“Justification by faith alone is the article on which the church stands or falls.” – Martin Luther
It’s been nearly 500 years since the split of the Church in the west, which was started largely by Martin Luther and his claim of salvation being obtained only through faith alone. Unfortunately, this split the Church and many other doctrines were changed by the Protestant Reformers before long. But the good news is that there is finally some hope for reunification again! This is going to take a loooonnnnggg time, but the most critical issue, the one mentioned in the quote above, has been resolved! The Lutheran bishops and the Catholic Church made a Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification in 1999, and even the World Methodist Council adopted it as well in 2006.
Praise God for softening both sides towards each other so that they would be open to clear dialogue on the issues at hand. It seems like a large issue that separated the sides over the years is the language used. Words like “righteousness” and “justification” have many different meanings and contexts in scripture, so of course on a charged issue it would be easy to rush to judgement instead of having a complete understanding of both sides before drawing a conclusion. In the end, both made great points, stressing how only by God and faith someone can be saved, but also how our good works play a critical role in cooperating with God’s grace in bringing about the Kingdom of God in our lives. I’m not a theologian so that’s the best summary that I can give ;)
There is still quite a bit in the way of the complete reunification of the churches in the West, but this is a very important and exciting first step that resolves the most critical issue!
Here are some of my favorite parts:
The doctrine of justification was of central importance for the Lutheran Reformation of the sixteenth century. It was held to be the “first and chief article” and at the same time the “ruler and judge over all other Christian doctrines.”
The present Joint Declaration has this intention: namely, to show that on the basis of their dialogue the subscribing Lutheran churches and the Roman Catholic Church are now able to articulate a common understanding of our justification by God’s grace through faith in Christ.
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.
We confess together that all persons depend completely on the saving grace of God for their salvation.
We confess together that God forgives sin by grace and at the same time frees human beings from sin’s enslaving power and imparts the gift of new life in Christ.
We confess together that sinners are justified by faith in the saving action of God in Christ. By the action of the Holy Spirit in baptism, they are granted the gift of salvation, which lays the basis for the whole Christian life.
We confess together that in baptism the Holy Spirit unites one with Christ, justifies, and truly renews the person. But the justified must all through life constantly look to God’s unconditional justifying grace. They also are continuously exposed to the power of sin still pressing its attacks (cf. Rom 6:12-14) and are not exempt from a lifelong struggle against the contradiction to God within the selfish desires of the old Adam (cf. Gal 5:16; Rom 7:7-10). The justified also must ask God daily for forgiveness as in the Lord’s Prayer (Mt. 6:12; 1 Jn 1:9), are ever again called to conversion and penance, and are ever again granted forgiveness.
We confess together that persons are justified by faith in the gospel “apart from works prescribed by the law” (Rom 3:28). Christ has fulfilled the law and by his death and resurrection has overcome it as a way to salvation. We also confess that God’s commandments retain their validity for the justified and that Christ has by his teaching and example expressed God’s will which is a standard for the conduct of the justified also.
We confess together that good works – a Christian life lived in faith, hope and love – follow justification and are its fruits.
Paragraph 40 (BOOM!):
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.
Paragraph 41 (BOOM!):
Thus the doctrinal condemnations of the 16th 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.
We give thanks to the Lord for this decisive step forward on the way to overcoming the division of the church. We ask the Holy Spirit to lead us further toward that visible unity which is Christ’s will.