************ Sermon on Canons of Dort, Head III-IV, Article 5&6 ************
By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on October 27, 2013
Canons, Head III, IV Article 5,6
"What the Law Can and Cannot Do"
According to the website "prisonstudies.org" there are around 2.3 million people now locked up in American jails and prisons. We are considered by many to be a "Christian" country yet according to official statistics we have a higher percentage of citizens behind bars than any other country.
Does prison discourage crime? Does prison rehabilitate the criminal? The statistics from the department of justice are absolutely dismal: more than 60 percent of ex-cons commit crimes within three years of their release.
Do you know what these statistics tell us? They tell us that our prisons and our laws are ineffective in changing hearts and lives. They tell us that our prisons and our laws, in and of themselves, can't save society or families or criminals. Yet, many of our governing authorities think rehabilitation is possible anyway.
Last time, if you remember, we compared the light of nature remaining in man after the fall to "ancient ruins." We said man "retains some notions about God, natural things, and the difference between what is moral and immoral, and demonstrates a certain eagerness for virtue and for good outward behavior" (Canons III/IV Article 4). However, this light, these ancient ruins, do not enable man to come to a saving knowledge of God and conversion to Him.
Today, we find that the law – and prisons and the justice system – are exactly like the ancient ruins that remain in man. They, too, are unable to bring man to a saving knowledge of God and conversion to Him.
Despite this, though, there have been many who think that through the law man can obtain saving grace. One such group – attacked by Paul for this view – was the Pharisees. They thought that through observance of the law one could come to grace and salvation. Another such group was the Arminians the Canons was written against. They taught that through the law man could come to a saving knowledge of God and to true conversion.
Paul denounces any such view in our Scripture reading. He says,
(Gal 3:1) You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified.The law and the works of the law, says Paul, can't save or reform.
(Gal 3:3) Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?
(Gal 3:11) Clearly no one is justified before God by the law, because, "The righteous will live by faith."
I The Law Does Not Save
A Like Paul in his letter to Galatia, Article 5 of the Third/Fourth Points of Doctrine of the Canons of Dort also condemns any and all of man's efforts to save himself through the law. As it has all along, the Canons denounce any doctrine of salvation which begins with man or his works and relies upon the worthiness of man. It says,
Man cannot obtain saving grace through the Decalogue ... it does not offer a remedy or enable (man) to escape from his misery ...
B This teaching remains vitally important even today. Ask the average man or woman on the street if they are saved. Chances are they will tell you that they are; a recent survey tells us that 78% of all Americans believe they are going to heaven. Now ask they if they believe in Jesus, read the Bible and pray everyday, and attend worship every Sunday. Chances are 75% of them will say "No." So here is a large group of people that have no personal relationship with Jesus, yet they expect to go to heaven.
Why? You know the answer they give: I don't hurt anyone; I don't steal, lie, or commit adultery. In other words, I keep the law; or, as I said this morning, they keep the "Silver Rule."
It isn't only those outside the church who think this way. Sad to say, there are those even within the church who think salvation is something they earn, something they deserve.
I had a Roman Catholic friend who told me she does the Rosary every day, goes to confession, and attends Mass. This person said to me, "I need this."You know what this person believed? This person believed salvation by keeping the law. This person believed in a work's righteousness.
"Why?" I said. "What good does it do you?"
"I need it to be saved."
"Where does the Bible teach that?" I said. She looked confused.
"According to the Bible," I said, "Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Him." "You don't need the Rosary," I said. "You don't need confession and Mass. All that you need is Jesus. Jesus is all that saves you."
"I have never once heard that. You mean I have been wrong all these years?"
I've been using the past tense. Since our conversation she left the Roman Catholic Church and now attends a Bible-believing and Christ-confessing church and even leads a Bible Study.
I remember asking a class of Catechism students to imagine their death. They appear before the throne of God. The voice of almighty God thunders out: "Why should I let you into heaven?" And I asked the students, "What would be your answer?" Over half of them said, "Because I try to lead a good life." Notice, they didn't say, "Because I lead a good life." Those Catechism students know enough about sin to believe they don't ever totally succeed in leading a good life. Rather, they think they deserve an "A" for effort; they deserve heaven, they think, because they TRY to lead a good life. Again, we see people who believe they deserve salvation by keeping the law.
Salvation by keeping the law. There are hundreds of thousands of people out there who believe this. There are hundreds of thousands of people out there who will get the shock of their lives before the Judgment Throne. I am not just talking about Muslims and Mormons and other works-based religions. I am also talking about Christians. Are you one of them? Are you one of those who think you deserve salvation because of the good you do or try to do? Let me tell you, you are dead wrong if you think for even a second that you are good enough for salvation. You are dead wrong if you think for even a second that the good you do earns you a reward. You are dead wrong if you think salvation is yours because you keep the law or try to keep the law.
"Man," says the Canons, "cannot obtain saving grace through the Decalogue." Keeping the law does not help man to escape from the misery of his sin.
II The Law Like the Light of Nature
A Last time, as I already mentioned, we talked about the certain light of nature that remained in man after the fall. What does man do with this light, with these ancient ruins? He suppresses it, he holds it down, he denies it. Says Paul,
(Rom 1:21-23) For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. (22) Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools (23) and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles. Man takes the light of nature, the ancient ruins, and distorts it and suppresses it and pollutes it.
When a lost-in-sin man comes into contact with the law, he realizes his life is lacking. And the more contact he has with the law, the more he stands exposed as a sinner. Says the Canons,
... it does expose the magnitude of his sin and increasingly convict him of his guilt ...What is his response? The Canons tell us "what is true of the light of nature is true also of the Ten Commandments given by God through Moses." In other words, man distorts and suppresses and pollutes what the law tells him. Or, as the Canons put it, it is "weakened ... by the flesh."
When it comes to the law lost-in-sin man does one of two things: he either underestimates his evil or overestimates his good. He thinks he is better than the Bible says he is or he thinks he is not as bad as the Bible says he is. There are churches that specialize in underestimating sin and overestimating good. Their members prefer it this way. One man said, "Every other church talks about sin. This one doesn't." One woman said, "I don't want to leave feeling bad about myself; I want to leave feeling good."
If we are honest we have to admit that many times we do the same thing. We tend to underestimate our sin and overestimate our good. Sometimes we who are Christians can sound like we have no sin left in us, that we are wholly sanctified, pure, and righteous.
B Last time we said the ancient ruins are only ancient ruins. They are not enough. They are not enough to save or to bring to salvation. Says the Canons, based upon the Bible,
But this light of nature is far from enabling man to come to a saving knowledge of God and conversion to him ...The ancient ruins can't save or lead to a saving knowledge.
What is true of the light of nature is true also of the Ten Commandments given by God. The law, like the ancient ruins, is not enough. The law can't save or lead to a saving knowledge.
The law gives sinful man two options: life or death, freedom or slavery, blessing or curse. Using the words of Paul, "The man who does these things will live by them" (Gal 3:12). If you keep the law – that is, if you have no evil and do good – then yours is life. In our study of Genesis we called this the Covenant of Works – a covenant established by God and with man at the very beginning of time. In this Covenant of Works God expects total holiness, complete obedience, from the man and woman He created. In return for this obedience and holiness God grants all the blessings and benefits of the covenant, including eternal life.
On the other hand, says Paul, "Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law" (Gal 3:10).
The Covenant of Works, my brothers and sisters, is still in effect. If we keep this covenant, then ours is eternal life. If we break this covenant, then ours is the curse and the punishment. As all of you should know, none of us are able to keep the Covenant of Works because all of us do evil and none of us are good. However, as I mentioned at the beginning of this sermon, there are many who think they are good and are capable of saving themselves. In other words – though they may not know or use the phrase – they think they are keeping the Covenant of Works.
This is where the law and the works of the law leaves the lost-in-sin man. It leaves him in a curse. It leaves him in his sin. It leaves him in his misery. It gives neither salvation nor a savior. All that it does is demand, expose, convict, and condemn. But it does no more. It is powerless. "Man," says the Canons,
cannot obtain saving grace through the Decalogue ... because ... it does not offer a remedy or enable him to escape from his misery, and ... leaves the offender under the curse.
III What the Law Can and Cannot Do
A Does this mean the law is useless? There are a number of things the law can do and there are a number of things the law cannot do, and it is helpful to summarize them here.
First, what the law can do:
1. The law of God lays out how the holiness of God is to come to expression in the lives of His children (Lev 19:1).
2. The law both defines and guards justice (Lev 19).
3. The law pronounces judgment upon every failure to obey its demands (Gal 3:10).
4. The law exposes and convicts of sin; as the Word of God, it searches out and exposes the sin that lies in the deepest recesses of the heart (Heb 4:12).
5. The law intensifies and confirms our bondage to sin (Rom 7:8).
B Second, what the law cannot do:
1. The law can do nothing to justify the sinner; it knows no mercy and gives no mercy.
2. The law can do nothing to relieve our bondage to sin.
I want you to notice that the law leaves the sinner without hope and without God in the world (Eph 2:12).
This is exactly what the authors of the Canons intend, when they declare,
For man cannot obtain saving grace through the Decalogue, because, although it does expose the magnitude of his sin and increasingly convict him of his guilt, yet it does not offer a remedy or enable him to escape from his misery, and, indeed, weakened as it is by the flesh, leaves the offender under the curse.
(III/IV Article 5)
The light of nature is not enough to save man; it only serves to render those of every race, tribe, and tongue without excuse (Rom 1:20). The light of the law is not enough to save man; it only exposes our sin and misery.
There is only one possible conclusion: man needs a savior. We know Who that is, don't we? Only Christ and the Spirit of Christ can save a lost-in-sin mankind.
"What, therefore, neither the light of nature nor the law can do, God accomplished by the power of the Holy Spirit, through the Word or the ministry of reconciliation" (III/IV Article 6).
This gospel is not found in natural revelation. This gospel is not hidden deep within the Ten Commandments. Rather, the gospel is foreshadowed in the Old Testament and made clear in the fullness of time when God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law by His birth, death, resurrection, ascension, session, and coming again.
This gospel – not the light of nature, not the law – is our only hope. This is the one gospel proclaimed from Genesis through Revelation.
You can e-mail our pastor at: Pastor, Trinity United Reformed Church
Back to Index of Sermons Page