This article is about the Joint declaration on the doctrine of justification by Catholics and Protestants in 1997. This article is also about justification by faith alone, Martin Luther's road to justification, justification and the imputation of righteousness, and propitiation of sin.

Source: Una Sancta, 1999. 6 pages.

Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification

October 31: in the world the day is known as Halloween.

October 31: amongst (Protestant) Christians the day is known as Reformation Day.

October 31: as of this year the day may be known as the day when Roman Catholics and Lutherans resolved “one of the main causes of the Reformation which split the Christian Church” nearly five centuries ago. Two weeks ago, “after 32 years of talks, the Vatican and the Lutheran World Federation [signed] a common statement on the issue which drove them apart in 1517 – the doctrine of justification.”

The event happened on October 31. That's striking. October 31 was the day that Martin Luther back in 1517 nailed his 95 theses on the door of that church in Wittenburg – the event that is widely regarded as the beginning of the Great Reformation (hence the name Reformation Day). On that very day 482 years later, “a common statement on the issue which drove [Lutherans and Catholics] apart in 1517” was formally signed, and “one of the causes of the Reformation… resolved.”

The event took place in Augsburg, an old city in Germany. That's as striking as the date, for Augsburg is the place where the first Confession of the Reformation was publicly released in 1530. The Augsburg Confession was an attempt to make plain to the Roman Catholics what the Protestants believed. As such, that Confession spelled out the differences between the Protestants and the Catholics, spelled out that Protestants could not live with Catholics under one roof. But never mind; in that that same city of Augsburg, Protestant and Catholic leaders of today signed “a common statement on the issue which drove them apart” 428 years ago.

Many in the world applaud this development. And indeed, it seems to suggest that the Roman Catholics have made some progress in appreciating Luther's stand on how one is righteous before God. But, as it turns out, Rome has given up nothing of its doctrine of justification. Instead, as we'll see later on, the giver has been with the descendants of the Reformation…

It will be worth our while to try to understand how come the spiritual offspring of Martin Luther could give up the wealth Luther struggled so hard to obtain, and for which many true believers after him laid down their lives. To reach that goal, I need first to lay before the reader a picture of the Roman Catholic doctrine of justification. I propose to do that with reference to young Martin Luther himself before his conversion. Thereafter I need to set forth the splendours of what the Bible teaches about justification. Those two steps will prepare the ground for the big question: how come the spiritual descendants of Martin Luther could give away their riches last month in Augsburg? The answer, I hope, will encourage us and our children to increased faithfulness to the Lord.

Justification as Luther was Taught🔗

The church into which Martin Luther was born in 1483 officially laid before the people of Europe the need to do good works in order to escape hell. So, Martin Luther's parents taught their little lad the need to do good works. And when little Martin received instruction from his priest, he was taught again about the need to do good works. It was hammered into little Luther's mind: God was angry with him because of his sins, but God was willing to forgive, to spare him hell and grant His grace, if young Luther could meet the required conditions.

The Roman Church spelled out how Luther could meet those conditions. Luther could receive most of Rome's seven sacraments, he could try to perform prescribed works of mercy, might even enlist the support of saints long dead. He could become a monk also; after all, in the monastery he'd be shielded from the temptations of the world, in the monastery each would look after the other to make sure you stayed holy in all your conduct, in the monastery you received an ideal place to do what Jesus said: sell all your possessions, forsake father and mother, wife and children, and devote yourself totally to Christ. So, when Luther as a young man was caught in that thunder storm and thought to be killed by a lightning strike, it was his fear of having to appear before God that drove him to his oath: “St Anne, help me! I will become a monk!” And so he did – because he wanted comfort for his soul, the assurance that he had met the conditions of salvation, the assurance that God was happy with him because he tried so hard…

But Luther was so disappointed. Even in the monastery he found no peace. The fear that God rejected him, that Christ condemned him, that hell was his eternal future pressed upon him. He knew from the Bible that God was holy and could tolerate no sin, no failure, and he knew also that his own thoughts and words and deeds fell so very far short of God's holy standard. So he thought to compel his sinful body to holiness; he ate little, made sure he slept little, kept himself cold by wearing inadequate clothing – all in an attempt to win God's favour. But even these efforts helped nothing; Luther gained no peace, no assurance that God was pleased with him. He travelled to Rome and made it his business to visit shrines and view sacred relics and so make himself acceptable to saints who could intercede for him in heaven. He climbed on his bare knees up the stone stairs of Pilate's judgment hall and kissed each step as he went. But it gave him no peace, no sense that God was happy with him…

To make matters worse: the church taught him that he had to make confession of all his sins, and the confession had to be accompanied by a heart-felt sorrow for sin; then there would be forgiveness. That was fine, Luther thought, with regard to his known sins; he'd happily and humbly confess them. But what about those sins he didn't realise? So Luther would confess to a priest for hours on end every possible sin he could think of, walk away, and then come rushing back with some little foible he had forgotten to mention… It had to be mentioned, had to be confessed, otherwise there was no forgiveness…, and one unconfessed sin was enough to earn God's damnation…

Luther's struggles to become acceptable to God form a case history of actual Roman Catholic teaching. Man had to cooperate with God to become righteous before God. Luther experienced to his enormous disappointment that all his efforts helped him not a dot in gaining God's favour; time and time again Luther was convinced that he had failed, failed so miserably to meet God's holy standard. So he remained scared of God, scared of death, sure his eternal future was hell…

Justification as Luther Taught🔗

Then one day, by the grace of God, Luther understood what Paul meant in the book of Romans when he wrote that the just shall live by faith. He understood: justification is God's gift freely given, by grace alone, without our effort or contribution. That gift is freely given, without regard to how often we pray or attend church or afflict the body. It's freely given on the basis of Christ's work on Calvary.

This, indeed, is how the Lord has spoken in His Word. In his letter to the Romans, Paul is emphatic that no man can contribute so much as a sigh to winning God's favour. Romans 3: Jews and Gentiles alike “are all under sin.” To prove the point, he lists some 6 quotes from the Old Testament, all of which point up the total depravity of each and every person on the face of this earth. It leads to the conclusion of the apostle in vs. 19: “all the world [is] guilty before God.” And vs. 20: “Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight.” No matter what I do, I can't impress God, can't win His favour. I can't, because I haven't got in me what it takes to impress this God of infinite holiness. Luther experienced that, to his great dismay.

Yet Paul would not have us despair. For he carries on in vs. 21 with the glorious little word 'but'. “But,” he says, “now the righteousness of God… is revealed…, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ.” In what follows, Paul explains how this righteousness of God is revealed in Jesus Christ. Paul says that the sinner is “justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood” (vs. 24).

That term 'propitiation' describes the notion that we need to die on account of our sins, but we don't because Christ died in our place. Recall from the Old Testament that the people of Israel, when they became aware of a particular sin in their lives, had to bring a sacrifice to the tabernacle. Then the sinner had to lay his hand on the animal and confess his sin. That action symbolised that the sin of the sinner was transferred from the sinner to the animal. The animal in turn was killed…, and the sinner could go home – free of his sin and the curse of sin. You see, the animal died in the place of the sinner (Leviticus 4).

This is the notion of propitiation. God determined that our sins should be transferred to His Son. So God “set [Jesus] forth to be a propitiation.” On the cross of Calvary, God as it were transferred our sins onto Christ, and Christ suffered the infinite wrath of God that was to fall upon us. In the words of Romans 5: “Christ died for us” (vs. 8).

But now what? Now that our sins have been transferred onto Christ and Christ has died for us on the cross, is God still angry with sinners? Need we, like Luther, still to fear His wrath? The answer is No. For the good news that our sins are transferred from us to Christ so that He might die instead of us is only half the wonderful truth. The other half is that on the cross Christ satisfied the justice of God, Christ paid for sin, Christ stilled God's anger against my sins, Christ obtained for me the righteousness of God. And those gifts God now gives to me – imputation.

Result? God in heaven looks down upon me, that sinner on earth. What God sees? O yes, He knows very well that I'm a sinner, knows very well that “I have grievously sinned against all God's commandments, have never kept any of them, and am still inclined to all evil” (LD 23). In fact, this God in heaven above knows my sins far better than I shall ever know them no matter how carefully I look. But what's He say in the face of my continuing depravity and sins? Damn me to hell? No, no! God the Judge issues a declaration, a judicial statement that I am Not Guilty of the sins that God well knows I've committed! That's to say: God promises not to punish us for our sins, promises never to hold those sins against us. As Paul says in Romans 5: “therefore, having been justified…, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (vs. 1). And Romans 8: “there is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus” (vs. 1). And later in the same chapter: “It is God who justifies. Who is he who condemns?” (vs. 33f).

We understand: how different is this doctrine from the way young Luther was brought up! He was cast onto himself, he was told that he himself had to earn the approval God was willing to give to those who satisfied the conditions God set. But Paul speaks in Romans 3 of no conditions; he speaks only of God's free grace, a grace God gives to the unworthy for Jesus' sake.

Once Luther understood the riches of this glorious truth, and perceived that his specific sins that bothered him so much were now gone, he made it his business to tell the world of the riches he found in God's Word. Hence the 95 Theses which he nailed on the door of that church 482 years ago. And in the Augsburg Confession released in Augsburg 13 years later (in 1530), this doctrine was worded like this:

[The churches] teach that men can not be justified […] before God by their own powers, merits, or works; but are justified freely [of grace] for Christ's sake through faith…

This is the doctrine echoed in our Catechism, LD 23. “How are you righteous before God?” we ask in Q & A 60. And the reply is so fully Luther: “Only by true faith in Jesus Christ.” The explanation is so fully Luther too: “Although my conscience accuses me that I have grievously sinned against all God's commands, have never kept any of them, and am still inclined to all evil” and how bitterly Luther experienced the soul-eating terror of that sense of failure! “yet God, without any merit of my own, out of mere grace, imputes to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness and holiness of Christ.”

The wearisome doctrine of justification which Luther was taught as a youth contrasts starkly with the glorious doctrine he discovered in the Bible. But Luther was not content for people simply to have the Biblical teaching straight in their minds. Luther once said:

Read with great emphasis these words, 'me,' for me,' and accustom yourself to accept and to apply to yourself this 'me' with certain faith. The words OUR, US, FOR US, ought to be written in golden letters – the man who does not believe them is not a Christian.

Luther's point was this: it is possible to have an ear open for Scriptural accuracy, be satisfied that what's said is doctrinally sound, then set the doctrine to one side and carry on with the cares of this life. Then the doctrine of justification has gone through your mind…, and no more. It's also possible to listen to this material with the concrete sins of yesterday, last week, last year in mind – and know those particular sins transferred from the self onto Jesus Christ, and the gifts Christ obtained on the cross given to you the sinner-guilty-of-specific-sins, and the glorious result is that God on high issues a declaration concerning you that you are Not Guilty, that God will not condemn you for yesterday's sin! This was Luther's point: he would have the Christian personalise this doctrine so that this doctrine does not just enter the mind but touches the heart. And where this doctrine touches the heart, this doctrine will prompt immense gratitude and praise for God; what a God this is who freely issues a statement of innocence concerning me the sinner!

Justification among Luther's Spiritual Offspring🔗

With all this material in mind, we are in a position to consider what happened on Reformation Day last month in Augsburg. The accord signed by leaders of the Roman Catholic Church and the World Lutheran Federation -it's called a “Joint Declaration” – has this intention:

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.

Then there follows numerous references from the Scriptures about justification. But the fine point -that God declares sinners righteous for Jesus' sake, without a single contribution from the sinner's side – is not conceded by the Roman Catholics. Luther insisted in his day that justification is by faith only, and precisely that point is not in this Joint Declaration. Instead, it's jointly stated that salvation is of grace, but it's not jointly stated how one receives this grace. Nor is there any backpedaling in relation to things that were said years ago; the Roman Catholics in this Joint Declaration offer no statement to the effect that they were wrong in condemning Luther. Permit me a quote from a criticism offered by the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod:

The present Declaration is willing to grant sola gratin (“by grace alone”, cb) simply because the Lutheran and Roman parties had different understandings of “grace.” If saving grace is God's undeserved favor, as in Romans 4:4 and 11:6, then, in the article of justification, grace and works (Law) are clearly mutually exclusive. Justification is either by grace or by works, but not both. But if grace now means infused grace, a spiritual power poured into the soul by which we love God and merit salvation, then such infused grace and works in justification are related as “both/and.” Neither the Joint Declaration nor the background dialogues have come to terms with these contradictory meanings of “grace.” This would have unraveled the illusory “consensus” on justification.

But that's not the worst part of this Joint Declaration. To my mind, the worst part is that those who call themselves by Luther's name are content to sign a Statement which gives up the very heart of the Great Reformation. As the above quote indicates, the Lutheran World Federation – it represents numerous of the Lutheran churches around the world – is willing to accept that Justification is not strictly God's gift, is willing to accept that there's room for human contribution.

This observation raises a critical question. Why might it be that numerous of the churches belonging to the Lutheran World Federation are happy to embrace this Declaration – and so leave room for the doctrine of salvation through works? Might it be because these Lutherans of the world – they call themselves Christians – have never tasted the bitterness, the hopelessness, the uncertainty that results from the thought that we need to win God's favour, God's grace? Might it be because these Lutherans have never tasted the sweetness, the richness, the security that comes from God's sovereign declaration that our sins are freely forgiven, without it costing us so much as a sigh? Surely it is to be expected that whoever takes Luther's doctrine of Justification and does no more with it than examine it for its Scriptural accuracy, will never get upset when someone suggests that room ought to be left for human contribution. But the person who knows himself a sinner utterly and totally unable to satisfy the justice of God, who embraces as truth the declaration of God that He considers the sinner is Not Guilty of his sins for Jesus' sake – that person will never leave room again for himself contributing to his salvation. He'll leave no room for it because he finds the Scriptural doctrine of Justification simply too splendid, too exciting, too rich for the poverty of salvation through human effort.

This, to my mind, is the fine point of it. Many in our day call themselves Christians but have never tasted the freedom that comes with the conviction that “God, without any merit of mine, out of mere grace, imputes to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ.” So they can leave room for the error of Rome.

Here is then the challenge that comes to us from this sad event in recent church history: what are we doing with the heritage of the Reformation as it comes to us in, say, LD 23? Does the doctrine of Justification enter the head alone, or touch the heart?

Do you set it at a distance from yourself, or do you set it squarely beside your sins and then know God's declaration of innocence to be true in relation to those sins you've committed? We all need, individually and collectively, to answer those questions. If we don't, we, like those Lutherans in Augsburg two weeks ago, have no resistance against the continuing efforts of Rome to collect the world's churches under her ungodly wings.

Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification 1997


  • 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 doctrine of justification was particularly asserted and defended in its Reformation shape and special valuation over against the Roman Catholic Church and theology of that time, which in turn asserted and defended a doctrine of justification of a different character. From the Reformation perspective, justification was the crux of all the disputes. Doctrinal condemnations were put forward both in the Lutheran Confessions and by the Catholic Church's Council of Trent. These condemnations are still valid today and thus have a church-dividing effect.

  • For the Lutheran tradition, the doctrine of justification has retained its special status. Consequently it has also from the beginning occupied an important place in the official Lutheran-Roman Catholic dialogue.

  • In their discussion of the doctrine of justification, all the dialogued reports as well as the responses show a high degree of agreement in their approaches and conclusions. The time has therefore come to take stock and to summarize the results of the dialogues on justification so that our churches may be informed about the overall results of this binding decisions.

  • 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 understand of our justification by Gad's grace through faith in Christ. It does not cover all that either church teaches about justification; it does encompass a consensus on basic truths of the doctrine of justification and shows that the remaining differences in its explication are no longer the occasion for doctrinal condemnations.

  • Like the dialogues themselves this Joint Declaration rests on the conviction that in overcoming the earlier controversial questions and doctrinal condemnations, the churches neither take the condemnations lightly nor do they disavow their own past. On the contrary, this Declaration is shaped by the conviction that in their respective histories our churches have come to new insights. Developments have taken place which not only make possible, but also require the churches to examine the divisive questions and condemnations and see them in a new light.

  • 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 Gods unconditional justifying grace?

  • Lutherans understand this condition of the Christian as a being “at the same time righteous and sinner.” Believers are totally righteous, in that God forgives their sins through Word and Sacrament an grants the righteousness of Christ which they appropriate in faith. In Christ, they are made just before God. Looking at themselves through the law, however, they recognize that they remain also totally sinners. Sin still lives in them (1 John 1:8; Romans 7:17, 20)?

  • Catholics hold that the grace of Jesus Christ imparted in Baptism takes away all that is sin “in the proper sense” and that is “worthy of damnation” (Romans 8:1). There does, however, remain in the person an inclination (concupiscence) which comes from sin and presses toward sin. Since, according to Catholic conviction, human sin always involves a personal element and since this element is lacking in this inclination, Catholics do not see this inclination as sin in an authentic sense?

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