The “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification” fails to resolve issues between Roman Catholics and Lutherans in a clear and scriptural manner.
On October 31, 1999 representatives of the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation met in Germany and signed a “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification” (JDDJ). The signing was hailed by many as an end to the divisions that have existed between Roman Catholics and Lutherans for almost five hundred years.
This is not true! The JDDJ does not represent genuine agreement on the basic teaching of justification. The document itself admits there are still many differences in “language, theological elaboration, and of emphasis in the understanding of justification,” all of which allow individuals to read into the document their own different thoughts without any real agreement.
The differences that remain are real and serious. Consequently, no one should be fooled into believing that there are now no differences between the Roman Catholic Church and our own Lutheran Church. The following are just some of the issues that continue to divide us:
* First of all, the Scriptures teach and we believe that justification is a declaration of "not guilty" and "righteous" pronounced by God on sinners because of Christ and His work. Contrary to the Scriptures, Roman Catholicism teaches that justification involves an internal process by which a believer is transformed and "made" more and more righteous. * Secondly, the Scriptures teach and we believe that "grace" is God's undeserved love bestowed upon sinners in connection with Christ. Contrary to Scripture, Roman Catholicism teaches that "grace" is a spiritual power poured or "infused" into the soul that enables one to love God and merit salvation. It is this "infused grace" which enables the internal process and transformation which Roman Catholicism claims to be justification. * Thirdly, although the JDDJ uses the Scriptural wording of justification "through faith" and "by faith," it also uses the wording of justification "in faith," which Scripture does not use. Such wording allows for the Roman Catholic idea of "infused grace." The JDDJ does not state clearly faith's role in justification. The Scriptures teach and we believe that faith simply receives the benefits of forgiveness, life, and salvation won by Christ through God's grace. It is not something in man which allows man to merit the blessings of God as Roman Catholicism claims. * Fourthly, while the JDDJ does express the Scriptural teaching embraced by Lutherans that Original Sin remains after baptism, it also includes the unscriptural teaching embraced by Roman Catholicism that Original Sin is eradicated by baptism and that the desire to sin that remains after baptism is not really sin.
A true agreement would not contain contradictory statements such as these.
Lutherans confess that the Scriptural teaching of justification is the central doctrine of the Bible by which all other teachings are to be judged, for it places everything in direct relationship with Jesus Christ. In fact, Lutherans have historically maintained that justification is the doctrine by which the church either stands or falls. The Vatican, on the other hand, insisted that “justification” be referred to (in the JDDJ) as simply “an indispensable criterion” when considering other teachings within the church. This is an important difference, for the scriptural teaching of justification by God’s grace alone through faith alone stands in judgment of many Roman Catholic teachings. These teachings include: the “meritorious” value of good works, purgatory, indulgences, the papacy, the significance of the saints and of prayers to the saints, and the adoration of Mary. Each of these Roman Catholic teachings stands in opposition to the Scriptural teaching of justification!
We rejoice that the Means of Grace is used within Roman Catholicism through Baptism and the reading of the Scriptures, for this means that the Holy Spirit is at work there and will accomplish what God pleases. We pray that the Lutheran Churches which have embraced the JDDJ (primarily the ELCA here in the United States), might recognize and stand firm in the Scriptural heritage of our Lutheran Church. For our part, we must beware of the possible deception and the spiritual harm it can bring. The JDDJ is not what many claim it to be–an honest resolution of past differences.
Jesus urges us to “abide in His Word” (John 8:31) and to avoid “those who cause divisions and offenses contrary to the doctrine which you learned” (Romans 16:17). He does this to protect us in our faith, to help us preserve the truths of His Word, and to permit us to make a clear confession of that Word to the world. May God grant us those blessings!
–Pastor Paul D. Nolting
(“Are We United?” first appeared in the December 1999 Home Messenger, the newsletter of Immanuel Lutheran Church, Mankato, Minnesota.)