Commemoration of the Lutheran Reformation -1517-2017

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This essay departs from the usual futurist snapshot of the Reforming Church in anticipation of the 500th commemoration of the Lutheran Reformation being celebrated this week.

“Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” – Philippians 1:2

July 5th is a special day for the Reformed Body of Churches. Their representatives are gathered to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation. Of course, there were other Reformers even more than 100 years before Luther, but history has a way of affixing a date to events and the occasion of Martin Luther’s 95 thesis posted on the doors of the All Saints Cathedral (the Castle Church) taking issue with the practice of indulgences – working for or buying forgiveness. And so it is, the date generally accepted as the beginning of the Reformation is October 31, 1517 – commemorated in Wittenberg this week, with a number of events; but the main date is July 5th.

In Wittenberg, At 10:00, 10:00-12:00, on July 5th, there will be an ecumenical ceremony marking the association of the World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC – an international organization representing many Christian denominations in the family of Reformed Churches world-wide) with the “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JDDJ)” signed by the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation (LWF – an international organization representing many Christian denominations in the world-wide Lutheran family) in 1999. This document of association, a copy in my hand, is an agreement on what had been a church dividing issue during the Reformation. Much of what I write this week is based on this document.

In 2006, the World Methodist Council (WMC) affirmed their “fundamental agreement” with the teaching expressed in the JDDJ.
With the Association of the WCRC this agreement is a significant advancement in the unity of the church. The WLF, Catholics, WMC, and now WCRC bridging its doctrinal differences of 500 years or more. This is not the first attempt to bridge the differences. Even as early as 1541, the Reformed, Lutheran, and Catholic communions came to a “remarkable consensus on basic elements of the doctrine of justification was (sic) declared in the Regensburg Agreement” (from the Preamble to the Association of the WCRC with the JDDJ).

In the few paragraphs that follow here, I will distill the document, the “Association of the WCRC with the JDDJ.”

Here are the points of consensus and agreement in the document of the Association of the WCRC with the JDDJ:

1. Justification is the work of the triune God.

2. God calls all people to salvation in Christ.

3. The message of justification is at the heart of the biblical witness

4. The doctrine of justification “has a central place among the essential doctrines of Christian faith.”

The WCRC “particularly appreciate distinctive insights in the JDDJ.”

1. We are powerless to save ourselves. What’s more, no one can respond to God’s call apart from God’s prior work of grace.

2. Sin leads to both guilt and enslavement; thus, God’s grace brings both forgiveness and liberation.

3. Sinners are justified by grace through faith which entails both
justification by grace and sanctification or growing in grace.

4. Even still, we are engaged in a lifelong struggle with sin which we must continually repent and ask forgiveness. Thankfully, in God’s grace, this struggle does not separate us from God’s love.

The WCRC emphasizes additional insights.

1. The law and gospel are not contrasted but viewed as connected by their grounding in God’s grace. This echoes a Reformed emphasis on the continuity of the Old and New Testaments.

2. In Christ God has promised our salvation. Assurance of our salvation is grounded in God’s promise.

3. Our good works are the fruit of justification.

And the WCRC underscores the integral relation between justification and justice.

1. Justification and Justice are profoundly related. The justified are called to act justly (in a righteous way)

2. Justice (like justification) is God’s work in us and among us, calling us to join in God’s world transforming work. And as the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it, those justified by God’s grace are called to transform the unjust systems in God’s earth.

3. AS there is no area of life which is not God’s, the Catholic Church, WFC and WCRC are agreed – Jesus Christ calls us and sends us to be witnesses to the gospel of reconciliation in a common concern for justice, freedom, peace, and care for the creation. This is called the “Imperative for Justice.”

4. Justification and sanctification are ordered toward justice. Our works of righteousness (justice) are the true worship of God.

5. Justification is a concrete work of God as the one “who wishes to bring about justice and true peace among people” (Belhar Confession).

6. The doctrine of justification is “the main hinge on which religion turns” and is the hope of our full communion with the Catholics, Lutherans, and Methodists.

To the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever!” – Romans 16:2

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