Exegetical Basis of the Objective/Subjective Justification Distinction
Now perhaps one might worry that the distinction is a neat scholastic distinction invented to “save” the federal system, but that it lacks an exegetical basis. But I would argue that is not so. In Paul’s theology, there is a close connection between justification and reconciliation. Paul uses the language of reconciliation in three important passages (Rom 5:1-11; 2 Cor 5:18-21; Col 1:20-22), and in the first two cases (Rom 5:1-11 and 2 Cor 5:18-21), it comes on the heels of or is immediately followed by language about justification and imputed righteousness. In the third passage (Col 1:20-22), it is arguable that the concept of justification is present in the nearby context (“qualified to share in the inheritance,” Col 1:12-14). Paul is using the language of reconciliation, not as a separate benefit in the ordo salutis, but to shift to a different metaphorical frame, from the forensic metaphor of the courtroom (justification) to the more relational metaphor of war and peace (reconciliation). He does this in order to bring out the subjective dimension of justification, saying that we were once under the wrath of God (Rom 1:18), but now, “having been justified by faith, we have peace with God” (Rom 5:1).
However, the reconciliation metaphor also has a pronounced objective side in Paul’s thought. Paul emphasizes the objective aspect as that which has logical priority over the subjective. He says, “We were reconciled to God through the death of his Son” (Rom 5:10). It wasn’t through regeneration or through our faith-bond with Christ or anything wrought in us, but “through the death of his Son” that we were reconciled to God. In the Colossians passage, he makes it even more explicit in focusing on the objective work of Christ outside of us: “He has now reconciled [you] in his body of flesh by his death” (Col 1:22).
Another locution used by Paul in connection with reconciliation highlights the priority of the objective. Paul says God reconciled us to himself: “Through him to reconcile to himself all things” (Col 1:20). “Who through Christ reconciled us to himself … In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them” (2 Cor 5:18-19). Then, having emphasized God’s work in reconciling us to himself, he moves to the gospel call: “We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (2 Cor 5:20). Objective reconciliation occurs first, even before our conscious experience of it by faith, as a sovereign action of God reconciling us “to himself,” and then, when we hear the word of reconciliation and believe in Christ, we become subjectively reconciled.
The article on the Greek words for “reconcile, reconciliation” in the New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology and Exegesis is helpful in this regard:
The reconciliation created by God is thus an act attributed to divine initiative and not dependent on human peace-making. “For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!” (Rom 5:10). It is clear that the sinner was an enemy before the reconciliation took place. Human action, including even repentance and confession of sins, is not a work that initiates reconciliation and to which God reacts. Rather it [= reconciliation] is the work of God, to which we respond. (“ἀλλάσσω” in NIDNTTE, ed. M. Silva [Zondervan, 2014], 1.245)
This distinction between objective and subjective reconciliation, and the priority of objective reconciliation to subjective reconciliation, is explicit in Paul, and since reconciliation is merely another metaphor for justification, I would argue that this is a significant exegetical basis for the distinction between objective and subjective justification.