************ Sermon on Belgic Confession Article 24 ************

By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman

This sermon was preached on July 12, 2020

Belgic Confession Article 24
James 2:14-17

"What you preaching on tomorrow?" When my friend Rod asked me that question I answered, "Being holy." "You mean like Swiss Cheese." He was kidding of course. But I did explain to him that Christians want to live lives of holiness.

We have every reason to want to do this, don't we?! Like the Ethiopian who cannot change his skin color or the leopard its spots, we can't change our color before God (Jer 13:23). By nature we are black with sin and we cannot be in God's presence with our guilt and shame. In this situation comes Christ. He takes our blackness upon Himself; He takes our filthy black robe of sin and puts it on Himself. While remaining clean -- the Lord Jesus Christ never did and never will sin -- He dressed Himself in the cloak of our sin, and stood before God who dealt with Him as if He were guilty. In exchange, Jesus gives us His clean white robe of righteousness. Dressed in that robe, God sees sinners as pure and clean, as if they are as righteous as Christ Himself. We talked about all of this when we looked at Article 23 last week. We know this as justification.

Article 24 takes it one step further. God also removes our filth, our corruption. We know this as sanctification. As sinners who have been justified, we want to also be sanctified, to be rebuilt in the image of His Son, to live lives of holiness.

We will look at three points: Good Works Expected, Good Works Rejected, Good Work Accepted. Though I've used these three headings with the Catechism this is an entirely new sermon.

Before continuing, let me emphasize the importance of faith. We are justified by grace through faith; faith, remember, is the instrument, not the ground, of justification. We are also sanctified by faith; here again faith is the instrument, not the ground or source of our sanctification.

I Good Works Expected
A If you are a Christian, good works are expected. In making this point, Article 24 starts with true faith. True faith, we are told, regenerates a person and makes him a new man. Regeneration can be used in a narrow sense for new birth, being born-again. The Confession understands regeneration in the broad sense for all of new life: repentance, remission of sin, renewal of life, being rebuilt and reshaped in the image of Christ. In this sense true faith regenerates a person and makes him a new man.

B Where does this faith come from? It is "produced in man by the hearing of God's Word and by the work of the Holy Spirit." As Paul tells us, "faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ" (Rom 10:17). The Word alone is the seed of regeneration. That's why it is the Word which must be proclaimed from the pulpit. This was one of the main emphases to come out of the Reformation. This is the reason that churches are to prize the preaching of the Word. This explains the architecture and furniture of our building. Choir lofts, altar tables, or any other furniture are not allowed to crowd out the pulpit. Music, however beautiful and captivating it may be, is not allowed to replace the preaching of God's Word. Preaching and hearing are what really matter in the life of the church.

The preaching and hearing of the Word of God do not stand on their own. They do not exist in a vacuum. They require the work of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is necessary to open the Word and to open the heart. The Spirit must carry the Word into the ear, the mind, the heart. The Spirit must make room for the Word in the heart. The Lord Jesus compared the heart to a field receiving seed (Mt 13). The Spirit must make room -- not along the path where the birds pick off the seed, not on stony ground where there is no soil, and not among thorns where it is choked. The Spirit must make room in good ground, deeply plowed, and properly cultivated. Then the Spirit goes to work with the Word. With it, He causes true faith to develop. The Confession uses the word "produced." This implies work, effort, the result of intense labor. This is how the Spirit works in the sinner.

C The result? True faith causes a person to live the new life and frees him from the slavery of sin. A life of repentance and regeneration is the result of true faith.

The charge of the Roman Catholics is that justifying faith makes people cold toward living in a pious and holy way. The Confession states justifying faith does not cause one to cool down, slow down, or become careless; rather, it stirs up activity, warming the believer towards a pious and holy life.

The word "pious" has negative connotations for many people. Usually it is associated with hypocrisy. By it the Confession means a life that is good and holy, measuring up to the norms of God. It means a life of true righteousness that does everything out of love for Christ.

James tells us "faith without deeds is dead" (James 2:26). But true faith is never empty or vain; it always works in and through love. It does the works and commands God has ordered in His Word.

D We are called to do works that please God, but how can we do this? As sinners who have lost their original righteousness, we cannot please God. The only way we can practice righteousness is by faith in Jesus Christ. Hebrews 11:6 tells us that "without faith it is impossible to please God." Faith is required to do good works.

Let me explain this. Faith joins us to Christ and all His benefits. If you are united to Christ, you share in His life, His obedience, His perfection. Jesus describes Himself as the vine and we are the branches (Jn 15). When the life of Christ pushes through the branches, then the fruit we produce can only be good and pleasing to God. But this does not happen without faith because faith is what unites us to Christ.

II Good Works Rejected
A But now a warning: these works "do not count toward our justification." Good works are rejected, congregation. Good works are rejected as a way to salvation. There are at least four reasons for saying this.

First, "we are justified even before we do good works." Here is one of our big differences with the Roman Catholic Church. Rome says works contribute to justification; we say, according to the Bible, that man is saved without works.

Doesn't this conflict with our Bible reading from James 2 which tells us "faith without deeds is dead" (James 2:26). Not at all! James is merely saying you show you don't have faith if you don't have works. James is merely saying faith without works is not faith; it is dead.

B Second, good works do not save, good works cannot save, because our debt with God is simply too big. Suppose you owe the bank millions of dollars and you are totally unable to pay. Would it make any difference to the debt if you bring a handful of change to the bank? Of course not. The same is true with God: we owe God perfect obedience and we are totally unable to pay this obedience. What value is our little bit of good compared to our countless sins and transgressions? Do you suppose our little bit of good even begins to tip the scales in our favor? Our efforts are pitiless and worthless and even insulting to the Savior.

C Third, our very best works are stained and covered with sin. Says the Confession,
we cannot do any work
that is not defiled by our flesh
and also worthy of punishment.
And even if we could point to one,
memory of a single sin is enough
for God to reject that work.
The Catechism puts it this way: "In this life even the holiest have only a small beginning of this obedience." And, "the very best we do in this life is imperfect and stained with sin."

If we thought our salvation depended on our good works, we would forever be tossed back and forth. Since we daily stumble in so many ways, how could we ever be sure of salvation? We would always struggle as Martin Luther did, thinking, "How shall I appear righteous before God?" Congregation, feel sorry for the Roman Catholics and others who are still caught in this struggle. The assurance of salvation is always a struggle for all who have not come to embrace the joyful doctrine of sovereign grace.

D Fourth, in our works we are entirely indebted to God. We owe even our works to God and He does not owe us anything. Says the Confession
So then, we do good works,
but not for merit --
for what would we merit?
Rather, we are indebted to God
for the good works we do,
and not he to us,
since it is he who "works in us to will and do
according to his good pleasure."

In Ephesians 2:10, Paul says "we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do." Did you hear that? Our good works are the fruit of His sovereign grace. Faith knows that in doing good our help is in the name of the Lord.

III Good Works Accepted
A Faith without works is dead. So saved people do good works. But good works do not save us. They can't save us. Yet, surprise, surprise, good works are accepted. The confession speaks of rewards.
Yet we do not wish to deny
that God rewards good works --
but it is by his grace
that he crowns his gifts.

We see the reward already in his life. A life lived for God leaves a positive mark both in body and in spirit. There is a certain freshness about such people that lasts into old age. A joyful spirit and a prayerful trust in God produces joyful, trusting people. Look at some of the older people you know; some are so happy and content -- they have a serenity that defies description. If you ask them the reason, they talk about the goodness of the Lord. The joy of the Lord is their strength.

Amazing, isn't it, that the reward according to grace is already received (in part) in this life? When we put our faith into practice, the rewards will certainly follow.

The reward is also future. Jesus tells us that when we do good we store up for ourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal (Mt 6:20).

B What works are we talking about? Repentance. Obedience. Prayer. It may be a cup of cold water given to the least of His disciples. It may be a visit, a prayer, a card, a phone call. It may be a meal to a hungry person or for someone recovering from surgery. All of these will be rewarded as a gift of His grace.

C This is so amazing and so gracious. Our good works, stained with sin, deserve to be punished. Instead, by grace, they are rewarded by God. What a blessing to know this about our good works. What a blessing to know this by faith. Faith knows that our works are received by God, as they are covered by the blood and righteousness of Christ. However defective the works of believers may be, they are nevertheless pleasing to God because of Christ.

The article starts, like so many, with the phrase "We believe." We believe good works are expected. We believe good works are rejected. We believe good works are accepted. Is this what you believe?
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