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Author:Rev. Stephen 't Hart
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Melville
 Melville, Australia
Title:Divine sovereignty doesn't cancel human responsibility
Text:CD 3/4 art 16 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Bible Translation: ESV

Book of Praise: 2024

Psalm 40:1,2

Hymn 1

Psalm 95:1,3,4

Psalm 119:3

Psalm 40:7

Read:  2 Chronicles 30:1-12;  Revelation 3:14-22

Text:  Canons of Dort, Chapter 3&4, art. 16

* 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

Sometimes people who hold to the Reformed Christian faith - that's us - are called Calvinists.  We're called Calvinists because what we believe concerning the gospel is much in line with what was taught by the Reformer John Calvin.  As Calvinists we emphasize God's sovereignty, his authority over all things, including our salvation.  Calvinism is often connected to the truths regarding God's sovereign grace in our salvation as we've been learning about them in the Canons of Dort.  At times people also speak about the Five Points of Calvinism, namely Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and the Perseverance of the Saints.

  But sometimes people are also referred to as hyper-Calvinists, and never in a good way.  But what do people mean with that term, hyper-calvinist?

  When we normally hear the term "hyper" we think of noisy kids and red cordial.  When someone is "hyper", he or she is overly enthusiastic, super-excited and hardly able to contain themselves.  But hyper-Calvinists are something different.  In fact, a hyper-Calvinist is completely different, the exact opposite, of someone who is overactive.  There's something else that people sometimes mockingly call a Calvinist, and that's that they are the "Frozen Chosen."  And actually, that's what is meant by "hyper-Calvinist."  A hyper-Calvinist is someone who takes the teachings about God's sovereign decree of election and to takes this teaching to an extreme that ends up making us not more than a radio-controlled robot, or a puppet.  The frozen chosen.  Or, as the Canons puts it in chapter 3&4, article 16, as "blocks and stones."  In hyper-Calvinism, human responsibility, the call to evangelise and to preach the gospel to all people everywhere, the well-meant offer of the gospel, and the command to repent and believe is effectively ignored or denied.

  Now we would never call ourselves hyper-Calvinists and, in actual fact, it would be hard to find anyone who would call themselves that.  But are you a closet hyper-Calvinist? Are you a functional hyper-Calvinist?  What I mean is, does your understanding of God's sovereignty in our election lead you to the position where there is no room for human responsibility?  Are you so careful to insist on the truth that our salvation is entirely from God, from beginning to end, that you don't dare to call people to repent, to turn to God and to make good and wise choices in their life?  Does your sense of assurance in the fact that salvation is of the Lord lead you to be a bit ho-hum, a bit careless, even indifferent to the call to be in Church every Sunday, to make use of the word and the sacraments, and to call others to do the same?  What's the need for you to keep coming, to keep listening, to keep growing in the gospel?  And what's the need to call others to join you in this?

Let's think about these things, reflecting on our own thoughts, attitudes and actions, as we turn to God's Word and what we confess in chapter 3&4 article 16 of the Canons of Dort.  I preach God's Word to you under this theme:

Divine sovereignty doesn't cancel human responsibility

As we've made our way through the Canons of Dort, there are certain teachings and certain Bible texts that we've really focused on.  Texts and teachings that teach us that we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, without any merit of our own, and through Christ alone.  We've focused on texts such as Ephesians 2:8, that

"by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God."

And we've learned from Bible texts such as Ezekiel 36:26 that God says,

"And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh."

And so when it comes to our salvation, we've really learned about God's sovereignty and that our salvation is of the Lord from beginning to end.  And that is true.  But the Bible also teaches us something else.  The Bible also emphasizes human responsibility.  And the Bible teaches us that what we do, and what we do not do, has consequences.  As you read through the Bible you will learn that God tells us again and again that if you do "this", then God will do "that".  It is conditional language, the language of if/then.  A clear example of this is in Revelation 3:20 where the Lord Jesus says,

"Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, [then] I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me."

If you hear his voice, and if you open the door, then he will come in and be with you.  Now people sometimes use Revelation 3:20 as an evangelistic text.  By that I mean that people say that Jesus is knocking at the door of every heart and that the way to become a Christian is to lift up the latch and to let him, to invite him, to come in.  But that's not what Revelation 3:20 is all about.  In fact, the context of Revelation 3:20 is that the Lord is speaking to the church, specifically the church of Laodicea.  It is a word given to Christians, albeit sinful, luke-warm Christians.  Nevertheless, what Jesus did say was that if you do "this" then if he will do "that".  If you hear Christ's voice and open the door, then he will in to be with you.  What does that mean?  How are we to understand this?  And what does this say about the teaching that our entire salvation lies outside of ourselves and in Jesus Christ?

  We will get back to this Bible verse.  But in order to find an answer to how we are to understand this conditional if/then language in the Bible, let's first turn to the other Scripture reading for this afternoon's church service.  Let's turn to what we read in 2 Chronicles chapter 30. 

  In 2 Chronicles 30, Hezekiah, the king of Jerusalem, wrote to the northern tribes of Israel, calling them to join the people of Judah and Jerusalem in celebrating the Passover in Jerusalem.  Up until this time the Passover had not been kept as the LORD had decreed, and so in preparation for the celebration of the Passover, a letter was sent from the king, calling the people to humble themselves and to repent.  And it is this letter calling the people to repent, along with the response that I'd like to focus on right now.  This letter is a call to reform and to return to the Lord, with the promise that if the people did this, then God would bless them.  Let's go through this, starting at 2 Chronicles 30:6.

So couriers went throughout all Israel and Judah with letters from the king and his princes, as the king had commanded, saying, “O people of Israel, return to the Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, that he may turn again to the remnant of you who have escaped from the hand of the kings of Assyria.

Here we have a command, "Return to the LORD" with the consequence that God might then return to them.  That's conditional:  if the remaining people of the northern tribes of Israel, those who had not gone into exile, would return to the Lord, then the Lord would turn again to them.

  Verse 7 is a bit different, but it explains what happened to those who did not return to the LORD.

"Do not be like your fathers and your brothers, who were faithless to the Lord God of their fathers, so that he made them a desolation, as you see."

Here I want you to note the words, "so that".  The reason why they had become a desolation, why they so many had been killed and taken into exile, was because they were faithless to the LORD.  That was the consequence of their unbelief and their hardening of heart.  And so if the remaining people in northern Israel were to avoid the same punishment, then they would have to be faithful and not faithless.

  Verse 8,

Do not now be stiff-necked as your fathers were, but yield yourselves to the Lord and come to his sanctuary, which he has consecrated forever, and serve the Lord your God, that his fierce anger may turn away from you.

In other words, "If you yield yourselves to the LORD and come to the temple in Jerusalem and serve the LORD, then his fierce anger will turn away from you."

  Verse 9,

For if you return to the Lord, your brothers and your children will find compassion with their captors and return to this land. For the Lord your God is gracious and merciful and will not turn away his face from you, if you return to him.”

Here too, although the word "then" is not in this verse, the meaning is clear: if you return, then those who had been carried away into exile would return to the land.  And God will be merciful if you return to him.

  What we have here are conditional phrases where God's presence and his salvation is dependent on Israel's repentance and return to him.  If you do "this" then he will do "that".  Now 2 Chronicles 30 is not unusual in this respect.  The promise that if you serve the LORD, then he will bless you is a promise that is repeated in different ways again and again throughout the Bible.  But how does this fit in with God's sovereignty?  How does this fit in with the fact that our salvation is from the LORD?  How does this fit in with what the Bible says in Philippians 2:13, that is that "it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure"? 

  And what about us today?  What can we, as Reformed people, as Calvinists, say to people?  Can we say, can we tell them that if you repent and turn to the Lord, then he will forgive you and you will be saved?  Doesn't that put the focus back on man?  Isn't that all a bit ... Arminian?

  But, you see, that's where we fall in danger of misunderstanding the doctrines of grace.  That's where we fall in danger of becoming something like a hyper-Calvinist.  That's where we fail to understand the connection between God's sovereignty and human responsibility.  What we need to understand is that although the Fall into sin was a real fall into sin and the fall into sin left us dead in sin, and although we therefore speak of our total depravity and our inability to save ourselves, the Fall into sin did not mean that man stopped being man.  The Fall into sin did not mean that we were no longer human beings, created in the image of God.  The fall into sin did not mean that our will, our desires, our decisions and commitments no longer applied.   Have a look at the first sentence of article 16 of the Canons of Dort, chapter 3&4.

"Man through his fall did not cease to be man, endowed with intellect and will; and sin, which has pervaded the whole human race, did not deprive man of his human nature, but brought upon him depravity and spiritual death."

What this means is that we are still people and God deals with us as people.  Yes, the fall into sin brought about our total depravity and spiritual death.  But we did not cease to be man.  And therefore, the first half of the next sentence goes on to say,

"So also this divine grace of regeneration does not act upon men as if they were blocks and stones and does not take away the will and its properties, or violently coerce it . . ."

In other words, because we still have a brain, because we still have a will, God calls us to use that brain, he calls us to use that will, and he calls us to respond to his command to repent and to turn back to him.  And that means that when God calls us to repent, he does not look at us as though we were blocks and stones, lifeless objects, mere puppets, radio-controlled robots, but rather he looks upon as as living human beings, created in his image, endowed with a human intellect and will. 

  And yet - and this is important - and yet that does not mean that our salvation is not a combination of God's efforts and ours, of God's will and of our will.  But rather, what is does mean is that when we do repent and when we do turn to God and believe the gospel, this is the result of God's work within us.  What that means is that when God comes to us in our fallen, sin-filled state, he first enters us, he takes us, he changes us, and he makes us alive so that our will and our desires come alive and we turn to him in faith.  Let's turn back to 2 Chronicles 30 in order to see this.  When the people heard the call to repent and to turn back to God, there were different responses.  First of all, verse 10-11.

So the couriers went from city to city through the country of Ephraim and Manasseh, and as far as Zebulun, but they laughed them to scorn and mocked them. 11 However, some men of Asher, of Manasseh, and of Zebulun humbled themselves and came to Jerusalem.

So there was one message but two responses:  most rejected the call to repent and laughed, but others humbled themselves and came to Jerusalem.  Now if that's where the story ended, and we had no other passage in Scripture to go by, we might conclude that with respect to those who humbled themselves, that this was their own work, their own doing.  But now look carefully at verse 12.

The hand of God was also on Judah to give them one heart to do what the king and the princes commanded by the word of the Lord.

Why did the people of Judah listen to the king, repent and come to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover?  It was because the hand of God was upon them, and the hand of God gave them "one heart" to do what the king commanded by the word of the LORD.  The people of Judah listened, and they repented.  But they did so because God had worked this repentance in their hearts.  But that was not just the case for the people of Judah; it was also for the people in the northern part of Israel that were mentioned in the verses before this.  Have a look at those first words of 2 Chronicles 30:12 again. 

"The hand of God was also on Judah."

In other words, it was the hand of God that was also on the people of Asher, Manasseh and Zebulun, the people in Northern Israel, so that they humbled themselves and came to Jerusalem.  And so what we learn from this is that they really and truly humbled themselves, they really and truly repented, but the reason why they did this is because it was "the hand of God" that was upon them.  God had done it, and therefore they responded.  God did not work outside of their will and desires, but he changed their will and desires so that they might respond to him in obedience.

  And that's what the Canons of Dort is teaching us also.  Let's go back to the second sentence of article 16.

So also this divine grace of regeneration does not act upon men as if they were blocks and stones and does not take away the will and its properties, or violently coerce it, but makes the will spiritually alive, heals it, corrects it, pleasantly and at the same time powerfully bends it. As a result, where formerly the rebellion and resistance of the flesh fully dominated, now a prompt and sincere obedience of the Spirit begins to prevail, in which the true, spiritual renewal and freedom of our will consists.

This, then, is an amazing thing about God's work of regeneration, of causing us to be born again.  When you are converted or born again, in one sense you become a new creation:  2 Corinthians 5:17 tells us that.  But at the same time, when you are converted or born again, you do not stop being you!  Instead, what has happened, is that God has taken your heart and he's changed it, he has taken our will and has bent it.  If he didn't do this but instead left us to our own devices, the last sentence of article 16 of the Canons says, we could never have been converted.  But since he has done it, our will is made alive and we now want to seek after God and to live for him.  We could never have done it if God hadn't changed us in the first place, but because he has changed us, we are now alive and able to repent and believe.

  And that, then, is also how we are to understand those if/then statements, those condition clauses, in the Bible.  "Behold, I stand at the door and knock", Jesus said in Revelation 3:20.

"If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me."

We are not blocks and stones.  We are not robots.  We are living flesh and blood human beings.  And God addresses us as living flesh and blood human beings.  We are called to listen, we are called to make a choice.  And if we do, then God will answer and do what he said.  But at the same time, God is still sovereign.  At the same time he is still the one who makes that which was dead alive, who makes that which was unwilling willing.  And so it is not as though the Lord Jesus is outside your heart, desperately knocking but unable to do anything until you unlock and open the door.  Instead, how we are to see this is that the Holy Spirit takes the word that is preached, he impresses it on your heart, in fact he changes your heart, so that not only does he cause you to respond, but he causes you to want to respond.  And that's good!  That's wonderful.  Because, article 16 concludes,

"if the wonderful Maker of all good did not deal with us in this way, man would have no hope of rising from his fall through his free will, by which he, when he was still standing, plunged himself into ruin."

Divine sovereignty doesn't cancel human responsibility because we are not blocks and stones.  When God's Holy Spirit enters us to bring about that work of regeneration and rebirth he does not work outside of our will and desires but he bends them according to his will.  And when we understand that, then we will not be hyper-Calvinists, the frozen chosen.  Then we will not be too afraid to speak of human responsibility, of the need to repent, the need to change.  Then we will not be too cautious to call people to make a choice.  And then we will understand and embrace those many times in the Bible when God says "if you do this then I will do that."  And then, as we will see in the next article of the Canons, we will both make the call and listen to the call to submit ourselves to the preaching of the gospel, to the use of the sacraments, and to church discipline.  Then we will see the need to pray for God's grace and his Holy Spirit that we might put the flesh to death more and more through the Spirit of prayer and by holy exercises of godliness, and to long and strive for the goal of perfection until at last, delivered from this body of death, we will reign with Christ in heaven.  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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