>God is sovereign. I always know this in my mind, but I sometimes do not feel it in my heart.
Yet there are moments in life when God does something so pointedly personal that it is as if he has reached down, put his arms around me, and said, “Glenda, see how much I love you!”
These last several weeks, I have often found it difficult to “feel” God’s sovereignty in my heart. But in every Sunday sermon, he reaches down, puts his arms around my church family, and says, “See you much I love you!”
In his sovereignty, God has been providing sermons proclaiming exactly what we need to hear at that exact step in our journey. On December 19, Rev. Alan Strange, Associate Professor of Church History at Mid-America Reformed Seminary, preached on “God Only Wise” from 1 Timothy 1:12-17. On December 25, Rev. Mark Vander Hart, Associate Professor of Old Testament Studies at Mid-America Reformed Seminary, ministered to us from Malachi 1:1-5 with his message: Christmas: God Says it in Love.” And on January 16, Mid-America seminarian Erik Stolte used 1 Kings 2:19-22 to remind us of God’s “Healing Waters.”
Rev. Vander Hart (who was also with us on January 2 and installed our new office bearers) ministered to us again last Sunday with two sermons that impressed me so keenly I feel compelled to share a few personal revelations.
The morning sermon was “Pray from Love for Peace,” based on Psalm 122:6-9. Since some groups in today’s world use verse six as a rallying cry for religious or political agendas, I was glad to hear an orthodox explication of the passage.
Pray for the peace of Jerusalem:
“May they prosper who love you.
Peace be within your walls,
Prosperity within your palaces.”
For the sake of my brethren and companions,
I will now say, “Peace be within you.”
Because of the house of the LORD our God
I will seek your good (NKJV).
Rev. Vander Hart noted that Psalm 122 is one of fifteen “Songs of Ascents” in the psalter, which are “songs of pilgrimage” sung by the faithful as they traveled up the hill into Jerusalem for worship. This isn’t a solitary reflection, but rather the prayer of a man who is part of a congregation.
Rev. Vander Hart pointed out that the alliteration of the original language emphasizes the “total security” of both peace and prosperity. It is a prayer for the “shalom” of the people, not merely the city. He urged each of us to pray for all the members of the body of Christ.
His pointed application has changed the way I pray. I still pray for specific concerns of specific believers in particular locales, but I pray every day that God will grant “shalom” to every believer everywhere.
Rev. Vander Hart spoke of the “double motive” for this prayer: because you love your brothers and sisters in Christ, but also because you love the church.
He also spoke of the “double method” of this prayer: speaking peace and seeking good.
“Prayer is also action,” he said. “If we pray, but we don’t work, we’re really not praying.”
Christ ministers peace from the throne of God, he concluded, and we know from Hebrews 12:22 that we have come to the heavenly Jerusalem. When we see what Christ has done, then peace will be ours. He brings genuine peace and lasting shalom.
The morning sermon changed the way I pray, but the evening sermon changed the way I think.
Using the familiar text of Ephesians 2:10, combined with Lord’s Day 32 of the Heidelberg Catechism, Rev. Vander Hart spoke on how “Christ Renews Us to Life Witness.”
Reading Ephesians 1-10 reminded me of how closely this text about good works follows a clear exposition on salvation by grace through faith:
And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins, in which you once walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience, among whom also we all once conducted ourselves in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, just as the others.
But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, that in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them (Eph. 2:1-10, NKJV).
While responsively reading Lord’s Day 32, I was struck (as I am every time I read it) by the comprehensive and personal answer to Question 86:
Q. We have been delivered
from our misery
by God’s grace alone through Christ
and not because we have earned it:
why then must we still do good?
A. To be sure, Christ has redeemed us by his blood.
But we do good because
Christ by his Spirit is also renewing us to be like himself,
so that in all our living
we may show that we are thankful to God
for all he has done for us,
and so that he may be praised through us.
And we do good
so that we may be assured of our faith by its fruits,
and so that by our godly living
our neighbors may be won over to Christ.
Rev. Vander Hart introduced the sermon by mentioning that the Heidelberg Catechism reflects the “biblical balance” found in the book of Romans. He described some unbalanced views, such as pietism (All that matters is Jesus in my heart) [NOTE: not piety] and antinomianism (against the law). He pointed out that the Ten Commandments come under the “gratitude” part of the Catechism. It is a matter of motive. Some believers forget about thanksgiving and gratitude; some want us all to feel guilty all the time.
Rev. Vander Hart said, “Our focus tonight is on Jesus Christ our Savior who has redeemed us from that guilt!”
The two points of the sermon were 1) His good work of renewal, and 2) Our good work of witness.
Rev. Vander Hart spoke about how we often use the language of thanksgiving while actually living as if our good works can somehow “pay back” God. This cut to my heart.
“We always default in our payments,” he said, “and that causes great anxiety…. The resting upon Jesus Christ’s finished work gets clouded over by our anxiety to make payments. Good works as payments? You can’t pay him back. God is infinite and limitedless. We are finite, very limited. And what could you give back to him that would be adequate payment in any case?”
This was the most convicting part of the sermon for me. I realized that, while using the language of gratitude, I am actually trying to pay back God with my work. I often think of all God has done for me and feel guilty over my failures to do more work in his kingdom out of my great gratitude. And this does, indeed, cause anxiety.
The antidote prescribed by Ephesians 2:10 is to focus on Christ. I am his workmanship. He saved me by grace and chose me for his own before the foundation of the earth. He prepared good works for me to do. Christ will enable me to walk at just the right pace in just the right works. They are not my way of paying him back; they are part of God’s masterpiece.
I could write much more about how our good works praise God, assure us of our faith, and witness to our neighbors, but this post is already too long and Libby (my little dog) is whining. The next good work prepared beforehand for me is to let her out of her crate and take her for a walk.
I encourage you to listen to these and other sermons that have blessed our congregation in recent weeks.