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Author:Rev. Stephen 't Hart
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Melville
 Melville, Australia
Title:Dry bones made alive
Text:CD 3/4 art 12-13 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Bible Translation: ESV

Book of Praise: 2014

Psalm 96:1,2,4

Hymn 1

Psalm 126:1,2

Hymn 6:1,2

Hymn 8

Read:  Ezekiel 37:1-14
Text:  Canons of Dort, chap. 3&4, art. 12-13

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

Congregation of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The book of Ezekiel is one less well known and understood books of the Bible, but most Christians would have heard about the Valley of Dry Bones.  It's an incredible vision that Ezekiel had:  to see a valley full of human bones, bones that were so old and so dry that there was not a smidgeon of life or even moisture left in them.  But then Ezekiel has to speak to those bones, prophesy to them, and there's a rattling as they came together, bone to its bone.  Then sinews, then flesh.  And then they begin to breath, and then they stand up.  It's a strange vision, but it's a powerful one.  Who could have imagined that those dry bones would come to life?

  Now those bones represented the nation of Israel, a nation that had been decimated, it's city of Jerusalem destroyed, and it's people sent into exile.  But in a very real way those bones also represent us!  Us, who were dead in our sins and our trespasses.  Us, who were separated from the God of life and had no hope for the present or the future in and of ourselves.  But when were dead in our trespasses, God made us alive together with Christ.

  That's good news!  That's the gospel!  But the good news gets even better than that.  Because if God could bring back his people Israel to life, and if God could bring us back to life, then God can give that life to anyone whom he, in his sovereign good pleasure, is pleased to do so.  As Christians, we can sometimes get depressed.  As Christians we can sometimes wonder what's going to happen to our families, to our church, to our nation and to the world and to everyone in it.  Sometimes we look at the things that are going on and we get discouraged.  Sometimes it seems as though we're involved in a losing battle and there's just nothing that can be done about it.  But the vision of the Valley of Dry Bones in Ezekiel 37 teaches us that things are not the way they may seem, but that God is on his throne, he is sovereign, and he - and he alone - can make these bones live!  And so turning to God's Word in Ezekiel 37, and in connection with the Canons of Dort chapters 3&4, article 12-13 I preach God's Word to you under this theme:

Dry bones made alive

1. What God does

2. How God does it


1. What God does

To be converted and so become a Christian is the most amazing thing you could ever imagine.  In fact, it is so amazing that the Bible describes it again and again, using different words to do so.  Some of those words are listed in the first sentence of chapter 3&4, article 12, of the Canons of Dort.  This is what that sentence says:

"This conversion is the regeneration, the new creation, the raising from the dead, the making alive, so highly spoken of in the Scriptures . . ."

The first word here is the word "conversion" itself.  We learned what conversion is in chapter 3&4, article 11 of the Canons.  It's what happens to us when the gospel preached and God enlightens our minds by the Holy Spirit so that we might understand the gospel and believe it.  The Bible uses this word in Acts 15:3 where it says that Paul and Barnabas went through the churches "describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles".

  Another word for "conversion" is the word "regeneration."  At times we use the words regeneration, and also conversion, to describe the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer, and that's how these words are used, for example, in the Belgic Confession article 24 and the Heidelberg Catechism Lord's Day 33.  But here in the Canons of Dort, the words "conversion" and "regeneration" refer to the actual event of being converted, of being born again.  The Bible uses that word, being born again, not just in John chapter 3, but also in 1 Peter chapter 1:3 where it says where it says that according to God's great mercy,

"he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead . . ."

And 1 Peter 1:23 says that you have been born again

". . . through the living and abiding word of God."

This being born again is what is meant by the word "regeneration" in article 12 of the Canons of Dort

  Another way the first sentence of article 12 in the Canons describes this is that this conversion is "the new creation."  That comes from 2 Corinthians 5:17 where it says,

"Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come."

Conversion is also "the raising from the dead."  Colossians  2:12, for example, says that we have been raised with Christ

". . . through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead."

Connected to this, the Canons also speak about conversion as "the making alive." Colossians 2:13 says,

"And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses . . ."

Adding all of these descriptions of what it means to be converted together, we can well understand why the Canons of Dort calls it

". . . a most delightful, marvelous, mysterious, and inexpressible work."

It really is the most wonderful thing ever.

And it is also the most important thing to ever happen to us.  And I should point out here that this conversion or regeneration is not only necessary for new believers, that is, for people who come from a non-Christian background, but it is important for every one of us.  Remember Nicodemus, in John chapter 3.  Nicodemus was introduced as a Pharisee, a ruler of the Jews.  He himself, therefore, was circumcised and a part of the people of God.  But Jesus still said to him in verse 3 that "unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God."  And so this is not just something for others, for those who come from outside God's covenant and the congregation, but this is important for us all!  We all need to be born again.  We all need to be converted, to be regenerated, in order to enter the kingdom of heaven.  No, we will not all experience our conversion in the same way, but this is still something that has to happen to every one of us if we are to be saved.

But then how does it happen?  How do you get to be converted?  How can you be born again?  Is this God's work, or is it ours?  Or is it a combination of both God's work and ours?

  When the Canons of Dort were written at that great Synod of Dort in the 1600s, there was a debate going on between Reformed believers and those who are called Arminians.  Both the Reformed and the Arminians agreed that conversion is necessary but where they did not agree was on how this conversion happens.  More specifically, where they did not agree was on whether or not conversion is solely the work of God or if it is, in part, our own doing.  The Canons makes the Reformed position very clear.  The first sentence of chapter 3&4, article 12 says,

"This conversion is the regeneration, the new creation, the raising from the dead, the making alive, so highly spoken of in the Scriptures, which God works in us without us."

God works this in us without us.  In other words, it is God's work from beginning to end.  The Arminians, however, taught something else.  The Rejection of Errors numbers 7,8,9 describe this Arminan position in this way:  Whereas God made everything possible for you to be converted, he leaves it up to you to decide whether or not you really want to be converted.  And ultimately, therefore, you are the one who decides whether or not you want to be born again.  And you press the button, so to speak, by choosing to believe.   Now this Arminian position is still commonly taught today.  In his commentary on the Canons, Lest Any Man Should Boast, Rev. Art Van Delden quotes from the book Daughter of Grace by Michael Phillips and Judith Pella, where a mature Christian woman describes to a young girl why God does not dwell in everyone's heart.  This is what the book says:

"God is such a gentleman that he will never come into a place unless he's invited.  So he only lives in the hearts of the men and women who open the door to that little place down inside them. . . . God wants to make his home with us.  But he waits patiently and never beats down those doors.  You see, there's only one key to the door of every heart, and we're the only ones who possess it."

Now on the one hand that sound reasonable.  It even sounds kind and loving.  But is it true?  Is it true that God is standing there, waiting for you to invite him in so that you might be converted?  And is that really a kind and a loving thing to say?

  The answer is No, it is not true, and No, it is not a kind and a loving thing to say.  To the contrary, the Bible teaches us that if even the smallest part of our conversion and our salvation was left up to us, we could never be saved!  Let's go back now to Ezekiel chapter 37 to learn just how bad it really is, and just how critical it is that it is God, and God alone, who must work that new life in us, and that he must do this in us and without us.

Ezekiel 37 begins with the LORD bringing the prophet Ezekiel to a valley filled with dry bones.  This would have been a vision rather than a true-life event, but the vision was given to Ezekiel to encourage him with respect to something that was very much true to life.  This valley of dry bones represented the nation of Israel which had, for all intents and purposes, seized to be a nation.  For many years God's people had rejected him and gone their own way.  But for all the warnings that God had given them, they had, for the main part, laughed them away and believed that they would be ok, that Jerusalem would never be conquered, that the temple would always remain standing, and that a son of David would always be on the throne.  But when King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon invaded Jerusalem in 586 BC, destroyed the city, burned down the temple, and took the people into exile, everything went dark for them.  As a nation they were dead, they were gone, and it seemed as if nothing could bring them back.  With the destruction of the temple and of Jerusalem, they were cut off from the LORD.  And so they said, as Ezekiel 37:11 tells us,

"Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are indeed cut off."

As a nation, God's people Israel were dead, and as individuals they were as good as dead.  And that's what the valley of dry bones illustrates.  These bones were the bones of God's people Israel.  And even more, they illustrated God's people who had suffered the ultimate curse of God's covenant.  Verse 9 says that they had been slain, and their bones were strewn all over the valley.  That means that they died in battle, and just as God had warned them in Deuteronomy 28, their dead bodies lay where they fell, and they were not even buried.  They had been cursed.  They were rejected.  And they were dead.

  And then as Ezekiel looks at this terrible valley of death, the LORD asks him in verse 3,

"Son of man, can these bones live?"

Can these bones live?  Is there any hope for them to regain their life again?  The answer was obvious:  Of course not!  In and of themselves, those bones were as dead as dead can be.  Their life was gone.  It was finished.  The curse of death was on them and there was certainly nothing that those bones themselves, and there was nothing that any man, could do to bring them back to life.  And Ezekiel answered the LORD and he said,

"O Lord GOD, you know."

You know God!  You see, this was the problem!  This was why the people of Israel who were in exile were so despondent.  It is because they knew they were dead, they knew that humanly speaking, outside of God, there was no hope.  They knew that they could do nothing to resurrect themselves or to regain their life as the people of God.

  And isn't that what we are like too?  Isn't that what we are like outside of the grace of God and the working of his Holy Spirit?  Ephesians 2 tells us straight that by nature we are dead in our sins and in our trespasses.  By nature we are not the people of God and by nature we could never seek, let alone choose to be the people of God.  That's why we call it total depravity.  Because our fall into sin is total.  Because by nature we too are like that valley of dry bones.  And there is nothing we can do about it, nothing we can change.  If it was up to us, therefore, we could never save ourselves, we could never do even to the smallest thing to make us come alive.

  And that's why the Arminian teaching that the Holy Spirit is a gentleman, waiting outside of our hearts, waiting for us to invite him in, that's why that teaching is so wrong.  That's why it is not kind, and it is not loving at all.  And that's why we need God to do the work of regeneration in us and without us - as it says in the first line of article 12 of the Canons.  Our conversion, our regeneration, our being born again is the work of God's Holy Spirit from beginning to end.  It could not be any other way.

And that's good!  And that's encouraging!  And that's comforting.  You see, for as long as we think that our rebirth is up to us, for as long as we think that even the smallest part of being converted relies on ourselves, we would be so discouraged.  Because if it was left up to us, then no one could be saved.  This world is in a mess!  This world is dead!  Left to ourselves, we we're no more than a bunch dry bones with no life within us, and no way for us to even want to become alive, let alone do it.  But thanks be to God!  Because what we could never do, has done and he will do.  It is God alone, by the powerful regenerating work of his Holy Spirit, that can take that which was dead and make it alive.  It is God alone who can - and does - make dry bones live.

That brings us to our second point,


2. How God does it.

In the vision of the Valley of Dry Bones, Ezekiel was told in verse 4-6,

“Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. 5 Thus says the Lord God to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. 6 And I will lay sinews upon you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live, and you shall know that I am the Lord.”

Ezekiel was to prophesy to the dry bones.  But notice who would be doing the work, who would be bringing these bones back to life.  Not the bones themselves - of course not - but God.  The LORD says, "I will cause breath to enter you" and "I will lay sinews on you" and "I will cause flesh to come on you and cover you with skin and put breath in you."  God - and God alone - would do this.  It is in this way that he works, as it says in article 12 of the Canons, "in us without us." 

  And so that Israel, and we, would have no doubt as to what God meant by this vision in Ezekiel 37, he said in verse 12-14,

"Behold, I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will bring you into the land of Israel. 13 And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people. 14 And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I am the Lord; I have spoken, and I will do it, declares the Lord.”

And do it he will!  As article 12 of the Canons says,

"All those in whose hearts God works in this amazing way are certainly, unfailingly, and effectually regenerated and do actually believe."

He opens the closed and softens the hard heart, article 11 says.  And he makes the will, which was dead, alive; which was bad, good; which was unwilling, willing.  And so article 12 goes on to say,

"And then the will so renewed is not only acted upon and moved by God by, acted upon by God, the will itself also acts.  Therefore man himself is rightly said to believe and repent through the grace he has received."

If you are born again, if you are converted, you will seek after God, you will embrace the gospel, and you will choose to believe.  But only because of what God has done within your, only because it was he who gave you life.

But how, then, does God do this?  Well that's something that we cannot fully understand, article 13 reminds us.  Jesus said in John 3:8 that

"The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes."

And article 13 of the Canons rewords this to say that

"In this life believers cannot fully understand the way in which God does this work."

It is a mystery!  It is a miracle!  It is marvellous and clearly supernatural.  When you believe the gospel and so become a Christian and people ask, "What happened?"  you might be able to explain all the things happened to the point that it all fell into place and you embraced Christ as your Lord and Saviour.  You most likely are able to point to the means that God did this, to the way that you got to hear the gospel and so believed.  But when it comes to what it was that God did inside you and how that internal change actually came about, you will get to the point that you would have to say, "I don't know.  I do not know God exactly did it.  But this I know:  Once I was dead, but now I live.  Once I was blind, but now I see!"

For some of you, that moment when it all came together, that hour, that day, that week or that year in which you came to faith would be something that is clear to you.  For others among you, particularly for those of you who have heard the gospel from childhood, that might not be so clear.  But that's OK.  What is important is not so much when God did this work of conversion or regeneration in you, but that he did it.  And so article 13 of the Canons teaches us this:

In this life believers cannot fully understand the way in which God does this work.  Meanwhile, however, it is enough for them to know and experience that by this grace of God they believe with the heart and love their Saviour."

What we can know, and what we do know, is that we believe the gospel and we love our Saviour.  What we can know, and what we do know is we are no longer dry bones in the valley of God's wrath but living beings who dwell in his embrace.

And now finally, here's a few implications of this teaching.

First, if you wonder whether or not you really are converted, do not think that to be converted you need to have had a certain or a specific experience that is the same to everyone.  For some of you that experience would have been more sudden and more dramatic than for others.  But what is more important is that you see within yourselves the clear evidence and the  fruits of your conversion, and that is a heart that is turned to God and life that lived for him.

  Second, although this conversion is incomprehensible, the normal manner in which it occurs is not:  this faith the Holy Spirit works in our hearts by the gospel.  As Romans 10:17 says,

"So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ."

And so what that means is that for us, for our children and also for our loved ones, what is most important is that we hear that preaching, and that we pray for that preaching to take place everywhere, throughout the world.

  And a third implication has to do with evangelism, with sharing the gospel with others.  In my experience, many discussions with non-believers can end up being debates about different practices such as Sunday worship and different beliefs concerning creation, God's providence or the meaning of life.  While those discussions have their place, it's not really evangelism as such.  To evangelise is really to share the wonder of the gospel, to tell others about our salvation in Christ and the call to believe in him.  Our evangelism should be less focused on trying to prove a point or to convince others that what we believe is more rational that what they believe, and should be more bathed in prayer that God through His Holy Spirit might take the word that is shared and bring dry bones to life.

  And finally, as we do this, we do so in confidence that what we could never do, God can do, and he regularly does.  It is God and God alone who takes dry bones and makes them live.  Oh, what a gospel!  Oh, what a Saviour!  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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