CSC: WELS Topical Q&A: Religion: Roman Catholic: Justification
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Q:Several weeks ago, I asked for your response to excerpts from the "Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification," which I thought suggested Roman Catholic agreement with the teaching of justification by faith alone. The response provided extensive citations from the Council of Trent as evidence to the contrary. This suggests that my initial question may not have been as clear as I hoped. I realize that the Council of Trent clearly taught faith and works. However, the "Joint Declaration," read independently (i.e., without assuming that it is simply a restatement of Trent), seems very different. The following two statements seem especially striking:

-Whatever in the justified precedes or follows the free gift of faith is neither the cause of justification nor merits it.

-While Catholic teaching emphasizes the renewal of life by justifying grace, this renewal in faith, hope, and love is always dependent on God's unfathomable grace AND CONTRIBUTES NOTHING TO JUSTIFICATION about which one could boast before God (emphasis added).

I'm not sure what to make of the apparent contradictions between Trent and the JDDJ. One view (evidently the WELS view) is that the JDDJ is simply a PR move with no substantive changes from Trent. But why not use the apparently more Biblical statements in the JDDJ as a starting point for dialogue, emphasizing our agreement with statements like that cited above, and asking our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters to clarify this apparent inconsistency?


A:Catholics have clarified the meaning of the ambiguity in public declarations and actions both before and after the signing of the Joint Declaration. There is nothing to clarify further. They publicly denounced "by faith alone" at the time of the signing but the Lutherans signed the document anyway.

Official Catholic teaching (which the Joint Declaration is not) is not ambiguous. The new Catechism of the Catholic Church , the official contempory guide for Catholic teaching, makes it very clear that forgiveness of sins and salvation are merited by faith and works in the following paragraphs.

"2010 Since the initiative belongs to God in the order of grace, no one can merit the initial grace of forgiveness and justification, at the beginning of conversion. Moved by the Holy Spirit and by charity, we can then merit for ourselves and for others the graces needed for our sanctification, for the increase of grace and charity, and for the attainment of eternal life."

"2019 Justification includes the remission of sins, sanctification, and the renewal of the inner man."

"2027 No one can merit the initial grace which is at the origin of conversion. Moved by the Holy Spirit, we can merit for ourselves and for others all the graces needed to attain eternal life, as well as necessary temporal goods."

All of these statements clear show that Catholic teaching denies "by faith alone." Faith is only the beginning of justification. The same clarifications were offered at the time of the signing of the Joint Declaration. This was noted in reviews of the JD both by WELS and LCMS writers and was even acknowledged by many ELCA observors, as is illustrated in the following articles.

Is There A Real Agreement?

On October 31, 1999, more than 30 years of dialogue between the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church culminated in the signing of the “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification” at Augsburg, Germany. A massive media effort promoted the idea that 400 years of disagreement have now been set aside because agreement had been reached on the central teaching of justification by faith alone. Some of the statements made in the document might lead one to wonder whether Rome has had a change of heart on the matter. Conflicting statements have been issued about what has been accomplished and what has not happened. To put it mildly, confusion and not clarity reigns.

The biblical Lutheran teaching of “forensic” justification maintains that the only effective cause of our forgiveness is a verdict of God that takes place outside of ourselves. We are declared “not guilty” entirely on the basis of what Christ has done for us. Catholic teaching on justification makes a change within man part of the cause of our forgiveness. The Joint Declaration does not represent a change in the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. It does nothing to repudiate Rome’s historic position on the doctrine. The Joint Declaration is nothing more than an ambiguous statement, carefully worded to make 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 sixteenth century.

The Joint Declaration is a compromise. It masquerades as a significant change which brings Roman Catholicism in line with confessional Lutheranism on the teaching of justification. In fact, it is a deception that presents the appearance of agreement without any real substance that would make agreement possible. It is a thinly veiled attempt on the part of ecumenicism to embrace Catholicism. In the final analysis it appears that Rome has moved closer to reattaching what was lost in the sixteenth century without any substantive change in its doctrinal position.

Mixed Signals?

The November 1999 issue of the ELCA’s magazine, The Lutheran, which celebrated the signing of the Lutheran-Catholic Joint Declaration on justification, sent its readers mixed signals on the state of Lutheran-Catholic ecumenical efforts.

An article by Edgar Trexler celebrating the signing of the Declaration in Augsburg, Germany on Reformation Day, 1999, carried the large, striking headline “God Smiles on Augsburg.” Various speakers praised the declaration as a great ecumenical breakthrough.

A less-conspicuous headline earlier in the issue conveys a different mood. Under the headline “Mixed Signals from the Vatican” ELCA theologian Timothy Lull labels the Vatican’s decision to publish a new promotion of indulgences shortly before the signing of the Joint Declaration as “enormously disappointing.” Rome’s promotion of the sale of indulgences were the spark that set off the Reformation. The Vatican’s determination to promote indulgences on the eve of the Augsburg signing certainly makes any unbiased observer wonder, “How real is this agreement on justification?”

Daniel Martensen, director of the ELCA Department of Ecumenical Affairs, tried to put a favorable spin on the situation by declaring that indulgences are not a justification issue but a sanctification issue and therefore do not contradict the joint declaration. This is hardly the case, however. According to Catholic theology indulgences do not remove the eternal penalty of unrepented sin. They remove only the “temporal penalty” that must be suffered on this earth or in purgatory. The fact remains, however, that the removal of the penalty of sin which we must pay is not complete without indulgences or their equivalent, so indulgences are indeed a justification issue. When the pope issued the proclamation of indulgences Father Jared Wicks, a theologian at Gregorian University in Rome, said, ''Conservative Catholics would find it intolerable that, for ecumenical considerations, the church put into the closet a practice affirmed by the Council of Trent, and John Paul II is not one to do anything like that.'' Rome is making no attempt to hide the fact that the Declaration has not brought about any change in its doctrine and practice.

This is also made very clear in an explanation of the Declaration published in the October 14, 1999 issue of Origins, the magazine of the Roman Catholic bishops of America. The article clearly sets forth the limitations of the agreement. It clearly states that justification is both forgiveness of sins and being made righteous before God. This is the Catholic teaching, not the Lutheran teaching. It clearly states that there is not yet agreement on key points such as the definition of sin. Much has been made of the fact that the Roman Catholic Church no longer condemns the Lutheran doctrine of justification. In fact, the Roman Catholic explanation says, “The teaching of the Lutheran churches presented in this declaration does not fall under the condemnations of the council of Trent.” It is not the Lutheran doctrine presented in the Lutheran Confessions which is no longer condemned by Rome. It is the non-Lutheran doctrine of this Declaration which is not condemned by Rome. Of course not, for this doctrine is the Catholic doctrine, not the Lutheran doctrine.

As a summarizing statement Origins quotes Lutheran theologian Herbert Anderson, “Lutherans can no longer assume that the 16th century Reformers were right and the church of Rome was wrong. Roman Catholicism never denied justification through grace. It simply focused more on the struggle of the transformed sinner than on the exclusive divine origin of his or her transformation. Salvation is a divine human drama. It is what God does and what human beings do because of what God has done and continues to do. In order to preserve the primacy of God’s grace , Lutherans tend to minimize what humans do in the equation of salvation. Both perspectives are true. Our common task is to learn to live in that paradox.” This is the real meaning of the Declaration. Lutherans have accepted that salvation is a joint work of God and man. This is the Catholic teaching. It is a repudiation of the Reformation.

The declaration can state that Lutherans and Catholics agree we are justified by grace alone. This is possible because they are using two different definitions of justifying grace. The Reformers taught that justifying grace is an attitude of God by which he forgives our sins by grace alone by faith alone, without works. Rome teaches that justifying grace is power that God puts in us that enables us to complete our justification.

The heart of the joint declaration states, “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.” The word “alone” is attached to grace. It is not attached to faith. The essence of the Declaration is a knowing denial of “by faith alone.” It can be granted that there is some intended ambiguity in the Declaration, but there are no mixed signals from Rome. Rome has obtained from the Lutheran World Federation a repudiation of the basic principle of the Reformation, sola fide.

In a side-note, President Barry of the Missouri Synod made several statements which clearly stated that the Declaration was not a genuine agreement on justification. One of these was a large ad published in leading newspapers. In response to Barry’s statement, former LCMS president Ralph Bohlmann made public what amounted to an apology for Barry’s position. This is not especially surprising in light of Bohlmann’s role in promoting lax fellowship principles in the LCMS, but it is nevertheless disappointing that all the mixed signals on the issue are coming from the Lutheran side, not from Rome. Rome needs to send no mixed signals. It is more than happy to accept a Lutheran repudiation of by faith alone.

A document which is aimed at settling differences needs to address those differences unambiguously. The Joint Declaration does not do this. At best, it sends confusing mixed signals and should be repudiated by all Lutherans.



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