Churches celebrate 10th anniversary of 'justification' agreement

Methodists, Lutherans and Roman Catholics worldwide on Saturday observed the tenth anniversary of the signing of a landmark ecumenical agreement considered one of the most significant since the Reformation.

On October 31, 1999, representatives of the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation got together to sign the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, in which the two church bodies together confessed: "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."

Members of the World Methodist Council later adopted the document by unanimous vote as well, in 2006, sharing the belief that a common understanding of justification was "fundamental and indispensable" to overcoming the division between Catholics and Protestants.

During an ecumenical service in Augsburg, Germany, the Catholic Church's ecumenical representative, Cardinal Walter Kaspar, said the JDDJ was a sign of the workings of the Holy Spirit but also emphasized that it was only one step in a longer journey.

“Ultimately, ecumenism is not an end in itself: it aims to go beyond itself toward reconciliation, unity and world peace,” said the president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (PCPCU) in his sermon.

Following Kaspar, the Rev Dr Ishmael Noko, general secretary of LWF, took to the pulpit, stating how sharing in God's mission through the power of the Holy Spirit enables Christians "to overcome the ever-present forces of division in church and in society.”

“It helps us to seek responsible ways of reducing the enemy images that isolate and separate us from the gift of communion with God and with one another," he stated.

Though differences remain over language, theological elaboration, and emphasis in the understanding of justification with regard to such matters as good works, Lutheran and Catholic churches say those differences do not destroy the consensus regarding the basic truths of the Christian doctrine.

"Even if open questions still remain, the Joint Declaration is a very important step by the two churches toward removing the tension from the divisive core area when it comes to the way the churches understand the message of justification," commented Cardinal Karl Lehmann, bishop of the Mainz diocese in Germany.

“The wording 'consensus in basic truths of the doctrine of justification' aptly describes the present [state]: it is a genuine agreement in basic truths of the doctrine of justification, not a consensus covering all issues," affirmed Lehmann, according to LWF.

According to JDDJ, justification is the forgiveness of sins; liberation from the dominating power of sin and death, and from the curse of the law; and acceptance into communion with God – all of which is from God alone, for Christ's sake, by grace, through faith in the Gospel of God's Son.

The document was the culmination of two decades of dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation, which claims to represent 66.7 million of the world's 70.2 million Lutherans.

Representing about 75 million people, the World Methodist Council comprises most of the world's Wesleyan denominations.