This article written and published by Christian News, November 2020. The introductory remarks, in italics, are from Rev. Phil Hale, the editor.
While justification seems to be “solved” for Lutherans and is often taken for granted, that is a tragedy on both accounts. The only way to avoid error is to follow Scripture in our thinking, not reason, logic, or the mere wording of what seem to be solid Lutheran slogans. The controversy over the universality of the Gospel, and therefore the forgiveness it distributes, raged in C.F.W. Walther’s day and still does today.
We would do well to heed to Walther’s essay (translated by Kurt Marquart and available online at archive.org) under the title Justification-Objective and Subjective: A Translation and Marquart’s analysis. The older, and now the modern, debate over the objective side of justification is not over words, but over the nature and power of the Gospel itself. But errorists have made made false claims to deceive the simple, which includes pastors also. “For such people are not serving our Lord Christ, but their own appetites. By smooth talk and flattery they deceive the minds of naive people” (Rom. 16:18). It is imperative that we preserve the truth and not fall into a logical and well-reasoned ditch. –ed.
Pastor Paul Harris
Confessional Lutherans reject both ditches on either side of the truth. We reject that the presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper is caused by faith (Geneva, Reformed, Evangelical, Nondenominational) and that the benefits of forgiveness, life, and salvation can be received apart from faith by virtue of the performance of the Sacrament (Rome). We reject that Baptism is only for believers (Baptist, Evangelical, Pentecostal, Nondenominational) and that the benefits of Baptism can be received apart from faith (Rome).
We do this until we get to objective justification. Now there are those wishing to be considered confessional Lutherans who believe that justification does not exist till the person believes it. Universal atonement does, universal redemption does, but not universal justification. No, believer’s justification alone is true.
While avoiding the ditch that Baptism is only for those who believe first and that the Body and Blood of Christ are only present when you believe them to be, this ditch they drive right into. Since Christ is a wrath-removing sacrifice for not only our sins but the sins of the whole world (1 Jn. 2:2); since Christ is the Lamb of God that carried away the sins of the world (Jn. 1:29); since God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself (2 Cor. 5:19), you must say that the sins of the whole world were removed, carried away, and God was reconciled to it. But you may not say, indeed you must never say according to the deniers of objective justification, that the whole world has been justified or forgiven. This despite Paul saying in Romans 5:18-19, “So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men. For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous.” And Paul also saying in Romans 4:25 that Jesus “was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.”
We can, via the indulgences of Saint Kurt Marquart, give these erring brothers a way back. Here’s three of his eight conclusions after his translation of Walther’s 1872 convention essay, “Justification – Objective and Subjective.” “4. Behind this (Lutheran) mode of teaching there stands the language of the Luther Bible, and Luther’s grand equations: Grace equals forgiveness equals justification equals redemption equals reconciliation equals propitiation. These are theological not philological equivalents. Of course the words ‘propitiation,’ ‘redemption,’ and the rest, mean different things – but they refer to the same theological reality, though from different angles or aspects of it. This is not scholarly carelessness on Luther’s part, but pastoral meat-and-potatoes orientation. Impatient with everything frilly and pedantic Luther concentrates massively on the Gospel essentials – and with him the Lutheran church… 6. Where grace alone, universal grace, and efficacious means of grace are fully maintained against both Rome and Geneva, there objective justification is actually confessed, whatever the particular terminology used. Conversely where the substance of objective or general justification is attacked – whatever the words used – there either grace alone or universal grace or the means of grace or all of these are under attack. 7. …. [Walther’s] essay repeatedly points to the ‘middle way’; (Rohrberg, p. 23 above), that is to proper distinctions like Quistorp’s: ‘Thus all are justified and some are justified. All, in respect of the acquired merit, some in respect of the appropriated merit’ (p.21)’ ” (From Translator’s Notes, 42-43).
The last point is crucial to understanding the Calvinistic ditch we’re heading toward. A Reformed layman said that Calvin’s limited atonement was the same teaching as the distinction between objective and subjective justification: “Christ acquired atonement for all but it was efficacious only for some.” “No,” I said, “Christ’s atonement is efficacious for all, but only acquired by some.” This layman claimed – I have no reason to doubt him – to have called the Concordia St. Louis where he was assured that the Lutheran distinction between objective and subjective justification did correlate to Calvin’s limited atonement. Well, true Confessional Lutheran doctrine does not, but the denial of objective justification does.
Philip Hale in his 2019 work Aspects of Forgiveness: The Basis for Justification and its Modern Denial says several times of the current crop of deniers of objective justification (most are LCMS or WELS trained) that they were all taught the opposite. So, I doubt most of them are far enough downstream as to have changed their preaching and teaching. They can tell they have reached that point if they do more exhorting to believe than preaching what is to be believed, i.e., they do more exhorting starving people to eat rather than displaying the free food before them. If they’re not where they feel compelled to change their preaching and teaching, it is not too late. Perhaps they may still confess the pure Gospel one day, “rather than being rejected”. If not the error will have its way with them, and in the end it will leave them wondering if they have enough faith to be justified.