Objective justification is often misportrayed, because what it actually describes has always been assumed by genuine Lutherans. It is the denial of any objective aspect, basis, or foundation to justification that is new, and therefore requires a pointed and emphatic response. It is often assumed that those who hold to this objective aspect of justification require it to be mentioned or made explicit, which is not the case. It is simply the new error that must be rejected. This frustrates those who, in denying it, cannot hold two parallel biblical truths together without pitting them against each other.
Gregory Jackson, the most visible and energetic denier of any objective aspect of justification in Lutheran circles today, recently said “Faith? Faith? Where Is Justification by Faith on Their [the LCMS] Wiki Page?,” on a blog post entitled “Gentlemen — I Refer You to Your Own Document — The Augsburg Confession.” So “faith,” is the magic word, and the phrase “justification by faith” becomes all-important—indeed, everything, to the deniers. But to the upholders of the Lutheran teaching of justification—who confess that righteousness is solely from Christ, not our faith or personal decision—there must be a doctrine and meaning behind these words. Three words, no matter how historical, enshrined, or well-regarded do not make a full-bodied doctrine, especially the central doctrine of the Scriptures.
Jackson takes issue with this statement describing the Missouri synod: “The synod rejects any attempt to attribute salvation to anything other than Christ’s death and resurrection.” This highlights Jackson’s error most visibly. Faith is not the ultimate cause of salvation, or a factor in bringing about righteousness, but rather faith simply receives what Christ won and gives in the Word. Another way to put it is: Can one have “saving faith” without Christ’s death and resurrection? No.
The context of the Wikipedia page, from which Jackson took the phrase, is: “It [the LCMS] teaches that Jesus is the focus of the entire Bible and that faith in him alone is the way to eternal salvation. The synod rejects any attempt to attribute salvation to anything other than Christ’s death and resurrection.” So while Jackson can only read the emphasis on Christ’s death and resurrection as against faith, faith is correctly upheld as the only way to salvation in Christ. Faith alone is not against Christ, His saving works, or the forgiveness of the world in Him.
In fact, Scripture directly says that faith without Christ’s resurrection does nothing: “And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor. 15:14-19).
Christ’s death, by itself, is not our righteousness, according to Scripture. If Christ was still dead, faith in His death would do nothing, according to God’s Word. His death was the payment Christ made while bearing the sins of the world. But payment is not forgiveness or acceptance of the payment. The resurrection of Christ was not an add-on or unnecessary bonus. Easter proclaims that we are free of our sins, for Christ rose for us—not just for Himself. It was the Father’s action, by the Spirit, to raise our Lord, on our behalf. We—all humanity—are forgiven in Christ. His resurrection signals the Father’s acceptance and mankind’s vindication from the guilt of all sin—from God’s side of things. Faith, in the believer, is not the entire picture of justification. Even “justification by faith” does not even mention our Lord at all! Forgiveness is complete and actually available in Christ, though no one is in Christ without faith. The world is reconciled and justified in Christ. This is why anyone can be forgiven, even an unbeliever, so they may trust the Gospel and be justified personally in time by faith.
So for the deniers of anything beyond or before faith, like Jackson, the righteousness objectively present and given in the Gospel — whether someone believes it or not—can only sound like a denial of faith. Faith for them has replaced Christ. Since faith is everything for them, nothing is allowed before it. But this is not the scriptural teaching of faith—mankind was absolved in Christ, marking the divine verdict, before we were born! Why? Because of Christ, “who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification” (Rom. 4:25). Does our faith depend on how well we believe and turn the Father toward us in faith?
No, “All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:18-19). The fact that the Father is already presently reconciled does not mean faith or the preaching of the Gospel is unnecessary. In fact, there could be no faith in a gracious God unless He were already reconciled and not wrathful. We objectively believe in something—that God is truly forgiving toward sinners before anything happens in us. Without this true fact that forgiveness is not incomplete, the Gospel is more law, mere directions about how to go about getting an unfinished righteousness—and faith becomes its completing work.
Christ did not need vindication for His righteousness—that is not why the Son of God became man. Our Lord took on flesh and blood for us—for you and your sin—for the sin of all sinners, every single one. And salvation is not only partially accomplished—forgiveness is for all, even though no one partakes of this righteousness apart from faith, which incorporates in Christ. Faith does not make forgiveness real or the Father appeased—it depends only on Christ. Righteousness, the verdict of justification, exists before faith. Our faith does not create or finish salvation—that would make Christ Himself insignificant. Christian trust is not faith in our faith, as something we do for God—a sort of propitiatory sacrifice. We proclaim Christ crucified, who is not dead and lifeless because of our sins, but alive, risen from the dead for us. So rejoice, there is righteousness for you. It depends only on Christ, who is not dead. Your participation in the Gospel does not make it true, or else you would have a flimsy belief. No, Christ is the content of your faith, and in Him forgiveness is for all mankind. This is what gives the Gospel power—not faith. After all, which comes first: personal faith or the Word which applies Christ’s righteousness? (Rom. 10:14-17)
So is our faith greater than Christ? Must we pick between the two? Is faith unnecessary, because Christ died and rose? No, not at all. No one is saved apart from faith, but faith is not the cause, source, or objective foundation of our righteous verdict—that is the error of general Protestantism today: faith (in the believer) is considered more significant than the God who died for our sins and rose for our justification. So the sinner’s response is greater than Christ’s substitution in place of all sinners.
So emphasizing the objective aspect of justification is not a denial of faith alone, but simply says that faith (what happens in the believer) is not the sum total content of Christianity. We do not make Christ rise and the Father reconciled to us in, or because of, our act of believing. There is something objective we believe in, before faith: the Son of God, who has been vindicated in our stead.
To pit faith and Christ against each other, is to lose everything. Scripture upholds both aspects of the Gospel, as do our confessions. The tie between faith and Christ’s universal justification is what we actually believe and receive in the Gospel. The Father is not an angry, un-appeased god until we offer Him the work of our faith—that is what the denial of objective justification must lead to. How could one ever believe in such a god? No, the father is reconciled—it already happened—by Christ. Forgiveness is complete and for all the world in Christ already. But we are conceived unreconciled sinners, so we must be presented with the forgiveness of God in Christ. Only when the righteous God offers us His righteousness, which is for all in Christ, can we believe in Him, in any biblical sense. Otherwise faith must become a cursed work of the law—something that replaces the Savior and causes God to turn from His wrath against our sin. If faith changes the Father, the believer becomes his own savior, in place of Jesus. Salvation, then, would be entirely subjective and personal.
No one is saved apart from faith. Amen. No one is saved apart from Christ’s works, which were received by the Father for us. Amen. No one is saved apart from faith in the resurrected Lord, in whom there is forgiveness for all. There is no contradiction. Amen. —ed.
“for He has redeemed, justified, and saved us from our sins as God and man, through His complete obedience; that therefore the righteousness of faith is the forgiveness of sins, reconciliation with God, and our adoption as God’s children only on account of the obedience of Christ, which through faith alone, out of pure grace, is imputed for righteousness to all true believers, and on account of it they are absolved from all their unrighteousness” (SD 3:4).
“his merits have been presented as those which make satisfaction for others, which are bestowed by divine imputation on others, in order that through these, just as by their own merits, they may be accounted righteous. As when any friend pays a debt for a friend, the debtor is freed by the merit of another, as though it were by his own. Thus the merits of Christ are bestowed upon us, in order that, when we believe in Him, we may be accounted righteous by our confidence in Christ’s merits as though we had merits of our own. And from both, namely, from the promise and the bestowing of merits, confidence in mercy arises. Such confidence in the divine promise, and likewise in the merits of Christ, ought to be brought forward when we pray. For we ought to be truly confident, both that for Christ’s sake we are heard, and that by His merits we have a reconciled Father” (AP 20:19-20).