This bulkily named declaration is exciting, first of all, because it’s the first time ever that the Lutheran and Catholic churches mutually committed to a statement about the Christian faith. Given the range and depth of their accusations against each other all these centuries, the JD is nothing short of miraculous.
It’s also exciting because it means that ecumenism doesn’t require absolutely identical views of absolutely everything. The JD doesn’t claim that Lutherans and Catholics are at every point in absolute agreeement about justification and its implications. Which means that ecumenism is not the flattening out of every church tradition into one monotone blob.
The JD basically lays out three things: 1) the common ground that Lutherans and Catholics believe together, even if they habitually express it in different ways; 2) the areas where they retain theological differences, but differences that exist inside this common ground and can mutually enrich and challenge each other; and 3) what this means about the past and the future.
Here’s the common ground part:
“15. In faith we together hold the conviction that justification is the work of the triune God. The Father sent his Son into the world to save sinners. The foundation and presupposition of justification is the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ. Justification thus means that Christ himself is our righteousness, in which we share through the Holy Spirit in accord with the will of the Father. 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.
“16. All people are called by God to salvation in Christ. Through Christ alone are we justified, when we receive this salvation in faith. Faith is itself God’s gift through the Holy Spirit who works through word and sacrament in the community of believers and who, at the same time, leads believers into that renewal of life which God will bring to completion in eternal life.
“17. We also share the conviction that the message of justification directs us in a special way towards the heart of the New Testament witness to God’s saving action in Christ: it tells us that as sinners our new life is solely due to the forgiving and renewing mercy that God imparts as a gift and we receive in faith, and never can merit in any way.
“18. Therefore the doctrine of justification, which takes up this message and explicates it, is more than just one part of Christian doctrine. It stands in an essential relation to all truths of faith, which are to be seen as internally related to each other. It is an indispensable criterion which constantly serves to orient all the teaching and practice of our churches to Christ. When Lutherans emphasize the unique significance of this criterion, they do not deny the interrelation and significance of all truths of faith. When Catholics see themselves as bound by several criteria, they do not deny the special function of the message of justification.”
At the end here, in §18, you can see the entryway into the distinctive Lutheran and Catholic emphases. The JD goes on to discuss the distinctives in 7 areas: Human Powerlessness and Sin in Relation to Justification; Justification as Forgiveness of Sins and Making Righteous; Justification by Faith and through Grace; The Justified as Sinner; Law and Gospel; Assurance of Salvation; and The Good Works of the Justified.
The differences are allowed to stand, but they are no longer considered “church-dividing”:
“40. 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. In light of this consensus the remaining differences of language, theological elaboration, and emphasis in the understanding of justification described in paras. 18 to 39 are acceptable. Therefore the Lutheran and the Catholic explications of justification are in their difference open to one another and do not destroy the consensus regarding the basic truths.
“41. Thus the doctrinal condemnations of the 16th century, in so far as they relate to the doctrine of justification, appear in a new light: 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.”
Nearly 500 years after the Reformation, Lutherans and Catholics have decided there is no longer any need to condemn each other on the central doctrine of justification.