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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
 
Title:God uses his law to make mature Christians
Text:LD 44 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:10th Commandment (Jealousy)
 
Preached:2021
Added:2021-03-26
 

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Psalm 75:1-3

Hymn 11:1,2,8

Hymn 11:9

Hymn 1

Hymn 74

Scripture readings:  Romans 7, Philippians 3:1-4:1

Catechism lesson: Lord's Day 44

* 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,

When you’re young, time often seems to drag on – except when it’s the summer holidays, of course.  But otherwise it seems like it’s going to take forever to become an adult.  Day after day you go to school and it feels like your life is stuck in slow motion.  You become restless and long for the time when you’re an adult and you can be your own person.  When you’re an adult, you can make your own choices, have a certain amount of freedom.

We can find a similar feeling of restlessness in the Christian life.  Every day we face a struggle against sinful desires waging war against our souls.  Every day the challenge is there to put our sinful nature to death and to live out of our new nature.  All of this makes us feel restless.  We long for the rest that remains for God’s people in Jesus Christ.  We yearn for the day when we’ll be glorified and perfected.  The time is coming when we will reach the full measure of maturity.  But that time isn’t yet.  And so Christians feel a measure of spiritual restlessness. 

The preaching of the Ten Commandments also plays a role in this.  When we learn about the tenth commandment we get a summary of what God wants from us:  he wants our entire heart, all our desires – he wants us to be totally committed to him.  The commandment about coveting is therefore not just about coveting – it’s about what lives in our hearts.  And that’s what God’s law in general is concerned about in the first place.  When we’re faced with that, then we become restless.  Because we know the truth.  We’re not yet at the point of maturity.  Each and every believer is on a journey of growth and transformation.  The preaching of the law is a way God leads us further on this journey.  So our theme this afternoon is this:

God uses his law to make mature Christians

We’ll learn how this happens through the working of:

  1. Humility
  2. Holiness

Let’s first define “humility.”  Humility is the opposite of pride.  When someone is humble, they look at themselves the way they should – they have a realistic understanding of who they are.  In Romans 12:3, we read these words, “For by the grace given to me I say to every one among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment...”  As believers, we accept God’s Word about who we are and we think of ourselves accordingly.  Pride is a virtue in our culture.  But in Christian ethics it has always been and still remains one of the seven deadly sins.  God calls believers to humility.

So when we come to the tenth commandment, we’re going to be realistic about our shortcomings.  Our Catechism says, “That not even the slightest thought or desire contrary to any of God’s commandments should ever arise in our heart.”  That’s a heavy demand.  Who can do this?  When we look at ourselves realistically, we know this is impossible to keep consistently.  After all, it speaks about the “slightest thought or desire.”  That means I can’t even have a sliver of a doubt.  That means my thoughts during the worship service can’t wander even for a second.  I can’t start thinking about other things while the congregation is praying together.  I must always be filled with joy when it’s time to go to church.  There can’t be the slightest bit of disrespect for parents or office bearers or anybody else in authority over us.  There can’t even be a hint of an unchaste thought.   And so on.  If I fall short in any of this, I’ve broken the tenth commandment and so also broken the whole law of God.   So indeed, who can do this? 

As we think about this, we come to realize our Catechism is right:  “In this life even the holiest have only a small beginning of this obedience.”  Think of the holiest person you know.  Then realize that even the ones in whom Christ has worked a greater degree of sanctification, even these people have made just a small beginning.  Even the holiest Christians have every reason to be humble before God and their neighbours.  Even the holiest believers have no reason to be proud. 

Well, if that’s the case, then why does God want the Ten Commandments preached so strictly?  The question assumes that God does want the Ten Commandments preached strictly.  That’s a fair assumption considering what we see happening in the New Testament.  All you have to do is read the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7 and you can see that when our Lord Jesus came, he didn’t come to put away the Ten Commandments away.  He actually reinforced them and showed their true depth and meaning.  So, yes, it’s fair to say that God wants the Ten Commandments preached strictly. 

But now why?  Our Catechism gives two good reasons.  Let’s look at the first reason right now and we’ll deal with the second one later on.  The first has to do with humility:  “that we may more and more become aware of our sinful nature, and therefore seek more eagerly the forgiveness of sins and righteousness in Christ.”  In other words, God wants the law preached so that we’re realistic about ourselves.  We look in the mirror of his law and, apart from the work of the Holy Spirit in us, the picture isn’t pretty.  The demand of the law is plain.  Our Lord Jesus said it in Matthew 5:48, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  When we look honestly at our lives, we know that we’re far from perfect.  Just think about the whole matter of desires and thoughts mentioned by the tenth commandment and then we don’t have to look very far.  We can see what’s left over of our sinful nature, lingering.    

Paul saw it in himself too.  This was the apostle Paul, he might be considered to be among the holiest of God’s people in history.  But he felt the inner struggle within himself.  He knew there was a conflict between the remnants of his old nature and his new nature in Christ.  Though he was a new creation in principle, the fact remained that he still struggled with sinful desires belonging to an old nature.  This led him to make that statement in Romans 7:24, “Wretched man that I am!  Who will deliver me from this body of death?” 

Now someone might say that Paul isn’t talking about his present condition there.  Some say he’s writing about what he was like when he was under the law as a Jew.  Paul was a wretched man before he was converted to Christ, but now he’s a new creation.  There’s nothing left over of the old nature, there’s only the renewed nature in Christ.  However, this won’t stand up to a careful reading of Romans 7.  In the first part of Romans 7, Paul talks about being under the law.  He writes about a life apart from Christ.  That’s true.  But in verse 14 we find a shift.  Paul begins using the present tense.  He says, “I am of the flesh,” not “I was of the flesh.”  He says, “For I do not understand my own actions,” not “I did not understand my own actions.”  And in verse 21, “So I find it to be a law,” not “I found it to be a law in the past.”  Finally, in verse 24, Paul says, “Wretched man that I am!”  not “Wretched man that I was.”  Paul is clearly speaking about a present reality.  The reality is that in God’s sight he has been declared righteous through faith in Christ.  But the reality is also that life in this world means life in a body of death, a body that still has the remnants of an old nature.  Not that what’s left of the old nature consistently controls us, but those remnants are still there and there’s still a struggle against them. 

The book of Romans was crucial to bring the Reformer Martin Luther to understand how to be righteous before God.  Even before he wrote his famous 95 Theses in 1517, Luther wrote a commentary on the book of Romans.  On this part of Romans 7, he wrote this and I quote,

You see, it is just so as I said before:  believers are at the same time sinners while they are righteous.  They are righteous because they believe in Christ, whose righteousness covers them and is imputed to them.  But they are sinners, inasmuch as they do not fulfill the Law, and still have sinful lusts.  They are like sick people who are being treated by a doctor.  They are really sick, but hope and are beginning to get, or be made, well.  They are about to regain their health.  Such patients would suffer the greatest harm by arrogantly claiming to be well, for they would suffer a relapse that is worse than their first illness. 

And it’s not just Romans 7 that leads us to this way of thinking.  We hear similar thoughts coming from Paul in Ephesians 4:23-24.  Paul writes there about the ongoing process of putting off the old nature and putting on the new nature.  We see something similar in Philippians 3.  Listen to what it says in the first part of verse 12 there, “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect…”  Now you might hear that and think we can go along with that quite easily.  But hold on for one second.  What does it say in Hebrews 10:14?  “For by a single offering  he [Christ] has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.”  Hebrews 10:14 uses the same verb Paul uses in Philippians 3:12.  Paul says that he has not been made perfect.  Hebrews says that all believers have already been made perfect.  Which is it?  Does the Bible contradict itself?  Well, no.  It’s not an “either…or.”  It’s a “both…and.”  It depends on your point of view, whether it’s from the point of view of justification (our being declared right by God) or sanctification (the process of growing in holiness).  From the point of view of our justification – the point of view in Hebrews 10:14, we are perfect in God’s eyes through Christ.  But from the point of view of our sanctification – the point of view in Romans 7 and Philippians 3, we’re far from being perfect.   We can even say that we are wretched, miserable sinners.  Why?  Because we still have the leftovers of our sinful nature with which we have to struggle.  We have to be honest and humble about that fact. 

The Puritan Thomas Watson put it well:

Though the saints have their golden graces, yet they have their leprous spots; seeing sin has made us vile, let it make us humble; seeing it has taken away our beauty, let it take away our pride…O look upon your boils and ulcers, and be humble!  Christians are never more lovely in God’s eyes than when they are loathsome in their own; those sins which humble shall never damn.” 

When we’re honest and humble in that way then we’re driven increasingly to Christ.  This is part of Christian growth and maturity.   In the words of the Catechism, “we seek more eagerly the forgiveness of sins and righteousness in Christ.”  Christ more and more becomes everything to us.  He increases and we decrease.  We more and more desire him to wipe away our remaining sinfulness and weakness.  We yearn for his righteousness to cover our unrighteousness.  We long to be with him so we can be fully redeemed from this body of death.  When that happens, then we’ll no longer be restless.  We’ll be fully at rest – no more struggles and conflicts within ourselves.  The battle will be over and we can rest in Christ as those who are finally perfect in every sense of the word.   But till then, the call to holiness remains and that’s also part of the way God leads us to maturity.

The tenth commandment has a negative side which can lead us to humility, but it also has a positive side intended to lead us to holiness.  Our Catechism explains it this way, “Rather, we should always hate all sin with all our heart and delight in all righteousness.”  I wonder if we ever think about hate as a part of the Christian life.  We may be tempted to believe the Christian life is only about love.  We love God and love our neighbour.  But there’s also a healthy hatred to which believers are called.  After all, we’re called to be imitators of God.  It’s clear how God hates sin and Satan.  Think of Proverbs 6:16-19, “There are six things that the LORD hates, seven that are an abomination to him:  haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that make haste to run to evil, a false witness who breathes out lies, and one who sows discord among brothers.”  God hates those things and so should we.  Proverbs 8:13, “The fear of the LORD is hatred of evil. Pride and arrogance and the way of evil and perverted speech I hate.”

This hatred for evil is part of living with earnest purpose “not only according to some but to all the commandments of God.”  Even though we have only a small beginning of obedience, with the Holy Spirit God gives us earnest purpose. He gives us a sincere desire to please him and live in his ways.  Our lives are more and more determined by the desires and purposes of the new nature we have in Christ. 

That leads us to the second reason for the strict preaching of the Ten Commandments.  God wants us to be zealous for good deeds.  He not only wants us to be realistic about who we are in this life, he also desires that we be passionate about serving him in his ways, pursuing holiness – which is to say a life set apart for God.  That drives us to pray to him.  That pushes us to depend on him and on the power of the Holy Spirit.  When we hear the strict preaching of the Ten Commandments, we’re reminded of the reason why we were redeemed by Christ.  We were bought with his blood so that, in the words of 1 Peter 2:9, we would “proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”  You could also think of Ephesians 1:4 which speaks about God’s choosing us.  The Holy Spirit says that it wasn’t because we were holy and blameless, but so that we would be holy and blameless. 

When we hear the strict preaching of the Ten Commandments, we’re driven to God more and more, seeking his face and strength.  We desire to be made more and more into his image.  We want people to look at us and to be able to see something of what God is like.  That happens more and more in this life.  But the process isn’t complete until the day we’re taken into glory by the Lord or when our Lord Jesus comes back. 

Let’s be clear that this isn’t first of all about external things.  Holiness is not about keeping up appearances.  That would be a superficial, unbiblical way of looking at holiness.  The zeal for God created by the strict preaching of the Ten Commandments begins in our hearts, with what we love, with our affections.  Our Lord taught us that all kinds of things well up from our hearts.   That includes deeds that are good in God’s sight.  Your inward attitudes and thoughts are where it all begins.  That’s why our Catechism speaks about being zealous.  Zeal is passion on steroids.  Being zealous means you’re on fire for something.  Believers are called to be on fire for holiness.  We’re to be passionate about the things God desires.

That was the attitude of the apostle Paul in our reading from Philippians 3.  Paul uses the image there of a race.  With every nerve and muscle straining, he’s pushing ahead to finish the race with passionate zeal.  That’s what he means in verse 14 when he says, “I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”  This wasn’t about earning something from God.  Paul isn’t talking here about getting right with God.  Rather, he’s talking about the process of sanctification.   Like all believers, Paul was a work in progress.  He knew God’s grace in Jesus Christ.  But he also knew God’s holiness and the call for his people to be holy too, to reflect God’s image.  That’s why he eagerly and zealously pushes forward in his Christian life.  And the strict preaching of the Ten Commandments ought to do the same for us.  Every time we go through this Catechism we’re reminded how the life of a Christian is a journey.  It’s a journey with ups and downs.  Someone once compared the Christian life to a yo-yo.  It’s up and down.  But it is a yo-yo being held by a man going up on an escalator.  There is progress, even when it doesn’t feel like it.  Even through the ups and downs of daily life, Christians are people growing in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ.

When we hear the preaching of the law, we’re led to pray for this process of growth in holiness to continue.  We’re restless for it.  We pray for movement forward in our lives.  Here we see the connection between prayer and sanctification.  Prayer is about what happens in our lives after we’ve been saved through the grace of God.  Prayer is about God changing and transforming our lives so we become the people we were redeemed to be.  In the coming weeks we’re going to learn more about the character and content of prayer, so we’ll leave it at that for now. 

As we come to the end of the section of our Catechism on the Ten Commandments, it’s helpful to remember that this is all in the third part of the Catechism.  We’re in the section on “Our Thankfulness.”  And we remember also that this thankfulness of ours, showing itself in the way we think and live, our attitudes and actions – this thankfulness is Christ working in us.  Our service to God, just like our salvation, is also a matter of grace.  It’s all grace all the time.  Remember Lord’s Day 32?  “Because Christ having redeemed us by his blood, also renews us by his Holy Spirit…”  Our good works are Christ’s good works in us.  And so when we make a beginning of holiness in our lives, we take none of the credit for ourselves.  Rather, we take every opportunity we can to point to our Saviour so he receives more praise and honour through us.  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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