************ Sermon on Belgic Confession Article 16 ************
By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on October 18, 2009
Belgic Confession Article 16
"The Doctrine of Election"
We are studying the doctrine of election this evening. What is election? It is a Biblical and confessional teaching that there are people whom God has chosen for salvation.
As we look at election, we need to remember what Paul wrote to the church at Ephesus:
(Eph 1:3-4) Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. (4) For he chose us in him before the creation of the world ...Election is not just cold, sterile doctrine. Instead, Paul shows us that the teaching of election should lead us to praise God. Election leads to praise. That is Paul's point in Ephesians 1.
That is also Paul's point in the book of Romans. For four chapters Paul struggles with God's eternal decrees. Finally, when all is said and done, what does Paul do? He praises God. Listen to what he says at the end of chapter 11:
(Rom 11:33-36) Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! (34) "Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?" (35) "Who has ever given to God, that God should repay him?" (36) For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen.
Election leads to praise for God – that is the God-ward direction of election. But there is also a man-ward direction. Election should also lead to man's comfort. As we will find out, election is by grace and not by works. This removes all reason for fear and despair. The state of our soul lies not in our hands – for then we would surely perish – but in God's – where we are forever safe and forever sure. I think here of what Paul asks: "Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen?" (Rom 8:33). The answer: No one! We are one hundred percent in God's hands. The result is that nothing "in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Rom 8:39).
We start a new part of the Belgic Confession of Faith this evening. So far, we have studied the doctrine of God, theology, in Articles 1-13. Then, we studied the doctrine of man, anthropology, in Articles 14-15. This evening, we start the doctrine of Christ, Christology; this doctrine covers Articles 16-21.
I Election's Background
A I want you to notice the shortness of Article 16. It hardly says anything at all about election. There are two reasons for this. First, the Belgic Confession is warning us to not overemphasize the doctrine of election – as is done by some churches and some Christians. Second, the Belgic Confession is also warning us not to inquire too deeply into the things of God. We are being told to keep in mind that God's judgments are unsearchable, that His paths are beyond tracing out, that there is a depth to the wisdom and knowledge of God that we can never plumb (Rom 11:33). Any study of election cannot help but show us how big and awesome our God truly is and how small and insignificant we really are. It is beyond our thought.
B I want you to also notice that Article 16 begins in an unexpected place: it doesn't begin with God's decrees; rather, it begins with sin and misery:
We believe that – all Adam's descendants having fallen into perdition and ruin by the sin of the first man ...We learned last time that all of mankind is infected by the disease of sin. We are all conceived and born in sin. We all bear the guilt of actual and original sin. We all are totally depraved. We all stand condemned before God.
It is against this background of sin that God comes with His electing love. He comes to trembling, exposed, shameful, fallen creatures. The point is this: God's election mercy is for sinners! If any human, like the angels of heaven, is perfect, God's electing love is not for her or him. God's electing love is for fallen, sinful man.
Martin Luther, the father of the Reformation, insisted strongly on this point: that God's mercy is for sinners. Luther warned against our attempts to "clean ourselves up." Some people think they need to do that before they can make profession of faith. They suppose that before they can come to God they have to get their wayward sex lives, their flaring tempers, their bouts of drinking, and their moments of doubt and unbelief under control. But this is not the case at all. We don't come to God with our house swept clean and everything in order. Not at all! Never! Besides, we can never accomplish this! Instead, God comes to us as sinners. His mercy, His grace, His election is for sinners. We can not dare to do God's work for Him. God comes to us as we are: sinful, fallen; no longer good, righteous, holy, or capable of doing His will (cf Article 14).
Sin, therefore, is the beginning point for any discussion about election. Because election makes no sense apart from sin and misery and the Fall of Adam and Eve. We need to know why we need electing.
It is in this situation of sin and misery, says article 16, that God – in election – shows two of His eternal attributes: His mercy and His justice.
II God Shows Himself to be Merciful
A There are five things that Article 16 tells us about election.
First, as I already said, election is a display of God's mercy. For election is by grace alone. Grace means being favored by God though we don't merit it, it means getting a benefit we don't deserve, it means receiving a kindness we don't earn. Election is unmerited, undeserved, unearned.
Topic: MercyElection is by grace. It is not something we deserve, it is not something we earn, it is not something we merit.
Title: Not Deserved
The story is told about a man in Napoleon's army who had committed his second capital crime. He was tried and condemned to die. His mother came to plead for her boy's life. Napoleon told her, "This boy does not deserve mercy." To which the mother said, "If he deserved it, it would not be mercy." This touched Napoleon's heart and he spared her son's life.
B Second, to say that election is by grace is to also say it is NOT by works. God does not choose us because of what we do or who we are. God does not choose us on the basis of foreseen faith or because He sees some kind of goodness within us. God does not choose us because of our parents or grandparents. As the Apostle Paul puts it in our Scripture reading:
(Rom 9:16) It does not, therefore, depend on man's desire or effort, but on God's mercy.There is nothing we do, nothing we are, or nothing we bring that leads us to experience God's mercy rather than His justice.
Topic: MercyThis man, obviously, was trying to buy or earn the forgiveness and mercy of his wife. I don't know whether it worked or not. But I do know that we can never earn or buy the forgiveness and mercy of God. It is unmerited, undeserved, unearned.
I'm reminded of the story of a man on the way home one night. He spotted some fresh-cut roses outside a florist's shop. After selecting a dozen and entering the shop, he was greeted by a young saleswoman.
"Are these for your wife, sir?" she asked.
"Yes," he said.
"For her birthday?" she asked.
"No," he replied.
"For your anniversary?"
"No," he said again.
As the man pocketed his change and headed toward the door, the young woman called out, "I hope she forgives you."
Standing behind election, then, is the greatest theme of the Reformation: salvation by grace through faith apart from works. The Belgic Confession of Faith, based upon the Bible, says: "He ... has elected and chosen ... without any consideration of .. works."
C Third, to say that election is by grace is to also say that God does NOT have to save anyone. That He does save some anyway is a sign of His great love and mercy. All of mankind deserves hell. But God, out of His gracious mercy, saves some from their well-deserved doom and destruction. The Belgic Confession of Faith, based upon the Bible, says: "He ... has elected and chosen ... by his pure goodness." God is so good, isn't He?!
D Fourth, election is by God's counsel or decree. God did the choosing. Not the church. Not the individual. Not a committee of angels. It is all of God. As Paul puts it in his letter to the Ephesians, God chooses according to His purpose (Eph 1:9) and His plan (Eph 1:11). It is completely up to the will of God. And, as God says in our Scripture passage,
(Rom 9:15) ... "I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion."
Furthermore, this election decree is "eternal." Before the foundation of the earth was even laid God decided on His elect. He knew that they would be fallen, sinful, miserable. But He chose them anyway. Before we took our first breath, before our first good deed, before we blurted out our first confession and words of repentance, before then God already chose us.
And, this election decree is also "unchangeable." No matter what we do, no matter how low we stoop, no matter what evil paths we take, we are still elect. God doesn't change His mind about anyone's election.
An eternal and unchangeable decree of election: this is what salvation by grace is all about. This is true mercy. This is the Gospel. How beautiful! How comforting! It isn't up to us at all. God's election decree is eternal and unchangeable. There is no probation period, no quota of good works that must be filled, no minimum level of faith required.
E Fifth, in His counsel God chose individual persons – "those whom he ... has elected and chosen." God did not choose a class of people – the rich, the poor; royalty, commoners; clergy, laity; slave, free; educated, uneducated; black, white. God did not choose an abstract, faceless mass. God elected specific women, men, and children.
III God Shows Himself to be Just
A Many Christians do not like the doctrine of election. They are uncomfortable with this teaching because not all of God's fallen creatures benefit from it or experience it. Only some are elect – as Article 16 makes painfully clear. All of Adam's descendants are in misery and a state of fallenness. All are equally broken and sinful. Yet, God shows mercy by electing to save some from their sin. And, God shows justice by leaving others in ruin – maybe neighbors, maybe coworkers, maybe family members, maybe a close friend. They are no more guilty than the elect. Yet, for them there is no Christ, no Deliverer, no Savior.
We know this as reprobation: the decree in which God chooses to save some also means that He chooses to pass all others by and leave them in their sin. Notice, God does not make an eternal decree to send people to hell. He doesn't choose people for hell. He doesn't create people for the express purpose of sending them to hell. Rather, He lets man condemn himself to hell. All He does is pass some by with His mercy and grace in Christ.
This teaching ought to make us humble and thankful. Humble because we are not better than any of the reprobate. And thankful that God in Christ has not left us in our sin. Don't forget, the only difference between us and them is that we are given the grace of God and they are not. And this is so, says Scripture, because "God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden" (Rom 9:18).
B We can ask here the question that the Apostle Paul asked: "Is God unjust?" (Rom 9:14). Is it fair of God to save some and to leave others in their sins? Paul's answer is "Not at all!" (Rom 9:14). God is never unjust in any of His actions.
How, then, are we to understand God's passing by? Nobody knows. It is at this point that Paul, Augustine, Calvin, and all the saints throw up their hands and say,
(Rom 9:20) But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? "Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, 'Why did you make me like this?'"
Perhaps the best thing to do here is not to question God and His ways but rather to question our understanding of God and His ways. I think here of the words of God through Isaiah the prophet: "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways" (Is 55:8; cf Rom 11:33-34).
The doctrine of election and reprobation means, congregation, that there are only two kinds of people in our world: those who are elect and those who are reprobate; those who receive God's grace in Christ and those who are passed by with this grace; those to whom God shows mercy and those to whom God shows justice.
Perhaps you are wondering whether you and your loved ones are one of the elect or one of the reprobate? Perhaps you are wondering whether you and they will display God's mercy or God's justice? Perhaps you are even worried about this?
The Bible tells us that election displays itself in fruit. What kind of fruit? Fruit like faith, a love for God, sorrow for sin, a hunger and thirst for righteousness, Bible reading and prayer, worship attendance, participation in the sacraments, the communion of saints, and so on. Look for these signs. If you find them, rest assured that you are one of the Lord's elect; their presence ought to convince you and assure you of your election in Christ. If you find them, rest assured God is showing you His mercy rather than His justice.
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