************ Sermon on Canons of Dort, Head II, Article 5 ************
By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on July 28, 2013
Canons, Head II, Article 5
Matthew 28:16-20; Ezekiel 3:16-27
"Evangelism and Limited Atonement"
For whom did Christ come? For whom did Christ die? For whom is Christ's work meant? For almost 2,000 years Christians have struggled to answer these questions. For almost 500 years Reformed Christians have disagreed with each other, sometimes bitterly, about the answers to these same questions.
Among the Reformed, on the one side are the Arminians. They say Christ's atoning sacrifice is applied to all – all, that is, who choose to repent and believe. Therefore, says the Arminians, salvation is available to everyone. On the other side are the Calvinists – which is our viewpoint and the viewpoint of the Canons of Dort. We say the atoning work of Christ is applied only to the elect. Therefore, we say, salvation is not available to everyone. This viewpoint is known as "limited atonement."
Certain Scripture texts lead us to believe that Christ's atoning work is not applied to all so all will not be saved. Listen to these texts:
(Mat 1:21) She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.The teaching of these verses is plain: Christ's work is not applied to all. Rather, His work is only applied to those identified as the church, the chosen, those given to Christ by the Father, the sheep, and His people.
(John 10:11) I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.
(John 17:9) I pray for them. I am not praying for the world, but for those you have given me, for they are yours.
(Rom 8:33) Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen?
(Eph 5:25) Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her ...
Question: If Christ's work is not applied to all, why should we evangelize? Why should the gospel "promise, together with the command to repent and believe ... be announced and declared to all nations and people"? Why should we take seriously Christ's command to go and make disciples of all nations? Why should we listen to what I read from Ezekiel 3 (and this is a passage that, quite frankly, scares me a bit whenever I read it)?
As these questions indicate, the doctrine of limited atonement does raise concerns about the place of evangelism and missions. These are the same questions and charges that the Arminians raised at the Synod of Dort.
It is to answer such charges that Article 5 of the second head of doctrine of the Canons of Dort was written.
I The Good Pleasure of God
B Article 5 also lets us know that the gospel follows the path determined for it by God's good pleasure: the gospel promise and the command to repent and believe is "announced and declared ... to all nations and people, to whom God in his good pleasure sends the gospel." This has both a positive and a negative implication. Positively, this means that when the gospel comes to certain persons and nations, it does so because of God. Negatively, this means that when the gospel does not go to certain persons and nations, it is also because of God.
History teaches us that the vast majority of people never came into contact with the Gospel. Why?
In the Old Testament, for instance, only a few outside of Israel ever heard the promise of the Gospel proclaimed. Why?
Until recently the proclamation of the Gospel was also limited to a few. It was not until the invention of the radio and TV and Talking Bibles and cheap methods of mass publication that the Gospel actually began to be proclaimed to the farthest corners of the earth. Yet even today there are millions upon millions who have never so much as heard of Christ. Why?
According to Wycliffe Bible Translators, 209 million people and just under 2000 language groups still wait for the Bible in their own languages. Why is it taking so long to translate Scripture? Why are so many language groups without the Bible? Why are so many without the Gospel? Why?
We would be making a mistake if we say God is short-handed. We would be wrong if we say God does not have enough missionaries and pastors to proclaim His Gospel. We would be in error if we say it is the fault of believers who are disobedient to the call to spread the Word – even though we often are disobedient in this area.
Remember Jonah? He tried to block and frustrate God's plan to have the Good News proclaimed to Nineveh by fleeing to the other side of the earth. That didn't work then and it doesn't work now. The sovereign God is more than able to have the message proclaimed. So why don't all hear the Gospel?
The answer, the reason, is the good pleasure of God. The gospel goes forth, according to God's good pleasure, to those persons and nations God has destined it to reach. And, the gospel does NOT go forth, also according to God's good pleasure, to those persons and nations God has not destined it to reach.
Take a look, for a moment, at what I read from Ezekiel. We are told that sometimes Ezekiel would be quiet and other times he would be proclaiming God's Word:
(Ezek 3:26-27) I will make your tongue stick to the roof of your mouth so that you will be silent and unable to rebuke them, though they are a rebellious house. (27) But when I speak to you, I will open your mouth and you shall say to them, 'This is what the Sovereign LORD says.' Whoever will listen let him listen, and whoever will refuse let him refuse; for they are a rebellious house.Why? It is the good pleasure of God!
Is this fair? Is it fair that some never hear the gospel? Is it fair that some, according to God's good pleasure, are not even supposed to hear the gospel? This is asking the wrong question. A better question is this: Why do I get to hear the gospel? I don't deserve to hear it. Don't forget, as a sinner I deserve nothing; and, you deserve nothing too. Yet, we get to hear the gospel.
This tells me that we need to praise and thank God for His good pleasure. We need to fall down on our knees before God and thank Him that we – though we are undeserving – get to hear the Gospel. We need to praise and thank God for sermons, for Bible Studies, for family devotions, for every Bible in our pews and homes. We need to praise and thank God for godly parents who nurture us, for preachers who proclaim to us, for teachers who teach us – all from the Word.
C The gospel is preached then, according to God's good pleasure, only to certain men and nations. Who are these men and nations? Gospel preaching is directed wherever God has His elect. The Bible tells us that not one of the elect can ever perish (Jn 10:28). Therefore, they must hear the message of Christ's birth and crucifixion and resurrection and ascension and reign and return. In whatever nation or tribe or language or people that God has elect, there the gospel is preached.
D This also tells us whom the preaching of the gospel is for. As you all know, it isn't only the elect who hear the gospel preached. Many of the unelect, the reprobate, hear the preaching of the gospel as well. But the preaching of the gospel is not meant for them; it is meant only for the elect; it is meant for those who are believers or will become believers.
II Promiscuous Proclamation
A According to the good pleasure of God the Gospel is preached to some and not to others.
Yet, says Article 5, the gospel promise together with the command to repent and believe, "ought to be announced and declared without differentiation or discrimination to all nations and people." I love the old translation of the Canons here. It says the gospel is to be declared "promiscuously." This is an odd word to use. We say sexually loose men and women are promiscuous – they go to bed with anyone, anywhere, anytime. We usually don't think of gospel proclamation as being promiscuous. And yet, that's what we are to have – a promiscuous proclamation; a proclamation to anyone, anywhere, anytime.
Doesn't this sound like a contradiction? On the one hand, how can God send the gospel only to some and not all men and nations; and, on the other hand, how can God tell us to go and promiscuously make disciples of all nations?
God is God and man is man. None of us on this earth know or understood the mind of the LORD (Is 40:13f). None of us on this earth know or can know who any of the elect are. Therefore, our preaching and witnessing and outreach and evangelism must be promiscuous so that God's elect will come to hear of Christ and the command to repent and believe.
Ezekiel goes so far as to remind us that when we do not warn a wicked person to repent, that wicked person will die for his or her sins, but God will hold us accountable for his or her blood (Ezek 3:18,20).
B God has a two fold purpose in the promiscuous proclamation of the Gospel. His first and most important purpose is the salvation of the elect. He wants them to hear, to repent, to believe in Christ. This is the only way they can be saved – by or through the preaching of the Word.
Election to eternal life does not take place in a vacuum. God does not zap people with election. God makes election real and effective in the lives of His children through their faith response to the proclamation of the gospel.
There have been those who argue that God's eternal decrees mean that evangelism and outreach and a call to repentance and faith are not necessary. They believe that election happens just like that, with the snap of a finger or the waving of a wand. Nothing could be further from the truth. God's eternal decrees are realized in history. God uses evangelism and outreach, Christian parents and teachers, faith and prayer, the Word and sacraments in order to accomplish His election decree.
We want to promiscuously preach Christ so that the elect, every lost one of them, come to hear of Christ, repent of their sins, and give Him their hearts and love and service.
C If this is God's reason for having the gospel preached to the elect, what is His reason for having it preached to the reprobate? To make their condemnation all the greater. Because of sin the reprobate are under the wrath of God. Because of unbelief to the gospel they come even further under the wrath of God.
Let me end by holding before you six couplets or pairs of teachings from Scripture:
Every person deserves to be lost.
No person deserves to be saved.
God takes no pleasure in the final destruction of any.
God finds pleasure in the salvation of every person who is saved.
No one can come to Jesus unless the Father draws him or her.
Every person whom the Father has given to Jesus will come to Jesus.
The ultimate basis of condemnation is the lost person's own works.
The ultimate basis of salvation is the work of Jesus.
Salvation occurred historically 2,000 years ago in Jesus' work.
Salvation becomes real only when a person believes the gospel.
Every person finally lost will have knowingly rejected God's goodness.
Every person finally saved will have accepted God's goodness.
As the couplets remind us, the topic before us is difficult. I struggled with this quite a while in my office. But this we know: God works out His purposes so everyone of His elect will be saved and His name will be eternally praised.
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