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The Lutheran Identity Crisis:
With Emphasis on the Doctrine of Justification

by Rev. Daniel Preus

What does it mean to be a Lutheran? In 1522 Martin Luther wrote, "True, by any consideration of body or soul you should never say: I am Lutheran, or Papist. For neither of them died for you, or is your master…. But if you are convinced that Luther’s teaching is in accord with the Gospel and that the pope’s is not, then you should not discard Luther so completely…. It is on account of the teaching that they attack you and ask you whether you are Lutheran." It is clear that Luther himself did not wish to see his followers use the name Lutheran, but already in 1522 even he recognized that at times it might be necessary. Nine years later when Melanchthon wrote the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, the term was frequently used as a derogatory term by the papists. Referring to the preaching habits of the Roman Catholic priests, he writes, "A few better ones begin now to speak of good works; but of the righteousness of faith, of faith in Christ, of the consolation of consciences, they say nothing; yea, this most wholesome part of the Gospel they rail at with their reproaches. [This blessed doctrine, the precious holy Gospel, they call Lutheran.]" Historically, we believe, to bear the name ‘Lutheran’ means to embrace and believe the pure Gospel. It is, therefore, a truly honorable task to do everything we can to retain our Lutheran identity. Today this is not easy.

In 1988 the Lutheran Church in America, the American Lutheran Church and the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches merged into one Lutheran Church called the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Presumably, they held common views on what it means to be Lutheran. The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod did not share their views on what it means to be Lutheran and therefore did not join in the merger of 1988. We recognized that we were not in doctrinal agreement with each other and that the differences between us were church-dividing issues. In fact, so serious were these issues that we could not even be in pulpit and altar fellowship with each other.

Today the Missouri Synod and the ELCA are drifting even further apart. In the summer of 1997 the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America made two extremely significant decisions. They were decisions, which, in my view not only represented a departure from historic Lutheran teaching, but were also an attack specifically against the article of justification, and therefore an assault on our historic understanding of Lutheran identity.

First the ELCA assembly passed a resolution amounting to the establishment of pulpit and altar fellowship with three Reformed bodies, the Presbyterian Church USA, the Reformed Church in America and the United Church of Christ. The momentous fellowship decisions of the ELCA are shocking. They are not only a testimony to the tragic success in America of the Prussian Union; in my humble opinion they also represent a clear assault on the doctrine of justification. For there is no clearer nor more beautiful declaration of pure Gospel than that which is made every time the Lord’s Supper is celebrated. This sacrament brings us nothing but grace. Fed with the body and blood of Jesus, we receive that which his body and blood were offered to bring us - the forgiveness of our sins and "where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation."

The Reformed churches, of course, have gutted this sacrament of all grace and replaced it with a pious human work, which has no value in the arena of justification. On the one hand grace; on the other hand a work. This is a basic difference. It is simply mind-boggling for a Lutheran to hear that at the same altar will appear those who believe that the Lord’s Supper consists primarily in a human act of piety in response and obedience to a divine command and those who believe that it is a sacrament of grace in which God the Son with His body and blood gives the gifts of salvation. If this fellowship between people who, on the one side, see the Sacrament as law, and on the other side, as Gospel does not have implications for our understanding of the article of justification, then I do not know what does.

The second decision by the ELCA was, if anything, more astonishing than the first. Permit me to read to you the description of this event provided by The Lutheran, the official church magazine of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. I quote:

With breathtaking speed - and with no debate - the assembly adopted a historic declaration stating that "a consensus in the basic truths of the doctrine of justification exists between Lutherans and [Roman] Catholics." The vote, 958-25, affirmed the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification which states that the condemnations the two churches hurled at each other over this central Christian doctrine during the 16th century no longer apply to the way the churches understand it today.

Many of us were stunned by this far-reaching and historic decision and by the overwhelming support for it on the part of those who are members of a church body which calls itself Lutheran. There were voices raised in alarm before this event took place, one of them that of Dr. Oliver Olson, an ELCA scholar, who through his translation of an excellent work entitled Outmoded Condemnations?, attempted to warn the world of Lutheranism concerning the nature of the process which was leading toward a supposed consensus on the article of justification. These voices were either not heard or not heeded.

The Missouri Synod has passed its share of bad resolutions over the years. But these were not just bad resolutions. These resolutions will radically affect the future of American Lutheranism, and they impinge so directly on the heart of the Gospel that they simply must draw our attention and hold it for quite some time, especially if we wish to continue to be Lutherans who take our Lutheran Confessions seriously. It is important for us to remember that the article of justification is always the focus of Satan’s attacks, that every attack against the Word of God is an attack on justification.

We cannot forget this truth because, according to Martin Luther, the doctrine of justification,

…is the head and the cornerstone. It alone begets, nourishes, builds, preserves, and defends the church of God; and without it the church of God cannot exist for one hour. For no one who does not hold this article – or to use Paul’s expression, this "sound doctrine" (Titus 2:1) – is able to teach aright in the church or successfully to resist any adversary…. This [justification] is the heel of the Seed that opposes the old serpent and crushes its head. That is why Satan, in turn, cannot but persecute it.

Again Luther says,

"In short, if this article concerning Christ – the doctrine that we are justified and saved through Him alone and consider all apart from Him damned – is not professed, all resistance and restraint are at an end. Then there is, in fact, neither measure not limit to any heresy and error."

Make no mistake! Our identity as Lutherans is at stake whenever and wherever the article of justification is at stake. In fact, if we are to believe Luther, it is not only our identity as Lutherans that is at stake here. It is also our identity as Christians. We simply do not dare to be complacent about the doctrine of justification. We must be prepared to rejoice when agreement has been reached on this doctrine and we must take seriously attacks against it – and we must be able to tell the difference between the two. The significance, therefore, of the recent decision of the ELCA to adopt the Joint Declaration can hardly be over-emphasized.

I think every true Lutheran believes that just as Christ is at the center of the doctrine of justification, so justification is at the center of all Christian doctrine. Most of us are familiar with Luther’s repetitive but effective refrain used in the Smalcald Articles. It is in reference to justification that Luther says about the Roman Catholic Mass that it is in "direct and violent conflict with the fundamental article," and about purgatory that it "is contrary to the fundamental article…" and about the invocation of the saints that, "It is in conflict with the first, chief article…" and about chapters and monasteries that they are "in conflict with the first, fundamental article…" and finally about the papacy that it has been devised, "for the destruction of the first and chief article…." Melanchthon had employed the same kind of terminology years before in the Apology, where toward the very beginning of Article IV on Justification he says, "In this controversy the main doctrine of Christianity is involved…." In his Loci Communes Melanchthon begins the section on Grace and Justification by confessing, "This locus contains the sum and substance of the Gospel."

But today it is clear that the Lutheran World Federation and most of its member churches are losing sight of our confessional commitment to the first and chief article –they have adopted the Joint Declaration. And it has been done without any indication that the Roman Catholic Church has officially changed any of its doctrine. Of course, this all becomes very embarrassing when Rome states in her response to the Joint Declaration that,

"although the official Vatican response to the Joint Declaration speaks of a ‘consensus in basic truths of the doctrine of justification’, it also outlines a whole series of ‘divergences’ between the doctrine of the Catholic Church and that of the Lutheran World Federation."

The embarrassment grows when one hears the Roman Catholic statement reaffirm their teaching that

"eternal life is, at one and the same time, grace and the reward given by God for good works and merit."

The embarrassment becomes acute when one reads,

"that the Roman Catholic condemnations, made at the time of the Reformation, might still apply to points of Lutheran doctrine as outlined in the joint declaration."

It is no wonder that shortly after this statement had been issued by Rome, the Lutheran World Federation stated it was

"…seeking urgent clarifications from the Vatican about the official Catholic response to a Joint Declaration intended to end a doctrinal dispute between Lutherans and Catholics dating from the time of the Reformation."

What is surprising, however, is that so many of the Lutherans either don’t understand or don’t wish to understand what is happening. Asked by Ecumenical News International whether he was disappointed with the response of the Roman Catholic Church, Dr. Ishmael Noko, the LWF’s General Secretary stated that he was surprised that in their Response, "they did not give the same clarity we have done." I would hold, to the contrary, that the Vatican gave a far clearer response than the LWF was anticipating – or hoping for. Perhaps Dr. Noko’s comments would have been more candid had he said, "We expected from them about the same level of compromise as we provided."

Is it possible that Rome still is not committed to the sola and to the gratis of Melanchthon’s Apology, article IV? And is it possible that the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (and many other Lutheran churches as well) has swallowed a giant hook and either doesn’t know it or doesn’t know how to get loose. I think this is precisely what has happened and it spells a dark day for American Lutheranism. For it is quite clear to those who know Roman Catholic doctrine well and who are still committed to their Lutheran theology that indeed no consensus has been reached between these two churches on the article of justification. As the Forum Letter, published by the American Lutheran Publicity Bureau commented in late summer, 1998, "In the wake of the Vatican Response, LWF officials are trying to figure out exactly what they will be signing later this year and if there will be anything at all to celebrate once it is signed."

A few years ago I enjoyed the privilege of editing a book that had first been presented by my father, Robert Preus, as a lecture in Finland back in the late summer of 1995. It was the last major lecture he delivered and was entitled Justification and Rome. In light of the issue over justification raised by the Joint Declaration, it may be the most timely work he ever produced. In the Introduction he states, "The debate and contention through the centuries over the doctrine of justification has not been confined to differences in the exegesis of a few Bible passages pertaining to the doctrine or to formulations of the doctrine, but to a fundamentally different understanding and conviction concerning the nature of the Gospel and the mission of the church."

Throughout the book, Robert Preus demonstrates that neither the Roman Catholic nor the Lutheran understanding and conviction concerning the nature of the Gospel have changed. But the way in which churches deal with disagreement has changed and both parties have engaged in a process, which involved a mutual commitment to massive equivocation with no intention of resolving differences in understanding. This they have done in order to achieve a so-called consensus. According to Robert Preus, "To arrive at doctrinal consensus and a common confession of faith, words and terms and theological concepts must be used by both parties in the same sense and defined unequivocally." Has this been the case in those dialogues which led to the formulation of the Joint Declaration? Sadly, no. Rather both parties have operated with different understandings and definitions of terms common to both with no attempt to eliminate the obvious ambiguity (one might even say duplicity) which such a procedure will inevitably produce. The result is that consensus has indeed been declared, but has certainly not been achieved.

The same basic point concerning the method of arriving at consensus is made by the Department of Systematic Theology of Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, IN. In response to the Joint Declaration, it quotes from the Evangelical-Roman Catholic Gift of Salvation paper, another document produced through the dialogue process which,

…spells out "diverse understandings of merit, reward, purgatory, and indulgences, Marian devotion and the assistance of the saints in the life of salvation, and the possibility of salvation for those who have not been evangelized."

For Lutherans it is nonsense to speak of consensus on justification if these issues remain unsettled. Differences in practice point to fundamental doctrinal discrepancies.

It is interesting to note that in 1995 Robert Preus predicted how most Lutheran Churches would respond to the Joint Declaration when asked to adopt it. He says,

At this point there is an impasse. For the Lutheran churches to accept Joint Declaration as a consensus on the doctrine of justification will not only compromise their witness to the evangelical Lutheran doctrine on justification, but will compromise the confessional principle itself. Most of the Lutheran churches which will be asked to accept Joint Declaration will probably ignore or reject this assessment. They will argue—if they are sufficiently interested in doing so—that the confessional principle here enunciated may well be that of the Lutheran Confessions themselves but is, like the condemnations of the sixteenth century, no longer applicable for one reason or another today.

His prediction, of course, has come true. And now, it seems to me that the LWF and those Lutheran bodies, which, in October 1999 signed and adopted the Joint Declaration have two choices. The first is to retreat and to acknowledge that the consensus which had been declared was premature, to say the least. The second is to attempt to save face and to continue with the process adopted, basically ignoring any obstacles standing in the way so that the predetermined objectives can be reached. Which course will most choose? It is clear that the ELCA has opted for the latter choice. In the August, 1998 issue of The Lutheran, an official magazine of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, an article appeared entitled Justification: Lutherans, Catholics Agree. In large letters, before the main body of the article, it states, "Joint Declaration virtually ends Reformation argument." This bold statement is made over a month after the Vatican response declaring that, "eternal life is, at one and the same time, grace and the reward given by God for good works and merits." The article in The Lutheran gives very scant attention to the Vatican response to the Joint Declaration and goes on to report the reaction of LWF General Secretary Noko. "In his initial reaction, Noko acknowledged some ‘unclarity’ about the response. He praised the ‘high degree of agreement’ that had been reached and said the LWF ‘remains committed to the resolution it adopted.’" ELCA Presiding Bishop H. George Anderson is quoted as having said simply, "We have an agreement." Even before the final signing of the Declaration, there seemed to be little question, in his mind at least, as to which course the ELCA would pursue.

We see today not only a demonstration of the vulnerability of world Lutheranism, but also a clear and widening gulf between the two major Lutheran church bodies in the United States. The Missouri Synod reacted quite differently than the ELCA to the Joint Declaration. President A. L. Barry has declared Missouri’s agreement with a sister church body in Germany, die Selbständige Evangelische Lutherische Kirche, which has stated,

The weaknesses of JD [the Joint Declaration] only allow one conclusion; the ‘consensus in basic truths of the doctrine of justification’ claimed… does not exist. Rather, the condemnations of the Lutheran Reformation are still valid for at least some of the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church as mentioned. But precisely the catholicity of the Lutheran confession demands the rejection of positions that cannot be reconciled with the Holy Scripture…. We cannot acknowledge that JD has found a truly convincing solution for the fundamental differences of the 16th century.

At the July, 1998 Synodical Convention the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, in addition to calling for an evaluation of the Joint Declaration, in a resolution overwhelmingly adopted by the delegates present,

"Resolved, that in faithfulness to God’s Word and the Lutheran Confessions, and motivated by our love and concern for the people and pastors of the ELCA, we express our deep regret and profound disagreement with these actions taken by the ELCA."

The phrase "these actions", I should point out, refers not only to the ELCA adoption of the Joint Declaration, but also to her establishment of full communion with three Reformed church bodies.

The resolution adopted by Missouri at the 1998 convention was a good one, yet there is a question, which begs to be asked among us: Will the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod remain a haven for confessional Lutherans in America? Will we retain our identity as Lutherans? I think that still remains to be seen. We are members of the church militant and the Missouri Synod faces a number of significant issues. Although she won her battle over the Bible and the doctrine of inerrancy back in the early 70’s, it is probably safe to say that many who were sympathetic to a more liberal position on Scripture never left our church body and although they did not publicly state their disagreement with Missouri over Scripture, their positions probably have not changed. The Missouri Synod was never able to deal in a truly satisfactory way with the problems at the St. Louis seminary. Those responsible for the false teaching at the seminary simply left and formed another seminary, Seminex, and ultimately joined another church body and the problems seemed to go away. But they were not completely solved. Many who had been strongly influenced by the Seminex theology remained within our church body and the theology, which was rejected by Missouri back in the 1970’s has continued to have an effect on our congregations and people. And while it is true that recently our seminaries have been graduating men who, for the most part, are orthodox, new issues have arisen which represent a very great challenge to those of us who wish to preserve Missouri as a confessional and truly Lutheran church body. Surely, one of the most serious of these is the Joint Declaration. And we better come clean on this one or we will surely lose our Lutheran identity, as Luther himself insists.

I believe that the adoption of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification is the strongest eschatological sign I have ever seen. All my life I have viewed the Reformation as one of the defining moments in world history. At the center of the entire Reformation was, of course, the article of justification. The Joint Declaration now informs us that the Lutherans and Rome have reached consensus on the doctrine of justification. What are we to make of this declaration? According to the Roman Catholic Church, "eternal life is, at one and the same time, grace and the reward given by God for good works and merit." And the Lutheran World Federation signs a document with Rome stating that consensus on the doctrine of justification has been achieved. The largest Lutheran church body in America passes a resolution by a near unanimous vote affirming that this is so. What are we in the Missouri Synod to think of all this? Have the goals of the Reformation been achieved and the Roman church reformed? Has the major issue dividing western Christianity for the last 500 years been resolved? If we are to believe reports coming out of the ELCA, we could only conclude that it has. A press release from the ELCA news service dated October 6, 1999 bears this title: Lutherans, Roman Catholics Prepare to Sign Historic Agreement. Rev. George H. Anderson, the president of the ELCA, states in this article that the Joint Declaration is

"a significant milestone in the reconciliation of our two church traditions. By acknowledging that there is agreement on this crucial article of the Christian faith, our two churches have bridged a theological divide that has separated us for nearly 500 years."

The secular press is certainly under the impression that our differences over justification have been resolved. A June 3, 1999 article in the St. Louis Post Dispatch stated,

"The Vatican and Lutheran World Federation crafted compromise language on one of the key unresolved points regarding what theologians call ‘justification,’ or how humankind achieves salvation… With the declaration, Catholics and Lutherans have agreed that divine forgiveness and salvation come ‘solely by God’s grace’ and that good works follow from that."

In the same newspaper in an editorial later that week, the same conviction was expressed. In reference to the Joint Declaration, the editorial says,

"That statement ends a dispute that has divided Catholics and Lutherans since Martin Luther tacked his 95 critical theses to a church door of Wittenberg in 1517. It opens a new chapter in the worldwide ecumenical movement and certifies the healing power of dialogue… Over the past three decades, scholars from both sides have been pursuing the salvation question together. In the end, it seems, they found they had the same answer."

In an Associated Press news release of March 9, 2000, we read the following:

"Last October, international leaders of the Catholic and Lutheran churches put aside five centuries of differences in theology. They issued a declaration ending a dispute over salvation, which sparked the Reformation and led to the Thirty Years War."

Is it so? Are we in Missouri the last ones to see the dawning of a new and authentic ecumenism bringing with it agreement on the very heart of the Gospel? No! We have not reached agreement. The entire dialogue process has been conducted disingenuously and, in my opinion, represents deliberate fraud. As I noted earlier, the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod at its 1998 convention passed a resolution stating profound disagreement with the statement that consensus has been reached. The wisdom of the delegates in passing this resolution should be noted. It was apparent to our delegates already in 1998 that the Lutheran World Federation and the ELCA would continue in their present course and would adopt the Joint Declaration. The delegates wanted to make sure that when the Declaration was adopted, our church body would already be on record with an approved statement of profound disagreement. Why? For the sake of the Gospel. For the sake of souls and their eternal salvation. A huge hoax has been perpetrated here and this hoax has as its objective a distortion of that truth which is the center of the Christian faith. We have not reached consensus with Rome; we have not reached agreement with Rome on the article of justification. I believe that I have demonstrated this truth sufficiently above but this issue is so important that it bears further attention. In addition, recent events within our own church body make it incumbent upon us to study this whole matter more closely.

In December 1999 Missouri Synod President Al Barry placed a statement in many newspapers around the country entitled, "Toward True Reconciliation." The statement appeared in the St. Louis Post Dispatch on December 9. Barry’s statement was an attempt to set the record straight regarding the Joint Declaration. Barry says,

We could not support the declaration because it does not actually reconcile the difference between us concerning the most important truth of Christianity. What is that truth? God loved the world so much that He sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to live a perfect life in our place and to die for our sins. God declares us to be totally righteous and completely forgiven because of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. God gives us eternal life as a free gift through trust in Christ alone. The Roman Catholic Church teaches that something more that trust in Christ is necessary for us to be saved. It teaches that we are able to merit, through our works, eternal life for ourselves and others. We believe this teaching obscures the work of Jesus Christ and clouds the central message of the Bible.

A few days after President Barry’s remarks appeared, a letter to the editor appeared in the St. Louis Post Dispatch written by Dr. Ralph Bohlmann, former president of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. Bohlmann’s letter criticizes Al Barry’s statement on a number of counts. He says that Barry’s statement represents his own personal opinion and not that of the Missouri Synod at large. He says it contains misleading statements about the Joint Declaration and inaccurate statements about Roman Catholic doctrine. He contends that newspapers are not the proper forum for addressing doctrinal differences between church bodies, and finally he apologizes to anyone who may have been offended by President Barry’s statement. Later, statements criticizing Bohlmann and supporting him were printed in the Lutheran Witness. Most recently Bohlmann had a letter in the Reporter defending his earlier action and continuing in his criticism of what Al Barry did. We don’t have time today to deal with all of the material that has appeared in print subsequent to the publication of President Barry’s statement to the newspapers. What has been made clear, however, is that within our own church body we are not completely agreed concerning the Joint Declaration and its significance, helpfulness, accuracy and so on.

This disagreement is serious. In order to address it I would like to spend some time with you this evening looking at official Roman Catholic teaching on the subject of justification. To begin with, permit me to quote from the Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent. These decrees represent official Roman Catholic teaching. However, before I quote them, a few preliminary remarks are in order. The Joint Declaration claims to have reached a consensus on the article of justification. In view of this position, one astonishing and glaring omission needs to be emphasized. Nowhere in the document is the word ‘grace’ defined. Both parties claim to agree that we are saved by grace but nowhere is the word grace defined. There is a reason for this omission. The difference between the two parties in the definition of this word is so substantive, the view of the two parties on the meaning of this word are so far apart, that to begin a discussion of its meaning would be to open such a large can of worms that it would become apparent immediately that consensus is a long way off. The Roman Catholic understanding of grace is far too complex to define briefly due to its intricate connection with the entire Roman Catholic penitential system. But I will try to be fair in defining their view of grace in as few words as possible.

The classical Roman Catholic view of grace is as follows:

Through His suffering, death and resurrection Jesus Christ, merited grace for mankind. Grace is a power or virtue or quality, which is infused by God, or poured by God, into the human being. This grace which is a quality or power from God and is a pouring into the human heart of faith, hope and charity, gives humans the ability to please God with their good works and thus merit His favor. Thus, justification takes place within the human being.

The classical Lutheran definition of grace is this:

Grace is the free and undeserved favor of God, whereby without any merit or worthiness on our part, He declares sinners righteous and just in his sight for the sake of the all-sufficient life, suffering, death and resurrection of His Son Jesus Christ. Justification is therefore forensic and takes place outside of us.

Roman Catholics would thus hold that the work of Christ made possible man’s justification. Lutherans hold that Christ’s work is man’s justification. For Roman Catholics good works clearly play a part in the sinner’s justification. For Lutherans they do not. Thus, according to their own definition of grace, Rome can accept the sola gratia, as they claim to do in the Joint Declaration. After all, grace, in their view, is what makes it possible for men to do those works which merit God’s favor and aid in attaining justification, and this grace comes from God. But Rome cannot accept the sola fide because it excludes works, which do merit God’s favor - in their view. For Lutherans faith justifies because faith grasps Christ who alone by his atoning work can justify, and has justified, the sinner.

With this brief introduction, then, let’s look at a few of the canons of the Council of Trent. Most instructive for our purposes are those contained in the sixth session.

Canon 9 If anyone says that the sinner is justified by faith alone, meaning that nothing else is required to cooperate in order to obtain the grace of justification, and that it is not in any way necessary that he be prepared and disposed by the action of his own will, let him be anathema (cursed).

Canon 11 If anyone says that men are justified either by the sole imputation of the justice (righteousness) of Christ or by the sole remission of sins, to the exclusion of the grace and the charity which is poured forth in their hearts by the Holy Ghost, and remains in them, or also that the grace by which we are justified is only the good will of God, let him be anathema.

Canon 12 If anyone says that justifying faith is nothing else than confidence in divine mercy, which remits sins for Christ’s sake, or that it is this confidence alone that justifies us, let him be anathema.

Canon 14 If anyone says that a man is absolved from his sins and justified because he firmly believes that he is absolved and justified, or that no one is truly justified except him who believes himself justified and that by this faith alone absolution and justification are effected, let him be anathema.

Canon 18 If anyone says that the commandments of God are, even for the one that is justified and constituted in grace, impossible to observe, let him be anathema.

Canon 24 If anyone says that the justice (righteousness) received is not preserved and also not increased before God through good works, but that those works are merely the fruits and signs of justification obtained, but not the cause of its increase, let him be anathema.

Canon 32 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; or that the one justified by the good works that he performs by the grace of God and the merit of Jesus Christ, whose living member he is, does not truly merit an increase of grace, eternal life, and in case he dies in grace, the attainment of eternal life itself and also an increase of glory, let him be anathema.

The above statements have never been retracted and are still today the official doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church. They condemn the Lutheran faith; they condemn the Christian faith; they condemn your faith. St. Paul says, "I know that in me, that is in my flesh there dwelleth no good thing. For to will is present with me, but how to perform that which is good I find not. For the good that I would I do not; but the evil which I would not, that I do." Romans 7:18-19 The Roman view of grace does not agree with these words of St. Paul. St. Paul says, "To him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness." Romans 4:5 The Roman view of grace does not agree with these words of St. Paul. St. Paul says, "Therefore by the deeds of the law, there shall no flesh be justified in His sight." Romans 3:20 The Roman view of grace does not agree with these words of St. Paul. St. Paul says, "For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus; Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness, for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; To declare I say, at this time his righteousness; that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus. Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? Of works? Nay: but by the law of faith. Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law." Romans 3:23-28 The Roman view of grace does not agree with these words of St. Paul.

As I stated above, Lutherans believe that justification takes place outside of us, not inside of us. Lutherans believe that God counts us righteous or just for Jesus’ sake and that the righteousness by which we are justified is that of Christ Himself which is imputed to us by faith. Roman Catholics believe that justification is a process, which takes place within us. Lutherans place the doctrine of justification in the second article of the creed, which deals with the person and work of Jesus Christ. Rome places justification in the third article, specifically as it pertains to sanctification. It is clear which position most glorifies Christ. It is the Lutheran view, which is also the Christian view, which alone gives all glory to Christ for our justification and in all matters of salvation. Some years ago I became quite fond of a hymn in The Lutheran Hymnal. It is not included in Lutheran Worship and, as far as I am able to tell, has never achieved great usage in our church. I’m not sure why. I became fond of it because of its persistent insistence that in matters of salvation only Christ is to be glorified. The first verse reads,

Thy works, not mine, O Christ, speak gladness to this heart;
They tell me all is done, They bid my fear depart.
To whom save Thee, who canst alone for sin atone, Lord, shall I flee?

The next verses begin with the phrases, "Thy wounds, not mine, O Christ," "Thy cross, not mine, O Christ," "Thy death, not mine, O Christ" and each verse ends with that same beautiful rhetorical question, "To whom save Thee who canst alone for sin atone, Lord, shall I flee?" And then finally the hymn concludes with the confession,

Thy righteousness, O Christ, Alone can cover me;
No righteousness avails save that which is of Thee.
To whom save Thee who cast alone from sin atone, Lord, shall I flee?

As a sinful, human being, please do not send me to my own works for any comfort whatsoever. Please do not ask me to look for God’s favor somewhere in me. "For in me, that is in my flesh, dwelleth no good thing." Let me go for comfort and assurance and hope to him who alone atones for sin, to Him whose righteousness alone has merit before God. Let me go to Jesus who alone redeems and saves and justifies. This, of course , is the import of that most beautiful section of our Lutheran confessions, Article IV of the Apology of the Augsburg Confession. Over and over again Melanchthon makes the same point. I would like to quote him at some length on this matter.

If the forgiveness of sins depended upon our merits and if reconciliation were by the law, it would be useless, for since we do not keep the law, it would follow that we would never obtain the promise of reconciliation. So Paul reasons in Rom. 4:14, "If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void." For if the promise were conditional upon our merits and the law, which we never keep, it would follow that the promise is useless.

Since we obtain justification through a free promise, however, it follows that we cannot justify ourselves. Otherwise, why would a promise be necessary? The Gospel is, strictly speaking, the promise of forgiveness of sins and justification because of Christ. Since we can accept this promise only by faith, the Gospel proclaims the righteousness of faith in Christ, which the law does not teach. And this is not the righteousness of the law. For the law requires our own works and our own perfection. But to us, oppressed by sin and death, the promise freely offers reconciliation for Christ’s sake, which we do not accept by works but by faith alone. This faith brings to God a trust not in our own merits, but only in the promise of mercy in Christ. Therefore, when a man believes that his sins are forgiven because of Christ and that God is reconciled and favorably disposed to him because of Christ, this personal faith obtains the forgiveness of sins and justifies us… By freely accepting the forgiveness of sins, faith sets against God’s wrath not our merits of love, but Christ the mediator and propitiator. This faith is the true knowledge of Christ, it uses his blessings, it regenerates our hearts, it precedes our keeping of the law. About this faith there is not a syllable in the teaching of our opponents. Therefore we condemn our opponents for teaching the righteousness of the law instead of the righteousness of the Gospel, which proclaims the righteousness of Christ.

But surely by today, almost 500 years later, we have made some progress and are closer to agreement on this article of justification. Are Lutherans exactly where they were in 1531 when the Apology of the Augsburg Confession was drafted? Is Rome exactly where it was when the Council of Trent concluded in 1563? Well, that’s precisely the question, isn’t it? The Missouri Synod certainly professes to be doctrinally where the reformers were in 1531. We maintain a quia subscription to the Lutheran Confessions. Does Rome stand where it stood at the time of the Council of Trent? Let’s let Rome speak for herself. I quote from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, (1994) which is described by Pope John Paul II as a catechism, which shows, "carefully the content and wondrous harmony of the catholic faith."

"We can therefore hope in the glory of heaven promised by God to those who love him and do his will. In every circumstance, each one of us should hope, with the grace of God, to persevere ‘to the end’ and to obtain the joy of heaven, as God’s eternal reward for the good works accomplished with the grace of Christ."

"By hope we desire, and with steadfast trust await from God, eternal life and the graces to merit it."

"With justification, faith, hope and charity are poured into our hearts, and obedience to the divine will granted us."

"Justification is conferred in Baptism, the sacrament of faith. It conforms us to the righteousness of God, who makes us inwardly just by the power of his mercy."

"No one can merit the initial grace which is at the origin of conversion. Moved by the Holy Spirit, we can merit for ourselves and for others all the graces needed to attain eternal life, as well as necessary temporal goods."

"The Council of Trent teaches that the Ten Commandments are obligatory for Christians and that the justified man is still bound to keep them; the Second Vatican Council confirms: ‘The Bishops, successors of the apostles, receive from the Lord… the mission of teaching all peoples, and of preaching the Gospel to every creature, so that all men may attain salvation through faith, Baptism and the observance of the Commandments.’"

"Merit is to be ascribed in the first place to the grace of God, and secondly to man’s collaboration."

Many more examples could be provided to demonstrate the point. Rome still attributes merit in the matter of salvation to human works. There is no question about this. Lutherans still see justification as taking place outside us, in Christ. The righteousness whereby we stand before God just and pure in His eyes is a righteousness alien to us. It is Jesus’ righteousness. Rome still sees justification as taking place within us. The grace of which Rome speaks is not God’s undeserved disposition of favor toward us for Christ’s sake, whereby he forgives us of all sin, gives us the gift of eternal life, all "without any merit or worthiness in me." It is rather a power or virtue which God pours into the sinner enabling him by God’s grace to merit God’s favor through his works.

I cannot see that anything has changed in the doctrinal positions of our two church bodies. We do not have consensus. It is clear, however, that many Lutherans and Rome are collaborating together in a redefinition of what consensus means. In a press release of October 20, 1999 from Lutheran World Information the two dialogue partners reveal that their common goal is "to reach full church communion, a unity in diversity, in which remaining differences would be ‘reconciled’ and no longer have a divisive force." It becomes apparent that consensus is no longer based on agreement in doctrine but on a common desire for the expression of visible unity where differences - substantive, foundational differences - remain but no longer divide. In an ELCA press release Bishop Walter Kasper, Secretary of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity is quoted in a conference, which took place at Yale University regarding the significance of the adoption of the Joint Declaration. I find his observations truly frightening.

"We held our hands together as churches, and we wish to let go never again," Kasper said of the Joint Declaration in his keynote address. "Our unity in reconciled diversity is an image of the triune God," he said.

Kasper charted three frontiers for ecumenism: the interpretation of Scripture, ecclesiology (theological doctrine relating to the church) and ministry, and the need for a new common language in which to express the core of the gospel. He noted that the language of the 16th-century debates on justification is no longer relevant to most Christians.

Will confessional Lutheranism survive in the aftermath of the treason apparent in the adoption of the Joint Declaration and the almost frantic rush toward ecumenical relationships evident among so many Lutheran bodies today? Hopefully we in Missouri will not be blind to the eschatological implications of what is happening around us and they are coming very close to home. As I stated earlier, the extensive support given to the Joint Declaration is the most powerful eschatological sign I have ever witnessed. It is not always as evident as it is today that the forces of evil are intent upon the total destruction of the chief article of the Christian faith and are focusing their attention specifically on this article. As a Lutheran who subscribes the Smalcald Articles, I am astonished at the ease with which many Lutheran church bodies have adopted this statement and am frightened at the same time concerning what this portends for the cause of true Lutheranism. I am saddened by what I see happening among American Lutherans as we see grave departures from our historic Lutheran practice and doctrine and I am saddened by the attempts I see within our own church on the part of those who know better to compromise our position on the article by which the church stands and falls.

The Rev. Dan Preus is Director of the Concordia Historical Institute located on the campus of Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, Mo.

Bible Reference

Titus 2: 1
You must teach what is in accord with sound doctrine.

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