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Justification By Faith


Reading the lesson for this week, halfway into the first page I was already upset. Perhaps stirring up readers is the author’s purpose when he/she notes that justification, “more than any other truth, brought about the Protestant Reformation. And despite all the claims to the contrary, Rome has no more changed regarding this belief now than it did in 1520, when Pope Leo issued a papal bull condemning Luther and his teachings. Luther burned a copy of the bull because if there were one teaching that could never be compromised, justification by faith was and is it.” Squeezing history to suit our purposes is slippery territory. What “claims to the contrary” is the author writing of? And why not mention rapprochement efforts over the past fifty years between Lutherans, Catholics, and others? To say that “Rome has no more changed regarding this belief now than it did in 1520…” is misleading.

In the build up to the 500-year anniversary of the Reformation the entire world is paying attention to how Christians are managing our differences. Even a modest knowledge of the history of Christianity highlights the fact that we Christians killed each other by the millions in the name of our Christ. Wouldn’t it honor our God for us to at least affirm our Catholic and Lutheran family at this special 500-year mark? We do acknowledge that we are at least part of the same Christian family. The official Church statement entitled, “How Seventh-day Adventists View Roman Catholics,” ends this way: “Adventists seek to be fair in dealing with others. Thus, while we remain aware of the historical record and continue to hold our views regarding end-time events, we recognize some positive changes in recent Catholicism, and stress the conviction that many Roman Catholics are brothers and sisters in Christ.”[1]

Is it so hard to accentuate the positive in our relations with other streams of Christianity? I would argue that the importance of what Paul calls (in the NRSV) the “ministry of reconciliation” is as important as (okay, more important than) our efforts to distinguish ourselves from other Christians. The passage of which I speak is in 2 Corinthians 5.17ff and I find it particularly relevant for our study this week on Justification: “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” What, exactly, are we as Adventists doing in our God-ordained role of being ministers of reconciliation?

So, how has Catholicism changed through the years? Our beliefs have changed over our own short history. If it is legitimate to for us to say that our beliefs might change in the future as the Spirit leads us, as our Preamble to the 28 Fundamental Beliefs of Adventism[2] does, couldn’t it also be true that the beliefs of other branches of Christianity might change?

On the official websites of the Vatican as well as many Lutheran denominations and associations, one finds the document: “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification.” As our Lesson author notes, justification by faith is “the great truth that, more than any other truth, brought about the Protestant Reformation.” So also, the Joint Declaration says on the first page, “From the Reformation perspective, justification was the crux of all the disputes. Doctrinal condemnations were put forward both in the Lutheran Confessions and by the Roman Catholic Church’s Council of Trent. The condemnations are still valid today and thus have a church-dividing effect.”[3]

Still setting the stage for statements of consensus, the document reads: “…This Declaration rests on the conviction that in overcoming the earlier controversial questions and doctrinal condemnations, the churches neither take the condemnations lightly nor do they disavow their own past. On the contrary, this Declaration is shaped by the conviction that in their respective histories our churches have come to new insights. Developments have taken place which not only make possible, but also require the churches to examine the divisive questions and condemnations and see them in a new light”  (3). As leaders in Lutheranism and Catholicism studied together over the past fifty years, they have found “…a consensus in the basic truths of the doctrine of justification.” The condemnations of the past, thrown at each other, remain “salutary warnings” but the “doctrine of justification appear(s) in new light” (13).

In another important document, unpublished but referenced in the Joint Declaration as PCPCU, we read, “…Luther’s original concern to teach people to look away from their experience, and to rely on Christ alone and his word of forgiveness [is not to be condemned]” (PCPCU 24).  

At one event in the fall of 2016 celebrating the Reformation,[4] Pope Francis said: “With gratitude we acknowledge that the Reformation helped give greater centrality to sacred Scripture in the church’s life.”[5]

There is a vast body of literature on this topic and one can only begin to highlight it here. Of course, there are detractors as well, such as Paul T. McCain’s First Things article accusing Lutheran leadership of “betrayal.”[6] Calling the document a “fraud,” McCain notes that “It was a sell-out by revisionist Lutherans to Rome.”

Our own Ganoune Diop, General Conference Religious Liberty Department head, reported at the 2017 Annual Council on the cooperative manner with which the main branches of Christians are behaving themselves in the lead up to the 500-year mark of the Reformation. Adventism’s general attitude toward Ecumenism is deeply negative for understandable reasons. But must we cling to the idea that Churches who seek common ground betray themselves and their convictions? I don’t believe it is necessary. We should see the Ecumenical movement as a positive dynamic for our present time. Diop “noted that while many denominations signed the Joint Declaration on Justification, Adventists did not because it did not fully reflect Adventist belief on the doctrine of justification by faith. Diop said that Adventists should be distinguished not only for what they are against but also for what they are for. He said that Adventists will mingle with other denominations while guarding their identity.”[7] Would it be so difficult for us to openly affirm something about our theological family members? Does affirming joint convictions and beliefs represent an illicit revisionism or could it be an honest expression of the ministry of reconciliation?  

I wonder sometimes if our identity depends upon Catholicism and “apostate Protestantism?” Might our need to criticize others for not changing their view be a weak tool to maintain our own identity. Maybe we need them to hold to their theology and not make any changes so that we can have a foil? Does our very existence as a Church owe itself to their position? I certainly hope not, though sometimes I wonder.

The doctrine of justification by faith itself calls us to a greater whole as we accept our new life in Christ. I assert that this greater whole includes worldwide Christendom; all branches of the faith. While our personal salvation is something deeply individual, we are nothing if not connected to others similarly devoted to following Christ. Yes, even those other Christians who do not worship with us on Sabbath.

Could we not find some strength in that which binds us even if we remain clear-eyed about our differences? How many divisions in Christianity must there be? How many divisions in Adventism must there be before we shift our propensity away from being combative and toward unity? This is particularly true for us now that we have GC leadership bent on “unity” of a certain sort. If we continue to cling to that thread of Lutheran identity that emphasizes Martin Luther’s Here-I-Stand-stubbornness, we will eventually be standing by ourselves. Individually and corporately, persons and Churches who are by conviction bent toward fighting with others to establish and maintain identity will eventually stand alone.

Like most Adventists, I work with non-Adventist people daily. People among whom God’s Spirit moves in amazing ways to adjust their life and faith convictions, including Catholics and Lutherans on a personal and corporate (i.e. denominational) level. One day at work I sat in the audience of a session focused on why Catholics are involved in healthcare. A Priest had presented the history of the Catholic Church noting the Reformation as an essential part of their history. When he finished I went to the Priest to correct him so that he didn’t make the same mistake twice, “You missed a word,” I said. “It is the Protestant Reformation.” His head tilted back in surprise as he immediately responded with, “On the contrary, the Reformation changed Catholicism forever!”

Scripture for this week’s lesson has some relevance for us. Romans 3.20 (Message): “Our involvement with God’s revelation doesn’t put us right with God. What it does is force us to face our complicity in everyone else’s sin.” We might put ourselves in this text: “Our involvement with Seventh-day Adventism (and its policies) doesn’t put us right with God.” Indeed, verse 27 says: “So where does that leave our proud Jewish insider claims and counterclaims? Canceled? Yes, canceled.” Again place “Adventist” in place of “Jewish” here and feel Paul’s assertion!

Can we embrace the ministry of reconciliation? Can we break down the divisive lines that have become so pervasive among us? Can we really accept Paul’s teaching on justification by faith:

The God-setting-things-right that we read about has become Jesus-setting-things-right for us. And not only for us, but for everyone who believes in him. For there is no difference between us and them in this…. Out of sheer generosity he put us in right standing with himself. A pure gift. He got us out of the mess we’re in and restored us to where he always wanted us to be. And he did it by means of Jesus Christ…. This is not only clear, but it’s now—this is current history! God sets things right. He also makes it possible for us to live in his rightness.… And where does that leave our proud [Adventist] claim of having a corner on God? Also canceled. God is the God of outsider [non-Adventists]as well as insider [Adventists].How could it be otherwise since there is only one God? God sets right all who welcome his action and enter into it, both those who follow our religious system and those who have never heard of our religion.

[4] The special service was in Lund, Switzerland where Pope Francis joined Lutheran World Federation President, Bishop Munib Yunan. Together, they issued the “Joint Statement on the occasion of the Joint Catholic-Lutheran Commemoration of the Reformation.” The statement is available here:


Image Credit: WikimediaCommons

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