Sermon, June 7, 2020 | Grace Reformed Church
Well here we are, it’s summer! What a blessing to gather today this first Sunday in June, and we really look forward to celebrating the Lord’s Supper together after three months of not being able to. It was particularly odd to have a sermon in that time about the institution of the Lord’s Supper, and to not celebrate it at the same time. So I hope you can remember back that far and that message is still in your hearts and minds as we approach the table today.
Today we will conclude our brief 8-week series on Reformed Theology. And what better way to conclude it than to talk about the interval of time that we, true Christians, find ourselves in right now. We are in the time where we have already been saved, but we are also being saved, and we are also looking forward to when we will be saved. Already, but not yet. We’ve come to the final point, the “P” of the TULIP, what is referred to as the “Perseverance of the Saints.” And to explore that topic we will once again turn to Romans 8, picking up where we left off last week, at verse 31 through the end of the chapter. Remember as we read this what Paul has just said, what we looked at last week. Last week we saw that all of this, all of salvation is a work of God, not of us. He chose, he called, he justified, he will glorify the elect. If anything should give you and me and all of us confidence, that message should, and here in verse 31, Paul expounds on that confidence. Romans 8:31-39, listen, this is God’s Holy Word:
31 What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? 33 Who shall bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? 36 As it is written,
“For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”
37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
The Word of the Lord.
What an amazing statement that passage is! If that doesn’t give you confidence, I don’t know what will! At this point, I want to back up and review a bit, so we can remember what leads to this confidence, what gives Paul the confidence to say (and in that, God promises us) to say that NOTHING can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. And for that, let’s walk through the TULIP acronym. We haven’t actually done that in these messages, even though we’ve looked at all of the beliefs included in the TULIP at some point, so let’s define them.
First, “T,” Total Depravity. Our natural state, the state to which all of us were born is one that is completely helpless. We inherited a sinful state through our heritage stretching all the way back to Adam, and we add to that original sin more sins of our own continually through our entire lives. And because of that, we are absolutely in need of a savior. Because each and every sin, the small and the large brings God’s righteous justice on us, we are without excuse. That is bad news, but the good about it is that the playing field for sinners is level. There is nothing you can do, in your own efforts to change that. If you were able to, in yourselves, work closer to salvation, closer to righteousness, then these letters from Paul to the churches would be completely different. If any righteousness came from us, the Judaizers that Paul preaches against throughout his letters would actually be right. It would be helpful to everyone’s salvation to perform these specific acts of righteousness, like circumcision. But that’s not how it works, the playing field is level, no one seeks God, not even one.
Which brings us to the “U,” Unconditional Election. Since there is no hope our election to faith, to salvation, is unconditional. There is no “yes, if.” You are elected under no conditions. God chose you before the beginning of time, before the story began, and destined you to glory. And there are no conditions to that. It’s a logically consistent result of our view of the totality of our depravity.
And because the election unto salvation is unconditional, and does not fall on everyone, then Christ’s atonement for sin is necessarily a “limited” one, and not unlimited one, that’s the “L.” We talked about this quite a bit last week when discussing God’s Eternal Decree for the story of history. He is sovereign, which means that he knows, knew before time, each and every person that he would bring to faith and glorify at the end of time. The Westminster Confession beautifully summarizes this entire doctrine, drawing especially on the writings of Paul and an honest look at how God works throughout the story of scripture. He is the actor, he is the one that calls, he is the one that regenerates.
Which leads very logically to the “I,” Irresistible Grace. This one is also rephrased as “Effectual Calling.” Since this is all a work of God, then his call on those that he calls is effective. His Word does not fall on deaf ears because he has made them hear. He sends the Spirit, regenerates people, and those people respond in faith. Those he foreknew he predestined, those he predestined he calls, those he calls he justifies, and those he justifies, he will glorify. That language is unequivocal. And the calling here is not the general preaching of the Word to everyone, the general call to humanity to repent and believe. This is the Spirit’s inward call. If God regenerates you, gives you the Spirit, you will respond in faith.
And all those he justifies, he will glorify, so we come to the “P,” the Perseverance of the Saints. It might be better understood as the “preservation of the saints.” Because God’s choice, his election is forever, and because the Spirit’s inward call will be effective, we can confidently say that for the true Christian, there can never be a way to lose that salvation. Not one of the sheep will be lost. John 6:37-39:
All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. 38 For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. 39 And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day.
All that the Father gives to Christ will come to Christ, and he will lose none of what he has been given. That is comfort, that is why Paul can say that there is nothing, nothing, nothing, that can separate us from God’s love. After the T and the U and the L and the I, there is no other conclusion that can be drawn than to say that those who are in Christ will persevere, will be preserved until the end. They cannot “fall away,” they cannot “backslide,” they cannot live as they did before and be “carnal Christians.” Once saved, always saved.
This of course stands in contrast to other theologies. The Roman Catholics clearly believe that you are justified, and that justification is lost and regained throughout your life as you sin and do penance. It truly is a faith+works form of salvation, and we’ve seen that’s not how the Bible describes it working. What does that mean for people in the Roman Catholic Church? I believe there are many true Christians in that church because I think many of them don’t actually believe all that that church teaches.
And then there is another tradition, more recent, called Dispensationalism, which has many facets, but grows out of a rejection of God’s exercising his sovereignty and makes the whole story of history conditional, and not predetermined. There are far too many pieces to Dispensational theology to address here today in one brief sermon—it would perhaps be a good Sunday School or Bible Study series to compare and contrast—but at its root, the entire theology is built on the idea that God had a perfect will for the creation, and that the entrance of sin into the story messed everything up. Following that, God tries to fix the sin problem, tries to redeem people through several different means, or dispensations. He tried with the patriarch story, he tried with the law, etcetera, etcetera, and it took a while, but God finally got it right with Christ. This is why in many churches the Old Testament is rarely if ever read or studied, because that story, though it is nice and has some good moral lessons, it has no bearing on how redemption works after Christ comes.
Common to all of the dispensational, or semi-Pelagian, or Arminian theologies is the idea that it is the responsibility of the individual to personally, freely respond to the free offer of grace and be born again. They all actually elevate the choice, the free will of man to a great height, pivotal in fact. Many actually identify themselves as “4-point Calvinists,” saying that the only one they can’t get behind is the Limited Atonement, because they can’t let go of man’s free will to respond positively to the Gospel and be saved.
Well I’m sorry to say in response to that, there is no such thing as a “4-point Calvinist.” The five points of Calvinism, the TULIP, either stands as a whole or does not. To reject one of theme is to reject them all—you are either a 5-point Calvinist or a 0-point Calvinist. If you believe that the atonement is not limited to the elect, chosen in eternity past, then the entire story of history becomes conditional to the belief or unbelief of each individual. And a right understanding of our Total Depravity makes it impossible for anyone to respond positively to the Gospel. So if you believe the atonement is unlimited, you don’t believe in Total Depravity, you believe that a sinner is capable of doing spiritual good, and in this case that good deed is a choice for Christ. You also don’t believe in Unconditional Election, you believe in Conditional Election—the condition is that you believe, from within yourself. And if it is conditional that you believe, and the belief comes from you, how can you be certain of the power of the Spirit’s call? If the choice for Christ comes from within you, then grace is resistible, the Spirit’s call is not effectual. And lastly, if your faith is up to you to have or not, how can you possibly believe that the Saints will definitely persevere to the end? Either it all works together, or it doesn’t.
I wanted to briefly make those distinctions between theologies, because it definitely has bearing on how we see the rest of our lives until we die or Christ returns – can we be sure of our salvation? The answer from Paul in our text is “absolutely.” We can be confident that if we are in Christ we will always be in Christ.
And this is where we run into an issue when we look at actual people in the actual world. There is substantial evidence of people claiming to be Christians, who at one point made a profession of faith, who have been in the church, that are even so, living in a decidedly unchristian manner. Or there are people who appeared at one point to have a vibrant faith, who professed Christ publically, and have since left the church. What is going on here? Is it possible that these were at one point Christians who were justified, and have since lost their justification? They had the Spirit and now they don’t? Well, today’s passage and others clearly indicate that the saints will be kept, Jesus will not lose one he’s been given, and that true faith will always produce works, evidence of that faith. So we are forced to conclude that those who appear to fall away from faith never had a saving faith to begin with, were never actually justified.
How is this possible? Well, we have one of the best examples for us in the person of Judas Iscariot. This wasn’t someone who just sang praises to God in church for years and appeared Christian, he was one of the twelve. He was side by side with Christ in ministry. Certainly he was one of the twelve sent by Jesus in Luke 9 to cast out demons. Was this man really not saved before he betrayed Christ? In 1 John 2, John writes, in discussing antichrists (people against Christ), he says:
They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.
So there were people who followed, people who came along with the ministry, and John says “they were not of us.” He doesn’t say they were of us, and now they’re no longer, he said they were (past tense) not of us. He warns in this letter of people that arise from within the church and are false teachers. They are part of the visible church and not actually part of the true church. How does John say that we will know whether or not they are? Whether or not they continue. If they had been of us, they would have continued with us. They left, so clearly they were not of us, and never actually were.
So that is a brief summary of the doctrine described here in Romans 8, once saved, always saved, the preservation of the saints. And that is good news! But of course, we, as sinners, have found various ways to pervert this truth and respond to it wrongly in how we live our lives. Let’s examine both ends of the spectrum.
The first responds to this truth saying, “Great, I’m saved and I never won’t be, I can’t screw up so badly as to lose it, so I guess I can go and do whatever I want.” There is some logic there, I suppose. If you are not under the law, but under grace, it’s true, “nothing can separate you from the love of God.” This is what is commonly referred to as “antinomianism,” the idea that a Christian is released from the law and one possible response to that can be to go out and sin without consequence.
Paul actually predicted this response and taught against it earlier in this same letter, back at the beginning of chapter 6, where it says: “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?” He is asking, “can we be antinomian?” Are we to continue in sin? What’s his response? “By no means!” And then he immediately addresses why such a thing, though logical on the surface, if you peel back even one layer, it all crumbles. He goes on:
How can we who died to sin still live in it? 3 Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.
You see, it makes no sense for a Christian to go on sinning after they are saved. Every single Christian does continue to sin after they are saved (although I’ve met Christians who have inexplicably pushed back on that!), but the saved person has a completely changed heart in their attitude towards their sin. They mortify it, they confess it, they repent of it. They strive to be obedient. And if there is no striving towards obedience it would be a relatively clear evidence that that is a faith without works, and we know that a faith that does not produce works, is not only dead, it is no saving faith at all.
It’s worth noting, though, that real saved Christians can for a season be mired in heinous sin, they absolutely can. We need to go no further than our Bibles to see the evidence of that. Remember when we studied Psalm 51 last summer and we examined the unbelievable depth of depravity that David sunk to—lusting after and impregnating a married woman and then having her husband killed. There was a lengthy period that he didn’t seem to even struggle with the sin, he just lived with it. Does that mean that at that point David had lost his salvation? Not at all. God had ordered that he would be called out on his sin, dramatically even, and his response to that charge was to react as the saved person he was and he repented and wept. There are sins that Christians will and do struggle with for their entire lives, but the point is that it will be a struggle.
So there is no room for antinomianism—it is the mark of a true believer that they have a radical change in attitude toward their sin, and that they strive after obedience—the works that come out of faith.
Antinomianism is a case of the—probably not true—believer having too much assurance of their salvation. Not surprisingly, there is an error that persists on the opposite side, made by people who have too little assurance of their salvation. We are left with that question of assurance, “how can I be sure that I am saved?” Some people who are not sure of their salvation, or have a wrong view of how it was obtained, instead chase after works, because they think that works produces faith and not the other way around. This leads to the opposite of antinomianism, which is legalism.
You should be able to see how the error of legalism flows directly out of a theology that thinks that your salvation is constantly in jeopardy, that backsliding is a real possibility for real Christians. So you work. You start piling up deeds in a savings account. I went on that mission trip, I read my Bible for 30 minutes every morning every day, I volunteer at this ministry and that ministry, and on and on and on. This is not the mindset of someone who thinks that their faith is entirely in God’s hands. It is the mindset of someone trying to gain confidence through their works. And we know where that leads.
I went to a Christian High School that was part of a church that had such a mindset. In a bible class I remember my teacher assigned all of us to keep track of everything we did, minute by minute, for a whole week. I must have already been pretty reformed as a teen, because I remember recoiling as he described the assignment, because I knew where it was going. The purpose of the assignment was guilt. It was so that we could look at our week, count up all the categories, and feel guilty about how little time we spent doing “Christian” things (like Bible-reading, praying, church, youth group, etc.). It was dripping with legalism, definitely encouraging us to work on our faithfulness by increasing our Christian time. It’s no wonder that in this school so many students wanted to be missionaries or youth pastors—that was very common, because those life choices were glamorized. If you said you wanted to pursue anything else it was OK, but it was certainly lesser.
But of course that is completely wrong-headed as well, isn’t it? There is no neutral time, and then there is Christian time, no working time, and then Christian time—it’s all God time if you are a Christian. Paul says in Romans 6 that we were slaves to sin, now we are slaves to righteousness. There is no neutral. In all you do, in word and deed, do all to the glory of God. And a slave is a great comparison, because a slave owes 100% of their work, their time to their master, the master owns it. So if you are a slave to Christ (the greatest master), all of your time is his. And if God calls you to be a cobbler, like Luther used in his great example, what does it mean to be a Christian cobbler? To make the best possible shoes you can, day after day.
So what is the real path to assurance? Assurance of salvation is something that grows in the believer throughout their entire life. There may be peaks and valleys, there may be doubts and dark nights of the soul, but the true Christian will never end up in despair. The path is not to find some halfway between antinomianism and legalism, the right balance of sinful living. No, the attitude of the elect is to continually, daily, put their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and nothing else for their salvation, through prayer, repentance, and striving toward greater holiness. There is no specific roadmap, but if your trust and your thinking remain fixed squarely on Christ, your faith will bear fruit.
So that means that we can live our lives confident in our salvation, and not worry about losing our justification, but we do it, as Paul said back in Philippians, we work out our salvation, what it means to be a Christian and live as a body of believers each day.
And there is one more application that is quite timely to our current state of affairs in this country. Being sure of our salvation also means that we are to wait, but do so eagerly. Over the last week, with all of these glorious truths floating around in my mind, I couldn’t escape a certain thought, and I think it is a useful thought process for us all to go through, particularly here in America. I kept thinking, “what if Jesus returned today?” What if today was the day? We of course don’t know what it will look like other than that he will come from the sky, but whatever it looks like, as it began, what would I be thinking about?
Would there be thoughts in my mind of all of the things I would be missing since I didn’t get to live out the rest of my earthly life? I never got to enjoy the years in the back yard that I just finished landscaping. I never went to that National Park that I so desperately wanted to see. I won’t have a chance to spend all of that money that I saved for retirement all of these years. I won’t get to see my children or grandchildren grow up. Are these the things that will be on our minds? I hope not.
I’ll tell you what led this question to enter my mind. This week was hard for a lot of us, I know. It felt physically ill watching on TV my fellow countrymen first murdering a helpless man on the street in Minneapolis and then others of my countrymen acting like animals, pillaging and burning our great cities with no regard for life or property. I kept saying to myself, “this is not America!” And that’s when I thought, and said out loud, “Lord, please come back right now, I don’t want to see where this goes, I don’t want my kids to live in a world where people would act this way! Come back and save us from it all!
Well guess what, no matter how comfortable things are in America, we do live in a world where people act this way, every day, we just happened to see it on our streets this past week. Sin is rampant all over the earth, and we need to remind ourselves of how horrible it is so that we cling to our Savior more.
We are so wrapped up in the things of this world because we have so many great things. If you’re a Christian living under persecution each and every day, the return of the Lord would be the most welcome sight imaginable. But what about those of us living in the riches and comfort of America? Are we repulsed enough by the brokenness of the world that we eagerly wait for the return of the Lord, thinking nothing of the earthly things we would “lose” if he came back today?
We read the book of Acts especially and marvel at the boldness of the apostles. It is really amazing to see them—they weren’t reckless, but they certainly did act as if it didn’t matter whether they lived or died. They had great faith, absolutely, but I think there was another thing that motivated their attitudes, and it was the fact that Jesus told them he would be returning “soon.” I’m sure they understood that that “soon” could certainly be beyond their lifetimes, but I also bet that they lived every day as if that was the day Christ would return, because they expected it at any time. Wouldn’t that motivate you to evangelize without worry? Wouldn’t that make the church family the most important thing in your life? Wouldn’t that motivate you to sell all your belongings and give to the needy?
So the application here is to ask yourself, “what am I waiting for more?” Is it, “I just can’t wait until I have enough money to buy that boat” or “I just can’t wait until Christ returns.” This is not to say that we shouldn’t save, shouldn’t prepare ourselves to live the rest of our lives here, but it is a question of focus. Are we more eager to be with Christ than with any of the things that he’s blessed us with in this life? Because the greatest things of this world are still but a taste, a shadow of the greatness of the things to come. We believe that the end has already been written, the whole story, and that God has glory waiting for us. Amen for that! Now let that lead to boldness and confidence for the rest of our lives, boldness in proclaiming the Gospel, an urgency for building the church. Then we can sing truly:
O Lord, haste the day when my faith shall be sight,
the clouds be rolled back as a scroll.
The trump shall resound, and the Lord shall descend,
Even so, it is well with my soul.
Haste that day, Lord. Come quickly, amen. Let’s pray.
Heavenly Father, thank you for blessing us so richly, for pouring your truth into us through the reading and preaching of your Word. We ask that you would give us a measure of assurance of being in Christ, in looking forward with great joy, and also that you would guide us from putting our faith anywhere else, by word or by deed. We know that all of this is always, ever, a work of you. Help us to wait, with eagerness and confidence, for the return of Jesus Christ, in whose name we pray, amen.