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.
9 Ph. D. Burk, Rechtfertigung und Versicherung, p. 41
10 Pederson 166
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.