A BJS reader asks, “Does the teaching of Objective Justification (at least as I have heard it explained on the BJS threads) – that the “world” [all mankind] are in reality justified and forgiven by Christ’s universal atonement – also mean then that the world [all mankind] are in reality also SAVED, and this, apart from faith?
If so – that they are saved – then how can that be apart from faith? And if not, how can it be that all are not saved though they are in reality justified and forgiven by objective justification? I believe this gets to the heart of the matter and would be helpful in straightening out some confusing dialogue”.
Thank you to the BJS reader who asked the above, good, questions. I would like to restate the questions for the sake of clarity, and then I will provide explanations for any follow up discussion.
There are three questions being asked,
- Does objective justification mean that the world (all of mankind) is in reality saved apart from faith?
- If the teaching of objective justification asserts that all of mankind is saved apart from faith, then what does that mean?
- And, if not, how can the whole world be justified and forgiven in reality and yet not be saved?
Invariably, as we discuss this topic, we must touch upon the scriptural doctrine of salvation, or soteriology. Therefore, a few terms should be defined before directly answering these three questions, which I believe will assist us in indirectly finding some good answers for these questions and help us gain a better understanding of what is expressed by the teaching of objective justification. The key terms to be defined are redemption, reconciliation, propitiation, atonement, and justification.
A good starting point in finding definitions for these terms is to look them up at the LCMS Christian Cyclopedia (link here). As we look over these definitions, keep in mind that all these terms address the same truth; that is, the truth of the Holy Gospel. These terms express that same truth from different angles, if you will. For example, when we use the term “justification” we are describing our standing before God in a legal sense. When we use the term “atonement,” stressing that God, for Christ’s sake, doesn’t hold the sins of mankind against it, we are talking sacrificially about God’s response to the bloody sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Again, each term is talking about the same reality, but different facets of it.
What does redemption mean? According to the Christian Cyclopedia, “…the term stands for recovery from sin and death by the obedience and sacrifice of Christ, who is therefore called the Redeemer (Jb 19:25; Is 59:20. Cf. Mt 20:28; Ro 3:24; 1 Co 6:20; Gl 3:13; 4:4–5; Eph 1:7; 1 Ti 2:5–6; 1 Ptr 1:18).
What does reconciliation mean? “Synonymous with atonement in the sense of the act of reconciling and so restoring friendly relations. In the sense of state of being reconciled it is the result of atonement” (ibid.).
Another way of stating this is that reconciliation means that God, for the sake of Christ, is at peace with the party He is reconciled to. In this case, and from the Scriptures, the world (2 Cor 5:18-19; Romans 5:10-11). See the definition for the term atonement below.
What does propitiation mean? “The Gk. word (hilasterion) tr. “propitiation” Ro 3:25 is tr. “mercy seat” Heb. 9:5; the Heb. equivalent (kapporeth) Ex 25:17 denotes the cover, or lid, of the ark of the covenant. Once a yr. the high priest sprinkled the blood of sacrifice on this lid to make propitiation for the sins of the people. This was a type of the propitiatory sacrifice of Christ” (ibid.).
Christ is the atoning sacrifice for the sins of the whole world, or as John the Baptizer put it, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29; see also 1 John 2:2).
What does atonement mean? “Term employed by the KJV in tr. of Gk. katallage, Ro 5:11, often otherwise “reconciliation,” Ro 5:10; 2 Co 5:19. At-one-ment properly reflects the core significance of the Gk. term, a mutual exchange, a drawing together of parties previously separated. Behind the concept lies the situation that the fall of mankind into sin, and the idolatry and rebellion of the individual sinner, set up a cleavage bet. God and man (Is 59:2) to which God’s ultimate reaction is withdrawal, separation potentially permanent (Ro 1:18–32; Mt 8:12). Atonement is removal of this separation” (ibid.).
What does justification mean? “Judicial act of God which consists of non-imputation of sin and imputation of Christ’s righteousness” (ibid.).
Christ took upon Himself the sins of the whole world, including yours and mine, and “took them away.” i.e. they are forgiven in Christ. Judicially speaking, God responded to the sacrifice of Jesus and removes the legal demands of the Law, lifting the bar against the world and changing the status of the human race from one of condemnation to one of justification for the sake of His Son Jesus Christ (Col. 1:19-20; Ro 5:10; 2 Cor. 5:13-19). What I have just described is God’s action in response to Christ’s atoning sacrifice. Another action which occurs, and which we Lutherans also love to talk about because it is the chief article of the Christian faith, is the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the individual by God’s grace alone through faith alone. Here we can talk about particular sinners being justified, having Christ’s righteousness imputed to them, as God’s action in response to the gift of faith given to the individual through Word and Sacrament (Gal. 3:18-22; Eph 2:8; Ro 3:28, 5:10-11).
The above definitions aren’t meant to be exhaustive, but offer a good starting point for meaningful discussion of the topic of objective justification. Of course, some may quibble with the definitions I have offered, and in particular with that of justification, but what we are after here is answering the three questions at the top of this article and to that I now turn.
The first question is asking if objective justification teaches that everyone in the world is saved and this apart from faith. The short answer is, of course, no. The Scriptures and our Lutheran confessions are quite clear in teaching that individuals are justified by God’s grace alone through faith alone in Christ. It is a mistake to confuse the doctrine of justification, and in particular the teaching of the objective nature of justification, with the false teaching that everyone in the world is saved.
The false teaching that everyone in the world is saved, or will ultimately be saved and go to heaven, is called “Universalism.” Those who teach universalism, typically do so because they believe it is impossible for an all loving God to eternally punish individuals in hell. Despite what the Scriptures say, the Universalist contends that God’s justice demands that all of the human race will be ultimately restored to righteousness and spends eternity with God. The “universality” of justification, as we will see below, does not mean that each particular person in the world is saved and going to heaven.
The second question is a restatement of the first and is quickly answered with the answer to question number one. No, the doctrine of objective justification does not tell us that the world is “saved apart from faith.”
Question number three actually gets to the heart of the matter. How can the whole world be justified and forgiven in reality and yet not be saved? I think this question is a good example of the confusion some have regarding what is being stated by the doctrine of justification, in particular concerning the objective nature of justification, and what it means for an individual person to have saving faith, as opposed to a historic faith which the Scriptures tell us even the Devil and his minions have (James 2:19).
When we talk about a particular person being “saved,” what we are actually talking about is the forgiveness of sins received by a person, or “saving faith.” The Apostle Paul writes about this “saving faith” to the Ephesians, “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” (Ephesians 2:8-9).
Saving faith receives Christ and the results of His work. That is, when we talk about a particular person being “saved” we are describing the response of an individual to the Gospel. We typically describe this response as a person being stricken by the law and with God given contrition of heart over sins, receives through faith the forgiveness of their sins. Here we must acknowledge that there is something actual, something real, which is passively received by the repentant sinner. Indeed, what is being offered in the preaching of the Gospel, and the Sacraments, is the forgiveness of sins which can only be received in faith. Nonetheless, real forgiveness is offered and not a conditional forgiveness; meaning that what is offered is not contingent upon the person’s inclination, or disposition, towards God’s free gift. Actual forgiveness of all sins is being offered: the gift is real whether the person hearing the gospel believes it or not.
What is expressed by the teaching of objective justification is that there is a real, and actual (not a mere potentiality), forgiveness of sins being extended to all humankind, because Christ fully took away the sins of the whole world through His perfect obedience to His Father in His death and resurrection. There are many ways to explain this, but a good analogy of this reality of the forgiveness of sins of the whole world in Christ, is the Lord’s Supper.
At the Supper we Lutherans understand that we receive with our mouths bread, wine, Christ’s body, and His blood. None of these things are mere symbols and neither are any of them just a spiritual eating. We actually eat the body of Christ and drink His blood, receiving the forgiveness of sins. Now, the promise of God, “for the forgiveness of sins” (Mat 26:28), is attached to the sacrament and not to the individual’s disposition towards it. In other words, the forgiveness of sins is there with the body and blood of Christ whether you or I believe it, or not. Another way of saying this is that the forgiveness of sins is an objective reality independent of what we believe, or think. What we are then talking about, at this point, is the objective nature of the Lord’s Supper, or its universality. Similar things could be said about Holy Baptism and also about the preaching of the Word, but hopefully I am making a clear point with the example of the Lord’s Supper.
Just as something real is offered to all those to whom the Lord’s Supper is given, something real is offered to all those who hear the Gospel message and that is the forgiveness of sins. Indeed, God’s pardon for the consequences of sin is freely offered. And, once again just like in the Lord’s Supper, what is being offered is not contingent upon the individual’s disposition towards it. This point can also be expressed as, having faith doesn’t actualize the forgiveness of sins being offered to a particular person any more than the erroneous view that a person’s having faith suddenly creates the real body and blood of Christ in the bread and wine.
In wrapping up my answer, we can talk about the entire human race, or the world, being justified—just as the Scriptures do (Ro 4:25)—as the action God took in response to Jesus’ resurrection from the dead where the Law is concerned, as the following explains. The Law condemns the whole world (saint and sinner alike) and, because of Christ and what He did, the Law now has no hold on the whole world, since God receives the sacrifice of His Son which atones for each and every sin and thereby the requirements of the Law are fully satisfied by Christ. When we talk about the sins of the world being absolved, or forgiven, we are talking about a reality that holds for the world in Christ. That reality is excellent news for everyone, since it means we are not justified by our own works of the Law, but by God’s grace alone, through faith alone in Christ Jesus. Indeed, Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us and received by faith alone; thereby we are justified by what we Lutherans like to describe as the “alien righteousness of Christ” which is outside us, or not our own.
Without God’s favorable response to His Son’s sacrifice for the whole world, there would be no salvation at all; there would be no forgiveness of sins offered to all. This is to say, there would be nothing real for faith to receive and cling to. When we talk about the objective nature of justification, the terms used relate to Christ’s work as it satisfies the legal requirements of the Law with the whole of mankind in view. That is, the record of debt against the world, with all its legal demands, has been blotted out (Col 2:14), the sins of the world absolved, and this pardon is now freely offered to all in the Word and Sacraments. Some will receive through God given faith this gift to their joy, while others will sadly continue to reject this gift to their own damnation (Mark 16:16).
I hope I have satisfactorily answered the reader’s questions and at the same time offered something constructive to the ongoing discussion over the objective nature of justification.
Suggestions for further reading.
Pieper, Francis, Christian Dogmatics: “Objective and Subjective Reconciliation,” volume 2, pp. 347-360, Concordia Publishing House, 1951
Marquart, Kurt E., The Reformation Roots of “Objective Justification”, CTSFW document, 1985
Preus, Robert D., Justification and Rome: An Evaluation of Recent Dialogues, Concordia Publishing House, 1997
Preus, Robert D., Perennial Problems in the Doctrine of Justification, CTQ Quarterly volume 45, Number 3, July 1981
Theses on Justification, A Report of the Commission on Theology and Church Relations of the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, May 1983