Catechetical sermons preached in PCC Evening Worship Services, Feb 2013 to Dec 2017
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1 There was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews: 2 The same came to Jesus by night, and said unto him, Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him. 3 Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. 4 Nicodemus saith unto him, How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb, and be born? 5 Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again. 8 The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit. 9 Nicodemus answered and said unto him, How can these things be? 10 Jesus answered and said unto him, Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things?John 3:1-10
WSC 30. How doth the Spirit apply to us the redemption purchased by Christ?
A. The Spirit applieth to us the redemption purchased by Christ, by working faith in us,1 and thereby uniting us to Christ in our effectual calling.21Eph 1:13–14; Jn 6:37, 39; Eph 2:8; 2Eph 3:17; 1 Cor 1:9.
You have heard it many times. There are only two kinds of people in the world. You may be a natural man, an unbeliever, who sins constantly and habitually. Or you are a spiritual man, a Christian, who does not sin constantly and habitually.
Which camp do you belong to? How did you end up in that camp?
The Scripture and our Catechism teach us that all who are born of Adam by natural generation sinned in him and fell with him in His first transgression. So we are born into this world as children of God’s wrath, dead in sin and trespasses. We sin habitually and constantly.
So, if you are not a Christian, we can understand how you got there. But how did you get there if you are a Christian or a spiritual man?
Perhaps you may say: “I got there because I was born in a Christian family, so I believe Jesus died for me,” or “I got there because I believed. I believe that Jesus Christ died for my sin. I prayed to receive Christ, and so became a believer?”
Well, if that is your answer, then listen to what Charles H. Spurgeon, the prince of preachers, has to say:
I have heard it often that if you believe that Jesus Christ died for you, you will be saved. My dear reader, do not be deluded by such an idea. You may believe that Jesus Christ died for you, and may believe what is not true; you may believe that which will bring you no sort of good whatever. That is not saving faith. The man who has saving faith afterwards attains to the conviction that Christ died for him, but it is not of the essence of saving faith. Do not get that into your head, or it will ruin you. Do not say, ‘I believe that Jesus Christ died for me,’ and because of that feel that you are saved.Sermons, 58.583
This is surprising, isn’t it? If Spurgeon is right, and I believe he is, then you did not become a Christian by believing that Christ died for your sin or by praying to receive Christ. In that case, how did you become a Christian?
Our Shorter Catechism, question 29, asks a similar question: “How are we made partakers of the redemption purchased by Christ?”
The answer? “We are made partakers of the redemption purchased by Christ, by the effectual application of it to us by his Holy Spirit.”
We looked at this statement in our previous study in this series. We considered how the Holy Spirit is instrumental in making us Christians by applying to us whatever benefits of salvation Christ has already purchased for us.
In this follow-up study, we want to consider how the Holy Spirit does so and the implication of the doctrine. In particular, we want to consider how the truth summarised in the next question is drawn from the Scriptures. The question is:
WSC 30. “How doth the Spirit apply to us the redemption purchased by Christ?”
Answer: “The Spirit applieth to us the redemption purchased by Christ, by working faith in us, and thereby uniting us to Christ in our effectual calling.”
This verity is taught in several passages in Scripture, but for our purpose in the present study, let us turn to the famous account of the Lord Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus.
This chapter records an event in the life of the Lord that occurred relatively early in His public ministry, perhaps at the beginning of His second year.
Christ had already acquired some fame throughout Jewry because of His preaching and miracles. One night, a man by the name of Nicodemus, a Pharisee, came to see Him. He came secretly at night because many of the Jews hated Christ. Nicodemus did not want to risk being associated with Him. He feared men more than he feared God.
He says to Jesus: “Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him.”
Remarkably, the Lord does not directly respond to those words or engage in pleasantries with him. Instead, He launches straightaway into a profound statement of doctrine that He wants Nicodemus to learn that night. “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God,” He offers (v. 3).
Nicodemus was taken aback. He knows the Lord is telling him that he must be born again. But he is confused. How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter into his mother’s womb again and be born of her? (v. 5).
The Lord responds by clarifying that He is referring to being born again spiritually: “That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (v. 6). Then he clarifies that though the Spirit is invisible, the effect of His work is clearly noticeable:
“Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again. 8 The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit”(v. 7-8)
Perplexed by the answer, Nicodemus asks: “How can these things be?” But this draws a gentle rebuke by the Lord: “Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things?” (v. 10).
What would the Lord have us learn from what He conveys to Nicodemus?
Let me suggest three things: First, let us be reminded that we could never come to believe in Christ by our own effort. Regeneration must precede faith. Secondly, let us see how the faith needed in our effectual calling is a gift of God by the work of the Spirit in our hearts. Thirdly, let us be provoked by how important this doctrine is.
1. Regeneration Precedes Faith
a. The Lord says: “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
Notice how the Lord is not merely saying that only a man who is born again can enter into the kingdom of God. That is included in what He is saying, but He is saying more than that. He does not say, “Except a man be born again, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” He says, “Except a man be born again, he cannot SEE the kingdom of God.” Notice the difference.
What is faith? According to Hebrews 11:1, “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not SEEN.” Simply stated, faith is seeing with spiritual eyes.
To believe in Christ is to see Him with spiritual eyes and to embrace Him with spiritual arms.
Christ is the king of the kingdom of God. If you cannot even see or perceive the kingdom of God, how do you see Christ? How can you be saved by Him?
So, the Lord is telling Nicodemus that unless a man is born again, he can have no faith. He cannot believe. The natural man is spiritually blind, so he cannot believe.
What is it to be born again? The Lord is using the example of childbirth. Nicodemus understood that.
Every one of us was born into this world in a process in which we were entirely helpless and passive. Did any of us help our mother at birth? Some of us have witnessed childbirth. I have witnessed it five times. Never have I seen a baby lending a hand and pushing himself out. You will be shocked if you see a baby doing that, and the midwife will probably faint.
The fact is the baby contributes nothing to the birthing process. Undoubtedly, the Lord uses this analogy of childbirth to show that our new birth is wholly a sovereign work of God. In theological terms, the new birth is known as quickening and regeneration.
The Lord is teaching us that regeneration is monergistic rather than synergistic. Monergistic means “by the work of only one,” in this case, God. Synergistic means by cooperative work of more than one, in this case, God and us. The Lord is saying we contribute nothing in the monergistic work of our new birth or regeneration.
Because of Original Sin, man is naturally drawn to sin and Satan. We were “dead in trespasses and sins,” says Paul (Eph 2:1). In order that we may trust in Christ, a miracle, no less in magnitude than the raising of Lazarus, must be performed. Just as Lazarus did not cooperate with the Lord when He raised him from the dead, we do not cooperate with God when He regenerates us.
We could not believe by our own effort. Regeneration must precede faith. Our catechism speaks of our effectual calling. Our effectual calling includes our response to the gospel call, but this response can only be through quickening or regeneration. Without regeneration, we can have no faith.
This leads us to our second point.
2. Faith Is a Gift of the Holy Spirit
From our Lord’s instruction to Nicodemus, it is clear that the new birth is a work of the Holy Spirit.
Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.v. 5-6
Whatever “born of water” means, it is undeniable that the new birth is a spiritual birth or a birth effected by the Holy Spirit. Now, since the Lord says that except a man is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God, it is clear that it is the new birth that gives spiritual eyes. Therefore, it is clear that it is the Holy Spirit who gives faith and that this faith is given in regeneration.
The apostle Paul tells us that faith is a gift of God. “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God” (Eph 2:8).
How does God give this gift? Not by pouring or planting faith in our hearts. Faith is not something that can be transplanted. Faith is believing. So if I have faith, it must be that I believe. But by nature, we are dead in sin. So, how does faith come about? Faith comes through regeneration, which is essentially the work of God’s Spirit opening our spiritual eyes to see God’s kingdom (cf. 1 Cor 2:14-15). Regeneration, at the same time, unstops our ears so that we hear the voice of the Shepherd, and changes our hearts so that we are enabled to trust Him and to love Him.
Our heart is changed so that though we hated God, we now find Christ excellent, lovely and irresistible (cf. Ezk 11:19; Acts 13:48; Phil 1:29). We were not dragged into the kingdom kicking and screaming. The Lord does not force our will. He changes our hearts so we find Christ more attractive than sin and Satan. Indeed, at the moment of our effectual call, we find Christ to be more lovely than anything else in the world. And our wills simply choose what the heart finds most attractive, to be most needful to us.
This change is imperceptible and mysterious. It is something that happens inside us. The Lord refers to this fact when He says in verse 8:
The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.
This is how we ended up as Christians. We know we are Christian not because of something we did or some physical change in us. We know we are Christian because of the effect of the work of the Spirit in our hearts.
One of the first effects of the Holy Spirit’s work of regeneration is saving faith!
When the gospel calls to repentance and faith is issued, it is like when the Lord called out to Lazarus: “Lazarus, come forth!” Lazarus was dead. He could not hear. So he could not obey the Lord. But even as the words of the Lord left His holy lips, the Holy Spirit goes forth in His power to make him alive, to give him the ability to hear the command, to incline his heart to obey it and to strengthen his will to step out.
Thus, as our catechism puts it, “The Spirit applieth to us the redemption purchased by Christ, by working faith in us, and thereby uniting us to Christ in our effectual calling.”
The essential doctrine of this statement may be summarised by the two points we have been considering: (1) Regeneration precedes saving faith; (2) Saving faith is a gift of the Holy Spirit through regeneration.
But is this doctrine really important, or is it theological hair-splitting? Well, consider our final point.
3. This Doctrine Is of Primary Importance
The Lord Jesus Himself indicates its importance by gently rebuking Nicodemus: “Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things?”
The word translated “master” is the Greek διδάσκαλος (didaskalos), which means “instructor” or “teacher.” The Lord, you must realise, is not only asking Nicodemus whether he is a teacher. He knows he is a teacher. It is a rhetorical question. He is making a statement of irony. But note that He is not merely expressing surprise that Nicodemus does not know the doctrine He is teaching him. The Lord is not surprised by anything. But if it is not an expression of surprise, what is it? Surely it is an expression of rebuke.
The Lord essentially says: You should not be a teacher if you do not know these things!
Sadly, Nicodemus was not alone. Throughout the ages, many have failed to understand what he did not understand. That’s despite the fact that the Lord Jesus makes it so clear. The late Dr John H. Gertsner suggests that in modern times up to 90% of Christendom continues to hold erroneous views regarding the relationship between faith and regeneration.
Some are Pelagian. Pelagianism is an ancient heresy going back to the 5th century. But the liberals of our day are essentially Pelagians. Pelagians deny Original Sin. They deny that man is spiritually dead and assert that he can do good and attain salvation in that way. Christ did not die a substitutionary death. Man has the power to exercise his own will to save himself. There is no need for regeneration for him to have faith. Pelagianism is ancient Liberalism. Liberalism, as Dr John Grashem Machen asserts, is not Christian.
Then there is semi-Pelagianism, or the 16th-century manifestation known as Arminianism. This teaches that man is only partially dead and can cooperate with the Holy Spirit in regeneration. Man is saved by grace but not grace alone. He can respond either in faith or in unbelief when the Holy Spirit begins to woo him. Grace, in other words, is resistible.
While the raising of Lazarus may illustrate salvation in the Calvinistic scheme, salvation in the Arminian scheme may be illustrated by the rescue of a drowning man. The sinner is reckoned as drowning, and the gospel is likened to a life-saver thrown beside him. All he needs to do is to reach out to grab the life-saver, and he will be saved. Or the sinner may be likened to a sick man, and the gospel the medicine that will save him. All he has to do is reach out for the medicine, swallow it, and he will be saved. The sinner under this scheme has to cooperate to be saved.
But this is clearly contrary to our Lord’s instruction that unless we are born again, we cannot see the kingdom of God. This is also contrary to Paul’s instruction that we were dead in sin and trespasses. Yet, this doctrine is taught by the Roman Catholic Church and most Methodists and General Baptists.
Then there is the error of Classical Dispensationalism. This is a system of doctrine invented in the 1830s. The most famous dispensationalists are Scofield, Lewis Sperry Chafer, Charles Ryrie, and John Walvoord. These add to the confusion by saying that they agree with the Reformed teaching that regeneration is monergistic, but at the same time assert that faith precedes regeneration!
Fallen man, they suggest, can exercise faith by himself. After he has exercised faith, the Holy Spirit regenerates him monergistically. How do these men come to such a position?
Firstly, they have mistaken historical, intellectual faith for the faith of the Scripture. In the Scripture, faith is wholehearted trust that comes about through a changed heart. To Dispensationalists and those who follow them, faith simply saying, “I believe that Christ died for me.”
To them, anyone who says he believes Christ died for him and prays to receive Christ is a Christian. He may not have received Jesus as Lord, but he has received Him as Saviour. This is also why many Dispensationalists believe that there are such things as Carnal Christians: Christians who will be saved as by fire because they acknowledge Christ as Saviour, though they have not submitted to His Lordship.
Secondly, to the classical Dispensationalist, regeneration is the implantation of a divine nature in the heart of believers. It is not a renovation of the old nature, but an impartation of a new nature which will exist side-by-side with the old nature and constantly be at war with it.
The Reformed and biblical position is that the war is between the flesh, which represents the “remaining corruption,” and the Spirit, which represents the “regenerate part” (WCF 13.2-3). It is not a war between two separate entities in the soul.
Brethren, make no mistake! These are not merely theoretical differences that have no bearing on the Christian life. The implications are profound and far-reaching. The evangelistic and revivalistic thrusts of Charles G. Finney were based on a form of Pelagianism. His introduction of altar calls, still practised in many churches, was founded on this faulty understanding of the doctrine of salvation.
We shudder to think of how many hundreds of thousands were deluded to think that they were saved or revived when they had merely been manipulated emotionally by Finney’s methods. Much of the man-centredness, shallow-evangelicalism worldwide today can likely be attributed to Finneyism.
The evangelist Billy Graham was at times Pelagian and at times Dispensational in his gospel presentation. His use of emotional appeals, testimonies and music, such as “Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling” and “Come to the saviour, make no delay,” is based on his faulty theology.
Again, how many would have been misled to think that they are saved and assured that they are saved and are not to doubt their salvation when they had made mere intellectual or even emotional professions only?
And is it not the case that the methods of Campus Crusade are also based on the Dispensational doctrine of salvation? We wonder how many, who, according to Crusade, have “PRC’ed” (Prayed to Receive Christ), will hear the Lord say, “I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity” (Mt 7:23)?
We applaud Campus Crusaders for going into the streets to confront sinners. That is good. But their message is not good because it is false: “God loves you … Christ died for you … If you want to be a Christian, pray with me now.”
Too many have been misled into thinking that the sinner’s prayer is the act of faith that makes one a Christian! Oh, how many who prayed the sinner’s prayer are given false assurances that they are on the way to heaven when they know nothing about Christ nor desire to follow Him?
We have much to learn from the zeal of Campus Crusaders. But when we go out to witness in the streets, we must do so, understanding that regeneration precedes faith and that the Holy Spirit saves the elect by sovereignly regenerating their heart. We must remind ourselves that sinners do not make themselves Christian nor initiate their new birth by praying the sinner’s prayer.
If we understand these things, we will want to persuade those whom we approach to seek the Lord under a godly ministry of the word that peradventure they might be found of the Lord as they attend to the means of grace.
“WSC 30. How doth the Spirit apply to us the redemption purchased by Christ?
Answer: The Spirit applieth to us the redemption purchased by Christ, by working faith in us, and thereby uniting us to Christ in our effectual calling.”
This doctrine is based on the word of God, especially the Lord’s instruction to Nicodemus that he must be born again by the power of the Holy Spirit. Regeneration precedes saving faith. Saving faith is a gift of the Holy Spirit through generations. This is a doctrine of significant importance.
What shall we do with this doctrine?
We started by saying that there are only two kinds of people in the world: either you are regenerate or unregenerate. But let me, as we close, address three groups of people in our midst.
a. First, I would like to address those of us who are sure we have been born again. You can be quite sure, indeed very sure, that you have been born again if you wholeheartedly believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, love His word and His people, and have a strong desire to obey His word and make His name known. These things are not natural. So if they are in your heart, they must have been planted there by the work of regeneration and effectual calling.
Nevertheless, some who are genuinely regenerate may doubt their calling. If that is the case with you, let me ask whether you feel you are a sinner who does not deserve salvation. If so, will you not remind yourself that Christ came to save sinners? Go to the Lord again, confessing that you are a sinner indeed and confessing your firm assurance that Christ Jesus came to save sinners. Then thank God for salvation so rich and free in Him.
Then serve the Lord with gratitude and love. Do not give up even when the race gets tough. Lay aside every weight and sin that entangles you and run on looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of your faith.
b. Secondly, let me address those of you who are strangers to Christ. You know you are not born again because everything we have discussed is strange to you. You do not understand what sin is or don’t care whether you sin. You do not really know who Christ is or what he came to do, or you don’t care. You may even wonder if the Bible is the word of God.
Well, if that is the case for you, then may I remind you of three things:
(1) The Lord’s words to Nicodemus also apply to you. “You must be born again.” If you are not born again, you will not see, not to mention, enter into the Kingdom of God. If you do not enter the kingdom of God, you will remain in the kingdom of Satan and one day enter his horrible presence. Surely, this is not where you want to go.
(2) You cannot give yourself new birth. But you can continue to seek the Lord by hearing His word preach, reading the Bible and talking to believers. When God the Spirit works a work of regeneration, it is usually in the heart of those attending to Christ’s word. Remember how Lazarus was quickened as the word of Christ went out of the lips of Christ. So likewise, the power of the Spirit often goes forth as the gospel is preached and the call to repentance and faith is issued.
So listen even now. Repent of your sin; believe in the Lord Jesus Christ for your salvation! Go unto Christ, for He is a compassionate saviour; He will not cast out anyone who goes to Him in sincerity.
(3) All of us were once in your position. We were blinded to spiritual things. We were dead in sin. We understood not the word of God. But God, by His grace, opened our eyes, unstopped our ears and changed our hearts. This can happen to you, too, if it has not already happened.
c. Finally, let me address a third group in our midst. I referring to those who profess to be Christian, who perhaps should have no confidence in their salvation. I am referring to you if you have no idea of what it is to be born again, and Christianity is simply a choice you made that you can revoke in a moment if you decide to do so.
If that is you, may I urge you to heed the Lord’s exhortation: Ye must be born again! Have you been born again? Some of us have assumed we are Christian because we prayed to receive Christ many years ago. Now, I am not saying that if you prayed to receive Christ at your conversion, you are not truly converted. But I am saying that if your conversion consists of nothing more than a sinner’s prayer, you are probably still in the bonds of iniquity.
No, I am not saying that you must do more to be saved. But I am saying that if your life does not demonstrate a heartfelt love for Christ and His word and people, you may be deluding yourself. Faith without works is dead. Remember that true saving faith comes through the sovereign work of regeneration of the Holy Spirit. If you are regenerated or born again, you will not only profess to believe that Christ died for you. You will believe Christ wholeheartedly. You will hate sin and desire to walk according to the commandments of God. You will love the church. You will desire the glory of Christ and the good of His church. You will want to exalt the name of Christ in your life.
If these are not true of you, then may I urge you to repent of your unbelief and seek to enter into the kingdom of God diligently. The Lord Jesus says: “Strive to enter in at the strait gate: for many, I say unto you, will seek to enter in, and shall not be able” (Lk 13:24). What is it to strive? It is to continue to use the means of grace: reading God’s word, praying, listening to his word, etc. No, God will not save you by rewarding you for your striving. But it is a fact that the Holy Spirit generally regenerates those who are attending to the means of grace.
If your faith is merely one of intellectual assent that Christ died for you or merely a choice that you made and nothing more, then may I urge you to repent of your sin of unbelief and stubborn rebellion against Christ and then plead with the Lord that He may change your heart and enable you to trust Him as Saviour and Lord truly. Do not fail to seek Him until you are sure that “Christ be formed in you” (Gal 4:19). When Christ is formed in you, you will be a different person. Your eyes will be opened. Your attitude would change. Your life will change. You will cease to be proud, deceitful, self-righteous and discontent. You will begin a life of humility with a heart filled with faith, love, hope and genuine gratitude to Christ! Amen.