Review of "The Path to Understanding Justification"
A Message from Pastor Hale
Justification, God’s declaration of sinful man to be righteous on account of Christ, has always been a central topic of Lutheranism. Justification through faith in Christ, as opposed to man’s works, was a stirring refrain of the Reformation. However, in the last century and a half there has been a new debate over the cause of man’s justification before God within Lutheran circles. It precedes the issue of faith versus works, portraying how Christ’s work activated and brought forgiveness to mankind. This is a needed doctrinal emphasis, since “faith” is often considered a worthy, active power meriting salvation within modern Christianity. This wrong view of faith within Protestantism has become just as dangerous to justification and prevalent as works-righteousness within the Roman church.
What is termed “objective justification,” that is, the basis for personal justification by faith, has divided modern Lutherans off and on at various times, but especially this decade. Put another way, objective justification is not another sort of justification apart from faith, but brackets off faith doctrinally to look at the foundation for justification – what brings about Christ’s righteousness that is applied to man. This world reconciliation is considered from God’s side, apart from man’s response. It highlights the objective power of the Gospel and the cause of the forgiveness of sins, regardless of whether one believes or disbelieves the Gospel of Christ preached in time. Objective justification, properly understood, does not deny that God declares sinners righteous in Christ through faith, but highlights that justification depends in no way on man or his faith, but solely on Christ Jesus. Indeed, it is this prior, existing righteousness that the reconciled God offers to the world, and which comes in the Gospel, upon which faith feeds and lives. The increased emphasis on the objective side of justification is necessary because faith is actually a preeminent work for many Christians today that earns and deserves forgiveness from God, eclipsing entirely what Christ did in dying and rising from the dead. The teaching of objective justification preserves the universal character of the Gospel of forgiveness which Scripture presents.
In The Path to Understanding Justification, Gregory L. Jackson continues what seems to be his singular mission in life – that of trying to convince basically all of American Lutheranism that they have been wrong on justification for at least 150 years. Though he once published in support of objective justification in an early writing (the first edition of Catholic, Lutheran, Protestant), he is now convinced that it is the greatest error possible in doctrine today. According to Jackson, it bridges the conservative–liberal divide by including: the “ELCA,” “LCMS – Concordia Publishing House, Higher Things, both seminaries, Christian News,” “All the mainline, apostate denominations,” “The Evangelical Lutheran Synod [ELS],” “WELS,” “The Church of the Lutheran Confession [CLC]”, and “Francis Pieper and his acolytes” (8). Jackson is brutally direct, inflammatory, and takes his status as an “independent Lutheran” seriously.
However, simply put, Jackson is wrong. His argument is actually not theological, but instead evolutionary. He traces the history of this supposed error (objective justification) through different historical periods and theological schools, as if it were a virus infecting people genetically within institutions. “The great and wise Pietists and Rationalists, even since Halle University’s F. Schleiermacher [1768–1834], have defined Justification as God declares the entire world forgiven and saved, apart from faith” (8). But even on the historical side, Jackson is in error.
Most conservative Lutheran churches in America have confessed that Christ’s righteousness avails for the world, since justification depends on His finished work, not the presence of faith in the individual. But the church bodies that denounced the Synodical Conference (the WELS and LCMS) on objective justification in the 19th and 20th centuries (such as the Augustana Synod, and later, the Iowa and Ohio synods) ended up merging into what eventually became the liberal ELCA. It was the doctrinally flimsy Lutheran churches that thought objective justification was offensive to reason and piety. Furthermore, there has even been a divergence in how this teaching is applied in the parties that hold that the world was absolved in our Lord when He rose from the dead. Since the early 19th century, specifically, several theologians at the WELS Wauwatosa seminary, certain elements of WELS and ELS have applied this teaching of world-forgiveness to specific individuals who are outside of Christ, that is, faith. The LCMS for the most part did not do so, but left this world-forgiveness generic, saying that the world as a whole, or unit, was absolved in Christ's resurrection, as Scripture does – not particular individuals outside of Christ (faith). So, not all who uphold the term or concept of “objective justification” fully agree. This 20th century development and the theological nuances of this issue are detailed much further in my 2019 book Aspects of Forgiveness: The Basis for Justification and its Modern Denial.
The conflict over objective justification has been purposely made vague and confused by its deniers. The real argument is not over human words, as if we need perfect, heavenly terms to speak the truth of God. Instead, at the core of this debate is whether Christ’s finished redemptive work is the cause of the forgiveness applied in justification or faith in man activates Christ’s righteousness. The main issue has not been elucidated in The Path to Understanding Justification. It includes many Bible passages (even some in Greek), but does not honestly show what his opposition (all of Lutheranism) actually believes. Instead, Jackson chases lines of endless theological genealogy and casts odd insults without helping lead anyone to understanding.
What is the main issue, according to Jackson? He accuses most modern Lutherans of universalism – that all are saved, regardless of faith or belief. But this is not the position of those he attacks. He provides no citations or quotes to buttress his argument. In his mind, it is the inevitable logical conclusion. But Scripture’s words establish true Lutheran doctrine, not what we think a doctrine must lead to or imply. Surely over hundreds of years of this “error” and thousands of pastors being taught this he can quote one seemingly orthodox man who simply says that because of Christ’s righteousness being won for the entire world, all people are automatically saved by this world-forgiveness without faith. But he cannot seem to find in practice what he accuses so many of. Instead, like the Evangelical Lutheran Diocese of North America (ELDoNA), a small church body who has similarly aligned themselves against all of North American Lutheranism on justification, Jackson delights to single out Samuel Huber [1547–1624], a minor, long dead errorist, who is inconsequential to the real debate.
Jackson’s foundational premise is flawed. He thinks “justification by faith,” as a slogan or summary formula, is the only way to talk about justification. A justification without mentioning faith must be a personal justification leading to salvation without faith, in his view. But justification in Scripture, according to its root, deals with righteousness. Objective justification is not the full picture of justification or some kind of blatant universalism. It merely highlights what the Gospel and Christ’s righteousness is, before faith and preaching come into the picture. It describes and upholds the universality of the Gospel, which is not dependent on whether man believes it. This is a very practical issue. If personal faith actually completes forgiveness, then the true Gospel must not (and cannot) be spoken to one who does not believe. If objective justification is denied, then the Gospel becomes a conditional statement demanding a work of faith: “If you believe, then you will be justified.” But the Gospel itself is unconditional forgiveness to the world, and though it is only personally received in faith, it has been earned by Christ for the world. “Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men” (Rom. 5:18). The forgiveness of all sin for all mankind is complete and accomplished in Christ. This truth establishes the power and sufficiency of the Gospel to create the Church on earth.
We do not say Christ died for only some (the error of Calvinism), nor do we say our Lord assumed human flesh only for the elect. The critical issue in making the Gospel truly good news is: who was Christ raised for? Rom. 4:24-25 states that Christ “was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.” There is a biblical parallel between Christ’s death and His resurrection. His death was for the world, as also, in some sense, was His rising from the dead. While Rom. 4 and many other parts of Scripture connect justification to faith, it does not always do so. This is because justification is only received in faith, but it does not depend on faith. It is complete and whole in Christ. The real issue is Christ’s work, the source of the righteousness received in personal justification. Is it complete, and forgiveness truly valid for all mankind, because of what Christ did in the flesh? Or is the free forgiveness of sins something that is illusionary, until the ingredient of faith is added and makes what Christ did in His body truly effective? The latter is the error of much of general Protestantism, implying that forgiveness is something that is brought about or completed by the act of faith. Personal faith becomes more important than Christ. “Objective justification” is not a necessary term, but it has been helpfully used by many to highlight the source of our righteousness and the power inherent in the Gospel.
The proof text for this teaching is 2 Cor. 5: “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. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (18-21). God has reconciled the world in its entirety through Christ, meaning its status has changed to God the Father. But that does not mean every sinner is ok and does not need to hear the Gospel or repent – quite the contrary. Because of Christ’s completed work of appeasing God’s wrath and His resurrection to life in mankind’s stead, the Gospel must go out to all, so that Christ’s presently available righteousness is applied to individuals. This happens through “the message of reconciliation,” which is a universal message of forgiveness to the whole world. The preaching of Christ does not bring about forgiveness in believers when faith is added, since the Gospel itself is the actual forgiveness of sins offered to all humanity.
The Gospel is empowered and valid because of what Christ has already done in defeating sin and rising to life for all. It does not depend on whether a particular hearer accepts the message or not. But Jackson says we cannot take a few individual Bible verses too seriously: “The sectarian approach is to isolate a verse, part of a verse, or a few verses to shape their little group, to the exclusion of the rest of the Scriptures” (43). Much like ELDoNA, Jackson cannot fit this universal nature of the Gospel into his rational scheme. Since it does not fit logically, it must be the error of universalism. But true Lutherans uphold the unity of God’s Word in all its verses. We must hold together, and not assume a contradiction, the twin truths that a person is justified by Christ in faith and also the biblical truth that righteousness has come to mankind in Christ. This justification of the world is not outside of Christ, but comes in His Gospel. This confession of the objective nature of the Gospel allows forgiveness to be spoken to all, so that faith is created and sinners justified. It is the greatest comfort to know that the forgiveness of my sin does not depend on my faith or reaction to the Gospel, but Christ alone. It is because its power does not depend on man’s response, that it saves poor, wretched sinners who cannot stop sinning against their God on their own. This objective side of justification does not dull the need for sinners to actually hear the Gospel, nor the demand to stop sinning and repent of deadly sins.
While “justification by faith” can be understood correctly, as a simplistic slogan it is not the full picture of justification because it does not even mention Christ! And our Lord who died, and did not stay dead, is the source of all justification. Forgiveness is not won or created within the believer when faith comes, instead the sinner is made alive by the Spirit in the external Word, so that he believes in the objective righteousness of Christ that exists for the entire world. Forgiveness, Christ’s righteousness, and real absolution for all sinners must precede faith in that same forgiveness. The failure of Jackson to address the real concerns of the proponents of objective justification makes his writing most unprofitable and The Path to Understanding Justification a path not worth taking.
Published: 11 September 2019 11 September 2019
Last Updated: 11 September 2019 11 September 2019