Justification in Lutheranism and Catholicism: From conflict to conversation

A further perspective on the dialogue between Lutherans and Catholics over the nature of justification

Roger S. Evans, Ph.D., is assistant professor of church history at Payne Theological Seminary, Pickerington, Ohio.

On October 31,1999, in Augsburg, Germany, representatives from the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church signed the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification,"1 in which they affirmed:

1) "In faith we together hold the conviction that justification is the work of the triune God" (15).

2) "Together we confess: By grace alone, in faith in Christ's saving work and not because of any merit on our part" (15).

3) "We confess together that all per sons depend completely on the saving grace of God for their salvation" (19).

4) "We confess together that God forgives sin by grace and at the same time frees human beings from sin's en slaving power" (22).

5) "We confess together that sinners are justified by faith in the saving action of God in Christ" (25).

6) "We confess together that in baptism the Holy Spirit unites one with Christ, justifies and truly renews the person" (28).

7) "We confess together that per sons are justified by faith in the gospel 'apart from works prescribed by the law" (31).

8) "We confess together that good works—a Christian life lived in faith, hope and love—follow justification and are its fruits" (37).

To hear Lutherans and Catholics voicing common confessions on the doctrine of justification is something that could not have been imagined before Vatican II. Statements, which in the sixteenth century brought condemnations and charges of heresy, are now seen, ac cording to this document, as merely "op posing interpretations and applications of the biblical message of justification" (13). According to the document, both communions have been able "to articulate a common understanding of our justification by God's grace through faith in Christ," which shows that the remaining differences in its explication are no longer "the occasion for doctrinal condemnations" (5).2 While realizing that there are "remaining differences," which need "further clarification," there is still a great deal of "consensus on basic truths concerning the doctrine of justification" (13).

In the light of these agreements, it is important to ask, Just what were the issues that first caused the Protestant Reformation, and what does this historic document do to help heal more than 400 years of hostility and theological division regarding the question of justification by faith?

Faith alone?

In the sixteenth century, the Lutheran position on justification was straightforward. In the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Philip Melanchthon wrote, "We will show that faith [and nothing else] justifies" and "faith alone makes of an unjust, a just man, i.e., receives remission of sin" (4.2). In the same document, he says that "the promise of the remission of sins and of justification has been given us for Christ's sake" (4.2). The Formula of Concord states that people "are justified and saved alone by faith in Christ" (3.10). Martin Luther wrote, "[We] are saved only by faith, without any good works, therefore faith alone justifies" (304). And, "We are justified before God altogether without works, and obtain forgiveness of sins merely by grace" (300).

During the Reformation, Catholics charged Lutherans with boasting in their "confidence and certainty of the remission of ... sins" when in reality "no one can know with a certainty of faith, which cannot be subject to error, that he has obtained the grace of God."3 No attempt was made by the Lutherans to deny these charges. In the Formula of Concord they wrote, "God forgives us our sins out of pure grace, without any work, merit, or worthiness of ours preceding, present, or following. ... He presents and imputes to us the righteousness of Christ's obedience, on account of which righteousness we are received into grace by God, and regarded as righteous"(3.4). And Martin Luther stated, "He that can say: 'I am a child of God through Christ, who is my righteousness,' and despairs not, though he be deficient in good works, which always fail us, he believes rightly."4

Therefore, for sixteenth-century Protestants, justification comes from God through Christ, in that God does not impute our sins to us, but instead imputes to us Christ's righteousness. The believer was seen to be declared just be fore God by God, and that justification was obtained through faith alone in Christ alone. Thus, justification was seen by them to be a gift that was promised and given to the believer.

The Apology of the Augsburg Confession [AAC] says, "By faith itself, we are for Christ's sake accounted righteous, or are acceptable to God" (4). And the Formula of Concord states that "the word justify means ... to declare free from sins" (7). Justification itself does not involve renewal, sanctification, or good works. These all follow the act of justification. "Love and works must fol low faith. Wherefore, they are not excluded so as not to follow, but confidence in the merit of love or of works is excluded in justification."5

Melanchthon in the AAC, after explaining what Lutherans believed, wrote, "And of [our] faith not a syllable exists in the doctrine of our adversaries. Hence we find fault with the adversaries, equally because they teach only the righteousness of the Law and because they do not teach the righteousness of the Gospel, which proclaims the righteousness of faith in Christ" (4). And later in the same document he said, "Therefore, those who deny that faith justifies, teach nothing but the law, both Christ and the Gospel set aside" (4).

The view from Rome

Of course, the Catholics did teach and write about righteousness and justification by faith, and they did not see themselves setting aside either Christ or the gospel. In the "Decree on Justification," chapter 2, the Catholics said that "God has proposed [Christ] as a propitiator, through faith in his blood, for our sins, and not for our sins only, but also for those of the whole world." Chapter 6 reads: "God justifies the impious by His grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus." And in chapter 8: "Faith is the beginning of human salvation, the foundation and the root of all justification."

These were statements that the Lutherans would affirm. The more difficult statements were those concerning the place and merit of good works in the economy of salvation. However, much of the difference between the Protestants and Catholics of the Reformation period can be better understood when it is remembered that, for Catholics, justification is more of a process than an act. Faith and grace come from God, and these gifts are operational in the life of the Christian as he or she participates in the sacraments and in good works. The Confutatio Pontificia states that "it is entirely contrary to holy Scripture to deny that our works are meritorious" (4). In Article 6 of the same document, the authors state that the "truth of the Gospel [is that] works are not excluded." And in Article 20 the question is asked, "If works were not meritorious why would the wise man say: 'God will render a reward of the labors of his saints'?" Finally, in chapter 16 of the "Decree of Justification" it says that the justified have "by those very works which have been done in God, fully satisfied the divine law according to the state of this life, and to have truly merited eternal life."

Act or process?

Thus, it is clear that Catholics and Lutherans came at the question of justification from different perspectives.

When sixteenth-century Catholic Christians said that good works were meritorious, they understood that good works by themselves without divine grace were worthless. Again, the Confutatio Pontificia:

"The condemnation of the Pelagians, who thought that man can merit eternal life by his own powers without the grace of God, is accepted as Catholic and in accordance with the ancient councils" (4).

"The merits that men acquire" come "by the assistance of divine grace" (4).

"All Catholics confess that our works of themselves have no merit, but that God's grace makes them worthy of eternal life" (4).

"[The] word of Christ... teaches that our works bring no profit to God; that no one can be puffed up by our works; that when contrasted with the divine reward, our works are of no ac count and nothing" (6).

"Concerning good works,... they do not merit the remission of sin" (20).

"We know that our works are nothing and of no merit unless by virtue of Christ's passion" (20).

The Catholics stated unequivocally that their faith was in Jesus Christ, His passion and His merits. The Council of Trent asserts that Christians are to have "faith in his blood" (2) and in the "merit of His passion" (3). However, faith is just the "beginning of human salvation, the foundation and the root of all justification" (8).6 Faith in Christ and His passion did not fully justify a believer, because justification was an ongoing process. For the Catholics "faith cooperating with good works in crease in that justice which they have received through the grace of Christ, and are still further justified" (10). Justification is not the "remission of sins merely, but also the sanctification and renewal of the inward man" (7).

Thus, while Lutherans saw good works and growth in holiness as following the act of justification, Catholics saw good works and growth in holiness as part of justification. The Lutheran position, spelled out in the Smakald Articles, states that "forgiveness of sins is followed by good works... [and] we say, besides, that if good works do not follow, faith is false and not true" (3.13). However, the Catholics believed that not only were good works a part of justification, these good works increased the justification, which the believer already possessed. The Council of Trent said that "faith cooperating with good works increase in that justice which they have received through the grace of Christ, and are still further justified" (10).

This position allowed the Catholics to speak of being "made" righteous, while the Lutherans spoke of being "declared" righteous. In the Formula of Con cord Lutherans placed their finger on this critical difference when they said that Catholics teach that believers are "being made righteous before God, because of the love infused by the Holy Ghost, virtues, and the works following them" and that "believers are justified before God and saved jointly by the imputed righteousness of Christ and by the new obedience begun in them" (15, 21). The Catholics in fact did teach that justification was not just something that happened to them, but it's also something that happened inside them. To them justification was imputed and imparted. The Council of Trent speaks of justification as being the "renewal of the inward man" (7) and of Christ "infus[ing] his virtue into the said justified" (16). Canon 11 says that those who say that people are justified "by the sole imputation of the justice of Christ... to the exclusion of the grace and the charity which is poured forth into their hearts" are anathema.

Therefore, although both Lutheran and Catholic Christians in the sixteenth century used words and phrases like "righteousness," "justification," "faith in Jesus Christ," "good works," and "grace," how they understood these words, and the part they played in the believer being justified, were quite different.7

Shifts evidenced in the Joint Declaration

The Lutheran and Catholic Christians that signed the Joint Declaration in Augsburg in 1999 also employed these words in their attempt to find common ground on the doctrine of justification. In order to accomplish togetherness, both sides needed to move toward the position of the other. And a review of the language of the"common confessions" of the Joint Declaration illustrate this shift by both.

The Lutheran teachings on justification in the sixteenth century have nothing to say about the work of the Holy Spirit. This is not to say that they did not recognize the work of the Holy Spirit, but the teachings on the act of justification focused on the doing and dying of Jesus Christ. Justification was an act of God through Christ for humanity. However, two of the confessions of the Joint Declaration reveal their willingness to include the work of the Holy Spirit in the work of justification. Para graph 15 states, "In faith we together hold the conviction that justification is the work of the triune God." The sixteenth-century Lutherans would not have denied this, but because the work the Holy Spirit was commonly thought of as an ongoing work in us, rather than an act of God through Jesus Christ for us, it would not have occurred to them to use this language.

Also, paragraph 28 of the Joint Declaration reads: "We confess together that in baptism the Holy Spirit unites one with Christ, justifies and truly renews the person." While sixteenth-century Lutherans would confess that the Holy Spirit brings people to Jesus Christ and brings spiritual renewal, the antecedent for the word "justifies" in this sentence is the "Holy Spirit." The teachings of the Lutherans in the sixteenth century made it abundantly clear that it was the perfect obedience and the propitiatory death of Jesus Christ that made justification possible and available. There is no indication in their teachings that the Holy Spirit justifies.

Finally, the words "impute," (with one exception in paragraph 22) "declare," and "by faith alone" are missing from the Joint Declaration. The Lutheran teachings on justification in the sixteenth century were full of references to God "declaring us righteous" and God "imputing His righteousness" to us "by faith alone."

On the Catholic side, sixteenth-century Catholics were quite clear that justification was not just the forgiveness of sins, but included growth in holy living, which included good works. They also insisted that good works of them selves were not meritorious, but done in grace (or in God) they had meritorious value and were part of the process of justification. However, paragraph 37 of the Joint Declaration reads, "We con fess together that good works—a Christian life lived in faith, hope, and love—follow justification and are its fruits." This comes very close to the language and position taken by the Lutherans in the Smalkald Articles.

While Catholics have not made this kind of shift in other significant areas, this repositioning is admirable.

An admirable and significant effort has been made in the Joint Declaration to heal a long-time open wound. Differences on the teaching of justification between these two communities of faith remain. These differences may never be resolved. But the two parties are "committed to continued and deepened study of the biblical foundations of the doctrine of justification and to make it bear fruit in the life and teaching of the churches" (43).

Perhaps other Christians who continue to silently observe the differences from both sides of a long-standing Berlin-like wall of separation can look at this attempt by two long-time opponents and make the attempt to speak with one another, rather than to shout.

1 For the full text of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, see <http://www.elca.org/ea/jddj/>

2. cf. Also paragraphs 13 and 41.

3. Council of Trent, 9. The Decree on Justification can be found at <http://history.hanover.edu/early/trent.ct06dl.htm> The Canons on Justification can be found at <http://history.hanover.edu/early/trent/ct06jc.htm>

4. The Table Talk on justification is located at <http://www.ccel.org/l/luther/table_talk/table_talk!4.htm>

5. Apology of the Augsberg Confession, 4. Text for this document is located at <http://www.ctsfw.edu/etext/boc/ap/>

6. Joint Declaration, chapter 8. This language of the "root" of justification is found in the JD 1.10, where it says, "In Christ's death and resurrection all dimensions of his saving work have their roots."

7. Both the Lutherans and Catholics claimed to have the support of Scripture and tradition, but the texts each chose were ones which they felt supported their position. However, very little exegesis is done in these documents.


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Roger S. Evans, Ph.D., is assistant professor of church history at Payne Theological Seminary, Pickerington, Ohio.

November 2000

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