“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.”

 

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“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.

“Make It So!”

During our worship service this morning we had the formal installation of Nick Napier as our pastor at Reformed Presbyterian Church. He has been a vital part of our church life since our congregation extended a call to him back in February. Since that time he has been examined and approved by the Houston Metro Presbytery, moved his family halfway across the country, and has been on the field since April 23rd. Today made him, as he said on a Facebook post last night, “officially official.”

In our denomination (The Presbyterian Church in America), when a pastor is installed, promises are made both by the pastor and the congregation that, if kept, will make that pastor/congregation relationship a positive one. The questions asked of Pastor Nick (which were all answered in the affirmative, by the way) speak of his desire to have the right motives (“a desire to promote the glory of God and the good of the Church”), and the right actions (“discharge all the duties of a pastor to this congregation” and “maintain a deportment in all respects becoming a minister of the Gospel of Christ”). The full wording in our Book of Church Order is as follows:

  1. Are you now willing to take charge of this congregation as their pastor, agreeable to your declaration in accepting its call? 
  2. Do you conscientiously believe and declare, as far as you know your own heart, that, in taking upon you this charge, you are influenced by a sincere desire to promote the glory of God and the good of the Church?
  3. Do you solemnly promise that, by the assistance of the grace of God, you will endeavor faithfully to discharge all the duties of a pastor to this congregation, and will be careful to maintain a deportment in all respects becoming a minister of the Gospel of Christ, agreeable to your ordination engagements?

As I mentioned there were also questions asked of the congregation and promises made:

  1. Do you, the people of this congregation, continue to profess your readiness to receive Nick Napier, whom you have called to be your pastor?
  2. Do you promise to receive the word of truth from his mouth with meekness and love, and to submit to him in the due exercise of discipline?
  3. Do you promise to encourage him in his labors, and to assist his endeavors for your instruction and spiritual edification?
  4. Do you engage to continue to him while he is your pastor that competent worldly maintenance which you have promised, and to furnish him with whatever you may see needful for the honor of religion and for his comfort among you?

I had the privilege today of encouraging the congregation to follow the directions that Paul gave to the Philippian Church so many years ago:

“Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

By God’s grace let us “Make It So.”

 

 

 

 

What I Miss (and Don’t Miss) about Attending General Assembly

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I have now been “Honorably Retired” for two years (Every time I write that I think, “I love my denomination’s lingo”), so that means this is the third Presbyterian Church in America General Assembly in a row that I have not attended. There are things that I do NOT miss about this yearly adventure that was so much a part of my life during my time as a PCA Teaching Elder

I do NOT miss attending GA because of the need to travel across the country and live in a hotel for three days. My legs are too long to be comfortable on the flight, and one never knows who will be seated in the seat next to him for several hours. I still remember the college girl next to me who was on her way to work at a summer camp in New England who must have wanted to be a European because she decided to wear no deodorant on that particular day. At first I thought that I must have been the culprit of the odor hanging around aisle 23 until she stretched and I realized that I was the victim. Along with the travel, I must admit my curmudgeon-li-ness (yes, I know that is not a word) results in my not sleeping well in a hotel (although I often found myself dozing through the informational reports on Wednesday afternoon), so I knew that I would return home exhausted.

I do NOT miss attending GA because one never knows what you are going to get at the worship services. There seems to be some innate desire every year for the worship service to be more “creative” than the year before. I am still shaking my head at the year someone actually thought intinction was a good idea. [sigh]

I do NOT miss attending GA because being on the losing side of seemingly every vote gets old after a while. (Yes, I was on the winning side of the Federal Vision Study Committee vote several years ago but the PCA has found ways to ignore that result from the moment it happened.) I must admit one would think that I would be used to losing since the first fifteen years of my life as a pastor was spent going to Baptist General Convention of Texas Conventions where being a Biblical conservative meant: you’re a loser (except for the motion to adjourn, of course).

But, I DO miss attending GA because of the fellowship that I had with like-minded pastors from across the nation. It was the only time during the year that I saw most of them (unless I ran into them at a Banner of Truth Conference or the Reformation Worship Conference). It was always good to hear what was going right (and what was going wrong) as they sought to minister to God’s people in a fallen world in the particular place that God’s providence had placed them. I learned much from them and often it helped me to appreciate anew the people that I ministered to back home.

So, this year I will be checking Twitter to discover what is going on in Greensboro, but mainly I will be praying for God to be at work in the life of our denomination during this special week of the year.

Oh, and I almost forgot, I DO miss hearing David Coffin, the walking, talking, breathing Robert’s Rules of Order guy, correcting some parliamentary misdeed that has taken place on the floor (or, even more so, on the podium).
;^)

 

 

“I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now…”–Joni Mitchell

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I remember the years when I was a young buck in the pastorate. There were several of us in our local Baptist association who would eat together, laugh together, and would usually end up on the losing end of votes together (because we were the crotchety theological conservatives). One day, one of my young pastor friends commented, “I sure would make a great church member. I would support my pastor wholeheartedly.” None of us actually believed him (because he could be pretty head strong and cranky) but now I have realized that I get the opportunity to do just that.

I have been “honorably retired” (Don’t you love Presbyterian Church in America lingo?) for a year and a half, and I am now on the other side of Hebrews 13:17:

Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.

As I submit to the elders that the Lord has placed over me several things come to mind (this is coming from a Presbyterian polity point of view):

(1) I don’t have all the information (and I don’t need to have it). I remember those years when I, being on the session, was aware of words and actions that had taken place, and I had to keep information to myself to protect “innocent” individuals and even to protect the “guilty” who had repented of their sins. When church members would come to me “fishing” for information from time to time, I would simply have to say that I could not comment.

(2) I need to remember that the elders spend long hours meeting, discussing, and praying about decisions (many of which consist of not what is “right or wrong” but of “what is best for now and for the future”) that could affect the congregation for years to come. I need to appreciate their sacrifice and trust their judgement.

(3) I don’t have to agree with everything they do. There were times when I was on the session when I didn’t agree with every decision that was made, so I don’t see why it should be any different now. I don’t have to get my way all the time (or so my wife says).

(4) When I hear the Word of God preached, it is not for me to say, “Well, I would have handled that text differently.” I need to simply receive the Word of God with joy and humility for I am not always right (my wife tells me that, also).

(5) I need to be faithful to worship with God’s people. We have family challenges at home, so that is not always easy; but even when Dixie and I have to split up, and one go on Sunday morning, and the other go on Sunday evening, it is important for us (and the congregation) that we attend each Lord’s Day for we need to experience the ordinary means of grace. I don’t go in order to “feel good,” I go because I need to (and it is a command of God to not forsake the assembling with our brothers and sisters for worship).

(6) I need to give God’s tithe and my offerings each week for the work of God’s kingdom. If I disagree so strongly with the direction of the church that I am tempted to withhold God’s money, it is time for me to find a congregation where I can give that full financial support.

(7) And, most of all, I need to pray for the elders that God has placed in authority over me. Their task is time consuming and difficult, and they need to know that I am approaching the throne of grace daily on their behalf.

There are many other things that I should do as a member of the Body of Christ, and I should do them all in a way that the elders can watch over me “with joy and not with groaning.” 

What is the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church in America?

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Several years ago the Iraqis were struggling to put together a new constitution. Jay Leno responded during his monologue by saying, “Why don’t we let them have ours? We don’t use it anymore.” The joke was funny and the people laughed, because there was some truth behind the humor. There were people who were questioning whether our federal Constitution was being followed.

We Presbyterians have a Constitution, also. If I remember correctly I was asked the question, “What is the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church in America?” at the time of my Presbytery floor exam during my ordination process. I answered dutifully,

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 brightest minds in England worked for the better part of two years (from August 1646-April 1648) creating the Confession of Faith and the two Catechisms at the Westminster Assembly which spell out in detail what they believed the Scriptures taught, and their work has stood the test of time (as we can see by the very few changes that have ever been made to that document). To this day we pastors take vows affirming that we “sincerely receive and adopt the Confession of Faith and the Catechisms of this Church, as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures; and do you further promise that if at any time [we] find [our]self out of accord with any of the fundamentals of this system of doctrine, [we] will on [our] own initiative, make known to [our] Presbytery the change which has taken place in [our] views since the assumption of this ordination vow?” Our ruling elders and deacons take a similar vow promising to report to the session if their doctrinal views ever change.

Just as I would hope that the powers-that-be in our nation would enforce the laws enacted under the Constitution of the United States, I would also pray that the shepherds in our denomination will take seriously the vows that they have taken to shepherd the flock of God according to “the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures.” May the Lord protect the purity and peace of His Church.

A Solemn Covenant with God and His Church—Part V

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Today I am writing about the last membership vow that a new member of a local Presbyterian Church in America congregation takes to become a part of that body. After promising that he is resting alone in Christ’s work for his salvation in the first two vows; promising generally to live as a Christian should as he relies upon the Holy Spirit to enable him in the third vow; promising to support the worship and work of the church in the fourth vow; in the last vow he promises to submit [himself] to the government and discipline of the Church, and promise[s] to study its purity and peace.

Before we talk about the “s word” [submission], I would like to say a little bit about the phrase, “promise to study its purity and peace.” The word to study here means to “make an effort to achieve a result.” The first result that the new member makes an effort to achieve is purity. Yes, it is speaking of purity of life (to live as becomes a follower of Christ), but also purity of doctrine. One of the wonderful things about the PCA is that we are a confessional church. One can see very clearly what we believe the Bible teaches by looking at our doctrinal statements. The Westminster Confession of Faith, and the Westminster Larger and Smaller Catechisms, lay out in great detail what will be taught in a PCA congregation. One does not have to believe all that is contained in those statements to be a member (remember, all that is needed is a credible profession of faith), but that is what will be preached and taught in that place. So, in theory (as long as the pastors have integrity), one knows exactly what he is going to get doctrinally before he joins. No “bait and switch” in the PCA.

The second result that the new member will make an effort to achieve is peace. As the Psalmist has written, “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!” (Psa. 133:1) Stirring up conflict, gossip, factions, “secret meetings,” slander, etc. have no place in the Body of Christ. Paul’s advice to the Roman church about relationships within the local body is very straight forward:

16 Be of the same mind toward one another. Do not set your mind on high things, but associate with the humble. Do not be wise in your own opinion.  17 Repay no one evil for evil. Have regard for good things in the sight of all men.  18 If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men.  19 Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord.  20 Therefore “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; If he is thirsty, give him a drink; For in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head.”  21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”  (Rom. 12:16-21)

Now for the “s word.” The new member promises to “submit [himself] to the government and discipline of the church.” The writer of Hebrews (whoever that may have been) under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit wrote, “Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you.” (Heb. 13:17) The elders will have to answer to God for how they shepherded the sheep, but the sheep have a responsibility to submit to the elders. One must remember that there is never a struggle with submission until one disagrees with the one in authority. The Dad who says, “Let’s eat some ice cream,” will probably have a 100% approval rating from those under his care, but when he says, “It’s time for bed,” it is a different story. Even on the session there is accountability and submission. It didn’t happen often but there were times when I disagreed with the final decision of the session and was on the losing side of a vote, but I would dare to say that there was no one in the church, when the decision came down, that knew that I disagreed. The decision had been made after much prayer and discussion for the long term good of the church, and it was my responsibility to submit to my brothers. I did so gladly.

May the Lord work within each of us, to take seriously the vows that we have taken, and may He give us the grace and strength to fulfill them, that God may be glorified and His church strengthened.

A Solemn Covenant with God and His Church—Part IV

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Over the last few days we have been looking at the membership vows that church members take when we become a part of a local Presbyterian Church in America congregation. The first two vows speak of the justification that we have in Christ through no merit of our own, but established completely through the finished work of Christ. The third vow was a general promise that said, “I do,” to the following question, “Do you now resolve and promise, in humble reliance upon the grace of the Holy Spirit, that you will endeavor to live as becomes the followers of Christ? In other words, depending upon the grace and power of the Holy Spirit, we promise to seek to live as a Christian should live.

The fourth vow consists of a promise to live like a follower of Christ by seeking “to support the Church in its worship and work to the best of your ability.” I once knew a man who was serving as a school board member and was confronted by a parent who had just heard that the School Superintendent was going to retire and in great concern asked, “What are we going to do if Dr. _______ retires?” My friends response was: “How are we going to know?”

Just as we should know that a School Superintendent is doing his job by seeing the results of his work, we also should be able to tell that someone is a follower of Christ because he supports the worship of the Church. Gathering with God’s people on the Lord’s Day is not something that he does if he finds the time, but it is at the top of his priority list. My Dad was not a perfect man in any way, but I appreciate the fact that I was raised knowing that on the Lord’s Day we would be in church to worship the living God with His people. I never once asked, “Are we going to church this Sunday?” because that would be a stupid question. Of course, we were.

We can also tell that someone is a follower of Christ because he supports the work of the Church. We support the work of the church by being involved as much as possible in ministering and loving people with our lives, but it also means that we are involved in supporting the work of the church through God’s tithes and our offerings. A police detective once said that he could tell if someone was a faithful Christian by simply looking at their checkbook (yes, there was a time when people wrote checks for everything). He said it was not the extravagance of the giving to the church that was the key, but the consistency of the giving that gave it away (Remember the widow’s mite).

The Christian’s relationship to God and His Church is not a discretionary relationship, but it is at the heart of all that he is and all that he does. There is one last way of “living as becomes a follower of Christ” mentioned in the last of the membership vows, which I will cover in my next post.

A Solemn Covenant with God and His Church

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Before I became a member of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) in 2005, I had been a Southern Baptist pastor for right at twenty-five years. I had always been as diligent as possible to make sure that people understood what it meant to be a Christian before they became a member of the church of which I was the pastor. I did not want it to be as Grady Nutt once described, “I’m glad that you have come, sit here on the front row, and here is your box of offering envelopes.”

One thing that I have appreciated about the PCA is the time the session takes when people desire to become members of the church, at least at Reformed Presbyterian Church. Of course, there is no process that is foolproof, but eternity is a very long time, and we want to make sure that those desiring membership truly understand the Gospel and have a “credible profession of faith.” After ascertaining as much as humanly possible the sincere nature of the professions of the new members, they are asked to take their membership vows. Every time I hear them, I am reminded of the importance of being a living part of the visible church of Jesus Christ.

All of you being here present to make a public profession of faith, are to assent to the following declarations and promises, by which you enter into a solemn covenant with God and His Church.

  1. Do you acknowledge yourselves to be sinners in the sight of God, justly deserving His displeasure, and without hope save in His sovereign mercy?
  1. Do you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ as the Son of God, and Savior of sinners, and do you receive and rest upon Him alone for salvation as He is offered in the Gospel?
  1. Do you now resolve and promise, in humble reliance upon the grace of the Holy Spirit, that you will endeavor to live as becomes the followers of Christ?
  1. Do you promise to support the Church in its worship andwork to the best of your ability?
  1. Do you submit yourselves to the government and disciplineof the Church, and promise to study its purity and peace?

Lord willing, over the next few days I will touch on the meaning of each of these vows.

Westminster Shorter Catechism, Question 4

Q. 4. What is God?

A. God is a spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth.

One of the beauties of the Catechism is that each question builds on the question before. We were just told that the Scriptures principally teach what man is to believe concerning God, and now the Westminster divines provide a summary of the attributes of God. Of course, the Bible cannot tell us everything about God; first of all, because He is infinite, and secondly, because as creatures we could never comprehend it. He reveals Himself to us at a level that we can understand. To use John Calvin’s word, He “prattles” to us as a parent does to a young child.

I am not one to quote Karl Barth in an approving way often, but when he said that God was “wholly other,” I concur completely. He is not an elevated man as the Greeks and Romans viewed their gods, but He is the eternal, sovereign, omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, just and holy Creator of the universe. However, I am so glad that the catechism includes the attribute “good” in that list. It reminded me of Mr. Beaver’s description of Aslan to the children in “The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe:”

“‘Safe?’ said Mr. Beaver; ‘don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.’”

“Lord, even as we look in wonder at Your glory, may we rest in the truth of Your goodness.”

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