In the 1970s, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod’s controversy over the historicity of certain biblical accounts was prominent in the press. Just when things were getting back to normal, a new controversy over objective justification has broken out.

The terms objective and subjective justification are rarely used outside Missouri Synod circles and few others are aware of what they mean. The terms refer not to two justifications, but to only one act viewed from divine and human perspectives. Objective justification is that one-time judicial and forensic act of God by which he pronounces, declares, and regards all men as righteous in his sight. The doctrine was never intended to teach that all men, even unbelievers, are in themselves righteous. This pronouncement of justification of all men is founded in Christ’s universal atonement by his death for all sins, and in his resurrection. The doctrine is thus also known as universal justification.

God has put away his wrath in the atoning death of Christ and views all men in Christ’s resurrection as acceptable to him. Objective indicates that it is God’s act alone, which he accomplished in and through Christ, and is prior to faith. Universal is used because all men are embraced. Objective justification is no mere theological abstraction, but the overarching reality that gives substance to the gospel preaching.

Parallel to objective justification is God’s universal condemnation of the world in Adam and because of him. Though “objective condemnation” is not used, all men are condemned because they have sinned in Adam even though they have not individually and personally committed sins. Objective justification follows the universal condemnation of the world as the new overarching reality in God’s sight. As in Adam all have sinned, so in Christ all have been justified. Adam took the initiative in bringing sins to all, but in Christ God brought justification to all. As God looked upon all men as present in Adam and condemned them for his sin, so God looks now upon all men as assumed into Christ and regards them as righteous.

Objective justification is essential to the proclamation of the gospel since in it the preacher declares to the believer and unbeliever alike something God has already done, not something he intends to do. Justification of the world is accomplished reality and forms the actual content of the preached message. The preaching of Christ, as the atonement for sins is itself the preaching of justification.

Subjective justification refers to the personal reception by faith of the proclamation that in Christ all sins are forgiven. It is only the other side of the same coin. What is viewed as accomplished by God is in time apprehended by faith. God’s justification of the world in Christ becomes a reality within the individual by faith. But faith cannot be looked upon as a cause or a thing; its value rests in that it grasps the forgiveness God has procured in Christ. It must be understood in the process of justification as sole receptivity.

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Objective justification is only a restatement of the two great Reformation principles: sola gratia, salvation by grace alone, which means that in Christ God has accomplished everything necessary for all men’s salvation; and sola fide, by faith alone, which reinforces sola gratia by denying to man any part in salvation and refers to the passive condition in which man receives God’s benefits. Where these principles are not kept in proper perspective, the very content of the church’s message is changed so that sermons about faith and the Christian life replace the proclamation of God’s act in Christ.

Some see real dangers in the concept of objective justification, or at least with the terminology. The objection that the phrase itself is not found in Scripture cannot be taken too seriously, since much important dogmatic terminology (Trinity, one substance, inerrancy) is not taken directly from the Bible.

A more important objection is that objective justification implies or leads to universalism. Just as atonement and justification should not be confused, so should justification and salvation also be kept distinct. Justification refers to God’s prior view of the world as a result of Christ’s universal atonement for sin. Salvation is an eschatologically oriented doctrine in that it refers to how God will view the world on the Last Day.

Still another objection to objective justification is that while Scripture indeed distinguishes between those who are good and just from those who are bad and unjust, objective justification is said to ignore this distinction. But the gospel—the preaching of atonement and justification—actually brings to men caught in the dilemma of their own awareness of sin the way God now views the world in Christ. Scriptures are clearly eschatological that inform us of God’s good pleasure over those who have accepted the gospel and his displeasure over those who have in fact rejected his universal atonement and justification. Objective justification is misapplied if the eschatological distinction between believers and unbelievers is eradicated.

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Without objective justification, justification deteriorates from a theocentric act to an anthropocentric one. Though justification actualizes itself by faith within time in each generation, it remains an act perfectly accomplished by God in Christ. It gives justification “objective” and “universal” dimensions. Christ appears before the Father for atonement as not only one man, but as the representative man who has assumed all humanity into himself. This justification is objective because it happens prior to human knowledge or cooperation, and it is universal since it embraces all men.

The doctrine is also not without consequences for the church’s preaching obligations. Unless justification is prior to faith—but without ever denying that it actualizes itself in faith—the gospel is no longer indicative in describing an already existing condition of God’s contentment with the world, but it becomes a conditional offering of terms that must first be fulfilled before and in order for the sinner to be justified. Conditional justification, even if it is dependent on faith, is no longer an act that God universally accomplished for all men in Christ; it degenerates into separate happenings occurring in the life of each individual believer. The theocentric or Christocentric view of justification is lost to an anthropocentric one. The gospel is not what God has done in Christ but what God intends to do within the believer. Sanctification has replaced justification as the content of the gospel.

The doctrine of objective justification intends to preserve the concept that the question of salvation must be answered in Christ, not in the believer. It does not allow it ever to be answered by an introspective gaze into faith, but insists that all concerns be resolved by God’s act of justification in Christ outside of man.

The last volley in this controversy has not been fired, especially with extra heat to be provided by a July church convention. Some light may be shed if the controversy gives the church an opportunity to reevaluate and appreciate what this doctrine intends to teach.

DAVID P. SCAERDr. Scaer is associate professor of systematic theology at Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

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