Friday, November 13, 2009

Sermon Series--Sermon #4

This is number 4 in the series. I actually originally preached a version of this one in the spring at Covenant CRC in Appleton, and then re-worked it for the series this summer.

Big Words of the Faith:

Psalm 104

I. Introduction—Miracles & Providence

This morning we are finishing up a series on the “big words of the faith.” If you were here, you’ll remember that we started with “predestination,” then covered the “covenant,” and the “justification.” This week, our big word of the faith is “providence.”

In a few moments we are going to read not only from our scripture text, which is Psalm 104, but also from the Heidelberg Catechism. While I introduce the topic, you might want to turn to Psalm 104 in your Bibles. And I would ask that you turn also in the back of your Psalter Hymnals to page 871. That’s Lord’s Day 10 of the Catechism. In a few minutes we are going to read the questions and answers there together.

I’ve been thinking a lot about miracles lately. What are miracles? What are they exactly, and do they still exist today? Or are they something that only existed during certain times in history?

Some of that thinking about miracles stems from things that have been going on in my own life in the last year or so. Most of you know about my parents’ car accident almost a year-and-a-half ago. At the time, a lot of people said it was a miracle that they survived. And while healing has not been complete, others rightfully talk about their recovery as being miraculous.

Then, a few months ago, the Wednesday night study group here at church took a look at a video by Lee Strobel. Some of you may have heard of Lee Strobel—he wrote the book “A Case for Christ.”

In that video, Strobel hosted a debate between an atheist and a Christian theologian about the existence of God. The theologian cited the resurrection as proof of the truth of Christianity. He pointed to historical sources other than the Bible—as well as the Bible itself—as evidence that the resurrection actually occurred.

The atheist couldn’t accept the truth of the resurrection, since doing so would require him to believe in miracles. He defined miracles as events that violate natural laws. In his view, natural laws just simply cannot be broken. When people think of miracles, according to this atheist, the things they are thinking of can always be explained by some kind of natural law. According to him, people only call things miracles because they’re ignorant of how the natural world actually works.

After watching the video, our discussion turned immediately to the atheist’s definition of miracles. One person took the view that the atheist was at least correct in his definition of miracles. She said miracles are events that can’t be explained by natural law. But, she said, miracles are therefore proof that God exists. After all, only a being greater than the entire universe could violate the laws of the universe. This being, she said, is God. And since he created the universe and he created the laws that govern it, any evidence of something beyond the laws of nature is evidence of this Creator-God.

However, she said that a lot of things that we call miracles aren’t really miracles. My parents’ surviving their car accident would not really be a miracle, since it can be explained without resorting to the supernatural. Or the recovery of a cancer patient from a seemingly incurable condition would not be miraculous according to her definition, since it can be explained using our knowledge of natural laws.

In fact, she argued that miracles no longer exist—they don’t happen anymore. She said they ended at the end of the apostolic age. This view, while not universal, is actually quite a common one among theologians, and it is probably a majority view among Reformed theologians.

Now, I’m the kind of person who enjoys a good debate. So, even though I hadn’t fully formed an opinion on the issue, I decided I would take the opposite side. And I argued first of all that some of the events that are described in the Bible, and called miracles in the Bible, might possibly have natural explanations. It could be that the ancient observers just didn’t understand the science behind what was happening. Some of the events that are described as miracles in the Bible probably didn’t break any kind of natural laws.

I also argued that there are plenty of stories that people tell in this day and age of events that really are unexplainable by natural laws. I retold a story that I had heard from my campus pastor when I was at Dordt College.

He told of missionaries whose jeep had broken down in a dangerous area where bandits often preyed on people. These missionaries didn’t know much about vehicle repair, so they finally just gave up, laid hands on the jeep, and prayed for healing for the jeep. Lo and behold, it started up, and they were able to get where they needed to go. They drove the rest of the way home and took the jeep in to a mechanic. The mechanic, after he heard the story, just kind of shook his head and said it has to be a miracle—there is no way you could have driven this vehicle the way that it is.

So, we had a good debate about this and we ended up agreeing that it was an interesting debate but probably not one around which our faith revolves. But after this mini-debate, my interest was piqued—I wanted to know more. And so I spent time reading more about miracles in the Bible and studying what some theologians have said about miracles.

As I continued studying miracles, though, I became more and more aware of something else—God’s providence—the almighty and ever-present power by which he upholds and rules everything. No matter how you define a miracle, no matter whether you say something is a miracle or just a surprising turn of events, there can’t be any doubt that God is involved. An event may or may not be a miracle, but it is evidence of God’s providence.

And so this morning, our focus is on providence. The definition of providence is on your outline: Providence is the almighty and ever-present power by which God upholds and rules everything. God upholds and rules everything.

Turn with me to our text, Psalm 104. Psalm 104 is a hymn that focuses on God’s great act of creating the entire universe. It actually reflects the teaching of Genesis 1. It even seems to parallel it in many ways, as we’ll see. However, it takes that teaching, and then it applies it in a way that reflects on God’s providence, the way that God upholds and rules his creation.

So hear the word of the Lord from Psalm 104:

Praise the LORD, O my soul.
O LORD my God, you are very great;
you are clothed with splendor and majesty.

He wraps himself in light as with a garment;
he stretches out the heavens like a tent

and lays the beams of his upper chambers on their waters.
He makes the clouds his chariot
and rides on the wings of the wind.

He makes winds his messengers,
flames of fire his servants.

He set the earth on its foundations;
it can never be moved.

You covered it with the deep as with a garment;
the waters stood above the mountains.

But at your rebuke the waters fled,
at the sound of your thunder they took to flight;

they flowed over the mountains,
they went down into the valleys,
to the place you assigned for them.

You set a boundary they cannot cross;
never again will they cover the earth.

He makes springs pour water into the ravines;
it flows between the mountains.

They give water to all the beasts of the field;
the wild donkeys quench their thirst.

The birds of the air nest by the waters;
they sing among the branches.

He waters the mountains from his upper chambers;
the earth is satisfied by the fruit of his work.

He makes grass grow for the cattle,
and plants for man to cultivate—
bringing forth food from the earth:

wine that gladdens the heart of man,
oil to make his face shine,
and bread that sustains his heart.

The trees of the LORD are well watered,
the cedars of Lebanon that he planted.

There the birds make their nests;
the stork has its home in the pine trees.

The high mountains belong to the wild goats;
the crags are a refuge for the coneys.

The moon marks off the seasons,
and the sun knows when to go down.

You bring darkness, it becomes night,
and all the beasts of the forest prowl.

The lions roar for their prey
and seek their food from God.

The sun rises, and they steal away;
they return and lie down in their dens.

Then man goes out to his work,
to his labor until evening.

How many are your works, O LORD!
In wisdom you made them all;
the earth is full of your creatures.

There is the sea, vast and spacious,
teeming with creatures beyond number—
living things both large and small.

There the ships go to and fro,
and the leviathan, which you formed to frolic there.

These all look to you
to give them their food at the proper time.

When you give it to them,
they gather it up;
when you open your hand,
they are satisfied with good things.

When you hide your face,
they are terrified;
when you take away their breath,
they die and return to the dust.

When you send your Spirit,
they are created,
and you renew the face of the earth.

May the glory of the LORD endure forever;
may the LORD rejoice in his works-

he who looks at the earth, and it trembles,
who touches the mountains, and they smoke.

I will sing to the LORD all my life;
I will sing praise to my God as long as I live.

May my meditation be pleasing to him,
as I rejoice in the LORD.

But may sinners vanish from the earth
and the wicked be no more.
Praise the LORD, O my soul.
Praise the LORD.

Now, turn with me to Lord’s Day 10. As I mentioned, you can find it on page 871 in the back of the gray-colored songbooks. There are two questions and two answers there. I’d like to read this responsively. I’ll read the questions, and then you read the answers.

Q. What do you understand
by the providence of God?

A. Providence is
the almighty and ever present power of God
by which he upholds, as with his hand,
and earth
and all creatures,
and so rules them that
leaf and blade,
rain and drought,
fruitful and lean years,
food and drink,
health and sickness,
prosperity and poverty-
all things, in fact, come to us
not by chance
but from his fatherly hand.

Q. How does the knowledge
of God's creation and providence
help us?

A. We can be patient when things go against us,
thankful when things go well,
and for the future we can have
good confidence in our faithful God and Father
that nothing will separate us from his love.
All creatures are so completely in his hand
that without his will
they can neither move nor be moved.

This morning, as we focus on God’s providence, I want you to notice three attributes of God that give us a picture of his providence. These three attributes are pointed out both by the Psalmist and by the writers of the Catechism: First, God is the Creator of the universe. Second, he is the Sustainer of everything he’s created. Finally, he is the Ruler over every square inch of His creation.

II. God is the Creator of the Universe

So first, God is the Creator of the universe. As I mentioned Psalm 104 not only teaches us that God created the universe, but it also uses the framework of Genesis 1—the days of creation—to teach us that God is the Creator of the universe.

In that Genesis framework, on the first day, God created light. And right at the beginning of our text, the first half of verse 2 we see the Psalmist proclaiming that God “wraps himself in light, as with a garment.”

On the second day, God created the expanse between the waters, separating sky and water. And the Psalmist reflects this, starting at the second half of verse two: “He stretches out the heavens like a tent and lays the beams of his upper chamber on their waters.”

The pattern continues—we know that on the third day God created dry land as well as the plants that cover it. The psalmist reflects this as well. In verses 5-13 he describes how land and water are distinct, and how the waters “went down to the valleys to the place assigned for them.” Not only that, but the waters are placed by God so that the beasts of the field and the birds of the air have everything they need, and “the earth is satisfied by the fruit of his work.”

In verses 14-18, the Psalmist describes not only how God created plants and trees, but in how doing so, God supplies for the needs of His creatures: grass for the cattle and food for the humans, even a home for the birds. And it’s not just our needs, “the bread that sustains our heart” that God supplies, but it is also our enjoyment—“the wine that gladdens the heart of man,” and “oil to make his face shine.”

The fourth day of creation is reflected in verses 19-24, which speak of the sun, moon and stars as timekeepers for both animals and man.

In verses 25 and 26, the Psalmist speaks of the creatures of the sea, which Genesis 1 says were created on the fifth day.

And the sixth day, during which God created the animals and humans, is reflected in verses 21-24 and also verses 27-30. In those verses the Psalmist stresses their dependence on God for everything that they need.

We may not fully understand exactly how God created the universe, but as Christians, we can have no doubt but that he did. He created everything out of nothing. He formed things that depend wholly upon him for their existence, but yet are distinct from him. That means God is transcendent over His creation. As the transcendent Creator, he is not in creation, nor is he bound by it. God is the Creator of the universe.

III. God is the Sustainer of Everything He has Created

So let’s take a look at the next attribute of God the psalmist points out. God is the Sustainer of everything he has created. He is the Sustainer of everything he has created.

We just said that God is transcendent over His creation—he is not in creation, nor is he bound by it. Because God is transcendent, there can be no doubt that, however we define them, miracles can occur.

We may or may not believe that God uses miracles in present times, but as believers in a Creator-God, we agree that miracles are possible. For God is above His creation. If he created out of nothing, there is no reason He can’t, if He desires, work in that creation in any way that He sees fit.

And He did. Many of the miracles that are recorded in Scripture are essential to our Christian faith—miracles like Jesus’ incarnation and his resurrection from the dead. If we deny miracles entirely, then we deny Jesus Christ, the heart of our faith. And whether or not we believe that God uses miracles in the present time, we have to agree that miracles are possible. Miracles can occur.

But of course, since He created the universe, and the natural laws that we see at work throughout creation, there’s no reason why God can’t choose to work primarily through those laws.

Our Presbyterian brothers and sisters refer to the laws of nature in their confessions as “second causes.” And by this they mean that while God is the first cause of everything, He created the laws of nature as the second cause for sustaining his creation. The Westminster Confession of Faith teaches that “while God ordinarily makes use of these second causes, He is always free to work without, above, and against them at his pleasure.”

So, as we see in our text this morning, God not only created the universe, he also sustains it. He is the Sustainer of everything he has created. One commentator wrote “in creation God exercised his divine power to cause the world to be. In providence, he continues to exercise that same power to sustain creation, to involve himself in all events, and to direct all things to their appointed ends.” He is our sustainer.

I find that concept amazing—we have a God who involves Himself in all of the events of our lives. Now, not everyone in the world agrees with this idea. In fact, I suspect that a lot of people in the world today think of God in a very different kind of way.

Like Thomas Jefferson many see God as kind of a divine watchmaker—he created this complex and incredible universe; he even created laws by which the universe will continue to exist on its own without any need for God’s intervention. Just like a well-crafted watch that can keep time for many, many years without any need for repairs or adjustments. But they believe, then, that God, having created this incredibly intricate creation, simply sits back, no longer involving himself in the inner workings of the thing that he has made.
This is not the God that is presented in Psalm 104. Much of the psalm is written in the present tense, and it is not just about what God did before as Creator, but it is also about God as sustainer.

Look at verses 27-30 again. The Psalmist tells us that God’s creatures look to him “to give them their food at the proper time.” And when God gives it to them, “they gather it up,” and “they are satisfied with good things.” But, when God takes away their breath, “they die and return to the dust.”

The rest of Scripture confirms this view of God as actively involved in His creation. Even Jesus points this out, teaching us not to worry, but pointing us to look at the birds of the air: “They do not sow or reap or store away in barns. And yet, your heavenly father feeds them.”

John Calvin said it this way in his “Institutes of the Christian Religion”: “The providence we mean is not one by which the deity, sitting idly in heaven, looks on at what is taking place in the world; but one by which he, as it were, holds the helms and over-rules all events.”

In other words, God is not an absentee God. He is very involved. He is very much in control. And he governs us, not just with his power, but by his on-going decrees. Nothing is left to chance. Nothing is left to fortune. God’s providence consists in his actions every day.

And what this means is that God is actively involved in everything. The universe isn’t being upheld simply by a set of natural laws that God set in motion before simply sitting back. Rather, the universe is actively sustained by God’s providence. He is the Sustainer of everything he has created.

So when we speak of miracles, I think we shouldn’t speak of them as being exceptions to the natural law. Because it’s not the natural law that keeps things going anyway—it is God. A lot of times we use the term miracle to describe examples of extraordinary providence, more than to describe the ordinary things that happen every day. But even so, there are times when even the timing and placement of very ordinary events may also be described as miraculous.

As John Calvin says it: “Single events are so regulated by God, and all events proceed by his determinate counsel that nothing happens fortuitously.”

Thus, it is improper to simply describe miracles as some kind of supernatural breakthrough by God into the world. If we think of miracles that way, we improperly divide God and the world into competing forces, at odds with each other, which they are not.

Gordon Spykman, in his book “Reformational Theology,” puts it this way: “In his wonder working power, God does not withdraw his providential care or bypass it. The will of God, revealed in such awesome signs and wonders, resides in the very power of his word itself. There is nothing arbitrary or capricious about them. From our perspective they may appear as surprising or unexpected—extraordinary interventions of God’s hand in history. For God, however, miracles are not miracles as we perceive them. They are rather the outworkings of his will in other ways—ways that to us appear unusual and exceptional, but ways which are consistently at God’s command.”

God is not only the creator of the universe, but He is also the sustainer. And that means He is involved daily in every detail of what he created. Whether it is making grass grow for the cattle or bringing forth wine that gladdens the heart of man, or providing safety for the ships of commerce that go to and fro on the vast and spacious sea. God is the Sustainer of everything he has created.

IV. God is the Ruler over every square inch of His creation

There is one other attribute of God that I want you to see. God is also the Ruler over every square inch of His creation. He is the Ruler over every square inch of His creation.

This means that not only does God actively provide for his creatures, but he also rules over them, over the places they live, over the things that they created for themselves, over every square inch of creation.

One of my very favorite sayings is Abraham Kuyper’s famous quote: “In the total expanse of human life, there is not a single square inch of which the Christ, who alone is sovereign, does not declare ‘That is mine.’” In other words, God not only sustains, but he rules over all of his creation. He alone sets the laws by which we have no choice but to abide, and He alone sets the standards according to which he demands that we live our life. He controls the physical creation in which we live.

But when we say that God rules over the universe, we can’t just limit his rule to nature. God controls the affairs of the nations. In Psalm 66 we learn that he “rules forever by his power; his eyes watch the nations—let not the rebellious rise up against Him.”

And God is not just concerned only with humans in general, or nations and powers, but he is also concerned with individuals, our lot in life and our outward success and failures. The apostle Paul recognized this in his own life when, in his letter to Galatians, he said that “God, who set me apart from birth, and called me by His grace, was pleased to reveal His Son in me so that I may preach Him among the Gentiles.”

And because God is concerned with individuals, part of his active providence is the protection of the righteous and the exposure and punishment of the wicked. Paul, in Romans, reminds us that “in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who’ve been called according to his purposes.” The Psalmist tells us that “on the wicked he will rain fiery coals and burning sulfur; a scorching wind will be their lot.”

It is true that evil still exists in our world. We are not always immune from the ravages of sin. But as the old song goes, “This is my Father’s world, O let me ne’er forget, that though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.” And as God’s people, no matter how often the wrong seems so strong, we can have confidence that God will rescue his people from the power of evil—if not now, then when Christ returns. God is the Ruler over every square inch of His creation. “The Lord is King, let the heavens ring, God reigns let the earth be glad.”

V. Conclusion

So what does this mean for us? If God is the creator, the sustainer, and the ruler of every square inch of creation, even our own lives, how do we respond?

I don’t think we can put it any better than the way the Catechism puts it in Answer 28: “We can be patient when things go against us, thankful when things go well, and for the future we can have good confidence in our faithful God and father that nothing will separate us from his love.”

Patience, thankfulness, and confidence. These ought to be the hallmarks of the life of a believer. Be patient, knowing that God is actively at work and will provide what we need. Be thankful, both for how he has provided for us in the past, but also for those areas where we can see him working at this very moment. And be confident that all things work for the good of those who love him.

As I was preparing this sermon, I read something on the web that summed up what I wanted to say better than anything I could come up with myself. Much as tried writing my own conclusion, I kept coming back to this. So, I want to read this to you. It comes from the blog of Kevin De Young, who is a pastor in Michigan and an author of several excellent books. He describes something that happened late one night during a short vacation that he took with his family. This is what he says:

Around about four in the morning…our three year old fell out of bed, which prompted our one year old to wake up and cry like she was being dropped off at the nursery.

So my wife took a turn. Then around about 5:00 AM I took a turn. While I was hunkering down in the bathroom trying not to disturb the rest of the [family], with my precious little girl munching on Cracklin’ Oat Bran before the crack of dawn, I started meandering through my complimentary copy of USA Today. The news for Monday morning was grim. Lead story: Americans are becoming less religious. Bottom of page 1: pastor shot during church service… Later: stocks may take more than 25 years to recover their losses, once they bottom out that is. For some reason the full page spread on Dancing with the Stars just pushed me over the edge. How can so much be going wrong in the world?

I put my little one to bed and gave her two pacifiers and, with mom literally in the dark, a baggie of Cracklin Oat Bran just in case. As I lay in bed, my mind was mulling over all the bad news I had just read. Is our country really going down the [toilet]? Are churches even safe anymore? Will the American church soon be persecuted? Why does anyone care about Dancing with the Stars?

Then I remembered my beloved catechism… ‘What do you understand by the providence of God?’ ‘Providence is the almighty and ever present power of God by which he upholds, as with his hand, heaven and earth and all creatures, and so rules them that lead and blade, rain and drought, fruitful and lean years, food and drink, health and sickness, prosperity and poverty—all things, in fact, come to us not by chance but from his fatherly hand.’ I thought to myself, you know, that’s right. Praise God that’s right! God upholds the world with his hand and rules over us so that recessions and declensions, murders and mayhem, presidents and prime ministers, kids sleeping and kids rolling off their beds, the tragedies of life and the banalities—all things, in fact, come to us not by chance but from his fatherly hand. God's seen this mess before. He sent it. He'll see us through us.

Around about 6:00 AM I fell back asleep, deeply grateful for the Heidelberg Catechism, the providence of God, and Cracklin’ Oat Bran

It is my prayer as well, just as Pastor De Young said, that in the midst of whatever difficulties you might be facing in life, you will have the patience to persevere, the thankfulness to know what God has done, and confidence in God’s good providence for us.


Sermon Series--Sermon #3

I had planned on posting all four sermons in my series this summer, but never got around to it. Here is sermon #3...

Big Words of the Faith: Justification
Romans 4

I. Introduction

Good morning.

I have an outline available again this morning. If you don’t have one, raise your hand. There are several people around who will make sure you get one.

If you have been here the past several weeks, you know that we are in the midst of studying some of the “big words of the faith.” Don’t worry, it’s perfectly OK to join us in the middle. This sermon series isn’t like the TV show “Lost.” You don’t have to watch from the very beginning to understand what in the world is going on.

Two weeks ago, we started by looking at the word “predestination.” Last week, our word was “covenant.” This week, our big word of the faith is “justification.”

Justification just might be the biggest of these big words. Martin Luther called justification “the cornerstone of Christianity.” More recently, the Christian author J.I. Packer said that any church that has forgotten about justification by faith can scarcely be called a Christian church.

So, turn with me to the book of Romans, chapter 4. Romans is the first letter in the New Testament, after the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and the book of Acts. If you are using a pew Bible, you should find our passage on page 1751.

Paul spends two-and-a-half chapters in this book on this big word of the faith, justification. Starting at verse 21 of Chapter 3 and going all the way to the end of Chapter 5, Paul lays out his argument that salvation is available to everyone, Jew or Gentile, in the same way. In these chapters he tells us that every Christian is justified by grace through faith—apart from works, apart from the law, and apart from one’s status as a Jew. Romans 4 is the centerpiece of that argument, and he focuses on the example of Abraham to make his point.

So follow along as I read from Romans 4. And keep your Bible open—after spending a little time defining justification, we will work verse by verse through the chapter to understand what Paul wants us to understand about this big word of the faith.

The word of the Lord from Romans 4:


II. What is justification?

So what is this big word of the faith—a word so important that without it we can hardly call ourselves Christian? What is justification?

Let’s start by defining it. Louis Berkhof, a 20th century theologian defined justification as “that legal act of God by which He declares the sinner righteous on the basis of the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ.” “That legal act of God by which He declares the sinner righteous on the basis of the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ.”

Justification is the process by which the perfect life of Jesus—his active obedience and sinlessness—is credited to us. This happens, despite our sinfulness, because Jesus agreed to fulfill the condition in God’s promise that we obey him. It isn’t our obedience that counts, since we can’t obey; it is Christ’s obedience on our behalf.

Our legal standing before God has changed. Instead of being outside of the covenant, condemned to death and eternal separation from God, we are instead declared righteous. We can stand before God and claim the benefits of his covenant—his promise that we can live forever in loving fellowship with God.

Some Christians confuse justification, this one-time declaration of righteousness, with the gradual process of sanctification—the process of becoming more and more like Christ. Justification is a single act, not an ongoing process. We have been declared righteous once and for all because Jesus has taken on our sins and given us his perfection. We aren’t justified before God because we become more and more holy through the Spirit’s work. No, we are able to become more and more holy because we have been justified, declared righteous before God.

So now, let’s take a look at Romans 4.

III. Justification comes by grace

Paul wants his readers to know that justification comes by grace. God’s people are not justified by our works. We don’t stand in a right relationship with God because of the law. And the Jews cannot say that they are justified simply by virtue of being Jewish. It is only by grace, through faith, that anyone is justified.

A. Not by works

Paul starts proving that justification is by grace, by showing that justification is not by works. To do that, he points to Abraham. In verse 1, Paul asks: “What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather, discovered in this matter?”

Many Jews in Paul’s day believed that Abraham was justified because of his own righteousness. They looked back at Abraham as being as close to perfect as any human could be. But Paul points out that if Abraham was justified by his good works, then he’d be able to boast in his good works, even before God.

But even the Jewish rabbis of Paul’s day who believed that Abraham was justified by his good works understood that the very idea of a sinner boasting before God is an absurdity. Listen to how Paul puts it in verse 2: “If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about—but not before God.”

Paul writes this to show us the impossibility of claiming to have right standing before God because of our own obedience. Earlier in chapter 3 of Romans, Paul quoted Psalm 14 to show that “There is no one righteous, not even one.” Not even Abraham.

Next, in verse three, Paul points us back to Genesis 15:6. “What does the Scripture say?” Paul asks. “‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.’”

This verse from Genesis flies in the face of the view that Abraham was justified by his works. There is no mention of any good works of Abraham in this verse. In fact, nowhere in Genesis 15 does it suggest that Abraham did anything to earn justification. “Abraham believed God.” That’s all. And that belief “was credited to him as righteousness.” Credited as a gift, not as something he had coming to him.

Paul expounds on this in verses 4 and 5. “Now when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation. However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness.”

Abraham did not earn justification by his works. Nor do we. Justification is a gift. Our faith is credited to us as righteousness, even though that very faith comes as a gift from God. This is even clearer on this in Ephesians 2:8, where Paul proclaims: “For it is by grace that you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God…”

In verses 6-8, Paul points out that David, another hero of the faith, agrees that justification comes by faith, not by works. Starting at verse 6: “David says the same thing when he speaks of the blessedness of the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works.” Paul then quotes Psalm 32. “Blessed are they whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will never count against him.”

In English, we use the word “count” in that last sentence: “Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will never count against him.” But in Greek, the word “count” is the exact same word that Paul uses in verse five for “credited” when he says of the faithful Christian “his faith is credited as righteousness.” Paul reiterates for us that our faith is credited as a gift, not as something we are owed. Justification is not by works.

B. Not by status

Paul next turns to the argument that justification is limited to the Jews, because of their special status as God’s people. Justification is not by status.

Listen to what Paul says in verses 9 and 10: He starts by asking “Is this blessedness only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised?” Paul then goes on to recap his discussion of justification as being credited as a gift, not as something earned. “We have been saying that Abraham's faith was credited to him as righteousness.”

Then he asks “Under what circumstances was it credited? Was it after he was circumcised, or before? It was not after, but before!”

What Paul is doing is refuting the argument that justification is only for the Jews, those who possessed the sign and the seal of God’s covenant—circumcision.

All we have to do is read through Genesis to we see that while Abraham believes God’s promise in Genesis 15, it takes at least 13 years, and maybe more, until we get to Genesis 17 where Abraham is circumcised. Abraham’s justification came far before he received the sign and seal of God’s promise.

Since Abraham was not circumcised when he was justified, Paul says, Abraham is really the spiritual father of all of us, Jew and Greek. In verse 11 Paul says, “[Abraham] is the father of all who believe but have not been circumcised, in order that righteousness might be credited to them.” And this leads to verse 12. “And he is also the father of the circumcised who not only are circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.” In other words, we cannot be justified simply by our status. We are justified by grace, and only through the gracious gift of faith.

C. Not by law

In just a moment, Paul is going to turn to a discussion of faith, and its role in our justification. But he makes one last point to show that justification is by grace. Because justification does not come to us by works, it also cannot come to us by the law. Justification is not by law.

Listen to what Paul says in verses 13-15. “It was not through law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise that he would be heir of the world, but through the righteousness that comes by faith. For if those who live by law are heirs, faith has no value and the promise is worthless, because law brings wrath. And where there is no law there is no transgression.”

If justification were dependent on our obedience to law, there would be no need for faith. We could be justified solely by our own act of obeying the law, regardless of whether we actually believed. And of course, we already know that we can’t obey the law anyway—Paul has already shown us that. It is only our faith, given as a free gift, that provides us a way to be justified before God.

We cannot stand before God and be declared righteous before His throne because of anything about ourselves. “For it is by grace that you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God…” Justification is by grace alone.

D. Justification comes through faith

So, having shown that justification is by grace alone, Paul, in the next section of our text, shows the importance of faith. Justification comes through faith.

Here is what Paul says in verse 16. “Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring—not only to those who are of the law but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all.”

To some extent, Paul is just reiterating what he explained already. When we are justified through faith, this is by grace, since faith is a gift. But not only that, since we receive this gift by faith—the deep-rooted assurance that God has acted on our behalf, as opposed to our doing anything ourselves—this gift is available to all who have faith, whether Jew or Gentile. After all, God made Abraham “a father of many nations.” And he gives “life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were.”

God gives life to the dead. He showed this in the new life that came from the dead womb of Sarah. He showed this by giving Isaac’s life back in Genesis 22, when Abraham offered him to God as a sacrifice. And he shows this in the life of Jesus Christ, who though he died, was resurrected. What’s more, God also gave life to us. We were once dead in our sins. But now, because of the faith we receive by grace, we are made alive with Christ.

That new life begins with our being regenerated, being born again and receiving a new heart. With that new heart in us we are converted, able to repent of our sins and have faith in Jesus Christ and his saving work for us. And through that faith, we are justified—our legal standing before God is changed. Instead of being outside of the covenant, condemned to death, we can stand before God able to claim the benefits of the covenant—eternal life in fellowship with our loving God.

IV. What this means for us

We are justified—God has declared us righteous solely on the basis of the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ. And that righteousness is a gift of grace, a gift we receive through faith.

So what does this mean for us? What are the implications of justification by grace through faith? Let’s look at three. First, because of this gift we can have faith “against all hope.” Second, that sure assurance must lead us to give all of the glory to God. And finally, justification points us back to Christ, the author and perfecter of our faith.

A. We can have faith “against all hope.”

So, first, we can have faith “against all hope.” Paul talks about Abraham having this kind of faith in verses 18-20: “Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him, ‘So shall your offspring be.’ Without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead—since he was about a hundred years old—and that Sarah's womb was also dead. Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith...”

Humanly speaking, Abraham’s faith in God’s promise was against all hope. Who could believe that Sarah would bear him a child at age 90? Certainly, Abraham’s faith was strong, but that strength didn’t come from within himself. It came because of who he believed in. All that mattered was the object of Abraham’s faith, the God who freely gives righteousness to sinners who believe his words.

We have faith in the same God as Abraham. And that means we, too, can have faith “against all hope.” As one commentator noted, “faith is not a blind leap in the dark, contrary to all reason and common sense.” Rather, our faith looks forward with the same kind of hope that Abraham had. We know that God is faithful; we know that God “gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were.”

We are heirs of God’s promise, so not even death can lay claim to us. We look forward to the day when God will raise our bodies from the dead on the day of resurrection, and we will be able to live in perfect relationship with our God for all eternity. We have faith, against any human hope, that we will live forever, free from the bonds of death.

B. Our faith must lead us to give all glory to God.

And because we have this faith “against all hope,” our faith must lead us to give all glory to God.

Look again at verses 20 and 21 of our text. “Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised.”

Giving glory to God is a hallmark of faith. God created the world as a way of showing his glory. He graciously promised us eternal life with him as a way of showing his glory. And, despite our sin, he has provided a way for us to be made right with Him, to be declared righteous despite our sin. This also he does for his glory. Having been declared righteous before God, it should be our desire to give all the glory to God, to display his greatness in everything we do. Our faith must lead us to give all glory to God.

C. Our faith points us back to the cross of Christ

Finally, our faith points us back to the cross of Christ. If we truly believe that we have been justified, we cannot help but focus on the cross of Christ, on the sacrifice he made for us, and the perfect righteousness that he has given to us.

Even if you are not a baseball fan, you’ve certainly heard of Barry Bonds. On August 7, 2007, Bonds hit home run number 756, the home run that broke Hank Aaron’s record. Most of the talk about the record, though, is whether it really should count, because Bonds is alleged to have used steroids. Many sports buffs say if his name goes in the record book it should be accompanied by an asterisk. The asterisk means the record is tainted. In fact, the man who bought the ball that Bonds hit to set the record branded it with an asterisk before donating it to the baseball Hall of Fame.

Scripture talks about a different kind of record book—the Book of Life. The name of each believer is recorded in this record book. With all the sins we have committed, you’d think that each of us should have an asterisk by our name in this record book. But because we of Jesus Christ’s perfect life on this earth and his redeeming work on the cross, there is no asterisk by our names.

God has done all he promised. As Paul tells us in the last verses of our text, “The words ‘it was credited to him’ were written not for [Abraham] alone, but also for us, to whom God will credit righteousness—for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.”

Jesus was delivered over to death for our sins, and was raised to life for our justification. Our faith convinces us of that. Our faith points us back to the cross of Christ.

VI. Conclusion

Justification is “that legal act of God by which He declares the sinner righteous on the basis of the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ.” We are justified by grace, completely undeserved. And justification comes to us through the gift of faith, faith that allows us to claim the benefits of being declared righteous.

Because of our justification, we, like Abraham, can have a faith against all hope that we will live eternally with our glorious God. And that faith leads us to ascribe all of the glory and to turn our eyes toward the cross of our anointed King, Jesus Christ, who is the reason for our faith.


Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Important Court Decision Impacting Christian Schools

Coulee Catholic Schools vs. LIRC (2009 WI 88)

On July 21, the Wisconsin Supreme Court issued an important decision relating to the freedom Christian schools (and other faith-based institutions) have under the U.S. and Wisconsin Constitutions.
The Facts of the Case:
Wendy Ostlund began teaching at St. Patrick’s Elementary School in Onalaska in 1974. St. Patrick's is a member school of Coulee Catholic Schools, a cooperative effort between area Catholic schools to share resources, streamline administration, and unify curriculum. CCS is owned, operated, and subject to the authority of the Diocese of La Crosse, Wisconsin, and is therefore an entity of the Catholic Church. The Catholic school is considered a ministry of the Roman Catholic Church. The church considers the foundation of the whole educational enterprise in a Catholic school to be Jesus Christ. The Catholic school aims at a Christian concept of life centered on Jesus Christ. Teachers are believed to be essential to this ministry.

Ostlund’s school day was pretty typical for a teacher in a Christian school. She began the day with prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance. She taught reading, science, social studies, math, and handwriting. Other teachers taught computers, art, P.E., and music.

The final period of the day was religion, which she taught on her own three days per week. A priest or deacon accompanied Ostlund on the fourth day. On the fifth, there was a school-wide Mass. During religion class, Ostlund taught the Catholic faith. She was often the first person to teach the children certain Catholic prayers. She taught basic Catholic doctrine, and specific worship practices like the Stations of the Cross. Ostlund also helped her students celebrate school-wide religious holidays.

Approximately every fourth week, Ostlund was responsible for helping to plan the Friday Mass with her class. When planning Mass, Ostlund was in charge of choosing appropriate readings from the Bible. She was also responsible for the petitions that would be read and prayed during Mass. These she would either choose from a liturgy guide, or at times, write herself. Ostlund also participated in various aspects of the Mass, including reading responsorial psalms and carrying the bread and wine.

Each year, Ostlund was required to sign an employment contract, which provided:

“The Employee agrees to faithfully and conscientiously perform any and all
duties of the position(s) for which he/she is hired and all other duties as
directed by the Employer including, but not limited to . . . comply with the
requirements of the Diocese of La Crosse and the State of Wisconsin regarding
the educational preparation of teachers.”

It also provided:

“The Employee as a teacher in a Catholic educational system agrees that as a
condition of employment he/she will support and exemplify in conduct both
Catholic doctrine and morality. He/She must be consistent in expression and
example, with the teaching and practice of the Catholic faith and shall not
teach, advocate, encourage or counsel beliefs or practices contrary to the
Catholic faith.”

The CCS Faculty and Staff Handbook included written rules, regulations, and policies adopted by the Diocese of La Crosse and approved by its Bishop. These policies required teachers to comply with certain standards. A preamble to these standards stated in pertinent part:

“The primary mission of the Catholic Church is to continue the mission of Jesus: PROCLAIMING THE KINGDOM OF GOD. Central to this mission is the teaching of the Word of God. This ministry of the Word is given expression in the education efforts of the Church.

It is the goal of the five dioceses in the state of Wisconsin to promote and support a comprehensive educational ministry. The ministry extends to people of all ages: adults, youth and children.

Following their long tradition of service to the people of Wisconsin,
Catholic elementary and secondary schools and religious education programs continue to be an essential part of the educational ministry of the Church.

By virtue of their ministry, personnel in Catholic education are role models
for other adults, youth and children. Therefore, they are called to be
well-informed in Catholic teachings and committed to a Catholic way of life.”

The standards themselves contain several requirements for teachers. Notably, elementary school teachers of religion were required to have both basic and advanced certifications in religion, which Ostlund acquired and maintained. Both the basic and advanced certifications involved yearly continuing education sessions where Ostlund was instructed on how to teach Catholic principles and doctrine. Teachers were also required be certified by the Department of Public Instruction. Ostlund was actually not a licensed teacher—she was working to obtain her teaching license, however, as that was a fairly recent requirement for CCS elementary school teachers.

While the standards required teachers of religion to be Catholics, as a matter of practice CCS did not actually require elementary school to be members of the Catholic Church. Ostlund’s job description set forth six main areas of responsibility: providing a religious Atmosphere, teaching responsibilities, supervisory responsibilities, professional duties, grade level responsibilities, and compliance with the school and diocesan policies. The “religious atmosphere” component required her to provide a good Christian model and example; encourage spiritual growth in students by developing inner discipline, character, morals, and values; and provide leadership in living and celebrating life and liturgies. Her professional duties required her to, among other things, earn and maintain religious certification.

As part of her yearly evaluation, Ostlund and a supervisor commented on various aspects of her job performance. The court found some of Ostlund’s comments relevant here. In her 1997 job evaluation, Ostlund stated: “When I teach prayer or religion class, attend or prepare liturgy or talk about morals and values, I know that I am dealing with things that are not found in a public school.” With regard to her teaching technique, Ostlund commented “I am able to incorporate Catholic values into all of the subjects that I teach.” In her 2001 job evaluation, she commented: “I encourage spiritual growth during religion class as well as throughout the day.” In her 2002 evaluation, Ostlund stated: “I have taught religion daily and prepared liturgies, which are well thought out and appropriate for first graders.” Ostlund’s evaluator stated that Ostlund “prepares students for participation in liturgies and prayer services celebrated during the school year.”

In the spring of 2002, CCS closed one of its elementary schools due to low enrollment. This required the school system to lay off several teachers. On March 27, 2002, Ostlund received a letter from the president of CCS stating that, due to the staff reductions, Ostlund would not be offered a contract for the 2002-03 school year. She was one of ten teachers not to receive contract extensions from CCS. Ostlund was age 53 when she was terminated, and was replaced with a 35-year-old teacher who was certified to teach elementary school.

Following her termination, Ostlund filed an age discrimination complaint with the Equal Rights Division of the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development. She alleged that CCS terminated her because of her age in violation of the Fair Employment Act. The Equal Rights Officer did not find probable cause to believe that CCS violated the law when it terminated Ostlund. She then appealed the initial determination and received a formal administrative hearing with the Equal Rights Division to address her claim. CCS moved to dismiss the complaint, arguing that the Equal Rights Division had no jurisdiction because Ostlund’s position was “ministerial,” meaning that acting on the complaint would infringe upon CCS’s First Amendment rights.

The Equal Rights Division Administrative Law Judge concluded that Ostlund’s position was not ministerial. He concluded that while Ostlund did engage in religiously-related activities, her primary duty was to instruct her students in a core of secular disciplines. Therefore, he dismissed CCS’s motion and ordered a hearing to determine whether there was probable cause that CCS violated the Fair Employment Act when it terminated Ostlund.

CCS appealed the Equal Rights Division ruling to the State of Wisconsin Labor and Industry Review Commission for administrative review. LIRC determined that because the ALJ’s decision was not a “final order,” so it could not hear the appeal until after the probable cause hearing. CCS then sought review in the La Crosse County Circuit Court. The circuit court ruled that any investigation of the discrimination claim would have to wait until LIRC made a decision on whether Ostlund’s position was ministerial or not.

The matter was then sent back to LIRC, which issued a decision agreeing with the ALJ that Ostlund’s primary duty as a first-grade teacher was to instruct her students in a core of secular disciplines. Teaching religion four times a week, leading prayers, referring to religious symbols, incorporating religious themes into classes, preparing liturgy, and supervising liturgy did not constitute Ostlund’s primary duty, according to LIRC. Therefore, the discrimination hearing should be held. CCS sought review of that decision in La Crosse County Circuit Court.

The circuit court agreed with LIRC that, despite Ostlund teaching religion, participating in religious activities with students, and using religious examples in her lessons, her primary duty was to teach secular subject matters to her students. Hence, the circuit court held that she was not a ministerial employee, and that Ostlund’s age discrimination claim could proceed. CCS appealed and the court of appeals upheld the circuit court decision. Therefore, she appealed to the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court Decision:

The Supreme Court started by noting that the U.S. Supreme Court has stated that the right to practice one’s religion according to the dictates of conscience is fundamental to our system of government. It noted that our nation’s founders recognized and enshrined this right in our in the Constitution. Roughly 60 years later, Wisconsinites saw fit to include more specific and more extensive protections for religious liberty in our state constitution.

On appeal, Ostlund also referred to the First Amendment. She asserted that the Establishment Clause provided the principles for this case, and that the real question was whether the Fair Employment Act creates excessive government entanglement with religion. She argued that giving religious employers an exemption from non-discrimination laws encroaches upon the Establishment Clause’s prohibition against furthering religion. The court, however, stated that U.S. Supreme Court case law and common sense lead to a different conclusion—that it is the Free Exercise Clause, and not the Establishment Clause, that is implicated in this case. Granting churches and religious organizations control over the selection of their leaders does not implicate the establishment of religion or the favoring of one religion over another.

According to the court, the state has a strong interest in eradicating discrimination, but the job of the courts is to distinguish minor or “incidental” burdens on free exercise in eradicating discrimination from burdens where the inroad on religious liberty is too substantial to be permissible. In doing so, courts have described what they call the “ministerial exception.” In 1985, the U.S. Supreme Court proposed a test for deciding when a position should be considered ministerial. An employee is ministerial, it said, if his or her “primary duties consist of teaching, spreading the faith, church governance, supervision of a religious order, or supervision or participation in religious ritual and worship.” This inquiry requires a court to determine whether a position is important to the spiritual and pastoral mission of the church. This test for has been called the “primary duties test.”

The court noted a problem with this test: what the word “primary” means. Some courts have taken a quantitative approach, looking, for example, at the amount of time spent on particular subjects deemed “secular” versus subjects deemed “religious.” This was the approach taken by Ostlund, the ALJ, LIRC, the circuit court, and the court of appeals.

The court determined what they termed a better way to view the ministerial exception—the “functional approach.” This perspective focuses more on whether a position is important to the spiritual and pastoral mission of the church. The primary concern here is the function of the employee, not only the enumerated tasks themselves. The court held that the quantitative approach minimizes or privatizes religion by calling a faith-centered social studies class, for example, “secular” because it does not specifically involve worship and prayer. A functional analysis, the court said, involves less intrusion into the affairs of religious organizations, envisages a more limited role for courts in determining whether activities or positions are religious, and avoids reducing the significance of a position to a rote formula. In short, the court said, a functional analysis is truer to the First Amendment’s protection of religious freedom.

The court then set out two steps for performing a functional analysis. First is to determine whether the organization, in both statement and practice, has a fundamentally religious mission. Any inquiry would be highly fact-sensitive. The court noted that “it could be that one religiously-affiliated organization committed to feeding the homeless has only a nominal tie to religion, while another religiously-affiliated organization committed to feeding the homeless has a religiously infused mission involving teaching, evangelism, and worship. Similarly, one religious school may have some affiliation with a church but not attempt to ground the teaching and life of the school in the religious faith, while another similarly situated school may be committed to life and learning grounded in a religious worldview.”

The second step in the analysis is to determine how important or closely linked the employee’s work is to the fundamental mission of that organization. This again would be highly fact-specific. Relevant evidence could include hiring criteria, the job application, the employment contract, actual job duties, performance evaluations, and the understanding or characterization of a position by the organization. Quintessentially religious tasks like teaching, evangelizing, church governance, supervision of a religious order, and overseeing, leading, or participating in religious rituals, worship, and/or worship services are not the only evidence considered, but would show a close link and importance to an organization’s religious mission.

A functional analysis of the ministerial exception makes sense, the court noted, because, though it departs in form from the analysis used by many other courts, it gets to the real heart of the ministerial exception, which is preventing the state from intruding into the mission of religious organizations or houses of worship. The state surely has a strong interest in ensuring fair employment opportunities regardless of age, race, and other such factors. Nonetheless, the Wisconsin legislature oversteps its constitutional authority when its otherwise laudable efforts at fairness interfere with the hiring and firing of employees who are important and closely linked to the religious mission of a religious organization. Such actions impermissibly intrude upon the organization’s exercise of religious liberty.

The court also looked at the Wisconsin Constitution in making its decision. This is important for two reasons—first, it makes an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court nearly impossible. Second, it signals the court’s growing willingness to interpret the state constitution more restrictively than the U.S. Constitution. This is important in many contexts, and is not a so-called liberal/conservative issue. Those called “liberals” might appreciate a more stringent interpretation of what constitutes illegal search and seizure or the right against self-incrimination, while so-called “conservatives” might appreciate more stringent interpretations of the Free Exercise clause or various constitutional provisions related to commerce.
Article I, Section 18 of the Wisconsin Constitution provides as follows:

“The right of every person to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of
conscience shall never be infringed; nor shall any person be compelled to
attend, erect or support any place of worship, or to maintain any ministry,
without consent; nor shall any control of, or interference with, the rights of
conscience be permitted, or any preference be given by law to any religious
establishments or modes of worship; nor shall any money be drawn from the
treasury for the benefit of religious societies, or religious or theological

According to the court, the Wisconsin Constitution uses the strongest possible language in the protection of the right of freedom of conscience. While this section serves the same purposes as the Establishment Clause and Free Exercise Clause of the U.S. Constitution, these provisions are not the same. The protections and prohibitions in the Wisconsin Constitution are far more specific. And with regard to the rights of conscience, this clause contains extremely strong language, providing expansive protections for religious liberty. Thus, the court held, Wisconsin courts are not limited to current First Amendment jurisprudence when interpreting our own constitutional protections for religious liberty; rather, they are required to give effect to the more explicit guarantees set forth in our state constitution.

When faced with a claim that a state law violates an individual or organization’s freedom of conscience, courts generally apply the compelling state interest/least restrictive alternative test. Under this test, the religious organization has to prove that it has a sincerely held religious belief, and that such belief is burdened by the application of the state law at issue. If it does so, then the burden shifts to the state to prove that the law is based upon a compelling state interest that cannot be served by a less restrictive alternative.

This analysis, the court said, is appropriate in most circumstances regarding laws burdening the rights of conscience, but not in this case. This is because the law at issue in this case is not merely a burden on an individual’s or organization’s religious beliefs. Rather, it is an effort by the state to intrude into the hiring and firing decisions of a religious organization. The Wisconsin Constitution acts as a perpetual bar to the state from the infringement, control, or interference with the rights of conscience. The state simply has no authority to control or interfere with the selection of spiritual leaders of a religious organization with a religious mission. The court compared the Wisconsin provision to the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which bans slavery. It would be inconceivable to conclude that slavery can exist in the United States as long as the state has a compelling interest. The text is clear—slavery is not allowed. In the same way, the state cannot or interfere with the selection of spiritual leaders of a religious organization.

The court noted that they do not mean to suggest that anything interfering with a religious organization is totally prohibited. General laws related to building licensing, taxes, social security, and the like are normally acceptable. Similarly, employment discrimination laws applying to employees who are not in positions that are important and closely linked to the religious mission of a religious organization also do not rise to the level of control or interference with the free exercise of religion. But the state may not interfere with the hiring or firing decisions of religious organizations with a religious mission with respect to employees who are important and closely linked to that mission. These employees are “ministerial,” and when applied to ministerial employees, laws like the Fair Employment Act constitute an impermissible effort to control or interfere with the organization’s rights of conscience in violation of the Wisconsin Constitution.

In applying the law to Ostlund, the court noted that LIRC had found that the textbooks used by Ostlund were not religious and that, except for a Christmas unit, her instruction in social studies was not primarily religious. However, Ostlund testified that she incorporated religious examples and values into everything she taught. The court noted that whether or not her teaching of social studies was primarily religious is more a legal judgment than a factual finding. Similarly, it noted that LIRC found as a fact that “religious related activities did not constitute [Ostlund’s] primary duty. The court rejected that finding of fact, saying it was a legal judgment. While it may be that the majority of her duties were teaching “secular” subjects, the court said, it does not follow that her primary duties were secular for purposes of determining whether the ministerial exception applies. These issues were important, because the Supreme Court is generally bound to the factual findings of lower courts, but can make independent determinations on legal judgments. It is somewhat unusual for an appeals court to reject a finding of fact as actually being a legal judgment wrapped in the cloths of a factual finding. However, the Supreme Court her made a point of doing so.

The court then followed the law it had set forth to determine that Ostlund’s position was important and closely linked to the religious mission of a religious organization.

It first looked at the nature of Coulee Catholic Schools and St. Patrick’s Elementary. The court noted that CCS has a religious mission and substantially practices it. CCS is an entity committed to marshalling the resources and expertise of the Catholic schools in the Diocese of La Crosse. CCS is an entity of the Catholic Church itself, subject to the authority of the Bishop of La Crosse, who himself approved certain CCS rules and policies. It is committed to a distinctly Catholic education aimed at a “Christian concept of life.” The preamble to the CCS Faculty and Staff Handbook explicitly stated that Catholic school education is an essential part of the Catholic Church’s efforts to live out its mission to proclaim the kingdom of God. Consistent with this mission, Catholic elementary and secondary schools are called educational ministry. CCS is committed to an education rooted in the Gospel of Jesus Christ that celebrates the development of Gospel faith and identity through sacrament and service. It aims to be a worship-filled educational environment with a faith-centered approach to learning. It is beyond dispute, then, that CCS has a religious mission. The court also held that the actual practice of Ostlund’s school substantially affirmed that CCS gives life to the words of its mission. Teachers made efforts to integrate Catholic values into various aspects of the curricula. This included integrating theological and moral principles into each subject, as well as use of religious examples and symbols that would not be found in a public school. Students were taught the Catholic faith in a daily religion class, and celebrated Mass weekly. The students also prayed at points throughout the day and celebrated religious holidays. Teachers were required to teach, support, and exemplify Catholic doctrine and morality, and they were to help foster spiritual growth among their students. In short, CCS member schools are not just public schools with a few supplemental religious extras. CCS was explicitly and intentionally faith-centered, and the record supports that CCS tried to live out its mission.

The second step in the court’s inquiry was an examination of Ostlund’s position itself and the degree to which it is important and closely linked to CCS's mission. As a first-grade teacher at St. Patrick’s Elementary School, one of the CCS schools, it was obvious to the court that Ostlund’s role was of high importance and closely linked to the mission of the school----the inculcation of a Christ-centered concept of life. Ostlund led prayer with her students, incorporated religious examples, symbols, and stories into other subjects, and helped celebrate school-wide celebrations of religious holidays. Significantly, Ostlund was a catechist for four days per week; that is, she taught Catholic doctrine and practice to her students. Ostlund also took her students to Mass each week, sometimes planning Bible readings and writing prayers for worship services. Ostlund was important and closely linked to the religious mission of CCS with regard to her first-grade students. Ostlund was required to obtain basic and advanced certifications in religious instruction. This means she was required to and did receive ongoing training and instruction on how to teach the Catholic faith to her students. She further agreed to model and support Catholic teaching. In her job description, which also served as the template for her performance evaluation, her first responsibility was to maintain a religious atmosphere, which required her to provide a good Christian model and example, encourage spiritual growth in students, and provide leadership in living and celebrating life and liturgies. Ostlund acknowledged her efforts to incorporate Catholic values and encourage spiritual growth throughout the day, not just in religion class. Ostlund’s position as a first-grade teacher was important and closely linked to the religiously-infused mission of the school. In particular, her specific obligations to contribute to worship services and teach Catholic doctrine to her students point to her significance in the religious mission of the school. Ostlund was required to perform quintessentially religious tasks as a central part of her job, and her role was an essential part of the Catholic Church's educational ministry to its youth. In sum, Ostlund was not simply a public school teacher with an added obligation to teach religion. She was an important instrument in a faith-based organization's efforts to pass on its faith to the next generation. The state and federal constitutions do not permit the state to interfere with employment decisions regarding teachers, like Ostlund, who are important and closely linked to the religious mission of CCS.

The court addressed two counterarguments. First, the lower courts were particularly affected by the fact that Ostlund was not required to be Catholic. It may seem, at first blush, counterintuitive to call a position ministerial when the person occupying it is not required to be a member of the faith she is ministering. But this ignores the fact that Ostlund was still required to engage in Catholic worship, model Catholic living, and impart Catholic teaching. Thus, though it may be that she was not required to be Catholic, she was required to live, embody, and teach Catholicism in her role as a teacher consistent with the mission of the school.

Previous courts also pointed to the secular teaching materials as important. But as discussed above, Ostlund testified that she made efforts to integrate Catholicism into all her subjects. The fact that she used a secular social studies book does not mean that the social studies class was “secular.” Ostlund used religious examples and brought Catholic teaching into all of her subjects.
The court specifically noted that in their holding in this case, they were not giving a blanket exception to all religious school teachers. Future cases along these lines will be very fact-sensitive. But the state has no constitutional authority to regulate the hiring and firing decisions of CCS for this first-grade teaching position.

Thus, the decision by the court of appeals was reversed.

This decision was not unanimous. Justice Crooks wrote a dissenting opinion, which was joined by Chief Justice Abrahamson and Justice Bradley, making it a 4-3 decision. (In fact, many commentators have noted that the result of the decision was likely completely decided by the 2008 Supreme Court election, in which Justice Gableman, who wrote the majority opinion) defeated former Justice Butler.

The dissent argued that the majority altered the “primary duties” test as it had been understood by Wisconsin courts and a significant majority of other jurisdictions. The dissent also argued that the majority’s sweeping language and analysis will have far-reaching consequences and jeopardizes long-standing decisions under the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution, as well as under the “benefits clause” and “compelled support clause” contained in Article I, Section 18 of the Wisconsin Constitution. In fact, the dissent specifically noted that the majority conclusion that CCS infuses its secular subjects with religion effectively extends a free pass to religious schools to discriminate against their lay employees and threatens the continued viability of the Milwaukee school choice program. If the majority is correct in its conclusions, the dissent says, it can no longer be maintained that benefits flowing from the Milwaukee school choice program do not have the primary effect of advancing religion.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Sermon Series--Sermon #2

Big Words of the Faith:
The Covenant of Grace
Hebrews 8:10-12

I. Introduction

If you were here last week, you know that this summer we are celebrating the 500th anniversary of the birth of John Calvin. This morning, during our fellowship time after the service, please stay for a little while and join us for some birthday cake in celebration.

Besides cake, we are also celebrating God’s work through John Calvin by taking a look at some of the “Big Words of the Faith.” Last week we looked at predestination. That can be a pretty controversial and heavy topic—I’m glad to see some of you who were here last week came back. This week’s topic is probably not quite as controversial, at least right now.

There are outlines for you once again this morning. If you don’t have one already, raise your hand and someone will make sure you get one.

This week, we are looking at the word “covenant.” This is a pretty commonly used word, especially in Reformed churches like ours.

Many of you probably know of many reformed churches all over North America with the word “Covenant” in their name. I have had the opportunity to preach on numerous occasions at Covenant CRC up in Appleton. I made profession of faith, and Kim and I were married, at Covenant CRC in Sioux Center, Iowa. It is a common name.

Another context in which we see the word covenant is in relation to children. Many churches provide assistance to encourage and help parents to send their children to Christian schools. Those programs are often known as “Covenant Promise” or “Covenant Education” funds.

We also use the word covenant during baptisms and professions of faith. We refer to the babies we present for baptism as covenant children. We proclaim that baptism is a sign that they are a part of the covenant of grace. And when those children reach an age at which they are assured of the promises of the covenant and want to take on its responsibilities, they make profession of faith.

So this morning, let’s look together at this word—“covenant.” What is a covenant? How is the idea of the covenant an important part of what we believe as Christians? And what does the covenant mean to us?

Our text this morning comes from the book of Hebrews, chapter 8, verses 10-12. Hebrews is near the end of the Bible—after 1&2 Timothy, Titus and Philemon, but before James, 1&2 Peter, and 1, 2, &3 John.

This text is actually part of a much larger section of Hebrews dealing with the covenant. In fact, I think the key truth of the book of Hebrews is the unchanging nature of God’s covenant of grace and its fulfillment in Jesus Christ.

One other thing to know about our text this morning is that it is actually a quote. Starting with the end of verse 8, and continuing to the end of verse 12, the writer of Hebrews is quoting the prophet Jeremiah. When you get a chance, take a look at Jeremiah 31:31-34. You will see that those verses are quoted exactly here in Hebrews 8.

So hear the word of the Lord from Hebrews chapter 8, verses 10-12:

This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel
after that time, declares the Lord.
I will put my laws in their minds
and write them on their hearts.
I will be their God,
and they will be my people.
No longer will a man teach his neighbor,
or a man his brother, saying, 'Know the Lord,'
because they will all know me,
from the least of them to the greatest.
For I will forgive their wickedness
and will remember their sins no more.


II. What is a Covenant?

Right at the beginning of our text comes the big word we are studying this morning—“covenant.” Before going further, let’s define exactly what a covenant is.

In its most general sense, a covenant is a solemn promise made by one party to another to engage in or refrain from a certain action.

A covenant is different from a contract. In a contract, two or more parties make promises to each other, and each is bound by the contract. Each side has an obligation to the other. If one or the other doesn’t follow through on the obligation, then the contract is broken, and the penalties written into the contract will be applied against the one who broke the contract.

In a covenant, only one party is bound by the promise. The one making the covenant might declare that promise will only be kept if those benefiting from the covenant do certain things. But if they don’t do those things, they aren’t necessarily violating of the covenant. They’re just choosing not to receive the benefits of the promise made in the covenant. They won’t receive any benefit from the agreement.

This definition of covenant is a key to understanding the covenant of grace. The covenant of grace is a solemn promise made by God to grant salvation and eternal life to mankind—so long as we believe and obey.

III. Covenant History—God’s story

This morning our focus is on the covenant of grace—that solemn promise of God to grant salvation and eternal life to us if we believe and obey.

To fully understand the meaning of the covenant of grace, though, we should understand “covenant history.” “Covenant history” is the story of God’s relationship with his people. “Covenant history” is really “God’s story” as God has revealed it in his Word. And it includes two other covenants of which God is or has been a part. These covenants have a tremendous impact on how we understand the covenant of grace today.

A. The Covenant of Works

The first act in God’s story was creation. As the very first words of the Bible say, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” God created everything from nothing by His powerful word.

The high point of creation was when God created humans. Genesis 1:26 tells us that God created us as the pinnacle of His creation by making us in his own image, “crowned with glory and honor.” Then, Genesis 2 tells us that God made a covenant with Adam, the first human.

That first covenant is usually called the “covenant of works.” Some call it the “covenant of creation” because it was started at creation. Others call it the “covenant of life” because it was intended to give man not only earthly life, but heavenly life. In the covenant of works, God promised life to Adam and his descendants, so long as he obeyed God perfectly

God created us, so we naturally owed God our love and obedience. He didn’t need to enter into a covenant to create that obligation. And He owed us nothing in return for that love and obedience. Yet God willingly entered into the covenant of works. In doing so, he gave us a gift of grace, binding Himself to give life to humans. The only condition in that covenant was the obedience that Adam, and all his descendants, already owed to God. So while we call this first covenant “the covenant of works,” we see God’s grace to us from the very beginning.

In the covenant of works, God arranged it so that Adam would represent the entire human race. If Adam had fulfilled the conditions of the covenant, then all of his descendants would have lived forever with God in eternal blessedness. Remember, though, this was a covenant, not a contract. Adam could not earn salvation by obeying. Rather, his obedience was simply the condition for remaining within the covenant.

Unfortunately, even though he was capable of following God’s will, Adam broke the terms of the covenant of works. As a result, he was no longer under the covenant’s protection and promise. Since he could no longer claim the promise of life with God, he instead had only death—complete spiritual and physical death and separation from God

And since Adam represented us all, every one of us is incapable of receiving life under the covenant of works. Because of Adam’s sin, we all entered into the bondage of sin and death.

At this point, the story would have ended if it were not for God’s grace and mercy. But because of the covenant of grace, the story did not end!

B. The Covenant of Redemption

In Ephesians 2, the apostle reminds us of the misery we have because of being outside of the covenant of works. But then, in verse four, Paul uses two very small but very powerful words—“But God.” “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ.”

At the very moment of Adam’s fall, God began to show his infinite mercy by withholding immediate physical death. And then he showed his amazing grace, announcing a new covenant: the covenant of grace. In that new covenant, God promised to send another to redeem fallen humanity from their plight.

Before getting too much further into the covenant of grace, there is one other covenant you should know about—the covenant of redemption. This is an agreement God the Son made with God the Father. In the covenant of redemption, the Son agreed to take on our obligations under the original covenant of works.

I am not going to spend a great deal of time on the covenant of redemption this week. We will talk about it more next week, God willing, when our “big word of the faith” is “justification.” Suffice it to say that the covenant of redemption is a key to the covenant of grace. Had there been no covenant of redemption, there could have been no covenant of grace with sinful humans. The covenant of redemption makes the covenant of grace possible.

C. The Covenant of Grace

We see the covenant of grace first in Genesis 3:15, when God tells the devil in the garden “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.” The rest of Scripture, from this point on, is the story of God revealing his covenant of grace.

Since the fall of man into sin, there has only been one covenant, the covenant of grace. True, the way the covenant was administered has changed. The covenant became wider through time, starting out just with small families, like the families of Noah and Abraham. It widened at the time of Moses to include the entire nation of Israel. And it now covers a church that Revelation 5:9 tells us is made up of people “from every tribe and language and people and nation.” In the Old Testament the covenant was administered through types and shadows, such as sacrifices, the priesthood, and the temple. But those types and shadows all pointed to the promise of the covenant of grace, salvation through Jesus Christ.

So what exactly is the covenant of grace? The Westminster Confession describes it this way: “…the Lord was pleased to make a second [covenant], commonly called the covenant of grace; wherein he freely offered unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ, requiring of them faith in him that they may be saved, and promising to give unto all those that are ordained unto eternal life, his Holy Spirit, to make them willing and able to believe.”

In other words, the covenant of grace is God’s promise that his chosen people will receive the benefits of the original covenant of works—eternal life with God—despite our sin. We receive those benefits through the work of Jesus Christ, who freely took on and fulfilled our obligations under the original covenant. All we have to do receive these benefits is to have faith that we are saved. And not only that, as part of the covenant of grace, God promises to give those covered by this covenant the desire and the ability to believe.

The covenant of grace is indeed a covenant, not a contract. It is a solemn promise made by God, promising to grant salvation and eternal life to sinful humans. And there is a condition to that promise—the promise of salvation and eternal life covers us only so long as we believe in Christ and obey him as our King. But God also gives his chosen people the means by which we can fulfill that condition.

Under the covenant of works Adam could not earn salvation by obeying. Rather his obedience was required simply as the condition for remaining within the protections of the covenant.

In the same way, we cannot earn the salvation and eternal life won for us by Christ by believing in and obeying Jesus. Rather, our belief and obedience is simply the condition for remaining within the covenant of grace. And, thanks to God, He has given us the means to fulfill that condition through the Holy Spirit.

The most exciting part of the covenant of grace for us will be its consummation. The covenant of grace will reach its fullest expression when Christ returns to give the world second birth, when his people will be transformed into the likeness of Christ, and when all things will be restored to the way they were meant to be. That will be the time of the New Heaven and New Earth, when we will receive in full the blessing of God’s covenant promise to live in eternal blessedness with our Creator God.

The Bible, at its core is “covenant history.” It is the story of God’s relationship with his creation, especially us humans. And the covenant story comes to a head in the saving work of Jesus Christ. Through this covenant story, not only do we learn of how we can live in a glorious relationship with our Father, but we see God’s glory revealed through his work in all of history.

IV. What the Covenant means to us

The covenant of grace is God’s promise that his chosen people will receive the benefits of the original covenant of works—eternal life with God—despite our sin. Let’s take a look, through our text, at what it means for us humans to be within that covenant of grace.

A. God is a sovereign provider

Take a look at the last part of verse 10 of our text. There it says “I will be their God and they will be my people.” If there is one way to sum up the covenant promise of God to us his people, it is just that—he will be our God, and we will be his people.

This little phrase packs a lot of meaning in just a few words. We can sum it up, though, by saying that God is a sovereign provider. He is a sovereign provider.

Listen to what the catechism says in Lord’s Day 9. There the writers say that “the eternal Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who out of nothing created heaven and earth and everything in them, who still upholds and rules them by his eternal counsel and providence is my God and Father because of Christ his Son.” Do you see the covenant there—God promises to be our God, and he does this through Jesus Christ.

The catechism goes on to tell us what it means for us that he is our God. “I do not doubt that he will provide whatever I need for body and soul, and he will turn to my good whatever adversity he sends me in this sad world.” He will provide whatever I need. He will turn to my good every adversity. What a promise!

In two weeks, we are going spend the entire service focusing on God’s providence, so I won’t go much deeper today. But in that covenant promise of God to be our God and that we will be his people, we have a promise that God is a sovereign provider.

B. God demands obedience from us

But not only is God a sovereign provider, he also demands obedience from us. God demands obedience from us. Jump back to the middle of verse 10. Listen to another promise from God’s covenant with us: “I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts.”

We have already noted that while we cannot earn salvation, God can withdraw the promises of the covenant from those who do not meet its stipulations. One of those stipulations is obedience. God demands obedience from us—even though we cannot be saved by following the law, God still demands that we obey his law.

Sometimes Christians misunderstand why we obey the law. We see our good deeds as a way of earning God’s favor. Or we point to our empty deeds as proof of our righteousness before God while ignoring the darkness of our hearts. Or we do our good deeds as a way of convince others of our goodness.

The apostle Paul dealt with this tendency when he criticized the Galatians at the beginning of chapter 3 of his letter to them. There he says “You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?” Obviously, we don’t obey to earn God’s favor or the favor of others.

But on the other end, some Christians have a tendency just to forget the law. We’re already saved, after all. Why bother trying to obey the law if it gets us nowhere? We can rely solely on God’s grace.
John responds to that idea in 1 John 3:4-10, where he says “Everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness. But you know that he appeared so that he might take away our sins. And in him is no sin. No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him.”

Jesus Christ not only took on the punishment for our sin, but he lived a perfect life so that perfection could be imputed to us. And as a result we are grafted into the family of God, becoming one with the Son and he one with us. If we are becoming one with the Son, it follows that we will become more and more like him. And since the Son was perfect, following the law perfectly, it follows that we also will become more and more perfect, following the law of God.

At Mount Sinai, God wrote us his laws. Now, says our text, he writes them on our hearts. He gives us an understanding to know and to believe his law; he gives us the memory to retain it; he gives us the heart to love it and the conscience to recognize it; and he gives us the courage to profess it and the power to put it into practice.

Yes, it is true that we will not be perfectly obedient. Sin does that to us, but the Holy Spirit working in our hearts leads us to be more and more like Christ. And that means we are obedient to God’s law, just as he demands. We can only do this because of Christ’s work on our behalf and the Spirit’s power in our hearts. But God demands obedience from us. And it is through our obedience that we can see that we are members of the covenant, covered by the eternal promise of God.

C. God will judge those outside the covenant

Because God demands obedience, and because not all have been elected by God to receive salvation, there are some who remain outside the covenant of grace. God will judge those outside the covenant.

We talked in depth about this last week. Not everyone is covered by God’s covenant of grace. As humans, we are all subject to death, because our sin means we didn’t keep the stipulations of the original covenant, the covenant of works. But God in his grace provides a new covenant. That covenant doesn’t cover all of humanity—just those who believe and obey. The disobedient and the unbelievers have still received a measure of grace from God—they live on earth for a while, and many of them enjoy temporarily the blessings God bestows upon his creation.

But in the end, those outside of the covenant die. They are judged for their sin and suffer an eternal death, permanently separated from God and his blessings. God will judge those outside the covenant.

D. God will bless those who are faithful

Finally, God will bless those who are faithful. Listen to the last two verses of our text. “No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest. For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”

When we were outside of the covenant because of our sin, we were subject to death. But because God grants us the faith by which we can take on His covenant promises, God blesses us.

God blesses those who are faithful. We receive the comfort that comes from knowing that we belong to our faithful Savior. We receive the washing away of our sins by Christ’s precious blood. We are set free from slavery to sin. We are assured that the Father is actively caring for us, providing everything we need and ensuring that even the bad things of this world will be worked out for our benefit. We receive the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in our lives. We receive the assurance of forgiveness that comes from recognizing the Spirit at work in us. And we receive eternal life in the new heavens and the new earth, where we will praise God together in joy forever. God will bless those who are faithful.

V. Conclusion

God’s story is the story of the covenant of grace—the solemn promise made by God to grant salvation and eternal life to mankind so long as we believe and obey.

Because of the covenant of grace, we can have comfort. We can turn from our fears because we recognize God’s mercy. One writer put it this way: “He has remembered his covenant, the oath that he swore to our father Abraham, and he has delivered us through the Redeemer, our Lord Jesus Christ, so that we might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.”

Serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness. If God is for us, who can be against us? When you are filled with fear, remember the promises of God in Christ Jesus.

Sometimes we turn the big words of the faith into abstract doctrines, with little application to our day to day lives. But the covenant of grace is not just an abstract doctrine. It is the guarantee of your relationship with God. It is the reason that you may serve him without fear.

In Jesus Christ, God makes good on his promise that he will be our God and we will be his people. God could not allow his covenant to fail. He even sent his Son to become a man and die rather than break his covenant. The Lord is faithful, his covenant endures forever.