Book Notice: Michael Allen on Justification and the Gospel

R. Michael Allen

Justification and the Gospel: Understanding the Contexts and Controversies
Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2013.
Available at

In this book, R. Michael Allen (Knox Theological Seminary) engages a number of controversial theological issues about justification with a view to showing how the Reformed tradition has more than enough depth and diversity to deal with them effectively.

Allen opens by noting Dawn DeVries’ observations about shifts in justification in recent years with (1) Hans Kueng’s attempt to show the parity of Karl Barth and Roman Catholicism on justification; (2) The New Perspective on Paul and its revision of the historical context and concern of Paul’s justification theology; and (3) The “Finnish Interpretation of Luther” which emphasizes Luther’s high view of the sacraments and participation in Christ; and (4) The joint declaration on justification by the Lutheran and Roman Catholic churches. In light of these debates/challenges, Allen sets off ambitiously to articulate the Reformed view of justification with a view to challenging existing paradigms by placing it in its proper dogmatic location, showing how justification relates to other loci like participation, christology, and sanctification, etc. Allen’s book then has several themes: the place of justification in Christian theology; justification and participation as the ground and goal of the gospel; examination of debates about the work of Christ features the Christ’s faith and imputation; and how justification relates to other vistas like freedom, obedience, and ecclesiology. In sum, Allen’s “thesis” is that “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. While participation in God is the goal of the gospel, justification is the ground of that sanctifying fellowship.” Allen, accordingly, believes that justification is a key doctrine for expressing certain facets of the gospel.

This book has a number of perceptible strengths, not the least is its robust exposition of the Reformed tradition on justification, while engaging in wider thinkers from Augustine to Aquinas to Barth. I do, however, have a number of criticisms or queries of Allen’s proposal:

First, I would contest his placement of doctrine in the domain of dogmatic theology. Allen notes three options for the place of justification in theology: (1) Justification is the central doctrine and the article by which the church stands or falls; (2) Justification is just one doctrine among many and holds no privileged place in the doctrinal corpus; or (3) Justification is a central doctrine that addresses central questions though it doesn’t answer every question about God and the gospel. Evidently Allen prefers (3), and he provides some good reasons in tandem with John Webster along this line. But I have state my clear preference for (2). So I cannot agree with Allen when he says “It simply will not do to suggest, as some have, that justification is merely one among many such images employed to talk of God’s life with us or of the divine economy” (11). He goes on to conclude that “Justification, then, has been and always will remain the root of all spiritual blessings we have in Jesus” (31). But I would be prepared to argue on exegetical, biblical theological, and systematic grounds for the opposite view. Justification is a contingent expression about salvation, it is expedient, but not necessary for expressing gospel salvation. Justification by faith was inherited by Paul from Palestinian Jewish tradition (see R. Hays in ABD) yet it emerges mainly in polemical contexts to argue for the sufficiency of faith for salvation and the equality of Gentiles as Gentiles in mixed assemblies of Jews and Gentiles. Justification does have a polemical edge to it and has been emphasized at church history at certain points as the “no” to doctrinal error. Justification served as Augustine’s “no” to Pelagius; Luther’s “no” to medieval sacramentalism; Barth’s “no” to national socialism in league with the church. But justification simply lacks the comprehensiveness to be the central motif to describe the divine indicative of God’s saving action. These more properly belong to the forgiveness of sins (as per the Apostles’ Creed and Calvin called forgiveness the “sum of the gospel”) or else to reconciliation (think of Brunner and Barth and Stuhlmacher on “Versohnung mit Gott”) if we want a biblical informed center  to describe God’s saving work in Christ. I don’t endorse James Torrance’s revisionist view of Calvin and Calvinism (which Allen rightly critiques), but one thing I will affirm is that too much of western theology has articulated theology through the lens of a Latinized legal-forensic framework with an emphasis on sin as guilt and salvation as rightness. Those are actually biblical motifs with ample traction in the broad tradition, but if we look east, towards Athanasius, Chrysostom, the Cappodocians, it would be hard to say that justification was the default setting or the primary mode of speaking about the gospel. Allen is more than aware of the danger of a “myopic focus on forensic declaration” (51), but even his broadly construed dogmatic articulation of justification as “our standing before God” (62) is not comprehensive and therefore not conducive to being an integrative device that carries the freight of the core Christian soteriological convictions about the gospel.

Second, on justification and participation, I find Allen mostly helpful here. However, he seems to stress that participation is largely derivative and dependent upon justification. He refers to the “forensic entryway of the gospel,” but again, why must the entryway be forensic as opposed to adoption, redemption, rescue, reconcilation, or participation. If, as per Reformed theology, regeneration precedes faith, that God’s life-giving word of life logically proceeds God’s declarative word of righteousness. Moreover, whereas as the Lutheran scheme insists on a logical and temporal partition between justification and transformation, no such partition exists for Calvin, for it is in Christ that we experience the duplex gratia, or two-fold grace, of justification and transformation. The two realities are linked christologically and logically, though they differ conceptually. In fact, I would go so far as to say that for the Reformed  tradition it would be entirely proper to say – if you will indulge my bad Latin – simil iustus et clarificatus, simultaneously just and glorified, because we are, through the Spirit and by faith, in Christ, who is the source of all righteousness, the imputed and the engrafted.

Third, I do wish Allen engaged other NT scholars like N.T. Wright and Mark Seifrid. While Allen does dialogue with Michael Gorman and Doug Campbell (quite a good critique of Campbell I thought on pp. 42-43 n. 29), I did feel that some major resources for the conversation partners were missing. But again, I recognize that it is hard to master every possible sub-field of scholarship on the topic when one has to cover historical theology and systematic theology as well.

Any ways, there are other highlights to the book, not the least is Allen’s articulation of Christ’s faith (see his book on the subject which I mentioned here) and how he relates justification to matters of freedom and obedience.

A very competent and noteworthy contribution to the discussion on the theological meaning of justification and I’d put it alongside Michael Horton’s Covenant and Salvation as a leading exposition of the doctrine for modern evangelical and reformed readers.


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  • Chris Tilling

    Interesting post, Mike, thanks. I cannot agree that his critique of Campbell was anywhere near “good”, though, for reasons I explain here:

  • The Bible has enough conflicting and contradictory verses to concoct several divergent explanations of a dogma for which there is not a shred of empirical evidence. I’ll just revere “the laws of nature and nature’s God” identified in the US Declaration of Independence and put “behavior over belief.”

    David Voelker (1993) Who is Nature’s God? The Hanover Historical Review.

  • Out of curiosity, does he refer to the gospel as the story of Jesus? Perhaps refer to the early churches understanding of the gospel in his historical survey? Papias? Ireneaus? Tertullian? Augustine? The last two integrate their understandings of Galatians, justification and the gospel as story together…

  • Jonathan Watson

    I interviewed Dr. Allen about Justification and the Gospel over on the Logos Academic Blog a bit ago–