Zion's Cornerstone: A Stone of Stumbling

Prof. Herman C. Hanko



I Peter 2:7-8: "Unto you therefore which believe he is precious: but unto them which be disobedient, the stone which the builders disallowed, the same is made the head of the corner, and a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offence, even to them which stumble at the word, being disobedient: whereunto also they were appointed."


Beloved in the Lord Jesus Christ,

 

I chose to make a sermon this past week on this passage because of the conference that you are holding here in Holland the last two weeks and that will be concluded this week, the Lord willing. I chose this passage because it is a passage that stresses so strongly the truth of the absolute sovereignty of God, the truth that must be maintained in order to understand properly the place of the will of man in sovereign election and reprobation.

 

From a certain point of view, it is not a very nice text, because it deals almost entirely with the activity of the unbeliever and the sovereign decree of reprobation. In fact, as I was sitting here on the chair during offertory and pondering the sermon for this evening, I almost changed my mind and preached on a different text. It is not always so pleasant to preach on these passages.

 

Nevertheless, these passages have to be understood by the church. The very fact that they are included in Scripture in a number of places means that they are important for an understanding of the will of God and His sovereignty in all His works.

 

That does not mean there is no positive gospel in this passage. The passage starts out with the words, "Unto you therefore which believe he is precious." And that is indeed true. If some of that will fill your heart tonight how precious this cornerstone is to you who believe this sermon will not have been in vain.

 

The apostle Peter is talking about the preaching of the gospel in verses 1-3. He is talking about the need to receive the preaching of the gospel as the Word of Christ, which we must receive with eagerness and joy and with a deep sense of our need of it. He compares us to a baby at its mother's breast, who is almost frantic in its desire for milk. So we must be in our desire for the Word.

 

But he goes on to say that, at the very heart of that Word, and as the reason why we desire it so intensely, is Christ. Christ is the core, the heart, of the proclamation of the gospel. That is why Peter refers to Christ in verse 3 when he says, "If so be ye have tasted that the Lord is gracious." The name Lord is a reference to Christ, because Peter goes on to say in verse 4, "To whom coming, as unto a living stone, disallowed indeed of men, but chosen of God, and precious." Seeking Christ we too, as lively stones with Him, are built up a spiritual house.

 

So the apostle is talking about that one main event that takes place in history, which God works: the building of His house, or of His kingdom, whatever you prefer. The figure is primarily of a house, of a temple. God, throughout history, builds His house, the temple, in which He dwells. The cornerstone of that house is Jesus Christ. All the elect are living stones, who, united to Christ, compose that one glorious temple.

 

Now the point that he is making here is that all men are engaged in that work of building that house. At least they claim to be. But when they look for the cornerstone on which the building must rest, and they come across the one stone that alone can be the cornerstone, they reject it. That stone becomes to them a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense. Then Peter adds those significant words: "Unto which also they were appointed." But you who are united to that cornerstone by a living faith and believe in Him, to you that cornerstone is precious. To that I want to call your attention.

We use as our theme:


Zion's Cornerstone: A Stone of Stumbling.



A Terrible Rejection

 

As I said, the figure is of God's work in building His temple throughout all of history by the gathering of the elect through the preaching of the gospel. That is the viewpoint of the text. That is the one reason for all of history. It is the one great work of God that excels all others. All of God's other works are subordinate to it, whether they be creation or providence, His works in the nations and among the children of men, His sovereign control of Satan and his hosts of demons, or His sovereign control of the fall of our first parents (Adam and Eve). The one great work of God is the building of the temple, which is His church and of which Christ is the cornerstone a church that is built through the preaching of the gospel. Preaching is the only means God uses. There is none other because the preaching of the gospel is the preaching of Christ crucified (I Cor. 1:23).

 

Now the viewpoint of the text is that, in that work of building the temple of God, man has a role. I suppose, in a certain sense of the word, the role that he is required to assume dates back all the way to Paradise, where God gave to Adam and Eve in the state of righteousness the original creation mandate: Be fruitful and multiply and subdue the earth and have dominion over it. The original creation mandate was given to man in order that he might make this creation the kingdom of God. That is his work. It is the sole reason for his creation. The role that man must play rests, therefore, in the creation ordinance.

 

But man fell into sin and determined that he would, instead of establishing and building the kingdom of God here in the world, build the kingdom of Satan. He made an alliance with Satan by listening to Satan's temptation. He turned his back on God and he cast his lot with the powers of darkness, to build in this creation the kingdom of darkness.

 

Nevertheless, God builds His kingdom. He does so now through the gathering of a church, which He establishes as His own temple in which He dwells. That is a very common figure in Scripture, as you know. Already in the Old Testament the city of Jerusalem, the kingdom of Israel, and the temple were all pictures of the church. We sing, "Zion, founded on the mountains, God, thy maker, loves thee well; He has chosen thee, most precious, He delights in thee to dwell; God's own city, who can all thy glory tell?" That is the church.

 

In the new dispensation, when our Lord was here upon earth and Peter made in Caesarea-Philippi his great confession, the Lord said, "Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, Peter, but My Father which is in heaven. That confession is the rock on which I will build my church and against which the gates of hell can never prevail" (Matt. 16:17, 18). What is that confession on which God builds His church? That Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God.

 

Paul takes over that same figure in Ephesians 2 in a marvelous passage, where he speaks of the church as a temple: Ye "are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone; in whom all the building, fitly framed together groweth unto an holy temple of the Lord" (Eph. 2:20, 21). It is a temple in which God takes up His dwelling. Christ is the cornerstone. That is the figure that Peter uses here.

 

God wills that that cornerstone be placed before all men. He wills this even though all men fell in Adam. God does not after the fall relinquish His claims upon men's service. The fact that they are totally depraved, unwilling to do the will of God and unable to do His will, makes no difference. They are still commanded to build the kingdom of God and to be engaged in that work of building the church. That is the figure of the text.

 

There is only one cornerstone for that building of the church: our Lord Jesus Christ. He is the only cornerstone because of the fact that, since sin came into the world and men fell in Adam, the perfect sacrifice of Christ alone will suffice as the foundation for that temple. The kingdom is characterized by the perfect righteousness of God. And that righteousness of God, which is the one characteristic of the kingdom, is to be found not here in the world, but only in the blood of Jesus Christ, who made the perfect sacrifice for sin. Luther called this righteousness "an alien righteousness." He is the foundation of the kingdom; He is the cornerstone of the church. As Christ is preached, the church is built.

 

But now, says Peter and this is the chief point that he is making in this passage men do not want to build on the cornerstone of Jesus Christ. He quotes Psalm 118:22: "The stone rejected and despised is now the cornerstone; How wondrous are the ways of God, unfathomed and unknown," as our Psalter versification has it.

 

That these professed builders reject the cornerstone means that those who claim to be engaged in the building of the kingdom of God and the gathering of the church were, first of all and primarily, the Jews throughout the history of the nation of Israel and especially in the time of Jesus. You know how pious the Pharisees could be and how intent on orthodoxy and purity of religion these miserable hypocrites were. They claimed to be building the kingdom and church of God. Their claim seemed to be justified, because they were certainly zealous, from an outward point of view, for the things of God. But when they came to the cornerstone, the only cornerstone that could serve as a foundation of that building, they, according to Psalm 118 and the words of Peter who quotes that Psalm, rejected it. They looked at the cornerstone, they examined it closely, they appraised its value also in relationship to the kingdom that they claimed to be building, they looked at it from the point of view of how it would serve the church that they were supposedly busy erecting, and their conclusion was: The cornerstone is no good; it is useless to us. And they threw it aside.

 

Jesus quotes Psalm 118 toward the very end of His ministry in connection with the parable of the laborers in the vineyard who stoned the servants that were sent unto them and who finally took God's Son and killed Him, so that the vineyard might be theirs. "Jesus saith unto them, Did ye never read in the scriptures, The stone which the builders rejected is become the head of the corner" (Matt. 21:42). The one cornerstone on which alone the kingdom of God could be built was rejected.

 

That continues throughout all history, not limited, by any means, to the Jewish nation. The cornerstone is still proclaimed in the gospel. That is why also the church of our day, which claims to be establishing the kingdom of God and building God's temple, rejects the cornerstone as of no use at all. This is why, if you listen to most preaching, there are innumerable sermons that are preached in which Christ is never mentioned, the cross is never held high before the people of God as the only righteousness of the kingdom, and the blood of atonement is never so much as proclaimed as the only foundation of the church's salvation.

 

Men claim to be building the kingdom. They do not want the cornerstone. They refuse it. Sometimes they refuse it in subtle ways. They refuse it by introducing into the preaching doctrines that minimize and ultimately destroy the work of the atoning sacrifice of Christ.

 

Why do they do that? Because they build a kingdom of men. They build a building that can be for the praise of men. They gather a church, they claim, but by men's means. Because the kingdom they are building is intended to show the praises of men, they reject the cornerstone. Perhaps they wish men to marvel at the wonders of modern weaponry and the military power of the United States. Perhaps they cause even serious people of God to characterize the wonders of medicine as miracles the miracles of modern medical procedures and modern surgical triumphs, as if these build the kingdom. Sometimes God shows what fools they are as when, after a successful orbit of Columbia, the craft explodes and burns in its descent back to earth. God forcibly reminds men that matters are not in their hands and that their triumphs are so many paper houses. But men persist.

 

They are confronted with the cornerstone, the Lord Jesus Christ and the kingdom He established, and in one way or another they reject Him. They show their rejection by preaching what is insipid and Christless, in which the blood of atonement is denied and the works of men are extolled. The Word of God is thus defamed. The cornerstone is rejected!

 

The apostle says in the text that the rejection of the cornerstone results in the fact that this stone becomes "a stone of stumbling and a rock of offence." That stone is always in the way. They cannot ignore it. They throw it aside, but there it is again. Why is that? That is because of the fact that God puts that stone in the way.

 

In the Judgment Day, when all nations and all men stand before the great white throne and all men are judged according to the deeds that they have done in the flesh, there is going to be only one question that will be put to men. On the basis of their answer to that question they will be judged. That one question is this: "What did you do with Christ?" There is no other question of any importance. Of course, they will be judged according to all the deeds that they did in the flesh. But all the deeds that they did in the flesh and all the actions that will form the basis of judgment are deeds that they performed, and actions of which they were the authors, because of their answer to the question: "What did you do with Christ?" That question confronts men every moment, no matter how hard they try to get away from it, no matter how repeatedly they reject Christ and throw aside in disgust the cornerstone. It is always there, confronting them. And it is there because there is always in the world a faithful church that proclaims Christ and the cross of Jesus Christ as God's work, by means of which He establishes His kingdom not by might, not by power, not the deeds of men or the mighty accomplishments of the nations, but simply by the blood of the Lamb of God. That is how the kingdom is established. And Christ is the only basis for it. The power of that blood of atonement is the one power of the building of the church. There it is. It gets in their way. It is always something with which one must reckon. It can never be pushed aside.

 

So that stone becomes a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense.

 

Now those two expressions essentially mean the same thing. It is a stone that is in their pathway as they pursue their goals. That rock of offense is the word from which we get our English word "scandal" a rock of scandal they are scandalized by the cornerstone. And the more they are confronted with it, the more scandalized they become the more offensive that stone appears to them. They stumble over it. What does that mean? That means this: that when they reject the cornerstone as the only possible stone on the basis of which the kingdom can be erected and the house of God built and they refuse to use it, it becomes a means to cause them to sin more. They stumble and they fall into greater sin.

 

The sin of rejecting the cornerstone manifests itself in greater and worse sins. You all know that is true. There are denominations that once stood strongly for the cause of the Reformed faith. But they were bent on ascribing to man in some measure the work of salvation, to find in man some good, to ascribe to man some ability to do that which is pleasing to God. It is, it would seem, a minor error. It was done while the church continued to profess its deep commitment to the truths of sovereign grace. But, nevertheless, that stone was rejected and it became a stone of stumbling. Before long, that church began to teach that the cross of Christ was for all men and that Christ shed His blood for every man, so that every man might have the opportunity to be saved. They stumbled and fell into greater error. And soon, because this cornerstone, who is Jesus Christ, is also the cornerstone of the kingdom of God in His work of creation, and because they had rejected it, they began to deny the doctrine of creation and say that the world came into existence by its own power. Then, they stumbled again and began to say that that which characterizes the world in all her ungodliness and filth is legitimate in the church of Jesus Christ. We are building a house in which there is room for all men. And even though men defile the ordinances of God with respect to marriage and divorce, even though men defile the ordinances of God in pursuing wickedness as they lust after the pleasures of the world and the fleshpots of Egypt, there is room in the house for them. We are building a house big enough for all men. They stumbled and they fell.

 

Now it is come to such a point that the sin that characterizes in the world the final degradation of man's moral corruption the sin of homosexuality is openly accepted in the church, and practicing homosexuals are even permitted to hold office, under Christ, in the church. The house must be big enough even to hold those who trample God's law underfoot. They stumble and they fall.

 

That is always the way it is. There is a warning in this for you and me. We may not play games with the church, beloved. We may not take the doctrines of the church lightly and deny them even by silence, without paying a terrible price. If we reject in word or deed the cornerstone, that stone becomes a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense. The cross is offensive. The blood of atonement is a scandal. And men stumble and fall even while they claim to be building the house.

 

The cornerstone is a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense to those who are disobedient. That is, they disobey the command to repent of their sin and believe in Christ. In this way they reject the cornerstone.



A Sovereign Cause


           
But Peter adds, "To this they were appointed."

 

That is a clear statement of the doctrine of reprobation. In its clarity it stands on a par with Romans 9:11-18 and John 12:37-41. God has appointed them to stumble and fall. In fact, as is evidently the intent of Peter in this passage, not only is their stumbling and falling appointed by God, but their rejection of the cornerstone is also appointed by God. That is, in His eternal counsel, as God determined all that would take place in the history of this world, determined it with sovereign freedom, determined it as the living God, the Creator of all things, He determined that the stone upon which He would build His kingdom would be rejected and that that stone would in turn, by virtue of its being rejected, be a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense, until finally those who stumbled over it stumbled and fell into hell itself. This too is part of His own sovereign, efficacious, eternal determination. That is the doctrine of reprobation.

 

What does reprobation mean?

 

In the first place, it means that God is sovereign over sin. The fall did not come about unexpectedly, but according to the decree and purpose of God. When God saw Adam and Eve being tempted by Satan, God was not, so to speak, standing on the sidelines hoping earnestly that Adam and Eve would be able to resist; and when indeed they fell, He wrung His hands in disappointment, and was forced to fall back on another plan to build His kingdom than that which He had originally intended. God is God. He is sovereign. He is sovereign over sin. Even the king's heart is in the hand of the Lord. As rivers of water, He turneth it whithersoever He will (Prov. 21:1). Assyria, which laid the northern kingdom waste, is an axe that God wields with a sovereign hand to chop down the vine of Jacob and the vineyard of Israel. God is sovereign. When Christ was crucified, He was delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, while at the same time it was with wicked hands that He was crucified and slain (Acts 2:23).

 

In the second place, when God determines sin and executes His counsel, He does so in such a way that man is himself accountable for his own sin. It is man's unbelief, as the text makes clear, that causes them to reject the cornerstone. God does not make man an unbeliever. God did not force Adam against his own will to sin. Adam sinned willingly. All men, fallen in Adam, sin willingly and are accountable for their sin before God.

 

In the third place, the relationship between God's decree of reprobation and sin must be defined this way (I ask you to listen carefully that there may be no mistake about it): the decree of reprobation is not the cause of man's unbelief and man's rejection of Christ. Our fathers in the Canons of Dordt were very careful about that. In fact, they repudiate, as an error, that which makes God the author of sin something which we detest with our whole soul. In the conclusion to the Canons the fathers say that election is the fountain and cause of faith; but reprobation is not that way. It is not the fountain and cause of sin, God is not to blame for man's sin. And when the sin of man is punished in everlasting judgment in hell, man receives what he deserves.

 

Nevertheless, you must not say either that the unbelief of man is the cause of reprobation. That is what the Arminians taught in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It was one reason why the Canons were written. The Arminians say, We believe in reprobation, of course! But we believe that God is able to see into the future and with absolute certainty predict those who will not believe. On that basis God reprobates. Our fathers said, No! That detracts from the sovereignty of God. God is not dependent upon man in any respect. His counsel stands. He does all His good pleasure. A reprobation that is on the grounds of man's unbelief is a conditional reprobation, not taught in Scripture and abhorrent to the one who loves the truth of the sovereignty of God. So reprobation is not the cause of unbelief, nor is unbelief the cause of reprobation. But, and this is how our father's formulated it in a careful way, God accomplishes the sovereign decree of reprobation according to the counsel of His will in the way of man's unbelief. That is the key phrase: in the way of. Beyond that, our fathers would not go. Beyond that, none of us or any Reformed theologian may go. God is sovereign in reprobation and sovereign over sin. And He realizes the decree of reprobation in the way of man's sin, so that man remains accountable for his sin.

 

That is what Peter has in mind here.

 

You must maintain that doctrine, beloved. That is not easy. As I said at the conference, evil men are quick to pounce on this doctrine. They consider it to be the Achilles' heel of the Reformed faith. They scoff at the doctrine. They quickly come with all kinds of evil charges against it and against the God who is sovereign: He is a monster, He simply throws babies into hell willy-nilly, His choices are arbitrary, He makes man a stock and a block. You can read all those terrible objections in the conclusion to the Canons. Our fathers were acquainted with those objections, and they rejected them all.

 

God is sovereign. That is all there is to it. The believer wants a sovereign God. He does not want a God who is not sovereign over all His works.

 

Many years ago, at the graduation of a class from the seminary, Rev. Hoeksema made a speech. He concluded his speech by saying something to this effect: If it ever becomes necessary for me, he said, to make a choice between the absolute sovereignty of God and the accountability of man (mind you, he said, I don't have to make that choice, and I never will, because God's sovereignty does not deny man's accountability and man's accountability does not deny God's sovereignty, they fit like a hand in a glove), but if I should be forced to make the choice, then give me the sovereignty of God. The believer confesses God is God in all His works.

A Blessed Truth

 

Nevertheless, to those who believe, that cornerstone is precious. You could translate that first clause in verse 7 in this way: "Valuable to the ones believing is the cornerstone." Valuable! Something precious is something unspeakably valuable. That is emphasized in the text, first of all, when the text says, in quoting Psalm 118, "The stone which the builders despised is become the head of the corner." The stone rejected and despised is now the cornerstone. How wondrous are the ways of God unfathomed and unknown. Why are those ways of God so wondrous? Because, you see, the very rejection of the cornerstone was the means that God used to establish the cornerstone as the foundation of the church. That is the cross. That was where the cornerstone was rejected, when the whole nation of Israel stood before Pontius Pilate and shouted themselves hoarse: "Caesar is our king. We have no king but Caesar. Away with Him, crucify Him!" Their Messiah. The hope of the nation of Israel for two thousand years. The hope of every believer since Abel brought the sacrifice of a lamb. They saw Him in front of them and they said, "Away with Him. We will have Caesar. We are building a different kingdom." And when Pilate, in his own wicked way, put above the cross, "This is Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews," the One who establishes the kingdom, although Pilate did not believe a thing of it, the Jews said, "Change it! He is not our king!" That very rejection of the cornerstone was the means that God used to establish Christ as the cornerstone.

 

That is a wondrous work of God. Through the cross, through the rejection of Israel, Christ becomes the foundation for the kingdom that will be perfectly realized in heaven. That means that reprobation serves election. In the rejection of the cornerstone the wicked can do the gospel no harm. They can do Christ no harm. They can do the church no harm. When at last, in their fury and rage against that stone over which they incessantly stumble, they are driven to destroy the church and silence the witness of the church, they only serve the purpose of God and do no harm to Him or to His cause. That is Psalm 2 . Who can read Psalm 2 without something of a shudder going down his spine:
"Why do the heathen rage, and the people imagine a vain thing? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord, and against His anointed. He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh." That gives me cold chills. He laughs! He laughs because all their efforts are futile and in vain? Oh, of course. But God laughs because all their hatred, all their efforts to destroy Him and His kingdom and the kingdom of His Son, God simply uses in His own sovereignty to establish His own kingdom and to build the house of His church. Of Cyrus, king of Persia, picture of Antichrist, God says: I know thee; I know thee by name. Why? Because thou art My servant to bring Israel back to Canaan, that the promise may be realized and fulfilled, because I am God and I do all my good pleasure (Is. 45:1-7).

 

And so the house is built. The house is built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets. And Jesus Christ is the cornerstone. The scaffolding for building are the reprobate. And when the house is finally built and there is no need for the scaffolding anymore, the scaffolding is burned in a fire that burns forever while the church inherits the kingdom.

 

No wonder that cornerstone is valuable. That almost sounds like an understatement, does it not? Valuable to those who believe is the cornerstone. Do not forget, that faith by which they believe is sovereignly worked. That also is our Canons: "that some receive the gift of faith from God and others do not receive it proceeds from God's eternal decree" (Canons I, 6). In III/IV, 14 the fathers are insistent that we not say about faith that God gives the gift of faith and then leaves it to man to exercise faith and ultimately believe in Christ, but He who works all things according to the counsel of His will and works in man both to will and to do of His good pleasure, not only works in them the gift of faith but works in them the act of believing also. That is our Canons. Beautiful! Moving! Powerful! Scriptural!

 

By faith the cornerstone is precious. Why? Because by God's sovereign purpose and eternal determination God has so worked faith in our hearts that we are built as living stones upon the foundation of Jesus Christ. Ye, Paul says, "are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone; in whom the whole building fitly framed together groweth unto a holy temple in the Lord," in which temple God dwells in everlasting, covenant fellowship. He has sovereignly, graciously, wondrously chosen you and me and our children to be living stones in that temple.

 

When we see that cornerstone, therefore, when we see it as it is preached in the gospel and revealed to us in the sacred Scriptures, then we consider that cornerstone to be the fullness of all our salvation. He is the Rock on which we rest. He is now in glory. Sometimes I cannot wait till the day comes to be with Him, for He is our Savior and our Redeemer, the Head of the church, where all things shall be forever to the glory of God.