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A Delightful Restriction

Early in our marriage, with a growing family of infants, toddlers, and young children from whom we rarely took a break, Debby and I established something of a tradition. Our anniversary was the day to shop for turtlenecks to get the kids ready for winter. Sometimes we also had dinner alone together, but that wasn’t very common.

But through all these thirty years, what we’ve wanted most to do on our anniversaries was just to spend time enjoying each other—in the early years, getting to know each other better, and as time went on, remembering together the blessings of our past.

Our anniversaries could have been more delightful had we been able, every year, to clear everything else off our schedules and devote the time entirely to each other. Some years we achieved that pretty well, but not many. Most of the time other obligations crowded in on us, and some anniversaries were tarnished with unwanted intrusions.

The fault has been mine. I should have carefully marked off each day and kept business and other concerns from encroaching on it. I should have dedicated myself to making the day thoroughly enjoyable for my beloved bride.

Did you know that Old Testament law actually provided for something much like that? Not just for one day in a year, but for every day through an entire year? Listen to Deuteronomy 24:5:

When a man has taken a new wife, he shall not go out to war or be charged with any business; he shall be free at home one year, and bring happiness to his wife whom he has taken.

Think about that for a minute. The newlywed man is forbidden to go out to war, and indeed no business obligations are to be laid upon him. He is to be at home with his bride for the sole purpose of bringing happiness to her. That is to be his focus for an entire year: to make his bride happy.

Wives, think back on your first year of marriage. Would you have appreciated it if your husband had set aside all business and spent every day focused on making you happy—whatever that meant? Suppose he had done all the dishes? Or all the vacuuming, or mopping, or laundry? Suppose he had made sure to spend time in prayer and reading the Scriptures with you every morning and evening, and maybe even at noon? Or had simply sat down to listen to you for as long as you wanted to talk—and listened carefully enough that when he said something in response, it was always pertinent and helpful, arising from genuine understanding, and never from self-defense?

Suppose he had realized that, in order to bring you true happiness, he needed to work on his own relationship with Christ, since without maturity he wouldn’t be able to minister well to you, and so he had devoted significant time every day to prayer and the Scriptures and good Christian books on doctrine, holy living, marriage, and other important matters, and had frequently sought counsel from older, more mature Christians, including about how to please you?

Suppose he had paid careful attention to your wardrobe and jewelry collection and taken you out from time to time just to get you beautiful things? Or had encouraged you to go and see friends or family, with or without him, from time to time?

Okay, maybe by now you women are thinking, “Good grief, he’d drive me crazy!”

But think again. Remember what the verse says: He’s to focus on one thing, and one thing only: bringing happiness to you. That means he’s going to learn what drives you crazy—and steer clear of it! He’s going to give you the time alone and the time with others, with or without him, that you need.

He’s not going to drive you crazy. He’s going to drive you happy!

Would you have welcomed such a first year in marriage?

And now, you husbands, think about it. Just suppose for a moment that you’d had the financial freedom to spend the whole first year of your marriage focused on just one thing: making your bride happy. And suppose for a moment that you’d been spiritually mature enough really to lose yourself in doing that—to find nothing in life more delightful than making your wife happy.

Do you think it might have made a difference for the rest of your marriage? Do you think making her happy every day might have made you more happy? Do you think it might have helped the two of you be better lovers? Better parents? Better friends, not just to each other but also to others at church, in your neighborhood, or at work?

I think we all know the answer. Such a first year of marriage could have made all the difference in the world.

Now I want you to think about an imaginary couple, Juan and Christina.

A month or two before their wedding, Juan’s super-rich uncle comes to them and says, “Juan, Christina, I really want to see your marriage get off to a good start, so here’s my signed and sworn promise—notarized right here—to pay all your expenses, not just for necessities but for whatever you two want to do that’s godly and enjoyable, for the first year, including traveling wherever you wish around the world. I also promise to ensure that Juan has a good job starting the day after your first anniversary. The only condition I require is that you spend that whole year making Christina happy.”

I understand, it’s pretty far fetched, but use your imagination.

Now, wouldn’t you think it pretty strange if Juan responded, “You know, Uncle Mario, I don’t like that restriction. I want to do my own thing, serve myself, make myself happy. Sure, I’ll take the money if you want to give it to me, but it’s oppressive and legalistic for you to insist that I spend the year making Christina happy”?

Now think back to the bridegroom in ancient Israel. He’s about to marry the girl of his dreams, and then somebody reminds him, “Hey, Shmuel, remember Deuteronomy 24:5! You can’t go out to battle, and you can’t work, for a whole year. You have to spend the whole year just making Hannah happy!”

Do you think Shmuel would have responded, “You can’t be serious! Forget it! God wouldn’t burden me with spending a whole year relaxing with my wife and making her happy! I want to go out to war! I want to march for hours every day in heat and dust and be around other hot, sweaty, smelly, tired, grumbling men. I want to get into fights and get splattered with other men’s blood and guts and itch and stink for days before I get a chance to bathe. I want to get knocked out by clubs, have my arm broken, maybe get an arrow through my thigh! I want to pine away for home and long for Hannah but not be able to have her. And when I do come home, I want to wear myself out working twelve-hour days digging, planting, cultivating, harvesting, building fences and barns, carrying bundles of sheaves to market, fighting off wolves and lions from my sheep! And wouldn’t it be cool if I could get killed in battle before I ever have a chance to come back and raise a family with her?!”

Is that how you think Shmuel would have responded?

Of course not. That law in Deuteronomy 24:5 offered newlyweds the chance of a lifetime to start their marriages off with consummate joy and happiness, and no bride and groom in their right minds would have balked at it.

Some might have had a hard time making it work out financially (although I bet the common practice of a bride’s parents giving the couple a large gift at the start of the marriage helped). But however difficult it might have been for them to make it happen, I can’t imagine a couple’s having turned down the opportunity and protested that the law was oppressive.

But, my brothers and sisters, many Christians today do essentially that all our lives. We look at one of God’s laws, given us for our great blessing and happiness, and say, AI don’t like it. It’s oppressive. It’s legalistic. I don’t want to live that way. In fact, I’m going to do everything I can to figure out some way to show that the law doesn’t apply to me. After all, it was given to the people of Israel, and Israel’s not around anymore. I just can’t handle the notion of having to take a bunch of time off from work to have fun with my wife and children and our best friends.”

I’m not talking anymore about Deuteronomy 24:5 and the law requiring a man to stay home with his wife and make her happy for a year. I’m talking about the Fourth Commandment and what God says about it in Isaiah 58.

Here it is:

Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holySix days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. [Exodus 20:8–11]

And here’s what God says about it in Isaiah 58:13–14:

If you turn away your foot from the Sabbath,

from doing your pleasure on My holy day,

and call the Sabbath a delight,

the holy day of the Lord honorable,

and shall honor Him, not doing your own ways,

nor finding your own pleasure,

nor speaking your own words,

then you shall delight yourself in the Lord;

and I will cause you to ride on the high hills of the earth,

and feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father.

The mouth of the Lord has spoken.

Both laws make restrictions, and both contain—the wedding-year law implicitly and the Sabbath law explicitly—promises of great blessing on those who obey them.

Let’s look at Isaiah 58:13–14 backward, starting at its end. It ends with, “The mouth of Jahweh has spoken.” That’s a guarantee.

Remember the promissory note Uncle Mario gave Juan, signed and sworn? That’s what this closing statement is. It’s God’s signature at the end of this marvelous promise—signed, sworn, and sealed. And God keeps all His promises.

What does God promise to those to whom He gives this promissory note? That they will delight in Him, and He will cause them to ride on the high hills of the earth and feed on the heritage of Jacob.

What is it to delight in Jahweh? The Hebrew verb means to be soft, delicate, or dainty. In the form used here, it means to “take exquisite delight” in something or someone. The word is associated with intense pleasure.

For instance, in Isaiah 13:22, palaces—always opulent, magnificent places—are called delightful, and in the passage we’re looking at, in verse 13b, Jahweh tells His people to “call the Sabbath a delight,” using the same adjective. In Isaiah 66:11 it denotes the delight a baby finds in the satisfaction and consolation of nursing at its mother’s breast.

So when you think of what it means for God to tell you that if you will turn from your own pleasure on the Sabbath and call the Sabbath a delight, think of the times when you’ve seen a baby nurse contentedly at its mother’s breast, feeling completely safe and cared for. That’s the idea here.

The exact form of the verb found in verse 14, “then you shall delight yourself in Jahweh,” indicates intense action upon oneself. We might translate it, “take to yourself intense delight” in Jahweh. It’s the same verb we find in Psalm 37:4, that familiar verse that says, “Delight yourself in the Lord, and He will give you the desires of your heart.”

To delight in the Lord, then, is to experience intense, exquisite pleasure, happiness, and joy in communion with Him. As Joey Pipa puts it his book, The Lord’s Day:

To take exquisite pleasure in the Lord is to be overwhelmed by His beauty and glory that are revealed in His attributes and work. To delight in God is to enjoy special communion and fellowship with Him, responding with gratitude and delight as He manifests His love to you. This communion is captured [in the Song of Solomon] by the emblem of a luxuriant garden adorned with beautiful foliage where God meets with you . . . .

Like the pleasure young lovers feel when they get together for the first time after a long separation, such is the pleasure we’re told God will give to those who use His Sabbath as He directs.

God then likens delighting in Him to our “rid[ing] on the high hills of the earth” and being fed “with the heritage of Jacob.”

It can be a little difficult for us, so far removed in time and culture from ancient Israel, to grasp the significance of “riding on the high hills of the earth.” But it harkens back to how God, in Deuteronomy 32:13–14, described what He did when He delivered Israel from Egypt:

He made him [that is, Israel—the whole nation] ride in the heights of the earth,

that he might eat the produce of the fields;

He made him to draw honey from the rock,

and oil from the flinty rock;

curds from the cattle, and milk of the flock, with fat of lambs;

and rams of the breed of Bashan, and goats, with the choicest wheat;

and you drank wine, the blood of the grapes.

In Deuteronomy 33:29, we learn a little more of what was entailed in Israel=s riding in the heights of the earth:

Happy are you, O Israel!

Who is like you, a people saved by the Lord,

the shield of your help and the sword of your majesty!

Your enemies shall submit to you,

and you shall tread down their high places.

This was the language of victory—victory over the enemies of God, the destruction of their pagan worship, with all its abominations, resulting in their submission to the rule of God!

By borrowing that language in His promise to those who honored His Sabbath, made it their delight, and delighted in Him, God implied that observing the Sabbath is part of how we contribute to the expansion and intensification of His Kingdom.

That is, Sabbath observance can be, and should be, linked to evangelism. When unbelieving neighbors, friends, and co-workers see Christians joyfully delighting in the Sabbath, they may in curiosity, even in jealousy, begin asking questions that open the door for gospel witness.

My daughter Susan experienced that. When she went away to college, she made a commitment to herself and to the Lord. She wasn’t going to work at a job, and she wasn’t even going to do homework, on the Lord’s Day. Instead, she was going to spend the day delighting in the Lord by attending worship morning and evening and enjoying good fellowship with friends in the afternoon and evening, or praying, or just relaxing and reading good books unrelated to her studies.

Her college friends thought she was a little weird. But over the months, they saw that Susan—who is very high strung and doesn’t generally handle stress all that well—mellowed every Sunday. They saw how her practice brought a joyful rhythm to her life. Some were Christians who eventually began to embrace the same practice. Others were non-Christians for whom this opened the door to conversation about the love of God shown first in the gift of a day of rest and then in the gospel of Christ—a God who promises to make sure we have everything we need even though one day in seven we’re not working.

If you observe the Lord’s Day in similar fashion, you can find the same benefits in it—and God can use it to open the door to your sharing the gospel with your friends and neighbors, too.

Now back to the text.

I suppose it can also be a little strange for us to think of “feeding” on “the heritage of Jacob.”

“‘The heritage of Jacob?’ You mean the Promised Land? I don’t have a plot in the land of Israel, and I don’t know many Christians who do!”

But that’s not the point at all.

Hebrews 11 explains that the real hope of all the Old Testament saints—the real believers who were children of Abraham not just in the flesh but in the Spirit by faith—wasn’t for a strip of arid land on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean. No, they desired “a better, that is, a heavenly country. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them” (Hebrews 11:16).

What those Old Testament saints really had their hearts set on was “the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem” (Hebrews 12:22), “coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband,” where “the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be with them and be their God” (Revelation 21:2–3).

The heritage of Jacob is God Himself and the body of believers. What does God promise to those who make the Sabbath their delight? Himself—and a worldwide family of brothers and sisters!

How can we be assured that we’ll experience the delight God promises here? Verse 13 sets forth the conditions, and it sets them forth in paired requirements and prohibitions.

Now, the moment we hear of prohibitions, the temptation is to be resentful. We don’t like prohibitions. We want to be unrestricted.

But think back to Deuteronomy 25:4, which prohibited a new husband from going to war or even doing business for a year so that he could put all his effort into making his wife happy. Who wouldn’t welcome such a prohibition?! It was really like an invulnerable fortress keeping distractions from interfering with the start of his marriage. It didn’t deprive him of anything. It protected him, and his wife!

That’s how we should see the prohibitions God imposes on our use of the Sabbath:

If you turn away your foot from the Sabbath,

from doing your pleasure on My holy day,

and call the Sabbath a delight,

the holy day of the Lord honorable,

and shall honor Him, not doing your own ways,

nor finding your own pleasure,

nor speaking your own words,

then you shall take to yourself exquisite delight in the Lord . . . .

The prohibitions can be summed up as setting aside our own ways and pleasures, and even our own words, on the Sabbath, and the requirements can be summed up as making the Sabbath a holy day, a day set aside from all other days, a day in which, more than any other day, we honor the Lord with all our attention.

In the Old Testament, Joey Pipa points out in his book The Lord’s Day, God “sanctified places, garments, altars and other such things that they might be dedicated to His worship.”

So making the Sabbath a “holy day” means making it a day on which one refrains from activities common to all the other six days of the week and dedicates it to worship and the true fellowship of the saints so as to honor the Lord by our undivided attention.

To do things on the Sabbath that are common to other days, when they aren’t works of either necessity or mercy (as the Westminster Confession and Catechisms tell us, supported by Scripture), is to profane it—to make it unholy, that is, common.

The instruction to turn from doing our pleasure on the Sabbath can be confusing. “How can the Sabbath be such a delight if on it I’m not allowed to do my pleasure?” The confusion is understandable, but it’s also easily solved.

God isn’t against doing things from which we get pleasure, so long as they don’t violate His moral will expressed in the Ten Commandments. Of course, if we get pleasure from lying, stealing, committing adultery, or worshiping false gods, He forbids that—on any day! But if we get pleasure from making beautiful music, or running or swimming, or painting, or managing a business well, or building fine furniture or cabinetry, or cultivating a farm from which we can harvest an abundant crop, those and uncountable other things are all fine. He encourages us to do such things and enjoy them.

“Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might,” He tells us in Ecclesiastes 9:10. God isn’t opposed to our doing things in which we take pleasure.

But He wants us to set the Sabbath aside for particular pleasures, pleasures we don’t so easily obtain on the other six days of the week, because our daily responsibilities distract us from them.

Think back once more to the husband God restricted in Deuteronomy 25:4. Now, because he’s made in God’s image to be creative and productive as God is, and to fight evil and protect the innocent as God does, that young man should get pleasure from pursuing his vocation and even going to war if necessary to protect God’s people from enemies. But that first year of marriage was to be set aside. In that year he wasn’t to pursue those other pleasures. He was to concentrate on making his wife happy.

And if he spent that year making her happy, he would be happy, too! If, rather than pursuing his own pleasure, he pursued her pleasure, his pleasure would come, too!

It’s the same lesson we learn from Jesus’ saying, “Whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will save it” (Luke 9:24).

That’s the way it is here in Isaiah 58. God’s prohibition of pursuing our own pleasure on the Sabbath doesn’t mean the Sabbath becomes a dreary, sad, dark day. It means it becomes the day of our greatest pleasure, because in it we delight in the greatest object of our pleasure, God Himself, and in God’s people.

On the Sabbath, we avoid the activities, even the pleasures, common to the other six days of the week not because they’re bad in themselves, and not because we’re ascetics who think somehow we get closer to God by torturing ourselves, but because we don’t want them, good as they are, interfering with our drawing nearer to God and experiencing that exquisite delight that comes from knowing Him better and better week in and week out for a lifetime.

All this should make it clear why, if we are to abide by the instructions here in Isaiah 58:13–14, we mustn’t fall into the trap of thinking it’s enough just to set aside an hour or two on Sunday mornings for church.

Neither in the Fourth Commandment nor here in Isaiah 58 do we encounter the word morning or hour. What we are told to sanctify, to keep holy, to set apart from all other days, is the Sabbath day. Through the whole day, we set aside our ordinary pleasures, not to deprive ourselves of pleasure but to dive into the deepest, purest, greatest pleasure there is—the pleasure of knowing, loving, enjoying, taking delight in, worshiping, adoring, praising, and communing with our blessed King and Savior, and though much of that comes when we do it together in worship with our brothers and sisters who also love and adore Him, not all of it does!

“Okay,” you say. “I get it. But now I’ve got a problem. The Sabbath was to be the seventh day—Saturday. So why do we worship on the first day—Sunday?

There are some technical things about the Jewish calendar that meant that the Sabbath actually changed from one day of the week to another several times each year, so it wasn’t always Saturday. But set those aside for now.

Noticing the different reasons given in the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 for keeping the Sabbath holy can help us with this. In Exodus, the basis for the Sabbath is that God rested when He’d finished creation—not, by the way, because He was tired (He couldn’t be!), but because He wanted just to take time to enjoy the fruit of His labor—which means that rest from physical fatigue isn’t the chief purpose of the Sabbath. In Deuteronomy, the basis for Israel’s keeping the Sabbath is God’s having delivered it from bondage and slavery in Egypt. The Sabbath commandment, in other words, is rooted in both creation and redemption, and it signifies our freedom from bondage and our enjoyment of God’s creation—which, we shall see in a moment, is both the world around us and the body of believers.

The Jews celebrated the Sabbath on the last day of the week, looking back at God’s finished creation and their finished deliverance from Egypt, and forward at the promised Messiah and eternal rest to come. We celebrate it on the first day of the week, looking back on Christ’s finished work of suffering through the Passion Week, culminating in His death on the Cross and His time in the grave, tasting death for us, by which He accomplished His new creation, the church, and from which He rested in His Resurrection on the first day of the week, crowning His labors as sufficient, and we look forward to Christ=s return and our entry into that eternal rest in the New Heavens and New Earth.

Let me address one last matter before I conclude. Isn’t the Sabbath commandment really restricted to the old covenant? Wasn’t it a sign of God’s special covenant with Israel? And doesn’t that mean it doesn’t obligate anyone now?

Joey Pipa answers this objection well in his book The Lord’s Day:

We do not use this line of reasoning with the wonderful things the Old Testament says about marriage or the place of our children in the Covenant. Why use it here? The moral and spiritual commands, as well as many of the Old Testament promises, apply to us, and we may not dismiss a threat or promise simply because it is found in the Old Testament.

Among other things, we consider the context of the promise when seeking to determine how it applies. This entire section of Isaiah refers ultimately to Jesus Christ and the New Covenant people. The section begins with the famous promise of the suffering servant in chapter 53. In chapter 54:1–3 the prophet assures the church of its world-wide outreach . . . . In chapter 55:1 he calls sinners to repentance . . . . All of this material refers to the New Testament era.

In chapter 56 God begins to relate the Sabbath to the New Testament people. He says in 56:2–5: “How blessed is the man who … keeps from profaning the Sabbath, and keeps his hand from doing any evil. Let not the foreigner who has joined himself to the Lord say, ‘The Lord will surely separate me from His people.’ Neither let the eunuch say, ‘Behold I am a dry tree.’ For thus says the Lord, ‘To the eunuchs who keep My Sabbaths, and choose what pleases Me, and hold fast My covenant, to them I will give in My house and within My walls‘ [emphasis added] a memorial.

How do we know that this applies to the New Testament era? Because only in the gospel era may a eunuch enjoy the privileges promised here. In Deuteronomy 23:1, God declares that a eunuch may not enter the house of the Lord. Here, anticipating the reign of Christ, God promises the eunuch that he shall receive a great memorial name in the house of the Lord. The prophet is relating Sabbath keeping to the days of the New Covenant and the glories of the church of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Yes, there were aspects of the weekly Sabbath that were specially restricted to Israel’s covenantal relationship with God as a church under age and a body politic, such as a priest’s not using the day to pick up sticks and build a fire lest it distract him from his service in the Tabernacle or the Temple. Those aspects no longer apply.

But the Sabbath commandment itself, because it is rooted in both creation and the redeeming work of Christ, both of which reach far beyond Israel, applies to all people, everywhere, at all times. While it had ceremonial and civil elements that have passed away, its moral element abides forever. That non-Christians ignore it, as they do many others of God’s commands, doesn’t excuse us from observing it.

To everyone who sincerely honors the Sabbath day—who turns from his own pleasures and makes the Sabbath his delight—the Lord promises that he will take to himself exquisite delight in the Lord Himself and even experience victory over spiritual enemies, whether those enemies are sin within or opponents without. “Sabbath-keeping,” Pipa points out, is thus “a means of grace that will help you die to sin and grow in holiness.”

Let me set before you, in closing, a challenge from Dr. Pipa. “Is it not possible,” he asks, “that one reason for the spiritual weakness of the church is her failure to honor God on the Lord’s day? Is it not possible that one reason our churches are not more effective in reaching the lost is because we are not practicing the Sabbath keeping that brings us victory? Could this be true of us as individuals as well? Is it not possible that you continue to fall under the dominion of some particular sin because you have refused to sanctify God’s day in your heart? We lack victory because we have failed to recognize and utilize one of the God-given means of victory, while those who keep the Sabbath have victory.”

Hear afresh this wonderful promise from the Lord:

If you turn away your foot from the Sabbath,

from doing your pleasure on My holy day,

and call the Sabbath a delight,

the holy day of the Lord honorable,

and shall honor Him, not doing your own ways,

nor finding your own pleasure,

nor speaking your own words,

then you shall delight yourself in the Lord;

and I will cause you to ride on the high hills of the earth,

and feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father.

The mouth of the Lord has spoken.



Featured image “Switzerland mountains” courtesy of sbmeaper1, Flickr creative commons.

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Environmental Stewardship in the Judeo-Christian Tradition: Biblical Foundations and Historical Development

A paper delivered at the

Institute for Theological Encounter with Science and Technology

Annual Conference, October 23–25, 2009

The dominion mandate to Adam and Eve at the creation makes human responsibility for creation stewardship inescapable. Neither our fall into sin nor the redeeming work of Christ eliminates that responsibility. Rather, the fall complicates it, as the Earth too suffers the consequences of human sin. But redemption elevates environmental stewardship, making it part of the hope-filled task of the redeemed in spreading the kingdom of Christ.

The creation teaches us to praise God. And it shows us God’s wisdom and power in establishing complex, inter-connected, and resilient systems sheltering humanity and other creatures. Yet those systems and creatures are vulnerable to harm when humans abuse their dominion. With time, study, and experience, the Church has grown in its understanding of these truths.

It is encouraging to see many U.S. Christians embracing creation care. But we must undertake that task with discernment. Unfortunately, many contemporary church statements on the environment fail that test. It is important to understand, for example, the “environmental transition” by which rising wealth enables societies to solve environmental problems. This historical lesson—that economic growth, lifting the poor out of their poverty, is in the long run beneficial and not harmful to the environment—should offer us guidance and confidence as we address current environmental problems. Among other things, it points to the fact that economic development is the most important step toward improved environmental stewardship.

Neither the environmental transition nor the credibility of many claims of environmental degradation, however, is the focus of this paper. Instead, this paper focuses on the Biblical foundations for environmental stewardship and how some important Christian thinkers and churches past and present have built on them.

Biblical Foundations

Psalm 148: Creation Praises God

There is a kind of praise, the worship that is “in spirit and in truth,” as Jesus described it, that can be rendered only by rational creatures—men and angels. But there is also a kind of praise, simply by being what God designed them to be, that non-rational creatures can render and indeed always do. So a psalmist felt no awkwardness in calling on them to praise God:

Praise the Lord! . . .

Praise Him, sun and moon;

Praise Him, all stars of light!

Praise Him, highest heavens,

And the waters that are above the heavens! . . .

Praise the Lord from the Earth,

Sea monsters and all deeps;

Fire and hail, snow and clouds;

Stormy wind, fulfilling His word;

Mountains and all hills;

Fruit trees and all cedars;

Beasts and all cattle;

Creeping things and winged fowl. [Psalm 148:1, 3-4, 7-10][1]

Psalm 19 and Job 38-41: Creation Reveals God

The heavens are telling of the glory of God; and their expanse is declaring the work of His hands. “Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night reveals knowledge” (Psalm 19:1-2). Just what, though, does creation reveal about the Creator? His greatness, His glory, surely. But greatness and glory in what? The simplest, briefest summary comes in Romans 1:20: His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature.

The Book of Job contains a dramatic illustration of how God evokes human praise through creation. After he had harangued God because of what he considered his own unjust suffering, Job suffered the onslaught of God’s challenges to him. God ironically demanded that Job explain to Him various aspects of creation—a task Job found impossible (Job 38:2-11). When God finished His long rebuke, spanning chapters 38-41, Job replied:

I know that You can do all things,

And that no purpose of Yours can be thwarted.

“Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?”

Therefore I have declared that which I did not understand,

Things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.

“Hear, now, and I will speak;

I will ask You, and You instruct me.

I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear;

But now my eye sees You;

Therefore I retract,

And I repent in dust and ashes.” [Job 42:2–6]

As we think about creation stewardship, then, the first thing we must keep in mind is the doctrine of God—particularly, that an infinitely wise, infinitely powerful Creator made and sustains the universe and every part of it. This doctrine does not mean we have no responsibility for stewarding the creation. But it does mean that the design of all things reflects the wisdom of God, and the sustaining of all things reflects the power of God. These truths are relevant to creation stewardship.

Genesis 1 and Psalm 24: Humanity the Crown of Creation

In Genesis 1 God repeatedly declared good each new day’s creations. But the crown of creation was humanity. It was not till after He had made humanity that He looked at all that He had made and declared it Avery good.@ Created things derive their worth not from their usefulness to humans but from God=s sovereign evaluation of them. Nevertheless, their intrinsic worth does not make them immune to use by other creatures. After making man and woman, God said to them, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the surface of all the earth, and every tree which has fruit yielding seed; it shall be food for you; and to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the sky and to every thing that moves on the earth which has life, I have given every green plant for food.”[2]

Neither does the intrinsic worth of created things make them immune to human rule. God made human beings in the image of God and granted them dominion “over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the Earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” This “cultural mandate” in Genesis 1 bids humans, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the Earth, and subdue it.”

The crown of humanity is Jesus Christ, whom the letter to the Hebrews describes as the “heir of all things, through whom also [God] made the world[,] . . . the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature,” who “upholds all things by the word of His power.” Because of man’s fall into sin, “we do not yet see all things subjected to him. But we do see Him who was made for a little while lower than the angels, namely, Jesus, because of the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, so that by the grace of God He might taste death for everyone.“[3]

What does it mean for human beings to be the image of God? The Genesis 1 passage presents four principal aspects of this image: wisdom, righteousness, creativity, and dominion. The creation narrative indicates all of these: God creates and orders the heavens and the Earth by His authoritative word and passes moral judgment on all His works. These four characteristics of the image of God ought all to be employed in fulfilling the vocation God gave us: to rule over the Earth.[4]

Psalm 24:1 declares, “The earth is the Lord’s, and all it contains.” Another psalm teaches that God has entrusted the Earth to human stewardship: “The heavens are the heavens of the Lord, but the earth He has given to the sons of men” (Psalm 115:16).

In this dominion people are accountable to God. We must reflect God’s own creative work and dominion, conducting ours in cooperative fellowship as the Father, Son, and Spirit all were involved in the work of creation. Humankind is called to beget life after our own image and multiply to fill the Earth, subduing it and ruling over all the creatures in it. We are to cultivate and guard the garden and eventually turn all the Earth into garden.[5]

Genesis 3 and Romans 8: Human Rebellion and Redemption Affect All of Creation

Rather than acting as a responsible steward, mankind rebelled against God. Every aspect of the image of God suffered. What had been a sound mind full of the light of truth, full of the God who is the Truth, became unsound and darkened by falsehood, futile, dark, and ignorant. What had been a clear conscience, untainted by sin, became fouled with the stench of guilt and fear. The once living soul died, becoming mere dust again. He who had been alive in righteousness and holiness became “dead in . . . trespasses and sins.” The companion and servant of God became the companion and servant of Satan. The child of God became a child of wrath. His once fertile and creative brilliance collapsed into “unfruitful deeds of darkness.” Sin brought God’s judgment not only on human beings but also on the whole Earth. The Apostle Paul writes of how “the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now,” as with humankind it awaits God’s redemption.[6]

1 Corinthians 15 and Revelation 21: Resurrection and New Creation

But God had from eternity past a plan for redemption through Christ Jesus, the “last Adam.”  In Christ’s life, He exercised a wise, righteous, and life-giving dominion over the Earth itself (calming a storm), over plant and animal life, and even over human life (healing the sick and raising the dead). By His death and resurrection He saved us from God’s wrath, reconciled us to God, gave us the gift of righteousness, and restored us to life. Now those who are His are being restored in knowledge, righteousness, and holiness.[7]

The effects of the atoning death, victorious resurrection, and triumphant ascension of Christ, then, sweep over all of creation. They include people, animals, plants, and even the ground itself. They include the restoration of the image of God in the redeemed and the restoration of knowledge, holiness, and creativity in working out the cultural mandate. This new impetus for the cultural mandate flows especially through the redeemed but also, by common grace, even through many who are not redeemed. Their mandate includes human multiplication, subduing and ruling the Earth, transforming the wilderness by cultivation into a garden, and guarding that garden against harm. It is significant that Revelation 21 presents the new creation not as a wilderness or even as a garden but as a garden city. This city does not rise Babel-like from human endeavor but descends out of heaven.

As the authors of Earthkeeping in the Nineties put it, “redeemed men and women are to be ‘fellow heirs’ with Christ—Christ, the sustaining logos of the world, in whom all things consist. The idea that humanity—redeemed humanity—is to share in that ‘creatorly’ task is clearly the implication of Romans 8:19. . . .”[8] That passage in Paul’s letter to the Romans draws the connection between the liberation of humankind and the liberation of creation: “For the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” (Romans 8:19-21).

Genesis 1:26-28: The Dominion Mandate

The dominion mandate, then, did not cease with the coming of either sin or redemption. It continued, and all people exercise it all the timeBsome wisely, righteously, and fruitfully, some foolishly, wickedly, and barrenly. In response to abuses, some critics have blamed biblical teaching for environmental degradation and called for repudiation of the doctrine of human dominion over nature. Yet it is not dominion per se but selfish or foolish dominion that leads to environmental abuse. Christians, who seek to be faithful to the Bible, cannot simply abandon its doctrine of dominion.

Some seek to soften the biblical doctrine of dominion by redefining it, in the process replacing rule with service. They often use Genesis 2:15 (the mandate to “cultivate and keep” the garden) to reinterpret or replace 1:28 (the mandate to fill, subdue, and rule the Earth). Yet while dominion is not exploitation, Genesis 2:15 does not say the same things as 1:28. Garden and Earth differ, and the Hebrew words for subdue and rule have very different meanings from those for cultivate and guard. Further, the frequent claim that the Hebrew for cultivate properly means to serve—implying that the mandate in 2:15 is for mankind to serve the garden and, by extension, the Earth—is mistaken.[9]

The dominion mandate, then, must be neither repudiated nor softened. Properly understood, it gives human beings legitimate authority to subdue and rule the Earth, progressively transforming it into a garden, indeed a garden city, to serve their needs and the glory of God. Both the dominion mandate and man=s creation in the image of God imply human priority over other created things. As Jesus remarked in the Sermon on the Mount, people are of greater importance to God than birds or flowers (Matthew 6:26-30). This principle points to a biblical environmental ethic that puts human needs before others.

Biblical Law: Dominion Is Not License to Abuse

Yet this principle does not imply human autonomy in dominion. The moral law of God—revealed in the two great commandments to love God and neighbor, the golden rule of doing to others as we would have them do to us, the Ten Commandments,[10] and all the moral statutes, ordinances, and precepts sprinkled throughout Scripture—defines righteous dominion. There is no excuse for tyranny, which violates that law. Some specific laws of Scripture have direct relevance to creation stewardship. Consider several examples from the Old Testament.

While people are free to harness animals to perform tasks for them, they must ensure that the animals’ needs are met while they labor. The law of Moses contains the prohibition: “You shall not muzzle an ox [preventing it from eating] while it is treading out the grain” (Deuteronomy 25:4). We may infer from this passage a general duty to guard animals.

Yet such laws aim principally at human, not animal, welfare. The Apostle Paul, in quoting this verse, asked, “God is not concerned about oxen, is He? Or is He speaking altogether for our sake? Yes, for our sake . . . .” (I Corinthians 9:3-11). Paul pointed out that the principle was that someone laboring for others should have a share of the production. While that principle entails making sure a laboring animal is properly fed, its primary point is that a laboring person should benefit from his labors.

Similarly, when God instructed the Israelites not to destroy fruit trees while besieging a city, He permitted destroying other trees to make siege works. The fruit trees were to be spared because from them the Israelites could eat. The command’s focus, then, was on preservation of trees not for their own sake but for people’s sake—not for their intrinsic value, but for their value to people.

Likewise, the focus of an ordinance to help a donkey struggling under an excessive load is more on doing justice to the neighbor who owns the donkey than on care for the animal. The provision that the Israelites= domestic animals should rest on the Sabbath seems intended mostly to ensure that those who worked the animals should be free to rest on the Sabbath. Yet human benefit from such laws was not exclusive. Israel learned this lesson when God ejected it from the Promised Land so that the land could enjoy the seventy years of sabbatical rest the people had failed to observe.[11]

Clearly, care must be taken in both interpreting and applying biblical laws to creation stewardship. They tell us that we should care for all that God created: the Earth and the various plant and animal species that dwell in it. But the Scriptures do not tell us which are the most urgent environmental problems for our society today. They do not prescribe precise solutions for those problems. So we must not make biblical texts into clubs with which to strike those who disagree with our assessments of particular environmental problems and their solutions.

Wisdom from Church History and Tradition

Environmental stewardship has not been a main topic of Christian—or indeed any other—thought until recent generations. That should surprise no one when we recall that for most of human history until the nineteenth century, “nature” was in practice not a lovely place to be preserved and in which to escape the stresses of urban and suburban life but a harsh place to be survived and subdued. The one thing nature seemed to do best was to kill.

Pre-modern teaching on creation by Christian thinkers includes significant tensions. Some lends itself to criticism by modern ecologists as anti-ecological, stripping nature of sacred character and viewing it as mere backdrop for the drama of human salvation and raw materials for human economic production. Other teaching emphasizes nature as God=s self-revelation, as itself praising God, and as deserving admiration and care.

An early representative of the latter thought was Irenaeus of Lyons (ca. a.d. 130–200). In contrast with widespread Gnostic thought of his day, Irenaeus believed that the material creation was itself good. While the current plight of creation, dominated by the devil and sinful people, will pass, its essence will be renewed, and the just will receive the Earth as an inheritance at the resurrection. Therefore, Irenaeus affirmed, human flesh is “not destitute [of participation] in the constructive wisdom and power of God” but will itself be renewed in the resurrection.[12]

An early representative of the more negative view of the material world was Origen (ca. a.d. 185–254). He speculated that when rational souls (logikoi, men and angels) sinned, they fell from heaven, by varying degrees. God made the world as a sort of safety net for fallen souls, keeping them from falling all the way into nonbeing. For Origen the material world was a place of probation whence souls could attempt to climb back up to union with the divine, as they repudiated and left behind that material world.[13]

St. Augustine of Hippo (a.d. 354–430) had a much more positive view of creation. Augustine admitted that our limited knowledge and experience prevent humans from understanding how everything God created fits together into a beautiful, harmonious whole. Nevertheless, he urged belief in the beauty and harmony of creation, “lest in the vanity of human rashness we presume to find any fault with the work of so great an Artificer.” Even things that we find inconvenient or harmful to ourselves—even the “eternal fire” of hell—are part of this beauty and “with respect to their own nature . . . are glorifying to their Artificer.” “All natures, then, inasmuch as they are, and have therefore a rank and species of their own, and a kind of internal harmony, are certainly good.”[14]

St. Maximus the Confessor (ca. a.d. 580–662), an Eastern Orthodox mystical theologian, like Origen and indeed Augustine, had a hierarchical view of creation. He assigned human beings the highest rank. He believed that, through grace, they were capable of overcoming the five divisions in reality, including—though in a qualified sense—even that between Creator and creation.

Reality, Maximus thought, was divided in five ways, as shown in the accompanying table.

Strongly influenced by neo-Platonic philosophy and the idea of the “Great Chain of Being” associated with Plotinus (a.d. 205–270), Maximus believed that, according to the “great mystery of the divine purpose,” all divisions must be overcome in a kind of evolution toward divinity achieved by human participation. “In order to bring about the union of everything with God as its cause,” he wrote, “the human person begins first of all with its own division, and then, ascending through the intermediate steps by order and rank, it reaches the end of its high ascent, which passes through all things in search of unity, to God, in whom there is no division.” The person begins by “shaking off every natural property of sexual differentiation into male and female [a differentiation that “depends in no way on the primordial reason behind the divine purpose concerning human generation”] by the most dispassionate relationship to divine virtue”—a union achieved through “perfect knowledge. . . . Then, by a way of life proper and fitting to Saints, the human person unites paradise and the inhabited world to make one earth. . . . Then, through a life identical in every way through virtue with that of the angels, so far as is possible to human beings, the human person unites heaven and earth. . . . [T]hen the human person unites what is perceived by the mind and what is perceived by the senses with each other by achieving equality with the angels in its manner of knowing, and thus makes the whole creation one single creation, no longer divided by what it can know and what it cannot know. . . . And finally . . . the human person unites the created nature with the uncreated through love . . ., showing them to be one and the same through the possession of grace, the whole [creation] wholly interpenetrated by God, and become completely whatever God is, save at the level of being.”[15]

Although Maximus’s neo-Platonism led him to an unbiblical, deprecatory understanding of sexuality, and although he nearly denied the quintessentially biblical Creator/creature distinction, nevertheless his recognition of the primacy of humankind within creation is clear and, as we have seen, firmly rooted in Scripture. He also believed that creation was a Self-revelation of God and, unlike Origen and others who viewed the material world as evil per se, he had a scheme for its redemption.[16]

The medieval mystic Hildegard von Bingen (1098–1179) reported a vision in which God said: “I, the highest and fiery power, have kindled every spark of life. . . . I remain hidden in every kind of reality as a fiery power.” Hildegard described human beings as illumined with the “living breath of the spirit.” The Word of God, in her account, “awakened all creation by the resonance of God’s voice.” God “called creation to himself,” “led all creatures to the light,” and “committed himself to all creation.”

Many people consider St. Francis of Assisi (1182–1226) the “patron saint of environmentalism.” His Canticle of the Sun has been an inspiration for many modern environmentalists. David Kinsley calls him “the most unambiguous example in medieval Christianity of the affirmation and embrace of nature.”[17] His early biographer Celano wrote that when Francis

found an abundance of flowers, he preached to them and invited them to praise the Lord as though they were endowed with reason. In the same way he exhorted with the sincerest purity cornfields and vineyards, stones and forests and all the beautiful things of the fields, fountains of water and the green things of the gardens, earth and fire, air and wind, to love God and serve him willingly. Finally, he called all creatures “brother” and in a most extraordinary manner, a manner never experienced by others, he discerned the secrets of creatures with his sensitive heart.[18]

It is not certain, however, that Francis spoke more than metaphorically when he called creatures Abrother@ and Asister.@ Yet his Canticle of the Sun rivals some of the Psalms in the poetic grandeur of its appreciation for the natural world:

Most High, omnipotent, good Lord,

All praise, glory, honor, and blessing are yours.

To you alone, Most High, do they belong,

And no man is worthy to pronounce your name.

Be praised, my Lord, with all your creatures,

Especially Sir Brother Sun,

Who brings the day, and you give light to us through him.

How handsome he is, how radiant, with great splendor!

Of you, Most High, he bears the likeness.

Be praised, my Lord, for Sister Moon and the Stars.

In heaven you have formed them, bright, and precious, and beautiful.

Be praised, my Lord, for Brother Wind,

And for Air, for Cloud, and Clear, and all weather,

By which you give your creatures nourishment.

Be praised, my Lord, for Sister Water,

She is very useful, and humble, and precious, and pure.

Be praised, my Lord, for Brother Fire,

By whom you light up the night.

How handsome he is, how happy, how powerful and strong!

Be praised, my Lord, for our Sister, Mother Earth,

Who nourishes and governs us,

And produces various fruits with many-colored flowers and herbs.

Praise and bless the Lord,

And give thanks and serve him with great humility.[19]

Even in this great poem, however, Francis recognized that the intrinsic value of creatures coexists with their utility value. God gives “light to us” through “Brother Sun,” and by air and cloud and fruits and flowers and herbs God gives “creatures nourishment.”

The great medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) had a highly anthropocentric and hierarchical view of earthly creation. “As we observe,” he wrote, “. . . imperfect beings serve the needs of more noble beings; plants draw their nutriment from the earth, animals feed on plants, and these in turn serve man’s use. We conclude, then, that lifeless beings exist for living beings, plants for animals, and the latter for man. . . . The whole of material nature exists for man, inasmuch as he is a rational animal.” But the usefulness of earth, plants, and animals to man was not solely material but also spiritual, “helping him to know God, inasmuch as man sees the invisible things of God by the things that are made.”[20]

The two great Reformers Martin Luther (1483–1546) and John Calvin (1509–1564) both also wrote things relevant to creation stewardship. Many of Luther’s comments about nature present it as an arena in which we suffer God’s chastening, meant to lead us to repentance and faith in Christ. “God’s wrath,” he wrote, “. . . appears on the earth in all creatures. . . . And what of thorns, thistles, water, fire, caterpillars, flies, fleas, and bedbugs? Collectively and individually, are not all of them messengers who preach to us concerning sin and God=s wrath?”

Yet Luther could also write that “night and day alternate for the purpose of refreshing our bodies by rest. The sun shines that work may be done.”[21] He did not consider the creation itself evil, even though it was destined to be dissolved in judgment because of man’s sin and then recreated. The German Reformer interpreted the “vanity” to which God had subjected the creation (Romans 8:20) not as its own corruption and decay but as its being required still to serve people’s needs despite their being sinful and unworthy. “For instance,” Luther wrote,

. . . the blessed sun, most glorious of created things, serves the small minority of the godly, but where it shines on one godly man it must shine on thousands and thousands of knaves, such as enemies of God, blasphemers, persecutors, with whom the world is filled . . . . To these it must minister in all their ungodliness and wickedness, permitting its pure and glorious influence to benefit the most unworthy, most shameful and abandoned profligates. According to the apostle, this subjection is truly painful, and were the sun a rational creature obeying its own volition rather than the decree of the Lord God who has subjected it to vanity against its will, it might deny every one of these wicked wretches even the least ray of light; that it is compelled to minister to them is its cross and pain, by reason of which it sighs and groans.[22]

Indeed, Luther considered things in nature good in themselves but often abused by humans. “A wicked tyrant, a shameful harlot, may wear gold ornaments. Is the gold responsible for its use? It is the good creature of the Lord our God and fitted to serve righteous people. But the precious product must submit to accommodating the wicked world against its will. Yet it endures in hope of an end of such service—such slavery.”[23]

Calvin taught that “man was created to be a spectator of the created world, and that he was endowed with eyes for the purpose of his being led to God Himself, the Author of the world, by contemplating so magnificent an image.” Yet he also taught that humanity’s fall into sin blinded people to the creation’s testimony. Romans 1:20, he said, shows that “the manifestation of God by which He makes His glory known among His creatures is sufficiently clear as far as its own light is concerned. It is, however, inadequate on account of our blindness. But we are not so blind that we can plead ignorance without being convicted of perversity.”[24] Calvin affirmed human dominion over the Earth as taught in Genesis 1 and added that part of “the end for which all things were created” was “that none of the conveniences and necessaries of life might be wanting to men,” which showed “the paternal solicitude of God for man.”[25]

Modern Christians developing our own understanding of creation care can gain inspiration and insight from the past. But we must be careful not to read into past teachings more than is there. Awe and respect for nature, gratitude to God for it, and a desire to care for creation are all excellent motivations. But they resolve no debates about the reality or extent of environmental problems and answer no policy questions.

Further, it can be anachronistic to expect thinkers before the start of the Industrial Revolution to answer current questions about environmental stewardship. Most did not confront problems comparable to ours. For them and for everyone before the Industrial Revolution, “nature” was not an idyllic place from which to escape the stresses of urban life. Instead it was primarily a harsh surrounding from which one needed protection. Human impact on nature was minimal by comparison with modern economies.

Yet even then, people sometimes exaggerated human impact on the environment. For example, the Church Father Tertullian lamented how the weight of sinful humanity was oppressing the Earth. Writing around a.d. 200 (when world population was probably under 500 million), Tertullian saw a grim future as humanity pressed up against supposedly fixed limits to the resources available:

Everything has been visited, everything known, everything exploited. Now pleasant estates obliterate the famous wilderness areas of the past. Plowed fields have replaced forests, domesticated animals have dispersed wild life. Beaches are plowed, mountains smoothed and swamps drained. There are as many cities as, in former years, there were dwellings. Islands do not frighten, nor cliffs deter. Everywhere there are buildings, everywhere people, everywhere communities, everywhere life. . . . Proof [of this crowding] is the density of human beings. We weigh upon the world; its resources hardly suffice to support us. As our needs grow larger, so do our protests, that already nature does not sustain us. In truth, plague, famine, wars and earthquakes must be regarded as a blessing to civilization, since they prune away the luxuriant growth of the human race.[26]

To put it rather simply, if we go to history and tradition, we may well find helpful insights on our general attitude toward Creator and creation. But we shall be disappointed if from them we expect much help measuring and responding to specific environmental problems today.

Nevertheless, Christians reflecting on the Scriptures and their own situations have carried forward some of the biblical themes sketched above: the unique place of humans in creation; creation as source and motive for praise to God; and the effects of sin and redemption on both humankind and the rest of creation.

Churches’ Voices Today

With rare exceptions, churchmen are generally at their best when they speak of Biblical and historical theological principles of environmental stewardship, and at their worst when they speak of scientific and economic aspects. In the latter, their entirely proper tendency toward compassion tends to lead them to embrace, without the due caution Paul’s instruction to “test all things, hold fast what is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21) should generate, claims of extreme environmental harm. Many messages coming from churches promote such environmental misinformation and poor thinking. As early as 1970 the American Baptist Church adopted a “Resolution on Environmental Concerns” that is a model of the exaggerated, context-free, snapshot claims common to the environmental movement:

The rapidly increasing pressure of world population, coupled with massive technological capabilities, constitute an unprecedented threat to the survival of life and beauty on this planet. The quality of our air and water is visibly deteriorating. Indiscriminate use of pesticides threatens to annihilate whole species of animal life and to jeopardize vital links in the food chain. The freedom to enjoy wilderness areas and uncluttered landscapes is rapidly becoming a memory.

It is increasingly evident that the apparent limitlessness of our natural resources is an illusion and the concept of unending economic expansion is now being questioned. The total creation is wondrously interrelated, and annihilation of any link threatens the existence of the whole.[27]

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ 2001 statement on climate change, although it included some vague qualifications, embraced the “consensus” view that human action is causing destructive climate change and that prudence requires trying to stop it.[28] The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America went so far as to say in 1993 that manmade global warming was a more serious problem than resource depletion, species extinction, topsoil erosion, and air and water pollution[29]—although at that time the evidential basis for the claim was slim at best, it has since deteriorated significantly, as we saw above, and the harm to human life and health from air and water pollution was and continues to be much greater than from global warming. Perpetuating that thinking, the presiding bishop of the ELCA issued a letter on Earth Day in 2007 describing the buildup of greenhouse gases as “sinful treatment of God’s gift of the Earth.”[30] The Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. adopted “A Brief Statement of Faith” that asserted that human beings “threaten death to the planet entrusted to our care.”[31]

The United Church of Christ on June 25, 2007, adopted “A Resolution on Climate Change” that evidenced no awareness of the scientific and economic debate documented above but simply repeated widespread claims and admitted “Christian complicity in the damage human beings have caused to the Earth’s climate system and other planetary life systems” and expressed “profound concern for the pending environmental, economic, and social tragedies threatened by global warming, to creation, human communities and traditional sacred spaces.” It resolved “to respond to global warming with great urgency and firm leadership by supporting mandatory measures that reduce the absolute amount of greenhouse gas emissions, and in particular emissions of carbon dioxide, to levels recommended by nationally and internationally recognized and respected scientific bodies.”[32] Similar statements have been issued by the World Council of Churches[33] and the National Council of Churches.[34]

An important exception to the generally poor quality of most ecclesiastical pronouncements on global warming was a resolution adopted in June 2007 by the Southern Baptist Convention, which recognized climate change as primarily natural and cyclical and asserted that attempts to mitigate it were more costly than whatever benefits might be expected from it.[35] The statement displayed an awareness of scientific and economic arguments pro and con on the issue. Likewise, the National Association of Evangelicals adopted “For the Health of the Nations: An Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility” that made measured, if vague, statements on environmental stewardship and said nothing specifically of climate change.[36]

Blest Be the Ties that Bind: Matters of Ready Consensus Among Christians

Despite all the matters on which Christians can and do disagree about creation care, there are matters on which we can all agree.

All should join together in praising God for the beauty and goodness of His creation and its testimony to His wisdom, power, and goodness.

All should appreciate the connection, in God=s providential plan, between the fate of humankind and the fate of the creation. All should grieve the brokenness that afflicts the creation as the result of human sin. And all should look toward the hope of God=s redemption in Jesus Christ, liberating both humans and the entire creation from their bondage to sin and death.

All should accept our human responsibility as God=s stewards on the Earth, called to rule and care for it to His glory. All should understand that this dominion does not mean autonomy. We will have to render an account for our stewardship, under the strict standards of God=s moral law.

All should be committed, as stewards under that moral law, to caring for the rest of God=s creatures, protecting them from senseless harm. God created them and pronounced them Agood.@ He cares for them, and we as His image bearers should follow His pattern.Yet we should follow God=s pattern fully, not only caring for other creatures but also caring more for human beings.

All should be committed, in particular, to protecting the most vulnerable people among us. In large measure this means the poor, whose very poverty makes them vulnerable to malnutrition, disease, hunger, and premature death. While Scripture forbids partiality either for or against the poor, still it often associates help for the poor with justice, because the poor are particularly vulnerable to injustice.[37]

This concern entails looking carefully at the potential for various environmental hazards to harm the poor more than others It also involves being watchful for the potential that environmental policy itself might have unintended consequences that harm the poor—as when environmental regulations or energy taxes raise their cost of living or slow economic development that could lift them out of poverty.

Finally, as we weigh the benefits and costs of different policy options for addressing different environmental problems, all should be committed to honesty. That is, we should strive to tell the truth as best we understand it. We must study diligently various sides of controversial issues, remembering that A[t]he first to plead his case seems right, until another comes and examines him@ (Proverbs 18:17).

Matters on Which There Should Be Consensus

There are also matters on which there ought to be widespread agreement among orthodox Christians. As the church statements cited above illustrate, there is not currently a consensus on these points. But we believe that the weight of biblical teaching and historical experience is so strong that it cannot credibly be denied:

  • Economic development is a good to be pursued (wisely and responsibly) rather than an evil to be restrained. It is the key to alleviating poverty and its attendant ills, including environmental ills.
  • Our environmental ideal is not wilderness but rather a garden—or even a city—where nature is used wisely for the benefit of humankind and for the greater glory of God.
  • Creative humans enhance and improve what they have been given in nature.
  • The environment and the economy are not zero-sum games in which consumers fight for fixed resources. Creative people can enhance, improve, and multiply what they have been given in nature.
  • In view of the fall, we must avoid utopian expectations that all problems can be vanquished in the next generation by government fiat. Human sin and its consequences are intractable realities. There will be benefit-cost trade-offs in any policy that we adopt. It is foolish to imagine that we can have perfectly “clean” technologies without unintended side-effects.
  • We must avoid the panic of excessive alarmism about the imminent destruction of the planet. Instead we must take a sober and balanced view of the environmental problems that confront us and trust God to give us the means to be responsible stewards if we are attentive and faithful. The resilience of natural systems and the historical record of the environmental transition also offer some reasons for encouragement.

Where the Churches Must Not Bind

One of the Apostle Paul’s sternest admonitions was against being taken captive by human traditions masquerading as laws of God. Jesus condemned putting human tradition in the place of God’s law and making it the standard by which to judge sin and righteousness. The law of God, and nothing less, is the standard of righteousness.[38]

One of the characteristics of good human law is that it is stable. The stability of divine law is symbolized in its having been written by the finger of God on tablets of stone “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our sons forever, that we may observe all the words of this law” (Deuteronomy 29:29).

But the natural and human sciences are a very different realm. Ongoing developments in our understanding of ecology, in technology, and in economic conditions result in constantly changing judgments of “best practices” in creation stewardship. For example, the evangelical authors of Earthkeeping in the Nineties pointed out the changing costs and benefits, both financial and environmental, of paper recycling. These made it difficult to judge whether recycling was a best practice. At the time, they wrote, “the use of recycled paper appear[ed] to be only slightly more stewardly than the use of virgin materials.”[39]

The comparative economics and ecology of recycling versus making paper from newly logged trees are vastly simpler than the economics and ecology of such enormously complex systems as Earth’s atmosphere and the various habitats that shelter global biodiversity. Significant revisions of our understanding of these matters occur over and over. For instance, famed climatologist James Hansen of NASA changed his view from warning of an ice age starting around 2020 to warning of catastrophic global warming. But famed geochemist Claude Allegre went from being one of the earliest to warn of manmade global warming to being one of the chief critics of the theory.[40] Such rapidly evolving understanding implies that much that we consider understanding at any given time may later turn out to be misunderstanding.

This characteristic of science stands in stark contrast with the stability of Biblical law. It is an important reason why Christians should not presume to make current science or economics the basis for judgments of sin. While government regulation often must be adopted on the basis of shifting science, theological and ecclesiastical judgments of sin and righteousness should be based only on the unchanging standard of God=s moral law revealed in Scripture. Only that can bind the conscience. Pronouncements that individuals or churches have a moral obligation to support one or another policy regarding creation care, therefore, are fraught with the danger of substituting changing human standards for the abiding standard of divine law.

Pastors, other religious leaders, and ecclesiastical bodies should exercise great caution in making pronouncements about environmental issues. Particularly, they should refrain from calling sin what cannot be shown to be sin from the unchanging law of God in Scripture. Thus they will avoid make binding pronouncements on questions like these:

  1. How do we assess different factors that might be causing global warming?
  2. What is the likely extent of future global warming? Will its effects be catastrophic or manageable?
  3. Is prevention or adaptation a better strategy?
  4. If we seek to prevent global warming, is a given policy too strict, too lax, or just about right?
  5. Is global warming our top environmental problem, the issue of the age, or is it a misguided panic?
  6. Should U.S. energy policy give greater emphasis to fossil fuels, nuclear power, or solar power? What is the best mix of conserving current energy supplies versus expanding energy supplies?

On none of these questions does the Church have the expertise or the authority to proclaim, “Thus says the Lord.” It should leave these matters open for debate among well-intentioned Christians who agree about their environmental responsibilities while disagreeing about the best means of fulfilling them.

Some Tentative Theses for Further Study

Aside from the biblical teachings on which Christians have or should have consensus, and the scientific and policy questions on which consensus is not possible (or even necessarily desirable at this point), there are also matters that fall into a middle ground. These are matters on which there are no plain biblical directives. Nevertheless, reason and experience point strongly in one direction, I believe. Perhaps further study and the passage of time might yield an informal consensus, although not a binding doctrine.

With that hope, I submit these tentative theses for discussion in the U.S. Christian community:

  1. Providing pure drinking water to the poor and protecting them from indoor air pollution may be the most important environmental tasks for today.
  2. Preventing predicted global warming is probably near the bottom of the list of environmental challenges.
  3. In responding to possible climate changes, adaptation is probably a better strategy than prevention
  4. Over and above specific environmental challenges, overcoming poverty through economic development is the best long-term strategy for improving the environment.
  5. The environmental transition is already well advanced in the developed countries, and we should be grateful rather than alarmed at the growth of our economies.
  6. The environmental transition is feasible in developing countries, especially with just and accountable governments that allow economic and political freedom to their peoples and thereby reap the benefits of free trade.
  7. By contrast, the empowerment of unaccountable international regulatory bureaucracies that rob the sovereignty of more accountable democratic national governments would not be a step in the right direction.


Featured image “Coast Redwood forest and understory plants” in Redwood National Park, California, by Michael Schweppe, Wikimedia Commons



[1]This and all subsequent Bible quotations are from the New American Standard Bible.

[2]Genesis 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31, 29

[3]Genesis 1:26, 28; cf. Psalm 8:4-8; Hebrews 1:2-3; 2:8-9

[4]Genesis 1:26, 28

[5]Genesis 2:16-17; 1:1-3; Revelation 22:1-5

[6]Genesis 3:1-17; Romans 1:21; Ephesians 4:17-18; Titus 1:15; Genesis 2:7, 17; 3:19; Ephesians 2:1-3; 5:11.; Romans 8:22-23

[7]1 Corinthians 15:45; Colossians 2:3; Colossians 3:10; 1 John 2:2; 1 Corinthians 15:45; Mark 4:37-39; 5:21-43; Matthew 14:13-21; Romans 5:9-11, 19, 21; Ephesians 4:24

[8]Loren Wilkinson, ed., Earthkeeping in the Nineties: Stewardship of Creation, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 108.

[9]Francis Brown, S. R. Driver, and Charles A. Briggs, edsd., A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament, trans. Edward Robinson (Oxford: Clarendon Press, [1907] 1978), 461, 712-13, 921-2, and 1,036.

[10]Matthew 22:37-39; 7:12; Exodus 20:1-17

[11]1 Timothy 5:18; Deuteronomy 5:14; 20:19-20; Exodus 23:5-6; Leviticus 25:3-4; 26:34, 43; 2 Chronicles 36:21; Mark 2:27

[12]Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 5.36.1, 5.32.2, 5.3.2-3.

[13]Origen, de Principiis, 5.6.2.

[14]Augustine, City of God, 12.4.5.

[15]Maximus the Confessor, The Difficulties, 1304D-1308C, in Maximus the Confessor, translated by Andrew Louth (New York: Routledge, 1996), 156-8.

[16]John Hart, Sacramental Commons: Christian Ecological Ethics (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006), 9.

[17]David Kinsley, A>Christianity as Ecologically Harmful= and >Christianity as Ecologically Responsible,=@ in This Sacred Earth: Religion, Nature, Environment, ed. Roger S. Gottlieb (New York: Routledge, 1996), 104-24, at 121.

[18]Cited in Kinsley, 122.

[19]Cited in Roger Sorrell, St. Francis of Assisi and Nature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), 68.

[20]Cited in H. Paul Santmire, The Travail of Nature: The Ambiguous Ecological Promise of Christian Theology (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985), 91-2.

[21]Cited in Kinsley, AChristianity as Ecologically . . .,@ 111-112.

[22]Martin Luther, Sermon on Romans 8:1822, Fourth Sunday After Trinity, 1535, in The Complete Sermons of Martin Luther, 7 vols., ed. John Nicholas Lenker, trans. John Nicholas Lenker et al. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000), 4.2.96-118, at 105-112.

[23]Martin Luther, Sermon on Romans 8:1822, Fourth Sunday After Trinity, 1535, in The Complete Sermons of Martin Luther, 7 vols., ed. John Nicholas Lenker, trans. John Nicholas Lenker et al. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000), 4.2.96-118, at 105-107.

[24]John Calvin, The Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Romans and to the Thessalonians, trans. Ross Mackenzie, ed. David W. Torrance and Thomas F. Torrance (Calvin=s Commentaries, 12 vols.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1973), 8:31.

[25]John Calvin, Commentaries on the First Book of Moses Called Genesis, trans. John King (Calvin=s Commentaries, 22 vols.; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984), 1.1.96.

[26]Tertullian, Opera II: Opera monastica, cited in Susan Power Bratton, Six Billion & More: Human Population Regulation and Christian Ethics (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992), 76.

[27]American Baptist Church, AResolution on Environmental Concerns,@ 1970, modified 1988, 1995, online at

[28]U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, AGlobal Climate Change: A Plea for Dialogue, Prudence, and the Common Good,@ June 15, 2001, online at

[29]Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, ACaring for Creation: Vision, Hope, and Justice,@ August 28, 1993, online at‑We‑Believe/Social‑Issues/Social‑Statements/Environment.aspx.

[30]Mark S. Hanson, Earth Day letter, April 2007, online at

[31]Presbyterian Church in the USA, AThe Brief Statement of Faith,@ undated, online at

[32]United Church of Christ, AA Resolution on Climate Change,@ June 25, 2007, online at

[33]World Council of Churches, AA call to action in solidarity with those most affected by climate change,@ November, 2002, online at

[34]National Council of Churches News Service, ATheologians Warn of >False Gospel= on the Environment,@ February 14, 2005, online at

[35]Southern Baptist Convention, Resolution #5,  AOn Global Warming,@ June 2007, online at‑06.asp?ID=6.

[36]National Association of Evangelicals, AFor the Health of the Nations: An Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility,@ 2004, online at

[37]Exodus 23:3, 6; Leviticus 19:16; Psalm 72:2, 4; 83:3; 140:12; Proverbs 29:14; 31:9

[38] Colossians 2:1-4, 8, 18-23; Matthew 15:1-6

[39]Wilkinson, ed., Earthkeeping in the Nineties, 381-2.

[40]John McCaslin, ACold Yet?@, The Washington Times, September 19, 2007, online at; Lawrence Solomon, AAllegre=s Second Thoughts,@ Financial Post, March 2, 2007, online at‑5b0d‑4b59‑8705‑fc28f14da388.

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How did the Reformers and the Roman Catholic Church Define Justification, and Why?


Olli-Pekka Vainio, in “Martin Luther and Justification,” Oxford Research Encyclopedia:

The common understanding of the Reformers was that the doctrine of justification is the one by which the church stands or falls (doctrina stantis et cadentis ecclesiae), even though this particular phrase did not become widely used until the 17th century. Nevertheless, the doctrine of justification was without doubt among the most important themes debated during, and long after, the Reformation. For Lutherans, the doctrine of justification is the central doctrine; everything else flows from it, and all the other doctrines can be referred to it. Luther teaches in his Smalcald Articles (1537): “On this article [i.e., justification] stands all that we teach and practice against the pope, the devil, and the world. Therefore, we must be quite certain and have no doubt about it. Otherwise everything is lost, and the pope and the devil and whatever opposes us will gain victory and be proved right.”

  1. Biblical background

    1. That God justifies sinners is a core teaching of Scripture.
      1. Isaiah 45:22-25 “Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other.  23 By myself I have sworn; from my mouth has gone out in righteousness a word that shall not return: ‘To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear allegiance.’  24 Only in the LORD, it shall be said of me, are righteousness and strength; to him shall come and be ashamed all who were incensed against him.  25 In the LORD all the offspring of Israel shall be justified and shall glory.”
      2. Romans 4:5 And to the one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness
      3. Romans 8:33 Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies.
      4. Romans 3:30 He will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith.
      5. Galatians 3:8 the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.”
      6. Romans 3:20-26 by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.  21 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it-  22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction:  23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,  24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,  25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.  26 It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
      7. 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality,  10 nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.  11 And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.
    2.  On what grounds might God justify people?
      1. On the grounds of their own righteousness, that is, obedience to the law?
        1. On the one hand, Romans 2:13 it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified
        2. But on the other hand, Romans 3:20 by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.
      2. On the grounds of God’s/Christ’s own righteousness credited/imputed to them.
        1. Romans 3:20-24 by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.  21 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it-  22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction:  23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,  24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus
        2. Romans 5:9-19 Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God.  10 For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.  11 More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.  12 Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned— 13 for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law.  14 Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come.  15 But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many.  16 And the free gift is not like the result of that one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought   17 If, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.  18 Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men.  19 For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.
    3. How do we receive this justification?
      1. By obedience to the law—by doing righteousness and being righteous ourselves and so meriting our being justified—our justification?
        1. Romans 3:20 by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.
        2. Romans 4:1-2 What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh?  2 For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God.
        3. Galatians 5:4 You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace.
      2. By faith receiving as a gift of grace the righteousness of Christ as our own and in the place of our unrighteousness.
        1. Romans 3:20-24 by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.  21 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it-  22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction:  23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,  24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,
        2. Romans 3:28 For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.
        3. Romans 4:2-8  if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God.  3 For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.”  4 Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due.  5 And to the one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness,  6 just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works:  7 “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered;  8 blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.”
        4. Romans 4:22-25 faith was “counted to him [Abraham] as righteousness.”  23 But the words “it was counted to him” were not written for his sake alone,  24 but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord,  25 who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our
        5. Romans 5:1 since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.
        6. Romans 5:9 Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God.
        7. Romans 10:10 For with the heart one believes and is justified,
        8. Galatians 2:16 a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be
        9. Galatians 3:11 no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.”
        10. Galatians 3:24 the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith.
        11. Titus 3:4-7 when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared,  5 he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit,  6 whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior,  7 so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.
      3. What about what James says about Abraham and Rahab?
        1. James 2:20-26 Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless?  21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar?  22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works;  23 and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”- and he was called a friend of God.  24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.  25 And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way?  26 For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.
        2. The context: James 2:14-20 What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?  15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food,  16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?  17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.  18 But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.  19 You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe- and shudder!  20 Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless?
          1. Paul addresses the ground on which God justifies us: Christ’s righteousness imputed to us by faith, which God sees directly.
          2. James addresses the ground on which other men justify us: the works, which men can see, that are the fruit of faith, which men cannot see.
          3. Second Helvetic Confession (1536), XV: “in this matter we are not speaking of a fictitious, empty, lazy and dead faith, but of a living, quickening faith. It is and is called a living faith because it apprehends Christ who is life and makes alive, and shows that it is alive by living works. And so James does not contradict anything in this doctrine of ours. For he speaks of an empty, dead faith of which some boasted but who did not have Christ living in them by faith”
          4. Formula of Concord (1577) III.42: “when we speak of faith, how it justifies, the doctrine of St. Paul is that faith alone, without works, justifies, Rom. 3:28, inasmuch as it applies and appropriates to us the merit of Christ, as has been said. But if the question is, wherein and whereby a Christian can perceive and distinguish, either in himself or in others, a true living faith from a feigned and dead faith (since many idle, secure Christians imagine for themselves a delusion in place of faith, while they nevertheless have no true faith), the Apology [Defense of the Augsburg Confession] gives this answer: James calls that dead faith where good works and fruits of the Spirit of every kind do not follow.”
    4. What is justification? What does it mean to justify someone?
      1. In the Old Testament
        1. Job 32:2 Then Elihu the son of Barachel the Buzite, of the family of Ram, burned with anger. He burned with anger at Job because he justified himself rather than God.
        2. Job 33:31-32 [Elihu says to Job:] Pay attention, O Job, listen to me; be silent, and I will speak.  32 If you have any words, answer me; speak, for I desire to justify
        3. Psalm 51:4 Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment.
        4. Isaiah 45:23-25 By myself I have sworn; from my mouth has gone out in righteousness a word that shall not return: ‘To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear allegiance.’  24 “Only in the LORD, it shall be said of me, are righteousness and strength; to him shall come and be ashamed all who were incensed against him.  25 In the LORD all the offspring of Israel shall be justified and shall glory.”
        5. Proverbs 17:15 He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous are both alike an abomination to the LORD.
      2. In the New Testament
        1. Matthew 11:19 The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds.”
        2. Matthew 12:36-37 I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak,  37 for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”
        3. Luke 7:35 wisdom is justified by all her children.
        4. Luke 10:25-37 behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”  26 He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?”  27 And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”  28 And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”  29 But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”  30 Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead.  31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side.  32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.  33 But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion.  34 He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him.  35 And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’  36 Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?”  37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.”
          1. Note that the lawyer who wanted to “justify” himself wound up justifying the Samaritan by his answer to Jesus’ question, “Which … proved to be a neighbor?”—“The one who showed him mercy.”
        5. Luke 16:14-15 The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all these things, and they ridiculed him.  15 And he said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts.
        6. Luke 18:10-14 Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.  11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.  12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’  13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’  14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.
        7. Acts 19:40 [In the midst of a riot against Paul’s preaching, the town clerk of Ephesus said to the crowd:] we really are in danger of being charged with rioting today, since there is no cause that we can give to justify this commotion.
        8. Romans 3:4 Let God be true though every one were a liar, as it is written, “That you may be justified in your words, and prevail when you are judged.”
        9. Romans 8:28-34 for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.  29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.  30 And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.  31 What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?  32 He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?  33 Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies.  34 Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died- more than that, who was raised- who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.
        10. 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality,  10 nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.  11 And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.
          1. Note the aorist tense, denoting a punctiliar, instantaneous act, and the passive voice, denoting an action received, not done, by the subjects: you were washed, were sanctified, were justified—all having to denote not an ongoing process but instantaneous events that are past for these people.
        11. Romans 3:21-26 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it-  22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction:  23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,  24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,  25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.  26 It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
          1. Paul contrasts God as “justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” with God as the One who “in his divine forbearance … had passed over former sins,” i.e., not condemned those who committed them. So justifying is the opposite of condemning.
  2.  How did the Roman Catholic Church define justification? We’ll consider separately their definition and the process by which they reached it.

    1. Note: Remember that Roman Catholicism didn’t officially define justification or how it is received until the Council of Trent, Sixth Session, January, 1547, after the Lutherans and Reformed had defined it.
    2. Their definition
      1. Council of Trent, Sixth Session, Chapter 7: “…Justification … is not remission of sins merely, but also the sanctification and renewal of the inward man, through the voluntary reception of the grace, and of the gifts, whereby man of unjust becomes just, and of an enemy a friend, that so he may be an heir according to hope of life everlasting.”
    3. Their process
      1. Jerome (347–420) used the Latin verb iustificare to translate Hebrew words meaning “to be righteous” or “to declare or be declared righteous.” E.g.:
        1. Psalm 51:4, David confesses his sin to God, saying, “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified [Hebrew tsadaq] in your words and blameless in your judgment.” Of course David’s sin against God didn’t make God righteous; God already was righteous.
        2. Proverbs 17:15, “He who justifies [Hebrew tsadaq] the wicked and he who condemns the righteous are both alike an abomination to the LORD.” Of course, someone who literally made the wicked righteous—transformed them from wicked to righteous—would not be an abomination to the Lord at all.
        3. Jerome chose iustificare to translate these and similar instances from Hebrew.
          1. He seems not to have thought of iustificare as “to make righteous.”
          2. But later Roman Catholic thinkers did, assuming that the word was constructed from two Latin roots, ius, just, and facere, to make.
          3. So the Roman Catholic definitions of justify and justification are rooted in Jerome’s mistranslation of the Hebrew and Greek terms.
  3.  How did the Reformers define justification? We’ll consider separately their definition and the process by which they reached it.

    1. Their definition
      1. Augsburg Confession (1530), by Luther and his colleagues in Wittenberg, Article IV: “1] … men cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works, but are freely justified for 2] Christ’s sake, through faith, when they believe that they are received into favor, and that their sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake, who, by His death, has made satisfaction for our sins. 3] This faith God imputes for righteousness in His sight.”
      2. Second Helvetic Confession (1536), by Heinrich Bullinger and colleagues in Basel, Article XV: “According to the apostle in his treatment of justification, to justify means to remit sins, to absolve from guilt and punishment, to receive into favor, and to pronounce a man just.”
      3. John Calvin, Institutes, 1543 edition, 3.11.2: “… we explain justification simply as the acceptance with which God receives us into his favor as righteous men. And we say that it consists in the remission of sins and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness.”
      4. Formula of Concord (1577)
        1. 9: “poor sinful man is justified before God, that is, absolved and declared free and exempt from all his sins, and from the sentence of well-deserved condemnation”
        2. 17: “the word justify … means to declare righteous and free from sins, and to absolve one from eternal punishment for the sake of Christ’s righteousness”
        3. 22: “when we teach that through the operation of the Holy Ghost we are born anew and justified, the sense is not that after regeneration no unrighteousness clings any more to the …, but that Christ covers all their sins … with His complete obedience. But irrespective of this they are declared and regarded godly and righteous by faith and for the sake of Christ’s obedience …, although, on account of their corrupt nature, they still are and remain sinners”
        4. 23: “the righteousness of faith before God consists in the gracious imputation of the righteousness of Christ, without the addition of our works, so that our sins are forgiven us and covered, and are not imputed, Rom. 4:6ff”
      5. Westminster Larger Catechism (1648), Q. 70: “What is justification?” A: “Justification is an act of God’s free grace unto sinners,[286] in which he pardoneth all their sins, accepteth and accounteth their persons righteous in his sight ….”
    2. Their process
      1. Some Roman Catholics think that the Reformers defined justification “by fiat,” that is, without any good reason, as declaring someone righteous, acquitting him. The Reformers’ own writings show clearly that that wasn’t the case. Here are a few examples.
      2. Second Helvetic Confession (1536), XV: “For in his epistle to the Romans the apostle says: “It is God who justifies; who is to condemn?” (Rom. 8:33). To justify and to condemn are opposed. And in The Acts of the Apostles the apostle states: “Through Christ forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and by him everyone that believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses” (Acts 13:38 f.). For in the Law and also in the Prophets we read: “If there is a dispute between men, and they come into court…the judges decide between them, acquitting the innocent and condemning the guilty” (Deut. 25:1). And in Isa., ch. 5: “Woe to those…who aqcuit the guilty for a bribe.”
      3. Formula of Concord (1577), III.17: “the word justify here means to declare righteous and free from sins, and to absolve one from eternal punishment for the sake of Christ’s righteousness, which is imputed by God to faith, Phil. 3:9. For this use and understanding of this word is common in the Holy Scriptures of the Old and the New Testament. Prov. 17:15: He that justifieth the wicked, and he that condemneth the just, even they both are abomination to the Lord. Is. 5:23: Woe unto them which justify the wicked for reward, and take away the righteousness of the righteous from him! Rom. 8:33: Who shall lay anything to the charge of God’s elect? It is God that justifieth, that is, absolves from sins and acquits.”
      4. John Calvin, Institutes, 1559 edition, 3.11.3: “First, when Luke relates that the people, having heard Christ, justified God [Luke 7:29], and when Christ declares that ‘wisdom is justified by … her children’ [Luke 7:35], Luke in the former passage (v. 29) does not mean that they confer righteousness. For righteousness always remains undivided with God, although the whole world tries to snatch it away from him. Nor does he, in v. 35, intend to justify the doctrine of salvation, which is righteous in itself. Rather, both expressions have the same force—to render to God and his teaching the praise they deserve. On the other hand, when Christ upbraids the Pharisees for justifying themselves [Luke 16:15], he does not mean that they acquire righteousness by well-doing but that they ambitiously seize upon a reputation for righteousness of which they are devoid. Those skilled in the Hebrew language better understand this sense: where not only those who are conscious of their crime but those who undergo the judgment of damnation are called ‘wicked.’ For when Bathsheba says that she and Solomon will be wicked [I Kings 1:21], she does not acknowledge any offense. But she complains that she and her son are going to be put to shame, to be counted among the wicked and condemned.”
      5. Martin Chemnitz (1522–1586), known as “the Second Martin,” lecturer in theology at Wittenberg and then at Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel, spent many pages in his Examination of the Council of Trent (1565–1573) demonstrating the forensic sense of justification in Scripture.
      6. Francis Turretin (1623–1687), professor of theology at the Academy of Geneva beginning in 1653, Institutes of Elenctic Theology:
        1. 1.4: “The word htsdyq, to which the Greek dikaioun answers and the Latin justificare, is used in two ways in the Scriptures—properly and improperly. Properly the verb is forensic [relating to a pronunciation of judgment], put for ‘to absolve’ anyone in a trial or ‘to hold’ and to declare ‘just’; as opposed to the verb ‘to condemn’ and ‘to accuse’ (Ex. 23:7; Dt. 25:1; Prov. 17:15; Lk. 18:14; Rom. 3–5).”
        2. 1.5–8: “… we maintain that it is never taken for an infusion of righteousness, but as often as the Scriptures speak professedly about our justification, it always must be explained as a forensic term. [6] The reason are: (1) the passages which treat of justification admit no other than a forensic sense (cf. Job 9:3; Ps. 143:2; Rom. 3:28; 4:1–3; Acts 13:39 and elsewhere). A judicial process is set forth and mention is made of an accusing ‘law,’ of ‘accused persons’ who are guilty (hypodikoi, Rom. 3:19), of a ‘hand-writing’ contrary to us (Col. 2:14), of divine ‘justice’ demanding punishment (Rom. 3:24, 26), of an ‘advocate’ pleading the cause (1 Jn. 2:1), of ‘satisfaction’ and imputed righteousness (Rom. 4 and 5), of a ‘throne of grace’ before which we are absolved (Heb. 4:16), of a ‘judge’ pronouncing sentence (Rom. 3:20) and absolving sinners (Rom. 4:5). [7] Justification is opposed to condemnation … [Romans 8:33–34]. [8] The equivalent phrases by which our justification is described are judicial: such as ‘not to come into judgment’ (Jn. 5:24), ‘not to be condemned” (Jn. 3:18), ‘to remit sins’, ‘to impute righteousness’ (Rom. 4), ‘to be reconciled’ (Rom. 5:10;2 Cor. 5:19) and the like.”


In his Commentary on Galatians, 1:3, Luther wrote: “The article of justification must be sounded in our ears incessantly because the frailty of our flesh will not permit us to take hold of it perfectly and to believe it with all our heart.” And on 4:8–9, he wrote: “Whoever gives up the article of justification does not know the true God. It is one and the same thing whether a person reverts to the Law or to the worship of idols. When the article of justification is lost, nothing remains except error, hypocrisy, godlessness, and idolatry. God will and can be known in no other way than in and through Christ according to the statement of John 1:18, ‘The only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him.; Christ is the only means whereby we can know God and His will. In Christ we perceive that God is not a cruel judge, but a most loving and merciful Father who to bless and to save us ‘spared not his own Son, but gave him up for us all.’ This is truly to know God.”


Featured image “Reformation Wall in Geneva,” by Mark Gstohl, via Flickr Creative Commons