What is Objective Justification?

What is justification?

For Lutherans, the central teaching of the Bible is justification by faith apart from the works of the law. The classic expression of this doctrine is found in Article IV of the Augsburg Confession, “Also they teach that men cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works, but are freely justified for  Christ’s sake, through faith, when they believe that they are received into favor, and that their sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake, who, by His death, has made satisfaction for our sins.  This faith God imputes for righteousness in His sight. Rom. 3 and 4.” Lutheran theologians often speak of justification as having two aspects, objective and subjective. Objective justification is “God’s verdict of ‘not guilty’ upon the world for the sake of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.” Subjective justification means that the benefits of God’s verdict of ‘not guilty’ become yours through faith.


What is the basis of Objective Justification?

Jesus has redeemed all people. John the Baptist declared, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29) This statement, which we sing in the “Agnus Dei,” declares Jesus to be “objective justification personified.” 1  Paul also wrote to Timothy, that Jesus “gave himself as a ransom for all men” (1 Timothy 2:6).

Where is Objective Justification taught in the Bible?

  • 2 Corinthians 5:19: God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. “The only possible antecedent of ‘their’ in that sentence is ‘the world,’ and the world certainly includes all men.”2
  • Romans 4:25: He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification. “To refer to the words: Who was raised again for our justification,” to the so-called subjective justification, which takes place by faith, not only weakens the force of the words, but also violates the context.”3
  • Romans 3:22-24: There is no difference, for, all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. The key word here is “all.” All have sinned and all those sinners are justified- there is no difference. “All have sinned. The verb ‘justified’ has the same subject, ‘all.”4
  • Romans 5:18: Consequently, just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men. “By raising [Christ] from the dead, [God] absolved Him from our sins which had been imputed to Him, and therefore He also absolved us in Him, that Christ’s resurrection might thus be the case and the proof and the completion of our justification.”5  “Because in Christ’s resurrection we are acquitted of our sins, so that they can no longer condemn us before the judgment of God.” 6

Do the Lutheran Confessions teach Objective Justification?

While the term “objective justification” does not appear in the Lutheran Confessions, the teaching of objective justification may be found there. The Apology of the Augsburg Confession teaches that a refusal to believe that our sins are forgiven by God is to call God a liar. “And what else is the refusal to assent to absolution but charging God with falsehood? If the heart doubts, it regards those things which God promises as uncertain and of no account. Accordingly, in 1 John 5, 10 it is written: He that believeth not God hath made Him a liar, because he believeth not the record that God gave of His Son.” (Apology XII:62) “Therefore, if any one be not confident that he is forgiven, he denies that God has sworn what is true, than which a more horrible blasphemy cannot be imagined.” (Apology XII: 94) The Large Catechism teaches us that our sins are forgiven prior to our acceptance of such forgiveness. “Therefore there is here again great need to call upon God and to pray: Dear Father, forgive us our trespasses. Not as though He did not forgive sin without and even before our prayer (for He has given us the Gospel, in which is pure forgiveness before we prayed or ever thought about it). But this is to the intent that we may recognize and accept such forgiveness.” (LC III:88) The Formula of Concord declares, “That the human race is truly redeemed and reconciled with God through Christ, who, by His faultless obedience, suffering, and death, has merited for us the righteousness which avails before God, and eternal life.” (FC SD XI: 15).

How are Objective and Subjective Justification connected?

Objective justification is the basis for subjective justification. “An essential prerequisite of justification by faith, or of subjective justification, is the objective justification (the reconciliation) of all mankind.” 7  “If God had not in His heart justified the whole world because of Christ’s vicarious satisfaction, and if this justification were not offered , there could not be a justification by faith.” 8 “The relationship of objective justification to the other so-called justification can expressed in this way, that in the latter the appropriation of the former occurs.” 9 “Only those who believe the gospel are justified subjectively. But faith always has an object and that object is Christ Jesus and the objective justification He achieved.” 10

ELS Pastor Ron Pederson warns, “Both objective and subjective justification need to be taught together. If you leave one or the other out no one will be saved.” 11  His warning echoes that of former WELS President Carl Mischke, “A word of caution may, however, be in place. It may be well to remind ourselves not to divide ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’ justification as if they were two totally different things which can be treated in isolation from one another. They are rather two sides of the same coin, and there can be no ‘saints’ or salvation without faith. To teach otherwise would indeed be universalism.” 12

What are the dangers of denying Objective Justification?

Denying objective justification may lead to falling into the error of limited atonement, that Jesus paid only for the sins of believers. “Not all men, indeed believe this glorious fact, wherefore, they do not become partakers of the righteousness which Christ earned for them and which God gives them in the gospel. But it is nothing else than Calvinism to deny, as so many still do, that God has in Christ ‘reconciled the world unto himself’ (2 Cor 5:19), atoned ‘for the sins of the whole world’ (1 John 2:2) and thus justified all men.” 13

Denying objective justification can turn faith into a human work. “All those who deny the objective justification (the objective reconciliation) will, if they be consistent, also deny that subjective justification is brought about by faith; they will have to regard faith as a complement of Christ’s merit- a human achievement.” 14

Denying objective justification makes faith a cause of justification. “It is not strange that those who emphasize man’s faith at the expense of the objective validity of Christ’s Gospel and His work of justification should go astray in the doctrines of Conversion and Election, so as to give man’s faith there also an entirely unscriptural importance.” 15

Denying objective justification diminishes the glory of the Gospel: “the ‘objective justification’ of all men is denied by many within the Lutheran churches and neglected by still more, so that the full light of the Gospel does not shine forth in their teaching and preaching.”16

1 Ronald Pederson, “Objective Justification,” Lutheran Synod Quarterly, Vol. 52, Nos. 2-3 (June-September 2012), p. 163.
2 Siegbert Becker, “Objective Justification,” Wisconsin Lutheran Quarterly, Winter 1986:4.
3 Francis Pieper, Christian Dogmatics, II:321
4 Richard D. Balge, “Justification- a Brief Study.” Essay delivered at the Wisconsin Association of Lutheran Educators, Wisconsin Lutheran college, Oct. 26, 1984, 1.
5 Johann Gerhard, Annotations in epist. Ad romanos, Jena ed. 1666, p. 156
6 Johann Gerhard, Disputationes theologicae, Jena, 1655, XX, p. 1450
7 Pieper II: 508.
8 Ibid.
9 Ph. D. Burk, Rechtfertigung und Versicherung, p. 41
10 Pederson 166
11 Ibid.
12 C.H. Mischke, The President’s Newsletter WELS, June 1982.
13 George Lillegard, “Doctrinal Controversies of the Norwegian Synod,” Grace for Grace, Lutheran Synod Book Company, 1943, p. 149.
14 Pieper II: 508
15 Lillegard, Grace for Grace, p. 151.
16 Ibid.


What is Objective Justification? — 162 Comments

  1. “Luther’s church”?

    That’s certainly not a welcome sentiment in the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church, nor one that Dr. Luther approved of.

    Lizabth, you seem very comfortable making snarky potshots at the arguments of others, yet you make no positive defense of your position. Recurring to the “self-evidence” of your position over and over again is simply to beg the question.

    I am asking you to write a defense of your position here in the comment feed. Please. Take as long as you need.

  2. Dear sister in Christ. Never said that the author makes it “Gospel,” (and here I assume you mean “true”). But it has been suggested on this site that this is some new teaching in our circles. The citations prove that this is not the case. And often they say it better than I can. So I will continue to cite our Lutheran forefathers, without apology for the reasons just stated. You are free to believe whatever you want to believe. You will have to answer for your confession and I will have to answer for mine. And yes, I will “file it under the helpful category of ‘mystery’ right next to the Holy Trinity, the two natures in Christ, the doctrine of election, the true presence of Christ’s Body and Blood in the Sacrament, baptismal regeneration, that salvation is now and not yet, etc. I realize that this teaching is difficult to accept. I find it just as difficult as the one’s I just mentioned.

  3. @Trent Demarest #1

    Admittedly, Trent, this is a “mystery” and difficult to describe in human language.  However, position 2, comment 18, page 3, is also a description with much Bible support.  Should those who lean toward this latter description be driven from their pulpits?

  4. John Rixe :
    My question was confusing.  Let me restate it.
    Position 1
    God sat on his throne and decreed that the entire race of mankind was absolved of their crimes of sin, due to the perfect obedience and suffering and death of the Christ, with the proviso that this would apply only to those who believe in the Gospel which announces that decree. The application of this decree to individuals would be recorded by his “court clerks” in the Book of Life. – Pr Noland
    Position 2
    Jesus paid for the sins of the world and made satisfaction for the sins of the world and earned righteousness and forgiveness of sins for all people at the cross. 
    God only forgives and justifies sinners by imputing the righteousness of Christ to them. 
    He only imputes the righteousness of Christ to faith. 
    Faith is only created by the Holy Spirit through the Means of Grace. 
    Therefore, I do not speak of God having already forgiven the sins of the world at the cross, because the Holy Spirit did not apply the merits of Christ to the world at the cross, nor did the world believe in Christ at the time of the cross.  We are justified by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone—not without grace, not without Christ, and not without faith and the means of grace.  – Pr Rydecki
    How is position 1 different from position 2?

    Position 2 might well be summarized thusly: “Believing that Christ is my Savior makes Him my Savior.” This is a nonsensical position akin to saying that God doesn’t love you until you love Him back. Well, it may be sensible by human standards, but not by Scriptural ones: Scripture says that we love because He first loved us.

    “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me.” Why is Christ even knocking? Does He want to see if you love Him — if so, He’ll love you back?

    Let me approach this another way. I want to think about how the two doctrines are applied pastorally — no, I am not a pastor. But I have needed (and received) pastoral counsel of the very nature that I will describe:

    How does someone who does not believe in Objective Justification counsel the baptized Christian who is struggling with doubt, unbelief, and despair? What word of comfort can possibly be given?

    Distraught layman: “I’m really struggling with doubt. Sometimes I wonder if I really believe Christ’s words. I struggle with sin. Every day, I feel like I’m going to apostasize.”

    Pastor: “Well, don’t stop believing.”

    Journey-puns aside, I really can’t see what else a pastor can say. “Your sins were crucified with Christ when you first believed” is a far cry from “your sins were crucified with Christ.” One tells the distraught Christian to hold fast to the fact that He believes; the latter assures him that God has put away his sin forever — all the sins that he had committed or will commit. This, is, of course, an absurd proposition and the height of injustice, a.k.a., the Gospel. That God is not angry with me because of Christ is the reality. It is not the reality because I believe; it is the reality that I believe.

    A denial of Objective Justification throws one back into the sea of decision-theology with its host of uncertainties: “Do I really believe? Did I really believe? Have I ever really believed?” The focus must necessarily be on one’s own subjective experience of faith, which itself must be a sufficiently credible thing. And, again, the infinite regression ensues.

    Dr. Luther’s explanation to Article II of the Creed is apposite:

    I believe that Jesus Christ, true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true man, born of the Virgin Mary, is my Lord, who has redeemed me, a lost and condemned creature, purchased and won me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil, not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death, in order that I may be wholly His own, and live under Him in His kingdom, and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, even as He is risen from the dead, lives and reigns to all eternity. This is most certainly true.

    “This is most certainly true.” What is most certainly true? “…that Jesus Christ…is my Lord…” Is it true because I believe it? Or do I believe it because it is true? Ask St. Thomas when you see him in heaven.

    If you don’t believe “this” (which Dr. Luther contends is “most certainly true”), then…well…it’s still true! The Incarnation still happened. You were still purchased and won from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil in order that you may be wholly Christ’s and live under Him in his kingdom. God’s wrath against man was still satisfied by Christ’s death. And all flesh, all mankind, was still justified when God raised Him from the dead. This is what my dear pastor, Fr. Charles McClean, calls “the having happened-ness of Christ’s death and resurrection.” It already happened. It is most certainly true. It is history. Yes, if you never believe that it happened, that it is most certainly true, that it really was for you, then you will not be saved in the end. But the tragedy is that you were always loved. You were always justified. The verdict was “not guilty.” Your sins were forgiven, but you clung to them, for one reason or another. Your warfare was ended, but you continued to fight. You did not “take advantage of the pardon,” but you “remain[ed] obstinate and [chose] to be brought to trial, to give an account, and to undergo punishment,” and “[were not] able thereafter to avail [yourself} of the Emperor’s favor” (St. John Chrysostom, Discourses Against Judaizing Christians, Discourse I:6 – II:1) But your Savior was always knocking. God always loved you. He was always faithful, even though you were faithless.

    Again, these words of St. John Chrysostom from the same discourse quoted above are helpful (please, no one remind me that they are not Scripture); they also demonstrate the historicity of the doctrine of Objective Justification:

    Suppose that…a letter should come from the Emperor setting free from any accounting or examination all those detained in prison [objective justification]. If the prisoner should refuse to take advantage of the pardon, remain obstinate and choose to be brought to trial, to give an account, and to undergo punishment, he will not be able thereafter to avail himself of the Emperor’s favor [an objective reality]….A letter from the King came down from heaven. Rather, the King himself came. Without examination, without exacting an account, he set all men free from the chains of their sins [objective justification]. All, then, who run to Christ are saved by his grace and profit from his gift [subjective justification].

  5. with the proviso that this would apply only to those who believe in the Gospel  Position 1

    He only imputes the righteousness of Christ to faith.   Position 2

    Sorry – I don’t see any difference here.   

    Jesus paid for, made satisfaction for, and earned forgiveness for the sins of the whole world – Position 2    This is as reassuring to me as saying “God sat on his throne and decreed that the entire race of mankind was absolved of their crimes of sin”  – Position 1

    Anyhow, thanks for your good summary.

  6. @John Rixe #6

    Is there a difference between the following two statements:

    “God’s word says that I am forgiven; therefore, I am forgiven.”

    “God’s word says that I am forgiven, and I believe it; therefore, I am forgiven.”

    I would say that there is. In the first, there is something for the wandering Christian to come back to; in the second, there is not, since the very thing that is in question (whether or not I believe) is the very thing that ostensibly determines whether one’s own sins were, in fact, forgiven by Christ on the cross.

    The latter proposition requires “reflexive faith.” I borrow the term from John Halton, who cites an Anglican father, Phillip Cary, below (all emphases Halton’s):

    What faith says, fundamentally, is “God speaks the truth.” Only secondarily, and not fundamentally, faith may also say, “I believe.” But faith may also say, “My faith is weak” or “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief” or “I have sinned in my unbelief and denied my Lord, like Peter the apostle.”

    Faith may confess its own unbelief. What it cannot do, if it is to remain faith at all, is stop clinging to the truth of God’s Word. For faith does not rely on faith, but on the Word of God.

    This has important pastoral consequences, particularly in relation to those who suffer doubt and despair about their faith (what Luther called Anfechtung):

    If you want to build people up in faith, you have to direct their attention to the Word of God, not to their faith. But don’t direct them to some general principle – direct them to their baptism, and remind them that when they were baptized it was Christ himself who, through the mouth of the minister, said “I baptize you” and he meant you in particular.

    As Cary continues:

    [It is] much easier to confess, “Christ is no liar” than to profess, “I believe” – especially if what that is supposed to mean is: “I have true faith in my heart, I truly, really trust in God,” etc. For this reflective faith, faith relying on itself, is how faith becomes a work, something we must do and accomplish in order to be saved.

    Like our works, our faith will never be “good enough” in itself. It will never be entirely strong, sincere and unreserved. However, this is no cause for despair:

    My faith is not good enough, but the one I have faith in is.

    Cary concludes this section of his lecture as follows:

    If you have to make a choice between the standard Protestant agony of conscience, where you must come somehow to the conclusion that you have true saving faith, and Luther’s agony of conscience, where the only question that really matters is whether God is telling you the truth – well, take Luther’s agony of conscience. It’s the right agony to have.

    And in one form or another, it is the agony you’ll inevitably struggle with if you start with Luther’s premises about the nature of the Gospel. Honestly, in the end the only question that really matters is whether Christ is telling the truth. And there are indeed many, many times we find that hard to believe. Every time we sin, in fact.

    Faith does not make it so. It receives the promise. Otherwise one is left with the agony of conscience — is my faith real? Did God really impute Christ’s righteousness to me? (Funny how all apostasy originates with the words “Did God really say…?”) If the answer is “If and only if you really truly believe,” then, well…I think we’re all screwed. Or kidding ourselves.

    I really want to know how a pastor who does not believe in Objective Justification would offer comfort and counsel to one of his flock who is suffering from Anfechtung. Anyone?

  7. God’s word says “… but whoever does not believe will be condemned.” (Mark 16:16)  

    Both positions reflect this.

    Again, I’m not choosing sides here. I think both positions are inadequate descriptions of the indescribable. I just don’t think that we need to go on a heresy hunt.

    I’m departing in peace from this thread because I’m just repeating myself.

  8. Just one more thing 🙂

    I really want to know how a pastor who does not believe in Objective Justification would offer comfort and counsel to one of his flock who is suffering from Anfechtung. Anyone?

    Jesus paid for, made satisfaction for, and earned forgiveness for the sins of the whole world – Position 2    This is as reassuring to me as saying “God sat on his throne and decreed that the entire race of mankind was absolved of their crimes of sin”  – Position 1

  9. Notice how many people in the Gospels were pronounced “forgiven” (justified) without confession or repentance-the woman caught in adultery, the woman at the well, etc.

  10. @Trent Demarest #107

    “I told you that you would die in your sins, for you will die in your sins unless you believe that I am he” (Jesus’ words).

    How is it that the sin of unbelief is solely the only sin to be paid for in hell? This according to John 8:24 is unbiblical. So, why would you hold to the position that the only sins people pay for is the sin of unbelief? Did you forget Jesus’ words in John 8:24? Let’s not explain that text away but take it at face value like other texts that speak on atonement.

    Because of Mercy

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