In his well-regarded book “Redemption – Accomplished and Applied” John Murray tells us on page 141 that the order of the application of redemption involves progression until it reaches its consummation in the liberty of the glory of the children of God (Rom. 8:21,30). While there is no reason whatever to dispute this assertion, the reader may well wonder whether that goal is reached in the way Murray suggests. What is surely in view is the progressive spiritual maturation of the child of God who eventually becomes the complete or perfect(ed) man (cf. Phil. 3:12-14; Heb. 12:23). While believing mankind as a whole begins in the ground and ends in glory (Gen. 2:7; Rev. 22), the individual commences his personal pilgrimage at conception and concludes it at coronation (James 1:12, etc.). So the question confronting us is: What is the essence of this pilgrimage or perfecting process? What are the steps that the individual takes as he ascends to heaven and gains access to the presence of God (Eph. 2:18; 3:12)?
Nowadays, we, in contrast with our forebears, virtually take for granted the idea that revelation in the Bible is progressive. Since revelation involves the history of the race we are not at all disturbed by our realization that despite Jesus’ comment in John 8:56 Abraham’s knowledge and understanding of salvation was very limited indeed. Among the NT writers Peter recognizes that the prophets delved into this salvation even if in the nature of the case their inquiries were circumscribed by the time in which they lived, that is, before the coming of Christ (1 Pet. 1:10-12, cf. Mt. 13:17).
In light of this, it comes as no surprise that the old covenant revelation was completed, fulfilled and superseded by that of the new once it was inaugurated. Indeed, covenant theology itself points to this fact (cf. Jer. 31:31-34; Ezek. 37:26-28). While in the early chapters of Genesis revelation was very limited indeed, the first covenant, that with Noah, was supplemented by the promise to Abraham. The latter was eventually followed by the Mosaic law to which was added in turn the promises made to David. Finally, the new or Christian covenant paved the way to glorification.
Covenant Theology Recapitulated in the Individual
Though church dogma under the domination of Augustine of Hippo has failed to recognize the fact, this progressive revelation to the community is miniaturized, telescoped or recapitulated in the individual. Since we are told that Jesus is the Saviour of the world or race (John 3:16; 1 John 2:2), we might reasonably expect that he would in himself be the supreme exemplar of biblical covenant theology and therefore equally the Saviour of Noah, Abraham, Moses and others whose path he trod in his own way (cf. e.g. Mt. 2:15; Heb. 11:39f.). In other words, if we accept with Gregory of Nyssa that what is assumed is healed, then as Irenaeus insisted Jesus, whose physical and spiritual development from human infancy is beyond question (Luke 2:41ff.), healed the sins of all who had (relative) faith. Thus we can hardly be shocked, on the one hand, when we read Hebrews 11 which highlights the salvation of the faithful like Abraham in OT times imperfect though it was (cf. Heb. 9:15; 11:39f.) and, on the other, when it is assumed that even children of limited understanding but genuine faith in our own time are capable of salvation too. Indeed, Paul sets the scene when he depicts Jesus as, first, born of woman according to nature, next, nurtured and tested under the law and then implicitly born of the Spirit (Gal. 4:4f.) so as to fit him to become the pioneer and perfecter of our faith (Heb. 12:2).
So, in view of all this, the order of salvation is vital to our understanding of the faith and worthy of further examination.
Purpose and Calling
Since it is law or commandment that promises life (Gen. 2:17; Lev. 18:5; Rom. 7:9f., etc.), once human beings have attained to rationality and understanding of law in some sense, they are in a position either to keep it or break it. In the event, all follow the pattern established by our first parents Adam and Eve (cf. Lev. 26:39; Ps. 106:6; Jer. 9:13f.): all break it in their turn and earn the wages of death (Rom. 5:12; 6:23, pace Art. 9 of the C. of E.). They are thus universally in need of salvation apart from the law which they lack the ability to keep. And since God’s aim from before the foundation of the earth was to serve as man’s Saviour himself (see e.g. Isa. 45:21-25; Rom. 11:32; Tit. 1:2), he initiates the process of their salvation with his call. As Murray, for example, says, the purpose is prior to the calling (p.83). In support of this he rightly alludes to Romans 8:28-30, to what is popularly known as the golden chain of salvation. Here Paul intimates that purpose precedes calling, calling justification and justification glorification. This, however, is only an outline indicating the prime markers in the process of salvation. There are others of basic importance which require our attention.
For Murray, and for the Reformed in general, not to mention Roman Catholics for whom new birth is sacramentally imposed, calling is followed by regeneration. Here he seems to be governed more by the logic of Augustinian theology than by what the Bible actually teaches. Having wrongly accepted the idea quite alien to the Bible that we all sinned “in Adam” or that we all sinned when Adam sinned, he assumes that we are all fundamentally hostile to God and born (spiritually) dead in sin. In light of this, we need to be born again to enable us to exercise faith. In sum, he is led to place regeneration prior to faith and repentance (cf. WCF, 10-15). This ignores, of course, the fact that it is God himself who has the power to inspire faith in his people and give what he commands (cf. Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead). In the event, by positing the priority of regeneration he commits a theological error of mountainous proportions. Why?
Justification Logically Redundant
First we need to understand that regeneration implies eternal life (see e.g. John 3:16,36). So those who are born again are as children of God saved for all eternity (cf. John 1:12f.). If this is indeed the case, repentance, faith, justification and sanctification are to all intents and purposes redundant. Why repent and live a holy life when you are already saved? As the adage goes, once saved always saved. In dramatic contrast with Murray, John places faith before regeneration. Like other Bible writers, he presents faith as the indispensable means of appropriating salvation. In a nutshell, he insists like Paul that life, like righteousness, is a free gift received by faith (Rom. 6:23, cf. 1 Cor. 1:29). By contrast, if we accept Murray’s contention, we begin our progress to salvation, glorification apart, at the end. We start where we need to finish. Surely, if God’s objective was our salvation and its attainment by law proved impossible (Gal. 2:16), faith was the only means by which it could be appropriated (Eph. 2:8f., cf. v.5). So to place regeneration before faith is to put the cart before the horse, which is absurd.
Murray rightly argues that faith, which he regards as the instrumental means of appropriation, must precede justification. Logic apart, the biblical witness to this is overwhelming. Paul goes to great lengths to demonstrate that since justification by the works of the law is impossible, all human beings universally must resort to faith in Christ, as God always intended (Rom. 3:19f.; 1 Cor. 1:29; Gal. 2:16; 3:11, etc.). And it is only when we believe in Christ that we receive his righteousness as a free gift (see espec. Rom. 5 and 6).
Justification and Life
But this raises the question of why righteousness is so important. The answer is not far to seek. If we go back to Genesis, we find that far from being created righteous as Augustine contended, Adam, like a baby who was ignorant of the law and knew neither good nor evil (cf. Dt. 1:39), was promised (eternal) life if he kept the commandment or law (Gen. 2:17). It was by keeping the law that he would become righteous (Dt. 6:25; Rom. 2:13; 6:16; 1 John 3:7). On the other hand, when he broke the commandment, he became unrighteous and was cast out of the presence of God (cf. Isa. 59:2). In other words, righteousness is the gateway to life. Without it we cannot enter the presence of God who is too holy to look on evil (Hab. 1:13; Heb. 12:14). It is significant therefore that when Jesus came to be our Saviour, he had to do what Adam manifestly failed to do, that is, keep the law to perfection and thus, as man and a true son of Adam, through righteousness gain eternal life (Lev. 18:5; Rom. 5:21). When he had done this, in accordance with the divine intention he appropriately received the promised Spirit at his baptism (cf. Mt. 3:17, etc.). If this is so, then Murray’s attempt to place regeneration or life before justification is a massive blunder. For while God can and does justify the ungodly who, like Abraham, exercise faith (Rom. 4:5), he does not, as Genesis 3:22-24 indicates, regenerate them. As has already been implied, to do so would be to confirm them in eternal sin. The biblical picture is dramatically different (Rev. 22:11,15).
Sanctification and Justification
There is another problem with Murray’s analysis. He strongly insists that regeneration or eternal life is the first step in sanctification (e.g. p.118, etc.). If this is the case, then sanctification precedes justification. Needless to say, this breaks a fundamental canon of Reformation theology. For the Reformers, especially Luther, contended that justification was by faith alone. So long as sanctification or being made holy had priority, justification was neither by faith alone nor of the ungodly. The point is that justification is exclusively a work of God, a declaration of our righteousness in Christ (cf. 2 Cor. 5:21). By contrast, sanctification, like faith, though the work of the Holy Spirit, involves the co-operation (synergism) of man. The truth is that just as the righteousness of Christ is the sole or exclusive foundation of our perfect righteousness, so the life (regeneration) of Christ is the sole basis of our rebirth (cf. 1 Cor. 15:45; 2 Tim. 1:10; 1 John 5:11-13). Just as Christ was righteous by keeping the law, so are we by faith; and just as Jesus received the promise of life by keeping the law in righteousness, so we receive it by faith (Rom. 6:23, etc.). We thus experience union and communion with him (cf. Rom. 6:1-5, etc.).
What the Bible is telling us is that faith is fundamental to salvation. It inevitably takes priority as the instrumental means of all the blessings that salvation implies. While in contrast with the works of the law it underlines the grace of God (Eph. 2:8), it also, along with repentance, establishes man’s responsibility. Nowhere is this made plainer than in Hebrews 11. Regrettably, the theology based on the unbiblical ruminations of Augustine has hidden this from us.
When does reconciliation take place? It needs to be remembered that reconciliation is an act of God. He has already reconciled us to himself in the death of Christ (Rom. 5:10). It is not something we do but something we receive like justification by faith (Rom. 5:11). This clearly accords with what we know of Abraham who along with Moses was justified by faith and was the friend of God (Ex. 33:11; 2 Chron. 20:7). This suggests that neither was considered a son of God by regeneration which in the OT was still a promise (Dt. 29:4; 30:6, etc.). Reconciliation is followed by life (Rom. 5:10). As we shall see below, in Paul’s thinking justification and reconciliation precede adoption.
Righteousness and Life
While the Reformers are famous for insisting that only by faith can we be justified, they regrettably clung to the view that original sin, or sin “in Adam”, so incapacitated man that he was spiritually dead and unable to exercise faith (implicitly regarded as a spiritual or good work of man). They apparently forgot that God inspires faith by his Spirit even in the ungodly like Abraham who was the prime exemplar of justification by faith. Following Augustine they saw regeneration as the antidote for original sin and thus taught that the elect are first regenerated and then justified. This view clearly does violence to the basic biblical contention that it is the righteous who will live (Hab. 2:4; Rom. 1:17; Gal. 3:11). This was made plain as early as Genesis 2:17 and underlined by Leviticus 18:5 (cf. Dt. 30:15-20; 32:46f., etc.), for example, which reappears frequently even in the NT (e.g. Luke 10:28; Rom. 10:5).
The Weakness of the Flesh
Irrespective of original sin and worldly pressures in general, the Bible emphasizes the fact that since all human beings are flesh, they cannot keep the law (Gen. 3:6; 1 K. 8:46; Ps. 143:2; Rom. 7:14, etc.). (Murray, who is a powerful advocate of the imputation of Adam’s sin, asserts that in the Bible sin has its origin in the spirit of man not in his fleshly nature, p.180. If this is so, how is it that Adam, who according to Augustinian theology was created righteous and holy, sinned at all?) This means that achieving the righteousness needed to please God is quite beyond their capacity. But this is in accordance with the purpose of God, since he never intended that flesh should boast before him (1 Cor. 1:29; Gal. 2:16; Eph. 2:9) or put him in its debt (11:35, cf. Rom. 4:2). However, Jesus, the Son of God, kept the law and remained sinless throughout his earthly career thus achieving the righteousness that God requires of man to inherit life. As the second Adam he met the divine condition that the first Adam lamentably failed to meet and, as our covenant representative, provided all who trust in him with the means of life (John 3:16). This is clearly the order of the application of redemption that Paul outlines in Romans where he indicates that faith leads to obedience (1:5; 6:17), obedience to righteousness (5:1; 6:16), righteousness to life (5:17,21) and sanctification (6:4,19), which lead in turn to glorification (Rom. 5:2; 6:22f.; 8:17,30).
In Romans 8, the apostle lays emphasis on the idea of adoption (cf. Gal. 4:6). Here he appears to be in contrast with John who relates family membership more closely to the new birth (John 1:12f.; 3:1-7; 1 John 3:2, though note John in Rev. 21:7 and Paul in Tit. 3:5). While it is true that John tends to refer to the regenerate as children and Paul to the adopted as sons, it may reasonably be inferred that the two concepts constitute little more than a variation on a theme not least since both Romans 8:17 and Titus 3:7 allude to the believer’s inheritance. Burke, though aware that adoption, like justification, is juridical and regeneration relational or familial, suggests that Paul probably avoids the latter concept because it was widely used by the mystery religions (p.26). So, on this assumption we may conclude that the two are complementary or correlative concepts pointing to our membership of the family of God.
It may legitimately be asked, however, where adoption (cf. regeneration) fits into the application of redemption. Murray, while insisting on the close association of regeneration with adoption, denies that they can be equated contending that the former is prerequisite, the latter consequent (p.134). This prompts the question of whether his position can be upheld? It is clearly problematic. Why? First, Murray maintains (p.133) that since God never has in his family those who are alien to its atmosphere and spirit, he renews them in knowledge, righteousness and holiness by regeneration. But then he proceeds to define adoption as an act of transfer from an alien family into the family of God himself (p.134). But if by regeneration the Christian is already in the family of God and regeneration precedes adoption, transfer by adoption can hardly be from an alien family! In light of this, it is surely safer to take the position suggested above and see regeneration and adoption as being complementary or analogous if not strictly speaking identical. As affirmed above, faith leads to righteousness and righteousness to life, that is, regeneration or adoption. (It is profitable to add here that our adoption, Rom. 8:15; Gal. 4:5f., corresponds with the acknowledgement by God of Jesus as his Son at his baptism, Mt. 3:13-17. See my essay “Following Jesus”.)
Perseverance and Glorification
Since regeneration or life is promised to the righteous by faith (Hab. 2:4; Rom. 1:17; Gal. 3:11), it is clear that sanctification follows on regeneration and/or adoption and involves perseverance. While the latter is disputed especially by Arminians on apparently practical grounds, it is theologically part and parcel of salvation by grace. Problems do clearly arise in experience, but it is vital to recognize that the human viewpoint of faith is essentially different from the divine viewpoint which involves predestination and sees the end from the beginning. In other words, what to us sometimes seems to depend entirely on our (weak) faith is ultimately grounded in the sovereign purpose and faithfulness of God. Human responsibility and divine sovereignty may be a paradox but they are not a contradiction. Despite all the vicissitudes of life, grace will in the end bring genuine believers safely home. At the end of the day, the perseverance of man depends on the preservation of God. This is part of the essence of the good news, and the notion that those who have undergone justification and regeneration will finally apostatize is theologically untenable. Sheer logic militates against it, for how can one have eternal life then lose it? If it is lost, it was by definition never eternal (cf. 1 John 2:19).
It has been rightly noted that in the Bible beginnings have endings (cf. 2 Cor. 8:6,10f.), and we can be sure that the God who has begun a good work in us will bring it to completion on the day of Jesus Christ (Phil. 1:6, cf. John 6:37-40, etc.). The prophetic perfect of Romans 8:30, as Murray implies, cannot fail to end in the glorification of man in Christ. Regrettably, however, obsessed as he is with sin, Murray (p.178f.) in true Augustinian fashion posits the redemption of the transient material creation from which Adam was originally promised escape by obedience. Far from sharing our glory, like the flesh which emanates from it (2 Cor. 5:1), creation is destroyed and replaced with heaven itself (Heb. 9:24; 12:27; 2 Pet. 2:7,10-12; Rev. 20:11; 21:1, etc.). If flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, neither can the temporal and corruptible earth (1 Cor. 15:50).
Trevor J.Burke, Adopted into God’s Family, Nottingham and Downers Grove, 2006.
John Murray, Redemption-Accomplished and Applied, Grand Rapids, 1955.