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Author:Dr. Reuben Bredenhof
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Congregation:Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary (CRTS)
 Hamilton, Ontario
Preached At:St. Albert Canadian Reformed Church
 St. Albert, Alberta
Title:Tremble before the greatness of God
Text:LD 4 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Our Salvation

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Psalm 36:2
Hymn 1
Reading -- Deuteronomy 32:1-47
Psalm 71:1,10,11
Sermon -- Lord's Day 4
Hymn 12:1,2,14
Hymn 80:1,2,5,6
* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved brothers and sisters in our Lord Jesus Christ, no one likes to face accusation. No one wants to be charged with breaking the law, or accused of doing wrong. So at such indictments, our first, natural reaction is always to deny or to evade. Change the subject, storm away, or insist and insist you are guilt-free. Especially when the charge is undeserved, our conviction of innocence can swell up to the point of tears, "I haven’t done anything wrong!"

Even when the accusation against us is well-founded, it’s a remarkable human "skill" that we can be almost as sincere and determined as when we’re innocent: "It wasn’t me, honest!" Yes, even when guilty we will insist we are blameless – or at least until we’ve found a good excuse.

When we look at the rebellion of Adam and Eve in the Garden, we see at once their evasive reaction to God’s searching question. "Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?" (Gen 3:11). The man first replied with the classic two-pronged excuse, blaming at once both God and his wife, "The woman you put here with me – she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it" (v 12). And the woman quickly deflected man’s pointing finger, "The serpent deceived me, and I ate" (v 13).

The pattern of avoidance was set in Eden, and we stick closely to it today. "May the blame fall on anyone but me! May a way of escape be found – any way – so I don’t have to answer for my misdeeds!" In Lord’s Day 4, we find three of these typical human responses to God’s charge against us.

God’s charge against mankind is this: "There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have become together worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one" (Rom 3:10-12).

And what is our response to this serious accusation – this well-founded, well-attested, even undeniable accusation? We ask: Isn’t God unjust by commanding us to be obedient when He knows very well we’re not able to be so? (Q&A 9) We wonder: Why can’t God allow our sin to go unpunished? (Q&A 10) And we mutter: So much for God being merciful – what’s all this talk about his judgment and curse? (Q&A 11)

Brothers and sisters, we might twist and turn, but we cannot escape what lies against our account. We might try to dodge the charge and verdict and punishment deserved, yet we must humbly submit to the teaching of Scripture. For the answer to sinful man’s ignorant babbling is always the wisdom of God’s Word; the response to puny man’s self-deluding confidence in himself is always the unchanging reality of who God is: He is good, He is just, and He is merciful.

With all our deeds and thoughts laid bare before the God who knows all, let us not deny the charge against us, but flee to his glorious Son, our Saviour. Some spend their days making weak excuses for sin; others spend their days seeking things to distract them from the guilt smoldering in their heart – but let us miserable sinners, every day "continue to work out [our] salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who [is at work] in [us]" (Phil 2:12-13).

Yes, seek your salvation with fear and with trembling, for our God is a consuming fire (Heb 12:29). But know that it is salvation we seek, for in Christ our God is also a merciful God! I preach to you the Word of the Lord as it’s taught in Lord’s Day 4 of the Catechism,

                                   Sinful man trembles before the greatness of God:

    1. God’s goodness and our failure
    2. God’s justice and our punishment
    3. God’s mercy and our hope

1. God’s goodness and our failure: We human beings are quick to point it out when something is "unfair." Indeed, we have very strict standards by which we measure the "fairness" of the things people expect – expect of us particularly, but also of others. For example, we would protest that it’s unfair or unjust to demand of a child what only an adult can do. A child cannot be expected to do the grocery shopping properly, and a child cannot be expected to apply for a bank loan. The ability is not there, so the demand is unfair.

So what about the demand on mankind? We saw it in Lord’s Day 2: The demand is love, for God and for neighbor. And what is the ability of mankind? We saw it in Lord’s Day 2 and 3: We are very talented in evil, but completely incompetent in good. Though this first question of "fairness" asked by the evasive sinner is a bit hesitant, he still dares to ask it, "Does not God do man an injustice by requiring in His law what man cannot do?" Are God’s high expectations not beyond the reach of our short arms? But the sinner is not a child.

For there was no "manufacturer’s error" to blame in the failure of Adam and Eve. God is a good God, and He would not demand what man could not do. Who dares accuse God of any wrongdoing or shortcoming in our creation? We were made good and in God’s image – "God so created man that he was able to do [God’s law]" (Q&A 9).

To the perfect man God gave some basic commands: Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; do not eat from the tree in the middle of the garden. He was able to obey, but he did not. Also to the fallen man God gives some basic commands: You shall have no other gods before me; you shall not make for yourself an idol; honour your father and mother; you shall not murder; you shall not steal; and so on.

Someone will say, "Maybe Adam and Eve were once competent and they failed, but when God gave us his law, we were already unable. God could’ve known exactly what would happen when He gave sinners such an impossible law." But we are included with Adam – we are included in the perfect ability he had, and we are included in the failure he chose. Adam did not just sin for us, but we ourselves sinned in him. Remember Romans 5:12, "Sin entered the world through one man… and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned." At one time, we also were able to obey, but we did not.

This means God’s clear requirement for our lives should never be obscured with feeble talk of our inability. We cannot say "The devil made me do it." We cannot blame our sin on things past. We cannot blame our raging desires on the body we were given. The Catechism doesn’t fall for any excuse of inability either, and focuses instead of how we actually respond to God’s requirements: Deliberate disobedience.

"Disobedience" is one thing. When charged by the local by-law officer for some minor offense, we might claim ignorance of the minute points of law. But our disobedience against God is so often deliberate; we know exactly what is demanded of us by God, and we go ahead and sin anyway, in defiance of him. The Old Testament calls this "sinning with an upraised hand." God in heaven speaks to man, and God gives a knowledge of his will to man, yet man puts his head down and his hand up, and acts in total disregard of God. God is shut up, even though God is still speaking.

By sinful man, God’s words are ignored, and God’s good gifts are corrupted. Indeed, at one time God declared that his creation of man and woman was "very good." It was very good in so many ways: Complex and beautiful bodies; knowledge of creation and knowledge of God; a mandate to work subdue; competence to think and to choose what is right. In the creation of man, God showed us how truly good He is.

The good God even gave us the ability to keep the laws that God himself required us to keep – but this gift of grace was left unopened and unused. As for the rest of God’s good gifts, these we have defiled.

God’s good gift of bodies created male and female is ruined, with our adulterated views of sexuality and desire. God’s good gift of knowledge of creation and God is spoiled, with our trust and worship given to created things instead of to the Creator. God’s good gift of a mandate to work and subdue is twisted, with our placing of work and money ahead of piety and family. God’s good gift of competence to think and to choose is perverted, with our single-minded inclination to think only of ourselves and choose only evil.

The good gifts of God have been stolen and then squandered by man. This is how it was with the first sin, and sadly, this is how it’s always remained for God’s people. In his song in Deut 32, Moses sings this mournful theme of our defiant, sinful ingratitude. Moses was well-acquainted with Israel’s weaknesses and sins; at the end of his life, Moses briefly retells the history of God’s people. It’s a history of God’s unceasing blessing, even as He gives them salvation, but also of Israel’s unrelenting sin, even as they reject their Rock and Saviour.

In fact, in this song, and in our lives, there is almost a perfect contrast between God’s goodness and his people’s failure. In verses 3-4 Moses sings, "I will proclaim the Name of the LORD. Oh, praise the greatness of our God! He is the Rock, his works are perfect." The perfect God is worthy of all praise; He is the source of our every good and perfect gift; He makes no mistake in his mighty works; He is faithful in his good purposes and great in his majesty.

Yet Moses must continue with hard words for the people whom God somehow can call his own: "They have acted corruptly toward him; to their shame they are no longer his children, but a warped and crooked generation" (v 5). Yes, even as children of a giving Father, we always do wrong against him; our hearts are bitter sources of strife and evil; sin mars all our works; the only time we are faithful is to our evil intentions.

The question Scripture asks cannot be avoided, "Is this the way you repay the LORD, O foolish and unwise people? Is he not your Father, your Creator, who made you and formed you?" (v 6). Created in goodness, formed in perfection, blessed with holiness – we have thrown away all we once had. May we sinners tremble before the great goodness of God!

2. God’s justice and our punishment: But if God is so good, isn’t it possible for him to allow this terrible disobedience to go unpunished? Sure, He knows we sinned, but does He have to punish us? Couldn’t He let it slide?

This easy leniency is the human way of thinking of wrong-doing. For example, when we get nabbed by a police officer for doing twenty over, we always cherish the hope that he’ll let us off, just this once. But God cannot let it slide. God is a God of unfailing justice. He always acts in accordance with what is right – in fact, He is the standard of what is right. He decides what is truly good in the wisdom and sovereignty of his character.

If God allowed a sin to go unpunished, He would contradict the law that He made, and contradict his very person. He is holy, so He cannot ever tolerate what is unholy. He is righteous, so He must unfailingly hate what is unrighteous.

And breaking this law of God does not leave God unmoved. To continue that previous example: When pulled over by a police officer, no one expects him to take our traffic violation personally. His job is to uphold the laws of the land, yet it’s not as if the police officer wrote those laws himself, and not as if he is therefore deeply offended by what we’ve done.

But with every transgression of his law, the God of perfect justice is attacked and wounded. He is angered by anything that goes against what He has written. If we spit on God’s laws, we spit on the Lawmaker himself.

That is why the Catechism says "[God] is terribly displeased" with our sins. When we sin against God, He considers our sins not a passing annoyance, or a minor disappointment, but with them God is displeased – frustrated, upset, angry – even terribly. Think of that picture of our God in Ps 7:11, "God is a righteous Judge, a God who expresses his wrath every day."

Human anger so often arises in our hearts because we are evil, and it drives us to do more evil. But God’s anger arises because He is holy, and it drives him to be jealous for all that is holy. And God expresses this anger in the just punishment of all those who do wrong.

God punishes, for God has every right to uphold the observance of his law. God says this with those well known words in Deut 32:35, "It is mine to avenge, I will repay." Even in his angry avenging of human sin, God does not act unrighteously, for as Moses says emphatically, "All his ways are just. A faithful God who does no wrong, upright and just is he" (v 4). When God punishes, it is always a fair punishment, fit for the crime. He treats people just as they deserve, He treats people just as He said He would.

And what did God say was the punishment for sin? The punishment promised is as old as the commandment given: "When you eat of it you will surely die" (Gen 2:17). The soul who sins shall die! Disobedience of God must result in death. And this heavy penalty is unchanging – we find it in the Old Testament (Deut 27:26), and we find it in the New (Gal 3:10), "Cursed be every one who does not abide by all things written in the book of the law and do them." On those who sin there is the punishment of God’s curse.

When God speaks of his curse being upon the sinner, it is no light or inconvenient thing, but dreadful and lasting. The curse of God begins with words – He has no kind assurance for rebels, but only just accusation and condemnation. He begins with words of curse, and ends with deeds of curse, punishing sinners with eternal destruction, cut off from God himself!

The unfailing justice of God means even the failure of God’s own people Israel could not go unpunished. Moses looks back, "The LORD saw [their rebellion] and rejected them, because he was angered by his sons and daughters. ‘I will hide my face from them,’ he said, ‘and see what their end will be; for they are a perverse generation, children who are unfaithful…’" (vv 19-20). Even against his own children, God’s anger must burn, "For a fire has been kindled by wrath, one that burns to the realm of death below. It will devour the earth and its harvests, and set afire the foundations of the mountains" (v 22).

This is a terrible picture of God’s just judgment on sin, but God can take no more of Israel, no more of their idolatry and immorality and unfaithfulness. And so they will pay the price. Calamities will be heaped upon them, God’s arrows spent against them – consuming pestilence and plague, the fangs of wild beasts, the venom of vipers (vv 23-24). The God of perfect justice cannot stand to have his name mocked and his law ignored.

Do we in our comfortable pews read Deut 32 from a vast distance? Do these words of justice and punishment, of pestilence and plague and calamities and venom sound strange in our ears? We’re used to thinking about the burning judgment of God against those in the world, and perhaps even against those stubborn Old Testament people of God. But that was the Old Testament, and we live in the New! Yes, perhaps we read Answer 11 with an eyebrow raised: "He is terribly displeased [present tense!]… He will punish our sins [future tense!] by a just judgment…" Is this still true of God? Is this still true of what awaits sinners?

Beloved, the anger of God burns hot against all those who sin – and no one is righteous, not even one. God has not changed – not in his justice, and not in his punishment. And God’s people have not changed – not in our sin, and not in what we deserve. May we sinners tremble before the great justice of God!

3. God’s mercy and our hope: After hearing of the fearsome anger and burning wrath of our God, a trembling sinner might feebly ask his last evasive question, holding onto but a sliver of hope: "But is God not also merciful?" Mercy. How else could any man stand before this God, so justly and so righteously angry?

And as quickly as the door is opened to the mercy of God, the door seems to be slammed shut. "God is indeed merciful – but He is also just. His justice requires that sin… be punished with the most severe… everlasting punishment of body and soul." This appears a cruel treatment of the miserable sinner by the Catechism: Giving mercy with the one hand, but pounding the hammer of judgment with the other. Indeed, what is the point of Answer 11, since it only repeats what was said in Answer 10 about the fearsome justice of God?

Yet here, dear friends, is the open door to God’s grace and our salvation. It is a door whose frame is soaked in blood, but it is a door. For God does show mercy – mercy, but never without justice.

To be sure, there are those who don’t want to hear of the justice of God. That picture of the avenging God of Deut 32 doesn’t sit well with our modern sensibilities. "In Jesus, God is merciful – his fearsome justice is not so important any longer." But who are we puny humans to decide who God truly is? If the God we worship is not the God as He reveals himself in Scripture, we no longer worship the God of salvation. If our God is not just, He cannot be merciful, in Jesus Christ!

The Catechism doesn’t mention our only comfort in Answer 11, but Jesus Christ is there. He is there, in that "most severe, everlasting punishment of body and soul." For that is the price of God’s justice that had to be paid – and in Christ it was paid. Rather than punish forever, God would redeem; "He will take vengeance on his enemies and make atonement for his land and people" (v 43).

Atonement is made, and justice is done, in a curse pronounced and a curse applied – to Christ. From the innocent Christ, God hid his face. The judgment of death that would have been justly laid to our accounts would not be forgotten, or dismissed easily, but laid upon Christ. Though man had stolen and squandered every good things, Christ "restored what he had not stolen" (B.C. Art. 21).

We could never hope for the flames of God’s wrath to fade on their own, or the heat of his anger to cool over time, for only in Christ does God turn away his anger and extinguish his wrath. Only in Christ is God merciful, and also just.

Yes, sinful man trembles before the greatness of the mercy of God. The price He demanded He arranged to pay himself. Our salvation is undeserved, it is unthinkable, it is beyond repaying. We might ask, why did God choose this way? Why did God not start over even after man and woman fled trembling from him? Why did God not destroy his rebellious children?

We can find our answer in Deut 32:39, "See now that I myself am He! There is no god besides me. I put to death and bring to life. I have wounded and I will heal, and no one can deliver out of my hand." For the glory of his name God has saved a people once dead!

"See now that I myself am he! There is no God besides me!" This is the great Name of the LORD Almighty, our Saviour and our God. Let us see it, believe it, and let us tremble. To him be all the glory! Amen.

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2005, Dr. Reuben Bredenhof

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