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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
Title:The Call of the Gospel
Text:CD 3/4 Articles 7-10 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Well Meant Gospel Offer

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Hymn 3:1,2

Psalm 87

Hymn 47:2

Hymn 1

Psalm 146

Scripture readings: Isaiah 55, Matthew 13:1-23

Catechism lesson:  Canons of Dort 3/4.7-10 (to be read during the sermon, not before)

* 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,

Some time ago, I came across a true story of an older Christian man.  Now we don’t do this in our circles, but this older man was asked to give his testimony in front of an audience.  The man told about how God had searched for and found him, how God had loved him, how God had saved him through Christ.  He gave a great witness to the work of God in his salvation.  He pointed his listeners entirely to God.  Afterwards, somebody came up to him and criticized him for what he’d said.  He said, “I appreciated all you said about what God did for you.  But you didn’t mention anything about your part in it.  Salvation is really part us and part God.  You should have mentioned something about your part.”  “Oh yes,” the older man replied, “I apologize for that.  I really should have said something about my part.  My part was running away and his part was running after me until he caught me.” 

That story tells us much about the true nature of the gospel.  On our own, apart from God’s work in our lives, we all run away.  But God chases us, grabs hold of us, gives us the righteousness of Christ and takes us for his own sons.  This is the gospel of grace taught us in the Scriptures and summarized by the Church in the Canons of Dort.   

This afternoon we’ll continue with our series of sermons on the Canons.  In the articles we’re looking at today, we’re learning about the call of the gospel:  who is called, how are they called, and what happens when they’re called and why. 

Let’s first have a look at Article 7 [read]

This article refers to two dispensations.  Don’t let this word “dispensation” confuse you.  In the original Latin text of the Canons, it simply said “Old Testament” and “New Testament.”  There are many similarities between the Old Testament time and the New Testament time, but there are also important differences.  One of the differences between the Old Testament era and the New Testament era is in the number of people to whom God revealed the mystery of his will.

“The mystery of his will” – that’s a phrase that the Canons pull right out of Ephesians 1:9.  The mystery of God’s will is simply that God would choose some to salvation before the creation of the world, out of his good pleasure.  In the Old Testament, that mystery was revealed only to a few, particularly to the people of Israel, though there were a few others as well.  In the development of redemptive history, because of God’s promises to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and others, God made a distinction between Israel and the other nations. 

However, in the New Testament era a change has taken place.  God’s purposes to bring a Saviour into the world were fulfilled – Christ carried out his earthly ministry.  Now redemptive history has moved forward into another phase where God is being glorified by the gospel going out to every nation on earth.  A larger number of people are now recipients of the gospel message.  And this is truer today than ever before in history.  Of course, sometimes the gospel message that goes out is impure and superficial, but yet the fact stands out that never before in history have more living people heard the gospel than today.  Despite that, there are still many who have not heard.  In India alone, there are hundreds of millions of people who haven’t been reached with the gospel in a meaningful way.  There are tens of millions of others in countries like Sudan and China.  Those are all people who haven’t heard.

There is a certain direction to the distribution of the gospel.  Article 7 asks why this is so.  Before we look at the answer, let’s briefly consider the background to the question.  For that, we have to go back to Chapter 1, and look at the Rejection of Errors #9.  Let’s take a look at that and see what the Arminians believed on this point. [read, including refutation]

When we go back to article 7, we find the Canons of Dort explicitly rejects two reasons why the gospel goes to some peoples and not to others.  The first is that idea that one people is of a better moral quality than another.  The first three chapters of Romans make it clear that no person, Jew or Gentile, has a better position before God because of his or her ethnicity.  Romans 2:11 says it bluntly, “For God does not show favoritism.” 

The second reason that’s rejected has to do with the light of nature.  The Arminians said some peoples used the light of nature, that innate knowledge of God, in a better way.  Most likely they were thinking of the Greeks and Romans among whom the gospel was first preached.  During the 16th and 17th centuries, some regarded pagan Greek and Roman philosophers as using the light of nature in such a way that they were almost proto-Christians, or perhaps at least paving the way for the Christian faith.  But the reality from Scripture (think again of Romans 1) is that unregenerate man doesn’t use the light of nature properly.   

So, having rejected those two ideas, we confess the gospel message gets distributed the way it does because of “the sovereign good pleasure and undeserved love of God.”  No one deserves it.  Only God knows why sending the gospel to the Dutch first and then the Papuans later was the best plan.  This is one of those secret things spoken of in Deuteronomy 29, a secret thing that belongs to God.  It’s a thing in which we ought not to be prying. 

Instead of being nosy, we should simply be humble and thankful that God sent the gospel to us.  We didn’t deserve it.  We have no reason for pride.  God didn’t decide to send the gospel to us or our forefathers because we’re so worthy.  He did it out of his good pleasure, for his glory.  And we should simply acknowledge that and praise God for it.  And believing that God knows best, we can also adore and honour him for what he has decided for others.  That’s not to say that we become fatalistic and say, “Well, God has decided that hundreds of millions of people in India haven’t heard the gospel.  So, I guess we can leave it at that.”  No, Scripture clearly tells us that God’s will is for the gospel to go to every tribe, tongue, people and nation.  Think only of the Great Commission at the end of Matthew 28.   You see there is a difference here between God’s decree (decretive will) and God’s command (preceptive will).  God’s decree is that, till now, those hundreds of millions of people have not heard.  But it is not necessarily God’s secret decree that in 10 or 15 years those millions of people still haven’t heard.   We don’t know!  That’s why God’s decretive will is sometimes called his secret will.  Only God knows.  Besides, we have God’s command, his preceptive will clearly laid out for us in Scripture.  No, God still wants the gospel call to reach those millions of people.

Let’s now move on and read the next article, article 8.  [read]

This article introduces the notion of the call of the gospel.  Here again we need some background to understand why this is important.  The Arminians said that if the doctrines of grace are true, then God is a cruel teaser.  Proclaiming the gospel to the reprobate is like telling a blind man to see or a lame man to walk and when he doesn’t, you hold him responsible for it.  So, they said, either it is a sincere call of the gospel which depends on the free will of man, or it depends on the sovereignty of God and isn’t really a sincere offer.  That’s the dilemma the Arminians laid out. 

Article 8 responds to this dilemma by simply summarizing what the Bible says.  The Bible teaches election and all the other doctrines of grace.  But the Bible also teaches that God earnestly and seriously calls all those who hear the gospel.  This can be seen in several places in the Bible, but let’s just look briefly at the passage we read from Isaiah 55.  This passage was originally addressed to the people of God.  So, the earnest call of good news in the first two verses has to be understood in that context.  God earnestly and seriously calls his covenant people.  But there’s more because in verses 4 and 5, we also find that other nations are in view.  The good news of water, wine and milk – the good news of life actually – is earnestly and sincerely meant for all nations and peoples. 

God’s will, and by that we mean his commanding, preceptive will, is that all those who are called should come to him.  In other words, people might disobey, but they’re not allowed to.  God seriously calls and they’re supposed to come.  And he not only calls, he also gives a promise.  The promise is that those who repent and believe will find rest for their souls and eternal life.  That promise can, of course, be found in Matthew 11:28,29.

This teaching is simple enough.  But it isn’t so simple to reconcile it with the doctrines of grace.  The well-meant gospel offer is there in Scripture and so are the doctrines of grace, doctrines like election.  And speaking logically, there doesn’t seem to be a way to make them fit.  Is this a problem?  Only if we can’t live with a God who is bigger and more mysterious than we can imagine.  There are many things about God we will never understand in this life, and perhaps we won’t even understand them in the age to come.  God is God.  He is the Creator, we are the creatures.  He is the Father and we are his children.  We have to simply accept in faith that there are some things God has revealed that we simply can’t wrap our puny created brains around.  We need to remind ourselves of what it says in Isaiah 55:8, “‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the LORD.”       

There is mystery in connection with the doctrines of grace.  But some things are also very clear – and they’re clear because they’re clear in Scripture.  We have an example of that with article 9.  Let’s now read that.  [read]

So, we’re dealing here with the question of why some who are called don’t come.  The Synod begins with the negatives first of all, responding to the accusations of the Arminians about the Reformed teaching.  The Synod said that it was not the fault of the gospel.  The message of the gospel is clear and unconfusing.  It’s not a complex message:  repent and believe in Jesus Christ so that the wrath of God is turned away from you.  Further, the Synod said there was no problem with the Christ offered by the gospel.  It’s not like Christ’s redemptive work is lacking in some respect.  And finally, you also cannot blame God – he is the one who calls through the gospel and he even gives all sorts of gifts to the unregenerate.  God is good and kind even to those who reject him.  So, forget about blaming him.

So, where does the blame lie?  It lies entirely with human beings.  When somebody does not heed the gospel call, it is that person’s fault entirely, for 100%.  To support this assertion, the Canons refer to the parable our Lord Jesus told in Matthew 13. 

Notice how the seed is the same in each situation in the parable.  And the seed in the parable represents the preaching of the gospel of the kingdom of God.  That’s why verse 9 says, “He who has ears, let him hear.”  The question this parable is putting to its recipients then and now is:  what do you do with the gospel when you hear it?   Using the image of the parable:  what kind of soil are you?

There are four different kinds according to our Lord Jesus.  The first is the soil of the path.  It represents those who hear the word and simply don’t care.  The seed doesn’t even penetrate.  The second is the soil of the rocky places.  This stands for those who hear the gospel, receive it for a while and then fall away because of trouble or persecution.  The third is the soil of the thorny places.  This one hears the word, but because of worldliness and worries, it bears no fruit.  Now in each of these instances, the seed is the same.  The sower is the same.  It’s the soils that are different.  The soils are 100% responsible for what kind of fruit they bring forth or whether they bring any fruit at all.  And so our Lord Jesus is asking:  what kind of soil are you?  What do you do with the call of the gospel? 

The same parable makes it clear that there are some who do receive the seed.  They hear the call of the gospel, they understand and they come, they’re converted to Christ.  The reason why is discussed in the last article we’re looking at, article 10.  Let’s now read that one…  [read]

The reason why connects with the man we heard about at the beginning of the sermon.  All we bring to the salvation equation is our sin and rebellion.  All we contribute to our salvation is the sin which made it necessary.  God is the one who works to save.  Notice in this article how often God is the subject of the sentences:  “He (God) has chosen his own in Chirst…”  “He gives them faith and repentance…”  “He delivers them…”  And so on.  The work of salvation is of God from first to last.

This has been disputed in the history of the church.  One of the earliest to question it was a fourth-century British monk named Pelagius.  Pelagius came to Rome and was distressed by the teaching going on there in the church.  It was the teaching of Augustine – it was the teaching of the doctrines of grace.  Pelagius taught that man is born good and with a free will unaffected by sin.  Man can exercise his good free will and make his way back to God on his own.

Eventually, a form of Pelagius’ teaching won the day in the medieval church.  Finally, one day another monk came to Rome and was distressed by what he saw and heard.  Through his trip to Rome and through a number of other means, not least of which was the Word of God itself, Martin Luther became convinced of God’s sovereign grace in our salvation.  Calvin and other Reformers followed suit till finally God had powerfully restored the teaching of the doctrines of grace in his church. 

Then eventually, James Arminius and his followers came along and revived something of what the Canons call “the proud heresy of Pelagius.”  The Arminians effectively denied that the work of salvation is of God from first to last.   The person who believes has a part to play.  They argued that believers are a head above others because they exercised their free will whereas others didn’t.  A consistent Arminian could be a proud person.  After all, he did his part for his salvation.  He deserves some of the credit.  He could say, “I’m a big part of where I am today.  I am so proud of myself.”  Thankfully, in reality there are very few consistent Arminians.  It’s been said that every Arminian is a Calvinist when he gets down on this knees – because to pray like a Arminian would just sound foolish.     

Our salvation is to be entirely credited to God.  We confess that God calls us effectually.  Now the call does go out to both the elect and the reprobate.  There is a universal aspect to it.  But with one specific group of recipients, the elect, there is a different result.  We say that God irresistibly and effectually calls those whom he chose before the creation of the world in Christ.  Apart from the grace of the Spirit, our instinct is to run away and resist.  But God goes after us and brings us back.  In fact, John 6:44 gives us a powerful image.  Our Lord Jesus says there, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him…”  And, actually, the Greek word there for “draws” could also be translated as “drags.”  As in man is dead and God picks him up and pulls him back to life.  Through the gospel God effectually calls the elect to the fullness of life in Christ.   

He does all this so that he would be more and more praised by us.  Look at the way article 10 ends by tying together the thoughts of several Scripture passages which clearly speak of the purpose of God’s saving us.  It was so that we would never boast of ourselves, but always and forever of the Lord.

Brothers and sisters, what does this teaching do to your heart?  Does it stir up in you praises for the sovereign God of grace?  When you hear the glorious good news that your receiving the gospel call, your believing the gospel call, all of that is God’s work – don’t you want to praise him in a powerful way?  And looking back to article 6, we’re reminded that it is “by the power of the Holy Spirit” that God does all these things.  So, it’s particularly appropriate that we again sing a song of praise to him.  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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