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Now no condemnation?

In light of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, WORLD asked the following four thoughtful Christians to respond to this question: "Does the Roman Catholic Church accept the doctrine of justification by faith alone as the Reformers understood it?" Here's what they said.

Issue: "On Earth Peace?," Dec. 25, 1999

J. Budziszewski
WORLD contributor and professor in the Departments of Government and Philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin
Christianity is a rescue religion. Deep down, underneath all his evasions and self-deceptions, every human being knows that something is desperately wrong with us, something that we can't fix. What we learn from Christianity is the Good News that the Bad News has a cure: On the cross, Christ bore the burden of both our guilt and our twistedness, so that we can be both forgiven and healed. There is one catch. In order to receive this priceless and wholly undeserved gift, we have to accept it; we have to trust Christ to do what He promises. This means putting ourselves in His hands, accepting Him as Rescuer and Boss. This isn't a philosophy, but surgery, and you have to have faith in the Surgeon. During the Reformation, Roman Catholics and Protestants split over the right way to describe how Christ rescues us. The disagreement was grave, because to be wrong about that is to be wrong about the gospel itself. The Reformers said that "justification" is by faith alone, Catholics said it is not by faith alone, and each side condemned the other. Did they understand each other? Probably not, because they didn't mean the same thing by "justification." Two things happen when a person comes to Christ. One is that God forgives him and declares him just; the other is that God begins transforming him and making him just. Protestants have traditionally used the word justification for the first of these two things, while Catholics have traditionally used it for both. It isn't crucial that Protestants and Catholics agree about the word justification, but that they agree about the biblical truth that the word is meant to express: 1) Protestants need assurance that Roman Catholics understand that there is nothing we can do to earn or deserve our forgiveness; that even though God does begin to make us righteous, that's not why he declares us righteous. It is a free gift, which He drops into the hands of faith. 2) Roman Catholics need assurance that Protestants understand that authentic faith is inevitably accompanied by a change in inner self and outer deeds; that even though we aren't declared righteous because God makes us righteous, He does begin to make us righteous. A faith that isn't followed by a change in life is a phony faith. I support the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification because it gives each side the assurance it needs about the other. The scandal of mutual condemnation can finally be put to rest. Let's take a look at some common criticisms.

  • "Although the Joint Declaration uses the language of being declared just, what it talks about is being made just." Actually it talks about both. But does it correctly state that God declares us just and begins to make us just, or does it erroneously state that God declares us just because He begins to make us just? It states the former.
  • "The Joint Declaration takes with one hand what it gives with the other." Each section includes a paragraph about major agreements, followed by two paragraphs about minor disagreements. At no point do the paragraphs about the minor disagreements take back the major agreements.
  • "You can't trust the World Lutheran Federation-it's too liberal." Nobody has been asked to join the World Lutheran Federation. What matters is not whether the Federation is liberal, but whether the Declaration expresses biblical truth.
  • "The World Lutheran Federation can't even speak for other Lutherans, much less other Protestants." True, but that's not a reason to reject the Joint Declaration; it's a reason to get other Protestants involved in the discussions.
  • "The average Catholic still thinks salvation is something we earn." Many Catholics do misunderstand Catholic teaching. Would anyone deny that many Protestants misunderstand Protestant teaching? Both sides must work harder to get the biblical truths they share down to the people in the pews.
  • "How can we accept the Joint Declaration when Protestants and Catholics continue to disagree about so many other things, like indulgences?" This is like saying, "I refuse to admit that you agree with me about anything unless you agree with me about everything." These other disagreements do not concern justification. Indulgences, for example, are not about the forgiveness of sins, but about the healing of the damage left over in the heart from already-forgiven sins. Jesus asked the Father to protect His followers "so that they may be one as we are one." It's time for us to make His prayer our own. Rev. Paul T. McCain
    Assistant to the president of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod
    The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification embraces the Roman Catholic Church's view of justification. It contradicts the doctrine of justification as held by the Reformers of the 16th century. Most importantly, it contradicts the Word of God. The declaration is ambiguous and equivocating. Therefore, it is fundamentally dishonest. It avoids precise definition of the important biblical terms: grace, faith, and justification. Postmodernism plagues modern Christendom with the view that doctrinal diversity can be reconciled without true doctrinal consensus. The Roman Catholic Church continues to affirm the heresies that were made official church dogma during the 16th-century Council of Trent. Here is one example: "If anyone says that justifying faith is nothing else than trust in divine mercy, which remits sins for Christ's sake, or that it is this trust alone by which we are justified, let him be anathema." The newest edition of the Roman Catholic Catechism states: "We can merit for ourselves and for others the graces needed to attain eternal life." According to Rome, grace is a spiritual power infused into man that makes it possible for him to do the good works that then merit forgiveness and eternal life. This view contradicts the biblical doctrine of justification: A sinner is saved by God's grace alone, for Christ's sake alone, through faith alone. Luther once said, "We can not pin our hope on anything that we are, think, say or do ... nor can our satisfaction be uncertain, for it consists not of the dubious sinful works which we do, but of the sufferings and blood of the innocent Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world." The Pope's recent announcement of a special Jubilee indulgence underscores the fact that Rome teaches a different gospel (Gal.1:6-9). Until the doctrine of Trent is renounced, the claim that Roman Catholicism has embraced the true gospel will continue to be untrue. It is a terrible tragedy that those who claim to be heirs of Luther have permitted this to happen. They have surrendered biblical truth and thus, genuine Lutheranism. The Book of Concord, the collected doctrinal statements of the Lutheran Church, asks this poignant and timeless question, "Who would not gladly die in the confession of the article that we receive the forgiveness of sins, freely given for Christ's sake, and that our works do not merit the forgiveness of sins?" Fr. Richard John Neuhaus
    Editor in chief of First Things
    If our concern were only for explicit biblical teaching, it would be worth noting that the only time the formula "faith alone" appears in the Bible it is rejected ("You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone," James 2:24). But through the tumultuous history of the church (tradition), the formula "faith alone" has become for many Christians an important defense of the teaching that salvation is entirely due to the grace of God in Jesus Christ. The statement of Evangelicals and Catholics Together, "The Gift of Salvation," puts it this way: "Faith is not merely intellectual assent but an act of the whole person, involving the mind, the will, and the affections, issuing in a changed life." If that is how we understand the faith in "faith alone," it is certainly true that the Catholic Church accepts the doctrine of justification by faith alone. The evangelical Protestant signers of "The Gift of Salvation" agreed that that is what "the Reformation traditions have meant by justification by faith alone." As for the recent Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification agreed to by Lutherans and Catholics, I believe it is correct in saying that, whatever differences remain in devotional or theological expression, they should not be viewed as church-dividing. One might say that there are two languages about justification in play; the one is dominantly theological and analytical, the other dominantly devotional and experiential. The Council of Trent, for instance, addresses the role of the intellect and the will in cooperating with God's grace. While not wanting to ignore the intellect and the will, many in the Reformation traditions believe that any reference to human cooperation threatens the sheer gratuity of the gift that is salvation. To which Catholics respond that our cooperation with grace is itself a gift of grace. This does not result in a conundrum, and certainly not in a contradiction. In my experience, evangelicals testifying to their new birth in Christ regularly and of necessity refer to their thoughts, emotions, and submission of will. This does not mean that they believe their salvation is partly God's grace and partly their own cooperation with grace. The formula "grace alone" and its corollary, "faith alone," are finally doxological, not analytical, affirmations. All Christians, whether Catholic or Protestant, must finally agree with what are reportedly the last words of Martin Luther. Before the judgment of God, he said, "We are all beggars. That is for sure." Soli Deo gloria-to God alone the glory. Michael S. Horton
    Associate professor of historical theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in California and editor in chief of Modern Reformation
    The way one often hears it expressed in evangelical circles, one might conclude that the actors in the 16th-century drama simply didn't have their facts straight. Both sides should have recognized that each party had an important part of the gospel and instead of tearing faith and works apart, they should have brought them together. In actual fact, this is a disservice to both sides. First, late medieval theologians, both Roman and Protestant, were far better educated in theological refinement than their modern successors. Second, Rome affirmed the necessity of grace and the Reformation affirmed the necessity of works in the Christian life. They understood precisely what the issues were, far better than their successors, who have not resolved anything but instead have concluded that whatever divided them then should no longer divide us now. And since Rome claims that its infallible dogmas are "irreformable," agreement could only mean that the Protestant partners no longer believe what their forebears believed-or at least do not believe that what their forebears insisted was necessary is necessary today. Rome has not changed an inch on the things that really matter. One thinks of indulgences, that practice of giving people time off in purgatory or outright liberating them from it, often for money. Recently, Pope John Paul II, hailed as one of the greatest Christian pastors of modern times by evangelicals like Billy Graham and Charles Colson, declared the millennial year a "Jubilee," complete with the issuing of indulgences. As its most recent Catholic Catechism illustrates, Rome still teaches that after believers die "they undergo purification" in purgatory, "so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven" (p. 268). "Moved by the Holy Spirit and by charity, we can then merit for ourselves and for others the graces needed for our sanctification, for the increase of grace and charity, and for the attainment of eternal life" (p. 487). And how about justification itself, the doctrine by which the church stands or falls? The Council of Trent declared, "If anyone says that the sinner is justified by faith alone ... let him be anathema.... If anyone says that the good works of the one justified are in such manner the gifts of God that they are not also the good merits of him justified ... let him be anathema." There have always been critics on both sides who have reacted more out of bigotry than a passion for the gospel. But this must not blind us to the realities of the current situation. According to contemporary Roman Catholic dogma, final acceptance before God is merited by us as we cooperate with grace. For those who know that their "righteousness is as filthy rags," this comes as the worst possible news. Calling bad news good news is destructive of every pastoral instinct and of the prospects for genuine long-term ecclesiastical reconciliation.

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