Tag Archives: Orthodox Presbyterian Church

Quotable Church History: “…so thankful for active obedience of Christ”

This is the tenth (and last) in a series on famous quotes from church history. We’re looking at who said these famous words, in what context, and whether it’s biblical.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, there was an epic battle for the gospel going on in North America.  When I say, “the gospel,” I really do mean the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ alone.  Theological liberalism was assaulting churches that had once stood firm for the biblical faith, churches such as the Presbyterian Church in the USA.  Among other things, liberalism was denying the inerrancy of the Scriptures, miracles such as the virginal conception and physical resurrection of Christ, and the need for penal substitutionary atonement.  God raised up powerful prophetic voices to protest.  Amongst them towered J. Gresham Machen (1881-1937).

Machen is best known for his 1923 book Christianity & Liberalism.  Machen deftly argued that liberalism was not biblical Christianity — the book is still relevant for our day, only the names have changed.  At one time a professor of New Testament at the storied Princeton Seminary, Machen ran afoul of the powers that be and became a leading figure in the establishment of Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.  His continuing battle against liberalism also led to his being defrocked in the Presbyterian Church in 1935.  The following year, Machen was at the fore of forming a new church:  the Presbyterian Church of America.  This church would later become known as the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

In late 1936, Machen was 55 years old.  He had long been an avid walker and mountain climber, but that winter saw him in poor health.  Despite a nasty cough and cold, Machen headed west to North Dakota to speak for some churches during the Christmas break at Westminster Seminary .  His health rapidly deteriorated over the course of his time of his time on the prairies.  Before long, he was in the hospital in Bismarck with pneumonia.  On January 1, 1937, Machen was slipping in and out of consciousness.  During one of his lucid moments, he dictated a brief telegram to his friend Prof. John Murray back at Westminster.  The telegram was brief:  “I’m so thankful for the active obedience of Christ.  No hope without it.”  Those were his final recorded words — he died around 7:30 PM on New Year’s Day, 1937.

Christianity & Liberalism may be top of the heap in Machen’s literary legacy, but his final telegram definitely contains his most quoted words.  They bear a closer look.  What did Machen mean by “the active obedience of Christ” and why was it so encouraging to him?  Sinful human beings have a two-fold problem.  First, because of our sin we have an infinite debt to God’s justice that we cannot repay.  Second, even if our debt were paid, we would still be confronted with the ongoing demand of God’s law for our consistent obedience going forward.  Jesus Christ addresses both.  With his suffering God’s wrath in our place, he has paid our infinite debt.  In theology, we call that his passive (suffering) obedience.  With his 33 years of perfect law-keeping, Christ has also obtained for us perfect obedience to God’s law.  We call that his active obedience.  His righteous life is imputed or credited to us — as the Belgic Confession puts it in article 23, “…his obedience is ours when we believe in him.”

Romans 5:19 speaks directly of this gospel truth:  “For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.”  The Holy Spirit points to two men.  One, Adam, was disobedient and his guilt-laden failure has been imputed to his descendants.  The other, Jesus Christ, was obedient, and his righteous accomplishments have been imputed to believers for their justification.  When we have Christ as our Saviour, we not only have forgiveness of all our sins, but also positive righteousness in the eyes of God.  On the basis of both, God declares that we are right with him.  He views us as forgiven AND perfectly obedient.

This gospel teaching was fresh in Machen’s mind as he was dying because a couple of weeks earlier he had done a radio broadcast on it.  Prior to that, he had been discussing it with John Murray at the seminary.  As he knew he was dying, he looked, not to his imperfect life of following Christ, but to Christ’s perfect life lived for him.  Machen found comfort in knowing he would appear before God’s throne clothed in the righteousness of Jesus.  His account was not only cleared of all debt, but filled to overflowing with the imputed merits of Christ.  You can see why Machen finished with “No hope without it.”  We can even flip it around:  “The active obedience of Christ:  much hope with it!”


CanRC Proposal to Approve Trinity Psalter Hymnal

For several years, the Canadian Reformed Churches were working with the United Reformed Churches to produce a joint song book.  Progress was slow, but steady.  However, eventually the URC abandoned the joint venture with the CanRC and later decided to work with the Orthodox Presbyterian Church instead.  The OPC and URC are now on the verge of releasing the Trinity Psalter Hymnal.  Apparently it’s supposed to be available around the beginning of May.

The CanRC have been watching these developments closely.  At Classis Pacific East of February 22, 2018, the Aldergrove church presented a proposal to adopt the psalms and hymns of the Trinity Psalter Hymnal.  It was presented as a proposal for synod, with the hopes that classis would adopt it and forward it on via the next Regional Synod West.  According to the press release, Classis Pacific East did what Aldergrove asked.  So the proposal is going to the next Regional Synod West.

A similar proposal was floated in the east last year.  A Classis Central Ontario brought a proposal to Regional Synod East of November 8, 2017.  However, Regional Synod East was not convinced.  We’ll see what West will do later in the year.

These are developments for the Australian Free Reformed Churches to watch too.  As I mentioned earlier in the week, we have a Synod coming up with weighty decisions to make about our song book.  We’ll be debating whether to add the 19 new hymns from the 2014 CanRC Book of Praise.  Meanwhile, the CanRCs have moved on to debate whether to add dozens more.


Preview of FRCA Synod 2018

This is a synod year for the Free Reformed Churches of Australia.  God willing, Synod Bunbury gets underway on June 18.  While it’s being convened by the Bunbury church, the facilities of the Southern River church (Perth metro, WA) will host the proceedings.  The deputies reports and proposals from the churches are now available (click on links to access).  Let’s review some of the more interesting items on the agenda.  Since I’m delegated to this synod, I’m not going to be offering my views or opinions — what follows are just the facts, presented as objectively as possible.

Ecumenical Relations

Everyone will undoubtedly be watching what the FRCA Synod decides about the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands.  The Deputies for Sister Church Relations are recommending the FRCA terminate this sister-church relationship.  The grounds are:  the RCN decided to allow women into all the offices of the church, by adopting the “New Hermeneutic” the RCN has turned away from the clear instructions in God’s Word and has shown unfaithfulness by lack of submission to that Word, and “there has been no adequate response, let alone repentance, to earlier admonitions.”  Should this recommendation be followed, the FRCA will be the first of the RCN’s sister churches to cut ties.  Related to all that, the Deputies of Theological Training are also recommending that the Theological University of Kampen no longer be considered a viable option for FRCA men looking for a seminary education.

Meanwhile, proposals are being put forward to pursue ecumenical relations with other churches.  A proposal originating with the Launceston church (and since adopted by Classis North of October 20, 2017) asks Synod to appoint a committee to investigate relations with the Southern Presbyterian Church and Evangelical Presbyterian Church.  The congregations of these churches are found in Queensland, New South Wales, and Tasmania.  Another proposal from the Southern River church asks Synod to do something similar with the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in North America.

Theological Training

The FRCA have been entertaining the idea of establishing their own seminary.  Currently, FRCA students are sent to the Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary in Hamilton, Ontario.  However, in article 17 of the FRCA Church Order, the churches agree that they shall “if possible, maintain an institution for the training for the ministry.”  The question:  is it possible?  The Deputies for Theological Training were mandated to investigate and report on the feasibility of establishing a seminary in Australia.  As part of their work, they surveyed the churches.  Half the churches believed it feasible, half did not.  The Deputies themselves are divided on the question.  Their report thus comes with two different recommendations.  One is that a seminary is feasible in the near future and a plan should be put in motion to begin such an institution in 2021 (after the next synod).  The other recommendation is that a seminary is not feasible at the moment, but may be in the medium-long term future (9-15 years).

To make things even more interesting, there is also a proposal from Rockingham on the same matter.  Their proposal argues that “the feasibility of maintaining a theological college has been demonstrated and that the FRCA, in accordance with C.O. art. 17, should proceed with establishing our College without further delay or indecision.”

Book of Praise

For years, the FRCA have been using the Canadian Reformed Book of Praise.  However, this does have some drawbacks.  For example, the FRCA Church Order is different to the CanRC.  At the back of the Book of Praise is the CanRC Church Order — wouldn’t it be nice if the Australian churches could have their own Church Order back there?  These and other considerations led our last Synod to mandate deputies to pursue an Australian Book of Praise.  The deputies have fulfilled their mandate and the Synod will have to decide between six or seven different options:

Version I — NKJV Bible translation in the liturgical forms and confessions, capitalized pronouns for God, FRCA Church Order included in book.

This breaks down into three sub-options:

a) With the 19 extra hymns adopted by the CanRC and included in their 2014 Book of Praise

b) With some of the extra hymns

c) With none of the extra hymns

Version II — ESV Bible translation in the liturgical forms and confessions, no capitalized pronouns, FRCA Church Order included in book.  This breaks down into the same three sub-options as above.

There is a third option, but the deputies were not unanimous on including it.  Version III is simply the 2014 CanRC Book of Praise with each church also supplying every member a copy of the FRCA Church Order.

The deputies have also recommended a name for the new song book:  Sing to the Lord: Anglo-Genevan Psalter.

In addition to the Deputies’ report, there are also proposals from the churches regarding this matter.  Rockingham has put forward several proposals to change the rhyming of some of the psalms.  Southern River has a proposal to adopt all 19 of the extra hymns found in the 2014 Book of Praise.

Conclusion

There are other matters on the agenda, but those are some of the most noteworthy.  In the weeks ahead, FRCA consistories will be reviewing the reports and proposals.  I imagine Synod 2018 will be receiving numerous letters from the churches interacting with all this material.  It’s certainly going to be interesting!  This synod has the potential to be a turning point for the FRCA.


Book Review: How to Plant a Reformed Church

How to Plant a Reformed Church, The Missions Committee of the United Reformed Churches of North America, 2015.  Paperback, 104 pages.

As the title suggests, this is a practical guide for Reformed church planting.  It comes from the United Reformed Churches of North America (URCNA).  Many of my readers are familiar with the URCNA.  For those who are not, this federation of churches emerged out of the 1990s-era Christian Reformed Church.  As the CRC drifted away from Scripture on issues like women in office, faithful Reformed believers headed for the exits.  As a new confessionally Reformed federation came into existence, there was also an eagerness amongst many of these believers to be outward looking.  Church planting and missions was in the DNA of the URCNA from the start.  Especially in the United States, some of their instituted churches date back to church plants begun in the 2000s.

Fast forward to the 2010s and discussions were taking place about how to collate lessons learned from these early endeavours.  Could the URCNA Missions Committee put together a resource that would help churches better do the work of church planting?  The Orthodox Presbyterian Church had developed their own guide:  Planting an Orthodox Presbyterian Church (you can find it here).  When I was a missionary, I found that manual incredibly helpful, even though I’m not a Presbyterian.  Many lessons learned in the OPC are transferable to other contexts, even to the type of cross-cultural work I was doing.  Some URCNA church planters discovered the same, but also saw the need to develop a resource that would be more explicitly aligned with URCNA beliefs (the Three Forms of Unity) and church government.  That led to this little book.

There are many helpful insights in How to Plant a Reformed Church.  How do you decide when it’s time to plant a church?  Where should you plant a church?  How should it be overseen?  How do you promote the church plant in the community it’s placed?  When do you know that it’s time to institute the church?  What’s the role of the classis?  All these are questions addressed here.  There are also five appendices with teaching materials for church plants.  They cover topics like:  “What is Church Membership and Why Is It Necessary?” and “What is Reformed Worship?”  As a pastor in the Free Reformed Churches of Australia, I think much of this could be transferable to our context here, and equally to the Canadian Reformed Churches.  I’m sure that others in different contexts could also make use of the wisdom in this book.

Besides the practical bent, I also appreciate the emphasis on developing a confessional ethos in church planting.  The title says How to Plant a Reformed Church, and ‘Reformed’ there means unabashedly confessional.  This approach has nothing to do with the bait-and-switch model — i.e. attracting people by pretending to be something other than Reformed.  Like the OPC manual, this book emphasizes beginning with the end in mind.  If we want a truly Reformed church, then the approach needs to be confessionally Reformed from the get go.  The book explains how.

If it’s not obvious, I have high praise for this resource.  I hope it not only gets read, but that it stimulates Reformed churches, URCNA and otherwise, to continue giving attention to the spread of the gospel.  After all, that’s a principal reason behind the existence of the church.  We’re here to proclaim Christ crucified and be God’s instruments to see more people worship him in churches everywhere.

A free electronic copy of How to Plant a Reformed Church is available here.


RCN Suspended from ICRC

By a vote of 25-4 (with two abstentions), the International Conference of Reformed Churches has decided to suspend the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (RCN).  This comes after the RCN last month at their synod decided to open all the offices of the church to women.  The ICRC is one of the world’s most important ecumenical organizations for confessionally Reformed and Presbyterian churches.  It consists of over 30 churches from all over the world.  With this decisive action, the RCN receives a clear message that it is out of step with global Reformed Christianity.

The question of what to do with the RCN led to several hours of debate up to this point at the ICRC.  The Orthodox Presbyterian Church made the initial proposal, but found vocal support from the Canadian Reformed Churches, the United Reformed Churches, the Free Reformed Churches of South Africa, and others.  Voices were also heard cautioning against suspension — notably, the Christian Reformed Churches in the Netherlands and the Presbyterian Church of Eastern Australia (PCEA).  Rev. Dr. Rowland Ward from the PCEA was quoted in the Dutch press as arguing that the body had to come up with substantive biblical arguments to take action against the RCN.  He noted that several biblical passages could be understood at first glance as supporting women in office.  So, Dr. Ward said, “Why couldn’t there be freedom on this point?”  He was also quoted as saying that, for him, the RCN was still Reformed and suspension would not be appropriate “for a church that has been so faithful in our midst.”  In personal correspondence, however, Dr. Ward clarified that it was explicitly made clear that neither he nor the PCEA support women’s ordination.

Voting took place Monday on the OPC proposal (which can be found here).  The first, third, and fourth parts of that proposal passed readily 28-1.  It was the second part that took a little extra time:  to suspend the RCN immediately.  The Christian Reformed Churches in the Netherlands proposed a substitute motion to give the RCN time until the next meeting to reconsider their membership.  This motion failed 8-21 with two abstentions.  The body then voted on the second part of the OPC proposal as presented and it passed without difficulty.

The RCN now has four years to repent of their decisions regarding women in office.  Since women are already being ordained in the RCN, it is difficult to see how such repentance could be effected federation-wide.  But if, somehow, they are able to reverse course, the RCN will continue to make valuable contributions to global ecumenicity through the ICRC.  If not, their membership in the organization they helped to found will be terminated in 2021 at its tenth annual meeting.