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The doctrine of justification — how people are saved by God — was at the center of the disputes between Martin Luther and the Catholic Church in the 16th century, a dispute that sadly led to a division in the Church of the west and the birth of Protestant ecclesial communities.
At the time, followers of Luther placed an emphasis on the belief that human beings are essentially sinful and that no human act can merit God’s grace. Catholic teaching, instead, held that through the sacrament of baptism human beings are freed from slavery to sin and that they are to cooperate with God’s grace through good deeds to assure eternal salvation.
After the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church stressed the need to work toward Christian unity, always stressing that unity is a gift from God, not the work of clerics, scholars or historians.
In 1999, after years of prayer, work and reflection the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation, signed the “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification.” That declaration effectively eliminated the main theological discrepancies between Catholics and Lutherans. It is widely considered to be one of the most important ecumenical milestones since the council.
The document stated that “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 us and calling us to good works.”
Seven years after that declaration, the Catholic-Lutheran dialogue is still strong and, because of that declaration, we feel closer to each other as communities of faith.
It is a welcome development that the World Methodist Conference unanimously adopted that Catholic-Lutheran joint declaration on justification July 18.
The Methodist declaration states “The Methodist Movement has always understood itself as deeply indebted to the biblical teaching on justification as it was understood by Luther and the other reformers, but it has also always embraced elements of the doctrine of justification which belong to the Catholic tradition of the early Church.”
“‘Faith working through love is seen as the root of all good which results from the lives of those who believe in Jesus Christ. Works of piety and works of mercy are fruits of the Spirit in the lives of those who follow Jesus,” it said.
Catholic News Service reports that Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, said at the July 23 signing ceremony in Seoul, South Korea, that “This is a historic day. This is a gift of God. We can be grateful for it.”
“The adhesion of the Methodists to the declaration provides a basis for a more profound common witness before the world,” he added.
Certainly, the world needs to hear the good news of the Gospel that explains human nature in the context of original sin, God’s justification of mankind through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the human ability to perform good works as a consequence of that love.
Most importantly the world also needs to see unity. As Jesus prayed to His Father at the Last Supper, that “they may all be one” is how “the world may believe.”