In Spirit & Truth: The Lutheran Roman Catholic Joint Declaration

On October 31, 1999 officials of the Lutheran and Roman Catholic Churches met in Augsburg, Germany to sign a “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification.” The date and location were deliberately chosen to symbolize that a step was being taken towards the healing of one of the major divisions in the church stemming from the time of the Reformation. Luther promulgated his Theses on that date in 1517 and it was at Augsburg that the basic Lutheran confession (the Augsburg Confession) was presented to Emperor: Charles V in 1530. This event took on added importance because of the official status of the Igners. The Roman Catholics were led by John Cardinal Cassidy who had official authorization from the Vatican to speak for openly accepting the document. The Lutherans represented the Lutheran World Federation which claims to speak for over 57 million of the world’s 61 million Lutherans.

The Declaration testifies to a remarkable level of agreement having been reached. Section 5 says that the two sides are agreed about “basic truths” of justification, and Section 40, that while remaining differences are in some ways significant, they are “acceptable.” This means that the condemnations adopted in the sixteenth century no longer apply to the positions taken in the Joint Declaration.

The key section of the Declaration often cited in the press to show this level of agreement is Section 15. It reads: “Together we confess: By grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works.” This sounds quite good to many Protestants but we should remember that it is only a brief excerpt from a long Declaration which, including agdenda, runs to about 20 pages. Certainly not everyone has agreed that a Biblical agreement has been reached. The Office of the President of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod in America (a confessional Lutheran church with over 2 million members) issued a statement sharply critical of the statement. It says: “In truth, the Joint Declaration is an ambiguous statement whose careful wording makes it possible for the Pope’s representatives to sign it without changing, retracting or correcting anything that has been taught by the Roman Catholic Church since the time of the Council of Trent in the 16th century... It is but the latest example of Lutherans sacrificing God's truth on the altar of unity... a woefully inadequate  and misleading document and a betrayal of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” A careful examination of the Joint Declaration will show that this evaluation is correct.

As the document specifically says in Section 7 that those represented, “do not disavow their own past,” it follows that neither the Roman Catholic nor Lutheran side acknowledges any change in their historic positions. How then was agreement reached? The answer given in Sections 7, 8, 13 is that it is because of new insights in Biblical studies and in the history of theology. But, strangely, the character of those new insights is never made clear and we are left to speculate what has really changed.

This ambiguity is indicative of the general character of the awkwardly written document and of its treatment of three important themes.

MERIT

First, it says nothing new or clear about merit. Section 15 cited above states that, God accepts us “not because of any merit on our part.” That seems to be a complete rejection of merit. But in Section 38 we read, “When Catholics affirm the ‘meritorious’ character of good works, they wish to say that, according to the Biblical witness, a reward in heaven is promised to these works.” So merit is not completely rejected nor is the historic Roman Catholic commitment to merit “disavowed.”

GRACE

Secondly, a similar ambiguity can be seen in the statement that we are accepted “by grace alone.” Section 15 says we are accepted “by grace alone.” For most heirs of the Reformation sola gratia eliminates all notions of cooperation with grace. But Section 20 states, “When Catholics say that persons ‘cooperate’ in preparing for and accepting justification by consenting to God’s justifying action, they see such personal consent as itself an effect of grace, not as an action arising from innate human abilities.” Again this statement is at best ambiguous. How does it relate to historic Roman Catholic teaching especially on the freedom of the human will? Interestingly, the document is entirely silent on the issue of free will.

FAITH

A third crucial ambiguity is on the role of faith in justification. The Declaration says we are accepted "in faith in Christ's saving work." But what is the character and role of that faith? Section 26 does say, "In the doctrine of 'justification by faith alone,' a distinction but not a separation is made between justification itself and the renewal of one's way of life that necessarily follows from justification and without which faith does not exist. Thereby the basis is indicated from which the renewal of life proceeds, for it comes forth from the love of God imparted to the person in justification. justification and renewal are joined in Christ, who is present in faith." This complex statement is full of ambiguities.

First there appears to be an endorsement of sola fide, but faith is never defined, nor is its function specified. The concept of faith receiving the imputation of Christ's full and complete righteousness as our substitute in the judgment of God is nowhere mentioned in the document. Without this truth no stable, Biblical doctrine of justification is possible and that silence is enough in itself to require rejection of the Declaration as an acceptable statement on justification.

Secondly, in the absence of a discussion of imputation, the document is never forced to examine its ambiguities about the relation of
justification to renewal. In section 26 itself, justification seems identified with “the renewal of one’s way of life” and in the light of the  whole document it becomes clear that the age-old Roman Catholic error of confusing justification with renewal or sanctification is perpetuated. For example, Section II states that justification is “forgiveness of sins” and “liberation from the dominating power of sin and death.” Section 17 declares that “the message of justification... tells us that as sinners our new life is solely due to the forgiving and renewing mercy that God imparts as a gift.... ” Section 27 says: “The Catholic understanding... is that justification of sinners is forgiveness of sins and being made righteous by justifying grace ....”

We do well to remember that, according to the Declaration, this understanding is acceptable to Lutherans. Further, the Vatican insisted on an addition to the document before it was signed. In the Annex, part of the official Declaration, section 2.A., we read: “justification is forgiveness of sins and being made righteous, through which God imparts the gift of new life in Christ.... ”

Conclusion

In the affirmation of merit, the silence on imputation, the confusion of justification with renewal, and the use of imparting as a functional equivalent for infusion, the real nature of the Joint Declaration is revealed. The Roman Catholic position has not changed at all. In a carefully nuanced way Rome has repeated the position of the Council of Trent. The Lutherans alone have changed in signing this document. They have abandoned the Reformation and betrayed the gospel.

Those who think that a concern to keep justification and renewal clearly distinct is merely a matter of quibbling over words should read again Question 77 of the Westminster Larger Catechism, “Wherein do justification and sanctification differ?” The answer reminds us that justification is about the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, the pardon of sin, and perfect freedom nowfrom the wrath of God. Sanctification, on the other hand, is about an infusion of grace that changes us, subdues sin and is progressively growing in this life. Where these are confused, all real peace and confidence in our relation to God disappears in a fearful pursuit of enough grace to satisfy God.

Consider finally the constancy of Rome in its confusion and error at this point. The Reformation began on October 31, 1517 with Luther's 95 Theses protesting the sale of indulgences. In 1999 Pope John Paul II has deciared a Holy Year from December 24, 1999 to January 6, 2001 and offered an abundance of plenary indulgences to help the faithful in their difficult and uncertain pursuit of grace.

Rome and the perversions of Christianity that its errors bring with them still must be resisted in the name of the Biblical gospel. How tragic that so many Lutherans, I who once led the battle, have given up the truth of justification by faith alone. The events at Augsburg on October 31, 1999 are not a cause for rejoicing. Rather it is a call to all those who love the gospel of Christ to proclaim it anew, clearly and without compromise, that many in our needy world may hear, believe and be justified.  

Dr. Godfrey, edItor of this department, Professor of Church History, and President of Westminster Seminary in Escondido, CA.

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