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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
Title:The Holy Spirit uses the law of God to help Christians grow in Christ
Text:LD 44 QAs 114 & 115 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Life in Christ

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Hymn 78

Psalm 86:1,2,4

Psalm 119:49-51

Hymn 1

Psalm 98

Scripture readings: Romans 7:7-25, 1 John 1:5-10

Catechism lesson:  Lord's Day 44 QAs 114 & 115

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

Beloved congregation of Christ,

When parents receive a baby from the LORD, their desire is that the baby will grow.  Hardly any words are more feared to the parents of newborn babies than these:  “failure to thrive.”  No parent ever wants to hear or see those words about their baby:  “failure to thrive.”  Instead, they want to see their little baby put on weight and become a big baby, go on to become a toddler, a child, and then later on an adult.  The apostle Peter uses this image for spiritual growth in his first letter.  In 1 Peter 2:2, he writes, “Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation...” 

Peter says Christians should think of themselves like newborn infants who need to grow.  Newborn babies crave milk at feeding time.  They need it in order to grow.  Similarly, says Peter, Christians ought to long for pure spiritual milk that will help them grow in their salvation.  What is that pure spiritual milk?  It’s the Word of God.  The word in Greek for “spiritual” here could be more literally translated as “Wordy.”  Long for that Wordy milk.  That might sound odd, but it captures the essence of what Peter is saying.  He’s telling us to crave the Word of God which will help us grow as Christians.  Not just Peter, but our God is telling us this.  Just like parents of a newborn baby want that child to grow, God wants his children to grow.  He doesn’t want to see the words “failure to thrive” on our file.  To that end, he gives milk to help us grow in our salvation. 

That milk is the Word of God in its entirety.  This afternoon we’re going to focus on one aspect of the Word of God.  Over the last few weeks, we’ve been considering the Law of God, commandment by commandment.  With the last two questions and answers in Lord’s Day 44, we wrap up by considering the Law again in general and our relationship to it as Christians.  We’re going to look at the work of the Holy Spirit.  We’re going to see how the Spirit works our spiritual growth through the pure milk of the Word of God.  In particular, we’re going to see how the Holy Spirit uses the law of God to help Christians grow in Christ

We’ll learn about:

  1. Our small beginning
  2. Our eager desire and effort
  3. Our final goal

Who’s the holiest person you can think of?  Who’s the most godly and Christ-like person you have ever known or heard of?  If we look back in church history, there are certainly some figures who seem to stand out.  Many of them would be missionaries.  They gave up a comfortable life and headed overseas for the cause of Christ.  They took their wives and their children to a far off country for the sake of the gospel, quite sure they’d never return home.  Many packed their belongings in coffins.  Especially in the 1700s and 1800s, those coffins were often used sooner rather than later.  Not only disease, but also violence claimed the lives of countless missionaries.  They gave their all for Christ and for the good news.

One of those was the English missionary William Carey.  He went to India in 1793.  Among other things, he translated the Bible or parts of the Bible into 44 languages and dialects.  From Carey we get that famous expression, “Expect great things from God; attempt great things for God.”  Carey was a spiritual giant in many respects, a man of integrity and great piety.  On his seventieth birthday, he wrote a letter to one of his sons.  This is part of what the letter said:

I am this day seventy years old, a monument of Divine mercy and goodness, though on a review of my life I find much, very much, for which I ought to be humbled in the dust; my direct and positive sins are innumerable, my negligence in the Lord’s work has been great.  I have not promoted his cause, nor sought his glory and honor as I ought, notwithstanding all this, I am spared till now, and am still retained in his work, and I trust I am received into the divine favour through him.           

That’s a remarkable self-assessment from William Carey, one of the greatest missionaries in history.  Towards the end of his life, he identifies more with the tax collector in Luke 18, than with the Pharisee.  Remember the tax collector at the temple calling out to God in prayer, “Lord, have mercy on me a sinner!”?  That’s who William Carey identified with.    

That’s a sentiment that many people today find uncomfortable at best.  Even some Christians would say that this is an unhealthy attitude to have about yourself.  They say, “You shouldn’t put yourself down and say that you’re a wretched sinner.  You have to think more highly about yourself.”  Loved ones, we need to recognize that this is very much part of the culture in which we live.  This is what the world holds as being indisputable truth.  You need to think great thoughts of yourself, be proud of yourself, hold your head high.  To the world, this is like a dogma, something you just don’t question or doubt.  But we need to question it.  The question we need to be asking is whether this teaching that our culture is so dogmatic about is biblical.  Does that line up with the Word of God?

To answer that, we should go to our reading from Romans 7.  In that chapter, the apostle Paul speaks about his struggle with sin.  He wants to do what is right, but so many times, sin pulls him to what is sinful.  Yes, he has peace with God through the blood of the cross.  But he still has a war within against sin.  He has a peace that has started a war.  The war is against sin.  His frustration with that war leads him to his famous exclamation in Romans 7:24, “Wretched man that I am!  Who will deliver me from this body of death?”  The answer, of course, is Christ.  In Christ, Paul (and all of us with him) have deliverance from the curse and the power of sin.  The victory over the curse of sin is complete, but the victory over the power of sin is something that is happening progressively, bit by bit.  But it is happening. 

Now certainly if you were to be asked who the holiest men in the Bible were, I’m sure that Paul would be up there on the list somewhere.  After all, he was an apostle.  Many people refer to him as Saint Paul.  He was undoubtedly a man who pursued holiness, a man who reflected Christ in many ways.  And yet by his own admission, he had only a small beginning of obedience to the commandments of God.  That’s not just found in Romans 7.  You can find it expressed elsewhere in Paul’s writings too.  As one example, there’s what he says in 1 Timothy 1:15, “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.”  There’s a shocking honesty there.  It’s an honesty that’s so far out of step with what our contemporary culture proclaims as a dogma.  There’s a conflict here between what the Word of God says and what our culture says.  When we have a conflict like that, we have to side with the inerrant Word of God.  God knows us far better than we know ourselves.

That’s why 1 John 1 is so blunt about this.  It tells us directly in verse 8, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.”  Then, in case you missed it, John says it again in verse 10, “If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.”  Making God out to be a liar is a very bad idea.  Instead, it’s far better to humbly accept his analysis of ourselves.         

You see, brothers and sisters, our Catechism is right when it says that even the holiest have only a small beginning of obedience in this life.  We can’t be proud of ourselves and our advancement in holiness.  We have nothing to be proud of.  Any advancement we might make is owing to the grace of God and to the work of the Holy Spirit.  There’s no room for pride in the life of a Christian.  As Paul says elsewhere, we ought not to think of ourselves more highly than we should, but instead use sober judgment.  Certainly the apostle Paul set us an example in that.  He had a sober judgment of himself and we should have sober judgments of ourselves too.  Like William Carey and so many other saints, we should find ourselves identifying more and more with the tax collector in the temple in Luke 18, crying out, “Lord, be merciful to me a sinner.”  After all, that tax collector was the one commended by our Lord Jesus, not the Pharisee with his inflated and unrealistic view of himself.

The law of God functions as a reality check in our lives.  Yes, it’s the rule for our thankfulness.  The Ten Commandments teach us how to show our love for God by pleasing him and walking in his ways.  But the law also has another function.  The Holy Spirit uses the law of God to expose our sin and drive us to Christ.  The law is something the Holy Spirit uses to humble us, making us see ourselves for who we really are.  It’s like a mirror into which we look and see the true picture of ourselves as we live in this age.  Though we have peace with God through Christ, we’re still sinners and daily we have to be humble before the LORD in recognition of that.  Every day we have to be on our knees and repenting from our sins, asking our Father to forgive us.  Through the law of God, the Holy Spirit makes us aware that we’re sinners with only a small beginning of obedience.  Because of that, we’re led to Christ again.  We look to him in faith as our only Saviour and rest and trust in his work on our behalf.  As 1 John 1:9 says, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”  In doing that, in confessing our sins, we’re growing in Christ.  Growing to trust ourselves less and less, and him more and more.

As those converted to God, there’s a sense in which we abandon the law of God.  We abandon and leave it behind as a way of trying to measure up for God.  We’ve felt its sting and rebuke and so we know we’re sinners, and we know that all we lack as sinners is more than made up for with Christ.  So we look to Christ and not to the law for our salvation.  We know that the gospel saves and that’s where we place our hope.

Yet because we’re connected to Christ through his Holy Spirit, we want to be Christ-like.  We want to grow in reflecting Christ in our lives.  Since Christ was and is a law-keeper, obedient to all the commandments of God, we too want to go and do likewise.  The Holy Spirit teaches us in the Scriptures that Christians are not forgiven so they can go and be lawless people and do whatever they want and live however they want.

That point was made by John in our reading from 1 John 1.  In verse 6, he says, “If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth.”  Walking in darkness here refers to a pattern of life.  It’s speaking of an unrepentant way of life, where someone lives in sin and just doesn’t care.  Christians sin, but they don’t live in sin.  Christians sin, but they hate their sin, fight their sin and repent of it.  The eager desire of a Christian is to live according to the commandments of God.  A Christian wants to be renewed more and more after the image of God. 

You can see that eager desire reflected in Romans 7 as well.  Paul says in verse 22 that he delights in the law of God in his inner being.   According to verse 18, he has the desire to do what is right.  A Christian wants to please God by keeping his law.  He recognizes that he can’t use the law as a means to measure up for God or as a means to earn salvation.  But the Christian does see the law as something worth pursuing as a way to show gratitude, as a way to show our love for God.  Because he has fellowship with Christ, the believer wants to please God and he knows that God is pleased when his creatures follow his will.

So Christians not only have that desire, they also strive.  They make a diligent effort to be renewed after God’s image.  Remember:  this is about our sanctification.  Being renewed after God’s image is that process that we call sanctification.  Moreover, our sanctification involves not only the Holy Spirit, but also us.  As those converted to God, our wills are made alive by the Holy Spirit.  The result is that we can work together with him in our sanctification.  We can exercise ourselves towards it as regenerated people, as those who have been born again.  Paul speaks of that in 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 [read].  Christians can and must run and box.  They have to discipline their bodies and keep them under control.  They have a command to do that, but according to Paul here they also can do it to some degree.               

But we still need help.  We need much help to stimulate that godly desire to live according to the commandments of God.  We need much help to work towards doing so.  For that reason, our Catechism speaks about praying to God for the grace of the Holy Spirit.  We need him to be working in us and with us, if we are to do anything of these things.  We’re entirely dependent on the Holy Spirit.  We need him to teach us and lead us with the Word of God.  We need him to help us understand the Word of God and love it and want to live according to it.  So, brothers and sisters, you want to grow in Christ, don’t you?  Then you need to be praying for the grace of the Holy Spirit.  You need to be constantly and with heartfelt longing asking him to create in you the desire to live godly and give you the strength to make the effort.  You can’t do it on your own.  You need the Spirit’s help – so pray for it, pray for that help every day.

Progress will be made in this life in sanctification.  You’ll make progress, even if you can’t always see it clearly.  Because believers are connected to Christ, because believers have the Holy Spirit, they will grow bit by bit.  Progress is being made, even if it doesn’t always look like it.  You can think about it like a river winding its way to its destination.  Let’s say the ultimate destination is to the west of the headwaters.  But imagine that this river is winding its way and even though its ultimate destination is to the west, sometimes it actually flows east.  At times like that it seems to be moving away from its final destination.  But yet it’s still moving forward, still flowing towards its goal.  That’s like our lives.  There’s a goal, a destination.  Even though it seems like progress isn’t being made, it actually still is.  We’re still flowing with God’s plan.        

God's plan puts our lives in his hand and for Christians this is a good place.  Even when it feels like we’re in the pits, he’s still taking us forward and we’ll still be growing in Christ.  This is true also when it comes to our holiness.  We have to trust that God will take us forward and by his Spirit help us to grow in Christ.  

The good news is that this journey we are on as Christians has an end point in this age.  It has an end point in this age which is a transition into a new and better existence in the age to come.  Our Catechism encourages us with the good news that after this life we will reach the goal of perfection. 

According to 1 John 3:2, we’ll be like God after this life.  We’ll be like God, not in every respect, but in being without sin.  We’ll be entirely holy and blameless.  After this life, we’ll be perfect and righteous in our thoughts, words, and deeds.  We’ll love God perfectly with our whole heart, soul, and mind, and with all our strength.  We’ll perfectly love our neighbours as ourselves.  Love will permeate every aspect of everything we do and everything we are in the age to come.  There’ll be no inconsistency in our obedience then.  There’ll be no distractions from the will of God.  No one will forget to serve the LORD, fear him, and keep his commandments.  All that will be something we do perfectly, all the time.

Loved ones, the gospel offers us a great hope.  Part of that great hope includes the promise of someday reaching the goal of perfection.  As we live on this earth, we’ll always be both saints and sinners.  Even though our holiness is progressing, there’ll always be that tension right to the end of our lives.  When Christ comes or when he calls, that reality will be traded for a different one.  When Christ returns or when he calls you home through death, in a moment you will be transformed fully into a saint.  Finally, no more a sinner.    

Scripture holds out that promise to us for a reason.  The reason is because God wants to motivate us to be who we are in Christ in principle now, and who we’ll be later on in principle and in practice.  The reason the LORD speaks about our final state is to give us hope, but also to get us to live more consistently now already with that hope.  Brothers and sisters, since we’re destined for perfection, we ought all the more to strive to live in a way consistent with our destiny.  We do that by growing in Christ, listening as the Holy Spirit teaches us with the Word of God, including his law.

As Christians, we can’t be careless about how we live.  We’re saved by grace, apart from works.  We should never forget that.  The biblical gospel refuses to give any place to any human effort in any way.  But believing that gospel message doesn’t make us hate the law or ignore it.  Instead, it unites us to Christ who loves the law of God and who always obeys it perfectly.  Because we’re united to this Saviour, his attitude towards the law, and his obedience, are more and more reflected in our lives as Christians.  Loved ones, let’s continue to look to Christ and grow in him through his Word, by the gracious power of the Holy Spirit.  AMEN.


O Holy Spirit,

Thank you for giving us the law.  You inspired Moses and other biblical writers to give us clear insights into the divine will.  We praise you for what you did.  We pray this afternoon that you would now continue to help us understand the law and its place in our lives.  Through the law, help us to grow in Christ.   Through the law, please make us humble.  Make us like the tax collector who cried out, “Lord, be merciful to me a sinner.”  Please continue to convict us of our sin and make us understand our sinful nature and our need for Christ.  Please give us your grace so that we eagerly desire to live according to all the commandments.  We pray for your help in striving to be renewed more and more after the divine image.  We plead for your mercy so that we can persevere in our faith until the day comes when we reach the goal of perfection.  We look forward to that day! 

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

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