Excerpted from “Above All Earthly Powers” by David F. Wells
From the time of the Reformation, justification sola gratia, sola fide, has been considered the central, defining motif in the New Testament gospel. It was upon this doctrine, Luther declared, that the church either stood or fell. Without in any diminishing the importance of this teaching, it should be noted however, that justification is also interwoven with other motifs which together express the gospel. This is evident in the interlacing of language that we find. Paul, for example, associates reconciliation with with justification when he says that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them. . .” (II Cor 5:19). He associates redemption with justification when he says that we “are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: (Rom 3:24). Propitiation belongs alongside justification (Rom 3:24-25). And justification is also the way in which the forces of Evil have been routed, for God not only “canceled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands”, but in doing so, “disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in him” (Col 2:14-15). It is important to see that for Paul, these doctrines were not simply doctrines; they are each ways of understanding the eternal act of God in Christ, whose significance and consequences endure forever.
Justification is the indispensable center to the gospel but the New Testament authors also ransacked their vocabulary to fine other metaphors and images that capture the enormity, even the complexity , of what happened at the Cross. It is, therefore, quite fallacious to suppose…that because of the presence of these other metaphors of salvation, justification can be marginalized and penal substitution, which is at the heart, should be rejected. The truth is that these images – justification, reconciliation, redemption, conquest, and sacrifice – are not to be seen as unrelated, disparate ways of interpreting the Cross but are several sides of a fully compatible whole. And it is a whole which is fully compatible with justification. In selecting justification, with its framework of the law court, as a way of seeing how God’s future has broken into our spade-time world, therefore, I am not arguing that it is the only interpretive metaphor of the Cross. It is, however, the indispensable center to what we must understand.