April / May 2017 - Vol. 91

Common Witness from the official Lutheran – Catholic worldwide ecumenical dialogue

.ible study
Justification - A Summary of Lutheran-Catholic Dialogue and Joint Agreement

1. In 2017, Lutheran and Catholic Christians will commemorate together the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation. Lutherans and Catholics today enjoy a growth in mutual understanding, cooperation, and respect. They have come to acknowledge that more unites than divides them: above all, common faith in the Triune God and the revelation in Jesus Christ, as well as recognition of the basic truths of the doctrine of justification.

2. Already the 450th anniversary of the Augsburg Confession in 1980 offered both Lutherans and Catholics the opportunity to develop a common understanding of the foundational truths of the faith by pointing to Jesus Christ as the living center of our Christian faith.1 On the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s birth in 1983, the international dialogue between Roman Catholics and Lutherans jointly affirmed a number of Luther’s essential concerns. The Commission’s report designated him »Witness to Jesus Christ« and declared, »Christians, whether Protestant or Catholic, cannot disregard the person and the message of this

3. The upcoming year of 2017 challenges Catholics and Lutherans to discuss in dialogue the issues and consequences of the Wittenberg Reformation, which centered on the person and thought of Martin Luther, and to develop perspectives for the remembrance and appropriation of the Reformation today. Luther’s reforming agenda poses a spiritual and theological challenge for both contemporary Catholics and Lutherans.

1 Roman Catholic / Lutheran Joint Commission, »All Under One Christ: Statement on the Augsburg Confession 1980,« in Harding Meyer and Lucas Visher (eds), Growth in Agreement I: Reports and Agreed Statements of Ecumenical Conversations on a World Level, 1972–1982 (Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1984), 241–47.
2 Roman Catholic / Lutheran Joint Commission, »Martin Luther: Witness to Jesus Christ« I.1, in Jeffrey Gros, FSC, Harding Meyer and William G. Rusch (eds), Growth in Agreement II: Reports and Agreed Statements of Ecumenical Conversations on a World Level, 1982–1998 (Geneva: WCC Publications, 2000), 438.

Justification - A Summary of Lutheran-Catholic Dialogue and Joint Agreement

Luther’s understanding of justification
102. Luther gained one of his basic Reformation insights from reflecting on the sacrament of penance, especially in relation to Matthew 16:19. In his late medieval education, he was trained to understand that God would forgive a person who was contrite for his or her sin by performing an act of loving God above all things, to which God would respond according to God’s covenant (pactum) by granting anew God’s grace
and forgiveness (facienti quod in se est deus non denegat gratiam),36 so that the priest could only declare that God had already forgiven the penitent’s sin. Luther concluded that Matthew 16 said just the opposite,
namely that the priest declared the penitent righteous, and by this act on behalf of God, the sinner actually became righteous.

Word of God as promise
103. Luther understood the words of God as words that create what they say and as having the character of promise (promissio). Such a word of promise is said in a particular place and time, by a particular person,
and is directed to a particular person. A divine promise is directed toward a person’s faith. Faith in turn grasps what is promised as promised to the believer personally. Luther insisted that such faith is the only
appropriate response to a word of divine promise. A human being is called to look away from him or herself and to look only at the word of God’s promise and trust fully in it. Since faith grounds us in Christ’s promise, it grants the believer full assurance of salvation. Not to trust in this word would make God a liar or one on whose word one could not ultimately rely. Thus, in Luther’s view, unbelief is the greatest sin against God.

104. In addition to structuring the dynamic between God and the penitent within the sacrament of penance, the relationship of promise and trust also shapes the relationship between God and human beings in the
proclamation of the Word. God wishes to deal with human beings by giving them words of promise – sacraments are also such words of promise – that show God’s saving will towards them. Human beings, on the other hand, should deal with God only by trusting in his promises. Faith is totally dependent on God’s promises; it cannot create the object in which human beings put their trust.

105. Nevertheless, trusting God’s promise is not a matter of human decision; rather, the Holy Spirit reveals this promise as trustworthy and thus creates faith in a person. Divine promise and human belief in that promise belong together. Both aspects need to be stressed, the »objectivity« of the promise and the »subjectivity« of faith. According to Luther, God not only reveals divine realities as information with which the intellect must agree; God’s revelation also always has a soteriological purpose directed towards the faith and salvation of believers who receive the promises that God gives »for you« as words of God »for me« or »for us« (pro me, pro nobis).

106. God’s own initiative establishes a saving relation to the human being; thus salvation happens by grace. The gift of grace can only be received, and since this gift is mediated by a divine promise, it cannot be received except by faith, and not by works. Salvation takes place by grace alone. Nevertheless, Luther constantly emphasized that the justified person would do good works in the Spirit.

By Christ alone
107. God’s love for human beings is centered, rooted, and embodied in Jesus Christ. Thus, »by grace alone« is always to be explained by »by Christ alone.« Luther describes the relationship of human persons with Christ by using the image of a spiritual marriage. The soul is the bride; Christ is the bridegroom; faith is the wedding ring. According to the laws of marriage, the properties of the bridegroom (righteousness) become the properties of the bride, and the properties of the bride (sin) become the properties of the bridegroom. This »joyful exchange« is the forgiveness of sins and salvation.

108. The image shows that something external, namely Christ’s righteousness, becomes something internal. It becomes the property of the soul, but only in union with Christ through trust in his promises, not in separation from him. Luther insists that our righteousness is totally external because it is Christ’s righteousness, but it has to become totally internal by faith in Christ. Only if both sides are equally emphasized is the reality of salvation properly understood. Luther states, »It is precisely in faith that Christ is present.«37 Christ is »for us« (pro nobis) and in us (in nobis), and we are in Christ (in Christo).

Significance of the law
109. Luther also perceived human reality, with respect to the law in its theological or spiritual meaning, from the perspective of what God requires from us. Jesus expresses God’s will by saying, »You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind« (Matthew 22:37). That means that God’s commandments are fulfilled only by total dedication to God. This includes not only the will and the corresponding outward actions, but also all aspects of the human soul and heart such as emotions, longing, and human striving, that is, those aspects and movements of the soul either not under the control of the will or only indirectly and partially under the control of the will through the virtues.

110. In the legal and moral spheres, there exists an old rule, intuitively evident, that nobody can be obliged to do more than he or she is able to do (ultra posse nemo obligatur). Thus, in the Middle Ages, many theologians were convinced that this commandment to love God must be limited to the will. According to this understanding, the commandment to love God does not require that all motions of the soul should be directed and dedicated to God. Rather, it would be enough that the will loves
(i. e., wills) God above all (diligere deum super omnia).

111. Luther argued, however, that there is a difference between a legal and a moral understanding of the law, on the one hand, and a theological understanding of it, on the other. God has not adapted God’s commandments to the conditions of the fallen human being. Instead, theologically understood, the commandment to love God shows the situation and the misery of human beings. As Luther wrote in the »Disputation against Scholastic Theology,« »Spiritually that person [only] does not kill, does not do evil, does not become enraged when he neither becomes angry nor lusts.«38 In this respect, divine law is not primarily fulfilled by external actions or acts or the will but by the wholehearted dedication of the whole person to the will of God.

Participation in Christ’s righteousness
112. Luther’s position, that God requires wholehearted dedication in fulfilling God’s law, explains why Luther emphasized so strongly that we totally depend on Christ’s righteousness. Christ is the only person who
totally fulfilled God’s will, and all other human beings can only become righteous in a strict, i. e., theological sense, if we participate in Christ’s righteousness. Thus, our righteousness is external insofar as it is
Christ’s righteousness, but it must become our righteousness, that is, internal, by faith in Christ’s promise. Only by participation in Christ’s wholehearted dedication to God can we become wholly righteous.

113. Since the gospel promises us, »Here is Christ and his Spirit,« participation in Christ’s righteousness is never realized without being under the power of the Holy Spirit who renews us. Thus, becoming righteous and being renewed are intimately and inseparably connected. Luther did not criticize fellow theologians such as Gabriel Biel for too strong an emphasis on the transforming power of grace; on the contrary, he objected that they did not emphasize it strongly enough as being fundamental to any real change in the believer.

Law and gospel
114. According to Luther, this renewal will never come to fulfillment as long as we live. Therefore, another model of explaining human salvation, taken from the Apostle Paul, became important for Luther. In Romans
4:3, Paul refers to Abraham in Genesis 15:6 (»Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness«) and concludes, »To one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness« (Romans 4:5).

115. This text from Romans incorporates the forensic imagery of someone in a courtroom being declared righteous. If God declares someone righteous, this changes his or her situation and creates a new reality. God’s judgment does not remain »outside« the human being. Luther often uses this Pauline model in order to emphasize that the whole person is accepted by God and saved, even though the process of the inner renewal of the justified into a person wholly dedicated to God will not come to an end in this earthly life.

116. As believers who are in the process of being renewed by the Holy Spirit, we still do not completely fulfill the divine commandment to love God wholeheartedly and do not meet God’s demand. Thus the law will accuse us and identify us as sinners. With respect to the law, theologically understood, we believe that we are still sinners. But, with respect to the gospel that promises us »Here is Christ’s righteousness,« we are righteous and justified since we believe in the gospel’s promise. This is Luther’s understanding of the Christian believer who is at the same time justified and yet a sinner (simul iustus et peccator).

117. This is no contradiction since we must distinguish two relations of the believer to the Word of God: the relation to the Word of God as the law of God insofar as it judges the sinner, and the relation to the Word of
God as the gospel of God insofar as Christ redeems. With respect to the first relation we are sinners; with respect to the second relation we are righteous and justified. This latter is the predominant relationship.
That means that Christ involves us in a process of continuous renewal as we trust in his promise that we are eternally saved.

118. This is why Luther emphasized the freedom of a Christian so strongly: the freedom of being accepted by God by grace alone and by faith alone in Christ’s promises, the freedom from the accusation of the law by the forgiveness of sins, and the freedom to serve one’s neighbor spontaneously without seeking merits in doing so. The justified person is, of course, obligated to fulfill God’s commandments, and will do so under
the motivation of the Holy Spirit. As Luther declared in the Small Catechism: »We are to fear and love God, so that we . . .,« after which follow his explanations of the Ten Commandments.39

Catholic concerns regarding justification
119. Even in the sixteenth century, there was a significant convergence between Lutheran and Catholic positions concerning the need for God’s mercy and humans’ inability to attain salvation by their own efforts.
The Council of Trent clearly taught that the sinner cannot be justified either by the law or by human effort, anathematizing anyone who said that »man can be justified before God by his own works which are done
either by his own natural powers, or through the teaching of the Law, and without divine grace through Christ Jesus.«40

120. Catholics, however, had found some of Luther’s positions troubling. Some of Luther’s language caused Catholics to worry whether he denied personal responsibility for one’s actions. This explains why the Council of Trent emphasized the human person’s responsibility and capacity to cooperate with God’s grace. Catholics stressed that the justified should be involved in the unfolding of grace in their lives. Thus, for the
justified, human efforts contribute to a more intense growth in grace and communion with God.

121. Furthermore, according to the Catholic reading, Luther’s doctrine of »forensic imputation« seemed to deny the creative power of God’s grace to overcome sin and transform the justified. Catholics wished to emphasize not only the forgiveness of sins but also the sanctification of the sinner. Thus, in sanctification the Christian receives that »justice of God« whereby God makes us just.

Lutheran–Roman Catholic dialogue on justification
122. Luther and the other reformers understood the doctrine of the justification of sinners as the »first and chief article,«41 the »guide and judge over all parts of Christian doctrine.«42 That is why a division on this
point was so grave and the work to overcome this division became a matter of highest priority for Catholic–Lutheran relations. In the second half of the twentieth century, this controversy was the subject of extensive investigations by individual theologians and a number of national and international dialogues.

123. The results of these investigations and dialogues are summarized in the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification and were, in 1999, officially received by the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation. The following account is based on this Declaration, which offers a differentiating consensus comprised of common statements along with different emphases of each side, with the claim that these differences do not invalidate the commonalities. It is thus a consensus that does not eliminate differences, but rather explicitly includes them.

By grace alone
124. Together Catholics and Lutherans 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« (JDDJ 15). The phrase »by grace alone« is further explained in this way: »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 and we receive in faith, and never can merit in any way« (JDDJ 17).43

125. It is within this framework that the limits and the dignity of human freedom can be identified. The phrase »by grace alone,« in regard to a human being’s movement toward salvation, is interpreted in this way: »We confess together that all persons depend completely on the saving grace of God for their salvation. The freedom they possess in relation to persons and the things of this world is no freedom in relation to salvation« (JDDJ 19).

126. When Lutherans insist that a person can only receive justification, they mean, however, thereby »to exclude any possibility of contributing to one’s own justification, but do not deny that believers are fully involved personally in their faith, which is effected by God’s Word« (JDDJ 21).

127. When Catholics speak of preparation for grace in terms of »cooperation, « they mean thereby a »personal consent« of the human being that is »itself an effect of grace, not an action arising from innate human abilities« (JDDJ 20). Thus, they do not invalidate the common expression that sinners are »incapable of turning by themselves to God to seek deliverance, of meriting their justification before God, or of attaining salvation by their own abilities. Justification takes place solely by God’s grace« (JDDJ 19).

128. Since faith is understood not only as affirmative knowledge, but also as the trust of the heart that bases itself on the Word of God, it can further be said jointly: »Justification takes place ›by grace alone‹ (JD nos 15 and 16), by faith alone; the person is justified ›apart from works‹ (Romans 3:28, cf. JD no. 25 (JDDJ, Annex 2C).44

129. What was often torn apart and attributed to one or the other confession but not to both is now understood in an organic coherence: »When persons come by faith to share in Christ, God no longer imputes to them their sin and through the Holy Spirit effects in them an active love. These two aspects of God’s gracious action are not to be separated« (JDDJ 22).

Faith and good works
130. It is important that Lutherans and Catholics have a common view of how the coherence of faith and works is seen: believers »place their trust in God’s gracious promise by justifying faith, which includes hope in God and love for him. Such a faith is active in love and thus the Christian cannot and should not remain without works (JDDJ 25).« Therefore, Lutherans also confess the creative power of God’s grace which »affects all dimensions of the person and leads to a life in hope and love« (JDDJ 26). »Justification by faith alone« and »renewal« must be distinguished but not separated.

131. At the same time, »whatever in the justified precedes or follows the free gift of faith is neither the basis of justification nor merits it« (JDDJ 25). That is why the creative effect Catholics attribute to justifying grace is not meant to be a quality without relation to God, or a »human possession to which one could appeal over against God« (JDDJ 27). Rather, this view takes into account that within the new relationship with God the righteous are transformed and made children of God who live in new communion with Christ: »This new personal relation to God is grounded totally on God’s graciousness and remains constantly dependent on the salvific and creative working of the gracious God, who remains true to himself, so that one can rely upon him« (JDDJ 27).

132. To the question of good works, Catholics and Lutherans state together: »We also confess that God’s commandments retain their validity for the justified« (JDDJ 31). Jesus himself, as well as the apostolic Scriptures, »admonish[es] Christians to bring forth the works of love« which »follow justification and are its fruits« (JDDJ 37). So that the binding claim of the commandments might not be misunderstood, it is said: »When Catholics emphasize that the righteous are bound to observe God’s commandments, they do not thereby deny that through Jesus Christ God has mercifully promised to his children the grace of eternal life«
(JDDJ 33).

133. Both Lutherans and Catholics can recognize the value of good works in view of a deepening of the communion with Christ (cf. JDDJ 38f.), even if Lutherans emphasize that righteousness, as acceptance by God and sharing in the righteousness of Christ, is always complete. The controversial concept of merit is explained thus: »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. Their intention is to emphasize the responsibility of persons for their actions, not to contest the character of those works as gifts, or far less to deny that justification always remains the unmerited gift of grace« (JDDJ 38).

134. To the much discussed question of the cooperation of human beings, a quotation from the Lutheran Confessions is taken in the Appendix to the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification as a common position in the most remarkable way: »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 (cf. Philippians 2:12 ff.). ›As soon as the Holy Spirit has initiated his work of regeneration and renewal in us through the Word and the holy sacraments, it is certain that we can and must cooperate by the power of the Holy Spirit . . .‹«45

Simul iustus et peccator
135. In the debate over the differences in saying that a Christian is »simultaneously justified and a sinner,« it was shown that each side does not understand exactly the same thing by the words »sin,« »concupiscence,« and »righteousness.« It is necessary to concentrate not only on the formulation but also on the content in order to arrive at a consensus. With Romans 6:12 and 2 Corinthians 5:17, Catholics and Lutherans say that, in Christians, sin must not and should not reign. They further declare with 1 John 1:8–10 that Christians are not without sin. They speak of the »contradiction to God within the selfish desires of the old Adam« also in the justified, which makes a »lifelong struggle« against it necessary (JDDJ 28).

136. This tendency does not correspond to »God’s original design for humanity,« and it is »objectively in contradiction to God« (JDDJ 30), as Catholics say. Because, for them, sin has the character of an act,
Catholics do not speak here of sin, while Lutherans see in this God-contradicting tendency a refusal to give oneself wholly to God and therefore call it sin. But both emphasize that this God-contradicting tendency
does not divide the justified from God.

137. Under the presuppositions of his own theological system and after studying Luther’s writings, Cardinal Cajetan concluded, that Luther’s understanding of the assurance of faith implied establishing a new church. Catholic–Lutheran dialogue has identified the different thought forms of Cajetan and Luther that led to their mutual misunderstanding. Today, it can be said: »Catholics can share the concern of the Reformers to ground faith in the objective reality of Christ’s promise, to look away from one’s own experience, and to trust in Christ’s forgiving word alone (cf. Matthew 16:19; 18:18)« (JDDJ 36).

138. Lutherans and Catholics have each condemned the other confession’s teachings. Therefore, the differentiating consensus as represented in the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification contains a double aspect. On the one hand, the Declaration claims that the mutual rejections of Catholic and Lutheran teaching as depicted there do not apply to the other confession. On the other, the Declaration positively affirms a consensus in the basic truths of the doctrine of justification: »The understanding of the doctrine of justification set forth in this Declaration shows that a consensus in basic truths of the doctrine of justification exists between Lutherans and Catholics« (JDDJ 40).

139. »In light of this consensus the remaining differences of language, theological elaboration, and emphasis in the understanding of justification are acceptable. Therefore the Lutheran and the Catholic explications of justification are in their differences open to one another and do not destroy the consensus regarding the basic truths« (JDDJ 40). »Thus the doctrinal condemnations of the sixteenth century, in so far as they relate to the doctrine of justification, appear in a new light: The teaching of the Lutheran churches presented in this 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« (JDDJ 41). This is a highly remarkable response to the conflicts over this doctrine that lasted for nearly half a millennium.

36 »God will not deny his grace to the one who is doing what is in him.«
37 WA 40/II; 229, 15.
38 Luther, »Disputation against Scholastic Theology (1517),« tr. Harold J. Grimm, LW 31:13; WA 1, 227, 17–18.
39 Luther, »The Small Catechism,« in BC, 351–54.
40 Council of Trent, Sixth Session, 13 January 1547, can. 1.
41 Luther, »Smalcald Articles,« in BC, 301.
42 WA 39/I; 205, 2–3.
43 JDDJ, op. cit. (note 4).
44 Ibid., 45.
45 JDDJ, Annex 2C, quoting »The Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration,« II. 64f., in BC, 556.

Full text of  the report, From Conflict to Communion: Lutheran-Catholic Common Commemoration of the Reformation in 2017, can be downloaded from the following links:

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