The Joint Declaration Between the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation on the Doctrine of Justification

Author: LOR


L’Osservatore Romano

On 31 October 1999, the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification was signed in Augsburg, Germany, by the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation. This event was undoubtedly of great importance on the path toward the unity of Christians, since, as is well-known, the question of justification was one of the issues most discussed at the time of the Protestant Reformation. For Luther, the Pauline message of justification by faith alone was the articulus stantis et cadentis Ecclesiae, the point by which the Church continues or fails in her faith. Concretely, this doctrine means that only Christ can save man, corrupted in his depths by sin, by bestowing on him that justice which is proper to Christ himself, without man being able to contribute to this work of salvation. On the other hand, Luther also speaks of the justified person as a new creature and of the good works that are the fruit of justification.

For its part, the Council of Trent begins its decree on justification by alluding to the erroneous teaching on this subject that was circulating in those times. The Council strongly emphasizes that it is impossible for human beings to save themselves by their own strength without the grace that God gives us in Christ. It insists also, however, on man's free acceptance of the justification which God offers him. This free cooperation is not an autonomous act of the human person, but is already the fruit of the grace at work in him; it is possible only insofar as grace precedes, moves and impels us. Furthermore, the Council insists on the interior transformation which grace works in man, so that justification does not consist simply in the remission of sins, without the sanctification and renewal of the interior man. These differences—whose extent and significance are seen in a new perspective today thanks to the ecumenical dialogue—were reflected in the mutual condemnations and anathemas.

For centuries, the positions of Lutherans and Catholics on this point were considered, by both sides, to be incompatible. On the one hand, the Catholic affirmation of human cooperation with grace was considered by Lutherans to be a reduction of the value of Christ's action or as an attempt to establish "one's own justice". On the Catholic side, Luther's positions were seen as making justification exterior to man and not touching his deepest being.

Two different visions of man, as a sinner reached by grace, must not allow us to forget a basic consistency: man can be saved only through the grace of Christ, and it would be vain pretence to trust in one's own strength or merits. Precisely because of these fundamental points of agreement, there were many attempts to bring the Catholic and Lutheran positions together in the renewed ecumenical climate of the last decades of the 20th century. This progress was due to a deeper study of Holy Scripture and the common tradition of the Fathers of the Church, as well as extensive research into the history of the Reformation and the Council of Trent and into what they intended.

Gradually it became possible to place the points of agreement based on a common tradition in a new light and, at the same time, the differences, which cannot be considered unimportant or trivial, came to be better situated in the context of the common confession of the Christian faith. After some partial agreements reached by various groups in different countries, the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation are able to present their points of agreement and their divergences in the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. Based on this Declaration, they can declare together that there exists a consensus between Lutherans and Catholics on fundamental truths regarding the doctrine of justification and that therefore the mutual condemnations do not apply to the teaching of the two confessions as presented in this document.

The Joint Declaration begins by recalling the central elements of biblical teaching on justification and the common understanding of justification derived from Scripture: justification is the work of the Trinitarian God; the Fatherhas sent the Son into the world for the salvation of sinners; the incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ are the basis of justification; only by grace and by faith in the saving action of Christ do we receive the Holy Spirit who renews our hearts. God calls all human beings to salvation in Christ. Only by faith can one receive this salvation; faith itself is a gift of God by means of the Spirit. For this reason, this doctrine brings us to the centre of the New Testament message: "as sinners our new life is solely due to the forgiving and renewing mercy that God imparts as a gift and we receive in faith, and never can merit in any way"(JD 17).

From this foundation, the Declaration develops the common doctrine of justification, which cannot be presented here in all its particular points. It will be enough to show that two levels can be distinguished in the various issues treated: that of fundamental convergences and that of differing accents and nuances, as well as the discrepancies which have traditionally distinguished the two confessions. In each case, the Declaration seeksto show how the insistence on one aspect does not mean the denial of its contrary and thus that the statements of each confession remain open to those of the other.

The differences are in no way covered over. Those which refer to the condition of the justified sinner appear with particular prominence (cf. JD 28-30). This was one of the points traditionally most controversial for mutual understanding between the two confessions. There is agreement on the fact that the justified person remains always under the threat of sin and must fight constantly against those tendencies which impel toward evil. However, for Lutherans this means that man is "simul justus et peccator" (at the same time righteous and a sinner); which is to say that he is totally just because God has forgiven him his sins and has bestowed on him the justice of Christ, yet when he looks at himself he recognizes that, at the same time, he is totally a sinner because sin dwells in him; he constantly follows false gods and does not love God as he ought: this opposition to God is truly sin. Catholics, on the other hand, following the Council of Trent, insist on the fact that God hates nothing in the reborn person, and that concupiscence, although it does not correspond to God's original plan for the human person since it comes from and leads to sin, is not in itself strictly speaking "sin". In the face of these differences, which were openly recognized, the question arose as to whether or not it could be stated that today the mutual condemnations do not apply to the teachings of the two sides. Concretely, from the Catholic point of view, could this be said in all certainty with reference to the Lutheran doctrine of simul justus et peccator as set forth in the Joint Declaration?

This doubt was the principal reason which led the Catholic Church on 25 June 1998 to publish a Response to the Joint Declaration, in which, while confirming the high level of consensus that had been reached on fundamental truths of the doctrine of justification, it was stated that one could not yet speak of an agreement such as would remove all discrepancies. It also presented, in order of importance, a list of those points on which, from what had emerged from the text of the Declaration itself, the discrepancies had not been overcome. The first point was precisely the permanence of sin in the justified, which we have just mentioned. In the Joint Declaration, it did not appear with clarity that the renewal and sanctification of the interior man as a consequence of justification was a doctrine common to the two confessions. For Catholics, it is an essential doctrine defined by the Council of Trent (cf. DS 1528). The Response alsoindicated the difficulty arising from the different importance which Catholics and Lutherans give to the doctrine of justification. While for the latter this doctrine assumes a singular significance as the first and fundamental article of faith, the Catholic Church, recognizing in the message of justification a central importance, sees it "organically integrated into the fundamental criterion of the 'regula fidei', that is, the confession of the one God in three persons, christologically centred and rooted in the living Church and its sacramental life". There was also a third point on which the Response sought greater clarity: that of human cooperation with grace. The Declaration statedthat man can refuse grace. The Response, however, asked for the clarification that this possibility of refusing grace corresponds also to a new capacity to adhere to the divine will, called "cooperation", which would mean that man is not purely passive in the process of justification. This possibility of cooperation is in turn the fruit of grace, as the Council of Trent clearly teaches (cf. DS 1525).

For its part, the Council of the Lutheran World Federation raised some points with regard to the Joint Declaration in its Recommendations for Action, adopted on 16 June 1998.

The continuation of the dialogue led to greater clarification of these points. In this way, it was possible to arrive at an Official Common Statement of the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church with its Annex, which was signed on 31 October 1999, together with the Joint Declaration of the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation on the Doctrine of Justification. In the first paragraph, the Official Common Statement summarizes the fundamental results of the Joint Declaration: there is a consensus in basic truths of the doctrine of justification (cf. JD 40) and even more decisively: "the teaching of the Lutheran churches presented in the Declaration does not fall under the condemnations from the Council of Trent. The condemnations in the Lutheran Confessions do not apply to the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church presented in this Declaration (JD 41)". This is not a repudiation of the condemnations pronounced in the past. Rather, the condemnations appear now in a new light, since new perspectives have been attained and developments have occurred which permit us to reach these conclusions (cf. JD 7). Both sides have committed themselves to continue the dialogue and to deepen their understanding of the biblical foundations of the doctrine of justification, as well as to seek further common understanding of this teaching, which may go beyond the questions treated in the Joint Declaration and in the Annex (about which we will speak below). The dialogue will have to continue especially on those matters which need further clarification. Lutherans and Catholics will also have to commit themselves in a common witness to interpret the message of justification in language which is more understandable for the people of our time.

The position of the Catholic Church at the time of the publication of the Response in June 1998 and that which later led to the signing of the Official Common Statement are not precisely the same; the reservations which were in evidence then have dissipated. This change is fully explained in the Annex to the Official Common Statement of 11 June 1999. The Annex, beyond restating the consensus attained (which permits us to say that the condemnations of the past do not apply to the doctrines of the two parties as presented in the Joint Declaration), revisits some of the points in the Declaration which still left room for doubts and questions regarding the significance of the agreement reached. We will consider in particular the issues mentioned in the Response of the Catholic Church.

The first and most important point, which has already been mentioned, relates to the question of the permanence of sin in the justified person and the renewal of the interior man about which the Council of Trent speaks. On this point the Annex, developingthe Joint Declaration, states precisely: "Justification is forgiveness of sins and being made righteous, through which God 'imparts the gift of new life in Christ' (JD 22). 'Since we are justified by faith we have peace with God' (Rom 5:1). We are I called children of God; and that is what we are' (1 Jn 3:1). We are truly and inwardly renewed by the action of theHoly Spirit, remaining always dependent on his work in us" (n. 2 A). No attentive reader will miss the significance of this passage. The real interior renewal of man as a consequence of God's action is stated with complete clarity. There is no doubt that here we find an advance from the formulations of the Joint Declaration, which had given rise to the reservations in the Response. Of course, for Catholics, this interior renewal does not mean that after baptism sin will no longer arise in our lives. We know very well that this is not so, and the very existence of the sacrament of Penance is proof of the contrary. The liturgy itself recalls to us "the persisting danger which comes from the power of sin and its action in Christians" (Annex, 2 A). "To this extent, Lutheransand Catholics can together understand the Christian as simul justus et peccator [at the same time justified and a sinner] despite their different approaches to the subject as expressed in JD 29-30" (ibidem). The agreement reached does not preclude that there still may be discrepancy. Indeed, we find ourselves before one of those issues which, according to both confessions, needs to be explored more deeply in the future. This deepening in understanding and the further convergence of the respective positions should be possible, since Luther and the Lutheran Confessional writings often state, in conformity with the testimony of Scripture, that, inasmuch as he is justified, the Christian is a new creature.

The convergences and discrepancies on the question of concupiscence are dealt with in 2 B of the Annex: "In the Lutheran Confessional writings concupiscence is understood as the self-seeking desire of the human spirit, which in light of the Law, spiritually understood, is regarded as sin. In the Catholic understanding, concupiscence is an inclination, remaining in human beings even after baptism, which comes from sin and presses toward sin". For Lutherans as for Catholics, concupiscence does not correspond to God's original plan for humanity, although for the former it is truly sin, while for Catholics it is not sin in the strict sense. The Annex states that, in the Protestant perspective, desire can be the opening through which sin assails us; thus, the possibility of a mutual understanding of this difficult concept may be open. Sin, as the text explains in this section, has a personal character and leads to separation from God. In truth, everything which does not separate us personally from God is not sin, at least for Catholics. Concupiscence, according to the Council of Trent, though it leads to sin, does not harm the person who fights against it with the help of grace; in this sense, it does not lead to separation from God. Lutherans identify concupiscence with selfish desire. The question could be posed legitimately whether Lutherans and Catholics, while using the same term, are referring to precisely the same reality. The Annex rightly indicates that the reality of salvation given to us in Baptism and the danger which comes from the power of sin can be differently emphasized. In any case, it is clear that the question of concupiscence is another of those points which need further clarification, so that full ecclesial communion might be reached, in which the differences may be reconciled (cf. Official Common Statement, 3).

Another point which the Response of the Catholic Church considered in need of further precision was the question of the free acceptance of justification and cooperation with grace. Here too the Annex, in section 2 C, provides greater clarity. On the one hand, it is stated that justification takes place by grace alone, and that by faith alone a person is justified apart from works. At the same time, however, "the working of God's grace does not exclude human action: God effects everything, the willing and the achievement, therefore, we are called to strive". Grace, as the communion of the justified person with God, comes always from the work of God. "But it is nevertheless the responsibility of the justified not to waste this grace but to live in it. The exhortation to do good works is the exhortation to practise the faith" (Annex, 2D). The importance of human action and the necessity of good works, which are always God's gift, are expressed with clarity. The Catholic Church takes note of this with satisfaction.

Beyond clarifying the concrete points that have been mentioned, the Annex refers also to the problem of the different importance which Catholics and Lutherans attribute to the doctrine of justification in the context of the hierarchy of truths. It states that "the doctrine of justification is measure or touchstone for the Christian faith. No doctrine may contradict this criterion". For this reason, it states that the doctrine of justification is an indispensable criterion for the doctrine and practice of the Church; however, it does not say that it is the criterion. The doctrine of justification "has its truth and specific meaning within the overall context of the Church's fundamental Trinitarian confession of faith" (Annex, 3).

The path was not easy whichled first to the Joint Declaration and then to the signing of the Official Common Statement confirming it. Many misconceptions and considerable resistance had to be overcome on both sides. It is understandable that such difficulties would arise, since the ways in which the doctrine of justification was expressed in the two confessions throughout the centuries have been quite different. Neither the Joint Declaration nor the Official Common Statement intends to repudiate the past or disguise the differences which still exist. But reflection on the Word of God and on our common faith in the salvation brought by Christ has allowed us to view differently those discrepancies which past controversies had magnified, and to consider them in a new light. On the basis of this agreement on fundamental questions, we may hope that the dialogue will continue in a spirit of trust and mutual understanding, so that more light may be shed on thepoints which still need it. The step taken by the Declaration on Justification is an important one. On the threshold of a new millennium, it allows Catholics and Lutherans to give joint witness to a central element of their common faith, so that the world might believe.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
26 January 2000, page 9

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