Justification and The Gospel: Understanding the Contexts and Controversies

September 16, 2014 — Leave a comment


In my summer reading, I spent a lot of time with books on Paul (well, one book in particular). That meant also spending a good amount of time reading about justification. In a couple of instances, that was the focus of the entire book. One of those was Westerholm’s Justification Reconsidered. The other was R. Michael Allen’s Justification and The Gospel: Understanding the Contexts and the Controversies.

Allen’s book is composed of three parts, each of which has two chapters. The first part is focused on groundwork and the connection between the gospel and justification. The second part is focused more on Christology and how Christ is for us in the gospel. The final part is more pneumatological and looks at the Christian life in both personal and corporate dimension.

Often, Allen will open a chapter with a clearly defined thesis statement. The first two chapter are a defense of the following thesis (3):

The gospel is the glorious news that the God who has life in himself freely shares that life with us and, when we refuse that life in sin, graciously gives us life yet again in Christ [chapter 1]. While participation in God is the goal of the gospel, justification is the ground of that sanctifying fellowship [chapter 2].

Chapter 3 unpacks the thesis that “in eternal life of the perfect God, the divine Son pleases the Father in the Spirit and, therefore, the divine Son trusts the Father by the Spirit’s power during his earthly pilgrimage, constituting himself perfect and pleasing to his heavenly Father (77).”

Chapter 4 does not have such a clearly stated thesis but is focused on defending the Reformers’ understanding of Christ’s faith and the Christian faith. Here, Allen delves into the pistou Christou debate, but from the perspective of Christian dogmatics rather than as a New Testament scholar.

In chapter 5, Allen tackles the relationship between justification and sanctification. He draws heavily from the Exodus story and uses that to inform his understanding of our standing before God and our obedience in following him. Chapter 6 continues the discussion but focused on the corporate dimension. Allen argues that “the church is a pilgrim people, founded upon and fueled by the triune God of love; therefore, our thinking about the church must be rightly based on our Christology and pneumatology, each befitting the economy of salvation and the eschatological shape of the kingdom of God.”

As compared to Westerholm, this book is much more jargony. That’s not particularly a defect. Allen’s writing is still digestible, but it is not accessible in the wider way that Westerholm’s is. That is not necessarily part of his goal, but I found the book less enticing to read. Readers who are comfortable with the prose style of academic theology (I am, but do not enjoy reading it) may not have any particular issues.

Style aside, Allen makes his central points clearly, although I would disagree considerably with one of them. Specifically, I refer to his contention that justification is the “ground” of our fellowship with God (see above quote). Both our fellowship and our justification are grounded in our union with Christ. Justification, like sanctification, is a fruit of our union. For a detailed defense of this, you should read Marcus Paul Johnson’s One With Christ. While it might be dogmatically defensible to construe justification as the ground of our fellowship with God, I don’t think it is exegetically defensible and Allen didn’t give me any reason to think otherwise. I realize that this is an on-going debate with wider Reformed theology and there are many respectable scholars and pastors who would be inclined to agree with Allen about the ground of our fellowship with God being justification. So, while I think this is wrong, it is surely not a heretical view. I just think it makes more theological sense to see union with Christ as the ground of everything, including justification.

Another minor quibble I have, and this may relate to the previous one, is the dated interaction with N. T. Wright. This is the part of the review where I offer the typical disclaimer explaining to you that I don’t agree with everything N. T. Wright says and so I’m not an apologist for each and every one of his positions on Paul. I did however read his entire Paul and The Faithfulness of God over the summer to actually wrestle with what his views are. Allen, though he is critical of Wright, only cites his 1997 work, but also lets readers know that “scholars continue to poke holes in his claims (109),” even though no scholars are footnoted. This is also the only interaction with Wright in the book. Though Allen isn’t obligated to interact with Wright, it seems fairly appropriate given the title of the book. I would have liked to see him interact more with Wright and with more recent works of his, even if he were brief and critical in doing so. At the very least, Allen could have directed readers to someone with a similar perspective who had done so.

In any event, neither of the two issues should be considered major. If you are looking for a book that is going deeper into the doctrine of justification using the resources of Christian dogmatics past and present, this book is certainly one that should be on your radar. If you are looking for extended engagement with the New Perspective, this isn’t your book, but then again, it isn’t trying to be. Instead, Allen is offering readers what he thinks is a constructive way forward for Christian theology to affirm the doctrine of justification in all its fullness and connect it tightly with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

R. Michael Allen, Justification and The Gospel: Understanding the Contexts and Controversies. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, October, 2013. 208 pp. Paperback, $21.99.

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Thanks to Baker Academic for the review copy!


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I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

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