Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of September 20, 2004
God's grace - - the ticket to heaven
Catholic-Lutheran unity depends upon consensus on the basic truths of the doctrine of justification
A Shepherd Speaks
By BISHOP FRED HENRY
One of the central themes of the New Testament is the way to obtain salvation. To be on the right road is, in New Testament terminology, to be justified.
One of my favourite salvation stories is about a man who dies and goes to heaven. Of course, St. Peter meets him at the pearly gates. St. Peter says, "Here's how it works. You need 100 points to make it into heaven. You tell me all the good things you've done, and I give you a certain number of points for each item, depending on how good it was. When you reach 100 points, you get in."
"Okay," the man says, "I was married to the same woman for 50 years and never cheated on her, even in my heart." "That's wonderful," says St. Peter, "that's worth three points."
"Only three points?" he says. "Well, I attended church all my life and supported its ministry. I practised stewardship - sharing time, treasure and talent." "Terrific!" says St. Peter, "that's certainly worth a point."
"One point? Golly. How about this; I started a soup kitchen in my community and worked in a shelter for the homeless." "Fantastic, that's good for two more points," he says. "Two points!!" the man cries, "At this rate the only way I'll get into heaven is by the grace of God!"
"Now you've got it right, come on in!"
According to Christian faith, justification is a gift of God, who grants it through his Son and the Holy Spirit.
In the 16th century, Martin Luther affirmed that justification, as God's act, is independent of all human cooperation. Justification consists in the favour of God, who freely imputes to us the merits of Christ. It is not a matter of inner renewal.
Justification is received by faith alone, independently of any good works or obedience to God's law. Eternal life is a sheer gift; it is not merited by good behaviour.
At the Diet of Augsburg in 1530, the Emperor Charles V ordered the Lutheran party to explain its position. They did so in the Augsburg Confession, composed by Philip Melanchthon at the behest of Luther.
A group of theologians assembled by the Emperor studied that Confession and faulted it at several points, especially for its teaching on merit.
After several unsuccessful attempts to reconcile the Lutheran and the Catholic position, the Council of Trent in 1547 set forth the official Catholic doctrine. The council taught that although justification is an unmerited gift, it needs to be freely accepted, so that human cooperation is involved. It taught that justification is an inner renewal brought about by divine grace.
Justification does not take place by faith without hope, charity and good works; and finally, that the justified, by performing good works, merit the reward of eternal life.
For the next 400 years the two churches went their own separate ways. The divisions were hardened by polemical tracts. But in the recent ecumenical climate, both sides have striven to appreciate what is authentically Christian in the other's position and to achieve the greatest possible degree of consensus.
On Oct. 31, 1999: the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church signed the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification.
The heart of the declaration is the sentence: "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."
This consensus is in perfect accord with the Augsburg Confession and the Council of Trent and it dispels some false stereotypes inherited from the past. Lutherans have often accused Catholics of holding that justification is a human achievement rather than a divine gift received in faith, while Catholics have accused Lutherans of holding that justification by faith does not involve inner renewal or good works.
By mentioning both faith and works, both acceptance by God and the gift of the Holy Spirit, this sentence strikes an even-handed balance calculated to satisfy both sides.
The big question now is, "Where do we go from here?"
At the time of the signing, the general secretary of the World Council of Churches, Konrad Kaiser stated the declaration was "a decisive breakthrough. By closing this chapter of Church history, which has been occupied with the condemnations of the past, the Joint Declaration frees us to turn to the problem areas of a contemporary witness for the ecumenical movement. When we can express a consensus on the basic truths of the doctrine of justification, this hopefully will speed up the process in other areas."
The work for unity cannot ignore differences; rather it must be built on a solid foundation. This agreement will be a cornerstone.
"We are confident that our doctrinal formulations, currently expressed in different idioms, can in the end be reconciled."
- Cardinal Avery Dulles
Cardinal Avery Dulles maintains that the declaration "can be a powerful symbolic event. It says clearly to a world that hovers on the brink of unbelief that the two churches that split Western Christendom on the issue of justification nearly five centuries ago are still united on truths of the highest import. . . . We are confident that our doctrinal formulations, currently expressed in different idioms, can in the end be reconciled.
"Our readiness to declare the non-applicability of the 16th-century condemnations on justification is based on this conviction."
Meanwhile, we are able to work together and celebrate our common heritage through common prayer and Scripture study programs. One such program is the Study Guide on the Joint Declaration in which Lutherans and Catholics explore their understanding of particular Scripture passages.
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