On Failed Consensus and Justification

I had intended to keep up my comments on the Joint Declaration on Justification (JDDJ) that I began this summer, but time got away from me.

The JDDJ sets out to demonstrate that there is a common consensus between the Lutheran and Catholic signatories on the fundamental aspects of the doctrine of justification. The JDDJ is a reminder that Protestants need to engage with Roman Catholics as they actually are, not with caricatures of them. This is especially true after Vatican II . For instance, the Catholic position in the declaration on assurance reflects 400 years of developed theology since the Council of Trent,

Catholics can share the concern of the Reformers to ground faith in the objective reality of Christ’s promise, to look away from one’s own experience, and to trust in Christ’s forgiving word alone (cf. Mt 16:19; 18:18). With the Second Vatican Council, Catholics state: to have faith is to entrust oneself totally to God, who liberates us from the darkness of sin and death and awakens us to eternal life. In this sense, one cannot believe in God and at the same time consider the divine promise untrustworthy. No one may doubt God’s mercy and Christ’s merit. Every person, however, may be concerned about his salvation when he looks upon his own weaknesses and shortcomings. Recognizing his own failures, however, the believer may yet be certain that God intends his salvation (JDDJ 4.6, §36).

There is much to commend with the report, as I previously mentioned. However, the JDDJ falls short of addressing the primary concerns that confessional Protestants and Trentine Catholics had with the doctrine of justification. The goal and alleged conclusion of the report to reach a basic consensus on the fundamental aspects of justification, while not fully addressing every minor difference, is incorrect at best. The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod (LCMS) produced two reports on the JDDJ that reflect most of my concerns with the overall document, and so are not worth repeating. There are a few areas worth expanding upon though.

Justification and Sanctification

The Reformed position from scripture is that justification is a declaration of righteousness and a pardon of sin upon the basis of Christ’s finished work, from our partaking of his mediation, as manifestation of our union with him (WCF 11, WLC 69-70). While the benefits of his mediation have an ongoing effect in our communion with him, including growing in holiness, our justification is a definitive, singular moment. To stretch this moment into an ongoing process is to make the instruments of that process, rather than Christ’s finished work, the basis of our justification.

The basic problem separating Protestants and Catholics on justification is not that one believes that we are justified by grace, and the other that we are justified by works. Catholics affirm that salvation is by grace, and that any cooperation with God in the act of salvation comes not from innate human ability, but from God’s grace producing cooperation (JDDJ 3.19-20). The problem on this doctrine begins with Catholics subsuming sanctification into justification, as stated, for example at the Council of Trent, “If any one saith, that the justice received is not preserved and also increased before God through good works; but that the said works are merely the fruits and signs of Justification obtained, but not a cause of the increase thereof; let him be anathema,” (Justification, Canon 24, cf. Canon 9).

If justification includes growing in holiness, that is, that good works increase our justification/righteousness before God, then our righteousness is dependent upon our actions, not Christ’s finished work. The JDDJ does this in §1.9 by identifying “sanctified in Christ Jesus” (1 Corinthians 1:2, 30, 2 Corinthians 1:1) with righteousness or justification. The Catholic clarification in JDDJ 4.7, §38 on good works does not clear up any Reformed misunderstanding of their position. The concern is not whether the good works that preserve or increase our right standing before God flow from God’s grace or our own effort, but whether anything other than the finished work of Christ, rested upon by faith, is the instrument of our right standing.

Since work on the part of man is necessary to grow in justification, then it is possible to interrupt that state of justification, “Before men, therefore, who have been justified in this manner,-whether they have preserved uninterruptedly the grace received, or whether they have recovered it when lost…” (Trent, Chapter 26).  This is based on justification being an infusion of Christ’s virtue to his people, rather than a declaration of pardon on the merit of his finished work (compare WCF 11.1). If the infusion of justifying grace in the God-given cooperation of men can be interrupted, it can be cut off.

This inevitably leads to trusting in your own efforts (whatever God’s grace in them may be) as the basis of your right standing before God. If justification is a continued flow of Christ’s virtue in life, then good works are not merely a symptom of justification (to think so is anathema!) but justification itself. It is also inevitable that the serious Christian life becomes a quest to receive enough grace for one to be considered properly justified, which is precisely what the Catholic position in JDDJ 4.3, §27 and 4.4, §30 show.

Trentine theology is not simply left unaddressed by the JDDJ, but is more than consistent with it. My intent is not to rehash the Reformation debates on justification, but to show that the JDDJ fails in its purpose of reaching a consensus of the basics of justification. The question of justification being definite and imputed, versus a process and imparted, needs to be considered a “basic truth” of the doctrine of justification, and most certainly is so from a confessionally Reformed perspective.

Sacraments and Grace

To briefly comment on the JDDJ and the sacraments, the biggest concern is, like with justification and sanctification, too much is left unsaid. With the JDDJ, the Reformed can say that “We confess together that in baptism the Holy Spirit unites one with Christ, justifies, and truly renews the person. But the justified must all through life constantly look to God’s unconditional justifying grace…” (JDDJ 4.4, §28; cf., WCF 28.6, WLC 167). However, the Catholic understanding that grace is imparted at baptism (JDDJ 4.3, §30) is not incidental, but an affirmation of the entire Trentine sacramental system.

Grace is something that is dispensed by the church, through its sacraments. The Catholics will say that this is something only from God, making it an act of grace, but that is a very different definition from confessional Protestantism. If justification is a prolonged process, where one may fall out of grace and be cut off or interrupted from the righteousness of Christ, what are the means by which this is remedied?

“But when individuals voluntarily separate themselves from God, it is not enough to return to observing the commandments, for they must receive pardon and peace in the Sacrament of Reconciliation through the word of forgiveness imparted to them in virtue of God’s reconciling work in Christ” (JDDJ 4.3, §30). Canons 6-8 on the sacraments from the Council of Trent make it very clear that the sacraments contain the grace they represent, as if grace were a substance to be dispensed, rather than the demeanor God has towards his children. The sacraments then become the instruments of justification, since they contain and disperse the grace necessary to gain, retain, and regain justification. Since the sacraments contain the grace they represent, and since all people receive that grace (unless actively trying to block it), justification is the free act of God’s grace where he saves by his sacraments, not the free grace where he pardons your sins and counts you righteous on account of Christ’s finished work.

As with justification and sanctification, the goal is not to rehearse the Reformation, but to show that the consensus of the JDDJ requires either leaving terms undefined or devaluing the importance of this doctrine. As the LCMS points out, the Catholics gave up nothing, and the Lutherans conceded everything in this declaration. As the JDDJ stands, its consensus of the doctrine of justification between Lutherans and Catholics is inadequate to warrant an affirmation from the confessionally Reformed.

In my next posts on the JDDJ I will look at the Methodist and Reformed addendum to the declaration, and then the impact, if any, it has on the EPC.