In a recent Trinity Review, John Robbins tackles the work of Richard Gaffin, and spends quite a bit of energy fulminating about the departures of said theologian from the traditional Reformed ordo salutis. In the course of his discussion, Robbins says, “Believers do not die with Christ ‘existentially’ or ‘experimentally,’ but legally. They do not possess Christ’s perfect righteousness ‘in the inner man.’ Christ’s righteousness is imputed, not infused. His act and righteousness are legally, not experientially, theirs.”
And if we are talking about the (isolated) justification of the individual believer, this is quite right. But such things can never be absolutely isolated. And it appears clear that Robbins does not even understand the nature of the problem that Gaffin is wrestling with.
Let me try to bring it home by asking Robbins a question. What is regeneration? That is an existential and experimental reality. God takes away a heart of stone and replaces it with a heart of flesh. Now, when does regeneration occur? According to the traditional ordo, which Robbins is defending, regeneration is first, then repentance, then faith, then justification. Imputation arrives with justification. What is the righteousness that this new heart has, both experientially and practically? It is an infused righteousness. Regeneration is not imputed, right? Regeneration is a change of heart, from an unrighteous heart that hates God to a righteous (but still imperfect) heart that loves Him, repents of sin, and believes in Him.
Now, according to the traditional ordo (that Robbins is defending), this means that if faith is the instrument of justification (not the ground), and if faith arises naturally from this new heart (which is there because it was “infused”), difficulties arise.
At the end of the day, this means that Robbins is defending infused righteousness as the instrument of imputed righteousness. Gaffin, and others, are aware of the threat this model (when taken woodenly) poses to monergistic grace. By defending sola gratia in one place, it threatens it in another.
So let me say it again. The traditional ordo, if taken as the only possible model for considering these things, gives us a problematic order.
1. Regeneration (infused righteousness);
2. Repentance and faith (fruit of infused righteousness;
3. Justification (imputed righteousness);
So let’s talk about union with Christ. And Richard Gaffin has done just that, in an admirable way.