Wednesday, August 22, 2012

On Justification

Jesus’ prayer “that all may be one” can hardly be realized without a serious discussion of the doctrine of justification, the “first and chief article”[1] of the Protestant Reformation.  After all, dichotomous interpretations of the diverse biblical treatment of justification constitute the principal cause of the historical and theological divisions between Catholics and Protestants.  Most Christians know that there was a consequential fissure in the church in the sixteenth century and that this split had something to do with how men and women, stained and wounded by sin, were brought to wholeness and eternal life in Jesus Christ.  But very few could tell you what has happened in the last 500 years, if anything, to move toward reconciliation and reintegration in the one Body of Christ.

The vast majority of Christians today continue to think about the doctrine of justification according to the age-old caricature: Catholics believe in justification by works while Protestants believe in justification by faith.  It seems fairly straightforward.  But have you ever stopped and wondered if this is what Catholic and Protestant churches actually teach and believe?  Do the anathemas and doctrinal condemnations hurled back and forth between Protestants and Catholics in centuries past still apply?  Have you ever wondered if we might be continually drumming up old arguments which have long since been settled? 

In October of 1999, an ecumenical event of colossal significance took place in Augsburg, Germany.[2]  482 years after Luther famously nailed the 95 theses to the doors of castle church, the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church solemnly confessed a fundamental consensus on the doctrine of justification.  In the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, the vast majority of Lutheran churches worldwide and the Roman Catholic Church announced that they “have together listened to the good news proclaimed in Holy Scripture” and that “this common listening . . . has led to a shared understanding of justification.”[3] 

This shared understanding represents one of the most important and groundbreaking developments in the history of the Western Church, one that no pastoral minister or youth worker can afford to ignore.  It changes the way we unpack the Scriptures and handle the delicate conversations that inevitably arise in Bible studies and backyard debates everywhere.  It transforms the way we minister to kids in Young Life, answering the touchy questions that bubble to the surface of Campaigner discussions and cabin times at camp properties around the world.  This official statement of the Joint Declaration finally grants us the freedom to stand united on a rift that has divided us for nearly half a millennium.  

So what does the declaration say and how can we explain our shared understanding on the doctrine of justification today?  In pastoral settings and casual conversations, how are we to explain this articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae, “the article by which the church stands or falls”?

First and foremost, we can stack hands on the conviction that we are justified by grace alone.  Both Protestants and Catholics agree that the foundation of justification is God’s grace and not our own works or abilities.  The Joint Declaration states clearly, “We confess together that all persons depend completely on the saving grace of God for their salvation”(JD, 19).  No “earning our way to heaven” or justifying ourselves by stringent moral adherence.  Even when Catholics talk about “cooperating with God’s grace” this is understood as an act of personal consent which is itself a gift of God’s grace.  From beginning to end, it is all grace.

Second, we are justified by Christ alone.  We receive the gift of salvation which issues from the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Heaven forbid we posit ourselves as judges and arbiters of salvation, deciding who is “in” and who is “out.”  Yet when salvation occurs both Catholics and Protestants can agree that it is Christ who saves.  All people are called to eternal life in Christ Jesus and God’s grace is made available through His Passion, Resurrection and continued presence in our lives.

Third, we are justified by faith.  Without faith, there is no salvation.  By placing their trust completely in their Creator and Redeemer, Christians find communion with God and live as they were intended as partners in the kingdom.  The Joint Declaration is careful to note that faith, understood by both Lutherans and Catholics, “is active in love, and thus cannot and should not remain without works”(JD, 25).  Drawing from the passage typically quoted to highlight faith, Paul says in his letter to the Ephesians both that “it is by grace you have been saved, through faith” and “we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works”(Eph 2:8a,10a).  What both Catholic and Reformed traditions understand as justification by faith alone (sola fide) is not merely intellectual assent to prescribed doctrines but a complete change of life involving mind, will and affections.

Fourth, even for those justified by God’s grace by faith, sin still exists.  “Sin still lives in them,” the Joint Declaration says referencing 1 Jn 1:8 and Romans 7:17 and 20.  It does not take much personal reflection to realize that those who have given their lives to Christ are still sinners.  Yet both Lutherans and Catholics confess that this sin, and the enduring inclination we all have toward sin (Catholics call this concupiscence), does NOT, however, separate us from the love and mercy of God.  Through Christ the “enslaving power of sin is broken” (JD, 29) and the justified are not separated from God.

In summary, 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” (JD, 15).  This is truly Good News!  This is something to be shared!  While there are still points of disagreement between Protestants and Catholics, we must resist the temptation to fall into old caricatures and arguments.  The doctrinal condemnations of the Reformation and the Council of Trent no longer apply.   Fundamentally, on this primary issue of justification at least, we are no longer divided. 

Yet the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church challenge us to “become who we are.”  This historical consensus on the basic truths of justification must not collect dust in some document.  It must be lived and embodied in our churches and in our relationships today.  “Here,” the declaration exhorts, “it must prove itself”(JD, 43).  In the next leadership meeting or small group gathering, in the next religious discussion around the coffee pot, proclaim and live into the unity that already exists.  While grace is always received as gift from the salvific work of God, it is always and forever our responsibility not to “waste this grace but to live in it”(Annex, 2D).

[1]             Martin Luther, The Smalcald Articles, II, 1: Book of Concord, 292.
[2]             A location rich in religious symbolism, Augsburg was the place where the Augsburg Confession was presented to Emperor Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire by (among others) one Martin Luther in 1530. The Augsburg Confession consists of 28 articles of faith which stand as the primary tenants of the Lutheran movement of the sixteenth century.  Even today, the “Augustana” (drawn from its etymological roots in the Latin, Confessio Augustana) represents one of the most critical documents of the Lutheran church.
[3]             Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, 14.


  1. Woohoo! One of my all-time favorite authors now has a blog! So glad to see your gifts for writing and theological reflection being used in new and much needed ways.

    About the article on Justification:
    Praise God! What a beautiful document in the JDDJ, and what a compelling and impassioned plea for us all to "become who we are" and live it out.

    As a theology teacher in a Catholic school I often can be found prepping in coffee shops with loads of books out about Jesus, some of which give away that I'm Catholic. Fairly regularly I'm approached by some evangelical Christians (I would classify myself as one of these as well, so no derogatory tone implied), who heavily populate coffee shops for discipleship meetings (would that Catholics did more of that!), and a conversation ensues in which I'm basically vetted to see if I'm a *true* Christian; Namely, do I think I'm saved by grace or by works? I love to say something similar to the Joint Declaration, like: "I stand with the Catholic Church (and most Christians) in believing that I can only be saved by the grace of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, a gift I could never earn through my own efforts and works." That often leads to an awkward "oh," as they didn't expect such a boldly "sola gratia" statement to be uttered in connection with the Catholic Church. It also often leads to wonderful, unifying conversation. Though sometimes it leads to further cross-examining to find out what the heretical catch must be in my understanding of the gospel.
    I'm also often dismayed by the number of devout Catholics who flippantly write off those "evangelicals" down the street (often at some of the most thriving communities clearly alive with the Gospel!) as seeking "entertainment" over spiritual sustenance, just because they have fancy projectors and music equipment and are less liturgical, etc.
    Michael is right on: this word needs to get out! Are we too afraid to admit that each other's traditions can be instruments of God in today's world? Does it threaten our ego, or our need for the self-gratifying security of us/them thinking?
    And lest I think I stand outside this problem looking in, I know all too well my own critical tendencies toward the many "others" I'm tempted to make my theological enemies. God, send your saving and unifying grace!

    1. Thank you for your spirited response Andre. You're outlook is as beautifully evangelical as it is Catholic. Your willingness to acknowledge the work of God, powerfully alive in both Catholic and Protestant circles is a testament to your overarching confidence in Christ on whose grace we all depend. Your willingness to reach "across the isle" reminds me of Pope John Paul II publicly honoring the five hundredth anniversary of Martin Luther's birth and praising him for helping the whole Church to revive such things as the primacy of faith, the centrality of the Bible and the priesthood of all believers. The joint declaration resounds as a similar overture of unity, respect and our shared love of God.

  2. As a Catholic-Protestant couple who served young life together for seven years, this is an awesome blog to see. Great work and great mission! We will be praying and reading.

  3. Wonderful to hear from you Ben and Kara! I'd love to connect and hear more of your story. Shoot me an email and we can connect:

    And fellow YL'ers! Ahhh!

  4. A word from Jim Rayburn III, the son of YL's founder, Jim Rayburn, Jr. (Technical difficulties would not allow Jim to post the comment from his location):

    Good words Michael. I had not heard about the 1999 Joint Declaration on the
    Doctrine of Justification. I'd say it's beyond significant and long
    overdue. In a world so hurting and so needful of open hearted, Christ centered,
    Holy Spirit guided people "out there" making a difference, it might not seem
    hugely important what a conference of theologians decided but it seems a step
    in the right direction.

    That's just me, perhaps. Many people have come to faith through theological
    studies and I don't mean to demean that. There are thousands of ways to
    "flesh out" Jesus Christ, numerous as snowflake designs, and I'm sure many of
    those theologians are well intended, open hearted, men and women of deep
    faith. They did the right thing by coming together. It's a big deal, a really
    big deal! But if one doesn't read theological journals I doubt he/she would
    even know about this. It's 110% lost on pop culture, no? Thanks for bringing
    it to our attention brother. By the way, I LOVED our time together recently
    in BV. Thanks for calling. Jim Rayburn


Thanks so much for your input. I pray that this dialogue may be a blessing to you personally and to the ministry you exercise in Christ.