God's Word Faithfully Preached from the Pulpit

Heidelberg Catechism LD 25: The Ordinary Means of Grace (Genesis 17:9-14 and Romans 4:9-12)

Lord’s Day 23 and 24 establish the truth that our salvation is not by our works but through faith alone in Jesus Christ and his perfect righteousness

Now Lord’s Day 25 raises the question, “Where then does that faith come from?” Paano ba tayo nagkakaroon nung ganung pananampalataya tungo sa kaligtasan?

As a Reformed church, we emphasize the Golden Chain of Salvation—the logical order of how God saves a sinner. God elects, God regenerates through his indwelling Spirit, God calls and converts. And conversion involves repentance and faith leading to justification.

It is possible that there is already an outward call of the gospel to a person, yet unless that person is regenerated—given a new heart and mind by the Spirit—he cannot respond to that gospel in repentance and faith. That’s why we consider regeneration to be first then the call of the gospel becomes effectual unto conversion.

But the point we’re considering here is that there is no conversion—no faith—without the call of the gospel. Hindi po mangyayari na ang isang tao ay magiging Kristiyano nang hindi niya alam, nang wala siyang basehan ng pananampalataya, nang wala siyang basehan ng kanyang pag-asa.

Hence, as our catechism puts it, God uses means of grace to create faith in us and strengthen that faith. Yes, God has all the power to use no means at all to create faith in us. But in his sovereign will and wisdom, he designed salvation in such a way that the saving benefits of Christ become proclaimed, confirmed, and sealed in us through these means of grace.

And what are they?

  • The preaching of the gospel, and
  • The use of the Sacraments.

We’ll discuss both this afternoon, but we’ll spend more time on the Sacraments later on.

Now how is the preaching of the gospel, the Word of God, the means that God bestows upon his saving grace?

A. The Preaching of the Gospel

Let us read Romans 10:11-17.

  • v. 11-13 — “Calling on the name of the Lord,” means to believe in him, to hope in him. There’s the promise. It is clear, everyone who believes in Christ and trust him will be saved.

    But Paul raises questions that have straightforward and obvious answers…
  • v. 14 — How will people understand, be convinced, and put their faith in Christ without even knowing him or hearing about him? Faith cannot be without a basis.

    And then Paul’s follow through question, “And how are they to hear without someone preaching?”

    It’s not magic, that you and I will know and understand God’s Word out of the blue. There must be a proclamation of God’s Word. There must be a teacher and preacher that gives sense to God’s revelation to us.

    Although the word “preaching” here primarily refers to the ministry of preaching, the point is that the Word must be proclaimed and communicated to people. And though we are not all called to be preachers, all believers are part of that ministry of the church. We evangelize to our unbelieving families, spouses, friends. And evangelism happens not by showing ourselves as good people, but by proclaiming Christ and his gospel to others. That’s what creates faith in them.
  • v. 15 — Another follow through question: “And how are they to preach unless they are sent?” … The ministry must be official and in proper order. But it must be intentional: Preachers must be sent and commissioned to preach the gospel wherever God leads.

    That’s why we pray for more ministers. That’s why must we continue to pray for the establishing of churches elsewhere and intentionally plan to do it as well.
  •  v. 16 — The sad reality that not everyone believes in the gospel. The whole context of Paul here is that not everyone in Israel is saved—only the elect, only those who believe are the true Israel and people of God. Their unbelief is a proof that they are not elect and regenerated by the Spirit, but they are responsible for the hardness of their heart because of their sin.

    The point of the argument is clear: If you don’t hear the gospel of Christ, you cannot believe and be saved. And if hear the gospel, yet you don’t believe, you will not be saved.
  • Hence, Paul concludes his argument in verse 17: “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” And what is this word of Christ or the word concerning Christ? That in him, there is forgiveness and salvation. 

This is God’s primary means of grace in our salvation. Only when we hear the word of Christ, and the Holy Spirit illumines and regenerates our hearts and minds—only then can we believe in Christ and be saved. There’s just no other way or means.

And what does this imply to us?

If you do not yet believe in Jesus Christ, and you’re asking yourself, “How can I be saved?” Let me tell you that it is not rocket-science; it’s not complicated. Believe in the gospel of Jesus Christ and you shall be saved.

Now some people may ask questions, “Eh paano yung mga nasa bundok? Paano sila maliligtas?” Here’s a simple answer: That’s none of your business. Your primary concern is to listen to the Word of God being preached to you and respond to it in faith.

May mga nagsasabi or nagtatanong din sakin after attending a Reformed church for some time, “Brother, iniisip ko rin kung elect or regenerate nga ba talaga ako eh.” My usual response is, “That’s not your ultimate concern. None of us can see the Spirit actually working in us. None of us can see through the heavens and see if our names are actually written there. Our primary concern is receive God’s Word by faith and live by it. And when we see the marks of conversion indicated by God’s Word, we get assurance that the Spirit indeed dwells in us.”

Our ultimate concern is this: This is the Word of God, this is the message of the gospel— declaring to us that we are sinners yet Christ paid for our sins on the cross, promising that those who believe in him will receive forgiveness of sins, righteousness, sanctification, and eternal life. DO YOU BELIEVE IN IT? 

God promises that those who believe in him will not be put to shame, will not be disappointed. Repent and believe in Christ and you will be saved.

As for us believers, let this remind us that if the preaching of the Word is God’s primary means of grace, let us make most of it. Westminster Shorter Catechism Q. 8 teaches that, 

“The Spirit of God makes the reading, but especially the preaching, of the Word, an effectual means of convincing and converting sinners, and of building them up in holiness and comfort through faith.”

It is through the gospel that we possess faith; it is also through the gospel that we grow in it. That’s the “spiritual milk” by which we grow, as Peter says in 1 Peter 2.

Yes, God strengthens our faith by personal Bible reading or watching sermons online, but the preaching of God’s Word in the public worship is God’s primary means of saving and establishing the faith of his people. Therefore, let us arrange our lives, our minds, and our hearts that we always attend to this means of grace every Lord’s Day.

Every Saturday or before we go to this place, do we pray for ourselves, that God will prepare our minds and our hearts for the preaching of his Word? Do you pray for us, the ministers and instruments of God, that we will be faithful in preaching the gospel? Even Paul himself asks for prayers, that God will grants us strength and boldness to preach Christ and his salvation.

Brothers and sisters, let us pray that every time God’s Word is preached—sinners will be convicted and converted to faith, and believers refreshed and comforted.

And we have this hope and confidence, that if this is God’s means of grace, his Word will not be empty or vain. God will always accomplish his purpose through his Word. So let us be faithful to the gospel ministry that he has entrusted to us his church.

Now our catechism teaches that the Holy Spirit works out faith by the preaching of the gospel and confirms it by the use of the holy sacraments. So saving faith comes by the hearing of the gospel, and it is confirmed (or sa Tagalog, ito’y mas pinagpapatibay) through the Sacraments.

B. The Use of the Holy Sacraments

We’ll talk about the particular sacraments in the next Lord’s Days. But let’s have a general discussion on Sacraments now. The immediate questions now are: “What are sacraments?” “Why do have to use the Sacraments?” and “Why do we need to understand them?”

Last Friday night, Yeng and I visited a wake service. And it came to mind how people have certain traditions towards their loved ones who passed away. Some light candles or bring food at the burial spot (“puntod”) of their loved one. And one may ask, “Why? What is it for? Does it have any real effect or it’s just an external ritual?”

Baptism and the Lord’s Supper may be similar. Most of us grew up in a church and we see the elements of wine and bread distributed, and few or none of us ask, “Why do we do this?” We just do it! (Only when we become part of a more sound or Reformed church do we realize and have an “Aha” moment).

And if we come to think of it, the sacraments stand out as uniquely Christian. Other things that we do here may look similar to other parts of life.

  • Singing can be compared to concerts. 
  • Listening to a preacher can be compared to a TED Talk or seminars
  • Reciting creeds can be compared to singing national anthem or reciting national oath.

But baptism and Lord’s Supper make Christian gatherings more explicitly different from other activities in life. It demonstrates our distinct identity. And so anyone outside may ask, “Why do you do this? Why are they necessary?”

A typical answer would be, “Eh sinabi ni Christ, gawin daw namin eh, in remembrance of him.” Well, okay, but why did Christ suggest this? After all, we can understand everything the sacraments symbolize (the body and blood of Christ, his sacrifice) by simply reading and studying the Bible. We can expound them in sermons. 

So if it doesn’t add content to our faith or the gospel message—why do we still need to do them? 

At the same time, is there any effect or anything real that happens when we do the sacraments? Or are they mere symbols or “visual aids” for something already present?

[ILLUSTRATION: When I shake hands with Pastor Lance, it symbolizes our friendship. It is a visible and external sign of something already present—our friendship. But it doesn’t create our friendship. Whether I shake hands with him or not, it is okay, the friendship remains.]

And the same thing can be asked with Sacraments. Are they merely visual aids or symbols of something that is already present? Or is there something real that also happens when we use the sacraments, which doesn’t happen when we skip it? Because if we think that nothing happens in the sacraments, then there is little reason to celebrate them.

Now to answer these questions, let us start with the meaning of the word “Sacrament” or “Christian Sacrament.”  Ano ba kapag sinabing “sacrament?” Obviously, you can’t find the term in the Bible. It is an ecclesiastical term, meaning it was used by the church in history. (But just because it is an ecclesiastical term doesn’t mean it’s unbiblical. Even “Trinity” cannot be found in the Bible.)

And it will be helpful to understand why the church used the word “Sacrament” to refer to biblical truths.

The word “Sacrament” comes from the Latin word Sacramentum, and it has a number of meanings in history. But 2 definitions are significant to the church’s use of the word:

  • Sacramentum — During Roman Empire, this refers to the oath taken by a new recruit soldier to express commitment and allegiance to a military officer. It is a public symbol that marks the person’s identity distinguished from other people.
  • Sacramentum — The Latin term Jerome used in translating the Greek word mysterion, which refers to something hidden. (e.g., Colossians 1:26 — “the mystery hidden for ages but now revealed to the saints”). It is something that signifies and reveals an invisible or mysterious reality.

So those are the two major historical definitions of the term sacrament. And according to Zacharius Ursinus, the church has considered the sacraments as rituals or ceremonies that God instituted to be the visible signs of the covenant (i.e., God’s will towards us and our obligation to repentance and faith), and at the same time, to be marks by which the true church is known and distinguished from others.

Now what ritual or ceremony do we find in the Bible that possesses this essence of a sacrament? (That is, revealing an invisible reality and marking the unique identity of God’s people).

We’ve been mentioning it already kanina—baptism and Lord’s Supper. They are the Sacraments of the New Testament church, including ourselves. But to help us understand the purpose and effect of sacraments to those who use them, let us consider the sacrament of circumcision in the Old Testament and see how Paul later on understood it.

Let us go to Genesis 17:9-14.

For context, God introduced his covenant promise to Abraham in Genesis 12. Then, in Genesis 15, God ratifies the covenant (or expressed his responsibility for the covenant) through a vision. And now here, in Genesis 17, God strengthens and amplifies his covenant promise to Abraham through the visible sign of circumcision.

  • Vv. 9-11 — As a sacrament, the external sign of circumcision signifies God’s covenant to them, and is an indicator of their identity as God’s people. (Jump to verse 14)
  • V. 14 — As a sacrament, the sign of circumcision was also the people’s outward expression of faith to God, in such a way that not taking part of sacrament means rejecting the covenant promise of God.

Now why does God take it seriously? Why is someone cut off from his people by simply skipping or forsaking the sacrament? What effect does it make?

Let us read Paul’s statement in Romans 4:11. “He (Abraham) received the sign of circumcision as a seal of righteousness that he had by faith while we was still uncircumcised.”

Abraham’s righteousness is through his faith in God prior to circumcision. And that is Paul’s whole argument in this passage. They are saved not by the law or ritual of circumcision, but by faith. He also explained that at the end of Romans 2, that being a true people of God is not through outward circumcision but inward circumcision of the heart—by believing in the promises of God.

And so we see here the relationship between the Word and the Sacraments. Both are God’s means of grace. But they are different in a way that the Spirit uses the Word for creating faith in us, while he uses the Sacraments for confirming and strengthening that existing faith in us. (As we shall see in the Sacrament of the Lord’s Table, those who are not true believers will only take that sacrament in vain, even leading to judgment.)

The Word can produce faith in us even without the Sacrament. But the Sacraments cannot be efficient without the Word. Because there must be faith first. It is not magic. That is why whenever we have a baptism or we celebrate the Lord’s Table, there is always an exhortation from the Word of God concerning the gospel message which is signified by the Sacrament.

So the Sacrament is useless without faith. But it doesn’t mean it is an empty ritual. Because if there is faith, the Holy Spirit uses it as a seal.

Going back to Romans 4:11. Though the righteousness of the believer is through faith, the sign of the circumcision (or the sacrament) is a “seal” of that righteousness by faith.

And the word “seal” here is Greek (σφραγίς) refers to something that confirms and authenticates. Katulad po ng isang certification (e.g., birth certificate), the seal is used to remove any possibility of falsification.

So Paul is saying here that the sign of circumcision confirms and authenticates the righteousness that Abraham received by faith. Whatever the sacrament signified is confirmed to be true and real for the believer. Through the sacrament of circumcision, God establishes and confirms that Abraham is indeed a true believer and part of the people of God.

You see friends, this is the purpose of the sacraments that Christ instituted for us in the New Testament—which are baptism and the Lord’s Table.

And taking the language of the catechism, they are signs and seals.

  • The sacraments are signs that signify Christ’s body and blood sacrificed and given for us for the cleansing of our sins and our eternal life. As visible signs that we can see and touch, they reinforce the invisible truths of the gospel to our minds as believers. Through the sacraments, mas lalo nating naiintindihan yung pangangaral ng Salita ng Diyos patungkol sa ating kaligtasan mula kay Cristo.

But baptism and Lord’s Table are not merely signs and symbols of spiritual truths. They are not empty rituals that make no effect to us. They are seals. 

  • They seal those spiritual realities in us. They confirm and authenticate in us the reality that as believers in Christ, we are indeed saved, forgiveness, washed, and being sanctified and nourished by Christ until the end.

How does that exactly happen? Mysterion. It is a spiritual mystery. And we shouldn’t neglect the work of the Spirit. As God’s means of grace, whenever we partake of the Sacraments—these physical elements and symbols—the Holy Spirit (who unites us with Christ) seals and confirms in us Christ and his saving benefits in a spiritual way.

We hope to learn more about this in the next Lord’s Day. But let me end with some exhortations for all of us.

If you’re still an unbeliever, what do the sacraments mean to you? You see someone baptized, and people taking the bread and wine, and you ask, “What do they mean?”

I’d say this: Let them be a visible evidence of the certainty and faithfulness of the saving promises of God. You hear the Word of God, the gospel message, proclaiming that Christ lived and died and rose again on our behalf and promising that everyone who believes will not perish but have everlasting life.

But God is not just a God who gives promises. He also confirms it and fulfills it in his people. His salvation is sure and true. Therefore, let all of this show you the trustworthiness of God and his Word. Repent and believe in Christ, and you will be saved.

And long that you may also share in these Sacraments and receive the Holy Spirit’s strengthening of your faith.

And let me exhort those of you who profess to be believers but have been living a life of hypocrisy or under discipline. Some time the past, you were baptized and were partaking of Christ’s supper—but now, you are barred from the Table.

The elder distributes the elements and skips over you. You watch people around you taking the bread and the wine, while you don’t. If you think you’re fine, and there’s no deal. You’re wrong. Let it bother and trouble you.

The sacrament marks the identity of believers united in Christ. Then how can you confirm that you are indeed a Christian if you’re not even allowed to take the Sacraments because of your sinful lifestyle? 

Having no access to the Sacraments signifies that you have no spiritual nourishment, no spiritual strength… that you are being cut off from Christ.

But friends, if you are still hearing God’s Word today, know that God is still merciful to you and desires that you be restored to him. Like David who has backslidden yet repented and hoped in God’s forgiveness, the same exhortation goes to you.

Whatever sin you’re holding on to, repent! Long for true repentance and restoration, strive for it (believing in God’s Word), and long that you will once again enjoy the strength and nourishment that comes through God’s means of grace.

And lastly for us believers, let these truths give us comfort and encouragement. Let it remind us to never take for granted God’s means of grace. Whenever there is someone being baptized, let it remind us of our baptism. And whenever we partake of the Lord’s Table, let us take it with faith—knowing that the Spirit is working in us and nourishing us through them.

It’s hard to explain how it happens. But if you’re a true believer, you know this. Skipping the Lord’s Table weakens your spiritual life, but taking it give us strength and assurance. At mga magulang ko po’t kapatid, what grace we receive—that because of our weakness, God does not only proclaim his gospel promises to us. He also makes those promises more clear and real to us. And it gives us assurance, that as we live this life full of trials and temptations—God will continue to nourish us, strengthen us, and confirm in us his saving work until the end.

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