By David J. Engelsma
At this Sunday morning worship service, following the 31st of October, we commemorate as a congregation Christ's reformation of the church in the sixteenth century.
October 31 does not live in the mind of Protestant Christians as a pagan holiday and celebration. But October 31 lives in the mind of Protestant Christians as the day on which began Christ's reforming and purifying of His church so that the Protestant churches, and more particularly the Reformed Protestant churches, now exist.
This great event is worthy of the celebration and thankfulness of Protestant Christians and of this congregation in particular. For in that great work in the sixteenth century Jesus Christ restored the gospel and message of the Scriptures to the church. By that gospel and message the true people of God are saved. And that gospel and message of the Scriptures the true church of Christ now is privileged and responsible to proclaim and to confess. In that sixteenth century reformation the church was built again upon the foundation of Jesus Christ as laid in the Scriptures.
We ought to remember this great event because we ourselves are heirs of that reformation, and those who benefit from the blessing of Jesus Christ restored to the church through that reformation. The very name of this congregation indicates that this church, with the denomination of which it is a part, is the continuation and representative of the church of the Reformation. Our name is Protestant Reformed. By the name Protestant we lay claim to the great protest by the reformation church against the false church of that day, and against the false doctrine fought by the church of that day-a protest issued without compromise on behalf of the true gospel of Jesus Christ. By the name Reformed we express that we are the continuation of that branch of the Reformation church that was Reformed according to the Scriptures, as that great doctrine and truth are to be found in the Reformed confessions: the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and the Canons of Dordt.
Nor is this claim by the congregation an idle boast. For every observer is able to determine with infallible certainty that what this congregation preaches and confesses is the very truth that was restored at the Reformation and that is embodied in the Reformation creeds and confessions.
Not only is this great event worthy of our celebration because it was a great work of God in history, and because this congregation has benefited from that great work of God, but that event is worthy of our celebration also because the congregation is called to contend for the faith that was restored to the church at the Reformation. She is called to contend against the false church of Rome, which has not changed, which has not converted herself, which has not repented, and which has not adopted the gospel of salvation by grace alone.
A great movement is underway, even as we gather, to bring together Protestantism and even evangelical Protestantism and the Roman Catholic Church-the movement that calls itself "Evangelicals and Catholics Together." That movement has issued a document in which these evangelicals and Roman Catholics insist that there is agreement between them as regards the faith and as regards the gospel. But that can only be because the evangelicals have compromised and are returning to Rome.
Besides, at the end of the twentieth century it is the calling of this congregation and other true churches of Christ in all the world to contend for the Reformation faith against much of Protestantism. For much of Protestantism has, in fact, abandoned the gospel of grace and the truth of the sole authority of holy Scripture for false teaching and for another authority. As the apostle says in the chapter we read concerning Old Testament Israel: "They are not all Protestants today which are of Protestantism."
We commemorate the Reformation with the preaching and hearing of the Word of God in the text that is Christ's Word to us this morning. That is a fitting word for our commemoration. It clearly expresses the message that was at the heart of the Reformation. That message that was at the heart of the Reformation is often expressed in a series of mottoes, all of which include the word "only." Salvation is by faith alone, by grace alone, and for the sake of Christ alone. That message is very clearly expressed in the text. It is of God who showeth mercy. That message of the Reformation was established upon the basis of the truth that Scripture is the only authority for the faith and life of the church. That, too, is clearly indicated in the text, as we shall see, when the apostle begins, "Therefore it is of God who showeth mercy."
Further, there is obviously in the passage not only the positive setting forth of the message of the gospel, there is also a defense of it, a contending for it, against enemies. That occurs in the words "it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth." All of this is expressed in the theme:
The Source of Salvation
The Divine Source
The Exclusion of Man
The Significance for Sinners Saved by Mercy
The Divine Source
We ask Christ's apostle in response to this text: "What is it that is not of him that runneth nor of him that willeth, but that is of God who showeth mercy?" The text itself does not identify what it is of which the apostle speaks. The text only says: "It is of God who showeth mercy."
But the immediate and broader context of this chapter, and of the entire book of Romans, makes plain that the reference is to salvation. In this chapter the apostle has spoken of the promise that is to Abraham and his children, a promise surely of salvation. In the opening verses of the chapter he has expressed his deep grief that his own kinsmen according to the flesh are perishing-the opposite of salvation. And the subject of the entire epistle is the salvation of sinners by the righteousness which is through faith alone, according to God's eternal predestination of His own, to share in the eternal life of Jesus Christ.
We must, therefore, read the text this way: "Therefore salvation is not of him that willeth nor of him that runneth, but of God who showeth mercy."
Salvation, beloved, in its entirety, is of God who showeth mercy. All of salvation is of God who showeth mercy. That is the apostle's teaching. The beginning of salvation, the maintaining of salvation, and the perfecting of salvation are of God who showeth mercy. The reference is to the actual accomplishing of salvation in us, but also to the basis of salvation in the cross of Jesus Christ, and to the ultimate fountain and cause of that salvation in God's decree of eternal election. As regards the actual salvation of the sinner the reference is to the beginning of salvation in regeneration, or the new birth and the gift of faith. The reference is also to the preservation of that salvation in us by the Spirit's work of sanctifying us or restoring us to repentance when we err and stray. But the reference is also to the full accomplishment of that personal salvation in the day of Christ when our body is raised from the dead to be made conformable to the glorious body of Jesus Christ.
All of this salvation is not of him who willeth and runneth, but of God who showeth mercy.
The source of salvation is at issue here. The apostle is answering an important question that the church and that the individual child of God certainly ask. Whence arises this salvation from sin and death unto righteousness and life? From whom or from what does this salvation come? What is the source of salvation, so that I look to that source for this salvation?
You have asked that question, have you not, about your own salvation? Whence does it arise?
At the same time the apostle is teaching the truth of the foundation of this salvation, the basis upon which this salvation depends. For the source of salvation is also necessarily the foundation or basis upon which the salvation depends. If the source of the material prosperity in the United States at present is a free market economy, then the continuation of earthly prosperity depends upon this free market economy. And the more this nation and other nations go in the direction of socialism, the less of prosperity may be expected.
The question that the apostle is answering here is also the question, Upon what now, or upon whom, does salvation depend?
You have asked that question, have you not, about your own salvation, about the salvation of your family, and about the salvation of the church? You have asked this question, have you not, especially in times when you were struggling with regard to the assurance of your own salvation; when you were struggling concerning the salvation of your children; when you were struggling concerning the salvation of the church itself? With some urgency, you have asked, Upon whom, upon what, does salvation depend?
Therefore, also, the apostle gives instruction here by that little word "of," concerning the actual worker of salvation. For the one who is the source of salvation, and the one upon whom this salvation depends, is also the one who works this salvation; works it and accomplishes it from beginning to end; works and accomplishes it in every respect.
Who works this salvation? That question is answered. And the answer of the apostle, as the answer of all of Scripture, is that salvation is of God. All of salvation is of God. Salvation, from beginning to end, is of God.
God is the source of salvation. God is the foundation and basis of salvation. God is the worker of salvation. This God is not some general deity which, perhaps, all religions have in common: Hindus and Mohammedans, as well as Christians. This God is not even some general God that perhaps all nominally Christian churches have in common. But this God is very definitely identified. He is, first of all, the God made known in Scripture. That is evident inasmuch as the text closely links up with the preceding text, which is a quotation from the Old Testament Scriptures: Exodus 33:19, where God is quoted as saying, "I will have mercy upon whom I will have mercy; and I will have compassion upon whom I will have compassion." That God, that God who spoke the Scriptures and who now speaks through the Scriptures, He is the source and the foundation and the worker of all of salvation.
This God is the God who was the God of Old Testament Israel. The entire ninth chapter of Romans is devoted to the question whether God was unfaithful to His promise to Abraham and to Abraham's seed in the Old Testament. Obviously, therefore, this God is the God of Israel. He is the source of salvation.
He is the God fully revealed in Jesus Christ. That God is source of salvation. So much is God revealed in Jesus Christ that, according to the fifth verse of Romans 9, Jesus is Himself God blessed forever. The source of salvation, therefore, is the triune God, the God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. He is also the God who is the God of the New Testament, believing church. In the verses that follow, the apostle lays down the great and wonderful truth that He who was God of Israel in the Old Testament is now the God of the believing Gentile church.
God, the true God, is the source of salvation.
That was the message, congregation of Jesus Christ, of the Reformation. God is God! Let God be God! Especially He is God as the source of salvation.
Specifically, the mercy of God is located by the apostle in answer to the question, what or who is the source of salvation? It, salvation, is of God who showeth mercy. That perfection of God in particular explains all our salvation.
Mercy is that perfection of God in which He has pity and compassion for sinners who are in the most desperate and wretched state and condition because of the guilt and the depravity of sin. It is an attitude of God, a disposition in which He is not filled with loathing and hatred toward these miserable creatures, though their wretchedness is exactly that they have rebelled against and are opposed to Him. But rather that He is compassionate toward them. Then mercy is the will or determination to help these wretched creatures by delivering them from their wretchedness. Third, it is the actual help and deliverance that God goes to work to bring about for those to whom He is merciful. Mercy in God is not a mere attitude; but it is the attitude in which God goes to work actually to give the deliverance that these sinners need and that God desires to give to them.
That mercy of God was revealed in the cross of Jesus Christ. That mercy is made known this morning, and whenever and wherever the gospel is preached, in the truth and good news of the crucifixion and death of Jesus Christ.
You ask with me this morning, do you not, Whence does salvation arise? Upon whom or what does salvation depend? What is the actual accomplishment of salvation? The answer: The cross of Jesus Christ. In that cross God makes known His passionate disposition toward us sinners. In that cross God makes known that He has willed our deliverance. And in that cross God has actually gone to work to give and bring the help and deliverance that we need. The pardon of our sins, the righteousness that will stand with God, the right to eternal life and glory, the right to every blessing in this life, the power to live in holiness.
The opposite of mercy is merit or deservingness. That is cut off, denied, when the apostle speaks of God's mercy as the source of salvation. God's mercy is the disposition and the will to help and the actual deliverance that are sovereignly free on God's part, and completely undeserved on the part of the sinner to whom God is merciful. There is nothing in the sinner that attracts or earns this mercy of God. To attribute something to the sinner is to deny mercy.
Second. This mercy, importantly, is sovereignly particular and discriminating. Oh, this is especially what is so offensive to the churches today, even those churches that may claim to be heir of the Reformation. They insist that God is merciful in such a way that He is merciful to all without exception. His benevolence and compassion extend to every human being. The cross of Jesus Christ even must be a cross that at least has as its design and purpose to make deliverance from misery available to everyone.
I call your attention to the fact that in the verses that both precede and follow it is exactly that particularity, that discriminating nature of the mercy of God that is on the foreground. The apostle has just said in verse 15, quoting God Himself: "I will have mercy (not on everybody, not even on everybody who is formally a member of the visible church but) on whom I will to have mercy; and I will have compassion on whom I will to have compassion."
And in the immediately following context the apostle says, "Therefore he has mercy upon whom he wills to have mercy, and whom he wills he hardeneth."
You do not say this morning, do you, as the objector says in this passage to the message of mercy, "It isn't fair that God should only show mercy to some and not to everyone"? If that is your objection of mind, then what you are saying is this (think it through): God ought to show mercy to everybody; He owes it to all sinners to show mercy in the cross. And what have we done then? We have denied the mercifulness of mercy. It is exactly the quality, the nature of mercy that it is free, that it is undeserved, that we have no claim upon it, that God owes it to no one, that He is good with an amazing goodness to show that mercy to any!
The source of all of salvation is God!
That is your confession as a genuinely Protestant church. That is your message as a genuinely Reformed church. That is what this congregation hears; that is what this congregation has preached; that is what this congregation has taught to her children and young people Lord's day after Lord's day. Just attend and hear for yourself a continuation of the church of the Reformation - true church of Jesus Christ inasmuch as she proclaims the fundamental truth of the gospel. It (salvation) - all of it - is of God!
Then particularly divine mercy.
The Exclusion of Man
Salvation does not have its source and foundation and actual accomplishment in the willing or the working of the sinner himself. Really, the apostle did not have to add the words, "not of him that willeth nor of him that runneth." What is expressed in those words is clearly implied in the positive statement: "Salvation is of God who showeth mercy." But so evil is the teaching that is opposed to this positive truth, and so prone is Jesus' church - yes, we too! - to the evil that overthrows this positive truth, that the Spirit thought it necessary to spell it out and to say it. "It is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth."
Oh, if you know even a little bit about church history, you know what a powerful temptation this false teaching, this other gospel, is to the church of Christ in the world. Perhaps there is someone here who does not think that it is remarkable that a congregation has persevered in this truth for forty years, or that a denomination has persevered in this truth for seventy-five years. It is really a very rare thing that any particular congregation or any particular denomination continues faithfully to proclaim that salvation is not of him that willeth nor of him that runneth, for such a period of time. At bottom the great struggle of the church, from the very beginning, has been this struggle: to continue in the truth that it is of God who showeth mercy while opposing that it is of him who willeth or of him who runneth.
The source, foundation, and actual accomplishment of salvation is, first of all, not him who runs. Running here, as elsewhere in Scripture, stands for man's own works and working. It represents here the finest and most strenuous efforts of human beings to save themselves or to be the foundation of the continuation of their salvation, or to bring their salvation to its perfection. The works and working of men and women are not the source of salvation, are not the basis upon which salvation depends, and are not the actual worker or accomplisher of salvation. Here holy Scripture condemns the fundamental error of the Roman Catholic church, the fundamental doctrine and teaching which Rome has not swerved from or changed in the slightest since the time of the Reformation.
According to Rome the source of salvation is man's own good works. The foundation upon which one's salvation depends is man's own good works or the good works of the saints. And that which brings salvation to completion is the good works of the sinner himself. Not entirely. Also the mercy of God and the work of Jesus Christ. But essentially also the running of man. That is what they preached at the Reformation. That is what they told Luther when he cried out, "How can I be righteous? Where shall I look for salvation?" The answer of Rome was, "Run, Luther. Run harder. Run more strenuously. More works!" And, oh, he ran. And, oh, he worked. And the more he ran, and the more he worked to be saved, the more he feared and dreaded this just God who cannot be satisfied with the imperfect works of man himself.
Over against Rome, at the end of the day, stands this word: Salvation is not of him that runneth.
But neither are the source, foundation, and actual accomplishment of salvation the willing of the sinner. Will you notice that there are two forms of the false gospel that is explicitly exposed and condemned? There is man's running; but there is also man's willing.
Willing represents man's choosing, the activity of exercising the faculty of his will. The reference is to accepting Jesus Christ as one's personal Savior, when that accepting is understood as the decision of man's will that begins salvation and upon which salvation depends and which will finally bring salvation to perfection.
Salvation does not originate in the will of the sinner. Salvation does not depend upon the choosing of the sinner. Man's own faculty of will is not at all that which works and accomplishes salvation. That is the error of much of Protestantism today. That is the error of free-will. That is the error that is publicly and popularly taught over multitudes of radio and TV stations and that is taught in many, many books and that is proclaimed on many supposedly Protestant pulpits today. Whether God will save you depends upon your choosing Him, your decision for Christ. God Himself is unable to do any more until the sinner, by his own free will, accepts the offered gospel.
This is no less bad an error and denial of the gospel of mercy than is the message of Rome which teaches that it all depends upon man's running. The only difference is that man's activity, according to Rome, is his good works. Man's activity, according to Arminian or free-will Protestantism, is man's choosing. The apostle lumps them together as two forms of the same false gospel when he says that salvation is not of him that willeth nor of him that runneth.
What is he saying?
He is saying this: Salvation is not of man. None of salvation is of man. None of it has its origin in man. None of it depends upon man. None of it is accomplished or earned by man. Salvation has its source in God alone!
That is how we must read the text. That is what the apostle is saying. I know, the word "alone" does not occur in the text explicitly, but it is there clearly by implication. What a destruction of the apostolic message if we were to read it and explain it this way this morning: Salvation is not entirely of him who wills and or of him who works; but partly of him who wills and works. Then you must conclude the text: Salvation is partly of God who showeth mercy, but partly also of man himself.
It is either/or here. Either the origin of salvation (the source of salvation) is man willing and working, or the origin (the source) of salvation is God who showeth mercy. The message of the apostle is that the sole source of all of salvation is the mercy of God. Man is excluded. Man is excluded entirely. Even saved man is excluded entirely as regards the source of salvation.
This gospel rests squarely on God's own Word. This apostolic Scripture is God's own Word. God says this morning, as He has said down through the ages: When it comes to salvation, I and My mercy am the source of it.
But notice that the Word of God is the basis of this message also in that the apostle is drawing a conclusion from what God inspired in Old Testament Scripture. The apostle bases his message in verse 16 upon something he quotes in verse 15. The text is related to verse 15 that way. We read as the opening word of verse 16, "So then," or "Therefore." Because of what I have just quoted in verse 15 this is true. What is verse 15? The quotation of God's Word to Moses as recorded in Exodus 33:19, "I will have mercy upon whom I will have mercy; and I will have compassion upon whom I will have compassion." That is God's explanation to Moses at a critical juncture in the history of Israel, when they had sinned in the golden calf and Moses feared that the entire nation would be destroyed as they deserved to be destroyed. Then God made known, "I am a God of mercy. I am a God of amazing compassion to sinners - because of My own will, so that the source of salvation is My merciful will, which is free and particular." So then, says the apostle, basing what he says upon Scripture itself, salvation is of God who showeth mercy.
The Significance for Sinners Saved by Mercy
It has to be that way for you and me and for all the others whom God is pleased according to His election to show mercy to. You know why. You know why the source of your salvation and the salvation of your family and of this congregation cannot be your own working and running. You and I are unable to work. We are dead, by nature, in trespasses and sins. The only running we ever do, or can do by nature, is running away from God and running away from Christ and running in the way of disobedience to God's commandments.
We are cripples. We cannot run, not by nature. And our wills are fast bound in the slavery of sin. Satan is lord and master of our will. All we can do is choose against the gospel, choose against mercy, choose against the cross of Christ, choose for ourselves and for our sins. Objects of mercy are wretched, needy, destitute, helpless. Upon such God has mercy. That is why it has to be this way: the source of salvation is God who showeth mercy.
Do not misunderstand as though the apostle says here: running and willing are unimportant for those who are saved. Or even: "the text teaches that there is no place for working and choosing in the life of the church and in the life of the saved Christian." He is not disparaging running. He is not disparaging willing. All he is saying is that that willing and running are not the source of salvation. There is a place for running. There is a place for choosing. An important place, a necessary place in the life of every saved child of God and in the life of the church. That is why, in another place, this same apostle can confront the church: Run, work, and will (choose)! But that running and willing are not in order to be saved. They are the fruit of salvation. We work now and we choose now because we are saved, to show that we are saved, to live out the thankfulness to God that He wills as the goal of His salvation to the church and of the individual.
Is there someone here who is a member of the congregation, who professes to be saved by God's mercy, who is not choosing God and Christ and the good law of God for his life? Is there someone here who is not running, running hard in all kinds of works (good works)? What is the matter with you? Repent! If there is someone who persists in that way, what that means is God has never showed mercy to him at all. When He shows His mercy to us, He works in us to will and to run. But that running and that willing are not our contribution to salvation, but themselves the mercy of God saving us.
This is the message that the true church of Jesus Christ in the world is privileged and called to preach and to confess. How gloriously wonderful that this is what this congregation, with other true churches of Christ in all the world, is doing.
Carry on, positively and negatively. Let the whole Loveland area, wherever God gives you opening, hear clearly and unashamedly: Salvation is of God who showeth mercy alone. And it is not of man's willing or running at all. Let that be heard. That is the purpose for the existence of the church in the world today. Oh, what an effect this message living in the soul of the believer and the true child of the believer has in our experience. This humbles us. Oh, how it humbles us. My salvation is nothing of myself. It is only a matter of mercy for the wretched and the helpless. That is why all those sins make us angry. We never puff ourselves up in pride over against even the vilest of sinners. Mercy, mercy alone, has made the difference.
This message makes us grateful how we "run" and how we "will" in response to this message. And we show that running especially in being merciful to others who are wretched in sin, as we try to gain them by the power of grace and the power of the cross through repentance, that they may share in the knowledge of mercy with us.
And what assurance this gives us. There is absolutely no certainty, no assurance of salvation, in that other gospel at all. All those churches who teach that other gospel admit this. Believe that salvation, even in part, has its origin and foundation in yourself, and you can never be sure of your salvation. Never! That is terror. Believe that the source and the foundation and worker is God - and then, specifically, His mercy - and you are absolutely sure of your salvation. So much so as if you had a peak into the book of Life and saw your name printed there in gold letters!
Then the great benefit is for the church and the individual Christian that they confess by life and speech: Glory to God.
I mentioned earlier that there were several great "onlys" that describe the faith and message of the Reformation: By faith alone; by grace alone; for Christ's sake alone; Scripture alone. There was one more "only." Glory to God alone!
Let us pray.
Father, may we hear Thy Word. This is Thy Word, the wonderful gospel. How privileged we are to hear it, to believe it, to be saved by it, to be comforted by it, and to confess it with our brothers and sisters in this congregation and with the denomination and with all the church of God in all the world. Thanks, Lord, for this gospel. In Jesus' name, Amen.