This is a very old post that I am sure none of you have read. It was written in a time before I became “The Evangelical Calvinist,” and represents the influence I had on me coming out of seminary back in 2003. I still hold to this distinction, and believe it can be synthesized well with what we are doing with evangelical Calvinism. The period the theology in this post is resourced from is the Post-Reformation Reformed orthodox period. I am almost positive that most Reformed folks of today are unaware of the distinctions discussed in this post, and much of that lack of exposure has to do with the way the scholarship has run in Reformed theology.
Is there a proper framework for salvation, or is it “just” salvation?
Federal Calvinism believes the answer to this question is an “affirmative!” They believe[d] that God (the divine *Law-giver*) provided framework to salvation through a bilateral contract, viz.
that God initiated a “Covenant” with man (“Covenant of Works”), and now man (if He is “elect”) must keep his end of the *deal* by “obeying” the “Law” (e.g. Mosaic) through a “Spirit-enablement” provided by the incidental obedience of Christ (you know quid pro quo). If “elect man” keeps his end of the deal (and he will, since he’s elect — so goes the “story” [“Covenant of Grace”]), then based on the conditions originally set out by the “Law-giver,” he will (according to the divine “pact”) reap the “rewards” of said obedience consummating in “eternal felicity.” This is a “rough” overview of the “legal” (juridical) framing of salvation [in fact much of this is still in force, at a very popular level, through the preaching and teaching of folks like R. Scott Clark and the White Horse Inn]. So this is scenario, and framework #1.
There is another group though. This other group “grew up” concurrent with the group above (the Federal Calvinist), and they had a different answer — albeit an affirmative to my original question. Instead of saying “Your honor” (as the Federalist), they say “My lover,” let me explain. This group, lets call them the Marital Mystics, believed that the best framework for salvation is not primarily “legal,” but “marital.” They believed that the Apostle Paul’s framework, in Ephesians 5:18ff, of Marriage; was much more than a metaphor, but that this language spoke to a “real union” (an ontological reality) between Christ and His bride — so human marriage is only a “prefigurement” of the real thing between Christ and His Church. Instead of a “potential union,” as implied by the “legal guys” (i.e. if we meet our end of the deal [viz. obedience to the Law, good works], then God will ratify the deal and bring us into eventual union at the eschaton), the *Marital Mystics* believed that we have been sought after by the “lover of our souls;” and once He catches us, we are overcome with His winsome beauty and love (we become smitten with “love at first sight”). At this instance, we reciprocate His love for us (cf. Rom. 5:5) and respond with an “I do!” It is this framework that shapes our relationship to Jesus Christ (Song of Songs is a favorite book of the Bible for this group, and lets not forget the “bridal” language of John in Revelation, and other smadderings throughout the OT [Hos., etc.]), and it is this kind of relationship that crowds out the “responsibility” (cooperative) duty driven construction provided by the “Legal guys.” The “Marital guys” see a freedom for reciprocating love, a unilateral movement initiated by the bridegroom for His bride; which eventuates in whispers of sweet nothings towards the bridegroom, from His bride — there is not a sense of responsibility and duty shaping this relationship, but a continual and deepening love for the bride as He woos her with His beauty and charm. There is no fear of “not living up to the “Judge’s” expectations, in this arrangement, but a disposition of hopeful anticipation; as the bridegroom takes His bride into His Father’s house, and “covers” her with His “robes of righteousness” through penetrating and “mystical union” (unio mystica) [but real union] with Him. The focus in this arrangement is on Him — the Bridegroom — and His love and righteousness given as a “dowery” to His Bride, through the communion (communio) of the Spirit. And this is framework #2 (notice the trinitarian involvement in this model, this is meaningful vs. the “legal approach”).
I was first introduced to “framework #2” by my prof in seminary, Ron Frost. He did his PhD dissertation on a Puritan named Richard Sibbes, and Sibbes was a proponent of framework #2 (and so was John Calvin, Martin Luther, and Bernard of Clairvaux, amongst others); and his opining (Sibbes’) on this subject was intentionally contrairian to the “Legal guy’s” (typified by William Perkins, amongst others) approach — and rightly so. Here is how Frost summarizes Sibbes’ framing:
. . . It seems likely, then, that Sibbes’ doctrine of mystical marriage based on a Bernardian reading of the Song of Songs drew him away from the cooperative theology of his Perkinsonian training, back to a unilateral view of the covenant. He came to hold that the affections are crucial in the function of mystical marriage, and that mystical marriage is the ground of saving union. In his emphasis he was well aligned with the view of the early reformers who held that the marriage of Christ and the church represents a primary foundation for the theology of real union. [Ronald N. Frost, “Richard Sibbes’ Theology of Grace and the Division of English Reformed Theology” [Unpublished PhD Dissertation, King’s College University of London, 1996, 121.]
You may ask why is this important? And you may ask for a variety of reasons. I would just say, because understanding how we relate to Christ has everything to do with everything! If our conception is formed by the “legal accounting” then we are stressed with an relationship that comes off rather cold and calculated . . . not to mention an arrangement that causes us to be consumed with ourselves and our performance (“man-centered” — anthropocentric) — and approaching life in Christ this way could have dastardly consequences on our daily walk and spirituality (could lead to: angst, fear, depression, dark nights and seasons of the soul, anger, frustration, fatalism, hopelessness, etc., etc.). But beyond the “consequences,” scripture is replete with passages and concepts that present the “Marital Framework” as the most adequate framing, providing the greatest explanatory power for understanding a biblical approach to thinking about “salvation.” I’m an advocate for #2, how about you?
P. S. There are other implications (having to do with: salvation from the “inside-out” vs. “outside-in,” “assurance” [becomes an non-issue], sanctification, ethics, etc.), but we will have to wait and flesh those out later . . . or if you want in the comment meta on this post.