There is no small amount of debate and disagreement in some circles over the relationship between the doctrines of union with Christ and the ordo salutis (or order of salvation). In particular, there is much debate over whether we are to view union with Christ or justification as having a logical (even if not strictly chronological) priority.
While this post certainly will not settle that debate, I thought that it might at least prove helpful to briefly examine what the Westminster Shorter Catechism has to say about the subject. It is my contention that the Shorter Catechism is abundantly clear when it comes to spelling out for us which comes first (i.e. logical priority), union with Christ or justification.
It should be kept in mind that the Westminster Standards (The Confession of Faith, the Larger Catechism, and the Shorter Catechism) are not only confessional documents, but, that being the case, they are also then consensus documents as well. In other words, if you want to know what was (and still should be) generally agreed upon in Reformed circles, especially in Presbyterian circles, then the simplest and clearest place to look is the Westminster Standards, especially the Shorter Catechism. That, of course, is not to say that one cannot hold a somewhat different view and still remain reasonably within the bounds of reformed orthodoxy, but one should at least be aware of whether or not his or her view falls in line with the mainstream or consensus view represented by the Standards.
It is my contention that Westminster Shorter Catechism questions 29-32, considered in order, provide us with a sufficiently clear picture of the relationship between union with Christ and justification.
The first question in this grouping deals with the relation of what might be called the historia salutis (the history of Christ's work of redemption or redemption accomplished) to the ordo salutis (the application of Christ's redemption to the elect). It says,
Q. 29. How are we made partakers of the redemption purchased by Christ?
A. We are made partakers of the redemption purchased by Christ, by the effectual application of it to us by his Holy Spirit.
Simple enough, right? How are we made to partake or share in the benefits of the redemption that Christ purchased for us in His cross and resurrection? They must be applied to us by the work of the Holy Spirit. But how exactly does the Holy Spirit do this? That very thing is addressed in the next question in the Shorter Catechism:
Q. 30. How doth the Spirit apply to us the redemption purchased by Christ?
A. The Spirit applies to us the redemption purchased by Christ, by working faith in us, and thereby uniting us to Christ in our effectual calling.
According to the Shorter Catechism the Holy Spirit applies the redemption purchased by Christ to us by “working faith in us” (which Calvin called the Spirit's “principal work”). And what is the first result of working faith in us that the Catechism mentions? Union with Christ. And so the first fruit or effect of our effectual calling in which the Spirit works faith in us is that we are united to Christ by that faith.
No less than Charles Hodge points out this very thing when he writes,
“The first effect of faith, according to the Scriptures, is union with Christ.” (Systematic Theology, Vol.3, p.104)
Hodge, as he is apt to do in his Systematic Theology, follows closely the order of things as found in the Shorter Catechism. (You could say that his Systematic Theology at some points, nearly reads like a commentary of sorts on the Shorter Catechism.) Here he is certainly in agreement with the position that is taught in the catechism, and sees it as being “according to the Scriptures.”
The very next thing that the Shorter Catechism does is define “effectual calling” for us:
Q. 31. What is effectual calling?
A. Effectual calling is the work of God's Spirit, whereby, convincing us of our sin and misery, enlightening our minds in the knowledge of Christ, and renewing our wills, he doth persuade and enable us to embrace Jesus Christ, freely offered to us in the gospel.
And so effectual calling unites us to Christ by the Spirit working faith in us so that we “embrace Jesus Christ, freely offered to us in the gospel.” Notice that only then does the Shorter Catechism begin to go into detail about the various benefits that are all ours in Christ by virtue of our effectual calling and union with Christ:
Q. 32. What benefits do they that are effectually called partake of in this life?
A. They that are effectually called do in this life partake of justification, adoption and sanctification, and the several benefits which in this life do either accompany or flow from them.
And so effectual calling and union with Christ logically precede the individual benefits of Christ's redemption that we partake of by virtue of our union with Him. And what benefits are these? “Justification, adoption, and sanctification” as well as various other benefits that either “accompany or flow from them.”
Not only does Hodge state that union with Christ is the first effect of faith, but he also actually goes on to explicitly point out that justification is the second. He writes,
“The proximate effect of this union, and consequently, the second effect of faith, is justification.” (p.105)
According to Hodge (following the Shorter Catechism) justification is the “proximate effect” of union with Christ. In other words, the former follows the latter, and not vice-versa. He is not minimizing the importance of justification, just giving logical priority to union. It is by virtue of our union with Christ that the Holy Spirit applies to us all of the benefits of the redemption purchased by Christ, including justification.
And so according to the Shorter Catechism, the “first effect of faith” in Christ (to use Hodge's phrase) is union with Christ. And we then share in all of the benefits of Christ work of redemption (including justification) by virtue of our union with Him.