Justification by Faith at Crux of Faith Divide
October 01, 2009
A UMNS Special Report
By David Briggs
Sept. 30, 2009 | CHICAGO
Justification by faith.
Those three words divided Western Christianity for centuries, splitting apart families and nations. Wars were fought over their meaning.
So it is with a sense of awe and wonder that representatives of three major Christian traditions – Methodism, Lutheranism and Catholicism – gathered in a Chicago church Oct. 1 to celebrate their fundamental agreement on how sinful human beings are forgiven and brought into a right relationship with God.
Side by side, speaking in an age when some would dismiss religion as a source of violence and division, Bishop Gregory Palmer, president of the United Methodist Council of Bishops, Cardinal Francis George, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Bishop Mark Hanson, president of the Lutheran World Federation, joined other international dignitaries and faithful in a service of thanksgiving celebrating their common Christianity. Bishop Sharon Zimmerman Rader, ecumenical officer for the United Methodist bishops, was also there.
How big a deal is this in the grand sweep of Christian history?
"It's of enormous importance because it is the first point of conflict of the unfolding of the breakup of the Western church," says the Rev. James Massa, executive director of the Secretariat of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the Catholic conference. "It's of enormous importance for all of the traditions within Christianity that have their roots in the Western church."
Sound and fury
Lutherans, Catholics and Methodists did not always play together so nicely.
In the early days of the Reformation, when condemnations and anathemas flew back and forth between Protestants and Catholics, and often within Protestantism itself, the term "justification by faith" often came to be seen as a battle cry in a theological debate over salvation.
Lutherans and Reformed traditions would emphasize that sinful human beings were forgiven and brought into a right relationship with God through no merit of their own. Catholics would emphasize the free will of human beings to accept or reject God's gift, and the importance of the church community in helping individuals stay on the right path.
When Methodism founder John Wesley came along in the 18th century, he would take points of emphases from both Lutheran and Catholic teachings.
"The grace or love of God, whence cometh our salvation, is free in all and free for all. … It does not depend on any power or merit in man," Wesley said.
But he also taught that human beings have a continuing responsibility to accept God's grace, and to show its fruit in works of piety and mercy.
A one-time conversion experience does not guarantee a person a place in heaven, according to Wesley.
"Wesley believed you could lose your salvation," says the Rev. Arthur Dickens Thomas Jr., pastor of Messiah United Methodist Church in Taneytown, Md., and professor of Christian spirituality at the Ecumenical Institute of Theology, St. Mary's Seminary, in Baltimore. "It is very important to show forth works of faith and repentance."
Catholics and Lutherans began dialogue on justification by faith in the 1960s, prompted in part by the Second Vatican Council opening the windows of the Catholic Church to the world. In this new age of ecumenism, Christian groups that before would stand on faith or Scripture alone, or place special value on tradition or free will, began to reach consensus on how each plays a role in their theology.
On Oct. 31, 1999, after nearly 35 years of dialogue, the Vatican and the Lutheran World Federation reached agreement on the doctrine of justification, voiding standing condemnations dating back to the 16th century.
The agreement states: "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."
The hope was other Christian traditions would join this historic pact.
One stepped forward.
A Methodist 'touchdown'
The World Methodist Council, which in 1999 expressed joy at the Lutheran-Catholic pact, accepted an invitation from the two partners to join in the agreement. In 2002, United Methodist Bishop Walter Klaiber of Germany and the Rev. Geoffrey Wainwright, a British Methodist and professor of Christian theology at Duke Divinity School, began drafting a statement.
The statement declaring the council's fundamental doctrinal agreement with the Catholic-Lutheran document on justification by faith was circulated twice to all member churches, including The United Methodist Church. The statement was signed by Catholic, Lutheran and Methodist representatives July 23, 2006, at a meeting of the World Methodist Council in Seoul.
In their common affirmation, Methodists, Catholics and Lutherans said they viewed the agreement as a sign of their desire for a "common witness to the world, which is the will of Christ for all Christians."
A standing ovation greeted the agreement, and participants spontaneously began singing, "Praise God from whom all blessings flow."
Ecumenical observers say it is difficult to understate the Methodist contribution, both in giving new life to the ecumenical movement and in widening the dialogue to include a perspective that appreciates both the unmerited gift of God's love and human responsibility to respond to the divine gift.
"I think it's extraordinary that it has happened," says the Rev. William MacDonald, a United Methodist minister who serves St. Paul's Lutheran Church in Vonore, Tenn. "With Methodists joining on, I think that just re-energized the issues."
He uses a sports analogy to illustrate how Methodists bring together Protestant thinking on justification and Catholic ideas of holiness.
"If you want to do an end run around the Reformation," he says, "you end up at United Methodism for a touchdown."
The Rev. Donald McCoid, ecumenical officer for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and Massa say Methodist teaching on social holiness enriches their traditions.
"The wonderful contribution of Methodism is how the spirit works in our life," McCoid says.
In one sense, Massa says, Methodists challenge Christians to consider "how do we move from justification to justice."
Embracing one another
Few United Methodists today would be able to define the doctrine of justification by faith.
But ask them about the heart of the matter – that Lutherans, United Methodists and Catholics celebrate one another as fellow Christians – and many, particularly among the younger generation, are ahead of the theologians and church leaders.
In a recent visit to Hillcrest United Methodist Church in Nashville, Tenn., a UMNS team found the Methodist-Lutheran-Catholic agreement warmly embraced.
William Ryan (shown at left), 71, remembers a time when Lutherans, Catholics and United Methodists looked at each other skeptically.
"They didn't know what the beliefs were of other churches," he says. "As time has progressed, they have come to know each other, come to love each other."
Younger churchgoers like Nikki Rhoads (shown above), 31, say they see their Catholic and Lutheran friends "as just Christians."
What would Jesus do? "He'd want us all to love each other," Rhoads says.
Sunitha Mathew, 33, says she considers people Christians as long as they believe in Christ.
"Maybe the newer generation is a little more accepting than probably my parents and grandparents," she says. "So hopefully the new generation will rise up and say, 'See, believing in Christ is more important … than how you do things in church.'"
The Rev. Niger Woodruff (shown above), 31, a student at Vanderbilt Divinity School, says the agreement is "a loving act" by the three traditions.
"Our founder in Methodism, John Wesley, firmly believed in unity in the essentials and love in everything else. In that sense, the love is extended in the unity of our traditions," Woodruff says.
"We believe in a gospel of reconciliation," he says. "We have to be reconciled among ourselves if we are to be a convincing witness to the world."