Lutherans define justification as being “objective” and “subjective” . This is how my church (Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod) views justification.
Q: whats the difference between objective and subjective justification?
A: Justification is a verdict of God by which he declares that sin is forgiven. Justification, therefore, is something that takes place outside of us. It is not a moral change in us.
The basis for God’s “not guilty” verdict for sinners is the completed work of Christ. Jesus lived a perfect life as our substitute. As our substitute he paid the full penalty for our sins on the cross. Because Jesus paid for all the sins of all of the people in the world, God has declared the sins of the whole world to be forgiven. This is expressed in 2 Corinthians 5:19: “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them.” God made peace with the world by not charging their sins against them. This verdict of God by which he declared the world forgiven we call “objective justification.” It is called “justification” because it is a declaration of forgiveness. It is called “objective” because it does not depend on our feelings. This verdict is a completed reality even before we know about it. Since this verdict is for the whole world, it can also be called “world justification” or “universal justification.”
It is as if someone had made a deposit into a bank account in your name, a deposit large enough to pay all your debts. This would be a great gift, but to benefit from it you would have to hear about it, believe that it was yours, and use it. This is where subjective justification comes in.
Paul continues: God “has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God” (2 Corinthians 5:19-20). For us to benefit from the verdict of objective justification two things have to happen. First, we have to find out about God’s verdict. This happens when God sends out his ambassadors, the preachers of the gospel, to announce that Christ has won forgiveness of sins for us. Second, we need to believe that announcement and apply that verdict to ourselves. This happens when the Holy Spirit works through the gospel to create saving faith in our hearts. I am reconciled, that is, I am at peace with God, when I believe the declaration of the gospel that God has declared the sins of the world forgiven. I say, “God has forgiven the whole world. I am part of the world. God has forgiven me.” This justification by faith is called “subjective” because I know and feel it in my heart. Since it applies God’s verdict to an individual person, it can also be called “personal justification.”
The distinction between objective and subjective justification is of great importance for everyone who preaches the gospel. We can tell everyone we meet, “Christ died for you. God has forgiven you. Believe this and you will be saved.” The distinction between objective and subjective justification is of great importance for everyone who believes the gospel. It shows me that my forgiveness is not the result of my faith or my feelings. It depends on something that happened outside me. Christ lived, died, and rose for me. That is a fact that can’t be changed. God has declared the world forgiven. That is a fact. When I don’t feel very saved or very forgiven, I can look away from myself and my feelings to Jesus’ words, “It is finished.” My good feelings do not cause my forgiveness; God’s forgiveness causes my good feelings.
No one can be saved without faith. Just as a person can squander a deposit which has been made to his or her bank account by never using it, a person can squander the forgiveness which Christ obtained for him or her by refusing to believe it. Thus an unbeliever, who is justified by God objectively (as is all mankind) is tragically not justified subjectively (has not through faith grasped the reality that really exists and forfeits personal blessing). Nevertheless, it is important to remember that our faith is not the cause of our forgiveness. It is simply the channel through which the forgiveness is delivered to us. Paul says “BY grace are you saved THROUGH faith.” Grace is the cause of forgiveness. Faith is the means through which it is received. If forgiveness is like life-giving water, faith is like the pipe through which it is delivered.