Lutheran World Federation

The Implications of Justification in the World's Contexts

The Day of the Reformation
October 31, 1998 Lutherstadt Wittenberg


More than sixty theologians from all over the world met from 27—31 October 1998 in Wittenberg, Germany, to discuss "justification in the world's contexts". The host, the Lutheran World Federation, had urged its member churches to nominate younger teachers of theology and the LWF Department for Theology and Studies was responsible for the program. The consultation should not be regarded as being a continuation of the discussion on the "Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification" between the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church but rather as an attempt to interpret the doctrine anew. The reason for the meeting was the question regarding the relevance of the doctrine since the truth of the gospel of justification concerns life and can therefore be communicated only if is related to today's world.

The "Implications of Justification in the World's Contexts" is the outcome of a process. An international working group consisting of six, independent persons had been appointed whose task it was to interpret the presentations and discussions with the aim of formulating a paper that reflected the group's observations. The document was presented in plenary on the last day of the consultation. It was received with praise and criticism, and members of the group incorporated the constructive criticism into the final paper. The revised text was once again submitted to the working group to ensure that the various critical remarks had been taken into account.

The text before you is a working paper that which we are sending to the Federation's member churches for further reflection on the significance of "justification today". The consultation would welcome it if the working paper were brought to the attention of the broader public as the meeting was not only an intercultural but also an interdisciplinary event.

It is foreseen that the contributions including this working paper be published. It is only in the context of the papers delivered at the consultation that the complexity of the concerns raised in this working paper become fully comprehensible.


To the member churches of the Lutheran World Federation

Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
Greetings in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.


The good news of justification refers to people's experiences and proclaims clearly that human beings are saved, not by works, but only by faith, through grace, on the merit of Jesus Christ alone. When we hear this good news and believe it, as a gift of the Holy Spirit, we receive Christ, we live in him, and thereby our lives are safeguarded in God. We do not need to do anything for our salvation, we need never be compelled to earn any spiritual reward. We are freed from the pressure of the Law by the Gospel, and thereby can live in freedom and love a more satisfied life that fulfills the Law in the Spirit of Jesus Christ.

This is the core of the good news expressed in the language of tradition. The contributions presented to the meeting in Wittenberg tried to explicate those codes and to identify where justification has its place in the thinking and feeling of people today. It was questioned whether with our existential questions we have not reached the same point as Luther once had. Do we not again raise the question of the meaning, the origin and the goals that are inherent in all and provide a foundation for our faltering, threatened life? How do I understand "life in Christ" today? And, in theological terms, does this not mean that a one-sided christological focus is overcome by referring to the Trinity? The following reflections do not set the accent on these questions but focus on certain implications of justification for a Christian life lived in freedom.

The good news of justification, heard afresh at the Reformation in the voice of Martin Luther, meant the consolation of anxious consciences and the promise of greater dignity for the people of Luther's day. All those who had been oppressed by a religious system that kept them in fear and doubt about the purpose of their daily lives and their future were liberated to live freer and fuller human lives by the rediscovery of grace in Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word of God the Trinity.

This message pertains to every people, at every time, in every place. But this message has again become obscured by new popular messages and systems that burden people's lives with anxiety, self-doubt, purposelessness, and compulsory self-justification before others. While once it was a religious system that oppressed, and religious systems may still do so, now huge and complicated systems of economics, communications, and ideologies collude to stifle the individual and communal integrity of human beings and the natural world.

Therefore, in faithfulness to Lutheran Christian witness, we--an assembly of younger theologians from around the world, who have been discussing this topic for four days--invite the member churches of the Lutheran World Federation to consider the following reflections as implications of justification for our life in today's world.

What Justification could Imply...
In the Context of Global Economics

1.It would appear that the free market system of neoliberal economics dominates the world and preaches its own ideology that people are justified by production, prosperity, and consumption; "the market" claims to justify and to condemn; consequently nations and peoples are valued according to the market's terms to which they must conform, thus being robbed of rightful autonomy and dignity. Further, the market would pretentiously define happiness while hoping to justify itself by means of an ideology of perfectionism. 2. The message of justification, however, insures and assures that no person's identity and destiny is subject to economic circumstances. Justification implies that economic systems without ideological bias can be redirected toward cooperative processes. Justification places people into a loving relationship with God and intends loving relations among people through global and local structures of mutual recognition. Practical life as justified people means that developing countries cannot be told simply to conform to the free market. Whether or not it lives up to its potential of generating greater social justice will depend on how social justice is realized within the market. What are its spiritual and ethical criteria? The reception of justification will initiate a deeper dialogue between North and South, as well as South and South, so that appropriate provisions are made for just life and trade, such as those envisioned in Jubilee 2000. 3. Justification frees one from the tyranny of the market, and impels Christians to care for those who are victims of a market that plunders natural resources and violates human dignity. Further, justification implies that we practice a sustainable economy that cares for the earth and is not merely geared towards maximizing profits for a minority. Justification especially confutes the "religion of productivity" and its assumptions of doctrinaire optimism and predestination. Justification makes clear that God's oikonomia is higher than any other economy, and it is God's oikonomia by which mercy and justice are established.

In the Context of Global Communication

4. The new global systems of communication create a society bound together by information, with a promise for a worldwide harmonious community of free and equal human beings. In as far as such systems genuinely enable communication they conform to the implications of justification, and should be used by the churches as far as possible to spread the news of justification. The promise of communication technology, however, is compromised by the fact that only a minority has access to these systems. Moreover, this technology enables the dominant West to move toward a renewed colonization of other cultures, it separates people from one another and when it comes to information we can no longer distinguish between facts, opinions, knowledge, or insights. Justification implies that we oppose the messianic promises of mass communication systems and that we encourage their practical enhancement of genuine community.

In the Context of Gender Consciousness

5. God's love is there for all, and God is biased in favor of love. God cares for each and every individual and their particular concerns be they material or spiritual. In the context of gender consciousness, the doctrine of justification draws our attention to the equal value of women and men. This challenges us to replace stereotyped or generalized views about the relationship between women and men with a sensitive understanding of the real conditions of both genders. Moreover it motivates us to identify, encourage, and train women leaders, so that all parts of the global community are given a voice and represented in the church, as well as in society.

6. Sensitivity borne by justification will properly identify sin. Sin has often been identified as self-righteousness. While this is often correct, sin as self-righteousness has not properly reflected the experience of many women, whose place in a patriarchal society has led to their belittling themselves. In this situation, women have not been encouraged to invest in themselves, lest it appear to be "self-righteous." Justification disallows the trivialization of one's self and challenges systems that keep people from enjoying the respect and full lives they deserve as beloved of God. Justification means that we will listen to women in different contexts in order to proclaim concretely the liberating love of God.

In the Context of Pluralism

7. To bring us to and strengthen us in the justifying faith Christ is present and communicated in the gospel and the sacraments, and we are obliged further to interpret this with the grammar of faith. Yet, justification also implies that our righteousness is not inextricably linked to the codes by which we communicate the faith, but is ensured by the Christ whom we confess. Since so far we have not entirely understood Christ, and our faith in Christ as the Savior of all human beings remains central, we as justified people can remain open-minded towards understanding other people, religions, and beliefs, accepting them with Christ's love and opening ourselves to them with loving witness. Justification can mean that in dialogue with people of other religions we can be receptive to new insights that conform to and yet transcend our received understanding without compromising our core convictions.

8. The message of justification in the pluralistic context holds that the grace of God in Christ is universal. We who know our justification are called therefore to practice accepting solidarity as our mode of witness. Solidarity means deep friendship with and availability for others. The justified church will relate to hardship in all contexts. Solidarity with others, particularly the suffering, in a multi-religious context means that we witness to Christ in suffering with others, instead of dominating others with our messages or deeds.

9. Secularity is part of the world's pluralistic character, and can strengthen freedom and solidarity. But the message of justification challenges the incessant infringement of human dignity spawned by a certain mentality of secularism that produces new forms of mercilessness. Over the last few years the difficulties with justification have become more critical. People are forced continuously to justify themselves vis-à-vis others and are therein both accusers and accused. Those who cannot cope with life's increased demands are obliged constantly to justify themselves or else lose their raison d'etre. In this situation justification in Christ means that God frees us from the awful compulsion to demand and to accuse, and to justify and protect ourselves. God's justification in Christ encompasses the truth of life that liberates us from the lies of life. Justified sinners do not need to participate in a pathological lifestyle that accuses and seeks scapegoats. In the varying contexts of pluralism, too, God's justified people will strive to communicate the good news in terms adequate to the context, avoiding terminology that appears naive in secularity and concepts that are alien in other religious cultures. Due to the globalization of almost all vital social processes the modern pressure to justify oneself is increasingly becoming a common problem.

In the Face of Evil Powers

10. As we have stated above, numerous new tyrants hold people in bondage. These are anonymous and "supernatural" powers which are practically beyond our imagination and control. The socio-economic and socio-political powers named above may in specific places be recognized as evil and challenge our resilience. Christians will attempt to translate into political and economic structures that which Luther called "dikes against sin," as well as to seek personal care and to provide spiritual support. In their actions Christians live from the truth in Jesus Christ. The church as the Body of Christ is realized in a variety of actions and services whose purpose is to edify and to counteract evil.

In the Context of the Church

11. The church is a consequence of justification. As a social entity, the Christian community needs to return daily to its justified identity as much as any of its individual members. When the church lives in the certainty of justification, it can risk a prophetic witness and need not feel obliged to mimic culture's criteria of success. The church must be aware that it can become corrupted. Christian freedom is also freedom to accept our guilt. Thus, the justified church can acknowledge its failures and guilt. It does not need to maintain a chronic defensive attitude. The justified church can treat all people, including its own members, with joyful graciousness and allow space in daily and liturgical life for palpable experiences of grace. The justified church will also be liberated from the pressure simply "to bring people back to church" and can take up the concern of how to be a convincing witness. Finally, the justified church need not justify itself even by reference to its theology of justification, but can and will expend itself for the communication of justification through all the world. In this respect, the church can be a message of justification and a manifestation of grace.

Conclusion: Justification as the call to Apostolic Witness

12. The Reformation, as with all revitalized witnesses to the gospel, was not simply about propagating a doctrine. It was about the Holy Spirit's illumination and strengthening of the human condition, nurture and cultivation of insight, and motivation of people to share this gift. The Reformation insight on justification included a discovery that the gospel connects with the unique contexts of individuals and societies, the consequences of which include personal and corporate liberation unto full and responsible selfhood in community. God, and only God, loves the world, loves us, and accepts us unconditionally, thereby giving us the space for change and loving action. Faith confesses: No elemental power will prevail against God's justified people. This manifests itself in our trust in Jesus Christ. Today we reiterate that God's unconditional love liberates us to love our neighbor, not to instrumentalize ideologies and to advance God's justice in ways that are sensitive to individuals and to structures and do not promote new, unjust relationships. Human rights are central to the implications of justification since God's unconditional love wants to be reality in the personal, social and political spheres and it is the power of our faith in justification which differentiates rather than mingles divine and human actions, God's love and human responsibility. Justified people will praise God and serve humankind through worship, prayer and diaconia. They listen to God's Word and have been called to be God's coworkers. In fulfilling the apostolic witness they anticipate in concrete terms that which is promised in the glory of the Triune God. And even though our efforts to promote and safeguard life will fall short and it may apprear that life's lies will prevail, justification is valid in all the world's contexts. Justified people will therefore desire eagerly to participate in God's action. Soli Deo Gloria !