30 September 2009

The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, 10 Years Later

Tomorrow night, representatives of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Roman Catholic Church, and the United Methodist Church will gather in Chicago to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the signing of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. It was, and remains, a significant moment in the relationship between Lutherans and Roman Catholics, who were the first to be separated by the condemnations of the Reformation and subsequent disagreements.

Here's the thing, though: the JDDJ isn't worth much more than the paper on which it is printed.

Don't misunderstand: our relationship with our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters is better now than it has been for centuries, and that is a good thing, worthy of celebration. But let's not pretend that unity exists where it does not, and the JDDJ has not removed the difference between us in how we view salvation:

The good Cardinal George shows us the difference that still exists between Lutherans and Roman Catholics on the doctrine of justification. Lutherans believe that works are not meritorious - that, in fact, works can be a dangerous distraction from the grace freely and fully given by Christ without our cooperation or worthiness. As Luther himself said, "The Law says, 'Do this,' and it is never done. Grace says, 'believe this,' and everything is already done."

This is not to say that Lutherans despise works, either - we merely note that their place is completely separated from salvation. Good works are the deeds of one who has already been saved by the mercy and grace of Jesus Christ. Good works are an important part of the faith we share as Christians; indeed, Luther also described Christians as "most free lords of all, subject to none, and most dutiful servants of all, subject to all." As Paul writes in Galatians, "For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but rhough love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'" Works are important - they are the means by which we live out the grace God has bestowed upon us. But a theology that confesses that works are meritorious is not a salvation of justification by grace through faith apart from the works of the law, and we shouldn't pretend that it is.

Ten years ago, Lutherans and Roman Catholics gathered at a church in Augsburg to sign a document stating that we no longer condemn each other as we once had. That, in itself, is a noteworthy accomplishment in the history of our blessed church, the Body of Christ in which we are indeed one regardless of what our differences may be. Those differences remain, however, and should not be minimized or glossed over. Let us continue to converse with one another, to speak the truth to each other, and pray for the day when we can, at last, celebrate an agreement about salvation upon which we fully and completely agree.

Grace & peace,

The picture is the pulpit in the Schlosskirche (Castle Church) in Lutherstadt-Wittenberg, Germany. Luther's tomb is just under the pulpit.


  1. I'll be honest ... I don't find the good Cardinal's comments particularly objectionable.

    What we're talking about - or talking past each other about - is the definition or nature of faith. For this Cardinal, faith is not just some inner feeling or intellectual assent (to which, sadly, many protestants have reduced faith), but is a gift that includes inner feeling, intellectual assent, works, trust, hope, etc. etc.. That is, works are part and parcel of faith - you can't tease the two apart. Thus, if the gift of faith is meritorious, and faith includes works, then the works of faith are meritorious. And of course, once you join the words "faith" and "meritorious" in the same sentence, we Lutherans go nuts.

    Perhaps where we go wrong is presuming that faith and works are different things ... after all, I'm sure Jesus was on to something when he talked about good trees bearing good fruit. I'm more than glad to accept an understanding of faith that is broader than the typical Protestant understanding of some numbing, internal feeling of joy and peace.

  2. Chris - thanks for posting. I agree that faith is far, far more than sentimentality. The question is, where does acting upon faith fall within the realm of salvation? Acting on faith, or perhaps better worded, acting OUT OF faith, is certainly important to both our traditions, but those of us who studied under Forde and Nestingen grow as nervous as long-tailed cats in a room of rocking chairs whenever works and merit start moving toward each other (apparently, we also tend to find colloquialisms appropriate in theological discussions. But I digress).

    I should have acknowledged that there are strains within Lutheranism that vary in their response to JDDJ. And I want to make it very clear that I'm in favor of our ecumenical spirit. I just don't want to water down the riches of our tradition for the sake of institutional idolatry. The precious gift of the gospel is just too important to be sold out in such a way.

  3. Thanks for this discussion ... you've given me something to think about. I haven't read much of Forde or Nestingen, to be honest (though Nestingen's recent comments about the ELCA hardly encourage me to run in his direction). I have the Lutheran Quarterly book of Forde's writing, though I haven't yet read it. Perhaps this will give me a reason to pick it up.

    I'm stuck on this question of the definition or nature of faith ... are works part of faith, or do they follow from faith? I'm increasingly uncomfortable with the notion that faith and works are distinct things. But, alas, this merits more reading, exploration, praying.

    Regarding the different strands of Lutherans ... yes, we're a diverse group. I just attended a funeral for a Lutheran pastor who was a member of the Society of the Holy Trinity (the "anglo-catholic" wing of the Lutheran church) - incense, bells, processions galore, east wall altar, invocations of the Holy Trinity at every turn ... And to attend this funeral on Sunday afternoon and then read some of what the Lutheran CORE folks said in Indianapolis that same weekend was, well, eye-opening. We are truly a divided church, and not just on sexuality. Some look toward Rome, others toward Bill Hybels. Some want to repristinate 1950, others 1530, others 1300. Some feel that "church" starts with the individual believer, others suggest something much more communal, others insist on bishops and tradition. Some believe Luther was a radical reformer who translated the Gospel into the language of the people, while others suggest that he was a pious Catholic priest who only sought to rectify a few abuses within the church.

    Finally, for all of my "higher church" and liturgical sensibilities that might be typical of east coast Lutheranism (I'm a child of the LCA, by the way), I have lots of questions about the value of the ecumenical project our church has pursued. Statements and documents and bishops meeting in cathedrals or seminary conference rooms means ... what? I fail to see how Called to Common Mission, now ten years old, has enhanced the ministry of most congregations, or even synods, or how it has improved our public witness as a whole in this country.

  4. Chris - I was Jim's teaching assistant my final year at seminary, and I was bitterly disappointed to read what he wrote for WordAlone. That's the worst part about 'coming of age' in the church - disagreeing with people you respect.

    Forde's LQ book is good, but if you want an even more concise look, you might try On Being A Theologian of the Cross and Justification By Faith: A Matter of Death and Life. They are likely the prime examples of the theology that informs many of us from the land of the Frozen Chosen.

    And I think Forde and Nestingen would both agree with your assessment of the ecumenical record of the ELCA. If it makes no practical difference 'on the ground,' then it makes no difference. Being in campus ministry, I do see places where our agreements, particularly CCM, allow for some unique partnerships that wouldn't be possible otherwise (though the CCM document itself is another matter entirely). But, at its worst, our ecumenical drive leads to some denominational chest-beating that isn't really warranted; JDDJ being the prime example, IMO.