Subjective Justification

Recap and Intro

Justification: God’s declaration of righteousness, which also establishes someone in a state of righteousness.  This can only happen because someone’s sins are forgiven.  (“Justification” can also refer to someone revealing his righteousness by how he lives, for example, in much of James.)

Christ, in His saving work, justified the entire world.  Before He died, Jesus cried from the cross, “It is completed” (John 19:30), completing what He came to do—save us.  This is now an objective reality.

So within our timeline of history, this is what we find.

Romans 5:18-19:

So then, just as condemnation for all people came through one transgression [Adam’s Fall into sin], so also through one righteous act [Jesus’s salvation for us] there is justification and life for all people.  For just as through one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so also through the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.  [Note: “the many” is a Hebrew idiom meaning “all people.”]

The Apostle Paul contrasts the first Adam with the second Adam, Jesus Christ.  The first Adam brought death; the second Adam, Jesus Christ, brought life.  The sin of the first resulted in universal condemnation; the obedience and sacrifice of the second brought universal (or objective) justification.

The Personal Receiving of Christ’s Objective and Universal Work

Subjective justification is the person personally and individually receiving, through faith, the justification Jesus earned.  Subjectively speaking, no one is righteous apart from faith in Christ.  Is this a contradiction?  No, for faith is the way God designed someone to receive this objective verdict.

Again, we consider this passage from 1 Timothy 4:10: to this end [godliness] we toil and strive because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe.

  • Last week, we focused on “all people.”  Today, we focus on “those who believe”?  How does “those who believe” complete the truth of those who are saved?

John 3:16: This is how God loved the world: He gave His only Son so everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.

  • Last week, we focused on how God loved the world, resulting in His death to save us.  How does belief (and the baptism which Jesus spoke of earlier to Nicodemus) now tie into being saved?

Read Luke 18:9-14

The Pharisee in the Temple, whose righteousness was in himself, was not justified.  The tax collector, whose righteousness was in Christ, was justified.

  • Discuss how this shows the necessity of “subjective justification.”

The completed, objective reality of God’s “not guilty” verdict in Christ is real.  It is an-already, accomplished fact and reality.  God’s verdict of “not-guilty” stands for the entire world, regardless of knowledge or belief.  Nevertheless, this truth must become personal for each person to receive the benefits of God’s verdict.  This is where faith enters the picture.

The Apostle Paul taught this same truth.  In a sermon, he followed his presentation of “objective justification” by a declaration of “subjective justification”:

So, brothers, I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you [objectively, an-already accomplished fact by Jesus Christ].  Everyone who believes in him is justified from every sin [the objective work of Christ applied personally, subjectively], a justification you could not obtain under the Law of Moses. [Acts 13:38-39].

A Romp through Our Lutheran Confessions

Let’s now delve within Lutheranism.  Our Lutheran Confessions present justification in the following way.  In our shortest statement of what we believe, the Augsburg Confession, this is what we find.  Article 3 describes the work of Christ on the cross as a Sacrifice for all sin, which is something He objectively did regardless of one’s belief.

[Christ] is true God and true human being who truly “was born, suffered, was crucified, died, and was buried to be both a sacrifice, not only for original sin but also for all other sins and to conciliate God’s wrath. [AC, III]

Next, Article 4 describes Christ sacrifice for us on the cross both in objective and subjective terms.

…we cannot obtain forgiveness of sin and righteousness before God through our merit, work, or satisfactions.  No, we receive forgiveness of sin and become righteous before God out of grace for because of Christ
through faith [subjective justification]… [AC, IV]

Article 5 tells us how the Holy Spirit brings about this faith, this subjective justification within the person.

To obtain such faith God instituted the Office of Preaching, giving the Gospel and the Sacraments.  Through these, as through means, he gives the Holy Spirit, who produces faith, where and when He wills, in those who hear the Gospel. [AC V]

From our Formula of Concord: “The only essential and necessary elements of justification are the grace of God, the merit of Christ, and faith which accepts these in the promise of the Gospel” (Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration, section III, para 25). 

The Formula speaks of both objective and subjective justification, but also organizes them in a pattern. 

  1. The grace of God
  2. The merit of Christ
  3. The promise of the Gospel
  4. Faith

The first three items are “objective,” what God does.  The fourth, faith, completes the list.  All four define and describe justification in the full biblical sense and usage.

Again from our Confessions: “When a man believes that his sins are forgiven because of Christ and that God is reconciled and favorably disposed to him because of Christ, this personal faith obtains the forgiveness of sins and justifies us” (Apology, Section IV, para 45).

Why Faith is Required

What is “faith”?  Faith is not relegated to the realm of facts, such as merely knowing the facts about Jesus’ life and death.  It is trusting in the promises and actions of God. 

  • Proverbs 3:5: Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own understanding.
  • Isaiah 28:16: Look, I have laid a stone in Zion, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone for a sure foundation: The one who trusts will be unshakable.

Faith relies on Christ’s completed work of salvation.  “The one who believes in him [Jesus] is not condemned” (John 3:18).  “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see” (Hebrews 11:1).

Although our human reason and intellect try and should try to understand faith (the intellectual grasping of the trust we have in Christ), faith itself is not the product of human reason, intellect, or will.  Faith is a gift from God: “For you are saved by grace through faith–and this is not from yourselves, it [faith] is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8-9). 

The Holy Spirit places the gift of faith within someone, without any spiritual cooperation on the part of the person. 

  • Ephesians 2:1, 5: As for you, you were once dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and its spiritual ruler….  Although we were dead in transgressions, God made us alive with Christ.  You are saved by grace!
  • Colossians 2:13: When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ and forgave us all our sins. 

The Subjective in only Real because of the Objective

The Holy Spirit works faith in us, without our spiritual collaboration or cooperation.  That’s why, despite us being physically alive and able to do physical and mental things, Scripture says:

  • “No one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:3). 
  • “So then it [the application of God’s mercy to the individual] does not depend on human will or effort, but on God’s mercy” (Romans 9:16).

Faith does not, and cannot, create anything new because God gives faith to us.  Thus, faith doesn’t bring anything into existence but can only believe in what already exists.  

  • “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6, Romans 4:9).  The passive voice shows us God credited Abraham’s faith as righteousness. 

This reinforces why faith is a “gift,” which can only believe in and rely on the objective reality of God’s completed salvation in Christ.  Faith trusts in the universal truth of God’s forgiveness found only in Jesus Christ.  This means subjective justification cannot exist without objective justification.  Someone believes in something only because it is already true (or he believes to be true).  Believing in something does not make something true.

Remember the causes of our salvation: The grace of God and the works of Christ.  Nothing inside us, including faith, is the cause of our salvation—God is!

Justification: One or Two?

Though we divide justification into two categories, this is to help us understand justification better.  In reality, two different justifications do not exist.  Only one does, the justification by Christ’s blood.  When the Gospel comes to us, creating and effecting faith within us, the Gospel does not achieve or cause forgiveness but gives us Christ’s cross-won forgiveness.

  • The forgiveness is from Christ.
  • The Gospel is how God delivers this the objective reality of forgiveness to the person.
  • Holy-Spirit created faith within the person subjectively receives Jesus’ objective forgiveness.

The Application or Objective and Subjective Justification in the Christian’s Life

The Law (what God expects of us) and the Gospel (what we have in Christ) are lenses which help us understand and apply the Scriptures.  Based on the Law, God’s favor is conditional, with His forgiveness only coming if someone meets His standard.  The problem is no one can meet God’s standard and so no one is forgiven.  “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:38).

The Gospel tells us Jesus did everything required and so, in Him, you are forgiven.  The Law shows us as complete failures but the Gospel declares us first-place winners.  This is a paradox.  A similar paradox exists with objective justification and subjective justification. 

When speaking to Christian who understand forgiveness as a license to sin, you must not, as Jesus said, “give dogs what is holy [or]… throw your pearls before pigs” (Matthew 7:6).  No, you speak according to the Law: “Repent!  If you do not repent, your sins are not forgiven.”  This holds out forgiveness as conditional, for according to the Law, it is always conditional.  The Law, which censures and calls someone to repentance, is never certain, except in its inevitable condemnation.

Consider Peter’s reaction on Pentecost day: “Now when they heard [Peter’s sermon] they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Brothers, what must we do?’”  They asked a Law question and Peter, at first, responded with a Law answer: “Repent…” 

Of course, they needed to repent.  From what?  From needing to do anything to be saved.  However, repenting in itself won’t save.  Still, they do need to turn away, repent, from needing to do something to be saved—if not, anything they do will just get in the way, causing them not to rely fully on Christ. 

Peter then continued: “… be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ [the baptism He instituted] for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”  The passive voice shows salvation is God’s doing.  God will save them through baptism, even as He is causing them not to look to their works as contributing to their salvation.

Similarly, the willfully sinning Christian also needs to turn away from his sin, which, likewise, doesn’t actually save him.  However, he needs to realize his sin has become his “God,” which is separating him from the universality of what Christ did for all.  This is to bring the Christian to grieve his sins.

When speaking to the repentant, to those troubled by their sins, we speak the Gospel in all its pure, unconditional, joyful, and precious beauty.  “God forgives—you—of your sins!  The blood of Jesus, God’s Son, cleanses you from all your sin.  Your sins are forgiven.”

Next week, why some are saved and some are not.