Lord's Day 32 (1944) - Prof. Benne Holwerda
Note about the translator: Mr. Gilbert Zekveld was born in the Netherlands and immigrated to Canada as a young man. He farmed for many years in the Bowmanville area of Ontario where he was actively involved with Christian Reformed and later Orthodox Christian Reformed church life.
This sermon was delivered Sunday, February 20, 1944
Beloved in the Lord Jesus Christ,
Gratitude is the heading above this Lord's Day. That is why the catechism begins to speak here of good works. Works we must do to show God our gratitude for redemption. The part where the catechism deals with our redemption is now finished. In dealing with deliverance the catechism speaks of what Christ did for us. Gratitude now follows, to teach us what we must do for Christ. When I say it like this, no one will object: the part of redemption has come to an end, now the catechism begins to deal with gratitude. Yet, we walk here, if I may say so, along the edge of heresy. For, is it true that the catechism now begins to deal with what we must do? Is it true that indeed the law follows the gospel? Are then heretics of all sorts right, when they say that the work of Christ is not sufficient? That we have to add something of ourselves? Is it true that Christ is not a complete Saviour? Is it true that something else is required besides the gospel? We confess that Christ did everything for us; there is nothing we have to add. But now we add our own works as necessary for our salvation.
It is therefore so beautiful that our catechism, when it commences to speak of good works, deals with this question first of all. "Since, then, we are delivered from our misery by grace alone, through Christ, without any merit of ours, why must we yet do good works?" If He did it all alone, why must we add our works? Then we read the brilliant answer: not because he who is redeemed by Christ must do something in return, but it says, "Because Christ, having redeemed us by His blood, also renews us by His Holy Spirit after His own image. That is to say, we must be thankful, because Christ makes us thankful. The redemption through His blood, not only gives us reason for gratitude, but the redemption in His blood continues to redeem us by the Spirit, Who enables us to be grateful. And so beloved, thankfulness is not something added, where we learn that we must do something; but gratitude is a segment of the doctrine of redemption. It is not what we can do in return, but what Christ does for us, what through His Spirit He makes of us. The catechism teaches us that Christ fulfills the liberating power of His blood by the liberating power of His Spirit. I speak to you this afternoon about:
The Gospel of good works.
1. In what manner.
2. For what purpose.
3. Christ makes gratitude a serious matter.
1. The gospel of good works - yes, for it is very comforting that we never can separate good works from Christ Jesus. I said a while ago, we walk here on the edge of gross heresy. From Church history you know that many erred on this point. The Roman Catholics, the Remonstrants, and so easily we ourselves. Why must we do good works? Those works are also an act by us, our achievement. After Christ's work we are now dealing with our work. After the gospel comes the law of gratitude. O yes, we may also say, that we deal here with our works, that we now commence with the law, which tells us what to do out of gratitude. As long as you keep both eyes open wide! For we think and speak here so carelessly. We must do good works, because we are redeemed by the blood of Christ, we must fulfill the law on account of the gospel.
That is true. The cross of Christ reconciled us with God:
Thy pardoning grace has set us free,
And covered our iniquity.
Once more we may begin with a clean slate. But if this is all we had to say, we would be most miserable of all people. For when I share in the forgiveness of sins, indeed, I am obliged to thankfulness; I will be strongly motivated to do good works. But that does not mean I am able to be thankful, not yet willing and prepared to live unto God. I must do it, but still I am not willing, and I cannot do it either. When the Lord makes me begin with a clean slate today, I will be in debt again tomorrow.
We would be very unhappy, when after Lord's Day 31 we were suddenly faced with the law. When it would tell us, you are redeemed, now you must begin a new life. As if the law is here separated from the gospel. As if the Lord said: I redeemed you in Christ, but now you must do something in return. If that is the way it was, the demand of the law would indeed be supported by the grace of the gospel, the law would have an evangelical basis; but it would forever be impossible for us to fulfill. But the law not only has an evangelical basis, it is itself one great gospel. Christ does not meet us in the law first of all as Lord and Master, but as the Great Redeemer. He does not say: I redeemed you, and now you must do something too. To the contrary, he says: I do everything. I do it alone. I did not only shed My blood to reconcile you, and now you must fulfill the law yourself; no, I redeem you altogether; I am the One Who by My Spirit renews your heart. I do not only require this, I will see to it that you can do it, and will do it. I do not just require gratitude. I work it first, I give it first.
Do you now hear the gospel?
We are discussing our good works. But thanks be unto God, we don't do these works, it is Christ Who works them in us. He does not redeem us part of the way, He redeems us all the way; He shows His liberating power on the cross: my guilt has been taken out of God's book. Yet, this is not enough. How must I continue? How do I become another man? How do I receive another heart? If I remain the same old man that I was, I will daily increase my guilt. But He continues His work of redemption, His liberating power reaches further; from Calvary He goes to Easter and Pentecost. He conquers me by the life-giving Spirit, He sheds heavenly powers in me. He renews me after His own image, in order that I will what He wills, and do what He does.
Gratitude, o no, it does not mean, that I am in control, that something has to come from me. No, gratitude means, that it is Christ Who does it, that He continues to work out my redemption. Gratitude means that He takes redemption to its ultimate end. Gratitude means that He makes me do it; also that I can do it and will do it. Redemption means that He not only creates the duty to gratitude, but that He also creates the will to gratitude within me, but also that He puts within me the power to be thankful. He does everything. He alone.
It follows that the man who does good works, cannot be a proud man, for he says, "I live, yet not I, but Christ lives in me". Good works do not mean that I have to add anything, but it means that I drink from the fountain filled with grace, that I live wholly out of Christ. I live not only from Calvary, but also from Easter and Pentecost. His redemption is so all-embracing, His liberating power renews also my heart and life.
Why must I do good works? Because Christ died for me on the cross and atoned for all my sins. But if this was all that could be said, yes, the obligation to gratitude would be very difficult, but I could always appeal to my impotence. I would be able to say to the Lord: Thy commandments are too heavy for me. Thou hast a right to my life, but my heart is unwilling and unable. Thou art not unrighteous in requiring this from me, Thou art perfectly just, but Thou requirest from me what I cannot do. But why must I do good works? Because Christ has not only redeemed me by His blood, but He also renews me by His Spirit. Now no longer can I say I am not able, for Christ's redemption is complete. He liberated my heart and soul and all my strength. I can do it now, and I will do it now. He Himself works in me to do and to will after His good pleasure. I have no more excuses. This will be from now on my duty. Because Good Friday is past: I must; it was Easter: I will; and because it was Pentecost: I can. Now I see the error of the Roman Catholics and all those others. They claim that this doctrine will make godless and careless people. They say, "Christ does some of the work and we do the rest." But when Christ does everything, our works do not count.
They err, precisely because grace is grace for one hundred percent; precisely God's work is so all-embracing, I have to do good works. Had Christ redeemed me only part of the way, I could excuse myself by appealing to my impotence. But now I cannot do that anymore. Why must I do good works? Because on Calvary, Christ not only created the duty to gratitude, but on Easter He also gave me the will, and with Pentecost He gave me the strength. When I am not grateful now, I never will be. Why must I do good works? Because the redeeming and liberating grace of Christ is complete, so complete, that He Himself creates within me the will to do good, and gives the strength to do it.
O, that we could see that! Some complain that it looks so easy from the sermons. Only faith in Christ. They also say: as long as it is not too easy. They think we are getting too much gospel, and are afraid that we shall be a careless people. Is it much too easy? But so all-embracing is the gospel, Christ does it all. No one may become careless. Why must you do good works? Because Christ does it all. Now the gospel is complete, no one can be excused. So there are no good works possible, but only by faith in Christ. In Christ, Who does it all. I must see the whole Christ, in all His works. I must see Him coming from Calvary, and going to Easter and Pentecost. Then I understand why good works are necessary. The demand for good works was never greater than here; the Roman Catholic Church cannot compare with it. While Christ's liberating power is so complete, sin becomes the greatest foolishness; now no one can ever find an excuse.
2. This is more pronounced, when you think of the object in view for which Christ makes us thankful. For the catechism gives an account of why Christ reaches so far with His redeeming grace. With His Spirit He renews us after His image. Why does He do that? Christ does it because He knows the law and what it is:
"Thou gavest me to hear Thy will,
Thy law is in my heart;
I came the Scriptures to fulfil."
To the Lord Jesus Christ the law is not a police ordinance with a number of regulations. O no, He bears the law within His heart; He knows the requirement of the law: love. Thou shalt love the Lord thy God above all, and thy neighbour as thyself. This He requires of us, because He performs it Himself. God, humanity, the neighbour - these three He has in view in all His works. Because the law of perfect love burns within Him, He renews us by His Spirit. The law that lives within Him, He writes it in our hearts.
"For", says the Catechism. "He does this, that our whole life would show gratitude for His benefits." Christ seeks God, it is His food and drink to do the will of the Father. Therefore He cannot rest, until He has made it our meat and drink also. Had he only died for us, and no more, o, we would be so poor; but above all: God would not receive the honor that is His due. Then, our life would not be a sweet smelling savour to the Lord. But Christ loves the Father above everything else; He loves us, but He loves the Father first. That is why He sheds abroad His Spirit, that our life, all our life, should truly honor God. Why must I do good works? Because Christ seeks to do God's will with all His power, because He cannot rest until He has made my whole life a sacrifice to the Father. Now I cannot do anything different, I will not do anything different; for Christ is consumed by doing the will of the Father. And He involves me in that zeal. He loves the Father to the extent, that He serves Him not for Himself alone; He says: Father, everything, yes everything must praise Thee. Then He sees me, and says that I must participate also; and if I complain, He moves me by His Spirit. Now I cannot do anything else; I must do good works. The fire that burns in the heart of Christ, He has put in my heart. He kindles mine with His own flame. Why must I do good works? Because Christ lives wholly for the Father, so completely that He involves me too. He says, "Father, I claim this man also, I have kindled My fire in him; the life of this man also, I give to Thee. Beloved, do you see it? This is much more than Lord's Day 12. In Lord's Day 12 we read, "That I present myself a living sacrifice of thankfulness to Him." But it is much more, I do not offer myself, it is Christ Who offers me to the Father. He overpowers me with His Spirit, that my whole life, family, work and everything, would be to God's praise.
But He also loves me. He seeks to bless me. For whereto does He give us the Spirit? He does that also "that each of us may be assured in himself of his faith by the fruits thereof." He knows about our weak faith. To believe is difficult. For by faith we accept things we do not see. It is always a question of words. That is why doubt creeps up on me: is it true? I believe in God, the Father, the Creator; I believe there was a paradise in the beginning. But is all this true? Who guarantees me that it is as we read in Genesis? Is the paradise story, fiction or fact? I believe in Jesus Christ.... But who can check up on that; no one of us was in Bethlehem. No one stood under the cross. No one has proof that Christ rose from the death. No one can guarantee the story of Pentecost. Did we maybe follow 'cunningly devised fables'? Is all this no more than a nice fairy-tale? We believe the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the flesh, and life everlasting. But how do we know all this is true?
The only evidence is that there are people, who by the Spirit of Christ do good works. What He declares in His Word, their eyes do now see. In the Word He speaks of paradise, which we do not see because it is lost; but in good works He shows us paradise people, created after God in true righteousness and holiness. Genesis 1 tells us of the glory that was in the beginning. At times it is difficult to believe. But I discover the evidence of Genesis 1 by myself, for by His power I again live as it was at the beginning. In the gospel He proclaims to us His works of redemption, that we cannot see; and yet, we do not follow cunningly devised fables, for He shows us His liberating grace in our own lives. In the Word He speaks of the glories of the new Jerusalem and the splendour of the age to come. Yet, it is no fable, for in my own good works He reveals the powers of the age to come. He says that this is no fiction, it is more than an illusion, or a dream. See in your own life the works, the fair fruits of the Word, that you believe. And seeing the fruits I am assured of what I believe, without actually observing.
Do you now see the love of Christ as He comes to you in good works? He shows us the reality of the things we do not see, for He will assure us of what we have learned to understand by faith. Why must we do good works? Because Christ loves us so much that He will thereby prove the truth of things invisible. Through the power of His Spirit He makes visible the invisible world and the powers of the world to come.
But He also thinks of the neighbour, this Christ of good works. You must love the Lord your God and your neighbour. That is why He renews us by His Spirit. In the good works done by His Church He will show the world the power of His redemption. The Jews desire a sign, the Greeks look for wisdom. That is why the gospel of the cross is foolishness and weakness in their eyes. But He gives evidence that the gospel is the power of God and the wisdom of God. Every good work I do is proof of the power of God's 'weak' Gospel. Good works remove the opposition that is found in this world, they refute the objections that are brought against preaching; for the Word of the cross seems foolishness, but in good works it reveals itself as wisdom: the cross seems the ultimate weakness, but good works give evidence that Christ unleashes the powers of the age to come. Why must I do good works?
Because Christ is the greatest love: He loves the Father perfectly. He brings me to sacrifice the whole of my life; He loves me perfectly, He wants to assure me of the things that I do not see. He loves the neighbour unto the end. He refutes all the objections against the gospel. In my good works Christ prepares a way for my neighbour to the cross, and to God. But when I have seen the greatest love in Christ, precisely when through the Spirit He renews my heart to do good works, what else can I do? The one thing I can do, is say with Paul, "For I delight in the law of God after the inward man" (Rom. 7: 22).
3. Because this is the gospel of the greatest love, it is therefore such a grave matter. The kingdom of God is here so wide open. But therefore it will also be irrevocably closed. "Can they, then not be saved who, continuing in their wicked and ungrateful lives, do not turn to God? (italics added. Tr.) By no means". It is absolutely out of the question. There is no exception. No unchaste person, idolater, robber, or any such like, shall inherit the kingdom of God. For when Christ works gratitude in us, when He deploys the greatest power of redemption in good works, when He reveals in this the greatest love, then precisely in good works the kingdom of God comes to us. In no other place is the kingdom of God so gloriously revealed as here. But he who does not repent and refuses to do good works, places himself outside of the kingdom of God. He despised the liberating power of Christ when it was nearest him. He offended the greatest love.
He will be lost, not because the Lord was unrighteous, by demanding what he could not do. He will be lost, because God in Christ demonstrated His grace, in demanding what he could, but would not do. Now it becomes dangerous in the Church. Good works are no law, but the highest and richest gospel. No one of us will be able to say to the Lord: I could not do it. For the Lord says: in the Bible I did not only write of Good Friday, but also of Pentecost. You read in your own Catechism: Christ not only bought us with His blood and liberated us, but by His Spirit He also renewed us after His image.
Why must we do good works? We don't have to ask this question anymore. We must do them, because we can do them. I cannot evade the law, while the law has been revealed as the highest gospel. Does this doctrine makes for careless and godless people? No, for this great love is ever a serious matter.
Sunday, 20 February, 1944.