“Signs, signs, everywhere signs…” Part IV: “Reformed”

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In the last several blog posts I have been discussing what our sign says about Reformed Presbyterian Church. To begin with I wrote about our identity: we are a “Church,” the called out people of God living our lives in a fallen world by the grace of God. Secondly, I mentioned our ecclesiology: we are “Presbyterian,” a Biblically conservative, confessional branch of the Presbyterian realm. Today I would like to give a short synopsis of our theology: we are “Reformed” in our doctrinal beliefs. R. C. Sproul has written an entire book entitled, “What is Reformed Theology?” so let me say from the very beginning that I will not in a short blog post cover all that is included in this brand of Christian belief.

When one looks at the word “Reformed” he will see a close kinship with the word, “Reformation.” The modern manifestation of this movement began (at least it came to prominence) in the 16th century with the rediscovery of the Biblical Truth of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. One must remember, however, that one of the slogans of the early Reformers was “ad fontes,” (to the sources) which showed a heavy reliance upon the early church fathers, and even more so, the Biblical record in its original languages. So it was actually a movement that desired to return the church to its original Biblical, God-centered state of being. This theology is presented in detail in both the Westminster Confession of Faith and The Belgic Confession.

To put it very simply, those who hold to Reformed Theology (which would include RPC) ascribe to the Five Solas of the Reformation:

  1. Sola Scriptura–Scripture alone
  2. Sola Christus–Christ alone
  3. Sola Gratia–Grace alone
  4. Sola Fide–Faith alone
  5. Soli Deo Gloria–the Glory of God alone

Included within the Five Solas would be the Soteriological Statements (How we are justified before a righteous God) often called the Doctrines of Grace:

  1. Total Depravity
  2. Unconditional Election
  3. Limited Atonement
  4. Irresistible Grace
  5. Perseverance of the Saints

How would I say all of this in Southeast Texan? I would simply describe RPC in the language that I used when I would send letters to those who visited our church: “RPC is a church that desires to be God-centered in our theology, God-centered and reverent in our worship, and God-centered in proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ to a lost world.” Or, maybe I would just hang a sign out in front of our worship center which simply said, “Reformed Presbyterian Church.”

 

“Signs, signs, everywhere signs…” Part III: “Presbyterian”

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The late 1980s and early 1990s were the great heyday of the Church Growth Movement. Everybody had some kind of quick and easy formula to “grow your church“. When someone figured out that 41% of the people who are on a Sunday School roll eventually are baptized, a new plan for church growth appeared. The idea was to enroll people in Sunday School, anywhere, anytime, anyplace, etc., with the idea that eventually 41% of those people will visit the baptismal waters. High attendances days in Sunday School (If you are a Baptist you will remember, “Great Day in the Morning”), big events, and other special emphases all promised to bring the people in. One of the new church growth ideas was not to put the name of your denomination on your church sign because it would automatically turn some people off. But, if you notice, right there in the middle of the sign it says that we are “Presbyterian.” Why would we do something as goofy as that? Because that is who we are.

Granted, we do have to spend some time ever so often explaining, “No, we are not THOSE PRESBYTERIANS (Presbyterian Church in USA)!” We are the Presbyterian Church in America. In the preface of our Book of Church Order it spells out what makes up our constitution:

The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church in America, which is subject to and subordinate to the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, the inerrant Word Of God, consists of its doctrinal standards set forth in the Westminster Confession of Faith, together with the Larger and Shorter Catechisms, and the Book of Church Order, comprising the Form of Government, the Rules of Discipline and the Directory for Worship; all as adopted by the Church.”

The final authority in our churches is the Bible, and if you want to know what we believe the Bible says, look at our Confession of Faith, the Shorter Catechism, or the Larger Catechism. If you want to know how we do things peruse the Book of Church Order. There are no secrets. One does not have to sign off on all that the standards say to become a member of a PCA church; all that is required is a “credible profession of faith.” But if you want to know what is going to be preached from the pulpit, or taught in a Sunday School class, you need only to look at our Standards. Why? Because we’re Presbyterians.

(Of course, there is more to know about being Presbyterian: our form of government, our connectionalism, etc., but the heart of Presbyterianism is to be found in its doctrine.)

Next: Part IV, Reformed.

“Signs, signs, everywhere signs…” Part II: “Church”

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As I mentioned in my last post, our church sign, while not saying everything, says much about who we are at Reformed Presbyterian Church (RPC). And since the adjectives, “Reformed” and “Presbyterian,” both define the noun, “Church,” I will start with “Church.” What is a church? As a child growing up in a Baptist church in the south during the 1960s, I learned in Royal Ambassadors (a boys mission group) that a church was a “group of baptized believers.” That isn’t a bad start, but a church is a little more complicated than that.

I do not have the time or the space to delve into what the church universal, the church triumphant, and the church militant are, but the Westminster Confession of Faith gives us a pretty good picture of what the visible church is:

The visible church, which is also catholic or universal under the gospel (not confined to one nation, as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children: and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.” (WCF 25:3)

RPC is a particular congregation within that worldwide church. What is the primary responsibility that Christ has given to His Body on earth? It was not formed to be a political action committee. It was not formed to be a social work group (although benevolence work does go on there). It was not formed to be a center of entertainment. It was not formed to be a mover and shaker of culture.

Again the Westminster Confession of Faith speaks of the mission of the church:

Unto this catholic visible church Christ hath given the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God, for the gathering and perfecting of the saints, in this life, to the end of the world: and doth, by his own presence and Spirit, according to his promise, make them effectual thereunto.” (WCF 25:4)

The church is here to gather and perfect the saints through Word, prayer, and sacraments in the power of His Spirit. The Apostle Paul told the Ephesians that the church was on earth “for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ.” (Eph. 4:12) And, that the focus of the church is to be found in “the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” (Acts 2:42) May we never lose our focus on the primary objective to chase after the superficial baubles and trinkets of our modern culture.

Next: Part III, Presbyterian.

“Signs, signs, everywhere signs…” Part I

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I remember the day even though it was two decades ago. I was a pastor in a small East Texas town and a very pleasant family that had been visiting our church invited my wife and me to their home for snacks. My first thought was, “That’s nice.” Then, someone mentioned to me that this particular couple sold Amway. The warning meter went off inside my little brain (Been there, done that, got the t-shirt). So I very carefully called and mentioned that if the invite was about Amway they would be wasting their time, because I could not sell their product. I tried to explain that I didn’t want people to wonder when I showed up at their door if I had come with the Gospel or some SA-8. Thankfully, they understood, and, yes, they had invited us over with the plan of giving us the “Amway spiel.” (Good end of story: the husband was eventually converted and I had the joy of baptizing him.)

Bait and switch” is an often used tactic by some companies to sell their products. They promise one thing: “a nice visit with snacks,” and provide another: “a sales pitch about their products.” It can be the same way in the religious realm. I still remember the very slick brochure advertising a “prophecy conference” that I received in the mail when I was living in Shreveport. The Seventh Day Adventists were very careful to make sure that their name appeared nowhere on that brochure. One wouldn’t discover who was sponsoring the event until one’s arrival.

I am thankful that the sign outside our church building doesn’t lure people in under false pretenses. It is straight-forward about saying exactly who we are: Reformed Presbyterian Church. I would like to take my next three blog posts to go into to some detail about what our “sign” says about who we are. Each word speaks volumes about what one can expect to find at 4220 Crow Road, in Beaumont, Texas.

(Next: Part II, Church)

“As was His [Jesus] custom, He entered the synagogue on the Sabbath.”

Sunday

Oh, that with yonder sacred throng
We at His feet may fall!
We’ll join the everlasting song,
And crown Him Lord of all!
We’ll join the everlasting song,
And crown Him Lord of all!

Immediately before the Benediction during this morning’s worship we sang Edward Perronet’s 1779 hymn, “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name.” The last verse in the Red Trinity Hymnal was written nine years later by John Rippon and added to Perronet’s version, and it is printed above. As we sang that verse I was almost moved to tears. There was nothing “miraculous” about it. It was just God’s Hand of Providence at work.

We had sung praise to God. We had confessed our sin. We had heard God’s Word read. We had given God’s Tithe and our Offerings. We had heard a message from God’s Written Word, and now as we were about to leave, we were singing of the joys of eternity that will be ours all because of the manifold grace of our Jesus Christ.

I suppose the emotion came because the preceding week had been trying. We had faced challenges and struggles; many of which were those continuing kind of struggles that may not disappear until the new heavens and the new earth. Yet, in gathering with God’s people and focusing on and worshiping the One who is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, I found a hope that was at best feeble before I arrived at 4220 Crow Road this morning.

It reminded me of a verse from a hymn by Christopher Wordsworth that speaks of this weekly opportunity to grow in God’s grace:

New graces ever gaining
from this our day of rest,
we reach the rest remaining
to spirits of the blest.
We sing to You our praises,
O Father, Spirit, Son;
the church its voice upraises
to You, blest Three in One
.”

What about the Poor?

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It was over a decade ago. After being a Southern Baptist pastor for approximately twenty-five years, I was becoming a Presbyterian; not a mainline, liberal Presbyterian, but a conservative, Bible-believing, Westminster Standards confessing Presbyterian. For my ordination to be accepted I had to pass written tests over the English Bible, Church history, the Sacraments, Theology, and the Book of Church Order. I then went before the Candidates and Credential Committee to be examined and was eventually questioned before the entire Presbytery.

There were several things that to me were interesting through that process. The first surprise came when I said that I had no exceptions to the Westminster Standards; the chairmen looked at me with some surprise and said, “None?” I responded by saying, “None.” He, with a funny look on his face said, “Oh.” The second surprise came when I answered the question, “What view did the Westminster Assembly take on the time of the Creation?” I responded by saying, “six, twenty-four hour days.” The chairman smiled and patiently explained that there were several views of Creation that were acceptable in the Presbyterian Church in America, and I smiled back and said, “But the question was, ‘What view did the Westminster Assembly take on the time of Creation?’” And, yes, I happened to agree with them.

There was a question that caught me off guard when I stood before the entire Presbytery, also. Someone called out, “What about the poor?” I said, “Pardon?” “What about the poor?” I think I responded with a rather long comment about how we should always be ready to care for the physical needs of the poor, etc. While I believe that there was some truth in what I said; looking back, I believe I would have answered differently.

What do the poor need from the church? They need the same thing that the rich, the middle class, and every other strata of society needs from the church: The Gospel. The church’s primary responsibility is, as Paul said, to proclaim that “the times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.” (Acts 17:30) We are to call upon people to turn from trusting in themselves, and to put their trust in what Jesus Christ has done on their behalf; no matter the size of their bank account. Jesus told the messengers that John the Baptist had sent to him that one of the evidences that He was the Messiah was that the “poor have the good news preached to them.” (Matt. 11:5)

So, while it is important to remember Paul’s admonition to the Galatians, “as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith,” (Gal. 6:10) the most important thing we can do, as Christ’s Church, is to point men to Christ through Word, prayer, and sacraments, that they might discover the abundant grace that God has poured out upon all who believe the Gospel.

What about the poor? The poor need the Gospel.

 

Tuesday Hymns: “As When The Hebrew Prophet Raised”

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Isaac Watts (1674-1748) wrote a gazillion hymns in his lifetime (over 750 hymns anyway) and our Tuesday Hymn of the Week concerns Watts’ look at an Old Testament passage that points forward to Christ. If I may jog your memory the Old Testament consists of the first thirty-nine books of the Bible that so often has been ignored by my much of twenty-first century evangelicalism. “As When the Hebrew Prophet Raised” mentions the bronze serpent that God told Moses to raise up in the wilderness to provide healing for the Hebrew people who had been bitten by the snakes as a judgment for their complaints against Moses and the God he represented. The passage reads:

Then the LORD said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a standard; and it shall come about, that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, he shall live.”  And Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on the standard; and it came about, that if a serpent bit any man, when he looked to the bronze serpent, he lived.” (Numbers 21:8-9)

Watts’ first verse succinctly tells the story:

As when the Hebrew prophet raised
The brazen serpent high,
The wounded looked, and straight were cured,
The people ceased to die
;”

The rest of the hymn speaks of the truth that just as those who looked on the serpent were healed of their snake bites; those who look to Christ may be delivered from the wrath of God. Just as John tells us in his Gospel:

And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; that whoever believes may in Him have eternal life.” (John 3:14-15)

It is normally sung to Lowell Mason’s tune, DOWNS.

As when the Hebrew prophet raised
The brazen serpent high,
The wounded looked, and straight were cured,
The people ceased to die;

So from the Saviour on the cross
A healing virtue flows;
Who looks to him with lively faith
Is saved from endless woes.

For God gave up his Son to death,
So gen’rous was his love,
That all the faithful might enjoy
Eternal life above.

Not to condemn the sons of men
The Son of God appeared;
No weapons in his hand are seen,
Nor voice of terror heard:

He came to raise our fallen state,
And our lost hopes restore;
Faith leads us to the mercy seat,
And bids us fear no more.

 

Ordinary Actions

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We live in a world where “new and improved” is the rage. We need excitement! We need thrills! We need bells! We need whistles! As one church advertised: “No more boring church!” However, all of that reminds me of something that R. C. Sproul once said, “There is one thing that I never find in the Bible when a person comes into the presence of the living God: ‘He is never bored.’” We don’t need a “new and improved” way to come into the presence of God, we have the “tried and true” way.

Way back in 1640s the men at the Westminster Assembly restated the Biblical proviso of how to draw near to God as His people that we might grow in grace:

Q. 88. What are the outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of redemption?
A. The outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of redemption, are his ordinances, especially the word, sacraments, and prayer; all which are made effectual to the elect for salvation.

We recoil at the word, “ordinary,” yet Christ has ordained the simple actions of “reading and preaching the Word; administering water, bread, and wine; and calling out to God in praise and supplication” as the means to discover Him anew, when we as His people gather in His name week in and week out. It is sufficient whether you are in a cathedral in London, a storefront in New York, or a grass hut in the jungle of deepest Africa. Word. Sacraments. Prayer. It is sufficient, and never boring (at least it isn’t if you are one of His children).

 

Tomorrow is the Lord’s Day

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The story is told (although I have never seen other than anecdotal evidence that this event actually happened) that during the Revolutionary War a group of British soldiers entered a Long Island church on a Sunday morning and ordered the congregation to sing, God Save Our Gracious King which was the British national anthem (sort of, not officially until the 19th century). The congregation responded by singing a hymn which (at that time) was sung to the same tune:

Come, thou Almighty King,
Help us thy name to sing,
Help us to praise:
Father, all glorious,
O’er all victorious,
Come, and reign over us,
Ancient of days.

Come, thou Incarnate Word,
Gird on thy mighty sword,
Our prayer attend:
Come and thy people bless,
And give thy Word success;
Spirit of holiness,
On us descend.

Come, Holy Comforter,
Thy sacred witness bear
In this glad hour:
Thou who almighty art,
Now rule in every heart,
And ne’er from us depart,
Spirit of power.

To the great One in Three
Eternal praises be,
Hence evermore.
His sovereign majesty
May we in glory see,
And to eternity
Love and adore.

I have never read what the supposed response of the British soldiers was to this declaration that there are higher allegiances in existence than just earthly political allegiances, but it does make for a good story. It also makes an important point: When we gather together as the church of God on His Day, we are there for the worship of the living God, not to espouse any political or national agenda.

Now don’t misunderstand me. I love the country in which I live. I appreciate the sacrifice that has been made by those who have fought and died to protect her. I pray regularly for President Trump (although I didn’t vote for him), and for all those that God has placed in governmental authority over me. However, when we gather on the Lord’s Day, it is not to salute the flag, sing songs about our country, or recite the pledge of allegiance (although I have no problem doing that in other places); it is to worship the Triune God and to focus on Him. The first two paragraphs of Chapter Twenty-one of the Westminster Confession of Faith speak directly as to how God should be worshipped by His gathered church:

The light of nature showeth that there is a God, who hath lordship and sovereignty over all, is good, and doth good unto all, and is therefore to be feared, loved, praised, called upon, trusted in, and served, with all the heart, and with all the soul, and with all the might. But the acceptable way of worshiping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshiped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scripture.

Religious worship is to be given to God, the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; and to him alone; not to angels, saints, or any other creature: and, since the fall, not without a Mediator; nor in the mediation of any other but of Christ alone.

So, if a group of soldiers were to ever enter our worship service and demand that we sing “The Star Spangled Banner” (or any other anthem), I hope that we would respond as did that supposed Long Island Church, by singing of our primary allegiance to the Triune God.

 

 

Tuesday Hymns: “Alas, And Did My Saviour Bleed”

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In Isaac Watt’s later years he once complained, “To see the dull indifference, the negligent and thoughtless air that sits upon the faces of a whole assembly, while the psalm is upon their lips, might even tempt a charitable observer to suspect the fervency of their inward religion.” Even in complaining about church members’ attitudes, Watt’s words flowed like a mountain stream. He has been called the “Father of English Hymnody” for good reason and his published hymns would be exhibit numbers 1-800. Our Tuesday Hymn of the Week, “Alas, And Did My Saviour Bleed,” is a good example of his inborn talent and his excellent theology. His understanding of the depth of man’s sin and the abundance of God’s mercy and grace is found in every verse.

As one who grew up in a tradition that sang, “At the Cross,” (which took the words of Watts, added a refrain, and sang it to a tune that sounded like it originated in a circus calliope…sorry, I just feel that way) I was thrilled to discover his words connected to a more appropriate tune in The Trinity Hymnal.

Alas! and did my Saviour bleed,
And did my Sovereign die!
Would he devote that sacred head
For such a worm as I!

Was it for crimes that I had done
He groaned upon the tree!
Amazing pity! grace unknown!
And love beyond degree!

Well might the sun in darkness hide,
And shut his glories in,
When Christ, the mighty Maker, died
For man the creature’s sin.

Thus might I hide my blushing face
While his dear cross appears;
Dissolve my heart in thankfulness,
And melt mine eyes in tears.

But drops of grief can ne’er repay
The debt of love I owe;
Here, Lord, I give myself away,
‘Tis all that I can do.

PS—And, just for the record, I have no issue at all with the phrase, “For such a worm as I.”
;^)

 

 

 

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