STEUBENVILLE, Ohio—After a year of discussing just how much Catholics and Lutherans concur about the doctrine of justification, Church officials announced they were ready to sign a joint agreement.

Cardinal Edward I. Cassidy, the Vatican's chief ecumenist, and the Rev. Dr. Ishmael Noko, general secretary of the Lutheran World Federation, announced the agreement June 11 in Geneva. They said The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification would be signed formally Oct. 31 in Augsburg, Germany.

The joint declaration said Catholics and Lutherans agree that justification and salvation are totally free gifts of God and cannot be earned by performing good works, but rather are reflected in good works.

Jay Dunlap of Register Radio News interviewed Scott Hahn, a former Protestant minister who's now a Catholic professor of biblical theology at Franciscan University of Steubenville, on the meaning of the Catholic-Lutheran dialogue.

Dunlap: Could you explain the differences between Catholics and Lutherans on the question of justification? What does the Bible teach and how could such a conflict arise?

Hahn: What has come out here on June 11 from Geneva has emerged from an ongoing dialogue between Catholics and Lutherans. … And we're not just trying to find strategically worded formulations that have deliberate ambiguities that will enable Lutherans and Catholics both to sign on the propositions that can mean two different things. We've gotten past that. Now we're trying to identify the substantial common ground on which we stand, and then from that platform we can discuss the differences that divide us.

The fact of the matter is that on the issue of justification, we agree on probably 90%, we disagree on 10%. We've been focusing 90% of our time and energy for the last 400 years on that 10% that divides us.

And so this new dialogue, the newness of this dialogue, consists in the accent marks falling on the 90% that we agree upon, so that we can stand on common ground and discuss our differences while acknowledging that we agree on a whole lot more than we disagree on. …

Is the difference with how you read Scripture?

In that light what we're hearing now is, let's get back to Scripture, let's get back to St. Paul, and let's really come to grips with what the Scriptures teach about justification. … Let's understand how the whole New Testament provides diverse teachings on justification, but a diversity that also allows for a deep unity.

So James does not contradict Paul. It isn't the case that the Lutherans have Paul [“For we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of law,” Romans 3:28] and the Catholics have James [“You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone,” James 2:24] and we're just on opposite sides of a wall lobbing grenades over the top at each other anymore. We're trying to understand how the Holy Spirit is teaching the same unified truth in two distinct ways, through St. Paul on the one hand and St. James on the other. And this is where I think the dialogue is heading and that's what makes it so interesting. …

I'm speaking now as a Catholic who has converted from Protestantism, as someone who once embraced wholeheartedly the Lutheran understanding of justification and now embraces the Catholic view.

Has this been a mainly Protestant debate in the past?

In the last 300 or 400 years, the debate has been carried on mostly by Protestants, with Catholics on the sidelines, because very few Catholics have made justification an issue. It's only the Lutherans who saw this initially as the article on which the Church stands or falls, as Luther described it. For Catholics it was really an issue only because the Lutherans made it one, and it was a matter of study and contemplation only to the extent that we wanted to bridge the gap that divided us.

And I think what we have to do now is retrieve the biblical basis for the Church's teaching and at the same time show the continuity that exists between St. Paul and the Council of Trent. And you can find in this Joint Declaration precisely that kind of thing. … The emphasis is that justification is not only being forgiven but also being made righteous. …

The Catholics have always emphasized that it's more than juridical. We're not only declared righteous, we are made righteous, and that's what I find so significant about this common statement, that it says justification consists not only of our being forgiven of sins but also in our being made righteous.

The second thing that is so incredible about this first section is that it provides the foundation on which we can understand how it is that sinners can be made righteous and not just declared righteous — and it's this: We are made children of God. Quoting 1 John 3:1: “We are called children of God, and that is what we are.”

And so it goes on to describe how we are truly and inwardly renewed by the action of the Holy Spirit. So the Catholic teaching on justification is more than just God showing favor to sinners. It's more than God the Judge just acquitting guilty criminals. It is actually God the Father adopting us as sons and daughters, giving us Christ's son-ship through the power of the Holy Spirit, so that justification means transferring us from spiritual death into the very life of the divine family that we call the Trinity.

Describe what that means practically.

We were in Adam's family. All of the offspring of Adam were born estranged from God. But now through Christ and by justification we are transplanted, we are adopted, we are regenerated so that we become sons and daughters of the living God.

The God of the universe is now Abba, Father. And that's more than a name. It's more than a label. It's more than a juridical decree. It is a mystery that goes down to the very roots of our own personal being. We are as substantially transformed by justification as we were when we were first conceived in our mothers’ wombs.

And to me, tying in the classic teachings of the Church at the Council of Trent with the Apostle Paul, as well as St. James and St. John, is the bridge we need to build. Not only for Lutherans to understand what we believe as Catholics and how biblical it is, but to get Catholics on board as well so that Catholics can discover what Lutherans have known all along, that justification is really central to the Gospel, that it is really the meat on the plate that we should be chewing and digesting, and drawing strength from.

And it's not an issue just because the Lutherans made it an issue back in the 1500s. It really is the heart and the soul of the Gospel because the doctrine of justification is what gives us assurance that we're not just acquitted criminals, we're not just forgiven sinners, we're nothing less than sons and daughters of the most high God.

And that is where the beauty of the coming together in dialogue really can bear the fruit, it would seem.

That's right. And this is why I think the intellectual rigor needs the spiritual passion because the issues that we are talking about matter more than anything else in the world. And so when we sit down at the table we're looking across the table not simply at heretics or even separated brothers, but at the very persons for whom Christ bled and died.

We owe it to our Savior to do everything possible to rectify misunderstandings, to clarify any obscurities, in order to show that the Church that Christ has founded has remained faithful to the Scriptures. But at the same time it's as humble as its Savior in stooping low and stretching out its hands and doing whatever is necessary to clarify and to deepen and to communicate effectively these teachings.

Jay Dunlap is a correspondent with Register Radio News.