Paul McCain links to a post at Concordia blog about justification. He’s worried about things he hears within Lutheranism:

I’ve been growing more and more concerned by articles and comments in Lutheran publications that wax on about the Incarnation but do not mention the Atonement, or articles that talk about “the real presence of Jesus” or “union with Christ” but fail to say a word about the forgiveness of sins and the atonement and justification. There is too often a skip step done from the Incarnation of Christ to our baptism. To what extent do we still understand and confess that justification is the chief article?

In the discussion at Concordia, McCain adds his thoughts about problems he sees with the 1997 Joint Declaration between the Vatican and the Lutheran World Federation (his denomination, the LCMS, is not a member of the LWF and was not a signatory to the JD).

This provides an opportunity to turn again to this subject. I think McCain is right on–even those who say that justification is important (and that should be all Christians) too often relegate it to a back seat.

For some background, let me again give some summary points of what the Vatican and the LWF agreed to when they signed the Joint Declaration, the Common Statement, and the Annex. The latter two documents are essential companions to the first, and provide the context for a true interpretation of the accord. Some argued at the time, and have claimed since, that the Vatican distanced itself from the JD. This is false. The Common Statement ends: “By this act of signing The Catholic Church and The Lutheran World Federation confirm the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification in its entirety.” The Vatican affirms that the prior condemnations of the Catholic Church no longer apply to Lutheran teachings–insofar as those teachings are understood as explained in the JD.

The heart of the common agreement is this:

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. (JD 15, Annex 2).

And here are some other points:

… We confess together that God forgives sin by grace and at the same time frees human beings from sin’s enslaving power….

Yet we would be wrong were we to say that we are without sin (1 Jn l:8-10, cf. JD 28). “All of us make many mistakes” (Jas 3:2). “Who is aware of his unwitting sins? Cleanse me of many secret faults“ (Ps. 19:12). And when we pray, we can only say, like the tax collector, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner” (Lk 18:13). This is expressed in a variety of ways in our liturgies. Together we hear the exhortation “Therefore, do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions” (Rom 6:12). This recalls to us the persisting danger which comes from the power of sin and its action in Christians. To this extent, Lutherans and Catholics can together understand the Christian as simul justus et peccator, despite their different approaches to this subject as expressed in JD 29-30.

Justification takes place “by grace alone” (JD 15 and 16), by faith alone, the person is justified “apart from works” (Rom 3:28, cf. JD 25). “Grace creates faith not only when faith begins in a person but as long as faith lasts” (Thomas Aquinas, S. Th.II/II 4, 4 ad 3).The working of God’s grace does not exclude human action: God effects everything, the willing and the achievement, therefore, we are called to strive (cf. Phil 2:12 ff). “As soon as the Holy Spirit has initiated his work of regeneration and renewal in us through the Word and the holy sacraments, it is certain that we can and must cooperate by the power of the Holy Spirit…” (The Formula of Concord, FC SD II,64f; BSLK 897,37ff).

Grace as fellowship of the justified with God in faith, hope and love is always received from the salvific and creative work of God (cf. JD 27). But it is nevertheless the responsibility of the justified not to waste this grace but to live in it. The exhortation to do good works is the exhortation to practice the faith (cf. BSLK 197,45). The good works of the justified “should be done in order to confirm their call, that is, lest they fall from their call by sinning again” (Apol. XX,13, BSLK 316,18-24; with reference to 2 Pet. 1:10. Cf. also FC SD IV,33; BSLK 948,9-23). In this sense Lutherans and Catholics can understand together what is said about the “preservation of grace” in JD 38 and 39. Certainly, “whatever in the justified precedes or follows the free gift of faith is neither the basis of justification nor merits it” (JD 25). …

The doctrine of justification is measure or touchstone for the Christian faith. No teaching may contradict this criterion. In this sense, the doctrine of justification is an “indispensable criterion which constantly serves to orient all the teaching and practice of our churches to Christ” (JD l8).

This statement unfolds what is the heart of the Christian claim–that salvation is found in Jesus Christ. It treats of the central mystery of the Christian gospel. It speaks to the reality of who and what we are as Christians. The doctrine of justification isn’t one abstract doctrine among others, but is the key teaching that permeates everything, and judges everything, questioning whether what we are saying and doing proclaims Jesus Christ.

And yet how often is this ignored? Overlooked? Buried under a weight of busywork and hobby horses? How much attention have any of us given to this agreement over the past ten years?

It isn’t like we have to set aside a special day to remember it or to talk about it. This just means putting the focus on Jesus Christ, and his free gift, in everything we do.

It means highlighting readings like those we had today:

Jer 17:5-8

Thus says the LORD:
Cursed is the one who trusts in human beings,
who seeks his strength in flesh,
whose heart turns away from the LORD.
He is like a barren bush in the desert
that enjoys no change of season,
but stands in a lava waste,
a salt and empty earth.
Blessed is the one who trusts in the LORD,
whose hope is the LORD.
He is like a tree planted beside the waters
that stretches out its roots to the stream:
it fears not the heat when it comes;
its leaves stay green;
in the year of drought it shows no distress,
but still bears fruit.

1 Cor 15:12, 16-20

Brothers and sisters:
If Christ is preached as raised from the dead,
how can some among you say there is no resurrection of the dead?
If the dead are not raised, neither has Christ been raised,
and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is vain;
you are still in your sins.
Then those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished.
If for this life only we have hoped in Christ,
we are the most pitiable people of all.

But now Christ has been raised from the dead,
the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.

Our hope is in Christ, who had died for our sins and been raised from the dead. In him we put our trust, not in men.

Lk 6:17, 20-26 gives us Luke’s sermon on the plain, and we hear the same message–Christ preaches good news to those who have nothing: the poor, the hungry, the weeping, those hated or reviled. In him they have riches and joy and are filled and receive their justification.

This is the Gospel. This is why the Church exists, to proclaim this good news to all. That’s what we and the Lutherans agreed to in 1997. This isn’t something to divide the Church, but something that unites the Church.

Do we hear it? Do we preach it? Or are we troubled with other things?