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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
Title:Why the twofold outcome to preaching?
Text:CD 1 Article 5 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Psalm 111:1-3

Psalm 111:4-5

Psalm 115:1,2

Hymn 1

Hymn 22

Scripture reading:  Acts 8:4-40

Catechism lesson:  Canons of Dort 1.5

* 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,

From time to time, kids in school have to do science projects.  There can be some very interesting topics.  I did one once on owls and their flat, disk-shaped faces.  Students do research on a particular question, make some observations, and then try to reach some conclusions.  They try to explain the findings.  What they’re after is the answer to the question, “Why?”  Why did we see this?  Why did it happen that way?  So, for example, why does an owl have a flat disk-shaped face?  Does it help the owl somehow?    

Well, this afternoon we’re taking a similar approach.  We have a “why” question in front of us.  In the last two articles of the Canons of Dort, we confess something about preaching.  We confess that God sends gospel heralds with a joyful message.  He sends men on his behalf to announce glad tidings of hope, healing, forgiveness, and reconciliation through Jesus Christ.  When that good news is proclaimed, we confess that there is always a twofold outcome.  Some do not believe and the wrath of God remains upon them.  Others receive that joyful message gladly.  They embrace Jesus the Saviour with a true and living faith.  They’re rescued from the holy wrath of God.  Those who believe the joyful message of the gospel are given life that lasts forever.

But then there’s that question:  why?  Why do many disbelieve?  Why do some believe?  Why is there a twofold outcome to preaching?  That’s what we’ll be learning about this afternoon with the help of the Canons of Dort 1.5.  We’ll learn about:

  1. The cause of unbelief
  2. The source of faith

Since the days Jesus walked on this earth, the gospel has been preached to literally millions of people.  Millions of human beings have heard the joyful message that God forgives sinners when they place their trust in the Saviour who hung on the cross.  But of those millions of people who’ve heard the good news, only a comparative few have responded with repentance and faith.  Only a few have repented – turned away from sin, and turned to God with faith, trusting that Jesus Christ took their punishment.  The vast majority have heard that call and rejected it.  The greatest percentage of human beings who hear the gospel proclaimed turn away from it and think something like, “Meh.  Whatever.  I’m not a sinner and I don’t need a Saviour.  I don’t need that fairy-tale God-stuff in my life.”

There are countless examples of that in the Bible.  In Acts 17, the apostle Paul was in Athens.  He preached at the Areopagus, or Mars Hill.  That was the center for intellectual discussion in Athens.  Paul preached the gospel there to Greeks who knew their philosophy.  They were highly educated men who could talk circles around you.  Acts 17:32 tells us that when they heard about the resurrection from the dead, some of his listeners mocked.  Others pretended to be interested saying, “We will hear you again about this.”  A few believed.  But the majority heard and disbelieved. 

Earlier in Acts, in chapter 8, we find something similar with a man named Simon.  At first glance, it doesn’t appear that way.  When Philip came and preached the gospel in Samaria, there was quite a good response.  That may have been owing to the fact that Christ himself had come to Samaria in John 4 and left a remarkable impression on the people.  It looked like a man named Simon also responded with faith.  He was a magician – that doesn’t mean that he did magic tricks.  “Magician” here means something like a sorcerer.  He was into the occult, manipulating demonic forces.  Verse 13 says he believed.  But later it becomes evident this was only an outward show.  He only appeared to believe.  Simon wanted to manipulate the Holy Spirit for his sorcery the same way he had manipulated demonic forces.  Simon thought that claiming to be a believer would be very useful.  So he played the part.  We know that this is true because of what Peter says to Simon in verse 21:  “your heart is not right before God.”  If he had true faith in Jesus Christ, his heart would be right before God.  He would have what we call justification – God would have declared him righteous.  But in verse 22, Peter urges Simon to yet repent and seek God’s forgiveness.  In verse 23, Peter even says that Simon is in the “gall of bitterness and the bond of iniquity.”  You would never say that to someone who’s a believer.  Simon had heard the gospel, he made it look like he believed, and yet the reality was different. 

Simon stands as a warning to us.  It is possible to hear the gospel and only pretend to believe.  You can hear the joyful message and think to yourself, “That could be useful.  I could pretend to respond to that and it might do me some good.  I might get what I want by faking being a believer.”  You might want social acceptance.  You’ve grown up in the church community and you know that believing is what’s expected.  So you fake it to gain social acceptance.  Or you might want the approval of your family.  You’ve grown up in a Christian family and you know that they would be so disappointed in you if you didn’t believe.  So you make them think that you do, when inwardly you really don’t.  There are other scenarios we could envision too.  In each of them, pretending to believe is useful.  But it’s still pretending.  In the end, you’ve heard the gospel message, but disbelieve.  No matter what the appearances are, God looks at the heart and knows that it is as cold as stone.  He sees the spiritual heart rate and all he sees is a flat line. 

But the question we want to look at is:  why?  What is the cause of this unbelief?  When we ask that question, we have to take a step backwards and ask another question.  That question is:  what is “unbelief”?  You see, someone could look at unbelief and regard it simply as a choice.  Some choose to believe and others don’t.  Someone might say that unbelief in itself is just a choice, a neutral thing.  It has an unfortunate consequence, but in itself it’s just a choice.  But that would be a superficial and unhelpful way of looking at it.  We need to approach it from God’s perspective.  God’s perspective is revealed in the Bible. 

In the Bible, unbelief is a sin.  After all, what is unbelief?  It is to refuse God.  Unbelief is a violation of the first commandment – which is to worship and serve the one and only true God.  Unbelief is a failure to fear God.  Unbelief is a refusal to acknowledge God.  Unbelief is the rejection of God’s Word.  When God says something to a person, unbelief means saying, “Stuff it.  I don’t believe you.”  Unbelief is slapping the good King of the universe in the face and shoving him away.  It’s an affront to him.  It is an insult to God.  You have to see that unbelief is more than a choice, it is a moral matter.  Unbelief is wickedness and rebellion.  Unbelief is sin.

When we recognize that, the question changes.  The question is not only why is there unbelief, but why is there this sin?  You could just as well ask, “Why is there any sin at all in this world?”  It’s for this reason that the Canons of Dort in 1.5 speaks not only about the cause of unbelief, but also the guilt of unbelief.  “Guilt” only exists where there is sin.  So why is there sin in this world, and in particular, why the sin of unbelief?

If you take the Bible seriously, you cannot pin it on God.  God is good, all the time.  Psalm 119:68 says, “You are good and do good.”  In fact, God’s character defines the very nature of goodness.  He is good, and also holy.  In Isaiah 6, the angels cry out that God is “Holy, holy, holy.”  “Holy” means that he is set apart from sin and wickedness.  Since God is holy, he will have nothing to do with sin.  If he is good and holy, then he certainly doesn’t cause any sin, let alone unbelief.  Elihu spoke truth in Job 34:10, “…far be it from God that he should do wickedness, and from the Almighty that he should do wrong.”  So the Bible teaches us to forget about blaming God for unbelief.

That leaves us.  That leaves human responsibility for unbelief, just as for all sins.  Human beings have been created as morally responsible creatures.  We are responsible for what we do and what we think.  We are responsible for what we love and what we pursue.  When we do, think, love, pursue things that are evil and wicked, we are responsible for that.  God will hold us accountable for that.  You can’t blame anyone else, and you certainly can’t blame God.

Human responsibility is taught repeatedly in the Bible.  As one example, in Isaiah 30, God speaks to his people who are refusing to listen to him.  God’s own people are disbelieving.  He holds them to account for it.  He says in verse 9 of Isaiah 30 that they are “a rebellious people, lying children.”  Later in Isaiah 30, he says that there will be judgment on this unbelief.  How can there be just judgment unless the people are responsible for their unbelief?  The two go hand in hand.

So, loved ones, whenever we encounter unbelief, we have to keep it in the proper perspective.  It is rebellion against God.  Unbelief is a matter of sin.  You can never, ever blame God for any sin whatsoever, and certainly not for unbelief either.  Instead, every single human being bears personal responsibility for their own sins, including unbelief.  The cause of unbelief is in human beings, and therefore the guilt for it is as well.  Unbelief is on us, not on God.

But sometimes the joyful message goes out and it’s received with a true and living faith.  Sometimes people hear and then respond by trusting in Christ crucified.  They say, “Yes, I’m a great sinner, I recognize my guilt and the punishment I deserve.  But I place all my trust in Jesus, in the one who died on the cross.  I believe he took my place, took my hell and now I’m alive in him.  I’m going to live forever with God because of Jesus.” 

We see that kind of response in Acts 8 with the Ethiopian eunuch.  He was a government official and he’d been to Jerusalem to worship.  That tells us that he was probably a Jewish proselyte.  So he was a Gentile who followed the Jewish religion.  As he was travelling home, he sat in his chariot reading a scroll containing the prophet Isaiah.  He happened to be reading Isaiah 53.  Then he met Philip and Philip explained to him how this was all pointing ahead to Jesus Christ.  Philip brought the gospel to him.  As it says in verse 35, “he told him the good news about Jesus.”  What was the response?  Faith.  The Ethiopian believed, and because he believed, he wanted to be baptized right there and then.  That’s what happened.  It’s quite a remarkable contrast from what happened earlier in the chapter with Simon.  This Ethiopian had a genuine saving faith in Jesus Christ.  He went home with the gospel and was probably instrumental in bringing it to the Ethiopians for the first time.

The question we’re considering is: why did he believe?  What was the cause of his faith?  Acts 8 doesn’t tell us the answer.  But we could look elsewhere in the Bible to answer that question.  For example, in Acts 16, there was a woman named Lydia who heard the joyful message of Jesus from Paul.  The Holy Spirit says explicitly in Acts 16:14, “The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul.”  God worked in her heart so that when she heard the good news, she paid attention and believed it.  We can take that and apply that back to the Ethiopian eunuch too.  Why did he believe?  Because the Lord opened his heart to pay attention to what Philip said.  God worked in his heart so that he heard the gospel and believed it.  The source of faith is God.  Faith is a good thing, and God is the source of all good things.  Therefore God is the source of faith.  People believe because of God.

That is taught elsewhere in the Bible too.  The Canons of Dort quotes from Philippians 1:29, where it says that it has been granted to Christians to believe in Christ.  If something is granted to you that means it’s a gift.  You’ve been given faith in Jesus Christ.  Someone else gave it to you.  You didn’t dig it up from within yourself.  It was something that came from outside of yourself. 

The most emphatic passage in Scripture on this is from Ephesians 2:8, “By grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God.”  The Holy Spirit is saying here that not only is salvation through God’s grace, but also the faith by which we receive that salvation.  Salvation is a matter of free grace – of dismerited favour, receiving the opposite of what we deserve.  But so is faith.  Faith is a free gift of God.  You don’t earn faith.  You don’t work it up from within your own being.  Faith is something that comes to us as a gift through the Holy Spirit.  The third person of the Trinity comes to a person and he works faith in their heart.  The Holy Spirit gives them this gift.  As a result, when someone becomes a Christian, they have no reason to boast in themselves.  A Christian can’t go around beating his chest and being proud of himself because he did this wonderful thing of believing.  No, a Christian will soon realize that everything he is and everything he has is from God’s grace.  God gets all the credit.  God gets all the praise.  God gets all the glory.

You see, it works like this.  It’s like a doorway.  Before faith in Jesus Christ, you stand on one side of the doorway.  On the door is a message.  The message says, “Repent from your sins and believe in Jesus Christ as your Saviour.”  There’s a call to repentance and faith.  You need to do something.  By walking through the door, you take the action that’s required.  But after walking through the door, you look back and there’s a message on the other side:  “By grace you have been saved through faith.  And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.”  From the other side, you realize that it was not your own actions that saved you, but God’s work in you.  He gave you the eyes to see the message on the other side calling you to repentance and faith.  He gave you the understanding to comprehend what it meant.  He gave you the motivation to take the actions required.  He gave you all the strength to act.  It wasn’t you, but him.  It may have felt like you at the time, but now you realize that ultimately the source of your faith is not in you, but God.  It was all his free gift. 

Loved ones, in the final analysis all of this is about the honour of God.  You say you believe in Jesus Christ with a true and living faith?  That’s great.  Praise God for that faith.  He’s the one who deserves the worship and also the thanks.  Let’s all be humble and recognize that when we’re Christians, we owe everything to grace.  We haven’t earned a thing.  As Christians, we’re all about soli Deo Gloria -- to God alone be the glory.  We want his Name to be lifted up.  We want him to be made much of.  In a moment, we’ll sing Psalm 115.  That Psalm puts it perfectly, “Not to us, O LORD, not to us, but to your name give glory!” 

But what if there’s someone here still in unbelief?  Does all this talk of God’s gift mean that they should just sit back and be passive?  After all, someone might think, “Well, God has given that gift of faith to others, but not to me.  Oh well. Maybe someday he will, but I don’t care.”  If that’s you, I beg you to think differently.  This isn’t a matter of one person saying “tomayto” and another person saying “to-mahto.”  It’s life and death.  This is about what’s going to happen immediately after the last neuron fires up in your gray matter.  Where are you going to go?  What’s going to happen to you?  In your heart you know there’s judgment.  When you stand before your Creator and have to give an account for your life, what are you going to say?  That you did your best?  According to God’s standards, your best isn’t good enough.  Will you say, “Just look at my heart?”  God does look at your heart and he sees that it’s corrupt and rebellious.  What have you earned with your life?  Romans 6:23 tells you:  “the wages of sin is death.”  Death is what you’ve earned.  That’s it.  Wouldn’t you want it to be different?  The good news is that God is coming to you right now and saying it can be different.  Pray to him and he will make it different.  Pray to him and say, “I’m a sinner and I don’t want to die eternally.  I want to live.  Please give me the gift of faith in Jesus Christ.  Help me to put my trust in him.”  I can assure you that God will hear that prayer.  He will give you that gift.  He wants to give you that gift.  Pray to him and ask for it.   

Loved ones, salvation and faith are gifts.  When we have those gifts, we ought to be thankful.  We ought to love the one who first so greatly loved us.  But let’s also keep praying for those who have not received the gift.  Pray for your children who haven’t yet received the gift of faith.  Pray for your friends who are still without the gift.  Pray for family members who still don’t know the Lord in a saving way.  Bring them all before the throne of grace and plead with God to give them the gift of life through faith in Jesus.  There is no gift that’s more valuable.

So we’ve seen that the cause of unbelief is 100% with human beings.  The source of faith is 100% with God.  This is what the Scriptures teach.  We might sometimes struggle with understanding how these things can be so.  But again, you need to think about God and his character.  Remember that God is good.  Since unbelief is not good, but actually sinful, the good God can’t be held responsible for it.   Remember that God is good.  Remember what James 1:17 says, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights…”  Faith is a good gift.  It therefore comes from the source of goodness:  God.  So, loved ones, the best way to end is just to urge you to continue trusting in who God is.  He’s good and he does good – always.  AMEN.


Good God in heaven,

We acknowledge what your Word says about you:  you are good and you do good.  Everything that comes from you is pure goodness.  We acknowledge what your Word says about us:  in ourselves we are sinful and rebellious.  If there is unbelief in us, it is our fault.  We are to blame for any sin in our hearts and lives.  We can’t blame you.  But if there is anything good in our hearts and lives, we know that it comes from you.  Our faith has come from you, as a free gift.  We thank you for that gift.  Please teach us to be more grateful for it.  Please help us with your Holy Spirit to love you more for your gift.  We pray for your Holy Spirit to give this gift to others too.  There are many people we know who don’t have the gift of faith.  Father, we plead with you:  please give them the gift through your Holy Spirit, whether it’s our children, our family, friends, people we go to school with.  We pray that your Spirit would open their eyes to their need for Jesus and they would be brought to him.  We pray that because we care about the lost people we know, but we also want to see your name praised by them as they too experience the joy of eternal life in Christ.             


* 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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