There have been rumblings out and about among Lutherans concerning the
chief article (and material principle) of the Christian faith: the
biblical teaching we call “justification.”
While we never complete the process of sanctification in this life,
justification is what computer programmers might call an “atomic
operation.” That is, it begins and ends in an unmeasured instant, being
completely received to the benefit of a penitent sinner when he believes
that for Christ’s sake, his sins are forgiven.
Notice also that sanctification is done with human cooperation, but
justification is entirely a divine gift, without any human cooperation.
If there were any human cooperation, then not only was the entire
Lutheran Reformation woefully and tragically misguided, but we also are
left without the certainty that we are actually justified before God.
So say the scriptures. So says the Augsburg Confession. So say we all.
The somewhat insular controversy, however, centers upon another aspect
of justification. It may be framed in several ways. Here’s how I
choose to frame it, at the moment.
What is the condemnation of the lost? In other words, what does God say
actually condemns those who are finally damned? Let’s look at John 3,
verse 18, following close on the heels of the more well-known 3:16 and 17.
It refers to the Son of God.
He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe
is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the
only begotten Son of God.
There are two things to notice here. First, faith in the Son of God is
required to be saved. Second, the condemnation for those who do not
believe is their lack of faith, not the guilt of their accumulated
sinfulness. This should be surprising for some. What happened to all
that guilt? Why doesn’t it condemn them? Answer: because someone else
was destined to be condemned for it (and now has been), who paid the
full propitiation. The proof of that payment was His resurrection.
Someone may ask if this is the only passage of scripture that teaches
that the condemnation of the lost is precisely their lack of faith.
First, I answer: who cares? There is no doubt that this passage
teaches it, because it’s such a clear passage. To teach otherwise would
contradict this clear passage of scripture.
But yes, there are other passages that teach the same thing. One of
them also appears in the historic lectionary: John 16:8-11. There, Jesus
refers to the promised Holy Spirit.
And when He has come, He will convict the world of sin, and of
righteousness, and of judgment: of sin, because they do not believe in
Me; of righteousness, because I go to My Father and you see Me no
more; of judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged.
This passage is a bit more obscure than the last, because of Jesus’
unusual use of the word “convict.” We usually apply it only to those
whose evil deeds have resulted in the public proclamation of their
guilt. However, it is possible to have other forensic or legal
proclamations, as Jesus says here. Of interest to us are the first two.
Jesus says first that the Holy Spirit will convict the world of sin.
Why is that? Not because of the guilt of their accumulated sinfulness,
but “because they do not believe in Me [i.e. Jesus].” Suprised? You
shouldn’t be, because it’s the same thing Jesus said in John 3:18. The
condemnation of the lost is precisely their lack of faith. (The
evidence of that is their lack of genuine good works, as we see in
Jesus also says that the Holy Spirit will convict the world of
righteousness. It’s an unusual way of speaking, but it means simply
that the Holy Spirit will make the forensic or legal declaration that
someone is righteous. Why is that? Jesus surprises us again. This
declaration does not come because someone believes in the Son of God,
but “because I go to the Father and you see Me no more.” That does not
omit the necessity of faith, but it does show that there is a different
reason for the announcement of justification.
Some time when I was working on this as a sermon text, I think I was
reading some of Luther’s sermons. This sermon had the best explanation
I could find of the words “because I go to the Father.” It’s a way of
saying “because My assigned task on earth as the Lamb of God will be
completed, so the proper thing will be to ascend to heaven.” If you
want to know what the task of the Lamb of God is, just ask John the
Baptizer: to take away the sin of the world (John 1:29). So the reason
the Holy Spirit convicts the world of righteousness (i.e. proclaims
justification) is because the Lamb of God has made complete atonement
for the sins of the world.
It shouldn’t surprise us, but those two points harmonize and reinforce
each other rather well:
The lost are condemned not because of the guilt of their accumulated
sin, but because they do not believe in Christ.
The Holy Spirit proclaims righteousness upon the world because the Lamb
of God has made atonement for all of its guilt.
Someone may object to this terminology for some reason, but at this point
I see no problem with calling the unlimited atonement made by Christ
“objective justification,” especially because His resurrection proves
that it was accepted by the Father.
As always, I am open to criticism, though God’s Word really isn’t.