Why Not All at Once?
Christ, by his perfect life, atoning death and resurrection from the dead, secures the believer's calling, regeneration, justification, adoption, sanctification and glorification. Older Protestant theologians frequently referred to the order of the application of the benefits of redemption (i.e. the ordo salutis)--as set out in Romans 8:29-30-- as "the golden chain." Though it has been a matter of no small debate in recent decades, it is right for us to say that all the saving benefits of what Christ has accomplished for us by his death and resurrection become ours "distinctly, inseparably and simultaneously" when we are united to Jesus by faith. Nevertheless, there is still a logical order by which the benefits of redemption are applied to believers.
There are some benefits that precede others in the order of the application of the redemption accomplished by Christ. For instance, Reformed theologians have commonly insisted that regeneration precedes faith and faith precedes justification, adoption and sanctification. An unregenerate man or woman cannot and therefore will not believe in Christ. John Murray explained the rationale for insisting on a priority of calling to faith and of faith to justification, when he wrote,
"God justifies the ungodly who believe in Jesus, in a word, believers. And that is simply to say that faith is presupposed in justification, is the precondition of justification, not because we are justified on the ground of faith or for the reason that we are justified because of faith but only for the reason that faith is God's appointed instrument through which he dispenses this grace...Calling is prior to justification. And faith is connected with calling. It does not constitute calling. But it is the inevitable response of our heart and mind and will to the divine call. In this matter call and response coincide. For that reason we should expect that since calling is prior to justification so is faith. This inference is confirmed by the express statement that we are justified by faith."1
As hotly debated as the ordo salutis has been over the past several decades in American Reformed Churches, we are still left with other important questions about the ordo salutis. While God confers all the benefits of Christ's redeeming work on us "distinctly, inseparably and simultaneously" the moment we are united to him by faith, they do not all come to us in the full experiential measure of those blessings. For instance, our sanctification is, in this life, an ongoing and progressive work of God; whereas, our justification is a once-for-all, declarative act of God. So, why doesn't God sanctify His people fully and immediately at the moment when he regenerates them or when he fully and immediately justifies them at the beginning of their Christian experience? Why doesn't God simply redeem and take an individual straight to glory upon his or her conversion? These are important questions to which we may supply important answers.
In his Reformed Dogmatics, Geerhardus Vos offered two profound answers to the question about why God does not confer the full realization of the benefits of redemption in our experience immediately upon our regeneration. First, he wrote,
"It would be possible for God to take hold of and relocate each one of the elect into the heaven of glory at a single point in time. He has His good reasons that He did not do this. There are a multiplicity of relationships and conditions to which all the operations of grace have a certain connection. If the change came about all at once, then not a single one of these would enter into the consciousness of the believer, but everything would be thrown together in a chaotic revolution. None of the acts or steps would throw light on the others; the base could not be distinguished from the top or the top from the base. The fullness of God's works of grace and the rich variety of His acts of salvation would not be prized and appreciated."2
In short, if God were to carry His people to glory immediately after redeeming them, the various benefits of redemption would be indistinguishable to us. We would not be able to appreciate our justification (i.e. the legal standing that Christ has merited for us by his perfect life and atoning death) from our sanctification (i.e. the transformation of the Spirit of Christ in the hearts of his people). We would not be able to see the contours of God's grace in adoption from his gracious work of justification. The application of the benefits of redemption in time allow us to appreciate more of the fullness of what Christ has accomplished for us by his life, death and resurrection.
Second, Vos explained that God chiefly applies the work of redemption slowly and progressively for His own glory rather than for the subjective desire of the creature for immediate satisfaction and blessedness. He explained,
"The opposite of all this is true. There is order and regularity in the application of salvation as well as in every other area of creation. The acts and operations each have their own fixed place, from which they cannot be uprooted. They are connected to each other from what follows and from what precedes; they have their basis and their result. Consequently, the Scripture gives us an ordered sequence (e.g., Rom 8:28-30). At the same time, this order shows us that even in what is most subjective the purpose of God may not be limited to the satisfaction of the creature's longing for blessedness. If this were so, then the order that is slow and in many respects tests the patience of the children of God would be lost. But here, too, God works first of all to glorify Himself according to the principles of an eternal order and an immanent propriety."3
As we come to understand more of God's divine wisdom behind the progressive nature of our sanctification and of the foregoing of the full application of the benefits of redemption until the consummation, we grow in our love for and dependance in the God who has redeemed us by His grace. And, we cry out, "Finish, then,
1. John Murray Redemption Accomplished and Applied (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1955) pp. 168-170
2. Geerhardus Vos, Reformed Dogmatics, ed. Richard B. Gaffin, trans. Annemie Godbehere et al., vol. 4 (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012-2016), 1-2.