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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
Title:The proper attitude towards God's sovereign grace
Text:CD 1 Article 18 & Matthew 20:1-1 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:God's Amazing Grace

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Hymn 78

Psalm 135:1-3

Psalm 62:1,3,7

Hymn 1

Psalm 148

Scripture reading:  Matthew 19:16-20:16

Catechism lesson: Canons of Dort 1.18

* 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,

I remember seeing this bank commercial a few years ago.  It was pretty memorable.  A man in a suit sits across from two young girls.  They’re probably seven or eight years old.  The man asks the first young girl, “Would you like a pony?”  Her eyes light up and she eagerly says, “Yeah…”  He reaches into his suit pocket, pulls out a little toy pony and gives it to her.  She’s smiling and happy with her gift.  Then the man in the suit turns to the second girl and asks her the same question, “Would you like a pony?”  Of course, she says, “Yeah…”  Her eyes are wide and she has a big smile on her face as she expects to receive a little toy as well.  But then the man makes a clicking sound and calls over a real pony and says, “Here, this is for you.”  The second girl is very happy with her gift.  The first girl looks on jealously and then says, “You didn’t say I could have a real one.”  The man in the suit answers, “Well, you didn’t ask.”  The first girl just glares at the man in the suit, obviously fuming and stewing. Then you hear the announcer, “Even kids know it’s wrong to hold out on somebody, why don’t banks?”

You can’t help but sympathize with the first kid.  It’s unfair that she got a toy pony when the other girl got a real pony.  They were both asked if they wanted a pony, but the second girl got the real thing.  It’s just not fair!            

Unfairness bothers us.  It bothers us when we’re children and it bothers us when we’re adults.  When we’re treated unfairly, we have a hard time taking it.  When we see others being treated unfairly, we often have a hard time seeing it.  There’s something in most human beings that bristles at the idea of unfairness.  We want to see ourselves and others treated justly.

To many people, the doctrine of election seems unfair.   After all, shouldn’t everyone be treated equally?  What they really mean is that everyone should be saved, or at least have a chance to be saved.  Behind this is the idea that people are deserving of these things.  They deserve to be objects of God’s grace, or maybe they deserve the opportunity to show themselves worthy of his grace in Jesus Christ.  Therefore, as the Canons of Dort say, people “complain about the grace of undeserved election and the severity of righteous reprobation.”  People combine their ideas of fairness with their ideas of humans somehow deserving something from God, and that can stand in the way of accepting and believing this doctrine.

Understanding the sovereignty of God in his relations to human beings is sometimes hard.  Accepting that God sovereignly chooses some while passing others by – that can be difficult.  There is grace and there is justice.  We love the former, but struggle with the latter.  Yet God’s Word teaches all of it.  The Canons of Dort point us to God’s Word and what it says.  Most of 1.18 is taken up with Scripture, especially the words of Romans 11:33-36.  There Paul exclaims the sovereign God’s glory with his so-called doxology.  God owes nothing to no one.  No one deserves a payment from God for services rendered.  The Canons also quote from Romans 9:20, “But who are you, O man, to talk back to God?”  The puny creature should not be arguing with the Creator and second-guessing his decisions.  Then 1.18 also quotes from Matthew 20:15 where Christ says in a parable, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?”      

We’re going to look at this parable in more detail here this afternoon and what it teaches us about God’s sovereign grace and our acceptance of it.  Please have your Bible open at Matthew 20.  We’ll see that it not only speaks to us about God and how he sovereignly bestows grace, but also about our attitude towards that.  This parable is designed to open our eyes to God’s way of dealing with sinners, so that we would accept it, believe it, and live accordingly.  We’re going to see how this parable teaches that by sovereign grace the last will be first.  In so doing it also teaches us the proper attitude to God’s sovereign grace.   In this parable, we’ll look at:

  1. The hiring process
  2. The hour of reckoning wages
  3. The hard lesson to be learned

What instigated this parable was a conversation our Lord Jesus had with his disciples about entering the kingdom of God.  There was that rich young man who thought he’d mastered the law.  Christ exposed his failure at a crucial point and then the young man went away sad.  Our Lord used this as an opportunity to teach his disciples about the difficulty in entering the kingdom as someone with great earthly riches.  It’s difficult he said, but it’s possible with God.  But then the thoughts of the disciples went to all the great sacrifices they had made to be the first ones to follow Jesus.  What would they get?  Christ assured them that they would indeed receive much from him in the age to come, including eternal life.  However, chapter 19 ends by saying, “But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.”

Christ told this parable to explain that surprising statement.  He was speaking to his disciples at this point.  He wasn’t speaking to a broad audience.  There’s no evidence in the context that he was speaking for the ears of the Pharisees or other religious leaders.  This parable was intended for his disciples, so that they would understand something crucial about the nature of the kingdom of heaven.  When Christ speaks about the kingdom of heaven, he’s referring to God’s reign.  It’s a state of affairs.  It’s not so much a place, though it does cover the entire world.  God rules over the world and over all people.  This parable is about how God carries out his reign over all creation and how the king relates to his subjects.

Jesus says that God’s rule can be compared to a landowner and how he manages his property and affairs.  This landowner has a large vineyard and he needs people to work in it.  At the very beginning of the day, around sunrise, he goes out and hires a bunch of temporary workers.  Together they reach an agreement that they’ll work the full day and then receive a denarius.  The exact value of a denarius in today’s terms isn’t certain, but we do know that in those days a denarius was a fair wage for a day’s labour.  With that agreement in place, the workers head over to the vineyard and begin working for the landowner.

But the landowner needs more help in his vineyard.  It’s the third hour – about 9:00 in the morning.  He goes to where you’ll likely find people waiting to be hired for casual labour, the marketplace.  The landowner spies a group of men standing around doing nothing and he hires them.  He sends them to work in his vineyard and assures them they’ll receive a fair wage.  He doesn’t reach an agreement with them for a denarius, but just on his word that they’ll get a fair wage, they do go out to the vineyard and start working.

The same thing takes place at the sixth hour (12:00 noon) and also at the ninth hour (3:00 PM).  Finally, it’s the eleventh hour, 5:00 in the afternoon.  It’s not quitting time yet, but it’s getting close.  Quitting time was 6:00 PM.  There’s one hour left in the day.  The landowner goes to the marketplace one last time and finds yet another group of men standing around doing nothing.  No one hired them.  The landowner takes these men too and sends them out to his vineyard.  He sends them to work for just one hour.

It’s clear in this parable that the landowner is God.  God chooses and calls people as workers in his kingdom.   He chooses and calls whomever he pleases and whenever he pleases.  In the hiring process, if we can call it that, God is sovereign.  It was on the landowner’s initiative that these men came to work in his vineyard.  Similarly, it is God’s gracious initiative when anyone comes to be a worker in his kingdom.  It is the sovereign God’s initiative when anyone comes to faith in Christ and through the power of the Holy Spirit submits to the kingship of God and wants to live for him and work for his glory.  Loved ones, we don’t choose God.  He unconditionally chooses us.  It’s important that we see that so that we remain humble.  It’s important that we see that again so that we always give all praise and glory to God for our place in his kingdom.

Eventually evening comes in the parable.  It’s the hour for reckoning wages, for giving the workers their pay.  The boss gives specific instructions to his foreman about how to do this.  The workers will come and they’ll each get their wages.  However, the boss wants the foreman to start with the ones who were hired last and then finish with those who were hired first.  There is a reason behind this method; there is a lesson that will be taught to those listening.

The men hired at 5:00 are the first ones to get paid.  Each of them receives a denarius.  In other words, each of them receives a full day’s wage.  This is extravagantly generous on the part of the landowner.  This boss doesn’t owe them a full day’s wage, because they didn’t work for it.  But he graciously gives it to them.  While the parable doesn’t explicitly say it, we can expect the same happened with all the others hired throughout the day.  They all received a denarius.  But it’s the ones hired last who are the focus here.  There’s a deliberate contrast being set up here by Jesus between the last and the first. 

The first ones had been hired around sunrise.  They’ve been watching how everybody’s getting paid, making sure that it’s all fair.  Seeing the 5:00 crowd getting a denarius, they thought that they’d for sure get more.  After all, wouldn’t that only be fair?  You work more, you get more.  You work one hour, you get one denarius; you work twelve hours, you should get twelve denarii -- twelve times as much pay for twelve times the labour.  That makes perfect sense.  That would be fair and just in human thinking.

This is where Jesus takes his listeners by surprise.  All the first workers also received a denarius.  They received exactly the same as the ones who had been hired only an hour ago.  They had been rubbing their hands together looking forward to a big payday and now they only got what everyone else had gotten.

Their reaction is so typical of our fallen human nature.  They begin to grumble against the landowner.  In the original Greek, Christ uses some vivid language to describe this.  He uses onomatopoeia here.  Onomatopoeia is when the sound of a word matches its meaning.  So for instance, in English we say that bees buzz.  “Buzz” is a good example of onomatopoeia.  The word here in Greek does the same thing.  It sounds like the grumbling and complaining of someone upset.  Grrrr….  And they’re doing this against the landowner, against the boss.

And they don’t take it silently and walk away.  They verbalize their beef with the boss.  They say, “The ones hired last only worked one hour.  We were hired first.  We’ve spent the whole day working in your vineyard.  While these last fellows were relaxing in the shade, we were slaving in the scorching heat.  Now you’re giving us the same as them?  How is that fair?”

Notice how these first workers have positioned themselves.  They have positioned themselves against the landowner.  They are grumbling against him, despite the fact that he graciously gave them a job in his vineyard.  He gave them a place and promised to give them a fair wage.  Not only do they set themselves against him, they also set themselves over him.  They are going to be the judges of whether the landowner is doing right or wrong.  Now keep in mind that the landowner represents God.  We have people positioning themselves against and over God.  We have people judging God and what he does.  In other words, what we have here is pride.  The creature tries to lift itself up over the Creator.  The pottery tries to talk back to the Potter.  Loved ones, this is always a bad idea.  Proudly judging God and his ways revealed to us in Scripture – that’s typically a recipe for disaster.  It’s something that God doesn’t bless.  Rather, it offends him deeply when his creatures position themselves like this.  “Who are you, O man, to talk back to God?”    

Humility is supposed to be the way of those who recognize the reign of God, who submit to him, who live out of faith in Jesus Christ.  Humility was the way of our Saviour as he lived on earth.  He walked in humble obedience to God.  He never positioned himself against or over his Father.   Christ never complained or grumbled against heaven.  The gospel promises us that all who trust in Christ receive this humble obedience of his; it’s credited to our accounts as if we had done it.  As believers, we’re grafted into this Saviour and, through his Holy Spirit, his obedience also more and more comes to expression in our lives.  We hear his Word and want to follow it.  We see here how out of place it is for Christians to be grumbling against God and judging his ways.  That includes what God does in election and reprobation.  We have zero business judging God and his ways.  As Christians we will want to put that to death in our lives and learn patient and humble submission to our God.

Part of that involves learning the hard lesson at the end of the parable.  The landowner has heard the complaining and now he responds to one of the workers, probably the head complainer.  He addresses him, calls him “Friend.”  Don’t be misled by that word “friend.”  This word isn’t the word Jesus uses in John 15 when he says to his disciples, “I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.”  Instead, it’s the same word used by Christ in the Parable of the Wedding Banquet in Matthew 22.  It’s the word that the king uses when he sees the man without wedding clothes.  He says, “Friend, how did you get in here without wedding clothes?”  And then he has him tossed out into the darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.  That’s the word used here.  It doesn’t have a lot of “friendship” invested in it.  It’s more of a nicety; it means even less than a “friend” on Facebook.  So we can’t read anything into that word.  The significance is in what follows.

What follows is first of all an assertion:  “I am not being unfair to you.”  There is no injustice on the part of the landowner.  Then he asks a question to drive the point home, “Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius?”  This is a rhetorical question, one where the answer is obvious.  Of course that’s what was agreed upon at the beginning.  If that was the agreement, and that’s what was given, then there is no injustice.  The complainers should be happy with what they get and go on their way. 

The landowner could leave it at that, but he says more.  He says it was his will to give the last workers the same as the first.  That’s what he wanted to do, so that’s what he did.  It was his sovereign good pleasure.  Then he asks another rhetorical question, the one we find in the Canons of Dort: “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?”  The answer again is obvious.  Of course, the landowner can do as he pleases.  These workers have no right to dictate to him what he should do.  They’re not over the landowner – nobody has appointed them as judges over him.  So long as they have received what was agreed upon, they have no right to complain.

With his last question, the landowner strikes at the hearts of the complainers.  He asks, “Or do you begrudge my generosity?”  Obviously they do.  They can’t handle the generous way that the landowner has treated those hired at 5:00.  They don’t appreciate his gracious spirit.  They’re angry because he has lavished those latecomers with something they haven’t earned.  They see the others and the way the boss relates to them and it just burns them right up.  It’s not fair that those 5:00 workers should get the same as the early risers.  They begrudge the landowner his generosity and grace. 

Then Christ concludes with verse 16, “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”  The last workers were treated the way they were because of grace, because the landowner had a generous heart.  They were elevated to a high position because of grace – last to first.  But when the first workers saw the way the latecomers were elevated, sinful pride rose up in their hearts and they dared to complain against the landowner and judge him and his generosity.  This brought them a rebuke from the landowner.  Those who had been first were knocked down with this rebuke, put to the end of the line so to speak – first to last.

The whole point of the parable is that grace is shocking.  Grace is unexpected.  For sinful human beings, God’s grace can be difficult to swallow because it’s so…unfair.  By definition, grace is when sinful people receive the opposite of what they deserve.  In the beginning of the parable, no one deserved to be hired by the landowner.  Even the first workers were in the vineyard by grace.  They were going to receive a reward for their labour by grace.  But some received more grace than others.  Some worked less, making the reward seem disproportionate and unfair.  Yet that’s the essence of grace.  God’s grace is not about proportion.  God’s grace is never about giving a one-to-one payment for services rendered to him.  Grace is not about proportion.  The kingdom of heaven turns all human reasoning about these sorts of things upside down.

The parable also makes us think about how we might begrudge grace shown to others.  When it comes to ourselves, grace is normally welcomed.  We want God to treat us graciously and we’re thankful that in Jesus Christ he has.  We’re relieved to hear the gospel message that he doesn’t treat us as our sins deserve.  I’m glad to know that grace is there for me in Christ, grace to cover all my sins, past, present and future.  I deserve nothing but God’s condemnation, but in Christ he has given me a place in his family.  He calls me his son and treats me like one, though I know that often I act like a traitor and rebel.  I welcome this grace for me and you would you too for yourself.  Grace is beautiful and wonderful when it gets applied personally to ourselves.

But when it comes to others, we may be not quite as big-hearted and enthusiastic about grace, especially when we’ve been living with grace for a long time – just like the workers who spent the whole day in the vineyard.  We can easily forget the grace we’ve been shown by God.  When we hear about others being on the receiving end of his grace, we can sometimes be a bit ornery and grumbly.  We are people who want justice and fairness.  When people are bad sinners and especially if we don’t have a relationship with them, there’s something in us that says that these people should get what’s coming, both in this life and in the life to come.  No grace.  This parable confronts such begrudging attitudes and challenges them. 

But brothers and sisters, grace also touches our lives in other ways.  This parable is meant to impress us with the grace of our God.  We’re to be impressed that we have a good and gracious Father in heaven.  He has a big heart.  He lavishes gifts on the undeserving.  We were created in his image.  Yes, the fall vandalized that image.  But with the Holy Spirit, that image is being renewed.  We were created to reflect our Father in heaven and his big heart.  We have been redeemed by Christ and are being renovated by the Holy Spirit so that people would see our God in us.  Let’s learn from this parable how we are to be gracious and generous people.  Whether as employers, or as husbands and wives, or as parents, or as church members, or whatever calling we have, God’s Word calls us here to be people who are unexpectedly generous and kind with others.  God’s grace is shocking and our lives are to reflect that shocking grace in the way we deal with others.  How can we do that in concrete ways?

Well, let’s think about this for a moment.  Why is it that we often have a hard time seeing somebody else receive something good, something that we don’t get or can’t have?  Why is it that when someone says something kind and upbuilding about another person, then we sometimes feel compelled to respond with something like, “Well, let me tell you something you may not know about that person” – and then we proceed to tear them down, as if it’s somehow our duty to break down the reputation of that other person.  Why do we do that?  Isn’t it exactly because of the human tendency that this parable exposes?  Isn’t it exactly because we want grace for ourselves, but we struggle with others receiving it?  Brothers and sisters, this emerges from the ugly remnants of our sinful nature.  Those who are in Christ by faith have to see that it’s out of place in their lives and they have to put it to death.  What those first workers did in the parable was ugly and reprehensible.  It’s equally ugly and reprehensible when Christians fail to rejoice in grace extended to others, and when they themselves fail to extend the same kind of grace they’ve been shown.  On the other hand, when we reflect our God and Saviour with kind and gracious hearts that reveal themselves with generous words and actions – that’s precious and beautiful in the sight of God.  That pleases him and, because of the gospel, isn’t that what we want to do?  Because of Christ, we want to be beautiful inside and out for our God.              

Now there are more concrete ways of applying this parable that could be mentioned.  But I’m going to leave it with you.  It’s something worth thinking about on your own.

Loved ones, this parable forces us to think carefully about how God deals with sinners.  We are sinners.  And sometimes our remaining sin can make us judgmental about God, how God deals with other sinners, and how we should deal with other sinners.  We talk about fairness and justice.  But this parable confronts us with the fact that our demands or expectations can be sinful.  We have so far to go in understanding the grace of God that’s been lavished on us.  We have so far to go in understanding that grace is available for all sinners.  We have so far to go in reflecting the grace we’ve been shown.  As we realize this, we see more and more our need to ask for more grace.  We need God to graciously work in our hearts with his Spirit so that we would live humbly before him and before the people he’s placed in our lives.  May he generously show that sovereign grace to each one of us.   AMEN. 


Gracious sovereign God,

We have deserved nothing good from your hand.  Yet you chose us to be workers in your vineyard.  You’ve graciously given us a calling in your kingdom.  We’re thankful for this, we’re thankful to be your people.  Please help us with your Holy Spirit so that we would never judge you and the way you dispense your gifts and rewards.  Please help us to be humble before you.  We also pray that you would help us to be humble before one another and with all people.  Please work in our hearts so that we reflect your big Fatherly heart of grace.  Help us to be kind and gracious to everyone, showing that you are our God and Jesus is our Saviour and the Holy Spirit is living in us.

* 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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