One of the things I remember about my seminary years (before I dropped out) was reading a paper by Kurt Marquart defending objective justification – the teaching that
[Justification] is the object of faith in that it is offered by God in the Gospel; it is the effect [of faith], to put it thus, in so far as grace having been apprehended by faith, the forgiveness of sins happens to us by that very act. (from Calov’s classic commentary on the Augsburg Confession, 1665)
When I heard persons talk about “objective justification” I automatically thought about Kurt Marquart and this article.
Therefore it is particularly interesting, in this piece recently posted by Trent Demarest, to read Marquart denouncing what we might call a notion of objective justification which has fallen off one side of the horse (we recall that Martin Luther talked about how humanity is like a drunk man who falls off one side of a horse, only to get on it again and to fall off of the other side).
Without further ado, this is Kurt Marquart, on the “Kokomo” theses, which he describes as “mischievous nonsense” and “an absurd and reprehensible travesty of Lutheran doctrine” (I do not bold so you will not be tempted to skip any of this!):
Here are the four “Kokomo” theses forced on some hapless Indiana Lutherans (Wisconsin Synod) in 1979, on pain of excommunication:
- Objectively speaking, without any reference to an individual sinner’s attitude toward Christ’s sacrifice, purely on the basis of God’s verdict, every sinner, whether he knows it or not, whether he believes it or not, has received the status of a saint.
- After Christ’s intervention and through Christ’s intervention, God regards all sinners as guilt-free saints.
- When God reconciled the world to Himself through Christ, He individually pronounced forgiveness on each individual sinner whether that sinner ever comes to faith or not.
- At the time of the resurrection of Christ, God looked down in hell and declared Judas, the people destroyed in the flood, and all the ungodly, innocent, not guilty, and forgiven of all sin and gave unto them the status of saints.
Thesis 3 is perhaps the least offensive, although in its context it is thoroughly misleading. Thesis 1 confuses “objective” and “subjective” justification by saying of the former what may only be said of the latter, namely that sinners have “received” forgiveness. Objective justification means that forgiveness has been obtained for and is being offered to all in the Gospel—not that anybody has “received” it. The receiving can happen only through faith, sola fide. Thesis 2, that after Christ’s sacrifice “God regards all sinners as guilt-free saints” is simply false, St. Jn. 3:36; 1 Jn. 5:12. And Thesis 4 about hell’s human denizens being pronounced innocent, given “the status of saints,” etc. is fantasy. An unbiblical logic has driven biblical language senseless: what can it possibly mean to have (or, worse, receive!) “the status of saints” in hell? The grace and forgiveness which Christ obtained for all, had been offered to the dead during their life-time, in the means of grace (St. Lk. 16:29; Heb. 9:27), but are in no way given to the godless in hell, where there is no Gospel, hence no forgiveness (Large Catechism, Creed, 56).”
(end quote from Marquart)
In Marquart’s piece he not only deals with the Kokomo theses but also takes on another person responding critically to those these, Mr. Larry Darby. It seems to me that what this writing of Marquart’s shows is that he was a master – a very careful scholar and amazingly insightful student of both the Scriptures and confessional Lutheran theologians. I have never heard anyone accuse Marquart of being careless in his scholarship (or his life for that matter).
Particularly interesting is that Marquart quotes all of these remarks from Mr. Darby… :
“… Whether one likes the change or not, most honest Lutherans will admit that the de facto leading message of modern Lutheranism is “you are already forgiven” (p. 15)”
“Do we Christians live a life of daily repentance (contrition brought on by the Law and faith renewed/strengthened by the Gospel) or do we anesthetize our consciences by repeating the mantra “God has already forgiven the whole world, and I am certainly included in that”?
“Anyone who has ever tried to speak the words of God to an impenitent sinner knows that “you’re already forgiven” goes over a lot better than “you’re a wretched sinner on the road to hell.”
“… I encourage you to test the widespread acceptance of this doctrine for yourself: ask fellow professing Lutherans what they “do” when spiritual doubts arise. See if they talk about the means of grace, word and Sacrament, or the “fact” that all sins are already forgiven. Ask them what they “do” when they find themselves stuck in a particular sin . . . see whether their answer includes contrition, confession and absolution (pp. 251-252).”
…and goes on to simply say:
“These are very astute and relevant observations. Given the self-indulgent outlook of the times, the “Kokomo” views are just the twisted sort of version of objective justification one would expect to arise. The undercutting of the means of grace is its chief theological flaw and spiritual peril.”
Near the end of the paper, Marquart writes:
“The logic is not, “I am forgiven because all are forgiven,” but: “I can rely on forgiveness in the Gospel and Sacraments, because it is there for all.” If forgiveness did not exist in Christ and His Gospel objectively for all mankind, how could I possibly presume to think that I receive it in the means of grace?”
Am I wrong in suggesting that there might be a particular temptation for many of us to do this today? Mea Culpa. Also, I like to read the blog of Alvin Kimel, the Eastern Orthodox priest who was formerly Roman Catholic and before that Anglican and who has an affinity for Gerhard Forde, Robert Jenson and other ELCA (formerly in Jenson’s case) Lutherans. There is no doubt that Father Kimel, a highly astute, intelligent, and humane man, has been giving voice to ideas very similar to this on his blog, where he has basically been arguing for a revamped universalism that makes hell into purgatory.
I think it is understandable that Lutherans proclaiming the Gospel might want to try to especially highlight the grace of God to those who have convinced themselves that even if God exists they would not want to know him anyways… “Who did Jesus die for?… How many sins did He pay for?… Which of your sins did Jesus forget to pay for?”, etc. And not only with words, but by going out of one’s way to treat all persons with gentleness, kindness, respect, and the compassion that Christ felt in His guts.
Nevertheless – in our efforts to “shake people up” and disrupt false understandings of God, I come away from this post more aware that how we do this is critical – perhaps not necessarily because we are concerned about giving false impressions to the particular persons that we attempt to reach in concrete situations, but rather because we are concerned with what the broader church hears. We do not want to – should not want to – create impressions like those Darby lists above, and we certainly do not want to – should not want to – give encouragement to persons who might aim to construct and/or support systematic understandings of theology that are built, in large part, on false or misleading understandings of objective justification.