************ Sermon on Canons of Dort, Head V, Article 14-15 ************
By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on July 20, 2014
Canons, Head V Article 14-15
"How to be a Better Christian"
Do you want to be a better Christian, the best Christian you can possibly be? Do you want to have the patience of a Job, the courage of a Daniel, the faith of a David? Do you want to be able to emphatically declare with the Apostle Paul, "For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain" (Phil 1:21)?
I doubt if there is a single person here who would answer "No" to any of these questions:
"No, I don't want to be a better Christian. No, I don't want to be the best Christian I can possibly be. No, I don't want the patience of Job, the courage of Daniel, the faith of David. No, I don't want to be sure of where I am going when I die."
I cannot imagine a single person here even thinking such things.
Now, it is one thing to want to be a better Christian; it is another thing to actually become a better Christian. Tonight we want to look at what we need to do to become a better Christian, the best Christian we can possibly be.
I The Early Church
A How does it happen? What do we need to do? Our Scripture reading from Acts 2 describes a Spirit-filled church. That's the starting point. To be the best church and the best Christian we need to be Spirit-filled.
And, we need to be devoted. Did you catch that word in our Bible reading? The early church devoted herself to being the best possible church. The members devoted themselves to being the best possible Christians. It didn't happen automatically. It was a deliberate decision.
B So, what did the early church do as a Spirit-filled church? The early church devoted herself to the apostles' preaching and teaching. The members were open to the Word, hungry for the Word, and contemplated the Word. They studied the Word and read the Word. They attended worship to hear the Word preached.
C The early church was also a fellowshipping church. Today we often reduce fellowship to being chummy or friendly with one another. But the Greek word is Koinonia and involves loving, caring, sharing fellowship. The Spirit-filled New Testament church that we see in our Scripture reading devoted herself to koinonia. This means that she worked – and worked hard by the strength of Christ's Spirit – at being loving, caring, and sharing. She devoted herself to this. You see, in a sin-filled world it takes much sweat and dedication to experience fellowship; it is never easy or automatic.
In a Spirit-filled church koinonia or fellowship is always experienced at two different levels. First of all, in a Spirit-filled church the members have fellowship with God. John can say "our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ" (1 Jn 1:3); and, Paul can speak of the "fellowship of the Holy Spirit" (2 Cor 13:14). Koinonia, in other words, is a Trinitarian experience. Together we share in God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Second, in a Spirit-filled church the members have fellowship or koinonia with each other. This includes caring for the poor and needy and lonely in the church.
D The early church was also a worshiping church. The first Christians met together every day for worship. At its heart, early Christian worship was centered on God: His praise, His honor, His glory, His Word. First and foremost early Christian worship was koinonia with God. The songs, prayers, and gifts were all directed towards heaven. Scripture tells us they were "praising God" (vs 47). It wasn't entertainment like we often see today. The focus wasn't man but God.
The early church shows us that Spirit-filled believers want to regularly gather together for the worship of God. They not only wanted to, but they needed this. They needed a time of public koinonia with God. They needed a time in which their hearts and souls could be lifted up with those of other believers to the throne of God.
E The early church was a sacramental church – the first Christians broke bread together every day as they celebrated the Lord's Supper.
F The early church was a praying church – the first Christians devoted themselves to prayer. those early Spirit-filled Christians spent time and effort on their prayer. It wasn't on again, off again, as our prayer so often is. The were persistent, constant, and continuous in their prayer. I think of the time Peter was about to be killed by King Herod. Though it was the middle of the night, his fellow believers had gathered together to pray for him (Acts 12:12).
G The early church was a witnessing church – they witnessed in word and deed and enjoyed the favor of all the people. They wanted others to join with them in knowing and worshiping God, in repenting of sins, and in rejoicing in salvation.
All of this is what was done by the early church, the first Christians, so they could become better Christians, the best Christians they could possibly be.
Our reading from Acts 2 is not included in the Bible just for our information. It was put there for a reason. It is God's game plan for His church. It is a message from the Lord on how He wants His church to grow and develop and mature. In Acts 2 we are told what the Spirit used and uses to make God's people into the best Christians they can possibly be.
II God Uses the Means of Grace
A Article 14 of the fifth head of doctrine of the Canons tells us the same thing as Acts 2, but it tells us in theological language. Article 14 tells us that the Spirit of God uses the means of grace to promote the growth and development and maturity of the church and individual Christians. Article 14 tells us that if you want to be a better Christian, the best Christian you can possibly be, you need to use the means of grace. Article 14 tells us that if you want to get rid of your doubts and your fears you need to use the means of grace. Article 14 tells us that if you worry about your salvation and want to be sure about everlasting life you need to use the means of grace. Article 14 tells us that if you find yourself weak and trembling and unsure and falling and failing in the faith you need to use the means of grace to build and strengthen yourself. Article 14 tells us that if you don't feel like going to church for worship, if you don't feel like praying, if you don't feel like being involved in the church and kingdom, you need to use the means of grace as an antidote to your spiritual apathy. Article 14 tells us that God does not supply His people with the blessings of salvation, except through the means of grace.
B What are the means of grace I am talking about? They are what God uses to bring His elect children to faith, to conversion, to regeneration, to a softening of hard hearts, to repentance. I am talking about the Word and the sacraments – the specific means of grace that the Lord's Spirit uses to create and strengthen faith within us. The Spirit uses the Word and the sacraments to make us into the best Christians we can possibly be.
The Word and the sacraments: they are the God-ordained "means of grace" used by the Spirit to create and strengthen faith within us. That being the case, it only follows that we must come to the place where these tools or means of the Spirit can be found. And where is that? It is the church. To gain faith and to strengthen faith we must come to God's workshop, the church of Jesus Christ, in order to expose ourselves to the Word and sacraments. It is within the church that God's children are born and nourished. We may not doubt that God can do this work to His children anywhere and at anytime. But we would be extremely reckless and downright foolish if we do not go to where He does it normally and all the time: the church.
I have mentioned this before and undoubtedly I will mention it again, but many within North America – including family of many of us here – claim faith in Jesus yet want nothing to do with His church. They fail to realize that almost always God's children are born and nourished only within the church – within the church where the Holy Spirit uses the preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments to produce and strengthen faith.
Every child of God knows this. Every child of God knows the necessity of the means of grace. Every child of God knows spiritual life can only suffer if one neglects the means of grace.
Back to my original question. Do you want to be a better Christian, the best Christian you can possibly be? Do you want to have the patience of a Job, the courage of a Daniel, the faith of a David? Do you want to be able to emphatically declare with the Apostle Paul, "For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain" (Phil 1:21)? If the answer is "Yes!" – and I pray it is for everyone here – then you need to come to church where you can hear the Word and receive the sacraments. For that is what God uses to improve us and mature us and develop us.
III The Activity of the Saints
A I want to point out that the Canons, based upon the Word, emphasizes the activity of the saints. In order to become better Christians the Canons emphasize that we must use the means of grace: we must hear the Word of God; we must read the Gospel; we must meditate upon the exhortations, threats, and promises of the Bible; we must use or participate in the sacraments.
We are not to be passive. We must not simply sit back or lay back, waiting for the Lord's Spirit to use the minister's sermon to make us grow.
First of all, we must hear the Word preached. We cannot expect to grow, to become a better Christian, apart from hearing the Word. This means when we come to church we do not fall asleep, or let our mind wander, or sit in judgment upon the sermon. We listen to the Word preached. We become active participants in the preaching of the Word.
A number of years ago I led worship for the Visalia Rescue Mission. During the sermon some of the brothers were encouraging me: "Preach it, brother!" they said. "Amen!" they said. "Praise the Lord," they said. "Yeah!" they said.Sometimes preaching to a typical Reformed congregation is like preaching to a wall – you get no response, hear no response, see no response. I'm not telling you to yell "Amen!" but I am telling you to actively hear the Word of God.
Of course, this assumes something. This assumes that there are churches and pastors who preach the Word. This assumes that church is more than baby food for grownups to make us feel good about ourselves. This assumes that the full counsel of God is preached. This assumes that pastors focus not just on the promises but also on the exhortations and threats of the Gospel. In other words, we cannot hear the Word preached if pastors don't preach that Word in all its fullness.
B We must also read the Word of God. We cannot expect to grow, to become a better Christian, if we do not spend time reading the Word. There should be an open Bible in our families and in our homes. We should have a fixed time when we read the Word together.
Not only should we read the Word but we should also read devotionals and materials based upon the Word. Christian magazines, Christian books, and devotional material should be found in our homes.
I want to ask: how much time do you actually spend reading the Word and Christian reading material? How much time do you actually spend improving your soul? Do you encourage your children to read Christian material? Do you pay attention to their reading habits? Do you teach them by your own personal example to read the Scriptures and study them personally? Do you insist they study for Church School and Catechism classes?
C We must also meditate upon the Word. We cannot expect to grow, to become a better Christian, if we do not spend time meditating upon the Word.
Meditation is a lost art today. It is not enough that we hear and read; we must meditate upon and contemplate and study the Word of God. This cannot be stressed strongly enough in a day when Christians are unwilling to exert much effort in their spiritual life. More than one of the Psalmists could tell us about meditating in the watches of the night (Ps 119 especially). We need to spend time with the Word. A whole lifetime is not long enough to appreciate fully the beauty and learning and value of the Bible. That's why we must take the time to meditate upon its truths.
D Finally, we must also use the sacraments. It used to be that members would plan their vacation around the celebration of the Lord's Supper. I doubt if many people, besides the pastors, do that anymore.
With the Word, the sacraments are given to us by God so we can grow, grow, grow. But that doesn't happen unless we use them.
I have been talking about what you can do to make yourself a better Christian. Having said that, I need to tell you that it is only God Who can make this happen, Who gives the growth. We may water our faith and nourish it, but it is only God Who gives the growth. And we all know how: God gives us growth when we use the means of grace!
"To this God alone, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, be honor and glory forever."
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