The Lutheran World Federation (LWF), which represents 57 million Lutherans around the world, on June 16 adopted the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification in an attempt to bridge the 400-year-old rift with Roman Catholics (CT, June 15, 1998, p. 12).

The doctrine of justification teaches how sinful humanity is reconciled to a holy God. Historically, the dispute between Lutherans and Catholics has centered on the Lutheran assertion that God's justification of sinners is by faith alone and consists in his declaring them righteous. Catholics, on the other hand, have reasoned that when God justifies believers, he not only declares them righteous but makes them increasingly righteous by infusions of grace that bring about meritorious good deeds.

In the joint declaration on justification, Lutherans clarify that while God's declaration of pardon is to be distinguished from humankind's subsequent renewed life of good works, it is not separate from it. Catholics make it clear that while God works in people to bring about good works, salvation is in no way merited by those works.

The 48-member LWF Council, the governing body for 124 international Lutheran groups, voted unanimously in Geneva to approve a 44-point statement that ends mutual condemnations.

"For the first time since the Reformation, the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran churches have responded at the highest international levels to a commonly developed statement," said LWF General Secretary Ishmael Noko.

Pope John Paul II on June 28 called the declaration "an important ecumenical achievement" that he hopes will "encourage and reinforce the declared aim that Lutherans and Catholics pursue the achievement of visible full unity." A formal signing of the joint declaration is expected to occur this fall.

The agreement does not open the door for Catholics and Lutherans to take Communion together. And the two groups also remain far apart on issues such as papal authority, women's ordination, and a celibate clergy.

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