CHICAGO – Justification by faith. Those three words divided Western Christianity for centuries, splitting apart families and nations. Wars were fought over their meaning.

So it is with a sense of awe and wonder that representatives of three major Christian traditions – Methodist, Lutheran and Catholic – gathered Oct. 1 at Old St. Patrick’s Church in Chicago to celebrate their fundamental agreement on how sinful human beings are forgiven and brought into a right relationship with God.

Side by side, speaking in an age when some would dismiss religion as a source of violence and division, Bishop Gregory Palmer, president of the United Methodist Council of Bishops, Cardinal Francis George, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Bishop Mark Hanson, president of the Lutheran World Federation, joined other international dignitaries and faithful in a service of thanksgiving celebrating their common Christianity. Bishop Sharon Zimmerman Rader, ecumenical officer for the United Methodist bishops, also was there.

How big a deal is this in the grand sweep of Christian history?

“For hundreds of years, the issue of justification by faith divided Catholics and Protestants,” said Palmer. “This agreement celebrates consensus on the basic truths of the doctrine of justification.”

“It’s of enormous importance because it is the first point of conflict of the unfolding of the breakup of the Western church,” says the Rev. James Massa, executive director of the Secretariat of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the Catholic conference. “It’s of enormous importance for all of the traditions within Christianity that have their roots in the Western church.”

Sound and fury

Lutherans, Catholics and Methodists did not always play together so nicely.

In the early days of the Reformation, when condemnations and anathemas flew back and forth between Protestants and Catholics, and often within Protestantism itself, the term “justification by faith” often came to be seen as a battle cry in a theological debate over salvation.

Lutherans and Reformed traditions would emphasize that sinful human beings were forgiven and brought into a right relationship with God through no merit of their own. Catholics would emphasize the free will of human beings to accept or reject God’s gift, and the importance of the church community in helping individuals stay on the right path.

When John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement, came along in the 18th century, he would take points of emphases from both Lutheran and Catholic teachings.

“The grace or love of God, whence cometh our salvation, is free in all and free for all. … It does not depend on any power or merit in man,” Wesley said.

But he also taught that human beings have a continuing responsibility to accept God’s grace, and to show its fruit in works of piety and mercy. A one-time conversion experience does not guarantee a person a place in heaven, according to Wesley.

“Wesley believed you could lose your salvation,” says the Rev. Arthur Dickens Thomas Jr., pastor of Messiah UMC in Taneytown, Md., and professor of Christian spirituality at the Ecumenical Institute of Theology, St. Mary’s Seminary, in Baltimore. “It is very important to show forth works of faith and repentance.”

Catholics and Lutherans began dialogue on justification by faith in the 1960s, prompted in part by the Second Vatican Council opening the windows of the Catholic Church to the world. In this new age of ecumenism, Christian groups that before would stand on faith or Scripture alone, or place special value on tradition or free will, began to reach consensus on how each plays a role in their theology.

On Oct. 31, 1999, after nearly 35 years of dialogue, the Vatican and the Lutheran World Federation reached agreement on the doctrine of justification, voiding standing condemnations dating back to the 16th century.

The agreement states: “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.”

The hope was other Christian traditions would join this historic pact. One stepped forward.

Standing ovation

The World Methodist Council, which in 1999 expressed joy at the Lutheran-Catholic pact, accepted an invitation from the two partners to join in the agreement. In 2002, United Methodist Bishop Walter Klaiber of Germany and the Rev. Geoffrey Wainwright, a British Methodist and professor of Christian theology at Duke Divinity School, began drafting a statement.

The statement declaring the council’s fundamental doctrinal agreement with the Catholic-Lutheran document on justification by faith was circulated twice to all member churches, including The United Methodist Church. The statement was signed by Catholic, Lutheran and Methodist representatives July 23, 2006, at a meeting of the World Methodist Council in Seoul.

In their common affirmation, Methodists, Catholics and Lutherans said they viewed the agreement as a sign of their desire for a “common witness to the world, which is the will of Christ for all Christians.”

A standing ovation greeted the agreement, and participants spontaneously began singing, “Praise God from whom all blessings flow.”

Ecumenical observers say it is difficult to understate the Methodist contribution, both in giving new life to the ecumenical movement and in widening the dialogue to include a perspective that appreciates both the unmerited gift of God’s love and human responsibility to respond to the divine gift.

The Rev. Donald McCoid, ecumenical officer for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, says Methodist teaching on social holiness enriches their traditions.

“The wonderful contribution of Methodism is how the spirit works in our life,” McCoid says.

In one sense, Massa says, Methodists challenge Christians to consider “how do we move from justification to justice.”

David Briggs serves as news editor of United Methodist News Service.

“This agreement celebrates consensus on the basic truths of the doctrine of justification.”

Bishop Gregory Palmer,
president of the United Methodist Council of Bishops

A UMNS photo by John Brooks, ELCA News Service

Methodist, Catholic and Lutheran leaders recess following the celebration of an historic agreement on justification by faith at Old St. Patrick Church in Chicago.