The Joint Declaration


This past Fall, I heard that the Catholics and the Lutherans had signed some statement about salvation. I heard someone in my parish say something like, "The Church finally admitted Luther was right, and we were wrong." Is this true?

"Someone in your parish" either was misled by one of the regularly shallow news reports regarding our Catholic faith, or is simply in error. Here are some basic facts regarding the question: On Oct. 31, 1999 in Augsburg, Germany, representatives of the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation (which includes the majority of Lutherans) signed "The Catholic-Lutheran Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification." After much discussion, three documents were published: the Joint Declaration itself, the "Official Common Statement," and the "Catholic Annex to the Common Statement" (which further clarified the Catholic Church's position). Keep in mind that since the time of Martin Luther, one of the most contentious subjects between Lutheran theology and Catholic theology is that of justification. Please also keep in mind that in no way did the Catholic Church change or retract its beliefs concerning this subject as defined by the Council of Trent (1545-63), which addressed Luther's and the other "reformers" errors.

Nevertheless, in the "Joint Declaration," the Catholics and the Lutherans reached "a consensus of basic truths of the doctrine of justification": "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." At first glance, such a statement seems so acceptable one has to ask, "What was ever the problem?"

The problem was and remains how Catholics understand justification versus how Lutherans do. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, "The grace of the Holy Spirit has the power to justify us, that is, to cleanse us from our sins and to communicate to us 'the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ' (Rom 3:22) and through Baptism" (No. 1987). Through baptism, by water and the Holy Spirit, a person is freed from original sin and all actual sin, and Almighty God infuses into his now pure soul sanctifying grace, that sharing in the divine life and love of the Holy Trinity. No longer is a person a slave of sin; he has been forgiven of all sin, and is now a child of God and a member of the Catholic Church. At the same time, the person shares in the saving mystery of our Lord's passion, death and resurrection, and receives and accepts the righteousness (or justice) of God through faith in Jesus Christ. This righteousness or justice is the "rectitude of divine love," for God pours into the soul the supernatural virtues of faith, hope, and charity: A person believes in God, hopes in Him, and loves Him, and freely responds to the prompting of the Holy Spirit with filial obedience. (Cf. Catechism, No. 1989-1995.) Granted, concupiscence — that weakness of human nature from original sin which makes us susceptible to temptation, remains; yet, with God's grace we continue our conversion and struggle for holiness.

This justification, conferred through the Sacrament of Baptism, entails the rebirth and the re-creation of the person. Throughout the Rite of Baptism, this point is emphasized numerous times: In the instruction to the parents: "By water and the Holy Spirit, [your child] is to receive the gift of new life from God, who is love." At the Anointing with Chrism: "God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ has freed you from sin, given you a new birth by water and the Holy Spirit, and welcomed you into His holy people." In the clothing with the white garment: "You have become a new creation and have clothed yourself in Christ." At the introduction for the Lord's Prayer: "This child has been reborn in baptism. He is now called a child of God, for so indeed he is." In all, as Catholics we recognize the justification received at Baptism has made us a new creation and given us a greater dignity than we could ever have hoped for, even greater, as St. Augustine said, than that of the angels. Therefore, the Council of Trent taught, "Justification is not only the remission of sins, but also the sanctification and renewal of the interior man" (Decree on Justification).

Moreover, as we live our faith and our Baptism, we continue to respond to God's grace and do good works. By doing so, we grow in holiness. As St. James taught, "My brothers, what good is it to profess faith without practicing it? Such faith has no power to save one, has it? If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and no food for the day, and you say to them, 'Good-by and good luck! Keep warm and well fed,' but do not meet their bodily needs, what good is that? So it is with faith that does nothing to practice. It is thoroughly lifeless" (Jas 2:14-17). For Catholics then, with God's grace, faith is expressed in good works, and good works help strengthen faith. The Council of Trent taught, "When faith is active along with works, they increase in the very justice they have received through the grace of Christ and are further justified" ("Decree on Justification").

Keeping these truths clearly in mind, the Catholic Church can agree with the statement of the "Joint Declaration:" This justification has been merited for us by the passion of Jesus, who freely suffered and died to forgive our sins.

However, Lutherans, while also accepting the basic statement, have a different understanding of justification. Luther believed that original sin had completely destroyed our likeness to God, so that a person lost his free will and all his works were sinful. He taught that after baptism, original sin remained. (While Catholics distinguish original sin from concupiscence, Lutherans essentially do not.) Even after baptism, man's nature remains depraved; there is no re-creation. However, through baptism and the graces merited by our Lord's passion and death, a man is clothed in grace and thereby appears just in the eyes of God. Martin Luther described a justified man as a snow-covered pile of dung, clean on the outside but not on the inside. (Please note, this is literally Luther's imagery.) He explained further, "I understand grace in the sense of a favor of God, but not in the notion of a quality in the soul. It is any exterior good, that is, the favor of God as opposed to His anger." For Luther, grace then remained extrinsic to the person, and did not produce a new creation. So the classic Lutheran phrase, simul justus et peccator — at the same time righteous and a sinner — captures the state of the person even after baptism.

Following this reasoning, since man is depraved and sinful, so are his actions. Therefore, good works are meaningless for Luther, and have no part in justification, thereby ignoring the teaching of St. James. For Luther, salvation comes through "faith alone."

Interestingly, Luther had intended to delete the Epistle of St. James from the New Testament as he had seven books of the Old Testament, but the Protestant Princes of Germany, his patrons, threatened to withdraw their support if he did so. Moreover, Luther, to emphasize his "faith alone" teaching, did append the word "alone" to the Letter to the Hebrews 3:28: "...For we hold that a man is justified by faith alone [Luther's addition] apart from observance of the law."

While both churches agree to the basic statement of the "Joint Declaration," in no way did the Catholic Church change or retract its teachings. The "Catholic Annex to the Common Statement" again asserted the teachings of the Council of Trent and clarified our Church's understanding of the joint declaration. Many differences remain between Catholics and Lutherans, not only on this issue of justification, but also on the understanding of the authority of the Pope, the sacrificial priesthood, the sacraments, and the Holy Eucharist to name a few. Nevertheless, what is truly good about the "Joint Declaration" is the willingness of both sides to dialogue and resolve differences. Pope John Paul II in "Ut Unum Sint" (1995) stated, "Believers in Christ... cannot remain divided. If they wish truly and effectively to oppose the world's tendency to reduce to powerlessness the mystery of Redemption they must profess together the same truth about the Cross." While much more work lies ahead, at least a positive beginning has been made.




Saunders, Rev. William. "The Joint Declaration." Arlington Catholic Herald.

This article is reprinted with permission from Arlington Catholic Herald.


Father William Saunders is dean of the Notre Dame Graduate School of Christendom College and pastor of Our Lady of Hope Parish in Sterling, Virginia. The above article is a "Straight Answers" column he wrote for the Arlington Catholic Herald. Father Saunders is also the author of Straight Answers, a book based on 100 of his columns and published by Cathedral Press in Baltimore.

Copyright © 2003 Arlington Catholic Herald

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