justification. The mystical is based on the forensic, not the forensic on the mystical.”


  2. Jeff Waddington


    Vos in your citation is responding to the likes of Albert Schweitzer who argued that justification was a subsidiary crater to participatory union. Notice that for Schweitzer, union is merely participatory (i.e., only involving sanctification) and does not involve justification.

    So you have two different contexts. One addresses traditional Lutheranism and the other addresses Schweitzer. The one reduces salvation to justification, the other eliminates justification.

    One must also take into consideration historical development. Which article was written first?

  3. Matthew Holst


    What you posted does not “balance out” anything in the earlier post. Either Vos contradicts himself or he has two different goals in mind. I prefer the latter explanation.

    Jeff is right, context is everything. And even if you did not pay attention to context there is enough within the paragraph from “The Alleged Legalism in Paul’s Doctrine of Justification” to show that he is discussing a different issue than in “Doctrine of the Covenant and Reformed Theology”.

    In the latter, Paul is speaking clearly and openly on the difference between the Reformed and Lutheran camps on the relationship to Union with Justification. Union precedes justification, union is the picture of which justification is part. In the earlier article on alleged legalism, Vos is dealing with a situation where “mystical” union had become conflated or is coordinated with justification. The clue to the difference is found in the phrase “the entire complex of subjective spiritual blessings”. Union with Christ is predominantly NOT subjective. Its constituent parts are predominantly objective. As Jeff pointed out the focus of Schweitzer was sanctification, which for him was primarily subjective (though I would dispute that).

    So there is no “balancing out” of one article to the other. The “Doctrine of the Covenant…” touches, it seems, directly on some of today’s issues. The “Alleged Legalism…” deals with quite a different issue. To treat them the same is to engage in the method that Vos argues against in his Alleged Legalism…” article.

    So no contradiction and no balancing out. Just different subjects.
    It seems that no-one can claim that Vos held to a subordination of justification to union, if one is to read AND represent him faithfully.

  4. Joseph Randall

    Hey Brothers,

    Just for the record, “The Doctrine of the Covenant in Reformed Theology” was published in 1891. The article I cited from, “The Alleged Legalism in Paul’s Doctrine of Justification” came much later – 12 years later – in 1903.


  5. Matthew Holst


    Good research on the dates – I wasn’t particularly convinced by the “early dating” theory”, there was little evidence for it.

    However, I think all the above comments, especially Jeff’s and mine, demonstrate that there is no need to attempt to reconcile Vos’s thinking along “developmental” lines. He is simply speaking about two different issues: the subjective aspects of soteriology in the Legalism artilce, and the relationship between justification and union in the Lutheran and Reformed camps, of which he wrote in the “Doctrine of the Covenant” article.

    I think it is evident that he is dealing with two different issues and the clearer article “Doctrine of the Covenant…” is explicit in its aim and in its conclusion. Vos clearly subordinated justification to Union.

    Thanks for the work.


  6. Joseph, thanks as well for those dates. But let me submit that it’s still important to note The Pauline Eschatology was published in 1930. People who see an early/late Vos will look to TPE as a more mature representation of Vos’ thought. The early/late Vos idea is appealed to typically when people try to eschew some of Vos’ eschatology of soteriology in The Pauline Eschatology using “Alleged Legalism…”.

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