THE TERMS OBJECTIVE AND SUBJECTIVE are frequently used in discussions of the ordo salutis, the application of redemption. In one sense all these blessings are subjective, because they are given to each individual believer and they have major implications for our individual spiritual lives. But it is confusing to describe, particularly, justification and adoption as subjective. An important aspect of justification and adoption is that they convey to us a new status: as righteous (justification) and as sons and daughters (adoption). These are not matters of degree; they do not describe our inner feelings or dispositions. So theologians generally describe them as objective, not subjective.
Other blessings in the ordo salutis are inward, subjective, including regeneration, conversion, and sanctification. In one sense, however, these blessings are also objective. Those who are regenerate really are regenerate, objectively so; and those who are unregenerate really are unregenerate. Same for conversion and sanctification, although the latter admits of degrees.
So all the blessings of the application of redemption are objective in the sense that they are real blessings, not dependent on our interpretations or feelings. All are subjective in the sense that they all bring about major changes in our individual lives. And some (regeneration, conversion, sanctification) are subjective in a further sense: they change us within. They change the heart of the believer. These are the blessings that, in the previous chapter, I aligned with the existential perspective.
Some writers have claimed that the gospel is entirely objective and not at all subjective in this second sense. It is true that in some biblical passages the term gospel refers to objective events in the sense of things that happen outside us rather than inside us. In 1 Corinthians 15, for example, Paul expounds his “gospel” (v. 1) by referring to Jesus’ death for us according to the Scriptures (v. 3), his burial, resurrection, and post-resurrection appearances (vv. 4–9). But it is clear in this passage as in many others that these objective events have huge subjective consequences. In verse 10 of 1 Corinthians 15, Paul says:
But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.
Objectively, Christ appeared to Paul; but when he appeared, he wrought great changes in Paul’s mind and heart, creating within him a new disposition to work hard in the preaching of the gospel that he had once opposed. Indeed, throughout the NT, the gospel brings about profound subjective change. Not only did Christ die and rise again, but when he died, his people died to sin, and when he rose, we rose with him to new life (Rom. 6:4; cf. Col. 3:12–14). It is “Christ in you” who is our hope of glory (Col. 1:27; cf. Rom. 8:10). The doctrine of union with Christ (chapter 38) is not only about ourselves in Christ, but also about Christ in us (2 Cor. 13:5; Gal. 4:19).
So the gospel not only narrates the objective events of the history of redemption. It says that these events happened for us (“for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures,” 1 Cor. 15:3) and promises that those who believe will experience the inward blessings of those events. Indeed, gospel is even broader than that. The gospel announces the coming of the kingdom of God, God’s victory over sin and all its effects in the creation (Matt. 3:1–2; 4:17; Acts 8:12; 20:25; 28:31).