The Objective/Subjective Justification Distinction
In order to make sense of this, we have to understand the distinction between the objective and the subjective sides of justification. In his Systematic Theology (p. 517), Berkhof states that objective justification “consists in a declaration which God makes respecting the sinner, and this declaration is made in the tribunal of God ... This active justification logically precedes faith and passive justification.” Subjective justification, on the other hand, “takes place in the heart or conscience of the sinner” and “logically, passive justification follows faith.”
I prefer to speak of “objective justification” and “subjective justification,” or even “imputation” and “justification,” thus reserving the term “justification” for the subjective experience of being justified by faith. Nevertheless, I believe this distinction is crucial because it is the key to maintaining the distinction between justification and sanctification, between the forensic and the renovative, as well as being able to keep the forensic logically prior to and the ground of the renovative.
Dr. Lane Tipton’s 2012 Inaugural Address is a critique of Berkhof’s distinction between active and passive justification. Tipton says,
We must maintain without any form of equivocation that believers are not personally justified until they are united to Christ by faith in their effectual calling …. If active justification is a blessing of redemption applied (ordo salutis), and if active justification logically precedes faith, then active justification logically precedes faith-union with Christ. This is not possible from a biblical and confessional perspective …. No aspect of forensic justification comes to believers (logically or temporally) prior to union with Christ by faith (WTJ 75 : 7, 8, 10).
Clearly, Dr. Tipton rejects active justification as understood within federal theology, but I am personally convinced of its importance and validity. I would not claim that it is the only legitimate Reformed view. There is clearly diversity within the Reformed tradition at this point. But it is a widely held position associated with the more systematic refinement of Reformed theology in terms of federal theology from the 17th century to the present. Berkhof is not alone in making this distinction. I believe the distinction can also be found in Ursinus, Maccovius, Owen, Turretin, Witsius, á Brakel, A. A. Hodge, Bavinck, and Vos.
Here are some quotes from Bavinck in his Reformed Dogmatics (ed. John Bolt; trans. John Vriend) where he articulates the distinction between active and passive justification:
The imputation of the person of Christ along with all his benefits, therefore, preceded the gift of the benefits. Justification, in other words, did not occur as a result of or by faith, but with a view to faith. Before the elect receive faith, they have already been justified. Indeed, they receive this faith precisely because they have already been justified beforehand. (3.583)
Now to maintain this perfect righteousness of Christ and the full riches of the gospel, Reformed theologians, in speaking of actual justification, made a distinction between active and passive justification. (4.218)
Now the distinction between active and passive justification served to escape this nomistic pattern. Active justification already in a sense occurred in the proclamation of the gospel, in the external calling, but it occurs especially in the internal calling when God by his word and Spirit effectually calls sinners, convicts them of sin, drives them out toward Christ, and prompts them to find forgiveness and life in him. Logically this active justification precedes faith …. And when these persons, after first, as it were, going out to Christ (the direct act of faith), then (by a reflex act of faith) return to themselves and acknowledge with childlike gratitude that their sins too have been personally forgiven, then, in that moment, the passive justification occurs by which God acquits believers in their conscience …. While there is here a priority of order, it is coupled with simultaneity of time …. Active and passive justification, accordingly, cannot be separated even for a second. (4.219)
Bavinck is clear in distancing his position from justification from eternity (3.591; 4.216). And while he does sometimes speak of objective justification as occurring in the historia salutis, i.e., in the resurrection of Christ, he makes clear that such is not “full” or “actual” justification. He views actual justification as purchased by Christ in history according to the terms of the pactum salutis, but as coming to fruition in the moment of the internal calling or regeneration.
A covenant of grace, a mystical union between Christ and his church, existed long before believers were personally incorporated into it—or else Christ could not have made satisfaction for them either. The imputation and donation of Christ and all his benefits by God takes place before the particular persons come to believe. Specifically, that imputation and donation takes place in the internal calling, and regeneration is the passive acceptance of this gift of grace. God also had to give that gift in order for us to be able to receive it. The very first gift of grace given us already presupposes the imputation of Christ, for Christ is the only source of grace, the acquisitor and distributor of the Spirit, who is his Spirit, the Spirit of Christ. (4.214)
This seems eminently Scriptural to me, especially the way Bavinck so strongly sees the pactum salutis as fulfilled in the historia salutis (the accomplishment of redemption) as the foundation for the ordo salutis (the application of redemption).
If it is true that the very first benefit of grace already presupposes communion with the person of Christ, then the imputation and granting of Christ to the church precedes everything else …. A bond was already forged between the mediator and those who were given him by the Father in eternity, in election, and more precisely in the pact of salvation (pactum salutis). Then, in the divine decree, a mystical union was concluded between them, and substitution occurred …. The whole church, comprehended in him as its head, has objectively been crucified, has died, been resurrected, and glorified with him. All the benefits of grace therefore lie prepared and ready for the church in the person of Christ. All is finished: God has been reconciled; nothing remains to be added from the side of humans. Atonement, forgiveness, justification, the mystical union, sanctification, glorification, and so on—they do not come into being after and as a result of faith but are objectively, actively present in Christ. They are the fruits solely of his suffering and dying, and they are appropriated on our part by faith. God grants them and imputes them to the church in the decree of election, in the resurrection of Christ, in his calling by the gospel. In God’s own time they will also become the subjective possession of believers. (3.523)
How glorious and wonderful! All too often when we speak of being “justified by faith,” we fall into the misguided view that faith is a condition that God looks for and in response to which he grants justification. Bavinck writes: “If in every respect justification comes after faith, faith becomes a condition, an activity that has to be performed in advance and cannot be purely receptive” (4.221). But faith is merely a passive and receptive instrument. Indeed, the gift of faith itself is a result of regeneration by the Spirit, and our regeneration has been purchased by the merit of Christ. Therefore, even before we are regenerated, we are already justified (actively) in order that we may be regenerated and believe, and thus receive and rest upon Christ alone for righteousness. We do not receive and rest in Christ in order that we may be justified. Rather, we believe that we are justified.
As the Heidelberg Catechism puts it, “True faith is … a firm confidence that not only to others, but also to me, God has granted forgiveness of sins, everlasting righteousness, and salvation, out of mere grace, only for the sake of Christ’s merits” (Q. 21). Faith is not a condition I must meet in order for God to grant forgiveness and righteousness. It is a firm confidence that God “has granted” me forgiveness and righteousness.