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Author:Rev. Reuben Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Mt. Nasura
 Mt. Nasura, Western Australia
 frca.org.au/mountnasura/
 
Title:Chosen and Changed
Text:LD 33 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:The work of The Holy Spirit
 
Preached:2018
Added:2018-12-09
 

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Ps 107:1                                                                                     

Ps 113:1,2  [after Nicene Creed]

Reading – Ezekiel 37:1-14; Canons of Dort 3/4:11

Ps 51:4,5

Sermon – Lord’s Day 33

Hy 48:3,4

Hy 6:1,2

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.


Beloved in Christ, when you’re in elementary school, sometimes teams have to be picked. It’s lunch time and you want to play a quick game of soccer. So all the kids line up, and two captains take turns picking their team, one by one. Chosen first are the good players, those who are strong and fast, and so on. Slowly the line-up gets shorter, until you’re left with the ones who probably aren’t as good and won’t contribute as much.

Picking teams can be a painful process, but it’s a fact: when we choose, we go for the people with strength and ability. Not just on the schoolyard, but in many situations of life, this is what happens: we choose by merit.

Now imagine God looking at that “lineup.” He wanted to choose some people from out of the whole human race for fellowship with himself. He could select from all humanity (past and present), but there wasn’t much to pick from—in fact, there wasn’t anything! Nonetheless, the LORD made his selection. And He chose the unable, the unskilled, the unlikely, people who were altogether lost in sin.

He chose us to be a people to serve and worship him always. For the LORD has great plans for this group of misfits, his elect. No, we’re not strong or fast or skilled. If God’s chosen ones are going to do anything worthwhile, we’ll have to be transformed. And that’s what God is doing. It’s called conversion—true and lasting inner change! God regenerates us and gives faith, hope and love. I preach God’s Word to you on this theme,

God powerfully regenerates his chosen ones:

  1. the method
  2. the miracle
  3. the mark

 

1) the manner of regeneration: The Catechism assumes that change is possible. You can hear that assumption in Q&A 88, “What is the true repentance or conversion of man? It is the dying of the old nature and the coming to life of the new.” In a few memorable words, it describes a transformation that is astonishing. But how does this happen? What can we say about the method of conversion?

We’re helped here by the Canons of Dort. Under the heading, “How God Brings About Conversion,” we read the following—and take notice of the steps mentioned: “[God] takes care that the gospel is preached to [his elect], and powerfully enlightens their minds by the Holy Spirit, so that they may rightly understand and discern the things of the Spirit of God. By the efficacious working of the same regenerating Spirit He also penetrates into the innermost recesses of man” (3/4:11). In summary, there’s the preaching (of the gospel), there’s the enlightening and regenerating (by the Holy Spirit), and the penetrating of the deepest places of a person’s heart.

So where does regeneration begin? In order to bring people to faith, God will always use the message of salvation. Before anything else, God takes care that the gospel of Christ preached. There will never be faith if the Word isn’t heard.

Put it this way: a person won’t know where to find her only comfort if she’s not reading the Scriptures. A person isn’t going to grow in a saving knowledge of Christ if the worship services are often skipped. You won’t get the conviction of sin and salvation while scrolling through social media. Faith begins with the Word—reading it, and hearing it.

Still, it’s not automatic. No preacher, however talented, can cause his hearers to change by sheer abilities of persuasion. If you went to church your whole life, memorized substantial chunks of the Bible, read good Christian books, even got a degree at seminary—if you did all that but didn’t have the Spirit, you’d still be faithless.

This is why the Canons use the word “enlighten” here: God “powerfully enlightens their minds.” It’s like when you’re studying something, you’re trying to wrap your head around some problem at work or at school, turning it every which way to figure it out. And then there’s that moment when it just “clicks.” At once you understand it, and it makes so much sense that you wonder why you didn’t get it before.

This is what the Spirit’s enlightening work is like. For we’re naturally ignorant of spiritual things. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 2, “The person without the Spirit does not accept the things… of God but he considers them foolishness, and he cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit” (v 14). When it comes to what is important, we’re in the dark. We stumble around, needing the light turned on, so this is what God does for us. Says Paul in the same passage, “We have received… the Spirit from God, so that we may understand what God has freely given us” (v 12).

The Spirit makes it “click.” Listening to the preaching, reading Scripture, meditating over the Word, it suddenly hits home for a person: “I am a miserable sinner. For everything I’ve done wrong—for all my pride and idolatry and selfishness—I deserve God’s condemnation. I stand before the Lord with empty hands.” Thus begins “the dying of the old nature,” when we “grieve with heartfelt sorrow that we have offended God by our sin” (Q&A 89).

And we don’t stay in that dismal place, but the Spirit brings us to Christ. We begin to understand that by his life and death, Christ gave to God what we could not. We humbly accept the promise that if we’re united to Christ by true faith, we gain what we truly need: the forgiveness of all our sins, righteousness before God, and everlasting life.

No, you’ll never reach this good confession on your own. But with the Spirit’s help, there is a genuine understanding of God’s truth. Think of how Lydia’s faith is described in Acts 16, “The Lord opened her heart to heed the things spoken by Paul.” That’s what God had to do before she’d accept any of what she heard. But He opened her heart, and she believed.

So what more can be said about conversion? Article 11 continues describing the Spirit’s work, “He opens the closed and softens the hard heart, He circumcises that which was uncircumcised, and instills new qualities into the will. He makes the will, which was dead, alive; which was bad, good; which was unwilling, willing; and which was stubborn, obedient.”

In those words there are several reminders about our natural born condition. We have a hard heart, one that is closed—because it is shut tight against God’s truth. Ours is also an uncircumcised heart—which means that it’s undevoted and disloyal. And we have a bad and dead will. For our motives are so often twisted, and our desires are stubbornly wicked, and we don’t even want to do good. It’s not a pleasant diagnosis, but we should acknowledge this. For if we recognize our true condition, we’ll find great joy in God’s work of changing us.

One thing that the Spirit does, according to Article 11, is that He “softens the hard heart.” Pharaoh of Egypt had a hard heart, so did the people of Israel in the desert, and even the disciples of Jesus did at times. Having a hard heart is when a person refuses to be moved by the mighty deeds or gracious words of God. There’s no right response, no bending in obedience or growing in trust. For even with his land destroyed by the ten plagues, Pharaoh was unchanged. It’s like he refused to think about what it all meant. God’s glory didn’t penetrate.

The same thing happens today. Someone can see the stunning majesty of God reflected in the perfect designs of his creation, but there’s no effect—they just keep talking about evolution and millions and millions of years. Or people hear the story of Christ in different places, being told by their neighbour, or reading it online, but nothing happens—the truth doesn’t sink in even a millimeter. Or someone is baptized and he hears the preaching every Sunday, but he never really accepts it and in the end he is still living for himself. A hard shell has grown over the heart—like when an anchor is left in the ocean for years, getting encrusted with a thick layer of barnacles and mussels.

A person with a hardened heart will just continue life apart from God: being stubborn, being bitter, unbelieving. Unless and until, of course, God graciously “softens the hard heart.” He breaks through that impermeable shell, takes away the spiritual blockage, and the truth finally penetrates. Suddenly the Word strikes home!

We see this kind of softening in Ezekiel. The prophet was ministering not in the land of Israel, but in Babylon, because he’d been part of the first shipment of exiles taken away before Jerusalem was destroyed. The temple was certainly going to be destroyed, yet Ezekiel foretells a return for the people, a rebuilding of the temple, and a restoration of Jerusalem.

And in this renewal, God will treat the root cause of all this misery: the corrupted human heart. For even if God allowed the exiles to return, they wouldn’t be able to keep themselves from disobedience. They still couldn’t avoid punishment.

So God will change them! In 36:26 He declares, “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.” A heart of stone will never be receptive to God’s Word. But if you have a heart of flesh, it’s soft and pliable and can receive the Word. This is how it’ll come about, says the LORD, “I will put my Spirit within you and cause you to walk in my statutes” (36:27). God will make us a holy people for himself, ready to obey.

This is the method. So if you’re going to change, make sure that you’re listening to the preaching of God’s Word. If your motives will be purified and your desires straightened out, talk about these things with godly people who can help you. If God will penetrate to the deepest recesses of your heart, make sure that you’re shining Scripture’s light into every corner. If your spirit will be softened, pray to God daily for the gift of his Holy Spirit.

 

2) the miracle of regeneration: There’s a method to conversion—it’s by the Word—but it’s also a great miracle. Compare it to a child being conceived and born. Here too, we know something about the “method,” for hundreds of books have been written on reproduction and childbirth. Yet as any parent will tell you, the birth of a child remains a miracle, when this new person finally makes his entrance.

Jesus once said that our conversion is a miracle of the same order, for He calls it a second birth. “Unless one is born again,” Jesus said, “he cannot see the kingdom of God” (v 3). And to an extent Christ couldn’t explain this, for He went on: “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit” (v 8). Like an easterly wind can sweep in so strongly one hour, and be gone the next, so the Spirit’s work cannot be predicted.

For why does reading one passage from Scripture—one you’ve probably read a hundred times before—why does this text one day give a most profound sense of peace, like there is nothing on earth can shake you? Why does it happen that we sometimes reach a moment of profound clarity, when we see that we’ve been terribly wrong about something and that we need to repent? Or why does one sermon from ten years ago stay with you, as the sermon that changed your life’s course? You can’t predict it, or explain it. You just know that the Spirit was moving and that He was working powerfully within you.

It’s striking how the Canons compare conversion to other incomprehensible events. In the next article, it says “This conversion is the regeneration, the new creation, the raising from the dead, the making alive…” (3/4:12). Each of these terms underscore that there must be a powerful change in our life from the inside out, drastic and far-reaching.

Take the first term, “regeneration.” This speaks of that new birth we mentioned, a new beginning. In the same way as physical birth, our spiritual birth is God’s doing. For the first time we’re born, we’re really only dead: we’re unable to believe, or love, or persevere. But in regeneration we get a fresh start. It’s like we’ve been reset, and within us are instilled new abilities as God’s children: new gifts, new potential, new holiness.

The second term is miraculous too: a “new creation.” Consider how incredible were God’s acts of creation in the beginning. He just had to speak into the void, and there was light, land, stars, animals. In the same spectacular way, by the same Word, God calls new life into being among his elect. So it’s not a minor event when a person comes to faith, or when they leave the darkness and repent of sin. It’s a miracle in the same class as creation “out of nothing.”

And the third term for conversion, highlighting the supernatural character of God’s work in us: “the raising from the dead.” In our view, dead is dead—it’s over. But believers are people who have been resurrected, raised to a new life in Christ.

After God’s promise in Ezekiel 36 to give his sinful and exiled people a new heart, it’s striking that in the very next chapter Ezekiel sees that famous valley of dry bones. If you can imagine it, from end to end, there are skulls and rib-cages and femurs—like the horrific souvenirs of a genocide. Dry, lifeless bones—this is Israel. This is every human being: dead in sin and incapable of anything good. And as Ezekiel looks out on that deathly scene, he knows that only God can make these bones live again.

And He does! For what happens? Ezekiel watches as the wind blows, and somehow this valley of death springs to life. He can even hear the rattling of the bones joining together, and  over the bones comes sinew and flesh, until a vast army stands on their feet—filled with the breath of the LORD God. And after this vision, the LORD explains its meaning, “I will open your graves and cause you to come up… I will put my Spirit in you, and you shall live” (37:12,14). This is spiritual resurrection, true revival.

God does the same miracle today. He makes piles of dusty bones into living, breathing people—his believers. His Spirit makes alive, restoring what is disjointed and reviving what is dried out. For through the Holy Spirit in you, God gives you a measure of joy, even in the trials of life—He gives peace even in the anxieties of life. Through his Spirit, God gives you hope for the future. Because He’s working in you, the perversity of sin begins to disgust you, and you want flee from Satan’s lies. Even though doing good in your family is sometimes hard, and doing good in the church is tiring, you still want to do it.

No, it’s not perfect. I’m not at a point where sin has no attraction to me, or where I’m free from worries because my trust in the Lord is so strong. But I’m also not a pile of dry bones anymore. By God’s grace, we are a new creation. By God’s grace, we’re changing. Realize what kind of power is moving within us. “God is at work in you” says the Spirit, “to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil 2:13).

In one sense, we have no role to play in our regeneration. Just like you had nothing to do with your first birth, you have no say in your second birth. As it says in Romans 9:16, “It depends not on man’s will or exertion, but God’s mercy.” It’s not up to us.

Even so, after a child is born there begins a long process of growth. A baby doesn’t stay a baby, but through food and nurturing and exercise and education, it grows in body and in mind. The miracle of birth isn’t the end of a process, but just the beginning.

Likewise, our lives must be marked by a steady process of maturing, a life-long transformation by the Spirit. And in this process we need to be involved. Beloved, crave spiritual food. Be open to God’s shaping of your heart (even through hardships). Pray often for maturity in the Lord. As 2 Peter 3:18 says, “Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.” Beloved, if the Lord has done a miracle in you, then work with his miracle.

 

3) the mark of regeneration: If a person has been raised from the dead, there’s an obvious change. They’re not in the grave anymore, but now they live, energized, purposeful. So also for those who have been raised up by Christ. We go from being rebels, misfits and castoffs, to being prophets, priests and kings.

It’s a change of great significance described in Article 11: “He moves and strengthens [the heart] so that, like a good tree, it may be able to produce the fruit of good works.” The heart is no longer hard and closed and calcified, but yielding and open and fertile. Or as the Catechism says, we now have “a heartfelt joy in God through Christ, and a love and delight to live according to the will of God in all good works” (Q&A 90).

Think again of the valley of dry bones in Ezekiel 37. What was the signature mark of God reassembling the dead, covering them with flesh, and breathing out his Spirit? “They lived, and stood upon their feet, an exceedingly great army” (v 10). See what God turns his people into! God didn’t make them alive so that they would become a tribe of indifferent church-goers, a nation of time-wasters and lovers of pleasure. He wanted to raise up an army! And an army trains, an army marches, and an army fights.

God has made us alive by his Spirit so that we will be his army. This means we’ve got work to do! We need to pledge allegiance to his Name, fight under his banner, and advance his kingdom. This is the result of regeneration, where our life is no longer about us and fulfilling our desires, and it becomes all about doing the will of our King and Commander.

As the resurrected army of the LORD, it’s his will that we fight against sin. And sin is a fight. We must be fully aware of the constant danger presented by sin and temptation, and how Satan can infiltrate our defenses in a subtle but fatal way. How are you resisting Satan’s power? How are you defending against his lies? If we’re a resurrected army for God, it’s also his will that we progress his Kingdom, that we move forward his purpose in our home, our community, and in this world. How are you marching for Christ? Are you keeping in step with the Spirit?

Beloved, this is the great miracle of our conversion. God was pleased to choose the weak, the unskilled, the unlikely, and to transform us into his winning team. God claimed that valley of dry bones so that He can turn them into an exceedingly great army—He is making us more than conquerors. Be glad that Christ is your King and Captain, that He’s called you his own. And now carry out his will in all good works!  Amen.




* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2018, Rev. Reuben Bredenhof

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