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The Blueprint for the Gospel?
by Rev. Todd Wilken

"We maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law" (Romans 3:28).

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Paul writes, "What I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. . . ."1

These are the basic events of the Gospel. But what do these events mean? The answer to that question is called the doctrine of Justification.

It's this simple: If you get Justification wrong, you get the Gospel wrong. When we are talking about the doctrine of Justification, we are talking about the Gospel itself. We're talking about the saving work of Jesus on the cross.

If you get Justification wrong, you get the Gospel wrong. If you get the Gospel wrong, the rest of your theology will be skewed as well.

The churches of the Reformation have held that God justifies sinners by grace alone, through faith alone, because of Jesus alone. But how are Justification, grace and faith defined?

1. Is Justification God declaring sinners forgiven for Jesus' sake, or it is a process of continual moral improvement?

2. Paul says in Eph, 2:8-9 that we are saved by grace through faith. Is grace God's undeserved favor for Jesus' sake, or is it a power that God gives man to reform himself?

3. Does salvation come to us as a gift, or by our effort, or by a combination of both?

4. Does faith mean faith alone, apart from works, or does it mean faith and the works that result from faith?

5. And is the Gospel one among many important doctrines, or is the Gospel the heart and center of all Christian doctrine?

The doctrine of Justification is the teaching upon which the church stands or falls. Without Justification rightly taught, the church cannot exist.

The doctrine of Justification is also the center of gravity for all Christian theology. Other teachings always relate in some way to the Gospel. The point is, regardless of what particular doctrinal differences exist between Christians, the Gospel is always at stake.

The doctrine of Justification is ultimately the blueprint for the Gospel. It specifies the exact nature, shape and boundaries of the Gospel. The doctrine of Justification teaches that man is declared righteous by God alone, by grace alone, through faith alone, for the sake of Jesus alone.

But let us say, for example, that I have a blueprint for a house. The dimensions of the living room are marked as "12-by-15," but no unit of measurement is specified. I have to ask, 12-by-15 what? Inches? Feet? Meters? I might assume that the unit of measurement is feet, but how would I know?

This is even more true in the case of the doctrine of Justification, the blueprint for the Gospel. Almost all Christians use the words "Justification," "grace" and "faith." But what do they mean? We may use the same words, but we can¹t assume that everyone has the same blueprint for the Gospel.

The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification: What Is It?

On Oct. 31, 1999, representatives of the Lutheran World Federation and the Vatican2 met after more than 30 years of theological dialogue to sign The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JDDJ). This document was hailed by both sides as the long-awaited agreement on the doctrine of Justification between Lutherans and Roman Catholics.

Although the media called the JDDJ a complete agreement, the document itself simply claimed to be "a consensus in basic truths of the doctrine of Justification"3 and to outline a "common understanding" or "shared understanding" of Justification.4

Still, even this mere "consensus" was said to be so profound that the 16th century Lutheran/Catholic condemnations of one another were said to no longer apply.5 So, is the JDDJ a consensus? Well, at first glance there are some general inconsistencies:

1. The JDDJ talks about "new insights" and doctrinal "developments" on the issue of Justification.6 While the Roman-Catholic side would be comfortable with the concept of doctrinal development, Lutherans and other Reformation churches have always rejected this concept.

2. The doctrine of Justification is defined as standing in "an essential relationship" to all Christian truths, and as "an indispensable criterion" to orient all teaching and practice rather than "the" essential relationship and "the" indispensable criterion. In fact, "several criteria" are allowed.7

3. The JDDJ talks about "differences of language, theological elaboration, and emphases in understanding."8 Could this just be another way of saying, "lack of consensus"?

While there remain many individual statements in the JDDJ with which all Christians could and should agree, these inconsistencies alone should give us pause.

Those who signed the JDDJ obviously think the document is a statement of genuine consensus; but they seemed to disagree about whose position on Justification had changed to reach that consensus. H. George Anderson, presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, believes that the Roman Catholics have come around to the Lutheran way of seeing things. Anderson was asked if the Roman Catholics had retracted the teachings and condemnations of the Council of Trent, the 16th century Catholic Church Council that condemned the Reformation. Anderson replied, "I could read you sections from the document that certainly make it sound that way. . . It sounds to me as though they are saying something different than what they wanted to say at Trent. But this is from the Lutheran point of view; Catholics probably could reconcile it."9 And apparently the Roman Catholics can reconcile it, Edward Idris Cardinal Cassidy, the first Vatican representative to sign the JDDJ, was also asked if the JDDJ overturned Trent's decrees, responded, "Absolutely not, otherwise how could we do it? We cannot do something contrary to an ecumenical council. There's nothing there that the Council of Trent condemns."10 This is consensus?

Now, some may say this is nitpicking. Men can agree without agreeing in every detail. Perhaps. So, if the JDDJ isn't a consensus in every detail, is it a consensus "on the basic truths Justification"? No, it is not.

There are serious theological problems that prevent the JDDJ from being a genuine consensus on Justification. These problems consist in ambiguous definitions and the tendency to ignore relevant differences in doctrine. They may be summarized as follows:

1. The term "Justification" is defined in two different ways; as both an objective declaration of God, and a process carried out by God in man.11 Although this may seem to be a distinction without a difference, the latter definition can and does leave the door open for human cooperation in Justification.

2. Man's contribution to Justification is not entirely ruled out. The "renewal of life by justifying grace" is not said to contribute nothing at all to Justification, rather it is said "to contribute nothing to Justification about which one could boast before God."12

3. Grace is defined in two different ways; both as God's favor toward sinners and as a power or capacity bestowed by God upon man.13 One way God justifies sinners, the other way God makes sinners able to cooperate in their Justification.

4. The formulae "by faith," "in faith" and "through faith" seem to be used interchangeably.14 This is simply perplexing. One would think that when trying to arrive at a common vocabulary on Justification, participants could decide on a single preposition.

5. The formula "faith alone" is attributed to the Lutheran side, but is never conceded by the Roman Catholic side. Rather, the Roman Catholic side will say no more than that they see "faith as fundamental in Justification."15 "Faith alone" and "Faith as fundamental" are not the same thing.

6. Lutherans say the Christian after Baptism is both 100 percent saint and 100 percent sinner. Roman Catholics say the baptized Christian is a saint with nothing more than an inclination to sin.16 Since when is an inclination to sin not sinful?

7. Other Roman Catholic doctrines such as purgatory, indulgences and the place of Mary in salvation are not considered directly relevant to the issue of Justification. But they are! How can you believe that there is a state before heaven where your sins are purged and still believe that the blood of Jesus cleanses you from all sins?

So, as a blueprint, the JDDJ leaves one unsure about the exact dimensions of the Gospel.

Which Gospel?

Lutherans and Roman Catholics have clearly differed on Justification since the Reformation. So, how can they now claim to agree? Has Rome come around? In November 1999, Pope John Paul II decreed a year 2000 Jubilee Indulgence in his papal bull Incarnationis Mysterium.17

The primary papal signatory of the JDDJ, Cardinal Cassidy, refuses to admit that the Council of Trent's canons on Justification have been overturned.18 Aside from the statements of the JDDJ itself, these events cast doubt on how much, if anything, has really changed in Roman Catholic theology regarding Justification.

If the doctrine of Justification is to mean anything, it must mean only one thing. It certainly cannot mean two contradictory things at the same time. A blueprint cannot show the dimensions of a room to be both 12-by-15 feet and 12-by-15 yards. Cardinal Cassidy has said that the JDDJ, "helps us to put in a balance which does not place too much emphasis, neither on the divine, neither on Justification, nor the human but at the same time finds a way of bringing these together."19 The weakness of the JDDJ is that it can be signed by both Roman Catholics and Lutherans without either changing their contradictory teachings on Justification, grace and faith.20

What Needs To Be Changed?

What would need to change in order for the JDDJ to really become what it claims to be: a consensus in the basic truths of Justification? Several things:

1. The document would need to unambiguously define Justification, grace and faith respectively as Scripture defines them.

2. The document would need to clearly acknowledge that the Roman Catholic teachings such as purgatory, indulgences and Mary's role in salvation are incompatible with the scriptural doctrine of Justification.

3. The document would need to acknowledge the teaching of "faith alone" (sola fide) as the only, Scriptural teaching about faith in Justification.

4. The document would need to retract the Council of Trent's condemnation of the formulae, "by grace alone" and "through faith alone" as well as Trent's contrary teaching on Justification.

In other words, the JDDJ would have to become an essentially different document than it is. Like a good blueprint, the JDDJ would need to specify exact units of measurement.

Has any good come out of the signing of the JDDJ? Yes; the JDDJ has served the church by highlighting the centrality and primacy of the Gospel in ecumenical agreements. The JDDJ also can serve as a warning to the church by providing an obvious, negative example of ecumenical excess.

However, the JDDJ has also given a false sense of agreement to those who signed it and support it. The chief danger is that the all-important issue of Justification will be assumed settled and set aside in pursuit of further "agreements."

Why Does It Matter?

We cannot overestimate the importance of the doctrine of Justification. It is the teaching upon which the church stands or falls. It is the center of gravity for all Christian doctrine. It is the blueprint for the Gospel itself. In addition, James Nestingen of Luther Seminary calls the doctrine of Justification "rules for preaching, properly understood." Nestingen has said that the doctrine of Justification is:

"a grammar for the declaration of the Gospel. The very purpose of the doctrine of Justification is, rather than describing a process of moral rehabilitation, to describe how Christ can be properly preached. It's set out in such a way as to encourage the direct declaration of the Gospel to the hearer, for you. And it's important to argue about this because when the doctrine of Justification slips what we invariably get is moralistic preaching or license - one or the other."21

Paul tells us that the Gospel is the power of God unto salvation. If the gospel of the JDDJ is not the Gospel of Holy Scripture, then can such a gospel deliver salvation to those who hear it?

Consent or Condemn?

When the JDDJ was signed, Pope John Paul II declared that the JDDJ "is a sure base to continue the ecumenical theological research and to address the difficulties that still exist with a more well-founded hope, so that difficulties can be resolved in the future. At the same time, it is an extraordinary contribution to the purification of the historical memory and to common testimony."22

The Lutheran signatories of the JDDJ also have high hopes for its future and the future agreements for which it will serve as a foundation.

Anglican and Reformed representatives at a recent symposium at the divinity schools of Yale and Berkeley universities "voiced their interest in continuing to develop this ecumenical document in such a way that it would include other denominations in addition to the Lutheran/Roman-Catholic context."23

The apostle says: "No one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ."24 The JDDJ has laid a foundation other than Jesus Christ. By defining Justification, grace and faith in contradictory ways, and thereby leaving the door open for human cooperation in and contribution to Justification, the JDDJ obscures the work of Jesus Christ for sinners. If my Justification depends on my moral improvement throughout life, if grace is a power God gives me to cooperate in my salvation, if faith includes my works, then the work of Jesus Christ is insufficient to save me. The Lutheran reformers wrote:
"This teaching about the righteousness of faith dare not be neglected in the church of Christ; without it the work of Christ cannot be understood, and what is left of the doctrine of Justification is nothing more than the teaching of the law."25
It's this simple: if you get Justification wrong, you get the Gospel wrong. And a wrong Gospel can't save sinners. This was the whole reason for the Reformation. Again, the Lutheran reformers:
"In this controversy the main doctrine of Christianity is involved; when it is properly understood, it illumines and magnifies the honor of Christ and brings to pious consciences the abundant consolation that they need. . . . Since they understand neither the forgiveness of sins nor faith nor grace nor righteousness, our opponents confuse this doctrine miserably, they obscure the glory and the blessings of Christ, and they rob pious consciences of the consolation offered them in Christ."26
Paul writes: "Even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned!"27 I know that it isn't considered good form to condemn someone or their teachings nowadays. I know that the JDDJ represents a monumental effort to make the condemnations of the Reformation unnecessary. But it has failed, and it has left the church with another gospel, a gospel which in the words of Cardinal Cassidy is, "a balance which does not place too much emphasis, neither on the divine, neither on Justification, nor the human but at the same time finds a way of bringing these together."

This is a blueprint that won't specify a common unit of measurement. Sometimes it's feet, sometimes it's meters, sometimes it's a balance of both.

This is a doctrine of Justification that balances the work of Jesus and the works of man. That is a gospel upon which the church cannot build. That is a gospel upon which the church cannot stand.28, 29

This article reproduced with permission.  It can also be found at the Issues, Etc. Article Archive,


1)     1 Cor. 15:1-8

2)    The L.W.F. is an organization of 128 Lutheran church bodies in 70 countries representing nearly 59.5 million of the world' 63.1 million Lutherans. The Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod, the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, the Evangelical Lutheran Synod and several other Lutheran Church bodies worldwide are not members of the L.W.F. The Vatican was represented by the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity, presided over by Edward Idris Cardinal Cassidy.

3)     The Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church, The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, 5, 3-14, 40, 43.

4)     Ibid., 5.

5)    The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, 41. On the Lutheran side, the Apology to the Augsburg Confession states: "We condemn our opponents for teaching the righteousness of law instead of the righteousness of faith in Christ." AP, IV, Theodore Tappert, trans., Philadelphia: Fortress, 1959, pp. 113.

6)    On the Roman Catholic side, Canons IX, XIII, and XXIV on Justification, the Council of Trent, the sixth session state: "If any says, that by faith alone the impious is justified, in such a way as to mean, that nothing else is required to co-operate in order for the obtaining of the grace of Justification, and that it is not in any way necessary, that he be prepared and disposed by the movement of his own will, let him be condemned. . . If anyone says that justifying faith is nothing else than trust in divine mercy, which remits sins for Christ's sake, or that it is this trust alone by which we are justified, let him be condemned. . . If anyone says that the received righteousness is not preserved and also not increased before God through good works but that the works are only the fruit and signs of the Justification obtained, not also cause of its increase; let him be condemned." Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent, H. Schroeder, trans., St. Louis: B. Herder, 1941.

7)     Ibid., 5, 7-8.

8)     Ibid., 18.

9)     Ibid., 40, et al.

10)   Radio interview with Bishop H. George Anderson, Issues, Etc., Nov. 30, 1999.

11) "Lutheran-Catholic Declaration a 'Fine Way of Dialogue' Says Cassidy," by Stephen Brown, Ecumenical News International, Nov. 11, 1999, ENI 99-0420.

12)   The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, 27.

13)   Ibid.

14)  The JDDJ states, "good works, made possible by grace and the working of the Holy Spirit, contribute to growth in grace, so that the righteousness that comes from God is preserved and communion with Christ is deepened." Ibid., 38. Emphasis mine.

15)   Ibid., 5, 15-17, 25, 26.

16)   Ibid., 26-27.

17)   Ibid., 29-30.

18)   Indulgences are said to be a remission of temporal punishment for sin in this life or in purgatory granted by the church. They are earned by the faithful for performing any number of good or pious deeds. See Catechism of the Catholic Church, New York: Doubleday, 1995, p. 411.

19)   See note 10.

20)  Press release 99.02, "'The Joint Declaration': The Way Forward Toward Christian Unity, The Beginning of a New Ecumenical Consciousness." Lutheran World Information, Oct. 30, 1999. Emphasis mine.

21)  The clear difference between Lutherans and Roman Catholics on how a man is justified before God is often attributed to a difference between the apostles Paul and James. This difference is fiction. While Paul, in Romans 4, is answering the question, How is a man justified before God?, James is answering an entirely different question, namely: How is a man's claim to have Faith vindicated before his fellow man? (James 2:14). Therefore, James is also operating with a different definition of the word justify than Paul. James is not talking about how a man is declared righteous before God, but rather how a man (and his claim to have saving faith) is vindicated before others. Therefore, James' statement, A man is justified by works, and not by faith alone, is neither an alternative nor a corrective to Paul's, A man is justified by faith apart from works.

22)   From a radio interview with Drs. James Nestingen and Gerhard Forde, Issues, Etc., Jan. 29, 2000. Emphasis mine.

23)  "Lutherans, Roman Catholics Overcome Historic Condemnations" ELCA News Service, Nov. 4, 1999.

24) "Reformed, Anglican, Roman-Catholic and Lutheran church leaders and professors of theology in the United States have acknowledged the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification as a 'groundbreaking document.'" by Udo Hahn. Lutheran World Information, Feb. 22, 2000.

25)   1 Cor. 3:11.

26) The Apology to the Augsburg Confession says: "This teaching about the righteousness of faith dare not be neglected in the church of Christ; without it the work of Christ cannot be understood, and what is left of the doctrine of Justification is nothing more than the teaching of the law." AP, IV, Tappert, trans., p. 165.

27)   Ibid., p. 107.

28)   Gal. 1:8-9.

29)   For a fuller analysis of the JDDJ, written in advance of its approval, see Robert Preus' short book, Justification and Rome, St. Louis: Concordia Academic Press, 1997.