“Old Truth in Old Forms”

Givens Brown Strickler lived quite a life. He was born on April 25, 1840 in northern Virginia. While a student at Washington College in Lexington, Virginia, Abraham Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers to put down the rebellion in the South. Promptly, many in the student body formed themselves into “The Liberty Hall Volunteers,” and became a part of the Stonewall Brigade to protect their beloved Virginia against an invasion by their own countrymen. Strickler fought bravely until he was captured at the top of Cemetery Hill during the third day of the Battle of Gettysburg. While a prisoner of war he “prayed, conducted religious meetings, made religious addresses; and in every practicable way sought to exert the best moral and religious influence on his fellow sufferers in prison,” according to John Miller Wells.

After the war he returned to Washington College (where Robert E. Lee was president at the time) to finish his degree and then on to Union Seminary to prepare for the ministry. As a pastor and seminary professor he touched many lives for the Gospel of Christ. But, his friend and colleague, Thomas Cary Johnson, said something about him which spoke volumes to me about what a pastor should be:

Dr. Strickler was a pre-eminently great teacher of the Reformed Theology. He gave himself to inventing no new statement of any old truth; but accepting the old truth in its old forms he exhibited unrivalled skill in expounding, defending, and impressing this theology as set forth in the Westminster Standards—that rugged and massive system of Christian truth which so perfectly matched his own character, which had moulded his own character.”

Pastors don’t have to “cast visions,” be clever, entertain, come up with new and imaginative ideas, etc., they just need to “expound, defend, and impress” the truth of Scripture to their congregations. God’s flock needs to be fed with the green pastures of God’s Word, not the spirit of a shallow and callous culture. Thank you, Dr. Givens Strickler, for showing us a better way.

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“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)

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: “I Greet Thee, Who My Sure Redeemer Art”

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This past Sunday at Reformed Presbyterian Church in Beaumont, Texas, we sang, “I Greet Thee, Who My Sure Redeemer Art,” directly after our Corporate Confession of Sin and Assurance of Pardon. It is a wonderful hymn speaking again and again of God’s marvelous mercy and grace that has been poured out upon us by what Jesus Christ accomplished through His life, death, and resurrection. The words have often been attributed to John Calvin, but most historians doubt that he was actually the author. The text first appears in the The Strasbourg Psalter of 1545. It is most often sung to Loys “Louis” Bourgeois’ tune from The Genevan Psalter, “Toulon.”

I greet thee, who my sure Redeemer art,
My only trust and Saviour of my heart,
Who pain didst undergo for my poor sake;
I pray thee from our hearts all cares to take.

Thou art the King of mercy and of grace,
Reigning omnipotent in every place:
So come, O King, and our whole being sway;
Shine on us with the light of thy pure day.

Thou art the life, by which alone we live,
And all our substance and our strength receive;
O comfort us in death’s approaching hour,
Strong-hearted then to face it by thy pow’r.

Thou hast the true and perfect gentleness,
No harshness hast thou and no bitterness:
Make us to taste the sweet grace found in thee
And ever stay in thy sweet unity.

Our hope is in no other save in thee;
Our faith is built upon thy promise free;
O grant to us such stronger hope and sure
That we can boldly conquer and endure.

 

“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.” 

Tuesday Hymns: “Rejoice, Ye Pure in Heart”

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Last night at our evening worship service we sang as an opening hymn, Edward Plumptre’s hymn, “Rejoice, Ye Pure In Heart,” which is this weeks, “Tuesday Hymn.” Plumptre was educated at King’s College in London, and then at University College at Oxford. He was ordained in 1847 and spent his life in academia and in preaching. This particular hymn is a wonderful reminder that all of us are called to sing praise and thanksgiving to our king whether we are young or old, in “gladness and in woe,” and that it will continue even when we “enter [our] heavenly home.” It is sung to the tune of Arthur Henry Messiter’s tune, “Marion.”

Rejoice, ye pure in heart!
Rejoice, give thanks and sing!
Your glorious banner wave on high,
the cross of Christ your King.
Rejoice, rejoice, rejoice, give thanks and sing.

With voices full and strong
as ocean’s surging praise,
send forth the hymns our fathers loved,
the psalms of ancient days.
Rejoice, rejoice, rejoice, give thanks and sing.

Yes, on through life’s long path,
Still singing as you go;
From youth to age, by night and day,
In gladness and in woe.
Rejoice, rejoice, rejoice, give thanks and sing.

At last the march shall end;
the wearied ones shall rest;
the pilgrims find their heavenly home,
Jerusalem the blessed.
Rejoice, rejoice, rejoice, give thanks and sing.

Then on, ye pure in heart!
Rejoice, give thanks and sing!
Your glorious banner raise on high,
the cross of Christ your King.
Rejoice, rejoice, rejoice, give thanks and sing!

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