This article is about the Joint declaration on the doctrine of justification 1999 between the Roman Catholics and the Lutherans.

Source: Clarion, 1999. 2 pages.

One Little Word

This past October 31st saw a remarkable meeting take place in Augsburg, Germany between representatives of the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) and the Roman Catholic Church (RCC). At this meeting, the RCC and the LWF, representing all but three million of the world’s 61.5 million Lutherans, signed the “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification.” The Lutheran Church of Canada does not hold membership in the LWF.

The signing culminates thirty years of discussions and goes a long way to bridging the almost half millennium divide between Roman Catholicism and Lutheranism. It is a critical breakthrough, the first major step toward reconciliation between the two churches since the Reformation.

October 31st marks the day that Martin Luther in 1517 launched the Reformation that restored the Church to its New Testament roots, but divided Christendom into its Roman Catholic and Protestant groupings. At the very centre of the conflict was the doctrine of justification. How is one made righteous before God? How does justification take place? Martin Luther, by a careful study of Scripture, and through the illumination of the Holy Spirit, came to the understanding that we are justified – made righteous before God – by faith alone. We are righteous before God only by a true faith in Jesus Christ who died on the cross. The Roman church taught that God justifies the sinner, but it rejected that God does so by faith alone. It denied that the way to righteousness is by faith alone. It taught that salvation come from the sum total of faith and good works – that a life of devotion and service on earth earns the faithful salvation. For the RCC, sanctification is part of justification. Luther rediscovered, proclaimed and published abroad the blessed gospel truth that we are justified by faith alone apart from works (Romans 3:28). If justification were only partly dependent upon our good works, grace would no longer be grace.

Luther and the other Reformers were cursed to hell for their position of justification by faith alone. Between 1545 and 1563, the RCC met in the Council of Trent, Italy. Trent was the Roman church’s first formal answer to the Protestant Reformation. The council issued a number of decrees, all of which served to codify and reaffirm Roman Catholic doctrine. Some of the decrees addressed the doctrine of justification:

Canon IX: If anyone says that the ungodly is justified by faith alone in such a way that he understands that nothing else is required which cooperates toward obtaining the grace of justification ... let him be anathema.

Canon XII: If anyone says that justifying faith is nothing else than trust in divine mercy, which remits sins for Christ’s sake, or that it is this trust alone by which we are justified, let him be anathema.

Canon XIV: If anyone says that a man is absolved from sins and justified because ... he confidently believes that he is absolved and justified ... and that through this faith alone absolution and justification is effected, let him be anathema.

It could not be clearer. The canons declare that faith alone in what God has done for us in Jesus Christ is not enough to justify a sinner. Something more is needed, namely, the performance of good works. The RCC has not changed a jot or dropped a tittle from these canons. They still stand with all their damning force. How then could a meeting as the one held recently in Augsburg take place?

It could only happen because the declaration so fiddles with the doctrine of justification by faith alone as to work it out of the statement. By skilful sophistry, the word “alone” is massaged away. The declaration says many true things. It says that “ be saved one must have faith, must believe in Jesus Christ.” It speaks of “...a common understanding of our justification by God’s grace through faith in Christ.” By it the LWF and the RCC together confess “...that sinners are justified by faith in the saving action of God in Christ.” But it does not say that justification is by faith alone, period. One little word – the word “alone” – left alone on the sidelines, made all the difference.

No one can disagree with the formulations quoted in the preceding paragraph. Everyone, Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed or Anabaptist, believes that to be saved, one must believe in Jesus Christ. All will confess that we are justified by God’s grace through faith in Christ. But where is the word “alone”? Without it, grace is no longer grace. The absence of one little word has felled them.

Who changed? Who “gave a little?” The Lutherans. The RCC has not changed a whit. Give credit where it is due! The RCC has not changed. The accord proves it. Further proof of how Rome has not changed is Pope John Paul II’s recent call for the manual on indulgences to be translated into modern languages for the benefit of the church at the dawn of the third millennium. What irony! Luther’s 95 Theses against the sale of indulgences catalyzed the Reformation. 61.5 million Lutherans are being led back into the present incarnation of the medieval church! Many things must yet be resolved: authority in the church; venerating Mary and the saints; the role of women. Such issues will keep the two bodies separate yet for years to come. However, a major hurdle has been crossed. The joint Lutheran-Roman Catholic worship services held this past October 31st in many cities the world over are a harbinger of things to come. The common mass celebrated before the signing at the Roman Catholic Basilica in Augsburg heralds the goal – full communion, or merger, between the RCC and the Lutheran Churches.

Martin would be aghast.

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