We Confess a Faith that Joins us to Christ
Scripture Reading: Ezekiel 37:1-10; Ephesians 3:8-21
Confession: Lord’s Day 25, Q&A 65
Text: Lord’s Day 25, Q&A 65
Sermon by Rev. Martin Overgaauw
Orthodox Christian Reformed Church of Bowmanville, Ontario
© Burlington United Reformed Church; The Preacher, Vol. 20, No. 3
This sermon may be used in worship services for free; please state the author and church above.
Beloved in the Lord Jesus Christ,
As we consider the Word of God, we are taught many things. We are taught how to live before God. But before we are taught how to live, we are taught how it was that we came to live. In the doctrinal expositions of Lord’s Days 23 and 24, the whole matter of our being justified before a Triune God has been considered. We confess Him as Father — our creator, as Lord Jesus Christ — our redeemer, and as Holy Spirit — our sanctifier. But confessing is one thing — the question is, what good is it to believe all this? How is all this a benefit to us? Well, beloved, the benefit is that we are now reconciled to God. We are unhindered from coming to our God and standing uprightly before Him. There is nothing that prevents us from coming to Him. We now taste of the blessings of the forgiveness of sins, for it was our sin that prevented us from coming to Him. In fact, you could say that before Christ imputed to us His perfect satisfaction, His righteousness, His holiness — before He came in His humanity and suffered for our sake, that we might again taste of the blessings of reconciliation and renewed fellowship with God. We were dead in our sin.
In order to get a picture of what this means, we have to understand that sin is something that all of mankind was plunged into through Adam and Eve’s fall into sin. It wasn’t an isolated incident either. That is to say, it wasn’t applicable only to them. What they did effected the whole world from that moment on — it effected us all, and it yet effects us all. And furthermore, their fall into sin wasn’t a little fall from the branches of a big oak tree, where one is able to call out for help and to even crawl so as to get help, or even pick themselves up and help those as they are helping them. Their fall, and consequently ours as well, was more like falling from the top of the highest church steeple and then hitting the hard cement below, with the coroner being called in to pronounce you dead.
But Christ has purchased salvation, which is in effect new life for us through the mighty work of God. He is the fulfillment of God’s promise. He comes in and He looks at that dead and lifeless body lying there. He sees the darkness of the soul that seeks only its own interests, he who is dead in trespasses and sins, and He reaches in. In Lord’s Day 23 we are told that we can make this righteousness our “own in no other way than by faith only.” That is to say, we are made new again and in right standing before God if we stretch out our hands of faith and receive the bread of life.
But wait a minute! How can a dead person stretch out his hand? How can someone who is lifeless, and therefore, incapable of doing anything, reach out and so receive anything? The work of Christ on the cross doesn’t amount to anything in my life because, left to myself, I can’t do a thing to accept His gift. In that particular moment in time I’m dead! If it must be that I have to get up in my own strength, utilizing the activity called faith — that which we see in Lord’s Day 23 as accepting “such benefit with a believing heart,” i.e., with faith, Christ’s death will not help me one tiny little bit, because I am dead! I can’t do a thing! A dead man can’t accept God’s gift of righteousness in Christ.
Beloved, this also speaks against any objections to faith somehow being our inner strength to reach out and accept Jesus and so, get up and work for the benefit of our own salvation. We live, in the sense that we walk and talk, but spiritually we are dead, and as dead people we are morally bankrupt — we are depleted of any good within us. Our righteousness is as filthy rags and proves useless. There is no security in our works. Christ has to do it all! Not only must He do it all, but He is the only one who is able and can apply this salvation to our lives. So we stand here knowing that we are justified by grace. We have not lifted a finger towards securing our own salvation, and we have not, because we could not. It is a reward of God’s grace — a precious gift. That, beloved, is a gift that falls upon a person, not because Jesus saw that this person was basically good and therefore deserving, but because of grace.
We will explore further our standing before God and how it all came to be. We will be amazed again at the truths of our salvation — how utterly helpless and useless we are in securing it for our benefit. One would think that if this were the case — that if it was up to us, and that it was we who went out and chased down this gift and made it ours, that we would then be the most brilliant and the noblest of people for having chosen so wisely. But left to ourselves, we would yet be as that lifeless corpse on the cement at the foot of the church steeple.
Our theme today is “We confess a faith that joins us to Christ,” and we will see how that works itself out as we look to what the Word of God says. Let us see, first, the source of that faith; second, the work of that source; and third, the establishment of that work.
If, as Scripture has so plainly said in Romans and Ephesians that salvation is by grace alone, then it only stands to reason that everything else that is connected to it, the whole process with each and every means that are used, must be of grace. This would stand with regard to our faith. It too, is of grace, for it is by faith, as the catechism states in this question, that we become partakers of Christ and all His benefits. We read in Ephesians 2:8 those very familiar words, yet words that still sing such a sweet melody in our ears. “For by grace are ye saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.” The complete work of salvation through faith is of grace, and so it is a gift of God.
Think about it for a moment! Faith, as we now know it, is an act or an outworking of someone who is renewed — regenerate. One is now able to see this. He is able to see the misery of his sin. He is able to see God, along with God’s justice and mercy, which demands that sin be paid for. He is able to see Christ as the only Mediator who is both God and man, who is the only One able to pay the debt of sin. So this faith is a power within the believer that is far superior to his fallen nature, a nature which is, in and of itself, unable to overcome its sinful tendencies because it is dead. Faith is something that cannot be exercised by a sinner except that it be given to him by the grace of God. I Corinthians 12:3 reads, “no man can say that Jesus is the Lord, but by the Holy Spirit.”
So in answer to the question, “From where does this faith come from?,” we confess that this faith comes from the Holy Spirit. He is the source of our faith. This is made clear when we read the account of Nicodemus. When Jesus opened up the truth of the gospel to Nicodemus in that familiar passage, He makes it abundantly clear that a new birth is necessary, as well as a faith in Christ. “Unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” (v.14-15). The reason for this order is found in the verses that come earlier, in verse 6. “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.”
What is Jesus saying here? What is He telling us? In his natural state man can neither see nor enter into an understanding of the spiritual things pertaining to the kingdom of God. In other words, before one can even distinguish and absorb the doctrine of Christ, there must be new life! It must be new spiritual life. Listen to what Paul has written in I Corinthians 2:14, “But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.” The bottom line is that we cannot believe the truths of the gospel until we ourselves know them.
We can only know these truths if they are worked into our hearts by the Holy Spirit. God gave us His Son to be salvation for us, and the Son gave Himself, and the work of the Holy Spirit applies Christ’s redeeming and perfect righteousness to the sinner — you and I. Through the work of the Holy Spirit we are enabled to believe in Christ.
Therefore, we have become partakers of Christ. This is a truth declared throughout the New Testament. The grace bestowed upon the child of God is given in response to the prayers of the Lord Jesus Christ. “When the Helper comes, whom I shall send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father, He will testify of Me” (John 15:26). Peter testified of this One coming in his sermon at Pentecost in Acts 2:33, “Therefore being exalted to the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, He poured out this which you now see and hear.”
The apostle Paul also speaks of the work of the Holy Spirit as it pertains to the work of righteousness in a believer’s heart. In Ephesians 3, he sees it as a mystery, not solely on the basis of the element of the unknown but also with respect to the fact that it is meant for Jews and Gentiles alike. But he emphasizes the element of grace in his own salvation so that God could use him. This was all something, as he says in verse 5, that “has now been revealed by the Spirit to His holy apostles and prophets.” It is the power of God. The Spirit of God works faith into the hearts of men.
Another thing that we ought to note is that the Holy Spirit doesn’t enter in and so believes for the sinner. It is the sinner who has been made new, who now believes, being enabled by the Spirit to do so. He is made alive. Faith is a personal subscription to the truth of God. It is a positive reaction to the glorious action of regeneration brought about through the work of the Holy Spirit. We do not believe on our own, in our own strength, according to our own understanding. We believe because God the Holy Spirit has given us faith to believe.
In a sense, this faith is something that is very personal. It is not something that you can leave in a will to your children. It is not something that your pastor can give you. God does work through the generations. This much He has promised. He will be a God to me and to my children and to my children’s children. “For the promise is to you and to your children.” But there are other ways and means that the Spirit uses so as to work salvation in us.
This brings us to our second point. Let us see the work of that source, i.e., the work of the Holy Spirit. Yes, it is a work of faith that enables us to believe. But there is work involved. That is to say, the Holy Spirit uses specific means, and one of those means is something that we are engaged in right now, the preaching and the hearing of the Word. As the catechism says, it is by the preaching of the Holy gospel. It involves action. It involves preaching and listening to the gospel — preaching Christ and Him crucified. We know that the gospel is the power of God for salvation, as we read in Romans 1:16. We also know from Romans 10:17 that “faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God.”
It is a cycle that is laid out for us also in Romans 10:14-15, “How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach unless they are sent?” When Paul was sent out to do mission work in Asia Minor, he came using his voice; he preached the gospel because it is through the preaching of the Word that the Holy Spirit works faith. That is illustrated so beautifully in what the Lord tells us about Lydia in Acts 16:14, “Now a certain woman named Lydia heard us.... and the Lord opened her heart to heed the things spoken by Paul.” Notice the way it is said: she heeded the things spoken by Paul. She listened, and she then came to (was brought to) faith. This turns out to be the pattern throughout the book of Acts. After Paul spoke, those chosen to life listened and believers were raised up; churches were established. It is because of the truth of that principle that faith comes through hearing, that Paul says to the Corinthians that “it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe” (I Cor. 1:21).
We should not consider it a surprise, beloved, that the Lord, in the Spirit, is pleased to work through the preaching of the Word. After all, when God set out to create the world in the beginning, He did not collect matter, material from which He could build, and from it fashion heaven and earth, with all that is in it. No, God spoke. “Let there be,” God decreed, and there it was. Now that God is recreating the heart that is dead in sin, working faith where there is only deadness, God does the same as He did in the beginning: He speaks. He causes His Word to go forth, and people, dead in sin, come alive; they believe. The prophecy of Ezekiel concerning the dry bones speaks to the preaching of the gospel as well as the power of preaching. (Ezekiel 37). Concerning that valley full of dry bones, God said to Ezekiel, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them, ‘O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord!’” And the result? “So I prophesied as I was commanded: and as I prophesied, there was a noise, and behold a shaking, and the bones came together, bone to his bone. And when I beheld, lo, the sinews and the flesh came up upon them, and the skin covered them above: but there was no breath in them. So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood up upon their feet, an exceeding great army. The bones came alive, what was dead lived; there is recreation.” People are like dry bones, dead in sin. They cannot come alive unless God sovereignly works in them by His Word of power.
Yet there is this difference between God’s speaking at creation in the beginning and His speaking today when He wishes to work faith in dead hearts. For in the beginning it was God Himself who spoke; God said “Let there be.” Today though, it is not God’s actual voice we hear (as Israel heard it at Mount Sinai in Exodus 19). God is rather pleased to speak through people. Indeed, God has appointed His ministers to speak His Word; ministers are God’s mouthpiece (Deut. 5:28). So it was that Paul could say to the Thessalonians, “...when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you welcomed it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God...” (I Thess. 2:13; Gal 4:14).
Let it be clear in our minds, then, beloved, that we are dead; we cannot work faith in our hearts. That is something only God can do. The means by which God is pleased to work that faith is through the preaching of the gospel; “faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Rom 10:17). So we must make use of the preaching. There is a tendency in some circles today to minimize the need for preaching. We have become a visual society, therefore it is said that we will absorb more by seeing and watching than by listening. But this is a tendency that we need to resist because what is at risk is salvation itself.
The Holy Spirit does not work faith while out in the forest somewhere, or while lounging at the beach, or in your backyard — He has been pleased to use the means of the preaching. So our duty then is to make ourselves available to hear the preaching. In order to do that we must be in church. To confess that God the Holy Spirit works faith through the preaching of the gospel is to acknowledge the need to be in church faithfully and regularly, as often as is possible. Not only must we be in church, but we must be alert — awake. Faith comes from hearing! That means we are to listen! We must fight the urge to sleep and so concentrate on the Word of God.
But finally we turn to the establishment of that work as it is instilled into our hearts through the power of the Spirit, as it moves our hearts to hear the Word of God. The establishment of that work is an extension of the work of the Holy Spirit, but it is something that confirms and strengthens our faith. Just as everything that lives must grow, so too must faith. If we are to exemplify the man of Psalm 1 who meditates on the law of God day and night, who is like the tree planted by the river, a tree whose roots are nourished and fed, established deep into the soil, and so enabled to withstand drought and strong winds, and whatever manner of disaster, then our faith must also be confirmed and established, made secure so as to stand.
Our faith is established through the use of the sacraments. That is not a blanket statement that the use of the sacraments is the only means by which our faith is established. It is also strengthened and established through the hearing of the Word. In fact, that is the primary faith builder. But our faith is also strengthened through prayer and through personal devotions. Our faith is strengthened through trials and tribulations. We cannot limit the work of the Holy Spirit to just one way, but one way that is used is the way of the sacraments.
We must also take note here that when we say that the Word also strengthens faith, keep in mind that the Word has been given a dual purpose. It not only works faith, but it also strengthens faith, whereas the sacraments only strengthen faith. You see, anyone who makes use of the sacraments already has faith. He/she already believes the gospel of Jesus Christ. They already recognize Him as the way of salvation and they see His Spirit as being the source of salvation.
In the next 5 or 6 Lord’s Days you can see more of how the sacraments strengthen the believer, but for now it is sufficient to say that these are the ordinances given us by God whereby we can see the benefits of salvation and so be nourished with Christ. It brings forth enabling powers so as to carry on living in a sinful world. Paul in I Corinthians 10 is strengthening the faith of those in Corinth by way of the Word as he speaks of the sin of idolatry, but he also speaks of the sacraments as being the instruments of power and might there at the church’s hand. It is emphasized in verses 16 & 17, “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? For we, though many, are one bread and one body; for we all partake of that one bread.” The sacraments unite believers to each other. It is that common denominator, that is, if it is done in the manner prescribed. The sacraments unite us to Christ.
Beloved, do we see that our faith is not something in and of ourselves? Do we see the work of the Holy Spirit in your life? Do we recognize the significance of the preached Word — that it is not the minister’s word, but rather it is God’s — that he too is used by God as a servant of God? Do we understand how the sacraments are there for the sole purpose of strengthening, that they don’t save our souls? It is important that we realize and recognize that this is what the church does. This is what the believer does. This is how we come to appreciate that it is not by our own works, our own strength, our own wisdom that we taste and benefit from being partakers of Christ. If we are to teach our children we must show them the way. We must be an example to them. We must demonstrate and emphasize to our children the significance of the preached word and not the insignificance of the preacher. We must remember the foolishness of preaching. We must not deny the work of the Holy Spirit.
May God indeed work in us through His Spirit, today and always, that we would not let go of our responsibilities, as well as turn away from our greatest gift and set aside these significant opportunities to worship provided for us. Let us come and worship here in God’s house, celebrating that we have become partakers of Christ and all His benefits by faith through the mighty work of the Holy Spirit! Amen.