************ Sermon on Belgic Confession Article 23 ************
By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on July 5, 2020
Belgic Confession Article 23
Some of you might have read a 1961 book entitled "Black Like Me." It is a nonfiction book by white journalist John Howard Griffin recounting his journey in the Deep South of the United States, at a time when African-Americans lived under racial segregation. Griffin had his skin temporarily darkened to pass as a black man. He traveled for six weeks throughout the racially segregated states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, and Georgia to explore life from the other side of the color line.
His experiences were many. After he disguised himself, many people who knew Griffin as a white man did not recognize him. In New Orleans, a black counterman at a small restaurant chatted with Griffin about the difficulties of finding a place to go to the bathroom, as facilities were segregated and blacks were prohibited from many. On a bus trip, Griffin began to give his seat to a white woman, but disapproving looks from black passengers stopped him; he thought he had a momentary breakthrough with the woman, but she insulted him and began talking with other white passengers about how impudent the blacks were becoming. Imagine changing your skin color. Imagine how different your life would be.
Sixty years later we have Black Lives Matter. There are those today who need to be reminded that skin color does not make a person better or worse than another. To believe anything other than this is racism and sinful and unacceptable. Before God, everyone is created equal, regardless of skin color.
Isaiah 1:18 and Article 23 of the Belgic Confession of Faith are about a change of color -- from the blackness of guilt to the whiteness of innocence.
The Bible uses the idea of purity and whiteness to represent those cleansed by the blood of Christ. No one is born pure and white. By nature, everyone is covered with the filthy dark stains of sin; this blackness is so bad that it covers us from head to toe. Such dirty sinners cannot exist before God. Our great Creator does not want us this way because He made us to be different; He made us pure and spotless. In our fall into sin we have blackened ourselves, we are dirty, but the Lord wants us to be white and clean. What must we do? What can we do?
Before we answer we need to hear the question asked by Jeremiah:
(Jer 13:23) Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots? Neither can you do good who are accustomed to doing evil.We can't change our color or our hearts. There is nothing we can do. Says the Confession,
if we had to appear before God relying --
no matter how little --
on ourselves or some other creature,
then, alas, we would be swallowed up.
But there is another answer to Jeremiah's question. We can't change the color of our skin. We can't change the leopard's spots. We can't change our heart. But Jesus can. Jesus took our filthy robes of sin, put them on Himself, and placed Himself before God. He endured God's punishment as if He was a sinner. But that is not all; He also gives us His own pure white robe and puts it on us. We sinners then stand before God who sees only the pure, white covering. "Though our sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow" (Is 1:18). Do you see what has happened? In God's sight we have gone from the blackness of sin to the whiteness of purity.
Why did this happen? How did this happen? Did we earn this gift? Do we deserve this gift? No, it is only a gift of grace, entirely undeserved.
We have a theological word for this -- the word of our sermon title. We know this as justification.
I The Blessing of Justification
A Article 23 begins with our "blessedness." Another word we can use is "beatitude." In mind is a salvation that is full of happiness and blessedness; we could say, "happily, blessedly saved." Says the Confession,
We believe that our blessedness lies in the forgiveness of our sins because of Jesus Christ.
Why does the Confession say this? To respond to the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. The Roman Catholics say God's mercy and forgiveness is never enough. Something has to go before and after. We first need sorrow for sin to merit God's grace and then we need good works to apply God's grace. Not so, says the Belgic Confession. All that we need is the forgiveness of our sins because of Christ. The totality of our blessedness is wrapped up in what Christ has done and not in what we have done.
The faulty teaching of the Roman Catholic Church has made its way into other churches. I've warned you before of Federal Vision theology and the new perspective on Paul that we find in some conservative Reformed churches. This view confuses justification and sanctification so obedience is declared to contribute to our salvation.
We believe that our blessedness lies in the forgiveness of our sins because of Jesus Christ. This we believe! It is not a question, it is not a hope, it is not a doubt, but this we certainly know and believe. There is nothing to add to this -- nothing! The blood of Christ, embraced by faith, is our righteousness before God. Blessedness comes to us only in the forgiving blood of Jesus.
B Many view the efforts of other religions as something God will accept as good enough. We need to be clear on this point: outside of the blood of Christ there is no blessedness. Without the blood of Christ there is only damnation. What a terrifying reality! If you die in the same condition as your birth, if you have never looked in faith to the Lamb of God, your condition is forever sealed as lost. This is terrible, but true. This truth is true for all of us. Either we experience the blessedness of forgiveness in Christ or we are forever lost.
C What are the most pressing issues today? People today are concerned about racism, the role of women, the economy, the environment, human sexuality, LGBTQ+, the definition of marriage, the coronavirus, and a host of other social concerns. Too often the church follows and places a premium on these issues. Does this mean these concerns are imaginary or unimportant? Certainly not! They are legitimate concerns, but not central issues. While many declare them to be central issues, they are not. They may occupy a good part of our time, but once dealt with, the central issues are still there. Preaching that focuses on the secondary -- sometimes trivial -- issues diminishes the church and her mission.
What is central? What is most important? The preaching of the Gospel. The salvation of souls. What is most important is that each person needs to answer for themselves, "Do I have the blessedness of the Gospel? Are my sins forgiven?"
I pray, congregation, I pray that the blessedness of the forgiveness of sins is your experience. That it brings joy into your hearts and light into your lives.
II The Righteousness of Justification
A Our second point is the righteousness of justification.
The Reformation's primary teaching is that justification is God's declaration of a sinner to be righteous. Is the sinner righteous in him or herself? No, the sinner is still the same person. But a change has taken place. As I already said, the sinner has had a change of color from the blackness of guilt to the whiteness of innocence.
The declaration of a sinner as righteous is the work of God the Father. It is God's work in us and to us. We are not actively involved in this. It is not in any way conditional upon anything we do. In justification, God declares the sinner righteous. Though we say there needs to be sorrow for sin, we know sorrow adds nothing to justification. We can never say, "I deserve saving because I have cried enough tears, I have thought enough about my guilt." Let us never think that any spiritual action on our part makes us more acceptable in God's sight. In fact, anything of our own is likened by Paul to rubbish (Phil 3:8). Even our most splendid works, our best repentance, our most heartfelt prayers are but worthless garbage in God's sight. We lean and rest on the sole obedience of Christ crucified.
B We use the word "imputation" here. Imputation means that what I owe is transferred from my account to the account of Jesus; in imputation, my guilt came upon Him. Long before I was born, there stood Jesus, covered by my sin, which drove Him to the cross. There it was all paid. And, in imputation, Christ's righteousness comes to me. It is without works on my part; it comes at no cost to me. But what a price Jesus paid, and what a work He performed! Thus, there is a double imputation: my guilt is imputed to Christ and His righteousness is imputed to me.
Imputation is a legal transaction. Imagine a courtroom where God is the judge and I am the accused. Everything testifies against me: God's law, the devil, my own conscience. Everything confirms I am guilty. When the Judge asks, "How do you plead?" I must plead guilty. Then Jesus steps forward and says, "I have taken his guilt and he has been given my righteousness." On this basis, the Judge declares me righteous.
C How does all of this work in the Christian? How is it experienced? By the operation of the Spirit we embrace Christ and His work on our behalf. The Spirit makes us born again. He convicts of sin. He applies the law of God to our hearts. He leads us to the cross. It is all God's work -- none of mine -- and He gets all the glory. We do not deserve any of the credit, for the best we can produce is never good enough. As the Confession puts it,
giving all glory to God,
and recognizing ourselves as we are;
not claiming a thing for ourselves ...
III The Confidence of Justification
A We end with the confidence of justification. Article 23 states it this way,
This is enough to cover all our sinsWhen Jesus' blood covers the filth of my sin, the embracing of His sacrifice brings confidence -- confidence to come to God as my Father. We come wearing the white robes of Christ's righteousness. We come as changed people. We cling to this foundation, which is firm forever. If we come with what we have done, we will always be unsure, always attacked by doubt, tossed back and forth, full of fear.
and to make us confident
freeing the conscience
from the fear, dread, and terror of God's approach.
B The Confession reminds us that Adam was full of fear. He trembled as he tried to cover himself with fig leaves. Of course, there was reason to fear: he had disobeyed God and the clear punishment was death. Likewise, we too have every reason to fear. When we know the Law of God, when our conscience accuses us, there is every good reason to fear.
The good news of the Gospel is that confidence replaces fear. Not because we have found fig leaves -- some good work, some emotion, something left over from our parents. If that is all we have we will be forever lost and forever fearful. Rather, confidence replaces fear because of Christ.
In Jesus, congregation, we have all we need. His work is enough to cover all our sins -- past, present, future. His work is enough to cover the sins of all the world. His work is so great that none are lost who are declared righteous because of Him.
"We believe." "We believe that our blessedness lies in the forgiveness of our sins because of Jesus Christ." Is this your belief? Do you believe? Have you had a change of color.
You can e-mail our pastor at: Pastor, Trinity United Reformed Church
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