It may appear from the title in the line above as though this chapter on the “doctrine of the standing and the falling church,” the most fundamental doctrine of all, were departing from the principle of avoiding in this book the technical terminology of theological discussion. We intend, however, no real departure from this principle, any more than in previous chapters on “The Holy Trinity” and “The Vicarious Atonement.” While it is true that Holy Scripture does not use the terms “objective” and “subjective” in its presentation of the doctrine of justification, it does present this doctrine in some passages as a non-imputation or forgiveness of the sins of the whole world, pronounced by God on the basis of Christ’s vicarious atonement, without reference to the faith of the individual or prior to such faith (as, for instance, 2 Cor. 5:19; Rom. 5:18; 4:25), and in other passages as a non-imputation or forgiveness of the sins of the individual, grasped by personal faith (as, for instance, Rom. 3:28; 4:5, 16), this Scriptural distinction being then conveniently designated by the terms objective or universal, and subjective or personal, respectively. We are accustomed to use the term “objective” concerning truths which are valid apart from human appropriation or acceptance of them, whereas those same truths are “subjectively” appropriated when an individual becomes aware of them and applies them to himself by a believing acceptance of them. There can be no possible conflict when these terms are applied to the justification of the sinner before God, as though they indicated “two kinds of justification.” For if the truth of the justification of all men before God were not objectively valid before its appropriation by the individual, then there would be no justification for his believing acceptance to grasp, no basis upon which his personal faith could rest. We cannot believe something which is to become true by our believing it, if and when we do believe it; but we can only truly believe that which is already a fact before we believe it, and thus offers a firm basis for a well-grounded faith. “Faith” in that which is not a fact, not objectively true, is not well-grounded faith, but a delusion, “wishful thinking” or self-deception.
That faith, which, as we considered in the preceding chapter, is wrought in us by God (Col. 2:12; Eph. 1:19), is firmly based upon the fact that we are justified, that our sins have been forgiven. Justification, just like its opposite, condemnation, is a judgment of God (Rom. 5:18, 19). It is a judicial act of God in which He, as the Judge of all, pronounces a verdict of acquittal upon all sinners. Thus it is an act of God outside of us, not, like conversion, within us. As His previous sentence of condemnation imputed the guilt of Adam’s sin to all men or charged it against them: “As by the offense of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation” . . . “as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners” (Rom. 5:18a, 19a); so now His sentence of acquittal imputes the merit of Christ to all men or credits it to their account: “Even so by the righteousness of One the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life” . . . “so by the obedience of One shall many be made righteous” (Rom. 5: 18b, 19b). On this entire subject compare the fourth chapter of this book, treating of sin, especially the portion which deals with original sin. On the basis of the Scripture evidence adduced we may now define justification, according to its negative and positive sides, as follows: “Justification properly consists in the non-imputation of sins, or their forgiveness, to the sinner, which is the negative side; and the imputation of Christ’s perfect righteousness, as though it were his own, which is the positive side.” (Dr. C. H. Little in Lutheran Confessional Theology, p. 149, quoted by E. W. A. Koehler in A Summary of Christian Doctrine, p. 146).
Once the essential nature of justification as the non-imputation of sin and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness is fully understood, we can have no difficulty in grasping the significance of objective and subjective justification, the one being the declaration that God has in His heart forgiven all sins of all men on the basis of Christ's vicarious atonement, which comes to us in the promise of the Gospel, the other the transmission of the effect of this declaration to all men in whose heart He works faith to receive and appropriate it. Thus objective justification may be specifically defined, again, in the words of Dr. Little: “Objective justification is God’s declaration of amnesty to the world of sinners on the basis of the vicarious obedience of Christ, by which He secured a perfect righteousness for all mankind, which God accepted as a reconciliation of the world to Himself, imputing to mankind the merits of the Redeemer.” (Dr. C. H. Little in Disputed Doctrines, p. 60, quoted by E. W. A. Koehler in A Summary of Christian Doctrine, p. 147). The fully adequate Scriptural basis for this definition is found in 2 Cor. 5:19: “God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto Himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation.” This “Word of reconciliation” is nothing else than the Gospel. It brings to us the blessed tidings that God is reconciled to us (all men), that He does not impute trespasses unto the whole world, or, in other words, forgives all sins of all men in His heart; and this reconciled heart of God He opens up and declares unto us in the Gospel, the Word of reconciliation. This is the message which all true ambassadors of God bring to us in God’s name, for real and genuine Gospel preaching consists in proclaiming to sinners the fact of the forgiveness, the fact that the world is reconciled unto God. So the Apostle goes on to tell us in verse 20: “Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ’s stead, be ye reconciled to God.” It is just that simple — the Gospel tells us that God is reconciled to us (objective justification), and works in us the faith by which we, on our part, are reconciled to God, or accept His reconciliation and forgiveness (subjective justification). Precisely the same truth is brought us in Rom. 5:18, 19, which we have fully considered above. Rom. 4:25 is another powerful proof text for objective justification: “Christ was delivered for our offenses, and raised again for our justification.” He was delivered up into the hands of wicked men, crucified and slain, not for His own offenses (as He “knew no sin,” 2 Cor. 5:21), but for the offenses of the whole world; so when He was raised again from the dead He was justified or declared free from the sins for which He died, not His, but the sins of the whole world; and this justification is our justification.
We may close our discussion of objective justification and lead over to the discussion of subjective justification by a definition which includes both, in the words of Dr. E. W. A. Koehler (A Summary of Christian Doctrine, Second Edition, p. 149): “Justification is that forensic” (judicial) “act of God, by which He, on the basis of the perfect vicarious atonement wrought by Christ, declared the whole world to be justified in His sight (objective justification), and transmits and imputes the effect of this declaration to all whom He brings to faith by the work of the Holy Ghost through the means of grace (subjective justification).”
Thus the indispensable prerequisite of justification by faith is objective justification; for no one can believe that he is justified, or that his sins are forgiven, unless they actually are forgiven, and God tells him so in the Gospel promise. As was shown in the previous chapter, God works faith in the forgiveness of sins through the Gospel, which is the Word of reconciliation, or the good news that our sins are all forgiven. And he who believes it has it. This is stated in very simple terms in Romans 3:24, 28: “Being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. . . . Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.” From the wording of these two passages of Scripture has arisen the convenient formula commonly used in the Church for purposes of instruction: “We are justified before God, or our sins are forgiven, by grace, for Christ’s sake, through faith, without the deeds of the Law.” “By grace” shows the source of our justification in the gratuitous forgiving love or gracious favor of God toward poor sinners, which led Him to form the wondrous plan of our salvation. “For Christ’s sake” indicated the meritorious cause of our justification, since on the basis of Christ’s vicarious atonement God can remit sins without violating His immutable justice. “By faith” points to the means whereby we receive and take hold of the forgiveness of sins offered us in the means of grace, for faith is nothing more than the hand which receives God’s benefits, and is by no means a matter of our “doing our part” or fulfilling some stipulation or condition. “Without the deeds of the Law” rules out every work, merit, or deserving on man’s part, even faith itself considered as a work of man; for it is not the act of believing but that which we believe, namely, the Gospel promise of forgiveness for Christ’s sake, which saves us, and thus the function of faith is purely instrumental and in no way meritorious. A particularly strong and beautiful passage to prove that God’s judgment of acquittal or justification depends not at all on any quality or condition in man is Rom. 4:5: “To him that worketh not, but believeth on Him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.” Finally, summing up the testimony of the passages quoted from St. Paul’s great Epistle to the Romans, we have this wonderful testimony from his Epistle to the Ephesians (ch. 2, vv. 8, 9): “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast.”
The doctrine of justification is the central doctrine of the Christian religion, whereby it distinguishes itself from all man-made religions whatsoever. That upon which we have insisted throughout this little book: that all true Christians, and not only orthodox Lutherans, really accept these doctrines in their hearts, even though through faulty instruction or other reasons they may not have attained to a clear expression and confession of them, is supremely true of this doctrine of justification; for by personal faith in this teaching of Holy Scripture a man becomes and remains a Christian. Every Christian who ever lived, is now alive, or will yet be born shares this faith; and every doctrine of Holy Scripture either leads up to this doctrine of justification, or is directly involved in it, or flows from it.
We close by quoting an eloquent paragraph of Dr. Pieper and one of Dr. Luther under the heading: “All Christians Believe in Justification by Faith:” “There is a great diversity among Christians. Some are strong in their faith, others weak. Some have an excellent knowledge of the Christian doctrine, others are woefully deficient in this respect. There are orthodox Christians and heterodox Christians. But there is full accord among Christians on the doctrine of justification. All Christians are at one in believing that God forgives their sins by grace, for Christ’s sake, without any merit of their own. For it is this faith that makes the Christian.”
That all Christians of all ages and all lands are one in the article of justification is thus set forth by Luther: “The faith that we obtain the forgiveness of sins solely for Christ’s sake by faith has been the faith of the Fathers and prophets and all saints from the beginning of the world; and it has been the doctrine and teaching of Christ and the Apostles, who were commissioned to spread it in all the world. And it is to this day, and will be to the end, the unanimous understanding and voice of the whole Christian Church, which always in one mind and with one accord has confessed and fought for this article, that only in the name of the Lord Jesus forgiveness of sins is obtained and received. And in this faith they have been justified before God and saved.”
Most assuredly the Lutheran Church is not a sect. Confessing justification by faith without the deeds of the Law clearly and unambiguously against any and every perversion of it, Luther and the Lutheran Church do not represent a faction in the Church, but are the mouthpiece of all Christendom on earth.