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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
 
Preached At:Langley Canadian Reformed Church
 Langley, B.C.
 
Title:The Holy Spirit alone gives spiritual life
Text:CD 3/4 Articles 4-6 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:God's Amazing Grace
 
Preached:2006
Added:2010-12-28
 

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Hymn 59
Hymn 1A
Psalm 46:1-2
Hymn 37
Hymn 65:3

Readings:  Ezekiel 37:1-14, Romans 1
Text:  Canons of Dort, chapter 3/4, articles 4-6
* 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 the Lord Jesus,

Spring is in the air.  The leaves are green on the trees, there are lots of blossoms and flowers.  Sunny, warm days and there’s lots of growth.  We could say that spring time is a time of renewal and life.  Whenever I think about spring, I can’t help but think about the Holy Spirit.   That’s because the Nicene Creed calls him “the Lord and Giver of life.”  We don’t often think about the Holy Spirit in those terms, but yet this is what we confess.  “The Lord and Giver of life.”  That’s first of all a reference to the physical realm.  All life in creation is rooted in the work of the Holy Spirit in some sense.  When spring is sprung, the Holy Spirit is working to bring new life into creation.  Psalm 104:30 tells us, “When you send your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the earth.” 

Of course, there is also another more specialized sense in which the Holy Spirit is the Lord and Giver of life.   We confess that the Holy Spirit is the one who gives us our spiritual life.  It is through his work that blood flows through every person’s veins and arteries, but it is also through his work that sinful people are transformed into children of God.  Through his work alone.  We hear this and say, “But of course!”  However, this concept has not always been universally accepted in the church.  In the seventeenth century and also today there are people who say, “Sure, the Holy Spirit does it, but he does it by cooperating with the free will of man.”  So, the Arminians past and present would agree that the Holy Spirit gives spiritual life, but they wouldn’t agree that that it is the Holy Spirit alone who gives spiritual life.  This is where the Canons of Dort are going in the articles we’re looking at this afternoon. 

When we turn to article 4, we’re right away faced with some language with which we might not be familiar.  Words and expressions are used in this article that we don’t find anywhere else in our confessions or in Scripture, for that matter.  However, the concept is definitely there, if not in our confessions, then definitely in Scripture.  I’m talking here about the concept “light of nature.” 

Let’s first define what it is we’re talking about.  The light of nature has sometimes been called “the seed of religion.”  Others have called it the “sense of God.”  Whatever you might call it, it amounts to something that all people share.  All people have some idea about who the true God is.  All people, whether they’re Christians or not have some idea about what’s right and wrong.   But this is a very vague idea.  Somebody once compared the light of nature to a footprint.  A footprint in the sand tells you a bit about the person who left it.  It might tell you if the person was an adult or a child, heavy-set or of slight build, and perhaps some other things.  But a footprint will not tell you a person’s life-story, nor will it tell you what it’s like to really know this person and live in a relationship with him or her.  That’s what the light of nature is like.

The Bible passage that speaks the most about this is Romans 1:18 and following.  From this passage we learn at least four basic truths.  First of all, ever since the creation of the world people have known about God’s invisible qualities.  God has made this plain to them – he has revealed his invisible qualities.  And those invisible qualities are defined in verse 20 as being his eternal power and his divine nature.  In other words, all people know that there is a God who has sovereign power over creation. 

Second, we learn in Romans 1 that all people know that there is a God who will judge them.  Verses 29 to 31 give us a run-down of how wicked people can be.  Then verse 32 tells us, “Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.”  They know that there is a divine judge.  They know what his sentence is upon their actions.  But they simply carry on, not caring about the ultimate consequences. 

Next, in Romans 1, God tells us that unregenerate people suppress the truth which they know in their heart of hearts.  Verse 18 says that they “suppress the truth by their wickedness.”  While they know God is there and they know that he will judge, they stand around like people with their fingers in their ears, “I can’t hear you!”  “You’re not really there!”  They are self-deceived.  

Finally, the Spirit says that God gives such people over to their wickedness.  They are sinful in their suppression of the truth, they are sinful in refusing to acknowledge God, but then they go from bad to worse.  God gives them over and abandons them to sexual impurity (including and especially homosexual behaviour), idolatry, and every kind of wickedness.  When people reject God and suppress the truth about him, they’re on the highway to hell and their lives show it.   

Now the Arminians also recognized this concept of the light of nature.  But they twisted it so that it became something positive.  They made it into something that could contribute to one’s salvation.  They lifted it out of its proper context in Romans 1 and they argued that man could use this innate knowledge of God and, with some help, climb his way back to peace with his Creator.  As part of that, they called it “common grace” so that salvation could still be said to be by “grace.”  In this you can see that the Arminians were masters at redefining terms and so confusing the matter. 

However, the Synod of Dort was aware of the Arminian strategy.  They knew the games the Arminians played with language and theology.  Article 4 states it very clearly.  We confess from Scripture that there is some light of nature.  Whatever you might want to call it, it’s there, but it does not lead to any saving knowledge of God.  It does not lead to true conversion to Christ.  It’s completely inadequate for those things.

Instead, the light of nature is designed for one purpose:  to condemn man and leave him without an excuse.  This part of article 4 is taken directly from Romans 1:20.  In the Arminian way of thinking, this becomes like an arm lifting man up to God, but in Romans 1:20 and in the Canons it’s like a finger pointing at man to accuse him.  It leaves him “without excuse.”

Literally, it says that it leaves man without an apologetic, without a defense.  This is a truth which we can work with our in our lives as we encounter unbelievers from time to time.  This has to do with apologetics, the defense of the faith.  You know, there is a system of apologetics out there which teaches that man’s problem is that he simply doesn’t have enough information.  Unbelieving man is neutral with respect to God, he just needs more evidence and then he will accept the existence of the God of the Bible and his claims.  Once the unbeliever is given the evidence and once he really understands what the evidence is saying, he’ll give in to the call of the gospel and become a Christian.  This flies in the face of what we find in Romans 1 about unbelieving man.  Unbelieving man has been given important information – in his heart of hearts he knows that there is a God, he knows that he will be judged.  But unbelieving man decides, deliberately decides to suppress this knowledge.  He adds insult to injury.  So in the light of this, what’s our task as believers?  We have to present the gospel, we do have to tell them about Christ – the light of nature says nothing about a redeemer.   And then gently and lovingly challenge unbelievers to repentance with the truth of God’s Word.   Remember:  unbelievers are not neutral about the claims of the gospel.  So, it’s not a lack of information that’s the real problem, it’s rebellion.  It’s not innocent ignorance, it’s self-willed idolatry, worshipping the creature rather than the Creator.

What holds true for the light of nature also holds true for the law.  The law of God is also an inadequate means for man to make his way back to fellowship with God.  While we may think it’s clear enough, it needs to be repeatedly said that no one is going to measure up to God’s expectations by doing stuff.

You might notice that article 5 has the title, “The Inadequacy of the Law.”  The Canons quickly make it clear that what’s meant with “the Law” is the Ten Commandments.  And that is definitely one way in which the Bible uses the expression “the Law.”  But it’s not the only way.  In Psalm 19, for instance, we read about the law of the Lord being good and pure and so on.  In that Psalm, the expression “law of God” is being used as a synonym for God’s Word – including the promises of the gospel.  But here in article 5, we’re clearly dealing with that little but very important part of the Bible that we call the Ten Commandments. 

The Ten Commandments have a number of different uses in the life of a Christian.  Article 5 mentions one of the most important ones:  the law functions in a negative way to show the greatness of sin and to convict man of his guilt before God.  Romans 3:20 says that “through the law we become conscious of sin.”  The law is a means by which people are humbled before God.  In the story of the Christian life, this use is there in the process of initial regeneration, when one first becomes a believer.  But it’s also there as the Christian life continues.  The law is there, we hear it read every Sunday morning, and it drives us on our knees before God in humility.  It drives us to Christ.  That’s the thought of Paul in Galatians 5:24 – as the law points out the greatness of our sin and our guilt before God, we’re led or driven to Christ.

So the law has this negative use, but it also has a positive use.  As we live in Christ by faith, our lives also more and more reflect Christ in us.  Increasingly, we show our thankfulness and love for God by living according to his will for us  And by the working of the Holy Spirit we see this also as Christ graciously active in us and for us.  And his will for our lives is laid out most clearly in the Ten Words of the Covenant.  In this way, the law is part of our sanctification.

But the law cannot bring someone to reconciliation with God.  Works of the law will make absolutely nobody right with God in any capacity.  However, the Arminians didn’t fully agree with this.  They believed that unregenerate man was able to be obedient to God’s law in a small measure.  They said that after the fall into sin people still have a natural ability to do enough good to win God’s favour.  The Arminians regarded the law as a means by which man can come to conversion and salvation. 

In the face of this false teaching, we should see that the Scriptures are clear.  Romans 3:28 is clear, “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law.”  Galatians 3:11 says it too, “Clearly no one is justified before God by the law, because ‘The righteous will live by faith.’”  Isaiah 64:6 is clear, “All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away.”

No, brothers and sisters, the law and our obedience to the law can never save us.  Unlike other world religions, the Christian faith is not one of works-righteousness.  The faith of the Bible is not about a performance-orientation, doing this and that and the other thing and then God will accept us and take us for his children.  We’ve heard this so many times, and at a certain level, we know it.  But we also need to wholeheartedly embrace it and believe it.  The only way to God is through the gracious action of God in our hearts and lives.

That’s the point there in article 6.  We can isolate the key in this article by honing in on two words in the second line:  “God performs.”  The light of nature can’t do it.  The law can’t do it.  But God performs – not in the sense of acting on a stage or in a movie, but in the sense of carrying out an action.  God is the one who does what nothing and no one else can do.  It’s all about the God of grace and his sovereign power.

And what is it that God performs?  To answer that, we can look back to the summary of Scriptural teaching in article 3 of this chapter.  At the end of that article, it speaks about returning to God and having a personal reformation of one’s nature, both the preparation for that reformation and the reformation itself.  Man is totally unable to do this, whether by himself, by the light of nature or by the law.  Man is helpless.  Only God can perform these actions.  Only God can bring man back to himself.  Only God can breathe life into the spiritually dead and give them the life that lasts forever, a life the way it was meant to be lived, except even better!

Then the question arises of how exactly God does this.  God acts in a personal way through the power of the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit takes the Word and applies it to the elect and so they’re saved from the wrath of God.  This is especially pointing to the official preaching of the Word by Christ’s ambassadors.  That’s why article 5 speaks about the “ministry of reconciliation.”  Through the preaching of the Word, we hear the gospel, we believe the gospel and we are brought back into fellowship with God.  We have a relationship with him, one in which we can experience something of the give and take of any other relationship.    And so the Holy Spirit uses the preaching of the Word in a powerful way.  Interestingly, in our reading from Romans 1, Paul makes the point that not even the inerrant written Word of God can compare with the powerful preaching of the gospel.  It wasn’t enough for Paul to write to the Romans.  He wanted to be there face-to-face so that he could preach to them, so that the Holy Spirit could work in an even more powerful way.  You see, there’s a reason why another early Reformed symbol called the Second Helvetic Confession said, “The preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God.” 

The power of the Spirit working through the Word preached is also clear in that passage we read from Ezekiel 37.  In that well-known chapter, God commands Ezekiel to preach to the valley of dry bones.  When Ezekiel prophesied as he was commanded to do, things started happening, but there was still no life.  It was only when the Holy Spirit came that life came into the dry bones.  The Spirit and the Word worked together to bring life.  There are many things we can learn from this passage of Scripture, but for our purposes this afternoon the important thing is that God the Holy Spirit is the one who gives life.  Preaching by itself does nothing.  Only the Spirit can give us life and the way he does it is through the means of the Word. 

Article 6 concludes by telling us that this is the way that people have always been saved.  It was this way in the Old Testament and it’s this way in the New Testament as well.  That’s an important truth to realize.  There is a false teaching in some Christian circles that God will save the Jews in a way that’s different from the way that he saves Christians.  There are some preachers, especially TV preachers, who will tell you that Jews of the past, present and future are saved by following the law, whereas Christians are saved by faith in Christ.  If we believe what God says in Galatians 3, then this view is wrong.  Abraham, the father of the Jews, was justified by faith in the promises.  Now somebody might say, well, he couldn’t have been justified by the law, because the law didn’t come until 430 years later.  Sorry, that won’t wash either.  Genesis 26:5 tells us that Abraham was a man who obeyed God’s requirements, commands, decrees and laws.  But he was saved by the means of faith.  That faith was created by the Spirit working with the Word.   This is the way God has always saved people and this is the way he always will save people – and thus God always gets the glory. 

So what do we take from this for ourselves today?  Well, let’s never forget the enormous power and value of preaching.  Personal Bible study is important.  Daily family worship is important.  Group Bible study is important.  All of these things are important and valuable and God will work through them.  But not one of these things compares to the power of preaching.  Faithful preaching of the Word is the most powerful instrument that God has and uses in our lives.  When believers take a poor attitude to preaching and don’t value it or respect it as the Word of God, they’re hurting themselves spiritually.  Speaking negatively about the preaching is like having a spiritual death wish.  We ought to value preaching as the sharpest and most powerful tool that the Holy Spirit has at his disposal.  Somebody once said that a deaf church is a dead church.  The church that truly hears and receives the preaching as the Word of God – for what it really is – that church will be blessed by the Holy Spirit with abundant life and growth.

The original purpose of the Canons of Dort was not merely to expose and refute the errors of the Arminians.  The purpose was also to inspire in God’s people a heart for worshipping him.  This afternoon, the truth of God’s Word leads us to praise the Holy Spirit for what he does in our lives.  The Athanasian Creed compels believers to praise and worship the Holy Spirit, along with the other two persons of the Trinity.  The Father, the Son and the Spirit have together saved us – this is the gospel.  The gospel inspires us to sing – and so we will praise the Holy Spirit, the one who gave us the Word of God and who also worked faith in our hearts through the preaching of that Word.  He alone gives us life.  Praise him!  AMEN.  




* 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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