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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
Title:God uses means to carry out his work of grace in our lives
Text:CD 3/4 Article 17 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Administering God's Blessing

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Hymn 66

Psalm 123

Psalm 33:1-2

Hymn 1

Psalm 122

Scripture reading:  Acts 8

Catechism lesson: Canons of Dort 3/4.17

* 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,

If you happen to take a trip into the mountains, you can’t help but stand in awe of God and his creative handiwork.  You see those high rocky cliffs and peaks reaching up into the sky.  You’ll be stunned at the majesty all around.  What a creation!  And then you also can’t help but say, “What a Creator!” 

Now it’s interesting that the Canons of Dort mention creation a number of times.  Parallels are drawn between the creation of the physical natural world and the spiritual recreation in believers.  Article 12 of Chapter 3-4 tells us that “regeneration is not inferior in power to creation.”  Article 15 speaks about God calling into existence the things that do not exist – an allusion to creation.  And now we have article 17 which also makes the connection.  And it makes sense.

At the beginning of the universe, God spoke and things came into being.  At the first, then, God chose to use a means or a way to create.  The means or way that he chose was his Word, his command.  He said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.  And so on.  We believe that God not only created everything at the beginning, he also continues to sustain and uphold everything.  Here too, he uses means or ways to carry out his will.  He chooses to use means to create new life and to sustain the life that is already there.   Here we can think of things like the relationship between a husband and a wife.  God has ordained that as the means by which new human life should be created.  As for the sustenance of life, we can think of means like the light of the sun and the rain that falls from the sky.  God uses different ways and means to carry out his will in the physical realm.  

Well, it’s the same with spiritual life.  Here too, God uses means or ways to carry out his work of grace in the lives of those he has chosen to eternal life.  As we consider that teaching, we’ll answer three questions:

  1. What are those means?
  2. How does God use them?
  3. What are we to do with these means?

Article 15 works with this idea of there being two different aspects to creation.  There is the initial creation at the beginning, but then there is also the continuing maintenance or preservation of that creation.  Again, something that’s true in the physical realm, but it’s also true when we consider the new life in Christ. 

We read this in article 15, “So also the aforementioned supernatural working of God whereby he regenerates us, in no way excludes or cancels the use of the gospel, which the most wise God has ordained to be the seed of regeneration and the food of the soul.”  Let me translate that for you.  God’s work of grace is making people into new creations in Christ.  He does that through the use of the gospel, through the good news of salvation.  The gospel has been ordained by God to be two things.  First, the seed of regeneration – that’s an allusion to 1 Peter.  Second, the food of the soul to sustain and nourish it. 

So, God’s means to regenerate people, to make them born again, is through the gospel.  God’s means to give people a heart of flesh instead of a heart of stone is the gospel.  Elsewhere in the Canons we confess that it is the preaching of the gospel.  Now when we think about the preaching of the gospel, we usually associate it with what goes on in a worship service.  And it’s true:  for most of us, it is probably partly or even mostly through the weekly worship that we were initially regenerated.  God has worked through the preaching of the Word from the pulpit.  But we cannot strictly restrict it to that.  To do so would not only go against what we read in Scripture, but also what we see in our experiences. 

In Scripture, we have Acts 8.  At the beginning of the chapter there was a time of persecution following the martyrdom of Stephen.  And then we read in verse 4 that those who had been scattered were preaching the Word wherever they went.  They didn’t look for churches with pulpits, they simply spread the good news everywhere.  And God used their witness.  Then we have Philip the Evangelist.  He wasn’t an apostle, though he had been appointed as one of the seven.  He had a preaching ministry as well and it didn’t involve worship services.  He preached in Samaria to crowds and he witnessed privately to people like the Ethiopian eunuch as well.  And God used his words to create new life.  So, if we just look at this one chapter, we cannot insist that God only uses the preaching of the gospel by a minister in a worship service.  He certainly does that, but not only there.  

We see that in our experiences as well.  Take our missionaries for instance.  Sometimes unbelievers will come to a worship service on a mission field and be converted under the preaching of the Word.  But more often than not, missionaries see people converted as they talk in their homes or as they talk as they’re giving somebody a ride somewhere or perhaps at a Bible Study.  This is especially true in the initial stages of a mission work when there may not be any official worship services.  That teaches us to be careful about insisting that new life is only created under the official preaching of a minister in a worship service.  In real life it doesn’t always happen that way.  In Scripture it doesn’t happen that way.  It is the Word of the gospel that God uses and that Word can come to us in a variety of ways.

The point is:  new life is created through the Word, through the gospel.  This is the seed of regeneration that gets planted in the elect.  But the gospel is also the food of the soul.  When God has created a new life, when a new life springs up from the seed that has been planted, that new life needs to be fed and sustained.  That happens through the Word and particularly through the Word as it is preached.  When the whole counsel of God is being proclaimed and taught, God works with his Holy Spirit to bring believers to greater levels of maturity.  This is why the apostles and those who followed them admonished the believers to remain under the administration of the Word. 

But there was also the administration of the sacraments.  The sacraments are also a means of grace for believers.  They are a way in which God graciously sustains our spiritual life.  The Lord’s Supper is a visible and tangible preaching of the gospel.  Through the Lord’s Supper, God confirms that his Word is true and real.  He accommodates himself to our weakness and so graciously gives us strength.  And baptism works in a similar way.  In Acts 8, believers in Samaria and the Ethiopian eunuch, they all received the sign and seal of baptism.  Throughout their lives they would be able to look back and be reminded of God’s promise and his faithfulness – his grace.  For us too, most of us were baptized as infants.  We may not remember, but we have the testimony of our parents and others that it really happened.  And whenever we watch another infant being baptized in the congregation, in a way we relive our own baptism.  We are again reminded through this visible preaching of the gospel that God is my God.  He graciously made promises to me that he will never forsake.  He set his name upon me.     

So the first two means of grace here in article 15 are the Word and sacraments.  The final one is discipline.  How is discipline a means of grace?  We usually associate discipline with something negative.  But in the Bible, discipline is meant to be a positive tool to lead someone to repentance.  In Matthew 18, our Lord Jesus speaks of winning your brother over – that’s the goal!  Discipline is meant to be a way God graciously brings back a sinner from the brink of destruction.  And that’s why also in Acts 8, the apostle Peter wasn’t content to leave Simon the Sorcerer in his sin, but instead admonished him to repentance.  And like with Simon the Sorcerer, it can also happen today that people outwardly appear to be believers, but in reality they’re hypocrites.  They don’t really have faith in Christ even though they’re members of the church.  Sometimes church discipline will be the means that God uses to bring these people to initial faith and repentance.  But this will come through the Word being applied in discipline.   

To summarize then:  article 15 speaks about three means of grace, the Word, sacraments, and discipline.  Now let’s move on to briefly consider the question of how God uses these means in our lives.

There are two ways.  The first is in initial regeneration.  This is especially where the Word does its work.  As the gospel is preached each Sunday God is at work creating new life in and among us.  As we share the good news throughout the week with our unbelieving co-workers, fellow students, family and friends, God is at work to make new creations in Christ. 

As I said, this is especially the domain of the Word, the communication of the truth of the Bible about Jesus Christ.  However, we cannot say that the sacraments are intended for that purpose.  In the past, there have been people who taught that baptism actually regenerates a person.  We call that teaching baptismal regeneration.  Our confessions do not allow that view of baptism.  Baptism is a means of grace.  Baptism is the signing and sealing of God’s promise.  But it is not the means by which God regenerates us.  Initial regeneration takes place through the Word, what Peter calls the imperishable seed, the living and enduring Word of God.

The second way God uses the means of grace is in sanctification.  Sanctification is the process by which God makes us more and more holy.  It is growth in the Christian life.  It’s God’s will for believers that they would grow.  2 Peter 3:18 says, “But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”  Sometimes people say that they reach a point where they’re not really growing but they’re not really backsliding either.  Well, let’s reconsider that.  If it is God’s will that we grow and we’re not growing, that’s actually a sort of backsliding in itself.  In reality, there is no middle ground.  Either you’re growing in the Lord or you’re drifting away from him. 

The Word is a means by which the Lord helps us to grow spiritually.  When we read and study the Scriptures on our own, God works through that to strengthen our relationship with him.  When we read the Bible in our family worship, God uses that to build us up as well.  And finally, when we give careful attention to the reading and preaching of the Word, God is there with his Holy Spirit working us over into the people he wants us to be. 

The sacraments too are a means of spiritual growth.  When we have our children baptized, we’re brought to consider again the richness of God’s promises to them and to us.  When we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, we can taste and see that the Lord is good.  We confess in article 33 of the Belgic Confession, “We believe that our gracious God, mindful of our insensitivity and weakness, has ordained sacraments to seal his promises to us and to be pledges of his good will and grace towards us.  He did so to nourish and sustain our faith.”  There you see the purpose of the sacraments:  to feed the faith that is already there. 

Finally, we have church discipline as a means to lead us forward.  When we are backsliding, God has given us first of all brothers and sisters.  Though it doesn’t always work the way it should, the church of Jesus Christ has mutual discipline.  Christians don’t just let other Christians backslide without saying anything about it.  We ought to care for one another and we ought to care enough to admonish and exhort one another.  And when that doesn’t work, then God has also given us elders to admonish us.  The elders are shepherds of God’s flock and part of their task is to call the wayward back.  Their task is to encourage us as a congregation to grow in the Lord, so that he continues to receive more glory through us.

So, grace and the means God has appointed to receive that grace and live in that grace – they belong together.  The Canons of Dort remind us that we cannot separate them.  And it’s also worth noting that these means of grace come to us through the church – in fact, the Belgic Confession describes these things as marks of the true church.  In Galatians 4, the Bible describes the church as our spiritual mother.  She is the one who gives birth to us.  She also nurtures us.  In that way the church can also be described as the dining room of the Holy Spirit – the place where we are fed spiritually through the Word, the sacraments, and discipline.  So, in the end, when we talk about grace and the means of grace, we need to keep our eyes on the place of the church as well.  God has appointed means for us to receive his grace and live out of his grace and those means normally exist within the church. 

Let’s now turn our attention to the final question of what we are to do with those means.  There are two answers to this question.  The first answer has to do with those who are office bearers in the church.  The elders of the church (and we’ll include the pastor) have to be diligent in admonishing the congregation to make use of the means of grace.  Our calling is to make sure that the congregation knows how important these things are for their spiritual development.  We can never downplay the means of grace, whether Word, sacraments or discipline as if these are optional, add-ons that are nice to have, but not strictly necessary.  The congregation needs sound leadership to point them to the means of grace which in turn point them to the God of grace and Christ Jesus his Son.  As we do this, God’s work moves forward in the best possible manner.

So, there is a responsibility for the elders.  But each member of the congregation also has a calling to diligently use these means of grace.  That means also diligently being in church twice each Sunday where the means of grace are found.  “Diligently” means you make it your habit.  And regular church attendance is a good, spiritually healthy habit. 

You know what happens when you have bad habits, right?  Let’s say you don’t brush your teeth regularly.  You don’t floss.  Additionally, you have a bad habit of eating lollies and other sugary sweets.  Your bad habits will catch up to you.  One day you’ll have a terrible aching pain in your mouth and you’ll end up at the dentist.  The dentist will tell you you’ve got a tooth that needs to be pulled because you’ve got tooth decay.  

Well, the same thing happens when you have bad spiritual habits.  When you have a bad spiritual habit of neglecting regular church attendance, for example.  You could be in church, but you make all kinds of excuses to stay away and do what you want instead.  Listen carefully, bad habits always have consequences.  Ignore your dental hygiene and you’ll get tooth decay.  Ignore your spiritual hygiene by not diligently attending church and you’ll get truth decay.  Your understanding of the Scriptures will be slipping.  Your walk with God will be waning.  Your faith will be weakening.  Your spiritual health will be going down the toilet.    

God knows this.  He warns us about this in Scripture.  It’s in Hebrews 10:24-25, “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”  Some of the believers had the bad habit of neglecting to meet together for worship.  The Holy Spirit points out that this has a deeply negative effect on the communion of saints.  There’s no stirring up to love and good works.  There’s no encouraging one another.  Brother, sister, what’s your habit when it comes to church attendance?  If you’ve fallen into the bad habit of only attending once a Sunday when you could be here twice, I urge you to see that this bad habit is having a negative effect on you and on the communion of saints.  Open your eyes.  You’re not growing closer to God by staying away from the means of grace in public worship.  It’s time to develop a good healthy habit of diligently making use of the means of grace.  God wants to bless you – and why would you not want to receive his blessing?            

When we’re all diligent about the means of grace, there is a wonderful result:  God is glorified.  The whole point of the Canons of Dort is to direct us to the praise of his glory.  The Word, the sacraments and discipline are all designed to point us to that end.   That’s why this chapter of the Canons ends with these words of praise.  In this chapter, we’ve been considering human total inability and God’s efficacious calling of his elect.  We have nothing to contribute.  God does everything for our salvation – he provides the means, he makes the means effective, and he gives the saving fruit.  So, indeed, we do confess that glory is due to him now and always!  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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