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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
 
Title:Election: to teach or not to teach, that is the question!
Text:CD 1 Article 14 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Our Salvation
 
Preached:2017
Added:2017-12-26
 

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Psalm 123

Psalm 89:1-3

Hymn 73:1,2,5

Hymn 1

Psalm 33:1-3

Scripture readings: Deuteronomy 7:1-11, Isaiah 41:1-10

Catechism lesson:  Canons of Dort 1.14

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.


Beloved congregation of Christ,

Every 31st of October we remember God’s work in the Great Reformation of the 1500s.  The day is associated with Martin Luther and his 95 Theses.  The story goes that on October 31st, 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg.  Actually, this story is probably a legend.  Many scholars today question whether Luther actually walked up to the doors of the church hammer in hand and nailed the Theses to the door.  Quite likely he didn’t.  Whatever the case may have been, certainly Martin Luther wrote and published those 95 Theses in October of 1517 – and that was what God used to spark the Reformation 500.

The 95 Theses were about the controversial practice of indulgences.  The medieval church had taught that most Christians have to go to a place called purgatory to have their unconfessed sins cleansed or purged away by fire.  However, you could shorten your time in purgatory by purchasing indulgences.  You could also shorten someone else’s time in purgatory by purchasing an indulgence for them.  An indulgence was a certificate from the church stating that the merits of the saints had been applied to whoever’s name was on the certificate and therefore their time in purgatory had been reduced by a certain amount.  It was this practice that Luther called into question.  He basically asked:  where does the Bible teach this?  Prove it from the Bible. 

So it was a controversy about indulgences that helped to spark the Reformation.  But as the Reformation went on, there were many other controversies that arose.  One of them had to do with the doctrine of election, the biblical teaching that God chooses us to salvation only on the basis of his grace.  In Geneva, it was the custom for the pastors to get together once per week to encourage one another and help each other to grow.  One pastor would deliver a sermon and the others would critique it.  In one of these meetings, a pastor preached on election.  Another pastor spoke up and criticized it.  He didn’t just criticize the sermon, he criticized the doctrine.  He said that the Reformed doctrine of election was unbiblical.  This led to a big debate in Geneva and elsewhere.  Exactly what does the Bible say about election?

In this debate, some said pastors should just keep quiet about election.  Because it confuses people and because it’s controversial, it’s just best to say nothing about it.  John Calvin’s most famous book is his Institutes.  In the Institutes (2.21.3), Calvin addresses this way of thinking.  He was a Genevan pastor who preached election and there were those who wished he would just shut up about it.  He mentions this in the Institutes.  Calvin writes, “There are others who…all but require that every mention of predestination be buried; indeed, they teach us to avoid any question of it, as we would a reef.”  In response, Calvin points out that “Scripture is the school of the Holy Spirit.”  Everything revealed in Scripture is from the Holy Spirit and he only reveals what we need to know, what’s useful for us to know.  He reveals election (predestination) and therefore we need to know it, it’s useful for us to know it.  And if it’s necessary and useful, then pastors ought to teach it.  It’s going to be for the blessing and edification of believers and for the glory of God. 

That’s the question that’s before us this afternoon with 1.14 in the Canons of Dort.  Should election actually be taught?  Or should we keep it under wraps, or maybe just reserve it for pastors and theologians?  These are important questions and a lot is at stake.  So that’s why we’ll spend some time on it this afternoon.  I preach to you God’s Word, Election:  to teach or not to teach, that is the question. 

We’ll consider:

  1. Who taught election in the past
  2. Who should be taught election today
  3. How election should be taught

Our confession says that the doctrine of divine election “was preached by the prophets” in the Old Testament.  Moses is one of those prophets.  He preached divine election in what we read from Deuteronomy 7.  Almost the whole book of Deuteronomy is actually a sermon from Moses before his death.  In Deuteronomy 7, he mentions the fact that God chose some and not others.  God chose the people of Israel to be his people, his “treasured possession.”  It wasn’t because they were a great nation, but entirely out of his love.  Now it is true that Deuteronomy 7 isn’t speaking about individual election.  When it says that God chose Israel to be his people, it doesn’t mean every single person in Israel was written in God’s book of life and destined for eternal fellowship with him.  Nevertheless, the principle or idea that God chooses some and not others is here.  The general idea of election was being proclaimed by Moses.

We see the same thing in our other reading from Isaiah 41.  Verse 8 of Isaiah 41 reminds the people of Israel that God chose them.  In fact, the precise language here is worth noting.  First, it’s “Israel, my servant.”  God chose Israel, not the other nations.  Then it’s “Jacob, whom I have chosen.”  God chose Jacob, and not Esau.  Then it’s “the offspring of Abraham, my friend.”  God took Abraham out of Ur of the Chaldeans, and no one else.  Here again we see God’s electing grace with a nation, and with individuals. 

Article 14 in the Canons of Dort goes on to say that this doctrine was also preached by Christ in the New Testament.  You could think of Matthew 22:14 where Christ says, “For many are called, but few are chosen.”  Few are elected.  Some are chosen, and others are not.  There’s also Luke 18.  There Christ tells the parable of the persistent widow.  This widow keeps going to the judge for justice.  Eventually he gets fed up with her and gives her what she wants.  Then Jesus says in Luke 18:6-7, “Hear what the unrighteous judge says.  And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night?  Will he delay long over them?”  According to Christ, God has his elect, his chosen ones, and he will give them justice when they cry to him.

Last of all, the apostles also preached the doctrine of election in the New Testament.  Naturally we think of what Paul writes in Ephesians 1, but there are other passages too.  For example, there’s how Peter opens his first letter.  He writes “to those who are elect exiles of the Dispersion…”  That’s in 1 Peter 1:1.  He’s writing to Christians abroad and he says that Christians are the ones chosen by God.  One more passage, this one from Revelation 17.  In Revelation 17:14, the apostle John writes about the conquering Lamb, the Lord of lords and King of kings.  That’s speaking of Christ.  He says those with Christ are “called and chosen and faithful.”  Christians are the elect, the chosen ones of God. 

Many more passages could be mentioned.  Election was definitely preached and taught by God’s ministers in times past, both in the Old and the New Testament.  Not only was the doctrine mentioned, the Holy Spirit then made sure it was included in the Bible.  Here you have to remember a key passage about Scripture.  Second Timothy 3:16 says that “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness…”  Everything in Scripture is for our profit, for our benefit.  The Holy Spirit didn’t put the doctrine of election in the Bible by accident.  He had a purpose when he included election.  It wasn’t ignored in the past, because it had value.  Because it has value, it shouldn’t be ignored today. 

What is the value?  First of all, it’s for the glory of God.  His sovereign grace in election leads his people to praise him.  We humble ourselves and we recognize that everything we have in our salvation comes from God.  Therefore, soli Deo gloria, to God alone be the glory.

Second, as article 14 says, the value of teaching this doctrine rests in the fact that it is “for the living comfort” of God’s people.  Election “provides unspeakable comfort for holy and God-fearing souls” (Canons 1.6).  Our salvation doesn’t depend on us.  We have a God who has chosen us before creation.  He is a mighty God and he’ll never let go of those whom he’s chosen.  We’re safe in the loving hands of our Father.  That security gives us unspeakable comfort, living comfort.  When it’s so valuable, why would you want to hide away such a doctrine and never speak about it?

But like with so many things, there is a proper time and place.  We confess that the biblical doctrine of election should be taught in the church of God.  It should be taught to Christians, because this doctrine is chiefly intended for them.  It’s for our encouragement and so that we as believers would praise God.    

It’s interesting if you go to the book of Acts and read through the sermons of Paul or Peter to various unbelievers.  Particularly when they’re preaching to Gentiles, they make no mention of individual election.  The doctrine of election doesn’t factor in to their evangelism.  Instead, when they evangelize, they focus on the basics of the gospel.  They preach that human beings are all rebellious against God and in need of rescue from their sin and its consequences.  They preach that everyone needs to repent and believe in Jesus Christ in order to be saved.  They say nothing about election. 

Loved ones, we ought to take our cue from how the apostles evangelized.  Christ sends us out to be his gospel witnesses – and our focus should be generally on the basics of the gospel.  Election is something typically best left for those who have already believed and are being discipled further in the Christian faith.  An unbeliever might have heard about election and might ask you about it.  Then you can explain it as best you can.  But when we have an opportunity to share the gospel, our first talking points ought to usually reflect the approach of the apostles in the book of Acts.  Simply share the gospel hope.

That said, there can be exceptional cross-cultural situations where election gives an entry way for the gospel message.  I once read about an American Presbyterian missionary who was working to share the gospel with prostitutes in Korea.  He wasn’t getting anywhere.  He spoke of God’s grace to them, about the forgiveness available through Christ, and about God’s love for sinners.  Nothing he said engaged them.  He decided to try something radically different.  He would begin with the doctrine of election.  He told them about a King who chooses certain people to be his just because it pleases him to do so.  Surprisingly, that connected with these Korean prostitutes.  They could understand that idea.  They began asking the question, “How can I know if I am chosen?”  Then the missionary had an opportunity to share the gospel with them.  That strategy worked in that situation because the missionary was dealing with people who don’t share our Western democratic and egalitarian notions, the idea that everyone has to be treated exactly the same.  Coming from their cultural background, election didn’t trouble these Korean women – instead, it made sense and even intrigued them.  So, we have to be careful that we don’t say that election can never have a place in our mission or evangelism.  It can, but usually only in cultures that are much different than ours.  In our context, with people from this culture, it’s best to teach the doctrine of election after someone becomes a Christian.

And how should it be taught?  We confess that it should be done “with a spirit of discretion.”  Discretion means understanding and carefulness.  When election is taught, we have to be careful to say only what Scripture says.  When we teach election, we ought to be careful to be as clear as we can. 

We confess that the teaching of election should be done “in a reverent and holy manner.”  So when we’re teaching it, we ought not to be joking around.  Like all other teachings of Scripture, this is a serious doctrine and it has to be treated seriously.

Finally, article 14 says that election should be taught “without inquisitively prying into the ways of the Most High.”  We have to recognize that there are limits to what God has revealed.  We have to respect those limits.  Loved ones, it’s best to be a humble child of God and receive what he has said in the Bible on this, and just accept that in faith.  You might tie yourself into mental knots on various questions pertaining to election.  You might speculate on why God does what he does.  You might do those things, but it’s best not to.  And it’s certainly best not to bring messy questions and speculations into the teaching of election.  We ought to simply stick with what the Bible teaches and leave it there.      

Brothers and sisters, it’s true that the doctrine of election is often misunderstood, even by people in the church.  Sometimes it’s confusing, even to Christians.  But the misunderstandings and the confusion are not reasons to squirrel this doctrine away.  Instead, it’s all the more reason to speak about it and to teach it.  Especially in the church, we want to make sure that God’s people understand all the teachings of God’s Word, including election.  Yes, it might be difficult.  Yes, it might be challenging to believe certain aspects of it.  But God has revealed it for a reason.  It’s part of “the whole counsel of God” which the church is called to preach and teach.  When we understand this doctrine properly, it gives us comfort and gives us reason to give all the glory to God’s most holy name.  So: to teach or not to teach?  Definitely teach.  With God’s help, we’ll continue with that next time as we look at reprobation, one of the most difficult aspects of the doctrine of election.  AMEN. 

PRAYER

Heavenly Father,

You have revealed to us the doctrine of election in your word.  For that we thank you.  We thank you for the unspeakable comfort that election brings us.  We’re grateful that we can know ourselves to be your treasured possession through Christ.  We give you the praise and glory.  We humble ourselves before your Sovereign Majesty.  We recognize that our place with you has not been earned by us.  We’re yours only through your grace.  Help us to see that more clearly and then praise you all the more loudly.  Whenever we’re taught this doctrine from your Word, help us with your Spirit to accept what you say in faith.  Please keep us away from unhelpful questions and speculations.  Father, help us to be your children who trust in what you’ve said.   

 

 




* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

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