What is the objective/subjective justification controversy all about?

The intended points of a properly-explained objective/subjective justification teaching have always been a part of Lutheran doctrine. But these points were brought out with greater clarity and emphasis, and with the use of some new terminology, at the time of a nineteenth-century controversy between the Norwegian Synod and the Augustana Synod over the nature and character of absolution. The Augustana Synod said, basically, that absolution is an expression of a divine wish for forgiveness, but that without faith on the part of the recipient, there is no actual forgiveness being offered. The Norwegian Synod said, in contrast, that absolution is a real divine impartation of forgiveness. Forgiveness for all is objectively present in, and offered through, absolution. This is so because humanity’s forgiveness in Christ is an objective reality, through the death and resurrection of Jesus. And this objective forgiveness or justification of humanity, in Christ, is the content and power of absolution – and of the means of grace in general.

Absolution, and the means of grace in general, deliver this forgiveness to penitent sinners. When individuals believe the divine word of forgiveness, they are, by that faith, justified in the “subjective” sense. Those without faith do not receive the absolution, or benefit from it. But their absolution was objectively there for them in the Word of Christ, since the absolution of the world is there, for the world, in the Word of Christ.

No individuals as individuals are justified in the “objective” sense except for Jesus. Jesus suffered and died as the representative of all humanity, and was condemned by God the Father on behalf of all humanity. In Christ’s condemnation, all humanity was vicariously condemned. On the third day, Jesus rose from the dead – still as the representative of all humanity – and was, in his resurrection, thereby vindicated and justified by God the Father on behalf of all humanity. In Christ’s justification, all humanity was vicariously justified. This is the completed gospel that is now proclaimed, delivered, and applied to penitent sinners, in and through the means of grace; and that is received by them, individually, by faith alone.

Again, these basic points have always been the teaching of Confessional Lutheranism. The terminology and the emphasis have varied, but the essential teaching of an objective justification of Christ, in the stead of the world and on behalf of the world, has always been held. This fact is demonstrated in these assembled quotations from Luther, Gerhard, and others.

I will draw attention to the form of teaching employed by Johann Gerhard in particular, since he is quite clear in making the same essential point that the later teaching of “objective justification” also sought to make. Gerhard acknowledged the significance of the “justification” of the divine-human Christ in his resurrection, when he noted that, according to “the apostolic teaching in 1 Timothy 3:16, God was manifested in the flesh, justified in the Spirit (namely through the resurrection by God the Father), that is, he was absolved of the sins of the whole world, which he as Sponsor took upon himself, so that he might make perfect satisfaction for them to God the Father. Moreover in rising from the dead he showed by this very fact that satisfaction has been made by him for these sins, and all of the same have been expiated by the sacrifice of his death.” Gerhard said this in the context of also making the point that the later “subjective justification” teaching sought to make, noting that “Because Christ arose, we are therefore no longer in sins, since most assuredly full and perfect satisfaction has been made for them, and because in the resurrection of Christ we are absolved of our sins, so that they no longer can condemn us before the judgment bar of God. … This power of the resurrection of Christ includes not only the application of the righteousness that avails before God, but also the actual absolution from sins, and even the blessed resurrection to life, since by virtue of the resurrection of Christ we are freed from the corporal and spiritual death of sins.” These statements are from Gerhard’s Disputationes Theologicae (Jena, 1655), XX, p. 1450 (emphases added).

At its best, the current controversy over objective justification is a battle over words, freighted with much misunderstanding and confusion. At its worst, however, it may represent – in the case of some of the opponents of objective justification – a denial of the complete objectivity of the forgiveness of sins that is offered and delivered through the means of grace to penitent sinners. What absolution offers is not a potential forgiveness, to be actualized in faith. Absolution offers instead a real and accomplished forgiveness in Christ, to be received by faith. If you believe the latter, rather than the former, then you believe in objective justification.

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