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Though readers of Tabletalk are not likely to glean their theology from bumper stickers, undoubtedly many of you have noticed the one that reads, “I am not perfect, just forgiven!” While this bumper sticker purports to capture the truth about our state as sinners who are saved through God’s gracious forgiveness in Christ, it falls short of the mark.

Undoubtedly, Christians are not perfect. However, this does not tell the whole story of what God’s saving grace in Christ grants them in this life. It accents one of the principal blessings of Christ’s saving work—forgiveness. But it leaves unmentioned several inseparable blessings that are also imparted to believers who are united to Christ by faith. When Christ by His Spirit and Word imparts the manifold blessings of His saving work as Mediator, these blessings include not only forgiveness but also deliverance from the dominion of sin and renewal by the sanctifying power of His Spirit.

To use the language of Human Nature in Its Fourfold State by the great Scottish Puritan Thomas Boston, when God saves lost sinners through the work of Christ and the ministry of the Spirit, He does not leave them powerless in the face of the tyranny of the devil, their own sinful flesh, and the world under the dominion of sin. He brings them out of their lost estate in Adam and into their new state of grace in Christ. Whereas all fallen sinners are unable not to sin (non posse non peccare), redeemed sinners are able not to sin (posse non peccare). Believers are graciously enabled by the Spirit of Christ to begin to conform to God’s will in true knowledge, righteousness, and holiness. This beginning may be “small,” but it is a beginning of “perfect obedience,” as the Heidelberg Catechism so nicely puts it. Believers in union with Christ are “sealed with the promised Holy Spirit,” who guarantees their inheritance until they take full possession of it (Eph. 1:13–14). They experience the beginnings of eternal life in fellowship with God, and these beginnings are a kind of firstfruits of the fullness of life they will enjoy in the new heavens and earth.

Through the ministry of the Spirit and Word of Christ, believers are brought into fellowship with Christ and begin to enjoy the spiritual blessings that are theirs in Him.
Union with Christ and the Order of Salvation

To appreciate the richness of the spiritual blessings granted to believers in the state of grace, we need to remember that Christ imparts these benefits through the ministry of the Holy Spirit and the Word of God. John Calvin uses a lovely phrase to capture the relation between what Christ has accomplished for His people and how the Spirit works to unite them to Christ so that they participate in all the benefits of His saving work. The Holy Spirit, Calvin says, is the “minister of Christ’s liberality.” Through the Spirit, Christ freely and lavishly grants to His people the blessings He has obtained for them. So intimate is the relation between the Spirit and Christ that the Apostle Paul can say that “the Lord is the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:17) or that He has “become a life-giving Spirit” (1 Cor. 15:45). As Calvin puts it, the Spirit is the “bond of communion” between Christ and His elect bride. He communicates to believers the riches of their inheritance in Christ.

In recent discussions of salvation through union with Christ, much has been said on the question of how this union is related to the spiritual blessings that are enumerated in the so-called order of salvation (ordo salutis) in the state of grace. These discussions have sometimes generated more heat than light. Nonetheless, it is generally agreed that the order of salvation provides a biblical account of all the spiritual blessings granted to believers who are united to Christ. Through the ministry of the Spirit and Word of God, believers are brought into fellowship with Christ and begin to enjoy the spiritual blessings that are theirs in Him. The order of salvation seeks to provide a biblical account of these blessings as distinct, yet inseparable, aspects of the one great work of the Spirit in the salvation of sinners.

Perhaps the clearest biblical witness to the rudiments of the order of salvation is Romans 8:29–30. In this passage, we find what is often called the golden chain of salvation:

For those whom [God] foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.

This passage is important not because it provides a complete order of salvation but because it provides a clear account of the way God’s gracious purpose of election is linked to the effectual call of the gospel, which draws lost sinners to Christ in the way of faith and repentance, grants the blessing of justification, and ensures the believer’s glorification. When taken with other Scriptural testimony to the work of God’s grace in the salvation of the elect, this passage is a touchstone for a more complete formulation of the order of salvation.

It may be helpful to distinguish between three groups of benefits that are granted through the Spirit’s ministry in drawing believers into saving communion with Christ. The first group of benefits describes the way in which the Spirit ordinarily draws the elect into union with Christ through effectual calling, regeneration, and conversion (faith and repentance). The second group of benefits describes the new status that believers receive in union with Christ, namely, justification and adoption. And the third group of benefits describes the new condition that is granted to believers in union with Christ, namely, their sanctification and renewal after the image of Christ culminating finally in glorification. Accordingly, the order of salvation, which is effected through Spirit-wrought union with Christ, is typically represented to include the following aspects: effectual calling, regeneration, conversion (faith and repentance), justification, adoption, sanctification, perseverance, and glorification. Some of these blessings are distinct and definitive acts of God (effectual calling, regeneration). Others are acts that God works in believers but that are also their own acts (faith and repentance, sanctification, and perseverance). Some focus on judicial acts of God that pertain to the believer’s status before Him (justification and adoption). Others are transformative or renovative blessings that progressively renew believers in holiness and conformity to the image of Christ (sanctification and perseverance). All of them belong to the state of grace into which lost sinners are drawn according to God’s saving purpose.

Effectual Calling, Regeneration, and Conversion

The Holy Spirit’s application of Christ’s saving work begins with effectual calling and regeneration. Through the gospel Word, the Spirit draws those whom God elects into fellowship with Christ. The Spirit accompanies the proclamation of the gospel, convincing us of our sin and misery, illumining our minds in a knowledge of Christ, and renewing our wills (Westminster Shorter Catechism 31). When the gospel call is accompanied by the life-giving Spirit of Christ, the elect are persuaded, enabled, and drawn to respond to the Word in faith and repentance. For this reason, the Apostle Paul speaks of the effectual call of the gospel as a “demonstration of the Spirit and of power” so that our faith “might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God” (1 Cor. 2:4). Without the Spirit’s work in regeneration or the new birth, the Word alone is unable to produce faith and repentance on the part of those who are called to believe in Christ and turn from their sins. Unless the Spirit regenerates or grants new birth to those who are called through the gospel, lost sinners remain dead in their trespasses and sins, unable and unwilling to do what the gospel call demands. As Jesus declares in His discourse on the new birth, no one “sees” or “enters” the kingdom of God without the work of the Spirit (John 3:3–5). The new birth is entirely the Spirit’s work. We no more give ourselves new birth in the spiritual realm than we gave ourselves birth in the natural realm. “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (3:6). Apart from the work of the Spirit in regeneration, the state of fallen sinners is captured well in the saying, “There is none so blind as he who will not see, none so deaf as he who will not hear.” However, by virtue of the work of the Spirit in regeneration, the blind are able to see the glory of Christ and the deaf are able to hear the Word spoken in the power of the Spirit (1 Cor. 2:13; 2 Cor. 4:6).

Since the Spirit ordinarily works with the Word, effectual calling and regeneration should not be separated.

Viewed in its most precise sense, regeneration by the Spirit can be distinguished from effectual calling. In this sense, regeneration refers to an ineffable act of the Spirit whereby spiritually dead sinners are granted the ability to hear the Word, to know and understand what it proclaims, and to become willing to embrace what is promises. However, since the Spirit ordinarily works with the Word, effectual calling and regeneration, though distinct, should not be separated. The Spirit ordinarily grants the new birth through the means of the gospel Word, which is called the “seed of regeneration” in 1 Peter 1:23. Through the Spirit’s use of the Word of Truth, lost sinners are brought forth by God as a kind of “firstfruits of his creatures” (James 1:18). When regeneration is linked with the Spirit’s work through the ministry of the Word, it is virtually synonymous with effectual calling. In its broadest meaning, regeneration can even be understood to include conversion and all the fruits of the Spirit’s ministry in the state of grace. These fruits include faith and repentance, renewal in the image of Christ, sanctification, and glorification.

When lost sinners are effectually called and converted through the ministry of the Spirit and Word, they respond to the gospel call in the way of faith and repentance. Faith and repentance are distinct, yet inseparable, evangelical graces that the Spirit grants to us lost sinners through the ministry of the gospel (Acts 11:18; 13:48). True and saving faith consists in the knowledge, conviction, and trust that the testimony of God’s Word is true, especially the promise that Christ is able to save “to the uttermost” all those who come to Him in faith (Heb. 7:25). Repentance is simultaneously a heartful sorrow for sin and a heartful joy in God through Christ. When believers repent, they turn from sin to God, mortifying their sinful flesh and experiencing life in their new selves in Christ. Rather than continuing in the way of sin and disobedience, they begin to do good works from true faith, unto God’s glory, and in accordance with the standard of His holy law. Like faith, repentance is not simply an act that occurs at the commencement of the Christian’s life in the state of grace. The whole of the Christian life, from its commencement to its conclusion, is a continual or daily turning from sin unto Christ. Throughout the course of the Christian’s pilgrimage, faith needs to be nurtured and cultivated through the ordinary means of grace (the Word, the sacraments, and prayer). Likewise, the life of the Christian requires a daily turning from sin and to God in new obedience.

Justification and Adoption: A New Status

When believers are drawn into union with Christ through faith, they enjoy two gracious benefits that reflect their new status before God. In the state of nature, fallen sinners are liable to God’s righteous sentence of condemnation and death. In the state of grace, believers are no longer under the condemnation of the law or obliged to find favor with God by doing what the law requires. Rather, they enjoy the grace of free justification. Justification is God’s gracious verdict in which He declares that those who are in Christ through faith are right with Him and entitled to eternal life. God declares believers to be righteous in Christ, granting and imputing to them His obedience, righteousness, and satisfaction of divine justice. When believers receive Christ’s righteousness through faith alone, they enjoy the grace of free acceptance with God. Furthermore, by virtue of God’s gracious act of adoption in Christ, they also enjoy all the rights and privileges that belong to those who are His children. They receive the “Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ ” (Rom. 8:15; Gal. 4:5–6). The graces of free justification and adoption enable believers to live in the joy, peace, and confidence that they are accepted into God’s favor and have all the rights of adopted children.

The state of grace comes with the guarantee of immutable and unbreakable life in communion with God.
Sanctification and Perseverance: A New Condition

Through the Spirit and Word, believers also enjoy the blessings of sanctification and perseverance in union with Christ. The goal of the believer’s redemption is perfect conformity to Christ (Rom. 8:29). Though this goal is not reached in this life, Christ’s Spirit begins to renew believers in the way of obedience. The Apostle Paul offers a striking description of this work of the Spirit in Romans 8:9–11: “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you” (compare Gal. 5:16–26). The blessing of sanctification brings those in the state of grace out of their former bondage to sin and enables them to live in accord with the “righteous requirement of the law” (Rom. 8:4; see 6:15–23). Though the state of grace is never one of sinless perfection in this life, it does mark the inauguration of new-creation life that culminates in the state of glorification. In this respect, the state of grace surpasses the state of innocence that the human race enjoyed in Adam before the fall. Whereas the state of innocence was mutable and liable to be lost through disobedience, the state of grace comes with the guarantee of immutable and unbreakable life in communion with God. In the state of grace, believers are indwelt by the Spirit, who is a guarantee and pledge of their full inheritance in Christ (John 14:16–17; 2 Cor. 5:5).

Two consequences flow from what the Scriptures teach about the present state of believers in union with Christ through the work of the Spirit. In the first place, believers are prompted to echo the words of the Apostle Paul in Philippians 3:12–14:

Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it [knowing Christ and the power of His resurrection] my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. . . . I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

And in the second place, they make all possible use of the means of grace—the church’s ministry of the Word, sacraments, and prayer—in order to grow in grace and to receive what Christ graciously grants to them through His Spirit.

The State of Nature

The State of Glory

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From the July 2020 Issue
Jul 2020 Issue