Lutherans and Roman Catholics Unite on
On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church
door in Wittenberg and triggered the Reformation, something which had
been gathering and building for some years. Four hundred and eighty two
years later, on this day in 1999 in Augsburg, the Lutheran World
Federation and the Roman Catholic Church signed a “Joint Declaration on
the Doctrine of Justification.” The declaration has been called an
historic agreement, and the popular media adopting the terminology of
the press releases by these two bodies have also declared that this
“historic agreement signifies the end of a 500 year conflict.”
While recognising there are many more questions and issues dividing the
two churches, the representative signatories also stressed that this
declaration on the doctrine of justification “removes a serious obstacle
to further progress towards Christian unity, and paves the way to
further ecumenical dialogue on other issues between the churches of the
Reformation and the Roman Catholic Church” (LWF press release 27 Oct).
What are we to think of such a step? Has the Roman Catholic Church made
a fundamental shift on this most important doctrine? A reading of the
actual declaration reveals that the Roman Catholic Church has not made
any change at all, and the Lutheran World Federation has in fact been
drawn to the logical conclusion of the Lutheran inability to break fully
with the Roman Catholic Church.
For clarity it must be noted that the entire Roman Catholic Church is
one party to the Declaration, but not all Lutheran churches are. The
other party to the Declaration is described as “a global communion of
128 member churches in 70 countries representing 58 million of the
world’s 61.5 million Lutherans.”
With the assertion of the Joint Declaration that the doctrine of
justification is a most important doctrine, we are in full agreement. In
order to reveal the failings of the Joint Declaration we need to present
the various views of this doctrine.
Reformed View of Justification
Louis Berkhof defines justification as, “a judicial act of God, in which
He declares, on the basis of the righteousness of Jesus Christ, that all
the claims of the Law are satisfied with respect to the sinner”
(Systematic Theology, 1974, p.513).
Herman Hoeksema says the same, but incorporates the important aspect of
imputation. “Justification is that act of God’s grace whereby He imputes
to the sinner that is in himself guilty and condemned, but elect in
Christ, the perfect righteousness of God in Christ, acquits him on the
ground of Christ’s merits of all guilt and punishment, and gives him a
right to eternal life” (Reformed Dogmatics, 1973, p.493).
Our confessional standards express the doctrine most clearly in the
Belgic Confession of Faith (Art. 23), Canons of Dordt (2:7,8) and the
Westminster Confession of Faith (chapter 11).
Several important observations are necessary.
Justification is a legal
declaration in the heart of God whereby God formally pronounces a
person righteous. It is a declaration of acceptance God makes of the
sinner only on the basis of accepting the work of the Lord Jesus as
fully satisfying divine justice.
Justification is a once only
act of God. It is not a process and is not repeatable.
Justification must not be
confused with sanctification, which is a process and an ongoing
activity of the Holy Spirit together with the redeemed seeking
growth in the knowledge of God and the fruit of the Spirit.
While a radical change takes
place in the justified, justification is neither the effective cause
nor the means of such change.
In summary, justification by faith
alone is about the necessity of God alone declaring a person acquitted
of all sin, and so acceptable to Him because Another paid for all our
sin. It is about our inability, and our absolute impotence to save
ourselves so that God must do it for us.
Roman Catholic View of Justification
Roman Catholics have always gone much further and confused justification
and sanctification, holding that justification is where God makes a
person righteous and holy. An infusion takes place, it is believed, of
righteousness into the human soul, which renovates the moral nature. It
is an act in which the activity of the soul must be strenuously and
continually involved. In fact the official position of Catholicism is
stated very unequivocally. In a counter to the Reformation, the Roman
Catholic Church made a series of direct statements in what is called the
“Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent” (1563). At several points
it is declared that anyone who would promote the doctrines of “grace
alone”, “by faith alone”, “scripture alone”, and “by Christ alone”, and
would say that the human will is impotent to affect good, is “anathema”.
Various acts of grace upon the sinner lead to a desire for baptism, and
it is the sacrament that is essential. “Justification really consists in
the infusion of new virtues after the pollution of sin has been removed
in baptism” (L. Berkhof p.524) upon which the person by effort in good
works may advance in a more “perfect justification”.
Lutheran View of Justification
The Reformers sought pre-eminently to restore the authority of
Scripture, and the single issue that caused the greatest division and
conflict was Martin Luther’s insistence on the Scriptural doctrine of
justification by faith alone.
The Lutheran Formula of Concord asserts the Lutheran view of
justification, that “Christ is truly our righteousness... in His sole,
most absolute obedience which He rendered to the Father even unto
death... and thereby merited for us the remission of all our sins and
eternal life... that God remits to us our sins of mere grace, without
any respect of our works, going before, present, or following, or of our
worthiness or merit. For He bestows and imputes to us the righteousness
of the obedience of Christ; for the sake of that righteousness we are
received by God into favour and accounted righteous... faith alone is
the means and instrument whereby we lay hold on Christ the Saviour”(Art
With such a confessional statement we are in full and hearty agreement.
However, Lutheran theology has never been able to break fully from
Catholic theology in its view of the sacraments of baptism and the
Lord’s Supper believing them to convey grace to the recipients of these
sacraments. It is at these points that the Lutheran view of
justification, so well expressed above in their confessional standards
unravels, as the recent Joint Declaration clearly illustrates.
The Joint Declaration on Justification
As a neighbouring pastor of the Lutheran Church put it when discussing
this Declarations with him, it is quite a momentous step on the part of
the Lutheran Churches. He feels that nothing much has changed for the
Lutherans in their views of justification, but that the Declaration is
an invitation to Lutherans to show more charity to past Roman Catholic
statements on justification. He expressed a view that words have been
used in common, but which have had a different history and been used
with different understanding. The Declaration is a small step to a
common understanding of the definitions of those words. While he felt
very positive and optimistic about the Declaration, he was still
cautious about future developments, recognising there was still an
enormous amount of work to be done on such issues as purgatory, saints
and the redefining of sanctification.
Noting this, we must say that the Declaration is more revealing about
the Lutheran view and understanding of this crucial doctrine than of the
Roman Catholic view. It would seem to me that the Lutherans have taken a
firm and decisive step closer to Rome.
Paragraphs 1-10 and 13-15 of the Declaration offer the reader much to be
optimistic and hopeful about. In them we read, “Our common listening to
the Word of God in Scripture has led to such new insights. Together we
hear the Gospel”, and John 3:16 is quoted along with references to
numerous other Scriptures. There is a forthright recognition of human
sinfulness and disobedience, and God’s righteousness and judgment.
Paragraphs 11 and 12 offer the first real warning signals to a broader
conception of Biblical justification, declaring that “justification is
the forgiveness of sins, liberation from the dominating power of sin and
death and from the curse of the Law. It is acceptance into communion
with God... It occurs in the reception of the Holy Spirit in Baptism and
incorporation into the one body.”
Yet, despite the addition and the necessity of baptism, “All this is
from God alone, for Christ’s sake, by grace, through faith in the
‘Gospel of God’s Son’”.
In the rush of enthusiasm and hope that something positive has taken
place within Roman Catholicism, the temptation is to overlook these two
paragraphs. However, a little further on we are brought to a crashing
disappointment, and we are left in no doubt whatsoever, that while
holding justification to be an act of God and by grace alone, there
remains the utter contradiction that the sacraments and the church are
the indispensable means of dispensing and obtaining God’s “justifying
Two significant paragraphs (20,21) momentarily lift ones hopes when they
affirm: “human beings are incapable of co-operating in salvation”, and
any co-operative effort in the receiving of God’s grace is itself a work
However, when the Joint Declaration asserts several times over, as
though to ensure no-one misses the point, that “Persons are justified
through Baptism as hearers of the Word and believers in it” (27), that
salvation is a gift granted by the action of the Holy Spirit in Baptism
(25), and “In Baptism the Holy Spirit unites one with Christ, justifies,
and truly renews the person” (28,29,30), we are left in no doubts at
all. Rome has not changed its position in the least and Lutheranism has
clarified itself to be much closer to Rome than we have wanted to
No longer can Lutherans genuinely declare to uphold Martin Luther’s
position on the doctrine of Justification by faith alone, in Christ
alone, by grace alone as they have it in their own Formulas of Concord.
The confusion between justification and sanctification has been
maintained. Both are regarded as a process that is continuous and
ongoing throughout life in which growth and renewal of faith, hope and
love take place (27,28). Furthermore, a call is made for the justified
to be “ever again called to conversion and penance, and are ever again
In conclusion, the Joint Declaration on Justification by the Lutheran
World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church, despite addressing
assurance of salvation (34-36) and stating that the Christian hope is
grounded in the objective work of Christ, it leaves the multi-millions
of their respective members dependant upon the administration of Baptism
by the church. What sort of hope and assurance does that provide?
The Reformers along with Martin Luther broke with the Roman Catholic
Church because they rejected Rome’s insistence of grace plus various
additions. Under the hand of God they restored the Biblical insistence,
“It is by grace you are saved, and this not from yourselves, it is the
gift of God - not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8,9).
By grace alone.
In Christ alone.
By faith alone.
Revealed in Scripture alone.
For the glory of God alone.
Here we stand!
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