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Justification and the Church - ch. 1
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  chapter 3 (THE CHURCH OF THE TRIUNE GOD) - select


  1. Catholics and Lutherans in common believe in the triune God who for Christ's sake justifies sinners by grace through faith and makes them members of the church in baptism. Thus faith and baptism link justification and the church; the justified sinner is incorporated into the community of the faithful, the church, and becomes a member of it. Justification and the church thus stand in a vital relationship and are fruits of the saving activity of God.

  2. According to Lutheran tradition the justification of sinners is the article of faith by which the church stands or falls.1 Thus Luther says; in the exposition of Psalm 130:4, which for him is the epitome of the doctrine of justification: "for if this article stands, the Church stands; if it falls, the Church falls".2 This is the background against which the Catholic-Lutheran dialogue has as its theme the relation between justification and the church. A consensus in the doctrine of justification — even if it is nuanced — must prove itself ecclesiologically. Everything that is believed and taught about the nature of the church, the means of salvation and the church's ministry must be founded in the salvation-event itself and must be marked by justification-faith as the way in which the salvation-event is received and appropriated. Correspondingly, everything that is believed and taught about the nature and effect of justification must be understood in the overall context of statements about the church, the means of salvation and the church's ministry. This is the necessary precondition by which all the life and activity of the church must constantly be checked, as was stressed in the USA dialogue, Justification by Faith. "Catholics as well as Lutherans can acknowledge the need to test the practices, structures and theologies of the church by the extent to which they help or hinder ‘the proclamation of God's free and merciful promises in Christ Jesus which can be rightly received only through faith'".3

  3. At the beginning of this dialogue document on the church in the light of justification-faith it should be emphasized that justification and the church are truths of faith (1.1) because both are grounded in faith in Christ and the Trinity (1.2) and are an unmerited gift of grace which becomes at the same time a challenge in our world (1.3).

    1.1. Justification and the Church as Truths of Faith

  4. Catholics and Lutherans together testify lo the salvation that is bestowed only in Christ and by grace alone and is received in faith. They recite in common the creed, confessing "one holy catholic and apostolic church". Both the justification of sinners and the church are fundamental articles of faith. In faith in the triune God we confess that this God justifies us by grace without our meriting it and gathers us together in his church. His mercy is and remains the source of our life. "Solely by grace and by faith in Christ's saving work and not because of any merit in us... we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit who renews our hearts and equips us for and calls us to good works".4 It is by God's incomprehensible "glorious grace" that we have access through Christ in one Spirit to the Father, "are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God" and "are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God" (Eph 2:18-22; cf. Eph 1:5 f.).

  5. Strictly and properly speaking, we do not believe in justification and in the church but in the Father who has mercy on us and who gathers us in the church as his people; and in Christ who justifies us and whose body the church is; and in the Holy Spirit who sanctifies us and dwells in the church. Our faith encompasses justification and the church as works of the triune God which can be properly accepted only in faith in him. We believe in justification and the church as a mysterium, a mystery of faith, because we believe solely in God, to whom alone we may completely consign our lives in freedom and love and in whose word alone, which promises salvation, we can establish our whole life with complete trust. Consequently we can say in common that justification and the church both guide us into the mystery of the triune God and are therefore mysterium, the mystery of faith, hope and love.

    1.2. Justification and the Church Founded in the Mystery of Christ and of the Trinity

  6. According to the witness of the New Testament, our salvation, the justification of sinners and the existence of the church are indissolubly linked with the triune God and are founded in him alone. This is attested in various but consistent ways. "God... proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. ... Now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life" (Rom 5:8- 10). "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life" (Jn 3:16). "In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins" (1 Jn 4:10). In short, God "first loved us" (1 Jn 4:19). Our salvation in the triune God is founded in the sending of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (cf. Gal 4:4-6; Jn 14:16 f., 26; 16:7-15).

  7. Accordingly, the church has its foundation in the sacrifice of the Son and the sending of the Spirit. God "obtained" his church "with the blood of his own Son" (Acts 20:28). Christ has saved the church for it is his body (cf. Eph 5:23). Christ "loved the church and gave himself up for her, in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word" (Eph 5:25 f.). By virtue of the sending of the Holy Spirit the young church appears publicly on the day of Pentecost (cf. Acts 2). Especially in Paul's letters, the relation of the church to the triune God becomes clear, when he describes it as the pilgrim people of God the Father, as the body of Christ, the Son, and as the temple of the Holy Spirit.

    1.3. Justification and the Church as Unmerited Gift of Grace and Challenge

  8. When Paul describes God's church in Corinth as "those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints" he shows by this that the church and its members live entirely by the unmerited gift of Christ's grace, for which he expressly gives thanks (1 Cor 1:2-4). In the letter to the Ephesians the unmerited gift of grace which constitutes both Christian existence and the church becomes an occasion for the praise of God's majesty and grace (cf. Eph 1:3-14). "For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God - not the result of works, so that no one may boast" (Eph 2:8 f.). The mystery of Christ and of the Trinity is the foundation for this unmerited gracious gift of justification and the church: "But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. This Spirit he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life" (Titus 3:4-7). It corresponds to the graciousness of this gift that human beings contribute nothing but can only receive it in faith: "For by grace you have, been saved through faith" (Eph 2:8; cf. Rom 3:2 8).

  9. Lutherans and Catholics together acknowledge the biblical witness on justification and the church as an unmerited gift of grace; they see in this witness a tremendous challenge in our world. God "desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth" (1 Tim 2:4). The message of justification is an expression of God's universal saving will. It promises salvation and the right to life without regard to merit and worthiness. God accepts the sinful creature in pure mercy and thus cancels out the law of works and achievement as the basis for life. God thus opens up a way of life which most profoundly contradicts that which prevails in the world: the life of love. This love arises out of faith and passes on the boundless mercy which it has received. It suffers from the distress and injustice that others experience and meets it with self-sacrifice and renunciation. And it urges the members of the church to promote justice, peace and the integrity of creation together with all people of good will amid the glaring contrast between poor and rich, and in the conflicts between ideologies and interests, races, nations and sexes. Thus the church is both a contradiction an a challenge in our world — as the place where merciful justification is proclaimed, as the locus for community and love, as co-shaper of a more just and humane world.


    1. Articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae.

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    2. WADB 40, 111, 352, 3: "quia isto articulo stante stat Ecclesia, ruente ruit Ecclesia".

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    3. Justification by Faith, Lutherans and Catholics in Dialogue VII, Minneapolis 1985, 153.

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    4. All Under One Christ, 1980, Statement on the Augsburg Confession by the Roman Catholic/Lutheran Joint Commission, 14, in: Harding Meyer and Lukas Vischer, eds., Growth in Agreement, New York/Geneva 1982, 241-247.

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