The Doctrine of Objective Justification

The Doctrine of Objective Justification September 25, 2014

This is an excerpt from a book I am currently writing on the ordo salutis:

Though traditional Reformation theology has emphasized the redemptive nature of Christ’s life and death, the resurrection has often failed to have a function beyond simply proving that what Christ did in his death was accepted by God the Father.[1] For Paul, however, Jesus was “raised for our justification” (Rom. 4:25). Luther expands upon this statement saying:

His victory is a victory over the Law, sin, our flesh, the world, the devil, death, hell, and all evils; and this victory he has given to us. Even though these tyrants, our enemies, accuse us and terrify us, they cannot drive us into despair or condemn us. For Christ, whom God the Father raised from the dead, is the victor over them, and He is our righteousness.[2]

Christ is our righteousness precisely because he has risen from the dead. His resurrection is a victory over the powers of evil, and through faith his victory becomes that of the believer.

Richard Gaffin argues that the resurrection is a much more central doctrine in Pauline theology than has often been admitted. Citing 1 Tim. 3:16, he argues that Christ, at his resurrection, was vindicated or justified. Though certainly not an instance of the “justification of the ungodly” (Rom. 4:5), there must be some sense in which Christ himself is placed into a justified state. Gaffin contends that “his being raised on account of our justification identifies him with us in the justifying verdict inevitable attendant on the righteousness which he himself established for us.”[3] What Christ accomplishes for himself in his resurrection is then granted to his people by faith.[4]

Many Lutheran theologians have connected Christ’s resurrection to an objective act of justification. This objective justification is something that Christ accomplished for the entire human race at his resurrection. Christ, through the incarnation, united himself to all of humanity. Since humanity itself is in him, all that happened to Christ in his life affects the human race in toto. Johann Gerhard writes:

By raising Christ from the dead God absolved him for our sins which had been imputed to him, and consequently he also absolved us in him. In the resurrection of Christ we are absolved from our sins, so that they are not able to condemn us any more before God.[5]

There is a sense, then, in which sins are forgiven upon the action of Christ’s resurrection prior to the act of faith.

The distinction between objective and subjective justification developed in the nineteenth century to distinguish between the historia salutis act of justification at Christ’s resurrection, and the ordo salutis reality of the reception of justification. The objective act of justification placed upon Christ in the historia salutis is the grounds for subjective justification in the ordo salutis. These are not two separate justifications, but the subjective is merely one’s reception of the objective verdict. Walther explains that at his resurrection, “Christ is now free and declared now and forever free of all debt and penalties taken by him, it means, in a Word, that he is absolved.”[6] Christ encapsulated all of humanity within himself, and thus the absolution placed upon Christ is consequently the absolution of all humanity. Walther argues: “Christ’s life is the life of all people, Christ’s proclamation of freedom, all people’s proclamation of freedom, Christ’s justification, all people’s justification, Christ’s absolution all people’s absolution.”[7] This universal absolution is what is distributed through the means of grace presently and subjectively. The sacraments do not save in and of themselves, but do so because “The resurrection of Christ from the dead alone is what also turns the means of grace, holy Baptism and the Lord’s Supper into real means of grace, that is, into heavenly vessels, in which is contained the absolution by God in Christ.”[8] The entire ordo salutis is founded upon objective justification.

The natural objection to this teaching of objective justification is the fear that such a teaching posits all individual’s sins to be forgiven and thus leads to universalism. While certain approaches to this teaching may suggest such a doctrine, this is not necessitated by the doctrine of objective justification per say. Walther answers this objection writing:

To every real giving of a gift belongs two parties, one who gives the gift and a second person who receives the gift…What good does it do the world that Christ also actually redeemed it and has reconciled God while the world, in self-righteous blindness, wants to redeem and reconcile itself?[9]

Without the reception of the Gospel in faith, the universal and objective absolution pronounced by God the Father at the moment of Christ’s resurrection cannot save.

The teaching of objective justification is a thoroughly Scriptural one. In Romans 5, Paul articulates the different roles of Adam and Christ in the history of salvation. Throughout this text, Paul parallels the punishments coming from Adam, namely sin and death, with the benefits given by Christ, namely righteousness and life. Those who deny the teaching of objective justification posit that Paul is not making an exact parallel in terms of those who Adam represents and those who Christ represents. The text does not, however, give any grounds for making such a claim. Paul writes:

For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many. And the free gift is not like the result of that one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification. For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ. Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. (Rom. 5:15-18)

The text, in paralleling the work of Adam and Christ, uses equivalent language to refer to those affected by their respective actions. The “many” died through Adam’s trespass, and the “many” have the free gift of grace. Commensurate with this, Paul then speaks about “all men” receiving condemnation, and “all men” receiving righteousness and life. The distinction between objective and subjective justification allows one to adopt the most clear reading of these universal texts, while still denying the unbiblical conclusion of universal salvation.

[1] Pieper, for example, has just over two pages on the doctrine of the resurrection. See Pieper, Christian Dogmatics, 2:320-23.

[2] LW 26, 9.

[3] Gaffin, Resurrection and Redemption, 123.

[4] Many Pauline interpreters have noted the eschatological significance of justification in its connection with the final resurrection. For example, Kasemann argues that justification as used in Romans 4 means: “an eschatological [act] of the Judge at the last day which takes place proleptically in the present.”[4]

[5] (Excitando Christum a mortuis absolvit eum Deus a peccatis nostris ipsi imputatis, ac proinde etiam nos in ipso absolvit. – In Christi resurrectione a peccatis nostris sumus absoluti, ut non amplius coram Dei iudicio nos condemnare possint.) (Johann Gerhard, quoted in Our Great Heritage [Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House, 1991], Vol. 3, p. 42) This citation was found, along with several other helpful quotes on objective justification at: Objective Justification Quotations, <http://www.angelfire.com/ny4/djw/OJQuotations.pdf>

[6] From Our Master’s Table, 72.

[7] From our Master’s Table, 72.

[8] From out Master’s Table, 73.

[9] From our Master’s Table, 73.

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