Pope Francis visited America. Protestants and Catholics alike love this pope. Great. I’m glad to see that. I’m all for ecumenical dialogues and reconciliation between Protestants and Catholics. However, the way it is often done today, namely, avoiding conflict and pretending that there are no significant points of disagreements between the two branches of Christianity, will not get us anywhere. Any family counsellor knows that such lack of authenticity is not the way to save a disintegrating marriage.
In this article I will bring up an old be all-important issue, namely, the doctrine of justification. In particular, I will offer an evaluation of the 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justificaiton by the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church (henceforth JD), which various Protestant denominations over the past decade have voted to adopt. In order to appreciate the extent to which JD succeeds in representing the commonalities and differences between Lutherans and Catholics, I will begin by briefly comparing the doctrine of justification as presented by Luther and the Council of Trent.
Luther on Justification
At the heart of Luther’s doctrine of justification is the concept of participatio Christi, which serves as the basis of the “wondrous exchange” whereby our sins are imputed to Christ and Christ’s righteousness to us through faith. As Calvin understands Luther (and as some Reformed readers, myself included, interpret Luther in light of Calvin), this imputation is not merely an external declaration, as if it were a legal fiction. Rather, “everyone who believes in [Christ] really has no sins, because they have been transferred to Christ” (Against Latomus, 200). For this reason, the believer is reckoned righteous. Note that Luther’s doctrine of justification is strongly monergistic: Even the faith by which sinners are justified is wrought in Christ’s person and communicated to us in union with Christ. For Luther, fallen humans are so depraved that they have nothing in and of themselves that may merit the grace of justification.
Several implications follow from this basic understanding of justification. First, while Christ’s righteousness is really communicated to the sinner, it always remains an alien righteousness wrought in and by the person and work of Christ (fides Christo formata). Second, it follows that the believer is already completely and really made righteous, and yet will ever remain a sinner in this life (simul justus et peculator). Third, since it is by the imputation of Christ’s perfect righteousness that the sinner is justified, no sin whatsoever committed by the believer may threaten his or her salvation. On this note, Luther does not distinguish between venial and mortal sin. For Luther, all sins are real and remain real after baptism, and without the wondrous exchange, no sinner may escape the wrath of God. This high view of sin underscores the significance of both justification and sanctification: “God saves real, not imaginary, sinners, and he teaches us to mortify real rather than imaginary sin” (Ibid., 229).
Luther may be read in light of Calvin’s notion of double grace (duplex gratia), which seems very warranted to me if we consider Luther’s Two Kinds of Righteousness: justification and sanctification are two distinct but inseparable consequences of participatio Christi. Sanctification (read Luther’s exegesis of Galatians 5, especially 5:13) is the fruit and manifestation of justification—the real imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the sinner. As such sanctification logically follows justification, and not vice versa. In this sense, we may conclude that in Luther’s understanding, justification, which is already complete in Christ alone, by grace alone and through faith alone, is both necessary and sufficient for the continuation and completion of the salvation of sinners.
The Council of Trent on Justification
By contrast, according to the Catholic view, justification, which remains incomplete during the present life, is necessary but insufficient for salvation: “Faith, co-operating with good works, increase in that justice which they have received through the grace of Christ, and are still further justified” (Trent, Sixth Session on Justification, Ch. X). To be sure, justification is initially the work of God alone and cannot take place “without the grace of God through Jesus Christ” (Canon I). However, God “moves and excites” human free will such that it may “co-operate towards disposing and preparing itself for obtaining the grace of justification” (Canon IV). It is in this synergistic sense that “faith is the beginning of human salvation, the foundation, and root of all Justification” (Ch. VIII).
Note that the emphasis here falls on the necessity of faith for justification, but the statements deny its sufficiency. After baptism, the grace of justification is maintained by the love formed in the believer with divine help. Out of love, the believer obeys God’s commandments. However, the believer may also choose to disobey God and fall into sin, thereby losing the grace of justification: “For God forsakes not those who have been once justified by His grace, unless He be first forsaken by them” (Ch. XI). Therefore, on top of the sacrament of baptism that marks the beginning of justification by faith, Trent emphasizes the importance of the sacrament of penance that provides the possibility for the restoration of those who have “fallen from the received grace of Justification” (Ch. XIV). Furthermore, only those who have fallen into venial sin may be restored this way. Those who have committed mortal sins will gravely lose the grace of justification, even though their faith may remain and they may go through excruciating trials to restore their salvation (Ch. XV).
That is to say, on the Catholic view, faith is necessary for the initiation of justification, but is insufficient to sustain it. In addition, the merit of Christ is also necessary but insufficient for justification: humans cannot be “just without the justice of Christ,” but it is not “by that justice itself that they are formally just” (Canon X); humans cannot be “justified… by the sole imputation of the justice of Christ… to the exclusion of the grace and charity which is… inherent in them” (Canon XI). In other words, the righteousness of Christ imputed to the believer is insufficient for justification without love, which is the fruit of the Holy Spirit exercised by the believer’s free will.
In sum, on the Catholic view, there are threefold necessities and insufficiencies in the doctrine of justification: (1) Faith is necessary for the initiation but insufficient for the continuation of justification; (2) Christ’s righteousness is necessary but insufficient for justification; and (3) the grace of justification is necessary but insufficient for salvation unto eternal life.
The Joint Declaration: Ambiguities on Necessity and Sufficiency
A striking feature of JD is the Catholic consent to adopt the Reformation language of the solas. Does this indicate that Catholicism have moved away from Trent towards a more monergistic understanding of justification? What do Catholics mean when they adopt the sola language? In answering these questions, I will examine the ambiguities in JD’s formulation of the necessity and sufficiency of Christ, grace and faith for salvation.
The first mention of the solas is in paragraph 15, which Cardinal Avery Dulles calls “the heart of the Joint Declaration” (Dulles 2): “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” (JD para. 15). Note several ambiguities here. First, this statement speaks of grace in terms of Christ’s work but says nothing about Christ’s person. This avoids the difficulty of having to deal with different understandings of participatio Christi. As we have seen, Luther’s understanding of our being in Christ makes Christ’s grace, wrought in and by Christ’s person and work, both necessary and sufficient for salvation. In comparison, according to Trent, the believer is joined with Christ in such a way that Christ “continually infuses his virtue” into the justified, so that in cooperation with Christ’s grace they may obtain eternal life. In this sense, for Protestants, “grace alone” means that grace is both necessary and sufficient for salvation, while for Catholics, it means that grace is necessary but must be accompanied by human cooperation.
Second, this ambivalence is further suggested in the next part of the statement, which denies that human merit plays any part when we are “accepted by God,” and emphasizes at the same time that once God has accepted us, we receive the Holy Spirit “who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works” (Ibid.). Catholics who subscribe to Trent may well agree that our acceptance by God is “not because of any merit on our part” in the sense that justification is initiated by God, but they would emphasize that we cannot sustain our justification without good works. Protestants, however, would contend with Luther that Christ’s grace is sufficient for our salvation, and that good works are only the result and manifestation of our union with Christ.
Third, note that paragraph 15 of JD consistently avoids mentioning whether grace is sufficient for salvation. The first sentence says that “justification is the work of the triune God” without mentioning whether it involves human cooperation. The third sentence says that Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection are the “foundation and presupposition of justification,” implying that Christ’s grace is necessary for justification, but says nothing about its sufficiency.
Dulles comments on paragraph 15 that “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,” which “dispels some false stereotypes inherited from the past” (Dulles 2). Indeed, this paragraph helps to clarify that Lutherans are not antinomian. However, it is not true that “Lutherans have often accused Catholics of holding that justification is a human achievement rather than a divine gift received in faith” (Ibid., emphasis mine). The Reformation understands the Catholic doctrine of justification as synergism, namely, cooperation between God’s grace and human free will. In other words, the Protestant accusation is that Catholics see justification as both a divine gift and a human merit. This understanding of Roman Catholicism, in the current analysis, has not been dispelled by the ambiguous statements in JD paragraph 15, which still leaves room for a synergistic interpretation of the doctrine of justification.
The next ambivalent usage of the sola language is found in paragraph 16: “Through Christ alone are we justified.” The preposition again seems to be designed to avoid dealing with the heart of the dispute between Lutherans and Catholics, namely, participate Christi and thus the formal cause of justification. Luther and Calvin would emphasize that we are justified in Christ—Christ is our righteousness as he is the formal cause of justification. It is our being in Christ that enables us to be justified by Christ and through Christ. That is, we are first united with Christ (in); in this union he communicates his righteousness to us (by); by virtue of the alien righteousness which is really made ours in Christ, God declares that we are righteous (through). Note that this external declaration has its basis in the real imputation of righteousness, and as such is not a legal fiction. This view of justification, as we have seen, excludes any synergistic interpretation.
However, when JD employs only one preposition (through), it leaves room for the Catholics to interpret solus Christus as merely the “meritorious cause” of justification, which is necessary for salvation but insufficient without human good works as a result of the “infusion” of “faith, hope, and charity” “through Christ” (Trent Ch. VII).
Finally, on the third sola, Catholics are unable to confess with the Lutherans that justification is by faith alone. In paragraph 25, Catholics and Lutherans “confess together that sinners are justified by faith.” Paragraph 26, which expounds the Lutheran view, says that “God justifies sinners in faith alone,” while paragraph 27 says that “the Catholic understanding also sees faith as fundamental in justification.” These paragraphs suggest that Catholics and Lutherans agree upon the necessity of faith in justification, but whereas Lutherans see faith, which is part and parcel of the grace communicated to us in union with Christ (on this notion of fides Christo formata there is dissent among the Reformed: some, including Calvin in the fifth edition of the Institutes that completely abandons this category that still appears in earlier editions, believe that faith is exclusively wrought in us by the Holy Spirit, but others, including John Owen, believe that Christ’s human faith is the origin of our faith), as a sufficient condition for justification, Catholics would contend that faith is insufficient to retain justification. That is to say, for Lutherans, one whose faith is true will never lose the grace of justification, while for Catholics, one may retain one’s faith but still lose the grace of justification.
In sum, historic Protestantism understands justification as Christ’s perfect righteousness imputed to us in our union with Christ, and once imputed, we are in need of no further justification, even though our sins remain real and have yet to be extinguished. Catholicism understands justification as an ongoing process initiated by God’s grace through Christ on the basis of our faith, which must be sustained by human cooperation with divine grace. The heart of the dispute, then, is whether and how one treats the doctrine of justification on the basis of participatio Christi. In the current analysis, JD has not settled the dispute because it has consistently avoided the heart of the dispute. The intentional ambiguity may also be taken as a sign of good will on both sides, whereby a genuine desire for ecumenical unity is made apparent. Yet, pretending that such important points of contention do not exist is not the right way to establish reconciliation. This kind of ecumenism establishes unity by downplaying individuality, uniqueness, and diversity. As I see it, ecumenical dialogues cannot move forward until Protestants and Catholics are willing to discuss the real points of contention in good spirit.
Dulles, Avery. “Two Languages of Salvation: The Lutheran-Catholic Joint Declaration.” First Things 98 (1999): 25-30.
Luther, Martin. Against Latomus in Works 32. Ed. George W. Forell, Helmut T. Lehmann. Trans. George Lindbeck. Philadelphia: Muhlenberg, 1958.
Schaff, Philip, ed. “The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent,” “Sixth Session: On Justification.” The Creeds of Christendom 2. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1983.