Australia Ahead of Everybody Else

Posted on Posted in Theology

While the final text of the Joint Declaration was undergoing review in the Catholic Church and in the member churches of the Lutheran World Federation, the folks Down Under were way ahead of the game. They looked into the JD as well as national dialogues from around the world on justification, but their hope was to “approach the question as independently and freshly as possible, especially in light of the fact that our own previous dialogues [Sacrament and Sacrifice (1985), Pastor and Priest (1989), and Communion and Mission (1995)] have led us to the issue of justification. We also recognised the importance of developing an Australian statement on justification that our two churches could own in a unique way” (§1).

The result, Justification, A Common Statement of the Australian Lutheran-Catholic Dialogue, is a delightfully brief and accessible treatment of the topic of justification. It comes to many of the same conclusions as the JD though, interestingly, the Australian Lutheran Church is only an associate member of the Lutheran World Federation, thus was not involved in the review and voting process on the JD.

Here’s the basic common affirmation:

“Lutherans and Roman Catholics together see justification as God’s free and saving action in Christ whereby our sin is forgiven and we are both declared and made righteous. Together we confess that it is solely by grace and through faith that we are justified and not through our own merits. Together we say that justification cannot be separated from regeneration, sanctification, and the renewal of our hearts by the Holy Spirit. Together we affirm that justification, or salvation in Christ, is central and normative to our Christian faith” (§3).

In the ensuing sections, points of distinction but not contradiction are discussed, the same method as used in the JD. The one on original sin is particularly clear and helpful:

“Lutherans and Roman Catholics have different emphases in their views of the effect of original sin on human nature: Lutherans see human beings as spiritually dead because of this sin while Roman Catholics see them as wounded; Lutherans call that inclination that continues within us after justification ‘sin,’ whereas Roman Catholics call it ‘concupiscence.’ But Roman Catholics and Lutherans affirm together that: 1. original sin is an inner reality for every human being; 2. the inclination towards sin remains even after justification; 3. as human beings we stand in absolute need of God’s forgiveness and regeneration; 4. we cannot earn our own justification but remain completely dependent upon God’s grace; and 5. sin is not only personal, but also affects social and political structures and creation itself” (§4).

This is a great example of analyzing the “thing” behind the words of the old “confessional” languages and finding a “new ecumenical language” to show how much is actually believed in common. Another section, on the inclination to sin, expresses this language-approach: “While we use different language, we are convinced that we hold substantially the same doctrine” (§7).

On questions of assurance of salvation, historic mutual misunderstandings are highlighted:

“Lutherans, while recognising the possibility that some may resist God’s grace in their lives and turn away from Christ, emphasise assurance of salvation. Moreover, they have sometimes thought Roman Catholics have no emphasis on the assurance of salvation and abandon the individual believer to doubt. Roman Catholics have been concerned to avoid the sin of presumption. At the same time they believe that we can trust fully in God’s promise of salvation. Moreover, they have sometimes thought Lutherans emphasised certainty to the point of presumption on the part of the individual.”

The convergence comes from looking at the same reality from two different directions:

“Both traditions, however, also recognise that it is possible for human beings to resist the Spirit and turn away from Christ through sin. Hence we cannot presume certainty about our own salvation. But when we consider our salvation from the perspective of what God does for us in Christ, we can trust absolutely in God’s saving promises” (§10).

The conclusion: time to lift the mutual condemnations.

“We have just observed the 450th anniversary of the Roman Catholic condemnations on justification issued by the Council of Trent. After careful biblical and theological investigation both Lutherans and Roman Catholics believe that the status of these condemnations needs to be re-evaluated. The condemnations in the Roman Catholic Council of Trent do not apply to the teaching of the Lutheran Church presented in this common statement. The condemnations in the Lutheran Confessions do not apply to the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church presented in this common statement. The belief and agreement of this dialogue is therefore that the mutual condemnations no longer apply” (§11).

And that’s exactly what the JD did a year later.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *