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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
 
Preached At:Providence Canadian Reformed Church
 Hamilton, Ontario
 
Title:Our unspeakable comfort in the Reformed doctrine of election
Text:CD 1 article 7 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:God's Amazing Grace
 
Preached:2012
Added:2013-01-04
 

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Note:  all songs from the 2010 Book of Praise:

Psalm 135:1-3
Hymn 52
Psalm 116:7-10
Hymn 1
Psalm 79:5

Scripture reading:  Ephesians 1:1-14
Catechism lesson:  QA 54 and Canons of Dort 1.7
* 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,

“Missions is not the ultimate goal of the church.  Worship is.  Missions exist because worship doesn’t.  Worship is ultimate, not missions, because God is ultimate, not man.”  Those words open John Piper’s book Let the Nations Be Glad.  Piper is exactly right.  We want God to be made much of, and that’s why we care about the lost, that’s why we pray about them, and that’s why we do whatever we can to bring the gospel to them.  It’s all about worship in the broadest sense, all about magnifying the glory of our great and majestic God. 

The Canons of Dort are aimed at the same goal.  The Canons of Dort are all about bringing more adoration to God, securing the praise of his glory.  If we know anything about the Canons, we probably know that they were written to address some errors threatening the Reformed churches in the late 1500s and early 1600s.  There was a minister named Jacobus Harmenzoon.  We know him better by the Latin form of his last name, Arminius.  Arminius started having questions about some of the teachings of the Heidelberg Catechism and Belgic Confession.  Specifically, he questioned the doctrine of election and other doctrines connected with it.  This led to a controversy.  Eventually Arminius died, but he had students who carried his errors on into the next generations.  The Synod of Dort was convened in 1618 to address these errors – and it was this Synod that produced our third confession, the Canons of Dort.  By the way, Canons here have nothing to do with guns, as if the Synod was shooting down these errors.  This is “Canon” with one ‘n.’  A canon here refers to a church judgment. 

But what was at stake here?  If we listen to the Synod itself, in its conclusion to the Canons of Dort, it was and is the glory of God’s name.  Ministers are encouraged to teach these doctrines of grace seeking to magnify God’s greatness.  Learning about these doctrines is therefore not an intellectual exercise, but a devotional one.  We want to learn about these doctrines of grace, because we want God to be made much of by us and by others.  This is not only a matter of instructing our heads, but also igniting our hearts.  To rephrase Piper, “Right doctrine is not the ultimate goal of the church.  Worship is.”  Brothers and sisters, that’s why we’ll spend some time over the next few weeks with these doctrines of grace.          

This afternoon we’ll begin with the doctrine of election.  As the senior catechism students know, the bare bones definition of election is simple:  God chooses us.  Even you little kids can learn that and your parents can ask you later:  “What is election?  God chooses us.”  Three words.  It’s very easy to learn the basic teaching here about election.

But of course, there is much more that could and should be said.  We should go on from milk to meat.   We need to ask questions like:  what does God choose us for?  When did he choose us?  Why did he choose us?  What are the consequences or results of his choosing us? 

We sometimes think of the Heidelberg Catechism as the confession of comfort.  But the theme of comfort is also everywhere in the Canons of Dort.  Chapter 1, article 6, ends by saying that the doctrine of election “provides unspeakable comfort for holy and God-fearing souls.”  By providing such comfort, this teaching also leads us to praise God and to live for him.  So, this afternoon, we’ll learn about our unspeakable comfort in the Reformed doctrine of election.

We’ll consider: 

1.      The timing of our election

2.      The basis of our election

3.      The results of our election

So election means that God chooses us.  Before getting into the timing we need to back up for just a minute and ask:  but for what?  Chosen for what?  If we turn to our reading from Ephesians 1, the answer given there has several aspects.  Verse 5 says that we have been predestined for adoption as God’s sons.  He chose us to be his privileged children.  If we look at verse 11, Paul says that our election is ultimately for the praise of God’s glory – and that thought is found several times in Ephesians 1.  And going back to verse 4, God chooses us to be holy and blameless in his sight.  The Heidelberg Catechism in QA 54 summarizes all this by saying that God has chosen us “to everlasting life.”  Similarly, in article 7 of chapter 1, the Canons of Dort say that we are chosen “to salvation.”  Election therefore means that God chooses us for salvation from sin and all its effects, the most serious of which is God’s own wrath against sin.  Election also means that God chooses us so that, having been saved, we would walk “in the way of salvation, which he prepared for us that we should walk in it” (CoD 1.8).  Election really is to the whole package of what it means to be a Christian.      

We also confess that this doctrine of election involves “a definite number of specific persons.”  Someone might read QA 54 of the Catechism and be inclined to conclude that election involves a faceless group of people, “the church.”  With that way of thinking, God has only chosen the church to everlasting life, but he has not given any consideration to individual people within that church.  To illustrate the difference, it would be like there being an election in Canada.  You go to the ballot box and you can only vote for a political party.  You don’t vote for individual members of parliament, but just for the party.  But that’s not the way our election to salvation works.  God specifically elects definite individual people.  He elects individuals by name, so to speak.  How do we know this?  We can think here of what Scripture says about Jacob.  God specifically says that he chose Jacob as an individual (Mal. 1:2-3). 

Now what about the timing of our election?  Here too Scripture is quite clear.  Hear what verse 4 of Ephesians 1 says, “For he chose us in him before the creation of the world…”  That means that God decided to grant us salvation in Christ before the world existed.  Before Genesis 1:1, God determined that he would grant salvation to a specific number of people and he exactly which people they would be.  Think about this:  before there were stars shining in the sky, God knew your name and he knew you would be his.  Before there was water in the oceans, God knew every DNA sequence in your genome (billions of them!) and he decreed that you would have Jesus as your Saviour.  Before there was any creature on earth, God set his love on you and declared that you would live with him forever.  This is why Paul is up on the heights in Ephesians 1.  This is why he’s so filled with praise for God and that’s where the Holy Spirit wants to bring us too.  He wants us to think on these things so that we would be awestruck at our God, at his power and his love for us.  This is a love that stretches beyond time and creation.  Awesome, isn’t it?  Moreover, it is comforting to know that our lives have always been in the hand of our loving and gracious God.  We’re not products of chance or luck or whatever else.  We have a God who has always known us personally and has made us the object of his decree for election.   

But this teaching could raise troublesome questions.  Let’s briefly talk about one of them.  If God chose us before the foundation of the world, and if this election is to salvation from sin and from the wrath of God, doesn’t it mean that God then also has ordained sin?  After all, God is sovereign and he controls all things that happen, so then did God decree that Adam and Eve would fall into sin?  These questions are nothing new.  They were debated already back in the days the Canons of Dort were written.  The Canons of Dort are very careful on these points, careful not to go beyond what God himself says in his Word.

The Bible teaches that God is good and that he does good (Psalm 119:68).  God is not responsible for sin.  He cannot be blamed for anything evil in this world.  To say that God is the author of sin, the one who wrote the decree for sin, is blasphemous.  Scripture will not allow us to go in that direction.  As article 7 of chapter 1 says, the human race fell by its own fault out of its original integrity into sin and lostness or perdition.  We are to blame, not God.  He is 100% to be praised for our salvation, but the human race is 100% responsible for its sin.     

Then how do we reconcile our election before the creation of the world with the fact that this is an election to salvation from sin?  Short answer:  the Bible doesn’t tell us.  There are different theories out there among theologians about how to reconcile these things, but they are theories and all of them have problems of one sort or another.  What the Belgic Confession says in article 13 is helpful:  “And as to his actions surpassing human understanding, we will not curiously inquire farther than our capacity allows us.  But with the greatest humility and reverence we adore the just judgments of God, which are hidden from us, and we content ourselves that we are pupils of Christ, who have only to learn those things which he teaches us in his Word, without transgressing these limits.”  Loved ones, that’s where we have to land.  We are pupils of Christ, and we have to just humbly go with what he says in his Word, even if there are some points that we struggle to make sense of.  We trust that God knows how all these things fit together, even though we can’t.

Now let’s go on to the basis of our election.  This is the most important place where the Reformed view and the Arminian view part ways.  The followers of Jacob Arminius agreed that there is a doctrine of election taught in the Bible.  It was how they defined that doctrine that was a problem.  So if you encounter someone who claims to be a Christian and says that they believe in election, don’t right away assume that they hold to the doctrines of grace.  Don’t assume that they hold to a Reformed view of salvation.  Arminians believe in election too.  The problem is with the basis of election.

The Arminians worked with the fact that God is omniscient. He knows all things that happen and he knew everything that would happen in history.  So, before the creation of the world, they said, God looked down the hallways of history off in the distance, and he saw certain people who would cooperate with his grace and believe in Jesus Christ.  He elected them based on what he saw them doing off in the future.  According to the Arminians, election is on the basis of foreseen faith.  Not necessarily on the basis of good deeds, mind you, but on the basis of the faith that the Christian would have in the future. 

Against that view, the Synod of Dort insisted that election is on the basis of “the sovereign good pleasure of God’s will, out of mere grace.”  Articles 9 and 10 of chapter 1 of the Canons expand on this.  Article 9 explicitly rejects the Arminian view:  election is not based on foreseen faith.  Article 10 explains the biblical view:  election is based on God’s good pleasure.  In his grace, God decides to save some.  Not because they’re better or more worthy, not because they would have a strong faith, or any faith at all, but only because he so decides and his will is good.

Now that’s what the Canons of Dort say, but is it biblical?  Ephesians 1:5 reminds us that it is in love that we are predestined and that it is according to the good pleasure of his will.  And then there’s Acts 13:48 which states it even more clearly.  Paul and Barnabas were doing missionary work in Pisidian Antioch.  They were preaching the gospel to the Jews.  These Jews, some responded in faith.  But there were many others who reacted against the gospel.  Paul and Barnabas then turned their attention to the Gentiles.  Acts 13:48 tells us the result, “When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and honored the word of the Lord; and all who were appointed to eternal life believed.”  They came to faith because they were appointed to eternal life, not the other way around.  Faith comes because of election, it’s not the basis of election.      

The basis of our election is God’s good pleasure and will in Christ.   What that means is that we can’t separate our election from Christ our Saviour.  His work in history is intimately related to God’s election of us in eternity, before the foundation of the world.  You see, God not only determined our election, but also how our election would come to pass and that is through Christ.  The Bible teaches that everyone chosen by God is given to Christ.  All the elect are in time united to Christ, will be preserved in Christ, and will be glorified through and like Christ.

There are some common objections or questions that arise when we talk about the basis of our election.  One of the most common is that it’s unfair.  It’s unfair, because God choosing some means that he doesn’t choose others.  Indeed, the Bible not only teaches election, but also reprobation.  Reprobation is the teaching that God leaves some in their sin.  He chooses some, but not others.  And some people have a real problem with that.  God should be fair, they say.  To be fair, God should choose everyone and not leave anyone out.  You kids know that’s how it is at school.  Your teachers tell you not to leave anyone out.  When you leave people out, that’s not fair and that’s not nice.  So, what about God and what he does with election then? 

The classic answer is that this is the wrong question.  The question should not be:  Why doesn’t God decree to save everyone?  The question really should be:  why should God save anyone?  No one deserves to be saved.  No one deserves to be among the elect of God.  On the playground at school, you might say that no one deserves to be left out.  But before God, we all deserve to be left out.  Loved ones, this is why we call the doctrine of election a doctrine of grace.  This is not about anyone deserving something from God.  We deserve nothing from him but his eternal wrath.  The fact that he chooses some to eternal life is grace.  Those who are not included in the decree of election are simply receiving what they and all of us deserve by rights.  And keep in mind too, that no one is going to hell against their will.  The unregenerate have chosen to rebel against God and death and hell doesn’t change their hearts so that suddenly they truly regret their rebellion, want to follow God and live with him forever, praising him.  Those in hell might hate being in hell, but the alternative of living with Christ forever and singing his praises will always be abhorrent to them.  Hell does not make people want Christ.  It can’t regenerate dead and cold hearts.  Hell cannot do the work of the Holy Spirit.  God is just and he gives unbelievers not only what they deserve, but actually also what they want.  The fact that it’s different with us is only to be credited to his grace.  God doesn’t owe it to us at all. 

Paul makes the same point in Romans 9.  That chapter is speaking about election.  And Paul addresses the question of whether this makes God unjust.  He quotes God’s words to Moses in Exodus 33, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.”  Then he adds, “It does not, therefore, depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy.”  Notice again how the basis of our election is in God’s mercy, not our effort.  Then Paul strengthens his argument by appealing to the image of God as the Potter and us as the clay.  Can the clay argue with the Potter?  The Potter can do whatever he wants with his clay, whether he makes to make his justice and power known through his wrath, or his mercy known through his salvation.  God is sovereign and free to do as he pleases. 

When we think about that, again we’re led to praise for our God.  He’s had mercy on us.  He’s given us the opposite of what we deserve.  What a comfort it is to know that because of his good pleasure and will, we are headed for the new heavens and new earth!  Not because of us – we’re fickle, we’re dust, and we get blown around so easily.  But because of him and because it’s of him, we can have certainty that we are God’s children and heirs.  He doesn’t let go of us.  Loved ones, let the wonder of God’s grace really sink into your heart. 

As it sinks in, it does have a result in our lives.  We’ve got that unspeakable comfort of being God’s chosen.  We’ve been the object of his love and concern.  The first result of that is what I was just mentioning.  And look again at Ephesians 1.  Paul can’t restrain himself here.  You know how someone gets excited about something and they just ramble, they don’t even take a moment to breathe.  That’s Paul here in Ephesians 1.  He’s enraptured with this teaching.  In Greek, verses 3 to 14 is made up of these grammatically atrocious run on sentences.  But such is the grammar of someone who’s fired up about something.  Paul isn’t some detached theologian here, he’s brought up to the heights of exaltation in God and that’s where the Holy Spirit wants to bring us too.  Summarizing Scripture, that’s where the Canons of Dort want to bring us too.  This is why the Synod of Dort was so concerned about the Arminian errors – because they took away from the glory of God and brought some of the credit to man for salvation.  They subtracted from God’s grace and glory and tried to add to the human side a credit that should never have been there.

Then there’s also verse 4 of Ephesians 1, which I’ve mentioned already.  It says there that God has chosen us “to be holy and blameless in his sight.”  Election is not on the basis of holiness and blamelessness.  These things are the result of election.  God chooses us before the foundation of the world.  We come into this world, we believe in Christ as we were predestined to do, and when we realize how we’ve been the objects of God’s grace, we’re filled with a desire to love him and please him.  Acknowledging election makes us thankful Christians who want to walk in the ways of our God.   As a response to our gracious God, we earnestly want to live for him. 

So, loved ones, that leads me to ask you:  do you see how rich God has been towards you?  Believing in Christ, resting and trusting in him alone, do you see how this God’s work in your life, in fact, this was God’s work before the world was even created?  If you see it, let it stir up heart to love and good works.  Let the reminder you’ve heard this afternoon drive you to want to live for your God every day.  To live for him worshipfully, purposefully, giving glory to the great God of our salvation. 

Perhaps this sermon has left you with more questions.  For instance, perhaps you’re wondering about assurance of election.  How can you know that you’re among the elect?  Let me encourage you to go home and crack open the Canons of Dort for yourself.  The Canons speak to such questions and more like them.  They speak biblically and if you do this reading with an open Bible, looking up the references, you can discover this for yourself.  You’ll discover that there really is comfort in these doctrines of grace.  Unspeakable comfort.  Because we have a such a great God who loves us so deeply in Jesus our Saviour.  AMEN.      

Prayer:

God our Father,

We give you praise for blessing us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ.  Thank you for choosing us in him before the creation of the world.  Lord God, we thank you for your grace in Christ towards us.  We are undeserving of your love and attention.  We praise your glorious grace this afternoon again.  We’re grateful for the riches you’ve lavished on us.  Please stir up in our hearts a deeper love and commitment to you, Father.  Help us with your Holy Spirit so that we grow in holiness and being blameless in your sight.  Father, we’ve heard the gospel of grace and we want to pursue these things.  Please give us your Spirit to help us see that desire through to actions in our life.  We pray these things because we want to see you made much of in our lives and in the lives of others. 

 




* 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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