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Behold, the Lamb of God: Theology Proper and the Inseparability of Penal-Substitutionary Atonement from Forensic Justification and Imputation

Matthew Barrett, executive editor of Credo Magazine, has edited a new book with Crossway titled, The Doctrine on Which the Church Stands or Falls: Justification in Biblical, Theological, Historical, and Pastoral Perspective. Many factors contributed to the Protestant Reformation, but one of the most significant was the debate over the doctrine of justification by faith alone. In fact, Martin Luther argued that justification is the doctrine on which the church stands or falls. This comprehensive volume of 26 essays from a host of scholars explores the doctrine of justification from the lenses of history, the Bible, theology, and pastoral practice—revealing the enduring significance of this pillar of Protestant theology.

Today we are highlighting Stephen Wellum’s chapter “Behold, the Lamb of God.” Here is an excerpt to get you started:

In church history people have disagreed as to what justification is, and the purpose of this chapter is not to restate all the data for the Reformation’s view of justification as the biblical view.[1] Numerous books have argued this case, along with other chapters in this book.[2] Instead, I assume that the Reformation’s view of justification is the biblical view, and in this section I summarize the overall view only to set the stage for my argument that the Reformation’s view of justification and penal substitution are inseparably related.

What Is Justification in Scripture and Reformation Theology?

Justification is a word/concept from the law court denoting, primarily, that action whereby a judge upholds the case of one party in dispute before him. Having heard the case, the judge reaches a verdict in favor of the person and thereby “justifies” him; this action has the force of “acquittal.” The judge’s declaration entails that the person is not penally liable and thus is “entitled to all the privileges due to those who have kept the law. Justification settles the legal status of the person justified and thus it is a forensic term (Deut. 25:1; Prov. 17:15; Rom. 8:33–34).”[3] As a forensic concept, a person who is justified is “just,” “righteous”—not as a description of his or her moral character but as a statement of his or her status or position before the court. Thus, “to justify” does not mean to make righteous—that is, to change a person’s character[4] —but rather to constitute righteous by declaration.[5] In the case of God as the Judge of the world, when he justifies us, he declares us to be just and righteous before him and not first to be in the covenant community.[6]

In the New Testament, especially in Paul’s letters, it is always God as our Creator, Lord, and Judge who “justifies,” and it is always humans who are justified.[7] For Paul, justification is always forensic and before God (Rom. 2:13; 3:20). It is by grace through faith in Christ (Rom. 3:28, 30; 5:1; Gal. 2:16; 3:8, 24), and it is not by “works” (Rom. 4:2; Eph. 2:8–10) or by the “works of the law”—that is, by obedience to the law’s demands (Rom. 3:20, 28; Gal. 2:16).[8] Evidence for its forensic meaning is found in Romans 8:1, 33–34, where “to justify” is contrasted with “to condemn” (κατακρίνω), and in the synonyms of “justification”—“to vindicate” and “to acquit”—which convey the meaning “to declare righteous.” In fact, “to condemn” is not to make someone sinful or to infuse sin or rebellion into someone; rather, it is to find someone guilty. When God justifies us, he, as the Judge, declares us “not guilty.”[9] The forensic meaning of δικαιόω is emphasized in Romans 4:5: “And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies [δικαιοῦντα] the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness” (ESV). The word translated “counted” or “credited” (λογίζεται) is a legal term thus underscoring the fact that God “justifies” the wicked not by “making” us righteous by transformation but by “declaring” us righteous because of our faith in Christ’s finished work.[10] As Anthony Hoekema summarizes, “By dikaioō Paul means the legal imputation of the righteousness of Christ to the believing sinner.”[11]

In the New Testament, however, in contrast to the Old Testament perspective, our justification does not take place only on the “last day,” when we stand before God on “the day of the Lord” (Isa. 2:10–22; 13:6–11; Jer. 46:10; Amos 5:19–20; Obad. 15; Zeph. 1:14–2:3). Instead, justification is God’s end-time verdict that by faith in Christ, we now are justified and stand righteous before God (Rom. 4:2; 5:1; 8:1); God’s final judgment verdict has been brought into the present even though we still remain sinners and await our full transformation and glorification.[12] This entails that the “justifying sentence, once passed, is irrevocable. God’s wrath will not touch the justified (Rom 5:9). Those accepted now are secure forever.”[13]

How is this possible? How can God, who is holy and just, declare sinners now justified? (Rom. 4:5; 8:1). God is able to do so by grace, not because he has overlooked our sin, nor because we are righteous in ourselves, but because God’s declaration views us in relation to the person and work of our covenant Mediator, who stands in our place, bears our sin, and satisfies all God’s righteous demands against us. In Christ, we receive the gift of righteousness, which is now ours by faith in him. In union with his people, Christ, our new covenant head, obeys in our place, dies our death, and satisfies divine justice, evidenced by his resurrection from the dead. As a result, by faith alone and in Christ alone, his righteousness is ours, now and forever (2 Cor. 5:21; Gal. 3:13). In him, we stand complete: justified before God by the forgiveness of our sins and clothed in Christ’s righteousness.

Read Dr. Wellum’s entire chapter in The Doctrine on Which the Church Stands or Falls.


[1] On the history of the doctrine of justification, see Alister E. McGrath, Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998); cf. James K. Beilby and Paul Rhodes Eddy, eds., Justification: Five Views, Spectrum Multiview Books (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2011).

[2] For example, see John Owen, A Dissertation on Divine Justice, in The Works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold, vol. 10, The Death of Christ (London: Banner of Truth, 1967), 481–624; Thomas Schreiner, Faith Alone: The Doctrine of Justification; What the Reformers Taught . . . and Why It Still Matters, Five Solas Series (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2015); Brian Vickers, Justification by Grace through Faith: Finding Freedom from Legalism, Lawlessness, Pride, and Despair, Explorations in Biblical Theology (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2013); James R. White, The God Who Justifies: The Doctrine of Justification (Minneapolis: Bethany, 2001); Bruce Demarest, The Cross and Salvation: The Doctrine of Salvation, Foundations of Evangelical Theology (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1997), 345–82; Anthony A. Hoekema, Saved by Grace (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989), 152–91; John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1955), 117–31.

[3] J. I. Packer and R. M. Allen, “Justification,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Daniel J. Treier and Walter A. Elwell, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2017), 455.

[4] See Packer and Allen, “Justification,” 456. For the forensic use of “made righteous” (καθίστημι) in Rom. 5:19, see Vickers, Justification by Grace through Faith, 47–49.

[5] “Justification” and “righteousness” language is rooted in the δικ- root, especially the verb δικαιόω and the noun δικαιοσύνη. In the Septuagint, δικαιόω normally translates two Hebrew words of the זדק word group. In the qal form of the verb, it means “ to be just” or “to be righteous” (Gen. 38:26; Job 9:15; Ezek. 16:52), and in the hiphil form of the verb, it means “to declare righteous” (Ex. 23:7; Deut. 25:1). In the Old Testament, the verb is used in a judicial, forensic sense. Sometimes the judge who pronounces righteous or acquits is human (Deut. 25:1; Isa. 5:23), and at other times he is God (Ex. 23:7; 1 Kings 8:32; 2 Chron. 6:23; Ps. 82:3; Isa. 50:8). As Douglas Moo notes, “Even when the term is not used with explicit reference to the law court, the forensic connotations remain (cf. Gen. 38:26; 44:16; Jer. 3:11; Ezek. 16:51–52).” The Epistle to the Romans, NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), 80. Also see Schreiner, Faith Alone, 144–78; David G. Peterson, Commentary on Romans, BTCP (Nashville: B&H, 2017), 61–66.

[6] To say that justification is God’s declaration that in Christ we stand righteous before God is contrary to the “New Perspective(s) on Paul.” For example, N. T. Wright argues that justification is God’s declaration (hence, forensic and not transformative) that we belong to God’s covenant community, not first that we stand right before God. Wright states it this way: “Justification is not how someone becomes a Christian. It is the declaration that they have become a Christian.” What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997), 129; cf. Wright, Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009). To be a member of the covenant is a result of justification, but justification is our right standing before God. It is not enough to say that “God’s righteousness,” by which we are declared righteous before him, fulfills his covenant promises and thus is God’s “covenant faithfulness.” “Justification/righteousness” is not first God fulfilling or keeping his covenant promises but rather God’s vindication of himself and his people (see Rom. 3:21–26). Justification is God’s declaration that his people are righteous before him; this is no legal fiction, because of our union with Christ, which results in Christ’s righteousness being imputed to us. For a critique of Wright’s view, see Cornelis P. Venema, “What Did Saint Paul Really Say? N. T. Wright and the New Perspective(s) on Paul,” in By Faith Alone: Answering the Challenges to the Doctrine of Justification, ed. Gary L. W. Johnson and Guy P. Waters (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2006), 33–59.

[7] The one exception is 1 Tim. 3:16, where Christ is “justified” in his resurrection, which is better translated “vindicated.”

[8] Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations in this chapter are from the NIV. On the meaning of “works of the law” in contrast to the New Perspective, which interprets this phrase to refer to boundary markers that divide Jews and Gentiles, see Schreiner, Faith Alone, 249–52. For a critique of the New Perspective, see Robert J. Cara, Cracking the Foundation of the New Perspective on Paul: Covenantal Nomism versus Reformed Covenantal Theology, REDS (Fearn, Ross-shire, Scotland: Mentor, 2017); Guy P. Waters, Justification and the New Perspectives on Paul: A Review and Response (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2004); Stephen Westerholm, Perspectives Old and New on Paul: The “Lutheran” Paul and His Critics (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 297–340.

[9] See Schreiner, Faith Alone, 158–69.

[10] This does not entail that we are not transformed “in Christ” by the Spirit’s regenerative and sanctifying work. As 1 Cor. 1:30 teaches, in Christ, no one is justified who is also not made alive by the Spirit and sanctified. In the application of Christ’s work to us, justification and sanctification are inseparably related but distinct blessings. On this point, see Hoekema, Saved by Grace, 152–233; Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied, 117–73.

[11] Hoekema, Saved by Grace, 154.

[12] See George E. Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament, ed. Donald A. Hagner, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993), 482–84. Cf. J. V. Fesko, Justification: Understanding the Classic Reformed Doctrine (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2008), 93–106.

[13] Packer and Allen, “Justification,” 456.

Stephen J. Wellum

Stephen J. Wellum is Professor of Christian Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of Kingdom of Covenant: A Biblical-Theological Understanding of the CovenantsGod the Son IncarnateChrist Alone, and Christ from Beginning to End.

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