What Is The Gospel Really? A Christological Model for Christian Soteriology

Paul Maxwell, Ph.D.

Paul Maxwell, Ph.D., writes about theology, mental health, marketing, and fitness. Paul has been writing on PaulMaxwell.co for over a decade.

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It will be helpful for us to look at a case study in theology to see how we can organically draw theology out of the text of Scripture. I hope that in this case study, you will catch a glimpse of how we can coordinate philosophical nuance with the rich teaching of Scripture about Christ.

And, what better case study is there for systematic theology than the gospel itself?

Here, I’m going to demonstrate how to extrapolate systematic theological truths from a thematic reading of Scripture.

Forensic vs. Metaphysical

First, it’s important for us to have a few definitions in our pocket before we get our arms around the Bible itself. The two primary terms I want us to understand are Forensic and Metaphysical. Forensic is an adjective that means: a declared status. If you go to court and a judge declares you “Guilty!” then that declaration is forensic. It doesn’t change anything about you as a person, but it changes your status—it effects a real change in the world that concerns you. Metaphysical is an adjective that means an intrinsic state. Have you ever done something wrong—something that violated your conscience—and felt dirty in your soul afterward? That’s a metaphysical experience. Meta-physical means more than physical.

Forensic—Righteousness/Unrighteousness and Sonship/Exile

There are two kinds of forensic experiences related to the gospel, and they each come in pairs of opposites. One kind of forensic status is righteousness vs. unrighteousness. You are either declared righteous or unrighteous with regard to a particular rule. The other kind of forensic state is sonship vs. exile. You are either a formal member of a family, or you are not. Righteousness is an evaluative declarative status, and sonship is a relational declarative status.

Metaphysical—Holiness/Corruption and Shame/Glory

There are two kinds of metaphysical experiences related to the gospel, and they also each come in pairs of opposites. One kind of metaphysical state is holiness vs. corruption. Holiness, different from righteousness, is the state of being a good person. You can be righteous, but terribly unholy.

Or, if you are wrongly convicted, you can be intrinsically holy, but declaratively unrighteous. The other kind of metaphysical experience is glory vs. shame. Glory is the experience of being publicly holy, and shame is the experience of being publicly unholy. That’s why when we do shameful things, we want to hide—we don’t want anyone to see our shame. The shame we feel is the shame of our being public before God, and we want to hide it rather than confess it to our neighbors to be healed (James 5:16: “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working”).

Gospel Frameworks

There are two theological traditions of using the Forensic and Metaphysical concepts to frame the gospel. The entire Reformation was about how these categories related to the gospel.

Roman Catholicism taught that in order to be righteous with God, the Christian first had to achieve metaphysical holiness—through penance, the eucharist, and other sacraments—in order to be righteous. For Roman Catholics, the Christian had to make the metaphysical true before the forensic could be true. Christians had to act like sons before they could be declared sons.

Martin Luther flipped this on its head and argued that God loved us so much, he declared us righteous sons and daughters even while we were still unholy and shameful (Romans 5:8: “Yet while we were still sinners…”). And, because God always finishes the work he begins (Phil. 1:6), we are given assurance that he will fashion us into holy and glorious children. This is the difference between justification and sanctification—justification is the forensic reality that never changes, and sanctification is the metaphysical category of becoming more holy.

Scripture supplies us with a three-part framework for understanding how we receive benefits from Christ, relying on these categories. We understand this three-part framework, we will not only understand that we have received salvation in Christ, but how Christ exactly gives us the benefits of salvation and, more importantly, what salvation is in the first place.

Let’s dive into this three-part framework for understanding the gospel.

Adamic Solidarity

The first part begins with our solidarity with Adam. “Solidarity” simply means that we are in league with him. Because Adam represented all of us as our covenant representative in Eden, when he fell, we all fell. When Adam broke God’s commandment, we inherited that guilt.

It may seem unfair that we have inherited guilt for a sin we didn’t commit. But the point is that we shouldn’t exist in the first place. Adam’s punishment was supposed to be that he would die when he ate the fruit—and we would be annihilated before we were even a concept. The fact humanity exists in this suspended state of guilt before God, represented by Adam, is itself a mercy that we didn’t deserve.

More than that, without the ability of individuals to take corporate responsibility for entire populations of people, Christ would not be able to redeem us as the Second Adam. The mechanism by which the world is condemned is the same mechanism by which the world is saved—covenantal headship, first in Adam, and then in Christ. If we protest the mechanism of our solidaric condemnation with Adam, we forfeit the metaphysical technology used by Christ to apply redemption to the saints.

Sin → Death

Sin leads to death. The Apostle Paul writes in Romans 5:12: “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned” (Romans 5:12). This death is the overarching category which has forensic and metaphysical manifestations.

Forensic

Condemnation

First of all, with regard to our righteousness, we are declared to be unrighteous because of our death in Adam. Paul explains again in Romans 5:18: “So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men” (Romans 5:18).

Exile

With regard to our sonship, we are exiled from God’s original garden-home with God: “So the LORD God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken. After he drove the man out, he placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life.” (Genesis 3:23-24)

Metaphysical

Corruption

With regard to our holiness, we inherit an intrinsic state of corruption. God says in Genesis 2:17: “But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Genesis 2:17) Death is the most tragic thing in this world. It all comes from Adam, and it is undefeatable.

Shame

Finally, with regard to our glory, we inherit shame before God. Genesis 3:7-8 tells us the origin of this shame: “Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths. 8 And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden.” (Genesis 3:7-8)

We hide from God. We hide from our loved ones. We even hide from ourselves.

This is the fourfold forensic and metaphysical refraction of our death in Adam—according to righteousness, we are condemned; according to our relationship with God, we are exiled; according to our intrinsic moral state, we are corrupted and dying; according to our intrinsic state of glory, we are utterly ashamed. All of these are extensions of the original death. Death is the primal category that explains all of our forensic and metaphysical insufficiencies. Death in Adam is the primary category which explains our state as human beings.

The Experience of Christ

The Son of God took it upon himself to take on human form and experience all of these realities so that he might achieve redemption for those who are trapped within them—trapped by condemnation, exile, corruption, and shame. But there are two phases to this experience of Christ—his humiliation and exaltation.

Phase 1: Humiliation

Life → Crucifixion

The overarching category of all of Christ’s humiliation is his crucifixion. His crucifixion contains all of the evil he assumed in a single event. His incarnation was not an assumption of evil. Christ did not have a sinful nature. He was alive, and in his crucifixion, he died the death that Adam should have died in Eden. This is what Paul calls the wisdom of God in 1 Corinthians 2:7-8: “But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.” (1 Cor. 2:7-8)

Forensic

Righteous → Condemnation

Christ was perfectly righteous. Yet, the evaluative forensic aspect of his crucifixion was condemnation. Christ was actually condemned on the cross. God declared a legal status of “Guilty” over Christ on the cross, not because he was guilty, but because he was our substitutionary atonement. Paul explains in Romans 8:3: “By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh” (Romans 8:3).

Obedient → Exile

Christ was the perfectly obedient son. The Old Testament often speaks of Israel as a son, because Israel was a corporate picture of Adam, God’s first son. Jesus fulfilled that role and obeyed as Adam should have. Christ refused to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil—he obeyed God, and should have been entitled to stay in the garden, but he was exiled. God abandoned him into the wilderness of death. This is why Matthew records for us in Matthew 27:46: “And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46)

Metaphysical

Perfect → Corruption

Jesus also experienced corruption at the cross. This doesn’t mean that he sinned, but that he died the death that no human has ever died. He died the death Adam should have died. All of history, ever since the garden, was groaning—waiting for Adam’s execution; waiting for the administration of justice and judgment against sin. Jesus was morally perfect; he was perfectly uncorrupt. But he chose to be consumed by corruption so that we don’t have to be: “But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, for the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, that He, by the grace of God, might taste death for everyone” (Hebrews 2:9-10).

Holy → Shame

Finally, shame. Jesus was deserving of glory, even in his earthly ministry. He never did a single thing for which he ought to have been ashamed. And yet, he suffered the nakedness that Adam should have suffered. When rightly God exiled Adam from the garden, he covered him with animal skins (Genesis 3:21). But Jesus suffered the shame that Adam was too weak to bear. Adam was covered with fig leaves and animal skins, seeking to hide his shame. But Jesus was crucified completely naked, which Matthew tells us in Matthew 27:35: “And when they had crucified him, they divided his garments among them by casting lots” (Matthew 27:35). Isaiah prophesied this: “He is despised and rejected by men, A Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. And we hid, as it were, our faces from Him; He was despised, and we did not esteem Him.” (Isaiah 53:3-4)

Phase 2: Exaltation

Death → Resurrection

Then, in phase 2 of Jesus’s experience, he experiences resurrection from the dead on the basis of his righteousness, obedient sonship, intrinsic holiness, and glory. I didn’t understand the resurrection for a very long time after I became a Christian. My pastor told me: “Without the resurrection, nothing matters!” I believed him, but I didn’t understand him.

Forensic

Condemnation → Justification

Christ’s resurrection serves as his justification from his condemnation. Paul explains in 1 Timothy 3:16: “Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness: He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated (ἐδικαιώθη) by the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory.” (1 Tim. 3:16)

It’s important to note the passive voice here. Christ did not rise from the dead. Christ did not raise himself. Christ was raised by the Spirit. The Greek term edikaiothe is passive. He was vindicated. He was justified by the Spirit. The Spirit of God raised him from the dead, which was his justification.

Exile → Adoption

The same occurs with his sonship. He was exiled, and then this exile was definitively reversed by virtue of his utter obedience as a son. Paul explained in Romans 1:1-4:

“Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 1:1-4)

Jesus experiences adoption—not because he wasn’t the son, but because he was disowned by the Father, and the legal reversal of that disownership was his adoption as Lord, Son of God. Jesus is never not the Son, the second person of the Trinity. But he is made the glorified Son of God as Adam should have been through obedience as a man—as the second Adam.

Metaphysical

Corruption → Definitive Sanctification

The same thing occurs for Christ metaphysically. The author of Hebrews explains that he suffers a real death in Hebrews 2:14: “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil,” (Hebrews 2:14)

Does he suffer Hell? No, but neither do we. It’s important to note the nature of Christ’s relationship to Hell that Peter talks about in 1 Peter 3:18-20: “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, 19 in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, 20 because they formerly did not obey” (1 Peter 3:18-20)

This is post-resurrection proclamation, not pre-resurrection proclamation. It wasn’t a descent into Hell to suffer the eternal wrath of God, but declaration of everlasting power over death to those who were committed to disobedience. 

Shame → Glorification

Finally, Christ experiences the reversal of his shame into glory. In his resurrected state, he no longer needs fig leaves. This is why Luke tells us in Luke 24:12 that when Peter visited the tomb of Jesus, he “saw the strips of linen lying by themselves, and he went away, wondering to himself what had happened” (Luke 24:12). And what is the final thing Jesus tells his disciples before he ascends? Luke 24:49: “I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49). Immediately after that, he is taken up into heaven. And even here in Luke, Jesus doesn’t ascend into heaven. Luke says in Luke 27:51: “While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven” (Luke 27:51).

What’s the opposite of shame? Glory. Hebrews 12:2: “For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:2) Acts 3:13: “The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of our fathers, has glorified his servant Jesus.” (Acts 3:13)

Jesus suffered shame so that his shame could be reversed into glory. Luke 24:26: “Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” (Luke 24:26)

What’s the summary of all of this? Jesus experienced salvation. That’s a big deal. We don’t often talk like that about Jesus. But because he experienced the full weight of all the consequences of sin, his resurrection was his salvation experience. By undergoing the wrath of God through dying the death Adam should have died, he makes categorically available to us his own salvation experience so that we can be saved from the wrath of God.

Pistic Solidarity

The Nature of Union with Christ

Now, this brings us a to the most pivotal concept of our salvation: Union with Christ. It is our being made one with Christ by the Spirit that we receive the benefits Christ receives when the Spirit raises him. What the Spirit does to Christ by raising him, he does to us by joining us to him by faith.

Paul explains in 1 Corinthians 1:30: “But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption” (1 Cor. 1:30)

More, in 2 Corinthians 5:17: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” (2 Cor. 5:17)

I should make a brief note on union with Christ, since clearly, we have not experienced the full benefits of Christ. We are not yet fully resurrected. Therefore, though we are sealed to Christ by the Spirit, we have not yet fully experienced our justification, adoption, sanctification, and glorification. The Apostle Paul makes use of two concepts to make sense of our now-and-not-yet experience of Christ’s own salvation:

  • Old Man and New Man

  • Inner Man and Outer Man

The old-man/new-man is redemptive-historical perspective on our union with Christ. Inner/Outer is our real-time experience of union with Christ. Old/new corresponds to the competing ages that have created a split within us, and inner/outer refers to the disjunct between the unseen realities that are grasped by faith, and the seen realities that we can perceive with our senses.

Old Man/New Man: “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin.” (Romans 6:4-6)

The inner-outer concept distinguishes between our first-person spiritual experience and our first-person physical experience. Paul says in 2 Cor. 4:16: “So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day.” (2 Cor. 4:16) He says again in Ephesians 3:16: “that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being” (Eph 3:16)

When we are united with Christ by the Spirit, he creates these disjunctions within us—old and new, inner and outer. We exist in the old age and the age to come simultaneously. We taste the resurrection and death simultaneously.

The Role of Faith in Union with Christ

Faith is pivotal in union with Christ—faith is the tool that the Spirit uses to raise us with Christ. But now we have to make sense of all the moving parts here. How do they all relate to one another? The Reformers organized all these concepts—forensic, metaphysical, union, faith, resurrection—inside a concept called the ordo salutis—the “order of salvation.”

The ordo salutis represents a logical sequence, not a chronological sequence. Our salvation by grace through faith through union with Christ is a single event in which all of these things occur simultaneously. But all of the elements of our conversion experience serve a specific purpose, and therefore exist in a specific order.

There’s a lot of debate about what is the proper ordo, but for the sake of simplicity, we’ll just go with this version:

Effectual Calling → Spirit-wrought Union with Christ → Regeneration → Faith → Benefits

God begins with effectual calling. This is the first thing that happens in our experience of the gospel. This is when God calls to us and initiates us into our experience of Christ for the first time. Paul explains in Romans 8:30: “And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.” (Romans 8:30)

When God effectually calls us, he calls out a new life from within us—he plants the seed of Christ’s resurrected life inside of us. This is called “The Doctrine of Regeneration.” Regeneration is an important concept, because it highlights the fact that our wills were truly dead before God called us. The nature of the will before regeneration is: completely incapacitated. Paul explains what I call the dark ordo in Ephesians 2:1-3:

“And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.” (Eph. 2:1-3)

Then, Paul shows us how union with Christ is the pivotal moment that transforms our lives from the dark ordo to the ordo salutis. The ordo goes like this (in Ephesians 2:4-7): Union → regeneration → eternal life:

“But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.” (Eph. 2:4-7)

But Paul doesn’t want any confusion. He knows that humans are prone to think of the gospel in terms of the law. So he guards against this by correcting a potential error: Faith itself is not a work. This point took me a long time to understand. People would say, “If you believe, you will be saved,” and at the same time, “Salvation is by faith, not works.” How is faith not a work? How is faith not itself a law? Paul explains in Ephesians 2:8-10:

“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (Eph. 2:8-10)

Faith is a gift, not a work. If you would turn with me to Titus 3:4-7, Paul puts this entire concept very succinctly:

“But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.” (Titus 3:4-7)

Remember—this is the order of salvation, the ordo salutis, a logical sequence that tells us how the inner mechanics of the gospel works toward us:

Effectual Calling → Spirit-wrought Union with Christ → Regeneration → Faith → Benefits

Sin → Death → Faith → Resurrection 

When we have finally understood the forensic and metaphysical consequences of Adam’s fall into sin, and Christ’s suffering Adam’s ultimate consequences in order to make the benefits of perfect obedience available to us, we can understand how exactly God applies these realities to us.

Here is the payoff. When we are raised with Christ, that means that we experience his resurrection with him, and we experience all of the benefits of that resurrection with him. Christ had to be condemned so that his guilty verdict could be reversed so that our guilty verdict could be reversed. It all comes back to the resurrection as a categorical home for every benefit we have in Christ. Paul explains in 1 Corinthians 15:51:

“Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. … The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Cor. 15:51-53, 56-57)

Forensic

Unrighteous → Condemnation → Spirit-wrought Faith → Justification

Our justification is Christ’s justification. Even though God declared us unrighteous in Adam, the Spirit joins us to Christ through our death and resurrection with him by faith. And Christ’s own justification—his vindication according to the Spirit (1 Tim. 3:16)—becomes our vindication. The beauty of this reality is that, because our salvation is actually a sharing in Christ’s salvation, we can never lose it. For us to lose our salvation, Christ himself would have to lose the benefits of his resurrection. Once we are united to Christ, no matter what we do, we are safe and secure in him, and he will carry us through to glory. Paul expresses this truth in terms of justification in 2 Corinthians 5:21: “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” (2 Cor. 5:21)

Disobedient → Exile → Spirit-wrought Faith → Adoption

The same goes for the forensic category of adoption. We are un-exiled through Christ. Paul explains in Romans 5:1: “Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,” (Romans 5:1) He explains again in Romans 8:15: “For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’” (Romans 8:15)

We are no longer dangled over the pit. Instead, God is working in us to relate to him as a Father. We are formally adopted through Christ’s own resurrected sonship. Our sonship is a sharing in Christ’s own sonship/

Metaphysical

Imperfect → Corruption → Spirit-wrought Faith → Definitive/Progressive Sanctification

Finally, we arrive at our corruption. This is undone through our sharing in Christ’s victory over corruption. His time of temptation is over, and in his resurrection, he is sealed in glory, and can no longer be tempted. While this isn’t true of us yet, through Christ’s resurrection, we have, in principle, the power to say “No” to every sin. Hebrews 2:11 explains: “For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one source. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brothers,” (Hebrews 2:11)

But we can distinguish between two kinds of sanctification—definitive sanctification and progressive sanctification. Definitive sanctification is our once-and-for-all break with the power of sin and death. And progressive sanctification is the moral outworking of that power over time. Hebrews 10:14 explains the definitive aspect of our sanctification: “For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.” (Hebrews 10:14)

Unholy → Shame → Spirit-wrought Faith → Glorification

Finally, we participate in the glory of Christ. In this age, Christ’s glory is our shame, just as in his life, Christ’s glory was his shame. Paul explains in Romans 8:17: “And if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Romans 8:17).

Just as with sanctification, our glorification has two stages—definitive and progressive. We are sealed in his glory as an heir. Think of a lottery winner. They win the mega millions jackpot, but they have yet to receive the check. We have been crowned with glory—Paul says we are “heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ”—but we only taste that glory as desire and suffering in this present age.

Conclusion

This is one way that systematic theology can deepen our understanding of Scripture for us. We can use these two philosophical concepts—forensic and metaphysical—to carve our way much deeper into the nature of salvation and how we receive Christ’s own salvation from the Father through the Spirit.

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