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Author:Rev. Reuben Bredenhof
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 reubenbredenhof.com
 
Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Mt. Nasura
 Mt. Nasura, Western Australia
 frca.org.au/mountnasura/
 
Title:For fortifying feeble faith God gives the sacraments
Text:LD 25 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Administering God's Blessing
 
Preached:2022
Added:2022-03-06
 

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Ps 33:1,6                                                                                          

Hy 1

Reading – Exodus 12:1-28; Romans 4:9-25

Ps 105:2,3,4

Sermon – Lord’s Day 25

Hy 71:1,2

Ps 56:4,5

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.


Beloved in Christ, the Lord Jesus once rebuked his disciples for being ‘slow to believe.’ I think those words are fitting for us too. We’re slow to believe. Not just with God’s promises, but in other situations too, we hold back with our acceptance. Say a person tells us some surprising news, makes a big claim. We’re sceptical: “Where’s the proof?” we say, “Show me that it’s true. It’s probably fake news.”

It happens with the gospel too. Our faith can be pretty feeble, often inconsistent. Feeling strong and robust one day, we are utterly deflated the next. Sometimes a person goes through long periods of doubt, when he says, “What if it’s all too good to be true? Or how do we know that the Bible is the only truth?” Or we struggle when it doesn’t feel like God loves us, like God is near us. Or moments when we realize how we must depend on the Lord—trust God in our trouble—and it seems so hard. We can be slow to believe.

Thankfully, God knows all this about us. He is a loving and patient Father, one who teaches us his Word, and it is a “pure Word, like silver refined seven times” (Ps 12:6). And aware of our weakness, God strengthens our faith. He gives opportunities when we can actually see his precious gospel with our own two eyes. He confirms the greatness of his love for us in a most memorable way, picturing it plainly and physically.

That is what the sacraments are: holy, visible signs and seals, given to strengthen our faith. I preach God’s Word on that theme, from Lord’s Day 25,

For fortifying our feeble faith, God gives sacraments:

  1. they are holy
  2. they are signs
  3. they are seals

 

1) they are holy: If we’re not paying attention, we might skip right over a key word in Answer 66, when the Catechism describes what the sacraments are. They are “holy, visible signs and seals.” Just underline that word “holy.” It’s not a bit of filler, a throwaway adjective. It carries important meaning. The sacraments are holy.

What does it mean to be holy? The Catechism students could help us out. They’d answer without any hesitation at all that something holy is ‘set apart.’ It’s special, reserved for an honourable purpose. Getting more specific, something holy is set apart by God. Suddenly it’s no longer an everyday, ordinary thing, but something dedicated to the LORD’s service.     

So we see that in the Old Testament, God made certain things holy. The temple was holy. The altar was holy. The incense was holy. It was all holy, because God set aside these things for the activity of divine worship. Because these things were so closely associated with the LORD and his saving purpose, they had to be treated with the utmost reverence and care.

Likewise for the sacraments. Actually, the word “sacrament” means quite literally, “a holy thing”—sacramentum, in Latin. While we don’t find that word itself in Scripture, the Bible clearly describes its reality. As the Catechism says, “The sacraments…were instituted by God” (Q&A 66). These rituals are holy, because they were given us by the LORD

Take circumcision, for example—this was God’s gift. After making a covenant with Abraham and his family, the LORD gave the ceremony and mark of circumcision. As the LORD said, this was to be a lasting sign in the flesh, an unforgettable emblem of dedication to God. Or consider the Passover, in Exodus 12. Again, it was God who gave this meal to the Israelites, to help them recall their deliverance from Egypt. God said, ‘This is what you shall do…”

We see the same pattern in the New Testament. The Catechism says that Christ has instituted two sacraments (Q&A 68): first Lord’s Supper, just before Christ went to the cross; and then baptism, just before Christ ascended into heaven. By taking the time to institute them, even at those turning points in his life, the Lord drew attention to these sacraments. Just like the ark, or the altar, or the incense in the old covenant—and just like circumcision and Passover—God gave baptism and the Lord’s Supper for a vital purpose.

That makes the sacraments holy. See how the Catechism describes them in Q&A 68. It uses the key word there, even twice. “How many sacraments has Christ instituted in the new covenant? Two: holy baptism and the holy supper.” It highlights both the divine foundation of these two events, and their all-important function. They come from God and lead back to God!

And now think about who uses the sacraments. We use them, of course, but more vitally, God the Holy Spirit uses them. The Spirit employs the sacraments to do his good work in the church of Christ, sanctifying and transforming.

This comes out in the first Question of our Lord’s Day, “Where does this faith come from?” And the Answer, “From the Holy Spirit” (Q&A 65). The Holy Spirit, using the holy Scriptures, and using the holy sacraments, works in us our most holy faith! Through these two tools—together with the discipline of the church—the Spirit redirects our gaze in one direction, toward one person, because He is our only hope, our one joy. He points us to the sacrifice of Christ which He accomplished on the cross.

So “holy” isn’t a big word, but it has massive implications. Because that if God made something holy in the Old Testament—like the ark, or the Sabbath, or the temple—we know that thing needed to be treated as holy. It wasn’t something you could be careless with or casual about. To treat the holy things as unholy, or to think it was something where you get to decide what happens, could be fatal. Just ask Nadab and Abihu, who brought ‘unholy fire’ into God’s presence. Ask Uzzah, who put out his hand to touch the wobbling ark.

So then, consider carefully that God has given us holy baptism. Do we treat it as holy? We’ve all undergone this sacred ceremony, even quite a few years ago. And once in a while we should think about our baptism with some proper reflection.

Sometimes we treat baptism like it’s only meaningful for that infant, and maybe her parents. It’s kind of like a birthday party that everyone forgets almost as soon as it’s done. When there’s a baptism, we have our coffee social, special gifts are given, and then it’s all forgotten. But baptism remains a holy sign and seal, far longer than the water remains on our forehead, and long after we’ve grown up and professed our faith.

For think about this: What does it mean that the water of baptism was once sprinkled on your little head? Do you still need washing today, forgiveness and renewal? Or what does it mean that you once received the promises of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit? Is God like us, and does He forget his promises, withdraw them? Or can you count on them still? Of course He hasn’t forgotten: his words are holy, purest silver, seven times refined. And of course you need his promises! You need them every day. These promises are your lifeline, to know that your life is secure in the hands of the LORD.

Or what does it mean that God laid on you his holy obligations? That’s part of the covenant too, part of the message of baptism. Holy baptism comes with the call to devote your entire life to the LORD, loving God, serving him, trusting him. If your baptism is twenty years in the past, or fifty-five years, or eighty, does that calling still apply? Of course, for it’s a holy work for a holy person. Today, do you live like you’re a person under obligation—like someone enlisted into God’s army, called up and armed for battle?  

Or reflect on the Lord’s Supper. It’s something we share every couple of months. The Catechism say it’s a holy supper. And we’re all familiar with the idea that the elders have a task to guard its holiness. That’s the elders’ job, but what about the rest of us? Do we treat the supper as something holy—do we still treat it as coming from God, and leading us back to God?

One way we can do that is by preparing for the sacrament, getting ready for it in the right spirit. What’s the right spirit? If you know it’s a holy meal, in the presence of a holy God, meant to instill in you a holy faith, then you get ready beforehand by considering your sinfulness. I should know my sin in specific ways, see how my sin always gets in the way of communion with God. But our spirit at Holy Supper is confidence too, and joy, in the gift of forgiveness through Christ. And then we prepare to leave the table with a resolution firm in our mind: ‘Now I want to serve the Lord in thanksgiving for his grace.’ It’s a holy meal, like baptism is a holy washing—and they are also signs.

 

2) they are signs: Driving along the road, you often see signs. A few doors down, for example, there might be a ‘For Sale’ sign. A passerby doesn’t need to wonder what that sign means, because signs are obvious. It points to a reality invisible to the eye. For instance, that ‘For Sale’ sign points to the fact that the homeowner is making his house available to anyone who wants to buy it: ‘Come make me an offer,’ the sign says, ‘this is where you’ll want to live’.

Or, as another example, take the wedding ring on our finger. It’s only a thin band of gold, but everyone knows what it means. It points to a deeper reality—the fact that we are married, that we’re in a relationship of committed love.

This is how signs work in the Bible as well. In the Old Testament, we find quite a number of things that are described as “signs.” There is the mark on Cain’s forehead—that was a sign. There is the rainbow in the sky after the Great Flood. There is the scarlet cord of Rahab, hung from Jericho’s wall for Israel to see. Even the Sabbath day is called a sign.

When you look at these different signs, they broadcast different messages. They have a variety of purposes. Like in the case of Cain, the sign protected. Or in the case of the rainbow, or the Sabbath, the sign reminded. Or in the case of the scarlet cord, the sign identified.

None of these things were called sacraments. But they give a good hint about what the sacraments do. God gives a sign to confirm his words, to remind about his promises, to underline his truthfulness. In Scripture, we see this on many occasions, that when God makes an important promise, He likes to add a tangible sign. ‘The fleece will be dry in the morning. The shadow of the sundial will go backwards. The virgin will be with child and bear a Son.’ Our gracious God seeks to make his people even more sure, so that we will trust in him.

Another example is in Romans 4, about Abraham receiving the sign of circumcision. Years before, God established his covenant of love with Abraham and his children. God had promised him great things: land, and descendants, protection, an everlasting inheritance.

God knows that it all might’ve seemed too good to be true. So He gives circumcision and says, “It shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you” (Gen 17:11). Circumcision would be a permanent mark in the flesh. But it pointed to something else, something unseen: the covenant between the LORD and his people. ‘Don’t you forget this,’ God said to Abraham, ‘because I’ll never forget!’

Or consider Passover. The Israelites were about to leave the land of slavery. But before they go, they share a simple meal: lamb, bread, dipping sauce. As with every sign God gives, it wasn’t about the meal as such. Like at Lord’s Supper, when we’re told not to cling to the “outward symbols” of bread and wine. No, the Passover had a more vital message to announce.

You can see that in the different parts of the meal in Exodus 12. Each element speaks ‘its own language,’ each element has a point. The shed blood of the lamb speaks of how God atones for sin. Eating the roasted meat is a message of how the Israelites would share in their redemption, taking it into themselves. Having unleavened bread points to how they need to put away all sin from their lives, the ‘yeast’ of impurity which always grows and spreads. And eating the bitter herbs gives a reminder of the bitterness of all their years in Egypt. Every part had a message, a story to tell.

The Passover meal was probably a strange thing to witness. So the question that comes from the children was natural: “What do you mean by this service?” (v 26). In other words, “What’s going on? What’s this all about?” And then the parents had to tell them about the exodus, God’s great work of deliverance. He saved them, and don’t you ever forget it!

Passover was like the war monuments that we’ve put up over the years, places to go and ponder what our soldiers have done for the cause of peace. Like that, the Passover was a memorial, but a living memorial, forever announcing, ‘This is what God has done for you. And this is what his Word of promise can bring about when you trust in him.’

We have different sacraments today, but their character is the same. The Belgic Confession describes baptism and Holy Supper as “visible signs and seals of something internal and invisible” (Art. 33). As signs, they point our gaze toward a higher truth: ‘Look! See what God has done for you in Jesus Christ. Remember it, and believe it.’

As this Lord’s Day puts it, “[The sacraments] were instituted by God so that by their use He might the more fully declare… to us the promise of the gospel” (Q&A 66). They’re all about the gospel—the gospel that we might not believe as firmly as we could.

Like we said, a person might sometimes question whether God really and truly loves them. How can I be sure? Or why doesn’t it feel like I’ve been forgiven, or why doesn’t it feel like God is hearing my prayers? Why does God seem so far away?’

Here is where the sacraments carry such an important message. They point to the sure salvation that is ours in Christ. They declare that God does love his people, that He does forgive sinners. Again and again, they reassure us that the gospel is true and certain, beyond any doubt.

For in the same way that water cleanses dirt from a body, so Christ’s blood cleanses us from all our sin. In the same way that the bread is broken, and the wine is poured out—so Christ suffered, and his blood was spilled, in order to give us life. These signs make visible the essential lessons of the gospel so that our faith can be strengthened.

You know that sometimes Christians will hope to receive a sign from God. Maybe when we’re seeking God’s will in a difficult situation, or when we’re despairing of his presence with us. We just want a sign, something to show without question that the Lord cares for us, that He is leading us. But we have our signs already. In the sacraments, we have plain and obvious signs of the most important thing we need to know—that we are loved by God, forgiven all our sins, and adopted as his children.

 

3) they are seals: If you’ve ever bought something online, you might’ve seen a little symbol in the address bar: a closed padlock. That’s what you should look for. It indicates that it’s a secure website. Seeing it, you know you can make your transaction with confidence. For a long time, people have used seals like this—sometimes with wax and a signet ring, sometimes with a fancy signature—to mark something as legitimate. A seal provides certainty, inspires confidence about whatever’s inside.

In the same way, God calls the sacraments not just signs, but seals. Think of Romans 4:11, “[Abraham] received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of faith.” His mark in the flesh validated all the promises that God gave to Abraham. It showed that they were worthy of faith: they were the real deal, the genuine article.

For Abraham, it meant he could be absolutely sure. He had God’s Word, and he had the confirmation of God’s Word. And what was the result for Abraham? “He did not waver at the promise of God through unbelief, but was strengthened in faith, giving glory to God, and being fully convinced that what He had promised He was also able to perform” (vv 20-21). Listen to that most emphatic language: Abraham did not waver in faith, but was strengthened, and was fully convinced in God! So sure, because he had the sign and the seal.

The Bible calls us the children of Abraham, sons and daughters in faith. That means that like him, we can be sure, When we receive the gospel, and when we receive the gospel sacraments, we can be fully convinced. We’re allowed to have an unwavering trust in God’s promise, and be strengthened in faith, and be fully assured. For “this is the promise,” says the Catechism, “that God graciously grants us forgiveness of sins and everlasting life because of the one sacrifice of Christ accomplished on the cross” (Q&A 66).

In the sacraments, we see the gospel with our eyes, we taste it with our mouths. It is this real: “As surely as water washes away the dirt from the body, so certainly Christ’s blood and Spirit wash away the impurity of my soul” (LD 26). It is this real: “As surely as I…taste with my mouth the bread and cup of the Lord as sure signs of Christ’s body and blood, so surely does Christ himself nourish and refresh my soul” (LD 28).

You can be completely sure. Long after the water is dried from our foreheads, the value of the sacrament remains. Though the aftertaste is gone from the mouth, the comfort endures. For we can remind ourselves of these living signs, these powerful markers, these testimonies to the LORD’s grace: “Don’t ever forget this,” God says to us, “because I will never forget!

It is a message that we can take with us. Each day, we can bring to mind the work of our Saviour. As the Catechism reminds us, “Our entire salvation rests on Christ’s one sacrifice for us on the cross” (Q&A 67). For our lives, nothing is more important than this truth, and the good news is that it is something we never have to doubt. In Christ, God is faithful. The Father will not break his promises to you, and He will not go back on his Word.

So in fears and anxieties, in sin and guilt, in times of uncertainty, even when there is a sense of emptiness, let Christ point you to himself again by his Word and sacraments. Don’t be slow to believe, but be quick to trust. For God’s Word is sure: “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” So we may boldly say, “The LORD is my helper, I will not fear” (Heb 13:5-6). Rest always in him, and you will surely find rest!  Amen. 




* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2022, Rev. Reuben Bredenhof

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