************ Sermon on Canons of Dort, Head I, Articles 5-6 ************
By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on March 17, 2013
Canons, Head I, Articles 5-6
"The Source of Unbelief and Faith"
Step by step the Canons are carefully unfolding for us the truth concerning salvation and divine predestination. If you remember, in Article 1 we are told that God is not obligated to save anyone, but can justly leave all people in their sin and condemnation. In Article 2 we are told that nonetheless it is God's purpose to save some, so out of love He sent His one and only Son into the world that whoever believes on Him should not perish but have everlasting life. In Article 3 we are told the means by which people are brought to believe – namely, through the preaching of the Gospel. In Article 4 we are told how people respond to the proclamation of the Gospel: some do not believe and remain under God's wrath; and, some do believe and are delivered from the wrath of God.
Today, in Article 5 & 6, we look at the next steps along the path of salvation.
I The Source of Unbelief and Faith
A Based upon the Bible and observation, Article 4 tells us that when the Gospel is preached, some believe and others do not believe. Why? Where does unbelief come from? Where does belief come from? Why is there this difference among people equally fallen into sin and guilty before God?
Before we answer these questions we need to properly define unbelief. What is unbelief? It is a refusal of the heart and mind to accept the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Essentially it is enmity against God and against the plan of salvation.
Jesus lets us know that unbelief is one of the most horrible of sins in God's sight. To His disciples Jesus said:
(Mt 10:14-15) If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake the dust off your feet when you leave that home or town. (15) I tell you the truth, it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.Wow.
Another time Jesus denounced the cities in which most of His miracles had been performed, because they did not repent and believe:
(Mt 11:21-22) "Woe to you, Korazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. (22) But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you.
Do you hear these two quotes? Do you realize what they mean? Before the Lord Jesus, Israel's sin of unbelief is worse than the social and sexual evils of Sodom, Gomorrah, Tyre, and Sidon.
Though unbelief is so strongly condemned, the Canons let us know it is still one of many sins. It may be at the peak of the pyramid of sin, but it still is part of the pyramid. The Canons say this because the Arminians (whom the Canons are written against) put up a wall of division between the sin of unbelief and all other sins. The Arminians taught that the atonement of Christ covers all sin except for the sin of unbelief. We know and believe that the cross of Christ covers all sin, none excepted.
B Where does unbelief come from? In a straight-forward manner the Canons tell us the source of unbelief:
The cause or blame for this unbelief, as well as for all other sins, is not at all in God, but in man.We are talking here about the spiritual, ethical cause of sin. The sin of unbelief, says the Canons, does not arise from the heart of God; rather, it arises from the heart of sinful, fallen people. God is not responsible for human sin. God is not the author of sin, for God cannot sin. Man himself is the author of his own sin and unbelief.
Alexander Whyte, the great Scottish preacher, once stood up in his pulpit in Edinburgh and said: I have discovered the most wicked man in Edinburgh … ” Then he paused, while the congregation too eagerly awaited the name; whereupon the preacher pointed at himself and said "Alexander Whyte."Alexander Whyte knew the truth about himself and every other person who ever lived – that we all are sinners, that we all are fallen, that we all must accept blame for the sin in our lives.
—Eugene A. Hessel
I am reading a book right now entitled "Wild Tulare County." In the 1800s and through the early 1900s Tulare County was the badlands of the West. It was the home to many outlaws, crooks, toughs, and robbers. Many times, neighboring counties would send a telegraph asking if any local criminals were absent – because within their county they would have a vicious murder, a stagecoach or train robbery, or an ambush. Guess what, my brothers and sisters? We are still wild and unruly. In fact, I could write a book about the toughs of Trinity URC.
C The sin of unbelief does not arise from the heart of God. In saying this we are not saying that sin is outside of the providence of God. For in a universe ruled by God nothing happens outside of His will. That this is the case is clearly seen in Scripture.
We see, for instance, that good and evil are within the providence of God:
(Is 45:7) I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the LORD, do all these things.
Kings and rulers and their ways are within God's plan:
(Prov 21:1) The king's heart is in the hand of the LORD; he directs it like a watercourse wherever he pleases.
The crucifixion and death of Jesus also happened according to God's plan:
(Acts 2:23) This man was handed over to you by God's set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.
(Acts 4:27-28) Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. (28) They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen.
Even the sin of unbelief is within the providence of God:
(Jn 12:39-40) For this reason they could not believe, because, as Isaiah says elsewhere: (40) "He has blinded their eyes and deadened their hearts, so they can neither see with their eyes, nor understand with their hearts, nor turn--and I would heal them."
Nothing happens in this world apart from God's decrees and judgments.
Meaning what? Meaning that nothing is ever out of control. Meaning that there are boundaries created by God. Meaning that all things are turned to the ultimate good of God's people. Meaning that everything in creation and history result in the ultimate glory of God.
D If unbelief comes from the heart of fallen people, where does belief come from? The Canons says,
Faith in Jesus Christ, however, and salvation through him is a free gift of God.For Scriptural support the Canons direct our attention to Paul's words in Ephesians:
(Eph 2:8) For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith--and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God ...
Faith and salvation are gifts, free gifts, of God. They are undeserved, unearned, by miserable sinners who deserve the wrath of God rather than the love of God. Yet there is something within each of us which makes us think that we can earn or pay for God's grace.
During his last hours, for instance, John Knox woke from a slumber sighing, and told his friends that he had just been tempted to believe that he had "merited Heaven and eternal blessedness, by the faithful discharge of my ministry. But blessed be God who has enabled me to beat down and quench the fiery dart ..."
—Christian World Pulpit
A godly man like John Knox reminds us of how deceitful and treacherous is the heart of man. We can so easily fool ourselves into thinking that everything, including salvation and faith, are up for sale. We think that everything, including salvation and faith can be bought. And, we are extremely skeptical of anything that is free, of anything we haven't earned. But salvation and faith are free; we can't earn them; we can't pay for them.
We can learn from the example of those heroes of the faith who came before us.
John Newton said, "When I get to heaven I shall see three wonders there. The first wonder will be to see many people there whom I did not expect to see. The second wonder will be to miss many people whom I did expect to see. And the third and greatest wonder of all will be to find myself there."
When the father of Dr. Harry Ironside lay dying, the descending sheet which Peter saw in a vision was dominant in his mind. Over and over he mumbled, "A great sheet and wild beasts, and … and … and." Seemingly he could not recall the next words and would start over again. A friend whispered, "John, it says, 'creeping things.'" "Oh, yes, that is how I got in! Just a poor, good-for-nothing creeping thing! But I got in—saved by grace!"
—Walter B. Knight
E "Faith in Jesus Christ, however, and salvation through him is a free gift of God." In stating this, the Canons take dead aim against the Arminians. The Arminians make a separation between salvation and faith: salvation, they say, is by grace and a gift from God; faith, they say, is of man. They would agree with the statement that salvation is God's part and faith is man's part.
Do you realize the hopelessness of the Arminian view? To a lost-in-sin mankind it simply says, "Believe, believe, believe, and you will be saved by grace." But on his or her own a sinner is neither able nor willing to believe; on his or her own a sinner can only have unbelief. I'm reminded of the words of the father confronted with the healing power of Christ. This man said to Jesus, "I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief (Mk 9:24)." The Arminian position that faith is of man leaves man hopelessly beyond the reach of grace and salvation.
II God's Eternal Decrees
A We've been asking the question, "Who are they that believe?" The answer is that only those believe who are given the gift of faith by God. It is God, therefore, Who decides who shall and who shall not believe.
But now we must answer another question: "How does God determine this? How does God decide who gets faith and who doesn't get faith?" Humanly speaking, there is no answer to this question.
We aren't given an answer, but in the first sentence of Article 6 the Canons do give us a reply based upon Scripture.
The fact that some receive from God the gift of faith within time, and that others do not, stems from his eternal decision.
Before we proceed we need to notice the relation between history and God's eternal decree. The Arminians say God's eternal decree receives its content from history as God foresaw it. In other words, God foresees faith so He decrees faith. The Canons say it is the other way around: history receives its content from the eternal decree of God. In other words, God decrees faith so they get faith. The decree is first. It is eternal. It is the source. And history is the revelation, the unfolding, of the contents of God's eternal decree. The history of salvation and damnation, the history of receiving the gift of faith or of not receiving the gift of faith, proceeds from God's eternal decree.
Do you realize what is at stake here? At stake here is whether our God is an awesome and mighty God. At stake here is the providence and sovereignty of God. At stake here is whether it is God or man who is ultimately in charge!
B When it comes to grace, salvation, and faith God's decree reveals itself in one of two ways. In the first place there is the decree of election. Says the Canons,
... he graciously softens the hearts, however hard, of his chosen ones and inclines them to believe ...Those who receive the gift of faith, then, receive it because of God's eternal election decree.
In the second place there is the decree of reprobation. Says the Canons,
... by his just judgment he leaves in the wickedness and hardness of heart those who have not been chosen ...To these people God does not give the gift of faith. Many of these may hear the Good News of the Gospel, but they reject it and refuse to believe. The seed of the Word falls along the path or among thorns or on rocks and fails to produce a harvest (cf Luke 8).
We must make sure that we always understand Article 6 in the light of Article 5. God's eternal decree of election and reprobation does not change the fact that it is each person, and not God, who is responsible for the sin of unbelief. On his or her own each sinner always chooses sin and unbelief. And, it is only by the grace and gift of God that a person – any person – can come to faith.
C Article 6 ends on a positive note that is heard more than once in the Canons: that the truth of God's decrees provides "holy and godly souls with comfort beyond words."
What is this comfort? It is the comfort of knowing – in the midst of sin and darkness, in the midst of weakness and imperfection – that my salvation is certain and unchangeable. Election means salvation is not up to me and my unsatisfactory efforts or my weak faith; instead, it is up to the sovereign, almighty, unchangeable God Who always accomplishes His purposes and always realizes His decrees.
Let me end with a note about God and His glory.
Did God make some men in order to damn them – as some charge? Did God make other men in order to save them? Neither salvation nor damnation were ever God's ultimate end in making man. Rather, God's ultimate end is His own glory.
So, the damnation of some ends in God's glory. And, the salvation of some ends in God's glory. We can only say, "To Him be the glory forever and ever!" Amen!
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