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Author:Rev. Stephen 't Hart
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Melville
 Melville, Australia
Title:It's only by God's mercy that you get to hear the gospel preached
Text:CD 1 art. 3-4 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Bible Translation: ESV

Book of Praise:  2014

Psalm 67:1

Psalm 85:3

Psalm 25:2

Psalm 67:2,3

Read:  Acts 16:1-5

Text:  COD chapter 1, art. 3-4; R.E. chapter 1,9.

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Stephen 't Hart, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Brothers and sisters in our Lord Jesus Christ.

Having just read through the first 15 verses of Acts chapter 16, I have a question for you:  Why Lydia?  Of all the people in all the cities of the world at that time, why did Lydia get to hear the gospel and believe, and not somebody else?  Was there something special about Lydia that meant that Paul just had to preach the gospel to her?

  But the question is not just about Lydia, but also about us.  Why me?  Why you?  Why do we get to hear the gospel when many in this world do not?  Is there something special about us?

In addition to our Bible reading from Acts 16, we also read a section of the Canons of Dort.  The Canons were written at the International Synod of Dort in the Netherlands in 1618 & 1619 in response to a disturbance caused by followers of a man called Arminius.  Arminius was a teacher in the Reformed Church of the Netherlands in the early 1600s, and he and his followers, whom we speak of as Arminians, had different views about the teachings of salvation and the working of God's grace.  With respect to the question of "Why Lydia?" and "Why me?" the Arminians claimed that there must have been something better about Lydia - and something better about us - for the gospel to be preached to her and to us.  According to the Rejection of Errors article 1, number 9, they claimed that:

"God sends the gospel to one people rather than to another not merely or solely because of the good pleasure of his will, but because one people is better and worthier than another to which the gospel is not preached."

So the Arminian answer, therefore, is that Lydia got to hear the gospel because she was better and more worthy.  And you get to hear the gospel even while others do not because you are better and you are more worthy than others.

But that doesn't sound right, does it?  Can we really claim to be better or more worthy than others?  Surely not!  Remember what we learned last week, from article 1 and 2 of the chapter 1 of the Canons of Dort.  That all men have sinned in Adam, that we all lie under the curse, that we all deserve eternal death, and that "God would have done no one an injustice if it had been his will to leave the whole human race in sin and under the curse, and to condemn it on account of its sin."  But if it is not on account of my worthiness or your worthiness that you get to hear the gospel preached, it must be because of something else.  More correctly, it must be because of someone else.  And that someone else is God himself.  I preach God's Word to you this afternoon under this theme:


It's only by God's mercy that you get to hear the gospel preached.

1. Who gets to hear?

2. What gets to happen?


1. Who gets to hear?

Over the last two weeks the world has been shocked by the killing of an African American, George Floyd, under the knee of a  white American police officer.  It wasn't just the fact that George Floyd died: it was also how he died, and the seemingly callous disregard that the police officer had for this black man's life.  Many people have interpreted this as a shocking example of the deep-seated racism, particularly against so-called blacks and people of colour, in America and most other parts of the Western world.  Whatever we may think of the response to George Floyd's killing, any form of racism is anti-biblical and anti-gospel.  Racism is defined as prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one's own race is superior.  Such racism is not right.  And, although racism is clearly not just the sin of those who are considered "white" but it is to be found among all countries and all people throughout the world, it is right that we who live in a nation such as Australia recognise wrongs that have been committed, both past and present.  In his commentary on the Canons of Dort, Robert Godfrey wrote:

"The seventeenth century [the century in which the Canons of Dort was written] would see the rapid expansion of European commercial contacts with Africa, Asia, and the New World.  Commercial success often led to colonization and sometimes slavery.  Much of modern history is about the successes and tragic failures of colonialism.  At the heart of European failures was their profound sense of their superiority to the peoples they colonized and enslaved.  How different that history might have been had those Europeans really grasped the teaching here [in the Canons of Dort (SH)] and understood that they were not more worthy than others in the eyes of God.  Then they might have embraced the virtue of humility implied in this teaching.  Very regrettably, many Calvinists were no better than most non-Calvinists in really living out this teaching."  ("Saving the Reformation: The Pastoral Theology of the Canons of Dort, p112.)

Robert Godfrey makes an important point here.  Our theology, that is our understanding of the teachings of Scripture, must have a profound impact on our lives.  What Scripture teaches us about ourselves and about others must shape the way that we think about ourselves and about others.  And not only what we think about them, but also how we treat them.  When it comes to how we view ourselves and compare ourselves to others, we should not take on the attitudes or even the language of the world but see to it that our behaviour and our attitudes are shaped by the teaching of Scripture.

The gospel is the greatest leveller.  The gospel makes us humble.  The gospel teaches us that there is no difference between Jew and Gentile, black and white, male and female.  There is no difference between us in Adam, and there is no difference between us in Christ.

  There is no difference between people of different races, colour or language in Adam.  Although there is diversity among us, Acts 17:26 explicitly teaches us that God "made from one man every nature of mankind to live on all the face of the earth."  It is our togetherness in Adam that should be our starting point when we consider others in relation to ourselves.  We are together in Adam, and therefore by nature we are, together, sinners deserving eternal death.  For, as we saw in article 1 and can read in Romans 3, the whole world is accountable to God since "all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God".

  But there is also no difference between us in Christ.  1 John 2:2 reminds us that Christ

"is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world."

There is no difference between one person and another, nor between one race and another, making the one person or the one race more worthy of hearing the gospel than the other.

But if that's the case, who gets to hear the gospel, and who gets to be saved?

With respect to the question of "Who gets to be saved?" we'll be looking at that more closely in the coming weeks.  But already here in article 3 & 4 of chapter 1 of the Canons of Dort we learn that the ones who are saved are the ones who believe.  And the ones who believe the gospel are the ones to whom the gospel has been preached.  To summarize what we learn in the first four articles of the Canons:  the whole human race is one people in Adam.  As that one people in Adam, we all lie under sin, all lie under the curse.  The only way to be saved from the curse is to be saved in Jesus Christ.  And the only way to be saved in Jesus Christ is to believe in him.  But to believe in him you first need to be told about him. You need to hear the gospel preached.

But then who then gets to hear?

The Arminians of the 1600's, and many Christians still today will say that some people are better and more worthy than others.  Since, they say, God knew in advance who would by their own free will believe, he made sure that the gospel would get to those who would believe.  But that's not true.  It is the height of arrogance to suggest that you got to hear the gospel because you are more worthy than others.  In the Rejection of Errors number 9, the Canons of Dort give two Bible passages that clearly refute this idea.  Deuteronomy 10:14,15 says,

14 Behold, to the Lord your God belong heaven and the heaven of heavens, the earth with all that is in it. 15 Yet the Lord set his heart in love on your fathers and chose their offspring after them, you above all peoples, as you are this day.

It was God who set his heart to love the nation of Israel, it was his decision to do so.  And earlier in the book of Deuteronomy, in chapter 7:6-8, the LORD had explicitly told Israel that there was nothing about them that made them more worthy; the only reason he had chosen them and not others was because of his sovereign love."

  And that applies to us also.  There is nothing about us, and most certainly nothing about our race, our skin colour or our culture, that makes us more worthy, more deserving, to hear the gospel preached than anyone else.

But then who does get to hear the gospel preached?  Simply those whom God, in his good pleasure, chooses to have hear the gospel.  The first sentence of article 3 of Chapter 1 of the Canons of Dort says,

"So that men may be brought to faith, God mercifully sends heralds of this most joyful message to whom he will and when he wills."

Ultimately, therefore, it is the will of God that determines who will get to hear the preaching of the gospel. 

  With respect to the will of God, we sometimes speak about the two wills: his revealed will and his secret will.  God's revealed will is clear: the gospel ought to be proclaimed universally and without discrimination to all peoples and to all men.  (Chapter 2, article 5 Canons of Dort.). We are called to make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:18), proclaiming the gospel to the whole creation (Mark 16:15).  And his disciples were commanded to be Christ's witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth (Acts 1:8).  This is what God has commanded us to do, and it is our responsibility to ensure that this missionary mandate is faithfully carried out so that the whole world may know.   But although Christ has commanded us to proclaim the gospel to all people everywhere, not everybody does in fact get to hear.  And there we have God's secret will, those whom he in is good pleasure, determines will in fact get to hear.  And that bring us back to Acts 16 and the question of "Why did Lydia get to hear the gospel?"  Reading through the book of Acts we learn that it was not a random act of chance, of Lydia happening to be in the right place at the right time, that got her to hear the gospel preached, but it was by the hand of God.

  In Acts 13 the Holy Spirit Himself set Paul and Barnabas apart to preach the gospel.  And, Acts 14:27 says, it was God himself who had "opened a door of faith to the Gentiles."  Then in Acts 16 we learn how again and again the Lord directed Paul in his journey.  Have a look at that, in Acts 16:6-10.

6 And they went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. 7 And when they had come up to Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them. 8 So, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas. 9 And a vision appeared to Paul in the night: a man of Macedonia was standing there, urging him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” 10 And when Paul had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go on into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.

Notice that it was the Holy Spirit who prevented them somehow from preaching the Word in Asia and also Bithynia.  It is not that these places were less worthy to receive the gospel and at a later time the gospel was indeed preached there as well.  But God was determined that Paul would go to Macedonia and to the city of Philippi.  And when Paul got there, the Lord saw to it that Lydia - who came from the city of Thyatira -  would be there to hear the word preached.  And then notice what God did to her in verse 14.

"One who heard us was a woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple goods, who was a worshipper of God.  The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul."

The Lord opened her heart, and so she believed and was baptised.  But then why Lydia?  Could Lydia dare to beat her chest and say, "How good am I"?  The very idea is ridiculous.  But not only it is ridiculous: it is dangerous.  Because I dare not beat my chest to declare that either I or my race is better, more worthy than anyone else.  I dare not come to God with the idea that somehow I have made it, somehow I have done something that made me worthy to hear the good news.  Rather all I can do is humble myself before God and to thank him for the fact that it was in his mercy that he had the Good News proclaimed to me.


2. What gets to happen?

The preaching of the gospel is a gift of God's mercy.  And the reason why it is a gift of his mercy is because of what the preaching does.  The preaching is not simply a Bible lesson that you may or may not find interesting.  It is not just a teaching session where you may or may not learn something new.  Rather, the preaching of the gospel calls you to believe.  As article 4 of the Canons puts it, it calls you to receive the gospel, the promise of the forgiveness of sins and everlasting life through the one sacrifice of Jesus Christ accomplished on the cross.  And more, it calls you to "embrace Jesus the Saviour with a true and living faith."  The preaching calls for this response.  It calls you to recognise your sin and to flee to your only Saviour.  It calls you to put your hope and your confidence in him.   Have a look again at the different words that article 4 uses to explain what the preaching of the gospel does.  You see there the words believe, receive, embrace, a true and living faith, and to be delivered from the wrath of God. 

  True faith, therefore, is not some airy feeling, a "spiritual connection" with a divine being.  Nor is it a matter of mental gymnastics where you park all sense of rational thinking at the door in order to try believing the "impossible".  Rather, the call to believe is the call to accept the Word of God is true and then to be personally convinced that the promises of the gospel are not just true for others but they are true for you.  That you accept the "most joyful message" of the gospel, that you receive Christ as your Saviour, that you embrace him as the One through whom you receive eternal life.  And it is through the preaching of the gospel that we are brought to this faith.  The Heidelberg Catechism puts it well in Lord's Day 31, answer 84, when it says,

"According to the command of Christ, the kingdom of heaven is opened when it is proclaimed and publicly testified to each and every believer that God has really forgiven all their sins for the sake of Christ's merits, as often as they by true faith accept the promise of the gospel."

But that's not the only thing that the Preaching of the gospel does.  The preaching, God's Word tells us, is like a two edged sword, and it has two different outcomes.  Not everyone believes the preaching of the gospel and some will reject it.  Article 4 of the Canons says,

"The wrath of God remains upon those who do not believe this gospel."

That's what the Lord Jesus himself teaches us in John 3:36 where it says,

"Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him."

And, to quote the second half of answer 84 of the Heidelberg Catechism,

"The kingdom of heaven is closed when it is proclaimed and testified to all unbelievers and hypocrites that the wrath of God and eternal condemnation rest on them as long as they do not repent.  According to this testimony of the gospel, God will judge both in this life and in the life to come."

This is true, this is what we see with our own eyes, and this is what the Bible says: there is a two-fold outcome to the preaching.  As the apostle Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 1:23-24,

"But we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God."

So now, where does that leave us?  First of all, for both yourselves and your loved ones, recognise the importance of the preaching of the gospel.  Do not neglect this means of grace that God has mercifully provided, but come to church and place yourself under the preaching, praying that God might convict you again and again of the truth of the gospel and that you might grow in a true and living faith, receiving and embracing Jesus Christ your Saviour.  Seek the Lord while he may be found.  Be warned by the words of, for example, John 1:11, where it says that Christ

"came to his own, and his own people did not receive him."

But then be comforted by the promise of John 1:12, that

"to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God."

The twofold outcome of the preaching of the gospel should not leave you with the question, "But what if I was never meant to believe anyway?"  Rather, as we will see later in chapters 3&4, article 8, of the Canons, we should be assured that

"as many as are called by the gospel are earnestly called, for God earnestly and most sincerely reveals in his Word what is pleasing to him, namely, that those who are called should come to him.  He also earnestly promises rest for their souls and eternal life to all who come to him and believe."

Therefore be humble.  Recognise that it is only by God's mercy that you hear the gospel preached.  But be very sure that promise of the gospel is a real promise, and that whoever believes in Christ Jesus will not perish but have eternal life.  Amen.

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Stephen 't Hart, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2020, Rev. Stephen 't Hart

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