Lutherans and Roman Catholics Unite on Justification

Rev. A.Esselbrugge

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.

  1. 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.

  2. Justification is a once only act of God. It is not a process and is not repeatable.

  3. 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.

  4. 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 3).

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 grace”.

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 of grace.

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 believe.

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 granted forgiveness.”

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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