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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
Title:What the Bible teaches about freedom and personal responsibility
Text:CD 3/4 Article 16 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Our Salvation

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Hymn 80

Psalm 36

Psalm 101

Hymn 1

Hymn 69

Scripture readings: Jeremiah 16, 1 Corinthians 6

Catechism lesson: Canons of Dort 3/4.16

* 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,

Out there you can find different illustrations of how salvation happens.  One illustration I recently came across suggested we should think of the lost sinner as a captive in a terrorist camp.  The sinner is alive, but bound, gagged, blindfolded, and drugged.  The drugs make the captive content to be in that situation.  In salvation, God breaks into the terrorist camp and finds where the sinner is being held captive.  He injects a serum that counteracts the effects of the terrorist drugs.  He unties the gag and takes off the blindfold and restraints.  God then shines a light around the room and, as the fog begins to clear from the captive’s mind, God encourages the captive to see the truth of the situation, and trust him and follow him out of captivity.  God presents the offer for rescue, but it’s up to the captive to decide whether he or she will trust and follow.  They are able to decide and they must decide.  They can choose to follow or not follow, be rescued or not be rescued. 

I found that illustration in a book entitled, Why I Am Not A Calvinist.   It’s written by two Arminian theologians, Jerry Walls and Joseph Dongell.  It’s an Arminian illustration of how salvation happens. 

Let’s go back to the illustration and see how we could reframe it in a biblical way.  The lost sinner is not merely a captive in the terrorist camp, but lays there dead.  In salvation, God breaks into the terrorist camp and finds the limp, dead body of the sinner.  He throws that body over his shoulder and gets the person out.  He then applies a defibrillator to the dead person’s heart and shocks it back to life.  Then he says, “From now on, trust me and follow me.”  Alive and with a heart in healthy shape, that person is both able and willing to do so. 

Reframing the illustration that way helps us understand the real essence of the difference between Arminian theology and biblical, Reformed theology.  One still sees life in the unregenerated sinner.  Even if that life still needs some help from God (the serum injection), there is still life there and therefore, that person is able to make a choice about whether to follow God out of the terrorist camp or not.  But in the biblical view of things, the unregenerated person is dead in sins and trespasses.  We take Ephesians 2:1 seriously.  When it says “dead,” it means dead.  We can’t do anything for our own rescue.  We need God to intervene.  We need him to bring us out of our captivity and give us life again.              

This afternoon we want to learn more about our human condition and why we rely on God’s invincible grace for our salvation.  With the help of article 16 of chapter 3-4 of the Canons of Dort, we’re going to learn what the Bible teaches us about freedom and personal responsibility.  So we’ll consider humanity:

  1. Before the fall
  2. After the fall
  3. After regeneration
  4. After glorification

At the beginning of the Bible, in the book of Genesis, we read of how God created the first human beings.  He created Adam from the dust of the earth and then Eve from a rib of Adam.  For our purposes this afternoon, we should note that God created them good and upright.  They were also given wills that were free.  That means that they were able to freely make choices.  For example, say on a Monday, Adam ate an orange.  That was his choice.  God did not compel or force him to do that. If on Tuesday he ate a mango instead of another orange, that too was his free choice.  There was no compulsion on him.  That extended to moral choices as well.  Adam and Eve were able to decide to follow what God said.  They were able not to sin.  As a result, they would be morally responsible for whatever choices they made.  In Genesis 2:16-17, God commanded Adam and Eve not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  If they would eat of it, there would be consequences, there would be death.  They would be responsible for their choice.

Now I know some people right away think of the fact that God is sovereign.  Some people remember what we confess about God’s providence, that he’s sovereignly control of absolutely everything.  I believe that too, with all my heart.  It’s biblical.  However, Scripture also speaks of personal human responsibility flowing from free uncompelled human choices.  Both things are taught in Scripture.  How do you fit them together?  I have no idea.  I don’t know, because the Bible doesn’t tell us.  God knows how they fit together and he has taught both divine sovereignty and human responsibility in his Word.  It’s our calling to just accept both truths together.  The Bible has mysteries we can’t understand and this is one of them.  We just have to trust God that there is a way to make sense of this.  Maybe someday we will understand -- or maybe we won’t.  There too he hasn’t told us.   We just have to follow what the Bible says and trust our Father.  So, following the Scriptures, we say God was sovereign over the Garden of Eden, but Adam and Eve were also responsible creatures.          

So before the fall into sin, Adam and Eve were upright and had a free will.  They could freely choose to do what God said.  They were able not to sin.  And if they did choose to sin, because they did it freely, they alone would be held responsible for it.  Adam and Eve would face death if they used their free will to sin.

Then the fall into sin happened in Genesis 3.  Satan came to Adam and Eve and of their own free will, they listened to his lies and disobeyed God.  They ate the forbidden fruit.  That had tragic consequences for the human condition.  As we confess in article 16, this brought on depravity and spiritual death.  Depravity means that our hearts are dark and inclined to rebel against God.  Not only are they inclined to do that, they regularly do.  And spiritual death means our hearts are dead towards God, hard like a rock and unable to make any moves towards improving our spiritual standing with God. 

And you see the consequences of that throughout subsequent history.  You can see it in what we read from Jeremiah 16.  God’s people were in rebellion against him.  They had turned to false gods.  They worshipped idols and did many other wicked things.  God had warned his people that if they did this there would be consequences.  He would take notice and he would act.  At the beginning of Jeremiah 16, he says again that famine, sword, and death are coming.  Then notice verse 10.  The people are going to ask, “Why has the LORD pronounced all this great evil against us?  What is our iniquity?  What is the sin that we have committed against the LORD our God?”  Then Jeremiah was to lay out the charges of idolatry and disobedience to God’s law.  Then you get verse 12, “…and because you have done worse than your fathers, for behold, every one of you follows his stubborn, evil will, refusing to listen to me.”  That’s the human condition after the fall.

The situation is grim.  It’s elsewhere in Jeremiah too.  In Jeremiah 13:23 the Holy Spirit says, “Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots?  Then also you can do good who are accustomed to do evil.”  Black people are born black and stay black.  Leopards don’t lose their spots.  They are what they are.  So also the unregenerated who are used to rebellion aren’t going to suddenly stop and start pleasing God.

What we see there is what the Canons say in article 16:  rebellion and the resistance of the flesh fully dominating.  The unregenerated are dead in sin and enslaved by sin.  Human freedom is now limited by human depravity.  What I mean is that non-Christians in their sin still have a free will, but they are only free to make choices which are in accordance with their nature.  They have a sinful human nature, and they can only make choices which line up with that.  They are not able not to sin.  There are two consequences from that. 

The first consequence is that we realize they are still human beings.  Article 16 says, “Man through his fall did not cease to be man, endowed with intellect and will; and sin, which has pervaded the entire human race, did not deprive man of his human nature, but brought upon him depravity and spiritual death.”  So fallen humanity is still human and still has a free will.  By that I mean, non-Christians are still not compelled from outside of themselves to make decisions about all kinds of things.  For example, no one forces them to brush their teeth or not brush their teeth.  But because of the fall into sin, all those uncompelled decisions are infected with sin from the inside and none of them are going to be for any spiritual good.  Unbelievers have a free will (not compelled from outside), but it’s enslaved to sin.  It’s a free will that’s only free to do what fits with the sinful nature inside.

The second consequence is that there is still personal responsibility for sinful choices and actions.  In Jeremiah 16, God held his people responsible for their stubborn evil wills and the choices they made in accordance with those wills.  So today too, people are held responsible by God for the evil they harbour in their sinful hearts.  No one receives unjust punishment from the holy God.  As Genesis 18:25 says, the Judge of all the earth will always do right and therefore he will always hold sinful human beings responsible for their sin.

Then there’s regeneration.  Let’s remind ourselves of what that involves with an illustration.  Imagine a port city.  You probably know how ports can be, especially in history.  In history, ports are usually associated with sailors and sailors have historically not exactly been the most moral and upstanding citizens, even from a worldly perspective.  This port city is no different.  The city has open prostitution.  There’s widespread drunkenness.  It’s not hard to find someone who will rob you or swindle you.  Adultery is rampant – marriage vows mean little to the people of this city.  Then there’s the homosexuality.  It’s acceptable, public behaviour.  This port city is a cesspool, an open sewer of immorality.  Okay, you have that image fixed in your mind.  Now imagine further a group of people firmly entrenched in that immoral world.  Let’s just say there are 30 of them.  Some of them are living the homosexual life, others are getting drunk every day, some are prostitutes, others are adulterers.  Some are con men, tricking people out of their money.  Some prowl around at night and break into houses to steal.  At a certain point, you observe this group made up of all these sinners.

Now at another point five years later, you observe them again, and something incredible has happened to all of them.  Those who were engaged in homosexual behaviour have given it up.  Those who were drunkards are now sober.  Those who were prostitutes are no more.  The former adulterers are now faithful to their spouses.  The ex-con men and thieves are now working for an honest living.  And with all these people, they are in a community of disciples of Jesus Christ.  Their lives have been changed, transformed.  What happened?  Regeneration. 

That’s the story of what happened in Corinth in the days of the apostle Paul.  We read about it in 1 Corinthians 6.  Corinth was that open sewer port city.  The gospel came there sometime around the early 50s and, for some people, it transformed their lives.  God sent his Holy Spirit and people who had been prostitutes, thieves, drunkards, con-men, homosexuals, and other wicked things – their lives were radically changed.  It happened because the Holy Spirit brought them to spiritual life – regenerated them -- and delivered them from their bondage to sin.  Paul says in 1 Corinthians 6:11, “such were some of you.  But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”  They were transformed and saved by God’s sovereign grace.  They experienced regeneration.  Their dead heart was brought to life, then came the gift of faith, and salvation in Jesus Christ.  The result is what we confess in article 16 of the Canons, “…where formerly the rebellion and resistance of the flesh fully dominated, now a prompt and sincere obedience of the Spirit begins to prevail, in which the true, spiritual renewal and freedom of our will consists.”       

The Holy Spirit doesn’t take away our wills, but revives them.  In the words of the Canons, “he makes the will spiritually alive, heals it, corrects it, pleasantly and at the same time powerfully bends it.”  That’s a great image.  He bends it.  He bends our wills back into their original God-designed shape, so that we are able to follow God’s will after regeneration.

No, we don’t follow God’s will perfectly as we still live on this earth.  We sang from Psalm 36 a few minutes ago.  What always strikes me about Psalm 36 is its honesty.  “Deep in my heart I know the voice that lures the wicked to his choice of sin and self-delusion.”  That’s honesty on the part of a believer.  Even after regeneration, we still know that voice in the heart.  We still hear that voice calling us back to sin and the self-delusion of thinking that sin is okay, or even that sin is the better choice for us.  I know that voice all too well, and don’t you too?  So even in our regenerated condition, we still have something of sin left in us and we have to be honest and humble about that. 

Nevertheless, regenerated people are now able to sin or not sin.  It is not a 100% given that Christians will always make sinful choices.  Through the power of the Holy Spirit, you can choose not to sin.  Because of the Spirit, your will is alive to God.  If you think of QA 114 of the Catechism:  in this life we only have a small beginning of obedience to God’s will.  True.  And as we confess in chapter 5 of the Canons in article 2, “defects cling to even the best works of the saints.”  And yet this is also true from the Catechism:  “Nevertheless, with earnest purpose [we] do begin to live not only according to some but to all the commandments of God.”  We do and therefore we can.  There’s no place for being fatalistic about our growth in holiness and obedience.  There’s no place for thinking, “Well, I’m just a sinner, so I’ll just keep doing what I’m doing.  I can’t help it.  Sinners sin and I’m a sinner and so that’s just the way it’ll always be.”  No, if you’re regenerated, if you have been made alive by the Holy Spirit, you are able to sin or not sin.  You do have a choice.  You have a real choice.   

If that weren’t true, what we read in the rest of 1 Corinthians 6 wouldn’t make any sense.  After pointing out how they had been regenerated and redeemed from their past life, the Holy Spirit tells these Corinthians to now flee from sexual immorality.  Are they able to do that or not?  If they have the Holy Spirit, they can and they should.  The Holy Spirit tells them to glorify God with their bodies.  Are they able to do that or not?  If they have the Holy Spirit, if they have been regenerated by him, they can and they should.  Loved ones, the same is true for us.  It’s true for us with regard to sexual immorality.  The Holy Spirit tells us too to flee sexual immorality.  For some of us, perhaps that means “Stop looking at pornography.”  Are you able to do that or not?  Don’t be fatalistic about it.  If you have been regenerated by the Holy Spirit and brought to true faith in Christ, you can hate that sin and flee from it.  And you should.  You’re personally responsible to do that.  The God who has brought your will to life and made it truly free expects you to do that.  You see, in Christ, God has not only saved you from your sins, he has also saved you to holiness.  For that reason, he gives you his Holy Spirit to empower your will.  He makes you alive and able to begin obeying God. 

Last of all, we want to briefly consider humanity in its glorified state.  All believers have the promise of glorification.  Some day we will be perfected and made to be like Christ our Saviour.  After we die, or when Christ returns, we will be righteous in ourselves and completely sinless.  First John 3:2 says, “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.”  We shall be like him.  That means we will not only be sinless, we will actually be incapable of ever sinning again.  Here’s something that should blow your mind:  in our glorified condition, we will actually be better off than Adam and Eve were before the fall into sin.  Remember:  as created upright, Adam and Eve were able not to sin.  But they did have a free will.  They could choose to sin, they did, and they paid the price.  Through Christ, we are not just brought back to paradise restored.  We’re not just made like Adam and Eve were before the fall into sin.  No, it’s even better.  We’re made like the Second Adam, incapable of ever sinning.  When we’re glorified, we will not be able to sin.  Ever.  What we gain in Christ the Second Adam is far greater than what we lost in the first Adam.  That’s how awesome our salvation is. 

That’s a great hope we have.  It’s a great encouragement to think about what we have to look forward to.  But it also has a bearing on here and now.  I mentioned 1 John 3:2 a moment ago.  But then there’s also 1 John 3:3, “And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.”  The hope of future glory is meant to power present purity.  Let me repeat that:  the hope of future glory is meant to power present purity.  We’re already now to start living in holiness, anticipating what we will have later in fullness with our Saviour.  It says, “purifies himself,” which means that it’s something you’re responsible to do.  Again, because the Holy Spirit has made your will alive, this is something you can and should do.  Loved ones, purify yourself as your Saviour is pure – looking forward to the future glory. 

So to review what we learned this afternoon:  before the fall, humanity was good and able not to sin.  After the fall, humanity became depraved and not able not to sin.  After regeneration, by the power of the Spirit we are again able to sin or not to sin.  After glorification, we will be like Christ and not able to sin ever.  What this tells us is that true freedom can only be given to us as a gift of God.  We have the fullest and truest spiritual freedom only when the Holy Spirit comes with regeneration.  When we have that kind of freedom, we’re able and ready to serve our God and glorify his name both with our lips and our lives.  AMEN. 


O God of grace,

Thank you for your Holy Spirit and what he has done in our hearts.  Thank you for the gift of regeneration and the true freedom that comes with it.  We praise your Name for bringing us life and the ability to believe in you and serve you.  We pray that your Spirit would continue working in each of our hearts, so that we increasingly hate all sin and flee from it.  Please bring us all to the state of glory where we will be finally like our Saviour, perfect and sinless.


* 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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