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Author:Rev. Stephen 't Hart
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Melville
 Melville, Australia
Title:How does one come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ?
Text:CD 3/4 art 4-6 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Bible Translation: ESV

Book of Praise: 2014

Psalm 111:1,2

Psalm 111:5

Psalm 19:1,5

Hymn 50:1,4

Hymn 47:4,5

Read:  Romans 1:16-25; Romans 2:12-24

Text:  Canons of Dort chap. III/IV, art. 4-6.  R.E. 5



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

Beloved congregation of our Lord Jesus Christ.

How does a person come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ?  What's the process, what's the way for a person to be saved?  We all live in community.  We all have loved ones, we all have friends, family members and work colleagues that we'd love to see come to Christ.  We all know that there are many others, also those of other communities, other faiths and other nations who are spiritually lost.  We yearn for, we long for the day when they might turn to God in Jesus Christ and be saved.  But how does that happen?  How does a person come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ?  What does it take for them to become a Christian?

This is a question that needs an answer, that needs the right answer.  It needs an answer in the first place because we really want to see people saved.  But it also needs the right answer because it affects the way we will reach out to others, the way we conduct ourselves with respect to mission and evangelism.  And so turning to God's Word, particularly from what we've read from the letter to the Romans, and turning to what we confess in the Canons of Dort chapter 3&4, articles 4-6 I preach God's Word to you with the intention of answering this question:

How does one come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ?

1. Not by the light of nature

2. Not by the law

3. But by the Holy Spirit through the gospel

1. Not by the light of nature

So how does a person comes to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ?  Is our salvation the result of us finding our way up to God?  Is it the result of God finding his way down to us?  Or is it a bit of both, of meeting God half-way, where he does his bit and we do ours?

The Canons of Dort were written as a response to the teachings of the followers of Jacob Arminius.  These Arminians, as they are called, taught that our salvation is a combination of God reaching down to us and of us reaching up to him.  The Canons of Dort, however, teach us that if that was the case then we could never be saved.  Chapter 3 of the Canons begins by describing what we call "total depravity".  What we mean by this is that the Fall into sin was so complete that the Bible describes it as being effectively dead.  Chapter 3&4, article 1 says that by rebelling against God man has brought upon himself

"... blindness, horrible darkness, futility, and perverseness of judgment in his mind; wickedness, rebelliousness and stubbornness in his will and heart; and impurity in all his affections."

And, article 3 says, we are all

"conceived in sin and born as children of wrath, incapable of any saving good, inclined to evil, dead in sins, and slaves of sin."

That all sounds very serious.  That all sounds very condemning.  But is it really all that bad?  Is there no way, then, for man to find his way back to God?  In fact, is this even true?  Are we really that bad and, in and of ourselves, in such a hopeless state?

"Not so!" said the Arminian - and many a person even today.  "It's not really that bad.  All this talk about being "dead in sin" is unhelpful, even wrong.  You need to believe in yourself.  You need to believe in others.  You need to appeal to peoples' better natures and just help them along a bit to figure their salvation out for themselves.  There is, they say, some natural good - let's call it the light of nature - that can be found in every person.  And so what we should do, therefore is to appeal to that inner goodness, that "light of nature", telling people to fan that sense of goodness into a flame and so find their own way to God.

So for the Arminian, this "light of nature" is that longing for God and the inherent goodness that lies in the heart of every person.  This "light of nature" is enough to make a person seek after God by their own free will.  And when he does seek after God, then he will find him and will be saved.

But is this true?  Can you come to a saving knowledge and faith in Jesus Christ through something we might call the light of nature?  What is this light of nature anyway, and what the Bible have to say about it?

The Bible itself never uses the term "light of nature", but the Bible does acknowledge that God has not left anyone without a witness to who he is, and that even unbelievers have a notion of what is right and what is wrong and that most people believe in some sort of a God.  But what the Bible also teaches us - and this is important - is that this so-called light of nature is not enough to lead us to Christ, nor can we be saved through it.   Listen, first of all, to how the Canons of Dort describes this "light of nature" in chapter 3&4, article 4.

"To be sure, there is left in man after the fall, some light of nature, whereby he retains some notions about God, about natural things, and about the difference between what is honourable and shameful, and shows some regard for virtue and outward order."

What this means is that while we might be totally depraved, we are not completely depraved.  As man and woman we were created in the image of God and even after the Fall into sin there is something of that image and indeed something of our created humanity that remains.  We have a conscience, we have some sort of a recognition of right and wrong, and we are able to organise ourselves into communities and cities and countries where to some extent we can work together and laws and regulations for our individual and our common good.  But here's the question:  Can we use this "light of nature" to find our way to God?  The Arminian - and also the Roman Catholic too for that matter - would say "Yes:  by the power of your own reasoning you can not only seek God, but you can find him."  The Bible, however, says No.

We read together from the letter of Paul to the Romans.  The letter to the Romans describes the gospel, the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ.  In this letter we are confronted with the depth of our sin and of the only way to be saved from that sin, which is by faith in Christ.  But in Romans chapter 1, however, the apostle Paul first refers to something that sounds very much like this "light of nature."  Romans 1:18 says that what can be known about God is plain to them, that is the ungodly, "because God has shown it to them."  Romans 1:19-20 goes on to say,

19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made." 

The Bible teaches us, therefore, that he has revealed himself in a very real way to every person born into this world.  Indeed, even those who don't have the Bible can never say that God had not revealed himself to them.  To the contrary, the creation itself declares who he is. 

"The heavens declare the glory of God"

Psalm 19:1 says,

"And the sky above proclaims his handiwork."

God has not left the world without a witness.  That's important to realise and it is important to make use of in our evangelism and mission.  Indeed, the apostle Paul did so himself.  In Acts 14:15 Paul and Barnabas preached the gospel to the people of Lystra, teaching them about the God who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them.  From there he went on to say in Acts 14:16-17,

"In past generations he allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways. 17 Yet he did not leave himself without witness, for he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness.”

And in Acts 17, when he was in Athens, he spoke to the people about "the God who gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.  He went on to say in Acts 17:26-27,

"And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, 27 that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us ..."

So the apostle Paul appealed to the creation as evidence of the existence of God, he appealed to God's care over creation as evidence of his ongoing presence in the world, and he appealed to the searching and the restless heart of every person that lives outside of the grace of God.  But what Paul did not say - and this is important - is that God's creation can lead a person to a saving knowledge of God and of Jesus Christ.  Instead this light of nature witnesses against them.  Listen once more to what it says in Romans 1:18.

"For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth."

That's what mankind has done - and continues to do - with God's revelation of himself in creation.  He pushes it down, he pushes it away, he rejects it.  And Romans 1:21-23,

"For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things."

The light of nature, therefore, does not and cannot lead us to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ.  To the contrary, it condemns us and it leaves us in our sin.  To quote from the second half of article 4 of the Canons,

"But so far is he from arriving at the saving knowledge of God and true conversion through this light of nature that he does not even use it properly in natural and civil matters.  Rather, whatever this light may be, man wholly pollutes it in various ways and suppresses it by his wickedness.  In doing so, he renders himself without excuse before God."

This has consequences for our evangelism.  The Arminian would say that when it comes to sharing the gospel our starting point is not so much that we are all sinners in need of a Saviour, but rather our starting point is that we are all humans who by nature are seeking and searching for God.  It's like we've all got a "God-shaped hole" in our hearts that is just crying out to be filled.  All we need to do, therefore, is to take away anything that might keep them from filling their hearts with God and it we do that then they will most certainly be saved.  And what that means, the Arminian would say, is that our job is to make Church and Christianity attractive and to take away any hindrance that might keep them from accepting Jesus into their hearts.  And so the way to reach out to people who are not Christians and don't regularly come to church is to find out what they like with respect to friendships and music and activities and what they think they need and to focus on those things, while minimizing anything that might put them off.  And that "anything" includes the offence of the cross of Jesus Christ.  The focus is not so much on sin and the need to be made right with God, but more on having peace, prosperity, and happiness.  That's the way to win people for Christ, it is argued.

  But that is not what the Bible teaches.  The Bible's view on humanity is much more sober than that.  The Bible teaches us that there is none that is righteous, no not one.  The Bible teaches us that there is no one understands, no one seeks for God.  (Romans 3:10).

  How, then, does one come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ?  Is that light of nature, some inner goodness, going to lead him there?  No, not at all.  If anything that light condemns us; it does not save us. 

  And what holds for the light of nature also applies to the law of God.  We will see this in our second point.


2.  Not by the Law.

In his letter to the Romans the apostle Paul explained, as he made clear in Romans 1:16, that the gospel

"is the power for salvation for everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek."

This was something that needed to be understood not just by the Greeks, the Gentiles, but also by the Jews.  The Jews had no problem with saying that the Gentiles needed to be saved from their sin.  Afterall, by nature the Gentiles were ungodly, they were unrighteous.  Romans 1:29-31 says that

"They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, 31 foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless."

Clearly, therefore, this light of nature, God's revelation of himself in creation and also his moral law that he had written on their hearts, their conscience, had not led them to God.  To the contrary, they suppressed the truth in their unrighteousness.  And that is still the same for all those outside of the gospel today.

But the Jews needed the gospel just as much!  Listen to what it says in Romans 2:1.

Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things.

Ultimately there is no difference between any of us.  Not one of us can find God on our own.  Not one of us can make our own way to him.  There is no stepladder up to heaven for us to use.  To the contrary, we have all sinned and fall short of the glory of God.

And in his letter to the Romans the apostle Paul explained that that included the Jews.  The Jews had received the law, the Ten Commandments, but in and of itself the law brought them no closer to God and no closer to salvation.  To the contrary, the law convicted them of their sin.  Romans 2:13 says that

"it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified."

But that's the problem!  Because no one - neither Jew nor Gentile - can save himself, or even begin to save himself, by keeping the law, by being a good person.

That's what article 5 of the Canons teach us.  Let's read that again.

"What holds for the light of nature also applies to the Ten commandments, given by God through Moses particularly to the Jews.  For though it reveals the greatness of sin, and more and more convicts man of his guilt, yet it neither points out a remedy nor gives him power to rise out of this misery.  Rather, weakened by the flesh, it leaves the transgressor under the curse.  Man cannot, therefore, through the law obtain saving grace."

Should the law, then, be used for mission and evangelism?  Yes - but it must be used correctly.  One of the challenges you will face when you speak with people who are not Christians is the perception that if you try hard enough, sooner or later God will have to sit up and take notice.  And then, if you're good enough, either he'll open the gates of heaven to let you in, or at least he will look with favour on your attempt and somehow include that in his decision to save you.  But that's not true.  There is absolutely no way that the law can save us or that being a good person can count even one small bit towards our salvation.  It does not, and it cannot, work that way.   God demands perfection.  The more we see ourselves in the light of God's law, however, shows just how imperfect we really are.

But where, then, does that leave us?  How does one come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ?  If the light of nature can never do it and if the law accuses us, rather than excuses us, how then can we be saved?  The answer is that we cannot - in and of ourselves, that is.  Our salvation could never come from us.  But what we could not do, God has done for us.  And he does this by the Holy Spirit, through gospel preaching.  That brings us to our third point,


3.  By the Holy Spirit through gospel preaching.

Chapter 3&4, article 6 of the Canons says,

"What, therefore, neither the light of nature nor the law can do, God performs by the power of the Holy Spirit through the word or ministry of reconciliation, which is the gospel of the Messiah, by which it has pleased God to save men who believe, both under the old and the under the new dispensation."

There's no trick to being saved.  No new technique, no special music, no sound effects or even a special prayer.  In fact, if it was up to you, you could never save yourself - let alone anybody else!  Article 3 had already explained that

"without the grace of the regenerating Holy Spirit they neither will nor can return to God, reform their depraved nature, or prepare themselves for its reformation."

But what man could not do, God has done for us!  Salvation is of the Lord from beginning to end.  It was God who saved already in the Old Testament, and it is God who continues to save us today.  And he does that through His Holy Spirit, who is the Lord and giver of life.

  So what do we do then when eagerly long for our friends and colleagues to come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ?  What do we do as we long for gospel to be received by faith as we engage in mission and in evangelism?  The fact of the matter is that we cannot do it; rather we are fully dependent on God to save through His Holy Spirit.  But that's encouraging also!  As we share the gospel we can do so in the knowledge that ultimately it is not us and our cleverness that brings a person to Christ but the Holy Spirit.  All we do is bear witness to the gospel of Christ, leaving the end results to him.

  But the Holy Spirit does not work without means.  He works "through the ministry of reconciliation, which is the gospel of the Messiah."  Or, as Lord's Day 25 of the Catechism says, this faith comes

"from the Holy Spirit who works it in our hearts by the preaching of the gospel and strengthens it by the use of the sacraments."

And that means that the way people are called to faith is through the preaching and the proclaiming of the gospel.  As the apostle Paul himself said in Romans 10:14,

How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?

And that, in turn, means six things. 

  First, the ministry of the gospel must be maintained.  Pray for the preaching and support the preaching of the gospel both here in Melville Church and on the Mission field.  Pray that the Lord might use it to change hearts and to bring them to a saving knowledge and confession of the gospel of salvation in Christ.

  Second, make sure that it is, in fact, the gospel that is being preached.  A seeker-sensitive type of message that is designed to appeal to your better nature or to make you feel good rather than point you to salvation in Jesus is not the message of the gospel!  The promise of the gospel, that God graciously grants us forgiveness of sins and everlasting life because of the one sacrifice of Christ accomplished on the cross, is the central message of the preaching of the gospel.  That's the message that must be preached if it is to be believed.

  Third, make sure that come to church to hear the message of the gospel.  It is here in church that the Holy Spirit is active in a special way.  Don't stay home, therefore.  Don't ignore the call to come to church and to submit yourself to the regular preaching of the gospel, Sunday after Sunday.  And don't leave your children at home either; rather have them grow up in the household of God, praying that they too might be reconciled to God through the gospel that is preached.

  Fourth, invite others to come as well.  Church is not some sort of an elitist club where outsiders are never welcome.  Church, rather, is the place where all people, men and women, young and old, Jew and Gentile, rich and poor, all come together to hear the preaching of God's Word.  So call people to come, letting them know that they too are welcome to hear the message that we all need to hear and believe.

  Fifth,  whereas the gospel can never be changed and the offence of the cross may never be removed in an effort to be seeker sensitive and to make the gospel more attractive to others, we also need to be careful that we don't cloud the gospel or place stumbling blocks other than the cross itself in the path of another.  May this church be the place where the gospel is preached both fully and clearly - and may God's Holy Spirit then take what is preached and convict us, our families and those join us.

  And then my sixth and final thing is pray.  Pray that God will bring about the conversion of those who hear the gospel message.  Pray that He will soften hard hearts.  Pray that he will bring about a conviction of sin and the experience of the joy of forgiveness so that in this way our loved ones, our friends, our family, or neighbours and indeed people from every tribe and tongue and nation might come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ and so have life in his name.  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 2021, Rev. Stephen 't Hart

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