Forensic + Ontological — The Atonement

What’s wrong with framing salvation and the atonement on “forensic” or “juridical” models alone? This is the typical way to talk about salvation, and rightly so, Paul is very clear about the ‘legal’ aspect of salvation; but that’s not all he has to say, or even the most that he has to articulate. Paul’s “in Christ,” or “union with Christ” theology has, or should have a profound impact upon how we understand the ‘framing’ of salvation or the atonement. Here is how T. F. Torrance understands this:

For Torrance, if we have no doctrine of the risen righteousness of Christ and of our union with him through the Spirit then we have mutilated and gravely emptied the doctrine of justification of much of its content. For him therefore a ‘purely legal’ or a ‘purely forensic’ understanding of justification (that our status as sinners is purely one of having righteousness ‘reckoned’ to us, i.e. that through Christ we are treated as righteous in terms of the law while still sinners in ourselves) overlooks the positive righteousness of the risen Jesus and the fact that we are brought into real union with him through the Spirit. We are still sinners and have no righteousness of our own, but through real union with Christ and his righteousness we do have a real righteousness in him and are made righteous in him, not simply declared to be righteous. (Thomas F. Torrance, ed. Robert T. Walker, “Atonement,” xlix)

This is Robert Walker’s summary of Torrance’s view of the forensic model.

So we don’t see TFT rejecting the ‘forensic’ model, he just wants to say more than that, not less. I think he is right, how about you? Maybe his understanding challenges you a bit, does it?

4 thoughts on “Forensic + Ontological — The Atonement

  1. Hi Bobby,
    I would like to comment, but (blushing) I’m not sure what I just read. Ok, I get it, we in real union with Christ through the Holy Spirit, have His real righteousness, but could you unpack that a bit? What does that mean for us?
    Does His righteousness impart His power to us to break the bondage of sin? Or is….?

    I guess I’m thinking that this is of great importance (I don’t think the concept is new to me)
    I’m just not sure how it works out. 😀


  2. Duane,

    Yeah, this was a quicky as far as posts go, with no real context. Let me just say that the ontolgoical view of the atonement sees the need for Christ to deal with the whole man, the sinful man, at the cross. That it is our hearts that need to be changed and recreated (see Rom 8), and not just our behaviors that need to be modified. The latter of these two is what Classic Calvinism forwards in framing the atonement in its logical cause and effect relations within a strictly forensic or legal model. So that what Jesus did at the cross was more of a transaction and business payment or purchase of the elect; paying for their outward sins (ie. law-breaking), but never giving any real place for the issues of the heart — at least at their systematic or paradigmatic level. The classic Calvinist position represents a very much so “outward-inward” approach of spirituality vs. what we Evangelical Calvinists want to represent as an “inward-outward” spirituality. A Christian spirituality that frames thing ontologically or at the “being” or “heart” level of the person. EC is not about law-keeping and behavior modification; it’s about intimate cultivated relationship with the God who is relationship.

    So the forensic is the outward/in and the ontological is the inward/out to spiritualities, respectively. One is “Nature” or “Law” based, the other is “Grace” based. You can figure out which one you think is more biblical 😉 . Thanks, Duane!


  3. Great! there’s that “relationship” word again :D. Regarding your next post, I have been engaging some “oneness” people ever so briefly lately, and that eternal relationship within the Trinity is so foundational to who God is, that, while they are wrong, we do not serve 3 gods, they are right, our God and their god are different (not the same god). Then why use subterfuge to play on our scene?


  4. It’s all about relationship 🙂 ! Oneness people are just off-base, scripture is way to clear on this issue . . . it oozes trinitarianism.


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