The First Presbyterian Church of Blackwood
21 E. Church Street
Blackwood, NJ 08012
Sermon Notes (Sunday, November 5, 2023)
Rev. Cliff Jones, Guest Preacher
“What Makes Us Presbyterians Distinct?”
I Peter 1:1, 2
I have this memory. It goes back to elementary school. My teacher would sometimes organize our class for kick ball or dodge ball during recess. She’d pick the two best players as captains, and then the captains would take turns choosing their team…. And I would be praying, “Don’t let me be among the last picked, please.” Sometimes that seemed to work. Sometimes that didn’t. This one time, after the captains had been chosen and started picking team mates, one person said out loud, “Don’t choose Cliff. He’s no good.” Ouch. To hear that out loud just made me feel doubly no good and humiliated. To my shock, I heard the captain then say, “That’s not true. Cliff’s good. I choose Cliff!” My attitude changed completely, and I walked proudly, proudly over to that team, because I was no longer a left over. I was chosen.
What is it that makes us distinct? What makes us Presbyterians different from other expressions of Christianity? Is it food? Seems like every time we get together we eat, but that’s not true only of us but most churches as well. Meetings? Yeah, well, same with most congregations, too.
What makes us different? There’s more than one answer, but I’d like to highlight in yellow this distinctive: we know that we are chosen by God. Let’s take a look at this by reading I Peter 1:1, 2:
Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to the temporary exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus,
Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, chosen by the foreknowledge of God the
Father through the sanctifying Spirit, for obedience and sprinkling with the blood of
Jesus Christ. May grace and peace be multiplied to you.
Sounds like a standard opening to a letter written back then… but not so fast. It’s actually quite astounding! Let’s look at it again. The writer is Peter, the disciple, now apostle of Jesus. He’s writing to congregations in what would be modern day Turkey and names the various areas where they are located: “Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia. Did you notice he calls them ‘temporary exiles’? He’s reminding them they don’t have a permanent home in this world; they are ‘exiles’ because they are destined for a greater, true home with God forever. Then, Peter says this: “(you are) chosen by the foreknowledge of God.” There’s the astounding part. In other words, it tells us that God ahead of time - that’s the meaning of the word, ’foreknowledge’ in verse 1; knew whom He would choose - that’s the word, ’chosen’, in verse 1; to come to the obedience of faith - just as the verse says; in Jesus Christ, whose death on the cross saves them - that’s the meaning of ‘sprinkling with the blood of Jesus Christ; through the working, as it says, of the Holy Spirit. Now, that’s a mouthful, and I’ll just add to it by saying we have a reference here to the Trinity, without using that word: Peter speaks of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
The central idea he is communicating is that these people are chosen by God. They belong to Jesus. And this opens up one of the key distinctive of Presbyterianism and reformed theology: predestination. Have you heard this term? I think you have. Predestination. What does it mean?
Here’s my definition:
God chooses us by foreknowledge before we are born to know and belong to Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior. It’s pre - meaning ‘before’, and destination - meaning ‘destiny’. So, ahead of time, God chooses to give us a destiny with Jesus. This idea goes by many names, ‘the elect’, ’election’, ‘chosen’, ‘called’ or ‘predestined’. Does this idea of predestination raise questions for you? It does for me. Questions like:
Is predestination found in other places in the Bible, or just one or two places?
If God chooses us to belong to him, does that mean God doesn’t choose others?
How does this idea of predestination help me?
Let’s take a look at these questions.
- Is the idea of predestination truly biblical? Let me give you 2-3 examples.
Jeremiah 1:5 - “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you… I appointed you prophet to the nations.” God foreknew Jeremiah the prophet and picked him.
Deuteronomy 14:2 - “For you are a people holy to the Lord your God, and the Lord has chosen you to be a people for his own possession, out of all the peoples that are on the face of the earth.”
Romans 8:33 - “Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect?” - referring to Christians.
Matthew 22:14 - “For many are called, but few are chosen”, says Jesus.
John 6:44 - “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him”, again, Jesus.
Feel free also to check out Colossians 3:12; Ephesians 1:3,4; Revelations 17:14; Acts 4:26; Romans 8:29; Titus 1:1; Luke 18:7. Predestination is there. It’s Biblical. It’s Presbyterian.
God chooses us by foreknowledge before we are born to know and belong to Jesus Christ.
Well, how about this question:
- Does predestination mean God chooses ahead of time who will not belong to Jesus Christ? If God chooses ahead of time who will belong to Jesus, doesn’t that mean He chooses who won’t?
Let’s first acknowledge what we know about God. As II Peter 3:9 says, “God is not willing that any should perish, but that all may come to repentance.” God is patient with us all, wants to enfold all of us in his care. However, God also knows who we are, what kind of person we are, and what our choices will be. We make our own futures. That is why the word, ‘foreknowledge’ is important. God knows ahead of time what choices we will make, and how we will react to his love. Some will turn towards, others will turn away from, God. It’s not about who’s in and who’s out. It’s about God’s love and protective care, holding us, assuring us we belong always to Jesus.
In fact, the primary reason why predestination is used in the New Testament is to comfort and strengthen Jesus followers who are facing difficult times. Just take a look at the letter Peter writes here, as an example. Peter is writing to Christ followers who are suffering for their faith. How do we know this? One quick way: the word, ‘suffer’ is used 6 times as often in I Peter as any other book in the New Testament, except the book of Hebrews, where it’s used 2 times as much as Hebrews. This tells us something. These people are suffering, for their faith. So, it’s no wonder why Peter begins the letter as he does. “Listen,” he’s saying. “I know what you are going through, but burn this truth into your minds and into your hearts. You belong to Jesus. He has chosen you and He will not let you go. Do you hear me? I know it’s tough, but hang on. Don’t despair. Jesus will not let you go. You belong to Jesus.”
This leads us to our other question: How does predestination help me? The answer is strong. Having this kind assurance of being chosen can bring deep comfort, calm assurance; peace.
A few weeks back, I received an urgent text from a mission agency about a national in a Muslim country whom the police were looking for. He was raised Muslim, then became a Christ follower and started talking to people in his country about Jesus. Conversion to Christianity is against the law in that country, and there was real concern what might happen to him and his family. Three days later, I receive another text, with a picture of the man with 4-5 other men he has led to the Lord. He said this, “(These men) were fearful, afraid of what the police might do, but after reading Scripture, all declared they would not turn back. They would remain faithful, no matter what. When we know that we are chosen; when we know we have been predestined, we know God is for us and God is with us. We are not left to fate. God will uphold us, no matter what happens… and even if it leads to death, that is not the end. There is eternity prepared. This Presbyterian distinctive from our Reformed Theology changes our way of thinking. We don’t have to despair. We don’t have to be caught up in frenetic anxiety. We have been chosen. We belong to Jesus and He will uphold us, so we can let go of our fears, and allow the deep comfort of our election to calm us and give us peace.
And, there’s another implication as well. There is evil in our world, injustice and hurt: on-going divisions and anger in our country, a war in the Middle East, a war in Ukraine, senseless shootings, a tropical storm that too swiftly upgraded to a hurricane, our own chaos and difficulties. It’s easy to think God is not in charge of our world; or that his love and care is not permanent. The truth of Predestination helps us see through the chaos of our world to find God not only cares for us individually, but God cares for the whole world. Predestination not only applies to us but to our world. God is loving, and God is in control, and is bending the events of our world to his plan, his destination, and his glory. God has predestined the world to experience his perfect will and He is bringing it about.
I remember reading about a teacher in a Christian school in an African country, which had seen its share of suffering. The teacher was leading them in a Bible lesson that included the passage that speaks about Jesus’ returning with a cry. One of the high schoolers raises his hand and asks, “Teacher, what do you think Jesus will shout?” The teacher said, “Enough. Enough. When Jesus returns, He will cry out, ‘enough’.” We are a people of hope. We know how it all will end. We don’t need to despair. We don’t need to be negative. We know how it all will end. Praise God!
You and I as Presbyterians have a wonderful certainty. It makes no difference what we face, we have been chosen by God and He will not let us go. He will uphold us. When I doubt if I have what it takes; when I feel like a failure, I can hold on to this: "God has chosen me.” When I wonder what’s even lovable about me; when I cry out,’why is this happening to me?’, I hold on to this: “God has chosen me.” When I feel like I can’t keep going on; when I seem to be helpless against what’s swirling around me, I cling to this: “God has chosen me.” When the world seems like it’s crashing down; when my world is falling apart, I claim this: “God has chosen me and I belong to Jesus.”
This truth gives us peace. This truth gives us hope. This truth empowers our faith.
We choose to trust our very lives into the care of God through Jesus Christ!
Why am I a Presbyterian? Many reasons, but among them is this:
God has chosen me!
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.