Justification by Faith: The Lutheran-Catholic Convergence

by John Reumann

John Reumann, professor emeritus at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, has been active in Lutheran-Catholic dialogue since 1965. The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification by the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church is available as part of Ecumenical Proposals: Lutheran-Episcopal, Lutheran-Reformed, and Lutheran-Roman Catholic, from Augsburg Fortress (tel. 800-328-4648, order code #69-3092; $1 plus postage and handling.)

This article appeared in The Christian Century, October 22, 1997, pp. 942-946. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation, used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This article was prepared for Religion Online by Harry W. and Grace C. Adams.


Reumann outlines the historical hardening of theological categories between Lutherans and Catholics arising out of the Reformation doctrine of justification by faith, and the convergence toward a common understanding on justification and related doctrines through Lutheran-Catholic dialogues over the past thirty years.

At the heart of the 16th-century Reformation movement was the experience of "justification by faith" in the life of an Augustinian monk. Martin Luther's quest for a God who was gracious, not simply a stern judge, led to the answer, "By grace alone, by faith alone." Out of pastoral concern for the terrified consciences of people who were buying church indulgences to cover their sins, Luther articulated a corollary conviction about the source of salvation: "Not by such 'good works."'

For Luther, the experience of being justified by faith was "as though I had been born again." His entry into Paradise, no less, was a discovery about "the righteousness of God" -- a discovery that "the just person" of whom the Bible speaks (as in Romans 1:17) lives by faith. Justification has to do with saving righteousness on God's part. Such justification is received in and by faith.

The emphasis on justification by faith became common coin among the Reformers and their confessions. Thus in 1561 the Belgic Confession declared, "We rightly say with Paul 'that we are justified by faith alone' or 'by faith without works"' (Rom. 3:27; Gal. 2:6). The Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England say, "We are accounted righteous before God, only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ by Faith, and not for our own works or deservings."

Luther's challenge to the Roman Catholic Church brought forth bitter condemnations by each side against the other, condemnations that to this day inform the perspectives of Lutherans and Roman Catholics. Yet this year Lutheran and Roman Catholic theologians issued an official proposal for a Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. This declaration, which was approved in August by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and endorsed in July by delegates to the Lutheran World Federation (it will be studied by other member churches of the LWF as well as by the Vatican), calls for seeing the old condemnations and anathemas "in a new light." Indeed, it declares that the old condemnations no longer apply. The Reformation breach on these points has, apparently, been healed. What has brought such a change about?

First, a little history: In the 16th century Protestant and Catholic positions on justification became polarized and soon escalated to include other doctrines, including the authority of the church; scripture and tradition; good works; merit and indulgences; the mass; and sin and its effects in human life. The papal bull excommunicating Luther in 1520, titled Exsurge Domine, reflected the language of the Psalms: "Rise, 0 Lord," let your enemies be scattered, for a wild boar is ravaging the vineyard of the Lord. The decree called on Luther to recant some 41 errors -- including the assertion that to burn heretics is contrary to the Holy Spirit -- or face punishment. Memory of this bull, which Luther burned, persists powerfully in Protestant consciousness. Catholics are far less aware of it.

A colloquy between three Protestant and three Catholic theologians at Regensburg in 1541 attempted to bridge the disagreements by speaking of "double justification." The proposal was, of necessity, quite technical. First, it was said, there is "inherent righteousness" in a person, the infusion of charity, by which a person's will is healed. But one should not rely on this. Assurance of salvation comes only in "imputed righteousness," that given to a person because of Christ's merits. Good works merit rewards, now and in the life to come, but not as "human works." Rather, they are "done in faith" and come "from the Holy Spirit" -- though our own free will is "a partial agent." This combination of assertions seemed to give something to each side, but neither Luther nor the authorities in Rome found it satisfactory.

A few years later the Council of Trent met to counter the Protestant Reformation and to reform the church of Rome. Between June 1546 and January 1547 it addressed the topic of justification. Church discussion on grace and faith had gone on for centuries, and the council did not aim to settle all the old debates. But in view of the Protestant challenge it had to speak as never before on justification. The council's decree made faith "the beginning" and "foundation and root of all justification "-- but to faith was added hope and charity (as in 1 Corinthians 13).

One sentence near the end of the Tridentine decree (chapter 16) suggests both Trent's convergence with and its distance from the Reformation position: "Far be it from Christians to trust or glory in themselves and not in the Lord [cf. 1 Cor. 1:31; 2 Cor. 10:17; Jer. 9:23-24], whose bounty toward all is so great that he wishes his own gifts to be their merits." Protestants could rejoice at the main clause ("not self but the Lord"). But the clause beginning "whose bounty" allows for merits on the part of saintly believers -- something which, Lutherans felt, undermines trust in God alone for salvation.

It was the regular practice of the Council of Trent to attach "anathemas" to every decree. This usage went back to biblical examples of condemning false teaching with use of the term "anathematize," which means "cut off' or "separate." In Galatians 1:8-9 Paul says, regarding anyone who preaches a "gospel" differing from what the Galatians had received from Paul: let that person be anathema, "accursed" or "cast out." The fathers at Trent set forth 33 statements of erroneous teaching, each statement ending, "let him be anathema" who speaks thus. For example, if anyone teaches that faith "is that trust alone by which we are justified," then "let him be anathema." However, no individual, not even Luther, is ever mentioned by name in any of Trent's anathemas.

Luther spoke in 1537 of justification as the "first and chief article," which cannot be "given up or compromised," for on it "rests all that we teach and practice against the pope, the devil, and the world." Lutheran writings refer to "the scholastics" or "our opponents" (so Melanchthon in the Apology of 1531); later, it is "the papists." By the time of the Formula of Concord (1580) the controversies included "theologians of the Augsburg Confession," some of whose views were rejected.

There are numerous instances of coarse language by Luther, his Catholic opponents and the pamphleteers of the day, not to mention the inflammatory woodcuts (the cartoons of the period) which, for example, showed a seven-headed Luther. Luther described his critics as asses and saw the devil at work in them. Catholic polemicists implied that there was excessive womanizing in Protestant Wittenberg and that Luther was drinking and jesting to the moment of his death. At Trent it was reported that Luther had been poisoned to prevent him from recanting his teachings on his deathbed.

But anathemas and condemnations are more than personal insults; they are assertions of a doctrinal identity that marks one group off from another in a division between right belief and heresy. They are more serious than invective, stinging as that may be, for they set up official barriers between churches.

How has it become possible in 1997 to achieve a Joint Declaration on the controverted doctrine of justification? What allows old anathemas to be transcended?

It is not, for Catholics or Lutherans, a matter of amnesia about the past or of writing off long-held beliefs. In fact, memories embedded in anathemas may take on a life of their own and make differences stated in the past even sharper and more divisive as the years go by. Nor is it simply "modern times" or tolerance or a farewell to theology that has made the Joint Declaration possible.

The ecumenical movement has been, of course, a major impetus. For a century or more Protestants initially, and then other Christians too, have taken up classically divisive issues. Lutherans involved in such discussions, in the Faith and Order movement and elsewhere, have constantly set forth justification by faith, though sometimes without even using the terminology.

Biblical studies have also made an important contribution toward ecumenical agreement by offering a fresh examination of old impasses. Treatments of "righteousness" in the Hebrew scriptures and new proposals about expressions like "the righteousness of God" have provided insights that go beyond past sticking points. God's justifying righteousness has come to be seen not only as a divine gift (Rom. 3:24-26) but also as an attribute or quality of God (Rom. 3:5), a power exercised by God to justify and save (Rom. 1:16-17). Paul's letters have been studied from many angles, including apocalyptic eschatology (see Rom. 1:17: God's righteousness "revealed"--the verb is apokalyptein) as have been Old Testament verses such as Genesis 15:6 (on how Abraham "believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness"; cf. Gal. 3:6; Rom. 4:3, 9) and Habakkuk 2:4.

Attention has also been paid to the changes wrung on "the just by faith(fulness) shall live" (Gal. 3:11; Rom. 1:17). Scholars now widely agree that the statements in the Epistle of James about faith and works are not made in opposition to Paul but represent an attempt to defend Paul's teaching against a misunderstanding of faith as simply intellectual belief.

Biblical studies among Catholics were one factor among many leading to the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), and the statements from these sessions were the most important impetus for Roman Catholic dialogues with other Christians. The council itself said little about justification, but it set a mood that made discussion of this old point of division inevitable. To be mentioned also are the work of theologians such as Karl Rahuer in his Theological Investigations, and specialized historical studies, often by Catholics like Hubert Jedin, Otto Herman Pesch and Vinzeng Pfnür, on the Reformation period and the Council of Trent. Pesch, for example, compared Luther and Aquinas on justification in an effort toward dialogue in systematic theology. Rahner's essays, Christocentric and stressing grace, allowed one to speak in Catholic theology of those justified as yet "sinners," in that humans are never fully delivered from the deleterious effects of the fall.

The first international Lutheran-Catholic dialogue (1967-71) touched on justification. The most detailed work on justification by faith was carried out in the United States in bilateral talks between 1978 and 1983. The seventh volume of "Lutherans and Catholics in Dialogue" (published in 1985) is remarkable for its common statement, without separate Catholic or Lutheran comments. It provides a one-sentence affirmation about the gospel and speaks of our entire hope of justification and salvation" resting on "God's promise and the saving work in Christ," as "our ultimate trust."

The common statement includes a list of convergences. On "works" it says, "Justifying faith cannot exist without hope and love; it necessarily issues in good works. Yet the justified cannot rely on their own good works or boast of their own merits as though they were not still in need of mercy." A concluding declaration invited all Christians to consider what Lutherans and Catholics can say together.

Work on the anathemas and condemnations continued in Germany. The Protestant-Catholic study commission arose out of Pope John Paul II's visit to Germany at the 450th anniversary of the Augsburg Confession. It has produced four volumes of essays on whether the statements of the past need still divide the churches. The project, chaired by systematic theologians Wolfhart Pannenberg and (later Bishop) Karl Lehmann, included scholars from Reformed and United churches, as well as Lutherans and Catholics.

The 1997 Joint Declaration reaps the harvest of all these cooperative ventures. The aim is not to break new ground but to summarize what was agreed upon in previous dialogues. The declaration summarizes, therefore, a common understanding by Lutheran churches and the Roman Catholic Church. Seven topics, the focus of anathemas and condemnations, are then explicated. In each case, what "we confess together" is first stated, and then aspects of Catholic and of Lutheran teaching are noted; but differences -- for example, in language and "theological elaboration and emphasis" -- are said not to "destroy the consensus regarding basic truths" of salvation.

For example, the declaration confesses "that good works -- a Christian life lived in faith, hope, and love -- follow justification and are its fruits." Catholics go on to speak of such works as are "made possible by grace and. . . the Holy Spirit"; people are responsible for their actions, reward in heaven is promised biblically, but "justification always remains the unmerited gift of grace." Lutherans speak of "growth in grace and faith," with effects in Christian living; eternal life is, biblically speaking, "unmerited 'reward,"' a fulfillment of God's promise to the believer.

The seven controverted areas taken up by the declaration are 1) sin and human passivity in receiving justification; 2) interior renewal, that is, the way God not only declares persons justified but also makes them righteous, independent of human cooperation; 3) justification by faith alone; 4) the justified person as sinner; 5) law and gospel; 6) the assurance of salvation; and 7) the good works of the justified person.

The simul justus et peccator theme of topic number four -- the notion that the Christian is simultaneously saint and sinner -- was probably the most difficult area of discussion. While there is one set of theological issues regarding sin prior to justification (the sin that prevents humans from "attaining salvation by their own abilities"), Christians have also hotly debated the degree to which sin still exercises power in the lives of the justified. Lutherans have spoken of the saint "in Christ" as still a sinner, while Catholics have spoken of the "concupiscence" that remains after baptism, but which is "not 'sin' in the proper sense," since it no longer separates the justified believer from God.

Concupiscence is a somewhat old-fashioned term for what might be termed "lust." Paul admonished believers not to let sin reign, which happens when we obey the "passions" or "desires" (Rom 6:12, 13:14). Important here is the difference between life when sin dominates and when sin is dominated by Christ, with whom the believer is united. The Joint Declaration puts a strong emphasis on baptism, in which "the Holy Spirit unites one with Christ, justifies and truly renews the person." But because the justified are "constantly exposed to the power of sin," they must "constantly look to God's unconditional justifying grace."

The Lutheran understanding of the Christian as "at the same time righteous and sinner" is set forth, as is the Catholic view that "all that is sin 'in the proper sense"' is taken away in baptism, though "an inclination (concupiscence)" toward sin remains. Such complex topics will be the subject of specialists' scrutiny.

Those less curious or informed about theological intricacies might want to approach the declaration through the biblical material treated in the opening sections. English Bibles do a disservice by translating the Hebrew root sdq and the Greek dikaioun and related terms using vocabulary from the Anglo-Saxon ("right" and "righteousness") or from the Latin ("just," "justice," "justification"). The entire field of righteousness/justification must be taken up to get a sense of the biblical meaning. The term connects with "justice," as is realized in liberation theology, as well as with themes of judgment in both testaments.

The Joint Declaration concentrates on the theme of righteousness/justification as "chief' among the various ways in which the gift of salvation is described by Paul. God's power for salvation involves righteousness revealed and justification granted, in Christ, through faith. It means forgiveness, liberation, acceptance into communion with God, union with Christ and receiving the Spirit.

Protestants and Catholics will have to judge for themselves how well the declaration succeeds in stating "a consensus in basic truths," and whether it makes the case that the 16th-century condemnations do not apply -- even though they remain on the books as "salutary warnings," to which teaching and preaching must attend. Memories of division written into authoritative statements of faith are so powerful that centuries later they can continue to shape a community's perceptions. Hence the lifting of statements of condemnation when they no longer apply is a necessary part of reform and progress.