Walther’s teaching on objective/subjective justification

C._F._W._Walther_01It has been suggested out in the blogosphere that my way of explaining objective justification – as set forth recently on this blog – is a misrepresentation of the real theological issue at hand within the synods of the Synodical Conference tradition, since C. F. W. Walther’s way of explaining objective justification was supposedly different and more obviously erroneous than my more sugar-coated way of explaining it. It has been claimed that I am misrepresenting the true character of the false Waltherian doctrine of objective justification, by making it seem to be not as bad as it really is.

Within the Evangelical Lutheran Synod (to which I belong), Walther’s well-known Easter sermon, “Christ’s Resurrection – the World’s Absolution,” has always been looked upon as a good summary of the proper understanding of the concept of objective/subjective justification (even though that terminology does not appear in the sermon). This sermon was translated into English and published by the ELS in 1978, as part of a collection of Walther’s sermons entitled The Word of His Grace. The excerpts from this sermon that here follow demonstrate that Walther’s way of explaining these matters follows the same basic pattern as I have followed in explaining them.

In each case, the objective aspect of justification is tied very tightly to the death and resurrection of Christ. In each case, it is emphasized that justification and absolution are not received and possessed by individuals apart from faith, or before faith. This is, of course, also the focus of Johann Gerhard’s teaching, which I cite, and which was no doubt influential on Walther’s own formulations. I will add that the late Kurt Marquart in the LCMS likewise explained objective/subjective justification in this way. And I have already noted that this is the balanced and careful approach of Jon Buchholz in the WELS as well.

The objective aspect of justification – that is, the resurrection “absolution” of Christ, in the stead and on behalf of all humanity – is explained by Walther in these words:

[Christ’s] anguish of soul when He struggled hard with the death in Gethsemane, His shameful arrest and bonds, His scourging, the mockery, the spittle, the crowning with thorns, His crucifixion and the shedding of His blood – all of this was nothing else than the punishment which God the Father meted out to Him on account of the sins of the entire world. These had been imputed to Him, and these Christ now bore. Therefore also the condemnation of Christ by Caiaphas and Pilate was at the same time His condemnation to death by God the Father, as the wages appointed for the ancient sin in paradise. And the death that Jesus endured following the sentence was nothing else than the carrying out of the divine judgment which required this final and most terrible punishment. … Since now…God the Father, the Judge Himself who had condemned Christ to death, raised Him again from the dead, what meaning must His resurrection therefore have? What does it mean when in a process of law the imprisoned guarantor is finally set free by the judge himself? It means that the account is settled. Christ’s resurrection, therefore, was nothing else than the actual testimony which God the Father gave before heaven and earth, before angels and men, that all the demands of the eternal divine righteousness had now been fully met by Him. It means that the debt which Christ had pledged to pay had now actually been paid by Him to the last farthing, and that the punishment which God had put upon the sins of men had now been thoroughly removed by Christ to the very last stripe. It means that Christ is now free and forever declared loosed from all the debt and punishment which He had assumed. In one word, it means that He is absolved.

Since it was all mankind in whose place and for whom Christ suffered, died and made payment, who was it, then, that was absolved in and through Christ’s Person when the eternal Judge set Him at liberty? It was – oh, marvelous and endlessly comforting truth! – it was all mankind. Just as all Israel had triumphed when David returned victorious from the duel with the giant, against whom he had fought for all Israel, so the entire human race was victorious when Christ triumphed in the battle against sin, death, and hell. Just as the receipt, obtained by one who makes payment for another, frees and looses the debtor, so the receipt which God presented to Christ in His resurrection frees and looses all mankind from its debt of sin. That we are not making a mistake when we draw this conclusion is evident from the fact that God’s very Word draws this conclusion. In the 5th chapter of his Second Epistle to the Corinthians Paul writes: “We thus judge that if One died for all, then were all dead.” And in the 5th chapter of his letter to the Romans the same apostle adds: “Therefore as by the offense of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation, even so by the righteousness of One the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life.” Here we see that just as Christ’s condemnation was the condemnation of all men, Christ’s death and imprisonment the death and imprisonment of all men, Christ’s payment the payment of all men, so also Christ’s life is the life of all men. Christ’s acquittal the acquittal of all men, Christ’s justification the justification of all men, Christ’s absolution the absolution of all men. …

For it is solely the resurrection of Christ from the dead that first of all makes the Gospel that which it is, namely true tidings of joy… It is solely the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead that makes Baptism and the Lord’s Supper the Means of Grace that they really are, namely, heavenly vessels in which the absolution spoken by God in Christ is contained, and through which it is offered, presented and given. And finally, it is solely the resurrection of Christ from the dead which makes the absolution which one person pronounces upon another a real absolution… (pp. 231-33. Emphases added.)

The subjective aspect of justification – that is, the absolution of the individual, received by faith alone – is then explained by Walther in these words:

Many think that if the doctrine were true that God has already absolved the whole world by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, then it would follow that the whole world accordingly already has the forgiveness of sins, and that as a result the whole world would also have to be saved, – for where there is forgiveness of sins there is also life and salvation. But as true as it is, that with forgiveness we have salvation, so false is the conclusion that everyone has forgiveness. In every case of real giving there are two parties that come into consideration, the donor and the recipient. What does it benefit a poor man if he rejects the gift of a rich man…? What personal benefit does a rebel derive if an entire rebellious city has been pardoned but he for himself does not accept the pardon…? What does it help an imprisoned criminal that freedom is proclaimed to him if, in spite of the open prison doors, he will not leave his prison…? What does it benefit the person who has offended someone if he will not accept the fact that the offended person is reconciled to him, that, holding to his hatred and resentment, he refuses the pardoning hand? What does it help the world that Christ is really its Savior if it will not hear of a Savior? What does it profit the world that Christ really has redeemed it and reconciled it to God if in self-righteous delusion it insists on being its own redeemer and reconciler? The same is the case also regarding the general absolution which God has pronounced upon the whole world through the resurrection of Christ, the Surety and Substitute for all mankind. … Please understand that…the poor world has no benefit from the fact that God through Christ’s resurrection has already absolved the world entirely from all its sins as long as it continues in its unbelief. … Every one of us must learn to say from the heart: I, too, am absolved. The forgiveness of sins is mine. God has declared also me free from all my guilt. The little words, “I,” “me,” and “mine” are the words upon which everything depends here. … And, dear friends, let me add this: The general absolution which God has already pronounced upon all men must not only be accepted in faith by every individual person if he would be saved, but this can take place in no other way than by faith alone. (pp. 233-35. Emphases added.)

This kind of Christ-centered and Christ-focused understanding of objective justification is also brought out in this essay on The Doctrine of Justification, written and delivered by Walther in 1872.

It is, by the way, a mistaken notion that “objective justification” is an unheard-of teaching in Lutheranism, except in the synods of the Synodical Conference tradition. In the last century, the objective/subjective justification formulation was also explicitly embraced and taught by Carroll Herman Little, a theologian in the United Lutheran Church in America; and by Tom G. A. Hardt, a Swedish theologian. And even when that precise way of speaking has not been used, the fundamental truth of objective justification is implicitly recognized whenever Lutherans speak of the divine justification, in Christ, that is received by faith. Something cannot be received unless it exists. And humanity’s justification does exist in Christ, humanity’s substitute and Savior, who died for all, and who was raised to life for all.


Comments

Walther’s teaching on objective/subjective justification — 20 Comments

  1. Thank you for this post, Pastor Webber. Could you please do me the honor of either posting here, in an article, or to my email (quasicelsus@gmail.com) addressing how election ties into objective justification. -And, if possible, how best to explain it to others.

  2. Objective justification pertains to the truth that the gospel is offered efficaciously to all, not just to some. Election pertains to the truth that the gospel is received effectively just by some, not by all. The mystery of a particular election in Christ is hidden within the universal offering of Christ to all.

    By nature, the corrupt heart of un-regenerated man will always reject the gospel. God’s election in Christ determines that in the case of some, this rejection will be overcome by the grace of God, and faith will be engendered.

    We do not know who the elect are, so we preach law and gospel to everyone – as we have been told to do. And it is through this universal offering of the gospel that God’s Spirit regenerates and preserves the elect. We preach the gospel as a universally-applicable gospel, since that is the gospel Christ has given us to preach, and through this gospel his Spirit works faith in those who do in fact believe.

    In the gospel, we do not tell the elect as such to believe in Christ, because they are elect. Again, we don’t know who the elect are. Rather, we tell all those who repent to believe in Christ, because Jesus died and was condemned for the sins of all, and because Jesus rose and was justified for the forgiveness of all.

  3. Those that reject Objective Justification it seems have a problem with universal grace; that only the elect are under God’s grace (particular grace). We know that the rain falls on the believer and the unbeliever alike. As Lutherans, we believe that we are saved by grace for the sake of Jesus Christ through faith. Some would have you to believe that you are saved by faith through grace for the sake of Christ. There is a difference.

  4. @David Jay Webber #3

    Thank you for taking the time to respond to my question. I think it makes more sense, as you have spelled it out – and at the same time, i still can see why it’s a mystery.

    i think it’s difficult to conceptualize the grace of objective justification in combination with the grace of election – as without election, the Ob Justification is rendered moot at a practical level.

    in trying to comprehend it, i can think of “well, without objective justification, it cannot be said that Christ died for all.” that makes sense. but without election, there is no hope for a saving faith. they will never be capable of having that forgiveness. at least that’s how i’m hearing it.

  5. @J. Dean #5

    They misunderstand on both counts while not taking into account what God has chosen to reveal and not reveal to us.

    There is but one justification with objective and subjective characteristics. Cling more to one perspective versus the other and your theology soon skews. The Bible says you must have saving faith. Well, that rules out alot of people. But then it says that God laid all of our iniquities on Jesus the scapegoat and that Jesus takes all the sins of the world away. This is a mystery that we must accept. Marquart to me was able to define this ‘feedback circuit’ as well as anyone.

  6. @Quasicelsus #6

    I don’t think that’s right.
    go to the formula of concord and the article on election.
    what I am hearing is Calvinism and not Lutheranism.

    I would like david to demonstrate from the formula of concord, the article on election that what he is teaching is Lutheran and not Calvinist.

    you can find that article here: http://www.bookofconcord.org

    I don’t think he will be able to demonstrate what he is saying is sound doctrine.

    why not?

    he is implying that when we say, in baptism, in the lords supper, in the absolution and in a sermon the words “given and shed FOR YOU” that there is some doubt as to whether we can really trust those words. we would have to say this… they really are true… for me… IF I am one of the Elect. But how could I be sure of that? This really does smell like Calvinism.

  7. They Apology to the Augsburg confession says this about objective and subjective justification:

    Justification always happens in this way: God makes a Promise (objective justification), faith clings to the Promise, Faith receives, right where it is offered, the Promised Mercy (subjective justification).

    The words objective and subjective are not used anywhere in our Confessions. That terminology is not to be insisted upon. But the underlying doctrine is everywhere in our confessions. How do we know we are elect? Alone from God’s Word.

    Quasicelsus: when you were Baptized God told you that you were his. Election. Believe that. You and I and our reason are liars. God cannot lie. You are elect. When he says in the holy Supper “given and shed FOR YOU”. God cannot lie. You are his. You are elect. We can know of our election and be certain of it from God’s Word. You must read the book of Romans in the order St Paul presents it. God has condemned all so that he might have mercy on all. But what about you, in particular? After chapters 1-7 election means something…. for YOU. Outside of that context, election is a terrifying thing.

  8. @fws #9
    Your tingling spidey-senses are right. I smell Calvinism. For instance, what comfort can election possibly be if we make a Calvinist statement like this: “We do not know who the elect are…” Thank you for your Confessional response! 🙂

  9. This is what I said:

    “We do not know who the elect are, so we preach law and gospel to everyone – as we have been told to do. And it is through this universal offering of the gospel that God’s Spirit regenerates and preserves the elect. ”

    In the context, when I say that “we” do not know who the elect are, it means we preachers of law and gospel.

    I also said:

    “In the gospel, we do not tell the elect as such to believe in Christ, because they are elect. Again, we don’t know who the elect are. Rather, we tell all those who repent to believe in Christ…”

    Here again, in the context, when I say that “we” don’t know who the elect are, it means we preachers, or tellers, who tell the penitent to believe in Christ.

    An individual believer is, of course, comforted by his own election in the context of his having had the gospel preached to him, and in the context of his having been brought to faith in that gospel by the Holy Spirit. But the gospel that comforts the elect is not a gospel that is just for the elect as such, and is preached only to the elect as such. It is a gospel that is for everyone and is to be preached “to everyone” – which is also what I said.

    In order for what I said to be wrong, and contrary to the Formula of Concord, the Formula of Concord would need to be teaching that the preachers of law and gospel know who the elect are beforehand, so that their preaching of the gospel would be directed consciously just to the elect, and not to everyone. That, however, would be Calvinism!

  10. @David Jay Webber #12
    It always happens when one attempts to present in a scriptural manner the mysteries of God, no matter how great effort you put into balancing and safeguarding your presentation, somebody will accuse you of error, often even some of the very errors you reject.

    Teach the mystery of the Holy Trinity scripturally; Modalists will accuse you of Tritheism, and Tritheists of Modalism.

    Teach election scripturally, or, as in this case, a topic closely related to it; those of a classical Reformed inclination will accuse you of Arminianism, whereas Pelagians and Semi-Pelagians will accuse you of Calvinism.

    To be accused of opposing errors is usually a good sign that you have been balanced in your presentation of the Biblical material.

    I think most of us have inclinations to emphasise different sides of the Biblical testimony, leaning to one side a bit more than the other, without actually embracing the error of acknowledging only one side of the Biblical teaching and ignoring the other.

    I even think most of us will have different leanings on different days, depending on such circumstances as the topic given to us, and the texts in front of us. One presentation will seem a bit more Tritheist than Modalist, one more Calvinist than Arminina – and vice versa. And there is really nothing all that strange about that, nor is it necessarily a bad thing – as long as we do not actually fall into the error of disregarding or contradicting Biblical truth.

    And those who just have an ax to grind or a need to prove themselves better will always be able to select a particular phrasing to which another very particular meaning can be attached, particularly when detached from the context, and which can then be attacked as being heretical – or at least as being not quite as well presented as it would be if *I* had done the presentation.

    This is particular easy when it comes to a very brief statement that is really about something else, and made with a certain degree of haste – as I think many of the comments in this forum are, to a certain degree, since the medium invites it.

    And then there is the factor that some of us have reached our own conclusions and found rest in our own particular ways of expressing and understanding these mysteries, in particular phrasings with which we are comfortable. And somehow it itches when we are presented with different phrasings or different paths to the same partial conclusions. And so easily we come to canonise our own expressions and forget that our solutions to the mysteries actually have neither dissolved the mysteries nor exhausted the scriptural testimonies to them.

    Personally I found it very clear already initially that when you said that “we do not know who the elect are” you were not talking in a metaphysical sense in terms of a double predestination, nor speculating on the criteria for the eternal election of individuals, but that you were rather distancing yourself from such speculation with the statement that as a preacher you do not know who will embrace the salvation offered and given with the Gospel, and who will not, and therefore it is your duty, as well as that of any other preacher, to preach salvation in Christ as an objective fact and as a gift given with the proclamation of the promise.
    And there is nothing un-lutheran about that. That’s how we do it.

  11. @Jais H. Tinglund #13
    you were rather distancing yourself from such speculation with the statement that as a preacher you do not know who will embrace the salvation offered and given with the Gospel, and who will not, and therefore it is your duty, as well as that of any other preacher, to preach salvation in Christ as an objective fact and as a gift given with the proclamation of the promise.
    And there is nothing un-lutheran about that. That’s how we do it.

    Well said. We do not know (about others!) which will be led to believe and which, despite baptism, may later fall away and refuse to believe.
    For ourselves, we are baptized and I am told that a concern about unbelief is evidence of faith.
    Those who do not believe do not care about it either. [I have heard that lack of concern from relatives, sorry to say.]

    @David Jay Webber #12
    The general absolution which God has already pronounced upon all men must not only be accepted in faith by every individual person if he would be saved, but this can take place in no other way than by faith alone. (pp. 233-35. Emphases added.)

    I confess that I have not read Paul Rydecki’s paper, only comments and excerpts, but in what way does he differ from what you have said?

  12. Thanks to everyone for your insights.

    I’ve been trying to parse the arguments on each side, with the understanding that this is a controversy dating back a couple of centuries. I may not have it exactly right, but I’m going to try to summarize the positions without using the “buzzwords” that so often seem to lead to misunderstandings of meaning. I will also refrain from any of the accusatory and vicious language I have seen on both sides.

    A. By living a perfect life and dying an innocent death, Christ paid for the sins of the entire world, satisfied God’s justice, and bought all mankind back from sin. On this both sides seem to agree.

    B. No one goes to heaven apart from faith in Christ. Universalism – that all are saved, limited atonement – that only some are redeemed, and faith in faith are rejected. On this both sides seem to agree.

    C. The point in question then is, how is man DECLARED righteous before God? Both sides agree that it is because of Christ’s work alone. One side believes that Christ’s work created an independent righteousness for all mankind that is grasped through faith, the other side believes that righteousness is only available through and an integral part of faith. One side believes that the objective nature of man’s righteousness means that it already exists through Christ’s death and resurrection and is waiting to be received, the other side believes objectivity to be a descriptive comparison between God’s work and Man’s.

    With Luther, I have no use for those minds which can debate on both sides and conclude nothing. I guess I just cannot agree that there is any form, sort, manner, method, or description of justification apart from faith. Faith is not man’s action necessary to achieve justification, but God’s gift by which man receives it. Presenting it as dual notions of objective and subjective, regardless of who presents it and even if intended as a simplifying explanation, seems, at best, unnecessary. The objective nature of justification regards Christ as the object of man’s forgiveness, entirely apart from man’s works. Even saving faith is not man’s work but God’s. Therefore, there is no subjective justification. I’m not convinced that justification is something that exists for all men for all time. Only believers ARE justified. Hier stehe ich.

    Another key question is, “Does this difference of understanding of justification break fellowship?” Without regard to other concerns of fellowship, this issue ALONE does not, in my opinion. Provided one does not descend into Universalism on the one hand, and faith-in-faith and works righteousness on the other hand, the question of when justification occurs should be a point of theological discussion, not rejection of fellowship. Both sides hold that Christ is the atoning sacrifice for all sin, that man cannot work his way into God’s grace or appease His justice, and that the gift of faith is necessary for salvation. I thank God for Brothers of John the Steadfast, Intrepid Lutherans, and those pastors on all sides who have stood for confessional Lutheran Doctrine despite their differences on this issue.

    In Christ,
    Joel A. Dusek

  13. @Joel A. Dusek #15
    If you are looking for a practical application, I think this would summarise it:
    The question is what is to be preached, and how the offer and/or promise of salvation is to be offered in preaching.

    a) There is salvation for you, if you believe it.
    b) Salvation is yours; believe it!

    And I think the major benefit of Lutheran preaching (b) as opposed to the pietist and revivalist one (a) is that it sets the believer free from wondering and worrying about whether or not his “faith” is sufficient in terms of intensity or authenticity to allow him to have certainty of his salvation. It sets him free from thinking of faith as a requirement he needs to fulfill before he can have salvation, since faith is neither his own contribution nor what actually works salvation, but rather the response to God’s promise, which God Himself works in him through His promise – which is, in fact, a promise, given without conditions, and a statement of fact.
    That, and it is the truth of God.

  14. @Jais Tinglund #16

    “and a statement of fact”

    When God speaks his Word, what he declares, becomes.
    It is this that Calvinists miss and it is this that was missing in what I felt was a Calvnist formulation.
    The omission of this point makes all the difference in the world!

  15. @fws #17
    Calvinism again, as I understand it, would be something completely different.
    It would say something along these lines: “Salvation might be yours, if you happen to be among the elect. And if that is the case, then you will definitely be saved. Or you might be created and predetermined by God for eternal damnation, and if that is the case, then you will definitely not be saved. In the final analysis, there is really no way you can know. But if you are doing well in life and making a lot of money, or if you really feel moved by the Spirit, that *might* be an indication that you are among the elect. Or it might not.”
    I think Calvinist would feel misrepresented if one were to ascribe to Calvinism the view that Christ crucified has little or nothing to do with your salvation, or the preaching of Christ crucified. I am not exactly sure why, though.

  16. in any event, i’m grateful for FWS’ comments, though i still admit i have some confusion on the matter.

  17. I know that this is an old thread and this issue is consistently debated even now. For the record,I am not a theologian but a layman trying to understand each side of this coin. In [2 Corinthians 1:21-22 Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ. He anointed us, set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.] Now from my layman mind in which I could be wrong in my interpretation, it seems to me supports objective/subjective justification in conjunction also with other scripture. Whereas the anointing and seal of ownership [absolution] was given to man by God because of Christ which satisfied God’s justice for man’s sin.[Forgiveness of the world’s sin before and after][objective] The Spirit was then deposited in man’s heart[allowing for grace and absolution to deliver forgiveness to the penitent sinner] when man believes in divine word of forgiveness by that faith through Christ is justified [subjective]. Those without faith do not receive absolution. As I said before I am just a layman and there may be better interpretations. Thanks be to God.

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