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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
Title:Our sovereign God graciously gives the elect salvation in the death of Christ
Text:CD 2 Articles 8-9 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Our Salvation

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Hymn 41

Psalm 71:1-3

Hymn 37

Hymn 1

Psalm 144:1,2

Scripture readings: Matthew 18:21-35, John 10:1-30

Catechism lesson: Canons of Dort 2.8-9

* 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 our Lord Jesus,

Let’s begin at the cross of Jesus Christ.  The cross is a gruesome place.  You cannot sanitize it.  It is a Roman instrument of torture.  There at the cross, we witness horrible suffering and a violent death.  One man dies.  Not only has he died, but before that he has experienced the infinite wrath of God against sin.  Now the question before us this afternoon is:  what was the design or intent of the cross?  What purpose did Christ’s suffering and death serve?  That’s what we’re considering in chapter 2 of the Canons with the doctrine of grace we call limited atonement or better put, particular redemption.  This afternoon, I preach God’s Word as confessed by the church in the Canons of Dort with this theme:

Our sovereign God graciously gives the elect salvation in the death of Christ

We’ll look at:

  1. Christ’s redemption accomplished and applied.
  2. God’s counsel fulfilled.

Look again at the first sentence of article 8:  “For this was the most free counsel of God the Father, that the life-giving and saving efficacy of His Son should extend to all the elect.”  There is nothing really controversial in this statement.  The Arminians would have been able to go along with it.  After all, they also believed that Christ died for the elect.  Of course, you remember how they redefine election.  The Arminian idea of election is that God chooses people on the basis of his looking into the future and seeing them making the choice to believe in the Lord Jesus.  And they believe that when Jesus died, he died to save them.    No problem.

However, the Arminians would definitely have had problems with the second sentence of article 8.  We read there that “It was his most gracious will and intent to give to them alone justifying faith and thereby to bring them unfailingly to salvation.”  Notice the word “alone” there in that sentence.  That’s where the Arminians would have stumbled.  And then the third sentence explains it further.  God willed that Christ would effectually redeem, “all those, and those only, who from eternity were chosen to salvation and were given to him by the Father.”  And again notice those words “those only.”  “Alone” and “those only” – those words are indicating to us that Christ’s death was to redeem a particular group and that group alone. 

With this doctrine of grace we call particular redemption, we confess that Christ died for the elect and for them alone.  This is so simple that also our children can understand this.  Your parents can ask you later at home:  for whom did Christ die?  You can answer:  “Only for God’s chosen people.”  It’s not a difficult concept to understand.  It may be difficult to accept, but it isn’t hard to understand. 

Christ suffered and died for the elect only.  Furthermore, he didn’t suffer and die merely to make salvation possible.  As if he died and then holds out the possibility that he died for us personally, if only we take the step of accepting him in faith.  No, we confess that Christ suffered and died to make salvation an actual reality.  He died for the elect so that the elect would unfailingly be brought to salvation.  He accomplishes salvation and then also applies it.  He gives all the gifts necessary to receive this salvation.  He gives regeneration by the Spirit, he gives repentance and faith, absolutely everything.

So, the actual statement of this teaching is simple.  But the bigger question is:  is it biblical?  Let’s have a look at a few passages. 

Let’s start with what we read from John 10.  Jesus uses the image of a shepherd and his sheep.  Clearly our Lord Jesus is the shepherd.  But who are the sheep?  They are those whom the Father has given to him – that’s what we read in verse 29.  We could say that they are God’s chosen ones, the elect.  Now listen to what our Lord Jesus says in verse 11, “I am the good shepherd.  The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”  He says it again in verse 15:  he lays down his life for the sheep.  He actively gives himself to death and suffering so that the sheep are saved.  The sheep are already sheep – they don’t choose to become sheep.  God has made them sheep.  Verse 28 also affirms particular redemption when it says, “I give them eternal life and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand.”  Christ doesn’t make eternal life possible for them – he gives it to them:  “I give them eternal life.”    

We’ve heard this illustration of the sheep and the shepherd before, also in connection with other passages like Psalm 23.  Perhaps our familiarity with it makes us lose sight of an important truth.  Perhaps also it’s the fact that many of us are unfamiliar with sheep in real life.  Brothers and sisters, sheep are really dumb animals.  When God calls us sheep, that’s not meant as a compliment to us.  It says something about people.  Some years ago I saw a news item from Turkey.  Apparently, some Turkish shepherds decided to eat their breakfast.  They were having a good time eating and talking until they looked over their shoulders and noticed the flock of sheep slowly disappearing.  One sheep had gone over a cliff and before long 1500 others had followed.  In the end 450 sheep had died – many of them survived because the pile of fluffy carcasses cushioned their fall.  But all of them went over the cliff, every single one of them.  The story illustrates that sheep are dumb.  Sheep simply do not make good choices for themselves.  Sheep need a shepherd who watches them 24/7.  They need a shepherd to feed them and protect them.  When Christ says he’s the Shepherd, it’s actually a great illustration of sovereign grace.  It’s humbling to be reminded that God compares us to a bunch of dumb animals.  We need God and we need Christ to save us.  Left to ourselves, we would be eternally lost, heading over the cliff to our own eternal deaths.  We need someone to lay hold of us and unfailingly bring us to salvation.

That brings us to think of passages which clearly tell us that Christ came into this world, not to make salvation a possibility, but a reality.  For instance, Matthew 1:21 sees the angel speaking to Joseph and saying, “She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”  He will save his people!  Or Luke 19:10, “For the Son of man came to seek and to save the lost.”  Or Galatians 1:3-4, “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father.”  The salvation which Christ accomplished is real, not merely potential. 

Let’s also look at a couple of passages that seem to contradict particular redemption.  For instance, John 4:42.  The Samaritans say there that the Lord Jesus “really is the Savior of the world.”  One of the most important principles for biblical interpretation is that we read a text in its context. After all, a text without context is a pretext.  Context is always crucial to help us understand a Bible passage.  Part of considering the context is looking at how words are used in other passages.  The word “world” is what we need to look at in John 4:42.  In the New Testament, that concept is often used to express a large group of people from diverse backgrounds, but not necessarily the entire physical world as we understand it.  Think of Luke 2:1.  It reads, “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered.”  It doesn’t actually mean the whole world, but the “entire Roman world.” So, coming back to John 4:42, we need to consider what the situation there was.  Jesus had been in Samaria.  His work there led to the conclusion that he was the Saviour, not only of Jews, but also of Samaritans.  Really, this was the Messiah for the whole world!   Jesus Christ saves people from all peoples, tribes, nations, and tongues.  Understood in this way, John 4:42 does not contradict particular redemption. 

First Timothy 2:6 is another passage which seems to contradict particular redemption, at least at first glance.  This passage speaks of Christ Jesus “who gave himself as a ransom for all men – the testimony given in its proper time.”  Again the key principle to keep in mind is context.  First of all, what was Paul just writing about?  He said that Timothy should ensure that prayers be made to God for everyone, especially for those in positions of authority.  He was just speaking about certain kinds of people.  So, when we read the word “all” in verse 6, wouldn’t it make sense to understand it as saying, “Christ Jesus gave himself as a ransom for all kinds of people”?  Not just for the poor, not just for the middle class, but for everybody including kings and those in authority!  A good reminder, by the way, to remember to pray for our rulers, especially to pray for their conversion when it’s apparent they aren’t Christians.  At any rate, the only way you can use 1 Timothy 2 to undermine the teaching of the Canons of Dort is to ignore the context. 

This doctrine of grace is not some mere abstraction where you can go home and just say, “Well, wasn’t that nice?”  Brothers and sisters, this teaching impacts our lives concretely in a number of ways.  I’m just going to mention one way this afternoon. 

Consider for a moment what God gives to his people.  He gives graciously everything needed for salvation.  He provides the Saviour, but he also provides the means we need to embrace the Saviour.  From first to last, salvation is entirely of grace.  We are his chosen people upon whom he’s set his love.  We have a Saviour who loved us personally even when he was suffering and dying on the cross.  If we’re believers our names were on his heart as he bled.  He had us personally at heart as he bore the wrath of God in our place.  What a loving Saviour!  Through him, we’ve been blessed beyond belief with riches and treasures we never for a moment deserved. 

Now think of that parable told by our Lord Jesus in Matthew 18.  You know the one, the one about the unmerciful servant.  Having been shown much grace and mercy by his master, he refused to show just a little grace to his fellow worker.  Think about what that parable says to us today as we’re looking at the doctrines of grace.  For instance, in our church.  How do we think about God’s people here in our congregation?  How do we treat them?  Are we gracious and charitable?  Do we always try to think the best of other people in the church?  And as we think about this, it’s good to be reminded to be only looking in our own hearts and lives.  Humility demands that we stay away from the self-righteous attitude which thinks, “I sure hope so-and-so is listening right now!”  If you’re thinking about anybody else at this moment, you are being prideful.  And pride is sin.  Christ died for God’s people.  As one of God’s people, you’ve been shown grace.   And your calling is to be God’s instrument of grace in the lives of others, both inside and outside the church.  Giving others the opposite of what deserve, your love and kindness shown in thoughts, words and actions.   Let them know us by our grace, as we know our God by his grace. 

Let’s now turn to article 9 of chapter 2 in the Canons.  Chapter 2 ends on this powerful and positive note.  Nothing can stop God’s sovereign plan for his people from being fulfilled.  Notice the positive thrust here.

Now article 9 of chapter 2 doesn’t speak with a lot of detail to the future.  But it does give us an essentially positive perspective on what God will do in the days ahead.  It begins with what God has done in the past.  God’s counsel, which means his plans for the elect, God’s counsel has been powerfully fulfilled in the past.  Satan has tried numerous ways to defeat God’s work.  But he fails continually.  Today there are more Christians in the world than ever before in history.  Through the preaching of the gospel in established churches and in mission posts everywhere, God has been gathering in his elect, applying the accomplished work of Christ to their lives. 

God has done this in the past and he continues to do so today.  When I was a missionary in Canada, the people we lived among were often impressed by Pentecostal preachers who claimed to do miracles.  So, I would often get asked:  do you believe in miracles?  My answer would always be, “Oh yeah, I’ve seen hundreds of miracles in Reformed churches.  Every single person who believes the gospel message is a miracle.   I am a walking and living miracle.   God taking a heart of stone and turning it into a heart of flesh is an amazing miracle!”  In Chapter 3-4 of the Canons, we confess that this miracle of regeneration is not inferior in power to creation or to the raising of the dead.  It’s a miracle!  A supernatural working of God.  God fulfilling his counsel through the preaching of the Word and the power of His Spirit is the most awe-inspiring miracle in the world! 

God does it today and his Word assures us that he’ll continue to do so in the future.  The Synod of Dort paraphrased Matthew 16:18 in article 9.   In that passage, our Lord Jesus clearly says that the gates of Hades will not overcome the church.  Satan will try and this may mean persecution for us at some point (only God knows), but ultimately our perspective on the future is positive.  Christ has the victory and his church shares in that already in a large measure.  We are not on the losing end of history.

That means there will always be a church of believers.  When the Canons make that statement, they’re simply repeating what we already confess in article 27 of the Belgic Confession.  Let’s look at that for a moment.  The second paragraph begins with the statement, “This church has existed from the beginning of the world and will be to the end, for Christ is an eternal King who cannot be without subjects.”  This is a pregnant phrase, and I don’t have time to draw out everything from it here this afternoon.  Just note the way the Belgic Confession and the Canons of Dort develop this biblical argument.  Listen carefully:  A king, by definition, has subjects.  Luke 1:33, Psalm 89:36 and other passages establish that Christ is an eternal king.  So, the conclusion from those two premises is:  Christ will always have subjects.  Let me repeat that.  There will always be a church of Jesus Christ on earth.   There is a fundamentally positive way of looking at the future here.  And it’s all because of God’s grace in the death of Christ.  Christ really died for some people and he will faithfully carry through with each one of them present and future.  There is a wedding feast, a victory party to look forward to! 

Now I might leave you hanging if I said “Amen” at this point.  This fact of a fundamentally positive outlook to the future does affect the way we live today.  The Canons lay that out with the last sentence of Article 9:  “This Church shall steadfastly love and faithfully serve Him as her Saviour (who as a bridegroom for his bride laid down his life for her on the cross) and celebrate his praises here and through all eternity.”  There’s a call to worship, a call, in general to love and serve the Lord who graciously gave himself for us. 

But then the question comes:  what does that look like?  Let me make one suggestion.  We steadfastly love and faithfully serve the Saviour who gave himself for us through loving our neighbours, through our involvement in our community.  When we talk about community here, this is not our church community.  I mean your community as the place where God has set you -- where you live, where you work, where you study.  Do you self-consciously pray for and work towards having relationships where you can share God’s grace?  Do you get involved when opportunities arise for you to serve in the broader community?  Or what about getting involved with politics?   Can’t we be doing more in politics as a church family?  Think about it.  The Lord can and will use us in such things to be a positive influence in our society. 

Some may object to this perspective.  Some might say this world is a sinking ship.  And you don’t polish brass on a sinking ship.  But loved ones, Christ’s work and the fundamentally positive perspective that comes from that, that doesn’t allow us to take that kind of attitude.  Is the world a sinking ship?  Well, we do know that this world is destined for cleansing by fire.  Second Peter 3 tells us that, but that seems to be a reference to the physical world.  There are plenty of other Scripture passages which motivate us to social, political and relational involvement in our communities.  Think of Jeremiah 29:7 where God tells his people in exile to “seek the welfare of the city.”  Just as they sought the welfare of Jerusalem, they were to seek the welfare of Babylon.  Us too:  “Seek the welfare of the city.”  We have a calling to work.  And we also know that God is gathering, defending and preserving his church.  We know that God’s victory over Satan is there – the devil cannot and he will not prevail.  We pray “Your Kingdom Come,” and we see it coming in larger and larger measures.  God’s Word never compels us to view the world as a lost cause, but rather as the realm in which God is more and more showing his grace and power in Christ as he gathers in the elect.  And he does that through his people.   Let him also do it through us! 

Brothers and sisters, the doctrines of grace are about far more than just what God does with our souls!  These are life-changing and society-impacting truths.  The doctrines of grace produce a unique and powerful worldview which, when lived consistently, has the potential to turn the world upside down for God.  We don’t often reflect on these doctrines, but perhaps that’s part of the reason why our impact is limited.  God is a God of grace and power.  He is our God.  Let’s reflect on what he would do through us for his glory, both inside and outside our church.  Let’s reflect on that and then also get into action, relying on his grace and strength for everything every day.  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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