I. Justification is in Jesus.

Justification is the declaration of God that because of the suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ, the sins of the world have been forgiven, and God is reconciled with all people. All who believe this, that is, all who have faith in the suffering and death of Christ for their sins, are declared righteous by God, received into grace, and made heirs of eternal life.

Justification is the doctrine on which the Church either stands or falls because Justification, above all things, is in Christ. Christ is both the cause of justification (Rom 5:18) and the Justifier (Isa. 53:11). His blood, His death, and His resurrection are themselves the justification of the world (Rom. 5:9, 4:25).

The doctrine of justification, when properly understood, embraces the cause of justification, the means by which it is applied, and the justification of the individual by faith:

In the pure doctrine of justification, as our Lutheran church has presented it again from God’s Word and placed it on the lamp-stand, it is above all a matter of three points: 1) Of the doctrine of the universal, perfect redemption of the world through Christ; 2) Of the doctrine of the power and efficacy of the means of grace; and 3) Of the doctrine of faith. (Justification — Objective and Subjective, Doctrinal essay read at the First Convention of the Synodical Conference, 1872. Tr. Kurt Marquardt, p. 1. Hereafter referred to as SCJ).

II. Objective Justification is part of the Universal Atonement

The term Objective Justification, as it is used today, was adopted in the 19th century to describe an aspect of the Universal Atonement. Properly speaking, Objective Justification teaches that not only is the death of Christ sufficient to atone for the sins of the World, and not only has the debt of sin been paid by Christ, but that God has, in a forensic act, declared the sins of the world forgiven, imputed the righteousness of Christ to the world, and reconciled all people to God. When John the Baptist declared, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world,” (John 1:29) this was a declaration that Jesus, in His own person, is the justification of all men, and that He has not only earned the forgiveness of sins, but has taken away the sins of the world. The Universal Atonement is not complete, and indeed, is no atonement at all, if it is merely the potential for forgiveness, or a treasure of merit that could be applied at a later time. No, rather, what Christ by His blood and death has earned, has also been applied by God to the world. (Rom 5:18).

We agree with Robert Preus:

If God was not reconciled by the saving work of Christ, if His wrath against sin was not appeased by Christ’s sacrifice, if God did not respond to the perfect obedience and suffering and death of His Son for the sins of the world by forgiveness, by declaring the sinful world to be righteous in Christ — if all this were not so, if something remains to be done by us or through us or in us, then there is no finished atonement. But Christ said, ‘It is finished.’ And God raised Him from the dead and justified Him, pronounced Him, the sin bearer, righteous (I Timothy 3:16) and thus in Him pronounced the entire world of sinners righteous (Romans 4:25). … Objective justification is not a mere metaphor, a figurative way of expressing the fact that Christ died for all and paid for the sins of all. Objective justification has happened, it is the actual acquittal of the entire world of sinners for Christ’s sake. Neither does the doctrine of objective justification refer to the mere possibility of the individual’s justification through faith, to a mere potentiality which faith completes when one believes in Christ. Justification is no more a mere potentiality or possibility than Christ’s atonement. The doctrine of objective justification points to the real justification of all sinners for the sake of Christ’s atoning work “before” we come to faith in Christ. (President’s Message, “Objective Justification,” Concordia Theological Seminary Newsletter, Spring 1981.)

III. All persons of the Trinity Justify

It is not only the Father who justifies, but all three persons of the Trinity justify. In most places in Scripture, the justifying persons of the Trinity are not denoted, but Scripture simply states the God justifies (Rom. 3:30; 4:5; 8:33; Gal. 3:8). When a specific person of the Trinity is noted, it is either the Father (Rom. 8:30; Isa. 50:8) or the Son (Rom. 3:26; Gal. 2:17; Isa. 53:11). Occasionally the Holy Spirit is mentioned in connection with Justification (1 Tim. 3:16). Therefore it is improper to limit justification to an act or declaration of the Father.

The justification of Christ and the objective justification of the world are declared by the resurrection of Christ. However, one may not, because of this, limit justification to an act of the Father, nor limit objective justification to the resurrection of Christ, nor thereby deny that Christ is also justifying us from His cross. Indeed, the proper office of the Son is that of Redeemer and Savior. It is not only the Father who declares us righteous, but the blood of Christ itself justifies us (Rom. 5:9).

IV. The distinction between Objective and Subjective Justification

In the narrow, or proper sense, justification, or the act of justifying, speaks of what God does concerning the individual, whom He, by faith, declares righteous. This is usually, but not exclusively, the sense in which the term is used in Scripture and the Confessions.

Nevertheless, even in the narrow sense, justification is not strictly distinguished from its preceding causes, namely the universal atonement and justification of the world. One cannot say that there are two isolated acts of justification, one in Christ and another in the individual, nor even that subjective justification is a separate justifying action of God that is contingent on a previous justification of the world. There is only one justification, that which God has declared concerning the world, by virtue of the vicarious death and resurrection of Christ. All justification is in Christ.

Faith justifies, that is, God counts faith as righteousness (which is the same as to say that God imputes righteousness by faith) because faith receives what God has already accomplished in Christ, and declared concerning the world. To deny this would be to deny what Scripture clearly teaches concerning what God was doing in Christ: “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them, and has committed to us the word of reconciliation. Now then, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were pleading through us: we implore you on Christ’s behalf, be reconciled to God. For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” (2 Cor. 5:19–21).

To say that faith justifies because it receives God’s declaration of the world’s righteousness in no way denies that in subjective justification, God is making a forensic declaration concerning that specific individual, declaring him to be righteous, receiving him into grace, and making him an heir of eternal life. Scripture does not contradict itself. God has indeed, through the death of Christ, cancelled the debt of sin: “And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses, having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross” (Col. 2:13, 14). But it remains true, nevertheless that “to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness” (Rom. 4:5).

The confessions speak of justifying faith as that which apprehends the merit of Christ and the forgiveness of sins. This is the same as saying that faith apprehends justification, for to justify, to absolve, and to forgive sins are the same thing:

We believe, teach, and confess that according to the usage of Scripture the word “justify” means in this article “absolve,” that is, pronounce free from sin. (FC EP, III, 7).

The Synodical Conference points to this statement to demonstrate that whenever the confessions state that faith apprehends the forgiveness of sins, they are also saying that faith apprehends justification:

These quotations show clearly that a justification must first be in existence, which faith can accept, that faith does not have to bring it about first, but that it embraces it as already existing. But if someone were to say: Yes, forgiveness of sins indeed already exists, but not justification, he would have to be ignorant of our Confessions, which expressly teach that justification and forgiveness of sins are the same. “We believe, teach, and confess that according to the usage of Holy Scripture the word justify in this article means absolve, that is, acquit of sins” (SCJ, p. 22).

In the Smalcald Articles, Luther describes the “Chief Article” in this way:

The first and chief article is this, that Jesus Christ, our God and Lord, “was put to death for our trespasses and raised again for our justification” (Rom. 4:25).

He alone is “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). “God has laid upon him the iniquities of us all” (Isa. 53:6).

Moreover, “all have sinned,” and “they are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, by his blood” (Rom. 3:23–25).

Inasmuch as this must be believed and cannot be obtained or apprehended by any work, law, or merit, it is clear and certain that such faith alone justifies us, as St. Paul says in Romans 3, “For we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of law” (Rom. 3:28), and again, “that he [God] himself is righteous and that he justifies him who has faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:26). (SC II, I, 1–4).

Our Confessions find no contradiction at all between stating that the world is justified, and yet that faith alone justifies. In a single statement, Luther here equates believing that Christ was raised for the justification of the world, that Christ is the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world, and that we are “justified through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, by His blood,” with justifying faith itself.

Again in the Large Catechism, Luther writes:

Here again there is great need to call upon God and pray, “Dear Father, forgive us our debts.” Not that he does not forgive sin even without and before our prayer; and he gave us the Gospel, in which there is nothing but forgiveness, before we prayed or even thought of it. But the point here is for us to recognize and accept this forgiveness. (LC III, 88).

If one would here argue that “forgiveness” and “justification” are not the same thing, then he not only has overthrown all common sense, but has made both “forgiveness” and “justification” meaningless. To justify and to forgive sins are synonymous. To say that in the Gospel “there is nothing but forgiveness before we prayed or even thought of it” is the same as saying that in the Gospel there is nothing but justification before we prayed or even thought of it. The point here is for us to recognize and accept this justification.

V. The Means of Grace

All of this is to say that the justification of the individual is something that is imparted by the Means of Grace themselves. The Justification of the individual is not a declaration which God makes in heaven alone, following faith and apart from the means of grace. Such a declaration would be of no benefit to the individual, for he cannot hear it. Rather the Justification of the individual is one which God declares in the Gospel itself, concerning the individual in whom He both creates the faith which believes this, and pronounces that faith to be righteousness. We especially see this taking place in Baptism, where we baptize, for the forgiveness of sins, in the name of the the Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Thus the Psalmist declares: “My soul faints for Your salvation, But I hope in Your word” (Ps. 119:81), and again: “Unless Your law (i.e., torah, instruction) had been my delight, I would then have perished in my affliction. I will never forget Your precepts, For by them You have given me life” (119: 92, 93). And Paul declares: “Moreover, brethren, I declare to you the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received and in which you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast that word which I preached to you—unless you believed in vain” (1 Cor. 15:10). Salvation and faith come by the Word of God, that it, by the means of Grace. (Rom. 10:17).

Thus, whenever God declares the forgiveness of sins on earth in the Gospel, in Baptism, or in the Lord’s Supper, this is God Himself speaking to that individual person, and not only to mankind in general; this is God Himself, declaring from His throne in heaven, that that person’s faith has been counted as righteousness.

If one would object that the declaration of righteousness which God makes in the Gospel cannot be the forensic verdict of God on account of faith, because this declaration already existed before the person believed, then we answer: This would be true if the Gospel were the words of men. But it is not true of the Words of God, for God is always in and with His Word, and wherever His Word is declared, whether it be in preaching, in the Sacraments, or when contemplated in the heart, God Himself is speaking it, and never stops speaking it, not only to the world in general, but to each person who hears it.

When God pronounces the forgiveness of sins in Scripture, He he is speaking that word of forgiveness to every individual who hears and believes it. He is speaking as one man to another, to that individual person whom He is directly addressing. To deny this is to treat the Word of God as mere historical knowledge at worst, or at best, promises which the Word declares but which the Word itself is powerless to effect.

The Gospel is not merely a promise of what God will do, nor is the Gospel a promise of some future effect which God will perform only in heaven, but rather the Gospel both promises the forgiveness of sins, justification, and righteousness, and effects the very thing it promises, wherever it is believed.

The Formula of Concord attests this as well:

In his purpose and counsel God had ordained the following:

1. That through Christ the human race has truly been redeemed and reconciled with God and that by his innocent obedience, suffering, and death Christ has earned for us “the righteousness which avails before God” and eternal life.

2. That this merit and these benefits of Christ are to be offered, given, and distributed to us through his Word and sacraments.

3. That he would be effective and active in us by his Holy Spirit through the Word when it is preached, heard, and meditated on, would convert hearts to true repentance, and would enlighten them in the true faith.

4. That he would justify and graciously accept into the adoption of children and into the inheritance of eternal life all who in sincere repentance and true faith accept Christ. (FC SD, XI, 14–18).

This is likewise why it is necessary to preach the forgiveness of sins to all people. To all whom we preach repentance, we likewise declare the forgiveness of sins:

We must by all means cling rigidly and firmly to the fact that as the proclamation of repentance extends over all men (Luke 24:47), so also does the promise of the Gospel. Therefore Christ has commanded to preach “repentance and forgiveness of sins in his name among all nations.” … It is Christ’s command that all in common to whom repentance is preached should also have this promise of the Gospel proclaimed to them (Luke 24:47; Mark 16:15). (FC SD, XI, 28).

When Christ has commanded us to preach repentance and the forgiveness of sins to all nations, He is thereby commanding us to preach repentance and justification to all nations. This is not a justification that is mere potential, but one that has already been accomplished.

This point strikes at the very reason the doctrine of Objective Justification was distinguished from the Universal Atonement in general. The Synodical Conference writes:

We cannot emphasise enough, what is said in the Augsburg Confession: the Absolution, which is spoken to me, is always God’s Word. This means not only that the words are taken from the Bible, but: When the pastor absolves you, then that is in every case God’s Word to you, you can believe that it is God Who speaks to you through the mouth of a poor sinner: as you believe, so be it done to you. As godless as it would be if you hear: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” and would not believe this, just so it is godless when you are absolved and you say: That is not true that forgiveness is here given to me, for I am a great sinner, I do not stand in faith, etc. If the doctrine of the opponents were true, then the unbelievers would be right when they say: “Bah, what do we care what the priest says?” For then it would indeed be but an empty Word. But now their talk is so terrible for this very reason, because it is God’s Absolution which they despise and ridicule. As gold remains gold even when it is stolen or trampled into the mud, so the Absolution remains Absolution, even when it is despised by unbelievers. Just as prisoners who hear that they are pardoned, and say: But we like it here in prison; are nevertheless pardoned, so too they are absolved who do not accept the Word and what it brings. For the great King, God the Lord, has pardoned the world, and has sent out His servants to carry this message to men. (SCJ, p. 35).

It is nothing but rationalism to consider the forgiving word of the Gospel to be only a general promise of a future effect, and not the very voice of God speaking justification to the individual. Rather wherever the Gospel is proclaimed and believed, there God is directly pronouncing the individual who believes it righteous by faith from His throne in heaven. This is God’s forensic declaration of righteousness concerning the individual. At the same time as the Gospel is God’s declaration of the forgiveness of sins for the world, it is a forensic declaration here in time, concerning the individual who believes it.

VI. Antitheses

1. We reject the teaching that because of the justification of the world in and through Christ, all men are declared to be saints, written into the book of life, received into grace, and made heirs of eternal life. On the contrary, because faith alone justifies and receives the forgiveness of sins, without faith a man stands condemned to eternal death. As the Synodical Conference puts it:

When God now looks at the world in this respect, in which satisfaction has been made for it and its debt paid by His Son, then He sees it as a reconciled world. But now the individual comes along and rejects this reconciliation: him God cannot regard otherwise than with eternal burning wrath, since he is without Christ. (SCJ, p. 10).

2. We reject the teaching that because of objective justification, the only sin that damns is the sin of unbelief. On the contrary, though unbelief may be identified as that sin which distinguishes the children of wrath from the children of God, nevertheless without faith all a man’s sins are counted against him, and he stands condemned under the Law of God. To deny this would be to deny the Law itself, contradict every proclamation of the Law in Scripture, and make it impossible to preach the Law to the impenitent.

3. We reject the teaching that the justification of the world in Christ was a justification of the world as a categorical whole, or was the justification of Christ alone, and the world in only a representative sense, but not of the individuals in the world. We further reject the idea that because every individual in the world is part of the justification of men in general, that men are not justified by faith. On the contrary, the justification of the world was God’s absolution of every individual in the world, and this absolution is apprehended by faith alone. The SC and Luther:

If it be asked whether one can say that the totality of mankind indeed is absolved, but not individuals, It must be answered: God is reconciled through Christ with all and with every individual. Yet a judgment must be pronounced over every individual person, either of absolution or of condemnation. Luther says about this:

The dearest and most comforting doctrine of the Gospel says nothing of works, which are commanded in God’s Law or by men; but it preaches and teaches only of the incomprehensible, inexpressible mercy and love of God, which He has shown towards us unworthy and condemned sinners; … therefore He sent His only-begotten Son into the world, threw all sins of all men on Him, … There comes at once the Law, accuses Him and says: Here I find this One among the sinners, yes, Him Who has taken all men’s sins upon Himself and carries them, and besides this I see no sin in the whole world, anymore, except on Him alone; therefore He shall yield Himself and die the death of the Cross. Thus the Law with its accusation and terror presses upon Him with full force and slays Him. Through this innocent death of Christ the whole world is purified and released from sin and thereby redeemed from death and from all evil. Since now through this one Mediator between God and men, Jesus Christ, sin and death have been taken away, the whole world would indeed be so pure that our Lord God could see nothing in it except pure righteousness and holiness—If only we could believe it. … But the old sack that still hangs about our neck does not let us come to such certain faith. Therefore it is highly necessary that we press unceasingly the article of the righteousness which we have in Christ. … And just this argument which St. Paul treats here is very fitting and powerful against all sorts of righteousness of the law, not to mention the straw righteousness of human ordinances. For of these two things one must certainly and indisputably be true: Namely, if all the world’s sins lie on the single man Jesus Christ, as the Holy Spirit testifies through Isaiah 53:6, then of course they do not lie on the world; but if they do not lie on Him, then, without fail, they must certainly still lie on the world. Again, if Christ Himself has become guilty of all our sins, which we have ever committed, then we are indeed absolved, free, and acquitted of all sins; but this has not happened through ourselves, our works or merit, but through Him; but if He is innocent and does not bear our sins, then we must bear them ourselves, and die and eternally perish under them, as under a heavy and unbearable burden. To God be praise and thanks, Who has given us victory and conquest through Jesus Christ, our dear Lord, Amen (Galatians Commentary, VIII, pp. 2172ff.) (SCJ pp. 11–12).

4. We reject the teaching that all men are elected to eternal life.

5. We reject the notion that any of the following statements are contradictory: All are justified. A man is justified by faith alone. Without faith, the debt of sin remains. The Synodical Conference responds to this notion thusly:

If it be asked how this is to be rhymed that on the one hand Scripture teaches that through Christ’s resurrection the whole world is absolved, and that on the other hand it testifies that the debt remains on the unbelievers, as long as they continue in unbelief, it must be answered: One must distinguish two ways in which God regards men. When God regards the world in Christ, His Son, He looks at it with the most fervent love; but when He regards the world outside of Christ, then He cannot look at it otherwise than with burning wrath. Whoever therefore does not believe in Christ, yes rejects Christ, upon him the wrath of God remains, despite the fact that when God regards him In His Son, and remembers how He has made satisfaction also for him, then He looks upon him with eyes full of love. … When God now looks at the world in this respect, in which satisfaction has been made for it and its debt paid by His Son, then He sees it as a reconciled world. But now the individual comes along and rejects this reconciliation: him God cannot regard otherwise than with eternal burning wrath, since he is without Christ. Speaking according to the acquisition of salvation, He is wroth with no man any longer, but speaking according to the appropriation (Züegnung) He is wroth with everyone who is not in Christ. ­… Now it is the Lutheran way: if we find two sorts of things in God's Word, which we cannot rhyme, then we let both stand and believe both, just as it reads. Yet in this there is no contradiction, that Holy Scripture teaches both: God loves the world and hates the unbelievers; one must simply add mentally (hinzugedacht): in another respect. (SCJ, pp. 10–11).

For further reference, please refer to this brief analysis of Objective Justification in the Lutheran Confessions.