First, the Bible plainly teaches that God alone saves human persons therefore God alone gets the “credit” for salvation. It is all of grace. We can do nothing to save ourselves. Believing is not a work, it is the reception of a divine gift and believing is only possible by the Spirit’s work and power. Salvation is ALL God’s gift.
Second, the Bible clearly teaches that evangelical obedience is absolutely essential. Without it there is no real evidence that grace is really at work and that our faith is true, saving, active faith. Our works matter. Indeed, they matter profoundly. Without them we will not finally be saved; cf. Matthew 25.
I believe the church has always struggled, from the days of the apostles until now, to explain why obedience is absolutely necessary if God alone saves. We have always attempted to provide good reasons for obedience so as to “prod” ourselves and our people to live moral lives. We don’t seem to be willing to admit that there is a mystery here between what we do and what God does.
I wish that my Catholic brothers and sisters would be content to say about justification the kind of thing we both say about the Trinity – the Bible teaches that God is three and that God is one and we cannot, with our human minds alone, explain how both can be true.
Another major problem is our history – there seems to have been a warped view in the church of why evangelical obedience was really necessary during the late 15th and early 16th century. Martin Luther protested against this doctrine of merit and the sale of indulgences. All of us who are Luther’s spiritual descendants are prone to see any conversation with Catholics as dangerous because we fear such a conversation means we are disavowing our legacy in Martin Luther. More than this we fear that we are returning to a view of obedience that was prevalent in the church in Luther’s time, the very thing against which he protested so fervently until the end. Many of the spiritual descendants of the Catholic Church cannot see any conversation with Protestants to be valid because they fear such a conversation would mean that they are disavowing the entirety of their Catholic faith. But Vatican II gave permission to Catholics to engage in this dialogue whereas no one gave Protestants that permission unless they study the issues carefully and then enter into serious dialogue with others where we all listen and learn.
If we could move beyond 1517, and the rhetorical and technical jargon, I think we could come to a deeper and more important agreement. Indeed, I believe The Joint Declaration has done precisely that but some of my conservative Lutheran and Reformed friends think this document misses the central points of the battle.
I am utterly convinced that the only way to make serious progress is to find a common language which allows us to affirm the two great truths which I highlighted in my opening lines. To do this we must work at not sounding like either Trent or the polemics of Luther.
I believe this has been officially done but many people in the far flung regions and hinterlands of the divided church still refuse to hear the message that the war really is over!