NEWS STORY: Catholics and Lutherans agree on key issue of salvation

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c. 1999 Religion News Service

UNDATED _ Lutheran and Roman Catholic officials said Thursday (June 10) they have come to full agreement on the doctrine that”grace alone”leads to salvation, thus resolving a dispute that was at the heart of the Protestant Reformation of four centuries ago.

The officials, speaking in Geneva, said the agreement also means the 16th century anathemas, or condemnations, the two churches leveled at one another _ sometimes with vitriolic rhetoric _ no longer apply; it is believed to be the first time the Roman Catholic Church has declared Catholic doctrinal condemnations no longer apply to a Protestant communion.”The understanding of the doctrine of justification set forth in this declaration shows that a consensus in basic truths of the doctrine of justification exists between Lutherans and Catholics,”the agreement says.

Cardinal Edward Cassidy, president of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, and the Rev. Ishmael Noko, general secretary of the Lutheran World Federation, said the joint declaration on justification is expected to be formally signed Oct. 31 _ celebrated as Reformation Day in Lutheran churches in honor of Martin Luther’s posting of his 95 theses on the church door at Wittenberg, Germany in 1517, sparking the debate that led to the Reformation division. The Lutheran World Federation includes 124 member churches in 69 countries, with some 57 million members. Its membership includes the largest body of Lutherans in the United States, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, with 5.2 million members.

The agreement involves three separate documents: an”official common statement,”the”Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification”and an annex to the joint declaration.

The doctrine of justification says people become”right with God”because Jesus won their salvation through his life, death and resurrection and means that salvation is a gift through faith and not because someone earns it.”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 do good works,”the joint declaration says.

Lutherans have held that justification is achieved by faith alone, while Catholics have historically believed good works contribute to growth in grace and that a reward in heaven is promised to these works.

Cassidy told a news conference the new statement”explains clearly and unequivocally just what the two partners understand by their action of signing the joint declaration.”It is intended to”affirm the consensus reached and overcome the doubts that had arisen,”he said.

The annex, he said,”takes up those questions that were causing some uncertainty on the part of one or other of the two partners and without altering the joint declaration, removes that uncertainty.””Justification takes place by grace alone,”the annex adds.”By faith alone, the person is justified apart from works.” The declaration said that the role of good works, or Christian living, remains an issue but is”not church dividing.” Together, the joint declaration and common statement also spell out the lifting of the anathamas.

It is”on the basis of this consensus”on justification that the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church declare:”The teaching of the Lutheran churches presented in this declaration does not fall under the condemnations from the Council of Trent. The condemnations in the Lutheran Confessions do not apply to the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church presented in this declaration.” But the new documents make clear the churches have not said the last word on justification and the two communions still have a long way to go before achieving unity.”We do not claim agreement on all issues related to the doctrine of justification,”Noko said.”Nevertheless, we have reached consensus on principal points of a doctrine which can itself rightly be called fundamental within the faith of the Christian church.” In the statement, the two churches said they are”committed to continued and deepened study of the biblical foundations of the doctrine of justification”and”will also seek further common understanding”of the doctrine.

The statement said that”based on the consensus reached, continued dialogue is required”to provide”further clarification in order to reach full church communion, a unity in diversity, in which remaining differences would be reconciled and no longer have a divisive force.””Lutherans and Catholics will continue their efforts ecumenically in their common witness to interpret the message of justification in language relevant for human beings today, and with reference both to individual and social concerns of our times,”the statement said.

Roman Catholics and Lutherans have been in theological dialogue for more than 25 years and the current document has been under discussion among Lutheran churches and at the Vatican for two years.

In the United States, the statement was hailed by the Rev. H. George Anderson, presiding bishop of the ELCA, who said the agreement”will have a positive effect on the mood of conversations between our two communions.” But the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, the second largest Lutheran body in the United States, with 2.6 million members, did not endorse the statement.


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