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.

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