What Is Subjective Justification?
“Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ and not by the works of the Law.” —Galatians 2:16
“Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” —Romans 5:1
It is indeed ironic, to say the least, that among many who regard themselves as “Lutherans” today —almost five hundred years after the Reformation— controversy is raging regarding, of all things, the doctrine of justification! If the controversy had its roots merely in theological terminology, we might dismiss it as an unfortunate “war of words” rather than a schism over substance. This is not in any way to minimize the seriousness of groundless bickering, for those who strive about words to no profit (II Timothy 2:14) and dote about questions and strifes of words (I Timothy 6:3‑5) are condemned by the Lord’s Apostle Paul as being proud, perverted theological know‑nothings, “men of corrupt minds and destitute of the truth.” Sadly, however, the controversy regarding justification is much more than a verbal food fight. It is much more than dissatisfaction with terms. It is outward Lutheranism literally “coming apart at the seams” over the central doctrine of the Christian religion! It is a controversy in which the “gainsayers” deny God’s objective, forensic justification of the world for the sake of Christ’s vicarious atonement and, in effect, make forgiveness of sins contingent upon “faith” as a work of sinful man which is necessary to complete justification and to finish what God intended to accomplish. It is a controversy in which, quite strikingly, soul‑destroying elements of Romanism, Calvinism, synergism and rationalistic modernism are championed in opposition to the Scripture doctrine of justification by grace, for Christ’s sake, through faith!
One cannot properly address the concept of subjective justification or “justification by faith” until and unless he clearly understands the basic principle underlying it, the principle on which it is based. This principle, appropriately called objective justification, is treated separately and more extensively in the preceding article of this present issue of our CONCORDIA LUTHERAN, but we briefly summarize it here as the necessary basis of our subsequent discussion. It is the clear teaching of Scripture in, among other places, II Corinthians 5:19, that for Christ’s sake [ejn Cristw/`] that is, because of Christ’s vicarious atonement, which perfectly satisfied divine justice (I John 2:2) in the place of sinners (Isaiah 53), God freely, graciously, and unilaterally forgave the sins of the whole world [“reconciling the world unto Himself”] and declared all men righteous in His holy sight [“not imputing their trespasses unto them”]. This doctrine is descriptively termed objective (or general) justification, not only because “the free gift came upon ALL MEN unto justification of life” (Romans 5:18), but also because this unilateral act of God having forgiven all, of His having justified all mankind, was and is completely independent of man’s attitude, mood, receptivity and even faith. Luther provides the following illustration: “A king gives you a castle; if you do not accept it, your refusal does not make the king a liar nor his gift void. You have cheated yourself; it is entirely your own fault; the king has certainly given you the castle” (St. Louis Ed., XIX, 946, 87). The historical, accomplished fact of God’s objective justification is the doctrine upon which the entire Christian religion hinges. It is the basis of all soteriological teaching (i.e. all teaching regarding salvation). It both proves and exemplifies the universal grace of God and Christ’s redemption of all to propitiate God’s justice. It is the essence of the Gospel [“the word of reconciliation”], declaring God’s “good will toward men” (Luke 2:14) and His earnest desire that all men be saved by coming unto the knowledge of this precious truth (I Timothy 2:4). It is the doctrine to which saving faith must cling as its object for the assurance of forgiveness and “peace with God” (Romans 5:1), lest a sinner despair and be destroyed by uncertainty.
What role, then, does faith play in the sinner’s justification? What indeed does St. Paul mean when he concludes emphatically “that a man is justified BY FAITH, without the deeds of the Law” (Romans 3:28)? How does that same expression in the title texts of our present article describe the function of faith in the sinner’s justification? And, if God has already objectively justified all mankind and reconciled “the world” unto Himself, even the “ungodly” (Romans 4:5), what do we mean when we and our orthodox fathers speak, in full accord with Scripture, of being justified and saved “by faith” and “through faith” and of justification “sola fide,” by faith ALONE? These questions are completely legitimate, as long as they are “questions of information” whose answers are sought from Scripture alone to the exclusion of human reason, idle speculation, and vain argumentation. They become questions that “gender strifes” (II Timothy 2:23) if they are used to subvert the clear doctrines of Holy Scripture, and to “sleuth out” so‑called “contradictions” and imagined “inconsistencies” between doctrines that are clearly spelled out in Holy Writ and have been taught down through the years by truly orthodox Lutheran theologians.
God’s unilateral reconciliation of the world unto Himself, His objective justification of sinful men as a forensic act, is “the free GIFT” which “came upon all men” according to His gracious disposition because of Christ’s vicarious satisfaction of His divine justice. In the place of all sinners, Christ perfectly fulfilled the demands of God’s Law upon men and thus rendered to God perfect obedience (Active Obedience). Christ’s perfect righteousness, imputed to all poor undeserving sinners, caused God to declare all men righteous in His sight (Romans 5:19). Moreover, in the stead of all sinners, Christ paid the penalty of their guilt by suffering sin’s wages (Passive Obedience) and rendered to God perfect payment for their transgressions (Isaiah 53:4ff.; Hebrews 10:14). Having accepted His Son’s sacrifice as payment‑in‑full for the sins of the world (Romans 3:25; I John 2:2), God no longer imputes men’s trespasses unto them (II Corinthians 5:19). Thus forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation are “the GIFT of God” (Ephesians 2:8), earned by Christ, and offered by God to all men in the Gospel.
But for the intended recipient to have possession of a gift, including its benefits, the gift must be ACCEPTED. In order for the bearer of a bonafide check to receive its face value in currency, the check must be endorsed and cashed. The benefits of an inheritance come into the heir’s possession and personal ownership when a last will or testament has been probated and the heir has filed his rightful claim.
How is the grace of God merited by Christ, how is the forgiveness of sins graciously pronounced in God’s heart, how is the righteousness of Christ imputed to poor sinners as the “garments of salvation” (Isaiah 61:10; Matthew 22:1 1ff.) — how are these blessings PERSONALLY RECEIVED by the sinner so that he comes into full possession of their benefits? Our orthodox fathers declare in the Formula of Concord on the basis of Scripture: “This remain[s] the office and property of faith alone, that it alone and nothing else whatever, is the means or instrument by and through which God’s grace and the merit of Christ in the promise of the Gospel are received, apprehended, accepted, applied to us, and appropriated” (Formula of Concord, Thorough Declaration, III, 38; Triglotta, p. 929). Thus, according to Scripture, and echoed by the Confessions, FAITH is the only means of APPROPRIATING forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation, and thereby of coming into PERSONAL POSSESSION of these blessings. Hence we have the descriptive term subjective (or personal) justification —NOT as another or a different justification, but as the forensic justification once pronounced objectively for ALL now received subjectively by the individual believer HIMSELF for his own comfort and assurance.
What is the justifying or saving faith which appropriates the gracious forgiveness merited by Christ, declared by God, and offered freely to all men in the Gospel? The Council of Trent correctly perceived the concept of justiffing faith as taught by our fathers on the basis of Scripture alone, even though the Council cursed it, saying: “If anyone saith that justifying faith is nothing else than confidence in the divine mercy which remits sins for Christ’s sake, or that this confidence alone is that whereby we are justified, let him be anathema [accursed]” (Session VI, Canon 12). To the papists, faith is a meritorious work of obedience, centered in the intellect but not in the will of man. It is rewarded by God by the bestowal of (or infusion of) grace, which then enables the sinner to earn subsequent favor with God by works. Scripture, however, teaches to the contrary that justifying or saving faith is the reliance of the heart upon the promises of grace published in the Gospel. Not to be confused with a mere historical knowledge of Christ or with a knowledge of Christian doctrine or with orthodoxy in doctrine and practice, faith is the act of the intellect and will which lays hold on and clings to God’s mercy in Christ Jesus. Even the weakest “spark” of desire to be saved by the grace of God in Christ Jesus, totally apart from one’s own merits, lays hold on the forgiveness of sins. Chemnitz writes in his Examen: “If faith is not mistaken in its object, but lays hold of it, be it ever so tremblingly, with ever so weak a confidence, with only the striving for and desiring of it, such faith is indeed small and weak, but nevertheless true faith.” (Cf. the “bruised reed” and the “smoking flax” of Isaiah 42:3.) The only function of faith is an instrumental one: Faith is merely the instrument or receptive organ for apprehending, that is, laying hold on, personally, for one’s own self, the forgiveness of sins merited by Christ and declared as God’s free gift to all mankind. And since faith itself is the gift of God, worked in man by the power of the Gospel (Romans 1:16; 10:17, etc.), the existence of faith and the exercise of the will in apprehending forgiveness and salvation can in no way be attributed to man.
Thus justification by faith means justification without works. The socalled “good qualities” of faith (humility, patience, love, strength, etc.) have nothing whatsoever to do with justification. With regard to justification, the Bible places “faith” in OPPOSITION to all works of the Law, to all worthiness in man, to any cooperative effort on the part of man, and to all ethically “good” conduct in man. Faith and works are mutually exclusive, even as instruments in subjective (or personal) justification. The Bible states unequivocally: “A man is justified by FAITH without the deeds of the Law” (Romans 3:28). “To him that worketh not, but believeth on Him that justifieth the ungodly, his FAITH is counted for righteousness” (Romans 4:5). Thus we confess in the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, as well as in similar other statements in our Lutheran Confessions: “Faith justifies and saves, not on the ground that it is a work in itself worthy, but only because it receives the promised mercy” (Apology, Art. IV, (II), 56, Triglotta, p. 137). This is also the substance of other Lutheran statements, such as: “Faith justifies, not in the category of quality, but in the category of relation;” “Faith justifies not as an act by itself, but because of the object which it grasps;” “Faith justifies not as a work, but as an instrument.” (See also: Formula of Concord, Thorough Declaration, III, 13, Triglotta, p. 919.)
There is no conflict in the Doctrine of Justification, nor should there be any controversy concerning it, unless, of course, God’s unilateral forensic justification of all mankind in view of Christ’s vicarious satisfaction is DENIED (as it is by some in the preposterous battle still raging in the Missouri Synod and elsewhere) —in which case God did NOT in fact reconcile the world unto Himself in Christ Jesus, II Corinthians 5:19. There is no conflict in the Doctrine of Justification unless, of course, justifying faith is seen as a work of man which is necessary to “COMPLETE” justification and reconciliation between God and man. For then God is not permitted to be God but is held captive to man’s will and to man’s faith. (And this is actually the result of much of the “loose talk” in this controversy!) There should be no difficulty in understanding the simple terms and concepts in the Doctrine of Justification IF the Scriptural principles themselves are clearly understood on the basis of the clear Word of God.
Objective justification and subjective justification are not TWO different justifications, as some suggest. Rather, they are merely descriptive terms which distinguish two aspects of one and the same occurrence. The terms distinguish between the giving and the receiving of a gift. The gift of God is justification —being made right with Him by the forgiveness of sins and by the imputation of perfect righteousness, so that “the wages of sin” (Romans 6:23) no longer looms over the sinner as the threat of God’s just anger and His well‑deserved punishment, and so that everlasting life and salvation is the gracious reward of His mercy to those who were His enemies but who now have been declared to be the righteous heirs of heaven. —This justification was GRANTED and declared unilaterally and objectively by God Himself for all mankind when, on the basis of Christ’s perfect vicarious satisfaction for the sins of all (I John 2:2), God reconciled the world unto Himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them, and published this gift in the good news of His Gospel (II Corinthians 5:19). —When by that same Gospel saving faith is worked in the heart of an individual sinner, so that, disavowing any merit or worthiness of his own, he confides solely in the grace and mercy of God to the undeserving on the basis of Jesus’ merits alone, and trusts in the promise of forgiveness and reconciliation in the Gospel, then God’s justification [the same justification which was declared objectively for all] is RECEIVED personally or subjectively; and the believer has for his very own the assurance of “peace with God through [his] Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1).
— D. T. M.