Q: I have heard some Lutherans say they do not believe the Bible teaches objective justification. How can they assert this and still call themselves “Lutheran”?
A: Your question is perceptive. As you intimate, the teaching of objective justification is plainly taught in Scripture, and is a vital doctrine of our Lutheran Confessions. People who deny this have no right to claim the name “Lutheran,” even though they may correctly insist that a sinner is saved only by faith in Jesus Christ and not by works.
The doctrine of objective justification states that on the cross Jesus Christ paid the full penalty for the sins of everyone in the world. Concerning the Messiah, Isaiah prophesied that “the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:6). John the Baptist pointed to Jesus as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:19). Therefore God has declared the whole world forgiven because of what Christ accomplished on the cross. This divine act is called justification (that is, to declare one not guilty) and is an objective, universal, true-for-all fact. God’s act of justification exists apart from faith. Paul wrote, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:23-24). The personal faith needed to save an individual takes hold of this objective truth and this faith is frequently called subjective justification. The apostle Paul shows the relationship between objective and subjective justification; “But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness” (Romans 4:5). Although the whole world has been justified once for all through Christ’s atoning sacrifice, many do not come to faith and therefore will not enter heaven.
The use of the terms “objective” and “subjective” in describing justification are not found in Scripture or in the Confessions. For this reason, some within the Lutheran denominations contend that we should speak only about objective reconciliation and justification by faith. But if such people deny that the Bible ever talks about the sins of the entire world being forgiven and state that only the sins of believers are forgiven, then this is not just quibbling about “terms.” It involves God’s own doctrine as set forth in His holy Word. Objective justification is clearly taught in a key passage: “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them” (2 Corinthians 5:19). While Paul uses the word “reconciling” here, he clearly means that forgiveness of sins is really imputed to “the world.” Elsewhere, Paul writes that Christ died for sinners (Romans 5:8) and that through Jesus’ righteous act the free gift came to all men, resulting in justification of life (Romans 5:18).
The Lutheran Confessions likewise say of Christ, “He was given for us to make satisfaction for the sins of the world and has been appointed as the mediator and propitiator” (Apology, IV; para. 40). Look up these other Confession references also: Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration, Article III, para. 57; Formula of Concord, Epitome, Article V, para. 4, and the Large Catechism, para. 88.
The essential question is: What actually happened at the cross of Calvary? Did Christ accomplish in reality the forgiveness of sins for the whole world? Most assuredly He did! “He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2 NIV). It is this objective fact which is held out to the world. Our faith or unbelief does not change this objective fact. Of what else would faith take hold?
As we said above, only those benefit from this forgiveness of sins who in faith, by the Holy Spirit’s power, take hold of the merits of Christ. All others will be lost eternally, perishing in hell in spite of the fact that the Son of God’s own blood had been shed for their iniquities as well. Peter states that false teachers “will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Lord who bought them, and bring on themselves swift destruction” (2 Peter 2:1). Those who believe are called “saints” because God declares them holy through faith in Jesus, while those who do not believe cannot be classified as “saints,” even though at the cross God also had declared objectively their sins as “forgiven.” What a tragedy when people do not believe in a credit that God has already won and offered!
Dr. Martin Luther wrote in his famous commentary on Galatians; “. . . Christ has taken away not only the sins of some men but your sins and those of the whole world. The offering was for the sins of the whole world, even though the whole world does not believe: (Luther’s Works, Volume 26; page 38). This teaching of Scripture comforts the believer. Because Jesus paid for all sins and God declares everyone’s sins forgiven, the Christian can know that Jesus excluded no one from salvation and that God “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4).