The message of the kingdom is not merely that forgiveness is now possible, but that the Forgiveness of Sins has actually taken place and that all who will believe can enter into this.
That strikes me as an excellent summary of objective justification, and how subjective justification involves entering into an existing status of “forgiven!” rather than turning a mere possibility into an actuality.
The emphasis in objective justification is on the gospel as the proclamation of a completed accomplishment, a state of affairs that has already been brought about by Christ’s death and resurrection. This has strong affinities with the perspective of N.T. Wright, whose presentation of the gospel emphasises these objective aspects:
The gospel – the “good news” of what the creator God has done in Jesus – is first and foremost news about something that has happened. And the first and most appropriate response to that news is to believe it.
God has raised Jesus from the dead, and has thereby declared in a single powerful action that Jesus really has launched the long-awaited Kingdom, and that his death really was the moment when, and the means by which, the evil of the world was defeated at last. When the alarm clock goes off, this is what it says: here is the good news, wake up and believe it!
– N.T. Wright (Simply Christian, pp.176f.)
Note the parallel between what Wright says in that first paragraph and Walther’s presentation of objective and subjective justification as quoted in my earlier post: God has acted in the death and (especially) the resurrection of Jesus, and the appropriate response to this is to believe it.
All this brings us back round to what originally prompted this series of posts on law/gospel and objective justification, namely Alastair’s assertion that the word “gospel” as used by Lutherans (and other Reformation Christians) when speaking of “law and gospel” represents a divergence from how Scripture uses that term.
There can certainly appear to be a “disconnect” between the gospel of “Jesus is Lord and God raised him from the dead” and the gospel of “Your sins are forgiven on account of Christ”. To those who tend towards the “Your sins are forgiven” approach, the “Jesus is Lord” emphasis of Wright can appear to overlook or downplay the importance of personal forgiveness and justification as part of the gospel. (And certainly Wright does have a habit of emphasising the horizontal aspects of forgiveness – such as the Truth & Reconciliation Commission – rather than the vertical.)
And to those who emphasise “Jesus is Lord”, the “Your sins are forgiven” approach can appear narrow and individualistic, overlooking or downplaying the cosmic and universal – not to mention political – implications of the gospel. I have a lot of sympathy with this criticism, which is why I was having a quick chunter yesterday about Walther’s reference to “going to heaven”.
In short, the difference is between emphasising the gospel as the announcement of an established state of affairs into which we are called to enter, and the gospel as the announcement of a change of status before God that we are invited to receive.
The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that the key to bringing these two approaches together lies in the “secret” and “shocking” Lutheran doctrine of objective universal justification. What this does is add to the objective announcement that “Jesus is Lord and God raised him from the dead” the additional statement that “and he has won forgiveness from God for all people”. It does so on the strongest biblical grounds, both in terms of texts such as those examined in a previous post and the examples we see in Acts of how the apostles proclaimed the gospel (e.g. Acts 2:38, 5:31, 10:42,43, 13:38,39).
And it is then that we see that to enter into the kingdom of God as established by Christ – this kingdom of Christ’s Lordship, of resurrection and of forgiveness – is precisely to hear and receive for oneself the good news that “Your sins are forgiven”.
Hence there is not (or, at least, need not be) any divergence between the use of the term “gospel” when Lutherans speak of “law and gospel” and how the New Testament uses this term. As a matter of pastoral practice – which is where the distinction between law and gospel principally arises, rather than as a “hermeneutic” or “interpretive key” for Scripture – it is natural for the church to emphasise the subjective aspects of the gospel (“Your sins are forgiven”), just as the apostles did.
But everything that is encompassed in the announcement that “Jesus is Lord and God raised him from the dead and all people are now forgiven on his account” falls within what Lutherans would call “gospel”. Indeed the subjective aspects of the gospel are founded entirely upon those objective aspects, not least the objective, universal justification of all people in the risen Lord Jesus. Conversely, it is only the forgiveness of sins that turns the announcement that “Jesus is Lord” into good news for sinful humanity (after all, the demons hear those words, believe them – and shudder).
Hence the gospel of “Jesus is Lord” and the gospel of “Your sins are forgiven” are one and the same, with no need to play one off against the other or regard one as more fundamental than the other.