As we begin a new church year with Advent, it’s good to hear a Reformation echo in those comforting words that God has justified us; that is, He has declared us righteous by grace alone through faith alone. Our status as His dear children to whom He gives eternal life depends on the fact that we are perfectly justified in His sight. With so much at stake, we stick to the Reformation’s assertion that justification is the central teaching of the Bible, to be proclaimed to all as a gift for all in the person and work of Jesus Christ.
Properly understood from Scripture, justification is the incredible result of the triune God at work, with sinners like us as mere recipients of what the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have done for us. In His gracious love for all people, God sent His Son to fulfill the Law’s demands by keeping every commandment in our place and being the perfect sacrifice for every sin. The Father would remain in His role as the Judge who places all our guilt on Christ and punishes Him instead of us. It was divine, holy justice carried out on Good Friday when all the sins of all people of all time were atoned for and removed from God’s sight. Then, to show that His Son was innocent and to certify that all people have been forgiven and are indeed justified, the Father raised His Son from the dead. We embrace the Easter declaration of Romans 4:25 that Jesus “was delivered up because of our offenses, and was raised because of our justification.”
Our own role in justification is only passive, and to begin with, quite negative. We made the horrible mess that needs to be made right. We are in the picture of Romans 3 that “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.” (verses 23-24) 2 Corinthians 5 states the same truth that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespass to them.” (verse 19) In confessional Lutheran terminology this Bible truth is called objective justification. Think of it as forgiveness of all sin offered up front and delivered in the Gospel as God’s free gift. He has already declared His verdict that we are thoroughly righteous, sinless in His eyes because of what Christ did in our place. The certainty of that verdict for us is the fact that God has in the death and resurrection of His Son applied it to all people.
The truth of objective justification is where the certainty of salvation is found, but at the same time the role of faith is given its due. Full and free forgiveness comes first, then faith, which is a person’s trust that what Christ has done to save all has been done to save him. Faith is simply the way each believer receives what God offers. As Paul concludes in Romans 3:28, “a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law.” In Lutheran terminology this truth is called subjective justification, which is always the sought-after goal whenever the Gospel is proclaimed to people.
Thankfully, the faith needed to receive God’s gift does not depend on the person who believes. The Holy Spirit is the One to bring the good news to us, convince us of its truth, and work in our hearts the very faith that we need to believe and receive God’s justification of us. Only in that way does the objective justification of all people effectively become the subjective justification of each believer by grace alone through faith alone.