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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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Martin Luther as Preacher

Martin Luther (1483–1546) is considered by many historians to be one of the two or three most influential and important people of the last thousand years. He was a brilliant theologian and disputant, a beloved professor, a fine Bible translator, a reluctant but effective political figure, the author of scores of books, hundreds of sermons, and thousands of letters. His writings fill 73 volumes in the Weimar Edition, his correspondence another 18 volumes, his “Table Talk”—students’ notes of discussions with him, often around his family’s table—another 31 volumes. But I believe he found himself most at home as a simple pastor, a shepherd seeking to guide his flock in the Christian life.

He did all the things a pastor does—marrying and burying, administering the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, counseling individuals, couples, and families in person and by letter. But as a man of the Word, he saw the pulpit and the preaching of that Word to be the most important thing he could do as a pastor. His sermons were always warm, filled with concern for his congregants, carefully crafted to help them through the trials of the Christian life, and almost always exhibiting a simplicity that made them well suited to audiences of every age.

Today I want to give you a taste of Luther as a preacher by delivering to you his Second Sermon for the Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity, preached at Marburg on October 3, 1529, on the third day of the Marburg Colloquium—a meeting at which Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, and other early Reformers sought to resolve a dispute between Luther and Zwingli over the Lord’s Supper. Notice how in this sermon Luther, despite the circumstance, carefully avoids exploiting his position in the pulpit to address the debated topic and instead focuses on his listeners’ soul needs.

His text was Matthew 9:1–8:

And getting into a boat he crossed over and came to his own city.  2 And behold, some people brought to him a paralytic, lying on a bed. And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven.”  3 And behold, some of the scribes said to themselves, “This man is blaspheming.”  4 But Jesus, knowing their thoughts, said, “Why do you think evil in your hearts?  5 For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’?  6 But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”- he then said to the paralytic- “Rise, pick up your bed and go home.”  7 And he rose and went home.  8 When the crowds saw it, they were afraid, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to men.

Here, then, is Luther’s sermon, and may it bless you as it undoubtedly did those who first heard it almost 488 years ago:

The theme of this Gospel is the great and important article of faith, called “the forgiveness of sins,” which, when rightly understood, makes an honest Christian, and gives eternal life. Therefore it is necessary in the Christian Church to teach this article diligently and unceasingly, so that we may learn to understand it clearly and distinctly. For this is the one great and difficult art of a Christian, where he will have enough to learn as long as he lives, so that he need not look for anything new, higher or better.

But that we may rightly understand this, we must thoroughly know how to distinguish two powers or kinds of piety. One here upon earth, which God has also ordained and has included under the second table of the Ten Commandments. This is called the righteousness of the world or of man, and serves to the end that we may live together on earth and enjoy the gifts God has given us. For it is his wish that his present life be kept under proper restraint and passed in peace, quietude and harmony, each one attending to his own affairs and not interfering with the business, property or person of another. For this reason God has also added a special blessing, Lev. 18, 5, ”Which if a man do, he shall live in them”, that is, whosoever upon earth is honest in the sight of all men shall enjoy life; it shall be well with him, and he shall live long.

But if on the other hand man is unwilling to do this, he has ordained that the sword, the gallows, the rack, fire, water, and the like be used, with which to restrain and check those who will not be pious. Where such punishment is not administered and the whole country becomes so utterly bad and perverted, that the officers of the law can no longer restrain, God sends pestilence, famine, war, or other terrible plagues, in order to subvert the land, and destroy the wicked, as has happened to the Jews, the Greeks, the Romans, and others. From this we may learn his will, namely, that such piety be exercised and maintained; and know that he will provide what is necessary; but if such piety is not practiced he will in turn take away and destroy everything.

This is in short the sense and the whole substance of this piety on earth. But it is further necessary to urge it and to admonish people that every man diligently, zealously and voluntarily exercise himself in it, and that he be not driven to it by force and punishment. This admonition consists in setting forth God’s commandments and in applying them to every station of life on earth, as God has ordered and highly honored; we should find pleasure in them and heartily do what is required in the different spheres of life. When God says, ”Honor thy father and thy mother,” every child, man-servant, maid-servant, citizen, and the like, should receive the Word with joy, have no greater treasure on earth, and not imagine if he do this he is already halfway or altogether in paradise. And this should be solely done, that every heart may be assured without a doubt and say: Now I know, that such work, life, or position is right and proper and is assuredly well pleasing to God; for I have his Word and command as a sure witness, which never deceives nor fails me.

For do not let this be the least grace upon earth, when you have come to this decision in your heart and your conscience rests upon it. We owe this assurance to the blessed Gospel alone, in which we should delight and which we must reverence, even if we receive no other benefit or use from it than this, that it quiets our conscience and positively teaches us how to live and in what relation we stand to God. In what error and blindness we were aforetime, when not even a spark of such teaching enlightened us and we allowed ourselves to be led in the name of the devil by the whims of every lying preacher; we tried all kinds of works, ran hither and thither, expended and wasted our energies, money and property; here we established masses and altars, there cloisters and brotherhoods, and everyone was groping for the way in which he might serve God; yet no one found it, but all remained in darkness. For there was no God who might say: This is pleasing to me, this I have commanded, etc. Yes, our blind guides did nothing less than lose sight of God’s word, separated it from good works, and instead of these set up other works everywhere; in addition to this they discarded and despised the positions in life, which God had appointed, as though he knew no better, nor even as well as we, how to manage his affairs.

Therefore we must constantly take heed to inculcate this Word of God, which does not burden us with any special, great and difficult works, but refers us to the condition in which we live, that we look for nothing else, but with a cheerful heart remain satisfied in it, and be assured that by such work more is accomplished than if one had established all the cloisters and kept all the orders, although it be the most insignificant domestic work. For hitherto we- have been woefully deceived by the fine lustre and pomp of works, hoods, bald pates, coarse apparel, by fasts, wakes, pious looks, playing the devotee, and going barefoot.

Our foolishness consists in laying too much stress upon the show of works and when these do not glitter as something extraordinary we regard them as of no value; and poor fools that we are, we do not see that God has attached and bound this precious treasure, namely his Word, to such common works as filial obedience, external, domestic, or civil affairs, so as to include them in his order and command, which he wishes us to accept, the same as though he himself had appeared from heaven. What would you do if Christ himself with all the angels were visibly to descend, and command you in your home to sweep your house and wash the pans and kettles? How happy you would feel, and would not know how to act for joy, not for the work’s sake, but that you knew that thereby you were serving him, who is greater than heaven and earth.

If we would only consider this, and by the power of the Word look beyond us, and think that it is not man, but God in heaven who wishes and commands these things, we would run full speed, and in a most faithful and diligent manner rather do these common, insignificant works, as they are regarded, than any others. There is no other reason why this is not done than the simple fact that the works are separated from the Word, and God’s command is not regarded nor respected; we move along in a blind, drowsy manner, and think the doing of the works is all sufficient. Because we regard these works as insignificant, we stare and look around for others, become indolent and fretful, do nothing in love, faithfulness and obedience, have no scruples on account of our negligence, are faithless to our fellowmen, injure or vex them, and thus heap upon ourselves all manner of misery, wrath, and misfortune.

This then is one part of our discourse, that this external righteousness be urged both in admonitions and in threatenings, and not be considered as of no importance. For whosoever despises it, despises God and his Word.

Therefore let every man look to himself what he is or what he has to do, and what God demands of him, whether it be to rule, to command and order, or on the contrary to obey, serve and labor, that he may attend to the duties of his office with all faithfulness for God’s sake. Let him be assured that God has more respect for such faithfulness than for all the work and piety of the monks, who never yet have attained to this outward righteousness; nor are they able to extol all their works and doings as heartily as a child or servant girl performing their duties according to God’s command. Oh, what a blessed world we would have, if people believed this, and every man remained at his post, always keeping in mind God’s will and command. Then there would shower from heaven all kinds of blessings and gifts instead of the many vexations and heart-aches, which we now have, are looking for, and deserve.

Above this external piety there is another, which does not belong to this temporal life on earth but which avails only before God and which leads us to the life beyond and keeps us in it. The former piety consists in works, which this present life requires to be done among men, whether they be our superiors or inferiors, our neighbors, or our kindred. It has its reward here upon earth, also ends with this life, and they who do not practice it shorten their days. But this latter piety moves and soars far above everything that is upon earth, and has nothing to do with works. For how can it have works, since all that this body can perform and that is called works, is already included in the former piety? This piety is now called the grace of God, or the forgiveness of sins, of which Christ speaks in this and other gospels, and which is not an earthly but heavenly righteousness; it does not come of our work and ability but is the work and gift of God. For that human piety may well shield us against punishment and the hangman, and permit us to enjoy temporal gifts; but it cannot attain for us God’s grace and the forgiveness of sin. Therefore, even though we may have this external piety, we must nevertheless have a much higher one, which alone avails before God, frees us from sin and an evil conscience, and leads us out of death into eternal life.

This is, furthermore, the only part or article and doctrine, by believing which we become and are called Christians, and which separates and divorces us from all other saints on earth; for they all have a different foundation and nature of their saintliness, peculiar exercises, and rigorous life. It separates us also from the works of those holding positions and offices approved by the Word of God, which are indeed much higher and better than all the self-chosen ecclesiasticism of the monks. These also constitute a holy calling, so that they are called pious and deserve praise of all men because they do their duty. But all this makes no one a Christian. He alone is a Christian who receives this article in faith, and is assured that he is in the kingdom of grace, in which Christ protects him, and daily forgives him his sins. But he who looks for something else or wishes to deal otherwise with God, must know that he is no Christian, but is rejected and condemned by God.

For this reason the greatest skill and intelligence is needed to grasp and understand this righteousness, and in our hearts and before God rightly to distinguish it from the above mentioned outward righteousness. For this is, as has been said, the skill and the wisdom of the Christian, but it is so high and great that even all the beloved Apostles could not speak enough of it; and yet it meets the painful misfortune that no art is mastered as soon as this. There is no greater theme for a preacher than the grace of God and the forgiveness of sin, yet we are such wicked people, that, when we have once heard or read it, we think we know it, are immediately masters and doctors, keep looking for something greater, as though we had done everything, and thus we made new factions and division.

I have now been teaching and studying this subject with all diligence for many years (more than any one of those who imagine they know it all), in preaching, writing and reading, yet I cannot boast of having mastered it and am glad that I still remain a pupil with those who are just beginning to learn. For this reason I must admonish and warn all such as want to be Christians, both teachers and pupils, that they guard themselves against such shameful delusion and surfeit, and understand that this subject is most difficult and the greatest art that can be found upon earth; so that even Paul had to confess and say (2 Cor. 9, 15) that it is an unspeakable gift, that is, one which cannot be described among men with words so that they may regard it as highly and dearly as it really is in itself.

The reason for this is, that man’s understanding cannot get beyond this external piety of works, and cannot comprehend the righteousness of faith; but, the greater and more skillful this understanding is, the more it confines itself to works and rests upon them. It is not possible for man in times of temptation and distress, when his conscience smites him, to cease from groping around for works on which to stand and rest. Then we seek and enumerate the many good deeds, which we would like to do, or have done, and because we find none, the heart begins to doubt and despair. This weakness adheres so firmly to our nature, that even those who have faith and recognize the grace of God, or the forgiveness of sins, cannot overcome it with all their efforts and exertions, and must daily contend against it. In short it is entirely beyond human knowledge and understanding, ability and power, to ascend above this earthly righteousness, and to transfer oneself into this article of faith; and although one hears much about it and is conversant with it, there continues nevertheless the old delusion and inborn corruption which would bring its own works before God and make them the foundation of salvation. Such is the case, I say, with those who are Christians and fight against this work-righteousness; others, critics and inexperienced souls are even lost in it.

Therefore this doctrine, that our piety before God consists entirely in the forgiveness of sins, must be rightly comprehended and firmly maintained. We must therefore get beyond ourselves and ascend higher than our reason, which keeps us in conflict with ourselves and which reminds us both of sin and good works; and we must soar so high as to see neither sin nor good works, but be rooted and grounded in this article and see and know nothing besides. Therefore let grace or forgiveness be pitted not only against sin, but also against good works, and let all human righteousness and holiness be excluded. Thus there are in man two conflicting powers: Externally in this life he is to be pious, do good works, and the like, But if he aims beyond this life and wishes to deal with God, he must know that here neither his sin nor his piety avails anything. And though he may feel his sins which disturb his conscience, and although the law demands good works, he will not listen nor give heed to them, but will boldly reply; If I have sin, Christ has forgiveness; yea, I am seated on a throne to which sin cannot attain.

Therefore we are to regard the kingdom of Christ as a large, beautiful arch or vault which is everywhere over us, and covers and protects us against the wrath of God; yea, as a great, extended firmament which pure grace and forgiveness illuminate and so fill the world and all things, that all sin will hardly appear as a spark in comparison with the great, extended sea of light; and although sin may oppress, it cannot injure, but must disappear and vanish before grace. They who understand this, may well be called masters, but we will all have to humble ourselves and not be ashamed to keep on learning this lesson as long as we live.

For wherever our nature succeeds in finding sin, it tries to make an unbearable burden of it. Satan fans the spark and blows up a great fire which fills heaven and earth. Here the leaf must be turned and we must firmly conclude: If the sin were ever so great or burdensome, this article of faith is nevertheless much higher, wider and greater, which has been recommended and established not by man’s wisdom, but by him who has comprehended heaven and earth and holds them in the hollow of his hand. Is. 40, 12. My sin and piety must remain here on earth as far as they concern my life and conduct. But in heaven above I have another treasure, greater than either of these; there Christ is seated and holds me in his arms, covers me with his wings and overshadows me with his grace.

You may say: How is this, since I daily feel sin and my conscience condemns me and threatens me with God’s wrath? I answer: For this reason, I say, one must understand that the righteousness of a Christian is nothing that can be named or imagined but the forgiveness of sin, that is, it is a kingdom of power which deals only with sin and with such abundant grace as takes away all wrath. It is called the forgiveness of sin for the reason that we are truly sinners before God; yes, everything in us is sin, even though we may have all human righteousness. For where God speaks of sin, there must be real and great sin; so also forgiveness is no jest, but real earnestness. When you, therefore, consider this article you have both. Sin takes away all your holiness, no matter how pious you are on earth; again, forgiveness takes away all sin and wrath. Therefore your sin cannot cast you into hell, nor can your piety elevate you into heaven.

Therefore, when the devil disturbs your conscience, and tries to bring despair to your heart by saying: ”Have you not learned that one must be pious?” then answer courageously and say: Yes, you are right; I am a sinner, that I have known before; for this article, called the forgiveness of sins, has taught me this long ago. I am to be pious and do what I can before the world; but before God I am willing to be a sinner, and to be called nothing else, that this article may remain true, else there would not be forgiveness or grace; but it must needs be called a crown of righteousness and of merits. Therefore, although I feel nothing but many and great sins, yet they are no longer sins; for I have for them a precious panacea and drug which takes away the power and poison of sin and wholly destroys it. It is this word, ”Forgiveness,” before which sin disappears like stubbles before the fire. Without it no work, suffering, or martyrdom avails against the smallest sin. For without forgiveness sin is and remains pure sin, which condemns us.

Therefore only confess this article heartily and boldly and say: Before the world I may be pious and do everything that is required, but before God it is only sin according to this article. Therefore I am a sinner, but a sinner who now has forgiveness and who sits at the throne where grace rules supreme, Ps. 116. If this were not so I would be a sinner like Judas, who saw only his sin, but no forgiveness. But Christians, no matter how much sin they feel in themselves, in that word forgiveness see much more abundant grace presented to them, and poured out over them.

Thus learn then to magnify this article and spread it as far as Christ reaches and rules, that you may elevate it far above everything in heaven and on earth. For as the Word soars over all this, so must also faith, which comprehends the Word and keeps the heart steadfast in it, overcome sin, conscience, death and the devil.

Consider now what kind of a person a Christian is, who lords it over death and the devil, and before whom all sin is as a withered leaf. Now examine yourself and see how far you have learned this lesson, and whether it is such an insignificant and easy matter as some inexperienced souls think. For if you have learned and believed it, all misfortune, death, and the devil will be as nothing. But since you are still so vexed with sin, and since you are still frightened and in despair on account of death, hell and God’s judgment, humble yourself, give honor to the Word and confess that you have never yet understood this matter.

In short let every man examine his own heart, and he will find a false Christian who imagines that he knows all about this subject before he has learned the first principles of it. The words are soon heard, read and repeated, but to carry out the principle in practice and in character, so that it may live within us, and our conscience may be founded upon it and rest in it, is not in the art of man. Therefore I say and admonish, that those who wish to be Christians may always keep it in mind, assimilate it, practice it, and chastise themselves with it, that we may at least have a taste of it, and as James says, 1, 18, be a kind of first fruits of his creatures. For we shall never advance so far in this life as to come to a perfect understanding of it; nor did even the blessed Apostles full of the Spirit and of faith, advance so far.

Thus far I have explained the first part, what Christian righteousness is and in what it consists. But if you ask further, whence it comes, or how it has been brought about or gained, I answer: Jesus Christ, the Son of God, has come from heaven and has been made man, has suffered and died for our sins. This is the cause, the means, and the treasure, through which we obtain the forgiveness of sin and for the sake of which the grace of God is bestowed upon us; for such a treasure does not come to us without means or merit. But since all of us are born in sin and are the enemies of God, we have deserved only eternal wrath and punishment. All that we are and have is condemned, and there is no help or way out of it. For sin is so grievous that no creature can quench it, the wrath so great that no man can appease and conciliate it. Therefore another man must take our place, namely Jesus Christ, God and man, and through his suffering and death make satisfaction for our sins and pay for them. This is the price that has been set, and has been expended for us, by which sin has been quenched and the wrath of God appeased, the Father has been reconciled and made our friend.

Christians alone know this and believe it, and are in this respect different from those of every other faith and worship on earth. For the Jews, Turks, false Christians, and those who would be righteous by works, also boast that God is merciful; and there is no man on earth but knows something of the grace of God, and yet all of them fail to obtain it, or in other words, they do not have the treasure in which it lies and from which it flows. They continue in their blindness and imagine they can acquire it by their works, rigid life, and their own holiness, with which they only make the wrath and displeasure of God the more grievous.

Therefore it is necessary that we rightly learn to know this treasure, and seek forgiveness where it may be found; that is, that we thoroughly learn to know, comprehend, and keep the Lord Jesus Christ. For it is ordained that no one shall come into God’s presence, find grace, nor obtain forgiveness of the least sin except through Christ. Because you are a sinner, and will always remain one, your conscience is ever present, condemns and threatens you with God’s wrath and punishment, so that you cannot see the grace of God. With reference to the forgiveness of sins let me say, that you will not find anything in your heart with which you can pay them off, nor raise any funds for which God might recognize you and cancel the debt in the ledger. But if you seize Christ as the one who has become your substitute, who has taken your sin upon himself, and who has given himself with all his merit and worthiness for you, no sin can avail anything against you. If I am a sinner, he is holy, and is Lord over sin, death, Satan and hell, so that no sin can harm me, because he has been given me as my righteousness and salvation.

Therefore we have, indeed, pure grace and forgiveness of all sins, but nowhere except in and through Christ alone, and in him only it must be sought and obtained. Therefore whoever will come before God with any kind of work, that God shall recognize and regard as meritorious for obtaining grace, will be disappointed and undeceived, yea, instead of grace he will heap wrath upon himself. Thus you see that all other ways and means are condemned as the doctrines of devils; by which men are led and directed to their own works, or to the holiness and merits of others, as for example, of the saints who have led ascetic lives and followed the rules of their orders, and have suffered and expiated a great deal; or as those have done who have comforted people in the throes of death and have admonished them to suffer death willingly for their sins. Whoever dares to offer anything else for sin or to atone for it himself does nothing else than deny the Lord Jesus Christ, yea, disgrace and slander him, as if the blood of Christ were of no more consequence than our repentance and satisfaction, or as if his blood were not sufficient to take away all the sins of the earth.

Therefore, would you be freed from your sins, cease to seek works and satisfaction, and to bring them before God; but simply creep under the wings and into the bosom of Christ, as the one who has taken away your sins, and has laid them upon himself. Thus you need not chastise yourself with them, nor have anything to do with them! For he is the Lamb of God, says John 1, 29, which taketh away the sins of the world; and Peter says, Acts 4, 12, There is none other name under heaven, given among men, whereby we must be saved. The reason we are Christians is because we have Christ with all His merit and worthiness, not because of our efforts and works, which indeed make a St. Carthusius, a St. Francis, or an Augustinian monk, an obedient servant and extremist as they are called; but such works can never make a Christian. Behold, this is the second part which belongs to the sermon on this article.

The third thought is how and by what means we may appropriate such righteousness, so that we may receive the treasure acquired by Christ. Here also we need to give heed that we take the right way, and not make the mistake, which certain heretics have made in times past, and many erroneous minds still set forth, who think that God ought to do something special with them. These imagine that God will deal separately with each one by some special internal light and mysterious revelation, and give him the Holy Ghost, as though there was no need of the written Word or the external sermon. Consequently we are to know that God has ordained that no one shall come to the knowledge of Christ, nor obtain the forgiveness acquired by him, nor receive the Holy Ghost, without the use of external and public means; but God has embraced this treasure in the oral word or public ministry, and will not perform his work in a corner or mysteriously in the heart, but will have it heralded and distributed openly among the people, even as Christ commands, Mark 16, 15: Go ye into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature, etc.

He does this in order that we may know how and where to seek and expect his grace, so that in all Christendom there may be the same custom and order, and not every man follow his own mind and act according to his own notions, and so deceive himself and others, which would certainly happen. As we cannot look into the heart of any man, each one might boast of having the Holy Ghost and set forth his own thoughts as divine revelation which God had inspired and taught him in a special manner; as a result, no one would know whom or what to believe.

Therefore this part also, namely the external word or preaching, belongs to Christianity as a channel or means through which we attain unto the forgiveness of sins, or the righteousness of Christ, with which Christ reveals and offers us his grace or lays it into our bosom, and without which no one would ever come to a knowledge of this treasure. For whence should any man know, or in what man’s heart would it ever come, that Christ, the Son of God, came from heaven for our sake, died for us, and rose from the dead, acquired the forgiveness of sins and eternal life, and offers the same to us, without publicly having it announced and preached? And although he acquired this treasure for us through his suffering and death, no one could obtain or receive it, if Christ did not have it offered, presented, and applied. And all that he had done and suffered would be to no purpose, but would be like some great and precious treasure buried in the earth, which no one could find or make use of.

Therefore I have always taught that the oral word must precede everything else, must be comprehended with the ears, if the Holy Ghost is to enter the heart, who through the Word enlightens it and works faith. Consequently faith does not come except through the hearing and oral preaching of the Gospel, in which it has its beginning, growth and strength. For this reason the Word must not be despised, but held in honor. We must familiarize and acquaint ourselves with it, and constantly practice it, so that it never ceases to bear fruit; for it can never be understood and learned too well. Let every man beware of the shameless fellows who have no more respect for the Word than if it were unnecessary for faith; or of those who think they know it all, become tired of it, eventually fall from it, and retain nothing of faith or of Christ.

Behold, here you have all that belongs to this article of the righteousness of Christ. It consists in the forgiveness of sins, offered to us through Christ, and received by faith in and through the Word, purely and simply without any works on our part. Yet I do not mean that Christians should not and must not do good works, but that they are not to be mingled and entwined in the doctrine of faith, and decorated with the shameless delusion that they avail before God as righteousness, whereby both the doctrine of works and of faith are besmirched and destroyed. For everything possible must be done to keep this article pure, unadulterated and separate from all our own doings. But after we have this righteousness by faith, works are to follow and continue here on earth, so that there may be civil righteousness, and that both be maintained, each in its proper place, but separate in their nature and efficacy – the former before God in faith over and above all works, the latter works in love to our neighbor, as we said plainly enough above and always taught.

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Zwingli, Luther, and Calvin on the Lord’s Supper


It is sad that the sacrament that should most express the unity of the Body of Christ became, over the centuries, a major point of division, but grieving over the division doesn’t resolve or annihilate it. We must do our best to understand and practice it scripturally—and practice charity toward those who disagree with us about it, lovingly correcting particularly those whose doctrine jeopardizes the gospel by turning the Supper into a repeated sacrifice of Christ and so undermining the value of His once-and-for-all sacrifice on the cross.

Primary New Testament texts related to it:

  1. Matthew 26:26-29 Now as they were eating [the Passover meal], Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.”  27 And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you,  28 for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.  29 I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.”
  2. Mark 14:22-25 And as they were eating, he took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.”  23 And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, and they all drank of it.  24 And he said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.  25 Truly, I say to you, I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.”
  3. Luke 22:14-20 And when the hour came, he reclined at table, and the apostles with him.  15 And he said to them, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer.  16 For I tell you I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.”  17 And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he said, “Take this, and divide it among yourselves.  18 For I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.”  19 And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”  20 And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.
  4. 1 Corinthians 11:23-29 I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread,  24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”  25 In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”  26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.  27 Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord.  28 Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup.  29 For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself.

All of the Reformers rejected the following four elements of the dominant view of the Lord’s Supper in the Roman Catholic Church on the eve of the Reformation, established by the Fourth Lateran Council (1215):

  1. Transubstantiation: “the body and blood are truly contained in the sacrament of the altar under the species of bread and wined, the bread being transubstantiated into the body and the wine into the blood by the power of God.” Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) attempted, in Summa Theologica75.2, to explain it:
    1. Though the substance of the bread and wine are not annihilated, they are no longer present in the Eucharist because they have been converted into flesh and blood.
    2. The conversion is a miracle wrought by God.
    3. Christ is not “locally” in the sacrament, because He is present “by way of substance, not of spatial dimension” (Article 6, Bromiley’s paraphrase). (But if the substance is flesh and blood it necessarily has size and shape, and therefore also necessarily location.)
  2. Mass: the Eucharist was a repetition of the sacrifice of Christ as a propitiatory sacrifice to God to satisfy for sins.
  3. Because by transformation the bread and wine became the literal body and blood of Christ locally present, believers could and should adore them as they adore God Himself, since Christ is God.
  4. The laity should receive only the body (the “transubstantiated” bread), not also the blood (the “transubstantiated” wine).

But the Reformers had their own disagreements over how Christ was present in the Lord’s Supper.

  1. Zwingli’s view
    1. The word “is” in “This is my body” and “This is my blood” expresses not identity but representation. Excerpt from Zwingli’s Letter to Matthew Alber, November 16, 1524:

      In response to the dream of Pharaoh, Joseph said, “The seven good cows are seven fertile years” (Genesis 41:26). And yet it cannot be argued that seven cows are seven years. Clearly the word “are” must mean “signify” or “foretell.” So the meaning is, “The seven good cows you saw when you slept foretell or signify seven fertile years.” Christ said, “I am the vine” (John 15:1). Yet He was not a vine, but looked upon Himself as having the characteristics of the vine. Again He said, “The seed is the Word of God” (Luke 8:11). Yet the seed is not the Word of God. Here again, “is” cannot mean “to be,” but is used to mean “signify.” For with these words Christ was explaining to the apostles the parable he had set forth concerning the sowing of the seed, saying, “the seed of which I speak is”—that is, signifies—“the Word of God.” We can find such phrases throughout the Bible, so there is no need for me to emphasize this point any further.

      Now let me examine Christ’s word [at the Last Supper]. Jesus took bread, and so on, with these words, “Take this and eat. This is My body which is given for you.” Here I interpret “is” to mean “signifies.” So, “Take this and eat. This signifies My body which is given for you.” Surely, then, the words must mean, “Take and eat. For this, which I now command you to do, will signify or call back to your minds My body which is given for you.” For He immediately added, “Do this as a memorial of Me.” Behold the purpose for which He commanded them to eat—as a commemoration of Himself. Paul puts it like this: “Every time you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death” (1 Corinthians 11:26). What else is Paul commanding but a public remembering of the Lord’s death? This feast of our Lord, or in Paul’s words the Lord’s Supper, was instituted in order that we should call to mind the death which Christ endured for us. Clearly this is the sign by which those who rely on Christ’s death and blood show forth their common faith with their brothers. Let the meaning of Christ’s words, then, be transparently clear: this meal is a symbol by which you call back into your minds the body of God’s true Son, your Lord and Master—the body that was given for you.”

    2. The Apostles Creed, which says that Christ “ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of God. From thence He shall come to judge the living and the dead,” implies, by “is seated,” that Christ’s human nature is locally confined to heaven at the right hand of God.
    3. Zwingli identifies three misinterpretations of Christ’s words of institution of the Lord’s Supper:
      1. The Roman Catholic view: we literally eat Christ’s incarnate and crucified body and drink His blood because the bread and wine were transubstantiated into them.
      2. Luther’s view: we eat Christ’s body and drink His blood under the bread and wine because they are physically present there due to what Luther called the “communication of attributes” between the divine and human natures—each nature taking on attributes of the other.
      3. A further Roman Catholic view: we literally eat the resurrected body and drink the resurrected blood of Christ because the bread and wine were transubstantiated into them.
    4. Zwingli embraces Augustine’s statement: “What need of teeth and stomach? Believe and thou hast eaten. … He who believes in Him feeds on Him.”
    5. Nonetheless Zwingli affirmed that Christ was present in the Lord’s Supper in His divine nature. Geoffrey Bromiley summarizes Zwingli’s view: “… the whole Christ both ascends and is present always, but his ascension involved the human nature and his presence involves the divine. Since the human nature has ascended, Christ’s body is not eaten naturally and literally …. It is eaten sacramentally and spiritually …. To eat spiritually is to trust ‘with heart and soul upon the mercy and goodness of God through Christ,’ while to eat sacramentally is ‘to eat … with heart and mind in conjunction with the sacrament.’ Those who eat without faith may be said improperly to eat sacramentally, but in no sense do they eat spiritually ….”
    6. Further, Zwingli believes the Supper, as Bromiley summarizes, “because it was instituted by Christ, testifies to historical facts, has the name of what it signifies, represents a high thing, and stands in analogy to the thing signified—Christ, our food, and ourselves, the one fellowship …. It also augments faith … even though it cannot give it …. It does this by claiming the four most important senses, indeed, all of them for the obedience of faith. We hear, see, taste, touch, and smell in it the goodness of Christ, and as we do so the soul’ tastes the sweet savor of heavenly hope.’ Finally, the sacrament as a pledge binds us together as ‘one body by the sacramental partaking of his body, for we are one body with him.’”
  1. Luther’s view
    1. In Blessed Sacrament of the True Body and Blood of Christ (1519), Luther seemed still to affirm transubstantiation and the Eucharistic sacrifice.
    2. In Treatise on the New Testament (1520), he rejects the sacrifice and no longer expresses his view of the presence of Christ in the sacrament by the term transubstantiation.
    3. In The Babylonian Captivity of the Church (1520), he calls transubstantiation mere human opinion.
    4. In This is my Body (1527) and Confession Concerning Christ’s Supper (1528), he opposes Zwingli’s view.
    5. Luther’s argument:
      1. Those who think “is” in “This is my body” expresses representation rather than identity must prove it, not just assert it.
        1. Yet his own interpretation, involved in his doctrine of consubstantiation, namely, that the body and blood of Christ are locally present “in” and “under” the bread and wine is itself not a literal reading of “is.”
      2. Further, the representation view involves great grammatical difficulties.
      3. Christ can be present in heaven, as the Creed affirms, and still be present on earth in the Supper, by the communication of attributes that results in the “ubiquity” of Christ’s body.
      4. To deny the bodily presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper is to fall into the heresy of Nestorianism—failing to recognize the union of the two natures, divine and human, in the one Person of Christ.
  • Calvin’s view (from Institutes, 4.17)
    1. Transubstantiation, the Roman Catholic view, is neither scriptural nor logical and is to be rejected along with the doctrine of the mass, which is that the Eucharist is a repeated propitiatory sacrifice of Christ.
    2. Consubstantiation (Luther’s view that Christ’s body and blood are locally present “in, with, and under” the bread and wine by reason of the ubiquity of His body, which is entailed in the “communication of attributes”) is neither scriptural nor logical, for it is contrary to the nature of bodies to be ubiquitous. “For here it is not a question of what God could do, but what he willed to do. Now, we affirm that what was pleasing to him was done. But it pleased him that Christ be made like his brethren in all things except sin [Heb. 4:15; cf. ch. 2:17]. What is the nature of our flesh? Is it not something that has its own fixed dimension, is contained in a place, is touched, is seen? And why (they say) cannot God make the same flesh occupy many and divers places, be contained in no place, so as to lack measure and form? Madman, why do you demand that God’s power make flesh to be and not to be flesh at the same time! It is as if you insisted that he make light to be both light and darkness at the same time! But he wills light to be light; darkness, darkness; and flesh, flesh. Indeed, when he pleases he will turn darkness into light and light into darkness; but when you require that light and darkness not differ, what else are you doing than perverting the order of God’s wisdom? Flesh must therefore be flesh; spirit, spirit—each thing in the state and condition wherein God created it. But such is the condition of flesh that it must subsist in one definite place, with its own size and form. With this condition Christ took flesh, giving to it, as Augustine attests, incorruption and glory, and not taking away from it nature and truth.”
    3. Consubstantiation and the ubiquity through the communication of attributes on which it is based also contradict orthodox Christology, embraced at the Council of Chalcedon in 451, of the union of two distinct natures in Christ, “perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood,” “in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved.”
    4. Yet Calvin affirms the real presence of Christ in the Supper: “But we must establish such a presence of Christ in the Supper as may neither fasten him to the element of bread, nor enclose him in bread, nor circumscribe him in any way (all which things, it is clear, detract from his heavenly glory); finally, such as may not take form him his own stature, or parcel him out to many places at once, or invest him with boundless magnitude to be spread through heaven and earth. For these things are plainly in conflict with a nature truly human. … But when these absurdities have been set aside, I freely accept whatever can be made to express the true and substantial partaking of the body and blood of the Lord, which is shown to believers under the sacred symbols of the Supper—and so to express it that they may be understood not to receive it solely by imagination or understanding of mind, but to enjoy the thing itself as nourishment of eternal life.”
    5. The Lord’s Supper, with signs of bread and wine, provides spiritual food.
      1. The Supper is a “spiritual banquet wherein Christ attests himself to be the life-giving bread, upon which our souls feed unto true and blessed immortality.”
        1. It is a “high mystery” and “sacred food” the benefit of which Satan seeks to steal from us by instituting confusion and discord.
        2. “First, the signs are bread and wine, which represent [not transubstantiate into, and not contain in and under them] for us the invisible food that we receive from the flesh and blood of Christ.”
        3. “Since, however, this mystery of Christ’s secret union with the devout is by nature incomprehensible, he shows its figure and image in visible signs best adapted to our small capacity.
          1. Indeed, by giving guarantees and tokens he makes it as certain for us as if we had seen it with our own eyes. For this very familiar comparison penetrates into even the dullest minds: just as bread and wine sustain physical life, so are souls fed by Christ.
          2. We now understand the purpose of this mystical blessing, namely, to confirm for us the fact that the Lord’s body was once for all so sacrificed for us that we may now feed upon it, and by feeding feel in ourselves the working of that unique sacrifice; and that his blood was once so shed for us in order to be our perpetual drink. … in order that when we see ourselves made partakers in it, we may assuredly conclude that he power of his life-giving death will be efficacious in us.”
        4. “As a consequence, we may dare assure ourselves that eternal life, of which he is the heir, is ours; and that the Kingdom of Heaven, into which he has already entered, can no more be cut off from us than from him; again, that we cannot be condemned for our sins, from whose guilt he has absolved us, since he willed to take them upon himself as if they were his own. This is the wonderful exchange which, out of his measureless benevolence, he has made with us; that, becoming Son of man with us, he has made us sons of God with him; that, by his descent to earth, he has prepared an ascent to heaven for us; that, by taking on our mortality, he has conferred his immortality upon us; that, accepting our weakness, he has strengthened us by his power; that, receiving our poverty unto himself, he has transferred his wealth to us; that, taking the weight of our iniquity upon himself (which oppressed us), he has clothed us with his righteousness.”
        5. “… from the physical things set forth in the Sacrament, we are led by a sort of analogy to spiritual things. Thus, when bread is given as a symbol of Christ’s body, we must at once grasp this comparison: as bread nourishes, sustains, and keeps the life of our body, so Christ’s body is the only food to invigorate and enliven our soul. When we see wine set forth as a symbol of blood, we must reflect on the benefits which wine imparts to the body, and so realize that the same are spiritually imparted to us by Christ’s blood. These benefits are to nourish, refresh, strengthen, and gladden.”
        6. “It is not, therefore, the chief function of the Sacrament simply and without higher consideration to extend to us the body of Christ. Rather, it is to seal and confirm that promise by which he testifies that his flesh is food indeed and his blood is drink [John 6:56], which feed us unto eternal life [John 6:55].”
          1. My comment: So the Word is the real essence of the sacrament.
        7. In the Sacrament Christ “offers himself with all his benefits to us, and we receive him by faith. Therefore, the Sacrament does not cause Christ to begin to be the bread of life; but when it reminds us that he was made the bread of life, which we continually eat, and which gives us a relish and savor of that bread, it causes us to feel the power of that bread. For it assures us that all that Christ did or suffered was done to quicken us; and again, that this quickening is eternal, we being ceaselessly nourished, sustained, and preserved throughout life by it.”
        8. “We admit, meanwhile, that this is no other eating than of faith, as no other can be imagined. But here is the difference between my words and [Zwingli’s and Luther’s]: for them to eat is only to believe; I say that we eat Christ’s flesh in believing, because it is made ours by faith, and that this eating is the result and effect of faith. Or if you want it said more clearly, for them eating is faith; for me it seems rather to follow from … by true partaking of him, his life passes into us and is made ours—just as bread when taken as food imparts vigor to the body.”
        9. “This life-giving communion is brought about by the Holy Spirit.”
        10. “Now, that sacred partaking of his flesh and blood, by which Christ pours his life into us, as if it penetrated into our bones and marrow, he also testifies and seals in the Supper—not by presenting a vain and empty sign, but by manifesting there the effectiveness of his Spirit to fulfill what he promises. And truly he offers and shows the reality there signified to all who sit at that spiritual banquet, although it is received with benefit by believers alone, who accept such great generosity with true faith and gratefulness of heart.”
        11. On the relation of the outward sign and the invisible reality: “… the sacred mystery of the Supper consists in two things: physical signs, which, thrust before our eyes, represent to us, according to our feeble capacity, things invisible; and spiritual truth, which is at the same time represented and displayed through the symbols themselves.”
        12. “… whenever this matter is discussed, when I have tried to say all, I feel that I have as yet said little in proportion to its worth. And although my mind can think beyond what my tongue can utter, yet even my mind is conquered and overwhelmed by the greatness of the thing. Therefore, nothing remains but to break forth in wonder at this mystery, which plainly neither them mind is able to conceive nor the tongue to express.”



Featured image “At the Table,” by David Mulder, Flickr Creative Commons

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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