We are back to normal services now. All are welcome at 10 AM Sunday morning. We are encouraging social distancing but you should be aware that it is not fully possible given our space so please use your own discretion. Thanks!
Due to the pandemic, Christ Reformed Church currently is not holding our normal Sunday services. If you’d like to receive information about attending services please contact the pastor at email@example.com.
Pastor Matt Powell
The Nature and Cause of our Misery
If man is indeed in a state of misery, as the Catechism taught us last week, then the obvious question that arises is, “How did we get into this situation?” That’s relevant not just out of intellectual curiosity, but for two very important reasons. First, we need to understand how we can reconcile our creation by a good and holy God with our present state. Did God create us like this? Is this His intention for us? If so, there’s no reason to try and do anything about it. It would also call into question God’s goodness.
But the Catechism points us to the first chapters of Genesis, as well as many other statements from the Bible (note the prooftexts for question 6), to show that God created us good, in His image. That means that we bear the stamp of God’s nature, or at least we did when we were created. We reflected who He is. God’s initial plan for Adam and Eve’s creation was a glorious one. They would be kings and priests before Him, which meant they would rule the physical creation on God’s behalf, enjoying, tending and improving it, and living in fellowship and harmony with God and with each other. It would have been wonderful. Just imagine, even now, what life would be like if you woke up one morning and everything was exactly the same except nobody sinned. Nobody lied, nobody stole, nobody envied what others had. Even remaining problems like disease and natural disasters could quickly be reined in with the tremendous resources that could be diverted from war, government and waste. In that glorious state, though, God was still sovereign. It was necessary to God’s own nature that all His good gifts be enjoyed with an acknowledgement of that truth, that they came from Him. Therefore God put the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the middle of the garden to make just that point— by withholding that tree, and only that tree, from Adam and Eve, God shows them that He is sovereign. Every time they passed by the tree without eating from it, it was a bend of the knee to God’s rule.
There are a lot of questions unanswered by the Catechism that have perplexed Christianity’s best thinkers for centuries. If God is sovereign over all things, did He know that mankind’s rebellion would happen? Why did He permit the devil to enter the garden at all? Was the Fall all actually part of God’s ultimate plan, and if so, does that make God the author of sin? We do not need to answer all of these questions right now to understand the basic truth of what happened in the Garden of Eden, as Genesis 3 tells it. God made man good, but man rebelled against God by violating His law, resulting in death, which was the result God promised them if they disobeyed. That death is manifested in the breakdown of all their relationships- with God, with each other, with creation, and ultimately even with their own selves, seen immediately in their shame over their nakedness and ultimately in their physical death.
The second reason the cause of our state is important is because the nature of the problem tells us a lot about our solution. If our state is the result of God’s judicial punishment against us for our sin, then there is nothing at all we can do to reverse our state without dealing with God. We are not stronger than God and cannot reverse His judgments.
We also cannot do good works to make up for the sins which have already been committed. For one thing, there is no “balancing out” of good and evil works; good works are just what is expected. We were created to be perfect, and therefore any shortcoming of that perfect state is enough to merit God’s judgment. If I contract with my boss for eight hours of work and then slack off for three of those hours, I cannot plead the five hours that I did work as proof that I kept our contract. So too, any failure to be perfect as God created me to be is enough to earn His wrath against me. Further, the consequence of the rebellion was death, and that spiritual death makes it impossible for us to do any real good works anyway. It is our connection with God which is our life; having lost that connection, we have lost any ability to be what we are supposed to be, and therefore any ability to do works pleasing in God’s sight. God restrains our evil to some degree by His grace so that we are not as evil as we could be, but that is no credit to us. This is what the Catechism means when it says that we are “prone” to all evil— meaning that our very nature tends in the direction of all evil, and is incapable of all good. The solution to that problem must therefore come not from us but from God, as question 8 tells us—a new birth by the power of God is our only hope.
“But now after you have known God, or rather are known by God, how is it that you turn again to the weak and beggarly elements, to which you desire again to be in bondage? You observe days and months and seasons and years.”
The New Testament does not permit the observance of holy days. The early Reformers generally put an end to special worship services on days such as Christmas and Easter, because of the unbiblical elevation of such days in the medieval church. The Lord’s Day was the only day that most of them would view as a mandated day for worship. Some such as John Calvin extended the principle even to the Lord’s Day, teaching that public worship on one day out of seven was more a matter of good church order than it was a divine command making that day different than any other.
As the Reformation went on, many churches continued or resumed the practice of remembering certain aspects of Christ’s life at certain times of the year, while others prohibited it. The RCUS constitution states that it is permissible for churches to recognize Christmas, Easter, Pentecost and other days, including national days of thanksgiving, as they see fit. None of these days are mandated, however, and care should always be taken to remember that such days are not required by Scripture, are not means of grace, and should never be elevated above those things which the Lord has commanded us to do.
The Christmas season is the time when much of the Christian world chooses to remember the incarnation and birth of Christ. It is appropriate to recognize certain times of the year as times when we will remember various aspects of our redemption and to reflect on the historical events of Scripture to focus on those truths. There are a great many beautiful hymns that have been written for the Christmas and Easter seasons particularly. But superstition and legalism are constant temptations. High church ceremonialism is coming back into vogue in the Reformed world, with all the sacerdotalist trappings, and believers should be on their guard. We must not think that Easter or Christmas are special times of the dispensing of God’s grace, since no mention is made of them in Scripture and no command is given to observe these days. We should never permit these seasonal times to overshadow what God has commanded: the regular, everyday preaching of the whole counsel of God.
Superstition is more of a problem than many think. It is all too common for Christians to believe that special dispensations of grace are given to believers on certain days, or that our spiritual walks are enhanced by ceremonies that God never commanded. These are the “weak and beggarly elements” Paul cautions us about. We should never permit materialism, nostalgia or our ever-present tendency to manufacture idols in our hearts distract us from the simple and unadorned worship, sacraments, prayer and preaching of God’s Word which is commanded us in Scripture. These are what God promises us will advance the Christian life.
We are at liberty to choose to remember the doctrines of the Incarnation and the Resurrection at the traditional times the Church has done so, a practice that goes back as far as anyone knows. But we should always be content with the means of grace that God Himself ordained, and resist the ever-present pull of our sinful hearts to manufacture new ones.
Alas, and Did My Savior Bleed
1 Alas! and did my Savior bleed,
and did my Sovereign die!
Would he devote that sacred head
for such a worm as I!
2 Was it for crimes that I had done
he groaned upon the tree!
Amazing pity! Grace unknown!
And love beyond degree!
3 Well might the sun in darkness hide,
and shut his glories in,
when Christ, the mighty Maker, died
for man the creature’s sin.
4 Thus might I hide my blushing face
while his dear cross appears;
dissolve my heart in thankfulness,
and melt mine eyes in tears.
5 But drops of grief can ne’er repay
The debt of love I owe;
here, Lord, I give myself away,
’tis all that I can do.
Isaac Watt’s moving hymn well reflects on the awe that every Christian must feel at the thought of what Christ has done for us. Our faith is founded above all else on the truth that Jesus Christ died for us, in an act of completely unmerited grace. The writer stands amazed at the fact that glorious God, the creator of all things, became a servant, humbled Himself and died, for our sake. The tune is one that fits well the subject, evoking sadness, thankfulness and hope.
Verse one expresses this incredulity, and even sorrow, at the tragic sight of the cross, for that is how the truth of the cross first impresses us- “alas!” It is such a tragedy that the glorious and righteous Messiah, so good and so innocent, should be treated in such a fashion. Why would He do such a thing for a worthless being, “a worm, such as I?” Though it is contemplated as a tragedy, even from the beginning the writer expresses his awareness that Jesus’ act was not something done to Him as a helpless victim, but something He chose voluntarily.
The only possible motivation for such an act is love and pity (verse 2). If it is true that I am a “worm” as the writer says, then I certainly have nothing to offer Him in return, no way to pay Him back for such a sacrifice. So it is only “love beyond degree” that could motivate such an act. No matter how long we have been Christians, how many times we have heard the story of the cross, or how much progress we have made in our Christian lives, we should never trifle with the cross, never lose our awe and gratitude, our sheer amazement that Jesus did what He did on our behalf.
The book of Matthew relates three hours of darkness in the middle of the day during the crucifixion of Christ. The death of Christ was not primarily intended as a display of some truth to man, though it does that, but rather as an act of propitiation aimed at the Father. So the sun even hides its face for a time at the sight. True love of a degree nowhere else seen is displayed in His sacrifice for those so much lower than He: He who is the maker of all things, who was there at the foundation of all things, the Wisdom by which the Father put the very stars in their courses, entered into the suffering and death to which we, His own creation, were subject because of our own sin.
So the writer says that if the sun itself would hide its face from the sight, he certainly might “hide [his] blushing face” as well. One proper response to the cross is for us to abhor ourselves for our sinfulness which made such a thing necessary (Ezekiel 36:31). If we come away from the cross with a great sense of self-esteem and appreciation for our own specialness, then we are not seeing the truth. We are beloved of God, but not for what we are. The only thing worthy about us is what God will do in us by His grace. We bring nothing to the table but our own shame and worthiness for destruction. Worms, indeed.
So the writer concludes that the only worthy response to the cross of Christ is commitment to Christ. The believer can never do enough to repay, but the one who is truly thankful for the salvation of Christ will commit himself to giving everything. The Christian faith simply cannot stop at the contemplation of the cross, but must proceed from there to our proper response to that great gift. My great comfort is that I am not my own, but belong to my Savior Jesus Christ, and the Christian life, the life of the one who truly possesses faith in that salvation, will more and more reflect that gratitude by living a life true to His word and worthy of His grace, giving all glory to Him since any good thing in me is only the result of His gracious gift.
“Lastly, it is to be observed that the condition of being forgiven as we forgive our debtors, is not added because by forgiving others we deserve forgiveness, as if the cause of forgiveness were expressed; but by the use of this expression the Lord has been pleased partly to solace the weakness of our faith, using it as a sign to assure us that our sins are as certainly forgiven as we are certainly conscious of having forgiven others, when our mind is completely purged from all envy, hatred, and malice; and partly using as a badge by which he excludes from the number of his children all who, prone to revenge and reluctant to forgive, obstinately keep up their enmity, cherishing against others that indignation which they deprecate from themselves; so that they should not venture to invoke him as a Father. In the Gospel of Luke, we have this distinctly stated in the words of Christ.”
John Calvin, Institutes, III.XX.45
“Now we shall possess a right definition of faith if we call it a firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence toward us, founded upon the truth of the freely given promise in Christ, both revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit.”
John Calvin, Institutes, III.II.7
“Thus we shall behold the person of a sinner and evildoer represented in Christ, yet from his shining innocence it will at the same time be obvious that he was burdened with another’s sin rather than his own. He therefore suffered under Pontius Pilate, and by the governor’s official sentence was reckoned among criminals. Yet not so– for he was declared righteous by his judge at the same time, when Pilate affirmed that he “found no cause for complaint in him.” This is our acquittal: the guilt that held us liable for punishment has been transferred to the head of the Son of God. We must, above all, remember this substitution, lest we tremble and remain anxious throughout life– as if God’s righteous vengeance, which the Son of God has taken upon himself, still hung over us.”
–John Calvin, Institutes, 2.16.5
“The most damnable and pernicious heresy that has ever plagued the mind of man was the idea that somehow he could make himself good enough to deserve to live with an all-holy God.”
I came across a great article from Sinclair Ferguson on the subject of mortifying sin. Well worth a few minutes of your time.