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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
Title:Humanity's awful plight and God's gracious solution
Text:CD 1 Articles 1-2 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:God's Amazing Grace

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Hymn 80

Hymn 28:1-3

Hymn 28:4-6

Hymn 1

Hymn 28:7

Scripture readings:  Nahum 1, 1 John 4

* 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.  It’s 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.  That led to a controversy.  Eventually Arminius died, but he had students who carried his errors on into the next generation.  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 while learning about the doctrines of grace from the Canons of Dort.           

There are five doctrinal points covered by the Canons of Dort.  We have five points because the Arminians back in the early 1600s produced five points.  The five points in the Canons answer the five points of the Arminians.  These five points are about God’s sovereignty in our salvation.  Sovereignty refers to God’s almighty power, his control over our salvation.  The fundamental question is whether or not God is totally in control, whether he’s totally sovereign.

The first chapter of the Canons of Dort is about whether God is totally in control when it comes to election.  It’s about God’s sovereignty in election.  Over the coming weeks, we’re going to look at that doctrine in some detail.  But before the first chapter gets to election itself, it spends some time on some basics connected with the gospel message.  These are important things to understand if you want to put the doctrine of election in its proper context.

So this afternoon we’re going to learn about humanity’s awful plight and God’s gracious solution

We’ll look at:

  1. What God could have done
  2. What God did do

Imagine you’re that type of person who goes to the doctor for an annual check-up.  The doctor looks you over.  He seems a bit concerned.  He orders a blood test, some x-rays, maybe other tests.  In the process he discovers that you have a life-threatening disease.  In your body, you have a disease that, if not treated, is going to kill you.  But he decides not to tell you.  He thinks to himself, “If I tell my patient, they’re just going to get upset.”  So he doesn’t tell you and doesn’t do anything to save your life.  Would you say that’s a good doctor?  No, I think we’d all agree that a good doctor would tell the truth about his patient’s condition, regardless of what the patient is going to think about it.  He’ll tell the truth because he cares.  He wants to save lives – in becoming a doctor he’s committed to doing exactly that.  Doctors are supposed to tell the truth and save lives.  You don’t want a doctor who lies just to keep you happy.   

However, when you take that approach to spiritual matters, people often look at it differently.  They don’t want to hear the truth about their spiritual condition.  When a lost person hears the truth about their lostness, they often react with anger.  Consequently, many Christians when they witness, they don’t really tell the whole truth about the problem unbelievers are facing.  Instead of speaking about eternity and what happens after death, they try to point out the ways that Jesus will make your life better today.  Jesus will make you happier, give you better relationships, and so on.  But that’s not how the Bible presents our need for the Saviour. 

Loved ones, article one of the Canons of Dort takes the biblical approach.  It lays out humanity’s most serious problem of all.  It describes our most serious problem.  It begins with Adam in the Garden of Eden.  Adam was the first human being and the representative of the whole human race at that point.  In Genesis 3, he chose to rebel against God.  Following his wife, he ate the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  His sin and the curse it produced not only affected him, but everyone to come after him.  As the old saying goes, “In Adam’s fall, we sinned all.”  Adam didn’t merely commit one sin -- because of that one choice his entire nature itself became corrupted.  After his fall, sin was not just something he did, it was what he became.  Sin became part of his identity.  He had a sinful human nature bent towards rebellion against God.  That sinful human nature is something passed down to every generation afterwards.  This is what we call original sin.  Original sin is the ugly corruption that flows through every generation of the human race.  We are all conceived and born in sin (Psalm 51:5). 

As a result of that sinful human nature we’re born with, we also go on to commit actual sins.  We personally and individually rebel against what God has commanded.  We rebel against God with our thoughts and with our loves.  We rebel against God with our words and sometimes our gestures.  We rebel against God with our actions.  We sin against our Creator, but we also sin against our fellow human beings who are made in his image.  We do this, not just once or twice, but constantly.  There’s a steady stream of sinful sewage flowing from the manure pit of our hearts.  To God, it stinks.  To God, it’s offensive. 

At the end of article 1, three Scripture passages are directly quoted.  Romans 3:19 says that that the whole world will be held accountable to God.  God has noticed original sin and actual sins.  He has noticed and he will hold us to account.  Romans 3:23 reminds us that this plight is one we’re all caught up in:  “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”  All have sinned – that’s me, you, everyone.  Falling short of God’s glory means falling short of exalting him by doing what he says.  When that happens, then you have Romans 6:23.  When you do work, you get wages.  Well, the salary for all your sinful “work” is death.  That’s what you’ve earned.  That’s what we’ve all earned.  We deserve eternal death from God because of our sin.

Here we need to look at God himself and his character.  You see, there are human ideas of what God is like or should be like and there’s what the Bible says about God.  For many people, God is like or should be like an indulgent grandfather figure.  Or perhaps like Santa Claus.  He’s cheerful and wants to give everybody presents.  He knows when you’ve been good or bad, but mostly everybody gets presents.  In other words, mostly everybody gets to go to heaven.  If there’s a hell, they think, it’s only for the really bad people, the Hitlers, child molesters, serial killers, and so on.  The rest of us who are just average will be all right.  It’s reflected in what’s said at non-Christian funerals.  You’ll hear about all the good the person did and sometimes you’ll hear that now they’re looking down on us from heaven.  Because God obviously accepted them with all their good deeds.  In that view, God accepts everyone except the really super-bad people.  So God’s main characteristic is that he tolerates everything, overlooks everything.  Nothing much about us bothers him.    

But I ask you:  is that the God we see revealed in Scripture?  Is that the God of Nahum 1?  There we read that God is “avenging and wrathful.”  He “takes vengeance on his adversaries and keeps wrath for his enemies.”  Sure, God is good to those who take refuge in him (verse 7), “but with an overflowing flood he will make a complete end of the adversaries, and will pursue his enemies into the darkness” (verse 8).  In biblical terms, who are God’s enemies?  They are those who refuse to love him and rebel against the standards of his law.  In Nahum, it was specifically the people of Nineveh, but elsewhere in the Old Testament we find that this applies equally to all sinners (Psalm 7:11-13).  If you sin against God’s law even in the slightest degree, you earn a death sentence.  Why is that?  It’s because of the exalted, infinite majesty of the one you sin against.  If you sin against infinite majesty, you deserve an infinite penalty – the two are directly connected.  As it turns out, we don’t sin just slightly, but grievously.  We don’t just sin occasionally, but constantly.  Passages from the Old Testament like Nahum 1 remind us that we’re in deep trouble if left to ourselves.       

Now there are those who argue that that was in the Old Testament, but in the New Testament things are different.  No!  God is immutable.  He is never going to change his character.  He’s not fickle like human beings.  He remains the same for ever.  So Hebrews 12:29 says, “Our God is a consuming fire.”  That’s in the New Testament.  The last book of the New Testament, Revelation, reveals that God is going to pour out his wrath on those who have rebelled against him.  There is a lake of fire prepared for those who have committed cosmic treason against the King of the Universe.  There is eternal, conscious torment awaiting the wicked who don’t repent and believe in Jesus Christ. 

All of this is to say that God is holy and God is just.  God’s holiness means that he is separate from sin and will have nothing to do with sin.  He won’t have sinful people in his presence in heaven.  God’s justice means that God always does what is right.  When there are wrongs against him, those wrongs will always receive the appropriate punishment.  Since God is holy, and since God is just, he would have been completely within his rights to leave all of humanity under his judgment.  God owes salvation to no one.  We have to get that straight in our heads.  God owes salvation to no one.  The only thing we are owed is the wages of sin.  That’s the only thing we’ve deserved or earned:  the wages of sin, death.  God could have condemned us all to hell for our original sin and actual sins, and no one would be able to justly point their finger at God and accuse him of having done anything wrong.  Humanity’s awful plight is simply this:  we are sinful, and God is holy and just.  As a result, we are condemned.  Left to ourselves, we are under a curse.  We are headed for hell, for the lake of fire.  And there is absolutely nothing we can do to change that.

Thankfully, there is more to the story.  The Bible tells us not only about what God could have done, but also about what God did do.  The Bible tells us about our awful plight, but also about God’s gracious solution.  The Scriptures tell us that God is loving and merciful to sinners.  God is love, says 1 John 4:8.  Yes, he is a consuming fire, but he is also love.  Let’s see how these two attributes relate to each other in salvation.    

In his love, he sent his Son into our world.  He sent his Son with a plan for redemption.  God sent his Son to live and die for sinners.  God didn’t owe that to anyone, but yet he did.  And that’s an amazing thing!  After all, we made ourselves a stink in God’s nostrils.  We positioned ourselves as his enemies.  We rebelled against him.  Yet he loved us.  He demonstrated that love by doing what 1 John 4 says:  sending his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.  Propitiation means that Jesus is the one who turns God’s wrath from us and returns to us his favour.  On the cross, Jesus took the punishment for us, so that we can be in a friendly relationship with God.  That’s propitiation – that’s what God, in his love, sent Jesus to do. 

Now you might ask, why would God love us enough to do that?  You could say that it pleased him to do it.  True, but there’s also the fact that we are his creatures and, by virtue of being his creatures, he loves us even though we rebel against him.  You could think of Psalm 145:9, “The LORD is good to all, and his mercy is over all that he has made.” His love and mercy are upon everything he’s created including human beings.   God loves his creatures and wants them to be saved.  In Ezekiel’s prophecy, in chapter 33, God says that he doesn’t want people to suffer eternal death.  In his love, he comes to them with a call to faith and repentance.  In love, he sends his own beloved Son to this world to suffer and die.  He gives up what is most precious to him to save us. 

You see, his justice must be answered.  That is never going to be compromised.  But his love makes a way for his justice to be answered.  In his love, he sent a Saviour who bore the just punishment we deserved.  The gospel is good news because it is God’s gracious answer to humanity’s awful plight.  It’s the solution to our problem with a holy God’s justice. 

But does that solution save everyone then?  Are all people going to be saved because Jesus died on the cross?  Article 2 here in the first head of the Canons of Dort quotes from John 3:16.  God in his love sent Jesus to suffer and die on the cross.  But only those who believe in him “shall not perish but have eternal life.”  To be saved from humanity’s awful plight, you need to believe in Jesus. 

Let’s all be super clear on what that means. To be a Christian doesn’t merely mean that you believe in God.  We don’t just believe in God in a vague, generic sense and leave it there.  We do believe in God, and that means that for our salvation we believe in Jesus Christ, we believe in the one God sent for our salvation.   If someone asks you what it means to be a Christian, your answer must include Jesus.  If you all say is, “It means I believe in God,” how does that make you different from a Muslim or a Jew?  To be a Christian means that Christ is in the center of our hope for salvation.  That’s the first thing. 

The second thing is: what does it mean to believe in Jesus for salvation?  It means that we rest and trust in him alone.  We rest.  That means we put away every single idea of earning our way to God’s good graces.  You can’t do that.  As we heard earlier from Romans 6:23, our only wages are the wages of sin.  We can’t merit our place with God – so stop trying.  Instead, rest.  Believing in Jesus means resting in him.  It also means trusting in him alone.  Believing in Jesus means trusting that he alone has done what is necessary for you to be accepted by God.  He has done everything necessary for you to be in a healthy relationship with God.  He’s lived the perfect life that you could never live.  He went to the cross and took your hell. 

Loved ones, listen carefully:  there is not one way of salvation for people outside the church, and another way for people inside the church.  Sometimes there may be some misunderstanding about this.  I want to say it as clearly as possible.  People inside the church are not saved because they are church members.  People inside the church are not saved because they were baptized.  People inside the church are not saved because they do church stuff.  People inside the church are saved only when they rest and trust in Jesus Christ alone for their salvation.  He alone is God’s gracious solution.  God’s solution to our plight is not for us to do religious stuff in our religious club.  God’s solution is not that we do more good works and try harder.  God’s solution is that we place all our confidence only in his Son whom he sent in his love.  Do you do that?  If you do, good, praise God.  Keep on doing that.  Keep your eyes fixed on Christ.  If you don’t, now is the time to start.  There is only one Saviour.  There is only one way people are going to heaven and it’s not through church membership – it’s only through Jesus Christ.  He is the way, the truth, and the life, there’s no other way to the Father except through him (John 14:6).  You better make sure right now that you’re placing your faith only in him.              

The Canons of Dort begins with these fundamental truths about our salvation.  These are basic Christian teachings – Christianity 101.  Even if you struggle to understand a lot of what follows in the Canons of Dort, if you get this, you get what’s most crucial about the gospel.  What’s most crucial is that we are a broken race with a huge problem.  God is just and we are sinners.  Yet in his love and grace, he provided salvation for us in his Son Jesus Christ.  If we place our faith in him, we will not perish, but live forever.  That’s a message that Christians never tire of hearing.  It’s a message that non-Christians need to hear.  It’s a message that I never get tired of preaching.  I pray that it’s a message that delights you, a message you also love to share with others.  AMEN. 


O God our Father,

We confess you to be who your Word says you are.  You are holy and just.  You are a consuming fire.  You are exalted in majesty and cannot stand to look upon sin.  We confess ourselves to be who your Word says we are.  We are sinful.  We are conceived and born in sin.  We inherited a sinful nature from Adam.  We also commit our own actual sins day in and day out.  You would not be unjust to leave us in our misery and under your curse.  But Father, we know that your Word also tells us of your love and grace.  Thank you for providing the answer to our awful plight.  Thank you for the gospel of Jesus Christ.  We praise you for a perfect Saviour’s obedience in our place.  We praise you for the cross where he suffered and died for us, where he took our hell.  O God, thank you for your great love.  It astonishes and amazes us.  It humbles us and fills us with wonder.  Please help all of us with your Holy Spirit, young and old, to truly rest and trust in Jesus alone.  Please work in all our hearts so that we have a saving faith in the Saviour you’ve sent.  Help us, too, to continue living our lives with our eyes fixed on Jesus.  Father, please help us to live each day in the joy of the gospel. 


* 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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