Analysis of The Lutheran Accord

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Most of the Christian world knows that something dramatic happened in Augsburg, Germany on October 31st, 1517. On that day an obscure monk named Martin Luther ambled up to the north door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg and nailed 95 theses to the door. Luther had written his theses in protest to the Roman Catholic practice of selling indulgences to the populace. At the time, Luther was not so much concerned with Rome's right to mercifully release a penitent sinner from a penance imposed by a priest. Neither was he concerned with the Romish practice of reducing time in Purgatory through the granting of an indulgence. What Luther despised was the selling of indulgences. Luther challenged the Roman hierarchy. He did not believe that the Pope at Rome could close the gates of hell and open the door to paradise through the sale of indulgences.

This spark of protest ignited what has since become known as the great Protestant Reformation. From this humble beginning, the entire world was turned on its end. A closer look at the issue bears out why Luther's protest of the sale of indulgences had such a dramatic affect.

The sheer idea of indulgences brings to center stage the word "forgiveness." In reality, indulgences are the end result of a complex theological labyrinth all centered around the word "forgiveness." Forgiveness, in turn, is related to the question of punishment, hell and heaven. Over all, these things are related to the mission of Jesus Christ and the Gospel of salvation.

In Roman Catholic theology, indulgences are dispensed as a way of reducing the amount of suffering one should undergo for personal sins. This signifies that, in Rome, there is yet a price to be paid for personal sins. Indulgences are granted for the partial or plenary (full) remission of temporal punishments due sin. Temporal punishments are alleged to be set by God in a place called Purgatory. No one is sure how long one must endure Purgatory. However, Rome is convinced that time spent in Purgatory can be lessened through the granting of indulgences.

It is no wonder that the questioning of indulgences led to the inquiry of how a man is forgiven. This in turn led to a questioning of how a man is justified before God. Ultimately, Rome knew if one were to follow the logic, then Luther's little protest against the mis-use of indulgences would lead to wholesale interrogation of the how Rome views "forgiveness." In light of this, Luther had to go. We can be thankful that God raised up Martin Luther. In the providence of God, Luther did the logic! In due course, Luther arrived at a biblical theology of forgiveness and justification which stood against the teaching of Rome. It all started with his questioning of indulgences.

What many Christians may not know is that on October 31st. 1999, 482 years after Luther lodged his protest, another dramatic event took place on that very site. Choosing the very same day and location of Luther's challenge, representatives of the Roman Catholic religion and the Lutheran World Federation signed an agreement entitled: Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JDJ). Hailed by some enthusiasts as an end to the Roman Catholic/Protestant divide, this document has received much press and attention world over.

We wish to interact with this declaration and analyze it in terms of its theological validity. Does this document represent a substantial change in Roman Catholic theology? Does this document represent any substantial shift in historic Lutheran theology? Does this document mean anything at all? Perhaps it is best to begin by setting forth what the document is not.

First and foremost, JDJ is not representative of the conservative wing of Lutheranism. The Lutheran World Federation (LWF) is the liberal end of Lutheranism world wide. In fact, there were not any representatives present in the construction of JDJ from any of the large conservative Lutheran bodies. Most conservative Lutherans have renounced the document and have stood against it from the start. Secondly, JDJ is not an infallible document by Roman Catholic standards. The Pope has not declared JDJ infallible. JDJ also clearly avoids addressing the numerous issues which stem from Rome's understanding of justification. The cold hard fact is that if Rome ever embraced the Protestant Reformation model of justification then it would cease to exist. Needless to say, Roman Catholicism did not disassemble itself after signing JDJ. However, it remains to be seen if the Lutheran World Federation has begun to disassemble itself in light of JDJ.

What then is the purpose of JDJ? Why has it come into existence? What do the framers have in mind? Where is all this leading?

Without impugning motives, it is crystal clear that both the Roman Catholic community and The Lutheran World Federation understand that the way in which sinners are justified before God is of paramount importance. They are also aware that a stark difference on justification is primarily what separates Roman Catholicism from Protestantism. The question of justification is truly the hinge upon which the entire door of the Protestant Reformation swings. It seems transparent enough, in reading JDJ, that the intention of it is to bring Rome and the Lutheran World Federation closer together at a deeper level. We should note that the question as to whether the Roman Catholic religion belongs under the umbrella of Christianity is not on the table here. The Lutheran World Federation is not concerned that Romanism is not Christianity. The LWF apparently has little regard for the biblical Gospel which automatically ousts Rome. It is only concerned that the two can come closer together. Realizing that justification, as set forth in the historic Reformation creeds, is flat out contradictory to the Roman Catholic teaching, the LWF and Rome have hammered out this joint declaration. This accord seems to be an attempt at resolving the historical problem. We do not believe there is a current theological crisis between modern Rome and liberal Lutheranism.

Apparently, it has never dawned upon The World Lutheran Federation that Rome's view of justification, and the subsequent theological fall-out from it, precludes Rome from being considered a part of Christianity. But, like the ECT Statement of 1994, this declaration assumes that Rome is in. This tragic presupposition lays bare the theological integrity of liberal Lutheranism and fits in well with the modern lust for an ecumenism void of any Gospel truth.

We have pointed out over and over again the danger of these kinds of declarations. We must not lose our focus. The contents of the declaration should be examined but not at the expense of letting stand the assumption behind the contents. JDJ is another joint statement which assumes that Romanism is Christian. It falls in line with other recent declarations [ECT, Gift of Salvation] which view Rome's understanding of justification as merely peculiar or in need of some Protestant tweaking and refinement. Before reading one word of JDJ, we lament the fact that the LWF has forsaken the Gospel for the sake of Romanism. Furthermore, we lament the confusion which will inevitably come from this effort to harmonize the sweet voices of the Protestant Reformation with the cacophony of Romanism. With this in mind, let us move into JDJ.

The purpose in writing JDJ is stated up-front by the authors.

"The present Joint Declaration has this intention: namely to show that on the basis of their dialogue the subscribing Lutheran churches and the Roman Catholic Church are now able to articulate a common understanding of our justification by God's grace through faith in Christ. It does not cover all that either church teaches about justification; it does encompass a consensus on basic truths of the doctrine of justification and shows that the remaining differences in its explication are no longer occasion for doctrinal condemnations."
The key words here are "common understanding" and "consensus on basic truths." Evidently, "common understanding" and "basic truth" are relegated to the fact that justification is somehow by God's grace and through faith. In the mind of the framers, so strong is this core that "the remaining differences in its explication" are no longer the occasion for condemnation. Essentially, we are told that if we believe in justification by God's grace through faith, then every explication of what this means is above reproach.

The problem here is glaring. It will never do to say, "We are justified by grace through faith." We must understand and set forth clearly how we are justified by grace. We must also define the word grace and give a crystalline picture of faith as it unfolds in the Bible.

Furthermore, what is missing from this formula is the word alone. It is not simply that we are justified by God's grace through faith. This is a favorite statement of Rome. The Reformation was fought over the word alone. The formula for the Reformation was Sola Fide i.e., faith alone.

If JDJ had been constructed on the foundation of biblical exegesis it would not have been signed by anyone. The reason is that Rome does not believe in Sola Fide and The Lutheran World Federation apparently cannot grasp either the meaning or significance of Sola Fide.

But there is more to JDJ which must be considered. Like most documents of this sort, JDJ is filled with ambiguous terminology and phraseology. It seems that the crafters have bent over backwards to keep the language elusive. No doubt this was done in a desperate attempt to satisfy both sides. Such projects are doomed from the start. Most conservative Roman Catholics scoff at JDJ because they know exactly what Rome teaches concerning justification. They realize that all the word "mongering" and word "smithing" in the world cannot bring radically opposite understandings together as one. So, there is enough in JDJ to feed the Roman concept of initial and ongoing justification based upon condign merit. And, there is just enough said about "Christ our righteousness" to enable a historic Lutheran to read JDJ his way. At the end of the day, both parties walk away with their own spin on what JDJ teaches about justification.

The real danger in this is all too apparent. With both sides walking away with a different twist on what is in involved in the justification of the ungodly, the Gospel is lost in the shuffle. To compound this indignity, both parties have the gall to affirm one another's views. It comes as no surprise that "spin language" is at work her. We are now feed the "spin." We are asked to visualize the "Lutheran tradition" and the "Roman Catholic tradition" as two sides of the same coin. We are asked to swallow the language of equivocation and moderation. "The Lutherans retain this, or view that, or hold to this, or omit that." Likewise, Rome is said, "to have its tradition, or its distinctive understanding of this or that. Rome is said to have an idiosyncratic way of viewing this or that." What this amounts to is sheer obfuscation [distortion and muddle] of the Gospel.

At different points JDJ presents justification void of definition. Generalizations abound so as to allow disparate explications to flourish. In this cloud of confusion it is no wonder that both sides have managed to convince themselves that each one's radically diametric historical understanding of justification can be claimed from the document! For example, here is what JDJ has to say about the "justified."

"The justified live by faith that comes from the Word of Christ and is active through love, the fruit of the Spirit. But since the justified are assailed from within and without by powers and desires and fall into sin, they must constantly heard God's promises anew, confess their sins, and participate in Christ's body and blood and be exhorted to live righteously in accord with the will of God."
In this one little paragraph we get a glimpse of the un-defined language used throughout the declaration. We are not told what is meant by "the justified." To the Christian this means the ones who have been justified. To Rome it means the ones who have started in the process of justification. In Rome the process starts at infant baptism. In Christianity, the declaration of justification begins and ends at the point of faith. It is not a process at all. Neither are we told what it means to "participate in Christ's body and blood." The Christian understands the Lord's table as a memorial meal to commemorate the finished work of Christ and to proclaim His death until He returns. Rome understands this to mean actually eating the body and blood of Jesus for forgiveness of sins.

When we come to the heart of JDJ, wherein justification is explained, we read the following:

"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 unto good works."
Notice, "by grace alone" is not the same as "by faith alone." Notice, "not because of any merit on our part" does not exclude merit produced by the Spirit of God. Notice, "receiving the Holy Spirit" is not defined. Rome believes that the Holy Spirit is called down in the waters of infant baptism and imprinted in confirmation. Christians do not.

Along with this equivocating language there are some other twists which deserve our attention. Within JDJ there is an authentication of the use of the word "sacrament" as the way in which the Holy Spirit works. Lutherans and Roman Catholics disagree as to the exact number and essential meaning of the word "sacrament." But Sacramentalism is left within the document as though it were a Christian concept and somehow part of the Christian experience. It is not. Sacramentalism is taken to the limit by Rome. Rome teaches that her sacraments are necessary for salvation for those adherents to Romanism. Sacramentalism is more low key in Lutheranism but appears as a sort of common glue [point of common faith] in JDJ between the LWF and Rome. Christians would balk at Sacramentalism of any kind since the entire idea behind Sacramentalism undermines biblical justification.

Also, inherent within JDJ, with full approval, is the Roman Catholic (Lutheran?) doctrine of baptismal regeneration. Read carefully as JDJ commits theological suicide.

"We confess together that sinners are justified by faith in the saving action of God in Christ. By the action of the Holy Spirit in Baptism, they are granted the gift of salvation, which lays the basis for the whole Christian life."

"Despite sin, the Christian is no longer separated from God, because in the daily return to Baptism, the person who has been born anew by Baptism and the Holy Spirit has this sin forgiven."

"Justification is the forgiveness of sins, liberation from the dominating power of sin and death and from the curse of the law. It is acceptance into communion with God: already now, but then fully in God's coming kingdom. It unites with Christ and with his death and resurrection. It occurs in the reception of the Holy Spirit in Baptism and incorporation into the one body."
Both Rome and the Lutheran World Federation practice infant baptism. Rome makes no bones about it. For them, justification, forgiveness of sin, regeneration and salvation begin at the moment of baptism. Conservative Lutherans appear to want it both ways. They seem to hold to a justification by faith alone in the finished work of Christ alone but fall apart when it comes to the meaning of baptism and the proper recipients of baptism. We can only guess that liberal Lutherans, such as the LWF, seize upon the Lutheran history of infant baptism and use it as a handy tool to forge a union with Rome. Christians do not believe in baptismal regeneration and insist that believer baptism only is clearly taught in the Bible.

In conclusion, we see yet another twist with JDJ. Some Christian scholars have identified a good deal of hypocrisy within the Roman Catholic signers of this statement. The hypocrisy can be seen from the one or two sections of JDJ which are unambiguously opposed to the Council of Trent. In other words, there are statements within the document which are impossible to reconcile with historic Roman Catholic teaching. To be sure, there is much back pedaling and mush to wade through. But here and there are some real stingers which cannot possibly be agreed to by Romish theologians while still being faithful to Roman Catholic doctrine. For instance, we read from JDJ.

"But whatever in the justified precedes or follows the free gift of faith is neither the basis of justification nor merits it."
Certainly, the framers of the document from the Roman Catholic side may justify their signing of JDJ despite such strong language. They might say that the "whatever in the justified", in the above quote, refers to one's own raw contribution apart from the grace of God. This is the most likely answer should the point of inconsistency be pushed. But notice how the face value of the above statement, quoted verbatim from JDJ, actually derails the lucid teaching of Trent.

"Hence, to those who work well unto the end and trust in God, eternal life is to be offered, both as a grace mercifully promised to the sons of God and through Christ Jesus, and as a reward promised by God himself, to be faithfully given to their good works and merits. [Trent Chap. 16]
Because the language of JDJ is "give" and "take" some have tried to expose it as a colossal give-away by Rome. We would caution against such a conclusion. Rome is masterful at making words mean what they want words to mean.

It is interesting to us, when reading Roman Catholic responses to JDJ, that some are upset. They think their own Roman Catholic ecumenical crowd has gone too far. Certainly they have if you read the language of JDJ through the lenses of Christian meanings and definition. But not necessarily so if you read through the lenses of Rome.

So, what is the meaning of all this? What does it amount to? In our analysis, it amounts to nothing for those who take the time to read and understand Christian theology. It is hardly earth shattering when liberal denominations get together with non-Christian religions and forge documents built upon indefinite language in hopes of seducing one another. The real danger comes from world opinion. The authentic Christian, the one who objects to both The Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic religion, will be painted into the corner as an odd-ball. Genuine Christianity is being escorted off stage. The more mergers between world wide religions and Rome the smaller the Christian voice becomes by comparison.

However, we trust this too is from the hand of God Who providentially rules all things. Perhaps it is time for the Lord to raise up some more "obscure men" with hammers and parchment in their hands. Perhaps the Lord will raise up some to amble up to castle doors and affix messages which can yet change the world. We hope to do our share.

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