from “The Primary Doctrine in its Primary Setting: Objective Justification and Lutheran Worship” by Forrest Bivens
The truth of justification, above all others, distinguishes Christianity from all other religions. If this teaching were obscured or lost, attempts to show significant differences between the Christian religion and others would ultimately prove to be futile. Also, as revealed and emphasized in the Bible, all other doctrines either prepare for or flow from this chief article of faith. Without this truth, all others would mean little. This doctrine is the source or basis of the benefits and blessings which mankind receives from God.
What precisely is this “master and prince, lord, ruler and judge” over other doctrines? Justification is a declaratory act of God, in which he pronounces sinners righteous. As revealed in the Bible, this declaration of God is made totally by grace and on account of Jesus Christ and his substitutionary life and death on behalf of mankind. To phrase it somewhat differently, God has justified, acquitted or declared righteous the whole world of sinners. He has forgiven them. They have been reconciled to God, their status in his eyes has been changed from that of sinner to forgiven sinner for the sake of Jesus Christ. Since all this applies to all people, the term universal or general justifica-tion is used. In our circles an alternate term, objective justification, is also used. If justification is universal, it must also be objective – sinners are forgiven whether they believe it or not. This is pre-cisely what Scripture teaches in Romans 3:23-24, when it says, “There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemp-tion that came by Christ Jesus.” All have sinned and all are justified freely by God’s grace. Romans 4:5 also teaches the grand truth that our God is the “God who justifies the wicked,” all of them. “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them” (2 Co-rinthians 5:19). Literally, God was not counting “their” sins against them, and the only antecedent of “their” in the sentence is “the world,” which includes all people.
This Bible teaching is so important and distinctive that we tend to use additional words or phrases, drawn from Scripture, to clarify what we believe and teach in this matter. So we speak of justification “by grace alone” to leave no doubt that the divine decree of pardon finds its cause only in God’s love for us. It is “unconditional” in the full sense of the world. We are also quick to point out that justification is “forensic” or “juridical” in nature, not referring to a moral or ethical trans-formation within people but an imputation of a righteousness (Christ’s) that is outside of us. Our status before God is new, but the renewal of our will and character is another matter, related yet dif-ferent. Forgiveness is not linked to an inner renewal of sinners, but solely to Christ’s perfect work on their behalf. Justification is “on account of Christ” and his substitutionary life and death for mankind, not because of our faith or anything else in us. This righteousness from God, moreover, is “real” rather than imaginary, for it is none other than Christ’s perfect obedience to the Father that is credited to us by the Father. The use of these and similar phrases shows that much effort has been expended over the years to defend this doctrine against perennial errors that seek to alter or replace it. Human reason will always have trouble with this truth, so we do well to define and defend this primary doctrine with diligence.
The accomplishments of justification in the lives of sinners like us is profound. The declara-tory act of God, like the substitutionary life and death of Jesus Christ which serve as its basis, is not debatable or changeable. It stands firm as the solid hope for otherwise hopeless and helpless mankind. This declaration of forgiveness, that is, the gospel, conveys life to those spiri-tually dead. The message of justification invites faith, creates faith, and then maintains faith in the message. With faith come spiritual and eternal life, deep joy, and a profound sense of awe toward the forgiving Lord. Divine love gives birth to love, and justified people who are brought to embrace the truth now love because he first loved them. Like all of God’s truths, justification accomplishes profound things in people’s hearts and lives.