First, Walther makes a ringing declaration of the forgiveness won for all people in the death and resurrection of Jesus (“objective justification”)
Now that Christ has been raised from the dead, no one needs to think to himself, “If I approach God with my sins, what will God do? Will he really forgive them?” No, whoever you are, whatever you have done, God has already forgiven your sins, forgiven them already 1900 years ago when in Christ, through his resurrection, he absolved all for whom Christ died on the cross.
Have you cheated or stolen? It is a damnable sin – but you have been forgiven. Have you committed adultery? It is an offence against God – but you have been forgiven. Have you been drunk time and time again? It is a shameful thing – but you have been forgiven. Have you intentionally ruined the reputation of another person? That is a terrible sin – but you have been forgiven.
Christ rose for you. His resurrection is your absolution. You have been forgiven.
He then goes on, however, to emphasise the need for “subjective justification”, for receiving for oneself what Christ has won for you:
One thing still needs to happen in order that you may possess this forgiveness which has been given to you – that one thing is faith. For every person who wants to be saved and go to heaven must believe that this absolution pronounced at Christ’s resurrection 1900 years ago was also pronounced upon him. In order to be saved, it is necessary to believe that the forgiveness God offers is yours.
I’m enough of a disciple of N.T. Wright to grind my teeth at the words “whoever wants to be saved and go to heaven“. Altogether now: the Christian hope is the resurrection of the dead, the renewal of the whole creation and a risen, bodily life with Christ in the new heavens and new earth; not “going to heaven when I die”. (“Life after life after death”, as Wright likes to put it.)
But Walther’s main point remains valid, that it is by the empty hand of faith that we receive and possess a forgiveness that is already ours, a forgiveness won for us on the cross and in the resurrection of Christ, and that comes to us through the church’s ministry of preaching the gospel, baptising, absolving and administering the Lord’s Supper.
To put it another way, the church’s preaching of the gospel is not about saying “if you believe then God will forgive you”; it is about saying “God has forgiven you, and this is how you can receive that forgiveness”.