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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
Title:Free! (but not yet entirely)
Text:CD 5 Articles 1 and 2 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Life in Christ

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Psalm 84:1,2

Psalm 106:1-3

Hymn 63:6-8

Hymn 1

Hymn 10

Scripture readings: Psalm 38, Colossians 3

Catechism lesson: Canons of Dort 5.1-2

* 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,

Are Christians sinners or not?  To some the answer might be obvious.  But to others, this is a genuine struggle.  People struggle with understanding the difference between the death of our old nature and its dying.  Over the years, I’ve heard from many people who don’t get this.  This is understandable.  In Lord’s Day 33, we confess that the true repentance or conversion of man is in the dying of the old nature.  But then in Lord’s Day 16 we confess that through Christ’s death our old nature is crucified and put to death.  So, is it dead or dying?  And you can’t blame the Confessions for this confusion.  The Bible itself does the same thing.  In one place, like Romans 6, the old nature has been crucified and put to death.  But then in Ephesians 4, we’re told to put off the old nature, implying that it’s still there living and breathing.  

We find the same thing with the Canons of Dort.  At the beginning of chapter 5, we’re confronted with what appears to be a paradox.  We have two things that are apparently contradictory.  On the one hand, we confess that God’s redemptive work in Christ has resulted in our freedom from the dominion and slavery of sin.  But on the other hand, we are not entirely free “in this life from the flesh and the body of sin.” 

This is not some abstract theological problem.  There are practical consequences when this is not resolved.  For instance, we can end up with what we call an over-realized doctrine of salvation.  This would be when somebody claims that Christians are completely set free from sin.  There is no old nature.  It’s all gone.  And if you do struggle with an old nature, then you’re obviously not really regenerate.  You’re not there yet. 

But on the other side, we could end up with an under-realized doctrine of salvation.  This would be when somebody’s idea of the Christian life is basically, “God loves to forgive.  I love to sin.  It’s a great combination!”  In such a scenario we have no grasp of the progressive character of God’s work in our lives.  There is no expectation of growth.  So, picking one side or the other of the apparent paradox is not going to help.  We need to resolve it.  

And how do we resolve this apparent contradiction?  Let’s do that this afternoon by asking and answering two other questions:

  1. In what sense have we been set free?
  2. In what sense do we still struggle and why?

One of the key passages to working out this paradox is this one chapter in Colossians that we read together.  In Colossians 3, we find both of these elements present along with the clues necessary to figure it all out.  “Set free, but not yet entirely” could be the theme of a sermon on this chapter. 

The certain and definite freedom is laid out by Paul in the first four verses.  In chapter 2 already, he spoke about the believer’s death with Christ.  The believer has not only died with Christ, he has also risen with Christ and ascended into heaven with Christ.   To summarize all this, we can say that Paul is speaking here about union with Christ.  Believers are in Christ.  By faith, they have been joined to him.  Our lives are now hidden with Christ in God, according to verse 3 of chapter 3.  Now you may say that’s all well and good, but what does it mean? 

Christ is our life before God.  Because of our union with Christ, when God looks at us, he no longer sees our sins and our sinfulness, our guilt.  He does not see the original sin we inherited from Adam or our actual sins.  He does not see our guilt or corruption.  No, when God looks at us, he only sees Christ and his sacrifice, his obedience, his perfections.  As a result of what Christ has done for us, in our place, God has declared us to be right with him.   Our union with the crucified Christ through faith means that peace has been established between God and us.

So, in what sense have we been set free from the dominion and slavery of sin?  Loved ones, to help us in setting this out we need to use a couple of theological terms and categories.  These terms help us to avoid confusion and give us pegs in our mind on which to hang important concepts.  If we want to avoid confusion in our lives as believers, we need to have sound theology.  In this case, the terms we need to use come right out of Scripture. 

Now listen carefully.  The sense in which we have been set free from the dominion and slavery of sin has to do with justification.  Now I know that’s a word that’s familiar to most of us.  But what if you were asked to define it or explain it?  Could you do that?  What if somebody gave you this definition:  “Justification is the process by which God makes us right with himself.”  Would you agree with that?  If you do, then maybe you’re in the wrong church because that’s a Roman Catholic definition.  We have to be clear about our terms.  According to the Bible, justification is a one-time event where God declares the sinner to be righteous on the merits of Christ alone.  It is by grace alone through faith alone.     

In God’s eyes, we have been set free from the dominion and slavery of sin.  God no longer regards us as objects of wrath, but because of Christ, we are objects of his love.  God no longer regards us as his enemies, but as his children.  No longer under the lordship of sin, but under the Lordship of Christ.  No longer slaves to sin, but now slaves to righteousness.  We have been bought and transferred into the kingdom of the Son of God.  We are not our own, but belong with body and soul to Jesus Christ.  This is an objective truth.  It doesn’t depend on how a believer feels about it.  It’s objectively true for all who believe in Christ.  

And it has implications for our lives.  Our union with Christ and the justification that follows from that means that God has set us free from living a life of sin.  Let me describe what that looks like.  Living a life of sin means that you sin and you simply don’t care.  Living a life of sin means you never repent and you never ask the Lord to forgive you.  You never have remorse over your sin.  You are quite happy to keep on sinning with no end in sight.  You’re a slave to sin and you like it that way. 

Now when we talk about living in sin, we quite often have a certain idea of what that looks like.  We imagine a young man and a young woman having sex before marriage or living together before marriage.  It used to be said that they’re “living in sin.”  But there are many other ways to live in sin.  Addictions oftentimes amount to living in sin, particularly if there is no struggle with them.  Living with unresolved conflict in our lives and refusing to do anything about it – that is living in sin.  And many other examples could be added.  Living in sin and union with Christ do not belong together.  Living in sin and justification do not fit together.  It’s not that our lifestyle is the basis for our justification – we know that it is only Christ.  But when you live in sin, there is no fruit.  And if there is no fruit, you have to wonder if there actually is a root.  In the end, the person who unrepentantly lives in sin has to question whether or not he or she really believes in Jesus Christ. 

So, our justification through faith in Christ results in freedom from a life of sin.  That’s the freedom that we confess in article 1.  When we are in Christ, we know that God has forgiven us our sins and accepted us as his children.  When we are in Christ, we know that this new status means we will not and cannot live in sin.   And that brings us to the second question this afternoon:  in what sense do we still struggle and why? 

Article 1 ends by saying that we are not set free “entirely in this life from the flesh and the body of sin.”  Let’s first be clear about our definitions again.  The Canons are simply using the language of Scripture when they speak of the “flesh” and the “body of sin.”  When Scripture uses this language in passages like Romans 7, God is not saying there is something inherently evil about our bodies of flesh and blood.  He is not setting up an opposition between spiritual things and physical things.  It’s not as if the physical things are evil and the spiritual things are good.  Some people have understood it in this way.  However, think about it:  our Lord Jesus had and has a physical body.  His physical body is not evil.  We have physical bodies which have been redeemed by Christ.  These physical bodies, in a glorified state, will dwell with God in the new heavens and the new earth.  But they will still be physical.  No, if you do a careful study of Paul’s epistles, you’ll find that Paul uses the expressions, “old man,” “flesh,” and “body of sin” interchangeably.  They all mean the same thing.  They all refer to what we call the old nature, the remnants or leftovers of sin and sinful desires still living in us.  So, we could also summarize the last sentence of article 1 by saying that we are not set free entirely in this life from the old nature.  

It’s this old nature and its leftovers which results in daily sins of weakness.  Note the word “daily.”  In other words, this is a regular occurrence.  And if you look in your life and you don’t see that, then you’re simply not looking hard enough or honestly enough.  If we’re all honest and humble, we know we have these daily sins of weakness.  We also know that even the best works we do have defects clinging to them because of our old nature.  All that we do, even as believers, is stained with sin.  It’s like having our hands coated in iodine and everything we touch gets the red stain.  Thankfully, the Holy Spirit, he is God’s divine stain remover.  Yet the fact remains that there is stain in the first place.  We have to be honest about that.                

It’s clear from both the Old and New Testament that believers still have an old nature with which they have to struggle.  For an Old Testament example, look at David in what we read from Psalm 38.  Of course, this Psalm is one of the so-called penitential Psalms.  It seems here that David had committed some sin and he experienced God’s physical discipline or chastening as a result.  Elsewhere in Scripture, we find that David was called “a man after God’s own heart.”  But yet he sinned.  Now someone might say that Psalm 38 gives us an example of a serious sin – it doesn’t really speak of daily sins of weakness.  But that’s okay.  If David committed serious sins, why would he not also have committed daily sins of weakness?  If you look closely enough in the accounts of his life, you’ll find them too. 

Now somebody else might say David is a poor example because he was living in the Old Testament before the Holy Spirit was poured out.   However, we know that David had the fullness of the Holy Spirit living in him.  1 Samuel 16:13 tells us that the Holy Spirit came upon David with power.  In Psalm 51, another penitential Psalm, David prays that God would not take the Holy Spirit from him.  The Holy Spirit lived in David and created faith in him.  David had faith in the promises of God and was therefore incorporated into Christ just as we are.  David had union with Christ by true faith.  So, the struggle between the old nature and the new nature is not something that just came along with the New Testament – as if people never struggled with the old nature in the Old Testament or as if people were never regenerated in the Old Testament.  This struggle has always been there.  However, it is true that we find a fuller description of this struggle in the New Testament.

We find that description in passages like Romans 7 and Colossians 3.  Let’s just take Colossians 3.  Having said that the old nature is dead, Paul goes on to exhort the Colossians to put their earthly nature to death.  Here you see it, both elements:  dead and dying.  It’s dead, but put it to death.  He first wrote about justification, and now he is going to write about sanctification.  Being justified in God’s eyes means that a certain lifestyle has to result.  Paul gives some concrete examples of those things:  sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires, and greed, which is idolatry.  He says that you used to walk in those things, in other words:  you used to live in these things, you used to have a life of sin.  No more!  Now things are different.  Now that you are united to Christ, you have to put off the old nature and put on the new nature that reflects who Christ is.   Paul describes in great detail what that new nature looks like in this chapter:  compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, and so on.

So, believers still struggle with sin in the sense that there is still progress to be made in sanctification.  If you want a bare bones summary of this sermon and its two points it would look like this:  Justification – we’ve been set free.  Sanctification – we are being set free.  Justification – one time declaration.  Sanctification – ongoing process.

Now the question comes:  why?  Why does God let us struggle?  Surely God could have saved us completely right from the start?  Why does he leave us with our old nature and this struggle? 

The Canons give a good four part answer in Article 2.  The first reason is that we have these things in order to humble us.  When we reflect on our daily sins of weakness, we’re driven to God constantly.  We know that there is nothing in us that would make God accept us.  Even as we are in Christ, we remain sinners in ourselves.  We know that we cannot do without God and his grace for us in Christ. 

The second reason is that we would flee to the crucified Christ.  How easily we might forget the cross if not for our daily sins of weakness!  We would easily forget the reason Christ suffered and died.  Daily fleeing to the cross impresses on our hearts and minds the greatness of our Saviour and his work. 

Third, our daily sins of weakness are a constant reason to “put the flesh to death more and more through the Spirit of prayer and by holy exercises of godliness.”  Prayer we know about, but what are these “holy exercises of godliness”?  That’s an expression that comes from 1 Timothy 4:7.  In the ESV, it says, “train yourself for godliness.”  In that passage, Paul was comparing the Christian life to an athlete in ancient Greece.  So, like an athlete does everything he can to win, so too believers have to spare no effort to reach the goal of godliness.  And like an athlete takes off every weight and burden that might slow him down or hamper him, so too believers have to take off everything that could slow down their spiritual progress.  And finally, like an athlete has his eye only on the goal, so too believers should be constantly aiming at their spiritual objective of becoming who God has called them to be in Christ.  So what might “holy exercises of godliness” be?  They’re things that are going to help you run as a Christian.  Things like diligent church attendance, regular personal Bible study, family worship, doing Bible study with the communion of saints.  It includes reading good Christian literature – when was the last time you read a good Christian book?  If you need a suggestion, ask.  If reading is genuinely a challenge for you, when was the last time you listened to a good Christian audiobook or podcast?  These things are all “holy exercises of godliness.”   

We come to the fourth thing.  Daily sins of weakness are a constant reason for us to long and strive for the goal of perfection in the life to come.  It is God’s will that these things would be reminders that greater glory is coming.  If God had given us the full measure of our salvation at the beginning of our Christian life, there would be nothing to look forward to in the future.  But as it is now, our daily sins of weakness remind us that Christ is coming.  Our daily sins of weakness remind us that some day we will be delivered in the fullest sense imaginable and we will reign with King Jesus.

Loved ones, the teaching in these two articles may not be the easiest thing to understand.  But you have to understand it.  Not understanding it has consequences.  Not understanding it leads to confusion, even to disillusionment.  When we know that the Christian life is characterized by struggle, then we’re being realistic and honest.  But that doesn’t mean that we have to be pessimistic.  Sometimes people will use this teaching or -- better put -- abuse this teaching to justify continuing in sin.  “We all have our daily sins and struggles…so it’s okay.”  You can never be satisified with the status quo in your walk with the Lord.  There must always be a struggle and a desire to have victory over sin.  And as you move on, the Lord will give more and more victory over daily sins of weakness.  We should pray for that, we should expect it, and we should see it.

In this sermon we’ve covered some tough theology.   That’s okay because this is theology that matters for how you live your life before God.  The Canons of Dort are not a theologian’s playground.  They are the expression of the truth of God for all who believe.  Rather than being a playground for theologians, they give the air that all Christians need to breathe in order to live for God’s glory.  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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