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Divine Election - Part 1

Tom Pennington • Romans 9:6-29

  • 2018-09-16 AM
  • Romans
  • Sermons


Back in 2017, as I'm sure you remember if you've been a part of our church, was the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. And in honor of that anniversary, the Pew Research Center on Religion and Public Life conducted an extensive survey of those in the US, all of whom claim to be Christians, who claim to be followers of Jesus Christ. This is what they found. They found that 60 percent of those who claim to be Christians in America deny that the Bible is the sole source of religious guidance for Christians; and they claim, 60 percent now, claim that the church needs traditions, that we need something other than the Bible to bring us the truth of God; 75 percent of Catholics believe that, 61 percent of Protestants believe that, and a shocking 41 percent of those who call themselves evangelicals believe that.

The survey went on to discover that 62 percent of American Christians, that is those who profess Christ, say both faith in God and good deeds are necessary for salvation, are necessary to get into heaven, 62 percent; 81 percent of Catholics, 60 percent of Protestants, and 33 percent of self-described evangelicals believe that works contribute to our salvation. Only 44 percent of those who call themselves evangelical Christians, only 44 percent, believe in both salvation by grace alone and the ultimate authority of the Word of God, only 44 percent.

Now I share that with you to say this, it is clear that out of the pool of professing Christians in America, only, to use a biblical term, a remnant are true believers, because you can't believe a different gospel; you can't believe you contribute to your salvation and be genuinely spiritually saved. So only a remnant are genuine believers.

Now I say all of that to say this, what you need to understand as you read the Bible is that exactly the same thing was true of Old Testament Israel. It was equally true in the times of the New Testament as well, both among the Jews and even among the professing Christian church, and this principle is still true today. That's really the primary point of the passage that we come to this morning.

Now last week, we began the third major section of Paul's letter to the Romans. It's called "The Gospel Defended: Election, Israel and God's Promises." It runs from chapter 9 of Romans through chapter 11. Here Paul addresses a very difficult question, and it's this question, why haven't more of God's chosen people believed in their promised Messiah? Why have a majority of them rejected Him and His gospel? That really raises a larger question and that is, can God's plan be frustrated? Or, even more frightening, can God just capriciously change His plan? Is it possible that God has actually broken His covenant with Israel and has now rejected them? And that brings us to the most troubling question of all, if He has done that to them, then how do we know that our own salvation is truly secure, as Paul explained in Romans 8?

Now last week we looked at just this section's introduction, chapter 9 verses 1 through 5, "Israel's Rejection of God's Gospel." Paul began those 5 verses with his own grief about their rejection of the good news that Jesus brought. Then he explained his own passion to see them come to accept and follow Jesus of Nazareth as their Messiah. And he finishes those 5 verses by mentioning the many advantages that the Jewish people have, advantages that make their rejection of the Messiah, in his mind, even more unbelievable. He poses this question then, why have God's chosen people rejected their Messiah and His gospel? And in the rest of chapters 9 through 11 he provides us with three basic answers.

First of all, in chapter 9, verses 6 to 29, he says the reason is because of the reality of divine election. Not all the ethnic descendants of Abraham have ever been saved or will ever have been saved, and that's not because God's plan has somehow failed; that was never God's plan, and that's demonstrated in the great doctrine of sovereign election.

The second answer as to why not all of the Jewish people have embraced their Messiah, chapter 9 verse 30 through the end of chapter 10, is the reality of human responsibility. The fact that anyone who has heard the gospel has not believed, is their own responsibility ultimately. They have chosen to reject God's own gospel, and in so doing, to embrace some false way of knowing the true God.

Thirdly, in chapter 11, his answer is because of the reality of God's faithfulness. This is essentially how he concludes his argument. In chapter 11 he explains that God is always faithful to His promises and that means that He hasn't forsaken Israel. He still has a plan for Abraham's ethnic descendants and he unfolds that plan in chapter 11. And then he ends the last few verses there of chapter 11 with "Doxology: Our Adoration of God's Character" in verses 33 to 36.

Now today, we really just begin Paul's first answer, the answer of the reality of divine election. It begins in verse 6 and runs all the way through verse 29. Lord willing, next Sunday I'll read the entire passage to you. This morning we're just going to get started with it. The point of this section is this, divine election explains, in part, why not everyone who hears the good news about Jesus the Messiah comes to believe it. Divine election explains, in part, why not everyone who hears the good news about Jesus the Messiah comes to believe His gospel and to believe in Him.

Now as Paul sets out to make his defense of the gospel that he preached and why so few of God's chosen people believed it, he begins with "Divine Election Explained and Illustrated," "Divine Election Explained and Illustrated." And this runs from verse 6, down through verse 13. Now as we prepare for the Lord's Table this morning, I really just want to consider the very first verse. In fact, let me just be honest with you and tell you we're not going to get to the issue of election until next Sunday morning. That's because understanding verse 6 is foundational to understanding election and to understanding the rest of this entire section, because verse 6 is a foundational explanation of spiritual reality.

Now for a moment, just imagine yourself living in the first century, okay? Try to go back and think that the primary way that you approach the true God in the first century was through Judaism. It was through the synagogue. It was through the Hebrew Scriptures. Now for a moment, imagine yourself living in that context. If you were Jewish and you were one of the relatively few who had believed in Jesus. Or, if you were a Gentile proselyte who had connected to the Jewish synagogue, you were familiar with the Old Testament and when you heard of Jesus you had believed in Him. Or, if you were just a run-of-the-mill, every day, normal, Gentile idolater who had heard the Christian gospel and had believed and then had begun to read the Hebrew Scriptures. By the way, that describes everybody in the first century church. If you were in any of those categories, from any of those backgrounds, you would have been left with an overwhelming sense that redemptive history had suddenly, unexpectedly, taken a serious detour.

Think about this for a moment. You're sitting in a first century church and you're from one of those backgrounds. Most of the chosen people of God, to whom all the promises of the Messiah and spiritual salvation had been made, have rejected Jesus, the one who claimed to be the fulfillment of those promises. But you look around you in that first century church and it's filled with Gentiles, those who had been strangers to those covenants, but who had come to believe and embrace the Jewish Messiah in droves. Now just think about how unsettling that would have been in the first century.

So Paul wanted all believers, then and now, to understand that this situation may have been personally unexpected, but it did not violate God's Word, it did not overturn God's integrity, and it certainly did not cancel out His promises. In fact, he wants us to understand that this situation, that I just described, is completely consistent with Jewish history, with the Hebrew Scriptures, and with God's eternal plan of salvation. It's exactly as God said it would be.

Belonging to God's true spiritual people has never been based on ethnic identity. Instead, it has always been based on God's gracious and sovereign choice, and Paul proves that by showing that that's exactly what we call the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures, teach. In this paragraph that we begin today, Paul quotes more than ten different Old Testament passages to prove this very point.

He proves, first of all, that God has chosen only some Jews to be spiritually saved. Go down to verse 27, chapter 9 verse 27, only some Jews.

Isaiah cries out concerning Israel, "Though the number of the sons of Israel be like the sand of the sea, it is the remnant that will be saved; for the Lord will execute His word on the earth, thoroughly and quickly." And just as Isaiah foretold,

"Unless the Lord of Sabaoth had left to us a posterity,
We would have become like Sodom, and would have resembled Gomorrah

Paul says, listen, look at the Old Testament, the Old Testament says it was never God's plan to save all of the ethnic descendants of Abraham, it was just going to be a remnant; that was His plan.

And he also tells us in this paragraph, using Old Testament passages, that God has chosen Gentiles to be spiritually rescued. Look at verse 24, he says, "us, whom God also called, not from among Jews only, but also from among the Gentiles." And then he quotes the Old Testament to prove this was God's plan.

As He also says in Hosea,

"I will call those who were not My people, 'My people,'
And her who was not beloved, 'beloved.
"And it will be that in the place where it was said to them, 'you are not My people,'
There they shall be called sons of the living God

That's the Gentiles. So you understand then, this is what Paul wants us to understand. This is God's eternal plan. This was His purpose, nothing has changed. So if you're sitting there in that first century church, you're looking around you, there are only a handful of Jewish people, and here are all these Gentiles who were strangers to the covenant of promise, what happened? Paul says God's plan is exactly being fulfilled as He said it would.

Now go back, with that in mind, to verse 6, because in verse 6 Paul lays down a foundational explanation that really serves as the basis for the rest of his argument on election. We'll see how it connects next week, Lord willing, but here is this foundational explanation. If you don't understand verse 6 you won't understand the rest of what Paul talks about in this paragraph. So look at it with me together, verse 6. He begins by saying this, "But it is not as though the word of God has failed." He's just talked about the fact that so few of his Jewish brethren have believed and he says that's not because somehow the Word of God has failed.

In fact, the Greek word failed literally means to fall. And sometimes it's actually used that way in the New Testament. For example, when the angel came and freed Peter in Acts 12, the chains "fell off of him," so it's actually used for the word to fall, that is the word. Used in a metaphorical sense, as it is here, it means to become inadequate, to fail, to weaken. He says, "it's not as though the word of God has failed." Now think about this for a moment. Our words often fail. My words often fall to the ground; they come out of my mouth and they fall to the ground without accomplishing what I sent them out to do. If you have children, you understand this.

Now, with my children being older, this isn't so much a problem for me today. However, I will tell you, at the risk of sharing a personal anecdote here, it's still a huge problem with me and my aging dog, Dickens. Every night at bedtime I tell the dog it's time to go out for one last time. Now, we have had this routine for twelve years, so he knows exactly what I mean. But now when I say, "Come, let's go out." He sits up and stares at me. He just sits there and looks, and the look on his face is like, "You have got to be kidding me. We're going to leave the comfort that I'm enjoying at this moment and go outside?" So what do I do? Well, like all self-respecting dog owners, I say, "Come!" He sits there. I say, "Come!!" He still sits there. And then I put on my preacher voice and I say, "Come!!!" And although my dog can still run very quickly, he's not that old, once he finally starts moving toward me, he does, every night, without exception, his old-dog imitation. Snails have reached me faster than my dog.

You see, my words fall to the ground all the time. I speak, they come out of my mouth, and they plummet toward the earth, and they don't accomplish anything. But Paul says, is it possible for anything God says to fail? Is it possible for God's spoken words to be inadequate? For God's written word to fall to the ground without it being accomplished? He says, that hasn't happened, and it never will.

In fact, let's just see how the Scriptures punctuate this. Go back to Numbers, Numbers 23. I want you to see this; this is such an important point in so many different ways. Numbers 23, you remember the story of Balaam, the really evil prophet, who wanted, for money, to prophesy against Israel, but God wouldn't let him. Verse 16 of Numbers 23 says, "Then the Lord met Balaam and put a word in his mouth." So God says, I don't care what you want to say, Balaam, here's what you're going to say. And notice what Balaam says, he speaks the truth from God because God ensures that it will be so, verse 19, I love this. Here's the truth about God.

"God is not a man, that He should lie,
Nor a son of man, that He should repent, [that he should change His mind]
Has He said, and will He not do it?"

Obviously, it's a rhetorical question that calls for one answer, absolutely not! If God said it, He's going to do it. "'Or has He spoken, and will He not make it good?'" The Word of God never falls to the ground and fails to accomplish that for which it's been sent.

This is true of the Scripture in its entirety. Turn over to Psalm 119, Psalm 119, look at verse 89, as the Psalmist celebrates the written Word of God, he says,

Forever, O Lord,
Your word is settled in heaven.

Literally, "Your word stands firm in heaven." Go over to verse 152 of that same Psalm, verse 152,

Of old I have known from Your testimonies
That You have founded them forever.

We could continue our journey through the Old Testament. I love Isaiah 40:8,

The grass withers, the flower fades, [literally, it falls, it falls off,]
But the word of our God stands forever.

Turn over to Isaiah, let's look at Isaiah 55, this is a key text. Isaiah 55, as it lays out the free offer of salvation, the free offer of mercy in God. Verse 7, I love this,

Let the wicked forsake his way
And the unrighteous man his thoughts;
And let him return to the Lord,
And He will have compassion on him,
And to our God,
For He will abundantly pardon.

You say, that doesn't sound like what we're used to. God agrees, verse 8,

"For My thoughts are not your thoughts,
Nor are your ways My ways," declares the LORD.
"For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
So are My ways higher than your ways
And My thoughts than your thoughts. [Now watch verse 10.]
For as the rain and snow come down from heaven,
And do not return to heaven [in that hydrological cycle] without watering the earth
And making it bear and sprout,
And furnishing seed to the sower and bread to the eater;
[we've seen a lot of that this summer, verse 11,]
So will My word be which goes forth from My mouth;
It will not return to Me empty,
Without accomplishing what I desire,
And without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it."

God says, if I said it, if I sent it forth from my mouth, just like the water that falls in the earth can't help but water the earth before it returns to the skies, so My Word will accomplish what I sent it to do. It's going to happen.

Now go back to Romans, there are other texts we could look at, but go back to Romans 9, Romans 9:6. Here, while I've looked at some general texts for God's Word and its certainty, Paul doesn't mean that God's Word, in some sort of general sense, cannot fail, although that's true as we've just seen from those texts. Rather, here he's making a very specific point. Specifically, here in context, he's saying that it's not as though the Word of God, in the promises that it makes to the Jewish people, has failed. So the Word of God then in verse 6 is God's Old Testament promises to Israel. He says these promises have not failed; they have not come out of God's mouth and fallen to the earth and are going to fail to somehow accomplish what He sent them out to do.

In fact, go back to chapter 3, Romans 3:3, "What then? If some did not believe," talking about the Jewish people, "their unbelief will not nullify the faithfulness of God, will it?" Go over to chapter 11 verse 1,

I say then, God has not rejected His people, has He? May it never be! For I too am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin. God has not rejected His people whom He foreknew.

Paul says, listen, it's not as though somehow God's promises to His people have failed, have fallen. Go back to chapter 9 verse 6 and notice how he continues, "For," here's the reason those promises have not failed, and then Paul makes this monumental statement, "For they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel." Literally, "For the ones out of Israel, those are not Israel," "For the ones out of Israel," for all the ones out of Israel, "those are not Israel." In other words, not all the ones who belong to Israel are, in fact, Israel. Now, that seems for a moment confusing. What is Paul talking about?

Well, Paul here is identifying three separate groups. First of all, there are all the physical descendants of Abraham, who are God's chosen people as a nation. And then he looks at that same group, all the physical descendants of Abraham, in two spiritual categories. First of all, within all the physical descendants of Abraham, there is unbelieving Israel; that is those who have Abraham for their physical father, but not their spiritual father. They simply do not believe like Abraham believed. As John Flavel, the English Puritan wrote, "If Abraham's faith is not in your hearts, it will be no advantage that Abraham's blood runs in your veins."

So there's first of all, as he looks at all the physical descendants of Abraham, he sees these two categories spiritually, there is unbelieving Israel, and secondly, there is true spiritual Israel, these are the spiritual descendants of Abraham. And his point through the rest of this paragraph is going to be this, God's promises were not addressed to all the physical descendants, but rather His promises were addressed to true spiritual Israel, and those promises have not and never will fail. Verse 6 says, "For they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel."

Now that was a shocking statement in the first century. Paul's Jewish contemporaries believed that all those who were physical descendants of Jacob were Israelites and were heirs of all the Old Testament promises. In fact, the only way as a Jewish person you could forfeit those promises was outright apostasy. The Talmud, the Jewish Talmud says, "All Israelites, [You hear that?] all Israelites have a share in the world to come." All you had to do was be a physical descendant of Abraham. Paul argues here, from the Old Testament Scripture, that's simply not true. The fact that God chose the nation does not guarantee the individual spiritual salvation of every Jewish person. Salvation has never been based on ethnic descent. All those who belong to Israel in a physical sense do not belong to Israel in the spiritual sense.

Now understand, all of the ethnic descendants of Abraham enjoy remarkable and immense spiritual privilege. We saw that in verses 4 and 5 of this chapter. But, that does not mean they share the salvation of Abraham. Because if physical descent from Abraham was all that mattered, Paul's going to say: What happened to Ishmael? What happened to Esau? There are, in fact, countless Old Testament examples of Jews who were not true believers. They rejected God. They sold themselves to idolatry. If you've read the Old Testament, that's obvious.

When you come to the New Testament, that same truth is repeated and it's very clear. Look at Luke 3, Luke 3:8. John the Baptist, as he's preaching to the crowds who came out, warning them to flee from the wrath to come, verse 8, he says, "bear fruits in keeping with repentance," and notice this, "and do not begin to say to yourself," the reason he said this is because this is exactly how first century Jewish people thought, "'We have Abraham for our father.'" In other words, we're okay, we don't need what you're offering, John, we don't need the baptism of repentance, we're Abraham's descendants, we're good spiritually.

This was the same thing that came up in the ministry of Jesus. Go over to John 8. John 8:39, "They said to Jesus, 'Abraham is our father.'" That's where our trust is, because all Israelites have a part in the life to come. "'Abraham is our father.' Jesus said to them, 'If you are Abraham's children, do the deeds of Abraham.'" You know what Jesus is saying? He's saying, you're Abraham's physical descendants, but you're not his spiritual descendants, or you would be copying his faith.

Now with that in mind, come back to the context of Romans 9. He says, "it is not as though the word of God has failed. For they are not all Israel who descended from Israel." Paul was saying there was only a small group, a remnant within the nation, that was true spiritual Israel.

Now if you're sitting here this morning saying, well Tom, that's great and while that's helpful for people maybe who have Jewish background, but what does that have to do with all of us? Let me tell you exactly what it has to do with us; it really is profound in its implications for us, in three ways. Number one, it helps us understand why today, worldwide, only about 16 percent of God's chosen people in the Old Testament even claim, I'm not talking about true believers now, even claim to believe in their Messiah and His gospel. Why such a small number? Paul's helping us understand here; this was always God's purpose and plan.

Number two, and this is a huge help, it helps us understand the Old Testament or the Hebrew Scriptures. If you understand Romans 9:6, it absolutely unlocks the Old Testament for you because you're reading a lot of things going, "Who are these people? I thought they were true believers?" Listen, "they are not all Israel who are out of Israel." God chose the nation collectively to be His witness nation, to bring His Law into the world, to bring the Messiah into the world, but He never promised, let me say it again, God never promised to spiritually save every single Israelite. That's what Paul says in Romans 9. So as you read the Old Testament, you have to keep that in mind. You're encountering all the physical descendants of Abraham; and within that context of all the physical descendants of Abraham, you're meeting two groups spiritually. You're meeting unbelieving Israel and you're meeting the remnant, whom God chose and brought to spiritual salvation in and through His plan. So it really unlocks the Old Testament for us.

Thirdly, it has a profound, this passage has a profound lesson for us when it comes to understanding the way that we are made right with God. You see, this passage not only makes a point about the people of Israel, it makes an equally powerful point about the Christian church. Let's just take the principle taught here and legitimately extract it, apply it, to the Christian church. They are not all Christians who are connected to Christians, same point, same truth. This is really a call for us to self-examination because it answers this key question, who actually receives the promise of salvation, as we now know it, so clearly put in the New Testament through the gospel of Jesus Chris, who actually receives the promise of salvation? Listen, just like the Jews, listen carefully, it is not based on any physical connection. You say, are there people who think that? The world is filled with people who think that. My suspicion is that there are some people sitting here this morning who unwittingly think that.

You see, many believe that because they were raised in a country that has a Christian past, that is, not that was Christian in the truest sense, but had a lot of true believers who were a part of it, that that means, and it's not Muslim, that means this is a Christian country and that by living here I'm a Christian, voilà! There are people who believe that.

There are many who believe that because of their physical connection with true believers, they are believers. For example, they believe because they have good Christian parents, and this permeates the church of Jesus Christ. There are people sitting in churches like ours across this country who had great Christian homes, great Christian parents, and somehow they think that they are Christians because they haven't outright rejected what their parents said. I'm a Christian, I love my parents. I love what they believed and stood for, and yeah, I believe those things.

This is exactly how the Jewish people thought. Many believed that because they have undergone some ritual, in the Jewish sense it was circumcision, but in the Christian church, because they have been baptized, either as children or as adults, that means they're Christian. Listen, don't you dare for a moment put your confidence in your baptism because there are a lot of people baptized who just got wet.

Many believe that they are Christians because they are members of a good church and they, I mean, they come and they sit, they sing, they stand when they're supposed to stand, and they open their mouths when they're supposed to open their mouths, and they sit and listen to the Word of God taught and then go have a good lunch. Listen, that doesn't make you a Christian.

There are many who have never really thought this through. I'm not saying that you necessarily in your own mind said, I'm a Christian because I come to church or I'm a Christian because I had good Christian parents. I'm not saying that everybody thinks like that. I'm saying, by some sort of a default it becomes that way; you just sort of assume that you're a Christian. I did and I suspect there are many who have.

The fact that you have had those advantages, and they are advantages, doesn't make you any more a Christian than being Jewish made you a true Israelite. To become a true believer you must first abandon all hope in anything that you have done, or in anything that you are, and you must put your faith solely in what Jesus Christ has done by living a perfect life in your place, the life of obedience you should've lived to God, your Creator. And then dying under the justice of God, enduring what we deserved. That must be your hope and confidence.

Turn over to Philippians 3. Paul personalizes these truths here in such a beautiful way and he tells us all the places he had a false hope of salvation before he came to true faith in Jesus Christ. Verse 4, he says, "If anyone else has a mind to put confidence in the flesh," that is, who they are, what they've done, that's how they're going to be right with God, he said, "I far more," I have a better list than you have. And then he says, first of all, I put my confidence in religious ritual; I was "circumcised the eighth day." He said I put my confidence in my ethnic background; I was "of the nation of Israel." He says, I put my confidence in my spiritual heritage; I was "of the tribe of Benjamin," one of two of the twelve tribes that stayed faithful to God. He put his confidence in and his hope in his traditional lifestyle. Verse 5 says he was "a Hebrew of Hebrews." That means he didn't embrace the Greek culture; he stayed true to his culture and lifestyle.

Verse 5, his religious association, "as to the Law, I was a Pharisee;" I belonged to the best group. Spiritual zeal was another place he put his false hope, "as to zeal, I was a persecutor of the church." Listen, are you zealous for God? I promise you, you can't beat Paul. And then he adds, and this is where he's been building, verse 6, he says, I had a false hope of my own righteousness; "as to the righteousness which is in the Law, I was found outwardly blameless," nobody could say I broke it. Of course, he tells us in Romans 7, he knew inside he had because he saw the commandment against coveting, and he knew he had a covetous heart.

Listen, how did Paul come to see all of those false hopes? Verse 7,

whatever things were gain to me, those things I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. [That is, the Messiah.] More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and [everything I've lost, listen to this,] I count them but rubbish [skubalon, it's the most polite word he could use for excrement, it's waste,] so that I may gain Christ, and be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from my keeping of God's Law, but a righteousness which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God as a gift on the basis of faith.

Listen, if you realize today that your confidence is in any of those things I just showed you there in Philippians 3, you must come to God and you must say this: I renounce everything. I renounce all my own merit. I renounce my background, my position, my achievements, my efforts, my obedience, my baptism, my own personal righteousness. I renounce everything I am and everything I've done, and I cling to Jesus Christ alone and His perfect work as my only hope, Father, of being right with You. That's the gospel.

Today we take of the Lord's Table together, and when we eat the bread and when we drink the juice, we are saying this, Christ and Him alone is my only righteousness before God! It's nothing in me at all. I hope that's your heart this morning. Let's pray together.

Father, thank You for the clarity of Your Word. Thank You for how it clears up our misunderstandings, how it directs our thinking. Thank You for how it examines our own hearts. Lord, I pray that You would help us all to do what Scripture admonishes us to do and that is, to examine ourselves to see if we're in the faith, where our confidence truly lies. And Father, if it's anywhere but Christ and Christ alone, then may we turn in true faith to You this morning.

Lord, I pray for most of us here who can say that our hope and confidence is solely in Christ. Lord, I pray that You would now prepare us to take of this reminder of His death for us. Lord, we confess our sins to You. We wouldn't want, for a moment, to keep as some cherished object, some sin in our lives for which Jesus died. Instead, we open up every corridor of our souls to You, every dark place, and we confess our sin, sins of thought, sins of attitude, sins of words, sins of action, and, Lord, we ask You to forgive, to forgive and cleanse for the sake of Jesus Christ who paid for those sins with His own blood. Father, forgive and cleanse, and receive the worship we bring now. We pray in Jesus's name, amen.