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Nov 11, 2018

Part 4 - Alive Again

Passage: Titus 3:3-8

Preacher: John Huizinga

Series: Canons of Dort

Category: God Is Sovereign in Salvation

Keywords: canons of dort, election, irresistible grace, regeneration, impersonal force, effective grace


We feel pressured today to believe that the universe is governed by impersonal forces, and our choices and even our destiny are but a product of electricity and chemicals. While this social thought was in its infancy in the 17th century, the framers of the Canons of Dort wrestled with Biblical revelation and human experience to find the language to say otherwise: that the Triune God is sovereign in creation and salvation. We are not governed by impersonal forces but by the grace of a personal Lord. One scripture text that reveals the gracious activity of God is Titus 3: . . . when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior . . . The sovereign God has a face. And that face is the face of Jesus. In reality, there is nothing in empirical science that excludes a personal God or proves an impersonal universe; it's just that science can't fathom God. And when have a hard time with the grace or truth of the Lord, we can look at the life of Jesus in order to be open to his saving, guiding, and promising presence. There is something irresistible about the cross and resurrection drawing you and me to the person of God - an irresistible grace.


After the Thousand Oaks shooting

we heard from the friends and family of the victims

a heart-wrenching mix of both sadness and anger. One mother of a 27 year old victim

spoke out angrily thru her sorrow:

“I don’t want prayers. I don’t want thoughts.

I want gun control," Susan Orfanos said on local TV.


Days before Hurricane Michael

approached the Florida panhandle

residents were warned to flee.

The sophisticated weather equipment

developed today helped keep

this overwhelming disaster

from becoming even more deadly than it was.

The focus after continues to be on relief aid,

and a renewed interest again

in addressing the questions of climate change.

No one referred to the hurricane as an act of God.

It is the same with the wildfires raging now

thru California.


When the plague spread across Europe

in the 14th century,

the church of England called for

intense periods of prayer and fasting.

In the 90s, responding to the HIV/Aids epidemic,

the church of England called for

more government funding for medical research.


Andrew Root pulls together

the thoughts of many young people today

regarding the evils in this world

and their meaning

with the words of this fictional character

who speaks what many struggle to say:

‘I’m just not sure there is a God

who acts in the world.

I understand why people in the past believed that, and that was really true for them.

But now we know about things like

genes and germs and weather patterns.

And we know that the right technology

can solve most of this given time.’



What all this reflects is the pressure on us

to recognize that the world in which we live

is governed by impersonal forces.

In our day, this pressure started with Carl Sagan

and his popular Cosmos series back in the 80s.

It was remade and updated just a few years ago, bankrolled by Seth McFarlane

who wants Americans to grow up

and leave the childish ways of faith behind.

Neil DeGrasse Tyson narrates:

Gravity is the reason for

the precision and beauty of the solar system.

Matter obeys rules and laws we can discover.


Get what he’s saying?

The social practice of science teaches

that the order in which we live is an impersonal one.

Impersonal laws run things:

dna, our genes, gravity, electricity and chemicals,

and science heals us.

Science gives us technology.

We can’t live without science,

but we can live without God.

And the pressure is on for you to believe that!


Think of the last disaster you and your family faced,

whether it was medical or social,

was your first response

one of prayer and repentance?

Or did you seek to identify the problem

and try to get it fixed by medical,

technological or political means?

May the force be with you! is today’s creed.


Here is the main reason we need to be refreshed

in our understanding of the Canons of Dort,

why we struggle to apply its language

and use it ourselves,

and here is the main reason

we have such a difficulty with the Canons of Dort.

The Canons of Dort insist on and accent

the sovereignty of God in all things.

The universe and our lives aren’t governed by

impersonal forces like gravity and the stars,

but by a personal Lord and Savior.


When we hear the biblical doctrine of election

[that God predestined for salvation

only those chosen in Jesus Christ]

we hear this in the culture of a universe

governed by impersonal forces.

So we conclude this means we live by fate.

The only way we can picture election is

that we are like puppets strung along by judgment,

or like chess pieces waiting to be moved

to checkmate.

We resist.


But the Lord God is not an impersonal force.

There is one God in three PERSONS.

Jesus is God incarnate –

God with us,

God one of us.

Seeing me you’ve seen the Father, he said

face to face to witnesses

who heard him, saw him, and touched him.

This is the context for understanding election.

The Spirit of God regenerates us,

making us alive again,

living for the first time as God’s handiwork.

Jesus is in us every moment,

his cross and empty tomb

in every choice, every decisions, every moment,

not as a sculptor of block and stone,

but his life our life

and the light by which we see to live

and see who we really are.

Not fate but faith.

Not impersonal, blind forces

but a personal Lord.

That’s the language of scripture’s revelation

the Canons of Dort hope we’ll learn and speak.


So let’s listen to some of what the Canons say

in order to learn the language of a personal Lord,

reviving our lives that we live by faith in him,

not fate.


We’re in the third and fourth head or chapter

of the Canons of Dort, and read that

our salvation, our coming to new life in Christ Jesus,

our faith in the Lord God:

. . . is an entirely supernatural work,

one that is at the same time

most powerful and most pleasing,

a marvelous, hidden, and inexpressible work,

which is not less than or inferior in power

to that of creation or of raising the dead . . .

The grace of God that saves you

is the Savior’s work in you,

as powerful and effective

as the work of creation and resurrection.

Just as the Creator was active in the beginning

and just as Jesus shared our death

that we may share in his resurrection,

so the Spirit ministers faith to you.


Continue to listen:

. . . . by the effective operation

of the same regenerating Spirit,

God also penetrates into the inmost being,

opens the closed heart,

softens the hard heart,

and circumcises the heart that is uncircumcised.

God infuses new qualities into the will,

making the dead will alive,

the evil one good,

the unwilling one willing,

and the stubborn one compliant.

Get it?

The Lord’s electing love isn’t a distant decision,

but the promised, personal desire and delight

of God’s Spirit living within you

to make you alive again.


The Holy Spirit is personally active,

shaping and guiding each believer

into a new life in which you and I can respond to God’s grace with trust and obedience,

with thankfulness and righteousness.

Nothing is left to chance or even to us:

the Spirit softens the hard heart,

infuses new qualities into your will,

makes the dead will alive again,

the evil will good,

the unwilling willing,

the stubborn one compliant.


The picture is of God at work personally,

in every detail of faith and life.

Not in such a way that we are puppets or robots,

but that we get our humanity back;

our wills and desires and choices and loves

are brought to life

even as our life with God is restored.


‘In this way, therefore, faith is a gift of God, not in the sense that it is offered by God for people to choose, but that it is in actual fact bestowed on them, breathed and infused into them.’

When I think about a gift,

I think about receiving it, opening it, enjoying it.

The canons of Dort put the accent

and understanding elsewhere.

Focus on the Giver:

just as the Creator spoke and the universe

came to existence,

and just as Jesus called Lazarus out of the tomb

resurrected to new life,

so the Lord elects and

faith is not an offer I can choose or decline,

faith is bestowed on God’s own people:

‘breathed and infused into them.’

He is making all things, including you, new.


God sovereign, active to save, personal.

And then these words:

. . . this divine grace of regeneration

does not act in people as if

they were blocks and stones;

nor does it abolish the will and its properties

or coerce a reluctant will by force,

but spiritually revives, heals, reforms, and—

in a manner at once pleasing and powerful—

bends it back.


When we began our look at the canons of Dort

did you think that if God is sovereign in election

and it is the Lord’s choice and not ours

that this is a cold, exacting judgment

that leaves human beings and their wills out of it?

These words we just heard together say the opposite.

The Spirit powerful and tender,

like Jesus, who looked at a human and loved him,

who showed compassion,

who commanded demons to leave

yet knelt before a sinner and her accusers

in order to forgive her and set her free

to love God again.


The Canons of Dort say the Holy Spirit

does not act in us as if we were blocks and stones,

inanimate, impersonal, just chess pieces on a board.

And, like we learned a few weeks ago,

it is the gospel of Jesus

that actually restores our wills to freedom:

. . . this divine grace of regeneration does not . . .  abolish the will and its properties

or coerce a reluctant will by force,

but spiritually revives, heals, reforms, and—

in a manner at once pleasing and powerful—

bends it back.

The description here is that our wills

are at least corrupted and unable,

and at most dead and unresponsive.

The saving work of God regenerates our persons,

so that I am alive again.

I am struck by the phrase ‘bends it back.’

This suggest that in order for you or me

to know real freedom

there must be boundaries for me to respect:

It’s only in God’s will that I am free.


That’s different from what we’re being told,

namely, that because I am just

a product of electricity and chemicals,

whatever I do is not good or bad, it is just me.

So stop living in the fear

of trying to obey commandments

or live by certain moral codes:

I can live in the illusion of freedom by just being me,

what I want to be.

But that’s not being free; that’s being wild.


From a skilled medical doctor

to a hall of fame athlete

to an acclaimed artist,

real freedom is the result of disciplined training –

right? the more disciplined I am in my skill or field

the freer I am to excel in that . . . discipline.

This is what the Canons are saying

regarding our salvation

and living in the freedom of Christ:

by the Spirit I am born again:

spiritually revived, healed,

my will bent back to the Lord.


This all comes from Scripture.

This is what is revealed in the Bible.

We heard of this in our texts for today:

from Ephesians 2 –

For it is by grace you have been saved,

through faith—and this is not from yourselves,

it is the gift of God— 9 not by works,

so that no one can boast.

10 For we are God’s handiwork,

created in Christ Jesus to do good works,

which God prepared in advance for us to do.


Our salvation is the gift of God.

Faith is living in that saving relationship

with the Triune God who gives good gifts to us.

A gift

meaning the Lord accomplished this for us

and applied it to our lives.

We did not save ourselves and cannot.

For by grace you have been saved . . .

that is, the Lord’s favor extended to you

unmerited, undeserved, without condition.


We are God’s handiwork . . .

not the product of blind random forces,

not slaves to our dna,

but fashioned in God’s image

and made for the Lord’s pleasure and delight.

Here again is a personal God

personally involved in life and salvation.


Is this anti-science?

It doesn’t have to be.

Since every scientific discovery is made by persons,

it seems to me there is a lot of room

to hold to scientific knowledge and

the presence of a personal God sovereign

over the universe and all life.


Titus 3 speaks this language also:

. . . when the kindness and love

of God our Savior appeared, 5 he saved us,

not because of righteous things we had done,

but because of his mercy.

He saved us through

the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, 6 whom he poured out on us generously

through Jesus Christ our Savior,

7 so that, having been justified by his grace,

we might become heirs

having the hope of eternal life.


Here is the picture of the Lord God

actively and personally involved

in the lives of God’s chosen people.

He saved us thru the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.

The regenerating Holy Spirit

bringing each to life again,

poured out on us generously by Jesus our Savior.


These texts and more speak the language of Scripture

revealing the Lord God sovereign

and active in your life.

We have grown up under the assumptions

that impersonal laws run the universe and our lives.

The canons draw us back to a personal God

who knows you by name,

who made you in his image,

and who saved you personally.


Titus points us to Jesus,

and the face of God.

. . . when the kindness and love

of God our Savior appeared.

It is a reference to the incarnation of Jesus,

when God became one of us

and came to live among us as a human being.

And for a time God had a human face,

and lived a human life,

and shared in human joy and pain,

he is the truth about God and humans

and the relationship humans are made to have

with the Lord God.


Frederick Buechner:

And he had a man's face, a human face.

Like you and me he had a face

his life gave shape to

and that shaped his life and others' lives,

and with part of ourselves

I think we might turn away

from the mystery of that face, that life,

as much of the time we turn away

from the mystery of life itself.

God appeared,

God is with us,

and the way for us to experience faith

and find fullness for ourselves

is in relating to the person,

the One who said if you have seen me

you have seen the Father.

Look at Jesus and see what God is like.


And this is why

even those who believe

that we live in an impersonal universe

feel haunted by that position

and still long for a personal touch.

Because we are made in the image of God,

we are made for connection,

for relationships,

for friendships,

to love and be loved,

to gather and form community,

to love God and our neighbor.


This is the result of the irresistible grace,

really, the transforming grace of God:

the Canons teach,

God effectively calls them,

grants them faith and repentance,

and, having rescued them

from the dominion of darkness,

brings them into the kingdom of his Son,

in order that they may declare

the wonderful deeds of the One

who called them out of darkness

into this marvelous light,

and may boast not in themselves, but in the Lord . . .


We are brought graciously

into the kingdom of the Son,

the personal God who knows you by name,

who had you in mind

as he sacrifice his life on the cross,

who has given you an eternal name

and has promised to come back one day

to take you to be with him.


But is this true?

Many testify to this regenerating work

of the Spirit.

Here are a few:


Here’s one from Christian Wiman,

a well known poet who for a time

was the editor of Poetry magazine,
now teaching at Yale:

Then one morning we found ourselves

going to church.

Found ourselves.

That’s exactly what it felt like,

in both senses of the phrase,

as if some impulse in each of us

had finally been catalyzed into action,

so that we were casting aside the Sunday paper

and moving toward the door

with barely a word between us;

and as if, once inside the church,

we were discovering exactly

where and who we were meant to be.

That first service was excruciating,

in that it seemed to tear all wounds wide open,

and it was profoundly comforting,

in that it seemed to offer the only possible balm. –


And from CS Lewis:

 "You must picture me alone in that room

at Magdalen, night after night, feeling,

whenever my mind lifted even for a second

from my work,

the steady, unrelenting approach

of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet.

That which I greatly feared

had at last come upon me.

In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in,

and admitted that God was God,

and knelt and prayed:

perhaps, that night,

the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.”


Human experience testifies to the personal

presence of the Lord God,

ministering graciously to us,

bending us back to wholeness and life and faith:

. . . this divine grace of regeneration does not . . .  abolish the will and its properties

or coerce a reluctant will by force,

but spiritually revives, heals, reforms, and—

in a manner at once pleasing and powerful—

bends it back.


One of the songs you listen to,

reflect on, and sing in our youth groups, says:

Father, you give and take away

Every joy and every pain

Through it all you will remain

Over it all! – Hills and Valleys

That’s not a song about an impersonal universe

run by impersonal forces,

but of life, the universe, and everything

governed by the sovereign God

who is personally invested in your life.


If all this is yet a struggle for you,

pay attention to those opportunities

for personal contact.

When I see my neighbor’s face,

when I respond to my neighbor’s need,

when I share in her joy,

when I get personal

then I am in the counsel of the Spirit

who comes personally to me:

in a blessing calling for thanksgiving,

in a need to which I can respond,

to see the face of Christ

in the faces around me

of those God loves.


In your own doubts or fears

approach Jesus personally.

Come to worship not in order

to get your religious hour in,

but like you are going to a friend’s house

or spending time with the love of your life.

Listen in prayer,

don’t just speak familiar phrases

that you can voice without thinking,

listen for his still, kind word to you.

When good things come your way

notice and give thanks to

your Father in heaven who gives good gifts.

When tragedy or sorrow hurts you

give thanks not for these things

but IN these circumstances

as a way to seek Christ suffering with you,

until you know the deep wonder

that even though all things are not good,

God works in all things for the good

of those who love him

and have been called according to his purpose.