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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
 
Title:The Holy Spirit works through the means of grace
Text:LD 25 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Our Salvation
 
Preached:2019
Added:2019-08-11
 

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Psalm 63

Psalm 119:40

Hymn 52:1,2

Hymn 1

Hymn 83

Scripture reading: Romans 10

Catechism lesson:  Lord's Day 25

* 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 Saviour Jesus,

All of us who work have tools of our trade.  Even when you’re a student in school, you have tools you use each day.  You’ve got your pen or pencil – that’s a tool that you’re using for your school work.  A calculator would be another tool for a student.  If you’re older and have an office job, your computer is a tool, and so is the photocopier.  Builders have saws and hammers and many other tools they use.  Those who work at home have their dishwashers, ovens, washing machines, dryers and so on.  In every conceivable field of work, there are tools people use.

The Holy Spirit has his own special field of work.  He works among the people of God.  The Holy Spirit works so people share in Christ and in all his benefits.  Like us in our daily labours, the Holy Spirit has tools he uses to do his work.  We have a special name for these tools.  They are called the “means of grace.”  “Means” here are instruments or tools through which the Holy Spirit works.  Through these tools we call “the means of grace,” the Holy Spirit graciously makes us share in the salvation accomplished by Christ.

In Lord’s Day 25, our Heidelberg Catechism says there are two means of grace through which the Holy Spirit works.  They are the preaching of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments.  These are two important ways the Holy Spirit connects us to Christ so we can be saved and then grow in him.  So this afternoon we want to consider how the Holy Spirit works through the means of grace.  

We’ll learn about:

  1. The origin of faith
  2. The strengthening of faith
  3. The object of faith

Faith alone is the way we get connected to Christ in a saving manner.  Faith is the only way we can share in Christ and in all his benefits.  If you don’t believe in the Saviour Jesus, you won’t receive the blessings the gospel promises.  Just like you need your hands to receive a gift, you also need faith to receive Christ and his blessings.  You need to rest and trust in Christ alone.  But where does this faith come from?  That’s what the first question and answer of this Lord’s Day addresses. 

First of all, let me tell you where faith doesn’t come from.  Faith doesn’t come from within ourselves.  Faith isn’t something we can create in our own hearts.  After all, Scripture says in Ephesians 2:1 that apart from the Holy Spirit we’re dead in sin.  If you’re dead in sin, you can’t create your own lifeline to Christ.  Someone else has to do it for you.  Here too we need to have a realistic view of human nature.  We need to have the realistic view Scripture gives us.

Scripture says that faith is not something we create for ourselves, instead it’s a gift.  Think of Ephesians 2:8-9, “For by grace you have been saved through faith.  And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”  Faith is a gift of God.  It’s a gift you receive, not something you create from your own resources.

Faith comes from God as a gift.  Specifically, the Bible teaches us that faith is a gift given to us by the Holy Spirit.  Paul makes that point in 1 Corinthians 2.  People come to understand spiritual things in a saving way through the Holy Spirit.  He works on the inside of people.  He makes them come alive spiritually.  He softens their hearts.  The Holy Spirit makes them understand.  He makes their wills pliable.  He makes them able to love God.  He is the one who creates spiritual life.  The Holy Spirit is the one who creates faith. 

He does it through an instrument or a tool.  At the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.  He created everything.  He created all life on this earth.  How did he do it?  By his Word.  He spoke.  Then everything living came into existence.  That’s how physical life came into being, through the Word of God.  When it comes to spiritual life, we see the same means at work.  The Holy Spirit makes people come to life spiritually through the Word of God.  Spiritual life happens through the preaching of the gospel. 

We see that taught in what we read from Romans 10.  To be saved, one must confess that Jesus is Lord and believe from the heart that God raised him from the dead.  To be saved, one must call on the name of the Lord.  To call on the name of the Lord, one must believe.  One must have faith.  Faith comes from hearing.  Hearing comes from preaching.  As Paul says in Romans 10:17, “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ.”  The Word of Christ and its proclamation is the tool the Holy Spirit uses to create faith.

It’s the proclamation of the gospel that the Holy Spirit uses to create faith.  It’s the preaching of the good news of everything God has done for us through Christ.  It’s not the preaching of what we must do, but about what God has done in Jesus – in his life, in his death, in his resurrection, in his ascension.  When that glorious announcement is made, the Holy Spirit works through that to make sinners come alive. 

There are a few things following from that.  First of all, the church has to be sure to proclaim that message of the gospel.  If that’s the tool the Holy Spirit uses to create faith, we better be sure it’s in place every Sunday.  Preachers have a responsibility on that score.  Preachers better ensure they are preaching the gospel.  Congregations also have a responsibility.  They have to hold their preachers accountable.  If you’re not hearing the preaching of the gospel through which the Holy Spirit can work faith, then you need to speak up and bring it to the attention of your pastor.  If he won’t listen, then it needs to be brought to the attention of the elders.

Second, that preaching of the gospel is not only needed at the beginning of our spiritual life.  The gospel is easily forgotten.  We’re easily distracted from the gospel.  The gospel is not only the Spirit’s tool to create spiritual life, but also to sustain it.  We need that constantly and that’s why regular habitual church attendance is so important.  We need to be where the means of grace are being administered.  That means being in church on Sunday both times.  Indeed, preaching is an essential part of the diet of any growing Christian.

There is a great temptation here amongst us.  Most of us have grown up in the church.  We’ve gone to Christian schools.  We attended catechism classes for the required number of years.  We’ve heard hundreds of sermons, and even hundreds of sermons based on the Heidelberg Catechism.  The temptation is to consider all these things and then get puffed up.  The temptation is to think:  “Well, I’ve already heard it all.  I know quite a bit.  I’m not really going to learn anything new anymore.  So it can’t hurt to stay home every now and then or take a little holiday from church.”  Loved ones, this is prideful and this is what the Devil wants you to think.  It’s snake-think.  Satan is the one who wants to keep you away from the preaching of the gospel.  When you think along these lines, he rejoices.  Satan has you right where he wants you.  The devil has you moving away from the message of life.  No, it doesn’t matter how many times you’ve been to church, you still need the preaching of the gospel.  Even it is to hear the same message repeated, we all need that.  We need it desperately.  Because of the remnants of our sinful nature, we will quickly get distracted from God’s message of grace. 

Think of it like a garden.  If you neglect your garden, you’re quickly going to have weeds.  Before long the weeds will get out of control.  The same thing is true in your soul.  If you neglect to feed your soul with the preaching of the gospel, the weeds will quickly grow.  They’ll choke out anything and everything good.  You need the gospel, brothers and sisters. So take advantage of it as much as you can.  Don’t hinder the work of the Holy Spirit by staying away from the place where he works with his tools to make you share in Christ and his benefits!

So the Holy Spirit creates faith through the preaching of the gospel.  He also maintains and strengthens faith through that means.  Another way in which he strengthens our faith is through the sacraments. 

Let’s first review our definition of what a sacrament is.  It’s a holy, visible sign and seal.  Sacraments are signs.  That means that they point us to something.  They are not the thing itself.  Instead, they point to the thing they’re intended to signify.  Sacraments are seals.  That means they guarantee something.  They certify the truth of something for us.  They promise us that what the sacrament signifies is definitely true.

Sacraments have been instituted by God.  They were not invented by people, but come from Jesus Christ.  During his earthly ministry, he ordained these two sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.  The purpose is “to more fully declare and seal to us the promise of the gospel.”  The purpose of the sacraments is to address us in a way going beyond our ears.  The preaching of the gospel only addresses our sense of hearing.  But the administration of the sacraments addresses our other senses as well.  God graciously does this in order to strengthen our faith in Christ.

Here I have to stop and make something clear.  The sacraments don’t create faith.  The Holy Spirit doesn’t work through baptism to create faith in Jesus Christ.  The Holy Spirit doesn’t work through the Lord’s Supper to make someone a believer.  Instead, the sacraments are there to strengthen the faith of people who are already Christians.  The sacraments are there to strengthen the faith of people in whom the Holy Spirit has already created faith with the preaching of the gospel.

That has implications too.  For instance, your baptism doesn’t create faith.  It signs and seals the promises of God in Jesus Christ.  But if you’re going to receive what is promised, those promises have to be appropriated in faith.  That means you’ve got to make those promises your own.  Nothing is automatic in the covenant of grace.  There’s still a human responsibility to believe the gospel as it’s preached. 

Similarly, the Lord’s Supper doesn’t create faith.  If you come to the Lord’s Supper without faith, it’ll do you no good, and certainly it won’t cause you to begin believing in Jesus Christ.  The Lord’s Supper is there for people who are already resting and trusting in Christ.  They come to the sacrament to have their faith strengthened, not to have faith created.

Another thing we can draw from this is the biblical emphasis on the sacrament as something that God does.  If you look carefully at QA 66 in our Catechism, you’ll see that God is the subject of all the verbs.  That’s a biblical approach.  God institutes the sacraments.  God declares and seals to us the promise of the gospel through the sacraments.  God graciously grants forgiveness of sins and everlasting life.  God is the one doing all the action.  This is crucially important to understand.  In baptism, we are washed.   In the Lord’s Supper, we are fed with food God provides.  God is at work in the sacraments.  At its essence, baptism isn’t about parents making vows to God.  At its essence, the Lord’s Supper isn’t about us doing something for Jesus.  Instead, it’s quite the other way around.  The sacraments are about what God is doing for us, how the Holy Spirit is strengthening our faith.

We need to insist on this, because so many other Christians get this wrong.  Most believe that baptism is about us making a statement to God.  The Lord’s Supper is merely about us remembering Jesus and doing something nice for him.  It’s sort of like going to the grave of a loved one to place flowers.  We’re doing something for him to remember him and that’s it.  In those ways of thinking, the full biblical character and nature of the sacraments has been lost.  The sacraments become focussed on human activity, rather than on what God is doing.  Loved ones, let’s remember that these signs and seals are God’s work towards us.  Through them the Holy Spirit is working to fortify our faith.

There’s a lot more to be said about this.  How does baptism strengthen our faith?  How does the Lord’s Supper do that?  We’ll deal with those questions in the near future when we look at the Lord’s Days dealing with these sacraments.  For now, let’s just briefly consider the object of the faith the Holy Spirit creates and strengthens. 

Both the Word and the sacraments are pointing us to Jesus as the object of faith.  Biblical faith always involves an object.  You have faith in someone.  Here that someone is Jesus Christ, the crucified Saviour.  He is the one to whom the means of grace point. 

In the gospel, the Holy Spirit teaches us that our entire salvation rests on Christ’s one sacrifice on the cross.  When we hear the good news proclaimed, we’re reminded time and again that our salvation is in Christ alone.  Think of what Paul said in 1 Corinthians 2:1-2, “And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom.  For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”  The salvation we have in Christ is what the Word focusses our faith upon.  It’s not that other things don’t get mentioned as the Word is preached.  For instance, in a church that proclaims the full counsel of God, we’ll hear about the law and its righteous requirements.  We’ll hear about that, but that’ll never be the centre or the focus.  Instead, the focus is always to be on Jesus and his saving work for us. 

In the sacraments, the same focus is there.  In the sacraments, the Holy Spirit assures us that our entire salvation rests on Christ’s one sacrifice on the cross.  Notice that through the preaching the Holy Spirit tells us or teaches us, but through the sacraments he assures us.  He comforts our hearts by pointing us to Christ crucified.  He reassures us that the full debt of our sins has been paid at Golgotha.  Jesus has done everything we couldn’t do for ourselves.  The justice of God has been fully satisfied and we’re reconciled to him.  We’re not only at peace with the holy God, we’ve been welcomed into his family!  He’s our Father, we’re his children and heirs and no one can separate us from his love.  This is all because Jesus is our Saviour.

Both of the means of grace are intended to put our attention on Christ.  These means of grace stand in the center of our worship services.  The ministry of the Word and sacraments point us to Christ.  That’s why they’re the focal point of biblical worship.  Here again, we need to be aware that this is something that sets our Reformed worship apart and for good reason. 

Amongst many other Christians today, worship is understood to be something we primarily do for God.  Typically, worship is especially understood to be the singing of praise to God.  Worship is a performance.  So it’s a time when human beings do their religious activities for God.  That’s why there’s a stage.  A stage is a place for a performance.  Perhaps you’ve seen a service like that.  You’ll have 45 minutes or more of singing and then the worship leader says, “Now that the worship is done, we’ll now have the message from Pastor Bob.”  Worship is thought of merely as being what we do for God.  It becomes a one way-street, a monologue, and we’re the ones doing all the talking.  God is just a passive participant in our worship. 

We take a different view.  Our different view isn’t based on our own opinions or preferences.  It’s not our Free Reformed customs.  Instead, it’s rooted in the nature of our relationship with God as revealed in the Bible.  It’s rooted in the covenant of grace.  The covenant is a relationship.  In the covenant of grace, there is a dialogue between God and his people.  This dialogue is reflected in our worship.  Our worship has God speaking and us responding, back and forth through the entire liturgy.  At the center of the covenant of grace is Christ and his work as our mediator.  So at the center of a biblical worship service is not us and our offering to God, but God and his gospel message for us.  The focus and emphasis is on God, the God who makes a covenant with his people through Jesus Christ.  The emphasis is on God, the one who maintains his covenant through Jesus Christ.  Loved ones, this is why the Word and sacraments stand at the center of our worship services – it’s because God is the driving force behind the covenant of grace.  It’s because Christ is at the center.  This exactly reflects what the Bible teaches about our relationship with God.  He’s pursued us and he has taken us for his own, he supports and upholds us – this is why we are a church that puts such an emphasis on the means of grace, on Word and sacrament ministry.  It’s because we understand and believe what the Bible teaches about the covenant.  This isn’t something you should ever want to give up.  You shouldn’t regard this as something negotiable or up for debate.

So the Holy Spirit has these tools that he uses.  He uses these tools of Word and sacrament on those who are in his workshop.  His workshop is the church of Christ, especially as she gathers for worship.  Loved ones, I urge you:  let the Holy Spirit do his work on you.  Take advantage of every opportunity to sit under the preaching and use the sacraments.  In so doing, you’ll be directed time and again to our great Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.  Through that and through your growing faith, God will be more and more praised.  AMEN. 

Prayer:

Gracious God,

Thank you for being so compassionate towards us.  You’ve shown us your grace in the means of grace.  We thank you for the preaching of the gospel.  We thank you for the sacraments too.  We thank you for your Holy Spirit who works through these means.  We pray that he would continue to do his work in a mighty way.  Please let the preaching of the gospel continue to create faith in our midst, especially amongst our children and young people, but also for any hypocrites or unbelievers.  We humbly beg you to give each one of us, head for head, the gift of faith in Jesus Christ.  Please work so that the preaching always points us to Christ.  Please work so our faith would always be in him.  We also pray that the sacraments would continue to strengthen our faith in Christ.  As we see baptisms administered, as we participate in the Holy Supper, O God, please help us so that our faith and commitment run deeper.  We pray that you would bless the ministry of Word and sacrament in our congregation, please bless it richly so that your name would be praised all the more.   

 




* 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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